Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Manly Masculine Movies: War, 3:10 to Yuma and Shoot 'Em Up

I didn't think I'd have time to add War to this entry before the Boston Film Festival starts, but it turns out I did have a bit to spare during a long Sox game. After all, who wants to write about a bad action movie, which spends an inordinate amount of time having Jet Li shoot people rather than batter them with his fists and feet, when there's stuff that's either good (3:10 To Yuma) or at least amusing (Shoot 'Em Up) to write about.

Not big crowds at either film, which is a bit disappointing - Yuma is a top-notch action movie, and great evidence for the Western being far from dead, at least creatively. I'm not sure how America fell out of love with this genre. I blame the 1970s, much as I do for the death of the musical. Sure, both had been on the wane before then, but when the industry did the wholesale shift to contemporary, "real" movies, the Western became seen as quaint. When the audiences finally declared that they were ready to have fun again, it was with the likes of Star Wars and Jaws, which set the standard for popcorn adventure for the next few decades. So every Western to appear since then has borne the burden of having to reintroduce the form, or update it, or somehow comment on it. Thankfully, James Mangold doesn't try to do that with his one; he just makes the best Western he can and hopes for the best.

Shoot 'Em Up, meanwhile, is as dumb as a box of hammers, but a movie that panders so shamelessly (and, often, entertainingly) should probably get some of the audience it's pandering to. That strikes me as only fair.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 September 2007 at Regal Fenway #6 (first-run)

There is little more dispiriting than watching a bad movie after the cast has gotten one's hope up. Sure, Jason Statham has had a knack for choosing crap and Jet Li's American career has been less than impressive, but the opening credits throw John Lone, Luis Guzman, Ryo Ishibashi, and more at you in rapid succession. Sure, any one of them could just be picking up a paycheck, but can all of them be slumming?

Yes. Yes, they can.

It takes a while for Jet Li to show his face; the opening segment has FBI Agents Jack Crawford (Statham) and Tom Lone (Terry Chen) hunting down an ex-CIA assassin (known only as "Rogue") now working for a yakuza family. It looks like they kill him, but no body is found, which means that soon he's going to be back for revenge. He kills Lone and his family, Crawford becomes obsessed. Three years later, he's back in San Francisco, now working for Chang (John Lone), whose triad is at war with that yakuza family. Rather than dealing drugs, though, they seem to be vying for possession of an antique horse as a matter of honor. As the fighting escalates, it's clear that Rogue, who changes his face every six months and now looks like Jet Li, is up to more trouble than just being an assassin.

The backstory is complicated and deeply stupid, which is a dangerous combination. An action movie can be stupid if it delivers the action, but it's better if it's stupid and simple. In that case, the filmmakers and the audience have an understanding - they'll do just enough to tie the action scenes together, and we'll ignore what doesn't work so well. As soon as you start to make things complicated, though, you've got the audience paying attention, maybe even trying to play along, and getting frustrated by the silliness of it all - especially when the red herrings turnout to be more interesting than the actual plot twists. The film also has entirely too many characters that the audience doesn't care about - we're here for Statham and Li fighting, and everyone else had better be fighting with them or getting the hell out of the way.

Full review at HBS.

3:10 to Yuma

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 September 2007 at Regal Fenway #12 (first-run)

When I saw (and reviewed) the first film made from Elmore Leonard's short story "3:10 to Yuma" two years ago, I described it as "a game of cat and mouse with the cat and the mouse in the same room". James Mangold's version doesn't spend quite so much time in that room, but does manage a few things which improve on the previous adaptation.

The basic story remains the same - outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and his gang brutally attack a payroll coach and happen to land in the town of Bisbee at the same time as flat-broke rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale). Wade is captured, but with Pinkerton man Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) injured, railroad representative Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) hires Evans to help transport Wade to Contention, where he'll be loaded onto a train to Yuma prison. There's one big hitch, though - Wade's mad-dog second-in-command Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) is looking to spring him. A smaller problem is that Dan's fourteen-year-old son William (Logan Lerman) has decided to tag along.

That last bit is the biggest change from the 1957 version - in that version, it was Dan's wife who joined up with him in Contention, rather than his son. That's not just a change to the details of the plot - William is at the very center of what this movie is about. Even before the movie starts, Will has lost patience with his cautious father, and Ben Wade seems to be everything Dan is not - bold, willing to take what he wants, charming. Where the first movie was about two smart, articulate characters trying to outwit each other before the clock ran down, this one is a battle for William Evans's soul - or at least his respect. It's an angle that adds more than a bit of emotional heft to the proceedings; where the first film was a highly enjoyable potboiler, there's something a little more universal going on here, since most of us can relate to a young man facing a choice between two conflicting role models.

Full review at HBS.

Shoot 'Em Up

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2007 at AMC Bosotn Common #17 (first-run)

I've never met the man, but I'll bet if someone asked him, Michael Davis would come out against editing the guns out of Looney Tunes when they aired on broadcast TV. Unless, that is, the writer/director of Shoot 'Em Up sees his violent live-action cartoon as an eighty-minute long piece of sarcasm, which isn't out of the question.

It opens with its nameless Bugs Bunny figure, played by Clive Owen, munching on a carrot at a bus stop when a pregnant woman runs by. She's followed by a man, who draws a gun as he turns the corner to follow her. Well, crap, that's not right. One carrot-induced death later, Bugs is delivering the woman's baby. A whole mess of other killers show up, and while the woman doesn't get away, the man and baby do. The crew of men chasing her is led by Hertz (Paul Giamatti), who soon chase "Smith" when he brings the baby to prostitute Donna Quintano (Monica Belluci), who is currently servicing lactation fetishists. Much violence ensues, but Smith is better with a gun than the roughly five thousand hired killers chasing him put together.

This is an unabashed guy movie, perhaps the guyiest guy movie ever made. The soundtrack is almost all hard rock or heavy metal. It offers up plenty of blood, guts, and mayhem. Smith and Hertz speak almost entirely in tough-guy one-liners and fire off enough ordinance to make a Hong Kong-era John Woo proud. The plentiful gunfights operate based upon a set of physical laws generally only found in cartoons. There are a number of wacky Rube Goldberg devices and complicated remote-control setups. And even more than in most movies, the female lead is literally there for her breasts (although this can be said of many Monica Bellucci roles that don't involve hungry newborns).

Full review at HBS.

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