Monday, June 25, 2012

Flick of the Day: Runaway Jury

Adaptations of John Grisham novels have become something of a cottage industry over the years producing a slew of films of varying quality ranging from the excellent (The Firm, A Time to Kill) to the dull (The Chamber) to the downright ill advised (Christmas with the Kranks). Today's flick of the day is somewhere in the middle, possessing a fine cast and an engaging tale without setting the world alight.
Opening in a New Orleans office, a recently let go employee returns to commit a mass killing spree with an automatic weapon during which he kills a young father. This motivates his widow to launch a lawsuit against the gun manufacturer for not taking more care of who purchased their product. We fast forward to the beginning of the trial. The gun manufacturers have hired the legendary bagman Rankin Fitch to deliver a favourable verdict. Fitch is played by a menacing Gene Hackman in a fine turn. Opposing Fitch's machinations is the idealistic attorney (a Grisham trope if ever there was one) Wendell Rohr played by Dustin Hoffman. Into this face-off steps juror number 9, Nick Easter, a game store clerk played by the always charming John Cusack. It soon becomes apparent that Nick and his other half played by Rachel Weisz have for reasons which become apparent in the final reel, their own agenda for the trial regardless of what the two legal teams want. Together they begin to communicate with both Hackman and Hoffman, promising to swing the jury for the right price.
As a screenwriter it is surely impossible to please fans of any source material be it a novel or a play without being too slavish to it. A film has to stand on its own. In this regard, the film makes a major departure from the source novel by amending the heartless corporation to a gun manufacturer from a big tobacco firm. I can't fathom the reason behind it but it adds an additional layer of unreality to an already overburdened tale. At numerous points in the film, one is forced to suspend the nagging question in the back of your mind that perhaps this wouldn't really go like that.
For all that, it is a compelling tale, director Gary Fleder manages to ratchet up the tension as the trial wares on and avoids spending too much time on court room drama. Focusing on the goings on in the jury room is a smart move and it relies on good character actors for the jury. Thankfully this is the case with most of them faces you have seen before like Cliff Curtis, Bill Nunn and Gerry Bamman.
Perhaps the best reason for seeing a film that is only so-so is the chance to see Hoffman and Hackman face off on screen. The old masters share only one major scene together but it is an entertaining turn all the same. Hackman's Fitch is the polar opposite of the crusading Rohr and is so often the case, the bad guy gets all the best lines. 
Rankin Fitch: You think your average juror is King Solomon? No, he's a roofer with a mortgage. He wants to go home and sit in his Barcalounger and let the cable TV wash over him. And this man doesn't give a single, solitary droplet of shit about truth, justice or your American way. 
Whereas Rohr would prefer to win the trial based on the veracity of his arguments, Fitch wants victory at all cost and is prepared to go to any lengths to get it including buying the jury or coercing them through nefarious means.
Cusack's Nick on the other hand is a cipher through which the plot flows though it is entertaining to watch the way in which he charms his way into the hearts of each of his fellow jurors.  Without giving too much away, the twist in tale is his motivation for playing with the trial and it should be obvious enough before it lopes into view.
All in all, this is an entertaining trifle and nothing more. Like so much of Grisham's work it goes best with the throwaway nature of books you read on an airplane.The cast are fine throughout with Hoffman and Hackman making the best of their roles. There is just enough tension to keep you interested until the end. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Flick of the Day: American Gangster

I'm a big fan of the English born director Ridley Scott here at The Daily Flick. Indeed, the very first post on this blog way back on Sunday Dec 5th 2010 was a review of the Director's Cut of Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps one of his best works in its full and unmangled version. Over the course of his career, Scott has produced some truly ground breaking works while operating well within the mainstream of modern genre cinema. Very often the impact of his work has been lessened by a triumph of visual style over narrative substance. Films like Black Rain and Black Hawk Down were visually stunning at times but lacked something which made them memorable. However when he manages to marry a compelling story to his visual flair, there are few better than him. Today's flick of the day American Gangster is most definitely in the latter category.
Opening in 1968 with the Vietnam war rapidly reaching its nadir, this is the story of Frank Lucas, ably played by Denzel Washington, the right hand man of the soon to be deceased Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson. Stepping into the power vacuum created by the death of his mentor, Lucas sets out to become the most powerful hood in the 5 boroughs of New York by travelling to Thailand and seeking to import heroin from its jungle source. Taking advantage of the boom in users caused by serviceman returning from Vietnam with a needle in their arm, Lucas quickly corners the market. This is unwelcome news for a group of corrupt cops led by Josh Brolin who have been selling confiscated heroin back to the Mafia men who had imported it. Into this heady brew steps Richie Roberts, a straight as an arrow cop training to be a lawyer with a zeal for putting away drug traffickers. Roberts is played by Russell Crowe who excels in the role. Roberts quickly begins a quest to bring Lucas to justice by any means.
The real joy of this film is Scott's ability to weave what is a very interesting look at New York sub-culture in the late 60's and early 70's. At times there is an almost documentary feel as the set-up of the city's drug trade is laid out before us. From an aside about the police selling the drugs captured in The French Connection to the interactions between the dealers and celebrities of the era, the film exudes authenticity and research. This grounding in the era and an understanding of the world into which Lucas begins his rise to power serves the film well.
Like so many of Scott's films, this has a cast rich with talent throughout. Fine actors like Idris Elba, Jon Polito and John Hawkes appear in tiny roles and such was the hype surrounding the script that the cast is littered with a who's who of stars from the American hip-hop scene. The leads each give nuanced performances throughout. Brolin stands out perhaps because he has the most entertaining role as a corrupt and ruthless detective who is menacing throughout. Crowe is his usual competent self and Washington surprises in his ability to inhabit the morality free zone that is Frank Lucas' world.
Perhaps one of the more underrated of Scott's films perhaps because it initially appears to be overly glossy and lacking substance, there is much to enjoy here and as it reaches its natural denouement becomes quite a compelling ride. You know Frank is going to be captured but it is the how that is just as entertaining. A fine film.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Flick of the Day: Safe House

Once upon a time in a far away place full of Stallone's, Van Damme's, numerous James Bond's and even the odd Michael Caine, producing an average action thriller was entirely acceptable in the movie making business. Sure as night follows day, average would be enough to deliver a handsome box office return. Then along came the joint creation of Robert Ludlum, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass that was Jason Bourne and in one fell swoop changed the landscape of the genre. Bond became blonde, boundaries were pushed and average was no longer acceptable. Pity then, if you can find it in your heart, the makers of today's flick of the day Safe House.
Ryan Reynolds is the star of the show as Matt Weston, a low level CIA functionary who looks after a safe house in Cape Town. Keen to move up he spends his days keeping the place clean and pestering his mentor David Barlow played by Brendan Gleeson for a promotion. One day he gets an unexpected new guest, a rogue agent named (and this could only happen in this movie) Tobin Frost played by the always a good guy apart from this and Training Day, Denzel Washington. Tobin has given himself up to the authorities after a career of selling out information has led to him running for his life from a gang of unknown operatives on the streets of Cape Town. Of course as is the way with these things, this gang follows him to the safe house and after an entertaining gun battle Matt and Tobin are on the run. As the small army of gunmen chase them, Matt struggles to keep Tobin alive while trying to get to the bottom of why he is being chased and who they are.
It is unfortunate that the movie going public have become so demanding in terms of genre pictures like this for while it doesn't break any new ground, there is much to enjoy here. Some of the actions scenes are quite spectacular, particularly an exciting chase scene through a township. The twist in the tale is obvious enough with the usual Hollywood hint of it being the one guy nobody mentions but it's well played out all the same. As to the performances, all are passable without being overly memorable. Ryan Reynolds comes across as too much of a pretty-boy for his role but then that's hardly his fault while Gleeson and Sam Shepard bring some heavyweight acting talent. Vera Farmiga is criminally underused in a role that is fleshed out only enough to allow a twist in the plot.
Washington is playing a role he has played on numerous occasions over the past few years in a slew of largely forgettable action pictures, many of them directed by Tony Scott. It's not a bad persona and this film is a cut above those pictures.
Tobin Frost: I think you need to consider how your safe house was attacked in the first place. That house was a secure location. Whoever crashed it, they were invited. Someone told them, someone you know... 
Matt Weston: You're not gonna get in my head. 
Tobin Frost: I am already in your head!
All in all, this is really not a bad film by any means, it just doesn't cover any new ground. Despite that it is enjoyable, there are some excellent action scenes and the South African location is a good selling point and the cast deliver decent performances where they can. Worth a look in these post-Bourne times.

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