(On Cable TV, January 2016) Jason Statham starring in a William Goldman script? Well, yes: Apparently, veteran director Simon West dug up an old Goldman screenplay and polished it to Statham’s persona, although the result remains more Goldmanesque than playing to Statham’s usual action thrillers. Taking place in the seedier corners of Las Vegas, Wild Card revolves around a British-accented hard-boiled bodyguard with a gambling problem. As the movie begins, an old acquaintance asks for help in exerting her vengeance, a new client wants pointers on how to be tougher, and our protagonist starts thinking about the amount of money it would take to get out of the business. Add some mobsters, a cinematography that practically lives in the seventies, a restrained number of action scenes and you have a movie that actually provides Statham enough substance to show that he’s a better actor than most people are willing to consider. The compromise has a cost, though: The few fights may not make his fans happy, and it’s certainly nowhere near thoughtful enough to aspire to art-house respectability. So it is that Wild Card often feels as if it’s sitting halfway between an action thriller and a gambling drama. There are a few good moments: In West’s capable hands, the fights are fine, Stanley Tucci has a very likable quasi-cameo as a mobster and Michal Angarano isn’t too bad as a nebbish millionaire trying to toughen up. Wild Card almost harkens back to an older era of filmmaking, not quite as rigidly bound by formulas and willing to punctuate drama with action rather than the other way around. But while the result may be fitfully interesting, it’s not enough to be memorable: it plays like far too many Statham films, as merely serviceable filler.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) Here’s a philosophical question: If you’re bored enough by a film that you slide off in a pleasant slumber by the time the third act rolls, and rouse just before the end credit, and yet feel no need to go back to check what you’ve missed, can you be said to have watched the entire film? What about when your attention is distracted by a second screen? What about when you just go to the bathroom, or grab a bite from the kitchen without pausing? What about when you blink and miss a few frames of the film? At what point does “not watching” become relevant, and when does it turn into a review statement of its own? All of this to say that while I had reasonably high hopes for Empire State, the film quickly degenerated in an implausible snooze-fest. The opening moments of the film set up an intriguing early-eighties slice of life in New York’s Greek community. Then it’s off to a heist caper, but not just any heist caper: one of the least plausible heist capers imaginable, filled with coincidences, laziness and hard-to-accept arbitrariness. Events “just happen” and it’s hard for fiction to let its main character plan such a heist while warning signs about him all abound. After an hour, the verdict is clear: Empire State is dull, tired and with little grace in the way it uses either its historical setting or its actors. Liam Hemsworth isn’t developing as a compelling lead actor and this film does nothing to enhance his distinctiveness as anything more than “Chris Hemsworth’s brother.” Michael Angarano’s more distinctive, but his slimeball character is more annoying than striking. Meanwhile, don’t be fooled by the box-cover: While Dwayne Johnson is in the film, he’s only in there for a few minutes, and seems to belong in an entirely different film every time he’s on-screen. Little wonder that even with a moderately-high budget, Empire State went direct-to-video ($11 million isn’t much by blockbuster standards, but it’s higher than most film of this kind). There’s little here that make the film special in any fashion.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) With every new Kevin Smith movie, it becomes harder and harder to remember why I liked his first few movies. It may have been the sheer novelty of the sharp irreverent dialogue (at a time where this wasn’t as commonplace) coupled with the conspicuously lousy directing. But Red State is so far from the example set by his earlier better movies that Smith’s name as a director is now more cause for a double-take than anything else. A dull and unpleasant departure in C-grade thriller-land, Red State doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, and becomes less and less pleasant the longer it goes on. What looks at first like a cautionary tale about the dangers of Internet hook-ups quickly turns into an interminable sermon about right-wing conservatism, followed by yet another siege film in which the government agents play the trigger-happy just-as-bad guys. This Westboro-meets-Waco setup is pointless enough, but what makes it even less interesting is the sadism through which the characters are mowed down, the violent one-note caricature of the cult and the pointless resolution cloaked in anti-government clichés. Some actors manage to do good work: Michael Angarano could have been the protagonist of the film had it been better-conceived, John Goodman almost manages to acquit himself honorably and for all of the interminable duration of his monologues, Michael Parks is curiously compelling at the bloodthirsty cult leader. Smith’s direction has gotten better over the years but not that much better, and Red State‘s naturalistic atmosphere feels uglier than anything else, not exceeding the standards set by most Direct-to-Video thrillers. You can see the gleeful iconoclasm behind some of the film’s initial intentions, but the execution is simply too dull to be effective, and the film spares no time turning its audience against itself. As unpleasant as it is, rumors about an alternate rapturous ending as originally scripted would have made the film even worse, so I suppose we have that to be thankful about. Still, there is no excuse for the lengthy sermon scene or the trigger-happy violence. Where has Smith’s gift for witty dialogue, sympathetic characters or comic set-pieces gone? He keeps threatening retirement, and after Red State it’s easy to look forward to him keeping his promises.
(On DVD, January 2012) After Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, I already know that I’m not a fan of Jared Hess’ brand of so-called comedy and wouldn’t have attempted watching Gentlemen Broncos if it wasn’t for one thing: It’s tangentially about science-fiction writers. Not SF writers in our universe but in Hess’ typical Midwest Pathetic Kitsch aesthetics, SF writers in an alternate dimension where trashy forties pulp SF has become the dominant aesthetics of the genre as of 2009. (One imagines a world where Heinlein remained healthy throughout his years in the Navy, became admiral and never wrote the stuff.) Not that one would expect realism from Hess, whose love for hum-drum small-town settings can’t hide grotesquely dysfunctional characters. Gentlemen Broncos isn’t about its weak plot or weaker jokes as much as it’s about the awkwardness card played every thirty seconds, stretched over too-lengthy doses of meaninglessness. Everyone is a moron in this film and if Hess remains somewhat attached to them in a non-condescending fashion, it’s not an affection that translates into an enjoyable viewing experience. There are, to be fair, a number of interesting things buried deep in the muck: The opening credits are ingeniously designed through SF paperback; Michael Angarano is sympathetic as the teenage hero (albeit never more than when he finally shows some spine), Jemaine Clement has a very nice voice and can build a memorable comic character as a SF professional plagiarist; and there’s an interesting take on the creative process as we see the same fantasy filtered through three different minds. But the rest is the kind of stuff for which “cult movie” was defined: Intentionally stilted, deliberately perplexing and consciously crude in an effort to isolate itself from the mainstream. You can almost see in Gentlemen Broncos the blueprint for a much funnier film (in fact, you can see it in the trailer) –it’s a shame that Hess’ worst instincts are holding back the material. The “rental exclusive” DVD contains no special features, which isn’t exactly a disappointment.