The John Gotti biopic has become somewhat notorious because of its 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, not that this is the first film to hit that dubious mark. It is bad, though not quite 0% bad. The biggest crime of this movie is that it at no point solidifies a reason why we should find John Gotti interesting. As played by John Travolta, he’s a ruthless leader who beat so many prosecutors that he was nicknamed the “Teflon Don.” He’s also really really boring, spouting stereotypical bromides about the importance of family, never giving an inch, never turning on your family (both capital F and lowercase f). It’s a cock-eyed worldview I’d expect, however, at the very end of the movie, the movie itself adopts this cock-eyed justifications, presenting the federal government as the real villains and inserting interview footage of real people eulogizing Gotti, saying he made their streets clean and cared about his community and was, essentially, a hero. It’s amazingly misguided, like director Kevin Connolly (“E” fro HBO’s Entourage) has suffered Stockholm syndrome from his lunk-headed, murderous criminals. That same sense of misjudgment is never more adamant than in the musical score by pop star Pitbull. Read that again. There’s a sequence where Gotti goes out on furlough and is escorted to kill an associate, and the musical score is jaunty and uptempo. There were several moments where the score just took my breath away, so tonally disjointed was this mostly modern-day musical score. The movie is structured as an ongoing series of interviews between Gotti Sr. (Travolta) and his adult son, with choice flashbacks interspersed. We don’t even get a rise-and-fall sort of formula. It never provides sufficient evidence why Gotti was interesting at all and worth a big screen biopic. The dialogue feels like it was written with all exclamation points. Nothing is subtle or left to the imagination here, and that extends into the scenery-chewing acting as well from a bunch of unmemorable stock roles. There is also a 1996 TV movie about John Gotti starring Armand Assante. Sight unseen, it must almost assuredly be the better movie and more worth two hours of your precious time.
Nate’s Grade: D+
With only three films, Ben Affleck has successfully reinvented himself as one of Hollywood’s most talented directors when it comes to adult crime thrillers. It’s not just his superb directing chops; the man also serves as producer, lead actor on most films as well as a screenwriter, and Affleck’s ability to write flawed yet deeply human characters within genre parameters has accomplished actors flocking to work for him. Beyond his 2012 film Argo winning Best Picture, Affleck has gotten three different actors supporting Oscar nominations (Amy Ryan, Jeremy Renner, Alan Arkin). He’s an actor’s director and a man who knows how to satisfy an audience hungry for authentic genre thrills and interesting characters. His latest film is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel and is Affleck’s most ambitious film yet and it’s gorgeously brought to life. There’s still plenty to like and entertainment to be had with his Prohibition era gangster flick Live by Night, but it’s also unquestionably Affleck’s weakest film yet as a major director.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a hardened WWI veteran who says he came back to Boston as an “outlaw” (he seems to turn up his nose at being called a “gangster”). Joe settles into an easy life of crime with the local Irish gang lead by Albert White (Robert Glenister). Unfortunately, Joe’s lover, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), happens to be White’s main squeeze. Joe and Emma sneak around and carry on their relationship without proper discretion. Their secret is found out, Emma is dealt with, and Joe escapes with his life, serving a prison sentence and then enlisting in the Italian mob under local boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe is sent to Tampa to manage the rum-running business, starting his life over. The area is ripe for expansion and it isn’t long before Joe is making friends and enemies over his exploits. He falls in love with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), a fellow criminal with a working operation of Hispanic bootleggers. Joe warms to a local police chief (Chris Cooper) and his daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning) a girl who experiences the darker side of vice and becomes a troublesome born-again leader. All the while Albert White has relocated to Miami, and the specter of vengeance looms just within reach.
It’s a Prohibition gangster flick and Affleck makes sure to check as many boxes as he can when it comes to audience expectations for a pulpy hardboiled action drama. The production design is aces and the cinematography by Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) is beautifully composed with its use of light, shadow, and framing. There are shots of violence that are exquisitely rendered so as to be their own art, like a man falling down a stairwell with a Tommy gun blasting above bathed in light. The production details are a sumptuous aspect that Affleck and his team put supreme effort into to better make their movie transporting. The action sequences have a genuine delight as they pop. A shootout throughout the grounds of a mob-owned hotel is an exciting climax that finds fun ways to provide genre thrills. The rise-and-fall structure of the story, mingled with a simple revenge motivation, is a suitable story vehicle for the audience to plug into. There are fun characters, fun moments, and sizzling action, all decorated in handsome period appropriate details. While Live by Night has its share of flaws, a dearth of entertainment is not one of them.
Tone and coherency end up being Affleck’s biggest obstacles he cannot overcome. It’s somewhat of a surprise considering his other directorial efforts brilliantly melded several genres while telling invigorating stories. I think the main fault is a screenplay trying to do too much when more streamlining was optimal. The specific goal that sets Joe in motion is a bit hazy and fails to provide a larger sense of direction for the arc of the tale. Affleck’s previous films were rock-solid in crafting overarching yet specific goals that propel the scenes onto a natural narrative trajectory. With Gone Baby Gone, it’s finding the missing girl. With The Town, it’s getting closer to a bank employee without having that relationship discovered by his cohorts. With Argo, it was rescuing the hostages. With Live by Night, it’s mostly getting vengeance against Albert White, though we don’t know how. In the meantime, we have episodic incidents failing to register connective tissue or at least a cause/effect relationship where it feels like a natural order of organic conflicts. The opening act in Boston that sets up Joe’s tragic love, jail time, and enmity with White could be removed entirely. I’d miss the thrilling 1920s car chase, which is also unique in that it’s the first period car chase I can think of that utilizes the mechanical limitations of the vehicles for extra tension, but it’s at best a moment of flash. Having the story pick up with Joe putting his life back together in sunny Florida would have been a cleaner entrance into this world for an audience. Once Joe ingratiates himself into this new world, the audience has to play another game of character introductions and assessing relationships and the balance of power. It feels a bit redundant after having our previous act pushed aside to reboot Joe’s world.
It feels like Affleck is trying to corral so many historical elements that he loses sight of the bigger picture. Joe’s criminal path seems comically easy at times as he builds a fledgling empire along the Floridian west coast. First it’s the law and then it’s the KKK and then it’s religious revivals that need to be dealt with. Each incident feels like a small vignette that observes the historical setting with an angle that will be perfunctorily dropped in short order. The conflicts and antagonists don’t feel sufficiently challenging and that lessens the intended suspense. When Joe is dealing with the KKK, it feels like he’s restraining himself out of politeness rather than a series of organic restrictions. The elements and tones don’t really seem to inform one another except in the most general sense, which leads to the film lacking suitable cohesion. It’s easy then for Affleck to overly rely on stock genre elements to provide much of the story arrangements.
The characters have difficulty escaping from the pulp trappings to emerge as three-dimensional figures. Graciela gets the worst of it, proving to be a capable bootlegging criminal in her own right who loses all sense of personality, agency, and import once she becomes romantically entwined with our hero. It’s as if she erased herself to better heal his broken heart. How kind of her. The religious revival element is ripe for further examination but it’s kept at a basic level. We’re never questioning the validity of Loretta’s conversion and sudden celebrity. Chris Cooper’s pragmatic lawman has the most potential as a man trying to keep his morals amidst the immoral. The character isn’t utilized in enough interesting ways that can also flesh out his dimensions, and his conclusion suffers from that absent development. The characters serve their purpose in a larger mechanical sense but they don’t feel like more recognizable human beings.
Affleck’s innate talent with actors reappears in a few choice moments, just enough to tantalize you with the promise of what Live by Night could have been. The standout moment for me is a sit-down between Joe and Loretta where she unburdens her self-doubts. This is a woman who has been preyed upon by others, had her hopes dashed, and is trying to reinvent herself as a religious leader, but even she doesn’t know if she believes that there’s a God. The scene is emotional, honest without being trite, and delivered pitch-perfect by Fanning (The Neon Demon). It’s the kind of scene that reminded me of The Town and Gone Baby Gone, how Affleck was deftly able to provide shading for his characters that opened them up. Miller (American Sniper) has immediate electricity to her performance and reminds you how good Affleck is at drawing out the best from his actors. British TV vet Glenister is so good as a villain that seems to relish being one that you wish he were in the movie more. He has a menace to him that draws you in closer. Maher (The Finest Hours) is a memorable cretin who you’ll be happy to be dealt with extreme prejudice. There isn’t a poor casting choice in the film (hey Clark Gregg, hey Anthony Michael Hall, hey Max Casella) except possibly one, and that’s Affleck himself. I know part of the reason he selects his directing efforts is the possibility of also tackling juicy acting roles, but this time he may not have been the best fit. He’s a little too calm, a little too smooth, a little too out of place for the period, and his director doesn’t push him far enough.
A strange thing happened midway through, namely how politically relevant and vicariously enjoyable Live by Night feels specifically for the year 2017. It’s a movie largely sent in the 1920s with characters on the fringes of society, and yet I was able to make pertinent connections to our troubled times of today. After a contentious presidential election where many feel that insidious and hateful extremist elements are being normalized and emboldened, there is something remarkably enjoyable about watching a murder montage of Klansmen. The Tampa chapter of the KKK takes aim with Joe’s business that profit from fornicators, Catholics, and especially black and brown people. They’re trying to shake Joe down for majority ownership but they’re too stupid, blinded by their racist and xenophobic ignorance, to accept Joe’s generous offers, and so they can’t help but bring righteous fury upon their lot. There is something innumerably enjoyable about watching abusive bigots brought down to size with bloody justice. I could have seen an entire movie of Joe and crew tearing through the Florida chapters of the KKK and just cleaning out the rabble. This sequence whets the appetite for what comes later. Without going into specific spoilers, the climax of the movie involves the put-upon minorities rising up against their bosses who, like the Klan, felt they were too powerful, too indispensable, and too clever to be seriously threatened. In its own way, it’s like a dark crime actualization of the American Dream. Unpack that if you will.
Live By Night is Affleck losing the depth of his world to its surface-level genre pleasures and they are indeed a pleasure. This isn’t a bad movie by any measure, only one of slight disappointment because it had the markings and abilities to be much more than the finished product. The tonal inconsistency and storylines provide episodic interludes and enticing moments, whether in action or acting, but they don’t blend together to form a more compelling and impressive whole. It’s a gangster movie that provides the gangster genre trappings but loses sight of what makes the characters in these movies so compelling, the moral complications, shifting loyalties, the impossible positions, and enclosing danger. I don’t think you’ll sweat too much over whether the main character will come out on top, which somewhat hinders the intensity of the action. When your movie is more predicated on those genre thrills than character or story, that’s an even bigger hindrance. It’s a fun world worth visiting but it doesn’t have the staying power of Affleck’s better efforts.
Nate’s Grade: B
Nobody quite expected the second act that Liam Neeson is currently having. Before 2009, he was seen a dramatic leading man best known for portraying the titular businessman in Schindler’s List. And then Taken came out, and the world decided they liked their action stars with a dash of actorly gravitas, the kind of which was all too lacking from the likes of your Van Dammes. After so many films of Neeson pointing guns and barking at people, you forget that the man can act. That’s because, with few exceptions, the Neeson canon of action vehicles have been found enjoyable but insubstantial, momentary pleasures to be forgotten. The same can be said of Run All Night, a promising urban jungle thriller that’s a step above in several areas but ultimately another mildly entertaining film where Neeson points guns and barks at people.
Jimmy (Neeson) is a man haunted by his memories of his life as a hired gun for his pal, mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Jimmy is a drunk who is living off of Shawn, holed up in a crummy home, and eking out his lonely days. He walked out on his son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), when he was young because he wanted him to have a better life. Jimmy thought his misdeeds would create a bad influence. Shawn is also experiencing his own problems with fatherhood. His son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook) is ambitious, dangerous, and addicted to drugs. He agrees to a business arrangement with Armenian mobsters before dad gives him the A-okay; when dad balks, Danny is on the hook. He murders the two Armenian mobsters who are looking for their money back. Unfortunately, Mike just happened to witness this execution. Jimmy defends his son, shooting and killing Danny. For the rest of a very fraught night, Jimmy tries to protect his son from the many forces of violence that Shawn has sent for vengeance.
The premise of Run All Night is strong unless you say it out loud and examine it. I admire the film’s manner of weaving together storylines in a way that they feel like they’re crashing into one another and yet you could see their trajectory coming. That’s not to mean it’s predictable, which it is of course, but that the conflicts are properly established and set in motion. However, when you analyze the revenge-laden intricacies, it can seem like self-parody: “You murdered my son before he could murder your son. So I’m going to murder you.” “Oh yeah? Well I’m gonna murder you before you murder me for murdering your son before he murdered my son.” Gentlemen, commence your murdering. It reminded me of 2002’s Road to Perdition where a crime lord who readily admitted that his son was a dangerous hotheaded screw-up and had made a mess of things… and yet, he had to stick by him because… family. It’s a frustrating contradiction but it’s believable enough to hold onto. I just wish these crime guys could objectively calculate how guilty and irresponsible their kids are and cut them loose. Seriously, what exactly was Danny thinking when he killed the Armenian mobsters? Did he not think they were going to retaliate? Danny is the kind of irritating screw-up you want to strangle because he endangers others with his constant failures.
Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) has done his genre homework, and Run All Night is a slightly above average thriller that finds ways to flesh out its tropes amidst the urban jungle. After a steady first act, the majority of the movie is a series of chase scenes, several of which are shot and edited well by Neeson’s favorite director of his run and gun pictures, Juame Collet-Sera (Non-Stop, Unknown). The chase scenes make smart use of geography and the way Collet-Sera cuts back and forth with his parallel lines of action does a nice job of quickening pulses. A chase through a train terminal is well choreographed with Jimmy having to out run and out muscle goons and Mike ducking from encroaching police presence on the platform. Ingelsby has a knack for setting up organic suspense pieces and letting them loose. The final act feels a little pat from an action standpoint as well as a moral climax, but it does work. While the characters are birthed from familiar genre archetypes, the film adds interesting shadings to them. Jimmy’s loyalties are tested and he has a strong personal revelation that ties into this theme. The movies finest moment is likely a tense sit-down between Shawn and Jimmy shortly after the events of the night has been set in motion. It’s like Harris and Neeson are competing to see who can be more intimidating Oscar-nominated actor. Bonus: Bruce McGill (Lincoln) plays Harris’ number two and I love some Bruce McGill.
And yet, I kept wishing for Run All Night to go back to the power of its possibilities. There’s a segment where the movie truly feels like it’s being taken to the next level, namely after the crooked cops have been taken out. Instead of just Maguire’s muscle coming after them, now Jimmy and Mike have the NYPD hot on their tail and none too happy about cop killers. That’s another category of antagonists, another chase participant. I also wanted the movie to keep going, bringing in the Armenian mob, which would be incensed and seeking vengeance after their ambassadors were killed. This movie could have had three categories of antagonists (Shawn’s goons, NYPD, Armenian mob) chasing after Jimmy and his son, and the ongoing conflict would have been terrific. The more people that are on the hunt, for their varied reasons, the more possibilities there are for strong and escalating suspense pieces. It could have easily gotten too complicated and convoluted for a mass audience, which is probably why the movie doesn’t reach its true suspenseful potential and follows a conventional route. The NYPD angle is only really incorporated during a building-wide search of an apartment complex where Jimmy and son are hiding. Likewise, the addition of a contract killer played by now Oscar-winner Common (Selma) is a wasted antagonist that doesn’t add much more to the group of bad guys. He’s better at killing, sure, but he doesn’t offer anything new except some hardware. He’s essentially an elevated heavy. He’s meant to serve as the threat after the threat, and no surprise, he does. I wish the character had more personality because he’s just too rote to separate himself. He’s just another ho hum killer in the mix.
There’s a plot point that annoys me to the point that I need to talk about it in more detail, though to do so requires some spoilers, so tread carefully, reader. At one point, Jimmy insists his son does not pull the trigger and kill Common. His wish is that his son would turn out better, and so he doesn’t want him to be forced to commit murder. They leave the contract killer who, you guessed it, continues to try and hunt them down and kills innocent people in the way. I understand the moral imperative Jimmy is going for, but let’s analyze this. It’s self-defense, he’s determined to come back and kill you, and you know innocent lives will suffer if he stays alive and well, whether on this job or future jobs. If ever there was a situation where maybe Mike isn’t going to be racked with guilt into the odd hours of the night debating the descent of his soul into moral decay, this might be the one. It’s one of those moments where the characters have to behave this way because the plot demands it and we need, as stated above, a threat after the main threat. Again, I’m reminded of Road to Perdition, which had a much better additional hitman.
Some things are better enjoyed at your leisure, and Liam Neeson’s action ouvere fits into that category. With few exceptions, a Neeson action film checks the boxes of what you’re looking for in genre entertainment, and with a strong Neeson finish, but rarely will you be surprised or elated. Entertained, sure, for the time being. Run All Night is an action thriller that has its moments and some well-drawn suspense sequences, and I appreciate that it tries to provide more depth to the main characters besides their preferred killing weapon of choice. However, there’s just too much squandered potential, underwritten supporting characters, and heavy-handed messages about the sins of the father. Run All Night is a solid genre thriller that does enough well to be worth your time, though you certainly don’t need to exert any energy to run out and see it.
Nate’s Grade: B-
If your idea of a fine time at the movies is watching Denzel Washington be a badass and murder people in grisly fashion for two hours, then The Equalizer is right up your alley. There’s not much to the plot of this loose remake of the 1980s TV show of the same name; Denzel plays a man with a mysterious past who works at a large Home Depot-esque hardware store. He sees injustice transpiring against his pals, and he fixes it in a violent fashion. The movie is two storylines that don’t converge until the final act, namely the Russian crime syndicate trying to ascertain who this vengeful badass just might be, and Denzel doing his episodic vigilante good deeds. The climactic act is a drawn out showdown where Denzel uses every part of the hardware store to deadly results. There’s definitely a pleasure in watching Denzel dispatch tough-talking baddies, and that’s what the film delivers, no more, no less. The confrontations are generally well written and ratchet tension nicely, especially when Denzel has some chilly conversations with his soon-to-be-victims before they inevitably make their bad decisions. The tense sit-downs were more entertaining for me than the bloody violence. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) goes about his business in a more than competent manner; the technical qualities are above average, though the film has moments where it seems too infatuated with its slick sense of style (slow-mo rain gun battles?). With a stream of bad guys to be toppled at a steady interval, The Equalizer can start to feel like an assembly line of cocksure carnage, a ready-made vehicle for audience blood lust. Still, watching Denzel be a badass and kill a whole lot of bad people is enough for a movie. Just don’t expect much more than that scenario and you may be satisfied if you’re not too squeamish when it comes to bloodshed.
Nate’s Grade: B
The most impressive thing I can credit The Family, an otherwise adequate action-comedy with identity issues, is that it makes each member of its titular family worth watching. Robert De Niro is the patriarch of a family on the run from the Mob, who used to serve as De Niro’s chief employer. They’re hiding in Normandy, France, and trying to blend in, with very mixed results. I was worried that everything was going to be too obvious, but the movie does a fine job of rounding out its cast, giving each family member a personality, flaws, and a reason you want to keep tabs with them. I enjoyed the son’s single-minded manipulation of his school, able to suss out everyone’s needs and how to turn alliances. De Niro starts writing his memoirs as a therapeutic exercise, but really nothing comes from this obvious plot catalyst. The nagging problem that dogs the movie is an inconsistent tone. The violence can be rather brutal and much of it is meant to be silly, but it doesn’t come across that way. In fact, most of the film’s laughs are tied up in over-the-top, and often, bloody violence. But the movie isn’t dark enough to work as a twisted comedy, holding back to become something of an uneven mob cartoon with plenty of hoary Italian stereotypes. As a result, when the third act is all bloody mayhem, it feels like The Family is three half-baked movies badly stitched together. I laughed enough and was passably entertained but The Family is too dark to work as a lark, too juvenile to be substantial, and too predictable by half.
Nate’s Grade: C+
We’re fascinated by hired killers. Chalk it up to morbid curiosity or perhaps perverse, secret wish fulfillment, but we’re all titillated a tad by the murderous for hire. The Iceman is all about Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), who worked as a contract killer for the mob from 1966 to 1988. He’s estimated to have killed over 100 people. A mob middleman (Ray Liotta) is impressed that Kuklinski shows no fear with a gun in his face, and so the guy gets hired to rack up the bodies. At the same time, Kuklinski has a wife (Winona Ryder) and two daughters, all of whom have no clue what daddy does for a living until he’s finally brought to justice.
The main issue at play with The Iceman is that it’s trying to draw out a character study for a rather impenetrable person. It’s hard to get a solid read on the character of Richard Kuklinski. The compartmentalizing of these two very distinct lives is a fascinating psychology to explore, one I wish the filmmakers had spent a majority of the screen time upon. The internal justifications, struggles and compromises would make for an excellent and insightful look into the psychology of killer rationalization. However, I don’t know if this movie would even be possible from this subject. Kuklinski is by all accounts a pretty detached guy. There just doesn’t seem like there’s a lot to him. His circumstances are interesting, beaten into an emotionless cipher by his father, brother to a fellow sociopath, and trying to make a reasonable life for himself while keeping his inner urges at bay. The sociopath-tries-to-make-good storyline is reminiscent to fans of TV’s Dexter, and there’s plenty of room to work there. It’s an intriguing contradiction, the man who cares for so little protecting his family. In the end, we don’t really get a sense of why beyond the illusion of the American Family that Kuklinski wants to hold onto, to make himself seem normal, to prove to his family he could break free from their influence. Even typing this I feel like I’m giving the film more depth than it actually illustrates. Even though he tries to play the part of devoted family man, we rarely see any evidence of devotion. He provides, yes, puts his kids in private school, but he puts his family at risk and doesn’t seem to have affection for them as much as propriety. They are his things and nobody will mess with them. Your guess is as good as mine if he genuinely loves any of them.
Too much of the film gets mired in standard mob clichés. This guy upsets that guy; this guy wants the other guy dead. It all becomes the focal point of the movie, Kuklinski getting caught up in, essentially, office politics. Even the true-life details of the grisly methods of death feel like wasted potential for a better story. He goes on a job, he botches a job, he gets let go, so to speak, he strikes up a new partnership with another contract killer, Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans in a bad wig). That last part could have been a movie unto itself, watching an odd couple of hitmen plan, execute, and then dispose of their targets. The Iceman nickname comes from their process, freezing the dismembered corpses for months so that coroners cannot get a read on when the bodies were slain. While Evans is entertaining, this entire portion of the movie could have been eliminated, its bearing on the plot minimal. Likewise, the movie has several small roles populated by recognizable actors, which become a series of one-scene distractions. Kuklinski goes out on a hit and it’s… James Franco. Then there’s Friends actor David Schwimmer as a sleazy, ponytailed, nebbish mob screw-up. Stephen Dorff has one moment as Kuklinski’s angry, desperate, murderous brother in prison. The actors are all fine, with the exception of Franco, but many of them are just another reminder of the film’s disjointed attention.
I mentioned in Pain and Gain the notion of portraying true-life criminals as sympathetic figures, and the queasy nature of this complicit interpretation. The Iceman never really tries to make Kuklinski sympathetic or some form of an antihero, and I think the movie is better for it. One of the earliest moments in the film is Kuklinski slitting the throat of a guy who harassed him and defamed his lady. This is BEFORE the guy is even hired as a contract killer too. It seems like when the guy can’t murder he becomes a worse family man. Even in the end, he’s testing a new batch of cyanide on the neighborhood cat. The movie presents Kuklinski as he is, though you’ll be forgiven for feeling some initial pings of sympathy when you seem him try and protect his family. Granted his family could also very well use protection from him.
Shannon’s (Premium Rush) performance is what keeps you watching. There are few actors who are as intense as this guy, though I’m used to seeing him play unhinged psychos bouncing off the walls. Kuklinski is just as troubled as his other roles but he’s all reserve, steely nerves, and anger that eventually bubbles over into violent rage. Shannon is still such a good actor that even with a thin character, or at least thin characterization, he can be completely compelling to watch onscreen. One of the more peculiar, inconsistent elements of the film is Shannon’s constantly-changing facial hair. I think I lost count at about nine or ten different facial topiary variations. There were times where it will be different in consecutive scenes. I guess that’s a tipoff of a time jump, but his morphing, period-appropriate facial hair also became a point of amusement.
What makes The Iceman so disappointing in retrospect is how much potential it seems to squander. There’s a great story to be had with a contract killer by night and a family man by day. That contradiction, the struggle, the psychology is all rich material to work with. It’s just that Kuklinski is not necessarily that guy; he’s not too deep, at least not in this version, and his killer work problems are just not that compelling. If this is what the filmmakers were going to do with their real-life subject, then they might as well have just used Kuklinski as inspiration. Take the best parts and then compose a different lead character, someone more emotionally transparent or relatable or just plain old interesting. Just because it’s a real story doesn’t mean you’re indebted to telling every true facet of it, especially when a better story is within sight. Shannon is a terrific actor and does his best to make the film worth watching, but from distracted plotting to unmet analysis and emotional exploration, it’s hard to walk away from The Iceman and not feel a bit chilly.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It’s hard to mention the action thriller Gangster Squad without a passing reference to the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting in the summer of 2012, the reason for the film’s five-month delay and reshot action sequence. Gone is a shootout at the movies and now we have a confrontation in the streets of Chinatown. I wish they hadn’t stopped there. If given the opportunity, and remember they did have an additional five months, I would have scrapped Gangster Squad almost completely and started fresh.
In 1949, former boxer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has seized control of Los Angeles organized crime. His influence extends even into a police, which forces Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to go to desperate measures. He asks Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to assemble a team of enforcers to fight back. They won’t have badges but they will be pushed to use whatever means necessary to carry out their mission, which means blurring the line between what is considered lawful. O’Mara assembles a super group of former officers and one of them, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) gets into even deeper danger when he starts seeing Mickey Cohen’s main squeeze, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).
This movie is like if The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential had an illegitimate child and then abandoned it in a sewer where degenerate hobos raised it. Gangster Squad rips off other gangster movies with liberal abandon that I can’t even begin to list the lifts. I’d be less offended if I felt that the movie had more on its mind than just replicating the tone and look of noir cinema. Actually, it feels more like what they want to replicate is the tone or style of the video game L.A. Noir.
The main problem is that Gangster Squad really only has the skeletal outline of a plot. It’s missing any essential character and plot development. Here, I’ll summarize the barebones plot for you: Mickey Cohen is a bad guy. O’Mara forms a team. They have a montage taking out bad guys. Mickey takes out one of them. They have a showdown. That, ladies and gents, is it. There really aren’t any scenes that diverge from those scant descriptions. It felt like only five minutes passed from one of O’Mara’s guys getting killed (and just like The Untouchables, it’s the nerdy one) to them descending on Cohen’s headquarters and duking it out. Why does the film introduce the conflict of Wooters seeing Cohen’s girl if he never finds out? There isn’t even one scene presented to take advantage of this conflict. It just ends up being another half-baked plotline. It feels like the only development we get with Gangster Squad is through montages. What is also apparent is that O’Mara and his team really don’t have anything resembling the faintest notion of a plan. We watch them take out some bad guys via fights and shootouts but there’s no higher plotting to it. You get a sense that these former cops are just playing it by ear, looking for a fight every night. It’s hard to imagine that these people, even with their law enforcement and war experience, could be effective in the long term. Without any formative organization or greater planning, these guys just seem like dull bruisers bouncing from fight to fight with no sense of direction.
Then there’s the paucity of character work, relying solely on genre archetypes to do its work for the movie. O’Mara is the determined family man but his team can best be described by one-word classifications: The Black Guy (Anthony Mackie), The Nerdy Guy (Giovanni Ribisi), The Mexican Guy (Michael Pena), The Young Guy (Gosling), The Old Guy (Robert Patrick). That’s about it, though I suppose they do have different weapon preferences meant to supply all that missing characterization. Oh look, Officer Harris (Mackie) brings a knife to gunfights. That’s pretty much the beginning and end of his character. Wooters is so lackadaisical he feels like he’s on drugs, and Gosling’s soft-spoken, mealy-mouthed line delivery only adds to the effect. It feels like Gosling, in a stretch to find something interesting out of the mundane, said to himself, “I wonder if I could give a whole performance where I only speak under a certain vocal register.” Then there’s the woefully miscast Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) as the femme fatale/mol to Mickey. I love Stone as an actress, but man-eater she is not and sultry seductress doesn’t fit her well either. Perhaps with the aid of a sharper script and a greater depth of character she could rise to the challenge. At no point does Gangster Squad really even attempt to make these people multi-dimensional. They never reflect on the moral turpitude of their own vigilante justice or the ramifications of their actions. There’s no room for ambiguity here.
Finally, we must speak of Mr. Sean Penn (Milk). The man’s actorly gumbo goes into campy overdrive. In these rare circumstances, you aren’t watching Sean Penn Esteemed Actor so much as Sean Penn Human Vortex of Overacting. Normally I would criticize Penn for going over the top but over the course of 110 minutes, he single-handedly becomes the only entertaining thing in the movie. He’s chewing scenery up a storm, yes, but at least he’s channeling the pulpy silliness of the whole movie. I came to enjoy his antics and outbursts and thus became more empathetic of Mickey Cohen and his efforts than I did with O’Mara. Such is the danger screenwriters run when they spend more time crafting an interesting villain than a hero.
Gangster Squad is what happens when a movie is sold on title and genre elements. To be fair, it’s a bang-up title. The plot is half-baked at best, really only serving as a thin outline of a gangster movie, but instead of adding complexity and intrigue and characterization, they just ran with it. The actors are either camping it up or out of their element, the action and shootouts are pretty mundane, and the story is just uninvolving, even for fans of film noir like myself. It’s a good-looking film from a technical standpoint, but that’s as far as I’ll go in my recommendation (it could be an odd pairing with Milk considering the two shared actors). It feels like it just wants the setting elements of film noir, the atmosphere, and then figures just having good guys and bad guys shoot it out will suffice. That glossy, high-sheen period look just seems like a cool façade, and a cool façade seems like the only ambition of Gangster Squad. I can’t really recall any signature action sequence, snappy quote, plot development, or peculiarity worthy of remembering. It may be one of the most forgettable gangster movies Hollywood has produced.
Nate’s Grade: C
I became a Rian Johnson disciple the second that 2006’s Brick ended. I was floored by the originality, the artistic vision, the intelligence, and the creative voice. This was a unique filmmaker and I instantly knew this writer/director would be a man worth following. His follow-up, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, was three fourths of a great movie, but a bit of an overdose on whimsy. Then I read that Johnson was next going to try his hand at time travel, and I could not contain my excitement. One of my favorite film genres and one of my favorite up-and-coming indie filmmakers together. I was expecting Johnson to do for time travel what he did with film noir (Brick) and the con movie (Brothers Bloom). How could Looper disappoint? Well, sadly, the movie found a way. It feels like Johnson smashed two halves of two different movies together, one good and one not so good.
In 2072, time travel is invented but instantly made illegal. The only people who have access to time travel are the mob. They have a surplus of dead bodies that need to disappear, so the mob sends them back 30 years. In 2042, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is employed as a looper. He kills the guys the mob sends back in time and then disposes of the bodies. He’s paid well, and he and his fellow loopers live it up as privileged members of the Kansas City social sphere. Abe (Jeff Daniels) runs the show in town; he’s a mob guy from the future. There’s a catch to all the looper riches. The mob also wants to protect them in the future, so they send back the looper’s future self to be executed. It’s called closing the loop. And if you don’t kill your future self, bad things will definitely happen, just ask Seth (Paul Dano), a looper hacked apart to lure his future self back.
The day comes where Joe is tasked with executing his future self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis). Old Joe escapes and goes on the run. Younger Joe is now under extreme pressure to kill his guy, or else the mob might just find him and start slicing body appendages. Old Joe is looking for the Rainmaker, who in 30 years will become a criminal tyrant responsible for much death. But in 2042, he’s only a child. Old Joe’s mission is to kill the child before he becomes the Rainmaker, and before he murders Old Joe’s eventual wife. While fleeing the mob, Joe takes refuge on a farm outside of the city. Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) warily take in Joe but they’re also hiding a secret, that Cid has powerful telekinetic powers that can be put to great damage.
The film’s premise is compelling and allows for plenty of mind-bending possibilities, and Johnson has a fresh take on the sci-fi genre. Hunting down your future self is a grabber of a concept and I loved the scenes where Joe and Old Joe would sit down and converse. There’s the natural tension of Joe’s mission to eliminate his future self, but there’s also a flurry of ideas, ones that make the film better developed. Old Joe has an edge in foreknowledge but Joe has his own edge. He can change Old Joe’s memories by choosing different actions. He swears if he ever sees a picture of Old Joe’s wife that he’ll do everything in his path to alter fate, to make it so he never finds her. As a result, Old Joe is hobbled by headaches and fuzzy memories because the order of events is no longer concrete. “This time travel stuff fries my brain like an egg,” Old Joe admits. That, my friends, is a fascinating struggle for dominance and a refreshing take on time travel. Then you throw in the mob chasing after both Joes and you got an extra sense of urgency. Looper is playfully heady but easy enough to follow. It’s a thriller that doesn’t get bogged down in time travel logistics but it doesn’t pander to its audience either. If it did, I’m fairly certain Joe (addict, criminal, selfish) and Old Joe (eventual child slayer) would have taken turns to be more likeable. For a solid hour, Looper is alive with narrative jujitsu, a nice balance of action, drama, dark humor, intelligent plotting, stylish direction, the occasional startling visual, and strong acting from Gordon-Levitt and Willis.
And then the Looper becomes a completely different movie. Once the action shifts to Sara’s farm is where this movie completely unravels. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. The first half was so intriguing, intellectually stimulating, and thrilling, and then I got stuck on a farm and the movie turned into a lame version of Children of the Damned. I didn’t come for a telekinetic kid movie; I came for a time travel movie. The second half of this movie is practically wall-to-wall telekinetic kid stuff. The action slows down to a crawl and the flurry of ideas turns to a trickle as we introduce Strong Single Mom and Weird Son. I may have a cold heart but I didn’t care about these characters. I found the romance forced and Sara to be poorly developed. I found the kid annoying, and when he got mad and made his stupid mad face, it irritated me. Mostly I was irritated that the promise of the first half of the film had stalled out, and that this was where the movie was choosing to spend its dwindling time. It’s like the movie has been swallowed inside out by this stupid telekinetic subplot. The climax is fine but why did we have to travel through Dumb Farm Rest Stop to get there? Is it so that Joe can learn to be a better person? I didn’t buy that growth, especially with a kid as annoying and obviously dangerous as Cid. I suppose one night of sex with Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) could do the trick.
Besides the whole farm deal, there are other nagging questions I have that devalue Looper in my eyes.
1) So in the future the mob is the only entity with access to time travel, but all they use it for is to dispose of bodies? That’s it? Biff Tanner used a sports almanac from the future to become king of the world. Are you telling me an organization that has historically profited from gambling would make no use of foreknowledge for personal gain?
2) Why would the mob have the loopers kill their older versions of themselves? This seems like a natural conflict of interest that could readily be avoided. Instead of having that particular looper kill his future self, thus closing the loop, why not assign that future version to a different looper? That way you don’t have to run the risk of the past looper letting his future self go. Or you could just never tell them what happened. For that matter, why does the mob have to send the guys back alive? Could they not simply just kill them and send the dead bodies 30 years back in time? This seems like an easier solution that also minimizes risk.
3) If you’ve just uncovered the power of time travel, why are you even bothering to send back your dead bodies 30 years into the past? Why not send your dead bodies back BILLIONS of years where the Earth is still forming, hot, and uninhabitable? I find this to be a better solution (I also wrote this solution in my own time travel screenplay, so there’s that too). Why can’t the mob feed dead bodies to dinosaurs? I’d love to see that.
4) You have a mob guy from the future, and you do nothing with that? Abe has one wisecrack about being from the future, and it’s a good one, but otherwise this guy could have just been from the present. The movie does nothing with the juicy element of a mob boss from the future. Maybe he doesn’t do as he’s told and arranges for his own rule. Or maybe he utilizes a sports almanac and makes some prescient bets, huh?
5) The movie takes place almost entirely around the confines of Kansas City. I find it hard to believe that a criminal organization would be sending all its bodies to Kansas City. Perhaps the mob also sends people across space and time, otherwise this means that we’re only following the future evil masterwork of the Kansas City mob.
6) I suppose you have to ask at what point do you really start to nitpick the whole butterfly effect of cause and effect paradoxes. With all time travel movies, there’s going to be some degree of suspension of disbelief, because changing one action can have wide-ranging consequences. However, with Looper there are several instances that gave me pause. Firstly, there’s the central idea of killing the Rainmaker as a child, which would negate the killing of the loopers, which would negate Old Joe seeking out the Rainmaker to kill. I’ll look beyond that. So Old Seth, in the film’s most horrifying sequence, starts noticing his fingers are disappearing, then his nose, and then his legs, etc. The mob is torturing young Seth to lure back the missing target. It’s an amazing visual sequence, but are you telling me that cutting off young Seth’s body parts would not have altered his future to a greater degree? I’m fairly certain when you start removing fingers and legs that Old Seth’s timeline would have been dramatically altered and he would cease to exist or follow the exact path to wind up in the past again. For that matter, why even bother luring the older Seth back? Could they not just take care of him by killing young Seth? What are they going to do with young Seth? If they’re just going to kill him then they should have just done that to begin with.
Johnson has plenty of thought-provoking questions he’d like to address within the bounds of a sci-fi action thriller. Would you kill a child if that kid were going to grow up and be a monster? Is redemption possible after doing horrible things? Could you kill your future version of yourself? Would you sacrifice everything to prevent future misery? These are legitimate questions and Looper deserves credit for spending time to ponder them, but I just wish Johnson could have gone back in time and chosen a different path.
Coming off of the stupendous Brick and the perfectly enjoyable Brothers Bloom, my expectations for Johnson’s third film were astronomical, especially given this crafty man’s take on time travel. I love the premise, love the actors involved, and love the ideas toyed around with, but the movie completely falls apart at the halfway mark. The pacing gets slack, the story becomes forced, and Looper transforms into a different, unwelcome movie. I can’t help but feel disappointed, partly from my expectations but also from the knowledge that Johnson could do better. The story just isn’t as well developed as it carries on, and the telekinetic subplot feels like a dull leftover from another movie. After an invigorating first half, Looper crumbles under the weight of a weak subplot that consumes the movie. There’s a good amount of thrills and intellectual stimulation aboard, but it’s all concentrated in the first half of the movie. I can’t recommend one half of a movie. I’ll still eagerly anticipate Johnson’s next project, but Looper is a sci-fi thriller that unravels at an alarming rate, turning a possibly great movie into a mediocre one.
Nate’s Grade: C+
In the Bible, God promised not to obliterate the town of Gomorrah if Abraham could find a righteous man. That didn’t work out so well. This stirring Italian crime drama explores the long-reach of the Camorra crime syndicate stationed in Naples. The oldest Italian criminal organization is larger than the mafia, and the film’s four overlapping narrative threads showcase how the Camorra has a grip on every industry. The usual criminal enterprises are there, from drug trafficking to hired murders, but the organization is also deeply involved in the fashion industry as well as toxic dumping; in a perfect metaphor for the entire film, the Camorra is profiting by burying toxic death just below the surface. The objective docu-drama style lends disturbing reality to the ordeal, though the screenwriting too often feels like a pumped-up “true crime” novel – there’s far more emphasis on the minute details than the people. The movie makes empathy nearly impossible, not that this is necessarily a stinging detriment. The movie steers away from the excitement of violence and instead the death is merciless and swift and unexpected. Gomorrah strips away all the romantic notions involved with the gangster lifestyle; the two teenage gangster wannabes who quote Tony Montana are in for a rude awakening by the established toughs. The movie can be punishing and bleak but it’s always fascinating and told with factual backing that makes it spooky. It may not be as powerful or intense as 2002’s City of God but this is certainly one movie that can be punishing and bleak but it’s always fascinating.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Director David Cronenberg is an idiosyncratic director who explores Big Ideas through the context of creepy horror movies where the body is violated. He’s covered everything from evil gnome-like children, ravenous monsters in Marilyn Chambers’ armpit, and Jeff Goldblum’s face unfortunately peeling away. But then Cronenberg struck it big with 2005’s A History of Violence, giving him the highest profile of his long Canadian career. The auteur of ick is now back in a similarly themed tale of the true impacts of bloodshed with Eastern Promises, a gripping and thoughtful work.
Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife working in London and come across a young Russian girl who dies in childbirth. She leaves behind a diary that Anna seeks to have translated so that she can find family members to contact about the newborn. This brings her unknowingly to the doorstep of Senyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who runs a restaurant in London’s Russian district. She inquires if Senyon or any of the employees knew the dead girl, and as soon as Senyon hears about the reality of a diary he becomes more concerned. And he should be since he is the head of one of London’s most notorious organized crime families. His loose canon of a son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), has authorized a hit behind his father’s back and repercussions may soon be approaching. Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) serves as the family’s chauffeur but takes an interest in Anna and is willing to assist her as she stumbles into impending danger the more she translates from the diary.
Much like writer Steven Knight’s excellent previous film Dirty Pretty Things, this is a film that shines a light on the underbelly of London and focuses on the immigrant experience and how apt they are to be exploited. Eastern Promises is both a straightforward crime thriller with an intriguing, albeit simple central mystery, but then as it moves along it transforms into something far richer. Through the diary, we uncover the hidden inner workings of the Russian mafia, which is a truly global enterprise. Women are promised with great riches and freedoms in their Slavic homeland, and then once transported will spend the rest of their lives behind the bars of a whorehouse, kept dependent thanks to a drug habit forced upon them. We’re immersed in the culture of this crime family. Eastern Promises takes its noirsh sensibilities and then gives us the foreboding and enigmatic Nikolai, a mysterious figure that the audience, like Anna, is drawn to. He spent time in a Siberian prison and is covered in telling tattoos that serve as a resume for the mafia. Nikolai is such a dominating presence and proves to be more intriguing than the central diary mystery, and it’s here where the film performs a balancing act and transfers our attentions fully to this brooding brute.
Cronenberg subverts his usual irony and weirdness to stay true to his tale, and this may well be, even more so than A History of Violence, the most accessible Cronenberg movie yet. We’re a long way from flesh-eating-monster-in-Marilyn-Chambers’-armpit. He still works with such compact efficiency so that no scene feels wasted, and Eastern Promises is a brisk 1 hour 40 minutes. Where Eastern Promises really succeeds is by layering in strong characters within a relatively genre movie. People are not exactly who they seem and the actors do their best to give remarkable depth to their roles.
Cronenberg seems to have found an actor that shares his artistic sensibilities. Scorsese has Leonardo DiCaprio, Wes Anderson has Bill Murray, Kevin Smith has Ben Affleck, and now Cronenberg has Viggo Mortensen. I never thought much of Mortensen as an actor until Cronenberg unlocked something deep and mesmerizing in their first pairing. With Eastern Promises, Mortensen establishes himself as an extremely capable actor. Nikolai is a complex figure and he Mortensen displays a mastery of understatement; his stony silences and piercing stares speak volumes, but you can practically watch the decision-making of the character pass through the face of Mortensen. He skillfully displays the good inside a man bred for evil.
Watts is an actress with few equals and she dazzles once more in a role that requires her to do a lot of legwork. And yet, there’s a sad, haunting quality to her thanks to the back-story where she lost a child due to miscarriage. Cassel is also impressive in a complicated role that requires a lot of internal languishing. He’s at one an impudent child willing to live high off the power of his family name, and at other times he comes across as a severely wounded man who cannot thrive in his hostile family (both little and big F) environment. There are interesting revelations that make Kirill a much more complex and captivating figure, and Cassel plays the many dimensions very well. Personally, I’m happy to see Armin Mueller-Stahl in another high profile movie. There was a time shortly after his 1996 Oscar nomination for Shine where if you needed an old guy for a movie, you got the Armin. Lately, it seems James Cromwell has taken his place as go-to old guy. In Eastern Promises, he has such a sly menace to him from the moment his ears prick up at the notion of a diary. He insists upon inserting himself into Anna’s life and casually makes remarks like, “You know where I work, now I know where you work,” with just the right amount of finesse to sound intimidating and yet potentially harmless.
One scene I will never forget is when Nikolai is ambushed in a bathhouse by two revenge-hungry thugs. He sits there naked and exposed and these two unhappy gentlemen descend upon him (fully clothed) with knives. Nikolai fights like a wounded animal and manages to successfully take down both men even though he is unarmed and un-clothed. Up to this point the character has been something of a gentle giant, knowing the vicious ways of the Russian mob but seemingly at distance from them for whatever ethical decision. But it’s at this moment that we bare witness, no pun intended, to the cagey survival instincts of a man who must live his life looking over his shoulder. It’s a bravura scene that is played out in agonizing detail. Nikolai is slashed and thrown against tiled walls (much penis-related mayhem is glimpsed), but he keeps coming back and knows precisely when to strike. It really is the actors doing all the hard knocks and brawling, which heightens the tension. Cronenberg stages the violence in his realistic drawn-out style, which horrifies an audience while simultaneously fascinating them. This is by far one of the most indelible film moments of the entire year.
Eastern Promises is an engaging character-based thriller, and yet I wish it finished as strongly as it began. This is the kind of movie where much is implied or said in silence, which works great at respecting the intelligence of an audience as well as staying consistent with a believable reality where everyone in such dangerous positions is not explaining everything aloud. However, one of the drawbacks of a film where much is implied is that when it’s over you may wish that they implied less and showed more. The climax to Eastern Promises is a little weak, especially when it comes shortly after the incredible bathhouse attack. There’s a very hazy sense of a resolution. From an artistic standpoint, I suppose I can appreciate a thriller that doesn’t feel the need to end with a pile of dead bodies and much blood being spilt, but at the same time, from an audience point of view, I was really left wanting for more when the film finally comes to a halt.
Thanks to a smart, twisty script, Cronenberg’s sharp yet quirk-free direction, and some stirring performances, Eastern Promises is a first-rate thriller with the added benefit of strong characterization to add richer depth to this tale of mobsters, retribution, and sex slavery. Mortensen is the real deal when it comes to acting, folks. Cronenberg may have found a true match with Mortensen, and the added cache may give the director greater financial opportunities to tell more intriguing tales that may or may not feature ravenous armpits.
Nate’s Grade: B+