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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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Edison Force [a.k.a. Edison] (2006)

As a critic, watching Edison Force is the equivalent to having an out-of-body experience. The critic in me hovers at a distance, knowing I shouldn’t recommend a film with such a silly plot and such over-the-top violence. By most reasonable metrics, it’s a bad film: characters crippled by clichés, a story that simultaneously indicts fascist police states and fetishizes the violence such states breed, a pat (yet exceptionally violent) conclusion, and Kevin Spacey in a laughable hairpiece. Something about it just works, though, so even as the critic part of me rolled its eyes, the rest of me sat on the edge of my seat, hoping everything would work out for the characters. This despite the fact that I knew where the plot was headed after the second scene, and I knew the film wouldn’t have the balls to go for a tragic ending.

Pollack (Justin Timberlake) and Deed (LL Cool J) act as our entry points into this world. Pollack is a young, idealistic journalist who doesn’t work hard enough to please his tough-as-nails editor, Moses Ashford (Morgan Freeman), who fires Pollack for finding a good story that’s mostly conjecture. The story: that Deed lied to a grand jury to protect a crack dealer (Damien Dante Wayans), who also lied to the grand jury about what actually happened during a gun battle between his dealer pals and two members of the First Response Assault & Tactical (FRAT) team, one of them being Deed.

Pollack doesn’t know two things: that his story is true, and that Deed is merely the Ethan Hawke to his partner’s Denzel Washington. Lazerov (Dylan McDermott) is a homicidal maniac prone to fits of rage, all bloodshot eyes and blotchy skin. He’s not right in the head, but FRAT’s okay with that. Like the Parallax Corporation, they specifically recruit shiftless psychos for what amounts to a private army funded by private corporations and overseen by corrupt politicians, including D.A. Reigert (Cary Elwes) and FRAT commander Tilman (John Heard).

Wallace (Kevin Spacey) works for Reigert and is complicit in the FRAT scandal without liking it much. A former investigative journalist, he’s become a cog in a broken machine and feels powerless to fix it. So does Ashford, a Pulitzer winner reduced to running a neighborhood paper because, as he puts it, “I was never known for making the smart move.” Ashford sees potential in Pollack and wants to browbeat him into becoming the sort of journalist he used to be. When Lazerov corners Pollack and his girlfriend (Piper Perabo) in an alley and beats both of them to a bloody pulp (putting her in a coma), Pollack doesn’t need browbeating—he knows he’s on the right track, and he wants to take FRAT down. Wallace, an old friend of Ashford’s, sees the opportunity to shed light on the scandal ruining his city. The three form an awkward alliance, but they’re missing a piece of the puzzle: someone on the inside who can get them real insight into how FRAT literally gets away with murder.

That’s where Deed comes in. Nobody ever explains why FRAT would take him, but he’s different from the others. Most FRAT candidates had mile-long rap sheets before joining the military or the police force. Nobody in FRAT has ever been married or had a close relationship with anyone. Deed is different. He sees the police force as just a job, a way station to earn money while he learns a trade and can work for himself. He’s also engaged to Maria (Roselyn Sanchez). They realize he’s their best shot at learning more about FRAT, but he’s naturally reluctant. The stakes continue to get higher and higher, betrayals and new alliances surface, and the whole thing descends into a surprisingly satisfying orgy of violence that prominently features a flamethrower.

The problem, if one can call it that, is that Edison Force is not mindlessly entertaining enough to work as popcorn fodder. Despite its absurdity, it’s not really a fun film. Writer/director David J. Burke is intent on tackling a serious issue in a serious way, and he constructs a solid thriller with spare parts left over from numerous other films. Part of me wants to criticize him for that, but he puts together those old parts and makes a slick, economical film about problems endemic to big cities that are worth exploring, even if they’re explored in a way that involves graphic depictions of men getting pulverized by heavy, metal objects.

Despite the worthy subject matter, the film lacks the bravery of its own characters. Midway through the movie, Ashford explains that the rights of the press are protected in the Constitution specifically because they are obligated to speak out against what’s happening in their city—tyranny. Granted, Edison Force is not a documentary and Burke is not a member of the press, but he sets the film in the fictional city of Edison, populated by fake corporations and a fake political hierarchy. He doesn’t even call the SWAT team by its rightful name, and although I imagine a lot of that has to do with libel laws, it lacks the verisimilitude of something like The Wire, which takes on identical subject matter using a real city’s real problems. I’m sure it’s unfair to compare this film to The Wire, but it’s hard not to when it tries to tackle many of the same issues.

Early in the film, Ashford also admonishes Pollack for not getting the other side of the story—FRAT’s point of view. The film does a similar disservice, portraying all the politicians and police (except Deed) as unrepentantly corrupt without digging into how things in Edison got that way. A few throwaway lines pay lip service to the idea that FRAT dramatically reduced crime in the city, partly by solving crimes but mostly by scaring the shit out of criminals, but the film never dives into that moral gray area. It never considers the notion that an illegal police state might indeed come from a place of misguided but hopeful idealism instead of cynical corruption. It’s a small problem of hypocrisy, but the film still worked for me in spite of that.

Maybe it all goes back to casting. With the possible exception of Timberlake in the lead, everyone here does outstanding work. It’s easy to think that a bunch of stars in a direct-to-video film would be phoning it in and giving career-worst performances, but everyone—including Perabo in a tiny, tiny role—seems remarkably committed to their characters. Even Heard, McDermott, and Elwes try to give their characters shades of gray not present in the script, which perhaps enhances what could have been stock villain roles. Timberlake himself isn’t bad, but this was his first lead role and it sort of shows. While the other cast members disappear into their roles, Timberlake never lets go of the feeling that he’s ACTING instead of embodying Pollack.

If this review seems wishy-washy, it’s because I have some reservations about a movie I can objectively recognize as a failure. Emotionally, though—it worked for me. It’s not a revelatory experience, but the film absorbed me quickly and held my attention throughout. When I reached the end, I didn’t feel let down or annoyed. Doesn’t that qualify it as a success?

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WarGames: The Dead Code (2008)

I consider the first WarGames to be the ultimate nerd movie. Nothing (other than the short-lived Freaks & Geeks TV series) has as pitch-perfect a portrayal of a nerd. David Lightman was a socially awkward smartass stunted by an educational system that bored him and apathetic parents. He retreated to computers in the days before everyone had one on their desktop, and he taught himself how to use them. Part of this characterization comes from the writers’ desire to show how a seemingly normal, if nerdy, kid could be mistaken for a terrorist (drawing parallels between the isolation felt by a nerd and the isolation felt by a potential extremist whack-job). Part of it comes from good writing and casting, plain and simple. It’s kind of hard to believe the same actor who played the smarmy, charismatic Ferris Bueller could pull off the nerd character, but maybe Matthew Broderick’s inherent charm helps Lightman rise above the stereotype he could have easily been.

But it’s not just about the central character. WarGames plunges Lightman into a story any budding, antiauthoritarian hacker nerd only wishes would happen to them. After hacking into what he thinks is an innocuous gaming company’s development system, he plays an innocent game of Global Thermonuclear War, impresses a hot chick with his ability to hack into an airline and create reservations for two to Paris, and suddenly he’s at the center of a terrorist investigation that may just cause nuclear annihilation.

I love WarGames, and to be honest, I sort of looked forward to its direct-to-video sequel. Maybe that was my mistake. In a pop-culture landscape increasingly dominated by annoying “geek chic”—real nerds will tell you there’s nothing cool about being a geek; it’s all about trying to hide vital components of your being to avoid humiliation, until you find enough people who share your interests to feel vaguely less embarrassed—it could have served up a refreshing antidote, showing nerds as they really are. Not fat, slovenly, Asperger’s types living in their parents’ basements, but also not super-cool guys wearing vintage Atari T-shirts and talking about Star Wars—just mildly socially awkward people caught in the unfortunate crossfire of utter fascination and mild embarrassment of said fascination with computers, role-playing games, fantasy novels, and the complete works of Monty Python.

To my surprise and initial joy, WarGames: The Dead Code does start out getting things mostly right. Will Farmer (Matt Lanter) is the heir apparent to David Lightman—socially awkward, obsessed with massive multiplayer online role-playing games, unchallenged by his high school curriculum, inexplicably good-looking. He has a crush on Annie (Amanda Walsh), a cute girl in his computer science class who undergoes a frustrating metamorphosis from equally intelligent to rube-like (because, at a certain point in the film, she’s the only one around to ask questions vital to the audience understanding the plot). Seeking to spend more time with her, Will begs his ailing mother (Susan Glover) to lend him $550 so he can go on a class trip to an international chess championship in Montreal. She both doesn’t have the money and doesn’t want her son to go off on a trip largely unchaperoned, so strikes a deal she knows he’ll never live up to: If he can raise the money himself, he can go.

Little does she know, Will has complete access to his conveniently Middle Eastern neighbor’s bank account. He’s a doddering old man who doesn’t understand technology, and he trusts Will enough to fix things to give him full access. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know Will has a devil on his shoulder in the form of Dennis (Nicolas Wright), who convinces Will to “borrow” money from his neighbor’s bank account, place a bet on a new online gaming platform called RIPLEY and double his money instantly. That way, he can return what he “borrowed” and withdraw his winnings without his neighbor ever knowing. But as soon as Will leaves the room, Dennis appends an extra zero to the bet.

The game challenges Will to plan and execute a terrorist attack on his hometown of Philadelphia. He has twenty minutes to decimate the city, and with each success Will has in the game, the computer removes an advantage (either a weapon or defense mechanism) to make it more difficult. By the skin of his teeth, Will wins the game. At 5-to-1 odds, that’s more than $20,000 (minus what he must repay the neighbor).

This gets Will on the creators’ radar. Unlucky for him, the creators work for the Pentagon. RIPLEY is an elaborate government computer designed to use player feedback to analyze human response to an attack. It’s also designed to suss out potential terrorists. Just like David Lightman, Will is a perfect storm of terrorist possibility—the fact that he wins the game, the fact that he’s using money from a Syrian bank account to place his bet, and the fact that he immediately plans a trip to Montreal make him a pretty good candidate even before the psychological profile of his antisocial ways.

Once in Montreal, Will does get to spend more time with Annie—primarily because her own crush causes her to sidle up next to him, just in time for him to spend the rest of the movie on the run. What follows is pretty much the same as the first movie, only with more car chases and pretty computer graphics. Oh yeah, and less imagination or interest in character above plot.

Here’s a simple illustration of why WarGames: The Dead Code is so vastly inferior to its predecessor. In the first film, Lightman desperately wants to try the new games he’s seen advertised in a magazine. With the help of some fellow hacker nerds (played by the great character actor Maury Chaykin and the not-so-great walking stereotype Eddie Deezen), Lightman realizes the best way to find the backdoor into the password-protected system is to start researching everything about the company, its products, its employees, et cetera. This leads to the discovery of Stephen Falken and John McKittrick, who will become pivotal characters later in the film. The introduction to these characters, exposition, and development feels exceptionally natural because Lightman’s goal at this point is not to find Stephen Falken—it’s to break into a computer system by finding out about a presumed-dead computer programmer and gaming theorist.

Compare that to similar developments in the sequel. Stephen Falken (Gary Reineke, taking over for John Wood), who has faked his death once again, simply walks up to Will and Annie, explains who he is and what RIPLEY is, and leads both characters on the hunt for WOPR, the system from the first film. One of the things that makes WarGames such a great nerd movie is its willingness to depict the often tedious life of the obsessive. We now live in a world where Google makes that tediousness largely obsolete, but even so, this sequel simply hands vital information to Will on a silver platter. Neither he nor Annie need to prove their geek bona fides by figuring anything out themselves. The first film is nothing but Lightman using his mind—figuring out how to hack the system, figuring out how to escape from NORAD, figuring out how to break through to the seemingly insane Falken, and finally, figuring out how to get WOPR to stop. The sequel lacks this quality entirely, to its great detriment.

To be fair, though, the movie is passable (almost good) until Falken shows up. From that point, it’s pretty much a dumbed-down remake of the first film. Director Stuart Gillard tosses in numerous references to the original film (including the presence of WOPR, who must “fight” RIPLEY at a certain point) that come across more like cheap nostalgia than worthwhile homage. Maybe that’s because it literally steals the best moments of the first film, unabashedly and without commentary.

On the plus side, the actors acquit themselves reasonably well. Lanter is blandly fine, but he’s certainly no Matthew Broderick. Despite the awful writing for her character, Walsh manages to breathe some life into Annie, making her personality seem mildly less inconsistent. However, she mostly lacks the charm and wit she displayed on the short-lived sitcom Sons and Daughters (with one exception, in which she attempts to distract a suave computer guru by affecting an amusing dumb-girl persona). Colm Feore plays a flamboyant variation on the McKittrick character that is both hilarious and obnoxious. On one hand, I applaud Feore’s willingness to do pretty much any movie offered to him, but it bothers me because he’s capable of so much more than something like this. The biggest surprise to me was nerd-bait “get” Claudia Black (legendary as Aeryn Sun on Farscape), who voices RIPLEY without a trace of her Australian accent. I can’t figure out the logic in hiring someone with a distinctive voice and a large geek following, then making her sound unrecognizable. (It also disappoints me that an actress of such versatility is forced to voice an emotionless computer; Gillard doesn’t even allow her cold voice to make the proceedings vaguely creepy à la Douglas Rain in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Kevin Spacey in Moon) At least Feore, who voices WOPR (imitating the computer voice from the first film with the help of some modulation effects), has an on-camera role to justify the reason for hiring him.

I could go on for another page about why this movie’s second half fails to live up to both the promise of the first and the promise of a WarGames sequel, but I can tell by your snoring that I should wrap it up. So here’s the bottom line: WarGames: The Dead Code is an awful film. I’d say it taints the legacy of the original, but I’m one of nineteen people who know of its existence. Just take my advice and don’t rent it.

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Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989)

Critics too often only acknowledge the notion of world-building when they’re tackling a sci-fi film. It makes sense, since those films more frequently rely on creating a fully formed, consistent universe than something like a cheesy action procedural. But all fiction creates artificial worlds, even if they try very hard to stay true to our own. That, to me, is where believability plays its biggest role. Even in a world decidedly unlike our own, characters have to retain something resembling human behavior, even if they run at emotional extremes. I wouldn’t believe Antonio in The Bicycle Thief would go down to his basement in search of a duffel bag filled with guns before going on the hunt for the man who stole his bike. Conversely, I wouldn’t believe Lieutenant Crowe (Charles Bronson) would glumly wander the city with his son.

All of that has to do with the worlds these characters occupy. Antonio’s world edges far closer to realism than anything involving Charles Bronson. Crowe lives in a variation of Los Angeles so racially charged, it makes 2005’s Crash look like 1984’s Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. To give some context for the kiddies, the second half of the 1980s saw an enormous influx of Japanese businesses in the United States. They looked at the way we ran our corporations, and the things we made, looked at the problems, and bested us. Thanks to a combination of loosening regulations and increasing import tariffs, Japanese companies came stateside en masse, bringing their own employees and executives to fill many positions. This is reflected in a handful of films made during the time period, though arguably the least racist portrayal is Die Hard, which simply uses a Japanese company as a backdrop, without commenting on the horrors of the “Japanese invasion.”

Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects is all about the horrors of the Japanese invasion. To his credit, writer Harold Nebenzal doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to Crowe. He allows Crowe to be angry, sanctimonious, and casually racist toward “the Orientals,” but he doesn’t let Crowe off the hook. Plenty of characters point out his racism, but Crowe can’t control himself. Here’s some more context, though the film doesn’t delve deeply into it: Many people of Crowe’s generation had a vituperative hatred toward the Japanese. They lived through Pearl Harbor, and many (including Crowe, and Bronson in real life) served in World War II. Forty years of peace and prosperity didn’t change that ingrained hatred of an enemy. I’m not saying this excuses Crowe’s behavior, and neither does Nebenzal, but to pretend an entire generation of people didn’t feel the same way about the Japanese as many currently do about anyone from the Middle East is whitewashing historical reality.

At any rate, half of the story follows Crowe’s efforts to pursue a deviant named Duke (Juan Fernández), who picks up underage girls and transforms them into prostitutes. Since this is the world of a Charles Bronson film, it shouldn’t surprise you that Duke goes to such seemingly innocuous venues as arena football games and sunny, family-filled public parks to scout potential prostitutes. His perpetual sneer and binoculars would make him stick out like a sore thumb anywhere else, but not in the world of Charles Bronson.

The other half of the story revolves around Hiroshi Hada (James Pax), a Japanese immigrant raised in a culture of sexual deviance. According to the movie, all Japanese men are turned on by hyper-violent hentai (pornographic comics) and by digitally violating women on crowded subway trains. Also according to the movie, all Japanese women are docile and accepting of such oppressive, abusive thoughts. In a handful of particularly disturbing moments, Hiroshi’s two daughters discuss The Way Things Are. Younger Setsuko (Michelle Wong) doesn’t think Hiroshi should cheat on his wife so frequently or so overtly; older Fumiko (Kumiko Hayakawa) shuns Setsuko for her views, urging her to realize a woman’s place in society. Hiroshi provides for the family and makes a good living—he should be rewarded by getting to bang the bejesus out of whomever he desires.

When Hiroshi and his family movie to Los Angeles, it’s no surprise that Hiroshi’s deviant ways don’t play well with American women. The call girls provided by his American business clients don’t take his abuse with gentle good humor; they fight back, verbally and physically. Desperate to get his rocks off, Hiroshi decides to reenact what he’s witnessed on many a subway car. He sticks his hand up the skirt of a teenage girl on a bus. Coincidentally, that girl happens to be Crowe’s teenage daughter, Rita (Amy Hathaway), and she doesn’t stand there and take it like the Japanese women Hiroshi is used to. She screams and runs off the bus. Others try to corner Hiroshi and hold him until the police arrive, but he manages to get away—and immediately gets mugged.

Because Rita can’t identify her abuser (they all look the same to her), nothing happens to Hiroshi. The incident further fuels Crowe’s disdain for “the Orientals,” so things get complicated when Fumiko gets kidnapped, Duke is identified at the scene, and Crowe is forced to work with Hiroshi to get her back and take down Duke once and for all.

Some might laugh at the depiction of Japanese culture here, but it’s no less silly or over-the-top than the portrayal of American culture. The movie works for two main reasons. First, as is often the case with Bronson’s late-period work, Nebenzal and director J. Lee Thompson create a crazy world that’s consistent within its own set of strange rules. In my review of Death Wish 2, I described it as “a paranoid fever dream where all the fears of the elderly have come true.” That about sums it up.

The second thing that helps the film succeed, strangely, is its subject matter. The film paints both Japanese and American culture in broad strokes—but its heart is in the right place when it comes to its attempts to explore the endemic problems of sexual abuse of children and the pervasive culture of silence surrounding it and its effects. The film, perhaps unfairly, targets Japan as a nation where sexual depravity runs rampant because of cultural reinforcement (in that men are applauded for using women as playthings, while women are shunned if they speak out against the things men do). To its credit, the film doesn’t really portray the U.S. as much better when it comes to depravity, but it does suggest that our cultural dominance of yelling loudly when bad things start happening is perhaps the best solution to the sexual abuse problem.

Well, maybe not the best solution. Kinjite‘s best solution involves a murderous claw-crane and lots of gunplay. In many ways, it’s the same sort of gloriously absurd Bronson vehicle we’d come to expect from him by 1989. It’s elevated primarily because of its subject matter, even though it’s handled in the same sort of wildly over-the-top way as gangs and drugs in the Death Wish series. The film may not have all the right answers, but it raises questions worth asking.

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The War of the Roses (1989)

The strange thing about The War of the Roses is that it’s a film that wouldn’t work at all without its reaction shots. Thanks to Danny DeVito’s directing and the facial acting of its two leads, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, we understand that this once-loving couple has eased slowly and uncertainly into petty (but steadily escalating) behavior. Without that, it would be just another ugly, mean-spirited comedy about horrible people doing nasty things for no real reason (like its chief competition at the box-office, the Roseanne Barr star vehicle She-Devil, which I’ll reluctantly admit does have a few big laughs, but mostly it’s misanthropic).

Douglas and Turner star as the Roses, Oliver and Barbara, a couple whose initial meeting foreshadowed the pettiness to come: they bid fiercely for a high-priced knickknack, and when Barbara wins, Oliver follows her to bicker. Almost immediately, disdain turns to passion, and before you know it, they’re married. By the time the first act is over, twenty years have passed. Oliver has become a successful corporate attorney primarily to finance the mortgage and decoration of Barbara’s dream house. Oliver’s constant working has created a wedge between the couple. So has Barbara’s boredom (induced by finally finishing the house and watching both of her kids go off to college), which she tries to cure by starting a high-end catering business.

One day, Oliver keels over, presumably of a heart-attack. The fact that it’s merely a hiatal hernia doesn’t make Oliver any less angry that Barbara never shows up at the hospital. She eventually confesses that she feared going to the hospital because she never wanted to imagine anything bad happening to her family. Oliver’s heartened, until Barbara goes on: She did start imagining Oliver had died, and she felt happy and relieved. This epiphany leads her to divorce him. She waives alimony in exchange for ownership of the house (her attorney uses an emotional letter Oliver wrote on what he assumed was his deathbed to justify the demand). Oliver feels he has an equal claim on the house, so with the help of his own divorce attorney (Danny DeVito), he cites an obscure precedent that would force them to share ownership of the house.

This sets off the chain of events that gives the movie its title. A few legitimate faux pas lead to petty vengeance, and the whole thing snowballs into a battle royale involving crushed cars, dead pets, and evacuation of urine in places where urine doesn’t belong.

The second hour of the film wouldn’t work at all without those reaction shots—moments that show us both Oliver and Barbara are still recognizably human. Their faces express the guilt and embarrassment anyone would feel with those early, accidental dust-ups. Once things have escalated, they vacillate between genuine anger at one another and the sort of wondering look of a person questioning whether or not he or she has gone too far. This doesn’t stop their bad behavior, and it doesn’t justify it, but it keeps Barbara and Oliver from turning into cartoon characters. It allows us to look at the whirlwind courtship in the first act without feeling like screenwriter Michael Leeson betrays who the Roses once were en route to third-act tastelessness. In fact, those reaction shots alone prevent the film from being as tasteless as it easily could have been. They transform the film from histrionic misanthropy into a genuinely funny farce about two bitter, angry people driven to extremes.

Of course, it helps that Douglas and Turner are perfectly cast as the Roses. They established their Bickersons-style chemistry in Romancing the Stone and its sequel, and DeVito pushes it to comic extremes. It works primarily because their chemistry has a certain weight and history to it; without that level of gravity, they’d just seem hateful. Instead, it feels like years of pent-up frustration on both sides unleashed in wave after wave of unvarnished hostility—but there’s still a tiny germ of love there, enough to let us think both Oliver and Barbara are reacting more from emotional pain than screenplay-mandated vindictiveness.

The thing is, none of this is present in the screenplay—or, at least, not in the dialogue. It all comes from the actors adding subtext and DeVito knowing exactly how to exploit that subtext. Although he also directed Hoffa and Matilda in the ’90s, DeVito the director has become synonymous with warped, dyspeptic comedies. However, this and Throw Momma from the Train contain much more humanity than his later comedies, 2002’s execrable Death to Smoochy and 2003’s borderline-unwatchable Duplex. It’s possible he got lucky with casting coups in these early films, but maybe he simply got too cynical.

Whatever his philosophical issues, his filmmaking skill-set is sharp as ever here. He knows how to put together comic set-pieces, but he also hits on emotional beats with these characters that inferior knockoffs like 1990’s Mad House ignore. Just as the performances elevate the screenplay (which is as much attributable to DeVito working with the actors as the actors themselves), DeVito’s eye for visual detail makes The War of the Roses more cinematic than a lot of comedies. It also allows him to pack in more jokes, in the corners of the frame or the background of a scene. To quote Kurt Longjohn, “It’s a real film.”

The worst thing I can say about it is that the framing device—in which DeVito’s character, Gavin D’Amato, tells the story of the Roses to a client (Dan Castellaneta) to dissuade him from filing for divorce—doesn’t really work. DeVito’s funny, and Castellaneta’s increasingly disturbed body language helps sell the soul-crushing gravity of the story, but it’s mostly just an excuse to narrate the story instead of revealing information in more natural ways. However, that’s a small issue in a very funny movie.

The War of the Roses hearkens back to a heady time when Hollywood made big, star-studded comedies for adults. I miss those days. Even a lot of the “hard-R” comedies coming out these days feel like they’re made for teenagers. At any rate, this is probably the best comedy about divorce not made by Woody Allen. It’s well worth a second look.

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