Archive for July 1996

Supercop

July 26, 1996

michelle 05Why beat around the bush? Supercop, this year’s second belated Hong Kong import, ties with Rumble in the Bronx for the title of best action movie of 1996. Some of you will know where I’m going with this: Jackie Chan is unquestionably the best thing to happen to the action genre since Indiana Jones. Chan, of course, finally broke through in America with last February’s Rumble and may do it again with Supercop, which has even less plot getting in the way of the story.

Technically, a lot is wrong with Supercop. I can only assume that Miramax/Dimension, having seen New Line’s Rumble bring home the bacon, snapped up the rights to Supercop (actually Police Story 3, first released in 1992 overseas) and rushed it through the process of Americanization. The dubbing is wildly off the mark (which often enhances the movie’s comedy), and the studio has added an alterna-rock soundtrack that’s as inappropriate as it is extraneous.

But who cares? Supercop isn’t as flat-out goofy as some of Jackie Chan’s earlier outings, and it depends a little too heavily on gunfire and explosions; there isn’t as much brilliant choreography as there was in Rumble, where Chan used whatever came to hand — shopping carts, a pool cue, a fridge. Still, it’s dazzling enough. Chan still does all his own stunts, some of which make you wonder whether he’s the hardest-working star in the business or a guy with a severe death wish.

Chan plays Kevin Chan, a crackerjack Hong Kong detective assigned to go undercover and infiltrate a notorious triad. Along for the ride is his superior officer (Michelle Yeoh, billed here as Michelle Khan), who poses as his sister and fights at least as skillfully and ferociously as he does. Any studio execs who think that Jackie Chan’s demographic (male, 15-25) won’t accept tough females should hear the audience’s enthusiasm whenever Michelle Yeoh goes to work. Will we see more of her, Miramax?

The plot is implausible and utterly insignificant. I know I’ve spent the summer bashing plotless wonders like Mission: Impossible and Incompetence Day, but the stuff Supercop gives us instead of a plot is actually entertaining — a distinction apparently lost on Hollywood. Director Stanley Tong (who also did Rumble) wastes very little time; he essentially just points the camera at Chan, but at least he knows how to shoot action and how to set up a visual joke. That puts him ahead of most action directors and comedy directors right there.

Chan’s greatest asset is his personality. Here, as elsewhere, he goofs around and mugs (no other action star has a more expressive face or a more winning smile — that grin, like Morgan Freeman’s, is so sappy yet so warm that you can’t help smiling along with him). He hurls himself into whatever he does, whether it’s chop-socky or clinging to a speeding train (a scene far more exciting than the one in Mission: Impossible). Mostly, though, Jackie Chan communicates a deep love for his work. He wouldn’t rather be doing something else; he doesn’t want to do ‘Hamlet.’ What he wants to do is break his bones entertaining us, in movie after movie. He succeeds on both counts. Supercop isn’t art, but it sure is great junk food.

Kingpin

July 26, 1996

The ads for Kingpin make it look extremely cruddy — within farting distance of Police Academy 3. On the other hand, it’s gotten some raves; no less an authority than Roger Ebert awarded it three-and-a-half stars. (What drugs did Ebert take that made Kingpin “a very funny movie, and sometimes even funnier than that”?) The truth lies somewhere in between. Kingpin doesn’t suck; it has some solid laughs. It also throws many gutter balls.

The movie gets off to a great start, actually. It opens in 1969, briefly introduces us to budding bowler Roy Munson, then flashes forward to 1979, when Roy (Woody Harrelson) has just clinched the Iowa state bowling championship. The directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber), crank up the disco and linger on Roy’s bell-bottoms. Usually I groan at this retro stuff — the ’70s were a dumb decade best forgotten — but the Farrellys get an exultant rhythm going, and the glitzy ’70s seem the perfect backdrop for a bottle rocket like Roy.

Roy soon crashes. He falls in with a slimy rival bowler, Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray, sporting two of the ugliest hairpieces in recent memory). Ernie gets Roy to run a scam on some gullible bowlers, who glimpse Roy’s championship ring and realize he’s a ringer. They shove his hand into a ball return, and it’s played for laughs. What is this, Natural Born Killers? From then on, the Farrellys go for pitiless frat-boy humor that makes National Lampoon look like The Brady Bunch.

Cut to 1996. (What is this, an epic?) Roy, now a pathetic drunk with a rubber hand, meets an Amish natural named Ishmael (Randy Quaid). Ishmael bowls 270, which sounds great until he explains that he bowls fifteen frames. Still, Roy sees Ishmael’s potential, and for a while Kingpin gets some mileage out of their unlikely bond. There are a couple of classic gross-outs involving Roy and farm animals. Don’t even ask.

But then the movie hits the road and, oddly, loses its momentum. To save the Amish farm, Roy and Ishmael must enter a tournament in Reno to win half a million dollars. Along the way, they meet a stunner named Claudia (Vanessa Angel), whose character changes according to the whims of scripters Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan. Is she a waif or an ass-kicking vixen? A con artist or a kind stranger who wants to help the guys? Good luck figuring her out; I doubt the Farrellys (or the actress herself) ever did.

Kingpin has a meandering midsection, with far too much cruel emphasis on Roy’s hideous landlady, who keeps coming back to haunt him. The Farrellys also can’t get enough of Vanessa Angel’s curves, and when she’s not around in the Reno scenes, they zero in on countless bimbos. You don’t expect comedies like this to bow to feminism, but past a certain point the movie seems to be playing to the Jenny McCarthy fans in the audience. Then there’s the climax, which avoids clichés yet is unsatisfying anyway. The cast is game (the film could have used a lot more of Murray), but Kingpin ends up with a seven-ten split between hilariously tasteless and just plain distasteful.

A Time to Kill

July 24, 1996

a-time-to-kill-posterOne of the many curiosities about American pop culture is that we hate lawyers, yet we love stories about them. We’ll stand in line for Primal Fear, we’ll buy John Grisham and Scott Turow novels. There is a caveat, though: we’ll only back fictional lawyers if (A) they’re in mortal danger; (B) they’re sexy; or (C) they’re defending an underdog client. A Time to Kill, based on Grisham’s first novel (written before he achieved hardcover nirvana), covers all the above bases — it’s A, B, C, and probably the rest of the alphabet. No cliché is left unturned, no emotional button left unpushed. But that’s par for the course. You don’t go to these legal-eagle movies for blazing originality or searing complexity. You go to see the underdog buck the odds.

The hero — Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), a young, ambitious Mississippi lawyer with his own tiny practice — is reportedly based on Grisham, who was one of the film’s producers. Therefore, Jake comes across so saintly and brave that he makes James Stewart’s lawyer characters look like ambulance chasers. McConaughey, a fine actor, doesn’t need this much help to win us over. The movie sells him too aggressively.

Jake soon finds himself at the wheel of the case of a lifetime. Two vicious rednecks have raped a ten-year-old black girl; the girl’s father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), waits for the rapists outside the courtroom with an assault rifle and starts blasting. The result: two dead rednecks, plus a wounded police officer. There’s no doubt that Carl is guilty of pulling the trigger. The question — a stickier one — is whether he can be found innocent of murder. Jake takes his case.

Director Joel Schumacher, who also adapted Grisham’s The Client, doesn’t waste many frames on the issue of vigilante justice. The rednecks were scum; they deserved to die. Case closed. Does Carl deserve to get the death penalty if found guilty? No. But what if he accidentally killed (instead of wounded) that officer? Or what if the police had arrested the wrong guys, and Carl ended up killing innocent men? You see what I mean about these movies. Reality is a whole other thing.

When it comes to pace and narrative, Schumacher is hopeless (as the inept Batman Forever showed). But give him great actors to point a camera at, and he can coast. Jackson paints a detailed portrait of a man torn by rage. Kevin Spacey, as the smug DA, manages to be perversely likable even when he’s trashing Jake’s witnesses. Sandra Bullock, whose star power helped get the film made, takes a small role as Jake’s cocky researcher — and damsel in distress. She’s pretty much wasted.

After many traumas, challenges, and KKK cross-burnings, Jake goes into full Jimmy Stewart mode for his summation — a masterpiece of manipulation. A Time to Kill is solid. The performances are strong, the issues provocative. I was glad I saw it, but I was also glad when it was over; my chest was sore from Schumacher aiming wallops at my heart. Sometimes he connected, but I wished he’d aimed more often at my brain.

Trainspotting

July 19, 1996

Trainspotting — the book, the movie, the soundtrack, the multimedia phenom (next comes the CD-ROM, no doubt) — has been likened to A Clockwork Orange, which also made hay with British youth by being scandalous and “evil” in the eyes of grown-ups. The book, at least, merits the comparison. Irvine Welsh’s anecdotal novel is alive with musical prose: “Ah went to take a shot. It took us ages tae find a good vein. Ma boys don’t live as close tae the surface as maist people’s. When it came, ah savored the hit …. Take yir best orgasm, multiply the feeling by twenty, and you’re still fuckin miles off the pace.” Welsh’s genius, like Anthony Burgess’ in A Clockwork Orange, was to sustain an alien dialect that first distances you from the squalor and then, as you pick up more of the native tongue, makes you feel like an insider for understanding words like “tolchock” or “radge.” The prose sucks you in, makes you an honorary droog or junkie.

The movie Trainspotting inevitably loses much of Welsh’s linguistic power. But director Danny Boyle, like Stanley Kubrick before him, tries the equivalent effect with images. When the hero — Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), a spirited Edinburgh junkie — must sift through appalling toilet water in search of placebo suppositories, Boyle has him sink into the toilet and swim through an inky blue void. The result, both lyrical and repellently literal, is a moment Kubrick might envy. Scene for scene, Trainspotting isn’t in the same league as Clockwork; its dramatic arc is similar (Renton, like Alex, gradually reforms), but Boyle doesn’t seduce us into complicity with violence. The movie’s scariest character, the barroom brawler Begbie (Robert Carlyle), strikes like a Scottish twister and is clearly seen as the border between good dirty fun and a bad scene. Begbie would thrash all four of Kubrick’s droogs.

As rude and scatalogical as Trainspotting often is, it represents a leap in maturity for Boyle and his scripter John Hodge, who broke through in 1994 with the nasty Hitchcockian doodle Shallow Grave. That effort was so cold and remorseless it made Blood Simple look like Forrest Gump, and it left a bad taste in my mouth, as if Begbie had directed it. Trainspotting is lighter and more compassionate; among its deeper merits is that it proves a movie doesn’t have to be mean to be fresh.

Trainspotting, the title, refers to a meaningless activity meant to lend the illusion of structure to an aimless existence. It’s Welsh’s metaphor for the addictive rituals of heroin. Most of the young protagonists shoot up, but the movie isn’t really about heroin — the drug could just as easily be moloko-plus or mugwump juice. It’s about the irony of youth being so averse to societal cages — “Choose life, choose a family, choose a job” — that they forge their own chains. Ewan McGregor, whom I found insufferable in Shallow Grave, is much better here; his Renton, confiding in us through sardonic narration, is a serviceable heir to Malcolm McDowell’s sly-fox Alex. We like the little fucker, and we wish him well. Trainspotting may only be the art-house flavor of the month, but McGregor and Boyle make it tasty.

The Frighteners

July 19, 1996

milton-dammers-the-frighteners-33887447-462-193Right at the beginning, when the camera dives through a hole in the floor and chases a woman down a flight of stairs, you know this isn’t the usual summer bash. The Frighteners, directed by the hyperactive New Zealander Peter Jackson (who also wrote it with longtime collaborator and companion Frances Walsh), is relentlessly hectic and shamelessly melodramatic. You either go along for the ride or get out and walk. In all, it’s the boldest ride of the summer so far — athletic, prankish, eye-popping. Every frame drips with Jackson’s moviemaking fever.

The script, which Jackson and Walsh initially sent to producer Robert Zemeckis as a Tales from the Crypt movie, occasionally betrays its derivative origins. The Frighteners is part Ghostbusters, part Beetlejuice, with sprinkles of Badlands and Poltergeist. Jackson never intended to direct it, but Zemeckis put him in charge anyway. Smart move. Like Brian De Palma, Sam Raimi, and Robert Rodriguez, Jackson pumps energy into cliches until they explode. We’ve seen some of the plot elements before, but never quite like this.

Michael J. Fox, sporting a hip new brush-cut, is Frank Bannister, a bogus “psychic investigator” with a clever racket: he works with three ghosts who haunt houses and conveniently leave Frank’s business card behind. Frank has been busy lately, because people are dropping like flies all around town, their hearts mysteriously “crushed.” The police suspect Frank (they’re on to his scam), but he’s the only one who can see the true killer: no less than Death itself, dressed in Grim Reaper robes.

What is this Death figure? Why do the victims have numbers carved into their foreheads? What does the plot have to do with the harsh old woman who won’t let her daughter (E.T.‘s Dee Wallace Stone) out of the house? Will Frank find love with a beautiful young doctor (Trini Alvarado), whose recently deceased yuppie husband (Peter Dobson) hangs around as a resentful ghost? Will I answer any of these questions? Nope.

Fox, whose comeback as a leading man deserves to begin here, smoothly handles both the slapstick and the poignant moments (Frank has a tragedy in his past). He works seamlessly with a variety of spectral CGI effects, and he’s generous enough to let Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) steal the movie. Playing an obsessed FBI agent driven around the bend by joining too many cults (to spy on them), Combs delivers his dialogue as if he’d just swallowed a live spider. He’s creepy even when he isn’t doing anything at all; he’s a frightener, all right.

The real star of the movie, though, is Peter Jackson. This is his fifth film, and his first for a major studio. Before he spruced up his resume with the Oscar-nominated Heavenly Creatures, Jackson was notorious for Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead Alive — three of the most hilariously disgusting movies ever made. Heavenly Creatures, brilliant though it was, worried me a bit: Had Jackson actually grown up? No, thank God. With The Frighteners, Jackson is batting five for five. The question now is whether America is ready for him.

Multiplicity

July 17, 1996

multiMichael Keaton has always been a crowded house of an actor: pacing, restless, his mind perpetually elsewhere. Think of his idea guy in Night Shift, or, more recently, his distracted metro editor in The Paper. Even as Batman, he suggested two personalities at war with each other. So Keaton’s clone comedy, Multiplicity, makes perfect sense. And it’s a measure of his great talent that four of him isn’t too much.

Keaton is Doug Kinney, a construction manager caught in the classic late-20th-century American dilemma: He can’t balance his demanding job and his equally demanding family life. The phrase “There aren’t enough hours in the day” was patented by people like Doug. So was its companion phrase, “I need another me.” Multiplicity is about what happens when Doug gets what he thinks he wants: more hours in the day and more Dougs.

A sympathetic geneticist (Scarface‘s Harris Yulin in a neat double cameo) sees Doug’s problem and offers to solve it. Before long, Doug meets Doug 2, who assumes work duties while Doug 1 takes over at home. Then Doug 1, exhausted by his kids and panicked by his wife’s (Andie MacDowell) urge to find her own job, creates Doug 3 to take over at home while Doug 1 goofs off. Meanwhile, Dougs 2 and 3 create their own clone — Doug 4, a bad copy whose philosophy is “I like pizza.”

Sound confusing? It might have been, if the versatile Keaton weren’t on board. Richard Edlund’s seamless cloning effects are amazing enough, but I still don’t quite know how Keaton manages to play off himself (and sometimes off three of himself) so deftly. And he makes each Doug instantly identifiable. Doug 2, whose life consists entirely of work, is a babes-and-brewskis guy. Doug 3 is a puppyish cross between Martha Stewart and the Anal-Retentive Chef. Doug 4 … well, he likes pizza. As for the original Doug, he becomes blurry and indistinct, which is the point: Doug is losing himself.

Multiplicity was directed by Harold Ramis, who has carved out a useful comedy niche: fantasies dealing with identity crises. (He had a hit in 1993 with Groundhog Day, which could have been called Perpetuity.) Ramis’ Animal House co-writer, Chris Miller, devised the story and worked on the script with Mary Hale, and then Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Night Shift). Unlike four Keatons, maybe four writers are too much. Certain intriguing ideas — such as a clone thinking that he’s the original — aren’t developed, and the ending is a bit too pat.

But those are nitpicks. Largely due to Keaton, the movie is consistently funny, and one sequence in a restaurant made me laugh myself into a mild headache. (Bring some aspirin.) And you really need to see it on the big screen. At times, Ramis fills the frame with all four Keatons, arguing and interacting. On video, in a mangled pan-and-scan version, at least one Keaton will be left out of your TV frame. The Keaton quartet is like a one-man Marx brothers. His virtuosity in Multiplicity deserves to be seen in its entirety.

Independence Day

July 3, 1996

independence-day-1996-_145912-fli_1381110190If you’ve heard Orson Welles’ brilliant radio hoax The War of the Worlds — which sparked a national panic — you know it’s scarier and more exciting (even in a visual sense) than the boring, demoralizing Independence Day. The movie arrives wrapped in the biggest “event” hype yet. Forget government conspiracies about aliens — what about the entertainment media’s conspiracy to persuade America that this movie doesn’t suck?

Independence Day is another retro hunk of cheese from director Roland Emmerich, who co-wrote it with producer Dean Devlin. These men, who also made the hit StarGate, have been credited with resuscitating the sci-fi genre. If empty movies like these are what sci-fi needs, it deserves to die. ID4 (as the ads call it) is abysmally written and indifferently directed, with long stretches of tedium. On opening night, I felt the anticipation of the audience rapidly turning to disappointment.

Like StarGateID4 swipes from blockbusters of recent decades. Despite the ostentatious three-chapter structure, there are really only two acts: (1) Aliens strike; (2) We strike back. Kaboom! Take that! The aliens, whose goal is simply to kill us, so closely resemble the critters in the Alien trilogy that H.R. Giger may have grounds for a lawsuit. Giger will have to stand in line behind Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, from whom Emmerich steals without shame. Suffice it to say that the big alien craft is a Mother Ship Death Star.

ID4 is never more pathetic than when it pretends there are human beings on the screen. Capable actors like Bill Pullman (as the can-do President), Jeff Goldblum (as a computer wonk), and Will Smith (as a gung-ho pilot) seem to be playing action-figure versions of themselves. Goldblum and Smith make an engaging team, but Goldblum recycles his dry inflections from Jurassic Park (he even reprises his line “Must go faster”), and Smith’s rowdiness is marred by sentiment. Decent female roles? Not in this boys’ club. Sigourney Weaver, where are you when we need you?

Does the movie deliver? There are perhaps ten minutes of slam-bang annihilation, spread out over a yawning two and a half hours. (Most of the movie is guys pacing and worrying.) Independence Day may own the holiday weekend, but I can’t see it doing much repeat business. There’s no magic in this kind of shallow, adrenalized commerce. Once you’ve seen the heat-death of an entire city, a jaded numbness sets in. ID4 goes all the way into video-game nihilism. There goes New York! There goes L.A.! Bang, bang, we’re all dead! Isn’t this fun?

Well, no. Even allowing for my usual crankiness towards these thunderdome movies, Independence Day made me angry. Partly it’s because it made the covers of Newsweek and Time the week before it opened, as if it were some zeitgeist spectacle (“America Is Hooked on the Paranormal”) instead of The Day the Earth Stood Still on ‘roid-rage. Mostly it’s because its purpose is to deliver a loud, crappy good time, and it fails — it aims low and misses. A movie can commit no greater sin.


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