(On Cable TV, November 2014) By now, anything with Luc Besson as a screenwriter should come with its own warning: “Stupid stuff within.” The problem isn’t that Besson’s name is usually associated with dumb scripts: it’s that the same issues keep coming back: dumb anti-establishment rants, moronic plotting, blatant misogyny and a striking lack of tonal unity that has the films jumping all over the place. With 3 Days to Kill, writers Besson and Adi Hasak end up reprising the worst aspects of From Paris with Love: no skill in blending comedy with violence, dim-witted characters and plot-lines that would have been laughable thirty years ago. Here, a CIA agent suffering from a fatal disease is manipulated in executing “one last job” while caring for his estranged daughter. What follows is an unlikable blend of torture played for laughs, uncomfortable comedy, fish-out-of-water parenting and a portrayal of espionage that makes James Bond movie feel sophisticated. The film hits its worst moments when it asks us to believe that a character would forget about violent torture in order to help his torturer bond with his daughter… moments after being electrocuted. Such uneasy blend of jokes in-between deathly serious violence show the tone-deaf sensibilities of either the screenwriters, or fallen-from-grace director McG, whose Charlie’s Angels heydays are nowhere reflected in his recent work –it’s not this or stuff like This Means War that make him look better. While 3 Days to Kill does briefly come alive during its action sequences (in particular, a chase sequence besides La Seine), much of the film is just inert, flopping aimlessly and failing to get its audience’s sympathy. Surprisingly enough, Kevin Costner doesn’t emerge too badly from the ongoing train wreck –he’s able to display a certain weary stoicism through it all. Once really can’t say the same about Amber Heard, playing dress-up as a would-be femme fatale when she’s got the gravitas of half a beach bunny. (Her character may be badly written, but the way she plays it make it seem even worse.) It’s refreshing to see Connie Nielsen in a motherly role, but Hailee Steinfeld may want to re-think playing such unlikable brats flouncing without reason. 3 Days to Kill redefines “scattershot” in the way its scenes don’t seem to flow along in the same film, and how it usually privileges the dumb answer to just about any plot question. The predictable plot twists, stomach-churning “comic” violence really don’t help… but what else have we come to expect from Luc Besson?
(In theaters, December 2010) The Coen Brothers never do anything in a straightforward fashion, and so it is that if their homage to the classic True Grit may be as dirty and unforgiving as we imagine the West to have been, it’s also surprisingly entertaining and even, yes, amusing. The repartee between rivals Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon is one of the film’s finest points, and the film often acknowledges the absurdity of its own premise. But for all of its tension-defusing laughs, the film isn’t a comedy: the drama plays without ironic distancing, the characters aren’t completely softened for Hollywood effect, and the finale doesn’t pull any stops in punishing characters for going so deep in the wild. While Bridges is magnificent as the one-eyed marshal “Rooster” that becomes the film’s true hero, it’s Hailee Steinfeld who makes the strongest impression as the 14-year-old heroine of the film capable of mouthing the Coens’ typically dense dialogue. This leads us to the film’s main weakness in theaters: The often thick accents duelling on-screen. Home-video viewers will have the advantage of captions: movie theatre viewers will have to tough it out on their own. At a time where filmed Westerns are most often anachronistic genre recreations, it’s a bit surprising to find True Grit to be such a true-pedigree Western, spiced but not overwhelmed by comedy. It’s an old-fashioned film worth watching and savouring.