The Italian Job (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
Cynics will complain that this remake of the 1969 Michael Caine starrer is an assembly line piece of popcorn all too carefully designed for mass mainstream consumption, and the fairly rote plotting would provide ample support for that case. Team of criminals pull off a daring overseas heist? A rogue team member double-crosses the rest of the group for the loot? The wronged members set out to get revenge--with the help of a new recruit with a personal score to settle? It wouldn't be wrong at all to label the entire basic scenario as Boilerplate Caper Thriller.
But, as they say, personality goes a long way, and enlivening the proceedings is the cast--or should I say "supporting cast," as the three stars above the title get upstaged by background players Seth Green (as the computer geek, who claims he's the true creator of Napster), Mos Def (as the explosives expert) and Jason Statham (as the ladies' man driver). This isn't to say that Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron and Edward Norton aren't adequate as, respectively, the planner, the safe-cracker with the personal vendetta, and the double-crosser, but more is expected from the latter two. (Wahlberg is, historically, never better than adequate, and he doesn't break tradition here.) Chalk up Theron's underachievement to a generally undemanding role and Norton's phoned-in work to his all-too-obvious displeasure with the job (as has been widely reported, he was forced to do the picture due to a contract obligation).
However, this is an action movie after all, and the most infectious personality comes from director F. Gary Gray, who keeps the motor running with such sleek urgency that one barely registers how fairly mechanical the leads and the basic narrative elements are. After the debacle that was the dull Diesel dud A Man Apart, Gray reasserts his chops as a crack action director with the film's showcase bookends: a thrilling speedboat chase in the canals of Venice and a breathless third act involving helicopters, traffic jams, subway tunnels, safecracking, and Mini Coopers. It is in Gray's spirited execution that such by-the-book formula makes for a brisk, slick entertainment hits the summer movie spot.
While that punny alphanumeric title still clangs to the ears months after its unveiling, it's understandable why Universal opted to go with that once-promotional-only moniker rather than the originally announced The Fast and the Furious 2. Despite the returning presence of the first film's top-billed star (and, for the record, that is Paul Walker, not the Diesel--check the credit line on the poster and DVD) 2 Fast 2 Furious feels less like a true sequel/continuation than a loosely-tied spin-off. As such, the film works all the better for both non-fans and fans of the first film alike; the fresh approach keeps the non-fans from making the negative associations with The Fast and the Furious, and those who hold the first film sacred can look at the film as being something completely different.
And, make no mistake, 2 Fast 2 Furiousis different. Of course, certain constants remain: Walker as Brian O'Conner; Thom Barry as the background character of Agent Bilkins; and, naturally, lots of tricked-out cars going really, really fast. But the similarities are only surface-deep; take, for instance, the opening scene. It is a street race, and while that description sounds like anything that appeared in the first flick, it certainly doesn't unfold like anything from the first film. Unlike the much-vaunted first race in the first film, which relied a lot on fancy inside-the-car-and-out-again CGI trickery to get the adrenaline pumping, what fuels this chase's rush (and that of all the action sequences in the entire film, for that matter) are the impressive practical stunts done by actual people driving actual cars--and, of course, the fact that the cars and their drivers are pretty damn hot doesn't hurt, either.
That last comment may strike as being superficial, but that's what the film is--and that's not meant as a slam. From the souped-up Universal logo and that turbo-charged opening, director John Singleton wears the project's shallow, unsubtle slickness as a badge of honor, making it crystal clear that this is a film strictly concerned with style, attitude, and having a good time. Unlike The Fast and the Furious, which played its cop-in-deep-cover plot all too melodramatically straight and displayed too much misplaced conviction in laughably labored and long-winded soliloquies about street racing being the ultimate spiritual liberator, 2 Fast 2 Furious is simply about the ride--no more, no less; not any buried pretense of actual deep meaning behind the ride. And when the ride looks and feels as smooth as this, it's practically irrelevant to complain about any lack of so-called substance.
Not that there isn't a story at work here; there indeed is, but only just enough to sustain the action. Those looking for updates on the absentee characters from the first film should prepare to be disappointed, as any questions they may have will be met with a stone-faced cinematic silence equivalent to an ear-splitting cry of "Vin WHO?!" Actually, his Dominic Toretto character is referenced--but not by name and only in passing, and that's how it should be, as it is O'Conner's release of him that put him in his present place: without a badge in Miami, earning some bucks and kicks on the street race circuit as "Bullitt." The law eventually, inevitably catches up with him, and so he is given a chance to redeem himself by inflitrating the inner circle of money-laundering import/export businessman Carter Verone (Cole Hauser) as one of his street-race-recruited grunt drivers.
Joining O'Conner in is assignment is his old friend and ex-con Roman Pearce (Tyrese, not billed with the Gibson surname this time), who also gets a clean bill of legal health if the plan succeeds. While this pairing sets up one of the more contrived elements of Michael Brandt and Derek Haas's script (specifically, some half-assed psychological explanation/motivation for O'Conner's fateful decision at the end of the last movie), it is definitely one of the more effective new elements in 2 Fast 2 Furious. The presence of Roman loosens up the bland tight-ass that was the original incarnation of O'Conner; similarly, Walker shows a more relaxed chemistry with Tyrese (with whom he reportedly improvised a lot of their amusing banter) than he had with his counterpart in the first movie. That ease extends to Walker's performance and general demeanor in this film, which is livelier and a little edgier, in line with the changes in the O'Conner character. Granted, to state that Walker's work here compares favorably to his in the first movie isn't saying too much, and while he does exhibit a bit more personality this time, he still gets trumped in that department by his lead co-star. After proving his dramatic chops in Singleton's Baby Boy, Tyrese brings his pure movie star charisma to the fore as the fast-talking, perpetually-eating goofball that is Roman. With his formidable screen presence and winning sense of humor, he exudes that indefinable "It" from every pore, and with two solid--and vastly different--turns under his belt in his first two film outings, Tyrese's big screen career should be an exciting one to follow.
Don't go looking too hard for depth in the more background characters, though. Hauser, who previously provided villainy for Singleton in 1995's Higher Learning, has far less to work with in this film, but he fills the role of psycho heavy effectively for the modest demands of the film; similarly, Ludacris (billed here as Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) perks up his few scenes as mechanic and race ringleader Tej. If there's an area that the first film has over this one, it's in that of the female characters. The two prominent female roles here, undercover agent Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes) and racer Suki (Devon Aoki), aren't as meaty or memorable as Michelle Rodriguez's badass grrl in the first; both characters are tough and strong-willed in their own right, but ultimately the two are called on to not do much more than stand, sit, lounge, and/or drive around and look good (which, needless to say, Mendes and Aoki do quite well).
But, again, the look and the vibe is what 2 Fast 2 Furious is all about--no more than in the film's bread and butter, the race/chase sequences. From the outset, it's obvious that Singleton is having a grand ol' time flouting his image as a "Serious Film"-maker and making a movie where he can let loose other, not typically seen sides of himself. With its larger-than-life stunts, wild angles, kinetic "how did they do that?" camera movements out of a video game, anime-like speed enhancements, and rat-tat-tat quick-cut comic book panel frames, the curtain-raising race sequence plays like a cinematic crash course in Singleton's fanboy inspirations. That may seem a bit indulgent (and perhaps it is to a certain extent), but there's no use in complaining since the bag o' tricks succeeds in its intent: revving up the audience and laying down the tone for the picture--extreme fun in high style. That attitude is upheld as the film progresses and the stunts build in scale and magnitude--and do they ever (speeding down a highway backward?) . But the crashes, jumps, and all assorted manner of jaw-dropping vehicular insanity that ensue would be chaos if not captured in a coherent, captivating manner, and while he dials down the added flash after the open, Singleton creates some creative and exciting set pieces, aided in no small part by the amazing action shots captured by director of photography Matthew F. Leonetti and the editing by Dallas Puett and longtime Singleton collaborator Bruce Cannon.
Most viewers, I imagine, will likely be too caught up in the ride to really pay too much attention to all those fast and furious little things that add up to the larger experience, and that's just as well. Movies like 2 Fast 2 Furious are all about the bigger picture in every sense: the rocket speed of the cars; the over-the-top stunts; the firepower of the explosions; the glass-shattering decibel level; the uniformly broad strokes in every aspect of the execution; and--last and certainly not least--the size of the box office take. With 2 Fast 2 Furious being just 2 fun 2 deny, success in that last respect should be as effortless as the film's thrills and irresistible style.
Bruce Almighty (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
| Score CD! Bruce Almighty finds the team of star Jim Carrey and director Tom Shadyac reuniting in search of the almighty comic box office power lost to them in their recent "serious" solo outings. As far as the financial angle is concerned, there's no doubt that this slickly-engineered festival of Carrey-isms--the rubber-faced mugging, the wild body flailing, the shouty line delivery--will hit the spot for an audience as broad as the movie's overall execution. But for all its swings for the fences, the movie never rises above being lightly amusing--a big letdown considering the seemingly can't-miss premise: Carrey as a beaten-down everyman whose luck changes when God (Morgan Freeman, well-cast but wasted) grants him all of his divine power.
The first disappointment comes when the film takes its sweet time to get to the pivotal transformation, before which the film wallows in Bruce Nolan's (Carrey) supposedly demeaning existence: never mind that he has a sweet, beautiful, devoted live-in girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston, stuck with nothing to do) and a successful career as the token wacky reporter at a news station--Bruce wants it all, namely a soon-to-be vacated anchor slot and, most importantly, a dog that won't urinate on the furniture. While the Carrey being put through the wringer of humiliation sounds promising, there's only one big laugh during this section: Bruce's wonderfully cruel on-air breakdown.
One would expect the film to finally kick into gear once Bruce becomes almighty, but it becomes clear rather quickly that most of the more interesting tricks--boosting his girlfriend's bust, toilet training the dog--have been divulged by the trailers and TV spots. But even if one hasn't seen those, the gags on the whole would seem not only familiar but as tired as Carrey's rather disturbingly aged face. That perhaps the film's funniest bit rests not on the shoulders of Carrey but Steven Carell as Bruce's workplace rival speaks of how little spark is left in the traditional Carrey-Shadyac formula, not to mention the general lack of inspiration the screenplay (credited to Steve Koren, Mark O'Keefe and frequent Carrey collaborator Steve Oedekerk), which ultimately plays like a pale rehash of the far more amusing Liar Liar, right down to the forced sentimentality.
The Matrix Reloaded (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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With all of Warner Bros.' "Year of The Matrix" hype extending beyond the movie screens to video games, Web- and DVD-released animated shorts, and cheesy product tie-in TV spots, there's no doubt The Matrix Reloaded will be one of the year's, let alone the summer's, most financially successful films. All of the ballyhoo aside, however, there's no question that Reloaded offers some of the most phenomenal action set pieces to hit the screen in years--sequences that more than deliver on the jaw-dropping promise shown on the trailers. Based on that alone, Reloaded purely satisfies on that summer blockbuster entertainment level. But the question remains, does it satisfy as far as the legacy of the landmark original film? The answer, quite simply, is no.
In the years since its spring 1999 release, The Matrix proved to be one of the most important and influential films of all time, not just in terms of the action genre. Much was justly made of the revolutionary visual effects work, which was aped by many a sub-par would-be thrill ride and lampooned by many a half-witted comedy, but with all that amazing gee-wizardry and kick-ass action on display it was easy to forget about what gave the film true resonance: a complex and imaginative story driven by one enticing mystery--"What is the Matrix?"
It's been four long years since writers-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski answered that question (for the uninitiated: it is a virtual reality construct that machines have used to enslave mankind) and the other central question of that film: is computer programmer Neo (Keanu Reeves) the One prophesied to lead mankind in its war for liberation? (Yes.) And so going into Reloaded, there is a huge level of anticipation and excitement over what the Wachowski brothers have come up with next--and the duo certainly cannot be accused of not sparing the complexity and imagination this time; this sequel expands the universe of the first film on a grand scale, from the characters to the locations to the core mythology. Whether or not the pre-release excitement will be sustained by the logy, murky first hour is another story, though, as the film takes its sweet time in introducing the new material, specifically the underground city of Zion, the last remaining human city on the planet. Some time has passed since the conclusion of the last film, during which Neo (Keanu Reeves) realized he was the One, and a number of people have since been freed and joined the fight for liberation. But while spiritual guru Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is optimistic about the ongoing war effort, Neo is far less so, troubled by recurring nightmares of his love Trinity's (Carrie-Anne Moss) death. That's not all that happens in this first hour, but it's about all that sticks. Seedlings are planted for subplots that obviously (hopefully?) will have a payoff in the third film, Revolutions, such as a love triangle between Morpheus, ship captain and ex-love Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Commander Lock (Harry Lennix); and then there are the off-hand, jargon-heavy references to the expanded mythology and philosophy that too often just whiz by before they can really be grasped.
When the action finally moves from real, multiethnic world of Zion to the lily white faux reality of the Matrix, where Neo and his crew continue their ass-kicking war effort against the machines--"personified" by the omnipresent (in every sense) Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving)--one would think that the film would finally kick into gear. In the most literal sense, it does; a visit with the Oracle (the late Gloria Foster) is sandwiched between two fight scenes, the second being a show-stopping throwdown between Neo and a veritable army of Agent Smiths (or should that be "Agents Smith"?). That electrifying scene, called the "Burly Brawl" by the cast and crew, is a jaw dropper; seamlessly employing martial arts wirework, practical stunts, and CGI enhancements, the lengthy sequence makes the famed "bullet time" effect of the first film look like child's play.
These two action scenes actually point up one of the key faults of Reloaded. Taken for the bursts of action that they are, they do their job; even the brief fight between Neo and a gatekeeper for the Oracle showcases some rather intricate martial arts choreography. But they don't really register much in the grand scheme of the film; ultimately these scenes seem there less to serve the story than to just provide a token action beat. Granted, action over story is the norm for action films, but The Matrix was something different, a classic example of how the money scenes could deliver thrilling spectacle while completely advancing and enhancing the narrative vision. In Reloaded, only a pair of set pieces--one in a building, the other being the much-discussed highway sequence that lives up to the advanced hype--really fall under the original's mode.
But then there's the question of what exactly Reloaded's narrative vision is. Due to its cliffhanging ending, producer Joel Silver has repeatedly called Reloaded "half of a movie," and he speaks a lot more truth than I think he is aware. Open-ended middle chapters to trilogies are nothing new, but even films such as The Two Towers, The Empire Strikes Back, Attack of the Clones or even Back to the Future Part II (which is perhaps the closest analogue, due to the mid-scene ending, post-film trailer and six-month gap between installments) had a certain self-contained arc that made the film able to stand on its own. With its emphasis on numerous character introductions and extensive added wrinkles to the mythology, and virtual abandonment of any degree of resolution, explanation, or basic follow-through, Reloaded truly is half of a movie, a non-self-sustaining part of a larger whole. That being part of the design, it seems almost unfair to criticize it now, with Revolutions--and, presumably, resolutions--still to come.
The truth, however, remains that Reloaded is all there is at the moment, and so one must content onself with what pleasures this installment has to offer--and, indeed, there are plenty. As mentioned, the action scenes are superbly done on a technical level and downright kick ass in terms of visceral stimulation, particularly that climactic highway sequence, which somehow marries car chases, motorcycle chases, martial arts, explosions, a pair of dreadlocked twins and Morpheus's badass samurai sword into a seamless, exhilarating whole. The effects and production design are expectedly first-rate across the board; that said, the technology does not prevent some personality peeking through, primarily through some new additions to the cast: the devious, French-obsessed Merovingian (Lambert Wilson); his temptress of a wife, Persephone (Monica Bellucci); the aptly-named Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim); and a mystery authority figure known as the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis).
By the end of Reloaded, one not exactly be sure of the significance of some of these aforementioned characters (or, in the case of the Architect, what exactly the hell he is saying), and the film's many unanswered questions--and the accompanying frustrations--linger far more strongly once it's over than its more short-term virtues. But as one watches The Matrix Reloaded, the strong points about the film do succeed in captivating the viewer as it goes along, and as such it is definitely worth a look. It's just that the film's true worth will only become clear when The Matrix Revolutions finally sees release in November.
Down with Love (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
From the edgy whimsy of her Golden Globe-winning turn in Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty to the Oscar-nominated double-whammy of Bridget Jones's Diary and Chicago, Renée Zellweger has consistently impressed by making some challenging comic roles look deceptively effortless. Never is that more the case than in Down with Love, where director Peyton Reed takes what under most circumstances would be a very risky proposition: hinge one key third-act development--and, hence, the entire film itself--on a lengthy monologue delivered by his leading lady in one single, uninterrupted take. With Zellweger filling the role, not only does the moment work, it's more than assured a place on the list of 2003's great movie moments.
But there's more to this winning throwback to bawdy screwball romps of the early 1960s than Zellweger and that ready-made Oscar (or, more realistically, Golden Globe) clip. Reed, whom I thought did an amiable-at-best job with his one previous feature, the sleeper summer success Bring It On, went all out in creating (or, rather, re-creating) a truly unified vision for this picture. While the movie definitely has tongue lodged firmly in its postmodern cheek, every detail looks and feels authentic: the soundstagey "New York City" exteriors, the ridiculously ample square footage of each and every character's apartment, the obvious back projection in the car scenes, the generous use of split screens, the candy color scheme of the locations and costumes (the latter often showcased in fashion show-style entrances by the ladies). The spot-on approach goes beyond the surface visuals and down to Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake's script. Zellweger is liberated woman/relationship "expert" Barbara Novak, whose radical tome Down with Love espouses that very message, encouraging women to engage in sex without love and be as career-minded and -driven as men. Needless to say doesn't sit well with suave playboy journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), who starts a one man crusade to prove that deep inside Barbara is just like any other love-minded woman.
Thus begins a teasingly tawdry tug-of-war in the classic Doris Day/Rock Hudson mold, and the ever-likable, disgustingly attractive pair of Zellweger and McGregor are up to the formidable challenge, tossing off double entendres with aplomb and nimbly handling Ahler and Drake's more complex passages of witty wordplay. Equally adept are David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson, who may play the designated second bananas to Zellweger and McGregor, but their byplay and unusual "courtship" (if it can be called that) is just as entertaining and involving as the main attraction--that is, save for one overly slapsticky sequence that is just plain silly. Then again, it could be argued that silliness ultimately takes over the entire film; both couplings do get bogged down in some silly slapstick, and however self-aware such gags are, over-the-top is still over-the-top. Even so, however outlandishly the plot machine spins in its final stretch, everything is in keeping with the frothy, frivolous fun, and by the end of the film, only the most curmudgeonly viewer wouldn't echo the sentiments of the title of McGregor and Zellweger's closing credits musical number: "Here's to Love."
X2 (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
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Back in the summer of 2000, I walked out of my screening of Bryan Singer's original screen take on the venerable Marvel Comics franchise X-Men with a certain sense of fanboy satisfaction but also the nagging suspicion that the real X-Men movie had yet to be made. Nearly three years later, that suspicion has been proven correct with Singer's far-superior follow-up, X2.
Singer has repeatedly gone on record as saying that X2 is not so much a "sequel" than the continuation of an ongoing saga, and however pretentious that statement may sound, it is that very approach that makes this film a more faithful and satisfying adaptation of the comic. Part of the enduring appeal of the X-books (particularly in the mid-'70s to early-'90s heyday that was written almost exclusively by Chris Claremont) has always been its unusually less-than-self-contained nature, with its tapestry of interwoven characters and subplots driven by decades of established history and mythology that is, more or less, treated as an understood given. To call the ongoing mutant saga a soap with superpowers wouldn't be too far off the mark at all, and while the first X-Men film did a commendable job of introducing and establishing the basic plot and character foundation of the X-universe, the fanboy within couldn't help but miss the "joining in progress" excitement endemic to the experience of picking up an X comic for the first time.
Accordingly, with all the necessary exposition and basic plot and character foundation taken care of in the first film, in X2 Singer and scripters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris waste no time in continuing the angst-ridden lives of our genetically-mutated heroes and villains from right where the first film ended. Those who have not seen X-Men, however, needn't worry about being lost, for like any good comic one is able to catch up--and be swept up--relatively quickly. Powerful telepath Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) continues his crusade for mutant tolerance by the rest of society, but his dream continues to be threatened by the proposed Mutant Registration Act. After some vague hints dropped in the first film, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) suffers through certain control issues with her telepathic and telekinetic abilities, worrying fiancé Scott Summers (James Marsden, who painfully proves to be far out of his depth), a.k.a. the optic-blasting goody two-shoes Cyclops. The romance between teens Rogue (Anna Paquin, still speaking in a forced drawl) and Bobby Drake/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) continues to develop, but Rogue's inability to control her essence-absorbing powers also continues to be an obstacle. Logan/Wolverine (the ever-charismatic Hugh Jackman), heightened senses, healing factor and animalistic rages, continues to be haunted by the missing memories of his past--in particular the mystery of how he received his metal-bonded claws and skeleton. The ongoing trauma, however, doesn't prevent ol' Logan from continuing to pursue his romantic interests in Jean. But, of course, there's also the matter of supervillainy to further complicate our heroes' lives: a man by the name of Stryker (Brian Cox) is cooking up a dastardly scheme that would prove harmful to all of mutantkind, and it may take the added help of Xavier's now-imprisoned old friend and philosophical rival, the human-hating master of magnetism Magneto (Ian McKellen, clearly having a ball) to stop him.
That rather labyrinthian recap underlines why X2 works so well; like the source material, the film is firmly rooted in and driven by the characters--not that Singer and company skimp on any of the usual comic book/blockbuster trimmings. The numerous action scenes are exciting and suspenseful (much credit must go out to John Ottman, once again doing a cracker jack editing/scoring job for Singer after sitting out X1), not to mention refreshingly varied: the film opens with some BAMF!-enhanced brawling with the blue-skinned teleporter Nightcrawler (a perfectly cast Alan Cumming); shapeshifting femme fatale Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) gets to do her martial arts ass-kicking, as does new-to-the-movies villainess Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu); hot-headed young fire-controlling mutant Pyro (Aaron Stanford) serves up some literally blazing action; there's some great larger-scale stunts involving the X-Men's Blackbird jet; and--much to delight of fans everywhere--there's some long-awaited, unbridled slice-and-dice from Wolverine.
Giving these sequences an added urgency is how they emerge organically from the story and advance it, never coming off as being action for action's sake. The choreography, explosions, effects and whatnot indeed dazzle, but with fully-drawn characters as participants, there's a greater degree of involvement in the scenes; instead of simply witnessing spectacle, the viewer feels part of it. The script and Singer's experience with ensemble casts gives everyone equal time to have an individual subplot and carve out an individual identity--that is, with one glaring and rather curious exception: the weather-controlling Storm (Halle Berry). Berry's frustration with her part in the X films has been widely reported, and one can't blame her; in the comics, Storm is one of the most fascinating, dynamic personalities and a veritable cornerstone for the entire team. In X2, Storm has more screen time--and Berry sports a much better wig--but she still remains a cipher; only one rather tossed-off line ("Sometimes anger can help you survive") gives any vague hint as to the real Ororo Munroe comic fans have grown to love and admire over the years. Then again, if one's sole familiarity with the X-Men comes through the films, one wouldn't know who Ororo Munroe is, since Storm's real name is never once uttered in this film (not even in her alone scenes with Jean, her best friend).
Hopefully that major misstep will be corrected by the time X3 rolls around, and considering the leaps and bounds that were made between the first and this film, one is optimistic--that is, provided the same creative team returns. The X-Men and their rich history make for great fodder for a film, but it takes a true cinema talent to turn the daunting and rather unwieldy 40 years of material into a coherent yet complex, smart yet incredibly fun entertainment that satisfies both the fanboys and newbie moviegoers alike. Now that Singer has completely found his footing with X2, who knows what untold superhuman heights he can reach in future installments.