Saturday, January 30, 2010

Edge of Darkness Review

Edge of Darkness
Directed by Martin Campbell
Released in 2010

Over the past two years, a new genre, so simple yet so brilliant, has come to light. This is the "old guy kicking ass" action movie that proves to be a hit, time and time again. Sylvester Stallone starred and directed the newest Rocky and Rambo movies, and Clint Eastwood made his most successful film to date with Gran Torino. The Michael Caine vehicle Harry Brown looks like a ride as well, though it is only released in England at the moment. The middle aged action star emerged to a greater degree as well. Kevin Bacon starred in the shockingly violent Death Sentence and Liam Neeson defined "badass" with Taken. Now, Mel Gibson returns to acting at an age in the middle between those two. This film is Edge of Darkness, a fine film, though flawed in its execution.

The plot for Darkness does not take its time to reveal itself. Mel Gibson is Tom Craven, a Boston police officer, whose daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) returns home from her secluded work life to see her father. Once at home, the girl who Tom had raised still has her charm but something is missing. After coughing up blood, she panics that she needs to see a doctor and runs outside, only to be gunned down by a shotgun-wielding assassin. Her death traumatizes Tom, who vows to find the killer and his motives behind the shooting. What he becomes involved in, however, is a deep political conspiracy involving corporate CEOs, politicians, and hitmen alike. The villain de jour is Northmoor, a company specializing in nuclear materials, though a series of deaths there suggest more sinister activity. The story becomes surprisingly deep with every passing minute, sometimes to its detriment. A good 15 minutes could have been edited or reworked to make for a tighter film. Nonetheless, it wraps up at the end, albeit with more than a few plot holes, and has a very touching ending.

Taken this is not. Instead of a slick, far-fetched but very satisfying action film, Darkness takes the political thriller route with a few scenes of combat interspersed in between. Craven finds clues for this murder not with a gun drawn but with a Boston drawl.  He talks with upper and lower class characters, such as Northmoor's head, Jack Bennett (Danny Huston) or the cold-blooded fixer Jedburgh, a rough and mumbly Ray Winstone. Winstone's character is a peculiar one:  there is a lot of dialogue present here and most of Winstone's lines come across as unintelligible. Come to think of it, however, whenever Ray Winstone has talked in the past, he has also spoken in such a thick, low English accent that what is here is nothing new. Of course, he makes it work but not as much as his similar character in The Departed.  That withstanding, what is left is a film with a script of varying quality. There are some classic lines, such as when Tom tells a hoodlum "You had better decide whether you're hangin' on the cross... or bangin' in the nails." The Biblical imagery is especially appropriate considering Mel's projects in the past. However, there are times when too many plot strands that make this feel like a poorly condensed TV mini-series....which it is. The BBC Films logo at the beginning is not totally random: this film is based off an English mini-series that was met with very positive acclaim. The remake is successful but does not have enough time to cover up every plot hole, unfortunately.

There is still action here, and its implementation is very well-done. While Liam Neeson can take out a whole building of Albanian mobsters without breaking a sweat, Mel Gibson is competent in a fist fight but, naturally, gets tired. This is realistic but also humorous when it happens. A knife-wielding lowlife tries to stab Craven, and obviously he is subdued, but Tom has to declare a truce when he is on the ground because, well, the man is exhausted! Scenes like this are a good laugh because of its blatant and honest self-awareness. Tom is better with handling a gun, however. In one scene, a car floors it at Craven, but he does not flinch. Instead, he slowly walks forward, popping a few shots at the killer, with the camera showing the damage from inside the vehicle. These all miss until a final gunshot is a clean hit to the head, with a bloody splatter on the windshield to show. Craven promptly shoots one of the wheels, so it spins to the side a moment before hitting him. Because the film is so dialogue-oriented, action scenes like these are a surprise and a welcome one at that. That they are well-directed, by Casino Royale's Martin Campbell no less, is a great bonus too.

Mel Gibson gives a great leading performance on top of all this. This should come as no surprise to those who are aware of his prestigious body of work and can overlook the trouble he is gotten himself in over the past few years. After his daughter is killed before his eyes, he carries a lined complexion that has seen the worst in life. Once he translates this sorrow to motivation to avenge her death, he becomes a determined detective who is able to put together the pieces faster than anyone else. A tragic motif to this movie comes into play following the intro, when Craven sees his deceased daughter in hallucinations around him. This is a sentimental touch that stands in sharp contrast to the vice and violence that laces every other scene of the film, and ultimately paves way for the moving conclusion. Gibson is an excellent actor, and his first role in almost eight years does not disappoint.

Ultimately, Edge of Darkness is not what most people will expect. It is more plot-driven than the trailers will have you predict, and the action arrives sparingly. An alteration of this format could have made the film a more cohesive experience, one without any down time and only enough story that it can handle. Still, what is here is perfectly competent. Mel Gibson impresses with a role that fits his talents perfectly, and Ray Winstone entertains, if for more of the wrong reasons. However, Winstone's final scene is incredibly satisfying, and makes you remember that, as a grim commentary on political corruption, violence, and personal loss, Edge of Darkness fits the bill just fine.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sherlock Holmes Review

Sherlock Holmes
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Released in 2009

A modern reboot of a series of novels made in the late 19th century does not sound like a recipe for success. With Sherlock Holmes, the result is mixed but, for the most part, it succeeds. A likable cast and some neat action give this film momentum, even when it slows down to some problems with acting, editing and screenplay.

Everyone knows the general premise of Sherlock Holmes, though few know much else. Seriously, who between the age of 14 and 25 knows more than there is a guy named Sherlock and Watson? I sure did not and, fortunately, this film is meant for this crowd, introducing all the main characters and their brief histories. The plot centers around a mysterious figure named Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong, who murders five women in bizarre rituals. He is apprehended by Holmes and Watson, performed with much talent by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, respectively, within the first 15 minutes. However, his disappearance proves to be the conflict and the duo uses all of their "not inconsiderable knowledge" to find out who this man really is. Along the way, Holmes encounters an old flame, Irene Adler, given a seductive allure by Rachel McAdams. She is the one criminal who outsmarted Holmes or, perhaps, merely tempted him to the point of disorientation. Nonetheless, her shifting alliances frustrate the duo but end up being useful. The story is okay, nothing too special, but the action is where the film really gets its edge.

Guy Ritchie, the director, is known for intriguing title credits and overly bombastic action scenes rife with explosions.  Thankfully, Sherlock Holmes is subdued, if ever so slightly. There is an emphasis on Holmes' attentive approach to problem-solving, shown by how fast he speaks and how he is always, unsurprisingly, right. Perhaps the best part of this movie is its combat scenes which take both Holmes' intellect and strength and mash them together. In super slow-motion, Holmes narrates and explains each step in a fight he will take and its result (3 broken ribs, for example). Then, it is played in real time, with plenty of short cuts, and a broken man is on the floor while the crowd watches, mouths agape. It is a very neat feature and is met with a lot of exaggerated facial expressions, crushing audio and ripples on skin once the fist hits it. It only happens twice and I would have welcomed it again. Other action scenes are well choreographed, with the stereotypical "heavy, foreign beast of a man" as a recurring adversary. All of this takes place in an unflattering, gritty version of Victorian England that resembles its influence but lacks any real connection to the time period. Perhaps this was intentional (Sherlock Holmes is not aiming to be a period piece), but it feels like all of the characters could be in modern times if they only dressed differently and drove cars. It is not a real annoyance as much of a peculiar observation. That withstanding, the action is where this film shines and I would have actually welcomed more of the overblown action that Ritchie is known for here.

The acting is surprisingly strong for the leading roles but weak where there's Strong. Bad puns aside, Mark Strong is a fine actor on his own accord but noticeably bad here. He moves his face in strange ways and cloaks himself under a black hood to look menacing. He his hanging from a bridge at one point and I thought back to Christopher Walken in A View To A Kill. That can be seen as a compliment for both of these roles as they are so cheesy that they are good in a strange way. Still, Robert Downey Jr. is excellent, sporting an English accent that can sit comfortably next to Jude Law. Downey has gone from a druggie mess to reformed actor in the last few years, starting with Iron Man, and this new film is another franchise to add to his prestigious belt. It is great hearing about his success and his talent really deserves it. McAdams is also fine in her role; not spectacular but decent, as is Kelly Reilly who plays Watson's fiance. Jude Law himself brings his suave demeanor to Holmes' better half. He is not a pushover, however, as he resorts to brute force usually before Holmes does. All in all, the cast is mixed but the two leads certainly make for a strong ensemble.

There is an occult theme at the center of the storyline and that is where I really have my problems with the movie. You see it in The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, but the whole "secret society with mysterious powers" cliche has been done so many times that it is tiring to see it be done here. I will not spoil how the plot turns out but, Holmes' reasoning withstanding, this could have been done without. In addition, the pacing of the film is fine as it moves along but 10 minutes could have been shaved off from the 2 hour, 8 minute runtime to make a tighter, more cohesive package. Writing wobbles from time to time as well. There is a good amount of humor present here but it counters the weak dialogue for the villains and predictable female encounters. The script does a very good job at wrapping up most of the loose ends, however, and Sherlock Holmes really lives up to his namesake by piecing everything together in the end.  The other issues are not huge but they certainly deserve to be brought up.

Overall, Sherlock Holmes is an energetic, fun ride that does not require much thought. There is action that is both adrenaline-pumping and genuinely funny, and the stellar leading males have great chemistry with one another, also proving hilarious. I could harp on some of the flaws but I still heartily recommend this movie. It is a fun, fresh take on the famous detective and now I know that "Elementary, my dear Watson" is not the only thing Sherlock Holmes ever said.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5