Saturday, May 5, 2012

Movie Reviews-Safe, Contraband, Brighton Rock, Meeting Evil

If you have seen any recent Jason Statham movie you pretty much know what you're gonna get. A bald bada$$ British bruiser who is both a dangerous man and a fashion plate kicks a$$ in all sorts of interesting ways while finding time to drop a few cool one liners in a gruff tone. It's what he does and he does it well. But either his brand is starting to wear thin or he's just not choosing the best scripts. Safe was entertaining enough once the butt-kicking commenced but it was, even for an action film, rather empty. Looking back I think this was because Statham didn't have a love interest or more importantly for this genre, any really interesting rival/opposite to play off against. So as a result there just wasn't enough there. I would say in hindsight that this was probably a wait for DVD/Netflix film. And I like Statham. But it is what it is. The ending both deconstructs action film showdowns and sends a tip of the hat to Statham's ensemble film Snatch.

Safe is suitably frantic and violent but verges on ridiculousness at times. It's hard to believe, especially in a city as densely populated as New York, that the characters could engage in the sort of violence that they repeatedly do and manage to largely avoid police interference.

Luke Wright (Jason Statham), a sanitation worker, is a fighter in unsanctioned NY cage fights. He is a somewhat passive fighter and lets another fighter hit him more than he should. Offering only the most cursory of resistance he still wins the fight. We then see him in a tense standoff with a mid level organized crime yokel who reminds him that he was supposed to take a dive. Both the yokel and his backer, a Russian-American crime boss not known for mercy, lost money on the fight. Wright heads home to try to get his wife out of town but it's too late. The Russians, led by the boss' depraved son, (who really lays on the accent thick and chews up the scenery) have already tortured and murdered his wife. Mercifully and effectively this is shown offscreen. The Russians consider killing Wright but he offers them no resistance. Disappointed that they can't hurt him anymore, the Russians tell Wright that they may kill him in the future or may not but they will definitely kill any friends he makes or any relatives they can dig up. Evidently like any evil overlord worth the name, the Russians want to make Wright suffer. And like most evil overlords they commit the cardinal sin of leaving an enemy alive. A tear rolls down Wright's cheek.
Meanwhile in China a young girl Mei (Catherine Chan) is revealed to be a genius with numbers, mathematics and probability, with a photographic memory for even the longest sequences. She is kidnapped from her family by organized crime boss Uncle Han (James Hong from Big Trouble in Little China) and put to work under his subordinates' direction to maximize profits from his gambling interests. Skimming drops dramatically and profits rise as Mei's preternatural skills with numbers are employed. 

Uncle Han decides to send Mei to NYC where men loyal to him are in a battle with the same Russian Mafia who destroyed Wright's life. She has a long number to memorize. Should she fail him he will murder her mother. But the Russians already know of this wunderkind and have their own plans for her. And through a series of unlikely events Mei winds up on the radar of a suicidal Wright. Deciding not to kill himself Wright dedicates himself to Mei's protection. And of course we learn that Wright was never a garbage man or (just) a cage fighter but something much more deadly. And now he's got a purpose. This didn't quite have the righteous anger or star power of the similar Man on Fire with Denzel Washington but it wasn't the worst way to waste time. It has lots of violence and moves quickly but ultimately is a forgettable if occasionally enjoyable flick. Chris Sarandon has a part.

Much like Statham, you know that Mark Wahlberg is going to bring a certain consistency to his action films. I don't know that Wahlberg is a better actor but he does have more range in my opinion.
Unlike Safe, Contraband is as much of a drama film as an action film. Wahlberg has a love interest and the film does ask you to use your brain a little bit more, even as it employs a great many common tropes such as One Last Job, You Were Like a Brother to Me, Putting the Band Back Together and so on. But even as the film does ask you to engage a bit more, it still is rather predictable. How you might feel about this will determine if this is a film you care about watching. It was set and shot in New Orleans but the film's lead actors generally do not attempt a Louisiana accent. 

Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is a hard working New Orleans home alarm installer who gives people good service and doesn't try to rip them off. He's married to Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and has two boys with her. His best friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) runs a local construction company.
But Kate has a younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) who likes to live on the wild side. Coming back into the US on a drug smuggling trip, to avoid detection by the Coast Guard, Andy dumps the cocaine in the ocean. He thinks that's the smart move. However his boss, the nervously malevolent Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) doesn't see it that way. He wants his money.
Chris is a former (almost legendarily devious) smuggler who went straight. He stops by to see Briggs to see if Briggs will be reasonable about the loss and take less than full value. Loss is part of the business risk after all. But Briggs is profanely disrespectful and does not budge from his original position. Andy has two weeks to come up with the full value of the lost package or Briggs will kill him. And then in Briggs' mind the debt will pass to Chris and Kate. And if they can't pay Briggs will kill them but not before taking out some payment in trade from the delectable Kate.
The way Chris sees it he has no choice but to put his old smuggling crew back together, hop on a cargo ship under the control of a captain who doesn't like him, Captain Camp (the amazingly profane and aggressive J.K. Simmons), head over to Panama to get some counterfeit dollar bills, smuggle them back into the US, pay Briggs and be done with it all. Kate doesn't like this plan, not wanting Chris to end up in prison like his father(William Lucking), but she likes the idea of her brother dead in a levee even less. Sebastian thinks Chris ought to bring some drugs back so that there is more opportunity for profit but Chris is adamantly anti-drug. In order to protect his family against Briggs and his goons while he's gone, Chris tasks Sebastian with watching Kate and the boys. What could go wrong with this plan? 
There's a Bob Seger song that I like titled "Still the Same". One lyric stanza reads
You always won every time you placed a bet/ 
You're still damn good/No one's gotten to you yet/  
Every time they were sure they had you caught/ 
You were quicker than they thought/ 
You'd just turn your back and walk
The enjoyment in Contraband comes from watching Wahlberg attempt to make these lyrics come true. John Singleton once said Wahlberg reminded him of James Cagney and you can definitely see that here. If you like heist films check this out.

Brighton Rock
This noir movie is based on a Graham Greene novel which I have not read. I was actually happy about this as I had no preconceptions about the movie. This adaptation takes place in 1960's Great Britain near and around as you might guess, Brighton. A small time group of hoodlums want to take revenge for the murder of their boss. A naive, lonely and virginal waitress named Rose (Andrea Riseborough) accidentally gets photographic evidence that could implicate a gang member in a revenge murder. Pinkie (Sam Riley) gets the assignment to obtain and destroy the picture, find out what if anything Rose knows and if necessary, send her to the afterlife. Pinkie is just the person for the job as his vileness and coldness and willingness to kill have already made the other gang members nervous to be around him. Pinkie's boldness and hatred only increase throughout the film as he kills his way to become boss of his gang.

This film is not an action film; it's a drama. And the drama is primarily about the relationship between good and evil or more precisely between Rose and Pinkie. 
Rose is quite obviously desperate for someone, anyone to pay attention to her. In a sad, very depressing scene she has to listen as her obviously uncaring (and abusive?) father bargains a fair brideprice for her with the maleficent Pinkie, who intends to marry the underage Rose to forestall any chance of testimony against him. Actually whenever I see Rose, I expect that Eleanor Rigby should be playing. It's a very religious film , not so much in the imagery though there is that but in the conversations between Pinkie and Rose about heaven and hell. Pinkie and Rose are both Catholics. 

Pinkie is quite adamant that there is hell but couldn't care less about heaven. He has a way of speaking that constantly belittles Rose and a few times it looks as if he's not above hitting her. At the same time while Rose is enthralled by and deeply in love with Pinkie, Pinkie is fascinated by her, even if that fascination is almost wholly based in contempt.
On the side of the angels is Rose's employer Ida (Helen Mirren-who is still going to be vamping men when she's 70), who as a former "party girl" herself, can recognize the pure evil radiating from Pinkie. One of the men Pinkie killed was an associate of Ida's. Ida basically engages in a struggle to save Rose's life and soul. In this she's advised by her friend Phil (John Hurt) who has never gotten to know Ida in a biblical way and appears to deeply resent it.
Look for current Game of Thrones actor Nonso Anozie as Dallow, a member of Pinkie's gang who starts to realize that Pinkie is not all there. Andy Serkis has a small but important role as Mr. Colleoni, the most powerful gangster in Brighton and a man who intends to keep that distinction. This is a VERY dark noir indeed but it's not very violent. I liked the acting here. I liked this film and thought it was very worthwhile. It throws a few curveballs at the viewer's head and like all good curveballs they don't necessarily break when or where you think they should. This looks, feels and sounds like a fifties or sixties movie. It doesn't have hyperactive camera work or crushing sound. It assumes that a scene can last for a while and not lose the viewer's interest. The ending will stay with you.

Meeting Evil
Samuel L. Jackson can play a Scary Black Man better than anyone else I know. He's probably going to be doing it well into his eighties. He is a good actor. However this film just rubbed me the wrong way. Jackson's character didn't really work. In my opinion, the motivations stunk. In the same way that some movies have Black Spiritual Guides who evidently have no hopes, dreams, lusts or purposes of their own and just want to ensure that their white charges live a blessed life, other movies have Scary Black Men who seemingly live to just mess with white people for no better reason than because they can. If anything Meeting Evil rather implausibly combines these two tropes.

John (Luke Wilson) is a visibly depressed real estate professional  (realtor?) who was unlucky enough to have all of his chips on the table when the bubble popped. He also just got fired. Bills have been piling up and he is about to lose the family home. He has been trying to hide this from his leggy wife Joanie (Leslie Bibb) and their son and daughter. John loses it when his family tries to cheer him up and snaps at them. Angered, his wife takes the kids to a previously planned outing: without John.

Shortly afterwards there's a knock on the door and there is a man dressed in a funereal manner. It's Richie (Samuel L. Jackson) a verbally aggressive individual who browbeats John into helping him get his sports car restarted. After a seeming accident wounds John, Richie insists upon driving John to the hospital. On the way though a few rude or inconsiderate people get on Richie's nerves and he "corrects" them. His idea of correction usually involves removing the person from the planet. As you might expect it is very easy to get on Richie's nerves. At first this is done without John's knowledge but quite soon John becomes aware that he's riding around with a full blown Type 4 Chaotic Evil killer. Strangely enough, Richie seems to take a personal interest in John. He knows things he shouldn't know about John's private life. 

For a while the film flirts with the idea that Richie is either John's alter ego or indeed something supernatural. As the bodies start to pile up more secrets are revealed and a few twists that aren't really twists come to light. What could have been a subversion of the two tropes mentioned above falls into slavish worship of them to the point where they're extremely unrealistic-even for tropes. When John is arrested by the cops and desperately babbles about the scary black man who really committed all the mayhem  we're supposed to feel for him because in this instance the stereotype really is true. Ho-hum. 
So if you find the idea of a milquetoast white man finding his inner Alpha Male through the act of murder as shown by Jackson, to be an interesting story this could be the movie for you. Or if you just like watching Jackson do his trademark righteous bad$$$ indignation you may enjoy this film. Me? Ehhh. Definitely not his worst film but far from his best.
Tracie Thorns and Muse Watson are mostly wasted as a pair of police officers tasked to investigate all the killings. Thorns and Bibb have a scene together that is virtually senseless.

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