Posts in: February 2011

30 Days of Night: Dark Days (2010)

The first 30 Days of Night had a brilliant premise marred by the world’s stupidest characters. It has some effective scare moments and a handful of good scenes, but overall, I just can’t forgive the characters’ sheer idiocy (and the screenplay’s refusal to show the filmmakers realize the characters are behaving foolishly). It’s the kind of film founded on the great notion that vampires head up to Alaska so they can feed for 30 days, uninterrupted by the sunlight, which is immediately undermined by the vampires blowing their wad on the first night. (Even that wouldn’t be such a huge issue if not for the fact that the film’s vampire lore suggests they need to feed regularly and are pretty desperate toward the end of the 30 days.) That’s not even getting into the problem of the main character injecting himself with vampire blood—thus dooming himself to death by vampirization—so he can acquire the strength to fight them mere hours before the sun will come up and the vamps will clear out.

To its credit, 30 Days of Night: Dark Days starts with another brilliant premise to exploit—the polar (pun intended) opposite of the first film. Instead of setting the film in a land of eternal darkness, the filmmakers move the location to sunny Los Angeles. What a great idea—putting the vampires on the defensive instead of the offensive, forcing them into hiding in much the same way humans were forced into hiding in the first film. Considering it follows a ragtag group of vampire hunters, this could have been a great opportunity to explore a moral gray area—have the hunters leveled the playing field by forcing all the vampires to clump together in easily destroyed nests, or have they turned into the same sort of monsters? Do the filmmakers make clever use of this incongruous setting? Nope! The vast majority of this film takes place entirely at night, and with the exception of an unintentionally comical scene in which vampires (looking like pale extras from The Matrix) are flushed out using high-intensity UV lamps, there’s not a single reference to the sun.

Kiele Sanchez takes over Melissa George’s role, Stella Oleson. For those who don’t recall the grim yet dumb conclusion of the first film, she and husband Eben (played in that film by Josh Hartnett) stand on the edge of a cliff, weepy and huggy as the sun comes up and his body starts to burn to a crisp. Some time later, Stella arrives in Los Angeles to give a lecture telling the truth of what happened in Barrow, Alaska. For some reason, the audience laughs when she mentions vampires, and Stella mentions it’s not the first time. Not to get nitpicky, but wouldn’t you expect the audience to consist mainly of tinfoil hat wearing Art Bell fans, clutching copies of The Catcher in the Rye while muttering about the umbrella man near the grassy knoll? On the plus side, this sets a tone of dumbness that matches the first film.

In another goofy move, it initially seems like the lecture gets her on the radar of a team of vampire hunters, but it turns out she’s being led around the country by a mystery man known only as Dane, and the hunters work for Dane and were told to find her. There’s Paul (Rhys Coiro), the studly pseudo-love interest; Todd (Harold Perrineau), the token black guy (and the first to die, because this is a film that leaves no cliché unused); and Amber (Diora Baird), the inexplicably jealous female hunter. They take her to finally meet Dane (Ben Cotton), and she’s shocked to find he’s a vampire himself. Apparently unfamiliar with any of the modern vampire lore permeating the spectrum of popular culture, the film acts like refrigerated blood packs and Dane’s cabinet full of vampire-killing weapons are two of the cleverest ideas in the world. And, you know, they were pretty clever ten years ago on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, but they’re kind of old hat at this point.

Dane has a plan for them to find and kill Lilith (Mia Kirshner), the vampire queen. He theorizes that once she’s gone, the rest will fall into chaos and end up dead. This is mostly an excuse for action sequences that don’t come close to matching the inventiveness of the not-particularly-inventive first film, but the story does take a mildly interesting turn when Stella learns about a possible “cure” for vampirism and becomes moderately obsessed with the possibilities for Eben. (Even though we’re led to believe Eben turns to ash at the end of the first one, this film “retcons” that to show that only his skin turns to ash, and Stella has buried the rest of his vampire body.) Unfortunately, this intriguing development sets up the worst twist ending since Signs.

Director/co-writer Ben Ketai, scripting with 30 Days comics co-creator Steve Niles, has effectively made a film for nobody. Ostensibly, it should have a built-in audience from the first film, but that was a straightforward horror-action piece. At times, Dark Days seems to want to follow suit—particularly when it attempts to raise the first film’s stakes by introducing Lilith as a baddie that makes the first film’s Marlow look tame in comparison—but it spends too much time as a moody, broody downer. Characters answer questions with pseudo-philosophical questions, while Stella stares grimly into the middle distance. Typical of low-budget direct-to-video fare, it’s one of those action movies that spends more time with characters talking about what they’re going to do than showing them do it (because everything invariably goes wrong within the first millisecond of putting the long-winded plan into effect).

The one thing the film has going for it is Stella, our only connection to the first film. For all its faults, the relationship between Eben and Stella in the first film was well-rendered and played well by Hartnett and George. Although watching Stella’s grief (which looks a lot like disaffected sulking) is not terribly compelling, the possibility of bringing him back sparks life into both the movie and, one assumes, audience members eager to see their reunion.

That’s what makes the twist ending such an embarrassment. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say the “cure” doesn’t quite work as advertised, and the final shot suggests neither of them will have a happy ending. It’s the sort of forced nihilism that works in torture porn, but that’s not what the first film is, and it’s not what 95% of this sequel is. It’s the sort of poorly thought out ending designed to blow minds rather than to satisfy audiences. Betraying the only thing the movie has going for it is not the way to end things, especially when the only people likely to check out this sequel are fans of the first one. Maybe I’m naïve to suggest the fans of the first film didn’t spend its entire runtime cheering for the vampires to win, no matter how stupid Eben and Stella revealed themselves to be.

The only positive I can draw from this film is that it has above-average production values for both DTV sequels and DTV horror. I’m not sure if this means the production team worked miracles on a shoestring budget, or if it was originally intended as a theatrical release. Whatever the case, it looks good. Unfortunately, it looks good while being exceptionally bad.

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The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990)

To put The Adventures of Ford Fairlane into context, one has to understand the popularity of Andrew “Dice” Clay at the time of its release. The unquestioned king of the late-’80s standup-comedy boom, his overwhelming popularity makes Dane Cook look like Geechy Guy (look him up). All this despite the fact that his explicit, misogynistic, oftentimes racist humor alienated enormous chunks of the audience. I’m no sociologist, but I have a theory that he came at exactly the right time to capitalize on the male fear of turning into the “sensitive ponytail man.” Dice served as a life preserver and a mouthpiece for all the terrible things weak-minded meatheads wished they could voice in a rapidly changing society where—gasp!—women and minorities were starting to receive the same fair and equitable treatment as white males. Needless to say, Dice’s celebrity was short-lived, but this misguided film existed to catapult him into bona fide superstardom.

Of all the people to force Andrew “Dice” Clay on the moviegoing public, I can’t think of a better person than Joel Silver. He doesn’t receive enough credit for his savvy understanding of genre conventions and bold willingness to subvert them within a seemingly mainstream movie. The man who produced revelatory genre blockbusters like 48 Hours and Die Hard had no problem with satirizing them with films like The Last Boy Scout, Hudson Hawk, and Demolition Man. In order to make Dice palatable for the masses, it would take someone with Silver’s canny instincts and willingness to poke fun at his own oeuvre.

Silver made a valiant effort, hiring director Renny Harlin (who helmed Silver’s incomparably silly Die Hard 2 the same year) and trenchant satirist Daniel Waters (Heathers, Hudson Hawk) to salvage a script about a “rock ‘n’ roll detective.” They attempted to turn it into a sublimely silly action-comedy, and at some points they succeed, but they’re consistently held back by Andrew “Dice” Clay.

It’s not so much Clay as the Dice persona. Clay may not be Laurence Olivier, but he has a charisma I only wish I could deny and proved his ability to act competently in Michael Mann’s TV series Crime Story. The key should have been to humanize the Dice persona, in order to make him somewhat appealing to people outside the scope of his audience. Every time it feels like the film intends to do that, Dice forces another reference to banging broads or beating the shit out of someone. The thing is, there’s an obvious sadness haunting Clay’s surprisingly expressive eyes, showing his extreme confidence and crudeness as a façade. The film sometimes plays with the idea that Ford’s life—and, by extension, Dice’s—is sad and empty, but Dice refuses to let self-awareness denigrate who and what he stands for.

Ostensibly, the plot revolves around the title character, Ford Fairlane, the epitome of cool circa 1959. He has the sideburns, the pompadour, the beaten leather jacket, the slick car, and the attitude. He’s frequently called “Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll Detective” by those who know him, and true to his name, he keeps an office on the Sunset Strip and spends his nights clubbing, drinking, and screwing his way into solving cases. The only scenes in the movie that work are a few early ones in which Ford revisits his old friend and former bandmate, Johnny Crunch (Gilbert Gottfried), who now works as a shock-jock for a radio station. Clay and Gottfried play these scenes as two old friends who simultaneously loved and hated their time together. Through nothing but subtext, they create a shared history that’s more interesting than anything else in the movie.

Johnny Crunch dies almost immediately after his few early scenes, but the film still could have worked. The screenplay tries to stick Ford into the modern version of a hardboiled detective story, and just as Miles Archer’s death serves as a catalyst for Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Ford and Dice could have earned some audience respect by actually caring about his slain friend. Unfortunately, the film is too easily distracted to care much about Johnny, and Dice is too macho to show any concern for anything that won’t allow him to eventually see boobies. Johnny becomes one of a handful of music-scene deaths that Ford finds himself investigating. Both Johnny and wealthy socialite Colleen Sutton (Priscilla Presley) pay Ford to find a missing girl, Zuzu Petals (Maddie Corman), which anyone who has ever seen a movie from the ’40s knows will tie into the series of murders in one way or another.

In addition to Presley, Silver keeps Wayne Newton (in an impressively slimy performance as record company executive Julian Grendel), Vince Neil, Sheila E., and Morris Day on hand to prove the film’s rock ‘n’ roll credentials. Ed O’Neill gets the film’s only laughs as an incompetent detective whose burgeoning disco career was destroyed by Ford Fairlane. Ultimately, though, the film doesn’t add up to much more than a lot of solid supporting players and big-budget production values trying to prop up Dice as a movie star. Unfortunately, he’d get a lot more laughs if he stopped trying so hard to get laughs. He has a distinctive comic rhythm, but nothing he says or does in this film is ever funny, in part because he’s covered in the desperate flop sweat of a comic who realizes he’s in a vehicle that doesn’t match his persona’s sensibilities.

Harlin and the screenwriters desperately try to mine demented comedy (very similar to that featured in Hudson Hawk) by twisting action and mystery clichés. At every turn, Dice undercuts their efforts with unfunny voiceover narration or a not-as-pithy-as-he-thinks-it-is one-liner. I couldn’t tell you if Clay, Silver, or 20th Century Fox (or any combination thereof) made the decision to not allow Clay to break free of the Dice persona, but it was a bad one, one that ruins an expensive movie with enough potential to make me angry about its creative failure.

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Bloodsport (1988)

Bloodsport ostensibly exists to dramatize the real-life exploits of martial artist Frank Dux (played in the film by Jean-Claude Van Damme), but it actually exists to show us 70 minutes of martial-arts fighting with 15 minutes of filler like plot and characters. As a stunt sequence delivery system, it succeeds admirably. As a film, it doesn’t quite hang together the way it should.

The film is front-loaded with backstory to ease the burden of having to explain anything later on. Through convoluted circumstances involving a youthful break-in, Frank is assaulted by martial artist Tanaka (Roy Chiao) and decides he wants to learn from this master. Instead, Tanaka uses Frank as a human punching bag to train his son, Shingo (Sean Ward). Shingo’s lifelong dream—instilled in him by his father—is to fight in the Kumite, a secret, illegal fight where men of all nationalities and fighting arts gather together to beat the hell out of each. Eventually, he comes of age and receives an invitation to the Kumite, where he’s killed almost immediately. Distraught, Tanaka finally offers to train Frank—so he can restore honor to the Tanaka name and get vengeance for Shingo’s death.

For some reason, Frank joins the Army after training with Tanaka, so he has to go AWOL in order to fight in the Kumite. This exists mainly for an oddly superfluous subplot in which two investigators (played by Norman Burton, doing his best John P. Ryan impersonation, and a young Forest Whitaker) track Frank to Hong Kong in order to bring him back to face a court martial. Soon after arriving in Hong Kong, Frank meets Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb, sadly best known as Ogre from the Revenge of the Nerds movies), a competitor of imposing stature and surprising friendliness. They run afoul of a handful of foreign competitors and decide to stick together.

Their chief rival is Chong Li (Bolo Yeung), a menace whose rippling muscles and fierce posturing would seem a lot more threatening if not for the pinched face and fish lips that make him resemble Garry Shandling more than the ultimate fighting threat. Chong Li mostly beats people up, flares his nostrils, and glowers. Unfortunately for the film, Chong Li never brings any personal stakes for Frank. Frank never liked Shingo—whose frequent “Roundeye” taunts don’t endear him to the audience, either—so the closest it gets to personal is when Chong Li hospitalizes Ray. Frank swears revenge, but he lacks the adversity that would make him a compelling protagonist.

Van Damme actually does a pretty good job in the role, playing Frank with a wide-eyed naïveté appropriate for a guy who thinks he’s the greatest fighter in the world and suddenly finds himself a tiny fish in a very large pond. However, Frank is the greatest fighter in the world, so he tears through his assigned opponents with infuriating ease. Nothing’s ever difficult for Frank—even after Chong Li blinds him by throwing sand in his eyes—which simply isn’t very compelling dramatically.

One of Hollywood’s most irritating aphorisms is “raise the stakes,” usually a phrase uttered when someone in a position of authority has nothing constructive to say. Despite my disdain for the phrase, Bloodsport is a film that gives “raise the stakes” real meaning. Maybe I should be praising the film for not falling into the usual traps to cheaply force jeopardy—those military police never arrest Frank, his newfound journalist girlfriend (Leah Ayres) never gets kidnapped, and although Tanaka is seen on what’s presumably his deathbed, he’s never shown actually dying. In short, nothing fills Frank with fear or causes a crisis of confidence, which is as refreshing as it is boring.

Drama requires conflict, and conflict (especially in action films) comes from adversity. Frank faces no adversity, which means Bloodsport has no suspense. It’s simply a film to watch if you enjoy oiled-up men beating the shit out of each other. (It’s also enjoyable for the oddly homoerotic farewell scene between Frank and Ray—it’s telling that the film takes this relationship much more seriously than the one between Frank and the journalist.)

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Single White Female 2: The Psycho (2005)

I admit recommending Single White Female 2: The Psycho is a tough sell. A direct-to-video sequel whose biggest name (Brooke Burns) went from Baywatch to reality game-show host doesn’t seem like the sort of movie any rational person would want to watch. It has the aesthetic, soundtrack, and acting caliber of softcore porn, although without the rampant nudity. It’s less a sequel than a knockoff that may have become a sequel either to avoid litigation or to capitalize on its very derivativeness. In short, it’s not really a good movie. However, the film’s story suffers from the same sort of schizophrenia as its chief villain, which makes it one of the most purely entertaining direct-to-video sequels I’ve ever seen. (Again, don’t misconstrue narrative craziness as high quality—you should know what you’re getting into and whether or not you’ll want to endure it.)

The film takes its time setting up the narrative dominoes, to the extent that the titular single white female doesn’t even show up until the second act. At the outset, it seems like a fairly innocuous story of two roommates competing for a promotion. They’re both shark-like, sociopathic publicists, so it’s hard to know who to root for at first. Holly (Kristen Miller) seems like the better person merely because, rather than seducing potential clients with one-night stands, she seduces one with a long-term relationship. She’s landed a big fish—restaurateur David Kray (Todd Babcock)—as her boyfriend, and that helps her land him as a client, leaving her roommate/rival, Jan (Burns) in the cold.

Jan gets her revenge, though. Holly’s at the point of the relationship where she might actually tell David she loves him, but before she can, Jan tells her she must go to Chicago to take care of some emergency business. Somehow, Holly falls for that, and while she’s in Chicago wondering why her hotel reservation doesn’t exist, Jan stays home to seduce David. Holly returns to the apartment just in time to catch David trying to sneak away.

After throwing various tchotchkes at her former best friend and boyfriend, Holly decides to find a new apartment. She eventually ends up rooming with Tess (Allison Lange), a demure nurse who seems much less demanding than other prospective roommates. A friendship quickly blossoms, especially after Holly makes Tess realize how smokin’ hot she is. After running afoul of Jan and several of Holly’s other colleagues, Tess tries to make Holly realize she has surrounded herself with awful, deceptive, manipulative people. Tess fails to realize Holly is one of them, a development that could have made the film more interesting, but the screenwriters generally fail to realize Holly’s skills at manipulation and vicious competitive streak aren’t much better than Jan’s.

Luckily, the film has intrigue to spare. Once Tess realizes Holly’s friends are the problem in her life, she takes the With a Friend Like Harry tack of killing off anyone she sees as interfering with Holly’s happiness. Unlike the first film, Tess has no real interest in assuming Holly’s identity. She wants to emulate her (by dyeing her hair and “borrowing” her clothes), but in a sort of Sapphic sisterhood way. The film starts to go off the rails right around the time a suspicious Holly tails Tess to an S&M club and watches in horror as Tess—chained to a wrought-iron structure—demands to be choked by a masked man. It fully goes off the rails when Tess is revealed as an Angel of Death, mercy-killing patients for reasons the film eventually explains. All of this builds to an ending so indescribably ludicrous, it must be seen to be believed. I will tantalize you with the following facts: it involves mad cow disease and ghosts. I am not making that up, I swear.

The acting is weak, even for direct-to-video fare, but Lange does a convincing job of playing a character simultaneously meek and murderous, sweet and deranged. She doesn’t pull the same 180-degree turns as the plot, creating a consistent character whose complex emotional core almost singlehandedly makes the film watchable. The same can’t be said for Miller, whose expressive eyes do little to compensate for poor line readings and apparent boredom. She’s very attractive, and she spends about 60% of the movie in bras and bustiers, but she should serve as the emotional anchor of the film. Isn’t Brooke Burns there for the gratuitous T&A? (Ironically, Burns is the only female character who doesn’t appear in her underwear.) Strangely, Burns plays bitchy Jan with hilarious relish, helping Lange to prop up the film under the sagging weight of Miller’s bland performance.

Behind the camera, the film has an unusual pedigree. Two of its writers—Andy Hurst and Ross Helford—previously teamed on the two DTV Wild Things sequels, among other films (most also produced by Marc Bienstock). Director Keith Samples produced a mixed bag of bona fide films, from the Olsen twins vehicle It Takes Two to the brutal satire Election (peppered with films like Kingpin, The Evening Star, and Hard Eight), before moving on to directing, mostly in television. His direction here has the rushed, workmanlike feel of TV, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—undoubtedly, this film had a low budget and a quick shooting schedule. The fact that it’s coherent means Samples is at least competent, but the first film (directed and produced by Barfly‘s Barbet Schroeder) had a great deal of cinematic flair that this film simply lacks. Even if Samples doesn’t do anything wrong, necessarily, a director like Schroeder would have likely brought more panache to the film’s myriad batshit-crazy twists.

Single White Female 2: The Psycho is certainly a flawed film, but by gum, it’s quite a fun roller-coaster ride. I’d have a better time at the movies if more of them were as charmingly nuts as this one.

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Public Enemies (2009) by Michael Mann

Note: This review is not of the shooting script for Public Enemies. It is of a screenplay, dated January 16, 1990, for Public Enemy by Michael Mann.

What went wrong with Michael Mann’s 2009 John Dillinger biopic Public Enemies boils down to a single, small moment. Shortly before his death outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre, Dillinger (played in the film by Johnny Depp) gazes wistfully at a photo in a locket. The photo is of Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), who at the time of Dillinger’s death was rotting in a federal prison in order to protect him. The whole of Public Enemies is little more than their pitifully unconvincing love story, and it downplays Polly Hamilton (Leelee Sobieski)—the famous “lady in red,” who accompanied Dillinger to the movies that night—as a distant cousin of the Barkers (as in Freddie and “Ma”), who were nice enough to let him hide out. What makes the locket moment so problematic is that, in fact, the woman in the photo in the locket at the time of Dillinger’s death…was Polly Hamilton.

I have no problem with a film that plays loose with history for dramatic purposes. For instance, in this very same film, I had no issue with them moving up the death of George “Baby Face” Nelson (Stephen Graham). In reality, he died several months after Dillinger. Nelson’s death is important to the film for a number of reasons, but it makes no dramatic or structural sense for a film about Dillinger to keep going past its subject’s death in order to encompass Nelson’s death. The problem I have with Public Enemies and its Dillinger-Frechette love story is that Mann (along with cowriters Ann Biderman and Ronan Bennett) played loose with history, and it still doesn’t work dramatically.

Despite casting solid actors in the roles, the script fails to make the love story convincing or compelling for even a second of the film’s running time. The film wants us to believe that this is a relationship based on pure, unbridled passion, but neither Depp nor Cotillard play it that way, and frankly, they’re taking cues from a script that implies that a few scenes of Dillinger displaying macho swagger suddenly puts them under the thrall of the deepest, truest love any couple has ever experienced. The fact that Dillinger carried on numerous relationships with women during his time with Frechette makes him flawed and complicated.

Because the film concentrates so much of its time on an epic love story that wasn’t, it fails to capture the crime story that was. Details of the timeline grow murky. Characters start to make stupid, movie-cliché mistakes that allow the FBI to inch closer to capturing Dillinger. The film tries so hard to humanize Dillinger with the love story, it fails to humanize him by giving us an understanding of who he really is as a person—what he sought to accomplish with his criminal enterprises, why he carried on with such bravado even after he found himself living in attics and barns to avoid the G-men, and whether or not he really believed he could elude authorities forever or was just putting on a show. So many facets of Dillinger make him a compelling protagonist; even some sort of history-distorting love story could have worked if anyone had bothered to make it interesting.

The thing that makes Public Enemies‘ creative failure such a travesty is that the Midwest gangsters of the 1930s have been on Mann’s mind for at least twenty years. On January 16, 1990, he submitted a revised draft of a screenplay called Public Enemy. This script draws from history, combining real historical figures with a fictitious composite for a protagonist. Among other things, this allows Mann to play even looser with historical reality, since he doesn’t have to commit to any by-the-numbers recreations of famous moments anyone with a passing interest in crime history already knows.

The script focuses on Harry Campbell (named for an actual gangster who ran with the Barkers, but actually a fictional character with aspects of Dillinger, Nelson, Alvin Karpis, and other, less notorious “independent” criminals), who survives the FBI’s massacre of the Barker Family and suddenly finds himself the FBI’s Public Enemy #1, since this massacre came on the heels of the deaths of Nelson and Dillinger, leaving nobody else to fill their top slot. Feeling confident after taking down so many notorious criminals, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover doesn’t think he’ll have much of a problem with a second-tier bank robber like Harry Campbell. He is not correct.

Much more focused than Public Enemies, the screenplay combines Campbell’s recuperation from the massacre (during which he was non-fatally wounded) with both a cynical romance—refreshingly unlike anything in the soap-operatic film—and nonstop planning of a train heist (modeled after the real-life heist mentioned late in the film, when Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) recruits Dillinger). From there, Mann divides the script into three big, distinct set-pieces: a bank robbery that will finance the train heist (the FBI took all the money that didn’t get burned at the Barker place), the planning and execution of the train heist itself, and the pursuit of Campbell and his newly assembled gang.

Campbell experiences setback after setback. In the first place, the only guy they can get as the third man on their bank heist is an unreliable dope fiend. Will he get picked up and turn them in to the Feds? Campbell forms an uneasy partnership with Eddie Day, another Barker survivor who fled with Campbell. He has Mob connections, but they dry up as soon as they try to launder money through the big syndicate. As a low-level enforcer explains, the various crime families have begun to merge into a national organization he compares to Standard Oil. They don’t need to associate with dangerous independents who leave a trail of bodies after every crime.

Mann’s 1990 script is a phenomenal tour de force, exploring every facet of the 1930s criminal underworld without ever making it look glamorous or rewarding. He can do this because he doesn’t have to live up to Dillinger’s reputation as a big spender who could do whatever he wanted in Chicago until Hoover started to turn up the heat. The implication in the film is that if the big bad government hadn’t started toying with a regular guy trying to stick it to The Man, Dillinger could have lived a peaceful life of love and happiness. As opposed to the bleaker but infinitely less rose-colored view of Campbell, who doesn’t enjoy any of the theoretical pleasures of a criminal life. He cowers in fear in attics and flophouses, trying to pull off this train heist so he can hightail it to Montevideo and live off his share of the supposed $860,000 score for the rest of his life. He manipulates women to find places to stay, wanders through foreclosed farmland in search of gun caches buried years earlier, and—something that’s totally absent in the lily-white film—has to put aside the national zeitgeist of racism and fraternize with blacks and Injuns. This is what Campbell’s life has become, and the only thing that makes him or anyone around him happy is the notion that they’ve gotten away with something. It’s a hollow happiness.

Rather than making it the main focal point of the story, Mann wisely downplays the difficult relationship between Campbell and Carole Slayman, an American Indian who has stood by him for untold years. She pretends she’s happy just calling herself his best friend, but her love for him (and his apathy and occasional lust for her) is palpable. Over the course of the story, Campbell starts to realize that he feels comfortable enough with Carole to take her to Montevideo. She’s earned his trust and respect, and maybe that’s enough.

In his capacity as a director, Mann’s action sequences have always impressed me. Whereas other directors revel in bombast, Mann slows things down to a realtime pace. He builds tension instead of chaos, relishing unexpected details that—when he’s firing on all cylinders—make his sequences both more viscerally rewarding and more memorable than a stunt sequence that blows half the budget on a three-second shot. In the finished film, the only set-piece that really stands out is Dillinger’s escape from the jail in Crown Point, Indiana. Like a superb short film within a vaster but more mediocre film, the sequence quickly establishes characters (most of whom only appear in this handful of scenes) and stakes before getting into the details of Dillinger’s daring daytime flight.

In the 1990 script, Mann writes every action sequence with a surprising breathlessness. If he planned to shoot them the way he wrote them, it’d be a dramatic change of pace for him, but I happen to think it’s just a writing trick. The scenes unfold rapidly (so rapidly that I finished reading the script almost in record time) and are as thrilling as anything in the Tony Scott or John McTiernan canons. Whether he shot them at the same brisk pace or slowed things down as he traditionally does, the action in this script combines visceral violence and off-kilter twists that feel like the stuff of truth, being that it’s notoriously stranger than fiction. He also lets loose with wild prose like, “Married together like two frogs, the cars ricochet off of and scrape against the steel sides of the metal bridge, shooting gouts of sparks everywhere.”

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Mann’s script is nearly perfect, but he blows it at the very end, literally on the last page. After writing the grimmest, grittiest crime epic since The Godfather, he allows Campbell an unearned happy ending. After the train heist, Campbell flees to New Orleans, the last American stopping point before his trip to Montevideo by way of Cuba. Resigned to a life with Carole, he intends to meet her there—but she’s betrayed him to the Feds. It’s not a simple betrayal, either. They beat and threaten to kill her dopey brother if she doesn’t give up Campbell. She’d die for him, but she won’t sacrifice her brother. G-men swarm Campbell’s hotel. It seems like he’s done for—

—but Mann delivers a frustrating double-cross that lets Hoover think he finally got his man when, in fact, he got a traffic cop with a sock stuffed in his mouth. Campbell manages to get to Montevideo.

I’ll tell you what bugged me about this ending. The Depression bred a seemingly unending wave of criminal activity. At a time when hardworking Americans were losing jobs, homes, and farms, those robbing banks—government institutions that held all the money and, in the eyes of the people, caused all their problems—became folk heroes. Dillinger’s story isn’t remembered because he was a great guy caught up in bad times. These were violent, awful people who ended up dead or imprisoned. Karpis wasn’t an exception. He didn’t get away in New Orleans. The G-men caught him, and he spent thirty-three years in prison, allegedly serving the longest sentence in the history of Alcatraz (and even then, he spent another seven years at McNeil Island when Alcatraz closed).

Maybe it’s as trite to suggest crime doesn’t pay as it is to think Campbell could escape justice and spend the rest of his life relaxing on a South American beach. Then again, maybe Mann’s ending isn’t that happy. Campbell gets his money and makes his escape, but what did it cost him? Everyone he knew either got killed or wrote him off. So he lives alone, in a foreign country, isolated by the language barrier, loneliness cushioned by money. Is that a happy ending?

This sounds like a different script for a different story, but the 2009 film contains a handful of scenes virtually identical to those found in this script. Hoover inviting children to become the G-men of tomorrow, Campbell and Eddie Day sitting dumbly in a movie house while a MovieTone newsreel flashes their mugshots and tells theatre patrons to look around to see if they spot the latest public enemies, Campbell losing his Mob ties—even the scene where he lays out the train robbery is eerily similar to Karpis explaining the plan to Dillinger in the film. Maybe Mann cannibalized his old script, or maybe it just went through decades of agonizing development before anyone would finance it.

Whatever the case, it saddens me that this terrific script remains unproduced. Public Enemies is a pale shadow of its predecessor, a disappointment in almost every conceivable way. Reading a vastly superior interpretation of the same subject matter only makes it more disappointing.

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Cyborg (1989)

For my money, the saddest story in Cannon’s history is that of their attempts to become a legitimate force rivaling major studios. They spent a small fortune to secure the film rights for He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, arguably the defining kids’ cartoon of its era. Unlike Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Cannon put some money behind their live-action take on the show. It’s just that, for Cannon, putting all their money and resources into something meant a meager (for a fantasy-action epic) $10 million budget and a whole lot of crossed fingers.

Had Masters of the Universe succeeded, Cannon might still be around today. During the film’s production, they had so much confidence in its success that they moved along to their next big project: a live-action Spider-Man film, which would have starred stuntman Scott Leva (or, legend has it, possibly Tom Cruise). After Cannon optioned the rights to the character, Cannon went through an extensive, expensive development process. Because Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus misunderstood the concept of the character, they originally planned it as a horror film for Tobe Hooper to direct, with a script based on a treatment by Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens. Stan Lee eventually explained who Spider-Man actually was, and they were on their way. Unfortunately, the high-profile failure of Superman IV forced them to slash the budget, causing most of the talent to abandon the project.

By 1987, all their hopes and dreams were pinned on Masters of the Universe, which cost more than Superman IV and needed to succeed in order to balance Cannon’s books and give them a way to finance Spider-Man. It flopped. Most attributed its failure to the idea that kids had moved on—after all, He-Man had gone off the air in 1985, and kids have notoriously short attention spans. Anecdotally, I’ll say this: my sister and I were at a prime age for He-Man fever, and although new episodes stopped airing in 1985, reruns continued throughout the run of She-Ra: Princess of Power (which began its run in late 1985, shortly before He-Man ended). We forced our parents to rush out and see the film when it hit theaters, and we loved it. So, personally, I attribute its failure to the mishandling of its marketing. Cannon made the foolhardy decision of promoting it as an action film for teens and adults. But who over the age of ten would want to see a He-Man movie? It’s actually a decent movie, but I can understand why their intended audience stayed away in droves while confused parents either barred their children from seeing it or simply ignored its existence.

Cannon had already sunk about $2 million into the development of Spider-Man. It was ready to go—budgeted, scheduled, with most of its sets already built on soundstages and backlots in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was going to share its set with a Masters of the Universe sequel still in development. The only problem was, Cannon didn’t have any more money to actually make the film. Veteran Cannon director Albert Pyun—who was slated to direct both Spider-Man and the Masters of the Universe sequel—took a look at the half-completed sets and realized he could salvage what Cannon had already spent by exploiting yet another popular genre: the post-apocalyptic thriller. Shooting on a budget of $500,000 (since the sets were already built, I assume the majority of this money went to spraypaint and codpieces), Cyborg capitalized on the cyberpunk movement with a tale of a grimy, plague-ravaged future world populated by the gang from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video.

Personally, I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic settings, even in bad films. If they can manage to keep some consistency to the world they’ve built, ideas about what the aftermath of a cataclysmic event might be have always fascinated me. Cyborg is no exception, which I think makes me a bit more lenient toward its numerous flaws.

The film stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as Gibson Rickenbacker (flaw #1: the cutesy naming of every character in the film after some sort of music manufacturer). Before I give you some indication of the story, I have to say that I noticed an interesting recurring theme among Cannon’s biggest action star. Forget Sylvester Stallone—who made a scant two films for them, and Over the Top isn’t even really an action film (despite its almost-pornographic depiction of biceps in action)—and think about the top dogs in Cannon’s arsenal: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, and Charles Bronson. I’ve commented on it before, but it didn’t really crystallize until I started to look at Van Damme’s Cannon output. They all have one thing in common—a wounded vulnerability that sets them apart from most of the action stars of their era. Aside from an ineffectual wisecrack now and again, they’re humorless men haunted by tragic pasts.

Despite his name, Gibson Rickenbacker is no different. Flashbacks slowly reveal a life destroyed by Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn), a musclebound pirate who evidently borrowed Meg Foster’s creepy eyes for the role. Known as a “slinger”—a guide who can navigate the pitfalls of a society overrun by pirates like Fender—Gibson reluctantly helps a beautiful woman, Mary (Terrie Batson), and her two adorable moppets. In a story that probably would have made a better movie than the rest of Cyborg, the cynical and aloof Gibson learns to love and finds happiness. He and Mary abandon their journey and settle in an old, rickety farmhouse, where they live in peace—until Fender and his pirates slaughter Mary and her son and kidnap her daughter, all for reasons only partially explained.

Some time later, the unsubtly named Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon) hires Gibson to take her to Atlanta. Presumably, her destination is the CDC, because she has a cure for the plague that has decimated mankind. Gibson doesn’t trust her, until she pulls off the back of her head and shows him she’s the titular cyborg. Her partner, Marshall Strat (Alex Daniels), turned her into a cyborg so that her new computer brain could infallibly carry the cure to Atlanta—assuming she can make it alive.

Within minutes of their first meeting, Gibson watches with moderate apathy as Fender kidnaps Pearl. See, pirates don’t want a cure for the obvious reason that their days of looting and pillaging will end once disease stops decimating the populous. (The obvious question about there not being much to loot and/or pillage never occurs to Fender or screenwriter Kitty Chalmers.) Gibson follows Fender, but he repeatedly says he has no interest in saving Pearl or curing the plague. He has a blood feud with Fender, and he won’t stop until the pirate is dead. He considers saving mankind more of a side benefit than a primary goal.

Gibson doesn’t so much team up with Nady Simmons (Deborah Richter) as let her follow him. Even though she frequently frolics in the nude around him and occasionally offers him sexual favors, Gibson is the stoic eunuch type. Nady’s mostly there for exposition and comic relief as Gibson pursues Fender, who has taken a barge down the Intercoastal Waterway toward his base of operations in Charleston.

Not much happens during what screenwriters call “the second act,” which is kind of a problem, especially for a film this short. It’s relentlessly, almost nauseatingly violent (allegedly, Pyun had to cut nearly fifteen minutes to avoid an X rating, and what remains is still pretty nasty), more than any other Van Damme movie. Part of that comes from the queasy, post-apocalyptic environs; perhaps because it was rendered so cheaply, the world Pyun creates actually looks like many parts of this country right now, making it all too believable that poverty and despair can crush us. The bulk of the nastiness, however, comes from unnecessary flourishes like Gibson’s razor-tipped shoes, which allow him to slit throats while high-kicking. I suppose it’s effective, but not in an enjoyable way.

When Cyborg isn’t mindlessly violent, not much happens. The early flashbacks are effective, but once they go away, Pyun places the burden of entertainment squarely on the shoulders of Gibson and Nady, who are not exactly Tracy and Hepburn. Encouraging moments—like Mary’s daughter reappearing as a bloodthirsty, teenage pirate—occur periodically, but they never develop into anything interesting.

I didn’t find enough here to recommend the film, but it’s also not nearly as bad as the scathing reviews that greeted Cyborg upon its theatrical release. It starts strong and then sputters to the finish line, but it never lacks imagination (even when mining post-apocalypse clichés, which it warps into something like a futuristic snuff film). Its $10 million gross didn’t save Cannon, but at the time it got released, nothing could.

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Predator 2 (1990)

Personally, I think those who consider Predator a sneaky sci-fi classic are out of their minds. The film lacks the imagination of other sci-fi/action franchises (Alien, Terminator) and, lest we forget, spends more than half of its runtime on the tedious ambush of a South American coke den before the Predator shows up. From there, it’s a relatively small-scale cat-and-mouse game that owes more to Alien than anyone involved would like to admit. Even the sequel owes a lot to the Alien franchise, in that writers Jim and John Thomas keep only the title character, switching up genres and actors and pretty much everything else.

This time around, the franchise takes a relatively insane, kitchen-sink approach to myth-making. In a dystopian Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future (1997, which you’ll note puts it exactly ten years after the events of the first film), Lieutenant Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) runs a small, loyal squad of homicide detectives in a precinct cartoonishly overrun with gang violence. The film opens with a lengthy battle on a small, filthy section of a Los Angeles street. Explosions, machine-gun chatter, and rampant cocaine abuse (one highlight: a gangster stopping to snort a hit of cocaine, then rubbing a bunch into his wounds) alternate with Predatorvision, showing his arrival in the middle of the melée and his focus on… Well, it’s not exactly clear what his agenda is. He sort of seems like a prankster version of The Invisible Man, not really doing much beyond inciting additional violence once the police finally seem to have things under control.

After focusing his finally honed, mechanically enhanced hearing onto various gangsters and police, the Predator inexplicably decides to provoke an all-out war between the histrionic Colombians and the manic Jamaicans. (What was 20th Century Fox’s obsession with Jamaican villains in 1990? This year also saw the release of Marked for Death, an almost indescribably bizarre take on Jamaican gangs.) This is when the movie really starts to take off, with Joel Silver trying to outdo not only other Fox films, but his own (Die Hard 2 and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane also came out that summer).

Unfortunately, every time the film threatens to veer toward a big-budget variation of a Cannon or Dino De Laurentiis film, the detectives hold it back. The ensemble is topnotch, with Glover leading Rubén Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso, and Bill Paxton on the hunt for a Predator. It’s just that the detective-procedural aspects of the film lack the fun and craziness of its many action sequences. The Thomases try to make it interesting by adding characters to get into Harrigan’s way. Silver regular Robert Davi shows up as a hateful police captain prone to fits of rage. He brings the Feds (led by an intense Gary Busey and a slightly unhinged Adam Baldwin) in on Harrigan’s investigation, forbidding him from continuing pursuit of the odd flayings that keep happening to gangsters in his precinct. Needless to say, Harrigan ignores that directive and continuously runs afoul of his superiors. Oh, Morton Downey, Jr., also shows up as a tabloid reporter doing a nonstop exposé on the violent streets of Los Angeles.

The film has a number of things going for it beyond craziness—a great ensemble, interesting (if dated) special effects, and a demented rendering of a future that’s already passed. It’s much grimmer and wilder than the reality turned out to be, but the film ably predicted the rise (and pathetic legitimizing) of tabloid journalism, the decay of the American city, and the ineffectiveness of underfunded urban police departments. It’s not exactly The Wire, but these problems that seemed small in 1990 have had quite a dramatic impact on the country. The fact that Predator 2 got it mostly right (even if it went way over-the-top with its ideas) helps keep its past-future-imperfect from seeming too dated.

Another big strength is the apparent verisimilitude. The film really did shoot in gang-controlled slums of Los Angeles, contending with gangsters pelting the cast and crew with debris and ruining takes by shouting obscenities. The squalor of the environs feels authentic, as does the Do the Right Thing-esque abuse of a Los Angeles heatwave to automatically make the proceedings sweatier and more intense. It’s a cheap device—especially after Do the Right Thing used it so masterfully—but it works.

My admiration for filmmakers who can vividly create a new world on the silver screen knows no bounds. Even though the procedural aspects of Predator 2 dulled what could have usurped Total Recall‘s title as the craziest big-budget action movie ever made, it’s a solidly constructed, wantonly violent film that betters its predecessor in every conceivable way. That doesn’t necessarily make it a masterpiece, but if you like your action movies with a heaping helping of goofiness, you’ll dig Predator 2.

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Kickboxer (1989)

By and large, even the best action films will cater more to its star’s well-worn persona than it will to making a really good film. It will forsake narrative and character development vital to the film’s success in order to maintain whatever persona its star perpetuates. If you recall, my chief complaint about Bloodsport was the film’s unwillingness to put Jean-Claude Van Damme’s character in any real jeopardy—because the myth of Van Damme is that of the indestructible Muscles from Brussels, a brooding badass who overcomes his emotional scars by giving his opponents physical scars. That’s a persona not far removed from the majority of action stars, though as I pointed out in my review of Cyborg, Cannon had cultivated a stable of humorless stars who carried serious pain in their eyes and their posture. Even when they unleashed a Schwarzeneggerian quip, it’s tinged with deep sadness.

And then there’s Kickboxer, a film that defies Van Damme’s budding persona and pretty much everything anyone thought they knew about action heroes. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it proved two things that made me respect Van Damme more than I ever thought I would: He takes risks, and he’s a better actor than his often confused franglais lets on. As Kurt Sloane, he allows himself to start the film as a petrified coward who slowly transforms into a master martial artist. He exhibits a much wider emotional rainbow than Bloodsport and Cyborg suggested he could, up to and including an incredibly silly dance sequence in which his goofy grin and disco splits win him the hearts of local women.

The film opens with Kurt’s estranged brother, Eric (Dennis Alexio), winning a U.S. kickboxing title bout. With his championship belt in tow, Eric drags Kurt to Thailand to fight in an international tournament. Not unlike 1991’s Double Impact, Kurt and Eric lived opposite lives with opposite parents. Raised by his father, Eric was trained in martial arts and general badassery on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Raised by his mother, Kurt grew up in Belgium and learned ballet. He’s not exactly a pacifist, but he does suggest that Eric’s fighting is a waste of time and that he could use his athleticism for something worthier. Eric refuses to listen, and he’s punished for his hubris: Tong Po (Michel Qissi) nearly kills him in his first match.

Kurt spends most of the first act wide-eyed and fearful, desperately warning his brother not to fight, especially after he gets a look at Tong Po in the locker room. He bawls like a baby when Eric ends up in the hospital. Then, he swears revenge, seeking out an old master of Tong Po’s Muay Thai fighting style. Xian Chow (Dennis Chan), who exists more as smartass comic relief than sage old man, reluctantly agrees to train Kurt. The expected montage follows, interrupted occasionally for Kurt to get an eyeful of Mylee (Rochelle Ashana), Xian Chow’s attractive shopkeep niece, and an eyeful of gangster Freddy Li’s (Ka Ting Lee) protection enforcers. He refuses to let them take Mylee’s rightful earnings, which doesn’t win her heart the way he thinks it will, and he spends most of the second act running afoul of the enforcers, until his skills reach the point where they’re actually afraid to collect and risk another ass-kicking. When Xian Chow asks Freddy to let Kurt fight Tong Po, he happily agrees—assuming Kurt will die quickly and solve his collection problem.

It’s not that easy, of course, and although Kickboxer follows mostly predictable action beats, it’s enlivened by Van Damme’s absolute commitment to story and character above image. His reckless abandonment of the stoic, taciturn action hero leads the film to moments verging on surrealism, making what could have been a humdrum martial-arts flick into a very entertaining film for people who don’t necessarily like martial-arts flicks. From his Flashdance-esque training attire to the indescribably weird disco dance/barfight, the film’s odd miscalculations make it all the more endearing and eminently watchable—the hallmark of the best Cannon films.

The film honestly doesn’t have a huge amount going for it beyond Van Damme’s great work. The supporting cast, though likable (even the villains are sort of endearing), isn’t particularly good, Mark DiSalle’s direction is subpar even for Cannon, and the story is pretty familiar. I’m mostly recommending it for the opportunity to see an action star do something a little different, even within the established framework of an action film. I’ve seen most of Van Damme’s classic work, but his Cannon films mostly eluded me until now. He’s at his best in Kickboxer, and his best is pretty damn good.

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Vanishing on 7th Street (2011)

Vanishing on 7th Street has so much going for it, I vacillate between feeling bad that I can’t quite recommend it and feeling enraged that it’s not as good as it should be. For most of its runtime, it’s a film of great style, great performances, and thoughtful explorations of well-worn character types. It punctuates intense dialogue scenes with thrilling moments of action and horror. It has one of the best opening sequences I’ve ever seen (even if it borrows a bit from the first Left Behind book—though, thankfully, it doesn’t slide into hokey fundamentalist propaganda). It’s the type of movie I’d enthusiastically recommend if not for two things: its shadow people, and its ending.

Who are the shadow people? Believe me—I’m not ruining anything by telling you. What should serve the film well as its Big Mystery is revealed in the first few minutes via awful CGI reminiscent of the demon ghosts in 1990’s Ghost (forgivable there because CGI was new and confusing, and it was never really trying to be a scary horror movie). You see, that oh-so-effective opening sequence finds three disparate characters discovering they may be the only people left on Earth. A nighttime power outage plunges the world into darkness, and everyone disappears. The eerie sight of clothing piles and crashed cars (and, in one well-rendered moment, a plane crash) is a phenomenal hook.

Within three days, the world is plunged into eternal darkness. Our characters have learned enough to know the only thing keeping them alive is light. Luke (Hayden Christensen), a TV news reporter, strings a dozen flashlights to a rope he wears around his neck. Rosemary (Thandie Newton), a single mother horrified by the disappearance of her son, carries glow sticks. Paul (John Leguizamo), a bitter genius underachiever working as a movie projectionist, cowers in fear under a bus shelter with a solar-powered light. Before long, they find themselves drawn to a bar on the eponymous 7th Street. Its music-blaring jukebox and bright lights act as a beacon for these desperate moths—unfortunately, it’s protected by a foul-mouthed, shotgun-toting tween, James (Jacob Latimore). His mother got a gas generator running before going out in search of food—and never returning.

That’s pretty much the setup. The rest of the movie mostly revolves around these four characters trapped in the bar, trying to figure out what has happened and why. But the shadows tip the film’s hand far too quickly. Every time the characters venture out of the bar, or even into a shadowy corner of the bar itself, the shadows appear, inching toward our survivors, then “running” away when the characters turn around or aim their lights in the direction of the shadows. It’s meant to scare and build suspense, but it’s hard to do either when it looks like something out of Fantasia.

On some level, I can understand why director Brad Anderson (or possibly someone else in the editing room) decided to insert these shadows. The theory of suspense is that the audience needs to know more than the characters, who spend their time ruminating on what could have caused this while remaining largely ignorant of the shadow people trying to snatch them. The shadows just look too silly; that’s the only problem with them, but it significantly hobbles what could have been a terrific thriller. I would have preferred to discover what’s happening along with the characters rather than having it “foreshadowed” via bad special effects.

And then there’s the ending, which I won’t ruin, but I will say this: It’s an eye-rolling twist with a comically on-the-nose “go-green” message. I honestly think it could have worked with a bit more subtlety. The imagery of the final sequence kind of works; it’s just the dialogue that goes along with it that practically screams, “GET IT?!

All that said, I can easily see this as a movie plenty of people will like. I liked a lot of it. I liked that the movie tosses four genre clichés in a room for most of its runtime and lets them turn into real people instead of stereotypes. Part of this comes from Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay, but the bulk of it comes from the performances. John Leguizamo is, as usual, the best part of a bad movie, committing so deeply to his self-righteous nerd that he almost seems physically burdened by the lifetime of rage and disappointment clouding his every thought. Christensen and Newton both surprised me. My exposure to them has been limited to the Star Wars prequels in his case, and Mission: Impossible II in hers, and they’re both uniformly awful there. The fact that they give solid performances in a film that’s mostly dialogue- and character-driven either shows plenty of growth for them as actors, or shows that they have the right director. Whatever the case, they’re worthy of praise. Even Latimore does a pretty good job with the most stereotypical of the characters (he’s never really given the chance to rise above the “wise-beyond-his-years kid” trope).

Overall, Vanishing on 7th Street isn’t terrible—it just doesn’t quite succeed in the areas it clearly wants to. It’s the sort of film that seems destined for repeat airings on Syfy weekends, an entertaining enough diversion without quite being good enough to recommend.

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Jack (1996)

Every other scene in Jack suggests the movie it could have been with a bit more ambition and a lot more thought. It came at the tail-end of a national fascination with body-swapping comedies—Big; Vice-Versa; 18 Again; Like Father, Like Son—and it has a real opportunity to explore the topic with some substance. Because, you see, Jack doesn’t revolve around magic fortunetellers or mysterious idols; its title character suffers from a medical condition that will essentially ensure his death by age 20. He has no chance of switching back to another body and leading a normal life; this is it for him. Sometimes, the film recognizes this, but it too often eschews genuine pathos for fart jokes.

If you remember the old trailer, you know the story: Jack Powell (Robin Williams) is growing at a rapidly accelerated rate, roughly four years to every one of a normal child. After a bizarre sequence in which Karen (Diane Lane) goes into labor after two months of pregnancy (at a Halloween party, so everybody rushes to the hospital in wacky costumes), the film cuts ahead ten years and slips into a strangely melancholic tone. Director Francis Ford Coppola realizes Jack leads a life of deep sadness and loneliness, despite having loving parents. Because of his freakish qualities, they keep him indoors most of the time. He stares longingly out the window at the normal ten-year-olds, wishing he could live that life without having the intellectual or emotional capacity to understand why he can’t. Coppola’s not afraid to express that darkness, but he’s also not afraid to throw it all away for the sake of kids farting in a coffee can.

With some gentle encouragement from his tutor, Mr. Woodruff (Bill Cosby, in a surprisingly somber extended cameo), the Powells allow Jack to start attending public school. Initially an outcast, Jack proves his worth quickly in a variety of ways: Intellectually, he’s on the same level as the other kids, but he can also buy them Penthouses, impersonate the principal when kids get in trouble, and rule the basketball court based on his size rather than his skill. The film never really acknowledges that these “friends” are abusing his naïveté, ignorance, and freakishness for their own gain. It simply decides he’s proved himself to the kids and is a genuine friend.

In two interminable sequences, the film shows Jack having a hard time getting along with his intellectual peers (although he impresses them with his farting skills and willingness to eat their secret “initiation” concoction, which involves a lot of toothpaste and Tabasco sauce, his size and weight makes their elaborate treehouse collapse) and his physical peers (in a fit of depression, Jack rushes off to a bar, where he gets drunk with a fool (a cameo from Michael McKean), almost gets it on with his best friend’s mom (another cameo from Fran Drescher), and starts a barfight with some schoolyard taunts). I understand the theoretical purpose for these sequences. They show Jack doesn’t really fit in anywhere, which again reflects Coppola’s vision of Jack’s life as a tragedy rather than a comedy. The problem is, they’re neither funny enough nor insightful enough to make the film engaging.

Between these long stretches of emptiness, Jack has numerous compelling moments. Jack’s mind hasn’t really caught up to his adult hormones. When he develops a crush on his teacher, Miss Marquez (Jennifer Lopez), he can’t understand her rejection. Meanwhile, overprotective Karen worries more about Jack abandoning her than about him getting hurt. Her husband, Brian (Brian Kerwin), tries to reassure her that everything that’s happening now is perfectly normal, but her combination of fear and sadness is one of the few moments that resonates.

The film sometimes pays lip service to Jack’s slow realization that he’s going to die long before his peers, but it dismisses these thoughts without examining them with any real depth. The elegiac tone permeating every frame of the film (even the “wacky” sequences) makes it clear that Coppola correctly thinks Jack’s story is not a happy one, but he doesn’t go nearly far enough with that tragic undercurrent. In a perfect world, Jack would be a lot more like The Elephant Man than a big, dumb studio comedy. Numerous scenes hint at the film’s almost limitless possibilities—including a scene that flash-forwards to an elderly Jack at his high school graduation—but the screenplay and the conventions of big, dumb studio comedies keep it tethered.

On the plus side, Robin Williams delivers an impressively restrained performance as Jack. Playing an adult ten-year-old seems like the sort of character begging for Williams to go a million miles over-the-top, but with few exceptions, he gets the character exactly right. He plays Jack as a shy, naïve kid who knows he has a “disability” but would rather just play and have fun like a regular kid.

Despite the performance, Jack is a mess. It had the potential to be a great (if depressing) film about the nature of life. It has moments that spark ideas for a better way to tell the story, but the film never goes far enough in the right direction. Fart jokes and sight gags of giant Robin Williams crushing a tiny elementary school desk are simply too hard to resist, I guess.

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