Faster


Faster

Dwayne Johnson realizes that sometimes, the People's Elbow just isn't enough.

(2010) Action (CBS) Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Tom Berenger, Courtney Gains, Mike Epps, Xander Berkeley, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jennifer Carpenter. Directed by George Tillman Jr.

The American action picture is somewhat of an archetype. It borrows heavily from the Western and often employs taciturn loners as heroes. It takes place on windswept plains and empty towns, and sometimes in big cities which convey a different type of loneliness. In this world, a man is measured by the size of his gun and his willingness to use it.

Driver (Johnson) is being released from prison after doing a ten-year stretch. Although the warden (Berenger) chides him to seek help if he finds himself going down the wrong path, Driver already has a direction in mind.

After picking up a 72 Chevy muscle car in a scrap yard, Driver has some business to take care of. You see, the gang that pulled off the bank heist that got him sent to the pen was ambushed by a rival gang who killed them all off and left Driver for dead having taken a bullet to the back of the skull. Surgeons affixed a metal plate to keep his brains from leaking out and now he walks around with a bit of a bad attitude.

Normally Driver could let something like that go but one of the dead was his half-brother and Driver doesn’t cotton much to that. He’s out to kill every mutha on the list of those who were responsible, from the low-lifes who were there to the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes. The latter would rather he didn’t come too close so they send out a hit man (Jackson-Cohen) with a strange British accent and impulse control problems. Killer, as he’s called is more of a dilettante than a professional, but he does have a girl (Grace) of his own and by gum he’s gonna marry that girl if it’s the last thing he does.

Also on Driver’s tale is a Cop (Thornton) who has even more problems than Driver or Killer. Ten days from retirement, he is a heroin user whose estranged wife harangues him for being late picking up his son for a baseball game and he’s more or less a joke to his peers. He has one last chance at redemption, not that Detective Cicero (Gugino), his partner, is interested; she just wants to catch this killer and she doesn’t want a sad sack junkie partner slowing her down.

This sounds more like an action movie of the ‘70s and in some ways it is. There is also a bit of the dark soul of film noir from the ‘40s and in some ways, it is. What it REALLY is, believe it or not, is an old-fashioned morality play. This story is not so much about revenge as it is redemption; it’s not so much about car chases as it is about forgiveness. While the trappings of an action movie are there, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Part of why the movie succeeds is because of Johnson. The Rock, the Brahma Bull, the People’s Champ. That guy. This is by far his best performance to date. His Driver starts out a killing machine, fueled by rage. As the body count gets higher, so does his sense of remorse, and a feeling that maybe revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. By the time he reaches the final name on his list, a man who has reformed and become a Pentecostal preacher (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) the doubts have really set in. Things are no longer so black and white; it’s easy to walk up to a bad guy and blow the back of his head off if there is no doubt he is bad.

Thornton excels at playing folks who are a little bit flawed; he’s even better at playing folks who are a LOT flawed. That’s just what Cop is – a lot flawed (he actually has a name that appears briefly on a document near the end of the movie, but I didn’t catch it). Thornton gives him the hangdog look of a man who has made more mistakes than he can count and is desperate to try and redeem himself.  There’s that whole redemption thing again.

Gugino, who I still continue to maintain is one of the most criminally underutilized actresses in Hollywood gets wasted again in a role that she could easily have phoned in but chose not to. Her character is suspicious and somewhat hostile at first but ultimately makes some choices that show her to have a soft heart as well…oh yeah, I guess that you could call that…the “R”  word.

This is not a typical action movie and I don’t believe it ever was intended to be. In some ways it’s grim and brutal and the story line is a bit predictable (Da Queen figured out who was behind all the messed-up events long before the Big Reveal in the final reel, which puts her one up on me) and at times it feels like the characters are going through the motions as they drive through the deserts of Bakersfield and Inyo County. It isn’t the kind of entertainment that is mindless and easy (not that there is anything wrong with entertainment that is both of those things). I found myself reacting to the movie with a curious intellectual fascination which is not something you get from an action movie normally. For that reason alone I can recommend this.

REASONS TO GO: While ostensibly an action movie, this is also a morality play on steroids. Johnson makes a welcome return to a genre he is very well suited to.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit predictable and the movie has a curious lack of energy for a movie of this type.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surprising amount of drug use in the movie, quite a bit of violence and a fair amount of foul language. There is also some brief sexuality that ought to bother nobody.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first strictly action film that Johnson has done since Doom (2005).

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the car chase sequences look good on the big screen but a lot of the rest of the movie is fairly intimate. Too close to call for me, so I’ll let you make it.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

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The Box


The Box

Frank Langella really needs to buy himself a better razor.

(Warner Brothers) Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs, Celia Weston, Deborah Rush, Lisa K. Wyatt, Mark Cartier, Keith Robertson, Michelle Durrett. Directed by Richard Kelly

Our lives are often a test, one in which we are called to make choices between short-term self-interest and the long-term benefit of the entire species. It is a test we continue to take over and over again, not always successfully.

It is 1976, and the Mariner project is sending data back to NASA at their Langley research facility in Virginia (and if you’re not sure what state you’re in, the filmmakers helpfully tell you in big bold letters at the beginning of the film). Arthur Lewis (Marsden) is a scientist who worked on that project (he helped design the camera that sent back those shots from the surface of the Red Planet) who dreams of being an astronaut, dreams which are dashed when he receives a rejection letter from the powers-that-be.

His wife Norma (Diaz) is a teacher at a ritzy private school where their son Walter (Stone) also attends. Norma walks with a limp and has to take pain pills because of a doctor’s who left her foot under an x-ray machine until it charbroiled. She’s just been told that the school is eliminating employee discounts for student tuition, which means that the already-financially strapped family (since when does a rocket scientist not make enough to make ends meet?) will have to live even more within their means.

Enter the Mysterious Man, in this case Arlington Steward (Langella). With a severely disfigured face that looks like one of his zits might have had C4 in it as a teen, Steward bears a mysterious wooden box that contains nothing except a glass dome that can only be opened with a key, and a large red button. He gives Norma the key and explains, in clipped cultured tones, that pushing the button will accomplish two things. First, someone unknown to Norma and Arthur, somewhere in the world, will die as a result of them pushing the button. Second, they will be paid one million dollars, tax free, in large crisp hundred dollar bills. In order to demonstrate his sincerity, he gives Norma one of them “for her trouble.” The two of them have 24 hours to decide whether or not to push the button – otherwise the offer is withdrawn and the box will be given to someone else.

The couple goes back and forth. Their conscience dictates that it is never all right to kill, even for a large sum of money but their immediate needs say that a million dollars can make their lives a hell of a lot less complicated. As the minutes tick down to the deadline, one of them will make an impulsive decision that will change their lives forever, put them all in mortal danger and introduce Arthur to a mysterious conspiracy between the NSA, NASA and other governmental organizations that may affect the future of the human race.

This is based on a short story by the great Richard Matheson (and was later developed into an episode for the 1986 version of “The Twilight Zone,” albeit with a different ending) who has given us stories that have become movies like I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, Somewhere In Time and numerous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery,” to name a few. He is one of the most imaginative writers of the 20th century. Here what he has is a morality play that is as relevant now as it was the day it was written – the battle of short-term gain and long-term care. In other words, doing the right thing vs. doing the easy thing.

Director Kelly has an affinity for science fiction and, well, creepy stuff. He creates an atmosphere in which anyone at any time can be “an employee” as Steward terms it, his eyes and ears on the subjects of what he labels “a test.” I know I’m being a bit vague, but I don’t want to ruin any of the twists that give the movie some of its spice. One of the things I can talk about is that he nicely re-creates the era.

Langella is fabulous as the mysterious Arlington Steward. He is creepy and not quite normal but at the same time urbane, polite and charming. He tips his fedora at a jaunty angle and walks with the deliberate pace of a man who knows exactly where he needs to be and is quite sure he isn’t in a hurry to get there. Marsden also does a fine job in the lead role of the disappointed rocket scientist who goes from financial problems to fighting for his survival.

I’m not usually a big fan of Cameron Diaz – for some reason she seems a little neurotic to me usually – but she does a solid job here. There are some nice supporting roles here too, particularly the veteran character actor Rebhorn as Arthur’s boss.

One of the biggest problems with the movie is the score. Members of the Montreal-based rock band Arcade Fire are responsible for it and I was frankly quite disappointed. It’s intrusive, overbearing, somewhat cliché in places (I don’t know about you but I am quite tired of having an Important Event or a Big Scare announced with screeching strings) and comes damn close to ruining the movie. I would have preferred something toned down a bit; a bit more minimalist.

Kelly, who wrote the movie, chose to flesh out the script with a good deal of business involving the government agencies mentioned above as well as a series of nosebleeds, slack-jawed observers, a wind tunnel and mysterious gates that may very well lead to Eternal Damnation. These sideshows, while visually effective, tend to take the focus from what was the main crux of the original short story, to the detriment of the film. That’s a shame because it might have gotten a higher rating otherwise.

There are elements of science fiction, horror, political thriller and historical drama here, so you can’t say that you didn’t get your money’s worth. What you can say about The Box is that it’s got the best use of Sartre I’ve ever seen in a horror/science fiction/thriller/drama before. Hell is other people according to Sartre but in Richard Kelly’s vision, we are all caught in our own boxes that we are stuck in until we’re planted in a pine box, and what we make of it can be Hell – or it can be something else. It’s a test that the human race continues to take – and fail.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t go wrong with Richard Matheson. A modern morality play that is an essay on human nature that is even more true and contemporary now than it was when the original short story was written. Langella gives a marvelously creepy performance.

REASONS TO STAY: An overbearing score is intrusive and nearly ruins the film. Some of the action is a little bit over-the-top. It feels like the script was fleshed out with some unnecessary business.

FAMILY VALUES: Some horrific images and a few good startle scares are sure to give the little ones nightmares. Okay for teens though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Kelly is best known for directing the cult classic Donny Darko.

HOME OR THEATER: There are a few grand effects shots and a couple of other sequences that would look better on the big screen but otherwise just as effective at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: He’s Just Not That Into You