(Second viewing, On TV, December 2016) I’ve been re-watching a fair amount of eighties movies lately, and I’m struck by what ages well and what doesn’t. Re-watching Top Gun, I’m most struck by its absence of subtlety. The macho ego is in naked display here, whether it’s flying planes or wooing women, the characters do it without the semblance of sophistication. The entire movie is like this: straight to the point, unimpeded by complexity. The producers (celebrated duo Jerry Bruckheimer & Don Simpson) clearly aimed for that result. The typically American glorification of the military is never far below the surface, and the anti-foreign jingoism isn’t either. Watching Top Gun, it seems almost absurd that it would have worked as well as it did … but it did, and continues to do so today. To be fair, Tom Cruise is a lot of fun in full alpha male mode, and while his banter with Val Kilmer may be on-the-nose, it does feel of a kind with the rest of the film. Kelly McGillis isn’t bad either, and while her character is a prize, she’s somewhat more complex than she could have been. The scene starring the airplanes are nice (although hampered by the production constraints of the time—a Top Gun shot today would feature far more CGI, even if used invisibly) and there are some intriguing real-world details in the depiction of flight officer school. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I enjoyed Top Gun: Its bluntness hasn’t aged well, and seems to belong to an entirely different culture. But it’s certainly a striking film even today, and it has the advantages of its weaknesses. I, on the other hand, will watch Hot Shots! as an antidote.
(In theatres, May 2010) It’s hip to dismiss Hollywood summer blockbusters, but there’s nothing quite like the feel of a good well-made escapist fantasy. Forget about the video game origins of the film, or the loose historical allusions in the title: this first Prince of Persia movie works best as an action adventure fantasy, any kind of verisimilitude joyfully sacrificed on the altar of entertainment. Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer obviously aim to replicate the atmosphere of the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and while it’s not perfect, it works generally well at taking us from one action/effects set-piece to another. Jake Gyllenhaal makes for a credible action hero while Genna Arterton is almost impossibly sassy/cute in the film’s only noteworthy female role, but it’s Alfred Molina who ends up the film’s standout oddball character as a quasi-modern parody of a libertarian. Not that he’s the only charmingly anachronistic element in a plot that is based on a middle-eastern invasion motivated by false reports of weapons of mass destruction. But never mind the politics when the film mixes swashbuckling adventure, an Arabian fantasy setting and an intriguing fantasy plot device. You can see the end of the story coming from the film’s first twenty minutes (which is probably a good thing, given its reset-button nature), but it’s the telling that’s the charm here. Not that it’s a complete success like its piratical predecessor: Prince of Persia sometimes feel a bit too long, sorely misses more female characters, could have used another dialogue re-write, has no cultural legitimacy (See “Persia, Prince of”) and often feels driven by incredible contrivances. But, you know, I’m already looking forward to the sequel. After all, I’ve just seen Robin Hood: I’ve had my inoculation shot against excessive realism.
(In theaters, November 2004) Everyone loves a good secret, a good chase and a good mystery, so it’s no surprise if such a slick piece of escapist entertainment as National Treasure should tap into the same popular success as The Da Vinci Code. True, the Nicolas Cage / Jerry Bruckheimer combo has produced wonders in the past and this fourth collaboration is pure wall-to-wall fun. It had to happen sooner or later, mind you: a blockbuster tapping American history as a source of adventure and a thin pretext for chases and gunfights. That it works so well is less a testament to the appeal of early American history than to the professionalism of Jerry Bruckheimer’s formula. National Treasure moves at a fast clip, doesn’t waste time on needless material, uses arcane ideas at a prodigious rate (for a film) and disposes of them almost as quickly. Oh, many lines are lame, physics routinely ignored and the characters come straight out of central casting, but that simply reinforces the comfortable blockbuster feel of the whole thing. The only surprise is that the film wasn’t released in the summer. Hey, you can bitch and moan about this being a poor man’s Indiana Jones (and you’d be right), but National Treasure is such an oddball Hollywood creation that it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for an action picture that, at least, pays some lip service to the virtues of knowledge. (“I know something about history that you don’t know… Hold on one second, let me just take in this moment. This is cool. Is this how you feel all the time?”) Good enough for me, at least.
(In theaters, August 2000) Not as bad as some critics may have thought initially; it’s first of all a car-lover’s film, and should prove to be a lot of fun for those people. Granted, the lack of car chases is puzzling in a film that’s designed around the concept of stealing cars, but the remainder of the film is interesting enough in a beer-can-entertainment type of fashion. Nicolas Cage is believable in a role close to his latest action-hero characters. Unfortunately, Giovanni Ribisi continues (after Boiler Room) to suck charisma out of all scenes in which he’s present. The soundtrack has its moment. There aren’t enough stunts. A typical Jerry Bruckheimer film, with all the good and bad that this entails.