Archive for June 2000

The Perfect Storm

June 30, 2000

Sebastian Junger’s bestseller The Perfect Storm is a first-rate piece of journalism — compact and packed, loaded with anecdotes about life on fishing boats, the effects of a hurricane, and so on (he even tosses in a pretty frightening passage on what drowning feels like). Junger assembled all this information around a void — the void left by the Halloween Storm, the October 1991 convergence of three volatile weather events that destroyed, among other things, the Gloucester swordfishing boat the Andrea Gail. Aside from the basic fact that the boat was lost at sea (only a couple of fuel cans were ever recovered), nothing is known about what happened to the ship or the men aboard. Junger’s account is mainly informed conjecture about what might have happened. The new movie version is conjecture, too, but it’s informed by Hollywood conventions. The Perfect Storm, competently directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, Air Force One), comes across like Apollo 13 without radio contact and with a downer ending.

The characters are defined chiefly by action — what they do under pressure tells us who they are — but since they behave more or less like generic movie people, what does that really tell us? Despite its poignant basis in fact, The Perfect Storm is only a small notch above Armageddon and many other disaster thrillers. The real-life men are recast as stereotypes: Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney), the hard-bitten veteran skipper who wants to go out for one last big haul; Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), an eager rookie with a passionate girlfriend (Diane Lane) waiting at home; loyal, fuzzy-wuzzy Murph (John C. Reilly); shifty troublemaker Sully (William Fichtner, whose features have doomed him to playing shifty guys); bedraggled loser Bugsy (John Hawkes), who can’t even get laid before he ships out; and the West Indian Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne), who has, I think, a grand total of three distinct lines of dialogue.

The nervous grouchiness of men at sea, dealing with a lethal natural menace while rubbing each other’s nerves raw, probably couldn’t be handled better than it was in Jaws, and The Perfect Storm doesn’t come close. (Twenty-five years later, you remember Quint and Brody and Hooper a hell of a lot more vividly than you’ll remember Billy or Bobby after a week.) There isn’t a bummer in the cast, but all of the actors play second fiddle to the elements, and Petersen has cast a variety of intriguing actresses only to shove them into the margins. Diane Lane, for instance, tries so hard to do something fresh with her stock girlfriend-in-waiting that she overplays almost every scene she’s in. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as a nearby boat captain, has a radio microphone grafted to her hand for most of the film (it’s easy to forget she’s supposed to be playing Linda Greenlaw, an author in her own right); and it’s nice to see Cherry Jones (Cradle Will Rock) and Karen Allen getting work, but why waste them as two women trapped on an imperilled sailboat who have almost no dialogue?

If you go to see bad weather, The Perfect Storm gives you probably a good 45 minutes of it, as the Andrea Gail is batted around the sea like a toy boat in the bathtub of a sadistic kid. We feel batted around, too, and the effect, cumulatively, is less overwhelming than overbearing. The movie devolves into spectacle, a series of CGI shots for us to ooh and aah at. If we know the story’s outcome, all the strenuous efforts the men go through seem like a sick joke, but the movie works hard to ennoble them anyway. The climax is monotonous and punishing — after 45 minutes of waves hammering the boat, you say, Okay, we get it.

The grinding sameness of the violent sea makes you appreciate James Cameron’s handling of the chaos in Titanic, which had some incongruous visual beauty going for it. The only hint of beauty in The Perfect Storm — and it’s a chilling moment, and George Clooney’s moment of glory — comes when the Andrea Gail abruptly enters glass-smooth waters and sunny skies. Everyone on board is ecstatic except Billy, who knows the worst is yet to come; they’ve just moved into a safe, small pocket in between storms. Clooney’s wordless horror in the face of sunshine is more terrifying than anything the special-effects whizzes came up with.

But The Perfect Storm isn’t truly fatuous until the very end, when it’s suggested that sweet, saintly Bobby somehow contacted his girlfriend in a dream before he drowned. Of course, we don’t clearly see any of the men die, presumably out of respect for their families. But if you’re going to respect real-life tragedy, you don’t make a much-hyped summer movie out of it. This empty memorial to those lost at sea is really only about the realistic mayhem made possible by computer imaging. For all its technical advances, The Perfect Storm can’t do what Junger did: make you feel what it’s like to work on the sea and die under it.

The Patriot

June 27, 2000

the_patriot_2000_film_my_sons_were_better_menNot much screen time passes before The Patriot gives up any pretense of being a serious historical epic. Mel Gibson, as the anguished 18th-century hero Benjamin Martin, has just lost one young son and is in danger of losing another — his eldest, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), held at knifepoint by a craven Redcoat. What does Mel do? He lifts up his heavy Cherokee hatchet and hurls it into the Brit’s forehead. Whack! The audience goes whoo! The movie is rabble-rousing at its hypocritical worst; it asks us to respect Benjamin’s longing for peace but also cues us to cheer whenever he sticks it to a British soldier and breaks it off.

The Patriot is too gaga for thinking adults and too long and excessively gory (at one point, Benjamin is soaked with blood from head to toe) for kids, so one must assume it has been made for simple-minded adults — many of whom will respond as expected (or as programmed) to the film as a ripping yarn about a burly manly man who revenges himself upon sadistic aristocratic fascists, as if we hadn’t just seen that in Gladiator and in Gibson’s own Braveheart. Gibson seems to love movies in which his heroes are outrageously fucked over, tortured, robbed of their loved ones (well, at least here we’re spared the usual Gibson torture scene), thus giving them full moral license to wreak vicious havoc on their enemies. Either this is commercial shrewdness on Gibson’s part — hey, it worked in Mad Max — or a troubling psychological glitch that drives him to play rabid martyrs.

To be sure, Gibson does vengeance better than Charles Bronson ever did. An intense actor oddly gaining more edge as he gets older and more vulnerable, Gibson has some fine moments here when he almost comes unglued in the face of loss — and then, finally, does come apart. Benjamin faces a lot of loss in The Patriot; at the outset of the American Revolution, he predicts that innocents will die, and it’s a good call. Whenever the movie begins to bog down, director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) toss in another tragedy so that Gibson can get his bloodlust up again.

The British press has been unkind to the movie, understandably: The English are represented by either clueless aristocracy (Tom Wilkinson’s General Cornwallis) or mustache-twirling sadism (Jason Isaac’s Colonel Tavington, who makes up for having no mustache to twirl by reading his lines as if they were maggots in his mouth). We also see one American Loyalist captain (Adam Baldwin), who, following orders from Tavington, has his men torch a church full of innocents. This is an intriguing character who could have been a complex doppelganger for Benjamin, but this scene and a couple of other brief appearances are all we ever see of him, and though he looks conflicted and disgusted as the church burns, there’s no follow-up — he gets neither a come-uppance nor a moral-reawakening scene.

As in Braveheart, most of the supporting characters are there to fight alongside Mel Gibson — solid actors like Chris Cooper and Rene Auberjonois are thrown away — and the leading lady (Joely Richardson), apparently in the movie to prove that Benjamin is heterosexual (as if his seven children left any doubt), never makes an impression except to deliver the movie’s much-derided line, “It’s a free country, or at least it will be.” I didn’t expect complexity from the director who made Independence Day and Godzilla, but The Patriot is American History for Dummies — the birth of a nation treated as a backdrop for vengeful bloodletting. Now that Mel Gibson has saved his people from the scummy English twice already, could he please move on? If a movie star from another country consistently made films depicting Americans as sadistic wimps, would we be any happier about it than the British press is?

Chicken Run

June 21, 2000

chicken_run_3Chicken Run is smart, witty, and very British, which would seem to be three strikes against it in our cheese-saturated kiddie culture. I hope I’m wrong; I hope the audience for Chicken Run extends beyond fans of Nick Park and his peerless Wallace and Gromit shorts, a fan base that in America is big but not Pokémon-sized. I liked Chicken Run more for what it isn’t than for what it so charmingly is: it isn’t bombastic, it doesn’t stoop to gross humor (although gross humor in the right hands is fun, as in the current Me, Myself & Irene), it has no insipid ballads — in short, it isn’t Disney. And, say I, thank God (or Nick Park, or DreamWorks) for that.

You could probably trace Nick Park’s influences pretty easily — the Warner Bros. cartoons, Rube Goldberg (Park never met a machine he didn’t like), Gary Larson, the alternately chipper and grumbling style of British comedy — but Park’s gentle wit is all his own. In Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, Park’s love for all his characters, good and evil, is literally palpable: These characters have been forged of clay, fussed over, posed, photographed over a period of years. The slight jerkiness of the animation in Chicken Run is reassuring. We’re not watching a cold CGI toon, we’re watching actual characters occupying actual space. All of this may explain the magic of Park’s work: Everyone onscreen feels real, almost human.

The almost-humans in Chicken Run are pitted against two barely-humans: Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth and Miranda Richardson), who operate a chicken farm that resembles a P.O.W. camp. The vicious Mrs. Tweedy, impatient with the paltry profits from eggs, looks into upscaling her enterprise: an elaborately cruel machine that turns chickens into pies. (The machine looks as if it were built from a blueprint of Mrs. Tweedy’s brain.) It’s up to Ginger (voice of Julia Sawalha), an escape-obsessed hen, and the visiting Rocky the Flying Rooster (voice of Mel Gibson), to lead their people — uh, flock — out of bondage.

There are several belly-laughs in Chicken Run, but most of it deals more with character comedy than with sight gags (there’s a priceless one involving lawn gnomes, without which, it seems, no modern British farce would be complete). As with the Babe movies, you don’t have to suspend your disbelief; the movie suspends it for you so deftly that you can watch a dialogue scene between Ginger and Rocky and respond to it as dialogue, not as a scene between Claymation critters. And the laughs here are as much verbal as visual. There’s one terrific line that asks you to imagine a chicken — a real chicken — in the cockpit of an RAF jet, and the wording of it is so logical yet so absurd that anyone in Monty Python would have been proud to have written it. Then the movie quickly gets on to the next bit.

Park was adamant that Rocky, the visiting American, not be the one who swoops in to save the day, and Mel Gibson, the inflated star now staring out at us from the Patriot poster, eats some humble pie here and comes out the better for it. He gets to do something he hasn’t done in years (not even in Pocahontas, where it could’ve been anyone’s voice) — he gives a solid supporting performance. The real star is Ginger; she and her coopmates wiggle and bounce, expressing the joy Nick Park takes in their bulbous bodies and rubber faces. (Actually clay faces, but why quibble?)

In Chicken Run, Nick Park survives the transfer from half-hour shorts to feature length; who wouldn’t want more of his bug-eyed, inner-tube-mouthed creations? Whether we get more depends on whether Chicken Run does well and justifies the expense of more Park movies. Yet quality and fun don’t necessarily guarantee success in this country; The Iron Giant died here despite rave reviews. Here is another intelligent, entertaining all-ages film, the kind of movie you all say you want to see more of. Nick Park has kept his end of the bargain; will you?

Shaft (2000)

June 16, 2000

shaft01A movie like Shaft is a tough call. Do you praise it for offering bold talent in the service of a routine urban thriller, or do you criticize it for the same reason? Everyone involved in Shaft is beyond Shaft, from the stars (Samuel L. Jackson, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale, Toni Collette) to the director (John Singleton) to the initial screenwriter (Richard Price, whose script was retooled by Singleton and Shane Salerno). At heart, Shaft is just a retro revenge thriller, with its conflicts made storybook-simple (the good guys are righteous; the bad guys are really bad).

Yet the plot becomes almost incidental, and so do the standard shoot-outs and car chases. The real appeal of Shaft is its acting teamwork; no ’70s blaxploitation movie ever had such an entertaining cast. For instance, Christian Bale, as the prerequisite skunky rich white boy whose racist venom sets the plot in motion, approaches his character as a cross between American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman and a spoiled frat boy. His character, Walter Wade, develops an unlikely partnership with Latino drug kingpin Peoples Hernandez (Jeffrey Wright), and the two diametrically opposed actors Bale and Wright are so unaccountably right together that you forget whatever else is going on in the movie.

Samuel L. Jackson may or may not break into the Hollywood A-list after this movie, the first major Hollywood production he has been allowed to carry, but if he doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of trying. His John Shaft (the nephew of the original Shaft — Richard Roundtree, who appears here) owes just about everything to Jackson’s towering presence, his effortless charisma and unquestionable authority. Roundtree, playing Shaft way back in 1971, didn’t quite seem tough enough for the role; we felt that people backed down from him only because the script demanded it. With Jackson, we understand why people back down.

The only people who don’t fear or respect Shaft are the aforementioned Wade and Peoples, both of whom have made Shaft’s “asses to kick” list. Peoples, a half-pint thug with plans to move his drugs in a more upscale market, goes into cahoots with Wade to find and kill a witness (Toni Collette) to Wade’s hate crime. The plot thickens, with corrupt cops (including the underused Dan Hedaya) getting in on the action, and you can hear the cynical zing of Richard Price’s voice in a lot of the underhanded dealings and street talk. I bet it was Price, for example, who thought up the insensitive cop (Lee Tergesen of Oz) who’s given to racist jokes but also turns out to be helpful to Shaft at a key point in his scheme against Peoples.

John Singleton’s direction is smooth and competent, if not quite inspired; he’s certainly an improvement on the original Shaft‘s director, Gordon Parks, whose work was clunky and amateurish (the film looks as if they used the first take of every scene). The 1971 Shaft had a vivid supporting role, though — Moses Gunn as Bumpy, the suave gangster who hired Shaft to find his daughter. Shaft (and the movie) had little but contempt for Bumpy, who sold drugs and gambling to black people, but Bumpy didn’t care; he let it all roll off. This movie’s Bumpy is Peoples, and Jeffrey Wright comes through with an equally suave performance studded with menace. There’s an amazing moment in which a grief-stricken Peoples advances on Shaft while stabbing himself (non-fatally) with his own ice-pick; it’s as if to say, “I’m so bad-ass I can do this to myself — imagine what I’m gonna do to you.”

This Shaft is probably the best possible Shaft, given its inherent limitations. The original Shaft hasn’t aged well at all; back in 1971, it was received eagerly by a black audience starving to see themselves in the same sort of action thriller they’d been watching white folks in for decades. Shaft was a shrewd commercial concoction packaged mainly by whites (Shaft was created by novelist Ernest Tidyman, a white guy) and accepted by black viewers as a symbol of empowerment. Today, though, we’ve seen so many dozens of variations on Shaft that bringing him back, even in name only, just seems like a nostalgia trip. Shaft would look better if we hadn’t seen the infinitely cooler Ghost Dog earlier this year; it would look better if we hadn’t seen any of John Singleton’s previous films. But if a new Shaft had to be made, we can at least be grateful that it wound up in the hands of people who know what they’re doing. On a summer-movie level, Shaft is a worthy diversion. But only on that level.

Me, Myself & Irene

June 15, 2000

The late Kevyn Aucoin, a few years back, transformed a bunch of modern-day actresses into classic-movie actresses and published the makeover photos in two books. Jim Carrey could publish a book like that, too, but he wouldn’t need makeup — the entire book could chronicle his thousand facial expressions. In Me, Myself & Irene, there’s a brilliant moment in which Carrey, as a mild-mannered Rhode Island highway motorcycle cop, is pushed over the edge and morphs from nice-guy Charlie to another, more aggressive personality, named Hank. The camera sits and watches Carrey as he twitches and bends his features like so much Silly Putty. Who needs computer effects when you have Jim Carrey? He does more amazing things from the neck up than most people can do with an entire FX crew.

Me, Myself & Irene is another gleefully offensive comedy from Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the Rhode Island brothers whose There’s Something About Mary owned the summer of 1998 and was the youngest movie to earn a spot on AFI’s 100 Funniest Movies list. Their new movie, for some people, may suffer in comparison, and there aren’t any scenes that made me laugh as long and hard as the smackdown between Ben Stiller and Warren. But MM&I is still consistently filthy and funny, with the Farrellys’ usual attention to disability that will surely be misread as insensitivity to disability. The Farrelly universe is populated by people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and mental/physical problems, and we laugh at them not because they’re different but because they’re human — they’re as screwed up as anyone else.

Like Mary, MM&I has a lengthy opening act setting up the story. Some reviews will inevitably blow some of the surprises for you, so I’ll let you discover for yourself how the very white Charlie winds up with three black sons who grow up to be gargantuan high-school kids with gargantuan IQs to match. (The trio of sons are played by Anthony Anderson, Jerod Mixon, and Mongo Brownlee. Remember those names — you’ll probably be hearing them a lot. These guys steal the movie, which isn’t easy considering the star.) After Charlie snaps and becomes the mean, psychotic Hank (which is multiple-personality disorder, not schizophrenia, contrary to the movie’s definition), he’s assigned to deliver a criminal named Irene (Renee Zellweger) from Rhode Island to upstate New York. Problem is, both Charlie and Hank fall in love with Irene along the way.

Along the way, there are also jokes involving … well, I originally listed a few in here, but (A) that would be giving away the jokes, and (B) most of them are fairly unprintable. The Farrellys’ comedy depends a lot on the shock value of raunchy sight gags; earlier audiences got more of a bang out of the hair-gel scene in Mary than later viewers did, after it became the talk of the summer. I don’t know what will be the water-cooler outrage in MM&I, though a couple of scenes involving animals may qualify; so might the morning-after scene between Charlie and Irene, which gives us the classic line “I didn’t put it up there — you did!”

Renee Zellweger re-establishes herself here as a woman to watch; like Cameron Diaz in Mary, she’s a good sport and a note of class amid boy’s-club hijinks. But it’s really Carrey’s show, as any Carrey movie has to be. Whether he’s the hapless Charlie or the Eastwood-esque Hank, Carrey keeps us connected to his lowest desires and highest hopes; this is actually a fairly detailed and sensitive portrait of mental disability, done in a low-comedy context. At one point Charlie bursts into tears, and you’re torn between feeling sorry for him and laughing at the ridiculous whistling noise coming from his broken nose. Carrey and the Farrellys specialize in that kind of split-personality scene, where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. They also tell you, What the hell, you might as well laugh.


June 11, 2000

You should probably go into Takashi Miike’s Audition as blank as possible, though, as with Psycho, you can enjoy it even if you know where it’s going. Hell, the marketing spoils any big surprises it has (if you catch this on DVD and have a habit of watching the trailer for the movie before the movie itself, do not do that with Audition; the enclosed two trailers give away quite a few shocks that need to be experienced virginally and in context to retain their full oomph). But, like a lot of people who’ve seen Audition, I have a sadistic little daydream of showing it to clueless friends who’ve never heard of it. I wouldn’t show them the DVD cover art; I would even make them stay out of the room until the film was in play mode, so they wouldn’t even see the menu. Then they’d watch the movie and take it for a sensitive Japanese drama about a widower looking for companionship — up until the halfway mark, anyway. They would have no idea what they were in for. Of course, the daydream realistically ends with my shocked and disgusted friends throwing me out of their living room by the scruff of my neck, so perhaps it should stay a daydream.

Those who have heard of Audition — and it’s far from the only film in the insanely prolific Takashi Miike’s portfolio, but it is likely the most notorious — may, conversely, go into it expecting more than they’ll get. The first hour is becalmed (deceptively becalmed, of course), normal, mainstream — it’s television. It begins rather sentimentally, in a hospital room. Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is watching his wife slip away on her deathbed. Their young son, meanwhile, is walking towards the room with a homemade “Get Well Soon, Mom” gift in his hands. By the time he gets there, she has flatlined. The father and son leave the hospital together in quiet grief. Cut to seven years later. Aoyama and his now-teenage son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) are fishing. They have an easy, comfortable relationship — we see that Aoyama has raised his son alone (with the help of his maid Rie, played by Toshie Negishi) and done a serviceable job; the kid turned out okay, with a possible girlfriend and an unquenchable passion for dinosaurs (which may suggest that in a lot of ways, the son hasn’t matured a lot since his mom’s death).

Aoyama, a production executive, is mostly content but vaguely lonely. His son tells him that he should remarry before he gets any older (he is perhaps in his mid-forties); his colleague and friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura) seconds this, and proposes a plan for Aoyama to meet the perfect woman — i.e., “beautiful, classy, and obedient.” They’ll hold an audition for a non-existent movie, analyzing the women who arrive to try out for the “role,” asking questions relevant to Aoyama’s companionship needs. We get a pretty funny montage of various women sitting for the men and their camera, sometimes dancing around (a couple even disrobe).

Aoyama, however, has already made up his mind; for him, the audition is almost a formality to appease Yoshikawa, because while going through the paper applications, Aoyama has come across a woman whose story touches his soul. Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) writes about herself modestly, enclosing an innocent, almost bashful-looking head shot. She mentions studying ballet for 12 years until a hip injury ended her dream; facing the reality of her post-ballet life, she says, was “like accepting death.” Aoyama is hooked. He’s hooked even more when her audition shows her to be a quiet angel in white, even more beautiful than her photo allows, who doesn’t even bother to “act” or be “on” for this supposed “role.” She is simply herself.

Aoyama is in love. Yoshikawa has his doubts — he doesn’t like her; he can’t put his finger on it, but he muses that it’s “something chemical.” But we can dismiss that as the grumblings of a jealous friend. Aoyama will be happy again after seven years of loneliness. He and Asami go out a couple of times. Then, around 45 minutes into the film, comes a quiet and massively creepy moment — it’s one of the more frightening things I’ve seen in a movie. Asami sits in her apartment, on the floor, slumped and with her back to us; nearby is a phone, and, in the background, a laundry sack. Cut to Aoyama, debating whether to call Asami. Cut back to Asami: the phone rings. What follows is so chilling that it completely and permanently alters our perception of everything afterward.

And everything afterward is pretty fucking intense. I’m not going to reveal more, except to say that Takashi Miike is an unquestionable master. When he wants to make Asami look pure and beautiful, you want to hug her and protect her and make her happy. When he wants to make her look menacing, you’ve never seen anything scarier. The movie will get under your skin and stay there for many days. The denouement in itself is not particularly bloody or explicit — if you’ve seen Kirby Dick’s documentary Sick about Bob Flanagan, for instance, you’ve seen a lot more upsetting imagery than Audition offers. But the emotional force of it is what lodges it in your mind — the sense that the actions arise not from sadism or vengeful rage but from deeply twisted and damaged love. That’s a lot spookier. The night after seeing this, I literally had a nightmare about Asami smiling sweetly and chirping “Kiri-kiri-kiri” (“deeper, deeper, deeper”), which sounds like kitty kitty kitty (talk about cat and mouse games); it’s been a very, very long time since a movie infected my dreamsleep so immediately. Needless to say, I’m eager to watch it again as soon as possible.

Audition becomes a bit of a confuse-a-thon in the end zone. Miike plays guess-what’s-real games: “Oh, it was all a dream” segues into “Okay, guess it wasn’t all a dream” and from there into “Okay, what the hell is or isn’t a dream?” This may be a deal-breaker for those who don’t appreciate such capricious directorial prerogative. But Miike knows what he’s doing. He begins with a straight and mainstream story, then sets the chaos of decay in motion. The story collapses; the only reality left is agony and shock. Or, as Asami points out, “Words can lie; pain is all you can trust.” And the movie is immaculately acted through all of it, by two leads who are not primarily actors; you wouldn’t know from Ryo Ishibashi’s placid, recessive performance as Aoyama that in real life he’s a rock musician, and Eihi Shiina is almost an absolute beginner, a model stepping into acting. (She’d better give up on any hopes of being hired to advertise innocent-image products, that’s for damn sure; maybe she has a bright future modelling latex aprons or medical supplies.) Audition is a serious, affecting drama that turns into an emotional slaughterhouse and endurance test (those who are queasy about seeing vomit in movies had better stay far away) but remains serious and affecting. Miike says he tries not to work in easy genres, but this is a horror film in the purest sense: You witness in close-up the physical and psychic pain one human can inflict on another, in the name of love, and being horrified is the only conceivable reaction.

Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)

June 9, 2000

Both the ad campaign and the opening credits for Gone in 60 Seconds come on very hip, very techno, very 2000. The film itself, though, is comfortably cheesy — a real beer-and-pizza movie. In spirit, I imagine it’s close to the original Gone in 60 Seconds (which I haven’t seen), a 1974 drive-in flick considered a cult classic by B-movie buffs. The new film gives us reasonably likable characters, gives them a clearly defined conflict, and gets out of the way as they go about resolving it. There’s not one scrap of art in Gone in 60 Seconds, but there’s no flab either; in its pedal-to-the-metal professionalism, it’s almost a lowbrow version of Ronin.

Perhaps only in recent years could two Oscar winners (Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie) appear, without apparent irony or disdain, in a megabudget action movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (Con Air, Armageddon). Or perhaps not — perhaps this film is a ’70s throwback in more ways than one: remember the Oscar winners peppered throughout The Swarm and The Poseidon Adventure? (Both were produced by Irwin Allen, the Jerry Bruckheimer of the ’70s.) In any event, Cage and Jolie seem to be having fun, and Jolie in particular likes to tease her generally bland lines as if playing with chewing gum. She’s a whiz at keeping herself amused; I have a feeling she’ll be a wild card in movies for years to come.

Cage is in penitent-nice-guy mode as Randall “Memphis” Raines, a former car thief who’s been out of the racket eight years. Memphis is happy enough working in a garage and supervising a kiddie race track, but just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in. It seems his kid brother Kip (Giovanni Ribisi, looking like Shaggy), himself a budding car thief, has gotten in hot water with a vicious ganglord known as “the Carpenter.” This criminal mastermind is given such a dread-ridden build-up that part of the movie’s oddball charm is that he turns out to be Christopher Eccleston, who could possibly frighten a cup of tea, if that.

The Carpenter (screenwriter Scott Rosenberg does love these baroque names for gangsters) offers Memphis a deal: Steal and deliver 50 fancy cars, and Kip can stay among the breathing. So Memphis swiftly puts together a crew, including his old flame Sway (Jolie), his mentor Otto (Robert Duvall), old friend Donny (the scene-stealing Chi McBride), and the wordless Sphinx (Vinnie Jones). The cars that have been targeted for theft are all given female names, and the many heist scenes have the ardent, furtive quality of romance; Memphis slips into a beauty, hot-wires her, and revs her up. When Sway gets into the action, it’s almost a Sapphic love scene.

Writing about An Officer and a Gentleman, Pauline Kael called it “crap, but it’s crap on a motorcycle.” Well, Gone in 60 Seconds is crap in a Shelby Mustang GT 500. The movie was directed by Dominic Sena, an MTV veteran whose only previous film was 1993’s Kalifornia, a sun-bleached serial-killer thriller with David Duchovny and Brad Pitt; the only link I can find between the two films is that they’re both a lot better than they had to be. Partly it’s thanks to Scott Rosenberg, the quirky scripter (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) who has worked for Bruckheimer before (Con Air and, uncredited, Armageddon). Here, Rosenberg finds the right balance between action-propelled narrative and odd touches, such as a comic-relief cop duo (determined Delroy Lindo and goofy Timothy Olyphant). The movie also pauses to let a minor character sing the praises of an unprintable technique known as “the Stranger”; I respect a film that stops to smell the sleaze.

In all, this is the first Bruckheimer production I’ve enjoyed. I only regret a little too much camera jitter in the car-chase scenes, which are otherwise staged with a tongue-in-cheek taste for the ridiculous (Memphis gets behind the wheel of that Shelby Mustang and makes her defy gravity, physics, and Delroy Lindo). What amazes me is that many critics are praising the bloated Mission: Impossible 2 while dumping on this light-headed, light-hearted fare, as if punishing Bruckheimer for past cinematic sins. Maybe Bruckheimer hasn’t quite reformed, unlike Memphis, but Gone in 60 Seconds at least shows that he can make entertaining trash, instead of his usual boring trash.