Archive for February 2003

Dark Blue

February 21, 2003

In the grim and bitter cop drama Dark Blue, Kurt Russell comes out to play. This smart, underrated actor can usually do most roles upside down in his sleep, but this one — dirty L.A. cop Eldon Perry — requires his full attention and commitment, and he floods his scenes with all the cynical humor and offhand callousness they can hold. Eldon is a self-satisfied corrupt, racist bastard, and Russell, who has always come across as an intelligent man secure in his brainpower, gives us a protagonist who knows full well how rotten he is but covers it with fancy justifications. Russell fans, take note: This is probably the strongest work he’s done in movies¹, and that includes his John Carpenter films.

Dark Blue situates Eldon, and many equally soiled cops, in an L.A. on the verge of flames: the movie is set days before the 1992 Rodney King verdict that drove furious citizens into the streets. James Ellroy, chronicler of “bad white men” in such books as L.A. Confidential, wrote the first version of the script, set during the Watts riots of 1965. Screenwriter David Ayer (Training Day) brought the script into modern times, adding his own touches; the relationship between Eldon and his rookie partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman) echoes that between Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in Training Day.

This movie, though, is not about the rookie’s disillusionment; it’s about the gathering self-disgust of the veteran cop, who takes orders from the even more corrupt higher-up Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson) and reacts with rage when Bobby questions Van Meter’s orders — supposedly because Van Meter served on the force with Eldon’s father, but possibly because Eldon, too, secretly questions it; you get the impression that Eldon’s tirade against Bobby is really against himself. Eldon has been okayed for a lieutenant spot, and under Van Meter’s watch he gets to do pretty much what he wants, but what does it profit Eldon if he gains the world but loses his soul?

When two snitches under Van Meter’s protection commit a robbery and a multiple homicide, Eldon and Bobby swing into action, only they swing the wrong way. They’re encouraged to go after a pair of ex-cons who had nothing to do with the crime, and we see the various ways the process is bent to Van Meter’s will — he has dirt on everyone, including Deputy Chief Holland (Ving Rhames), who regards Van Meter with disgust and wants to bring him down. Van Meter, a gelatinous manipulator who isn’t above blackmail and murder to keep the LAPD unit running smoothly, is straight out of James Ellroy’s playbook; he would’ve gotten along fine with the James Cromwell character in L.A. Confidential.

Going far afield from his usual sports comedies, director Ron Shelton delivers a clean, taut piece of work with a respect for self-revealing rants. Kurt Russell gets most of the rants, and slams them home beautifully, especially during Eldon’s career-suicidal speech at his badge ceremony. The language in Dark Blue is coarse yet eloquent, from Eldon’s self-definition as “a gunfighter raised up in a family of gunfighters” to his laundry list of slimy things he’s done in the name of protecting and serving. By the time the L.A. riots flare up, Eldon points out that it’s men like himself and Van Meter who brought the city to this crisis, but he doesn’t really need to. If anyone looks at home in the riots, it’s Kurt Russell driving his car through the chaos, waving a gun and grimacing through his cracked windshield. It’s not whether Russell is worthy of a serious cop drama; it’s whether the movie is worthy of him, and it is.

¹In hindsight, his work in Miracle, which came the following year, probably has the edge.


February 14, 2003

For a while there in the ’80s, Frank Miller halfway legitimized men in tights. His magnum opus was 1986’s famous Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, but the work that first got him noticed was his run on Daredevil. Bringing his obsession with ninjas and film noir street grit to the blind hero — noble lawyer Matt Murdock by day, crusading avenger Daredevil by night — Miller set the bar higher for flawed, human comic-book heroes. Among the fans of Miller’s run was Mark Steven Johnson, who has now presented his very own movie version. The result is a little like a novelization of a damn good movie: Miller’s comics were more cinematic than this piece of Daredevil cinema.

Blinded by toxic chemicals as a boy, Matt developed hyperactive senses to compensate: he can smell the perfume of a woman from fifty feet away through a wall, he can tell if you’re lying by listening to your heartbeat (an asset in court). This hero’s journey begins as so many other heroes’ journeys do, with the death of the father (David Keith, who gives Matt’s broken-down boxer dad some rumpled pathos). Somewhere along the line, Matt — played as an adult by Ben Affleck — fashions himself a fabulous red leather outfit and becomes Daredevil, beating the tar out of criminals that the law can’t touch. Johnson does a serviceable job of piling this and much more exposition into the movie, though it doesn’t leave room for much else.

Matt’s (and Daredevil’s) emotional downfall comes in the shape of Jennifer Garner, as Elektra, a Greek ambassador’s daughter intimate with martial arts and ninja weaponry. They don’t make a terribly electric pair here; Affleck gives a pained and conflicted performance — and you can take “pained” literally; Matt munches Percocets and other painkillers after a hard night on the town — but Garner is athletic and robust, a bouncy jock girl, where she needs to be sullen and exotic. The let’s-capitalize-on-Alias casting is a mistake.

If anyone emerges from Daredevil as a sex symbol, it won’t be the latex-clad Affleck or Garner — it’s more likely to be Colin Farrell as Bullseye, a loose-cannon Irish assassin hired by the city’s crime lord the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan, doing more of his jocular basso-profundo thing) to bump off Elektra. Throwing his arms out in an arrogant worship-me pose, Farrell’s Bullseye is always playing to a wildly appreciative audience in his head. Watching him, I was struck anew by the thought that the villains in Hollywood movies know themselves far better than the heroes know themselves; not sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, Bullseye is free to run amok with implements ranging from a paper clip to a peanut, and Farrell gives a large-scale performance in what’s really, in terms of screen time, a tiny supporting role.

Daredevil has some of the same problems as 2002’s lighter-than-air Spider-Man. In both, CGI figures do most of the hoofing, and you can see why in one unfortunate shot of Ben Affleck attempting to run in his head-to-toe leather. If Daredevil is a man without fear, Johnson is sometimes a director without shame: It’s been a very long time since I last saw the camera pan away from lovers to a roaring fireplace. Yet Johnson adds some fine touches: Matt sleeping in a sensory-deprivation tank; raindrops dappling Elektra’s skin so that Matt, with his super-auditory “radar” sense, can “see” her. The first living thing we see onscreen is a rat, making it clear that this isn’t the well-scrubbed Manhattan that Peter Parker swung through. Whenever possible, Johnson sticks close to Frank Miller’s hard-boiled tone, and he stages a key confrontation between Bullseye and Elektra that’s note-for-note out of the pages of Miller.

I enjoyed Daredevil while it lasted, but except for Farrell and some amusing bits from Jon Favreau as Matt’s portly legal partner Foggy Nelson, very little of it has stayed with me. The fights are your standard quick-cut unscannable fare — God forbid we should see how exactly Affleck or Garner manage to raise their legs more than two inches off the ground in their crinkly latex — and the last half of the movie seems to be devoted to them. Also, I wasn’t aware that having augmented senses of smell and hearing enables you to dive hundreds of feet down the side of a building and then land on an iron balcony without causing your legs to telescope into your stomach. These comic-book movies forget that we’ll buy things in comic books that we can’t buy in live action. A movie that has the wherewithal to show Matt popping Demerols should also at least gesture in the general direction of the laws of physics.

Shanghai Knights

February 7, 2003

shanghaiknights_us3Back when I reviewed Shanghai Noon (2000), I was sufficiently charmed by it to write, “This is one summer movie I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to.” So, a little late (Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson were too busy with other films to get around to my request right away), we have Shanghai Knights, whose plot, I promise you, matters not at all. I trust that comes as a shock to no one. The Shanghai movies exist solely to exploit the unstable but winning chemistry between the sincere, physically adept Chan and the ironic, verbally adroit Wilson. They’re good for each other: Chan’s seriousness of manner gives Wilson something to react to, and Wilson has a calming effect on Chan.

Shanghai Knights picks up our heroes separately: Chon Wang (Chan) is a sheriff out West, shaking his head at the glorifying pulp novels written about his former partner Roy O’Bannon (Wilson), who’s out in New York. Back home in China, Chon’s father is killed, and his Imperial Seal stolen, by a nasty Brit amusingly named, in one of many old-movie nods, Rathbone (Aiden Gillen). Rathbone is in cahoots with the renegade Wu Yip (Donnie Yen); with the power of the Seal, they plot to become the King and Emperor of their respective countries. So Chon and Roy — along with Chon’s younger sister Lin (Fann Wong), a formidable martial-arts practitioner herself — head off to London to get their hands on the Seal and on the pair of murderers.

Wait, didn’t I say the plot didn’t matter? Killing off the father of one of the two leads in a comedy sequel seems a bit hefty (and leads to a bad scene where Chon mourns his father and stares at a photo of Jackie Chan as a boy posing with someone obviously PhotoShopped in as his father), but once the action moves to London things pick up considerably. Director David Dobkin doesn’t forget why we go to Jackie Chan movies: even though Chan, a year shy of fifty now, obviously uses a stunt double for some of the more perilous gags, he can still choreograph with the best of them, and there’s a terrific fight scene in which Chan uses everything at his disposal against a pack of London brawlers. Chan grabs an umbrella, opens it, and fends off his foes as Dobkin quietly insinuates “Singin’ in the Rain” onto the soundtrack.

Indeed, the movie has a lot of fun not only with movie history (there’s an orphan sidekick, reminiscent of a British Short Round, whose identity I’ll leave you to discover) but with British history circa 1887, the film’s setting. An eager young Scotland Yard inspector named Doyle (Tom Fisher) may ring some bells for mystery fans in the audience, and when Lin goes off on her own in the chilly night of Whitechapel she runs into — and speedily dispatches — exactly the person you want her to. (Some of the movie is like a slapstick riff on Caleb Carr’s The Alienist.) Mayhem also unfolds inside Madame Toussaud’s Wax Museum, and in and around Big Ben; one sequence involving a revolving fireplace triggered by pushing a statue’s breasts manages to quote from two Indiana Jones movies at once.

Shanghai Knights is fun, though a little draggier than its predecessor, and Owen Wilson doesn’t have as many zonked, insecure moments here as he got to run with in the original. (He does have a priceless expression of “I can’t believe this is happening to me, but I’m gonna roll with it” during an erotic dream sequence.) Jackie Chan’s best moment here is a swipe from Rush Hour, where he had to fight multiple attackers while trying to keep an urn from falling over; here he turns the tables, and the sequence really outdoes more than swipes. The movie is better than it had to be (and even looks better, what with ace cinematographer Adrian Biddle on board), and the mood of it is just amiable doodling; we don’t feel the pressure of a sequel to a big summer hit — the movie seems to have been made simply because these guys should get together again. The last scene has them talking about hitting Hollywood and getting into the movie business, and once again I’ll say it: I won’t at all mind seeing Shanghai Stars, or whatever they end up calling it.


February 3, 2003

You have no idea how much I’d love to announce that Quigley is so insane and surreal it rockets beyond bad and crashes into brilliance. For here we have a film in which Gary Busey dies and comes back as a pomeranian. What’s more, we often see Busey wearing a dog collar, looking roughly as bugfuck as he used to look on I’m with Busey. He sometimes growls and barks, too. Anyone who appreciates, from a safe distance, the twilight zone that is Busey might be expecting an extreme cult classic, something to be enjoyed in an altered state.

Alas, no state is altered enough to enjoy Quigley. And I speak as an owner of two pomeranians, one of whom looks exactly like Quigley. The movie amused me on that level. Our Quigley lookalike watched the DVD for a while, then got bored and went off to play with a cherry tomato. I suggest you do likewise. Quigley is a painfully cheap movie, shot on ugly digital video (with the most inept opening-credits animation ever), sporting several ghastly ballads on the soundtrack. The pom sure is cute, though.

Busey plays Archie, a mean rich guy who hates dogs. He dies in a car accident, and the management in Heaven decides he needs to repent by carrying out two missions back on Earth — not as Archie, but as a white pom named Quigley. Only Archie’s guardian angel Sweeney (Oz Perkins) is able to see Archie as Archie, which means that whenever Busey and Perkins share a scene, we get to see Busey collared and looking irritated or stoned or both.

Archie/Quigley must destroy a CD-ROM that contains a harsh speech Archie was going to deliver to his videogame company’s stockholders. Then he must improve the fortunes of his brother (Christopher Atkins) by delivering bro’s crappy videogame to his old company. Along the way, Quigley must save his little niece, who stupidly got lost in the woods. Absolutely none of this is interesting or entertaining, not even on the level of “I am actually watching a pomeranian who’s supposed to be Gary Busey. Gary Busey.”

Quigley is “family-approved,” which means it’s God-fearin’ (maybe that’s why the born-again Busey agreed to be in it, other than the cash). There’s some talk about forgiveness and redemption, and Archie’s brother’s family holds hands and says grace at the table. That’s not really offensive, though. What is offensive is the apparent limit of three boring California locations for the whole movie (run, Quigley, run down the same hallway over and over!) and the vision of Heaven as a place with a couch, a mirror, a fog machine, and astroturf. What Dreams May Come this is not.

You were expecting Oh Heavenly Dog with extra added Busey-crazy? Nope. This is not the kind of bad movie you can get sloshed and enjoy ironically. I don’t even think it could benefit from Rifftrax. It’s the kind of bad movie that encourages fast-forwarding or playing with a cherry tomato.