RIORI Vol 3, Installment 76: Todd Phillips’ “Starsky And Hutch” (2004)



The Players…

Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughan, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg, with Juliette Lewis, Carmen Elektra, Amy Smart, Chris Penn, Matt Walsh, Fred Williamson and Will Farrell.


The Story…

Way too uptight David Starsky and way too laid-back Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson are paired up for the first time as undercover cops. In order to get to the bottom of a cocaine ring in Bay City the new partners must overcome their differences and get to detectin’ rather than bickering over the small stuff.

Like who gets to drive and who has the cooler, non-permed ‘do.


The Rant…

Finally. RIORI is dissecting a classic Hollywood trope: the buddy cop movie!

This formula has been both revered and reviled. The latter sadly more often than the former. Why sadly? ‘Cause the whole buddy cop gimmick invites action, comedy, mystery, the occasional side boob and often lotsa things going ker-boom. These films are usually reserved for the summer season, when audiences brains are too dinged by the heat to make sense of the Fandango app on their iPhones. Me just want ha-ha, boom and boom. Ha-ha.

I’m not bagging on these kinds of dumb fun in the theatre. And no, not that kind; keep it clean for now. I may approach almost serious here, which is kinda dumb considering this week’s installment. But when I think quick dumb fun, some wacky stunts and precious little moral fiber attached to either, gimme a buddy cop flick. Think about it. Summer movie bubblegum? Sex, shooting and snickers. Besides Twizzlers, a bucket of popcorn the size of a Basset hound and soda large enough to swim in, what more could one want for mindless entertainment? Even Skyrim requires thought and planning, so there you go.

So how come such a simple formula goes south more often than barges down the Mississippi? I think it happens when the directors and scenarists try to get too clever. Adding seemingly needless details and twists to a relatively straight line regarding plot, no matter how razor thin. Over arching romantic threads, surprise reveals like the hero is the bad guy and/or political intrigue. Sure, such devices might enhance the plot some, but I feel that the best kind of buddy cop flicks steer relatively clear of such tricks. Keeping in mind my criteria above, we ain’t talking auteur theory here. We mustn’t. Think too much about what you’re watching with a BC flick and it’s game over, man. Twizzler avalanche. Bummer. While you picking up the debris, you missed the side boob.

Too clever, mind you. All things being equal, the sex and shooting alone don’t make a decent, memorable BC movie. And yes, even though most are designed to be disposable entertainment, the real good buddy cops flicks have to have at least one trick that sticks, like that stubborn kernel jammed in your molars. Just keep it simple, be it snappy dialogue (essential, actually), rough and ready heroes who make you laugh (also necessary) and a wild mystery to solve with maverick moves (raison d’etre). That something special, almost ineffable quality that raises dumb fun into really dumb fun. Don’t muddy the waters with…f*cking anything. We wanna hear Axel’s donkey chuckle, thank you very much.

Examples of the decent BC formula are myriad, but also few and far between. A few notable ones include the original Bad Boys, the movie that officially launched Micheal Bay’s directorial career (a dubious honor at best) and Will Smith’s movie career (just as dubious). The goofball Tango & Cash, shameless in its goofballery. 48 Hours, though technically not a buddy cop flick since Eddie Murphy was a con, but the thing followed the paradigm, as did mostly solo Murphy in the manic Beverly Hills Cop (best to remember Taggert and Rosewood now). The sleeper Stakeout featuring Richard Dreyfuss at his most ridiculous and Aidan Quinn at his most scary. The underrated but eventually enjoyable Running Scared with wiseacre detectives Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal (at his most snarky) following the title’s advice regarding the vile druglord Jimmy Smits (his best role IMHO. Fanboy here? Yep. Have a Twizzler) on their tails. There are many other BC goodies hither and yon. Key there is reveling in the funny.

Speaking of Running Scared one could regard that movie as a dry run for the ur-buddy cop flick Lethal Weapon. Maybe you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, you’ve never heard of the 1980s either. You might have missed something. If that’s the case, let me enlighten you dear reader and perhaps the curious reading the anti-art of the BC flick. It follows the classic formula. Some may argue it defined it. I do.

For the uniformed part of y’all—those born post-1990, when BC films started to creep towards respectability (I’m looking at you, The Hard Way)—the first installment of the seemingly endless Lethal Weapon franchise (no word of a reboot barring the TV show yet, but after the recent RoboCop travesty hold on hope) set the blueprint for all BC movies, past and future. Our mismatched heroes were played by the unhinged, manic Mel Gibson (a full two decades before the real unhinged, manic Gibson surfaced) paired against serious, family man Danny Glover (no signs of mania there. Or now). The plotting of their case is straightforward: busting a drug ring. Classic, reliable, now often over/misused. Beverly Hills Cop covered this, as did Running Scared and even the warped sci-fi BC pastiche Alien Nation, featuring Fredo and Inigo Montoya. Really. Wasn’t bad either.

Weapon‘s basic premise laid the plans for and eventually established how a good, satisfying BC movie should tick. Namely, that snappy dialogue, kooky stunts, car chases, a tough case to crack, quotable quips (“I’m too old for this sh*t”) and a scary villain (Gary Busey at his most menacing). All killer, no filler. So to speak. And it’s been ripped off for decades, including its sequels of diminishing returns.

But it worked. Despite all its overall mundanity Weapon worked. Even with its first sequel somewhat, that set up a rule about action sequels: bigger, faster, more. More laughs, more ker-booms, upping isolated troubles to correct to aiming overseas; apartheid was a hot topic when the second film emerged, so why not make the evil money launderers baddies arrogant, white Afrikaaners? Hey, let’s toss Joe Pesci into the mix as the motormouthed comic relief. Why not? We don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Why?

Complacency. BC flicks for the past whenever have been color by numbers, connect the dots, and getting way too old for this kind of sh*t. There have been some bright spots. The first Rush Hour. The 21st Century take on 21 Jump Street (I know, an adapt, but good is good, and I’ll take what I can get). The hilarious Hot Fuzz; parody at its best. The Other Guys, wacky and turning the genre on its ear. These worked in the wake of the BC Golden Age 80s.

Then there’s the diaspora, which aimed to ruin the genre. And often did.

I’ll play it fast and loose for ya, cuz I think I’m losing you, enough to resort to semi-ironic mispellings a la a Slade playlist. Now please open the door before the obscurity police break it down and drag me away. Quit clapping.

Turner & Hooch, the response to Tom Hanks Oscar nom for BigShowtime, too meta for anyone’s good.   White Chicks? Um, we can always go too far. Cop And A Half? The less said about that.

You get it.

There’s dumb fun and then there’s just dumb. The above besmirched the good time stupid that BC movies culled. Again, don’t make me think too much. I have my Kurosawa collection for that purpose. And which I why I adore Running Scared. No samurai, but still.

Now we come to this week’s chopping block. Be warned. First, it’s a remake. Second, it’s a remake of a dopey 70s police procedural. On TV, no less. You’ve already heard my carps about that device. It does work sometimes (eg: 21 Jump Street), but more often such trickery falls flat (further eg: Dragnet). In the endgame, it’s all about keeping it fast enough and having the just right amount of dumb to fly. It’s the mantra to chant when approaching such a beast.

So to paraphrase Steve Martin (think Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), let’s get dumb.

Boom…


We got trouble. Right here in Bay City. Which starts with C and that rhymes with sea and that stands for: cocaine.

This kind of malfeasance really chafes the upstanding detective David Starsky (Stiller). He’s a model cop. Some may claim too model. Guy can’t let anything go. Every case is bamboo under the thumbnails. Every crime spreads feces all across his beloved city. Worst of all the Force won’t get off him for his perfect hair. It’s not a perm!

On the other side of town, loose cannon detective Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson (Wilson) takes the crime of drug dealing way too casually. He’s a happy grass eater, pleased as punch to accidentally foil any crime boss’ plans. Accountability? Spell that please. Just doin’ the job, Captain.

This kind of offhand attitude regarding how the cops handle drug trade in Bay City offers all sorts of opportunities. Drug kingpin Reese Feldmen (Vaughn) has a plan. The scuzzier elements of Bay City want their fix, but the narco squad with their crack K9 unit won’t let this be. Money is to be made, if only there was a trick to the trade.

Feldman’s toady Kevin (Bateman) figured out where the rabbit hid. A new strain of coke, scentless, throwing the sniffers of any trail. Drug dogs can’t smell it, the China white. Feldmen is made.

Not quite. Dedicated cop Starsky and laid back Hutch are paired up to bring down the drug ring. Neither have ever had a partner before, and both are fast to piss one another off. But there’s the dire case to consider. And who can figure out who has the better haircut.

Actually, both need some straight dope, so to speak…


There’s a trick here to flicks like Starsky & Hutch, and I ain’t talkin’ about the buddy cop thing. That’ll come later. Always does whatever it is; you’ve been up this alley before. Welcome to my dead end.

The trick is this, and what was attempted, more often failed that succeeded what making the transition from small screen to big screen back in the day. By back in the day I mean the 90s. This’ll most likely be a retread 0f some knuckle-headed theory I spouted prior here at RIORI. Shaddap, it’s relevant, rest assured. Now wake up.

Back in the Slick Willie years Hollywood got a yen to adapt classic TV shows into big budget spectacles. The Fugitive, Lost In Space, even the freakin’ Flintstones got screen time. Boomer nostalgia running high then a great deal of these movies raked in the cash and made for passable movie entertainment. In that order. But for every Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables or The Fugitive (which even got an Oscar nod, before God) we got sh*t over shovel. But for every   we got The Beverly Hillbillies, Car 54 Where Are You?  and Dragnet (tho’ I admit I have a soft spot for that one. I blame that on maybe Tom Hanks’ character being named Pep. Sometimes I like slumming). Kinda funny Hollywood once felt threatened by the medium of TV. Divide and conquer, I guess. Pagans.

Ahem. Back to now. The trick is this: any TV adaptation to film’s make or break is laying on just the right amount of period cheeze without crumbling the cracker. Our above positive examples incorporated the right amount of nostalgia fuel (sometimes making that just wallpaper). MI with the disguises, international espionage and cool gadgets a la Tom Cruise just barely hanging over that computer lab. Heck, that one teeters on an iconic scene. Hard to screw up The Fugitive‘s story; played out not even like a TV remake (“I don’t care!” Couldn’t resist). Hell, even though Wayne’s World was a short bus period piece, and only culled from an SNL skit series, it caught a slice of pre-Web zeitgeist that was winning, even inviting a less than inviting sequel. All had touchstones that complemented the movie version, not overshadow it.

This theory seems pretty heavy-handed regarding a dopey buddy cop TV show from the 70s and therefore translated into a dopey buddy cop movie in the 00s. Either director Phillips didn’t get the message about how TV adapts are passé or he just tore up the note, ground the flecks under his heel, declared pishaw and barreled forth, dismayed haircuts be damned.

So yeah, Hutch is rife with winking period cheeze. It is not subtle. It is not refined as refined as TV police procedurals went during the Gerry Ford administration. The whole flick stinks of wallpaper paste. And it exists in a bubble. Again, seems Phillips did not give any sh*t, and maybe that was the point. A big winking joke, which was actually mildly funny.

Going without speaking, let’s jump into it. Our leads are it, the pinion on which this period 8-track clicks. Stiller and Wilson have an awkward chemistry and like Phillips’ direction it’s hard to tell if it’s on purpose. Regardless of my suspicions, Stiller and Wilson were a stitch throughout. The flick was smart to let the guys demonstrate—more like run riot—their signature comic chops; the sh*t they cut their teeth on.

Being a stiff, winking nebbish is what Stiller is best known for. From Reality Bites to Meet The Parents (where I belived he first sparred with Wilson) to The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty remake, Stiller at his best is when he plays the fish-out-of-water. By happenstance or by design. Stiller’s Starsky is an odd amalgam of Roger Murtaugh, momma’s boy and Frank Drebin. Dedicated, but to what? Sure, there’s the case, but that’s just the proverbial Maguffin. Here he kinda strains at being straight-laced; a “serious” Stiller is often funnier than a goofy, nerdy Stiller. He might not be some supercop, but to even infer that?

I’ve always dug Wilson’s shaggy dog sense of humor, like he doesn’t know where he’s going either. His midwestern surfer dude schtick has always tickled me, and it suits his Hutch to a T. “What could possibly go wrong?” should be his epitaph, and a keen catchphrase to his Hutch. We have Wilson here at his laid back silliness making it up as we go along for the ride.

Wilson and Stiller have sparred together before true, but not as primary foils. Hutch was their first true outing together if you ask me, and it was pretty amusing, almost in spite of the well-worn plot device (eg: bust a drug ring). But this was less a silly Lethal Weapon rip-off than more like a 21st take on Abbott And Costello Play Cops. But in the 70s. With a lot more boom. And babes. And cool hair. And all the body language smirks, like we’re all in on the joke. Including the audience.

Speaking of cool hair, Snoop Dogg as informant Huggy Bear was an inspired bit of casting. He managed to out-Murtaugh Murtaugh. Always timely on the scene to both deliver Starsky and Hutch about drug ring scuttlebutt and quick to remind them what a pair of lame-o white boys they are. And they need it. Simply put, we got good banter here with this doofy Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad. Guess it’s really no shock considering all three’s similar style of motormouthed delivery, either funky beats or stammering, uh, beats. Word.

Speaking of which, Vaughan has made a career of being a motormouth. His Feldmen doesn’t stray far his gimmick as carnival barker on speed has kinda worn thin on me, but paired with straight man Bateman as Kevin the sycophant works really well. Let’s face it, Hutch is a tongue-in-cheek, kitschy action comedy satire based on a 40 year old dopey buddy cop TV show (but with a cool car!). But that being said, we gotta have villains just as nutty as our heroes, essentially mirroring our gung ho cops (okay, Stiller is gung ho. Wilson asks what a “gung” is, and Snoop’s only interested in da hoes). Since Vaughn’s persona has become such a self-parody, why not work it? It does work here, against most odds; his Feldman is equal parts hustler and baddie with Bateman as “Yes, master. Whatever master. should be running this operation (backslap to the head; get back to the laboratory).

Not just our leads, but the accomplices all had a chance to shine. Well, maybe just one really. I’m not much of a fan of Will Farrell’s style of soft-core frat boy comedy. But sometimes…sometimes a snicker slips through the wire. Even as just a cameo, Farrell is as obnoxiously goofy as ever. He improved his entire scene, I’m sure of it. Despite me being a naysayer, I felt like Farrell stole the entire movie in five minutes. Remember what I said about trickery? No? Good. Moving on.

Despite Hutch being a semi-screwball comedy we do got have a nice little mystery to solve a la a hockey helmet Law And Order, but with more chuckles. It’s almost sovereign that all buddy cop movies got some dire stakes on the line if the bad guys succeed in their nefarious acts. Wooooo. I found it kinda cool—if only in a chewing gum sense—that this token device played out so…okay. I guess if found some strategic  scenes of action played well against the funny. It makes for better comedy in the long run. Ask the Greeks.

Whoa, whoa. What’s with all this in depth scrutiny of a dopey Todd Phillips parody (almost a given)? Okay. Sometimes you gotta give yourself over to the absurd. No matter how much you think you detest certain movies based on the casting, story and director’s crap shoots it sometimes, albeit rarely hits the mark. Hutch did that to me. I guess I was stressed out at my time of viewing and just needed a dumb laugh. Hutch gave me a tickle. That and it was decently funny, too, skewing all those buddy cop trappings listed before. We could do far, far worse here.

Like some damned perm for high school Homecoming, circa 1975. Go Cougars!

My mascot was a f*cking canary, which is probably why I grew my hair long. Why not?

Do it. Just do it.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s dumb. It’s sophomoric. It’s funny. Take it with a lick of salt. I did and you’ll need it. Did I mention the cool car?


Stray Observations…

  • Great soundtrack. Period music played with a modern style. It works.
  • “Why are you touching him? Jesus…”
  • Nice shootout.
  • “Must be the old coke. This is the new coke.” “It’s sweeter.” Groan.
  • I did feel ashamed to laugh at this fluff. But it was fluff. It’s hard to be cynical sometimes.
  • Best. Easy Rider tribute. Ever. Down to the music.
  • Is that a fondue set? Oh yeah, right. Period piece.
  • Oh hey, it’s Patton Oswalt. Neat…who also improvised his lines.
  • Shout out to Hamm’s, Farrell’s poison of choice.
  • Direct quote from blogger’s lips: “Mimes. Oh, sh*t.”
  • “I don’t cry. I work out.”
  • Wait. When did the wheels get fixed?
  • “Do it.”

Next Installment…

The Half Nelson is referred to by most coaches as being the easiest, but most effective move in folkstyle wrestling, and is very commonly used.

Nice codependency metaphor there, Wikipedia.


 

Advertisements

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 75: David Cronenberg’s “A History Of Violence” (2005)



The Players…

Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, Peter McNeill and (eventually) William Hurt, with Ashton Holmes, Greg Bryk, Heidi Hayes and Stephen McHattie.


The Story…

Dateline: Middle America. A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.

Tom is a humble businessman and decent family guy. Runs the local diner in his simple, small town. He’s got a sweet wife and a pair of weisenheimer kids to keep him on his toes. A well-respected member of the community. And isn’t that usually how it all starts?

After thwarting a robbery at his diner—with uncharacteristic, ninja-like precision—Tom becomes a media sensation. How does a lowly hash-slinger bring down a pair of nasty crooks on the run with their own weapons and a well-placed carafe of the daily brew? It’s a good question.

Pointed even, since when Tom’s rescue gets filters through the national networks curious folks from out of town seek him out. Serious folks. One might regard them as…not nice.

Namely, such gentle thugs didn’t drive cross-country for Tom’s revered cuppa joe and a slice of pie.

They’d rather have a slice of him.


 The Rant…

This has happened here at RIORI before, when I’m not sure how to kick things off. But after watching barely the first act of A History Of Violence, something stirred my curiosity.

*pats comfy, leather couch*

Let’s sit, talk. Brandy might be served later if you’re nice.

I touched upon this matter years back in my typical byzantine way when I covered the film adaptation of Bryan O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World graphic novel series. Despite the movie being helmed by the darling director Edgar Wright I hated the thing. Found it stupid. Any postmodern pop-culture disections were lost on me. Now I ain’t dumb, but maybe Wright’s intentions were made to make me feel that way. Heck, this is more or less a left-handed apology to a respected friend who loved the thing. Sorry there, Fish. Ships in the night and all.

Pilgrim was based on a graphic novel series. Not comic book, BTW. For some odd reason both media are cut from a different cloth sewn to the same cape. I have watched an ample amount of comic book adaptations here, almost required by law to feature a superhero’s antics (e.g.: Spider-Man 3, Green Lantern, Superman Returns, Man Of Steel, Iron Man 2, etc). Also have seen quite a few graphic novel takes to boot (e.g.: Watchmen, From Hell, Cowboys And Aliens, the aforementioned Scott Pilgrim, the forthcoming V For Vendetta [mark your calendars!]) including today’s steak on the grill. Now it may be the medium, but despite which aisle of Wegman’s you’re snooping, films based on comic books tend to be action-packed and lighthearted in the endgame. Movies lifted from graphic novels tend to be more, well, graphic. Heavy drama, sex and shooting, navel gazing the human condition. Stuff like that. Despite one medium ain’t far removed from the other side of the coin—the content may be similar, if only ratcheted up to 11 on the novel end—when it comes to making the pluck into film what’s with the odd balance of power? Why are comic book flicks up and graphic novel flicks down? Why, I ask you, why?

I know. Such a question ain’t really that important so long as the film adapt stayed faithful to the spirit of the book if disregarding the letter. About half of the comic/graphic movies seen here at RIORI earned a “rent it” (an aside: this being the 21st Century, and Blockbuster has been shaken to dust, I’m kinda finding it silly to call our little cinematic whistle-stop RENT IT Or Relent It. But STREAM IT Or Relent It doesn’t really have the same cachet, does it?). That being said, it’s most likely the subject matter that cuts the mustard and not the source material’s format. One would think.

*tumblin’ tumbleweeds*

Okay, confession time. The above jazz has precious little to do with this week’s flick. Very little. We’re talking trace elements here. So why’d I bring it up? Let’s call it snacking on some crow, and we’ll reserve the bones for stock later.

If you may recall a century ago I covered the aforementioned Edgar Wright’s take on Scott Pilgrim vs The World. I did not like it, and wasted no blood shaking it down for its lunch money. Not long after the posting a long distance friend of mine complained about my complaints. He though the movie was great and a very faithful adaption to the spirit of the comic, if not the letter. Well, I often respect the guy and heard him out. His argument was valid, and gave me enough pause to consider Pilgrim again. Not reconsider it, mind you but hear my friend’s measured words.

In hindsight, Pilgrim was a good movie, and its interpretation of the graphic novels did it honor. Am I saying I like it now? Nope. Just really wasn’t for me. Sometimes that happens: a decent film gets in my crosshairs and I have a hard time hitting the broad side of a barn. At high noon. With a sniper rifle. That and with the Pilgrim movie, director Edgar Wright and his style kinda chafes me. Kinda. The man’s talented, obviously, but akin to my Tarantino autopsy with the Seven Psychopaths installment Wright like Tarantino might be too clever for his own good. Namely, the two directors are wunderkinds and particularly adept at going for the jugular, tempered by what their shrewd, pop culture-saturated muse whisper—scream, rather—in their heads, tempered with honey. Buckwheat honey. The bittersweet stuff.

Some directors are calculating, if only under the skin. Folks like Tarantino, Wright, Scorsese, Kurosawa, Nolan, Kubrick and Hitchcock got the gears a-turning when it comes to getting their sh*t in the can. Their work can get a bit esoteric, but there’s always a well-drawn blueprint to their work. I ain’t talking style, not exactly. I’m talking execution. In short, c’mon, 2001: A Space Odyessy was not some lark. Wonderous to be sure, but not off the cuff (Christ me even writing that makes me smell the fecal matter rising). You get the drift.

Then there’s the flipside: directors whose work is a bit looser, more organic. Following the senses. Those guys behind the lens are myriad, and their muses alternate on being on an opiate or a few shots of Jager, chased with a pan of brownies (and not the magic kind, either). Their films follow some sort of emotional straight line, and despite how pro their films come across there is the barest scintilla of either winging it, dropping everything to go where their senses tell them to go, and even despite the toughness of their plots there’s sometime a ragged glory humor just below the surface.

No shock here, but I be talking about the likes of Crowe, Zemekis, Burton, Miyazaki, Capra…

…And David Cronenberg.

A-ha! Point en route! Thanks for your patience, and I’m talking to me.

Now there’s a director who follows his senses. Organic like peat moss. His muse reeks of absinthe and pancakes, and what she tells him to is akin to like making gumbo: yeah, throw that in. No one saw it hit the floor. Cronenberg’s final products are twisted, scary, gross and so wonderfully violent your very soul needs a shower after watching one of his works. That’s a complement, BTW.

What I always dug about the man’s films was their acorn. You know, which may grow into the mighty oak? Yeah, only his glen is populated by some stunted growth. Short bus bonsai. His stuff is like xenogenesis; the offspring doesn’t resemble the parent. And the whacked out thing is if you chew on it, what his muse informs him (regardless and in spite of the weird sex, nasty violence and an overall “what the hell?” feeling) is, yes, personal but also prosaic.

Cronenberg has gone on record saying most of his catalog that is his fistful of acorns stemmed from pretty average, simplistic stuff. His adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone was less about sci-fi and precognition but growing old. The televised pulsing, mutant labia in Videodrome was inspired by the “off-air” TV programming he saw as a kid, like pirate radio broadcasting from out in the aether (that and as an aside he might’ve been a big Blondie fan). His puke-tastic version of The Fly was a meditation on the AIDS crisis in the mid-80s. Scanners was of shades regarding both drug abuse and the plight of Holocaust survivors. Relatively straightforward things. But get them into Cronenberg’s Cuisinart imagination, boink! And barf sometimes.

The guy excels at organic as well as weird. It’s understood he sharply executes his babies with a laser scalpel, but as for subtlety…well, there ain’t much there. Unless you scrape underneath the surface, not unlike a scratch off ticket promising big bucks on the outside but a lone dollar beneath. That’s also a complement. Keep track.

Now then.

*shakes sheets free of cracker crumbs*

This week’s shingle. We got all the poised hallmarks of a Cronenberg film. Intrigue? Check. Odd? Double check. Brick-to-the-head violence? Duh. Re-imagining themes so to properly appease/warp his muse? The Dead Zone, The Fly and the cryptic Cosmopolis (what else would you expect from a DeLillo book as movie?) are all re-interpretations. The guy is season in twisting things around to appease his demented muse covered in peat, thumbtacks and a hairshirt. The man has a gift for the emotional, but disregarding his inspirations, his movies are indeed organic. One might claim inorganic. I’m leaning that way.

So where the f*ck am I going with all this? Nowhere really, and that’s no shock. Kinda but not like Cronenberg’s output. This isn’t fanboy-ism. More of a cautionary tale. Not a warning though, either. It’s this: re-interpretations in film can be a dodgy thing. As I mentioned in the High Fidelity installment, another adaptation of book-into-film, we don’t want the director’s vision get in the way of the director’s vision. From a director who ultimately has made a career of re-interpretation films, you’re gonna get the Forrest Gump treatment regarding a box of chocolates served via rock tumbler.

You never know what your gonna get. Barring a coffee pot to the temple, Jenny…


Tom Stall (Mortensen) is the picture of quaint domesticity.

He and his wife Edie (Bello) are Town Square fixtures, proprietors of the Millbrook Diner, providing coffee and pie at friendly prices. They have a pair of great kids, reserved son Jack (Holmes) who takes after his dad. And squeaky Sarah (Hayes) who, of course, takes after mom.

Sure, there are hiccups. Jack get bullied by the resident alpha male jock Billy (Byrk) who has no toleraace for being bested on the baseball diamond. Sarah has nightmares. Apart from that, it’s life as usual in the Stall homestead in Millbrook, Indiana.

Until a pair of drifters wander into the Diner for more than just pie and a cup of joe.

Turns out these two are vicious criminals, and mince little words with Tom how they’re going to dismantle his business and friends. Faster than one could say “this will not stand” Tom dispatches these creeps with the efficiency of an assassin. He sends one to the hospital and the other to the grave. Tom saves the day, his business and his friends. For his heroics, modest Tom becomes a media sensation. The man who wouldn’t take it, fought back and triumphed.

That leaves a question hanging, though. How did Tom do all that superspy stuff? He serves pie for a living. He’s not James Bond. Even Tom can’t explain his actions away. But soon after an individual visits Millbrook to provide some some answers, whether Tom wants any or not.

Yet another day at the Diner, Tom plays host to a stranger. A haggard, eerie tough who calls himself Fogarty (Harris), and appears to know a lot about Tom and his history. More than Tom may know about himself. Or wants to.

Or should…


Scott Pilgrim vs The World this ain’t.

No surprise there, and nary a drumkit to found. However kinda tying into my weird, dodgy schpiel about graphic novels versus yadda yadda yadda is how a graphic novel feels. Sure, it’s self contained; you don’t have to wait for the fresh ish next week and “what happens next?” There’s no comic code to adhere to, so we get blood, sweat, tears and guts to relish. Sometimes we get unconventional artwork to pore over (think The Dark Knight Returns or, well, Scott Pilgrim). But the main thing I think about how graphic novels are unique in the realm of comics is how claustrophobic they can feel. It might be that self-contained thing, as well as the creators can let their id run riot, decidedly apart from mainstream books. I’m not sure, but I know that from reading Eisner’s, Miller’s and Moore’s work I don’t want to feel like someone’s looking over my shoulder reading their sh*t. Curious about Spidey’s exploits this week? Check it out. Rorschach on the prowl in the City, sniffing out conspiracy? Go away. Under the sheets with a flashlight here.

That’s the flavor of isolation I got from watching History. Granted, I never read the source material, but the film was tight, angular. Difficult to watch, and I’m not referring to the content. It was how it was packaged. There was a lot of intrigue, namely “wait a minute, what’s going on here?” There was definitely something afoot (and very odd) about how Tom thwarted the baddies; it was so sudden and left-of-center. Out of nowhere. Isolated. The hell?

Next scene.

I meant that metaphorically. Slow down. This is a Cronenberg flick; there’s always more than meets our eyes. History way be another adaptation/reinterpretation, but we’re gonna get spin. According to the director, he delved into Darwinian theories of evolution. Cronenberg surmised from this that there’s always gonna be a stronger bastard bent on wrenching power from lesser, more unfortunate f*ckers. Hmm. Sticks well to how simple Tom gradually realizes his inner power. Not sure History book writers had that in mind when pen met page, but when Cronenberg stuck his beady eye into the lens, all bets were never there.

Regardless being a maverick at spin, I did smell some more traditional filmmaking under the surface. Perhaps homage from Cronenberg, the protean. The film did have a connecting style. History kinda had an “Old West” feel. Specifically the “Man With No Name” spaghetti Eastwood oaters. Maybe too on the nose, but that’s Tom’s motivation in the proverbial nutshell, down to living in some podunk “frontier” town visited by unsavory strangers. You gotta have some anchor with a Cronenberg flick, Darwinian process or no.

That setup serves the film well. Again, an anchor. Quite useful considering how strategically sh*t goes off the rails later. But keep in mind the Old West schtick. Cronenberg has always defended his stock-in-trade demented works are based on personal, if not prosaic things. For example, his grotesque take on The Fly. It’s easy to dismiss/blame one’s impulses on some outside stimulus. The man’s fooled no one and everyone. He thrives on exaggeration and that may be his best, “modest” trademark in his work.

Huh? Watchu mean modest? There is precious little modesty in Cronenberg’s outings. When one employs rotten hot dogs and a well-placed shotgun blast to replicate a head exploding due to too much psychic intrusion the notion of being modest of craft kinda goes out the window. Yeah, I guess so, but maybe it’s all about which window.

Alright, enough anal spelunking. Cronenberg’s works are modest, reserved even. And History is no different. Going all the way back to Scanners, something’s always lurking, creeping under the floors and around the corners. The Stall’s life of quaint, small town domesticity is a ruse, to be sure, but before the diner “home invasion” scene yet after the stage setting opening sequence we get a weird, static and isolated feeling. Right, we’re establishing the stakes as setups are wont to do, but innocence is but a visage here. For all. The Stalls are classic mom and pop, yet it feels forced, like any small crack will make the dam fail. We have this creeping dread of artificiality permeating…f*cking everything. It’s claustrophobic, as a graphic novel is to be read. It’s winking melodrama. It’s a Cronenberg film; there are certain expectations. History‘s suspense doesn’t come from the impending doom, not really. It comes from that frail cardboard feeling which makes us know that all’s not well. Even before Harris shows up (and well before Hurt finally shows up) something is decidely “not right” with Tom, or Edie for that matter. The tension is like caramel, oozing and sweet. More like bittersweet really.

And the best aspect of such is our Danish Aragorn Viggo (I’m gonna address him as Viggo from here on. One, cuz I like his first name and; two, I keep misspelling his last). Like the lurking, static visage of the Stall’s small town idyll, we know even before a shot is fired or a carafe smashed that Tom is—as the British say—something else altogether. His homelife feels ill-fitting. His marriage seems too nice. His kids need to be there. And Viggo with his mile-long stare and aw-shucks self-effacing makes it all the more odd. Reserved. Modest. And of course it makes his Jason Bourne freakouts all the more harrowing.

The flipside of Viggo’s earnest performance and skilled killer in hiding—both within and without—is a distinct issue I took with History: I felt I’d seen this before. Sure, plenny’o films borrow/make a nod to previous films covering similar subject matter. It’s when the pinion upon which the whole plot spins like a warped 45 screams to my attention span that this is not a new thing. Despite all his solid fragility and earnest deception, Viggo devolves into a white picket fence Jason Bourne. Don’t get me wrong, Viggo’s Tom was engaging, but not wholly original. I mean carbon copy unoriginal. Then again, Cronenberg adaptation/reinterpreation of a graphic novel delivered with the unassuming whacked-out modesty. Christ, it can confusing talking about Cronenberg’s output. See-it-to-believe-it thing going on.

Back up. For the underinformed, the Bourne books/movies revolve around the exploits of a superspy with amnesia named Jason Bourne. Guy has no idea who his is or from whence he came, but he sure done good at hurtin’ peoples and guns are shiny. Viggo’s a lot like Bourne. A lot like Bourne. It takes longer here for our reluctant “hero” to come to terms with his history. Right, History is based on a graphic novel, and Cronenberg shoots it as such, but unless the movie script deviated way left from the written plot does everybody know something about Tom except Tom himself? I’m not saying this flaw is naked, but the whole “I’ve seen this before” feeling was both insidious and rather unfair. You’d think under Cronenberg’s lens, his keystrokes of reinterpretation, perversion and modesty (and we’re gonna ignore the source material here on out. You didn’t read it either, admit it) he would not play it so safe and in a sense squander our lead’s acting chops to be just some Bourne cypher. Viggo was still interesting though, sold his Tom well. I suppose that was enough for me not to chuck my embossed hardcover copy of Ludlum’s The Bourne Supremacy at the screen. You know, the one no one read? Including Ludlum?

Viggo’s foil, Harris’ Fogarty is also another thing entirely. Consider this: what we have here is essentially a comic book movie, and stars not one but two Oscar winners. It’s been well documented here I’ve taken the George C Scott stance about how the self-aggrandizing, back-patting nonsense detracts from just watching and simply enjoying the whole movie experience.

*squinting*

However, when a pair of prominent, award-winning actors grace a sort of nondescript comic film you gotta pay some attention. Especially when one of said actors is the well-esteemed Ed Harris. Big fan here. He’s another actor who’s always elevate a mediocre movie from a possible sewer line. Namely, not unlike my main man Sean Connery, some of Harris’ movies may suck, but he’s always good. And hell, both he and Sean made an actual good movie out of Michael Bay’s doofy The Rock. No duh thank him and aging 007.

Anyway to the meat, laid-back Harris feels more intense than Harris-Harris. His Fogarty was f*cking chilling, and the hell of that his character was so plain, so quietly assured. Sure, Fogarty looked like he took a flaming Cuisinart to the face, but it was his demeanor, like a librarian behind that face that was so unnerving. Enough to make Tom quietly doubt and shiver over this “Pete” guy he was accused of being. Harris is the merry imp, well acquainted with rules of the game and therefore adept at breaking them when necessary. He was supposed to be the heavy here, but was instead lightweight. I guess let sleeping dogs whatever.

When the final act eventually rolled around (and despite that Crononberg does indeed enjoy his weird shit) I think I figured out the straightforward muse that tugged at the man’s director chair, and it wasn’t simply Darwinism. History is all about idful catharsis. It ain’t some subtle lesson here: we are all capable of violence, pre-programmed or defensive. We all like to pretend, either literally or metaphorically as Tom does that we’re all even keeled, and attempt to create an environment that fosters that idea. Nope. Like Tom, we’re all delusional: sh*t happens, trains jump the tracks, fire, ruin and supernova may take us all. First things first, though: bare the fangs. The ones we forgot we had.

After all the folderol you may ask, “So blogger, was the movie good? And you got anymore Mallomars?”

Answer: it was okay and no (those tasty cookie mutants went off the market around a lifetime ago. I’m sad, too). Okay because of the Bourne stink, as well as the morality play I just smeared all over above. All of it was executed real good, but it also was not that original, even for the director’s style. Seemed like Cronenberg was as ever delving into the well of personal truth via mimicking a graphic novel’s take on whatever. It felt like a solid Cronenberg flick, with all earmarks unpierced, with a great cast and solid pacing. But felt like a solid Cronenberg flick, with all earmarks unpierced, with a great cast and solid pacing and the shadow of Matt Damon waiting in the wings with a clapboard at the ready.

Needed more cool hand Harris. And more stairway f*cking.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it (what is it, three films in a row?). A good movie, as only Cronenberg can spawn. But there was this creeping feeling of “Haven’t I seen this before?” nipping at my brain. A good time waster, but I’d rather watch his adaptation of Naked Lunch again. And I read the book prior. Movie made no sense either. Good work, Dave.


Stray Observations…

  • “There’s no such thing as monsters.” Uh-huh, right.
  • Best/worst puke take I ever saw.
  • “We never got to be teenagers together.” And best/worst subtle romance line I’ve ever heard.
  • Tom is delusional. In at least three different ways.
  • “We’re tourists.” And we are.
  • Liked the Yeungling shout-out. Reminded me of home, minus the crashing dishes.
  • “Then we deal with it.” Click.
  • There’s lots of small symbolism here.
  • “Nice gate.” …Yep.
  • That look. That gun. That is all.

Next Installment…

We’re on the case with Starsky & Hutch, their cool ass muscle car and nary a whit of irony.