(In theaters, April 2008) In many way, this isn’t much of a film. It plays off a tried-and-true dramatic template, it’s never surprising and it never tries anything too ambitious. Even the “adapted from a true story” gloss fades as we realize how conveniently the plot points align together. But 21 makes up for timid plotting by delivering a satisfying look at how a few MIT students were able to turn the Vegas blackjack tables into a profit-generating venture with a mixture of skill, daring and persistence. The method is ingenious (though the film flubs it for dramatic impact: there’s no reason for the “spotter” to remain at the table once the real player starts betting, for instance) and the end results immediately appeals to anyone looking for a clever-than-thou story. Better yet, the film leads straight to the book, which is even better. I’m not too fond of the white-washed casting choices in the film (especially not when Asian cutie Liza Lapira is left in the background while blandy-bland Kate Bosworth gets the lead female role) but that’s not much of a criticism when the rest of the film flows smoothly from one expected beat to another. Kevin Spacey and Lawrence Fishburne have good turns as the adults of the piece. The direction has inspired moments, particularly when it manages to explain an intricate system in a few sharp moments. As for the rest, well, it’s living vicariously through a bunch of young people who have figured how to live large at Vegas’ expense. Cue the alcohol, the clubs, the shopping and the limousines. Will our hero ever manage to regain his inner nerdness? Of course he will. Just hop on the ride and enjoy for a moment.
(In theaters, April 2008) Though billed as a historical adventure in prehistoric time, it may be closer to reality to call this a laugh-free comedy set in prehistoric fantasyland. All that energy could have been spent on a luscious Conan film, but instead we get sabertooth tigers living alongside terror birds, mammoths being used to build pyramids and other nonsense. It occasionally makes for great images (what would it have been like to face down a charging mammoth?), but 10,000 BC seldom finds a way to take advantage of the material it glues together thanks to an indifferent story and a script that seldom gives us a reason to care about its characters. Worse yet is the dash of wholly unnecessary mysticism that provides useful plot coupons and rescues a happy ending out of poor plotting choices. But the film’s biggest problem -by far- it that it’s an inert and boring piece of filmmaking that can’t even justify its grandiose title. The worthwhile material from this film fits in the trailer with some time to spare, so watch that rather than the full film: at least you’ll be able to use the remaining two hours to do something else.
Little Brown, 2004, 375 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-15377-X
When I vowed, more than one year ago, to embark on my grandiose Michael Connelly Reading Project, I really meant it: I would read all of Connelly’s books, including this odd collection of non-fiction pieces written between 1984 and 1992 while he was a crime reporter. Starting in Florida, then moving on to Los Angeles, Crime Beat chronicles the raw material from which Connelly would inform his fiction. It’s an uneven book, unsatisfactory like reality usually is, but Connelly fans will find much to like and to inform in the pieces here collected.
Perhaps the most essential pieces of the book are the first two ones: “Watching the Detectives”, an autobiographical introduction in which Connelly muses upon the real crimes and the telling details that have influenced his life, and “The Call”, a lengthy feature-piece that follows the Fort Lauderdale homicide squad during a particularly busy week. “The Call”, we gather, is one of Connelly’s best pieces from his Florida days: it shows a writer presenting facts crisply, yet with empathy for subjects that have become characters. It’s no accident if “Watching the Detectives” explicitly refers to details of “The Call” as important markers in Connelly’s career.
The book itself is divided in three sections: The Cops, The Killers and The Cases, with an afterword called “The Novelist as Reporter” in which critic Michael Carlson too-briefly establishes further links between Connelly’s journalistic career and his fiction. Pieces reprinted span a range between immediate reporting to more thoughtful pieces covering subject from a certain distance and scope. It’s no accident if the most satisfying pieces are the broader ones: They allow Connelly’s fictional style to take over and can usually present complete stories. They’re also easier to read ten years later, as they try to present a self-contained unit of thought. Particular such highlights include “Crossing the Line”, a feature piece on the LAPD foreign prosecution unit that reaches across national borders to solve cases, and “The Gang that couldn’t shoot straight”, which describes a particularly inept assassination business.
The problem with reprinting newspaper pieces is that there’s always a bigger, broader story hovering beyond the words on the page. Sometimes, even often, that story remains unfinished: too many pieces remind us that reality is seldom wrapped up neatly by the last page of the epilogue: Many pieces end with the frustrating note that the case remains open and unsolved even when, as readers, we can read between the lines and identify a likely suspect. (Or, when the suspect is still at large, “his whereabouts remain unknown”)
To get around this problem, Connelly packages together a few stories about the same cases, following an issue through the years. The “Death Squad” chapter, for instance, ties together eight stories spanning more than two years in order to cover a case in which police officers shot three robbery suspects on thin pretenses.
Despite the reasonable page count, Crime Beat isn’t a particularly long book: The design is airy, the pages are uncluttered, the margins are generous and there can’t be much more than 275 words per page. Fans of Michael Connelly and the True Crime section of the bookstore will get their money’s worth, but people with only a casual interest in criminal stories will definitely prefer Connelly’s fiction. Still, it is an interesting piece in his bibliography, and it does much to show where he comes from.