The Lone Ranger (2013)


Armie Hammer isn't quite sure how to tell Johnny Depp he has a dead bird on his head.

Armie Hammer isn’t quite sure how to tell Johnny Depp he has a dead bird on his head.

(2013) Western (Disney) Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Helena Bonham Carter, Ruth Wilson, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Bryant Prince, Leon Rippy, Stephen Root, Rance Howard, JD Cullum, Saginaw Grant, Mason Elston Cook, Harry Treadaway, James Frain, Joaquin Cosio, Damon Herriman, Freda Foh Shen. Directed by Gore Verbinski

John Reid, the Lone Ranger, has been an iconic American character in nearly every medium that a character can come to life in, be it comic strips, radio, television or the movies. However as Westerns fell out of favor, so too did the masked Texas Ranger who rode his white horse Silver like the wind, accompanied by his faithful Native American sidekick Tonto.

Now Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp who together made the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise the most profitable in Disney history (at least until another couple of Marvel movies and the next Star Wars trilogy fatten their coffers) are back with a reboot of the great American hero. Is the 21st century ready for him?

Reid (Hammer) is an Eastern-educated lawyer returning home to his native Colby, Texas as the county’s new Assistant District Attorney. There he will meet his brother Dan (Dale), a well-respected Texas Ranger who has always overshadowed young John. Dan even got the girl that John wanted, Rebecca (Wilson).

However also on the train west is notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (Fichtner) who eats human flesh and has a pretty sadistic streak in him – and is on his way to a hanging (his own) – and a Comanche known as Tonto (Depp) who has a dead crow on his head and perhaps a few loose neurons rattling around between his ears. Of course, you just know that Cavendish is going to be broken out of jail or in this case, train. You also know that Reid and Tonto are going to be at odds and not think too terribly high of each other.

Faster than you can say plot complication, John joins his brother Dan on a posse to collect Cavendish so he can be properly hung Texas-style (methinks Rick Perry might be a descendant) and faster than you can say “I saw that coming” the Rangers are massacred by the outlaws and Butch chows down on Dan. John is left for dead.

Tonto wanders upon the scene and buries the dead, including John who, it turns out, isn’t quite dead yet. Tonto identifies him as a spirit walker, one who has come back from the Other Side…and a white spirit horse that John eventually names Silver agrees with him. Silver is probably the smartest character in the movie, possibly in ANY movie. Okay, I made that last part up.

Anyway John has his mad on and he wants to get his hands on Cavendish in the worst way and as it turns out, Tonto has plenty of reason to want to stomp a mudhole in Cavendish as well. However as it turns out Cavendish is working for someone, someone quite powerful who has interest in the Transcontinental Railroad making its way to Utah to be completed. Someone who will change the course of the United States in his greed and lust for power.

This is definitely a much more modern retelling of the tale of the Lone Ranger. While there are elements that tie this film to the illustrious past of the character – the soul-stirring swell of the ”William Tell Overture,” Tonto’s laconic nickname for his partner kemosabe and the silver bullet, this isn’t retro in the least. One element I really like about it is that the story is told by Tonto to a young boy in San Francisco in 1933, some 60 years after the events took place (which if Tonto is Depp’s age in the movie in 1868 makes him a centenarian). This makes it clear from the get-go that this really isn’t John Reid’s story as much as it is Tonto’s and I like the change of viewpoint very much.

The Natives aren’t treated like cannon fodder as they were in most Westerns of the era but are given a surprising amount of respect and deference, although Depp’s Tonto can be Looney Tunes from time to time. That’s a nice touch.

Depp is of course the star and like Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies takes center stage not because of his bravery or heroism but more because of his quirkiness, albeit a different kind of quirky. Think of it as the difference between using peyote and getting rip-roaring drunk on grog. But even the best quirkiness can get a little grating after awhile.

Hammer is an able heroic sort in a gee-whiz kind of way and while on the surface seems well-suited for this sort of role, I don’t think that at the end of the day he’s memorable enough in it. Don’t get me wrong – he does as good a job as you can ask for but his character is made to be an imbecile at times and Hammer is much too intelligent a guy to believe as an idiot for even a second.

There are some fine supporting turns by Carter as a one-legged prostitute and Wilkinson as a railroad baron but they are largely wasted in a movie that is too long in a big way. So much of the middle third is unnecessary and slow that by the time the movie’s climactic scenes roll around you might be checking your watch which is a shame because the action sequences that begin and end the film are spectacular indeed and are worth the price of admission alone.

There are a lot of good ideas in this movie and also a few bad ones. Trimming the movie down to a more manageable two hours might have been more advisable but for whatever reason there is a trend this summer for longer running time which might well thrill consumers who are getting more bang for their buck but has to disappoint exhibitors who have fewer screenings to bring customers into their theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Even Depp’s missteps are entertaining. Some pretty nifty action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. A little silly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are plenty of Western action sequences, some of them intense and some suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first version in any medium that the actor playing Tonto gets top billing over the actor playing the Ranger.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100; it’s pretty obvious the critics hated it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rango

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Divide

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Jack Reacher


A picture guaranteed to please both men (big gun) and women (wet Tom Cruise).

A picture guaranteed to please both men (big gun) and women (wet Tom Cruise).

(2012) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, David Oyelowo, Jai Courtney, Robert Duvall, Alexia Fast, Vladimir Sizov, Joseph Sikora, Michael Raymond-James, Josh Helman, Susan Angelo, Julia Yorks. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

There is an axiom that when a solution to a problem is handed to you on a plate, take a look at the plate first. That is especially true when it comes to solving crimes. Rarely are cases open and  shut so when it appears that way, it is natural for a good investigator to be suspicious.

Pittsburgh is rocked by a heinous crime; a sniper has taken out five people seemingly at random.. The Pittsburgh police put this one at the top of their list, and quickly found enough evidence to put a suspect, one James Barr (Sikora) into custody in what looks to be an open and shut case. While being interviewed by Detective Emerson (Oyelowo) and District Attorney Rodin (Jenkins) Barr says only one thing – “Get Jack Reacher.”

The trouble is, they can’t find the man. He used to be a crack military investigator but after being discharged took himself off the grid. He’s a man who doesn’t get found – he finds you. Fortunately for them, Reacher (Cruise) walked right into their office. To their surprise, he’s no friend of Barr’s; in fact, he wants to put Barr away for good after getting away with a very similar crime in Iraq when he took out four civilian contractors.

The trouble is, he can’t talk to Barr – he’s in a coma after being beaten up during a prison transport. Barr’s lawyer happens to be the district attorney’s daughter Helen (Pike) and she smells something really fishy. She wants Reacher to be her investigator which would give him access to the evidence, something the DA is not inclined to give him. Reacher only wants to catch the next bus out of Pittsburgh but he needs to put paid to this and move on, so he hangs around.

As he looks into it, he begins to get more and more suspicious and the police’s open and shut case begins to look more open all the time. Pretty soon it becomes obvious that Barr is just a patsy and that sinister forces are at work as Reacher gets closer and closer to the truth and the man who set all of this in motion – a man known only as The Zec (Herzog).

Reacher is a character invented by author Lee Child who has turned it into a series of novels that numbers 17 to date (with number 18 scheduled for publication in 2013). The Reacher in the book is a hulk, six feet five inches tall and massive. That is certainly not a physical description of Tom Cruise.

The reason that Cruise was cast and why Child approved of it is that Cruise captures the essence of Reacher. Reacher is certainly a force of nature when it comes to violence but he is also whip-mart, super observant and a true student of human nature. He understands not only what people do but why they do it.

Cruise is in remarkable shape for a 50-year-old man. He handles the physical aspects of the character well and a scene in which he takes out five thugs in a bar fight is believable, which you wouldn’t expect from a one-on-five encounter. In fact, all of the action sequences are pretty well done. McQuarrie doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel and given that he’s a first time director (after an acclaimed writing career that includes The Usual Suspects) is probably a wise decision.

While the climax drags a bit (which is a bit of a drag), the rest of the movie is surprisingly good. Herzog makes a pretty great villain (he orders a minion to chew off his own fingers after messing up) and Pike is a lovely and radiant heroine. I had thought that the movie would be a pretty typical action movie but it does rise above, thanks to a compelling story and a smartly done script. One can’t ask for more than that.

The timing is unfortunate as the first scene depicts a mass shooting (the film was released less than a week after the Newtown tragedy) and so that’s going to color some perceptions. Those who were particularly disturbed by those killings may want to think hard about seeing this – at one point in the film’s opening sequence the crosshairs of the killer’s rifle lands and lingers upon a young child. That’s meant to heighten the heinousness of the crime being committed, although in this case Hollywood doesn’t hold a candle to reality when it comes to human cruelty.

REASONS TO GO: Tautly plotted and well-written. Action sequences are quite satisfactory.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie Jack Reacher is much different than the book Jack Reacher. Climax is dragged out a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and some foul language with just a hint of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was originally titled One Shot after the novel the movie is based on which is actually the ninth in the series.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100. The reviews hover from mixed to good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Marine

QUARRY LOVERS: The film’s conclusion takes place in a quarry and the landscape is used to good effect in the action sequence.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mystery Men

The Jackal


The Jackal

Anyone think Bruce Willis is overcompensating just a bit?

(1997) Suspense (Universal) Richard Gere, Bruce Willis, Sidney Poitier, Diane Venora, Mathilda May, J.K. Simmons, Richard Lineback, John Cunningham, Jack Black, Tess Harper, Sophie Okonedo, Daniel Dae Kim, Leslie Phillips, Stephen Spinella, Larry King. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

 

The old saying goes that it takes a thief to catch a thief, which to my mind is utter claptrap. Plenty of thieves have been caught by people who aren’t thieves. However, if you’re going to follow that logic, then it follows that it takes an assassin to catch an assassin.

A raid on a Russian disco by the FBI and Russian military cops ends up with the brother of a high up figure in the Russian underworld getting shot. He blames the FBI for his brother’s demise and enlists the services of the most notorious assassin – only known as the Jackal (Willis) – who accepts a payment of $70 million to off the director of the FBI.

Deputy director Carter Preston (Poitier) gets wind of this and is presented with quite the dilemma; nobody knows what the Jackal looks like which is quite handy if you’re an assassin. Actually, that isn’t quite true – there is the former terrorist for the IRA named Declan Mulqueen (Gere) who knows what he looks like. And, if he is willing to help Preston and Major Valentina Koslova (Venora) track down the Jackal, well, the feds would be grateful. At least he’ll be able to get out of prison and see his former girlfriend, a Basque terrorist named Isabella Zanconia (May) who is now married to another man and living in Northern Virginia, who also knows all about the Jackal. For somebody whom law enforcement agencies have so little information on, these ex-terrorists sure have the goods on him.

Even with Mulqueen’s help, the Jackal leads them on a merry chase around the globe. He’s building a big bad remote control gun with which he can take out his target without actually being on the site; poor Jack Black (in an early role) plays a rawkin Canadian gunsmith who asks one annoying question too many and gets perforated by his own creation. That sucks rocks, dude.

Things get far more personal between Mulqueen and the Jackal and it turns into a kind of mano a mano cat and mouse game between the two. Still, how do you stop him when you don’t even have the target right?

This was based loosely on the 1973 thriller Day of the Jackal which in turn was based on a novel of the same name by Frederick Forsythe which was based on a real life plot to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle of France. That movie is considered one of the classic thrillers of its day and still holds up well nearly 40 years later.

I don’t know that this one will hold up as well in 2037. It has been utterly Americanized and comes off with the Jackal as kind of a cut-rate anti-Bond, with all sorts of gadgets and disguises – Willis has a goodly share of wigs, hairpieces and fake moustaches which must have been fun for him, and he has a different personality with each look from a frumpy Canadian to a suave gay man to a no-nonsense cop. Willis makes a pretty credible bad guy.

Gere’s performance is pretty good. Although his Irish brogue is inconsistent, he has the charisma to make what is essentially an IRA terrorist a sympathetic character although they backpedal and make the good guy terrorists in the movie mostly non-lethal who were more freedom fighters than terrorists. I wonder how sympathetic Gere would have been if we found out that Declan Mulqueen had taken part in a school bus bombing, something that the IRA actually did. Still, he is in full-on movie star mode here and carries the movie pretty well, although Poitier who was undergoing a career renaissance when the film was made, is reliable and gracious enough not to steal the movie out from under his nose which he was fully capable of doing.

The plot often takes ludicrous twists and turns and requires some pretty severe leaps of faith as logic often fails here. There is also a kind of Eurotrash undertone particularly in the soundtrack and some of the scenes that have Willis posturing a little overly much. The ending is a bit of a groaner too. However as empty-headed action thrillers go, this is one that I still view from time to time with enormous affection. However for real thrills I would suggest you see the 1973 version first.

WHY RENT THIS: Poitier is as always terrific. Some terrific action scenes. Willis is excellent as the villain.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Gere’s accent is unconvincing. Takes itself too seriously. Too much Eurotrash. Poor ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence and strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fred Zinnemann, the director of the original Day of the Jackal reportedly asked that the title of the remake be changed shortly before he passed away because he felt the original stood the test of time and was a completely different film from the newer one, which should warrant a different title.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While the DVD is sorely lacking in features, the Blu-Ray has a bunch including an unusually informative commentary track and a nice featurette comparing the 1997 version with the original 1973 film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $159.3M on a $60M production budget; this was profitable (more than).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Day of the Jackal

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Barry Munday

Raiders of the Lost Ark


Raiders of the Lost Ark

Harrison Ford is having a ball.

(1981) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, Wolf Kahler, Alfred Molina, Vic Tablian, Don Fellows, William Hootkins, Fred Sorenson, Anthony Chinn. Directed by Steven Spielberg

When news came that Spielberg and George Lucas were joining forces back in 1980, movie fans couldn’t help but rub their hands together in anticipation. After all, these guys were two of the brightest flames in Hollywood; Lucas with two Star Wars movies (to that point), Spielberg with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

What nobody anticipated was that these two men, along with star Harrison Ford, would rewrite the book on adventure movies. An homage to the great serial movies of the ’30s and ’40s, Indiana Jones, trusty whip on the hip and battered fedora on his head, took the world by storm. The first Indiana Jones movie was the box office champ of 1981 and spawned numerous imitators, clones and wanna-bes which persist to this day (Tomb Raider for instance).

But nobody has even come close to the entertainment delivered by the Indiana Jones series. The first movie of the series, set in the 1930s, introduces Indiana Jones, professor of archaeology and “how should I put it? — obtainer of rare antiquities.” An expedition to South America to retrieve a golden idol puts the tattered archaeologist through fiendish traps and less-than-loyal associates (Molina, in one of his first movie roles, meets a particularly gruesome end) to emerge from the cursed temple, idol in hand – only to have it snatched away by his nemesis, Rene Belloq (Freeman), a French archaeologist with fewer scruples than Indy.

Jones returns home to find Army intelligence waiting for him; they’ve intercepted a Nazi communiqué that is puzzling to them, but makes sense to Jones and his sponsor, museum curator Marcus Brody (Elliot); they realize that Hitler’s minions may be close to finding the resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, which held the actual Ten Commandments Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Realizing that this was something they had to prevent Hitler from obtaining, the Army sends Jones to go retrieve it.

In order to find the actual location of the Ark itself, Jones needs a staff headpiece that former flame Marion Ravenswood (Allen) has. After going to her bar in Tibet to try to retrieve it, he foils a Nazi attempt to take it by force.

The two head down to Egypt, where they are aided by Indy’s close friend Sallah (Rhys-Davies), who helps Indy divine the correct location. However, Belloq (who is working with the Nazis), manages to steal the Ark that Indy found and takes it and the girl to a remote island, with Indy close behind. There he will learn the secret of the Lost Ark, one that is beautiful and terrifying at once.

Raiders sets the tone as a virtual roller-coaster ride, putting Indy in one perilous situation after another, with little let-up. Spielberg proves himself to be an absolute master of pacing — editors Michael Kahn and George Lucas deserve a lot of credit here as well — knowing when to ratchet up the thrills and knowing when to give the audience a chance to catch its breath. Using devices common to serials and adventure movies from the ’30s and ’40s, Spielberg creates a wonderful sense of the era without forgetting the modern sensibilities of his audience.

The result is a movie that can legitimately be called a classic, one that has lost none of its luster in the 30 years since its release. While Star Wars made a star out of Ford, Raiders cemented him as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. His screen charisma is never put to as good use as it is here; Jones is both a traditional adventure hero but also a fallible one – he hates snakes and he has a penchant for getting beaten up. Unlike the heroes of past serials, Indy rarely fights fair – the scene of him shooting an expert swordsman who tries to intimidate him with a series of elaborate moves was both improvised and classic. The ability of the film and its actors to poke fun at traditional adventure movie clichés is part of what makes the movie great.

Personally, I was never a big fan of Karen Allen’s performance although I understand why people adore her. She was supposed to be a strong, bold woman of her era, able to drink big ol’ Nepalese under the table and a woman willing to stand up to the Nazis but at the end of the day she was just a heroine in jeopardy, waiting to be rescued by the hero while whining “Indyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy” as she does. The part was a little too schizophrenic for my liking, although it did set the tone for heroines for the rest of the series, for good or for ill.

Freeman made Belloq smooth, suave and pretty much forgettable. He was the more “reasonable” of the heroes, the dark side of Indiana Jones who allowed his own greed to become his driving force. It was the money that motivated Belloq, not the actual artifacts that he was after. Jones wanted the items that he found to be displayed in museums for everyone to enjoy; Belloq only wanted the payday. He makes an interesting contrast to Jones, but Freeman doesn’t have the charisma to really compete against Ford.

It is Lacey who is the villain most everyone remembers. As the eager Gestapo agent, he is both dangerous and disarming. He can torture a young woman with a red-hot poker, or lead a group of thugs to beat up a single aging archaeologist.

This remains to this day one of my favorite movies and I’m not alone in that regard – Raiders has everything that makes going to the movies fun. Even 30 years after the fact, it remains as fresh and fun as it did the day it came out. It is currently only available as part of a four-disc DVD set of the original trilogy which is kind of a shame because this deserves to be part of everyone’s home video collection and the prohibitive price of the multi-movie set may be out of reach for some. I don’t think Indiana Jones would approve of that kind of thinking, although Belloq might.

WHY RENT THIS: The perfect adventure movie. Harrison Ford shows why he’s one of the world’s biggest stars. A roller coaster ride from beginning to end, brilliantly paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenswood is a bit whiney.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some fairly scary images and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The name of the lead character was originally Indiana Smith, which was an homage to the Steve McQueen character Nevada Smith. The surname was changed to Jones on the first day of production.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $384M on an $18M production budget; the movie was a massive global blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Footnote

Haywire


Haywire

Gina Carano finds that Michael Fassbender makes a nice stool.

(2012) Action (Relativity) Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Michael Angarano, Mathieu Kassovitz, Eddie J. Fernandez, Aaron Cohen, Maximo Arciniega. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

Trust is a hard thing to come by and shouldn’t be given lightly. However at some point you have to at least hope that those in the same boat as you are going to watch your back. Sometimes though the people in that boat might have differing agendas.

Mallory Kane (Carano) is an operative working for a private security agency, the kind that takes care of things that government agencies can’t or won’t. After a hostage rescue in Barcelona doesn’t go quite according to plan, Kane and her fellow team member Aaron (Tatum) hook up before going their separate ways.

Mallory’s boss Kenneth (McGregor) next assigns her to a quick job as eye candy to MI-6 agent Paul (Fassbender) in Dublin as they pursue a French asset named Studer (Kassovitz). In a barn on the Frenchman’s estate, Mallory finds the hostage she rescued with a bullet in his brain. That raises her suspicions. When Paul turns against her and tries to kill her in their hotel room, that makes her downright paranoid.

She now has to escape her own operatives and law enforcement as she tries to get to the bottom of things as to why she was double crossed. She’ll have to discover who was behind it – Kenneth, the government official who employed him (Douglas), the diplomat (Banderas) who isn’t all he appears to be and the only person she can trust is her father (Paxton).

Stephen Soderbergh has done action movies before (The Limey) although he is best known for the Oceans 11 series. He makes a noble effort here but it falls a bit short of the mark. The problem here lies mostly in the writing. For one thing, there is no real suspense; most of the betrayals and double crosses you see coming. They’re not just telegraphed, they’re on digital video on demand.

Also, I found the pacing kind of uneven. The movie jerks along like it has sugar in the carburetor. There’s a scene of action, then a flashback, then exposition, then more action…there isn’t the kind of flow that makes a movie like this work. There’s also a distinct but odd lack of energy, like the cast and crew didn’t eat their Wheaties or something. It’s extremely laid back.

There are some good performances here. Carano, a MMF superstar, carries the load here and she shows a great deal of potential. She has one romantic encounter with Tatum and she looks like she felt awkward doing it but otherwise she handles herself well, not to mention she’s very attractive. Some female reviewers have expressed some satisfaction at watching her kick the asses of every other guy in this movie, but badass women are no stranger to Hollywood – maybe those reviewers should watch a couple of Pam Grier movies for future reference. Carano, a trained professional, is an excellent ass-kicker it must be said.

There’s lots of action for those who are into that, from car chases to occasional gun fights. I do like that Mallory works for an independent contractor and not a shadowy government agency, that is more in line with modern sensibilities. However, the pros and the cons of this film break just about even. I’m leaning towards a very slight not recommended, but I could be pushed either way.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action. Carano is easy on the eyes.

REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is kind of choppy. The plot is kind of predictable. Lacks passion – felt more like a payday than a movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots and lots of violence. Then lots more.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gina Carano’s voice was digitally altered to make it deeper sounding after the studio decided her voice was too-feminine sounding for the role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic

EUROPEAN LOCATION LOVERS: Won’t be loving this. Most of the location shots could have been filmed anywhere. You never get a sense of place in this movie.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Girl on the Train

Contraband


Contraband

Kate Beckinsale won't bring up The Happening if Mark Wahlberg won't bring up Underworld

(2012) Action (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Caleb Landry Jones, Lukas Haas, Diego Luna, .J.K. Simmons, William Lucking, Kevin “Lucky” Johnson, J. Omar Castro, Olafur Darri Olafsson, David O’Hara. Directed by Baltazar Kormakur

 

Heist films can be a diamond in the rough when they’re done right or a dime a dozen when they’re not. It isn’t easy getting them right. By their definition they need to be complex and light, a snowflake of a film that doesn’t overwhelm the viewer with too many details but yet must have those details worked out in order to retain its own internal logic.

Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) is a family man who owns a home security installation company. He used to be a smuggler but got out of the business (which is dad (Lucking) is in jail for) to raise his sons and provide a stable existence for his gorgeous wife Kate (Beckinsale).

Then Kate’s screw-up of a brother Andy (Jones) does a drug smuggling run, even though he promised Chris he wouldn’t and has to dump the cargo, which leaves him $750,000 in debt to a ruthless drug dealer named Tim Briggs (Ribisi). Drug dealers are not known for being compassionate, understanding sorts and Andy is hospitalized after Briggs tries to run him down.

Chris immediately realizes that Andy’s life expectancy has decreased dramatically and tries to make amends with Briggs. However Briggs is not a man to be reasoned with and Chris realizes that he has no choice. He has to make another run. Just when he thought he was out…

The problem here is that the plot is only superficially complex. There are some scenes in Panama that include a crazed drug dealer (Luna) that seem to come from another movie. There’s no cleverness here; it’s got the touch of a blacksmith where it needs the sure hand of a surgeon. None of the characters have much dimension to them. The big plot twists are telegraphed and Da Queen guessed it about 10 minutes into the movie, which even for her is pretty early.

Wahlberg is a capable lead. He’s got an innate decency that makes him a great everyman hero. He also is capable of action hero snarkyness  – witness his line “Did you think you’re the only guy with a gun?” which is perhaps the best moment in the movie. He isn’t particularly impressive here but he isn’t a disgrace either. Beckinsale is essentially a designated victim, a far cry from the Underworld movies.

While Foster has a great deal of potential, this is essentially the same role he played in The Mechanic and he’s way better there than here. He is still fascinating, but his performance here doesn’t continue his forward movement in his career. This is an Oscar nominee who deserve better than second banana.

There are a lot of inconsistencies from the casting  – Caleb Landry Jones is to Kate Beckinsale as Lyle Lovett is to Julia Roberts – to the cinematography, which is wonderful in Panama but kind of dreary in New Orleans. The action sequences are pretty nice, when they do come but they often feel like something added on rather than something germane to the plot.

It’s innocent enough entertainment mind you – you will not feel cheated of your ten bucks admission. However, it isn’t much more so you won’t feel like you got a bargain.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice action sequences and Wahlberg is now a more than capable lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Really predictable plot and characters. Telegraphs plot points, shows signs of lazy writing.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, a whole lot of cursing and a little bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on the Icelandic movie Reykjavik-Rotterdam which director Kormakur starred in, the same role that Wahlberg plays here.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone in 60 Seconds

PANAMA CANAL LOVERS: Some very nice overhead shots of the canal are on view.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Soul Surfer

Drive


Drive

Ryan Gosling doesn't handle any movie role with kid gloves.

(2011) Action Thriller (FilmDistrict) Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Kaden Leos, Jeff Wolf, James Biberi, Russ Tamblyn, Joey Bucaro, Tiara Parker. Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn

Some people use their cars to get from one place to another. Others use them as a status symbol. Still others use them as a means of self-expression and self-identification. Then, there are the very few who just…drive.

The Driver (Gosling) – who is never given a name throughout the movie – does just that. He acts as a getaway car driver for criminals by night, and as a part-time Hollywood stunt driver by day. His agent is Shannon (Cranston) who did what the Driver did once until his knees were shattered. Shannon owns a garage that the Driver works as a mechanic for when he’s not driving. He’s quite good with repair, but he seems like a fish out of water when he’s not behind the wheel.

His neighbor Irene (Mulligan) is raising a small boy (Leos) by herself – her husband Standard (Isaac) is in prison but wants to go straight. The Driver takes a liking to Irene and Benicio (the boy). He is not an emotional sort but something about the boy’s unconditional acceptance and the woman’s quiet sweetness touches him. He begins to spend more time with them.

Shannon has a dream of owning a stock car racing team. He needs some cash to do it, so he visits mobster Bernie Rose (Brooks) who watches Driver behind the wheel and knows that this kid can be a racing superstar. Bernie’s partner Nino (Perlman) is skeptical; he’s a brutal and nasty customer who is as greedy and savage as Bernie is clever and murderous. Still, it looks like a pretty straight deal.

However, Standard gets out of jail and returns home. He wants to go clean but he owes some protection money from jail. He needs money fast – and Cook (Biberi), the man he owes money to, is willing to wipe the slate clean in exchange for Standard robbing a pawn shop. Standard really doesn’t want to do it but he’s backed into a corner and agrees to do it. Driver, smelling a rat, insists on being Standard’s driver. Cook wants his girlfriend Blanche (Hendricks) along for the ride.

When things go south – waaaaay south – Irene and Benicio are placed in harm’s way and it looks like the only one who can get them out of there is the Driver. However, with all the forces arrayed against him, even someone as skilled as he might not be able to drive them out of the way fast enough.

While there are those who might mistake this for an action picture, it isn’t – although there’s plenty of action. There are those who might mistake this for a thriller but it’s not – although there are plenty of thrills. Then again there are those who might mistake this for a drama but they’d be wrong – although there is plenty of that too. It’s something of a hybrid of the three.

Refn is a talented Dutch director who was hand-picked for this movie by star Gosling. He’s done things like Valhalla Rises, the Pusher trilogy and Bronson. This is his American movie debut and he acquits himself well. This is very much like Bullitt if it had been directed by Michael Mann in 1986. There’s definitely an ’80s noir look to it, with lots of neon and an 80s-esque soundtrack. This could well have been the lost episode of “Miami Vice.”

Gosling has been compared to Steve McQueen and in many ways that’s a very apt comparison. Gosling is very much the strong silent type, and this role fits him like a glove. In some ways it reminds me of Eastwood’s Man With No Name – a man who follows his own moral compass without minding much that it isn’t necessarily what society believes in. Gosling’s Driver views the world much as an alien does – without complete understanding or buy-in. He cocks his head oddly, as if viewing the world  like someone observing it for the first time.

Brooks is a revelation. Known more for his comedic work, he is surprisingly menacing and dangerous as the mobster. He is disarming and charming, sure but at the core this is a ruthless, amoral killer who would as soon knife you as he would shake your hand and he’s not above doing the dirty work himself.

Perlman is one of my favorite actors and here we see him in a role we don’t see him in often – the psychotic villain. He snarls and is kind of a Jewish goombah. Sort of like Tony Soprano with a yarmulke. Perlman actually sustained some serious injuries, shattering a knee during his final scenes in the movie. That’s dedication.

Mulligan, so good in An Education, plays against type here as the mousy wife. There is definitely an undercurrent of smolder between Irene and Driver, but never anything more than that. Mulligan doesn’t pull off the young wife as well as she pulled off the teenager; that doesn’t mean she doesn’t do a good job, it’s just a good job though.

The action sequences are well done. As you’d expect in a movie like this, the car chases are nicely done. The first one is a bit of a change of pace – it’s less muscle cars roaring through the streets a la The Fast and the Furious so much as a very smart man playing cat and mouse with the cops. It’s more hide and seek than grand prix.

This is definitely more of  a thinking person’s movie rather than the visceral action movie junkie’s film. There’s plenty of gore – Refn is known for his intense bloody style – so those who have issues with it to give this movie a miss in the theater. However, it is so intelligent that you might go ahead and see it anyway. It’s a different kind of movie and with Gosling leading the way, it’s good entertainment as well. If I were you, I’d drive right down and see it straightaway.

REASONS TO GO: Gosling pulls off another terrific performance. Great action sequences. Brooks is a surprisingly adept mobster.

REASONS TO STAY: Not enough action sequences; could have used one more car chase. Gore might be off-putting to some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and blood. There are also some breasts here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Irene was originally meant to be Hispanic but when the producers were able to cast Carey Mulligan in the role, some minor changes were made to make her Caucasian.

HOME OR THEATER: There is some sense in seeing this in the theater, particularly for the driving sequences.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Moneyball