Daily Film Thoughts: When Things Go Bang… ‘010.

Because I know ’10 sounds rather boring and we just got off the sweet aesthetic of ’09, I’m going to go with Colbert’s ‘010. Anyways, I’ve seen three (of the four) shoot ’em up films released so far in 2010 and I may as well toss together some thoughts.

THE BOOK OF ELI (The Hughes Brothers, 2010)

Since the hot trend in Hollywood has jumped from zombies to apocalypse (which makes you wonder why the Weinstein’s didn’t open The Road wide because that would’ve made at least some money), to expect two or three a year for the next few isn’t absurd. Fortunately the Hughes brothers noticed this trend before it boomed and they’ve gotten their still original licks in on the genre before it’s watered down with the mundanities to come.

Starring Denzel Washington as Eli in his nth leading role in a blockbuster to date, the always interesting A-lister reestablishes why he is who he is after the awfully poor use of his power in last year’s The Taking of Pelham 123. He plays the titular character with as much fervor and isolation as Will Smith in I Am Legend, one of the first “end of the world” films found within this recent trend. However, unlike Smith’s masculinity with layers of confusion and innocence — much like his only companion in the film, his dog — Washington’s performance lacks the intricate writing that made Smith’s feature both a compelling sci-fi thriller as well as an interesting character study. Here the writers skimp on the complexions of being (practically) alone in the world and fancy themselves more crowd pleasing and atmosphere immersed artists. It still works.

The story is about a man named Eli who is essentially on God’s quest. He has a Holy Bible and was told by God himself to preserve it until he understands where it will be found most valuable. This is where the film is finding most of its detractors — in its theme. It isn’t as if The Book of Eli is Saved for the action buff, but is rather competent in weighing both sides of the religion argument. Of course by the main character merely uttering “God told me so” the film would find some controversy with some audience because it’s saying there is a God, but I digress. In this film, there is a God — no one says there is only one God or that God is good, but that God wants to preserve the Holy Bible to help restore humility in humanity. Of course, there has to be some tension in the film, so we get a half-rate villain named Carnagie (Gary Oldman) who needs the Holy Bible in order to first control his populous and then the whole world.

You see, we’re set 30 years after the initial cataclysm, so most don’t/can’t read and don’t know about religion. While Eli’s goal with the Bible is virtuous and is meant to restore an understanding of life to the world, Carnegie’s only need for the book is to say “God, you know, the guy that controls the UNIVERSE, wrote this thing and this is what it says” which would allow him to control everyone with them believing him a chosen person by God. Any way you slice it: Eli = good, Carnegie = bad.

What is most interesting about the feature is how it plays on subtleties to tell its story for the most part. Of course there’s heavy handed symbolism from time to time and the use of cinematography is overbearing with its “look how gloomy the world is!” style, but the concept of cannibalism is played out brilliantly and as one of the people that enjoyed the film, I’d say how it all comes together is also eloquent. Although the final twist will throw plenty of people off, it does discern how Eli has the gun-slinging/bullet dodging abilities of a John Woo protagonist and that’s what counts; the continuity of it all.

The story itself could have used more work — the relationship that develops between Eli and Solara seems implemented only as a half-assed way of showing how ignorant society is (in this universe). This furthering of plot begins to grow more and more obvious which does take its toll on the otherwise highly compelling story at hand: the age old tale of good vs. evil. So while it doesn’t achieve greatness because the Hughes brothers were either pressured into making the story more assessable for the masses or intertwined originality with formula to sell the story, The Book of Eli as a final product is exactly what the film preaches; more good than evil.

EDGE OF DARKNESS (Martin Campbell, 2010)

Have you ever watched a film for 30 minutes only to find the only thing that you understand is that you don’t understand what’s going on? If not, good, keep it that way and skip Edge of Darkness. If so, I feel for you… and you should still skip Edge of Darkness.

As convoluted as it is typical, Mel Gibson’s return to acting after a race-based hiatus (as he would tell you, I’m sure) is not unlike any of the crime films of the ’90s that he was so prone to do. Actually it’s similar to those in a lot of ways — he’s out getting revenge for his family/to get his family, he’s a cop, the story doesn’t come together so well but then it just happens to come together at the end — except this one is far less fun and that’s really the only point of merit that a Ransom had.

Here Gibson plays Thomas Craven, a man out for revenge after his daughter is murdered right in front of him by a masked assailant. If the goal of the film was to confuse its audience more than the protagonist, well this film succeeds like no other film has at anything. There’s nothing cohesive driving the film apart from bullets zipping across the screen and a rather random, brooding Brit tossed into the equation in an attempt to help the audience “understand” the plot. Didn’t work.

In addition, the story itself is composed with plentiful stupor. We hardly know the backstories of the men Craven is shooting. But I mean, if he’s shooting them they must be bad guys, right? It’s not like there could be any error in the judgment of a man who is drunk on power and sports erratic behavior out of revenge… right?

On top of this, everyone dies in a hilarious way. Which is good if you’re Monty Python, but if you’re striving for some moral dilemma masked by a generic shoot ’em up, I’m certain the way you depict death isn’t meant to have the audience laughing hard to themselves like the latest knock-knock jokes… those are still funny, right? Or do people that get shot in the neck look completely stupid when they bleed out and ‘die’ four times? I don’t believe so.

This film was rather bad. The only person (director included) that seemed to have any idea what to do with the script was Mel Gibson and even then his performance feels like the man behind it was hamming it up for the sake of it. On top of that, the lengths the protagonist goes through to preserve his daughter’s memory is a nice sentiment. If this placed at the forefront of the film and not felt like some haphazardly composed characteristic, this could have been an interesting drama — like In the Bedroom with more violence. However it isn’t and thus sustains a level of bad generally reserved for Paris Hilton’s attempts at art. Skipping this is healthier for you than doing so with rope — a worse use of time, too.

FROM PARIS WITH LOVE (Pierre Morel, 2010)

Hey Morel, John Woo called: he wants his infinite gun clip back. Yes, if you’re a fan of John Woo and can tolerate the generic drama that drives most action films nowadays, this film is for you. Bad guys that never hit; good guys that never miss; a plot that osculates between both, hitting one moment and missing the next — this is one of the more unbalanced attempts at cinema since Transformers 2 tried to turn a possible end of the world scenario into a comedy. Fortunately this is better than that hackjob of a sequel; unfortunately the ending of this insinuates that there may be a sequel for this yet to come. Odds are if they decide on a sequel the filmmakers will do more damage to cinema than Charlie Wax did to Parisians as this feature was just barely passable.

Picture this, if you will. Luc Besson is sitting in his apartment and suddenly there’s a ring at his doorbell. Adi Hasak, the man who wrote the entire screenplay, walks in. Immediately, and with his tongue in his cheek, Besson pitchs a concept to Hasak. Not being able to decipher Besson’s humor, Mr. Hasak went home and played it safe by writing one half of the film with self-deprecating humor and the other half with seriousness.  This, in turn, sparked doubt in director Pierre Moral who shot half of it like a serious action film and the other half like an over-the-top, “get to da choppa” type action-comedy… which in turns affected the actors in the same way. So you’re subject to a feature that zips by as quickly as any bullet, but only half of it makes sense. Well, more than half because Besson’s general outline and plotting is tops in the action genre bar none. So it’s mostly entertaining and well thought out, but feels a lot like a gigantic practice in miscommunication.

Like an often displayed Halloween decoration, the skeleton of this feature has been made so obvious throughout the years that to find yourself being elicited into surprise is to, well, not have seen an action movie before. Passive go-getter James Reece (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers sporting a poor American accent. In France… while most around him are British. Get it? No? Alright) is assigned to drive around one of the best assassins in the world in Charlie Wax (John Travolta with a mouth full of scenery). Here we’re subject to the first of many commonalities; “the unlikely duo”. As aforementioned this works for as long as the feature mocks it. So about 60% of their relationship is as enjoyable as it is identifiable. The two work well together and when Travolta finds the perfect balance between humor and coolness, the feature is wonderful. This isn’t the case for a large part of the film, so the dynamic that drives the feature becomes cumbersome. On the flip side, these moments come in small doses so not too much damage is done to the overall entertainment of the film.

It’s tough to form some sort of review on such a feature. From the moment the story begins to the final frame, it’s all pretty predictable stuff. Of course, Reece has a love in his life that keeps him from being the brute that Charlie is and there’s a whole “if you’re in love, you cannot destroy” type theme that is halfheartedly divulged into that is later destructed for the sake of furthering the feature. Essentially, it’s one lazy film. The only person who tries to do anything creative is Morel who can film an action scene like nobody’s business, but even the slow-motion kinetics he enforces grow tiresome.

A lot could’ve been done to shake this feature up in maintaining some real significance, but it isn’t. Alright, take for example everyone in the film — everyone is fleshed out poorly. It feels as if a Frenchman wrote it because they’re the only people in the film that aren’t idiotic or evil. Charlie Wax, American, is as erratic and quick to destroy things as Godzilla; a delegate at the end, American, is snooty and self important; all the men Charlie kills are either Asians that hang out in shady gangs or terrorists of some middle-eastern ethnicity and so on and so forth. There is literally no characterization for anybody apart from James Reece and he feels so fake that if I took a bite out of him I’d wind up with a mouthful of plastic.

But somehow, despite all of these flaws, there is a lot of adrenaline distributed throughout the feature and like I said, Morel knows action better than most directors today. For 95 minutes, the feature sits at a perfect running time considering the plot — or lack thereof — and existing merely as a visual stimulant, it succeeds. Hopefully Morel tackles more eloquently composed scripts soon because he’s got potential and it’d be a shame to see him waste it on these dime a dozen hunt’n’kill flicks.

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