Snitch


This is NOT an expression you want to see on Dwayne Johnson's face when he's walking towards you.

This is NOT an expression you want to see on Dwayne Johnson’s face when he’s walking towards you.

(2013) Action (Summit) Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt, Jon Bernthal, Michael Kenneth Williams, Melina Kanakaredes, Nadine Velazquez, Harold Perrineau, Lela Loren, Rafi Gavron, JD Pardo, David Harbour, Kyara Campos, Ashlynn Ross, Kym Jackson. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

In the United States, the War on Drugs has led to harsh mandatory sentencing laws in which first time offenders with no prior record who are caught with a sufficient amount of illegal narcotics in their possession will be charged with possession with intent to distribute. In these cases, the accused can be sentenced if found guilty to minimum jail terms longer than given to those convicted of manslaughter or rape.

Jason Collins (Gavron) is Skyping with a friend who wants to send him some ecstasy to hold onto. Jason doesn’t want to do it but his friend sends them anyway. Jason foolishly accepts the shipment and immediately the DEA break down the doors and arrest his ass. His mom Sylvia (Kanakaredes) calls her ex-husband John Matthews (Johnson) and the two are pretty much left to cool their heels before anyone will even talk to them much less allow them to see their son.

They discover that Jason was set up by his friend who used the arrest of Jason as a means of getting his own sentence reduced. If Jason can supply another drug dealer for arrest, his own sentence will be reduced as well but Jason doesn’t know any other drug dealers besides the jerk who set him up and refuses to set up one of his friends in the same manner he was, even though he’s facing ten years minimum and 30 years maximum.

Frustrated and desperate, John goes to see US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Sarandon) who is also running for Senate on an anti-crime platform. There’s really nothing she can do; the laws tie her hands, she explains. John then offers himself as a snitch; if he can find a drug dealer for his son, can his help be used to reduce Jason’s sentence?

John enlists the help of one of the employees at his trucking/construction firm, Daniel James (Bernthal) who is an ex-con with two narcotics distribution convictions on his record without telling him that the DEA is involved. Daniel introduces John to Malik (Williams) who realizes that John’s trucking company offers him a transportation means that he wouldn’t ordinarily have access to and is much safer than what he’s used to. But being a drug dealer, he is naturally suspicious so he set John up for a milk run, insisting that Daniel accompany him.

John and Daniel do their end, monitored by Agent Collins (Pepper). However when Collins overhears Malik tell them when he gets the delivery of his drugs that he wants to set up a meet with Mexican cartel head El Topo (Bratt), things are moved to another level. Daniel, who discovers what John is up to, realize that both of their families are at risk. Mexican cartels are known for their vicious approach to informants. Now John is in way over his head and pretty much no matter what happens he’s going to lose.

This is a movie that can’t make up its mind whether to be a rip-roaring action film or a serious drama examining the consequences of mandatory sentence laws. In all honesty Waugh could have taken this in either direction and made a successful film. Unfortunately he kind of dithers and tries to have it both ways and in the end the movie winds up suffering a little bit.

It’s not due to the cast however. Johnson is one of the most charismatic actors out there and continues to improve. This is one of his most dramatic roles yet and he handles it without mugging (which he sometimes does, a throwback to his wrestling days) and with a surprising amount of restraint. I don’t know that he’s ever going to win any Oscars (although I get the sense that he’s capable of accomplishing anything he sets his mind to) but he has graduated onto the Hollywood A-list and I suspect will remain on it for a long time to come.

Bernthal, an alumnus of The Walking Dead shows a whole lot of potential for big screen success. As the ex-con trying to get his life turned around he’s playing a role nearly the polar opposite of Shane, a good cop who was turning ruthless and amoral. He has tons of charisma and holds his own with Johnson which is a pretty nifty feat.

Pepper, looking like he was attending a try-out for The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 is a DEA agent with a conscience while Sarandon is a tough as nails prosecutor who doesn’t care who gets trampled in her ambitions. In fact, most of the cast here ranges from solid to spectacular. As action movies go, this is phenomenally well-acted.

The atmosphere is gritty as well; we get a sense of all the worlds from that of the successful business owner to that of the paranoid drug dealer. I was impressed by a few of the action sequences (like a gun battle at a scrap metal yard) although they were fairly sparse; the car chase that is the film’s denouement isn’t particularly noteworthy but it at least maintains our interest.

I liked this movie and thought it had a lot of potential. There were a few pathways that they didn’t choose to go down that might have warranted at least a little exploration (did Matthews’ wife suspect he was lying to her for example) and there were a few credibility stretches here and there but all in all this is a better movie than we had a right to expect. In a year when the quality of most of the major releases has been meager, that’s a blessing in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Johnson is a terrific performer and gets excellent support.

REASONS TO STAY: Tries to walk the tightrope between action film and true crime drama and doesn’t always succeed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writers were inspired by a Frontline documentary on mandatory sentencing laws but didn’t use any specific incidents as the basis for their film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; the reviews were pretty mediocre trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fast Five

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Radio

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Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief


Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Uma Thurman checks to make sure her new hairstyle is cutting edge; Logan Lerman doesn't think so.

(20th Century Fox) Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Catherine Keener, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Jake Abel, Rosario Dawson, Steve Coogan, Kevin McKidd, Joe Pantoliano, Melina Kanakaredes. Directed by Chris Columbus

According to ancient Greek mythology, the pantheon of Gods were in reality an incredibly horny bunch who spent a goodly amount of time rutting with humans and producing offspring who inherited some of the powers of the Gods as well as the attributes of humans. These were called demigods and many Greek heroes, such as Heracles and Perseus, were of this race. But of course we all know the Greek gods were myths…weren’t they?

Percy Jackson (Lerman) is a high school student who is a little bit…he’s not quite…he’s strange, okay? He can hold his breath far longer than most human beings are capable of and he likes to sit at the bottom of the school swimming pool because he likes to think while he’s underwater, freed of the distractions of the world of the New York City high school he goes to. His only real friend is Grover (Jackson), a young man who walks on crutches. Percy is dyslexic and suffers from ADHD which makes him a hyperactive teenager who can’t read well.

At home, things pretty much suck too. Percy’s mom (Keener), a beautiful woman who has been worn down by life and circumstance, lives in a crummy apartment with her boyfriend Gabe Ugliano (Pantoliano), a foul-smelling pig who treats his mother like dirt. Percy would love to kick Gabe out of his life, but his mother incomprehensibly refuses.

On a school field trip led by the wheelchair-confined Mr. Brunner (Brosnan), Percy is pulled aside by a substitute teacher (Maria Olsen) who turns into this hideous winged monster that Percy later learns is called a Fury and is attacked by the shrieking creature, who demands that Percy turn over “the lightning bolt” to her. Percy has no idea what this means, but the arrival of Mr. Brunner and Grover chase the Fury off.

Of course, Percy is confused about what’s happening but there’s not a lot of time for explanations. Grover, who calls himself “Percy’s protector” accompanies the boy back to his home where Percy’s mom is in the middle of serving a group of Gabe’s poker buddies. Grover tells her that they need to leave and right now. Strangely, she follows his instructions without question, which doesn’t sit well with Gabe who needs someone to fetch the beer. Grover dispatches him with his crutches and the trio gets out of Dodge.

They head for a place known only as “the camp” and almost reach the confines of it when they are attacked by a hideous gigantic bull-like monster called a Minotaur. The boys survive the attack but the Minotaur grabs Percy’s mom, who disappears in flame and smoke.

As it turns out, Percy’s teacher Mr. Brunner runs the camp and as it turns out, he’s actually a centaur named Chiron (the wheelchair was an illusion meant to mask Chiron’s plentitude of horse’s backside). As it also turns out, all the kids in this camp are the human offspring of Gods and humans, and Percy himself is the son of Poseidon (McKidd). The Gods were forbidden contact with their human offspring after they turn six months old, and so deserted their human partners. Gods as deadbeat dads…kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

The big problem is that the lightning bolt, the most powerful weapon in the universe, has been stolen and its owner, Zeus (Bean) thinks Percy is responsible for reasons never explained. Zeus gives Percy 14 days to find the weapon and return it to Zeus at Mt. Olympus or else the Gods would go to war, a war which would devastate the earth and the humans living on it.

Chris Columbus, the man who kicked off the Harry Potter film franchise, is attempting to do the same with the popular young adult book series from Rick Riordan. Unfortunately, I don’t get the impression that this will pull in Potter-like numbers, not is it as good a film as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was.

The writers of the movie made the unilateral decision to make some wholesale changes from the book. Some of these changes were minor but several were fundamental. One of the reasons I think the Potter film franchise did so well is because the filmmakers didn’t make many changes at the insistence of author J.K. Rowling. I can understand skewing the movie to an older audience (more profitable y’see) but much of the charm and the wonder of the book has been cut out as well.

That leaves lavish action sequences and hideous monsters for the most part and these are executed well. Certainly there’s plenty of spectacle here, from the scenes in Hades and Olympus to more earthly locations like Vegas, New York City and the camp. There are plenty of well-known actors showing up here, from Uma Thurman as Medusa (and she does as good a job as anyone with a tangle of hissing digital snakes on her head) to Melissa Kanakaredes as Athena. The odd casting choice was comedian Steve Coogan as Hades – one would think Hades to be a not particularly funny character and in fact he isn’t.

The three leads have to absolutely click for this to succeed and while in some ways they do, they don’t to the extent that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint did in Potter. Following the Potter formula of two guys and one girl at the forefront, Lerman as Percy is a bit bland. Jackson does a fairly good turn as the jive-talking African-American second banana, but the part seems a bit cliché; I would have appreciated him being a little less smart-mouthed and a little more smart. Not mentioned in my synopsis is Daddario as Annabeth, Athena’s daughter who doesn’t show up until the camp sequence. She is a brilliant strategizer and formidable warrior and is there essentially to be Percy’s love interest.

You’ll learn a lot of Greek mythology here and they use it fairly accurately and update it nicely (although in the stories, Medusa was killed by Perseus but appears here quite alive). I liked the Mt. Olympus set especially; it looked a lot like I imagined it. In fact, nearly all of the special effects sequences work magnificently.

The problem is with the script, I think. Lots of plot points are never explained or supported and some just flat-out don’t make any sense. For example, the big one is why is Percy accused of the theft in the first place? According to Zeus’ own law he isn’t aware of his divine parentage; why would he want to steal something that he has no idea of its existence?

All in all, this isn’t a bad movie by any means. It’s not a great movie either. As for kick-starting a major tentpole film franchise, I really am skeptical of the future of further Percy Jackson films. I hope I’m wrong, but they’ll need some better writing to really punch it into the popular consciousness. Until then, future Percy Jackson movies seem to be as much myth as the Gods themselves.

REASONS TO GO: A very clever use of Greek mythology in a modern setting. The special effects sequences are top notch.  

REASONS TO STAY: There are many plot holes that cause you to wonder if wholesale parts of the script were edited out. Not sure if the trio of young actors playing the leads have what it takes to sustain interest through a multi-movie series.

FAMILY VALUES: The monsters are way too frightening for younger children – you know, the core audience for the books. One family walked out of the theater we were in when their little one became upset at the Fury, and that was only the first monster encountered.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original book, Percy Jackson is 12 years old. In the movie he is depicted as 17 years old.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely some of the big battle scenes and effects sequences should be seen in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Coraline