Sunday, September 28, 2014

Retro Trio: Made (2001), Escape Plan (2013), We Own the Night (2007)

Made (2001)

Director: Jon Favreau

In a word: lame.

The look on Favreau's face here is pretty
much how I felt watching this movie.
This was a surprise for me, since I've generally liked Favreau's writing and direction in his various films. From Swingers to Elf to the first two Iron Man movies, I thought he was solid enough, if not exactly spectacular. I don't put him in any kind of pantheon of great directors, but he's solid. Even films of his that I wasn't terribly enthused about, such as Chef, are well-done, for what they are. 

So it was disappointing to watch this earlier stab of his at spoofing the mafia genre. It's not hard to see what Favreau was trying to do - throw a couple of bickering buddies into the lower levels of the mafia that has been glamorized by countless great movies. But it never gets any real steam. First of all, Vince Vaughn's character is supremely annoying. I'm no Vaughn hater (even though he has absolutely zero range, outside of playing himself), and I actually think he's hilarious when cast in the right movies. But imagine his typical motormouth character firing off line after line, without a single thing actually being funny. Well, that's what he is in Made. I actually wanted him to get whacked after about 15 minutes.

Second off is that the story rambles through a sluggish and vague narrative that seems to have been meant as a mafioso Odyssey of sorts. There are a few mildly amusing scenarios here and there, but most of the scenes simply drag. In the end, the big "reveal" of the plot only made me think that the movie should have been about 45 minutes shorter and saved us viewers the trouble.

This movie had potential, with a decent idea and really good cast, including Favreau, Vaughn, Peter Falk, and about half the cast of The Sopranos. Alas, the whole was far, far less than he sum of its parts. So much so that I was surprised that it made a "Top 100" list of gangster movies compiled by a few Philadelphia area film aficionados. Not sure what they were seeing on this one. 

Escape Plan (2013)

Director: Mikael Haefstrom

This movie fell just slightly on the wrong side of "mediocre." It's not terrible, but there's no way one can call it "good." 

The plot is all but given away by the two-word title. Stallone plays Ray Breslin - a security professional who breaks out of prisons in order to expose any weaknesses, so that they can be corrected. When his services are procured by a a mysterious woman working with the C.I.A., things start to go wrong. All of his safeguards are stripped, and he is truly stuck in a high-tech, ultra-secret, maximum security prison which is completely off of the grid. Inside, he meets a sly German inmate (Schwarzenegger) who takes great interest in his demeanor and skill set. From there, the two try to (you guessed it) escape.

Escape movies' biggest strength is always waiting to see just how the escapee will use his cunning to make his way past all sorts of obstacles to gain his freedom. In that respect, Escape Plan gets it right. The set up is fine, and the super max prison presents a few interesting obstacles that Breslin has to surmount. But none of them are so creative that they become memorable. Breslin's methods for studying and using his environment are just compelling enough to have kept me watching, but they weren't exactly mind-blowing.

One must absolutely NOT think too hard about this movie's story. There are a laughably high number of logical inconsistencies. I was able to shrug them off for the most part, as it didn't take too much away from the escape element of the movie, but they are pretty bad. If the very reason for the prison's existence doesn't hold up to some mild questioning, then the scriptwriters have done a pretty poor job. There are more than a few other massive oversights that are nearly as awful, so a viewer will need to be ready not to analyze things too closely. You'll only be disappointed.

The aesthetic is just hilariously bad. Clearly going for style over any kind of pragmatics, the prison design is unnecessarily silly, and the guard uniforms look like bad Halloween costumes. Style over substance can work, as long as there is actual style. Escape Plan's notion of "style" equated to what an 11-year old boy would find "cool-looking."

There is also one missing element that I had mixed feelings about. When you sit down to watch a movie with Stallone and Schwarzenegger, then you would expect more than a few one-liners, right? Well, this movie is woefully lacking in that department. Yes, there are a few attempts at some zingers here and there, and one or two of them are half-decent. But mostly, the banter is absent, and much of what is there is thoroughly forgettable.

Do I feel like I wasted my time watching this? Not quite, but close. And there's absolutely no need for me to watch it again. It's a barely passable popcorn flick that you can turn your brain off for, and we all need one of those every once in a while. 

We Own the Night (2007)

Director: James Gray

A good crime flick, if not quite an outright "classic."

The movie tells the tale of Bobby Green - a self-absorbed, semi-outcast brother of one cop and son of another. Played by Joaquin Phoenix, his is a story of self-actualization and transformation through suffering. It's a unique story for the crime film genre, in the type of character that serves as the focus, and just how that character evolves throughout. While it does seem a tad extreme and rushed to an all-too tidy ending, it is a rather satisfying arc.

The movie's two greatest strengths are the acting and the fact that it doesn't pull too many punches. The large-scale "crime" conflict is between the local cops and an ever-increasing Russian mob presence, and Bobby is caught between the two. The tightrope that Bobby walks through most of the movie is constantly wavering in the winds of his own indecision, and we viewers know that he will eventually fall off. The suspense comes from waiting to see if Bobby will make the choice of which direction he falls towards, or if the decision will be made for him. The emotional ramifications make for great theater, as Joaquin Phoenix wears the struggle exceptionally well. He has to struggle through several dilemmas that threaten either his body or his peace of mind, without a single easy answer or fully acceptable outcome for himself or his loved ones. The grey areas certainly set this film apart from many others of its ilk.

Though much of the movie focuses on emotional turmoil, there are certainly several highly suspenseful action sequences, which are quite well-done and affecting. More than simply adding some visceral excitement to the proceedings, they often serve to jar Bobby out of his sometimes paralyzing indecision.

The clearest weakness to me is simply that the transformation goes a bit too far, by the end. I won't give anything away, but the end of Bobby's journey went to a place that I thought oversold just how far he had transformed by story's end. It hardly ruins the film by any means, but it wasn't completely to my liking.

A very good movie that I would certainly recommend to anyone who is a fan of more sophisticated crime tales that focus more on individual character study and transformation, rather than the more procedural elements of most crime films.