It’s been awhile, and I figured I should get back into this since I’ve noticed a half-dozen scripts I’ve read have made their thrilling theatrical (or direct-to-video) releases over the past few months, and I failed to reenact the death of Dennis Nedry by spewing poisonous dilophosaur bile in their general direction.
I’ll be honest: I haven’t really kept up on movies this year. I think, after the end of The Parallax Review, the only new releases I’ve seen have been Source Code, Bridesmaids, and The Tree of Life. Oh, and Super, the movie of the year. After hearing some positive buzz, I did decide to check out Ceremony to see if it amounted to more than its terrible script. I made it through about fifteen minutes before my Z’Dar-esque face flushed with rage and I shut it off in disgust.
Below, I’ll be reviewing scripts for two more movies I’ll probably never see. I may check out Conan solely because the love of my life, Rachel Nichols, is in it. As she knows from the thousands of fan letters I’ve sent, I will watch anything she’s in from P2 to blurry secret recordings of the outside of her house recorded by a crappy cell phone. Not my crappy cell phone. A totally different one that I also own.
Conan by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood
Preconceived notions can be a tricky beast. Short of knowing nothing about it aside from the title, how does one not enter a film with preconceived notions? I think the important distinction is reconciling what one expects from a film with what it tries to deliver. If one enters a film like Source Code expecting a thrilling, WarGames: The Dead Code-esque hacker masterpiece based on the fact that its title is common techno-parlance, they might be disappointed with viewing a weird time-loop story involving train-bombing terrorists. In that situation, I couldn’t blame Source Code for delivering something that did not come close to what my expectations. I couldn’t say, “Where’s all the hacking? This movie sucks!” Because that’s not what Source Code is trying to be. If, however, it was trying to be a hacker thriller that did a poor job with its subject, it would rightly disappoint and frustrate me.
To that end, I’m either the best or worst person to review a new Conan project. I have only the vaguest knowledge of the original films, a chasm in my cinematic knowledge that only disappoints me because I’m a big Schwarzenegger fan. The original movies simply eluded me in a way not even Hercules in New York could. The closest I came (if you’ll pardon the pun) to seeing either of the Conan movies was taping them off HBO as a lad so I could fast-forward to the nudity. Let me tell you, it was no Husbands and Lovers. Oh, Joanna Pacula… You’ll always be in my heart and loins.
Where was I? Right, I haven’t seen the original Conan films. I haven’t read the old Conan stories. I know so little about him and his world, I consider myself eminently qualify to write one of the numerous knockoffs that flooded schlocky cinemas in its wake. So my preconceived notion when starting this script was pretty simple: I expected crap. I hate the glut of remakes and sequels Hollywood keeps deep-frying and cramming down our drooling gullets, and in my mind, this was just another part of the problem, not part of the solution.
That means it surprised and disappointed me that… I liked it. As you’ll notice if you go back and read my coverage, I didn’t love it. However, I spent years reading schlocky action scripts, and very few of them got the genre right in terms of delivering mindless action and a stoic, single-minded killing machine. Too many scripts waste too much time trying to make the main character likable and cuddly, giving us the sensitive-ponytail-man version of an action hero: he doesn’t want to kill, but he has no other choice. O, the injustice! Fuck you, Law-Abiding Citizen.
Conan doesn’t make that mistake. The title character is an asshole. Nobody makes apologies for that. The closest we get to justification are early scenes chronicling a birth right out of Greek mythology (he’s literally ripped from the womb of his dying mother by his warrior father) and a childhood plagued with invasions, battles, and death. Raised in this world by a single-father badass, is it any wonder Conan grew up with a pretty narrow, murder-based focus? The writers don’t think so, and I happen to agree. The early scenes provide just enough pathos to carry us through a movie where Conan does very little beyond skulking, sulking, and killing. He’s effective at all three.
Saddled with a love interest, Tamara (my beloved Nichols), who happens to secretly be the queen of a land called Acheron. Singh, the man who led a siege that killed everyone in Conan’s village except the man himself, wants the mysterious power of Acheron, and only the murder of Tamara can make that happen. So Conan and Tamara ultimately want the same thing—the death of Singh. They just have to find him first. Ironically, Singh is searching just as hard to find them. That’s pretty much all there is to the plot, but it effectively manages its low aspirations. Conan and Tamara need to journey to find new people to kill; Singh needs to want them just as desperately to create that beloved unbreakable bond, and it has to build to a thrilling confrontation.
The worst part about Conan—really, the only bad thing about it, if you accept what it wants to be and allow it to work for you—are the myriad third-act twists. Alliances shift, betrayals occur, and all of that would be perfectly acceptable if the script didn’t stop dead every single time to explain, in almost comic detail, why the deceptions have occurred. Complex motivations do not drive any of the characters in this script until the last twenty or so pages—why ruin the hot streak of mindless action with all the sudden and lengthy reasoning?
This might be yet another textbook example of a script working better on the page than on the screen. Granted, I haven’t seen the movie, but I have my doubts that Marcus Nispel, destroyer of worlds and master of passionless remakes, can pull it off. I also have to question Jason Mamoa in the title role. He was all right in a virtually identical role on Stargate: Atlantis, but very little about him ever screamed “leading man.” Maybe that’ll all change once they oil up his pecs, but I think I have the right to remain doubtful.
Untitled Lucas & Moore Comedy (a.k.a., Flypaper) by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
I know it’s impossible for anyone in Hollywood to come to terms with the possibility that the writing team responsible for The Hangover could write a film that isn’t a comedy, but let’s face facts: this script is not a comedy. It opens with a comic situation—two sets of thieves rob the same bank at the same time—but it’s not really any wittier or more comedic than, let’s say, Inside Man or Dog Day Afternoon. Both of those heist movies have plenty of amusing one-liners, but nobody will confuse them with The Hangover. Nobody will confuse them with The Hangover Part 2, either, because they have more laughs. BOOM! Cheap shot on a movie I haven’t seen that Lucas and Moore didn’t write!
Lucas and Moore do one great thing with this script—they constantly reinvent what the story is without making it feel disjointed. It’s high-class sleight-of-hand designed to distract us into not noticing the stock characters or the familiarity of the situations. Because Flypaper contains numerous things we’ve all seen before; we just haven’t seen them crammed into the same movie.
It opens with an introduction to the de facto main character, the unsubtly named Tripp, who suffers from some serious and unchecked mental problems. Depending on the scene, he alternates between Rain Man, Sherlock Holmes, and a shy eighth-grader trying to ask a pretty girl to the Spring Fling. It’s not that this makes his characterization inconsistent—he’s arguably the script’s most believable and interesting character—but do we live in a world where Monk doesn’t exist? Do we even live in a world where Monk didn’t do pretty much the same thing?
At any rate, Lucas and Moore distinguish the teams from each other, but not the people within the teams. “Peanut Butter” and “Jelly,” as they are referred to throughout the script (it’s a gag that I don’t think is mentioned in dialogue and isn’t really a funny way to not give characters real names), are interchangeable yokels trying to blow up the bank’s ATM to steal the sweet, sweet cash inside. Darrien and Weinstein are equally interchangeable criminal masterminds, using all manner of high-tech gadgetry and elaborate planning to pull off a vault heist. Their third, expert safecracker Gates, shows a sparkle of personality in random displays of rage and megalomania.
The thing that comes the closest to making this script interesting is its most unexpected moment: when a seemingly random customer in a Jets jacket is killed by a sniper outside the bank. The thieves are so distracted with each other, only Tripp seems to notice that neither group of criminals killed this man. He spends the remainder of the script trying to identify who among the hostages would want this man dead. His attempts to unravel that string allow the hostages occasional character moments, but mostly, the hostages stay in the background. So we’re, again, left with Tripp, a walking encyclopedia of information Lucas and Moore want us to know in order to follow a clever but overstuffed plot.
Like the rest of the characters, Tripp doesn’t have much dimension. Like most writers, Lucas and Moore try to solve this problem by tossing a love interest at him. I’m not trying to criticize Lucas and Moore for this tactic—it really should have worked. Mutually attracted people who barely know each other, thrust together (if you’ll excuse the disgusting imagery), should allow for some insight into each character. Yet, it doesn’t. Lucas and Moore have constructed a great house of cards, but they’re not going to get the rowboat (look it up).
It falls apart because they don’t care about the characters (other than their desire to have a lot of them), and consequently, neither do we. Who gives a shit what happens when we don’t give a shit to whom it happens? That’s the biggest frustration in Flypaper—the plot really does have a number of strong twists. I’d call Lucas and Moore’s ability to keep numerous balls in the air admirable if not for the fact that they dropped the big-ass character ball. Sometimes, a busy movie with thin characters can coast on its stars. It may not be a hip thing to admit with the whole sordid Grey’s Anatomy association, but I think Patrick Dempsey is a pretty solid actor. The leads are rounded out by reliable actors like Ashley Judd, Mekhi Phifer, Tim Blake Nelson, Octavia Spencer, and Pruitt Taylor Vince. The IMDb also claims that two of the funniest people alive, Jeffrey Tambor and Rob Huebel, are in it. So the possibility exists that Flypaper won’t be terrible.
But it probably will be.