Isn’t it always kind of more fun when the protagonist of a film is an utter scumbag? I think so, and Brian Helgeland did too when writing Payback, my favourite Mel Gibson film (outside Mad Max of course, but that’s a high pedestal to breach). There’s something so engaging about Mel’s Porter, a street rat career criminal who’s betrayed by his treacherous partner (Gregg Henry) and junkie wife (Deborah Kara Unger), left for dead in an alley. After a rocky recovery he comes back with vengeance on the mind, hunting down those who fucked him over and anyone who profited from it. The first thing he does to set tone for his character is steal cash from a panhandling hobo, which is just about the starkest way to inform your audience of what’s to come. What does Porter want? He wants his 24k from the job he got shafted on, not a penny less and, hysterically, not a penny more either, which becomes the beloved running joke of the film as he prowls streets, poker rooms, titty bars and all kinds of lowlife establishments to get what’s his. Henry is off the rails as his former partner in crime, taking his usual brand of scenery chewing to new heights and picking fights with anyone who makes eye contact with him. He isn’t even the main villain either, that honour goes to a stone-faced Kris Kristofferson as the sadistic head of a shadowy mega crime syndicate who are soon alerted of Porter’s ongoing rampage. There’s uber corrupt cops (Bill Duke, Jack Conley), a weaselly bookie (David Paymer), a bureaucrat desk jockey villain (William Devane), a high class escort with a heart of gold (Maria Bello) who brings out the faintest of softer sides in Porter, a sneering assassin (the great John Glover) and others who all get caught up in the commotion this guy causes just to get his modest 24 grand. A young Lucy Liu also shows up as a sexy S&M hooker with ties to the Triads and enough scary attitude to either turn me on or freak me out, I’m still not sure. My favourite has to be James Coburn as another organized crime hotshot who seems more interested in his elaborate accessories than putting a step to Porter’s nonsense. “That’s just mean, man” he bawls after Mel puts a bullet in one of his designer alligator skin suitcases. So damn funny. This is the epitome of jet black humour, one of the meanest, gnarliest, bloodiest and most entertaining neo-noirs that Hollywood has ever produced. Mel has played so many heroes and upstanding family men that it’s refreshing to see him go for the contemptible asshole shtick, and I’ll be honest I’ve never rooted for one of his characters harder than I do for Porter and his deranged urban crusade every time I rewatch this, which is a lot. Fucking brilliant film.
Brian Helgeland’s The Order is a strange, mercurial supernatural thriller that sees a restless Heath Ledger play a young priest investigating corruption in the highest echelons of the Catholic Church, but I’ll say right off the bat that it’s not the kind of controversy you’re thinking of. Ledger is probing the death of his sect’s leader, and when you consider the sort of obscure splinter group of the church he hails from, there’s clearly something going on under the surface, starting with Peter Weller as a dodgy cardinal whose mannerisms don’t exactly suggest benignity. Ledger discovers vague connections to what they call a ‘Sin Eater’, a rogue spiritualist who offers unsanctioned salvation outside the church’s jurisdiction, and teams up with his walking comic relief priest buddy (Mark Addy) and a woman he once performed an exorcism on (Shannon Sossamyn) to go on a merry renegade priest hunt. This film has a low rating on every site you’ll find and reviews have never been kind, but I really enjoyed it. There’s a grim, atmospheric blanket of fascinating visual effects and esoteric, near occult level mysticism at play that kept me engaged, I also really like the Sin Eater concept and German actor Benno Fürmann is darkly charismatic as the guy, playing him as just south of a real human being. Ledger postures a bit but ultimately nails it in a more subdued role, while Weller, although only briefly seen, exudes otherworldly menace with his trademark candidly flippant tone. The film is billed as a horror which isn’t quite the case, and that could have been the problem with reception. It’s more a moody mystery drama with subtle supernatural undertones, and works really well as such.
Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is one of the most gut wrenching, haunting, stressful experiences one can have watching a film, and I’m only talking about the first ten minutes so far. On a quiet 70’s era Boston afternoon, three young boys play street hockey near their homes. After writing their names in freshly lain concrete sidewalk, a sinister ‘police detective’ (John Dolan, who I can never ever see as anyone but this character, he’s that affecting) hassles them and tries to lure the youngsters away. Two of them are wise to his game and escape. The third does not. This crime spurs a ripple effect into the future for these boys, as we see them grow up into very different and equally troubled men. Jimmy (Sean Penn has never been better) is a small time hustler with anger issues, Sean (Kevin Bacon) a cop with his own demons and Dave (Tim Robbins), the boy who was successfully kidnapped and held all those years ago, is a fractured shell of a human whose damaged soul lashes against the whites of his eyes and prevents him from functioning normally. Malcontent comes full circle to find them once again when Jimmy’s young daughter (lovely Emmy Rossum) is found murdered, setting in motion one of the great tragedies you’ll find in cinema this century or last. Eastwood lets his actors quietly emote until the floodgates open and we see raw despair roil forth from three men who are broken in different ways, and how it affects everyone in their lives. Penn is tuned into something higher here, and I’ll not soon forget him arriving at the scene of his daughter’s murder. Robbins let’s the horror of buried trauma deep through the family man facade until we see the deformed psyche left beneath, while Bacon reigns it in for a performance no less memorable than the others. Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney are excellent as Dave and Jimmy’s wives, while Laurence Fishburne provides the faintest ray of humour as Sean’s partner. This is as much a murder mystery as it is an intense interpersonal drama, but the whole story is ruled by emotion; that burning need for revenge from several angles, the hollow pit of loss left behind when someone dies, the psychological scar tissue that trails in the wake of abuse, everything slowly coming to light as the grim, doom laden narrative unfurls. Tom Stern’s camera probes inlets along the harbour, sprawling neighbourhoods and hidden barrooms, Brian Helgeland expertly adapts the novel from Dennis Lehane and Eastwood himself composes a beautiful lament of a score, while the actors turn in galvanizing work. One of the finest films of the last few decades and not one you’re ever likely to forget, once seen.
Tony Scott’s slick, gritty and highly influential revenge thriller Man on Fire is over 10 years old (which seems insane to think about!) and it holds even more fiery resonance today than when it did upon first release. Brian Helgeland’s hard-nosed, straight-ahead screenplay set a simple foundation for Scott to run amok with his distinct brand of directorial tricks. The film is a stylistic tour de force and serves as a bridge from the post-Bruckheimer era to the more experimental/artiste period for the filmmaker. Mixing staccato editing patterns with mixed film-stock cinematography by the brilliant cameraman Paul Cameron (Deja Vu, Collateral) that occasionally borders on the avant-garde (Scott would push his maximalist style to the breaking point in his next film, the career-defining genre-bender Domino), Scott utilized wildly creative subtitles (notice the fonts and screen placement) and a hyper-layered soundtrack of both scored and sourced music and threatening ambient sounds, thus achieving a fractured-nightmare quality that sneaks up and envelopes the viewer, as it does lead character Creasey, played with stoic resilience by Denzel Washington. Bloody and violent but never unnecessarily so, the film has a mean-streak a mile wide, but also contains, like so many other Scott films, a seriously warm heart. The restless, nervy filmmaking aesthetic intelligently meshed with the damaged psychological complexities of Washington’s character; it’s a slow burn performance and one of Denzel’s absolute best and most compelling. And every bit his equal was Fanning, whose enormously affecting performance as the girl-in-trouble makes the viewer care each and every step of the way, no matter how dark and nasty things get within the framework of the story. Creasey’s about to paint his masterpiece, and we’re invited to the wild show. Man on Fire is one of the best examples of its genre.