(In French, On Cable TV, December 2018) I saw the very end of No Way Out two decades ago, and you would be forgiven for thinking that remembering only the final revelatory scene of a thriller would have been a problem in seeing it again. But there’s a lot more to a movie that its narrative conclusion, and I was remarkably pleased to find out that it’s a solid thriller from start to finish, and that what could have been a twist is half-telegraphed much earlier in the film—and that much of the film’s dramatic tension works equally well knowing about it. As a man investigating himself, Kevin Costner gets a great occasion to play off his stoic persona, and director Roger Donaldson cranks up the tension through a few remarkable scenes. The labyrinthine complexities of 1980s official Washington, D.C. can be fascinating at times, including the limited computing capabilities that fuel one of the film’s best sequences set deep within the Pentagon. There’s even a dash of (much parodied) eroticism to make things even spicier, as if Soviet spying, underhanded government secrets, plotting between organizations and a ticking-clock plot weren’t enough. It doesn’t really matter if the plotting is outlandish, or if the characters are well beyond unbelievable—sometimes, a thriller works because it’s ludicrous and this is one such case. I had a surprisingly good time watching No Way Out, and it still works largely because it doesn’t even attempt to be realistic.
(Second Viewing, On DVD, September 2016) I remember seeing Dante’s Peak in theatres and being quite a bit impressed at the special effects, town destruction and convincing re-creation of a major volcanic eruption. (I also had a bit of a crush on Linda Hamilton, so that helped.) Nearly twenty years later, given the constant evolution of CGI, would the film hold up? As it turns out, the special effects mostly do … but the overall pacing doesn’t hold up as well. Faithfully following the disaster-movie template, Dante’s Peak does struggle to find something to do in-between its spectacular (if depressing) opening sequence and the final all-out volcanic destruction of a small northwestern town. Pierce Brosnan is cool and capable as the volcanologist crying wolf, while Hamilton is credible as the small-town mayor listening to him, but the script doesn’t quite know how to create attachment to the smaller characters or keep up the tension beyond small-town drama mechanics first well-worn in Jaws. Once the volcano erupts, though, things improve sharply. The practical effects used to simulate the destruction of the town still look relatively good (even though we’ve grown accustomed to the all-out chaos made possible with CGI) and the sweeping shots of a town being buried under ash do carry a certain majesty. Director Roger Donaldson is most in his element when showcasing natural mayhem, and sequences such as the bridge passage are as good as Dante’s Peak ever gets. The ending is a bit more intense and claustrophobic than I remembered (thankfully quickly moving on to the coda) and if the film doesn’t quite hold up as a complete success, it’s still good enough to make audiences happy, especially if they can muster a bit of nostalgia for mid-nineties catastrophe films.
(On Cable TV, April 2014) The usual trade-off when watching mediocre movies starring Nicolas Cage is that however dull the film can be, at least Cage will be there to indulge into one of his usual bout of theatrical overacting. Sadly, we get neither a good film nor a typically unhinged Cage in Seeking Justice, with results that feel far more disappointing that had it featured another lead actor. To be fair, the film offers an intriguing premise: A bookish husband is promised vengeance against the man who assaulted his wife in exchange for an unspecified favour sometime in the future. Six months later, the favour escalates all the way to murder, and our protagonist gets stuck between an eager police force and a mysterious conspiracy. So far so good: Seeking Justice is heavy on mysteries for its first half, and then just as heavy on chases in the second. But what’s missing is Cage’s usual persona: in his quest to play a different character, he seems to forget everything that makes Cage, well, Cage. In another context, it may have been forgivable (see his performance in The Frozen Ground, equally restrained as the thriller around him) but here it just feels like a waste as the rest of the film cries out for some wild acting to go along its preposterous premise. But it isn’t so, hence Seeking Justice ending up as nothing more than a middle-of-the-road thriller, the likes of which are quickly sent to the home video market these days. January Jones continues not to impress here as the protagonist’s wife –she doesn’t get asked for emotional range, and so doesn’t have to deliver. The power of wildness is more obvious with Guy Pearce, who gets to chew slightly more scenery as the shaved-head villain. (One starts to wonder if the fault isn’t to be addressed to director Roger Donaldson: was he screaming “more restraint!” on the set?) Thematically, there’s almost something interesting in the portrait of urban decay as pictured in New Orleans (Cage must feel like a honored guest given the number of films he has anchored there lately.) and four-decades-out-of-date criminal sociology. While Seeking Justice is competently-made enough to avoid most of the pitfalls of bad films, it doesn’t get to do much more than be a serviceable thriller, and that’s too bad.