What is left to be said about one of the most talked-about movies ever made? But rewatching Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho again for the first time in years, with a live audience at Rooftop Reds at Brooklyn Navy Yards, upended a few of my old opinions.
Reams have been written about its still-unusual structure, which violates every tenet of screenwriting — and considering the early exit of its top-billed actor, even the Hollywood star system itself. My memory was that the movie came to a crashing halt after Marion (Janet Leigh) met her fate, and never recovered its early dread, suspense, and wit — almost to the point of becoming a different movie. But on this rewatch, I was surprised to find that it flowed more soothly that I recalled.
It’s much funnier than I remembered, rife with intentional dark comedy, not “oh how quaint in retrospect” tittering. Some of the scenes that once felt out-of-place to me, such as when Sam (John Gavin) and Lila (Vera Miles) voice their dark suspicions to the comically folksy Sheriff Chambers and his wife, now play as willful satire. The Chambers’ inability to perceive the perversion and rot in their own community, in the form of harmless quiet boy Norman (Anthony Perkins), is an unfortunately timeless social issue.
The early office scenes hold up well, considering six decades of increasing cultural awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s very clear why Marion would be tempted to drop everything and flee: her subservient position to gross men, coupled with her hopeless financial insecurity.
Her lover Sam, a divorcée bunking in the back room of a hardware store, is suffering through a similar economic situation. But not subject to such harassment and humiliation, he never fully wraps his head around the extreme lengths that Marion took to escape. The very square Sam stands out as a 1950s-style relic that doesn’t belong in a dark thriller from 1960. But I’ve come to realize that that’s exactly the point: Sam is a basic normcore man’s man, which is intensely threatening to a resentful, twisted incel like Norman.
Psycho is a clear ancestor to David Lynch‘s preoccupations in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Lynch and Hitchcock both repeatedly examined the violent and sexual obsessions barely repressed below the surface of polite society. But the problem with Hitchcock is, as soon as he could depict more violence and sex on screen, he did, and all the artful subtext of masterworks like Vertigo (1958) turned into the overt nastiness of Frenzy (1972).
But Psycho (1960) sits at an interesting pivot point between his two extremes; racier than you may remember (with a few firsts or near-firsts, like depicting a secret tryst in a seedy hotel room, its star in a brassiere on the poster, and even an open toilet seat onscreen), but still using cinematic artifice in place of explicitness (the infamous shower scene technically features less nudity than you’d see during a shampoo commercial today, but still feels shocking, due to the effective montage and scoring).
For a movie named after the antagonist, Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man has a villain problem.
At one point, Cecelia (Elisabeth Moss) asks an interesting question: her husband is famous and wealthy, and can have anyone — so why her? In one question, she essentially admits her longstanding insecurity at having a handsome rich man choose her for marriage, and also gets at the more pressing anxiety: why continue to fixate on her after the end of everything? Why go to such extreme lengths to torture and entrap her? Why not just let her go?
The movie’s answer seems to simply be: because he’s crazy. He’s not exactly like the Joker in The Dark Knight, who wants to watch the world burn just for the sake of it, but more like the loony villain in Skyfall whose absurdly complex revenge scheme isn’t because he’s diabolically clever but because he’s just plain nuts.
Here’s a free thesis idea for film theory students: compare/contrast movies about men who may or may not be going insane (Shutter Island, Shock Corridor, Jacob’s Ladder), vs. those about women (Repulsion, Unsane, Horse Girl).
Forget about the advanced optics in the invisibility suit – the real money must be in that amazing floorboard-creaking-prevention tech, right?
Khoi Vinh rightly observes in Minimalism, Michael Mann and Miami Vice that “Mann has produced a taut, stylistic and often brutally impersonal filmography that seems most interested in the concept of work” (via Daring Fireball). I wholly understand and laud the aim of a minimalist, “relentlessly withholding” narrative, but I don’t believe it’s ignorant or populist to demand more. Mann has proved again and again to be a master at managing both character development and cold hard plot, particularly in his masterpiece Heat.
So to my eyes, Public Enemies marks a regression. The danger in perpetuating multi-million dollar movies without an interest in human beings is entire multiplexes full of soulless special effects showcases like Michael Bay’s Transformers. Vinh goes on to appreciate Mann’s construction of the film as a form of design, not least because Mann commissioned Neville Brody to design a typeface New Deal, and the whole article is a must read.
The curse of avidly following any particular artist is that one is set up for disproportionate disappointment whenever their latest work doesn’t measure up to their very best. Mann is one of my own personal favorite filmmakers, and for the record, I would cite Thief, Heat, The Insider, and Collateral as his best and some of my favorite movies overall. As for the rest: Manhunter suffers from the usual criticisms levied against Mann (dated, stylized, and overserious). The Last of the Mohicans is overrated (famous mostly for its catchy score and capturing Daniel Day Lewis on film at his hunkiest). Ali was a relatively conventional biopic. And finally, I was downright shocked by how garish, empty, and, well, just how bad Miami Vice was (on first viewing, at least).
Atypically for the genre, all three of Mann’s biopics are focused on a limited timeframe. The Insider, Ali, and Public Enemies all examine famous figures as adults, during the most active and famous portions of their lives. Public Enemies can’t help but be hamstrung by the rules of nonfiction, which is by definition less dramatically interesting than fiction. Fiction is carefully crafted by an author, and nonfiction is messy serious of events that won’t slot into Aristotle’s Poetics, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, or Robert McKee’s screenwriting formulae that we as a culture find cathartic in art almost by detault.
Ali is also a casualty of this equation; it’s a biography, not a narrative. That doesn’t explain the brilliance of The Insider, which I consider a triumph. Perhaps it’s because its subject Jeffrey Wigand is not in the same league of fame as Muhammad Ali or John Dillinger, allowing the audience to discover more than they may already know. I would argue that The Insider is actually about something bigger than the life story of one man; it questions whether integrity, purity, and honesty have a place in a modern world run by corporations.
Before I enumerate my complaints about Public Enemies, it must be said that it’s wholly engrossing. Mann’s customarily deep research results in a characteristically high level of verisimilitude throughout. Many sequences were shot in the actual historic locations, including a raid on a safe house at Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, a jailbreak from Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana, and Dillinger’s death at the Biograph Theater in Chicago. The action is visceral and the suspense is nail-biting, especially a sequence in which John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) brazenly strolls through the Special Crimes Unit offices the day before he is to die. One might assume this astonishing event to be a fabrication for dramatic purposes, but Roger Ebert says it’s “based on fact”).
Any follower of Mann’s work will be unsurprised to see that Public Enemies is visually beautiful. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti previously shot Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider on film — how quaint! — but here turns to digital video, with which Mann and Dion Beebe experimented on Collateral and Miami Vice. The scenes set in a dimly-lit F.B.I. telephone surveillance office look particularly striking on digital video. Stanley Kubrick sought natural light so dearly that he famously helped develop special lenses capable of shooting by candlelight for Barry Lyndon, so one suspects he would have loved the technology now available.
Terrifying, petrifying gunfights have been a trademark of Mann’s since his earliest feature The Keep. He has perfected it by Public Enemies, in which the tight choreography and extreme violence is matched only by the concussive sound design. These sequences hark back to the innovative urban firefight in Heat, when to the filmmakers’ happy surprise, the actual production sound proved more earsplitting than was possible with post-production foley effects. When I saw Public Enemies in the theater, the first reel was marred by terrible sound (an improvement over my first viewing of Miami Vice, which was almost inaudible throughout). Once resolved, the volume was loud enough to almost physically feel the force of bullets splintering walls, tree trunks, and background performers.
Mann used to reserve his epic gun battles for climaxes, such as when Frank (James Caan) raids the mobster’s house in Thief, and Graham (William Peterson) single-handedly attacks The Tooth Fairy’s (Tom Noonan) lair in Manhunter. The shootouts grew to massive scale and epic lengths in the later films, like the unnerving nightclub raid in Collateral, and especially the cataclysmic downtown LA shootout that occurs roughly in the middle of Heat, which the film remorselessly builds towards and then thoroughly explores the ramifications.
In contrast, much of Public Enemies is a long, sustained chase — a structural conceit Mann seems to have been embracing ever since Collateral. As Fernando F. Croce observed on The Auteurs, “Mann has gradually shifted from an image-based artist to a movement-based artist. Make that a sensation-based artist” … “Mann’s characters are dreamers posing as tough guys.” Mann punctuates the constant forward motion of the plot with action set pieces including at least two jail breaks, several bank robberies, and a chaotic raid on a safe house. Both jail breaks are clever, in which the audacious Dillinger largely exercises brains over brawn, and designs each at least partly to humiliate the lawmen. In the first, Dillinger gets himself deliberately locked up in order to bust his associates out. In the second, they make their getaway in the sheriff’s own car.
Dillinger died in 1934, marking the twilight of the classic gangster era in more ways than one. His activities instigated the creation of the F.B.I. and the passing of laws that inhibited criminal enterprise, making him very unpopular with the organized crime families that were happily operating with relative freedom before he started showboating and stirring things up. His criminal career coincided squarely with the Great Depression era. Mann refrains from showing the stereotypical Hoovertowns or desiccated farmsteads directly, but the largely unspoken economic strife hangs over everyone nevertheless. One of the reasons Dillinger became such a folk hero is that he carefully cultivated a Robin Hood persona by very deliberately taking care not to rob individuals, but to steal from banks and, by proxy, the vilified federal government.
Contemporary media hype made Dillinger a celebrity, and ultimately one of the last romanticized criminals to be able to hide out in public. Mann depicts this idolization subtly. For instance, when the gang refreshes themselves at a farmhouse after breaking out of jail, the woman of the house quietly begs Dillinger to “take me with you.” Note she specifies “me,” despite having children in tow.
Most people still know his name today, despite him lacking a memorable nickname like his peers Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. Incidentally, Baby Face is portrayed in Public Enemies by actor Stephen Graham as dangerously unhinged and murderous. He has the criminal mind, but unlike Dillinger lacks the discipline to make it work for him. The dynamic is similar that that of Neil vs. his wayward henchman Waingrow in Heat. Dillinger can’t do what he does alone, but any association with a man like Baby Face courts disaster.
In Knives Out for Michael Mann, Kim Masters dishes the latest dirt on Mann. Anonymous gossip has him as one of the most difficult and even irresponsible directors working today, and studios may no longer wish to front his high price tag for movies that aren’t profitable. I usually protest when I hear studio executives complaining about “difficult” filmmakers — of course filmmakers are difficult — they’re the artists and studio executives are businesspeople. Without difficult artists, the accountants and MBAs that run the movie industry would have no “product” to sell. I usually dismiss the comments of executives that get paid more than the artists they supposedly enable to express themselves.
But if the rumors about Mann are true, he’s more than just difficult. In the case of Miami Vice, he reportedly disregarded the safety of his crews by filming in the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Katrina bore down — followed by an actual gun fight on the set. Conditions were so bad on the set of Public Enemies that Depp reportedly stopped speaking with Mann.
According to Scott Shoger’s Hollywood Goes Gangster, Dillinger was a movie buff, and was even semi-seriously planning a movie about himself not long before his death (an intriguing fact we don’t see in Public Enemies). The last movie he saw was Manhattan Melodrama, for which Clark Gable he won an Oscar. Being Dillinger’s last movie ticket gave the film an undeniable marketing boost. Mann shows Dillinger in a state of reverie as he watches key excerpts that had some personal relevance to how he saw himself. Shoger also states post-Hays Code Hollywood had an unwritten agreement to not produce explicit biopics of actual gangsters, lest they contribute to their celebrity and glorify the criminal lifestyle. This self-censorship more or less held until Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967). As such, only a few movies have told John Dillinger’s story, including The FBI Story (1959, with Jimmy Stewart), The Lady in Red (1979), and at least two simply called Dillinger (1973 and 1991).
In thinking about Public Enemies, I can’t help but keep going back to Thief and Heat, and it doesn’t survive the comparison. Maybe the real John Dillinger just isn’t as interesting as two of Mann’s previous fictional thieves (or in Mann’s parlance, “guys that pull down scores”): Neil (Robert De Niro) in Heat and Frank (James Caan) in Thief. Public Enemies is all surface, without the rich characterization of Thief and Heat. Public Enemies left me grasping at the tiniest of fragments in search of depth or subtext: a little look by an actor, a telling line of dialogue, anything. But there isn’t much there. Roger Ebert appreciates the refreshing lack of backstory conventional in both the biopic and gangster genres. I agree with him in principle, but would like to point out that neither Thief nor Heat features backstory — both flesh out its characters with what you might call “now-story.”
While Public Enemies often feels tragically lacking in dramatic interest, virtually every single character in Heat has a backstory, even the getaway driver Donald (Dennis Haysbert) that dies before the car goes one block. Here, we don’t learn anything about anybody. Aside from Dillinger himself, the one character we probably needed to learn the most about is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Purvis is a cold fish outwardly, such as when we dispassionately guns down Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) after giving him one last chance to surrender. We can infer that he’s a cold, steely G-Man with a particular expertise in sharpshooting. Bale’s performance conveys sadness and guilt over what he’s doing — the questionable morality of defeating gangsters with torture and often even outright summary execution. Heat‘s cops and robbers are both fascinating, but who cares about Purvis’ safety, or if he achieves his aims? The only scene in which Bale and Depp share the screen marks one of the few sparks of life in the entire movie, but it’s frustratingly brief and unfortunately visualized through the old cliche of characters speaking through bars. The old Mann would have turned it into a several minute long conversation, a centerpiece of the film.
Another frustrating cypher is the man Purvis drafts as as controversial expert on Dillinger. Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), was an actual historic Texas Ranger, but unless I missed something, the movie doesn’t identify him at all, and in fact suggests that he’s from the wrong side of the law, being that he’s so familiar with organized crime and the archetypal gangster mindset. We learn nothing of him aside from the fact that he’s clever and suspiciously insightful at predicting Dillinger’s behavior. He’s a bit sinister, and rough and streetwise in manner and dress, so perhaps the point is just that he’s not the type that J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) would consider good G-Man material: young, clean cut, college educated sorts like Hoover’s man-crush Purvis.
What do we learn of the main man himself? Dillinger was a self-created celebrity ahead of his time: media-savvy and always ready to produce a good, concise catchphrase at the drop of a hat. The most telling revelation about his character comes from a dying colleague John “Red” Hamilton (Jason Clarke), who, in his dying moments, chooses to armchair psychoanalyze his partner in crime, saying he’s unable to let anyone down.
Really? When did the film illustrate this aspect of his character? All we can infer from his onscreen behavior is that he’s loyal to the woman he loves (although not so loyal that he doesn’t later go out on a date with a hooker while his girlfriend is in prison) — although to psychoanalyze him ourselves, this action is probably a not-very-subconscious decision to allow himself to get caught, AKA “suicide by cop”. Just as he was able to casually stroll through his to-be captors’ offices without being caught, Dillinger is a ghost that goes through life without making any kind of impact. Neil in Heat may have had no friends, family, or even furniture, but he had a code: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Like Neil in Heat and Frank in Thief, Dillinger doesn’t have an exit strategy from his lifestyle until he meets a woman. Neil found love and wanted to pull a final score and then disappear forever. Dillinger wants the girl and an ongoing crime spree. Only when she is taken from him does he consider a final score to retire on.
A surprising number of name actors appear in tiny roles, including David Wenham, Lily Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Dorff, Emilie de Ravin (from Lost) and even singer Diana Krall in a cameo. One possible explanation is that they simply wanted to work for Mann in any capacity. Or maybe their roles were larger before the editing process. One in particular that stands out is Giovanni Ribisi as Alvin Karpis, a high level fixer and organizer, sort of like the skeezy but coldly professional Nate (John Voight) in Heat.
Mann often catches a lot of flak for his typical paucity of female characters, but also for the few he does feature being rather problematic. It’s obvious that Mann is interested in stories about men (gangsters, cops, thieves, etc.). In my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily make him a misogynist if his stories don’t always feature full, richly drawn female characters. But curiously, Billie in Public Enemies may not be one of Mann’s most interesting female characters across his body of work, but she is more complexly drawn than any of the male characters in Public Enemies. We learn a little about her, certainly more than we do about anyone else, but I still don’t get why she would drop everything and run off with a gangster. Billie remains in love with Dillinger and faithful to him even when tortured and sentenced to a two-year jail term. True, she’s a young woman trapped in a dead-end job and the subject of racism (she’s part Native American). A good contrast is the character of Eady (Amy Brenneman) in Heat, whose complex relationship with the criminal Neil I found not only plausible but sadly moving. Cotillard is fine, but I think Brenneman’s touching performance as a crushingly lonely woman vulnerable to a seductive but controlling older man really helped me understand her desire to run away. Both Eady and Billie are willing to abandon their lives, such as they are, or even implicate themselves for a man that could be arrested or killed at any moment.
The simple truth is that I hated Michael Mann’s Miami Vice on first viewing. On a technical level, it was marred by hideously poor sound — for which I blamed the particular theater I happened to see it in, but a friend of mine had the same complaint about a totally different venue, suggesting something was wrong with the prints themselves.
I found the film much improved when watching the unrated director’s cut available on DVD and Blu-ray — not just sporting more audible sound but even improved fluidity in the storytelling. I don’t recall the original theatrical cut well enough to identify what may have been added, altered, extended, or rearranged, so any number of factors could have contributed to a more forgiving reappraisal: approximately five extra minutes of breathing room, better sound, and an original opinion so low there there was no way to go but up.
The film is based on the original television series of the same name that ran between 1984-1989, created by Anthony Yerkovich and produced by Mann. Its premise was famously encapsulated by Mann’s alleged two-word pitch “MTV cops” — a legend that may or may not be true but has the benefit of being right on-the-nose. Kitschy even at the time, Miami Vice drew its stylistic tendencies — and sometimes even its guest stars — from MTV.
It’s a world apart from Crime Story, another Mann crime drama and an early experiment with serialized storytelling that wouldn’t really take hold until much later with Twin Peaks and The Sopranos. Crime Story ran concurrently with Miami Vice but was cancelled after only two seasons (1986-87).
Miami Vice the movie, however, is the product of Mann the writer and director, as opposed to episodic television producer and showrunner. The film is more of auteur work than the collaborative medium of a television series, and as such begs comparison with his other major films also set in the world of crime and punishment: Manhunter, Thief, Heat, Collateral, and Public Enemies. But whereas most of these presented sympathetic (or at least complex) portraits of criminals, Miami Vice is a more traditional policier firmly on the side of the good guys.
Miami Vice follows the high-stakes exploits of Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), two Miami-Dade police detectives in the war on drugs. The story begins in medias res, plunging the audience into an undercover operation that goes awry, followed by an effort to assist a colleague whose cover was blown while embedded in a Columbian drug running operation. This second operation is just the tip of an iceberg: FBI Agent John Fujima (Ciarán Hinds) reveals that there is a mole in the FBI. Crockett and Tubbs are deputized as federal agents for purposes of continuing the investigation.
Like typical Mann protagonists, the detectives’ jobs are the sole focus of their lives. In the DVD bonus features, a real undercover operative states how disconcerting it is to lead another life as a high roller, wearing the finest clothes and driving the best cars, but return home off duty to his family in a crappy used car. It would have been nice to see what kind of lives Crockett and Tubbs lead off duty, if any, and learn a little of what life is really like for undercover cops. Instead, we watch the entire onscreen team live, eat, and sleep together in a large unfurnished house, much like master thief Neil McCauley’s (Robert De Niro) spartan abode in Heat.
Both men become professionally compromised by their relationships with women, escalating to the point where their lives are threatened by their emotional needs. Neither looks outside their narrow work sphere for love: Tubbs is romantically involved with a colleague, and Crockett becomes mixed up with gorgeous money laundress Isabella (Gong Li). She’s dispassionate and inscrutable when we see her at work, but reveals worlds of emotion behind her eyes when alone with Crockett. Her character is a Chinese immigrant to Havana, requiring Gong Li to speak two languages in a film already rife with a plethora of blended accents. Justly wary of his partner’s infatuation, Tubbs warns him, “There’s undercover and then there’s which way is up.” Ignoring his partner’s advice, Crockett abets her escape from the federal sting operation, an act the movie judges as morally acceptable because he loves her.
Returning players from the Mann repertory include Domenick Lombardozzi (from Public Enemies) and Barry Shabaka Henley (the ill-fated jazz club owner in Collateral, who also appears as a parole agent in Mann’s latest TV project Luck). New additions include Eddie Marsan, perhaps one of the most versatile actors in the world, as a government informant with a thoroughly convincing Southern twang, and John Ortiz (also a lead in Luck, and don’t miss him opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Ryan in Jack Goes Boating). His villainous character here at first seems on a par with Javier Bardem’s powerful and threatening turn in Collateral, more savvy and perceptive even than his boss Arcangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar). But he ultimately proves pathetic and weaselly — the audience’s ability to take him seriously not helped by a caricatured accent.
Mann took the opportunity to continue the experiments with digital cinematography begun in Collateral, and many of the locations were actual. Nevertheless, the production was enormously expensive for a movie without significant CGI special effects, even though it was ultimately profitable worldwide. A significant chunk of the expense is likely attributable to Mann’s customarily deep research in the service of verisimilitude, right down to unusual speedboats and implausibly exotic (but real) types of weapons.
In “Knives Out for Michael Mann”, Kim Masters dishes the latest dirt on Mann, running a parade of anonymous, damning onset anecdotes. In particular, he was supposedly inconsiderate of the safety of the cast and crew during a shoot already made physically dangerous by everything from Hurricane Katrina to locations in gang-controlled territory. Mann may not be solely to blame, however, for Slate fingers actor Jamie Foxx for demanding higher billing and a raise after winning the Best Actor Oscar for the Ray Charles biopic Ray. He also allegedly demanded a last-minute rewrite that compromised the ending, and refused to fly to location shoots. The latter, at least, may be excusable — for The Daily Beast attributes his reasonable-sounding objection to an on-set actual shooting incident.
The score is rather disappointing for a Mann film, especially compared to the great Dead Can Dance neo-medieval soundscapes for The Insider, the Kronos Quartet dissonance in Heat, and James Newton Howard’s Mogwai-inspired post-rock score for Collateral. Jan Hammer’s iconic theme for the TV series is inexplicably absent, but there is a truly awful cover by the band Nonpoint of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, a signature song of the original show.
Another carryover from the province of the original series is the unfortunate fashion victims. The 21st century Crockett and Tubbs are seemingly locked in competition to see who owns the shiniest suit or the silliest hairstyle (Crockett rocks a mullet and Tubbs a precision-chiselled hairline). One is seen to drive a rocket-propelled european sportscar, which is apparently not meant to be a humorous allusion to the Adam West’s 1960s Batmobile.
The film ends with a mundane final shot, very uncharacteristic for the director that ended Thief and Heat with magnificent tableaus. Crockett enters a hospital, cut to credits. I get the point: he believes love is impossible for a man in his position — he effectively imprisons his girlfriend in another kind of deep cover, all in favor of him going back to work, at his partner’s side as they check up on an injured colleague. It’s true to character, and thematically significant, but visually anticlimactic and not what we pay for when we go to see a film from such a famously exacting and stylistic filmmaker.
Plenty of genre movies have been set in New York City, such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (devilry on the Upper West Side), Walter Salles’ Dark Water (ghosts on Roosevelt Island), Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic (vermin in the subway), and Spike Lee’s Inside Man (thievery on Wall Street). The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, directed by Joseph Sargent from the novel by John Godey, is one of the few of these New York movies seemingly made for New Yorkers.
Plenty of the world’s cities have underground transit systems, but this particular story could be set nowhere else. It’s a potent premise that has been remade twice, first as a TV movie in 1998 and again in 2009 by Tony Scott as a big-budget star vehicle for John Travolta and Denzel Washington. It was even an indirect inspiration for the famous color-coded criminal aliases used in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a time capsule, full of curiosities about how the New York City subway looked and functioned in the 1970s. It also reveals a great deal about how the city itself was perceived and portrayed in popular cinema at the time. The cityscape is gritty, grimy, and graffitied. Women are begrudgingly being let into the M.T.A. workforce. A cynical City Hall is willing to negotiate with terrorists if it means more votes in the next election. Hookers and pimps share the subway with drunks and robust ethnic stereotypes. The unhealthy filth of millions of people living in close quarters is symbolized by a cold going around (which becomes a key plot point).
The movie’s racial politics are dated, but perhaps more honest towards flawed human nature. Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) is openly condescending towards visiting Japanese officials studying the M.T.A. He’s flatly racist in a way that no hero in a modern film would ever allowed to be. But in fact, he actually does get his comeuppance. Matthau is, to say the least, an odd casting choice for the hero of a thriller. But he was probably about the correct age for a Transit Authority detective, and had the right air of sardonic disillusionment for a believable lower-level civic employee of the bleak New York City of the 1970s.
Speaking of roles that would never be conceived the same way in today’s Hollywood, the bad guys remain very effectively disguised throughout. Character actors Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam were never exactly superstars, but how many actors today would willingly disguise themselves for most of a movie? I can really only think of Clive Owen in Inside Man and almost anything Gary Oldman does. Unsurprisingly, no attempt is made to obscure the very expensive face of John Travolta for one frame of the 2009 remake. Note that Shaw’s unmasking is spoiled by his prominent appearance on the DVD sleeve.
Made decades before 9/11, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is nevertheless a miniature nightmare scenario of one of the Manhattan’s myriad vulnerabilities to terrorism. In the 1970s, the familiar form of terrorism was to hold hostages for remuneration or to espouse a cause. Scott’s 2009 remake had to face 21st century audiences (many sitting in New York City movie theaters) for whom terrorism means mass murder. But Scott takes the conventional route and boils down the plot into a conflict between two men, on a personal level. Scott’s choices highlight how much the original actually bucks cliche.
In the original, we know practically nothing about the personal lives of Garber or the villainous Mr. Blue (we may guess he’s some sort of ex-mercenary or soldier of fortune, but he gives no hint of his ideology or motivations). In contrast to the ice-cool Mr. Blue, Travolta’s character is manic and unhinged, and rants in a barrage of f-bombs. Just as Sargent’s old school runaway train sequence is more thrilling than Scott’s rapid-fire editing and CGI flair, the original also outscores on pure cynicism.
Vin Diesel has made something of a specialty in dystopian science fiction movies, possessed of astonishing visuals but horrifically bad scripts. I’m looking at you, Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick) Does he seek these kinds of projects out, or has he been typecast as a weary but action-ready man of the future?
Mathieu Kassovitz’s Babylon A.D. is yet more sci-fi trash with an international feel, not just in the spirit of Diesel’s own oeuvre, but also very much a direct descendent of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. The presence of Michelle Yeoh promises martial arts asskicking that never really materializes, and the proceedings are given a measure of class by Gerard Depardieu and Charlotte Rampling.
The movie predicts an especially bleak future for Europe, wracked by perpetual war and terror attacks that leave the urban landscape looking like Chechnya and Bosnia. Toorop (Diesel) is a reluctant mercenary warrior, something like a masterless ronin from old samurai movies. I was prepared to like his character until he shoots a disarmed man in the face and makes a lame Die Hard-like quip.
I watched the extended unrated cut on DVD, which may explain why a full 22 minutes lapses before the hero finally undertakes his task: to escort the genetically engineered girl Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) from the war-torn wastelands of “New Serbia” to New York. The persistent tone of a-man-alone cynicism is something else Babylon A.D. shares with many of Besson’s anti-heroes, especially the Transporter films: Toorop knows he’s being used, but not by whom or why.
Some of the genuinely incredible shots and sequences to watch for, none of which are reflected in the promotional stills:
The opening sequence is an unbroken shot zooming straight down on planet Earth, homing in on Manhattan and into Diesel’s eyeball
A 270-degree camera move incorporating a CGI helicopter and an ancient convent carved into a stone cliff
An establishing shot of an unspecified Russian city built around a giant crater, its origins unexplained (but a likely allusion to the post-WWIII Neo-Tokyo of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira)
The entire island of Manhattan lit up with a grossly expanded Times Square and completed Freedom Towers
Movies like Babylon A.D. always fall apart at some point, and this one finally succumbs when the refugee party arrives in New York City. Aurora’s father suddenly materializes, apparently solely to provide a massive infodump of exposition. The long, complicated backstory was barely hinted at before, if at all: Aurora is the product of an incorporated religion whose CEO and High Priestess (Charlotte Rampling) hopes to manufacture a miraculous virgin birth. All of this is told, not shown, which only creates frustration and confusion, and little emotional response.
Surrogates is an elegantly literal twist on the classic sci-fi theme of living through avatars. Cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Neal Stephenson pioneered virtual reality as a setting for the dramatic exaggeration of issues first sparked by the very beginnings of internet chat rooms. Their predictions have already come true, in part, in the form of social networking and immersive games like Second Life and World of Warcraft.
Surrogates takes this conceit one step further, but fails to address moss of the questions it raises. To look deeper than I think the film supports, you might start to think about the personas we craft for ourselves in different contexts, how we dress and behave in the privacy of our homes versus how we do at work or play.
Directed by Jonathan Mostow (of the excellent nail-biter Breakdown, but also the dud Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), the film is based on the comic book The Surrogates by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. The premise requires a long, involved prologue necessary just to explain it. This very near future is defined by the technology for remote-controlled androids, which are not unlike cars: affordable enough for the majority of the population to own one, available in tiered models that reflect your income and taste, and a way of life ingrained into society just as much as cars have shaped cities and the highways that network them together.
Taken to its logical extreme, a world populated by remote controlled robots affects everything from the workplace to warfare. Beauty parlors have morphed into something like hi-tech auto repair shops, where people trick their surrogates out with new rubber faces and super-strong limbs. Patriot Act-like mass surveillance is conducted through the robots’ very eyes, without their owners’ permission, in an impossible-to-miss metaphor for Bush-era warrantless wiretaps. War is now a deathless abstract resembling a computer game: faceless drones teem distant battlegrounds in a sick parody of today’s airborne predator drones and precision-guided missiles. Notice also the spotless art direction: everything is clean because robots don’t secrete or litter.
When so much of the fictional ramifications are thought out, it’s disappointing when so many other obvious implications are left unclear. We’re told the crime rate has fallen dramatically since most people started living through robot surrogates, but why, necessarily? Perhaps because there’s no such thing as raping or murdering a robot. But why do FBI agents have such luxurious homes, if their jobs are less necessary in this utopia?
One interesting wrinkle barely touched upon is that some characters, including Greer (Bruce Willis) and his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), have selected surrogates modeled on their own natural physical appearances. Idealized, younger, stronger, and more virile, perhaps, but recognizably their likenesses. There are only a few examples of users that opt to mix race and/or genders, let alone go to further extremes. The most outwardly unusual looking surrogates we see merely have impossible complexions. Perhaps the Greers are not fully committed to living this way. Why not explore this point more? A failure of the imagination.
But by far the biggest absurdity is the claim that 98% of the population lives through surrogates. The film would have been better off by sidestepping the question of whether or not much of the population could afford state-of-the-art consumer electronics. If only a portion of the population in 2010 has access to things like health care and broadband, it’s certainly absurd to pretend for even a silly sci-fi movie that we all might some day be able to afford personal robots. But then again, there are hundreds of millions of cars in use worldwide today, so perhaps it is not that outrageous to hypothesize that someday we all might be remotely piloting some kind of robot around all day every day.
While many other people, choose to live life through their surrogates, FBI agents are given turbocharged loaner models in some kind of perk akin to company cars. Greer behaves differently as himself or when working through his surrogate. He spouts tough, sarcastic, noir-ish detective dialogue when working, but turns meek and emotional when living as a “meatball.”
Ving Rhames and James Cromwell appear in disappointingly fleeting roles. Rosamund Pike is obviously very beautiful, but her wide circular glassy eyes frankly look slightly odd from certain angles, making her an excellent casting choice.
There are fewer android-related special effects than you might imagine, especially when compared to Westworld, The Stepford Wives, Alien, and A.I., all of which revel in revealing robotic guts beneath rubber skin (images one might even fetishize as a literal “cyberporn”). Rather, the film’s best special effect is when a surrogate deactivates and comes to a complete halt. I can’t guess how it was done, but it’s clearly more complicated than simply freezing the frame. It’s very eerie to see a person, however artificial-seeming, simply and silently freeze as the light of life goes out of their eyes.
A ostentatious dangling plot thread about Greer’s dead son goes nowhere. Even the revelation of what caused his death is a misfire, and has no impact upon the story. Why would a painful loss in the family compel the Greers to live virtual lives? Everyone else is only doing it because they want to appear attractive.
The final moments are lame and non-dramatic, relying on unseen newscasters to explicitly outline the themes of the movie, for the slower members of the audience, perhaps.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Boys From Brazil is one of those they-don’t-make-them-that-way-anymore that I miss: the paranoid thriller that blends sci-fi with politics. I’m thinking Coma, The Manchurian Candidate, and Jacob’s Ladder.
It’s often a fool’s errand to complain about plausibility in genre flicks, but I think internal consistency is a reasonable baseline. So I’m not quite sure I buy Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman’s (Laurence Olivier) rapid leaps of reason. Solely on the evidence of pair of identical twins on separate continents (with a colleague’s unverified assertion he may have seen a third, making it triplets), he leaps a little too quickly to a very fantastical conclusion: cloning.
The proceedings are interrupted for a film-within-film walking us through the pseudoscience. It’s an odd creative choice to present human cloning as something so matter-of-fact, making me wonder when Dolly the sheep was cloned in this alternate reality, if not in 1996. what other wild scientific advances exist in this world: jet packs, teleportation, iPods?
For the movie to suddenly jump into the extraordinary realm of science-fiction, equally extraordinary evidence is required to convince a skeptical character to believe. If the fantastic is mundane to the characters of the film, it’s not very impressive to the audience either.
Also common to the genre is its fatalism; the Nazi cloning masterplan is not something that needs to be prevented. In fact, it already happened, years before. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen pulls a similar narrative trick, but the reveal lands with a heavier dramatic weight; it’s too late for the heroes to do anything about it.
Gregory Peck is mostly reserved in his portrayal of “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele, save for a ferocious scene in which he exhorts a Hitler tot to seize what he believes is his destiny. Bruno Ganz appears, and would later play Hitler himself in Downfall (2004). As for Olivier, his jewish accent is really something to hear.
It all comes down to two old men clumsily biting and scratching each other on the living room floor of a Lancaster farmhouse. It’s one of the more realistic fights ever seen on screen — the closest comparison I can think of is Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones in The Rules of Engagement.
Paradoxically for one of the freshest James Bond films ever made, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006) is actually the third adaptation of the character’s debut in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel. After a largely forgotten 1954 TV movie in which “Jimmy” Bond was awkwardly Americanized, the same premise was parodied in a 1967 farce bearing the same name, a expensive all-star disaster featuring good sports David Niven, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen. Meanwhile, the parallel and ongoing flood of proper Bond films abandoned the tainted Casino Royale, leaving it never satisfactorily presented on film. For most, Bond seemed born fully-formed as Sean Connery’s supremely suave secret agent in 1962’s Dr. No. But where did Her Majesty’s most ruthless servant come from?
By 2006, the James Bond franchise had endured 20 movies and five lead actors (and that’s just counting the canonical installments), testament enough that it has been no stranger to innovation. The most recent overhaul was Goldeneye (1995), which introduced Pierce Brosnan alongside an incrementally more progressive attitude towards women. New-style “Bond Girls” like Michelle Yeoh were still dangerously sexy, but as adept with salty dialogue, grappling hooks, and AK-47s as the title character himself. Bond could no longer cheerfully ignore his stuffy bureaucratic boss M when played by the imperious Judy Dench, and Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) was no longer a frump longing for Bond from afar, but rather a sassy foil rocking the sexy secretary look. Significantly, the one thing that didn’t change much at all was Bond himself. The many women in his life may have gained greater leeway to sass and kick ass, but he himself was still the same old sexist dinosaur. In retrospect, the Brosnan films now look like just more of the same.
Proper Bond films enjoyed many high points over the years, but the franchise was very nearly rendered obsolete by two very different spy trilogies: Austin Powers (whose satire was wholly redundant after the 1967 Casino Royale) and Jason Bourne. Starting in 2002, the latter did Bond one better, permanently supercharging the secret-agent genre with visceral urgency, persistent action, moderately realistic psychology, and most crucially, granting the main character a capacity for love. Bourne (Matt Damon) was a man of conscience, wracked by crippling self-doubt and guilt. He may have been capable of spectacular feats of killing, but resented the circumstances that forced him to use those skills in order to survive, or more importantly, to protect or avenge his loved ones. He didn’t manipulate women for intelligence and sexual gratification as Bond routinely would, but rather formed an emotional attachment with one in particular that would motivate his actions for an entire trilogy.
Once the definition of high-gloss action thrillers, Bond was now on the defensive. The time was right in 2006 for its most radical reboot yet. The producers retired Brosnan (The Man With the Golden Parachute?) and underwent an extensive retooling of not just the series’ visual style but its core characters and mythos. But how much can you tweak Bond until he’s no longer the spy we love?
The traditional pre-credit action sequence still exists, but Casino Royale discards candy-coated Technicolor for a grainy, stylized black-and-white noir style. Starting chronologically at the beginning, we see Bond execute his first two kills, fulfilling his final qualification for “double-oh” MI-6 status. Longtime Bond fans were also mollified by another grand tradition that immediate followed: a motion graphics title sequence featuring a bevy of semi-nude female silhouettes. This particular animation, with its stark red and black vector graphics, may have provided inspiration for the opening titles of the 2007 television series Mad Men. Unfortunately, Chris Cornell’s lame, tuneless song “You Know My Name” nearly ruins it.
Further comforting continuity with the previous installations comes via ridiculous amounts of high-end product placement (cars, watches, sunglasses, etc.) and a globe-trotting series of locations (Uganda, Madagascar, Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, and Venice). Casino Royale also doesn’t fail to over-egg the pudding in terms of its villain. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is scarred and asthmatic, with chronically irritated tear ducts that seep blood. It was enough to signify evil in the old days that the baddie merely have metal teeth or a fluffy kitty cat.
But that’s where the concessions to Bond tradition end. To discuss what’s new, let’s start with Bond himself. No matter how much testosterone fan-favorite Sean Connery exuded, he could still be slightly effete, fussing over vanities and creature comforts like a well-prepared martini. The Roger Moore era played up the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the series, but gorgeous women falling into bed with the frankly rather old, limp Moore was implausible at best. The suave Brosnan was born to play the classic version of Bond, but he wasn’t getting any younger as his films became as overblown and science-fictiony as the worst excesses of the Moore period. (I haven’t seen any of the Timothy Dalton or George Lazenby films, so I can’t comment on them.) Daniel Craig may not be the most macho Bond (Connery remains fandom’s favorite, for good reason), but he is clearly the most brutish and masculine. Younger, furious, and buff, he’s a giant slab of man. In a hilariously clever inversion of tradition, Bond now bares more flesh than any of his female companions, especially in an instantly iconic shot of him striding out of the ocean just barely wearing a scanty swimsuit. This Bond is almost absurdly physically fit, a parkour expert, and gets painfully bruised and scarred in fights. The days of Bond walking away from fisticuffs and fireballs with nary a hair or bowtie astray are over.
21st Century Bond Girls are smarter and more proactive than ever, but not at the expense of being drop-dead gorgeous and at least half the age of the current lead actor. In this blogger’s estimation, Eva Green as Vesper Lynd ought to go down in history as one of the greatest yet. She may not be as physically adept at action as Michelle Yeoh, but she is one of the most beautiful. Best of all, she’s enjoyably conceived by writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis as a true foil for the naughty double-entendres that still roll off this Bond’s tongue. She made such a strong impression on me, that when rewatching the film on DVD, I realized I had forgotten all about the other Bond Girl, Caterina Murino as Solange Dimitrios. Her character provides for a quick throwback to retro Bond; he flirts with her solely for information and then cruelly abandons her to certain death.
The thrilling film downshifts for a long poker sequence, with no mercy shown for anyone who doesn’t understand the game (like, say, me). There does seem to have been a miscalibration however, during one scene where even I could sense Le Chiffre was double-bluffing an oblivious Bond.
Dench is the only returning player from the Brosnan era, but her character is now part ruthless boss and part tough-love mother figure. The one convention of the classic, sillier Bond stories that I do miss is Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and his wonderful inventions. The highlight of every Connery, Moore, or Brosnan film for me was always the customary stroll through Q’s lab as his latest prototypes malfunction in amusingly lethal manners. I would cheerfully recite along with Q’s scolding catchphrase “Oh Bond, do pay attention.”
Whenever I see any Bond film, I’m always surprised at how enthusiastically he lives up to his “license to kill” reputation. The body count is always high, but Casino Royale is even more violent than most. What differentiates it is the time spent dwelling on the aftermath, including Bond having to hide bodies instead of simply strolling away from the carnage without repercussions. There’s also a fleeting dash of crude morality rarely if ever seen in the series; Bond must awkwardly comfort Vesper, traumatized by her culpability in one of Bond’s kills. And whereas old-school Bond villains would merely threaten bodily harm with laser beams and tarantulas, Bond must now must face ugly, raw torture (which is A-OK with the hypocritical MPAA’s notion of PG-13 movies, apparently – but that’s a rant for another time).
Transporter 3, produced by Luc Besson and directed by Olivier Megaton, is an international product tailored for the American market. Despite its French locales, German cars, and adorably freckled Ukrainian hottie, the hero and villain are both quite American.
The titular Transporter is Frank Martin (Jason Statham), a fighter and driver par excellence who earns a luxurious but lonely existence as an ask-no-questions courier. The events of his two previous misadventures have reformed his amoral ways and loner habits, as evidenced by his collaborative friendship with former nemesis Inspector Tarconi (François Berléand).
So in order for there to even be a Transporter 3, its plot must corral this reformed man into a caper full of opportunities for carnage and lawbreaking. The villainous American Johnson (Robert Knepper) is conceived as Martin’s evil, less evolved twin: a mercenary like him, but unleavened by conscience. His ill-defined plan involves blackmailing Ukranian politician Leonid Vasilev (Jeroen Krabbe) into allowing a giant corporation to import a tanker full of barrels of toxic waste. At one point Martin is menaced by a truck full of the stuff on land, but the tanker hasn’t docked yet. Confusing.
Statham is this generation’s Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Segal. He’s already been typecast as the tough loner in a constant series of b-movies (some more B than others, but The Bank Job is a step up), but usually lightens things up with a hint of Jackie Chan-esque self-deprecation. He’s impeccably tailored, lean, and ferociously fit, looking and moving more like a gymnast than the previous generation of slow-moving bodybuilder action heroes. A good drinking game for any Statham film is to drink a shot every time his shirt comes off. You’re likely to get alcohol poisoning in this case.
One of the reasons I enjoy producer Luc Besson’s Transporter franchise is that I dislike being expected to applaud the typical movie action hero that stands back and shoots bad guys from afar. This applies to pretty much any Stallone and Schwarzenegger film, but is also true of even James Bond (in which his fabled license to kill often translates into mowing down rooms full of extras with machine gun fire — or in the case of Moonraker, laser pistols) and Indiana Jones (audiences applaud him for shooting a scimitar-wielding baddie in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but really, is that fair?).
In stark contrast, Martin almost never uses any weapon other than his own physicality. Most of the violence in the Transporter films is in the acrobatic, bloodless rock ’em sock ’em style of kung-fu flicks, liberally seasoned with impressive automobile carnage. The first few minutes of Transporter 3 feature a signature sequence in which Martin dispatches a room full of armed baddies using no tools save his own suit jacket. But I was startled to see Martin actually execute a few evildoers later in the film, something I don’t recall him doing in the previous two. It’s wholly out of character, and spoils the fun.
What dooms Transporter 3 to be the worst of the franchise is that there are simply not enough action sequences, and what few there are are uninspired. I recall only two more notable action sequences: in one, Martin is tethered to his car by an explosive device (just roll with it), and must catch up to it on foot after it is stolen. Later, he launches it off a bridge onto the top of a speeding train, and then from there smashes it into the body of a detached passenger car. For a movie so concerned with car chases, it doesn’t help the audience when most of the vehicles are dictated by product placement to be the same brand (Audi) and color (black with tinted windows).
The awkward, eyebrow-raising ending to Transporter 2 left it up in the air as to whether Martin is gay or just an extreme loner. Surprisingly, Transporter 3 actually revives that question and makes it its key subject. When Vasilev’s hot freckled daughter Valentina (Natalya Rudakova) comes on to him, Martin protests he’s “not in the mood” but certainly, absolutely, positively, no way no how, definitely not gay, how could you even ask, good grief. Well! I guess that settles that question, albeit in a rather disappointingly conventional manner.
So the end of the film finds Martin not only reconfirmed as a good guy, but also in a steady heterosexual relationship. A key component of both the James Bond and Jason Bourne characters is that their greatest loves were murdered, so they choose to be emphatically alone. Where can Besson take Frank Martin in another sequel? Don’t expect Valentina to last long into Transporter 4.