Friday, December 26, 2014

True Believer

The 1980s was a great decade for fans of James Woods as it featured some of his most memorable performances in a diverse collection of films like Videodrome (1983), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Salvador (1986), Best Seller (1987), and Cop (1988). The actor rounded out the decade with a riveting turn as a crusading lawyer in True Believer (1989). Based loosely on a series of investigative articles by Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist K.W. Lee, Woods plays a burnt-out attorney who teams up with an idealistic legal clerk, played by a young Robert Downey Jr., to free a man in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

The film starts off by rubbing your face in the harsh realities of prison life as a young Asian man by the name of Shu Kai Kim (Yuji Okumoto) fights for his life against a white supremacist. And then, bang—we’re in New York City as young legal clerk Roger Baron (Downey) arrives fresh off the train with a bevy of suitcases as he tracks down legendary lawyer Edward J. Dodd (Woods) in some anonymous courtroom delivering a fiery speech railing against the police’s illegal surveillance methods on his client – a white collar drug dealer. In a nice touch, his client leaves the courthouse in a Porsche driven by his wife.

The initial courtroom scene is a fantastic introduction to Dodd as Woods gets to deliver a passionate speech as only he can. Roger gushes about Dodd’s past triumphs as they make their way to his Greenwich Village office. Seeing his hero defend mid-level drug dealers is a jarring experience for Roger who has to quickly adapt to his surroundings and adjust his expectations accordingly.


One night, an elderly Korean woman and her neighbor show up asking Dodd for help. The woman’s son – Kim from the opening scene – was sent to prison for eight years for a killing a man in an apparent gang initiation. They claim he’s innocent, but to make matters worse, he killed a man in prison. Dodd is polite to the two women, but his caseload is full and Kim isn’t a drug dealer. However, Roger is moved by the mother’s story and pushes Dodd to take the case.

Dodd has been lost in clouds of pot smoke and coasting on a steady caseload of drug dealers. He’s lost touch with the idealism and beliefs that were so strongly instilled in him during the 1960s, but were gradually eroded away until he became a cynical opportunist deluding himself into thinking he’s still making a difference. Roger awakens the ideals Dodd had buried deep inside for years.

Dodd decides to take the case and the deeper that he and Roger dig, the more complex they find it as the two men wade through hate groups and police corruption. Their investigation takes them through the gritty underbelly of the city as they uncover dirty secrets that the powers that be tried to bury. I like that director Joseph Ruben shows Dodd and Roger doing grunt work, like spending a night going through files to find something they can use in their case. They pound the pavement and talk to witnesses who might have seen something back then. Ruben also does a nice job of showing how Dodd lives in the shadow of the ‘60s in a scene where the lawyer leaves a bar while “Crystal Ship” by The Doors plays quietly in the background and then gradually gets louder as he walks the streets of the city.


Actors love lawyer roles because it gives them an opportunity to deliver dramatic speeches and work the courtroom like they’re on stage and in a way they are. James Woods is a top-notch actor and this kind of juicy role is something he can really sink his teeth into with gusto. It’s great to see him play a character full of righteous anger. He also gets to face off against a hardnosed opponent – in this case, Robert Reynard, a tough district attorney played by Kurtwood Smith with his usual no-nonsense style. Ever the committed actor, Woods puts it all out there and it’s hard not to root for Dodd to succeed against insurmountable odds. He’s such an interesting actor to watch in the choices he makes in a given scene to how he conveys the dramatic arc of his character over the course of the film.

Robert Downey, Jr. is good as a wet-behind-the-ears associate whose book smarts is the yin to Dodd’s street smarts yang. He’s eager and idealistic without overdoing it to the point of being annoying about it. Roger’s job is to reawaken the passion in Dodd that has lain dormant for years. There is an interesting visual contrast between the clean-cut Roger and the rumpled-looking Dodd that complements their different personalities. They are an odd couple to be sure, but they are united by the same goal: to correct an injustice.

Kurtwood Smith has made a career of playing smug pricks (see Robocop and Flashpoint) and his D.A. is an overconfident man that thinks he’ll crush Dodd in the courtroom. It is these traits that make you want to see Dodd win his case even more and destroy Reynard in the courtroom. It’s great to see Smith strut his stuff as he delivers a dramatic opening argument and then goes on to trade verbal body blows with Woods as they uses witnesses to convince the jury that they are right. It is an excellent battle of wills that is fascinating to watch.


Director Joseph Ruben was drawn to True Believer because it was “a good, strong mystery, which I love. I like the characters a lot. I like the New York world, the underbelly.” The character of Edward J. Dodd was partly modeled on real-life San Francisco area attorney J. Tony Serra whose high acquittal rate was the stuff of legend in the legal world. Ruben butted heads with Woods during pre-production over the wig that the actor would wear to play the longhaired Dodd. Woods flip-flopped several times over whether he would wear it or not. Ruben and the producers got so frustrated that they seriously considered quitting the project. He got Serra and Woods to meet over dinner. They got along famously and Woods finally agreed to don the wig.

Ruben said of working with Woods, “The one thing with Jimmy is he is so strong an actor and he attacks a scene so much that you can’t give him raw direction … You’ve got to be pretty precise with him.” In contrast, Robert Downey showed up with all kinds of ideas as Ruben remembered: “He came in the first day of rehearsal with an interesting haircut and these punk glasses unlike anything you’ve ever seen. And I thought, that’s exactly it, that’s exactly the character.”

True Believer received mostly positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Woods makes movies in which the audience has to be on its toes to keep up with him. It’s quite an act, and when I see Woods on the screen in the first shot of a movie I sort of smile to myself because I know that something strange and offbeat and maybe even inspired is about to happen.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Ruben’s direction and working with “a story that doesn’t wear thin once its premise has been established. He also has a more mobile and exciting camera style this time, and his direction remains lively and surprising to the end.” The Chicago Tribune’s Dave Kehr wrote, “Most remarkable, though, is Ruben’s refusal to treat Eddie’s moral regeneration as a simple narrative convention; where most directors of the moment would treat it only as the easiest way of getting from point A to point B, for Ruben it is something solid and real, to be presented with care and conviction.”

However, the Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “Dodd is another in James Woods’ dizzying catalogue of interchangeable characterizations in which only his hairdos vary.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “Part of the problem is that Ruben relies too heavily on Woods’ whirring turbines to power his scenes. The fault here lies more in the material than in Ruben’s handling of it. There’s an attraction to the dilemma of a ‘60s provocateur stranded in the moral gray zone of the ‘80s, but the themes aren’t well served by the thriller plot.” When asked, a few years later, why True Believer failed commercially, Ruben said, “I think the title was a hard sell. Also it wasn’t easy to get the idea right off the bat.”


True Believer is as much a story about finding the truth as it is about Dodd’s redemption. At times, it looks and feels like it could exist in the same world as Sidney Lumet’s police corruption films. Woods and Downey make for a good team, playing well off each other, but let’s face it, this is Woods’ show. In the ‘80s, he was given the opportunity to headline several films playing flawed protagonists. True Believer is no different as he plays a ‘60s crusader worn down by the system over the years, but finds that passion again thanks to a young upstart that reminds him of what he used to be.


SOURCES

Hoban, Phoebe. “Hollywood’s Newest Golden Boy.” Premiere. 1989.

Lantos, Jeffrey. “Director Joe Ruben on Julia Roberts, Dastardly Extras and Surviving the Pom-Pom Girls.” Movieline. February 1, 1991.

Rea, Steven. “Ruben’s Redemption.” Philadelphia Inquirer. February 26, 1989.


Strauss, Bob. “Can You Believe He’s Calming Down?” Los Angeles Daily News. March 5, 1989.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

People tend to forget how much was riding on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when it was released in 1982. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was considered to be a big bore and not really indicative of the television series. The powers that be wanted to make sure that the next film would not repeat the previous one’s mistakes. So, they removed series creator Gene Roddenberry and replaced him with veteran T.V. producer Harve Bennett. He proceeded to watch the entire run of the original series and decided to dust off a classic villain and give Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) a decidedly personal stake in this new mission.

Early on in the film there are two crucial exchanges between Kirk and his two closest friends. In observance of his birthday, Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) gives Kirk a copy of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities (Spock refers to Kirk’s fondness for collecting antiques) and the latter quotes the famous opening passage, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” to which Spock replies, in reference to this day, “Surely the best of times?” This bit beautifully encapsulates the film as a whole, featuring the crew of the Enterprise at their best and at their lowest. Wrath of Khan is often regarded as the strongest film of the franchise – “Surely the best of times,” indeed.

The second important exchange happens between Kirk and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley). The latter gives the former 400-year-old reading glasses and we get a glimpse at his living quarters – full of the antiques Spock alluded to in the previous scene. Kirk is surrounded by reminders of the past and is staring down yet another birthday. “It’s about you flying a goddamn computer console when you want to be out there hopping galaxies,” McCoy tells him. He encourages Kirk to take command of a starship again before he gets too old.


I love these early scenes because they not only allow us to get reacquainted with Kirk and co., featuring quiet, human moments that give us insight into Kirk and his friendships with Spock and McCoy, but they also establish the themes of friendship and mortality that will feature prominently later on. The opening scenes with Kirk confiding in Spock and McCoy are like revisiting old friends you haven’t seen in awhile and there is something enjoyable and reassuring about seeing these veteran actors dusting off and slipping so easily back into their iconic characters. There is a shorthand and a familiarity between these characters because the actors have so much experience playing them.

Most contemporary films would do away with scenes like this, viewing them as extraneous and unnecessary, but on the contrary they are vital to getting us invested in Kirk’s dilemma of getting old and becoming obsolete vs. going back out there and mixing it up in outer space once again. “Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young,” Kirk says early on and it is the film’s central theme as it pits two aging enemies against each other. The film openly acknowledges the age of the cast, in particular Kirk who comes face to face with his own mortality. The film even starts off on a playfully cheeky note as the entire Enterprise bridge crew are killed off in a battle simulation.

Before Kirk makes a decision, fate intervenes and forces his hand. Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) and his crew manage to escape the desolate planet prison that Kirk banished him to many years ago and decide to exact revenge on his most hated enemy. He kidnaps two key crew-members from the U.S.S. Reliant (while also killing its crew and commandeering the ship) and steals Project Genesis, a device that will take a lifeless planet and bring it violently back to life. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), an old ex-flame, and her son David (Merritt Butrick) – that resulted from their brief union – are the primary architects of Project Genesis. They send out a distress call, which Kirk and the crew of largely inexperienced cadets on the Enterprise intercepts, unaware that Khan has set a trap for them.


I also like how this film is steeped in classic literature, from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Spock gives Kirk a copy of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. The book’s famous opening lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” is cited and its hero dies to save his friend, sly foreshadowing to the end of The Wrath of Khan. On two occasions, Khan paraphrases Ahab in Moby Dick, most memorably in that classic scene where he conveys his passion for wreaking vengeance on Kirk: “I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.” I appreciate a science fiction film that isn’t content to merely throw around technical jargon, but also allude to classic literature, both thematically and quoted by its characters. It makes sense because characters like Kirk and Khan are mythological in nature themselves.

The scene where we first meet Khan gives Ricardo Montalban a chance to savor the moment as he relishes every word like a fine meal, giving the dialogue a unique spin as only he can. Khan is an aggrieved villain with an axe to grind – years of hatred for Kirk. He has the cunning intelligence to devise a trap in which to ensnare his old foe. Montalban’s take on Khan is a deliciously evil one and there is no doubt that he is more than a formidable match for Shatner’s Kirk. Khan isn’t out to rule the galaxy. No, this is a personal vendetta against Kirk and he’ll stop at nothing to get his revenge. Khan is on a mission of vengeance, plain and simple, and after hearing him recount the hardships he and his people endured it is hard not to – I wouldn’t say sympathize, but understand what motivates him. He’s seen his wife and 19 of his people die. He’s had years to brood over what happened and what he’d do to Kirk if given the chance. Once he gets control of the Reliant, Khan strikes back, hurting the Enterprise crew in a way so that Kirk gets a taste of what he’s been through and this makes their battle a very personal one with a lot at stake for both men.

The Wrath of Khan may be William Shatner’s finest moment in the Star Trek franchise as Kirk wrestles with his own mortality and must confront and conquer his self-doubts. He also must deal with an old nemesis, which makes the battle personal for him as well. Shatner does a nice job conveying these initial doubts about getting back into the Captain’s chair, then his joy at being back in a mission, then anger as he is tricked by Khan, and finally grief of the toll the battle takes on him and his friends. The veteran actor has to convey a wide-range of emotions and does so with his usual dramatic flair. Even better, we get to see who can overact more, Shatner or Montalban, as they take turns chewing up the scenery with melodramatic gusto complete with some great, spirited exchanges and some insanely quotable dialogue. It’s not just what is said but how it’s said that makes it so memorable. They are both acting hams, fond of … dramatic … pauses and sudden outbursts of emotion, but both clearly bring the best out of each other. Part of the enjoyment that comes from this film is watching these two go at it, holding nothing back, just like their characters.


The veteran cast from the show inhabits their roles with the ease and confidence that comes from years of practice. It helps that the main cast portray characters with detailed backstories thanks to the T.V. series and so there is all of that baggage for them to draw on, not to mention their complete familiarity with their respective roles. All Kirk and McCoy have to do is exchange a knowing look between each other to suggest more than any dialogue could. The screenplay draws on the Enterprise crew’s long-time camaraderie by raising the emotional stakes, making this mission a very personal one for Kirk and whose outcome will not only impact him, but also his mates. The nature of friendship is explored in Kirk’s yin to Spock’s yang. They complement each other because together they provide the right mix of instinct and logic. This balance is in flux in The Wrath of Khan when Spock reminds Kirk that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” to which Kirk adds, “or the one.” These are words that will gain importance at the film’s climax as they come back to haunt the characters.


In The Wrath of Khan, Kirk is forced to face two people from his past – one hostile and one he used to be romantically involved with – both of whom will dramatically change his life in unexpected ways. Only by defeating Khan can Kirk overcome the doubts that plagued him at the beginning of the film. Kirk is a man of action who relies heavily on his instincts. Engaging a like-minded adversary like Khan reawakens these tendencies where they had been inactive after the events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Director Nicholas Meyer keeps the film moving at a decent pace, but knows when to let things breath for nice, character-driven moments that provide important motivations for future actions later on in the film. There’s a reason why The Wrath of Khan is considered the best film with the most compelling story in the series: it pits the Enterprise crew against a truly formidable opponent, features thrilling spacecraft battles, and has an incredibly moving finale. Surely the best of times.


Also check out these great takes on The Wrath of Khan: John Kenneth Muir and Roderick Heath.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Brothers

So far, most films about the current war in the Middle East have not fared well at the box office with efforts like Home of the Brave (2006), In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Stop-Loss (2008) getting limited distribution or underperforming at the box office (or both), often garnering little interest with mainstream audiences. People don't want to be reminded of the problems we face over there or the effects of it here at home when our soldiers return. To counter this attitude with his film Brothers (2009), director Jim Sheridan cannily cast marquee names like Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in an attempt to appeal to a mainstream audience. A remake of Susanna Bier's 2004 Danish film Brodre, Brothers performed modestly well at the box office, but was largely unseen and remains an absorbing look at just not what soldiers go through, but how their loved ones deal with them once they get home. It also features powerful performances from the three aforementioned lead actors.

Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is a United States Marine heading back to Afghanistan for another tour of duty. He’s a loving family man with a beautiful wife named Grace (Natalie Portman) and two adorable daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman are instantly believable as a married couple that clearly loves each other. There is a familiarity that couples have and even though they don’t have much screen-time to convey it before Sam ships off, they pull it off in the way their characters look and interact with each other. In contrast, his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) has just been released from prison after serving time for armed robbery. He’s the black sheep of the family and Grace doesn’t think too highly of her husband’s brother, but is nice to him in person. While Sam and Tommy get along fine there is tangible tension between their father (Sam Shepard) and latter. This is evident in an uncomfortable family dinner where their father makes it known that he sees Sam as a hero for serving his country and Tommy as a disappointment, causing the latter to make a scene. You can cut the tension with a knife during this scene until Tommy’s controlled outburst brings long simmering resentments to the surface.

While on a mission over hostile territory, Sam’s helicopter is shot down and he’s presumed dead. Sheridan makes the right choice when depicting the standard scene of the wife being told that her husband has been killed by showing Grace coming to the door and breaking down once she sees the military officers. No words need to be said and the scene ends there because Portman’s reaction says enough. Instead, Sheridan shows Grace’s full-blown emotional breakdown when Tommy stops by later that night to return Sam’s truck. Rather than console her, he erupts in anger and storms off. It’s an odd reaction, but in character as Tommy is clearly someone with a lot rage inside of him.


Tommy starts spending more time with his brother’s family, helping around the house and the rest of the film plays out the growing attraction between him and Grace. Meanwhile, Sam survives the attack on his helicopter and is being held prisoner and tortured.

Natalie Portman turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as a woman trying to process the unbelievable grief she is experiencing. There are scenes where you can see Grace putting on a brave face for those around her, especially her children, but every so often she lets it slip and reveals the hurt that exists under the surface. For example, there is a scene where everyone throws a surprise birthday party for Grace and as she’s about to blow out the candles on her cake. There is a moment where she has a distant, haunted look before catching herself and regaining her pleasant façade. It’s a nice bit of acting from Portman and throughout the film she conveys a complex range of emotions as the actress shows how Grace processes the grief of her husband’s death and her emerging, conflicted feelings for Tommy.

Brothers is a slow burn, slice-of-life film as Sheridan dives deep into this family, examining the dynamic between Tommy and his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War. There are hints that his strict, perhaps even abusive style of parenting pushed Tommy to the kind of life he leads – an aimless ne’er’-do-well with a past full of regrets. The more time he spends with Grace and her daughters, the more of an influence they have on him. They provide a stabilizing effect by giving him a sense of purpose. Jake Gyllenhaal does a nice job of conveying Tommy’s inner turmoil, which he carries around with him. Initially, he gets to play the brooding, moody brother, but over the course of the film he transforms into someone who is more open and responsible. It’s a natural progression that the actor conveys expertly.


Tobey Maguire’s character also undergoes a transformation from genial family man to paranoid soldier suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after spending several months as a prisoner of war. The actor goes through an impressive physical transformation as Sam is beaten and deprived of sleep so that he becomes a shadow of his former self. He does what he has to do in order to survive. If Brothers has a flaw it is that too much time is spent in Afghanistan showing how Sam’s humanity is stripped away by his captors. I understand the purpose of these scenes – they explain his behavior later on when he finally returns home, but as they continue and Sam’s situation gets bleaker, the balance that Sheridan has maintained up to this point is threatened. The Afghanistan scenes could have been left up to our imagination and conveyed through well-written expositional dialogue delivered by the talented Maguire.

As he demonstrated with In America (2002), Sheridan has a real affinity for getting naturalistic performances out of child actors and Brothers is no different, especially from Bailee Madison who plays the slightly older of the two daughters. Isabelle is more aware of what is going on and that something isn’t right with her father. This realization, as it plays briefly over her face in one scene, is absolutely heartbreaking. As a result, she is more emotional than her happy-go-lucky sibling. Madison really stands out during a tense dinner scene towards the end of the film when Isabelle intentionally baits her father. She is acting out, like a petulant child, but is also the only one in the family who has the courage to address the big elephant in the room – Sam’s increasingly erratic behavior.

Originally, Jim Sheridan was writing a story about two brothers growing up in Ireland but couldn’t get the financing for it. He ended up watching Susanna Bier's 2004 Danish film Brodre and liked it so much he thought it could be remade for North American audiences, changing the emphasis from an illicit love triangle to that of the family. Jake Gyllenhaal was the first actor to sign on, followed by Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman. 


At the time she signed on to do Brothers, Portman made a conscious decision to pick more mature roles: “I’m trying to find roles that demand more adulthood from me because you can get stuck in a very awful cute cycle as a woman in film – especially being such a small person.” To prepare for the part, the actress met with Army wives in order to understand how they managed their lives. She also bonded with the young actresses playing her daughters by having them over for baking parties and hanging out with them between takes. She and Maguire were able to play husband and wife so well because they had known each other for 14 years prior. She said, “Just knowing someone for that long is great history to have when you’re walking on set and playing husband and wife.” In addition, she had also known co-star Gyllenhaal for ten years.

During rehearsals and on set, Sheridan played a live version of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” to get Gyllenhaal in the mood of a scene where Tommy and Grace share a quiet moment together. For Gyllenhaal, the song reminded him of the connection to his family, in particular his father. In working with the child actors, Sheridan had his own specific method: “what I do is present a scene to them as a problem, a kind of puzzle, and then ask them questions, what they think the character is thinking, or wants to do.”

Brothers received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Maguire’s performance: “This becomes Tobey Maguire’s film to dominate, and I’ve never seen these dark depths in him before. Actors possess a great gift to surprise us, if they find the right material in their hands.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “And Brothers itself – a smart, well-meaning project – never quite pulls itself together. It has a vague, half-finished feeling, as if it had not figured out what it was trying to do. Which may amount to a kind of realism – an accurate reflection of where we are in Afghanistan.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Brothers isn’t badly acted, but as directed by the increasingly impersonal Jim Sheridan, it’s lumbering and heavy-handed, a film that piles on overwrought dramatic twists until it begins to creak under the weight of its presumed significance.”


USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare are excellent as Sam and Grace’s young daughters, derailed by their dad’s scary bouts of anger and his newfound coldness. The youthful portrayals recall the indelible roles of the young daughters in Sheridan’s wonderful 2003 film, In America.” The Los Angeles Times’ Betsey Sharkey wrote, “There will be echoes of that passion and poignancy in Brothers. But unlike the clear voice of those earlier films, Sheridan seems as conflicted as the Cahills about their virtues and failings.” Finally, in his review for the Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “Brothers is depressing as hell. And, like most war movies these days, it ends on a note that’s far from hopeful. But it’s good, and wise, and it feels true. Meaning, it hurts.”

Brothers is a fusion of Sheridan’s fascination with people put under extraordinary duress, like In the Name of the Father (1993), and families dealing with hardships, like In America. At times, Brothers feels like one of the films from the 1980s that dealt with families struggling to understand loved ones that had served time in the Vietnam War – In Country (1989) and Jacknife (1989) are two that come immediately to mind as spiritual antecedents to Brothers. In Sheridan’s capable hands, this film is a nicely observed character study that tries to show the trauma a soldier experience during war and what their family goes through at home, perhaps lingering a little too long on the hardships Sam endures in Afghanistan.

Brothers is a good film about an uncomfortable topic. It doesn’t offer any easy answers – how can it while we are still mired in this war? This will only come with time, but it exists as a document of where we are now. The war in the Middle East may be an unpopular one, but it is important that the stories of the people that fought it over there and continue to do so back home are told. By telling their stories maybe we can process how the war has affected us as a country.



SOURCES

Ditzian, Eric. “Brothers’ Star Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman Talk ‘Growing Up Together.’” MTV.com. December 2, 2009.

Farquharson, Vanessa. “Jim Sheridan Reflects on the Betrayals at Brothers’ Core.” The Financial Post. December 4, 2009.

Freydkin, Donna. “Natalie Portman Transitions into Adult Role in Brothers.” USA Today. December 4, 2009.

“Springsteen’s The River Brings Gyllenhaal to Tears on Set.” WENN Entertainment News Wire Service. December 3, 2009.

Thompson, Bob. “When Irish Eyes are Filming.” Vancouver Sun. December 4, 2009.


Vaughan, R.M. “You leave it to the actors, really, to the acting.” Globe & Mail. December 4, 2009.

Friday, December 5, 2014

48 Hrs.

Director Walter Hill had a terrific run of films in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s with the likes of The Driver (1978), The Warriors (1979) and Southern Comfort (1981). He acquired a reputation for making visceral, no-nonsense action movies populated by tough-talking cops and criminals. Hill continued this trend with 48 Hrs. (1982), a gritty buddy cop action comedy that provided a breakout role for comedian Eddie Murphy and launched a very successful series of movies for him during the ‘80s. Amazingly, the project survived movie studio moves and a rocky production that saw Murphy’s role re-written extensively and executives butting heads with Hill over his depiction of on-screen violence. His instincts were validated with the film’s critical and commercial success that helped kickstart a resurgence in the buddy cop genre and led to a rather lackluster sequel in 1990.

Hill starts things off in dramatic fashion with a daring road gang escape as Albert Ganz (James Remar) is freed by his partner in crime Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) and, in the process, kills two prison guards. This sequence is depicted in Hill’s trademark efficient fashion complete with crisp editing and meat and potatoes camerawork that always tell us where everyone is and what’s going on. He has always had a knack for conveying kinetic action and it is certainly on display in 48 Hrs. with some nicely staged sequences that aren’t showy, but aren’t supposed to be – that’s not Hill’s style. He definitely harkens back to classic journeymen directors like Don Siegel or contemporaries like John Flynn (Best Seller).

He then cuts to a familiar scene for any Nick Nolte fan – a tired, grumpy burn-out of a man (also see North Dallas Forty, Teachers, etc.) who embodies that famous line from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” Nolte is Jack Cates, a police detective who wakes up with a coffee mug full of booze and an argument with his long-suffering girlfriend (a lovely Annette O’Toole). “That’s a fairly crummy way to start a morning,” she tells him, to which he replies, “Maybe I got a fairly crummy day ahead.” Through their behavior and actions, Nolte and Annette O’Toole tell us more than a few things about Cates and his attitude towards life. Visually, Hill informs us of the man’s profession without explicitly spelling it out. Also, Cates drives a beat-up old convertible that mirrors his rumpled appearance. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker that assumes the audience has a modicum of intelligence.


While providing back-up for two fellow police detectives (one of whom played by reliable character actor Jonathan Banks) on a routine call (aren’t they always?), Cates runs afoul of Ganz and Billy in a violent hotel lobby showdown that leaves his co-workers dead and his gun in the crooks’ possession. Wracked with guilt over one of them being killed with his gun, Cates makes it his personal mission to find Ganz and Billy and take them down. It turns out that they had been tracking down other members of a gang that pulled off an armed robbery a few years ago and Ganz wants to collect the loot. One of them – Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) – is still in prison and makes a deal with Cates: if he can be temporarily released from prison he’ll help the lawman catch Ganz, but they only have 48 hours to do it.

Right from the get-go Cates makes it clear that he doesn’t like Reggie and lays out how it’s going to be: “Now, get this – we ain’t partners, we ain’t brothers and we ain’t friends. I’m puttin’ you down and keepin’ you down until Ganz is locked up or dead. And if Ganz gets away you’re going to be sorry you ever met me.” And so begins a contentious partnership that sees the two men bicker, trade insults and, at one point, even come to blows until they develop a grudging respect for one another.

Nick Nolte brings his customary intensity to the role. For example, there’s a scene where Cates “questions” one of Ganz’s gang (the always reliable David Patrick Kelly) by repeatedly slamming him into a car door in a way that looks really painful and done with what looks like genuine ferocity while a bemused Reggie cracks jokes. Nolte plays well off of Murphy with his surly cop routine bouncing off of the comedian’s wisecracking convict. They have an antagonistic relationship complete with plenty of cussing each other out and racial slurs that are particularly jarring in this day and age of political correctness. It’s not that Cates is racist per se, but that he is saying those things to be mean and keep Reggie under control as he states early on.


From his first appearance in prison singing “Roxanne” by the Police in a hilarious falsetto to how he takes control of a redneck bar, Eddie Murphy is a revelation in 48 Hrs. and it is easy to see why this film made him a star. Watch how he works the room in the aforementioned bar sequence, putting everyone in their place through sheer force of will, swagger and tons of charisma to burn as he tells one upstart patron, “I’m your worst fuckin’ nightmare. I’m a nigger with a badge and that means I got permission to kick your fuckin’ ass whenever I feel like it.” It is a testimony to Murphy’s skills as a performer that he is able to pull that scene off so convincingly. Reggie also gives as good as he gets, standing up to Cates’ bullying tactics and racial slurs, which culminates in a drop down, drag out fist fight between the two men. In a nice bit of role reversal, Reggie turns the tables on Cates late on in the film when they meet at an African American nightclub, which Hill makes a point of showing the contrast in music and atmosphere to the redneck bar earlier on. It is now Cates’ turn to feel out of place. They also get to share a moment shortly afterwards and put their differences aside for a few minutes.

James Remar is good (maybe a little too good) as the nasty Ganz, a man not above kidnapping the girlfriend of one of his ex-partners and threatening to “put holes in her you never even thought of” if he doesn’t get his money. The actor is scarily convincing and conveys a ruthless intensity that makes Ganz a legitimate threat to our heroes. Looking lean and mean, the appropriately wild-eyed Remar seems to relish his role of a sociopath that enjoys killing cops. He has a pretty simple outlook on life: if he wants something, he takes it. Someone gets in his way, he kills them. It’s a testimony to Remar’s skills as an actor that the final showdown, as cliché as it is, is such a tense affair, which Hill milks for all its worth. Throughout the film, Remar continually demonstrates what a potent threat Ganz is to our heroes in the way he carries himself and the complete disregard he has for those around him.

Producer Lawrence Gordon had an idea for crime movie set in Louisiana that involved the kidnapping of the governor’s daughter. She had dynamite strapped to her head and if the ransom wasn’t delivered in 48 hours, the bad guys planned to kill her. So, her family gets the meanest cop to rescue her and he recruits one of the most vicious criminals, who also happens to be the kidnapper’s cellmate, out of worst prison to help him.


Editor Roger Spottiswoode wanted to direct and Hill, whom he had worked with in the past, suggested he rewrite the story. Spottiswoode changed the location, removed the dynamite and made it more realistic. At the time, the project was at Columbia Pictures, but Gordon had a deal with Paramount Pictures and it moved over to them. After several more drafts, the studio asked Hill to rewrite it for Clint Eastwood. The actor wasn’t interested in playing the cop and wanted to be the criminal instead. However, he decided to make Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and lost interest in 48 Hrs.

Hill suggested Richard Pryor play the criminal. The studio didn’t agree and so Hill went off to make The Long Riders (1980) and Southern Comfort. Meanwhile, the script for 48 Hrs. languished at Paramount for years. The problem wasn’t with it, but the casting of the two lead characters. Hill got a call from Gordon and was told that Nick Nolte wanted to make the film and was he interested in directing? He agreed and tried again to cast Pryor, but was unable to. Hill then tried Gregory Hines but he wasn’t available either. The president of production Don Simpson saw Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live and studio head Michael Eisner agreed that he would be perfect to play the convict opposite Nolte.

Once they got the greenlight, Hill brought in Larry Gross to tweak the script to the personalities of Nolte and Murphy, rewriting the latter’s character up to the very last day of shooting. Murphy couldn’t get out of his commitment to Saturday Night Live and joined the production two weeks after principal photography had begun. During filming, studio executives didn’t think Murphy’s scenes were funny enough. Eisner wanted to meet with Hill about it, but Gordon refused and this prompted Eisner to threaten shutting the production down. Gordon backed down and Hill told Eisner that he was getting good stuff from the comedian. Hill butted heads with the studio again when they suggested that the first cut of the film be shown to a preview audience. Hill refused and the studio insisted until the director backed down. In addition, Hill hated the marketing campaign the studio created for the film.


48 Hrs. enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The movie’s story is nothing to write home about. It’s pretty routine. What makes the movie special is how it’s made. Nolte and Murphy are good, and their dialogue is good, too – quirky and funny.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Nolte, as the grouch of the pair, handles the less showy role expertly, while Mr. Murphy runs away with every comic situation that comes his way.” The Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr wrote, “Hill excels as usual with his chugging, stylized action scenes, and his use of San Francisco achieves something I’d thought impossible—it gives this most clichéd of movie locations a fresh, highly charged new look.”

The mismatched buddy cop formula has been done to death by now and so one has to remember how fresh 48 Hrs. was back in 1982. There had been all kinds of buddy cop movies in the ‘70s, but in keeping with the tone of the decade, many ended ambiguously or on a down note. Hill’s film has one foot in that decade, with its gritty violence and salty dialogue, while also anticipating the blockbuster mentality of the ‘80s with its comedic set pieces and happy ending. It is also amazing to see how much anger is directed at various characters and the intensity of it, which certainly earned the film its R rating. In our current climate a lot of the film’s edges would’ve been softened by studio notes, test screenings and the ratings board, which makes one appreciate how much Hill got away with in the final cut. After 48 Hrs. it seemed like Hollywood was practically handing out buddy cop movies to every comedian/dramatic actor combination they could dream up. Most of them pale in comparison including Another 48 Hrs. (1990), which Hill returned to direct and came across as simply a rehash of the first film.


SOURCES

McGilligan, Patrick. “Walter Hill: Last Man Standing.” Film International. June 2004.

Schwartz, Tony. “Hollywood’s Hottest Stars.” New York Magazine. July 30, 1984.

Zelazny, Jon. “Kicking Ass with Walter Hill.” The Hollywood Interview. December 8, 2012.


Further reading: check out Sean Gill's awesome review over at his blog.