Sunday, August 23, 2015

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: A History of Violence (2005); Underworld, U.S.A. (1960); Sonatine (1994)

A History of Violence (2005)

Director: David Cronenberg

A phenomenal movie that pulls off the unique feat of thematic, effective self-criticism.

The two homicidal maniacs on left have no idea what's lurking under the
humdrum exterior of Nick Stall. The peeling back of that exterior is an
exercise in intelligent, chilling filmmaking.
The basic story seems to be a straightforward tale of bad guys getting their comeuppance after messing with the wrong man. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) lives in a sleepy little Indiana town, where he runs a quaint diner and has a loving relationship with his wife, teenage son, and young daughter. When a pair of homicidal thieves attempts to rob Stall's diner and rape one of the employees, Stall kills the invaders with astounding efficacy. This tale of the small-town hero draws the attention of the national press. Soon after, a trio of extremely grim men arrive and approach Stall, claiming that Tom is really a man named "Crazy" Joey Cusack, a former wildman thug associated with an organized crime syndicate in Philadelphia. Stall must begin going to more and more extreme measures to protect his life and family.

While this may all seem like a familiar story of satisfying, righteous justice, trust me that it is far more. Early in the movie, it becomes clear that the story, guided by David Cronenberg's brilliant direction, is displaying the deeper, scarier nature of violence, its effects on humans, and its place in society. Tom's teenage son, Jack, is the victim of bullying at school. Jack follows his father's noble guidance by not fighting back and defusing many situations with his wit and humor. After he sees the praise his father receives for killing the two would-be murderers in his diner, though, Jack abandons his passive approach and pummels his tormentor at school. We viewers gain that base level of satisfaction at seeing this; however, when Jack's father later tells him that this is not the way to solve problems, we feel conflicted again. Certainly, non-violence is the lofty and ideal way to answer aggression, but we can't deny the primal thrill of physically punishing those who threaten us. This is just one of several very mature and intelligent themes and scenes in the film that add unprecedented depth to what could have been a more run-of-the-mill precursor to Taken.

The story carries the movie well enough, but Cronenberg's direction enhances it every step of the way. This is one of the most efficient movies you are ever likely to see. In an exceptionally tight 95 minutes, there are moments of brooding tension that bridge the violent action. It all has an almost hypnotic rhythm which carries you through, with virtually no wasted shots, scenes, or lines.

An easy technique to overlook is one that I particularly love about Cronenberg - his approach to film violence. When he portrays violence on screen, Cronenberg never glamorizes. There are no slow-motion shots. No triumphant music scores. No one-liners. Killing and maiming are horrible, brutal acts, and this is exactly how Cronenberg gives them to us. In A History of Violence, the deaths are ugly, gut-wrenching affairs, even when they are happening to villains who may have had it coming. This is a point for which I admire Cronenberg - the point that one should never get comfortable watching realistic violence.

I thoroughly enjoyed this rewatch (my fourth viewing, I believe), and I'll continue going back to this movie every few years in the foreseeable future.

Underworld, U.S.A. (1960)

Director: Samuel Fuller

Not the most polished film you'll ever see, but one loaded with admirable energy and conviction.

I've seen a handful of Samuel Fuller films - The Steel Helmet, Shock Corridor, and The Naked Kiss. I find them all to be the product of a man with a bold approach to the types of stories that he told in film, though without the resources that would make the film more widely appealing. Underworld, U.S.A. falls right into the same category.

You probably wouldn't trust a guy who looks like him, but
watching Devlin exact a brutal vendetta against a bunch of
repugnant criminals is crime movie gold.
The story is that of Tolly Devlin - a street thug who sees his low-rent criminal father killed by a quartet of goons associated with local organized crime. Devlin swears revenge. Over the next decade, he becomes an expert safe-cracker. Eventually, he sees his chance to exact vengeance on his father's killers, though it will be no small task. Three of the four men are extremely powerful lieutenants in a massive crime syndicate. This doesn't deter Devlin, though, as his sense of purpose brooks no flinching at the task he set himself from the moment he saw his father murdered.

The tale is a solid revenge story, though it doesn't take the path that you may predict. Fuller, who wrote the script, gave us something that I can't recall seeing in other crime/revenge stories. While the overall arc follows typical lines, the path that Devlin takes is novel enough to keep things interesting. He cozies up to unexpected figures, including a prostitute, a police lieutenant, and even the ruthless murderers whom he hopes to assassinate. He is a true rogue whose only allegiance is to his own vendetta, and such characters are almost always intriguing.

The movie has a certain raw feel to it, as do all Fuller movies which I've seen. He was willing to go places, in terms of human vice and violence, that kept him from mainstream success. His treatment of these things was never gratuitous, though. In Underworld, we see an innocent young girl ruthlessly run down by a hitman. Such an act is shown not for mere shock value, but rather to exemplify the hitman's utter lack of empathy or compassion. The movie has several other hard-hitting scenes, and they set Fuller movies apart from their contemporaries.

Even when in the middle of a lethal firefight, Aniki (far right) shows a
disturbing amount of impassiveness. It eventually becomes clear that this is
not done merely to make him seem "cool."
Sonatine (1994)

Director: Takeshi Kitano

A quirky, enigmatic film with a powerful final punch.

Anyone who has seen a Kitano film knows that he has an unusual style. Sonatine is no different. It follows Japanese yakuza strongman Aniki Murakawa (Takeshi Kitano, who also directed). Though very powerful and successful on his turf in Tokyo, Aniki gets orders from a superior to take a small contingent of soldiers to Okinawa, where they need to settle a turf war between locals. Once there, Aniki and his mostly inexperienced crew find things becoming unexpectedly complicated. Several men on both sides are killed, and Aniki and his remaining soldiers retreat to a secluded house on the beach. While there, the men while away the time by drinking and clowning around. Aniki has some fun with them, but he also begins to quietly ponder the meaning of his life of crime.

I must admit that I found the movie somewhat difficult to follow. This is partially because of the number of characters involved, each being part of one of four or more factions in the disputes. (And no, it's not because I think all Japanese guys look the same - I spent two years living and working in Japan, and I never confused people). A larger reason, though, is that the plot is vague. This is by design, as Aniki's confusion over the killings around him is what spurs his existential crisis. For all the value Aniki and his men give to killing their opponents, they might as well all be the same. Adding to my confusion was the quirky detachment that nearly all of the characters exhibit. I'm all for using deadpan as a device, and it is sometimes effective in Sonatine, but it was amazing how it obfuscated people's intentions and motivations much of the time.

Though I discovered afterwards that I had clearly missed and misunderstood certain plot points in the movie, this did not make the ending any less powerful. The closing sequences expose Aniki's deepest, darkest feelings in ways that I had never seen. These alone set this movie apart from any other gangster film that I have seen thus far.

Those unfamiliar with modern Japanese cinema might find the tone and performances off-putting in their stoicism or strangeness. However, if you are willing to put in some work and make it to the end, there is a rather profound payoff waiting.