Friday, February 5, 2016

Nighthawks

In many respects, Nighthawks (1981) is an inferior variation on The French Connection (1971) with two New York City cops tracking down a criminal mastermind in the mean streets only replacing international drug smuggling with international terrorism. In fact, Nighthawks was originally intended to be a sequel to The French Connection II (1975), but was shelved with Gene Hackman decided not to reprise his character from the first two films. You could make a list of the ways in which William Friedkin’s film is superior to Nighthawks but it has Rutger Hauer going for it, which is a big plus, and he commands the screen in every scene he’s in as a Carlos the Jackal-esque terrorist. If this movie is a French Connection rip-off then it’s a very entertaining one with plenty of exciting action sequences and a fascinating, tension-filled cat and mouse game at its core.

We are introduced to our protagonists – police detectives Deke DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone) and Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams) – on decoy duty as they bust a bunch of muggers. Already the subpar French Connection aspects become apparent as Deke chases one of the muggers onto an elevated train platform but not before engaging in some cheesy tough guy-speak. If this opening scene wasn’t a good enough example of Deke and Matt’s skills as crackerjack cops, we get another one where they break up a drug den and the latter freaks out when one of the crooks tries to pay him off. It gives Billy Dee Williams the chance to do some intense yelling but also gives him a nice moment when he spots a scared little kid among the drug peddlers and that’s the reality check that cools him off.

Meanwhile, in London, England, international terrorist Wulfgar (Hauer) blows up a department store (not before interacting with a beautiful young clerk played by Catherine Mary Stewart no less). In a nicely orchestrated sequence, he’s set-up by one of his own and with ruthless efficiency kills three cops. He escapes to Paris where he hooks up with a loyal cohort known as Shakka (Persis Khambatta) and we get an amusing bit where he threatens a plastic surgeon to do some work on his face and make look “beautiful” before heading to New York City after realizing that he’s become too high-profile in Europe.


Back at police headquarters, Deke and Matt have been summoned and told by their boss (played by consummate New York character actor Joe Spinell), who’s tired of their loose cannon antics, that they’ve been reassigned to a terrorist taskforce known as the Anti Terrorist Action Command squad (or A.T.A.C.) in conjunction with Interpol. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with our heroes who’d rather be on the streets busting drug dealers and other low-lifes. When they voice their protests it gives their boss a chance to cut loose and chew them out in the grand tradition of the genre: “Understand this, sucker! You’re a cop and you’ll go where you’re assigned!” Normally, this would be eye-rolling, cliché dialogue, but Joe Spinell, god bless him, delivers it with conviction.

Soon, Deke and Matt find themselves being taught counter-terrorist techniques by Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport), a Brit and the head of A.T.A.C. He stresses that in dealing with Wulfgar they must be ruthless and kill him without hesitation – something that goes against their training as police officers. Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams play well off each other in this scene as their characters mess with each other while Hartman drones on. They’d rather be on the streets but he makes a convincing argument for them absorbing all of this information. The more they know about Wulfgar the better their chances are of finding and stopping him.

It is significant to note that Nighthawks features Stallone before he became a successful action star and he still had one foot in serious acting. You can see him mustering all the gravitas he can for the role and this is especially evident in the scenes he has with Hauer who forces Stallone to raise his game. Billy Dee Williams was also a big deal at the time, coming off high-profile films like Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Mahogany (1975), Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The actor brings his trademark easy-going charm to the role. Stallone and Williams are very believable as partners and this is conveyed in the ease and familiarity of how they interact with each other. Deke is the headstrong one while Matt is more rational and they complement each other well.


Wulfgar would be the first of three memorable antagonistic roles Rutger Hauer would play in the 1980s, along with Blade Runner (1982) and The Hitcher (1986). Each character is distinctive as he makes them fascinating due in large part to his skill as an actor and his charisma. It is also the way Hauer carries himself. In Nighthawks, Wulfgar can turn on the charm when he needs to and then become ruthless in an instant. Hauer portrays his character as a cold-hearted sociopath intent on high-profile acts of terrorism. I like that the movie shows Wulfgar doing his homework – reviewing not just the international dignitaries of his next target but also Hartman and the members of A.T.A.C., in particular, Deke. At times, you can tell that Hauer is having fun with the role, like in the scene where Wulfgar commandeers a cable car full of people and after warning them about the lethal nature of Shakka (“Do not underestimate her because she’s a woman, she has no maternal instincts.”), he compliments one of the hostage’s hat.

To prepare for the role, Sylvester Stallone and producer Martin Poll spent weeks out on patrol with decoy cops, police officers that make themselves available to being robbed or mugged and then backup arrives and arrests the crooks. Actor and producer had to sign releases not to sue if they were shot or killed. “We stayed in the backup vehicles,” Poll said. He found that many decoy cops were divorced, like Deke in the movie: “They’re out late, and it’s dangerous, and after awhile the wives get tired of waiting to see whether the men are coming home or not.” Poll remembered that decoy cops faced a lot of danger on the job. One of the men they went out with had his throat cut: “He got to the hospital, they sewed him up, and about eight weeks later, he was shot and killed.”

When it came to casting Wulfgar, Poll’s son told his father about a Dutch actor named Rutger Hauer that he saw in Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange (1977). Poll saw it and had Hauer fly to California to meet with him and Stallone. Within a minute, Poll and Stallone knew Hauer was right for the role. At the time, the actor had gotten an offer to appear in The Sphinx, a big budget Hollywood movie for more money but he found the premise of Nighthawks and the character he was to play more interesting and chose it instead. To prepare for the part, the actor read “anything that had been written on terrorist groups operating in Europe.” He was drawn to the character of Wulfgar because “I love a character who says, ‘I’m bad. You understand?’ I think it’s good to admit things about yourself, to come out with them.”


The production of Nighthawks was rife with problems. Just over a week into principal photography, Poll fired director Gary Nelson (The Black Hole) and hired Bruce Malmuth. He had been directing commercials for years and, thanks to his friendship with director John Avildsen, befriended Stallone during the early stages of Rocky (1976). The actor was impressed with his work and asked him to take over for Nelson. The studio agreed with this decision and told Poll, “It’s your picture, just don’t stop shooting.”

According to Hauer, since Rocky, Stallone had made a few commercially unsuccessful movies and “felt it was important for this one to be good. And he made everybody around him know it.” During principal photography, Hauer and Stallone had an antagonistic relationship that mirrored the one on-screen. In the scene where Deke and Matt chase Wulfgar through the New York subway system, Hauer consistently outran “fitness fanatic” Stallone, who, according to Hauer, “trained by running up the staircases of office buildings.”

Further along into production, some of the residents of Roosevelt Island didn’t want the filmmakers shooting on the tramway that connected the island with Manhattan. An injunction was granted and the production was forced to shut down while the studio went to court. The judge ruled in favor of the studio and filming continued. Stallone decided to do most of his own stunts, including a dangerous one that saw him suspended 242 feet in the air above the East River from a 1/8 inch steel cable. The day before, he saw a man jump off the bridge to his death. “I saw that, and had to go up the next day. There was a fireboat down below with two divers in it. I made the mistake of calling them ‘lifeguards.’ It was explained to me that they were not lifeguards. They were there to retrieve my body, if necessary.”


Problems continued into post-production. According to Stallone, the studio didn’t believe that “urban terrorism would ever happen in New York thus felt the story was far-fetched.” He has said that the studio lost faith in the movie “and cut it to pieces. What was in the missing scenes was extraordinary acting by Rutger Hauer, Lindsay Wagner, and the finale was a blood fest that rivaled the finale of Taxi Driver. But it was a blood fest with a purpose.” Wagner said at the time of the film’s release, “Sly and I had some powerful scenes together. But the picture was too long, and they wanted to keep the action moving. So our scenes together were cut.”

Nighthawks was not well-received by critics at the time of its release. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “It is particularly helped by the performance of Rutger Hauer, a Dutch actor who makes a startling impression as a cold-blooded fiend, and Sylvester Stallone, from whom less is definitely more.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “Nighthawks is so moronically written and directed, so entirely without wit or novelty, that there is plenty of time to wonder about its many missing explanations.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote that the film “has a dirty job to do and does it. That is not an endorsement. Thumbscrews and cattle prods are real good at what they do, too.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “In order to facilitate a grandstanding, harebrained heroic role assigned to Sylvester Stallone, the filmmakers brush off every opportunity for intelligent dramatization and authentic suspense that the plot would seem to possess.”

Nighthawks certainly has its share of exciting action sequences, like an intense chase on a subway platform and a tense cable car rescue where Deke meets Wulfgar face-to-face and is suspended precariously above the East River. The movie is a fast-paced thriller that not only harkens back to cop procedurals from the 1970s, like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) but also looks ahead to the action movies of the ‘80s that Stallone would help popularize. One can’t help but lament the movie that could have been before he and the studio got their editorial hands all over it, gutting it into the entertaining but ultimately subpar French Connection wannabe that is the final product. It is a testimony to the material and the performances of the cast that the compromised version is as good as it is, surviving the myriad of production problems to become the movie that its fans know and love.



SOURCES

Bennetts, Leslie. “Bringing a New Dimension to Badness.” The New York Times. April 19, 1981.

Chase, Chris. “At the Movies.” The New York Times. April 10, 1981.

Day, Maggie. “The Start of a Rocky Film Career.” Chicago Tribune. April 13, 1981.

Ebert, Roger. “Interview with Sylvester Stallone.” Chicago Sun-Times. July 13, 1980.

Hauer, Rutger with Patrick Quinlan. All Those Moments. HarperCollins. 2007.

Moriarty. “Round One with Sylvester Stallone Q &A.” Ain’t-It-Cool-News. December 3, 2006.


Thomas, Bob. “Lindsay Loves Move to Film.” Globe and Mail. June 15, 1981.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Wild Bunch

“We gotta start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.” – Pike Bishop

No one made films like Sam Peckinpah. Tough, uncompromising, violent, nihilistic. He was a filmmaker unafraid to explore the darker aspects of human nature and often with a romantic streak. The Wild Bunch (1969) is all this and more – a no holds-barred western about a group of men being pushed to the margins of society because of the changes of the modern world circa 1913. Their way of life was no longer tolerated by the powers that be – if it ever was. The film follows a tight-knit group of outlaws with nowhere to go, pursued by one of their own to the inevitable bloody conclusion.

When The Wild Bunch debuted in 1969, Peckinpah’s innovative use of multi-angle, quick-cut editing that mixed normal and slow motion imagery was recognized as revolutionary. Along with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Peckinpah’s film also helped usher in a new era of explicitly-depicted on-screen violence – something that we take for granted now but shocked audiences at the time. More importantly, The Wild Bunch is a romantic lament for an era that was no more – the life and times of the Outlaw Gunfighter.

Right from the get-go, Peckinpah establishes a cruel and uncaring world as symbolized by a group of children that delight in torturing a scorpion by immersing it among hundreds of ants. This imagery is meant to foreshadow the film’s protagonists who will soon find themselves surrounded on all sides by forces determined to destroy them. The film cuts back and forth from the children to a group of outlaws disguised as soldiers robbing a bank, the posse of bounty hunters waiting to ambush them, and a temperance union parade.


Peckinpah cleverly uses editing to increase the tensions until the inevitable confrontation when everyone is caught up in the ensuing chaos of the shoot-out. He doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the violence even if the slow motion carnage gives it a stylish, cool vibe. We get innocent civilians gunned down (one is shot multiple times) in the middle of the street. Both outlaws and bounty hunters meet untimely ends. Amidst all the pandemonium, Peckinpah lingers on one outlaw – Clarence “Crazy” Lee played with memorable zest by Bo Hopkins – who forgets about the carnage raging outside the bank and decides to lead his hostages in a song. By the time he realizes what’s going on he’s killed but not before taking a few bounty hunters with him.

Unlike many of his imitators, Peckinpah lingers on the aftermath of the shoot-out. There are bloody dead bodies littering the street while women cry and wail over loved ones. He even injects some grim gallows humor as two of the bounty hunters (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones) argue over who shot whom and therefore entitled to the spoils only to quickly make-up (“C’mon, T.C. Help me get his boots.”). They take great delight in pillaging the dead bodies.

Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) leads the bounty hunters and gets into a heated argument with Pat Harrigan (Albert Dekker), the railroad representative who sprung the hired gun from prison to catch the outlaws he used to ride with, and gives him an ultimatum: “You’ve got 30 days to get Pike or 30 days back to Yuma. You’re my Judas goat, Mr. Thornton.” I love the fiery exchange between these two men because it not only illustrates Harrigan’s naked greed but also that Deke isn’t an amoral mercenary like the other men in his crew. He follows his own code or at least tries to as it conflicts with Harrigan’s mandate. At least Deke has the balls to tell Harrigan what he thinks of the man: “How does it feel? Gettin’ paid for it? Gettin’ paid to sit back and hire your killings with the law’s arms around you. How does it feel to be so goddamn right?” Harrigan gives a smug smile and simply replies, “Good.”


Emerging from the deadly shoot-out is Pike Bishop (William Holden), the leader of this tight-knit group of outlaws, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), his right-hand man, the Gorch brothers – Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez), the newcomer. They attempt to put as much distance between them and the bank robbery as possible with Deke and his bounty hunters in hot pursuit. They cross the border into Mexico and take refuge in Angel’s village. Peckinpah not only uses these sequences to convey his love for the Mexican people and their way of life but also make a political commentary on how the corrupt government, as represented by General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), exploits and oppresses the people.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments of levity as we see the Gorch brothers enchanted by a beautiful Mexican girl, which even makes Pike laugh. The town elder wisely tells him, “We all dream of being a child again. Even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.” These scenes are important because they humanize Pike and his gang and show that they are much more than just hardened killers. They are capable of enjoying the simple pleasures in life.

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Wild Bunch is the dynamic between the outlaws. With the exception of Angel, these men have been together for a long time, through thick and thin and this is evident in the way they interact with each other. For example, Lyle and his brother feel that they should get more of the loot than Angel because he’s new to the group. It goes against the way they’ve always done things and Pike confronts them by saying, “I don’t know a damn thing except that I either lead this bunch or end it right now.” As dangerous as Lyle is, not even he dares cross Pike and the look he gives him leaves little doubt that Pike can back up his threat.


Pike is barely keeping his gang together and life isn’t getting any easier as they discover that their “loot” is a bunch of steel washers instead of silver coins. Pike realizes that they have to re-think the way they do things as he tells his gang, “We gotta start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.” The situation eventually defuses itself and everyone ends up laughing about it all. These guys bicker and fight amongst themselves but at the end of the day they are loyal to each other because in this world that’s all they have. These men have spent their lives killing and robbing – it’s all they know but they have no regrets about it either.

The Wild Bunch becomes a battle of wills between two former friends now antagonists, both with their own personal code and something to prove. With Pike, it is the desire to pull off one more lucrative score like he did back in the day. For Deke, it’s to prove that he can outsmart his former cohort in crime and a chance to be a gunfighter for a little longer.

William Holden does some excellent work in this film as a tough man struggling not only with his own mortality but keeping a group of Alpha Males together. In private moments, the actor portrays a man who has doubts and fears. Pike is a dying breed. He’s getting old and knows that he doesn’t have many heists left in him. He has to make these last ones count. He is a man who’s led a tough life but on his own terms. He also has his own personal code, which he says during another dispute with the Gorch brothers: “We’re gonna stick together just like it used to be. When you side with a man you stay with him and if you can’t do that you’re like some kind of animal. You’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!” It is this personal code and a strict adherence to it that ultimately leads to the demise of him and his gang for he’s bound by a sense of honor.


Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are very good as the fun-loving Gorch brothers. They love drinking and carousing with women almost as much as they love stealing money with one feeding off the other. Always the memorable performer, Oates, in particular, is quite colorful as the irascible, unpredictable half of the duo and just as adept at spouting period dialogue as he is using body language as evident in the scene where everyone in the gang takes a swig from a bottle of alcohol while he watches in mounting frustration until he’s finally given it – now empty. Ernest Borgnine turns in another solid performance as Pike’s confidante and best friend. He also acts as a sounding board, not afraid to give Pike an honest opinion. Like his friend, Dutch believes in loyalty and the actor’s natural charisma helps make his character likable.

Special mention goes to L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin as the dirtiest and most cowardly mercenaries. They attack their respective roles with gusto and without a hint of vanity. They look horrible and provide a lot of comic relief, always blaming each other when their gang makes a mistake, which is often. Bo Hopkins has a memorable cameo as an enthusiastic psychopath working for Pike. He’s unhinged in a darkly humorous way and it’s fun to watch the actor chew up the scenery for his brief amount of screen-time.

The climactic battle is a master class in editing and an impressive orgy of slow motion carnage that is a spectacle to behold. From the point of Angel’s death, there is little dialogue, no catchy one-liners or cheesy puns – just full-on, unadulterated mayhem as only Peckinpah could orchestrate. The body count is extensive: people are shot and blow-up with men and women killed – some intentionally and some caught in the crossfire. It is also a fitting conclusion for men that led violent lives. There’s something simultaneously fatalistic and heroic about the Wild Bunch’s march towards certain death. It is also very influential, going on to inspire similar epic showdowns in action films like John Woo’s Hard-Boiled (1992) and Christopher McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun (2000), but they all pale in comparison.


In 1967, Sam Peckinpah needed work. Producer Kenneth Hyman asked him to rewrite a screenplay entitled The Diamond Story. If his work was accepted he could direct it as well. Instead, Peckinpah submitted another script he had re-written to Hyman entitled The Wild Bunch, written by Walon Green from a story by Roy Sickner, a stuntman and a longtime friend of Peckinpah’s. Green and Sickner had spent a couple of years trying to get their script made with no luck until the latter gave it to Peckinpah. Warner Brothers decided to have Peckinpah direct The Wild Bunch rather than The Diamond Story.

According to Green, Peckinpah polished the dialogue, making it “saltier,” and gave it a “more authentic Western ring.” Green wasn’t happy with the changes Peckinpah made to the Mexican village scene, which was originally done entirely in Spanish and featured Angel without the rest of the Wild Bunch. Peckinpah also added two flashbacks: the capture of Deke in a whorehouse and Pike’s love affair with a married woman.

When it came to casting, Hyman wanted Lee Marvin to play Pike and Peckinpah agreed. According to the director, the actor wanted to do it but was offered a “fucking million-dollar contract to do Paint Your Wagon,” and did it instead, much to Peckinpah’s chagrin. The director liked William Holden’s performance in Stalag 17 (1953) and cast him as Pike. For the role of Dutch, Hyman wanted Ernest Borgnine and at first Peckinpah disagreed because he hadn’t worked with him before and wanted to “be sure of everybody,” but the producer convinced him to cast the actor.
  

Peckinpah hired Lucien Ballard for director of photography and together they screened footage of the 1913 Mexican Revolution so that when they scouted locations they picked ones that captured the dry, dusty look he wanted. Another crucial collaborator was editor Lou Lombardo who had worked on an episode of the television show Felony Squad that featured a death sequence rendered in slow motion. Peckinpah liked that and the two men talked about shooting gunfights at various speeds and intercutting normal speed with slow motion.

At the end of February 1968, Peckinpah left for Mexico to finish up casting and a last few production details. This included meeting his good friend Don Emilio Fernandez who suggested Jorge Russek and Alfonso Arau to play Mapache’s lieutenants. Even more significantly, Fernandez read the script and offered a suggestion for the opening scene as Peckinpah recalled: “…suddenly he says to me, ‘You know, the Wild Bunch, when they go into that town like that, are like when I was a child and we would take a scorpion and drop it on an anthill…’ And I said, ‘What!’ And he said, ‘Yes, you see, the ants would attack the scorpion.’” Peckinpah loved this idea and rewrote the opening scene to incorporate it.

Not surprisingly, Peckinpah was a demanding director and there are many anecdotes of his antics during principal photography. Strother Martin remembered before the opening shoot-out Peckinpah wanted him to kiss his rifle. Martin refused because he thought it had been done too many times in films and the director yelled at him to do it. Martin did what he was told and when he finally saw the finished scene realized that “Sam had managed to get a different kind of kiss of a rifle than anybody else has ever gotten. He got it, of course, because I was scared shitless and mad at the same time.”


For the opening shoot-out, Peckinpah used as many as six cameras at the same time with some going 24 frames per second and some going faster to create the slow motion effects. Lombardo began editing a work print of this sequence and when he was finished it ran 21 minutes! Peckinpah took a pass at the sequence and cut it down to five minutes, retaining “the essence of every action we had but fragmented and intercut it all,” Lombardo remembered.

Peckinpah was a director that didn’t suffer fools gladly as William Holden recounted in an interview regarding a scene that featured Pike and his gang, which was particularly challenging. It was a long scene and everyone had dialogue but nobody knew their lines, assuming there’d be plenty of time to get it right on the set. Holden recalled:

“Sam said in this very calm but menacing voice: ‘Gentlemen, you were hired to work on this film as actors, and I expect actors to know their lines when they come to set. Now I’m willing to give you twenty minutes, and anyone can go wherever he wants to learn his lines. But when you come back, if you can’t be an actor, you will be replaced.’”

Holden remembers that this sent the cast scurrying to learn their lines and it was a memorable example of Peckinpah’s demand for professionalism.


The climactic shoot-out took 11 days to film. Peckinpah employed five cameras at the same time. It was very challenging because of the interlacing action that involved filming the foreground and then repeating it again for the background so that everything would match up. It was a very complex sequence to orchestrate due to the amount of action and the large number of extras.

Initially, the MPAA gave The Wild Bunch an X rating but Peckinpah and Lombardo argued that if they took a “particular segment out, it thrown off something else. They somehow understood most of that and allowed much of what we argued for to remain.” The studio previewed the film in Kansas City and Lombardo remembered, “The crowd turned out to be either completely for or completely against the film. And the ones who were against it were more violent than the film itself!” The Wild Bunch underwent final editing before general release.

The film was then shown at a special screening for the press in the Bahamas in June 1969. Not surprisingly, it polarized the audience with some people walking out in protest during the screening. At the press conference the next day, it continued to garner divisive reactions with Roger Ebert calling it “a masterpiece,” while Reader’s Digest’s Virginia Kelly saying, “I have only one question to ask: why was this film ever made?’ The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “In The Wild Bunch, which is about men who walk together, but in desperation, he [Peckinpah] turns the genre inside out. It’s a fascinating movie.” In his review for Time magazine, Jay Cocks wrote, “The Wild Bunch contains faults and mistakes, but its accomplishments are more than sufficient to confirm that Peckinpah, along with Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn, belong to the best of the newer generation of American filmmakers.” The New Republic’s Stanley Kaufman wrote, “[There is] a kinetic beauty in the very violence that his film lives and revels in…The violence is the film.”


After The Wild Bunch was given a general release, the studio decided to cut 20 minutes out because it wasn’t doing as well as they had hoped. All the flashbacks were cut, removing “the thing which humanized the characters. I couldn’t believe it,” Peckinpah said. In 1995, the flashbacks were restored to the film thereby allowing audiences to see his intended vision.

The Wild Bunch is about a group of men facing their own mortality. Their way of life is rapidly ending and they plan to go out doing it their way or die trying. In contrast, Deke’s gang are a bunch of filthy liars and cowards that are loyal to no one but money. They’re lazy and Peckinpah makes a point of showing close-ups of their leering faces full of grungy, missing teeth and beady eyes.

The Wild Bunch has all the elements of a rousing western: exciting gun fights, chases on horseback, a daring train heist, colorful characters, and the shoot-out to end all shoot-outs. Epic shoot-outs bookend the film. The first one sets the tone for the rest of the film and establishes the protagonists and the antagonists. The last one is their last hurrah – aging gunfighters with nowhere else to go and making a choice to go out on their terms. In the first one, they killed for money and in the last one they killed for one of their own. This is summed up beautifully towards the end when Pike decides to rescue Angel from insurmountable odds and tells the Gorch brothers, “Let’s go.” Lyle sizes him up for a beat and then replies, “Why not?” That’s all that needs to be said because we’ve watched these men through the entire film fight, laugh and get drunk together. They’ve been in life or death situations that bond them forever.

The Wild Bunch is about men willing to die for what they believe in and for Pike it is loyalty. His gang of outlaws are like brothers. That’s why nothing explicitly has to be said at the end. It is understood that when Pike says, “Let’s go,” that means let’s take on General Mapache and his army knowing that they will die in the process but at least they will do so on their own terms.



SOURCES


Simmons, Garner. Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage. Limelight Editions. 1998.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dredd

The character of Judge Dredd first appeared in the March 1977 issue of British science fiction-themed comic book 2000 AD and was created by writer John Wagner, artist Carlos Ezquerra and editor Pat Mills. Set in the dystopian futureworld of Mega-City One, Dredd is a Dirty Harry-esque law enforcement officer in the sense that he uses extreme, often violent methods to serve justice. Crime in this world is so bad that he and his fellow judges have been bestowed by the powers that be with the ability to arrest, convict, sentence, and execute criminals.

Dredd proved to be so popular that in 1990 he got his own title, Judge Dredd Magazine. It made sense that eventually the character would make the jump to film as his world was rife with cinematic possibilities. Aspects of the comic book would pop up in films like RoboCop (1987) but it wasn’t until Hollywood tried to officially adapt it with Sylvester Stallone as Dredd. While I don’t have a problem with him as the character per se, the screenplay failed to carry over the comic book’s ironic humor and instead replaced it with Rob Schneider’s goofy sidekick. This version also transgressed important “Dredd mythology” by having the titular lawman remove his helmet (something he rarely does in the comic book) and developed a love interest between him and Judge Hershey – something that is forbidden between Judges in the source material.

Judge Dredd (1995) was trashed by critics and fans. Another cinematic adaptation was attempted until 2012 with Dredd. Produced by British studio DNA Films, it was directed by Pete Travis (Omagh) and written and produced by Alex Garland (28 Days Later). While still omitting the comic book’s ironic humor, they created a much more faithful representation of Dredd and his world with a gritty, violent take that resulted in lackluster box office returns. Strong word of mouth saw it perform better on home video where it has acquired a cult following.


After a succinct introduction to this world via a montage of footage and Dredd’s (Karl Urban) voiceover narration giving us the important details, we are dropped right in the middle of the action as the Judge pursues three junkies through the streets in an exciting chase sequence that culminates in a showdown where he efficiently executes the lone remaining criminal.

Once returning to headquarters, he’s assigned a rookie judge by the name of Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) who has powerful psychic abilities but has failed to get a passing grade in the academy. This is her last chance and she has to prove herself out in the field. They answer a call at the Peach Trees project where three men were tortured and dropped to their deaths by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a former prostitute now ruthless drug lord of the building. She pushes a drug known as Slo-Mo that gives you a high and creates the illusion that time is slowing down.

Dredd and Anderson arrive, assess the situation and investigate. They soon arrest a key member of Ma-Ma’s gang, which doesn’t sit too well with her and so she takes control of the building’s systems, locking it down thereby trapping the Judges inside. Cut off from HQ, they decide to work their way up the 200-story building and take down Ma-Ma and her gang. The rest of Dredd plays out like a suspenseful cat and mouse game punctuated by hard-hitting action sequences.


Dredd is a refreshingly stripped-down, no frills action film that tells us only what we need to know and doesn’t provide unnecessary backstories to our protagonists, which forces us to take them as they are, letting their actions provide insight into them. This may have also led to its commercial demise as the narrative refused to hold the audience’s hand and also refused to make Dredd a sympathetic character. In that respect, Judge Anderson serves that purpose.

She’s the rookie and our window into this world. She’s thrown into an impossible situation where its sink or swim, life or death – in other words, a very steep on-the-job learning curve. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) does a nice job of being the audience surrogate, providing an emotional touchstone, which acts in sharp contrast to Karl Urban’s no-nonsense Dredd. While Anderson doesn’t have the battle-hardened physicality of Dredd, she is able to read people’s minds and this is her distinct advantage. This is evident in the fascinating scene where she uses her psychic power to interrogate one of Ma-Ma’s gang. At first, he thinks that he’s got the upper hand but Anderson quickly reveals that she knows what she’s doing and turns the tables on him.

Dependable character actor Karl Urban (Star Trek) is perfectly cast as Dredd, giving a minimalist, Clint Eastwood-esque performance. In the first ten minutes, he manages to top Stallone’s cartoonish portrayal. The actor obviously did his homework, nailing Dredd’s humorless demeanor while still uttering a few choice one-liners that are amusing thanks to his deadpan delivery. Urban is also adept at making the film’s future-speak with words like “Iso-cube” sound natural – something that isn’t always to pull off. He also has the challenge of acting with three quarters of his head encased in a helmet for the entire film and yet is still able to exude toughness with a defiant sneer that looks like something Carlos Ezquerra would have drawn.


Versatile character actress Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) is impressive as the vicious drug lord Ma-Ma. She dives into the role without a hint of vanity as she messes up her natural beauty with a large scar on her face, bad teeth and disheveled appearance. She is able to exude lethal malevolence while being surrounded by bigger, tougher men by the way she carries herself. Ma-Ma doesn’t care whether she lives or dies and rules her gang with an iron fist.

Pete Travis bathes the entire film in a sickly grungy look as Dredd and Anderson work their way through a slum project. It suits the grim outlook of this futureworld. He and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) keep things visually interesting with the Slo-Mo hallucination sequences, which are vibrant and trippy riffs on the slow motion action scenes in The Matrix movies only druggier.


If there is any fault with Dredd it’s that the filmmakers overcompensate for the glib tone of Judge Dredd by going a bit too far in the other direction. In doing so, the film loses some of the satirical tone of the comic book. Fortunately, this is only a minor quibble because the filmmakers get so much right, creating a very faithful adaptation by learning from the mistakes of the previous attempt. Unfortunately, more moviegoers didn’t feel the same way and Dredd was a commercial failure but it lives on in home video, treasured by those that finally saw their favorite lawman be given his proper due. Justice has been served.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Punch-Drunk Love

Burnt out from making the personal, sprawling epic that was Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson decided to make an Adam Sandler romantic comedy as his next project. He was a big fan of the popular comedian and wrote a film specifically for him. On the surface, the character Sandler plays in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) appears to be one of his trademark man-children prone to angry outbursts, but Anderson gets him to dig deeper than he had ever gone before in a physical portrayal that evokes legendary silent film comedians like Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. Unfortunately, Sandler’s fanbase was not interested in seeing him starring in an art house film and neither did mainstream audiences as Punch-Drunk did not even make back its modest $25 million budget. It did, however, garner widespread praise and Anderson won the prestigious Best Director award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. More importantly, it proved to be an important game changer for the filmmaker who began to eschew the flashier camerawork of his earlier films for a more formal approach and an emphasis on character over plot, which has resulted in more challenging fare.

Barry Egan (Sandler) is a timid salesman that supplies hotels with bathroom plungers. The first shot is of him sitting at a messy desk in the corner of an otherwise featureless room, which visually establishes his isolation. He goes outside and witnesses two seemingly random acts: a spectacular car accident immediately followed by a taxi cab dropping off a harmonium right in front of him and driving away.

Barry is a meek introvert that gets a panic attack after meeting a good-looking woman named Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) for the first time. This isn’t surprising when we see his family dynamic: he is the only brother among seven sisters, all of whom talk loudly over each other and boss him around. At work, they interrupt him with incessant phone calls and insult him. Barry deals with his anger by either spontaneously bursting into tears or exploding into sudden outbursts of violence, like at a party with his siblings where their persistent insults result in him smashing two glass patio doors. The kind of verbal abuse that he endures on a constant basis would drive anyone crazy.


To cope with his loneliness, Barry calls a phone sex line that proceeds to use his personal information to extort money from him. This scene is uncomfortable because Anderson utilizes long takes that linger on Barry’s increasingly awkward conversation with a phone sex worker. When she calls back the next day asking for more money, Anderson dwells on Barry’s nervousness as he rebuffs her.

Barry also discovers a loophole in a contest wherein he spends $3,000 on pudding to get a million frequent flyer miles. These seemingly random, abstract events dovetail into the most significant episode in Barry’s life: meeting Lena. Both the frequent flyer miles and his relationship with her provide a respite from his banal daily existence. His whole world begins to change. Welcome to a Paul Thomas Anderson romantic comedy.

Adam Sandler takes his trademark innocent-naïf-prone-to-sudden-bursts-of-violence character and creates a fascinating, new variation on it. Barry internalizes everything as he tries, desperately, to control his world. He seems to suffer from an acute case of agoraphobia and constantly looks uncomfortable. Anderson simulates this feeling by punctuating moments of silence with sudden, jarring blasts of sound. It is the presence of Lena who provides Barry with the calm and love that he so badly needs. Sandler’s performance is a revelation as he taps into an unseen side of his on-screen persona in a refreshingly abstract way. He displays an incredible amount of vulnerability as evident in the scene where he confesses to his brother-in-law dentist that he doesn’t like himself and has no one to talk to about his feelings. The scene ends with Barry breaking down and crying that is simultaneously hilarious in its suddenness and heartbreaking as well.


Known more for doing intense, emotionally-wrenching dramas like Breaking the Waves (1996) and Angela’s Ashes (1999), Emily Watson also shifts gears as the adorable Lena. Not only is her character’s vibrant red dress a nice visual contrast to Barry’s blue suit, but her large, expressive eyes are a lovely match for his sensitive face. She senses his need for human connection and a sweet disposition under his nervous façade. She is able to reach the romantic side that is buried under all the neuroses. They are an engaging couple and the scenes between them – especially the lush, atmospheric ones in Hawaii – have a romantic intimacy to them. Lena is a bit of an enigma. We don’t really know much about her except that she loves Barry and that is enough.

It is great to see someone of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s caliber go toe-to-toe with Sandler in an amusing shouting match they have over the phone and then the eventual face-to-face confrontation towards the end of the film. They each have their own distinctive acting styles and it is fascinating to see them collide and watch the sparks fly as a result. Hoffman’s arrogant blowhard is a one-note character but that’s kind of the point. His sole purpose is to be Barry’s antagonist, the roadblock to his happiness.

Punch-Drunk Love is akin to a Technicolor Jacques Tati film – albeit starring Adam Sandler. Barry, with his ubiquitous bright blue suit and exaggerated physical mannerisms, echoes silent comedians, like Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. Barry isn’t the most articulate guy and relies on his actions and his facial expressions to convey his feelings. There is a scene where Barry dances up and down a grocery aisle in a wonderful expression of pure happiness. It’s a thrilling cinematic moment that is an absolute joy to watch. Anderson contrasts Barry and Lena’s bland, minimalistic furnished apartments with the vibrant look of Hawaii that brings the film vividly to life.


The stunning visuals are enhanced by long-time Anderson composer Jon Brion’s discordant score that during the first half of the film mirror’s Barry’s chaotic life. The experimental music calms down and takes on a more conventional, romantic tone with Lena’s presence, reinforcing the calming effect she has on him. Punch-Drunk Love is Anderson at his most romantic and this is summed up best when Barry decides to go to Hawaii to be with Lena and over the soundtrack he plays the sweet ballad, “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980). Barry finally stops being such a doormat and asserts himself. This sequence swells with emotion as Barry embraces his romantic side. The rather, child-like innocent vibe of this song as sung by Shelley Duvall perfectly encapsulates the romance between Barry and Lena.

While editing Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson was watching several Adam Sandler comedies and thought, “I want some of that. How do I do that?” He had always been fan of the comedian and wanted to work with him. To prepare for writing a comedy, Anderson did a short stint as a writer for Saturday Night Live. In 2000, Time magazine published an article about a University of California civil engineer named David Phillips who uncovered a loophole of sorts in a frequent flyer promotion by accumulating 1.25 million miles by spending $3,000 on 12,150 cups of Healthy Choice pudding. Anderson read the article and was intrigued. He met Phillips and optioned the rights to his story.

When the filmmaker set out to write the screenplay he put a picture of Emily Watson next to one of Sandler and thought they looked good together. Anderson incorporated elements from his own life. Like Barry, he came from a large family – three siblings and four half-siblings – and was also prone to temper tantrums. He wrote the script in four months.


Anderson met with Sandler on the set of Little Nicky (2000) and asked him if he wanted to work together on a film. Sandler said in an interview, “I play a role he wrote for me that I thought was a great part. I thought it was a challenge for me to do, but I also thought I could actually do it.” Anderson created the role of Lena for Emily Watson. As luck would have it, she wanted a change from the heavy dramas she was appearing in, like Angela’s Ashes. He met with her and asked what she wanted to do next without telling her that he had already written a part for her. Both her and Sandler were nervous about meeting each other but when they did the two actors got along well.

Burnt out from making such a lengthy, complex film like Magnolia, Anderson wanted to make a 90-minute romantic comedy. The film’s producer JoAnne Sellar said that Anderson was looking to change his approach to filmmaking: “The challenge was to create something different by taking a more intuitive, uncharted approach than on our previous films.” To this end, after casting the major speaking parts, he told his casting director Cassandra Kulukundis to fill out the remaining roles with non-actors. This was particularly important for Barry’s sisters: “Paul didn’t want to hire actors because he wanted to capture the raw awkwardness of family where people nag and talk over each other and don’t wait for their cues.” She found an actual family to portray Barry’s and so of the seven sisters six are non-actors and four are related.

To give the cast and crew an indication of the look and tone he was going for, Anderson screened Ernie Kovacs short films, the Richard Lester Beatles film Help! (1965) and the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film Carefree (1938). According to cinematographer Robert Elswit, the look of Punch-Drunk Love was inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s early color films, specifically A Woman is a Woman (1961) and Jean-Claude Brialy’s electric-blue suit and how it contrasted in rooms with white walls.”


The production shot entirely on location in the San Fernando Valley, Utah and Oahu. Initially, Anderson found changing his approach to filmmaking difficult. “There were scary moments when I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. The director ended up using very little of the first two weeks of footage because “I was still making the same movie. I had to educate myself on how to keep it simple.”

Before filming, Anderson already had ideas for what he wanted to do with the film’s score and asked friend and regular collaborator Jon Brion to create a temporary score that could be played on set during principal photography. Anderson said, “It’s often a matter of having a rhythm in my head that I carry around for awhile. There was one that I sort of sang out to Jon Brion on Punch-Drunk Love, a waltzy kind of pattern, in which I was timing something out and giving him a tempo.”

Brion and his engineer recorded a series of ten-minute ensemble percussion pieces that gave the actors an idea of a given scene’s rhythm. His score blended in with the film’s overall sound design to the point that in post-production Brion submitted many three to five second pieces that “were essentially sound bites which they could place at their discretion.” The centerpiece of the film was always going to be “He Needs Me,” the Harry Nilsson-composed song. Anderson was able to get a hold of the original multi-track recordings and played the song over daily rushes. The crew, many of whom had not heard the song before, realized what he wanted to do.


Punch-Drunk Love received positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The film is exhilarating to watch because Sandler, liberated from the constraints of formula, reveals unexpected depths as an actor. Watching this film, you can imagine him in Dennis Hopper roles. He has darkness, obsession and power.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “What Mr. Anderson wants to do is recapture, without nostalgia, the giddiness and sweep of old movies, and his mastery of the emotional machinery of the medium is breathtaking. You can feel his impulsive pleasure as he flings the camera through long tracking shots, and layers his nimble visual compositions with music.”

The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “It is already apparent that Punch-Drunk Love will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but nonetheless Mr. Anderson has found a way to fashion a passionate romance out of the materials of postmodern chaos.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “At heart, Punch-Drunk Love is a David Lynch film, a cosmic daydream in which Sandler gets sucked into a vortex where the power of love fights the pull of darkness.” The USA Today’s Mike Clark gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “This near-magical collaboration seems the right movie at the right time for star and filmmaker. It proves that Sandler has talent beyond his in-your-face past vehicles and that Anderson … can triumph on a scale smaller than the 188-minute Magnolia.” However, in his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “As elegantly crafted as it often is, Anderson’s movie is essentially a one-trick pony that, hampered by an undeveloped script, ultimately pulls up lame.”

With this film, Sandler took his angry man-child persona to places it hadn’t been before as Anderson examines the reasons why Barry acts the way he does. Sandler’s behavior is more extreme and the situations Barry finds himself in are more heightened and stylized than the comedian’s usual fare. As a conventional romantic comedy, Punch-Drunk Love is a complete failure. It doesn’t adhere to the usual conventions or follow the traditional beats we normally associate with the genre and this is a good thing. Anderson takes the genre and filters it through his unique sensibilities to make a film distinctly his own. He has crafted a sweet yet odd love story about a man who learns how to love.



SOURCES

“Behind the Scenes with Robert Elswit.”

Brooks, Xan. “I can be a real arrogant brat.” The Guardian. January 27, 2003.

Caro, Mark. “Paul Thomas Anderson Casts Wider Net with Punch-Drunk Love.” Chicago Tribune. October 16, 2002.

Kehr, Dave. “A Poet of Love and Chaos in the Valley.” The New York Times. October 6, 2002.

Kenny, Glen. “’That’s Just a Good Sound’: Paul Thomas Anderson on the Music in His Movies.” Wondering Sound. December 12, 2014.

Kirkland, Bruce. “Pleased as Punch.” Toronto Sun. October 8, 2002.

Laurent, Joseph. “Paul Thomas Anderson, Punch-Drunk Love.” BBC. January 28, 2003.

Morris, Wesley. “Out There.” Boston Globe. October 14, 2002.

Punch-Drunk Love Production Notes. 2002.

Turan, Kenneth. “Crazy for Love.” Los Angeles Times. May 20, 2002.


Ramos, Steve. “Who’s Laughing Now?” City Beat. September 19, 2002.