Friday, February 27, 2015

The Punisher (1989)

Comic book character the Punisher first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 in February 1974. He played an antagonistic role and was a hit with readers, going on to team up with Spider-Man, Captain America and others during the 1970s and early 1980s with a notable run on Daredevil during Frank Miller’s tenure. It wasn’t, however, until the 1986 miniseries Circle of Blood! that he was the protagonist of his own book. Writer Steven Grant fleshed out the character, setting up his tragic backstory: Frank Castle was a Vietnam War veteran who spent a day with his family only for them to accidentally stumble across a mob hit. Castle’s wife and two children were killed while he was seriously wounded. After several months, Castle resurfaces as the Punisher and wages a one-man war against crime.

A character like the Punisher would seem ripe for cinematic treatment, especially during the ‘80s when action movies ruled the box office and movie stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone often played one-man army characters. In 1989, New World Pictures made the straight to video movie The Punisher starring then up and coming action movie star Dolph Lundgren. The movie is notable for not featuring the character’s trademark “skull” on his outfit and for bearing merely a passing resemblance to the source material, but I’ve always been intrigued by Lundgren’s performance.

When Dino Moretti (Bryan Marshall) is released from prison, acquitted for killing Frank Castle and his family, he arrives home with his goons only to be greeted by the Punisher who picks off his henchmen one-by-one, not unlike the opening action sequence in Leon: The Professional (1994). The Punisher kills Moretti and appears to die when the mobster’s mansion blows up. Detective Jake Berkowitz (Lou Gossett, Jr.) heads up the task force dedicated to stopping the Punisher but he doesn’t seem to have a problem with the vigilante killing off criminals. He’s more interested in proving that ex-cop Castle is the Punisher and reluctantly teams up with detective Samantha Leary (Nancy Everhard) to prove it.


Meanwhile, mob boss Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbe) returns home with a master plan to consolidate crime in the city and eliminate the Punisher as well. However, Japanese gangster the Yakuza led by Lady Tanaka (an inspired looney performance by Kim Miyori) challenge Franco by intercepting a large shipment of heroin in a skirmish that the Punisher breaks up.

For my money, Dolph Lundgren is my favorite Punisher. He’s a big guy with an imposing physique reminiscent of Mike Zeck’s rendition in Circle of Blood! The actor handles the fight sequences very well, doing many of his own stunts, which adds to his credibility in the role. On the acting front, I like Lundgren’s take, playing the Punisher as a ruthless vigilante doling out vengeance on criminals. He adopts a haggard, sickly pale look like the man hasn’t slept for weeks and is surviving on determination and sheer will power, driven by his obsession to kill all criminals. Lundgren’s got a deep voice with just a hint of drawl as he sometimes drags out words – perhaps due to exhaustion.

Unfortunately, the villains are a generic lot and fans rightly criticized the missed opportunity of not using one of the Punisher’s signature baddies, like Jigsaw or the Kingpin. It’s not that the choice of Italian mobsters and the Yakuza are a bad one per se; it’s just that the actors playing them are so colorless. Most surprisingly, Jeroen Krabbe is wasted as the mob boss who appears early on with the promise of some deliciously low-key villainy only to disappear for most of the movie until the last third, just in time for the exciting climax.


A lot of fans griped about the missing skull on the Punisher’s outfit in the movie, but it is pretty obvious why they didn’t include it. Having a big white skull emblazoned on his chest would’ve made him a big target and the filmmakers wisely opted for all-black attire that looks cool in its own right. I do like the choice of making the Punisher’s base of operations in the city sewers, its network of tunnels allowing him to evade detection while also providing the opportunity to pop up in key spots and then disappear before the police can arrest him.

At times, The Punisher resembles a slightly expensive made-for-television movie thanks to New World’s trademark low budget and supporting cast playing laughably bad, anonymous gangsters. The cheap look of the movie actually works in its favor, giving it an appropriately seedy vibe. The action sequences are fairly well done in a no frills, meat and potatoes kind of way with Lundgren looking cool as he takes out countless bad guys. The movie does redeem itself in these moments, especially with an impressively staged finale as Franco and the Punisher stage an all-out assault on the Yakuza headquarters, which allows Lundgren to cut loose and really show off some excellent action chops.

In the mid to late 1980s, New World Pictures tried to develop movies based on Marvel characters without really understanding them. Boaz Yakin was a 21-year-old New York University graduate who contacted the company and set up a meeting with an executive. He pitched a Punisher movie and realized that the executive “didn’t know what the fuck the Punisher was.” Yakin wrote the script in ten days, “basically off my own ideas,” including “a sort of Frank Miller Punisher from the Daredevil comics sort of mixed with that first series, the Mike Zeck series.”


Director Mark Goldblatt claimed that the script had “many problems” and he rewrote it with producer Mark Kamen, but Yakin claims that they did not change that much. He fought against the changes made to his script and was fired by the producers for being “uncooperative.” For example, in his original draft, Yakin had the Punisher spray-paint the skull onto his t-shirt. This notion was rejected and changed to having him spray-paint the skull on a Kevlar vest before the climactic battle. Kamen rejected this as being “too comic-booky,” according to Yakin.

Kamen wanted to have authentic looking fight scenes and was drawn to Dolph Lundgren’s “sheer physicality” and the way he looked in Rocky IV (1985) and approached him for the title role. Lundgren was initially hesitant about doing the movie because he thought it was the “same action-oriented films that I had been doing to this point.” He read the script and felt that the story was good, there were some humorous moments and “many scenes of real dramatic potential,” and decided to do it. He also liked the idea of “playing a character who really doesn’t care about anything except getting revenge,” and having a clear reason for why he is the Punisher.

To prepare for the physical demands of the role, Lundgren stopped weightlifting and concentrated on martial arts and running, dropping 25 pounds. He said, “Frank Castle is a guy who has been living in the sewers for five years. He could not look too healthy and be believable.” To get into the character’s headspace, Lundgren stayed by himself and walked around talking to himself and no one else. He continued to do this during filming, which scared some people. It didn’t hurt that he worked 12-hour days for three months, which helped him “stay insane.” In addition, the script was written in a way that “called for me to have an intense, yet detached attitude.”


Lundgren claimed to have performed 95% of his own stunts, mostly out of boredom and a short temper. For example, in a scene where the Punisher falls off of a 40-foot building, his stunt double was supposed to do it, but the actor was angry about something and decided to do it himself, instantly regretting the decision once he got up there. Further authenticity was achieved by having trained fighters do their own stunts as opposed to training the stuntmen to fight as is usually done. To this end, for Lady Tanaka’s bodyguards, Lundgren brought in two fighters from his old karate school in Tokyo. The two men didn’t understand that they were making a movie and thought they had to fight for real. They had a Japanese code of honor where if they didn’t perform well enough it would reflect badly on them. To perform well meant beating Lundgren up “so I had to fight for real at times. The upside was that the fight scenes looked very violent,” the actor said on his official website.

As an adaptation of the comic book, The Punisher is a failure. It’s a by-the-numbers action movie with occasional flourishes of style, a poorly-written script, and Sydney, Australia doing a bad job of standing in for a generic big American city. Most disappointingly, it squanders a solid performance by Lundgren who looks the part and manages to capture the spirit of the character in a way that Thomas Jane in The Punisher (2004) and Ray Stevenson in Punisher: War Zone (2008) did not. That being said, out of the three movies, the 1989 version is the least faithful and badly made, the 2004 reboot is the most faithful, drawing upon several issues of the comic book, and the 2008 incarnation is the most violent with a memorable bad guy from the source material in Jigsaw. There are elements in all three movies that if combined would probably make the definitive Punisher movie, but for now we’ll have to see what Marvel Studios does with the character now that they have regained the rights to him.



SOURCES

“Dolph Lundgren Brings Comics’ Most Popular Hero to the Screen.” Inside Karate. August 1989.

Howe, Sean. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. HarperCollins. 2012.

Shapiro, Marc. “The Punisher Film Journal Entries.” Comics Scene. Summer 1989.

Topel, Fred. “Action-Packed: Boaz Yakin on Safe and Batman Beyond.” Crave Online. April 23, 2012.


Yakin, Boaz. “Boaz Yakin on The Punisher.” Comics Scene.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Platoon

Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) was not the first film about the Vietnam War. It was, however, the first one to be made by a man who had served as a foot soldier (with the 25th Infantry Division) in the conflict. Before it was the rah-rah propaganda of The Green Berets (1968). The melancholic drama of The Deer Hunter (1978). The surrealism of Apocalypse Now (1979). Although, in good company with many outstanding films about one of the most combative periods in our country’s history, both stateside and overseas, they lacked the gritty realism of Platoon. Stone’s film not only captured the sights and sounds of what it was to be a soldier in those impenetrable jungles, but also got the little yet crucially important details – their lingo, the tight brotherhood in each squad and the way they carried themselves as well as how they carried their equipment. Through every vein of the film runs an authenticity that only a filmmaker like Stone could give it.

If the aforementioned films had been released too close to the war, Platoon came along at just the right moment when enough time had passed so that the American public was more receptive to revisiting a war that tore this country apart, from decorated officers coming home to college students who had never touched a gun in their lives. It struck a chord with people in a way that previous films had not. Stone’s film was a commercial and critical success, catapulting him and his young cast of up and coming actors into the spotlight while also kickstarting a cottage industry of Vietnam War-themed films (Full Metal Jacket; Hamburger Hill), television shows (China Beach; Tour of Duty), novels (Chickenhawk; Going After Cacciato), and even comic books (The ‘Nam).

Platoon focuses on the 25th Infantry, Bravo Company in September 1967 with new recruit Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) as the audience surrogate and our introduction to this world. We see the war through his eyes, from that first blast of bright light as he walks off the plane with other new recruits and they see a collection of body bags. They are then taunted by a group of battle-hardened veterans heading home. That will be them some day... if they live long enough.


Stone cuts to the jungle with a beautiful establishing shot from a helicopter to show how impenetrable it is before dropping us in the middle of dense foliage that makes it hard to see more than a few feet in front of you. Robert Richardson’s cinematography conveys the dense landscape and how difficult it must’ve been to navigate, especially for a new recruit like Chris whose inexperience is glaringly obvious as he brings too much gear, becomes dehydrated and is eaten alive by red ants.

Stone spends the first ten minutes immersing us in the jungle with the sounds of birds and other exotic animals and the oppressive heat that you can see on the sweaty, tired faces of the soldiers. We observe how they interact with each other adopting lingo that is a mixture of Vietnamese and military jargon before Chris’ voiceover narration kicks in and he gives us initial observations after a week of being there.

The film’s rich atmosphere is evident in the first set piece where the platoon sets up to ambush the enemy in the middle of night during the pouring rain. Stone ratchets up the tension as Chris wakes up after falling asleep to see the man who relieved him on watch now asleep and several silhouetted figures emerging from the shadows. Chris is frozen by fear and indecision – does he go for his rifle or the explosives that were set up for the ambush? Stone shows how hard it is to fight in the jungle with a night-time ambush that goes bad. Everything happens so fast and is so chaotic that it is hard to follow what is going on until it’s all over.


Thirty minutes in and Stone establishes a platoon divided into two factions: the “heads,” dope smoking guys who listen to rock ‘n’ roll music, just want to survive the war and go home, and the “juicers,” beer-drinking lifers that listen to country music and who actually like it there or, at the very least, believe that what they are doing is right. The leaders of these two groups, Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), are polar opposites that Chris gravitates towards and must ultimately choose between. Stone makes it pretty clear which side he prefers by having Chris initiated by the heads and bonds with them over Motown music and pot.

Stone shows how the deaths of three of their own angers and frustrates the platoon and they direct their wrath on a nearby village with Barnes focusing their rage through him. It is an ugly sequence as the soldiers kill animals and villagers, in particular, a harrowing scene where Kevin Dillon’s psycho redneck brutally kills a handicapped young man. Things go from bad to worse when Barnes interrogates the village chief and when he doesn’t get the answers he wants kills the man’s wife and then puts a gun to his young daughter’s head until Elias intervenes.

The village sequence is important in that it is the catalyst that causes a serious fracture within the platoon, one that has serious repercussions later on. It also symbolizes America’s might makes right mentality, underlining how out of control things got over there as the line between the enemy and innocent villagers became so blurred that for some there was no difference. This sequence also shows how the frustration and madness of the situation could get out of hand with horrible results.


Stone does a good job of getting the pulse of both sides of the platoon, letting us know where Barnes and Elias are coming from. For the former, he believes Elias is like the politicians in Washington, D.C., “trying to fight this war with one hand tied around their balls,” while the latter admits to Chris that he’s disillusioned with fighting this war, sagely predicting, “What happened today is just the beginning. We’re gonna lose this war. We’ve been kicking other people’s asses for so long I figure it’s time we got ours kicked.” It’s a nice, quiet moment between Chris and Elias that Willem Dafoe handles wonderfully with a world-weary subtlety much as Tom Berenger approaches his scene with a less-is-more attitude. His intense, thoughtful stare says it all and one rightly assumes that these moments are the calm before the storm.

At that point in his career, Willem Dafoe was known for playing bad guy roles in films like Streets of Fire (1984) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and so casting him as a good guy in Platoon must’ve seemed like a gamble. Dafoe is excellent as a dedicated soldier who takes the time to teach Chris a few things in order for him to survive. It’s a very soulful performance as he acts as the platoon’s conscience. Elias cares about his men and wants to see them all go home alive.

In contrast, Tom Berenger had been known for playing lightweight, good guy roles but caught Stone’s eye with his layered performance in The Big Chill (1983). He gives an absolutely ferocious performance as an intense, imposing figure, a malevolent force of nature with a penetrating stare and a twisted scar down one side of his face. Barnes rules his men with an iron fist. He’s a tough man who leads by example, strict and unwavering in his beliefs. He is concerned only with maintaining his functioning war machine and when he spots a spanner in the works, as he does with Elias, he sees it as a malfunctioning part that must be removed and replaced.


Late in Platoon, Berenger delivers a fantastic monologue when Barnes confronts the heads, sharing his worldview with them. He even calls them out, telling them to kill him in almost pleading fashion that is unpredictable, only adding to the tension of the scene. It’s a speech that runs the gamut and the actor works the scene, moving around the space, and interacting with everyone around him in a way that is impressive to watch. Berenger hadn’t really done anything before this film to suggest such intensity and his performance was a revelation and is still his best to date.

Stone assembled an impressive cast of young actors that included Johnny Depp, Keith David, Kevin Dillon, Forest Whitaker, and John C. McGinley who appear with varying amounts of screen time. McGinley, for example, makes the most of his moments as the cocky sycophant O’Neill and Dillon is particularly memorable as a racist murderer while Depp and Whitaker hardly get any time to make an impact.

The battle scenes have a visceral, you-are-there feel to them as Stone wisely opts to eschew a manipulative score for the jarring sounds of battle as orders are barely understood amidst the sounds of explosions and gunfire. Soldiers are killed from inexperience and ineptitude as much as for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now presented very stylized representations of combat in Vietnam while Platoon is much more realistic, presenting it as noisy and chaotic.


Platoon packs in a lot of stuff during its running time: botched ambushes, the destruction of a village, discovery of an underground bunker, and a climactic, large scale battle that probably wouldn’t have all gone down in such a limited time frame, but Stone isn’t interested in making a documentary. His film is a dramatization of a composite of several events that gives the audience some idea of what it was like there and what these guys went through. Chris’ voiceover narration gets a bit pretentious at times but that’s the point as he comes from an educated background of privilege, fancying himself a literary chronicler of his platoon’s exploits. The images of what he experiences are so powerful that they render his sometimes cliché musings ineffectual.

After dropping out of Yale University and a stint with the Merchant Marines, Oliver Stone enlisted the United States Army, arriving in Vietnam on September 15, 1967 as a member of the second platoon of Bravo Company, third battalion, 25th Infantry Division. He was wounded twice and awarded the Bronze Star for combat gallantry and a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster. He was later transferred to the First Calvary Division and finally returned to the U.S. after more than 15 months in 1968.

By mid-1976, Stone’s marriage had broken up, he was struggling financially and his screenwriting career had yet to take off. Ever since he had returned from Vietnam in November 1968, he had wanted to write about his experiences in the war: “I realized I had forgotten a lot in eight years. I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I’m gonna forget.’ It’s part of our history nobody understands—what it was like over there.” Stone decided that he would write about his experiences as truthfully as possible, making only slight adjustments, changing some names and combining a few characters. “It took me eight years to get to that screenplay, because I couldn’t deal with it before. I needed the distance.”


Stone finished the script in a few weeks, finding it challenging in getting the tone right and also the character of Elias, which he envisioned as a “free spirit, a Jim Morrison in the bush.” With only one B-horror movie (Seizure) to his credit, Stone couldn’t find anyone willing to buy his script until Sidney Lumet showed some interest and toyed with the idea of directing with Al Pacino starring. After the scripts for Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983) were made into wildly successful films, filmmaker Michael Cimino, whom Stone co-wrote the script for his film Year of the Dragon (1985), encouraged him to get Platoon going again with him in a producer capacity. In 1984, Stone cast it and went to the Philippines to scout locations. Dino de Laurentiis, who agreed to back it, pulled out. He was willing to cover the $6 million budget but could not find a distributor willing to take a chance on the commercially risky project.

Stone took the project’s collapse hard and felt that his career was over. In addition, De Laurentiis refused to give Stone back his script until he paid for the cost of the Philippines location scout. This experience, and witnessing how his script for 8 Million Ways to Die (1985) was completely rewritten, made Stone wary of making Platoon for a Hollywood studio. In 1985, he successful wrestled the rights for his film away from De Laurentiis and gave the script to producer Gerald Green. He sent it to John Daly over at Hemdale, a small British independent production house. Both Daly and Green loved the script and wanted to make it with Stone as director and Orion Pictures as distributor. Producer Arnold Kopelson, a lawyer turned movie producer, read the script and felt it was a game changer. He contacted Green and told him that he would raise the money for Platoon.

After making Salvador (1986), Stone launched right into Platoon in February 1986, two weeks before the former was released in theaters. The filmmaker was locked into a tight nine-week shooting schedule and used the same crew that worked on his previous film. In addition, he hired retired Marine Corps captain and Vietnam War veteran Dale Dye as technical advisor. It would be the beginning of a long-standing collaboration between the two men over many films.


When it came to casting, Stone saw Tom Berenger in The Big Chill and was impressed by his performance: “I felt like there was a redneck side to Tom, an ugly side that could really be seething, and I used it.” When it came to Willem Dafoe, Stone saw him in films like Streets of Fire and To Live and Die in L.A., “playing ugly roles and I thought there was something spiritually heightened because of the ugliness. So I went the other way.” Dafoe had met Stone when he first tried to make Platoon and then he almost got John Savage’s role in Salvador. Charlie Sheen auditioned for the role of Chris in 1983, but Stone felt he was “gawky and underweight,” according to the actor, and offered the role to his brother Emilio Estevez with Michael Pare cast as Barnes (both Mickey Rourke and Kevin Costner were considered for the part). When the film was restarted, Stone considered Keanu Reeves, Kyle MacLachlan and Johnny Depp for Chris. Sheen had made a couple of films and auditioned again, this time Stone cast him in the part.

The cast was scheduled to arrive in the Philippines in February 1986 shortly after the presidential election, but when it went sour people died and revolution erupted into civil war! President Ferdinand Marcos fled on February 25 and Corazon Aquino took over. Dafoe had flown in early and went to sleep in a Manila hotel only to wake up to the sounds of tanks in the streets. The rest of the cast flew in nine days later. Stone contemplated moving the production to Thailand, but it would have been a logistical nightmare. He held out and made new deals with the new regime, including renting all the military equipment from the government. Stone said, “I remember the helicopters were pretty dangerous because they weren’t maintained well.”

Once the cast assembled in the Philippines, Dye proceeded to put them through a grueling 14-day boot camp in order to get them in the foot soldier mindset: “Oliver said, ‘I want you to take them to the bush, beat them up, make them understand what it was like for you and me in Vietnam.’” Used to staying in hotels and being pampered, the actors underwent culture shock as they were constantly in the bush with no beds, bathrooms, hot showers or any of the creature comforts they were used to. Dye had them dig their own foxholes to sleep in, set ambushes, learn how to use various weapons, and go on ten-mile patrols with full gear and weapons. As Sheen later remarked, “This was a cram course in an infantryman’s life. And it was rough.”


At dusk on the first night, Dye asked the special effects people to stage a mortar “attack” without the exhausted actors knowing what was going on, yelling at them to return fire. Dye said, “It was utter chaos and they were shaking by the time it was dark.” The actors learned military lingo, listened to period music and had to refer to each other by the character’s names. After two weeks of this, they bonded and were ready to start filming. The cast went from training straight into principal photography. Dye remembers, “They were just flat exhausted and that was exactly the look that Oliver wanted.”

The production was not without its problems as the cast and crew endured fights, injuries, a near-fatal viper bite, insects, monsoon rains, and the firing of 4-5 production people. There were also several close calls with the helicopters, including cinematographer Bob Richardson almost getting clipped by the rotor of one. In another incident, Dye, Richardson and Stone were in a helicopter that almost hit a ravine! Stone remembers, “We scraped it by that much. We were so low, and these Filipino pilots are good, but they’re crazy.” With the start of the rainy season looming rapidly and running out of money, Stone compromised the last few shots in order to make the deadline and did it with a day to spare.

Platoon received mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “There are no false heroics in this movie, and no standard heroes; the narrator is quickly at the point of physical collapse, bedeviled by long marches, no sleep, ants, snakes, cuts, bruises and constant, gnawing fear.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote of Stone’s direction: “He doesn’t telegraph emotions, nor does he stomp on them. The movie is a succession of found moments. It’s less like a work that’s been written than one that has been discovered … This one is a major piece of work, as full of passion as it is of redeeming, scary irony.”


The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “This is movie-making with a zealot’s fervor … [Stone] clearly wants us to understand what fighting in that war was like. He succeeds with an immediacy that is frightening. War movies of the past, even the greatest ones, seem like crane shots by comparison; Platoon is at ground zero.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley praised Berenger and Dafoe’s performances: “They are explosive, mythic Titans in a terrible struggle for the soldier’s souls.” Finally, Gene Siskel gave it four out of four stars and wrote, “Platoon is filled with one fine performance after another, and one can only wish that every person who saw the cartoonish war fantasy that was Rambo would buy a ticket to Platoon and bear witness to something closer to the truth.”

Platoon presents the Vietnam War as a moral quagmire, an impossible situation that the United States had no chance of winning because they were so out of their depth. All the average soldier could hope to do was survive. Stone’s film shows what it was like for them to be there with startling detail and authenticity, from the camaraderie to the madness. For Stone and a lot of veterans I imagine the experience of making the film and seeing it was therapeutic. After years of being looked down on by an uncaring public that saw the war as an embarrassment, Platoon was an opportunity for veterans to get some much deserved and long overdue respect.


SOURCES

Nashawaty, Chris. “Oliver Stone Talks Platoon and Charlie Sheen on the Vietnam film’s 25th Anniversary.” Entertainment Weekly. May 24, 2011.

Norman, Michael. “Platoon Grapples with Vietnam.” The New York Times. December 21, 1986.

Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Hyperion. 1995.

Willistein, Paul. “Platoon: The Vietnam Odyssey of Oliver Stone.” The Morning Call. February 1, 1987.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Jack Reacher

There was a certain amount of trepidation when it was announced that Tom Cruise was cast in the title role of Jack Reacher (2012), an adaptation of the popular series of crime novels by Lee Child. Fans were upset that the movie star did not resemble the character in the least despite getting the author’s blessing. Cruise used his clout to get Christopher McQuarrie out of director’s jail after the critical and commercial failure of his directorial debut with The Way of the Gun (2000) and entrusted him to adapt Child’s 2005 novel One Shot. The end result is a smartly-written, well-acted thriller with lean, visceral action sequences.

A sniper (Jai Courtney) kills five random people outside of a stadium in Pittsburgh. All of the evidence points to disgraced ex-soldier James Barr (Joseph Sikora) and he’s arrested by the police. During questioning he refuses to say anything, only writing on a piece of paper the words, “Get me Jack Reacher.” Before this man can be summoned, Barr is badly beaten into a coma while in custody. Guilty or not, it’s a clear violation of his rights and a lawyer by the name of Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) decides to defend him.

Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), a former military police officer now troubleshooting drifter, surfaces and explains to Helen his connection to Barr. She convinces him to do a little digging into the case and it quickly becomes obvious that all the evidence points a little too conveniently towards Barr. Who set him up and why? The deeper Helen and Reacher dig the more danger they find themselves in with an enigmatic man known as the Zec (Werner Herzog) pulling the strings. Initially, Helen tries to convince Reacher to help her with the case while later on the tables are turned as it is he who has to convince her to continue with their investigation.


Tom Cruise is excellent as the mysterious Reacher, playing him with an engaging mix of no-nonsense attitude with occasional flourishes of humor. Reacher is the kind of person that carries himself with confidence that comes from being very good at what he does. On occasions, McQuarrie shows Reacher thinking the case through or quietly sifting through evidence or walking the crime scene. His economy of words mirrors his efficiency as a man of action, knowing the exact moves to put down five attackers without killing them. Cruise may not look like Reacher, as described in Child’s book, but he conveys an unbeatable combination of intelligence and physical prowess.

A pre-Gone Girl (2014) Rosamund Pike is good as a determined attorney that is initially exasperated at Reacher’s knack for getting in trouble, but as their investigation progresses realizes that there is more to this case than meets the eye. Her performance hints at a woman with something to prove – first and foremost to her father (Richard Jenkins), the city’s upstanding District Attorney, and then to her co-workers who think she’s crazy for following a case she can’t possibly win. Helen is a good foil for Reacher, always a step behind him – the Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. Helen has a strong sense of justice – so much so that she takes on a case that her firm doesn’t want and her father tries to dissuade her from pursuing. Unfortunately, in the last third of the film she is reduced to a damsel in distress, a hostage that must be rescued by Reacher.

As he demonstrated with The Way of the Gun, McQuarrie knows how to orchestrate action sequences for maximum effect. He continues to do so with Jack Reacher as evident in the cleanly choreographed action where you know where everyone is and what is going on at all times. McQuarrie has crafted a no frills, no bullshit thriller devoid of narrative fat – it’s an old school crime film as if the filmmaker took an Action Movie 101 course taught by Don Siegel with a minor in car chases taught by John Frankenheimer. Case in point: the wonderfully executed car chase as Reacher pursues the bad guys and is in turn chased by the cops. Even more impressive is that Cruise did all of his own driving! Compared to most contemporary action movies, the editing in Jack Reacher is practically sedate in tempo—or, rather methodical, much like the film’s protagonist. McQuarrie understands that you only need to make an edit when necessary and eschews frenetic hand-held camerawork that is still popular for a much calmer approach that is just as effective if not more so.


I like how McQuarrie subverts some of the Hollywood thriller clichés. Helen and Reacher never become romantically involved and, at one point, she even mistakenly assumes he’s going to kiss her. The first six to seven minutes of the film are dialogue free as the filmmaker utilizes a strong sense of visual storytelling, forcing us to pay attention to what is happening. He also opts to have no to very little music used during the action sequences, which gives them a more visceral impact. Werner Herzog’s bad guy is unrepentant and a survivor with his experiences in the Soviet Gulag shaping his entire worldview. He plays the Zec with an icy quality that is quite unsettling. There’s a corrupt cop, but his reasons for being in league with the bad guys remains deliciously ambiguous and unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Jack Reacher is stylish and grown-up, assuming that its audience is smart enough to follow Reacher’s investigation in a way that adheres to the usual investigative beats but presented in a slightly unusual way. McQuarrie has written a solid screenplay with snappy, give-and-take dialogue that comes to life when Reacher first meets Helen, her father and the police detective (David Oyelowo) in charge of the investigation. The exchange between them is funny and delivered with crackerjack timing by the actors. There is a wonderful economy of words, like when Reacher recounts Barr’s stint in Iraq. McQuarrie only shows us a glimpse of it and lets Reacher fill in the rest, giving us just enough information to establish Barr’s past and their connection.

In its seemingly random nature, the opening sniper attack echoes the real-life Beltway sniper attacks that took place over three weeks in October 2002 in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. and its patsy shooter with a checkered past anticipates American Sniper (2014) by two years. Both films feature veterans who’ve done questionable things and returned home psychologically scarred, having trouble adjusting to regular life. McQuarrie includes nice details, like when Helen visits with the father of one of the sniper victims and this puts a human face on what were initially anonymous targets. It shows that this rampage has consequences, leaving behind families devastated by the death of their loved ones.



Jack Reacher’s coda is surprisingly moving as McQuarrie quietly makes a poignant statement about the effect of the war in the Middle East has on an individual without being preachy about it. People come back after making life and death decisions on a daily basis and are expected to adjust to “normal” life. Barr is just a guy trying to put his life back together and becomes an unwitting pawn in a scheme that involves making money through elaborate scams. While Reacher busted him for crimes he committed during the war, he fights to clear the man’s name back in the world. Some soldiers return home from war and are forced to the margins of society while others, like Reacher, do so by choice. One must give Cruise credit for using his clout within the industry to get a mid-level budgeted film for grown-ups made at a Hollywood studio – something that is virtually unheard of these days. One hopes that he can do so again for a sequel that this intriguing character deserves.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Welcome to Woop Woop

After the critical and commercial success of his breakthrough film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Australian filmmaker Stephan Elliott followed it up three years later with the absurdist comedy Welcome to Woop Woop (1997). In comparison to the crowd-pleasing romp of his previous effort, this next film was so unabashedly odd and in-your-face about it that most fans of Priscilla were alienated. Critics trashed the film, audiences stayed away and Elliott retreated to more conventional fare with Eye of the Beholder (1999). However, those willing to immerse themselves in the strange world of Woop Woop (Australian slang for the middle of nowhere) may enjoy this wildly entertaining look at the margins of Australian culture.

The film opens with a cheeky disclaimer that while no animals were harmed or mistreated during the making of the film, neither were any humans, which makes sense when you see how much abuse its protagonist endures over the entire running time. We meet Teddy (Jonathon Schaech) on the mean streets of New York City trying to sell exotic birds to two women (one of whom is played by Tina Louise – Ginger of Gilligan’s Island fame). The transaction is interrupted by two thugs coming to collect $10,000 he owes a gangster. Teddy is saved by an exotic dancer friend (a cameo by Rachel Griffiths sporting an outrageous Southern accent and even wackier outfit) who kills them causing the birds to fly the coup. As they take to the sky suddenly every bystander in Times Square pulls guns and starts firing at them! Welcome to Woop Woop indeed.

On the run, Teddy decides to travel to the Northern Territory in Australia to get more exotic birds and also to lie low. While stopping for gas, he picks up two passengers, one of whom is an attractive woman named Angie (Susie Porter), who loves candy bars and sex. As they drive off, Elliott shows the beautiful-looking yet harsh outback—miles and miles of desert with big blue skies. After several bouts of vigorous sex, Angie cold cocks Teddy and he wakes up in Woop Woop, a ramshackle town residing within a crater-like area on Aboriginal turf populated by denizens that are Australia’s answer to the eccentrics that inhabited John Waters’ early films.


Teddy eventually wakes up and Angie tells him that they got married. He is taken to meet her father Daddy-O (Rod Taylor) who lays out the town’s rules in a nicely delivered monologue. Much to his chagrin, Teddy finds out that he’s trapped in Woop Woop and completely at the mercy of its clearly insane inhabitants. He soon finds an unlikely ally in Angie’s sister Krystal (Dee Smart) and they devise a plan for escape.

For such a hunky actor with model looks, Jonathon Schaech has no vanity, committing to the role completely and not afraid to look ridiculous (walking around in nothing but his underwear and one of Angie’s nighties) or disgusting (he wakes up in Woop Woop covered in cake and mud from lying in a pig pen) or brutalized (he’s punched in the face several times by Angie). He gives a brave performance that sees Teddy getting humiliated repeatedly, but his character has a definite arc over the course of the film. Teddy goes from crass opportunist to romantic but without completely changing his personality.

Susie Porter gives a memorable performance as the psychotically upbeat Angie. She’s fixated on Teddy and has an insatiable sexual appetite. The actress does a nice job of portraying Angie’s duality: idealistic romantic with a savage streak. She epitomizes the townsfolk of Woop Woop – a genial façade but underneath lurks a real nastiness. In this respect, she’s a chip off the old block.


Veteran actor Rod Taylor’s Daddy-O is a satire of the stereotypical macho Australian alpha male. When we first meet him the man is even wearing a rugby uniform – one of the country’s most popular sports. Taylor plays his character as the unhinged ringleader of a crazed three-ring circus of a town. It’s a juicy role that the late-great actor sinks his teeth into and has fun playing.

After the success of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Hollywood came calling and Stephan Elliott was offered big, studio movies like Twister (1996), but he wasn’t interested because he had seen what costume designer Lizzie Gardiner had gone through on a $50 million movie and it wasn’t a good experience. He said that she came home “every night bursting into tears. All she could do was cry.” He was also offered First Wives Club (1996) and even met with some actresses but realized, “would I be happy doing it? Absolutely not.”

Elliott spent three years in development hell: “Every studio, sub-studio, mini-major and major was taking an interest – and then it doesn’t happen; or then wants Sharon Stone in without asking you.” A couple of companies promised creative control but he realized that he had “no control, no freedom, wanting script changes and so it went.” Elliott became so frustrated that he decided to become a director for hire and met producer Nick Powell who gave him a “very dark script” to read and found it to “very tough looking, quite a mean look at Australia.”


Producer Fiona Dwyer had optioned Douglas Kennedy’s novel The Dead Heat and hired him to write the first two drafts. According to him, she didn’t like what he wrote and fired him. Dwyer hired Michael Thomas (Backbeat) to rewrite it. At the time Elliott read the script it was called The Big Red and he felt that it needed a major rewrite in order for it to fit his sensibilities, “then twisted it a much more funny way rather than a cruel way of looking at it.” He saw the film as a homage and farewell to Australian culture from the 1940s to the 1960s that was disappearing.

While making Priscilla, Elliott approached the estate for Rodgers and Hammerstein to get access to their library and was flatly rejected. After the soundtrack album sold very well he approached them again for Woop Woop and they were much more receptive. Just before filming was to start, Elliott came down with hepatitis and the production was delayed until he got better.

In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Welcome to Woop Woop operates on the principle that indiscriminate camp silliness can carry a movie. Maybe it can, for about a half-hour at most.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “But in Welcome to Woop Woop, unrelentingly heavy whimsy makes for royal tedium, and Elliott’s broad caricature of outback eccentricities comes across as more crude (even cruel) than charming.” The Los Angeles Times’ Jack Mathews wrote, “Schaech, one of the stars of Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!, has an amiable presence, but seems as lost in his role as his role is lost in Woop Woop. You know you’re in trouble when the hero of your story is the least interesting one in it.” Finally, in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann wrote, “One gets the impression that Elliott, having scored so grandly with Priscilla, was determined to outdo himself – ‘I want more! more!’ You can hear him saying – but forgot to weave the parts together or create characters we could care about.”


Woop Woop features a community that is primitive and ugly, populated by inbred grotesques that love listening to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It resembles a landfill site masquerading as a frontier town. Their major export appears to be dog food made from kangaroo meat and called Woof Woof. It’s a town stuck in the past, frozen in time as epitomized by their nightly screenings of Classic Hollywood musicals and old popular culture relics that litter the town.

Much like Brewster McCloud (1970) or Breakfast of Champions (1999), Welcome to Woop Woop features a stylized, hermetically sealed world populated with eccentric characters governed by their own set of rules. What makes these absurdist comedies so difficult to follow is that they don’t offer an easy way into them and so they come across as impenetrable films. Stephan Elliott’s film tries to present Teddy as the audience surrogate, the most “normal” of the oddball cast of characters, but he starts off as a rather odd fellow – a not-so smart hustler that sells exotic birds. It’s only when he meets Angie and then wakes up in Woop Woop that he seems relatable in comparison.

As I watched Woop Woop again, I kept asking myself, what is Elliott trying to say? What is his end game? Is there any point to all of this? The film isn’t all non-sensical comedy as it attempts to examine the darker, uglier aspects of Australian culture, which thankfully saves it from being simply a chaotic mess. This is evident in Daddy-O’s dramatic speech where he tells Teddy about the town’s tragic past. With the numerous exaggerated caricatures and its wacky sense of humor, Elliott appears to be skewering all kinds of Australian stereotypes but in a way that only those familiar with them will understand, which explains its limited appeal and its marginalized status even in its native country. In this respect, Welcome to Woop Woop is the unholy union of Luis Bunuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky.



SOURCES

Hays, Matthew. “Stephan Elliott.” The Advocate. March 17, 1988.

Kennedy, Douglas. “It’s like selling your baby to highwaymen.” The Guardian. October 5, 2006.


Urban, Andrew L. “Subversion in the Outback.” Urban Cinefile.