(On Cable TV, October 2015) I may be seeing too many movies lately, because it seems to me that I’d already seen The Bounty Hunter before even seeing it. I suppose that having Jennifer Aniston and Gerald Butler play close to their usual screen persona doesn’t help, nor does a basic by-the-number hybrid plot between romance and gentle crime comedy. It feels a lot like the latter One for the Money, or like most movies in which Butler plays a likable cad, or all movies where Aniston simply recites lines in her endearing personality-free way of hers. There isn’t much to distinguish The Bounty Hunter from countless other similar films, and if the result does have an acceptable forward narrative rhythm (as in; it doesn’t feel as it’s too much effort to watch it once it starts), that doesn’t necessarily translate into much more than a very marginal recommendation, mostly to those who think that they’ll enjoy that same kind of material.
(On TV, March 2015) There’s a fine line between being irreverent and obnoxious, and The Ugly Truth often walks on the wrong side of it. The premise has a bit of sparkly potential, as a TV producer meets an abrasive shock-jock with a specialty in realpolitik relationship advice. The rest is straight out of the romantic comedy playbook, with generally likable performances from Katherine Heigl and Gerald Butler in the lead roles, neither of them straying too far from their usual screen persona. The problem is Butler’s love-burnt cynical character, who too-often comes across as repellent –the script makes a point to present an even worse replacement character near the end, but it’s a bit too late by that point to make a difference. The script has a dearth of amusing or memorable moments, often needlessly twisting itself into familiar shapes in order to deliver even-more familiar payoffs. The material plays vulgarly blue a bit too often, without payoffs either in sexiness or humor. (Surprisingly or not, this often-crass, even-more-often-misogynistic script was penned by three female screenwriters.) It often feels like wasted material: wasted lead actors, wasted effort, all in the service of something that doesn’t rise above mediocrity. Still, and this is an important “still”, The Ugly Truth has the advantage of working within a congenial sub-genre: Romantic comedies, even when they are not very good, are usually just likable enough to pass the time pleasantly. So it is that The Ugly Truth barely gets a passing grade on the strength of a formula perfected in better movies, and actors that are capable for much better.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) It feels vaguely improper to take apart a film as well-intentioned as Machine Gun Preacher. It is, after all, the inspiring story of a junkie criminal who finds religion and embarks on a quest to save children in war-torn Africa. How can you possibly criticize something like that? But as noble as Machine Gun Preacher can be, its intentions don’t matter as much when the film itself proves to be so disappointing. Even at nearly two hours, much of the film feels like a half-baked sketch, filled with diversions that are never explored and not particularly good at hitting its specific emotional targets. Gerald Butler gets another thankless role as the titular preacher, with a script that doesn’t do much with the various ethical issues of seeing an ex-criminal taking up arms in the cause of peace. A few secondary characters voice objections (as in “you should focus on your family first”, as in “if you take up arms, you may become part of the problem”), but those are ignored or blown away like so many troublesome subplots. What’s maddening is the amount of material at the edges of the film, begging to be used more effectively with just a little bit more introspection. The subject matters deserves better than this strange mix of gritty drama and action-movie heroics –to say nothing of the uncomfortable way Africa is saved by Yet Another White Hero. Machine Gun Preacher feels as if good intentions were mangled by Hollywood story meetings and possibly someone with a hankering to make an exploitation film along the way. The result just feels limp despite its potential, and badly serves its inspiration.
(In theatres, October 2009) There’s been a curious lack of straight-up thrillers in theatres recently, but it’s not overcooked, under-thought efforts like this one that are going to revive interest in the genre. Nominally the story of a grieving father whose vengeance efforts against a pragmatic DA become excessive, Law Abiding Citizen never manages to convince us of the superiority of the hero against the villain. Gerald Butler’s scary-smart vigilante is so compelling (especially alongside Jamie Foxx’s dull protagonist) that we never completely stop rooting for whatever he’s doing. The ending feels like a defeat at the hands of an undeserving hero, and a particularly dumb one at that: No one in their right mind would take the chances leading to the final detonation. But then again, much of Law Abiding Citizen is preposterous to begin with, what with an omniscient villain, nick-of-time plans, unbelievable contrivances and more Hollywood conveniences than you’d believe. What’s worse, perhaps, is that Kurt Wimmer’s script is not without a few good moments (the “cell phone scene” is a pure shocker; Philadelphia is fine; the ramifications of the villain’s day-job are worth a film in themselves) while Gary F. Gray’s direction makes a generous use of pans, helicopters, smooth transitions and crane-mounted cameras. There’s a sheer anarchistic glee in seeing a city’s judicial system being taken apart for pure vengeance, so you can imagine the disappointment when it all fails to cohere in anything better than an average pot-boiler thriller. This is one of those films where the trailer is quite a bit better than the actual film, and not just because hero and villains are so obviously mismatched.