“To protect the sheep, you gotta catch the wolf, and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf.” This questionable sentiment is how rogue LAPD detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) justifies a heavy laundry list of dirty deeds, scary volatility, sociopathic backstabbing and a complete disregard for the badge that he wears on a chain like dog tags. And indeed, inner city Los Angeles can seem like a war zone, but its like he’s in fact more part of the problem than the dark angel of justice he sees in himself. Antoine Fuqua’s combustible crime drama Training Day rightly won Washington an Oscar for his unsettling runaway train of a performance, and he owns it down to the last maniacal mannerism and manipulative tactic. The film takes place over one smoggy L.A. day (hence the title) that feels like an eternity for its two leads, as well as all the colorful and often terrifying people they meet along the yellow brick road that’s paved with used needles and shell casings. Harris is tasked with showing rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) the ropes in his neighborhood, in the hopes that he’ll pass the test and achieve Narc status. Jake is prepared for a run of the mill crash course, but as soon as he’s treated to a verbal beatdown from Harris in the diner they meet at, he has a feeling it ain’t gonna be anywhere close to a normal day. This is just another day for Harris though, as he drags Hoyt by the scruff through drug busts, gang warfare, the worst neighborhood in town and pulls him deeper into his very dangerous world. Fuqua has a knack for getting the atmosphere of his settings just pitch perfect, and the feverish nightmare of the inner city comes alive, seemingly possessing the characters themselves until the atrocities just seem like a way of life. The trouble really starts when they run across Harris’s old drug lord buddy Roger (a wicked Scott Glenn in a role originally intended for Mickey Rourke), who proves a valuable asset later, though not in the way you might think. Harris introduces Jake to his equally crooked and scary team, including Peter Greene, Nick Chinlund and Dr. Dre who struggles in the acting department, especially in a room full of such heavy hitters. Jake is aghast at the horrors he sees and cannot believe the streets are like this. Harris devilishly assures him that this is the job, mutilating the symbol of his badge even more by justifying such behaviour as necessary. Tension reaches unbearable heights during a visit to a Latino gang household run by Cliff Curtis, Raymond Cruz and the eternally scary Noel Gugliemi. This is the heart of darkness fpr the film, a story beat from which there is seemingly no escape, until it becomes clear that Jake has somehow evolved a step up the food chain as far as LA goes, and is now ready to put down the dog who taught him, a dog who has long been rabid. People complain that the final act degenerates into a routine action sequence. Couldn’t disagree more. With a setup so primed with explosive conflict, it can’t end up anywhere else but an all out man to man scrap, which when followed by no flat out action sequences earlier in the film, hits hard. Their inevitable confrontation is a powerhouse, especially from Washington, who finally loses his composure and yowls like a trapped coyote, his actions caught up to him. In a role originally intended for Tom Sizemore (who would have rocked it in his own way) I’m glad Denzel got a crack at it, for he’s absolute dynamite. Watch for Harris Yulin, Raymond J. Barry and Tom Berenger as the three senior LAPD dick heads, Eva Mendes as Alonzo’s girlfriend, Macy Gray as a screeching banshee of a ghetto whore and Snoop Dogg as your friendly neighborhood wheelchair bound crack dealer. Fuqua keeps attention rooted on the dynamic between Washington and Hawke, who is excellent in as role that could have easily been swallowed up by Washington’s monster of of a performance. Hawke holds his own, and the film is really about how two very different guys view a difficult area of town, how it changes them both, and ultimately how their moral compasses end up on a collision course. One of the best crime framas out there, and quickly becoming timeless.
When I saw the marketing and trailer hype for Robert Zemeckis’s Flight, I was strongly under the impression that when I got around to seeing it I’d get a conspiracy style thriller. Some aviation intrigue, maybe a little government corruption, valiantly unveiled by Denzel Washington’s hotshot pilot protagonist. How very wrong I was. To my credit, it wasn’t my fault, but that of the severely misleading marketing. But then, how do you market a film like this? Hell, it’s a wonder it even made it past the pitching stage! The airplane related fiasco one sees in the previews is but a tiny segment that acts as at catalyst for one of the most searing and honest portraits of addiction I’ve ever seen. Washington is Whip Whittaker, senior pilot, ladies man, assured professional and severe drug and alcohol user. Whip snorts and guzzles day and night, including during the job. He’s functional and hides it well, but thats just another facet of his problem. When an onboard malfunction causes crisis on one of his flights, he takes a giant leap of faith, spectacularly landing the airplane upside down and essentially saving every passenger’s life. End of story? Not really. From there the film throws a curveball, as we dig deeper into Whip’s life, habits and history. An inquiry is launched into his mental state during the event, led by a stern and silky voiced Melissa Leo. His superiors do everything to defend him, but it becomes clear that he has been coming apart at the seams for sometime now, and the incident was one of the final rips. It’s a journey into one man’s refusal to admit his problems, and the often extreme ways in which life holds up a mirror in front of us and demands acceptance. Kelly Reilly is superb as a damaged girl he meets who tries to take his hand and lead down the way to fixing what is broken, but he’s pretty damn far off the path. John Goodman is his charismatic self as Whip’s groovy drug dealer, and Bruce Greenwood reliably steals scenes as an airline official determind to defend Whip to the bitter end. Washington is heartbreaking, especially in the scenes of alcohol abuse, which are tough to watch. He’s never had a character arc quite like this, and it’s one of the most special, vital gifts of acting he has ever given us. The look, feel and tone of the film is anything but gritty or depressing. It has a glossy, aesthetic sheen to it that barely hints at the commotion and strife which befalls it’s lead character. Perhaps this was Zemeckis’s intention: dazzle us out of the gate with crisp frames and bright cinematography and then blindside us with the darker elements, showing us in the process that such issues can befall any one of us in society, no matter how outwardly successful, confident or in control we seem. The film is as complex as it’s protagonist and begs the audience to empathize with him on his journey, despite the glaring shortcomings we observe. It’s one of the most human stories I’ve ever seen; two hours spent with a realistic person who is assured, broken, confused, scared, stubborn, strong willed, weak and deeply wounded all at the same time. Washington paints the picture for us momentously, and it’s the best work he’s ever done. You don’t get too many films like this released by the studio system, and this one is some kind of miracle.
Heist flicks are sneaky affairs, but that doesn’t mean that awesome ones like The Art Of The Steal should just tiptoe past everyone’s radar with no hubbub. When subpar stuff like Now You See Me is breaking waves and this one collects dust before a year since it’s release, you know somethin ain’t right. It’s actually probably just budgeting and marketing, to chalk it up simply. Despite the cast (what a lineup) this one barely made a blip on the sonar when it came out a couple years ago. It’s great fun, with a crusty lead performance from Kurt Russell as Crunch Calhoun, an ageing motorcycle daredevil who used to moonlight as an art thief. He is lured out of ‘retirement’ by his sleazy brother Nicky (Matt Dillon crosses off another notch on the old scumbag belt with this role) with the proposition of one last score, involving his old crew and the theft of a historical artifact owned by a hilarious Terence Stamp. Other members of their crew include a crafty Jay Baruchel and Kenneth Welsh as salty ladies man Uncle Paddy. Twists and turns lace the plot, as they should in these types of films, but it’s the bawdy sense of humour that won me over. More than anything else this is a comedy, situational in nature and willing to give each weirdo of the bunch their own demented moment to shine. It’s Russel’s show though, a burnt out Evel Knievel type of dude who gets a face full of nonsense from his brother, edging him to the end of his rope. Russell owns it, egged on by the raucous chorus of characters accompanying him, and the nasty arc from Dillon that is the only piece which subverts the mostly lighthearted tone. Fun, little seen stuff that deserves a wider audience.
Devil In A Blue Dress takes the classic Raymond Chandler mystery form and uproots it just a smidge, setting it in the African American community of 1948 Los Angeles, with terrific results. Noir takes on a double meaning (naughty pun) as WWII vet turned private eye Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington) finds himself mired in the quick sands of corruption, coersion and murder most foul after taking on a job that’s led him straight to the dirtiest little secret in town. After he accepts a missing persons inquiry from mysterious DeWitt Allbright (Tom Sizemore, first shady and then downright scary when we see what he’s really about), he finds himself searching for a girl named Daphne (Jennifer Beals) a runaway with ties to a very powerful politician (Maury Chaykin makes your skin creep and crawl) with some seriously disturbing extra curricular activities. Rawlins recognizes danger when he sees it and tries to back out, but by then he knows too much and it’s way late in the game. Now he must navigate the scene like the pro he to escape not only with answers, but perhaps his life. Washington gives him the underdog treatment, a worn out gumshoe who still has some grit left, enough for one last ride in any case. There’s an L.A. Confidential type feel to the plot in the sense that it ducks some conventions in order to service true surprise from its audience. Sizemore is a charming viper as the kind of dude you never want to trust (isn’t he just the best at playing that?) and Beals subverts the damsel in distress archetype by injecting her performance with a jolt of poison. In terms of L.A. noir this baby is fairly overlooked, but holds its own to this day. Watch for Don Cheadle as well.
Safe House is cut from the same cloth as many a spy movie, but this horse doesn’t have quite as much piss and vinegar as other ones in the stable, notably the Bourne trilogy. It’s more of a slow burn, peppered with a few purposeful action sequences and quite a lot of time spent with Denzel Washington’s world weary spook Tobin Frost, a veteran operative who has gone severely rogue after escaping the grasp of a nasty CIA interrogator (Robert Patrick). He’s soon in the hands of rookie agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) who has been left to guard an agency safe house in Europe, now overrun with shadowy special ops dudes out to snuff Frost. The two of them are forced on the run together, and attempt to smoke out those behind the chaos, who turn out to be a little closer to home than they thought (don’t they always, in these types of movies?). Weston is young, naive and idealistic, Frost is bitter, jaded and ready to burn the agency down around him for what his career has made him do. They’re a formulaic pair made believable by the two actors, both putting in admirable work. Brendan Gleeson is great as Westons’s dodgy handler, Vera Farmiga shows moral conflict in those perfect blue eyes as another paper pusher in Langley, and Sam Shepherd smarms it up as the CIA top dog. It was nice to see Ruben Blades as well, who doesn’t work nearly enough, and watch for a sly cameo from Liam Cunningham as an ex MI6 agent. It’s not the greatest or the most memorable film, but it does the trick well enough, has a satisfying R rated edge to its violence and benefits from Washington being nice and rough around the edges. There’s a downbeat quality to it to, as Weston watches the futility inherent in the life of a spy unfold in Frost’s actions, which are leading nowhere but a self inflicted dead for a cause that’s bigger than both of them, but ultimately leaves them in the dust. Solid, if just above average stuff.
Slow West clocks in briskly under 90 minutes, which is usually unheard of for a western. You can stamp out any thoughts of it being rushed or too slight of a flick though, because it’s exactly what it needs to be every step of the way. It’s a beautifully scored, tightly plotted and boldly characterized (the key ingredient in the genre, if you ask me) mix that saunters along like a mule of the plains, before kicking up the dust for a bloody, atmospheric finale that leaves you stunned and breathing hard. Westerns are often ambitious, lofty affairs and can get quite moody and too densely packed for their own good. Not this baby. It breezes by like a summer wind, with just enough violence, character development and aching catharsis to billow out its chipper narrative during the brief stay we are treated to. Kodi Smit McPhee plays a young Scottish lad who is a tad out of his depths in the American west, searching for a girl (Caren Pistorius) who had to flee the country with her father (The Hound himself, Rory McCann). McPhee is naive to the dangers of this new territory, and nearly finds himself at the receiving end of a bullet before being saved by a roaming outlaw (Michael Fassbender) who takes him under his wing with much gruff and huff along the way. Reluctance is doled out along with sympathy on Fassbender’s part as he shields the boy from a dangerous bounty hunter and former employer of his, played by a wonderfully greasy Ben Mendelsohn, perpetually shrouded in acrid cigar smoke and snuggled up in one epic and fabulous fur pelt. These three wayward misfits gravitate towards the obligatory final shoot out, which takes place in the girl’s hideaway house on the picturesque pretty plains. Impressive is an understatement for this sequence: yellow grass sways, a hailstorm of bullets punctuate the horizon and the mournful tones of Jed Kurzel’s lonely score, grim fates are earned in a gorgeous set piece that resembles something like Wes Anderson making an Oater. Everything before and winds up to this sequence, and the payoff is superb. If I’ve made it sound dark or off putting, think again. It’s all crafted with the utmost light and poetic buoyancy, a lilting sadness to the violence that hits home but never batters you. The performances echo this as well, Fassbender a world weary, affable and altogether dangerous man, Mendelsohn slithering about with a dry silver tongue and an itchy trigger finger, and a fish out of water McPhee stuck in between. The visual palette is quite something to see, accented by the music perfectly. I’m beyond anxious to see what first time director John Maclean comes up with for us for his next ride, for he’s knocked it out of the ranch with this one. Ho for the West.
Nothing says the 90’s like Virtuosity, a big hunk of circuit board sleaze and cheese that is so of it’s time that it’s hard to watch it these days without believing it to be some kind of spoof. Re-reading that sentence it sounds like I was making some kind of underhanded compliment, which I suppose is a better outcome for a film to arrive at than some. It could have gotten stale or dated in a bad way. Well it’s definitely not stale (it is dated though), in fact it’s one of the liveliest flicks from back then, thanks mostly to a ballistic characterization from Russell Crowe. Crowe is Sid.6, a virtual reality program molded from the personalities of several different serial killers and designed to basically wreak havoc. This is exactly what happens when he escapes, or rather is let out by one of the maniacs at the research centre (Stephen Spinella). Sid is now flesh, blood and roughly 200 pounds of extremely skilled, remorseless killing material, running wild in the unsuspecting streets. The head of the Institute (William Forsythe) has the brilliant idea to recruit ex-cop whack job Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) to hunt Sid down and destroy him. Barnes has a bleak history with artificial intelligence, one that has left him with a cybernetic replacement arm and a huge chip on his shoulder. This is one mean, mean spirited film, as we are subjected to a manic Crowe as tortures, murders and maims innocent civilians with a grinning cavalier cadence the Joker would applaud. He’s off his nut here, something which clumsy bruiser Crowe rarely gets to do, so it’s a rare and extreme outing for him. Washington is perpetually angry, ill adjusted and violent here, and the lengths he goes to destroy Sid are almost as bad as his quarry’s homicidal antics. The cast is stacked with genre favourites, so watch for Costas Mandylor, Kevin J. O’Connor, Louise Fletcher, Kelly Lynch, Traci Lords and a weaselly William Fichtner. The special effects… well what can I say, this was the 90’s and they look like a computer game that’s been drenched in battery acid, then souped up with caffeine. There’s brief homages to video games in fact, and the opener where Crowe is still inside the program is fairly creative. I don’t know if the creators of the film were trying to say something about the dangers of virtual reality, but whatever it was, it’s sort of lost in a hurricane of unpleasent shenanigans that are admittedly entertaining. One thing that’s evident is that anyone who makes a computer program with the persona of one, let alone a handful of murderers is just begging for an incident. I suppose that’s the point here though, the catalyst for the whole deal. Crowe and Washington are great though, both down and dirtier than their characters in the next royal rumble they’d share, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. Fun stuff, if you have a strong gag reflex and don’t take yourself too seriously.