Talking Movies

December 3, 2019

From the Archives: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

The Western Revival may well be killed off by Brad Pitt’s boring art-house epic. Seriously, after Seraphim Falls and 3:10 to Yuma things were looking good for the genre but as Alexander was to sword and sandals flicks so is The Assassination to Westerns. Andrew Dominik’s second film (following acclaimed Australian crime biopic Chopper) was flagged as a Terrence Malick style western. We were cautioned not to expect shoot ’em up action but instead lovingly photographed landscape and dreamlike narrative, characters musing philosophically with copious voiceover. All of which we get. There are some wonderful Malickesque moments, such as a dreamily off-centre train robbery which is all reflected lights through trees and fog, the problem is there’s no substance behind them.

Towards the end of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 Hunter S Thompson described the phenomenon of ‘Campaign Bloat’, when the press corps suddenly realised that the American Presidential Campaign had changed the minds of a negligible number of voters, therefore the last of year of their lives had been pointless. After 158 minutes audiences will feel the same about Jesse James. It trashes the film in retrospect to realise that, having followed the Ford brothers and the rest of the James gang through a long, bloody winter as Jesse becomes increasingly paranoid that one of them is going to betray him, Dominik had absolutely no point to make. This sense of drift afflicts Brad Pitt’s performance as the depressed, lonely and physically ailing Jesse James. He repeats two exact mannerisms which he did as Tyler Durden in Fight Club which emphasise the hollowness of his performance, which doesn’t come close to Chris Cooper’s turn in Breach as a man doing wrong who just wants someone to stop him, as it’s hinted is James’ motivation for conniving at his own killing.

Casey Affleck, so good in The Last Kiss, does a fine job of portraying the turn from naïve hero-worship to resentful hero-killing of Robert Ford but his role is badly underwritten despite his epic amount of screen time. That’s saying something given that the film could justifiably be re-titled The Adventures of the Ford Brothers and their Killing of Jesse James. Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel, as the other halves of Jesse and Robert respectively, hardly appear and serve no purpose when they are onscreen. Sam Rockwell and Jeremy Renner are good in support as Ford’s brother and James’ cousin but the demythologising presentation of them as country rubes and inglorious violent criminals is defeated by the film’s attempts, after the ‘assassination’ finally takes place, to remythologise Jesse James as a noble outlaw. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s atmospheric soundtrack carries the film for a long time but in the end even they can’t save the meandering emptiness.

2/5

July 31, 2013

RED 2

Bruce Willis and John Malkovich return for a second knowing outing as the retired and extremely dangerous spies who just want to be left alone.

red_2_2013-wide

Frank (Willis) is trying to play house with girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), but a trip to Costco sees Marvin (Malkovich) warning him that they’re in terrible danger because someone is sniffing around their botched Cold War Op codenamed Nightshade. And sure enough before long MI6 doyenne Victoria (Helen Mirren) cheerfully informs them she’s been hired to kill them, they’re running from a well-resourced bent spook Horton (Neal McDonough), and they’re also running from his employee – the world’s greatest assassin Han (Byung Hun Lee), who has a personal grudge against Frank. And that’s before Frank and Sarah’s relationship is strained to breaking point by Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), his Russian agent Ex, appearing. Can Frank and Marvin get their hands on Nightshade’s weaponry before it gets them killed? And what role does mad Professor Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins) play in all this?

RED 2 is a fun caper that works best when it’s at its most absurd. Too often director Dean Parisot is content to merely insert Mirren into daft scenarios and watch the audience smile rather than forcing us to laugh with good gags. But when the gags are forthcoming they’re good. There are a couple of terrific back and forth scenes between Frank and Sarah, and a Zen disagreement between Frank, Marvin and Han. There is also a daft sequence in the Kremlin where Marvin attempts to leave Sarah in charge of guarding a vault while he does spy stuff with Frank that is priceless. Parisot also stages a car chase thru Paris with elan and wit as he never loses focus on the chase’s real interest: it’s another example of ‘helpful’ intervention by Marvin in Frank and Sarah’s relationship.

Willis and Parker continue to be an appealingly believable couple, well, ‘believable’, and Malkovich Fassbenders his way thru proceedings. There is, however, a reason that scriptwriters Jon & Erich Hoeber’s previous work Battleship was instanced in the recent Slate article decrying the baneful effect of Blake Snyder’s scriptwriting book Save the Cat! becoming the literal playbook for all Hollywood blockbusters. You can see all 15 of Snyder’s story beats arriving at the appropriate moments here, including the inevitable and infuriating ‘apparent victory’ – whose ruthless application in The Avengers, Skyfall, Gangster Squad, et al is driving us all slowly crazy. But thankfully, unlike Battleship, there’s enough stupid fun here to counteract the formula. Especially as the ‘thematic statement’ from Marvin to Frank is so wonderfully dumb in concept and wording that its resolution can’t help but be a knowingly parodic moment.

There’s life in the old dogs yet, and while this probably won’t run as long as the Fast & Furious franchise it deserves to match Ocean’s with a trilogy.

3/5

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