William Friedkin’s outstanding crime thriller is like all of Michael Mann’s 80′s crime thrillers rolled into one and injected with steroids. William Peterson plays Chance, a risk-taking secret service agent who’ll stop at nothing to bring a master counterfeiter who killed his partner to justice, even if that means breaking the law himself. Willem Dafoe plays the counterfeiter in question and as usual he makes the character his own and in doing so gives us one of the more memorable movie villains from that era. Despite its glossy exterior, this is a gritty film that through both anti-hero and villain explores the darker side to crime, punishment, sex, and ego. The action scenes are hugely impressive with Friedkin almost outdoing his French Connection car chase with an even more reckless and equally well acted chase through the LA freeways. The film exudes a self-destructive vibe like few others and that scene is the focal point for such tension. The acting is brilliant with Peterson putting in his second best ever performance after Manhunter (some may argue his outright best). Of course, he is helped by a brilliant supporting cast including the likes of Dean Stockwell, John Turturro, and John Pankow as Chance’s nervous colleague. Though on the exterior, this looks like a Friedkin version of a Michael Mann movie, one must remember that the latter picked up a lot of his favourite themes from Friedkin in the first place (e.g., the obsession of Popeye Doyle has been a recurrent theme in Mann’s characters). Moreover, Friedkin was always more unconventional and even experimental in his films which is why To Live and Die in LA closes in a way Mann would never dream of closing a movie – with an enigmatic psychological punch!
Rating: The Ugly – 67.5 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 108 mins Director: Wolfgang Peterson Stars: Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett Jr., Brion James
“Hell in the Pacific” retold in sci-fi mode with Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. starring as two enemies stranded on the same planet. Quaid is the human fighter pilot and Gossett is the alien “Drac” who, after an initial period of hostility, begin to work together and ultimately form a bond of friendship. Enemy Mine is one of those enjoyable movies which many of us grew up on and were happy to do so. It came from an era in science fiction writing when good old fashioned story telling was at the heart of the genre and, as a result, the movie works despite some minor issues. The two leads seemed to be having great fun working together and it pays off well given the nature of the story. Quaid was always charismatic and solid in these types of roles while an unrecognisable Gossett (thanks to some excellent make-up) gives a considered and nuanced performance.
This was a troubled production and director Wolfgang Peterson only came on board after much of the movie was shot and, depending on which story you listen to, the exteriors were shot in either Iceland (where much of the initial production was based) or Germany (where Peterson based himself). However, anyone remotely familiar with the raft of sci-fi movies shot in Iceland (Prometheus being the most recent example) will recognise the unique sci-fi friendly Icelandic landscape in many of the scenes, which combined with the top notch matte painting to bring the alien planet to life quite majestically. On the negative side, the sets are less impressive and come across as something form a Star Trek episode. Throw in some childishly conceived alien creatures and parts of the movie definitely become a little kitschy. The ending is terribly rushed and the abrupt change in pace affects the tone of the movie and destabilises much of the acting (in particular Quaid’s) significantly. There’s some gory action thrown in at the end but it’s somewhat unsatisfying given the quality of the opening 90 minutes. Ultimately, however, the movie still works thanks chiefly to the chemistry between the leads and the easy often light-hearted script.
Rating: The Good – 75.9 Genre: Drama Duration: 126 mins Director: Rod Lurie Stars: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges
Writer/director Rod Lurie’s The Contender is a well above average political drama full of intrigue and political machinations. Joan Allen heads a stellar cast as Senator Hanson, a right leaning democrat who has been nominated to fill the vacant office of Vice-president by President Jackson Evans (played with suitable gravitas by Jeff Bridges). Gary Oldman is the hard-line Republican determined to prevent a woman from entering such a high office and filling out the rest of the cast are heavy weights such as Christian Slater, William Peterson, and the great Sam Elliot. Writer-director Rod Lurie handles the drama extremely well knowing when to dial up the tension or when to diffuse it with some well acted humour. His intelligent script pulses with a rich vein of sardonic humour and he keeps each of the actors fully in sync with it throughout. Yes, the characterisations are a little cliched, there is a questionable plot development towards the end, and it’s unapologetically partisan, but one cannot shake the feeling that it all stems from that quirky black comedy at the film’s centre. In the final analysis, though, it’s the performances that make The Contender so rewarding. Bridges makes for a fantastic executive leader and exudes an effortless authority whether he’s finessing or steamrolling those around him. Elliot is electric as his attack dog Chief of Staff and Oldman is as detestable as they come. However, it remains Allen’s film and in these times when most leading female roles usually require the actress to be kicking ten bells out of nasty bad guys for 90 minutes, it’s genuinely satisfying to see one of the most outstanding actresses of her time given material appropriate to her talent.
Rating: The Good – 84 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 119 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen
Michael Mann’s most artistic project is a tour de force in writing, directing, and acting. It’s also very likely the definitive ‘serial killer’ film as it covers the phenomenon from all possible angles: from the killings themselves; the motives of the killer; the manhunt; and the effects it has on the agents tracking the killer. Each of these four angles could themselves be the sole premise for such a film and it’s to Mann’s credit that he not only manages to deal with each of them in a substantive manner but also skilfully weaves them together into a coherent story. The film moves at a steady pace and, while always conveying the urgency of the characters’ actions, it never feels rushed. The process of tracking the killer is shown to us in meticulous detail right down to the unspoken rivalry and/or contempt that the different branches of the law enforcement system have for each other.
Unlike the 2002 remake and even the novel itself, everything important in Manhunter is subtly hinted at so it’s left up to the audience to infer: Graham’s ability to track serial killers (is he half-way there himself?); Graham’s motives for choosing Lounds to lure the killer (did he or didn’t he?); Dolarhyde’s disgust/insecurity at his own physical appearance (and the root of his desire to kill). This is the true brilliance of Manhunter. Rather than force-feeding the audience, Mann recognises the characters in this film are driven by their ability or inability to deal with their own psyches. The subject matter is therefore subjective and should never be clear-cut enough so that it can be explained in black and white. Giving substance to this psychological approach is a visual and auditory style of pure artistry. Each shot reflects a sublime synthesis of production design, art direction, score, and cinematography as Mann soothes or energises the audience with a variety of rich grading, sharp angles, hard and soft lighting, and an overall magnificent use of space.
Manhunter is not just a technical triumph in direction and writing but also in acting. Each character is fully drawn out by its actor and they each relate to the different characters in consistently different ways. Peterson has never been better as the introspective lead investigator who innately empathises with these killers and so understands how their profound insecurities can lead to murder. The progression of his character throughout the film is believable and quite expertly conveys to us his desperate attempt to separate himself from ‘his man’. Farina is, as always, brilliant and while Scott Glenn plays him very differently but equally interestingly in Silence of the Lambs, the former’s Jack Crawford is the grittier and more hard-edged. With every glance and eye-movement, Farina brings to bear his first-hand knowledge of what it is to be a cop doing his job under time pressure.
Standing out from this excellent ensemble is of course Brian Cox as Lecktor. Though there is some merit to Anthony Hopkin’s unfortunately more renowned portrayal of the same character, his is undeniably a caricature of a serial killer and, therefore, not realistic at all. By definition, a serial killer must appear to be a very normal person – that’s how he manages to kill a ‘series’ of people as opposed to just one and then being caught! The problem with Hopkin’s “Lecter” is that he is quite clearly not fully there in the head and so even the rawest recruit from the FBI down to the Cub Scouts would be able to pick him out as the killer. Cox gives us something entirely different to Hopkin’s more cartoon-like performance. His Lecktor is smart, charming, and beneath the surface empty, devoid of sentiment and compassion. It’s to the actor’s and Mann’s credit that by the time his three scenes are done with, we have an implicit feeling as to what may be driving this Lecktor as well as an uncomfortable liking for him.
Above everything else, however, Manhunter is a testament to the artistry of Michael Mann in his pomp. Three sequences in particular demonstrate this with striking clarity: 1) the ‘walk-through’ of the tooth-fairy’s letter through the forensic process: not a quick, flashy cut in sight. Instead we have a patient almost soothing series of scenes which convey exactly what the different forensic specialists do (and there is not one indication that Jimmy Price and co. carry a gun, let alone go tracking down the killers themselves!). 2) Graham’s visit with Lecktor: a dream-like sequence wherein, through Mann’s sublime framing, staging, contrast, and composition (as well as the two actors’ abundant craft), the two play the best game of mental chess we’ve seen on film. 3) Dollarhyde encountering and falling in love with Reba (played by Joan Allen): Michael Mann at his best shows how the fantasy-driven psychosis of a serial killer can be shattered to a point that the real person beneath is briefly exposed. File under “masterclass”.