Archive for November 18, 1994

Star Trek: Generations

November 18, 1994

star-trek-the-next-generation-motion-picture-collection-20091002115117853-000It’s been said of the Star Trek movies that you can determine their quality by the number in the title. All the best ones are even-numbered: Star Trek II was the highlight of the series, IV was goofy and likable, and VI was a fine adios to the crew of the old Enterprise. And all the odd-numbered ones — the bloated premiere voyage, dubbed by many Star Trek: The Motionless PictureIII, in which Spock returned from the dead, Kirk’s son joined the dead, and nobody cared; and V, which offered the ghastly spectacle of William Shatner directing himself — well, they all sucked. So where does that leave the numberless Star Trek Generations? Is this actually Star Trek VII? Or is it meant to be Star Trek Volume II: The Picard Years? There hasn’t been this much confusion among those of us who actually keep track of these things since The Empire Strikes Back came out and was called Episode V. Oy.

Well, not to worry. The new Star Trek film isn’t nearly as numbing as the 1979 movie that ushered the previous crew to the big screen; it’s lean and purposeful. But neither is it a particularly compelling demonstration of why there should be more movies with this crew. Not being a Next Generation fan (I’ve seen it a couple of times), I hoped the movie would tell me why the TV series gained a rabid cult. Here, 18 years after the cancellation of the dear departed original series, was this pretender to the throne, with new people on the Enterprise (sacrilege!), among them a Klingon (blasphemy!). Has there ever been a TV show with more potential ill will going against it? Yet Next Generation outran the original series, and some dared say it was even an improvement — more thoughtful and complex. I have no special feelings about Trek in general, and I think people who memorize Klingon conjugations and carry on vituperative debates over which episode is the best are hopelessly twerpy. But I rooted for Generations to be good. The Trek movies are comfortably familiar; you can count on them to be either terrible or better than you expected. It’s no fun when they’re just sort of competent and not-bad.

Generations has a headache-inducing plot that I’d just as soon not go into. The gist of it is that the evil Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell in a fluffy white brush-cut) has found something called the Nexus, a “ribbon” in space where “time has no meaning.” Tap into it, and you get to spend eternity in your own private paradise. Unfortunately, the only way Soran can access it is to blow up a star (destroying a planet inhabited by some 250 million people), which will alter the course of the Nexus so that it swings by and scoops him up. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), captain of the Enterprise, disapproves of this plan. To stop Soran, Picard must cross into the Nexus and find Kirk (Shatner), who was swept into the Nexus when the Enterprise entered it 78 years ago …. I’m starting to feel the throbbing behind my left eye.

The hard sell of the movie — an unnecessary hard sell, given any Trek film’s built-in audience — is the historic meeting of the two captains. Yet they don’t do anything together that Picard couldn’t have accomplished with Data or Worf. We’re meant to sit there and think, “How neat — look at the two of them on their horses,” the way comic-book fans are tickled when Superman teams up with Batman. You also get the feeling that Paramount didn’t trust the Next Generation crew to draw the crossover audience by themselves — Kirk was needed as a link to the familiar Trek. And he’s not the only link. The script schleps out Scotty (James Doohan, failing to hide his contempt for Shatner) and Chekov (Walter Koenig), and introduces Sulu’s daughter; Generations is too stuck in the past to look to the future. Kirk gets to die heroically not once but twice; even Spock didn’t get that honor. (Spock is absent here, and he’s missed.)

Generations, I bet, will come to be regarded as a transitional movie — a shaky passing of the torch. Some of it is fun, though. Malcolm McDowell, whose Caligula embarrassment had seemingly doomed him to direct-to-video schlock, comes through with an icy, malicious performance that recalls his glory days in A Clockwork Orange; the real team-up excitement for me was seeing Alex the droog versus Kirk the gasbag — the collision of two very different kinds of sci-fi icons. As written, though, Soran is lame and easily the most confusing villain of any of the movies. I wanted to see what Soran’s Nexus paradise looked like, for example; Kirk’s and Picard’s are idyllic — Soran’s dream world might have been a psychotic fantasia out of William S. Burroughs. I wanted more of the wonderfully bitchy Klingon women in cahoots with Soran. They’re hysterically nasty, like rude biker chicks in a Mad Max movie, and they show more humanity than most of the women aboard the Enterprise. The character development everyone’s talking about (Trekkies either love it or hate it) occurs when Data (Brent Spiner), the stoic android, inserts an “emotion chip” and goes completely goofy. But that’s about it for innovation.

The opening scenes are a fair indication of where the movie goes wrong, though there’s some humor in Kirk’s pained expression as he watches the Enterprise’s callow new captain (Alan Ruck) occupy the legendary chair on the bridge. When this rookie loses control, Kirk expertly takes over. There’s never a moment in Generations when Picard shows comparable authority (he seemed plenty authoritative on TV); mostly he just mourns his dead brother and nephew — the boy who had become the son Picard never had. How sad. How dull. Where is this man’s much-hyped intellect? Everyone else does his thinking for him.

Sure, some of Data’s antics were funny, but for me the biggest laugh in the movie was a title reading “78 years later,” which you don’t see in every movie. That goes to show how much screenwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga have to stretch to get to the hard sell — to get Kirk and Picard together somehow. It all seems rather gimmicky. Nicholas Meyer, who directed the two best Treks (II andVI) as well as the time-travel fantasy Time After Time (in which H.G. Wells, played by McDowell, faced off against Jack the Ripper), could have goosed some wit out of the tired legend-meets-legend premise. He might have had the newly irreverent Data (who’s accustomed to the cue-ball Picard) say upon meeting Kirk, “Hey, nice rug.” Or he might have digitally inserted Shatner into footage from the old Star Trek show; somehow we know that would be his true dream world. But Generations is helmed by David Carson, a dutiful captain who takes you somewhere, but not too far. Nobody even utters the immortal, ungrammatical line “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Maybe because we have gone here before.

The Professional (Leon)

November 18, 1994

leon_the_professional_jean_reno_movie_stills-HDAmerican critics have been unkind to the young French director Luc Besson (he’s still only 35, and he made his debut in 1983), who had a crossover hit four years ago with La Femme Nikita. A blockbuster overseas and an art-house hit here, it met with some snobbery (Terrence Rafferty’s entire review was this: “The end of French cinema as we know it”), and the American remake, Point of No Return, was similarly slammed. Have reviewers gotten so jaded, so reflexive in their disdain for any action movie, that they can’t distinguish stylish, smartly-paced action from the latest dud based on a video game? Besson has now directed his first American film, The Professional, and while it’s not great (Quentin Tarantino has forever spoiled us for movies about hit-men), it’s hardly as offensive as many critics are saying.

The Professional is high-concept in a way that made me cringe whenever I saw ads for it: Assassin Leon (Jean Reno) takes orphaned 12-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) under his wing after slimy DEA thugs (led by Gary Oldman) murder her family. Twenty-five words or less. And the plot motor has whiskers; we know that Leon will learn to love and Mathilda will learn self-reliance. But the movie is cool about its subject. Besson likes to see what happens to killers-for-hire when domesticity is imposed on them — Nikita endured charm school and almost became a housewife, and Leon is forced into a father-mentor role. Besson still hasn’t taken full wing with this theme, the way John Huston did in Prizzi’s Honor, but that was a comedy and Besson isn’t a comedian. He’s a brutal sensualist of the Walter Hill/John Woo school. Some of the sequences, such as an army of cops converging on Leon (in a faux-Scarface climax), are so hyperbolic they’re funny; they’re a relief from the artificial tension of the story, which rarely makes sense. An early image of sunlight slicing through bullet holes in a wall might be Besson’s way of one-upping Blood Simple; Besson makes smoother American junk movies than most Americans do these days.

Overall, the movie is better than I’d anticipated. Given the sticky premise, it shouldn’t work, but Besson believes in it — either that or he believes in the big action scenes made possible by the premise (which amounts to the same thing). There’s conviction in this movie, and intelligence. It’s square, but not in the overstuffed way that StarGate is square. After all, what is Leon (who’s simple at heart and illiterate) but a heavily armed Forrest Gump? Jean Reno consistently underplays Leon, and he has a great long face that fascinates the camera; he’s like a scrawny Stallone, whom he often resembles vocally as well — he has some of Stallone’s pre-’80s sweetness, before Sly’s spirit got as hard as his body. (Reno is most appealing when he’s entranced by an old Gene Kelly movie — he has the rapt expression of a boy watching his first Disney.) This soft-spoken but kinetic actor is a worthy vehicle for what appears to be Besson’s new chosen theme (the headaches of an assassin), but unlike Nikita, he has no anger; that’s reserved for Mathilda.

Probably thanks to Natalie Portman, whose film debut this is, Mathilda doesn’t come across as a baby Nikita. She has more cause to be vicious and enraged than the nihilistic Nikita did, but she just wants justice — though the Besson twist is that she wants revenge for the death of her little brother, not for the murders of her moronic father, stepmother, and stepsister. (The four-year-old boy’s fate is about the only death Besson spares us.) Besson doesn’t overdraw on her cuteness, though he is a little too stuck on Mathilda’s romantic yearnings and alienation. As written, Mathilda is usually unreadable and sometimes idiotic (she marches into the DEA offices with a variety of hidden guns — does she seriously believe she could assassinate the villain and get away clean?), but Portman somehow makes us understand Mathilda’s eagerness to enter the same violent life that killed her brother. She’s like the boy in Time Bandits: Life gets scarier and more exciting when an outlaw enters the picture.

The Professional keeps going on the power of its performances, but one actor threatens to bring everything crashing down. Is it my imagination, or has Gary Oldman started to gobble bad ‘shrooms before each take? He was pretty funny as the corrupt, wired sap in last year’s Romeo Is Bleeding, but that same oily intensity is used here to try to send shivers up our spines. Oldman is introduced with his back to the camera, a time-honored movie device to establish evil. And he’s evil, all right — so much so that I wondered how he never blows his cover. Oldman’s gelatinous performance throws the film out of whack; you can’t believe that this pill-popping ding-dong would inspire loyalty among his partners in crime. He’s a cartoon bad guy with a set of fancy traits; he listens to Beethoven before moving in for the kill — a nod to A Clockwork Orange, I guess.

Besson’s characters have names, but they don’t really need them. Besson treats them as action-film archetypes: The Hit-Man, The Girl, The Bad Cop. On the evidence of this movie and Nikita, Luc Besson seems to want to do for the action genre what Sergio Leone did for Westerns in the ’60s: inflate the clichés, present them with an air of parody, and yet honor the genre. Essentially, I’ve seen The Professional a few times before; its closest antecedent is John Cassavetes’ Gloria, from 1980, about a little boy who runs afoul of gangsters and is protected by a tough female detective. In that movie, there was some wit in the way Gena Rowlands rolled her eyes at the kid’s budding machismo. The Professional goes back to the films Gloria poked fun at.

Leon and Mathilda don’t even go through the obligatory period of hating each other, then grudgingly bonding. The attraction is immediate and mutual (though, I hasten to add, platonic), and before long he gives in to her demands that he train her as a hit-girl. I doubt there’s any calculation in this; like his contemporaries — Tarantino, Spike Lee, Tim Burton — Besson makes the movies he wants to see. Sergio Leone was well into his forties by the time he made his Dollars trilogy, and critics sniffed at those, too. Besson has years ahead of him, and in Jean Reno he may have found his Clint Eastwood. And if not Jean Reno, then Natalie Portman.