Click (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Click</strong> (2006)

(On DVD, February 2007) Well, as Adam Sandler films go, this isn’t one of the worst ones. This is, indeed, very faint praise: Sandler’s films have become a predictable mix of sappy morals, slapstick violence, mock anger, insipid female characters and broadly accessible premises. In this case, some things actually work well: the “universal remote” gimmick is used for pretty dumb gags, but it eventually allows a fairly sophisticated meditation on the nature of living life, and the paths that our choices can end up making if we’re not careful. Some gags are amusing, and the film has a surprising amount of internal coherence. Despite the obvious plot threads (including a blatantly obvious “departure point” trap-door), it all amounts to a good character arc. But then there is the rest of the picture: The disturbing way Sandler’s character resorts to violence whenever he’s not accountable for it; the way the female characters are sidelined in easy caricatures; the cheap gags that do little but amuse the 12-year-olds in the audience. Click ends up as a potentially interesting film hobbled with obvious sops to Sandler’s usual demographics. Too bad.

Breach (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Breach</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, February 2007) Espionage films tend to go, James-Bond like, for big explosions and tense gun-play as a way to show off spy trade-craft. Reality, of course, is entirely different, and Breach at least tries to remain grounded in some sort of verisimilitude as it tells the true story of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who kept selling secrets to “the other side” for nearly two decades before his arrest in 2001. As we discover through the eyes of our protagonist, a young agent tasked to his office, Hanssen is a study in contradictions: an overly pious career agent who dabbles in amateur pornography and gun worship, Hanssen thinks of himself as superior to his colleagues and sees in his spying just another way to get back at a system that ignores his talents. Chris Cooper is fascinating in a role that’s plays a fine line between assurance and arrogance, and Ryan Phillippe at least keeps up with him throughout the entire film. Though there are a few odd contrivances designed to pump up the drama, Breach remains restrained in its depiction of a real-life story –indeed, even playing down juicy aspects of the true story such as the amateur pornography and the link to Opus Dei. It all amount to a film that is more intellectually thrilling than the average spy film, even though there’s nary an explosion in sight.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, February 2007) Niiice. Well, maybe not: Like all humiliation comedies, Borat‘s laughs are tempered by the realization that the people acting foolishly may very well be us on a bad day or in an absurd situation. The concept itself is pure genius, allowing a mixture of high-concept comedy with improvised reactions… and a justification for a camera recording it all. But the execution usually aims for squirms and pained smiles. Interestingly enough, the film’s biggest laughs sometime come from strictly conventional comedy routines (the bits with the chicken or the naked fighting, for instance) more than the grand explorations of the American psyche, which eventually become not much more than a gonzo documentary. There’s a lot to admire here, but not that much to laugh about.

One Shot, Lee Child

Dell, 2005, 466 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24102-2

It’s with a novel titled One Shot that I realize that Lee Child is no one-hit wonder. The irony kills me.

Of course, I’m a latecomer to the Child party: One Shot is his ninth novel and only the second one of his that I’ve read after Persuader. But it shows that Persuader wasn’t a fluke and that Child’s compulsively-readable blend of genre-savvy thrills is likely to hold up in his other novels.

Not that this is much of a surprise: Persuader was such a professional piece of work that it was hard to imagine an author capable of that level of competence slinking back to lesser work. One Shot deftly follows up the adventures of Jack Reacher, an ex-military policeman turned drifter and gun-for-hire. Reacher, of course, is the classical Competent Man: laconic, intelligent and ridiculously skilled in a number of areas. No permanent attachments make him an ideal series protagonist, as he’s able to slip in and out of various situations with ease.

In this case, the novel opens with a hail of bullets as a sniper shoots down five people in the downtown area of a good-sized Midwest city. Enough evidence is left at the scene of the shooting that within pages, the police has made an arrest. But before anything else can happen, the suspect tells his captors “They got the wrong guy. Get Jack Reacher for me” and conveniently slips into a coma.

Clearly, something is up. For the first half of the novel One Shot deftly plays with genre expectations, zig-zagging from one plot point to another, revealing some things but not others. Who really fired the shots? Was it really a random killing spree? As Reacher digs deeper and deeper in the city’s underbelly, he finds himself confronted with the local mob: Are they prepared to face down a man of Reacher’s talents?

The most immediate appeal of One Shot is the high-speed pacing of its first half. Child has some serious plotting skills, and the novel races past plot twists that would have taken less-confident authors a lot longer to reveal. This is partly a way to obscure the real structure of the novel: Once the fog begins to lift, the true plot of the novel becomes clearer and a bit more predictable. The second half is less interesting: Despite an engaging procedural investigation, more revelations and a final action sequence that recalls a western as much as a contemporary thriller, One Shot feels a lot more conventional.

Still, it remains a superior read. One of Child’s most distinctive skills is his ability to integrate odd bits of knowledge in his narrative. This leads to some splendid scenes where Reacher out-thinks his opponents, whether it’s about winning a bar brawl, or deducing when and where an old acquaintance will choose to stay during a business trip. Added to the easy tough-guy prose, it makes One Shot an example of what the best contemporary thriller are capable of doing.

I’m not a big fan of series novels, but the Jack Reacher sequence is two-for-two at this point, giving me enough of a reason to start hitting the used bookstores to complete my series. Lee Child is no one-shot wonder, and it’s about time that I start tracking the hits.