Posted tagged ‘action’

Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

September 8, 2008

Bangkok Dangerous is as dark and blue as the inside of a gun. It’s a hit-man thriller of the Existential Crisis variety, in which an assassin (Nicolas Cage) is starting to feel sick of what he does so well. Complicating things are a venal but essentially loyal sidekick (Shahkrit Yamnarm), whom the assassin takes under his wing for training, and a sweet young deaf-mute pharmacist (Charlie Yeung) who makes the assassin — who calls himself Joe — weak in the knees. Also, Joe is finding it increasingly difficult to pull the plug on his emotions and his victims. To paraphrase a line from Grosse Pointe Blank, either he’s fallen in love or he’s developed a newfound respect for life.

The movie, remade by the Hong Kong twin brothers Danny and Oxide Pang from their own 1999 thriller, is on some level banal and plotless. But the Pangs, along with cinematographer Decha Srimantra, give us a gloomy mood piece about being utterly alone in a city of nine million. The Bangkok of this movie, as filtered through Joe’s eyes, is full of crime and people on the make, a densely packed steampot of sin. The only oasis is a glowing white pharmacy and the conveniently nonverbal angel within. (In the original film, it was the assassin who was deaf-mute.) Why Nicolas Cage doesn’t do more romantic movies is a puzzlement; he’s got the soul for it. Joe is a beast until he meets the beauty, whereupon he opens up.

I won’t soon forget Cage’s delicate work in the scene wherein Joe the amoral monster takes his sweetie out to dinner, attempting to grab a semblance of normality while it lasts. The conversation is limited to how hot the food is, countered by the pharmacist’s offer of leaves to balm Joe’s tongue, but Cage’s yearning eyes do the talking for both of them. Later in the date, Joe gets to feed a banana to a baby elephant, and rather than giving us an insert of the cute animal, the Pangs keep their camera on Joe, who seems to become five years old for a few seconds. The plot device is all too threadbare — this innocent young woman is supposed to re-introduce Joe to his humanity. Been there, seen that. But it’s not the notes, it’s how Cage plays them.

Other than a gory moment involving a boat propeller, the violence is subdued, even classy. It’s not meant to look cool, though — people won’t be watching the intricate stunts and gun-fu over and over on the DVD, since there aren’t any. Joe kills for a living; it is what it is. “Bad man?” asks Joe’s sidekick about the latest target. “Bad for someone,” Joe shrugs. As in Grosse Pointe Blank, we mostly don’t know what the doomed men have done to earn a price on their heads, at least not until the last job, the one that gives the assassin pause. Bangkok Dangerous isn’t anything great or original; it’s a riff, and it’s dependent almost entirely on Nicolas Cage and the way he has of making Joe look pained even when he’s smiling (in a few shots he looks eerily like Andy Kaufman). Cage has been making choices in recent years (hello, The Wicker Man) that don’t always make sense to the rest of us. I always get the feeling, though, that whatever film he does satisfies some need or curiosity he has at the time; it’s not just for the paycheck. And this one finishes on a surprisingly downbeat, non-Hollywood note. I’m a Cage fan: your mileage may vary. But whatever its narrative predictability, Bangkok Dangerous proves there’s still reason to stay interested in Cage, and in whatever he gets interested in next.

Sukeban Boy

September 4, 2008

Ah, the Japanese. So stately, so repressed, so secretly perverse. The same country that gave us Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi has also given us Miike, Tsukamoto, and now Noboru Iguchi, who gained internet notoriety earlier this year with the ferociously over-the-top The Machine Girl. Prior to that, though, Iguchi squeezed out the amiable turd known as Sukeban Boy.

This is the sort of movie in which two schoolgirls, one of whom is actually a boy (yeah, more on that in a bit), have the following exchange: “Do you really love me?” “Yes, I do. But I can only express my love through fighting you. Now we can fight naked, fair and square.” Sukeban Boy, based on a Go Nagai manga (which also inspired some anime), looks to these eyes like either a prankish piss-take on the Japanese “pinky violence” subgenre or a no-budget example of it — I don’t really feel qualified to make the call. It luxuriates in the spectacle of breasts, especially breasts with deadly force; and if you’ve seen The Machine Girl, you know a phrase like “breasts with deadly force” makes a dizzy sort of sense in the context of Noboru Iguchi.

Porn starlet (and Iguchi regular) Asami is the girlish boy Suke Banj (or Sukeban), who beats himself up trying to render his features more masculine. He gets in trouble at school all the time, so his twisted father (who has some sort of polymorphous-perverse incestuous fixation on him) makes him dress like a girl and go to an all-girls school. There Sukeban must confront various girl gangs as well as a budding lesbian schoolgirl (Emiru Momose) who’s never met a girl quite like Sukeban before. There’s enough genderfuck here for five movies, and Iguchi ups the ante with various bodily mutations — breasts or leg stumps that fire bullets, syringes full of potent fluid that can make boys grow breasts and girls grow dicks, and so forth. In the universe of Sukeban Boy, sexual and gender identity is cartoonishly fluid; it’s all part of the movie’s anything-for-a-gag spirit.

Just north of an hour long, the movie doesn’t risk overstaying its slapdash welcome, as The Machine Girl almost did through the sheer repetition of its arterial showers. Sukeban Boy isn’t nearly as violent, and it has the amateur-hour feel of a fan film, but Iguchi — who has a background in porn as well as horror — clearly has an appetite for excess, and such touches as two topless schoolgirls getting into a slap-fight with their breasts or our hero(ine) triumphing over an adversary with a well-timed fart indicate a director who’s going to have fun if it kills us. To hell with dignity and honor; to Iguchi, the human vessel itself is a toy, a joke, a launching pad for gore or embarrassment (there’s a seemingly endless sequence with several schoolgirls in various degrees of undress squealing “I’m so humiliated! I’m dying of shame! Don’t look at me!”).

As if we could look away. On one level, Iguchi is simply the latest schlock director to discover that sex and violence make a pretty damn lucrative combo platter. Underneath it, though, is something weirder and perhaps deeper that I can’t quite pin down yet (I’d love to see some of his other efforts). That Iguchi employs Tsukamoto-style body-mod consciousness for sophomoric laughs doesn’t invalidate what he’s doing; it just makes it that much more subversive.

Babylon A.D.

September 1, 2008

There’s not much I can do about Babylon A.D. except to advise you not to see it until there’s an uncut DVD, if even then. Anyone who cares about this Euro-scented, nonsensical movie has heard by now that it’s a mess, and that the blame should not be laid at the feet of star Vin Diesel or director Matthieu Kassovitz. Regardless, the version that’s in theaters is the version that the meddling studio, 20th Century-Fox, expects you to pay to see. As it stands, watching it is like trying to take in a late-night double feature of The Fifth Element and Children of Men while nodding off every ten minutes.

The film begins promisingly: disgruntled mercenary Toorop (Diesel) slouching through a rainy gun marketplace and clobbering some poor sap who sold him a bum weapon. We’re in The Future, Sometime, and Toorop gets tapped to escort mysterious young woman Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) to America along with her protector, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh). Why? Aurora is carrying something in her body; it could be the salvation or the doom of mankind. Based (loosely, I suspect) on a French sci-fi novel, the film takes the trio all over the globe without seeming to move. Bad men are after them, commanded by someone named the High Priestess, played by Charlotte Rampling, who has played high priestesses one way or another throughout her career and finally gets to be one officially. Her scene with Gerard Depardieu, though brief and conducted via video screens, will be good news for fans of art-house fare; it seems impossible, though, that this is indeed the first film in which both have appeared.

Word around the campfire is that Fox ordered Babylon A.D. trimmed by fifteen minutes to avoid an R rating. Who recut it, Stevie Wonder? The action sequences set a new standard for incoherence — at no point do we understand or even clearly see what’s happening, a disappointment for Michelle Yeoh fans looking forward to watching her show her stuff. It would take a committee of devout logicians to make sense of what’s left of the plot; much more than fifteen minutes seem to be missing, since the film proceeds in an almost non-sequitur fashion. (And people say David Lynch movies are confusing?) The annoyed director has complained in the press about what the studio did to his baby, though his name is still on the film and, one assumes, his paycheck.

The suspicion arises that Babylon A.D. was never going to make much sense or to be much good. Matthieu Kassovitz is on record, but I’d like to hear from his credited cowriters, Eric Besnard and Joseph Simas, or from one of the many executive producers. I’d like to read the panicked memos written when the film reportedly went well north of its budget and its schedule. I’d like to see the international cut, which supposedly runs 101 minutes. Mostly, I’d like my 90 minutes back.

Tropic Thunder

August 16, 2008

The closest Ben Stiller has come to creating a real character — actually inhabiting a role and playing its reality — was probably his performance as the hapless but decent Ted in 1998’s There’s Something About Mary. That was ten summers ago (he did interesting work in the same year’s Zero Effect, Permanent Midnight, and Your Friends & Neighbors too), and since then Stiller seems to have been content to condescend to the jerks and nitwits he plays. A smug, superior tone has crept into his acting and calcified there. Stiller’s new vehicle, Tropic Thunder, which he also cowrote and directed, has been talked about as his comeback — his bid for edgy comedic cred after too many Night at the Museums and Heartbreak Kids. It isn’t, though. This time, Stiller doesn’t just smirk with hip disdain at the doofus he’s playing — he does it at the entire acting profession.

Tropic Thunder has one of those wheels-within-wheels insider plots much beloved of young talent disgusted by the Hollywood machine. A Vietnam war epic called Tropic Thunder is being filmed on location. Its stars — lunkheaded action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), self-destructive fart-humor hack Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and obsessive Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) — can’t quite find the reality in the overwritten script (based on a book by a ‘Nam vet played by a growling Nick Nolte). The stars’ hesitations are costing the production millions, so Nolte’s character suggests turning the actors — rounded out by rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and levelheaded newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) — loose in the jungle so they can experience its pains and perils for themselves. Unfortunately, some heroin runners are camped nearby, and they have live ammo.

It should be said that Robert Downey Jr.’s annus mirabilis continues here. As a blonde Aussie actor straining for verisimilitude in anything he does, including getting skin-pigmentation surgery to play the black soldier Lincoln Osiris and never breaking character, Downey imbues the movie with whatever soul (though I use that word cautiously in this context) and commitment it has. Kirk Lazarus’ devotion to his craft is supposed to be one of the movie’s little jokes, but Downey transcends the joke. The script tries to make fun of Lazarus for appropriating black skin and attitude, but the joy Lazarus/Downey takes in the performance — which never comes close to mockery or “blackface” — wipes out the movie’s inside-baseball jeers at self-serious actors. He’s certainly more fun than anything else in the film.

Even Lazarus, though, is ultimately betrayed by the movie’s big banal point — that actors are insecure princes ruled by coarse kings with money. The coarse king here is Tom Cruise as a fat, bald studio boss; the problem is that Cruise is too identifiably Tom Cruise larking in a bald cap and padding — he doesn’t bother to create a character, either. (It’s his usual win-win-win persona in Homer Simpson drag. Cruise could use some Kirk Lazarus juice.) Actors are insecure! Stop the presses! The movie is also about how they man up and prevail under pressure, so the satire doesn’t cut very deep. The jaded, cynical screenwriters (including Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux) take soft shots at the hand that feeds them.

Aside from Downey, a chameleonic actor without the need for De Niro-esque physical transformation, Tropic Thunder probably needed to be cast with actual stars ribbing their standard personae; imagine Vin Diesel in the Tugg Speedman role (and how much funnier he’d have been going “full retard” in the Simple Jack clips). Stiller and Black are playing actors hackier than they are (Downey isn’t, and doesn’t condescend to Lazarus or Osiris), which is a way of being a hack while pretending you’re above it. For all its movie-within-the-movie cleverness, Tropic Thunder says nothing new or particularly funny about the movies we watch or the tropes we fall for (I did, however, laugh heartily at a bit between Downey and a fellow superhero-blockbuster actor who will go unnamed here). At the end of the day, what we’re watching is a lot of sketch-level buffoonery against a backdrop of big-budget explosions and gunfights — which are supposed to be taken ironically, of course. But ironic explosions are still as loud and stupid as the same old ones.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

August 4, 2008

The first ten minutes or so of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor are like the biggest, most lavish Hong Kong fantasy ever filmed. Jet Li is there (as an evil emperor with plans to conquer death and the world, in that order); Michelle Yeoh is there (as a witch who promises the emperor eternal life but falls in love with his general); thousands of extras are there in finest Ancient China military garb — or, at least, computer-generated extras are there. Director Rob Cohen, who reportedly has a deep interest in Chinese history, may have taken this gig just so that he could film this prologue, which plays like an elegant short movie. Then we cut to Brendan Fraser trying to fly-fish and hooking himself in the neck, and, well, say goodbye to elegance.

I enjoyed the first two films in this series — The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001), both directed by Stephen Sommers — as giggly, brain-damaged adventure eye candy. At the time, you have to remember, there wasn’t much around in terms of old-school adventure; there were a lot of action movies, which isn’t the same. Now, of course, we’ve had Sahara and the National Treasure films and the fourth Indiana Jones film; with that in mind, it may have made financial sense for Universal to drag Rick O’Connell (Fraser) out of retirement after seven years, but the Mummy franchise is no longer unique, and it’s also lost touch with its roots in horror (which were tenuous to begin with).

Rick and his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello, in for Rachel Weisz) are asked to deliver the Eye of Shangri-La to Shanghai, where, coincidentally, their son Alex (Luke Ford) is hanging out in a nightclub owned by Evelyn’s inept brother Jonathan (John Hannah). Alex, who now looks way too old to be Brendan Fraser’s son, has excavated the evil emperor, who was turned to stone way back when. The emperor revives and heads for Shangri-La, where he will theoretically gain Ultimate Power and rule us all. The O’Connells, accompanied by the witch’s daughter Lin (Isabella Yeong), must stop the emperor before he raises his army of darkness.

Speaking of which, there’s a sequence involving the emperor’s army of stone soldiers (who crumble so ineffectually when hit that we wonder why the emperor bothered to raise them) versus the near-skeletal army led by the general who was put to death for falling in love with the witch. I found myself wishing that Sam Raimi, using all the clout he’s gained from directing three Spider-Man blockbusters, could use this technology to make an astonishing fourth Evil Dead film — imagine an army of Deadites versus an army of Bruce Campbell clones, or something. When you’re watching a movie and wishing you were watching a different, non-existent movie, the movie you’re watching is in trouble. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is frantic but dull, even dreary, with frat-boy divertissements like John Hannah covered in yak vomit and Brendan Fraser icing his nuts after a sequence wherein he rides a stone horse.

Rob Cohen has now directed three (unconnected) movies with “dragon” in the title: this, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), and Dragonheart (1996). Cohen enjoys dragons, I guess, and we get one here when Jet Li transforms into a three-headed dragon. Jet Li also transforms into other things, and he spends most of his post-prologue screen time covered with CGI stone and muck. It’s late in the game by the time he’s actually recognizable as Jet Li, and he and Michelle Yeoh get to spar for all of two minutes. This obviously isn’t an actor’s movie, but Maria Bello manages to shine anyway, since she’s Maria Bello and that’s what she does. Bello has taken some lumps for her fake British accent — and she does lose a bit of her earthy, been-there-done-that American-ness when she tries to ape Rachel Weisz (and what about Aussie Luke Ford’s now-you-hear-it now-you-don’t American accent?) — but her pleasure (stated in interviews) at being in her very first big adventure flick is infectious. Let’s bag the Mummy franchise and give Maria Bello her own adventure series. She deserves it, and so do we.

The Dark Knight

July 19, 2008

The first misconception about The Dark Knight is that it’s a superhero movie. It’s not a superhero movie, or a crime drama either. It’s a horror movie — an epic one, and a great one. Madness and mutilation are on the menu, as well as disturbing ideas about the nature of humans. In the corrupt Gotham City as presented by cowriter-director Christopher Nolan, Batman (Christian Bale) might actually be making things worse. He operates outside the law, giving rise to loutish copycats with guns and makeshift Batman garb. He takes it upon himself to represent order, giving rise to a cackling agent of chaos known as the Joker, who wants to fiddle — or giggle — while Gotham burns.

The second misconception is that the late Heath Ledger gives a great swan-song performance as the Joker. I didn’t see Heath Ledger anywhere in this movie; there is only the Joker, unexplained, unreachable, unstoppable. The Joker is perhaps the most frightening character seen onscreen since Anthony Hopkins hissed at Jodie Foster behind Plexiglas. If it would amuse him to kill you or disfigure you, he will. If it would please him to take Gotham’s avatar of white-knightism, the incorruptible district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and sculpt him into a hideously ironic distortion of Harvey’s public image, he’ll do that too. The horror of the movie is that only a select few build nobility on a foundation of trauma; the rest fall away into hatred and psychosis.

The third misconception is that this is a Batman movie. It is, sort of, but only incidentally. As usual, Batman gets upstaged by his more colorful foes, though the glowing eyes in his cowl when he activates his new sonar device are a neat touch. It’s really an ensemble piece, with people all over Gotham — good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman/Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Batman’s tech guru Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Harvey’s girlfriend (and Bruce’s ex) Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) — getting drawn into the vortex created by the Joker’s insistence on Batman’s revealing his identity and Batman’s hesitance to do so.

The Dark Knight is beautifully shot (by Wally Pfister) and edited to within a millimeter of its life in order to come in at a manageable two hours and thirty-two minutes (which fly by). It feels rushed, especially towards the end; I look forward to an extended cut on Blu-ray. Nolan’s films seldom have any flab on them, but this one could’ve used a bit more breathing room. I would’ve liked more of crime-family head Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts, suavely amoral in what will undoubtedly be his most-watched performance ever), and a little more going on between Harvey and Rachel so as to prepare better for where Harvey’s character arc goes. And I would’ve enjoyed the action sequences more if they were conceived and composed with more clarity. Back when action films demanded practical stuntwork by men and women who were risking their lives, directors made damn sure you could see what was going on. With CGI, everything’s too easy, too manipulable in post-production.

Still, this is a remarkable achievement in suspense and mood. The near-mythical clash between Batman (whose darkness and rage are forever held just barely in check) and the Joker (who happily lets his darkness and rage off the leash — if they were ever on a leash) dominates the film in a way it didn’t, quite, in Tim Burton’s mordantly amusing Batman (1989). Burton used the midnight-blue world of Batman to express himself (you could hear him telling Batman, “See, to them you’re just a freak — like me”); Nolan uses it to make points about our psychological DNA. Bizarre and pulpy as it may seem on the outside, The Dark Knight speaks uncomfortable truths about why we are what we are, as many classic horror films do. It’s a contest between evil men who fiercely show their ravaged faces to the world and a good man whose face is unscarred but hidden anyway.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

July 13, 2008

In Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Guillermo del Toro lets his freak flag fly. The Mexican fantasist behind such sui generis dark fairy tales as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (and also the first Hellboy film) clearly spent his childhood devouring every issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland he could get his mitts on, and he’s still spending his childhood that way. Hellboy II is densely packed with creatures huge, small and human-sized, particularly in an episode when Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his teammates from the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense have a look around some sort of troll bazaar tucked away under the Brooklyn Bridge. So many unspeakable and indescribable beasts lurch, waggle, and slither within the frame — often in the background — that the effect is less horrifying than celebratory. “I’m home,” del Toro might be saying.

Slight bad news first: Hellboy II suffers — a little — from del Toro’s shoot-the-works spirit, just as his friend Peter Jackson got lost in his Skull Island playpen. There’s always a lot going on, though the plot is comic-book simple; del Toro and cowriter Mike Mignola (who created Hellboy for Dark Horse Comics) garnish this dish so heavily that the palate becomes overwhelmed and even a little jaded. Like Jackson, even so fecund a magician as del Toro just can’t keep topping himself, and it must be said that the subtitular Golden Army, which figures in the overstuffed climax, feels like something out of a Mummy film. Whenever del Toro gets behind the wheel of a pop apocalypse like this one, cinematic gigantism takes over, not always to the movie’s benefit.

But still. Del Toro makes plenty of room for beauty and pathos, without which a monster mash is merely an advanced arts-and-crafts show. Hellboy is still smitten with Liz (Selma Blair), who commands fire and wishes the big red lug would clean up once in a while. It’s a clichéd conflict, but it also gets to the heart of their unstable relationship: bad enough he’s a stogie-chomping alpha male — he’s also a demon. Against all odds in this creature-infested summer blockbuster, Perlman and Blair do honest, hurtful work together. Hellboy’s teammate, the amphibian Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), also gets weak in the knees over a dame — in this case, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), of a dying race of elves, whose twin brother Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) wants to squash all the humans and make the earth safe for inhumans again.

The multiplex hasn’t exactly been safe for humans lately; WALL•E told us we were becoming bloated simpletons, and Hellboy II considers us inelegant little monkeys whose reaction to the extraordinary is fear and loathing. But I can’t say these movies don’t have a point: we do suck in a lot of ways. Yet our complicated response to movie monsters, a mix of dread and pity which redeems us, has powered dark fantasy film since its birth. At least twice, del Toro tips his hat to Universal monsters, with Boris Karloff intoning “We belong dead” on a TV and perhaps echoing Hellboy’s thoughts at a self-hating moment, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon mirroring Abe’s predicament as a fish-man in thrall to a princess. Awkward as the plotting is, the movie is too stubbornly weird, too deeply in love with freakishness, to be waved off.

The production values are sky-high here, and del Toro scored a coup when he recruited Danny Elfman to compose the music this time; Elfman fills the soundscape with basso-profundo drama, knockabout comedy, and even a bit of Godzilla larking when Hellboy faces off against a giant Forest God, the last of its kind. Prince Nuada almost derails Hellboy by reminding him that this creature Hellboy wants to destroy is unique, much like Hellboy and his friends, and Hellboy has to make a choice: the monster or humanity? It’s nowhere near an easy choice, and the bizarre and conflicting feelings this sequence — not to mention the rest of the film — raises is worthy of a fantasist at the top of his game. I sort of let the story — the official excuse for why we’re really there — go by in a blur; the meat of it is in the shedding of a single tear by monsters who didn’t think themselves capable of it. At its best, Hellboy II conjures with delicate and very human magic.


July 7, 2008

A powerful being who does more harm than good isn’t funny — it’s scary. Scarier still, at least to some citizens of this great land, is a powerful black being. (Remember that in the fall, when what Jon Stewart calls “Baracknophobia” swings into high gear.) Still, Hancock, starring Will Smith as a drunken, surly übermensch who costs Los Angeles more in property damage than the bank robberies he’s wantonly trying to stop, doesn’t get much into race — at first. Hancock isn’t hated because he’s a black superman — he’s hated, like Jack Smurch in James Thurber’s satirical story “The Greatest Man in the World,” because he has remarkable gifts and yet is still a dickhead. (He’s like Mike Tyson without the clammy psychosexual unease.) At the same time, he’s every racist’s worst stereotypical nightmare — an embodiment of what crackers think blacks will do with a little power (get drunk, bust shit up, sleep on park benches).

It’s good — isn’t it? — that Will Smith, probably Hollywood’s most valuable African-American player, feels comfortable enough to take on a role like Hancock. (Much as I admire him as a filmmaker, I shudder to think what Spike Lee will have to say about it.) Smith invests Hancock with enough of his offhand charisma to put us on his side no matter how much damage he wreaks. Hancock isn’t evil; he’s just lost, the only superhuman on earth (as far as he knows), and he’d rather be left alone to drain bottles and forget how weird his life is. He muscles through the movie under a cloud of sarcasm: at this point he’s so bored by criminals he just plants himself in their back seat during a police pursuit, waiting for them to be stupid so he can make this outing somewhat worth his while.

Teaming Will Smith the alcoholic Superman with Jason Bateman was a stroke of casting genius. Bateman is Ray, a struggling worker bee in public relations, whose life Hancock saves; Ray pays him back by offering to improve Hancock’s image. Ray’s young son (Jae Head) idolizes Hancock; his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) doesn’t — she can hardly stand to be in the same room with him, it seems. Theron summons up some power in her sparring with Smith, who makes Hancock baffled and intrigued — who is this woman who seems to have as much contempt for him as he does for most humans? Scurrying around all this, trying to make everyone happy, Bateman draws on his quick-witted Michael Bluth groundedness and keeps the movie founded on humanity. (It’s also a treat for Arrested Development fans to see him reunited with Theron, his girlfriend in the “Mr. F” storyline.)

Directed by the perpetually underrated Peter Berg, Hancock delivers the comic-book thrills with a twist — the movie may have scooped what the Iron Man sequels probably intend, making Tony Stark an erratic drunk useless as a hero. (It also scoops the Watchmen movie with its sequence of Hancock jailed among all the criminals he put behind bars.) The script’s iconoclastic take on powerful immortals took me back to Alan Moore’s Miracleman, of all things, wherein the god met a goddess, making his mortal wife feel like a weak bag of meat. The film leaves us with a lot to chew on vis-à-vis race and power, especially when Hancock learns more about his past (shrouded in amnesia) — it’s not the usual toothless riff on Richard Pryor’s “Supern—–” routine. Some have voiced issues with the third act, but that’s where I felt it got really interesting. Though not based on an existing comic book, Hancock is like a graphic novel that perhaps leads to a regular series — at least I hope it does, either onscreen or on the comics racks. It’s certainly the most complexly ornery superhero flick we’re likely to get this summer.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

June 15, 2008

The best parts of The Incredible Hulk unfold in Brazil, where the fugitive Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) keeps a low profile, keeps his pulse rate even lower, and is overqualified for his day-labor gig at a soda-bottling factory. Bruce even has a personal trainer, who instructs him to breathe out his anger from his abdomen. He seems to lead a livable, if grungily modest, life here; the sequence was actually shot in Rio de Janeiro, so it has a bustling authenticity, with the buildings piled high and the people densely packed in the streets. It’s a credible hiding place for a scientist who turns into a gigantic green creature of rage when something upsets him. The city must calm him down, too, since we’re told he’s gone well over a hundred days without an “incident.”

Most of the film’s remainder was shot in Canada, where it gives itself over to anonymous backdrops in front of which computer-generated mayhem will be inserted later. The Incredible Hulk, as you may have heard, is a stripped-down-for-action reboot of this franchise, which got off to an idiosyncratic and unpopular start with Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk. I found the Lee film fascinating and unstable, a psychologically thick meditation on repression and daddy-hatred. Many fans would’ve settled for more “Hulk smash,” and in the new film they get it. Directed by Louis Leterrier, who got into similar territory with Jet Li in Unleashed (Danny the Dog overseas), The Incredible Hulk has a more interesting and committed cast than its predecessor. Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth: in just about every case this is an acting upgrade.

Yet we see the writing on the wall here: this is the second Marvel Comics movie adaptation actually to be produced by Marvel, after Iron Man, and both films pack exactly as much personality as their actors bring with them, and eventually collapse into CGI footage of behemoths pounding each other. The Incredible Hulk goes farther than Iron Man, which at least gave us several scenes of Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges parrying verbally before they climbed into their respective battle suits; here, I don’t recall Edward Norton and Tim Roth acting opposite each other at all. Roth plays Emil Blonsky, a hard-bitten soldier hired by the Hulk’s nemesis General Ross (Hurt) to find and capture Bruce before he hulks out. Looking as though he’s still carrying some resentment from being so brutally manhandled in Funny Games, Roth moves through the film like a bullet, keeping Blonsky away from stock evil and grounded in a simple desire to fight one last great fight before his body gives out.

As usual, Norton expresses a furtive intelligence; whatever backstage drama he allegedly caused was worth it. He sells decency effortlessly, as when Bruce sees a female bottling-plant coworker cringing under the unwanted attention of a lout, almost walks away — afraid that the guy will start a fight and trigger a hulk-out — and then goes in to rescue her anyway. Norton also brings out the best in the usually uneven Liv Tyler, as Bruce’s true love Betty Ross (the general’s daughter). Tyler plays a lovely scene with the Hulk, in a cave under a thunderstorm; the way she advises him to watch his head when he ducks into the cave has a surreal tenderness. It’s a fine, moody sequence that just about outdoes the overwrought entirety of Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

The movie is fun enough, and it satisfied me as a lifelong Hulk fan (there are many in-jokes to tickle the fans, from a Bill Bixby cameo on a TV to Bruce looking askance at an oversized pair of purple pants). I think I prefer the Ang Lee version, which took the premise to bizarre and unexpected places; Lee, rather quixotically, tried to make art out of it — he didn’t quite realize he was supposed to make a commercial for Hulk toys. Louis Leterrier is more of an action man, and when Blonsky becomes a dark mirror on the Hulk — the Abomination — the vehicles fly up in the air and fireballs chase pedestrians up and down the streets of New York. It’s a comic book writ large, all right. But I still wished I could see more of Bruce in the Hulk and vice versa, more of Edward Norton beneath the CGI. Maybe next time.