Talking Movies

March 7, 2013

Parker

Jason Statham stretches his acting muscles again, but unlike last year’s  underwhelming Safe, Parker comes with a writer and director of  pretty high calibre attached.

Parker

Statham is (you’ve guessed it) Parker, who we first meet disguised as a  priest to execute a heist at the Ohio State Fair. The disguise, amusingly  enough, isn’t entirely outrageous – as Parker reveals his inviolable ethical  code: “I only steal from those who can afford it, and I only hurt people who  deserve it.” Unfortunately his father-in-law Hurley (Nick Nolte) has lumbered  him with some unethical thieves (Michael Chiklis, Clifford Collins Jr, Wendell  Pierce) who leave Parker for dead on a roadside. Parker survives and tracks them  to Florida, where he uses struggling realtor Leslie (Jennifer Lopez) to pinpoint  their location, and, in an unlikely alliance, identify their next heist. But can  Parker focus on stealing the haul and killing his betrayers when Chicago mob  boss Danziger has unleashed an assassin to eliminate both Parker and his wife  (Emma Booth)?

This is based on the Parker novel Flash Fire by Richard Stark aka Donald  Westlake, which makes you wonder (given Point  Blank) if he only had one plot:  Parker, left for dead, survives, seeks revenge. It’s a good plot, and Black Swan and Carnivale scribe John McLaughlin renders it  the kind of entertaining crime popcorn Hollywood’s fallen out of doing. Unlike  the last Stark flick Payback the  plentiful violence here isn’t sadistic; indeed the scene you’ll wincingly  remember is stunningly masochistic. The State is notably endearing as he beats  people up, is nice to dogs, and delivers the immortal threat of an agonising  death by crushing a man’s trachea with a chair with the kicker – “Plus there’s  the posthumous humiliation of having been killed by a chair.” Indeed, like Ocean’s 11, when J-Lo makes her belated  entrance it’s slightly unnecessary.

Not to imply that J-Lo’s role,  comic relief with realistic tragic undertones, is redundant; but by that point  it is extra icing on the cake director Taylor Hackford has made. Hackford uses  Palm Beach locations wonderfully as Parker realises crime cannot flourish on an  island with drawbridges, and he stages a recriminating conversation between  Parker and Hurley as dramatically as the beach argument in Rampart. The many fights are brutal enough to  keep State fans happy, and the increasing paranoia of Chiklis’ gang-leader  Melander is well justified as Parker infiltrates his preparations for a massive  diamond heist. The ice is to be fenced by Danziger’s moronic nephew Hardwicke  (Micah Hauptman, who memorably cameoed as ‘Kripke’ in Ben Edlund’s meta-madness Supernatural episode), which is why a  terrifying assassin (Matrix Reloaded  Agent Daniel Bernhardt) is hunting Parker with brutally violent grim  efficiency.

Is Parker an avenging Angel of the Lord as suggested? He certainly seems  indestructible, albeit far from invulnerable, and Parker is another fun Statham franchise that  deserves further outings.

3/5

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June 14, 2012

How Endings Start

The lyrics of a Metric song set me considering exactly what a movie needs to do so that you can’t leave early because you need to know how it ends.

I’ve only walked out of two films in the cinema, and both of those were because I had to be somewhere else urgently. Oddly enough, both of them were also films that were so out of whack with the three act structure that I didn’t feel I was going to miss a revelation by leaving early. Perhaps the devotion to the three act structure which I’ve rampaged against previously on this blog is down to that notion – that if you start with a beginning, move on to a middle, and finish with an ending, most of the audience will feel unable to leave before the end because they’ll have been sufficiently hooked by the narrative structure to need to follow it to its logical conclusion, even if they don’t like the film, indeed, especially if they don’t like the film.

I have given up on two acclaimed films after 100 or so minutes because of a complete lack of interest, despite their three act structure. The meme-monster Downfall I found to be tedious beyond repair because every 10 minutes seemed, like a variation on a musical theme, to bring a scene in which the paranoid Hitler ranted about whoever had ‘betrayed’ him this time “Of all the people who could have betrayed me at this moment in time, INSERT NAME would have been the last I would have expected.” The English Patient saw me switch off during the scene where Willem Dafoe had his thumbs cut off, as I realised that not only did I not care what happened to any of the characters, but that nothing that happened next could recompense me for the boredom of getting that far.

I’m not sure why I didn’t respond to these films, which some good friends adore, but the simple fact is that they failed to hook me. So, what is the hook? I think the hook of a movie might be usefully compared to the cold open of a TV show. An episode of CSI or Criminal Minds can often force me to watch it, almost against my will, by hooking my interest with a bizarre cold open – my mind shouts not to change channels because it wants to know how such an odd crime could have been committed and by whom. The great opening of a TV show is not that dissimilar to the first 10 pages of a movie script which is tasked with introducing a world, some likeable characters, and how that world is now going to change.


Of course the simplest way in a movie to hook the viewer is a trick still used quite often on TV shows of starting with an outrageously high-stakes or simply baffling scene, and then flashing ‘2 days previously’ as the episode builds to that conclusion. A trick inherited from the noir movies of the 1940s. Think 1948’s classic suspense The Big Clock which begins with Ray Milland on a window-ledge of his own building trying to evade capture and narrating the question the audience is asking, ‘How did I get here?’ Safe’s previously discussed opening flashbacks are a good deal more complicated than the usual noirish hook but it was still devoted to presenting an overly dramatic high-stakes scenario so that after some mucking about in time we mutter like a 1940s cinemagoer ‘Ah, this is where we came in’.

But if presenting a snippet of the ending at the beginning (almost an ironic anticipation of Godard’s dictum about a movie needing a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order) is the surest way to hook the audience to want to know the ending it must be admitted that some films are so disastrous that they can be enjoyed anyway you care to. I for instance have never seen the first or last hour of Pearl Harbour, but I have repeatedly laughed myself sick at the absurdist hour of CGI bombast in the middle where Tom Sizemore fires at attacking Japanese planes with a shotgun and someone sincerely yells “I think WWII just started”. Likewise I’ve long since reduced The Matrix Reloaded to a number of de-contextualised action sequences with no Frenchmen or Architects anywhere.

As the Prophet Chuck on Supernatural said “Endings are hard”, but hooking the audience so they care enough to want to know the awesome/atrocious ending is an equally dark art.

May 24, 2012

Better Safe than Statham

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:22 pm
Tags: , ,

Does Safe represent the start of a push by Jason Statham to broaden his acting range by appearing in a film that’s decidedly more thriller than it is an action?

Writer and director Boaz Yakin, who also scripted and lensed Remember the Titans, certainly seems to have ambitions that don’t fit with the State’s usual mindless fun. The opening of Safe deploys a structure I can’t recall encountering anywhere else other than Tom Stoppard’s radio-play Artist Descending a Staircase – a boomeranging back in time and then returning to the present, albeit done with a good deal less intelligence and rigour than Stoppard displayed. If Statham is quite deliberately playing a character who is more emotional and vulnerable than his usual persona, then these opening flashbacks are a good deal more complicated than the usual ‘2 days previously’ that might be used as a noirish hook to an overly dramatic high-stakes start. Yakin though ends up with less of a noir feel than sheer confusion as he tries to blast through two backstories in flashback before linking them up ‘where we came in’.

Statham plays Luke Wright, a cage fighter in Jersey who accidentally pulverises an opponent in a fight he was supposed to throw, and is punished by the Russian mob; who execute his pregnant wife and hope to drive him to suicide by promising to kill anyone he establishes any sort of friendship with in the future. A year later Luke is about to jump in front of a subway train after the Russians have ruthlessly made good on their word when he spots Mei (Catherine Chan) being chased by the same gangsters. Mei who we have met first being terrorised by the Russians, was originally abducted by the Triads in Nanjing, and sent to America by Han Jiao (James Hong) to do the book-keeping for him mentally using her prodigious math abilities. In the present she has been entrusted with a new number by Jiao but has been abducted from her adoptive father Chang (Reggie Lee) by the Russians, who want that number. When she escapes, courtesy of some unintentional help by the corrupt NYC captain in charge of SWAT (John Lee Burke), she runs straight into Luke’s path…

Safe isn’t nearly absurd enough for the usual Statham thrills. It has a very complicated plot, which is only disclosed at a late stage; and really does try to emulate NYC crime thrillers of the 1970s rather than Luc Besson’s 2000s nonsense actions. This tension is never quite resolved. There is a nicely staged subway attack during which Statham delivers one of his greatest ever action one-liners in killing off a Russian mobster who’s aghast that a garbage-man should have such skills: “You had bad information; I never collected garbage, I disposed of it.” Similarly when Chris Sarandon mutters at Statham “You’ve got some balls” only to be met with “Yeah, I’m amazed I can walk,” we’re defiantly in Besson-land. Yet at the same time we have Hal Hartley regular John Lee Burke as the corrupt NYPD captain and some noticeably arty action sequences. There is an assault on a car composed as a long-take reminiscent of Cuaron’s Children of Men, and another subsequent attack involving great tricks with wing mirrors and rear view mirrors as the camera plays around with locating and hiding characters in the mayhem, as well as a showy long-take where Statham arrives.

Can Jason Statham break out of the action ghetto? Perhaps, but I think he’s more likely to do so by appearing in a film which is entirely devoid of chop-socky fights and devoted to showcasing his acting chops than by doing compromise pieces like Safe.

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