(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2017) I distinctly recall seeing Heat on video in the late nineties, but couldn’t find any review of it anywhere in my archives. Oh well—it’s a good excuse to revisit one of the best crime movies of its decade. As it turns out, I had forgotten a lot about the film and had the pleasure of rediscovering it again. Sure, I remembered the dinner conversation between de Niro and Pacino. Of course, I remembered the downtown LA shootout. But it turns out I didn’t remember half of it, and nearly nothing of the rest of the movie. Long but impressively dense, Heat compares well to the best of Hong Kong crime cinema in showing policemen and criminals as two sides of a similar coin, and finding humanity in stock characters. It’s a sprawling story with roughly a dozen subplots, and I have a feeling that it would best be presented today as a Netflix miniseries rather than a movie. Still, what we see on-screen in slightly less than three hours is mesmerizing enough: A convincing take on mid-nineties Los Angeles, featuring a variety of characters with rich lives. The script has moments of street poetry, and the action sequences hit hard. It surely helps that the casting of the film is amazing. Beyond having Robert de Niro and Al Pacino as co-leads, the cast is rich down to small roles played by then-obscure Danny Trejo and Natalie Portman. Take a look at the cast list and see Val Kilmer, Jon Voigt, Tom Sizemore, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Wes Studi, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichner, Tom Noonan, Hank Azaria, Henry Rollins, Jeremy Piven … it just doesn’t stop. Still, Pacino and de Niro get most of the glory here, with roles seemingly tailor-made for them—their dinner face-off is crackling good, and still exceeds the entirety of their movie-long reunion in Righteous Kill. Pacino is particularly in his element here, and his verbal excesses match the script. (Fans of TMZ will recognize that the “GREAT ASS!!!” meme/clip comes from here.) Otherwise, it’s Michael Mann’s show. While I’ve found many of his more recent movies to be pretentious, overlong and underwhelming, Heat is where nearly everything he’s got is used at its best advantage. Los Angeles looks brilliant, the direction is weighty in a way that matches the film and the actors all do their utmost best. I can quibble about a few lengths (especially late in the film, with a drawn-out final face-off), but I find that my first-viewing appreciation of the film has been replaced by a much more positive assessment after this re-watch.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) The concept of the anti-hero is retooled with vigour in Nightcrawler, thanks to a terrific collaboration between writer/director Dan Gilroy and another exceptional performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. Taking place in modern Los Angeles (now illuminated at night by bright-white LED streetlamps) where competing news stations are literally out for blood, Nightcrawler is first and foremost the character study of a modern sociopath, one whose ambition is fueled by personal-growth Internet sites, a complete lack of morals and a world that gleefully applauds the result of his efforts. Gyllenhaal is phenomenal in the lead hustler role, portraying a deeply wrong character with almost-complete detachment: the film’s best scene is a “simple” dinner date in which a human relationships is dissected to its most self-interested axioms. Otherwise, much of the film is spent in the streets of Los Angeles at night, chasing accidents and selling video footage to the highest bidder. It’s a nightmarish but well-executed film, Gilroy showing talent at his first directorial effort –and showcasing his wife Renee Russo in one of the best roles she’s had in years. There’s quite a bit of depth in the way Nightcrawler also engages with issues of degenerate capitalism, social voyeurism and media fearmongering. It’s quite a film, but also quite an experience in how it refuses to see things from outside its lead character’s perspective. Don’t be surprised if you want to shower after watching it.
(On TV, August 2013) The film’s poster/cover promises dragons attacking downtown Los Angeles in full daylight. What’s not to like? As it turns out, almost everything else. For some unexplainable reason, D-War takes forever to establish its cumbersome mythology before getting to the “dragon wars” part, and viewers can’t be blamed if they start mentally checking out at the blend of age-old mythology, predictable prophecy and meaningless word salad. Bad dialogue, dull cinematography and laborious directing all add up. It’s not just uninteresting: it’s executed in the bland plodding way most SyFy original films are made… something made worse by the fact that with a budget about ten times what SyFy movies usually cost, it’s not a SyFy original film. D-War’s lone redeeming quality of the film is the 15 minutes or so in which the dragons do attack downtown Los Angeles: suddenly, the special effects get better, the human characters disappear, the spectacle ratchets up and the film finally gets a pulse. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last long and it leads to a downer of an ending. While Jason Behr and Amanda Brooks don’t completely embarrass themselves in the lead roles, there’s not much here to boast about (and seeing both Robert Forster and Craig Robinson in fairly silly roles is more surprising than anything else.) If you do want to get the most out of D-War, fast-forward to the dragon attack, and stop whenever they disappear from the screen.
(In theaters, September 2011) Every so often, genre thriller fans are asked to confront moody art-house versions of familiar crime stories. Here we have a stunt driver / mechanic moonlighting as a getaway driver. He meets a single mother and her son; gets embroiled in a heist when her husband gets out of prison; is forced to defend himself once the heist turns bad and he ends up with a lot of money that other people have acquired in ways that would get everyone killed. Having read (and re-read) James Sallis’ thin novel on which the film is based, I can say that the adaptation is both loose and faithful: The plot is there, the motivations are entirely different but the mood is just as laconic and borderline pretentious. There are fewer details in the film about the protagonist’s life as a stuntman, but the details surrounding the main plot are far better developed (in particular “Irene”, much more fully rounded from the novel’s “Irena”). Still, the film itself feels stuck in-between genre conventions and dramatic pretention: The languid pacing alone is a tough sell to thriller audiences: Drive often feels like lengthy silences loosely connected together and the editing seems happy to linger on characters as they stare wordlessly into space to the sound of eighties-inspired music. Ryan Gosling’s nameless character is either a straightforward revenge-driven hero, or an enigma without dialogue; I had certainly imagined a scrappier protagonist from the novel. Meanwhile, art-house audiences may not feel entirely with the Grand Theft Auto-inspired subject matter, or with the unnecessary flashes of extreme gore. Director Nicolas Winding Refn is far more interested in dramatic beats than action sequences, which gives a particular off-beat flavour to the film’s more intense moments: they likely won’t satisfy action junkies, but they do bring something unusual to the table in terms of visual presentation. (The opening pre-credit sequence is remarkable.) Los Angeles itself gets to shine either through glorious night-time helicopter shots, or through the presentation of seedy run-down apartments in which the characters live. This kind of in-between location comes to define the rest of the picture as well, and if there’s enough interesting material in Drive to warrant a look for those who enjoy style clashes, the film itself may be a bit too self-involved to be fully successful. Cut fifteen minutes of the film, and we’ll see again.
(In theatres, April 2011) There’s been a dearth of courtroom drama over the past few years, and The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t just a good return to the form, it’s about as good an adaption of Michael Connelly’s original novel as fans could have hoped for. As with most readers of the book learning about the film’s casting, I wasn’t sold on Matthew McConaughey as protagonist-lawyer Mickey Haller: I had always envisioned Haller as more mature and cynical than McConaughey’s typical romantic-comedy laid-back persona. So it’s a surprise to see him return to serious drama as an older, wiser, far worldlier presence, fully comfortable in the role of a professional defence lawyer operating from his chauffeur-driven car. Brad Furman’s direction fully embraces the California-noir style of the novel, Los Angeles’ broad avenues offering as many dangers as tiny back-streets. The cinematography is bright, sunny, energetic and compelling. Rounding up the main cast are good supporting performances by Ryan Phillippe (detestable as always), Marisa Tomei and William H. Macy. While the twists and turns of the plotting are familiar, they’re well-handled and make up for a refreshing legal drama that proves that execution is often more important than fresh concepts. The Lincoln Lawyer may be less reflective about the role of defence lawyers than the book, but it still delivers enough legal manoeuvres to keep things interesting. For some, it may be the start of a franchise (there are now three further Haller adventures on the shelves); for most, though, it’s a solid, well-paced, well-made crime drama with a cynical smirk: Exactly the kind of film that’s always welcome.
(In theatres, March 2011) Some movies are difficult to appreciate on their own rather than as references to something else, and since Battle Los Angeles is so derivative, it feels natural to keep rubbing it against other movies to see how it compares. There’s such a glut of alien-invasion films at the moment that seeing marines fighting alien invaders in Los Angeles feels more redundant than interesting: Even in trying to blend the attitude of Independence Day with the aesthetics of Black Hawk Down, Battle Los Angeles basically becomes a hackneyed collection of war movie clichés with alien taking over the role of the unrepentant enemy. It certainly doesn’t qualify as serious Science Fiction: The film buries itself in nonsense every time it tries explaining what’s going on, from alien coming to Earth for its water to them having military tactics so naïve that they would get them kicked out of West Point freshman year. From a thematic point of view, it’s tempting to put Battle Los Angeles in a cultural zeitgeist in which Americans are realizing the limits of their imperial reach and transposing this fearful guilt against an enemy as powerful to them as they are to countries that they have invaded, but that subtext is lost in the film’s gung-ho hoo-rah attitude. The emphasis here is on the combat scenes, the shakycam feeling of being in a firefight and the nobility of its warrior-characters. Threadbare narrative arcs, largely indistinguishable characters, functional writing and incoherent editing don’t do much to make this film likable. Other than the end battle and an interesting freeway sequence, most of the action scenes are too grimy and disconnected to sustain interest: Like many contemporary action directors, Jonathan Liebesman needs to know when to calm down and provide sustained long shots. Meanwhile, Aaron Eckhart is solid as the square-jawed hero, while Michelle Rodriguez does what Rodriguez does best –and there’s nothing wrong with that, even though it reinforces the feeling that we’ve seen all of this before. On the other hand, especially measured against recent downbeat alien-invasion films such as Monsters and quasi-brethren Skyline, Battle Los Angeles has the considerable merit of ending on a triumphant note, and delivering much of the good old-fashioned heroics that we’d expect from this kind of film. It doesn’t make the film any good, but it makes it satisfying once the end credits start rolling.
(In theatres, September 2010) Keeping expectations low is one way to best appreciate Takers given how this surprising California-noir crime thriller recycles a bunch of familiar elements into a watchable whole. The story, about a crew of Los Angeles professional bank robbers pulling off one last heist even as the FBI is closing on them and dissention strikes within their ranks, is so generic as to approach cliché: You can pick bits and pieces of Heat, Cradle 2 The Grave and even The Italian Job out of the finished result and it’s not as if the dialogue is anything special. Worse yet is the direction, which feels forced to use an incoherent shaky-cam style every time something interesting is happening, undercutting our ability to make sense of what’s going on. But despite the problems, it works: Takers features a fine multiracial cast (with special mention of Idris Elba, Michael Ealy and Paul Walker), a snappy rhythm, a few surprising stunts and a compelling sense of place for Los Angeles. What may sour the impression left by the film is a curiously off-balanced moral center, with fairly unpleasant cops taking on glamorous criminals with crime-financed luxurious lifestyles: The ending provides plenty of bloodshed and little reassurance as to who, if anyone, actually fulfilled their objectives. Still, if Takers may not be original… it’s entertaining enough.