Archive for August 1995

Desperado

August 25, 1995

The bad guys have a lot of guns. So does the good guy. The bad guys outnumber the good guy, but the good guy is a better shot. Bang, bang, you’re dead. In Desperado, the cheerfully meaningless new action movie from Robert Rodriguez, Antonio Banderas arrives in town with a guitar case crammed with instruments of death. Flashbacks tell us that Banderas was once a mariachi who ran afoul of criminals who mistook him for an escaped convict; though this film is a self-contained story, it’s a sequel to Rodriguez’ 1993 El Mariachi, the famous $7,000 little-movie-that-could, starring Carlos Gallardo as the hero. Taking over the role, Banderas has been given back the fingers blown off at the end of the original; now he just has a bullet wound preventing him from playing the guitar. It does not, however, dissuade him from pulling the trigger. Repeatedly.

Desperado was made for $7 million, a three-zero upgrade of the original budget but still a pittance by today’s Hollywood standards, and needless to say, it has more bang for the buck than any other movie this summer. Rodriguez is the first to admit he isn’t much of a screenwriter, but as a director he has a kinetic genius that makes up for his narrative obviousness. When Banderas is pinned to the floor by a bad guy, he drives his feet up into the pachuco‘s chest and launches him into the air, then empties his guns into the guy, prolonging his flight. Banderas dispatches another guy by shooting a ceiling fan, which crashes down onto the guy’s head; in a later shot, the still-whirring fan keeps smacking the unconscious guy in the face. Within Rodriguez’ pulp formula stories are little pockets of ingenuity.

On the evidence of his two features to date (excluding his enjoyable made-for-cable J.D. homage Roadracers, which suggests a gift for comedy), Rodriguez, unlike his contemporary and friend Quentin Tarantino, isn’t especially interested in toying with the narrative and themes of action cinema — he’s happy enough just working in the genre, and his happiness is infectious. (Try to think of any other action film of the last five years that had any lift or sense of play.) Rodriguez’ films are all about proving something: El Mariachi proved that a 24-year-old with no crew could make an exciting and professional-looking movie for four digits, and this movie proves he can piss with the big dogs while staying within the territory he’s marked for himself.

Desperado is resolutely derivative but also breathlessly athletic and violently witty. If you’re attuned to it, you won’t much mind the plot, which just goes from point A to point B. Playing the battle-scarred hunk, Banderas could have given a sullen, blank performance, but he comes across as soulful and gentle in almost any role, and he’s worth whatever Rodriguez didn’t spend on squibs and explosions. Steve Buscemi (playing a barfly called, hilariously, Buscemi) and Cheech Marin are terrific in their few scenes; Quentin, fast becoming the Michael Caine of indie cinema, tells an endless piss joke and gets blown away. Will someone please advise this man to stay behind the camera?

The Usual Suspects

August 16, 1995

The Usual Suspects, which has just gotten a wider release, is an intricate doodle of no special importance. It’s all play, all illusion, all movie. The director, Bryan Singer, has a solid, straightforward visual style, which is fortunate, because for almost half the running time we don’t know what the hell is going on. (If the movie were directed like Batman Forever, we’d get more and more confused until our heads exploded.) The film is arrogantly nonlinear, feeding us gradual bits of a plot that, taken as a whole, isn’t much. (It’s about guys going in on a big score.) Once I got used to what The Usual Suspects was doing, I enjoyed it. You have to admire a movie so sure of its own craftsmanship that it makes you wait and wait for a ludicrously tiny pay-off like a close-up of the bottom of a coffee cup. The movie is a lot like that cup: sturdy, functional, filled with hot stuff whose jolt wears off fast.

All of the above comments, of course, also apply to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, to which the blurbmeisters have compared this film. These are not movies for the time capsule, nor do they aspire to be, which is their chief charm. Men wave guns and talk tougher than they are, or don’t talk as tough as they really are. There’s a Mr. Big whom everyone fears — Singer gives his Mr. Big the most ominous build-up of any movie villain since Hannibal Lecter. There are five guys, basically losers, who meet during a police line-up. Is this a random meeting, or was it arranged by someone else? Each of the men is ordered to step forward, for identification purposes, and say “Hand me the keys, you fucking cocksucker,” and if you blink you miss the reason why. The Usual Suspects is like Pulp Fiction with a dozen glowing briefcases. Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie tell their story through one of the men, Verbal (Kevin Spacey), and we’re always aware that the story is only as reliable as its teller.

Nobody blames Rubik’s Cube for failing to make us ponder the meaning of life. It exists to divert us, bug us, make our brains hum in frustration over something trivial. The Usual Suspects has no “point,” no point of view. Neither did most of Hitchcock’s work. This is the sort of movie that catches you leaning so far in the wrong direction that you either hate it (I overheard a lot of “That was stupid” as the audience filed out) or admire its control, but you can’t really love it. Singer doesn’t make the mistake of engaging our emotions. He plays with our need to get the whole story — he involves us as detached observers trying to pull chaos into order — and at the end, The Usual Suspects leaves more questions than it answers. I bet you didn’t know, for instance, that there is such a thing as a Hungarian gang. And when the movie is over, I bet you still won’t know.

Harrison Bergeron

August 13, 1995

 

Usually, attempts to milk a feature-length film out of a short story come up dry (think of all those Stephen King turkeys). Here’s an exhilarating exception, taken from Kurt Vonnegut’s brisk six-page story. It’s 2053, and America is a completely “egalitarian” society, in that everyone is “average” — everyone has been electronically dumbed-down and handicapped, so everyone is the same. Harrison Bergeron (Sean Astin), a smart high-school student who keeps getting left back because of his shameful high grades, is selected by the covert elite government to work for them or else have “corrective brain surgery.” Christopher Plummer, the man in charge, explains that after the Second American Revolution — in which the have-nots waged war on the haves — it was decided that a society without envy or diversity would be a society without strife. But it’s also a society without excellence and love. This brilliant, often upsetting satire, a Showtime original, is really no more about 2053 than Orwell’s 1984 was about the then-future 1984. Astin is a little too all-American boy scout — the character as conceived by Vonnegut calls for a rebellious young Malcolm McDowell — but he’s likable, and Plummer is great as the draconian bigwig with divided loyalties. The interesting supporting cast includes Buck Henry, John Astin, Eugene Levy (as the president!), Howie Mandel, and Andrea Martin.

Babe

August 4, 1995

Babe is a charming and ingenious hit about Babe, a dedicated farm pig who aspires to become a “sheep-pig.” By talking kindly and respectfully to the sheep, Babe succeeds where the disdainful sheepdogs fail. Babe’s talents attract the notice of Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell), who enters Babe in the climactic sheepdog competition. Seamless, subtle (and Oscar-winning) visual effects, along with terrific performances by a wide variety of farm animals (ducks, mice, horses, cows, cats), make this one of the very few outstanding movies for children (and adults can just as readily enjoy it).

1995 had a notoriously weak roster of Best Picture nominees (many films that deserved a nod in the category, like Seven and The Usual Suspects, didn’t get one). So it came down to Apollo 13, Braveheart, Il Postino, Sense and Sensibility … and Babe. Though Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s adaptation of Jane Austen would run a close second, I’d rank the pig well above the remaining nominees — and certainly above Mel Gibson’s overlong barbaric yawp.

Virtuosity

August 4, 1995

Oh, how I wanted to like Virtuosity. Even after seeing the trailer, which made it look like an extended chase scene (the trailer, it turns out, is accurate), I let myself get psyched about seeing two of my favorite actors: Denzel Washington, who was so crackerjack in Crimson Tide earlier this summer, and Kelly Lynch, whose post-Drugstore Cowboy career hasn’t blossomed as it deserves to. Plus there was Russell Crowe as the movie’s villain, Sid 6.7. Crowe has been in movies for a few years (he was superb in the Australian Proof, from 1992), but his star is only now beginning to climb; he was the young gay hero of The Sum of Us, and his first shot at an American crossover, The Quick and the Dead, didn’t make it. Which puts me in the odd position of recommending Virtuosity, a fundamentally lame movie. But if lots of you don’t go see it, Crowe will have to wait that much longer to snag bigger, better international roles.¹

Sid 6.7 is a virtual-reality serial killer, part of an experimental training program for cops; his evil-genius programmer decides to unleash Sid onto the real world. Enter Denzel, as Parker Barnes, an ex-cop turned convict (he went nuts and killed innocent people in the process of dispatching a psycho who’d blown up his wife and child). Barnes is the only one who can catch Sid, because Sid’s psyche is made up of dozens of hardcores, including the mad dog who killed Barnes’ family. So Barnes is let out of jail, with a micro-something implanted in his neck to track his moves (thanks, but I already saw Escape from New York). And that’s the movie. The composite-psycho premise is interesting; too bad nothing much is done with it. Sid should be fractured and schizo, but he’s just a superpsycho.

Director Brett Leonard has been down this cyber-road before, in his debut, The Lawnmower Man, another “look at the pretty computer-generated pictures” snooze. Virtuosity isn’t an obscure hipster mess like Johnny Mnemonic; a couple of the action sequences have a crisp, aggressive snap. But after about half an hour I failed to see the difference between this movie and fifty other cop-chases-killer videos I usually don’t want to rent. Washington may have taken the role so he’d get to play a dynamic, uncomplicated guy who runs and jumps and shoots — these days every serious actor seems to get Hamlet out of the way early and drive right into Stallone country — but he gives a one-note performance, and Kelly Lynch, as some sort of fancy psychologist attached to the v-r program, mostly tags along and weeps after Sid kidnaps her little daughter.

Russell Crowe is the only reason to watch. Looking uncannily like Bret Easton Ellis (a good joke in itself), Crowe turns in the sort of witty, raring-to-go psycho performance that magnetizes the camera and makes you wish he were in a movie that deserves him. Sid turns the world into his sadistic playpen; like David Warner’s Jack the Ripper in Time After Time and Charles Dance’s villain in Last Action Hero, Sid is alert to the endless lovely possibilities of his new stomping grounds. And, after getting blown away so many times in virtual reality, he’s tickled by the idea of payback. This is all in Crowe’s performance, because his dialogue is long on the callous, cheesy one-liners screenwriters always try to pass off as malevolent wit. If he doesn’t break out in this dumb movie aimed at cybernerds and jocks, he may have to do it in a movie that aims higher — but only if Hollywood gives him the chance.


¹ As it turned out, Crowe had to wait another five years. Between 1995 and 2000, Crowe made a variety of movies big and small — seven in all — and none of them worked for him, not even the good ones. He gave a powerhouse performance in L.A. Confidential that not enough people saw; he gave a blistering performance in The Insider that even fewer people saw, though it got him an Oscar nomination. (In an odd coincidence, he found himself pitted against former screen adversary Denzel Washington for Best Actor that year. Neither man won. Odder still, he and Denzel faced off against each other again in the 2001 Oscar race — thus making Virtuosity an interesting Oscar footnote in retrospect. Eventually the actors reunited in American Gangster.) Not until Gladiator in 2000 — ironically, a role any beefcake could have played — did Crowe finally become the toast of Hollywood (and an Oscar-winner) after a decade of working in films.


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