(Second viewing, On TV, May 2016) I must have first watched Point Break on TV sometime during the mid-nineties, but revisiting the film twenty-five years later reveals a stripped-down thriller that has aged into something of an enjoyable period piece. It helps that Kathryn Bigelow’s direction is almost timeless, using both snappy editing and long shots (such as the FBI office scene) to effectively make the most of its moments. The great action sequences complement a serviceable plot template that has been copied a few times—I’m looking at you, The Fast and the Furious. Keanu Reeves is practically iconic as the standoffish Johnny Utah, while Patrick Swayze remains effortlessly cool as the antagonist. There is, as pop culture has noted in the past twenty-five years (hello, Hot Fuzz), a considerable amount of overdone melodrama in the result—but that quality, paradoxically, has helped Point Break remain distinctive even today. The early-nineties details are now charming, while the core of the film’s execution remains just as sharp today as it was then. There’s now a “remake”, but it’s not really essential viewing.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) Given the acclaim that Zero Dark Thirty received upon release (all the way up to Oscar nominations) and the interest in its premise, I frankly expected more than I got from the film. Telling the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden seemed essential given his decade-long bogeyman stature in the American psyche… but who expected a film about such a gripping subject to be, well, so dull? Clocking in at a near-oppressive two-and-a-half-hour, Zero Dark Thirty takes forever to tell its story, underplaying some moments (such as the strike against CIA employees at Camp Chapman) while letting others take place in near-real time. The pacing is tepid, and the basic tools of the film (cinematography, dialogue, direction) aren’t all that compelling either: For all the good that I think of her films up to and including The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s work here seems more average than anything else, and does little to fight against the heaviness of the rest of the film. Fortunately, the performances are quite good: Jessica Chastain is splendid as the personification of the “Sisterhood” of CIA analysts that doggedly pursued bin Laden for more than a decade, while Jason Clarke is curiously compelling as a CIA interrogator. As far as the gulf between fiction and reality is concerned, a look at the HBO documentary Manhunt should help clear up the historical liberties taken by Zero Dark Thirty –although viewers should be forewarned that Manhunt is considerably crisper and more compelling than its fictional counterpart.
(In theatres, July 2009): There can be such a thing as too much of a good thing, and the second hour of this film is a case in point: What starts out as a tight episodic war thriller with uncanny suspense sequences eventually loosens its grip on the audience and meanders on its way to a meaningful conclusion. Don’t be fooled: even with its loose and predictable third act, The Hurt Locker still is one of the best action films of the year, and one of the best Iraq war movie so far. But a better-controlled film would have been even more powerful. Director Kathryn Bigelow makes a welcome return to the big screen and shows from the start that her action sequences can be as good as anything else: The Hurt Locker’s best moments (including the hair-raising image on the poster) are in the half-dozen action/suspense sequences putting us far too close to American bomb-defusing experts working in Baghdad. This film justifies the whole quasi-documentary handheld-camera aesthetics to a level of clarity that other glossier filmmakers can’t even imagine: As a depiction of war-driven action, it’s as good as it gets –a fortunate achievement for a film that focuses on the adrenaline junkies for whom war is a continuous peak experience. There are a few familiar faces among the supporting characters (including Ralph Fiennes as a foul-mouthed English mercenary), but it’s the relatively-unknown main characters that make the strongest impression: In particular, Jeremy Renner is a revelation as a loose-cannon protagonist whose motivations eventually become the crux of the film. Despite the meandering subplots that shed a lot of energy in the latter half of the picture (and the accumulation of inaccuracies to pump up the drama at the expense of realism –how handy that one of our lead sappers is also a sniper!), The Hurt Locker remains a strong piece of cinema, and one of the rare war films about Iraq to make its point with little partisan content. It’s both exhilarating yet realistic, reaching out to both the action-movie fans and those who think that war is hell.
(Second Viewing, on DVD, June 2009): You would think that a 1995 film re-casting 1992 racial tensions in then-future 1999 Los Angeles would be irremediably dated fifteen years later. But nothing could be farther from the truth: For once thing, the story (co-written by James Cameron) is a savvy exploration of a seductive SF concept that hasn’t aged a wrinkle since then. For another, Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional direction keeps things moving both in and out of frame: there’s a terrific visual density to what’s happening on-screen, and the subjective camera moments are still brutally effective. But even the dated aspects of the film still pack a punch, as they now appear to have taken place in an alternate reality where police brutality and memory recording have flourished even as the Internet hasn’t taken off. (History of Science students are free to sketch how one explains the other.) But it’s really the characters that keep the whole thing together: Ralph Fiennes is mesmerizing as a romantic hustler, while Angela Basset’s seldom been better than she is here, all smooth cheekbones, high attitude and shiny dreadlocks. The pacing is a bit slow (how many times do we need to see Lenny pine away for Faith?) and the ending isn’t as snappy as it should have been, but Strange Days is still amazingly peppy for a film with such an explicit expiration date. It measures up against the best SF films of the nineties, and that’s already saying something. The DVD has a smattering of extras (most notably a few good deleted scenes, a twenty-minute audio commentary and a teaser trailer that I could still quote fifteen years later), but this is a film overdue for a special edition treatment.