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The Last Days of American Crime (2020)

Even by relaxed standards which we judge widely-available Netflix movies during a time of quarantine, The Last Days of American Crime is a staggering waste of 150 minutes. It’s based on a 2009 graphic novel series and even by the sliding scale of shut-your-brain-off action movies, it’s numbing, dreadfully dull, incoherent, and stitched together with hoary genre clichés and little creative forethought. It’s rare that I come across a movie that seems so willfully ignorant to explore the implications of its own premise.

In the near future, the U.S. government is in the final stages of implementing the American Peace Initiative (API), a special radio signal that stops crime in its tracks. It acts as a brain blocker on anything illegal, stopping the user from being able to follow through. Graham Bricke (Edgar Ramirez) finds out the hard way when his bank robbery crew become some of the first test subjects. American citizens are desperate to flee to Canada before the API goes live. Bricke gets seduced by computer hacker Shelby Dupree (Anna Brewster) to pull off one big score. The government is readying to destroy a billion dollars in currency before going digital, and Shelby’s fiancé, Kevin Cash (Michael Pitt), has the connection to pull off the heist of the century.

Firstly, there is not nearly enough material here to justify the gargantuan Avengers-esque running time. You could realistically slice down a whole hour and not impact its middling entertainment value or clarity. While I was watching it didn’t even feel like a movie, more like a series designed to be binge watched, where the plotting becomes much more slack because the filmmakers anticipate their show will be digested in quick succession and that they have earned patience. It irritates me in television and it certainly irritated me here as well. Don’t blithely assume that your audience has infinite patience when you haven’t given them a proper story to properly engage with. Just about every scene could be trimmed down and some of them go on punishingly long, especially scenes where people are getting shot. There’s one late scene that goes on for what feels like five minutes of just watching two characters get shot. It’s so gratuitous, like much else in the movie, that it borders into unintentional anti-comedy.

As for the action, director Oliver Megaton (Taken 2 and 3) delivers very little of note. There’s a car chase here, a shootout there, but no set piece that actually develops or proves that memorable. It’s all just disposable noise that amounts to little, not even fleeting, escapist entertainment. This is a heist movie where the actual heist planning is ignored. The most enjoyable part of a heist movie is the intricate planning and then execution of that plan, combating the unforeseen complications and overcoming for triumph. If your entire movie is centered on a big heist, don’t treat that like it’s another meaningless plot element. I cannot believe the filmmakers failed to realize that if the viewer doesn’t know what the dangers, problems, and scheme of the upcoming heist will be, then everything feels arbitrary and unsatisfying, and it does so here. The actual heist, pulled off around the 90-minute mark, is not worth the buildup and lack of accessibility. It’s just another haphazard action set piece, not the culmination of planning and an important payoff for carefully manufactured setups. If you’re tuning in for fun action, you’ll be sorely disappointed to find there’s more time spent torturing people onscreen than there is for sustained and exciting action.

The awful characters we’re left to spend 150 minutes with are hardly worth that investment. Everyone is kept strictly as stock archetypes, and even when the screenplay tries to develop them, it follows a strictly predictable path to minimal results. Oh, someone has a family member in custody and is being pressured to snitch? Oh, our silent-and-seemingly-conflicted protagonist wants to avenge his dead brother because he cares and stuff? Oh, our oddball criminal scion wants to make a big name for himself outside of his father’s shadow? The fact the movie spends so much time with these characters while giving them so little dimension, little personality, and little to do is another indictment on the bloated pacing. If we’re spending this much time with our criminal rogues, the least you can do is make them interesting and dramatic and colorful. The protagonist’s name is Graham Bricke, which sounds so boring that it must have been generated by an A.I. The femme fatale super hacker lady is really here just to look sad or sexy, here to deliver three uncomfortable sex scenes including a near rape as well. The other notable female roles in this movie include News Anchor, Lesbian 1 and Lesbian 2, Female Tweeker, and Female Cop. Hooray for depth.

There are two characters that had a chance of being interesting but are so mishandled. The first is Kevin Cash, our wannabe gangster. Pitt (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) brings a much-needed dose of energy and theatrics, like he’s trying everything in his power to desperately hold your flagging attention. Even his pathetic overcompensating nature is tiresome. A scene where he, his father, and his younger stepmother (another fine example of female character representation in the movie) shriek and bicker at one another is just embarrassing and misplaced comic relief. He’s boring. The only other potential was with Sharlto Copley (District 9) as a disgraced police officer. We spend plenty of time with him early in the movie, establishing his outsider status, perhaps some regret, and hoping that his position of authority will be better explored as he wrestles with whether the police force is worthy of its state-decreed exemptions to the API. Nope. He just becomes another dude in the final act that could have been replaced by anyone else. It would be like devoting so much time to Henchman #12 and his personal crisis of self in a Bond movie only to watch the lug unceremoniously die in a final action rush. Was that worth the time spent?

Its Purge-like premise sounds intriguing and worthy of exploration until, that is, you really think about how silly it all is. So a magic radio signal is going to inhibit your brain from committing known wrongs, but does that mean that the radio signal will have to blare constantly in order to have a lasting effect, otherwise its enforcement will be limited? What happens to sociopaths who don’t even register right from wrong? They will be able to move and act without abandon. Then there’s the day-to-day corruption, graft, greed from all pillars of society, politicians and Wall Street and officials that exploit their positions for illegal gains. Seriously, if this radio signal inhibits the fruition of illegal acts, would Wall Street just shut down? Would the factory owners who knowingly skirt worker safety for profits be able to operate? Would criminal defense attorneys be able to operate or would they use the ethical justification that everyone, no matter how heinous, deserves legal representation? If you think about a capitalist society, it’s built upon people behaving not so nicely, so would all facets of the economy grind to a screeching halt?

There is one aspect of this world building, even with what the meager story has established, that could be interesting to explore, and that’s the exceptions to this new order. Police officers are getting implants that make them immune to the effects of API, though in a world where a radio wave eliminates criminal acts, do you still need a police force to protect and serve? Regardless, this special class of exception is deserving of further exploration, a socially relevant angle to tap into the inherent advantages offered to the top one percent who don’t think the rules apply to them. In fact, if Last Days of American Crime was going to run with its silly premise as is, and during the pre-activation countdown timeline, they should have presented a story about those who are given the state-sanctioned privilege to act with impunity. Let’s watch the elite get their special exemption chips and plan for the New World where they maintain their vaunted privileges. It would at least make the movie socially relevant as well as a better development of its sci-fi premise.

Watch, dear reader, as I present you two better scenarios with this silly premise. The first is the most obvious and that’s life AFTER the implication of the AFI, presenting life under a new fascist order and a group of revolutionaries trying to thwart the radio waves. Imagine a group not plotting to pull off a bank heist but ridding their community of the AFI and giving them autonomy over their minds and bodies again? There’s an ever-present hostility that forces the characters to keep their thoughts on safe topics, having to communicate with subterfuge to not set off their brain jailers. It would be like a dystopian version of that classic Twilight Zone episode where little Bill Mumy where everyone had to think “good thoughts” or else he would magically banish them to the cornfield. That’s interesting, that’s genuine conflict, that’s characters under great duress trying to escape a fascist nightmare without tipping off the invisible sensors in their own minds that could trigger. There’s a larger goal of freeing their fellow citizens from this tyranny as well. That’s already one hundred times better than simply trying to steal money before the clock strikes zero. If it was only ever going to be “one big last score” then why even bother with the mind-control antics? It could have been anything at all.

However, if you wanted something more low-key, you could take a different path with the idea of the bucket list before the API goes live. Think of two teenagers who don’t have the means to escape and feel like they haven’t fully lived and a whole lifetime of rebellion and adventures they had been dreaming towards will now be snuffed out. The screenplay already floats the idea of a criminal bucket list but why not run with that idea as the core of your movie? Two teenagers making the most of their time together over the course of one long crazy night of cutting loose, testing their boundaries, and acting out the best ways they know how, learning about each other and the depth of their friendship before their minds will not fully be their own. It takes the teenager coming-of-age model, feeling like a stranger in your own body, and gives it a PG-13-Purge twist, with the distant tragedy of the looming tyranny ahead to up the stakes. Even that development would be better than “one last score,” and these are just two ideas I’ve come up with while writing this film review. Think what could be accomplished if a professional screenwriter spent weeks fleshing out a better version.

Alas, the version of The Last Days of American Crime we do receive is powerfully plodding, incoherent, empty and arbitrary, and definitely not worth your precious 150 minutes. With the current state of the world where thousands of U.S. citizens are protesting in the streets over a militarized police state and wanton brutality, it makes Last Days look even more phony and ill-conceived as entertainment. It doesn’t examine the implications of its own fascist police state, it only uses it as a pointless backdrop for an arbitrarily plotted  “last score” heist before it all just falls apart, spent of imagination and intent.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Columbiana (2011)

Apparently, Columbians and several academic professors of Columbian descent have taken offense with the implications of the new action film from the stewardship of producer/co-writer Luc Besson (name a French action movie from the last 20 years and he’s likely had some hand in its development). The criticism being drawn is that Columbiana paints an unflattering picture of life in the South American country of the, almost, same name. I suppose that could be one charge against the film, but why be so limiting? Columbiana doesn’t make anybody look good, except for its star Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek), who could even stand to eat a few more sandwiches if you ask me.

10-year-old Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg, soon to breakout in a big way as Rue in next year’s Hunger Games) has the misfortune of watching her parents gunned down in front of her eyes. Her father ran afoul with the local drug lord, though we’re never told why. The drug lord’s main henchman, Marco (Jordi Molla), is looking for a microchip Cataleya’s father gave her. The girl stabs Marco in his hand and leaps out a window, darting through the streets of Bogotá with goons chasing after. She makes it into a U.S. embassy and offers up this microchip filled with significant data (what we’re never told) as her passport to America. She eventually finds her way to Chicago, where she lives with her Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis, doing an accent on loan from Scarface). She wants to be a killer to avenge her parents, and her uncle agrees to help. Flash forward 15 years, and the adult Cataleya (Saldana) is working as a hired assassin. Her calling card is painting the cataleya orchid on the chests of her victims. Why? To attract attention from the right parties. She’s playing a dangerous game, as they always do, romancing an artist (Alias’ Michael Vartan), staying a step ahead of the authorities, and working her way up the Colombian goon food chain to get back at Marco and his boss.

This is one of the dullest action movies I’ve had the privilege of sitting through. I was actively counting down the minutes until it would be over about halfway in. It’s not because Columbiana is particularly bad, it’s just so staggeringly routine, a French-styled action thriller cobbled together from the leftover bits of previous French-styled action thrillers (take one part La Femme Nikita, some faux Professional gravitas, add some District B13 parkour, how about a few outlandish Transporter getaways, and bake for 30-40 minutes). There are a few decent action sequences but lots of time in between, time that lets the film’s momentum lag and allows space to start contemplating all the questionable aspects of the picture. There are so many lazy, recognizable pieces onscreen, from the idiot FBI agents, who are always late on the trail, to the underwritten romantic love interest who is only there for booty calls and to accidentally be endangered, to the oblique bad guys who are just bad, and sometimes rather bad at being bad. These guys couldn’t outrun a 10-year-old girl in Columbia, what makes me think they’ll get their act together and take out the adult version? And I absolutely hate it when movies, set in other lands, have the characters speak one line in their native tongue and then transition immediately into English spiced with the occasional foreign phrase. Columbiana has the notoriety of making me yearn for the days where a female assassin picking off men twice her size was a novel concept/image.

Turn after turn, beat for beat, the plot has characters behaving in contrived ways because the story would not work without these contrivances. Cataleya says she’s an expert killer, but much of her expertise involves an insane number of coincidences and variables that are impossible to account for. We’re talking about the bathroom habits of guards, the amount of coffee consumption, the placement of specific prison cells, the precise number of guards and their own attention spans, the fact that every single person would not notice security cameras being messed with, and even nitty-gritty stuff like the amount of water in a plastic cup and the exact size of a hole that would allow the right amount of liquid to drip and pool into a spoon. Not to mention the fact that this also works on the assumption that police finding a plastic cup and a spoon inside a security panel would not find any of this suspicious. What the hell? That’s not rigorous planning and flawless execution? That’s divine intervention and/or good luck. At least in other hitman films that would study their prey to make it look like an accident. Not our Cataleya. She’s been taking out goons and leaving her calling card in an effort to attract attention from a certain Columbian cartel leader. The problem is that it takes her 15 years and over 22 murders before her skills attract media attention. That’s a frustration that the Son of Sam might identify with. But how would murders in Chicago attract attention in Columbia?

The only thing noteworthy for an enterprise that is so inherently generic is the weird moments that catch your attention. First, Saldana’s emaciated, wiry, potentially malnourished frame certainly draws your attention. Has there ever been a skinnier assassin on screen? There’s a reason that this woman is able to constantly squeeze inside air ducts and other cramped spaces; she’s practically a contortionist with her body. Now the actress has always been petite but her diminished physicality makes everything she does seem so much less believable. When she’s slinking around with a humongous assault rifle, you’d think the rifle weighs more than Saldana. And then when she engages in hand-to-hand combat, you keep waiting for some bad guy to grab her by the scruff of her neck and just hold her at arm’s length, a safe distance from potential kicks. Despite all her steely glares, Saldana just does not come across as a believable hitman. To top that off, the way director Olivier Megaton’s (Transporter 3) cameras seem to worship her lithe, leggy body gives an unsettling support for Saldana’s teeny tiny body. Now people can be just as discriminatory toward thin people as they can be with the overweight, but with Columbiana, Saldana’s skinny body negatively impacts the reality of a story already riddled with logic gaps.

Then there’s Cataleya’s uncle who himself is something of a criminal under lord. She wants to grow up and be a killer and he just sort of shrugs and says, “Okay,” in the same tone of voice as if she had said she wanted to be a cowboy. But this is Movie World, a place where Cataleya’s father tells his driver, “We’ve got maybe an hour at most before he kills my whole family,” and then spends that fateful hour in such a lackadaisical fashion. He stops and walks around his car, sits down his little girl to have one last talk, waits for his wife to pack; there’s no sense of urgency here. People, you got one hour to supposedly live, you don’t pack a suitcase you just get in the car and run! But getting back to Uncle Emilio in Chicago. After he enrolls her in school, she’s sulky because she doesn’t think there’s anything she can gain from American education. She just wants to learn the ways of a killer. Her uncle, in a misguided feat to teach her a lesson, pulls out a gun and shoots randomly into a street, causing a car to crash and dozens of witnesses to huddle. “What can I teach you if you don’t learn?” he says, somehow giving the least inspiring case for public education. Then, preposterously enough, he and Cataleya scamper off at a mid-trot, casually eluding the police and all the dozens of witnesses who have clearly been able to see them this whole time.

Columbiana is one of those cookie-cutter action movies that just coasts on the apathetic expectations the audience has when they knowingly plop down money for a generic genre picture. And generic is certainly Columbiana. It’s a fairly standard revenge picture with some fairly standard action, devoid of any discernible kinetic style that might make for memorable sequences. Columbiana would not exist if it weren’t for a wealth of clichés and contrivances; the whole enterprise is bursting at the seams thanks to all its shortcuts in story and character. What does the title even mean? Is the film Columbia-esque? Is the depiction of skinny assassins and preposterous, illogical action supposed to be reminiscent of life in the country of Columbia? I think the film paints a worse picture of Chicago than Columbia, but at any rate this is an action thriller that can’t be bothered to thrill. Columbiana is generic to the point of desperation, where even the sight of Saldana in a skintight cat suit can become underwhelming in time, a tragedy of international proportions.

Nate’s Grade: C

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