Archive for August 2012

Premium Rush

August 25, 2012

Premium Rush moves like New York City — fast and hard, with nary a backward glance. The movie is about Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a NYC bike messenger tasked to deliver an envelope. This envelope contains something very much desired by Detective Monday (Michael Shannon), a corrupt cop who wants to intercept it before it reaches its destination. Wilee is probably named after the luckless cartoon character, but he’s more like the Road Runner, with the cop as the coyote. Most of the city cops in the film, including a bike cop Wilee consistently stymies, are annoyances or obstacles. It’s an eerie coincidence that Premium Rush opened on the same day that New York City police, trying to take down a gunman, ended up wounding nine bystanders. New York’s finest, indeed.

Apart from its unintended ironies, Premium Rush is a fat-free thriller with breathtaking high-speed bike chases — we’re told the footage is unfaked — through busy Manhattan streets. Professional stunt drivers can almost do flashy, bone-crunching car chases in their sleep, but what must really require nerve-racking attention are the many scenes here in which cars are always braking within inches of hitting a bicyclist. There’s a lot of subtle yet thrilling car choreography here, reminding us that sometimes it’s more exciting when you see two or three near-simultaneous accidents narrowly averted.

Wilee is a great bicyclist, eschewing gears and even brakes; he relies on his legs and his instincts, and we see the latter at work at several points when Wilee has to make a split-second decision which way to go, and his imagination plays out various scenarios (if you go this way, you hit someone’s stroller; if you go that way, you’re gonna fly over someone’s hood). It’s as if Wilee’s got a rapid-fire GPS in his head that steers him to safety — in most cases. The director of Premium Rush is David Koepp, who’s primarily a screenwriter but has made a few interesting films, chiefly his directorial debut The Trigger Effect. Here, Koepp just takes us for a ride, no subtext required or desired. It’s a trim piece of work, maybe his best, because it isn’t bogged down and it knows how to sketch characters on the fly. In the minimalist-thriller race, I’ll take this over the pretentious Drive in a New York minute.

It helps that the Road Runner and the coyote are impeccably cast; Joseph Gordon-Levitt is accessible, smart, athletic, everything a young action hero needs to be, while Michael Shannon, born in Kentucky and raised there and in Chicago, almost single-handedly brings a ’70s New York flavor to the movie. (Detective Monday isn’t always eating a sloppy, garlicky sandwich, but spiritually he is.) There’s more New York irritability, desperation and unchecked pride in Shannon’s performance than in the entirety of the Taking of Pelham 123 remake from a few years ago. Shannon usually plays suffering saps in indie films (and is great at it), but here he’s clearly having a great time and shares it with us. The movie doesn’t stop there, surrounding Wilee with a crew of colorful support, including Dania Ramirez as Wilee’s ex-girlfriend and fellow bike messenger and Aasif Mandvi as his dispatcher. Everyone in the film has New York fever, and every damn time you see a cop he always interrupts himself to hassle someone over something small.

Premium Rush might be purer if we never knew what was in the envelope, but we find out it can lead to a little boy’s freedom. On one level that’s kind of a bummer — do it for the kid! — but on another level it adds some warmth and urgency to the chase. And the movie keeps going at a clip; the editors, Jill Savitt (who’s cut most of Koepp’s films) and Derek Ambrosi (making his feature debut), can take a well-earned bow. This is the kind of low-expectation late-summer film that can all too often fall under the radar but delivers more honestly and forcefully than most of its warm-weather predecessors. Watching Wilee and his cohorts bob and weave in and out of bleating traffic while Michael Shannon hilariously chews the scenery (minus one tooth) offers, if not pure cinema, at least pure entertainment.

The Bourne Legacy

August 12, 2012

Though it’s not a terribly memorable or distinguished film, I’m rooting for The Bourne Legacy to do well for one reason: Jeremy Renner. In movies since 1995, Renner first got on my radar with 2002’s Dahmer, in which he turned in a strangely affecting performance as the Milwaukee Cannibal. It took him a few more years, but Renner finally grabbed another lead — and an Oscar nomination — with 2009’s The Hurt Locker. After a couple of support gigs in blockbusters (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and The Avengers), is Renner ready for his close-up? I certainly hope so. Renner has a quiet alertness, a sense of serenity, and a general air of mystery; he gets us to lean forward a bit to access him. He’s physically convincing in action scenes, emotionally persuasive elsewhere. Unless America is really that stuck on Matt Damon in the Bourne franchise, I see no reason that Renner’s work here shouldn’t make him a star.

The movie he’s in needs him badly but just barely deserves him. Directed by Tony Gilroy, who had a hand in the other Bourne screenplays, The Bourne Legacy follows Renner as another super-agent, Aaron Cross, who is marked for death along with several other agents when Jason Bourne (in The Bourne Ultimatum) blows the whistle on the CIA. Cross goes on the run, scooping up scientist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who narrowly escaped assassination herself. Cross takes green and blue “chems” to keep his physical and mental abilities at peak efficiency; he’s almost out of chems, and he thinks Dr. Shearing can get him more.

The first half hour or so is intriguing, with Cross hiking and climbing in Alaska and not speaking until well into the movie. After a while, though, The Bourne Legacy turns into an extended chase sequence; Cross and Dr. Shearing make a beeline for Manila, where the chems are, while various CIA goons, headed by an increasingly frantic Edward Norton, try to track them down. I don’t know that I buy Norton as a retired Air Force general turned CIA black-op supervisor — he just seems too young — but he brings clarity and urgency to his role, never letting us catch him playing evil. He’s a guy trying to keep a lid on a boiling-over pot.

The action is comfortably small-scaled and tastefully staged, though the climactic motorcycle chase drones on for so long it becomes an irritant — past a certain point I just wanted Cross’s stoic pursuer to drive off a cliff, or suddenly convert to pacifism and give up, or anything that would make it stop. Gilroy, who also directed Michael Clayton and Duplicity, is better with mood and performance than with action; as if to compensate for not having a big special-effects moment, he lets the set pieces overstay their welcome. The style is a lot calmer than that of Paul Greengrass, who directed the two previous Bourne films with a jittery camera that evoked immediacy but also provoked headaches. Gilroy’s action has more solidity — it’s better centered — but it lumbers a bit.

None of this can be blamed on Renner, or Weisz either — she’s quite convincing in her post-traumatic scenes following the first of many attempts on Dr. Shearing’s life. The Bourne Legacy has an interesting if underused supporting cast, including Scott Glenn, Stacy Keach, Zeljko Ivanek, and various leftovers from previous films, like David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Albert Finney (all of whom may only be represented by recycled footage — I’m not sure, since I haven’t watched any of the other films again since they first came out). A lot of acting firepower is in service of a side story, the story of what was happening during Bourne Ultimatum, which led me to think: Did Jason Bourne know he was dooming various other operatives when he outed Operation Blackbriar and the Treadstone Project? If so, did he care? I can imagine a fifth film in which a vengeful Aaron Cross goes looking for the guy who consigned him to a life on the run.

Total Recall (2012)

August 4, 2012

The most entertaining moment in Total Recall, the latest needless remake, is the screen logo of the film’s production company, Original Film. Ah, irony. We went down this am-I-really-me rabbit hole 22 years ago, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a futuristic construction worker who doesn’t remember his past as a secret agent. Crudely but vigorously directed by Paul Verhoeven, the movie had its goofball charms, including cartoonishly fun effects by Rob Bottin and a literally eye-popping trip to Mars. The new Total Recall doesn’t go to Mars, and there’s no cartoonish fun (aside from an obligatory rehash of the prior film’s three-breasted prostitute). It’s a grim actioner, full of deep-bass noise and flashing lights and gunfire and bloodless PG-13 violence.

Few would argue that Colin Farrell is not a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger. But as Douglas Quaid, a bored worker who visits the memory-implant outfit Rekall to take a mental espionage vacation and finds himself embroiled in the real thing, Farrell doesn’t get to do anything he does best, which is to be quick and profane and sly and sexual. I don’t think he laughs once in the movie or even smiles much (except ruefully at the featureless drudge that is Quaid’s life); it’s a real waste of a vibrant performer. There’s no time for levity here anyway, hardly even time to breathe before the movie lumbers into its next endless and expensive action set-piece. There is a nice bit when Quaid, who earlier commented idly that he wished he’d learned to play piano, sits down at the ivories at his secret-agent apartment and starts tickling them expertly. It just leads to yet another info-dump (this is who you are and this is what you must do), but it’s a pleasant respite while it lasts.

Vaguely following the 1990 film’s blueprint, Total Recall tries to keep us guessing whether Quaid, in his past life, was an agent working for the repressive government or an agent who threw in with the resistance. Either way doesn’t seem like much of a party: if Quaid was a government man, he was working for Bryan Cranston (a long way from Breaking Bad, in his “I’d better do as many crappy movies as I can while the iron’s still hot” mode, last seen in Rock of Ages); if he was a rebel, he was reporting to Bill Nighy, doing his usual dour turn in his third film for director Len Wiseman (after two Underworld movies). I find, with some surprise, that I have somehow seen all four of Wiseman’s films (including Live Free or Die Hard), and I wonder if four films over a nine-year career is enough evidence to declare a director essentially worthless. Wiseman makes mildly pretty films, full of blues and grays and lens flares, but they’re the definition of bland. Certainly they never risk camp or bad taste, as Verhoeven triumphantly did.

As in the original, Quaid escapes from the government agent he thought was his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and joins up with a resistance fighter (Jessica Biel) he has tucked away in his subconscious. I had heard encouraging things about a take-no-prisoners fight between Beckinsale and Biel, but it takes place in an elevator and Wiseman, who’s hopeless when slow motion or big special effects aren’t involved, loses track of the action. The elevators themselves are interesting, whooshing vertically and horizontally, but they’re part of a massive yet impersonal production design whose best elements are cribbed shamelessly from Blade Runner. There’s even a shot where Quaid leans against his balcony and looks out on his ruined city, just like a similar shot with Harrison Ford in the 1982 classic, except this time the camera does a 180-degree spin, which wasn’t possible in 1982. The point seems not to be Quaid’s ruminations on his surroundings but rather “Look what we can do with computer effects now!”

Both versions of Total Recall are based loosely on a story by the late sci-fi mystic Philip K. Dick (as was Blade Runner). The man cooked up mind-twisting ideas that seem unfilmable without a lot of visual garlic sprinkled on. Every few years someone tries to put Philip Dick on the screen, but the paranoid questions at the heart of his work get smothered by state-of-the-art technology; even A Scanner Darkly was literally coated by rotoscope animation. At least the first Total Recall used its premise for absurdist jollies; it was a loopy chunk of Saturday-night escapism, and it looks better than it did in 1990, compared to the passionless, glum-faced adventures we get now. The new Total Recall seems fanatically dedicated to the chase scene, the shootout, the big bang, and forgets entirely about the who-am-I query at its core. Verhoeven sealed his movie with a certain ambiguity — was the whole movie just Schwarzenegger experiencing a false memory from Rekall? — but there’s no ambiguity here. I never thought I’d say that a Schwarzenegger flick was more provocative and subversive than a film made 22 years later, but here we are.