Rating: The Good – 70.1 Genre: Action, Crime Duration: 131 mins Director: Oliver Stone Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Benicio Del Toro
Oliver Stone has to work hard these days to make up for two decades of over-stylised not to mention confused pictures and such is the reason that this surprisingly slick crime feature fared poorly both critically as well as commercially. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Taylor Hitsch star as two wildly successful cannabis dealers on the California drug scene who come up against a ruthless cartel attempting to stake their claim north of the border. As the genius botanist, Taylor-Johnson is the brains of the operation while Hitsch’s former Navy SEAL is the enforcer and together they engage Salma Hayek’s drug lord in a bloody chess game as they attempt to secure the release of their hostage girlfriend Blake Lively. Factor in an utterly loathsome and genuinely scary Benicio Del Toro as Hayek’s right-hand man and you’re left with a colourfully twisted little thriller. Nested in Lively’s inevitably stylised visual narration, Stone allows the energetic if sometimes clunky script to play out in a relatively coherent manner as he shows the most directorial restraint he’s managed since Born on the Fourth of July. Make no mistake, it’s vibrantly shot and edited with flair but with enough discipline for the visual aesthetic to not only be enjoyed, but also be complementary of the well conceived set pieces. On the acting front, the leading threesome (as improbable as their relationship is) are satisfactory without shining and while much fun is had with an overwrought John Travolta’s crooked DEA agent, it never detracts from the the darker tones that Stone’s story paints. It all adds up to a rather satisfying crime thriller that should be judged on the merits of that genre’s most essential elements.
Rating: The Ugly – 60 Genre: Action, War Duration: 121 mins Director: Peter Berg Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch
Highly dramatised account of a Navy SEAL team’s desperate attempt to escape dozens of Taliban during a compromised mission in Afghanistan. Peter Berg is a curious director. A glance at his CV and he could look like simply another journeyman director. But every now and then he pops up with a film that seems uniquely his. The fact that Lone Survivor counts as one such movie is both good and bad for Berg. Good because we have a movie with its own personality but bad because the cheesiness and fundamental idiocy of the plot must therefore reflect largely on him. Far from being an unashamed propaganda movie, Lone Survivor is a crudely veiled one. It doesn’t focus on the skill of the soldiers as a more straight up propaganda piece would. Instead, it’s an attempt to appeal to the emotional bonds that exist between the them. By placing them in a hopeless situation and having them shepherd each other to safety, bullet-ridden and broken… but never beaten. Of course, most propaganda films will play on the audience’s heartstrings aiming for emotional resonance. But Berg doesn’t simply play on them. He bounces on them – trampoline style. Some action fans will forgive this. Many won’t – and the truly awful dialogue during these gut wrenching moments won’t help them to in the slightest.
But for those who can forgive it’s more ridiculous qualities, there are rich rewards to be had in the action department. For Lone Survivor is a relentless shrapnel cloud of an action film, more visceral than most. The final hour is an excruciating embellishment on the levels of pain and punishment these men supposedly volunteer for and, as the opening scene alludes to, even crave. Sure, we recently had a rather complex analysis of this peculiar personality in the The Hurt Locker and, in contrast, Berg’s more exaggerated and fallow depiction of war addiction seems all the more disrespectful to the actual men and women of combat. However, what it lacks in subtlety and insight it makes up for in thump by putting us right in the middle of his imagined experience. An experience that amounts to a discombobulation of close quarter hillside combat interspersed with bone crunching mountain tumbling and lung bursting falls.
If the film is let down by a lack of believability in the action stakes, it’s not making up any ground in its character development. The four SEALS are introduced briefly in the beginning but any notion of building on that gets lost once the bullets start flying. And when two of those guys are played by Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, it’s an unforgivable waste. Needless to say, the bad guys, to specify, the Taliban, are even more one dimensional. Strangely bedecked with ‘Ming the Merciless’ inspired makeup (just in case their slaughter of unarmed civilians didn’t make them seem mean enough), the story would’ve been made at least somewhat substantial if they were given even a modicum of personality. So extreme are they in their badness that the inclusion of a village of kind Afghans towards the end seems all the more conspicuous and, worse, tokenistic. A painful coda dedicated to their real life contribution to the SEAL’s escape only compounds this.
Where Berg truly fails however is in confusing his audience with respect to how he frames his heroes. We’re asked to sit in awe of their dedication, skill, and courage yet the tactical ineptitude that these supposed elite soldiers demonstrate is mind boggling. Their decision making, rationale, and professional comportment appear rather sloppy even to the layman. In the absence of any commentary on this supposed true event, we are left scratching our heads as to how this could’ve happened. Who knows how much liberty was taken in the adaptation but Hollywood is usually guilty of overplaying their heroes not underplaying them let alone leave the audience uncertain as to how much respect they deserve. What is for certain is that we miss much of the action as we ruminate on it. Given that the action is the solitary virtue of this movie, that’s all the more unfortunate.