RIORI Vol 3, Installment 90: Nick Cassavetes’ “John Q” (2002)



The Players…

Denzel Washington, Kimberly Elise, James Woods, Robert Duvall and Ray Liotta, with Anne Heche, Eddie Griffin and Daniel E Smith.


The Story…

It’s a good thing that John has a solid job to pay all his bills. Too bad his hours were slashed at the plant.

It’s a good thing John has years of experience at his job to find something better to cover all those bills, as well as his family’s needs. Too bad he has too much experience, and other folks might need a job more than he does.

It’s a good thing that when John’s young son Mike fell prey to a serious heart condition, he’s sure as sh*t he’s got medical insurance to cover the kid’s treatment. Too bad it’s the wrong medical insurance, wrapped around paperwork that keeps Mike from getting said treatment.

It’s a good thing John knows some diplomacy, trying to negotiate with the hospital bigwigs about he can afford Mike’s heart transplant. Too bad it all falls on deaf ears, expenses, possible litigation and bureaucracy having a firm hold.

It’s a good thing John knows the way back to the ER and how to handle a gun…


The Rant…

I don’t like my job much. It’s a boring grind, mindless and my skills as a chef have gone to rust all for it. I have a good résumé, all the right references and a lot of my coworkers ask me this as much as I ask myself: “What are you doing working here?”

My answer is always the same, with no sniff of irony, “I need the health bennies.” Sure, there’s that Roth IRA plan waiting for me when my teeth become gums guaranteed by my place of employ, but in the here and now I have expensive meds to take and my kid has expensive meds to take and personal physicians don’t do barter, no matter how much jade I’ve hewn from the quarry.

You see, unless you toil in a restaurant with Emeril’s name hanging over the door (or any brandname operation), chances are as a cook you’re looking down the cold barrel of Medicare to help stave off the bleeding (so to speak) when you’re, well, bleeding. So forget the “so to speak” gibberish. It is spoken. If you do not have a salaried job (and sometimes if you do), American medical insurance takes a large chunk out of your paycheck. I have great coverage; it takes away a third of my earnings. I can safely say I can always afford to be sick. It’s the gas gauge in my car I keep an eye on every day. That and how much I have left in my phials.

Good medical insurance does indeed lend a feeling of security—no matter what deductions scream—but, yikes it sure is an expensive feeling. Especially when you consider your monthly budget, parsing out your remaining earnings on food, gas, phone bills, wi-fi service, pony rides, cigarettes and yer beloved TiVo recording all those future Game Of Throne eps your Netflix account is already streaming for you. At the same price. Papa John’s every night ain’t scratch neither.

Seriously though. Health insurance is vital to everyone in our country, in our world, but can cost a literal arm and leg to access it. Well, here in America anyway (I hear it’s tad simpler in Canada. And in Sweden. And in Israel), but I might start to digress. I recently had the joy of trying to update my health services for a corporate takeover. The business I started my job with lost their account and new bosses with their new ways of doing things began to roll in. Us workers under the old account were given the option to be hired by our place of employ proper, therefore offered the (limited) options of fresh health insurance under their rules. There was a meeting. Sorry I didn’t tell you. You get the memo?

One option was to use the company’s network insurance. Quite inexpensive, but limited. The network was small, and we could only get totally total coverage at one of their satellite operations. All three of them in my neck of the woods. I didn’t know how far their power truly reached, but it was decidedly not outside the neck of my woods. Namely, if I were to visit my sis out in California and got hit by a truck, I’d be way out of that neck. The price is right, but no thanks. And did you get the license number? Owie.

The other option was the outside provider. Not as cheap, but further reaching. But not as cheap. Not cheap. Far less cheaper than I was earning via the account I was hired under. How less cheap? Let’s put it this way: one third of my biweekly paychecks were raped and pillaged on the off chance that my daughter and I got raped and pillaged. It evened out overall with affording monthly meds, seeing doc for the sniffles and reconstruction surgery when my jaw got smacked by that mace. However it cost more for me to be on their plan, despite they offered the same coverage as my old plan did with the old account. And I still had to reapply. Ugh. Can we say paperwork? Try online form-filling. I actually hit a 404 error filling out the sh*t on the website, even following the instructions. It was all Greek to me. Really. An icon of Hippocrates blinked on the screen, giggling and flipping me off.

So here’s the deal: the other plan both winked at and guaranteed I definitely would get an uppercut with a mace sometime in my future. Maybe out in California sometime. There was a lot of gloom and doom that this plan would guarantee full coverage for…taking at least half my earnings with it. That meant a spike in my med costs, even more paperwork and no more pony rides. What to do, what to do?

I took the third option: kept my current plan outside of network and settled with just a third out of my wallet. And serious pills below the $20 range. It’s a Capital Blue company. Status quo. I f*cking know it works. It’s like American Express. Don’t leave home without it. Now I can visit sis in San Fran and afford treatment for that impending road rash.

But what a headache for it considering we might be dealing with matters of life and death down the line. Unfortunately for most American citizens, and despite my typical jocular bulls*t, getting decent health insurance under the circumstances I told would be a dream come true. My bitching about some paperwork was just that. It was an inconvenience and a matter of budget-tweaking. I have NO IDEA how much it costs to keep an HIV positive patient alive, but I’ll wager a lot. Maybe spent on prolonging a morphine-drip dream of seeing a sister in California. Some year, if they have one. Or merely a month. Bet their parents do. No vay-cay for them. Just crossed fingers and no cars in the garage attached to the family home with a triple mortgage. They have insurance, too. Still the debt keeps getting deeper.

Ever ask why? Maybe you shouldn’t.

I used to make this joke about why congress should ratify nationalized health care. This was before Obama took the horns, and kept taking the horns. I argued for national health care because hospitals could only make a profit on living patients. The ones that die get off scot free. This did not generate much chuckles. The thing about profit did. Hospitals are businesses. Their commodity is healing. Their product is sick people treated into well people. Their uptake is healing…and treatment. Especially treatment. All those pills and PT and lab work and concessions to the students and scalpels and jello and wings and all that folderol THAT’S where the money comes in. Insurance just scrapes the frost from the Chubby Hubby. Namely, you know how much a fresh MRI unit costs? No? Ever try to buy a Raptor stealth fighter jet? No? Exactly. BTW, treating HIV costs a lot more annually, ignoring meds.

Now let me tug on your coat about the government remora eels known as lobbyists. Despite the Obama Administration’s best plans, longview and intentions there was no freakin’ way Barack and Co would ever get nationalized health care ratified into law. The fact that Obamacare even got a foot in the legislative door was nothing short of a miracle. Why is that you ask? Well I’m no pundit, but I am a bit of an armchair politician, and I’ve been pretty ‘woke about why some things get passed through congress like poop through a goose and why other result in constipation.

History lesson: way back when Ulysses Grant was president, when he wrapped up work for the day he’d head on down to DC’s esteemed Willard Hotel for some brandy and cigars with friends. He’d hang out in hotel lobby to chill and forget about politics for the day, but some government types liked working off the clock. These folks were dubbed “lobbyists” reflecting their nerve to meet with the prez after hours, pushing their personal agendum and even buying drinks for Grant in hopes to curry favor as well as get him lit (which really didn’t require the rabble’s help).

There. Making a leap getting Grant sloshed was the midwife for today’s toadies influencing the president’s agenda with wads of money (gratis, of course so long as their backs are sufficiently scratched). Said money is more often than not promised by the lobbyist’s sponsors, eg: big business. That’s sort of an open secret here in our fading republic. The philosophy of our country has always been capitalism, and that philosophy informs business. And if some entity can find a way of influencing our government, their agenda can be far reaching. So much so that who provides your phone service, what fruit you buy and how Nintendo USA had the gall to leave out VIII of their classic Final Fantasy package for the Switch might’ve had something to do with a lobbyist’s slimy efforts. Who does Coca-Cola want as president? Who does Disney want a secretary of commerce? Who would Peapody Energy like to installed as the new secretary of the interior?

And who does Merck et al want to oversee the FDA?

Not who the politicians think are capable. And certainly not who voters may want.

“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.” That quote is attributed to Calvin Coolidge. You how, the president that more or less harbored in the Great Depression? Yeah, that was almost a century ago. And without that one third being garnished from your wages to pay for the sniffles you might end up greatly depressed, too. Thank Monsanto for that.

Good thing Pfizer has a pill for you. Lists for about $5000 a dose, but you privatized health insurance may cut that price in half. May.

So there’s your weekly dose of bile courtesy of yours truly. Don’t misunderstand me, and I do repeat, that chunk o’ change that gets taken out of paycheck every other week is welcome, if not vital. Meds are expensive, as are trips to the emergency room as well as just a simple physical at your family doctor. What I’ve been railing about for the past three days is why the shrugging necessity to petrify middle America’s tax bracket persists. It’s bad business, Cal, and encourages if not perpetuates a system that demands profit over human rights. Open question I know, and has only a glancing relevance to this week’s movie. But it’s been something I ask every time I have to open up an envelope with a little window in it and then do some fuzzy math over what I have to go without this week. Hopefully not the pony rides.

Oh yeah. Did I mention I work at a hospital…?


Bills, bills, bills. Flows in like the tide into the Archibald home, and it’s always a tidewater surge.

John (Washington) and Denise (Elise) have been feeling the pinch. John’s hours have been cut at the factory, and Denise got let go from her previous job to start a meagre one as a clerk at a supermarket. But these new developments don’t keep their spirits down. Sure, being under-empolyed bites—especially in the wallet—but they’re a tight knit family, and John puts on a brave face for their rambunctious son Mike (Smith). Through a set jaw John is quick to assure that everything’s gonna work out okay.

Life’s not that easy.

What would’ve been a picturesque scene for the Archibald’s turns into a parent’s worst nightmare. At Mike’s typical Little League game he crashes onto the baseline between second and third. This was no fall. John tears onto the field to find his son dazed, turning blue and unresponsive. Panic ensues.

After the ambulance races Mike to the ER, the diagnosis is less than optimistic. Esteemed cardiac surgeon Dr Raymond Turner (Woods) tells the Archibalds the worst. Mike’s heart is three times its normal size, forcing Mike’s body to work overtime. When Denise demands what’s that mean Dr Turner explains that Mike’s respiratory system has been taxed into cardiac failure. Unless gets a heart transplant and fast, Mike is never going to play baseball again. Or breathe.

Thank God John still has his health insurance with the factory. Too bad Mike’s crucial operation isn’t covered by his HMO. Denise has got a good plan waiting for her at the market, but she just started and it won’t kick in until the 90 day mark. Meanwhile bouncing between the hospital, seeking extra employment, wrangling with bureaucratic nonsense and not getting Mike on the organ recipient waiting list the Archibald’s son is wasting away.

So what does a dad do when his son’s life is in danger? What does he do when he’s gone through the correct channels to get the treatment he desperately needs? When all else fails on the side of decency what does one do?

He does the decent thing, but not necessarily the right thing.

Desperate times and all…


John Q is a message movie, and the message is as subtle as a flying mallet. It’s heavy-handed, the setup is on the nose, more than a bit preachy, a tad saccharine and when on the mark blood pumping but still plastic. Then again, such a sledgehammer approach might’ve primed a kickstart. But all was, all in all, a message movie. And such a movie often gets played like trying to cross a Laotian farm without stepping on a landmine: step cautiously, thine director, lest you get heist by your own petard.

I read that director Cassavetes along with his screenwriting partner based the script on events surrounding the director’s daughter (minus the whole taking the ER hostage thing, natch) who suffered from a congenital heart disease. Chances are that the director overdosed—so to speak—on hospital yin and insurance yang that got smeared all over a rather pedestrian final draft like a Pollock mural. Still, Q is still engaging, despite the subtle as neon speechifying the cast oozes at every turn. This is a message movie, and Cassavetes either had an axe to grind or a flare to launch. Both is my guess. His aim kinda sucked.

So what, you may ask, makes a good message movie? Well, IMHO, make the message unfold over the course of the story. Example? All The President’s Men. We know the story’s all about Nixon’s shadowy infiltration of the DNC. The message comes along as we follow the intrepid duo of unflappable journalists Woodward and Bernstein unravelling and exposing the crime.

In The Heat Of The Night might overtly be about racism, but it’s a police procedural first with the issue of race differences fleshing out the story (recall the scene when TIbbs slaps back and Sheriff Gillespie doesn’t know how to react?) There is a lot of examining racial prejudice in Heat, but it’s also about putting aside differences to find a common good. Gillespie didn’t make his appearance with guns blazing screaming, “I don’t trust no n*ggers!” He could’ve. It was implied, but (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein) it wasn’t there there.

And overall, Philadelphia was about prejudice, discrimination, Jason Robards’ rich vocals and injustice. Prejudice over AIDS victims. Discrimination against gays, Robards raising his hand to remind us all he co-starred in All The President’s Men and all that crap which leads to a victim getting picked by the system. Precious little inside the courtroom screams about homophobia, AIDS and whatnot. Courtrooms scene were key, yes, but at heart and even mentioned in the movie is to let Andy Beckett get his job back. None of these films slam you with the message front to back, and not all of them are subtle. But they let you breathe and put the pieces together yourself.

Ah, and speaking of Philadelphia, Denzel co-starred in that one as the slimy, ambulance-chaser who takes on Tom Hanks’ case. Washington’s been in a lot of message movies according to his CV. There was Philadelphia obviously. Malcolm X (for he was robbed of a Best Actor trinket), a movie smashing the erroneous conceit of the “white man’s burden.” The Seige that presaged the reactionary tactics of halting terrorist actions on the homefront. Flight plundered the dramatic up and downs—again, so to speak—of when one too many is one too many, despite the outcome of any action. And all of St Elsewhere.

So did Denzel take this role for the message? Well, he’s always been a dependable, entertaining actor. His charm and charisma always takes the audience in. Denzel is always a relatable actor, even against type. That’s his universal appeal.  he might’ve been showing a few threads on the seat of his actor/activist pants when he picked up his role as John. That guy’s a cipher; the voice of a million frustrated, frantic John Q’s as dad trying to perform the impossible for is child. You’ve heard folks clamor, “I’ll do anything for my baby!” As John, Denzel takes this to heart a hundred-fold. And comes off as a little frayed. There’s a palpable taste of going through the motions here, most likely invited by Cassavetes’ et al didactic script. But it is Denzel’s motions (as well as the rest of the stunning cast) that rise this affair a bit above a modern day, sorta prescient Dog Day Afternoon.

So speaking I enjoyed how fast John’s impulsive plan starts unravelling. It’s a reversed/reflection of the medical bureaucracy that he wrangled with earlier on in the movie. Those scenes were the only scenes that implicated future events, not spray painted with a red circle and a line through it.

I’ve shared my opinion of Denzel having a warm softie for a message movie. Don’t deny this, Denzel in Q is him as his Denzelious (that’s a word now). I’m not certain that Denzel is a sucker for a message movie, but if his CV is any indication, the man has something on his mind. And he is very good at getting behind that message, whatever it may be at a given movie (even this rather pedestrian affair). John is a passionate man, but not a pushover. As the story unfolds after little Mike gets the dire diagnosis, we see John jump through hoop after hoop, desperate to get his kid on the donor list. He is gradually ground down to desperation, and when he mounts his siege against the he comes across as almost, well, rational. You find yourself asking—and well behind John and his motive—well, what would I do?

I think this arises due to Denzel’s earnestness as an actor also. It’s easy to get behind his outwardly easygoing nature. And like with the Shakespearian trick of having tragedy following comedy as a narrative device, once Denzel disarms you he can roll in and start gnawing on the scenery. Earnestly, of course. For such an insane plot as has, you better be convinced that all is lost in order to stay interested. It helps with Denzel’s hangdog dragging you along.

It’s funny. Not shoving Denzel aside, has a killer cast. It’s almost wasted on this sometimes pedantic social commentary. Okay, is, well, okay. And stellar actors make with what they’ve been dealt the best/worst way possible: behave like canards. I mean, didn’t Duvall play this character already with Falling Down? The man’s got a great presence as well a prickly sense of humor but a little less bluster and speechifying would’ve been welcome. The same goes for the quirky Woods, the hammy Liotta, the slimy Heche, the smartass Griffin and the almost willowy Elise. All are good and all underused, feeling shoehorned into the message than introduced to the story. It’s a shame, and often jarring. But some light shines through the cracks here and there. That “simple” convo justified Liotta being in the film alone, as well as Duvall’s economical delivery of his lines. Barking, pointed but also human. That and we have Denzel, so all was not lost.

Okay, we’ve established too many times that Q is about as subtle as a hammer to a thumb. It’s all about the message, the message, the message. But for all its preachiness, the film delivers it in a compelling way. The pacing is perfect, no matter the context. It does deliver on drama (can’t lie, the third act had my heart pounding) and that feeling of the clock is ticking up against obstacle after obstacle as John’s mind races for a solution out of his mess which might be his undoing, as well as Mike’s. But on that same token gradually descends into formula, if not bathos. You start to see what’s coming not long after Denzel pulls the gun on Woods. It get broadcasted. In comes Duvall’s negotiating, Liotta’s swagger and the deus ex machina for little Mike from the cold open. It gets a sorta Law And Order feeling as it rolls along, procedural with only the cast keeping the center held. A well-paced PSA. It kinda worked.

In these our United States with its never-ending public health crisis, who’s ever thought to go to John’s extremes? Hell, who hasn’t? Denzel made the drama and mechanics palpable, but he and the cast were struggling against Not with, there’s a diff) the director/screenwriter’s preaching his word bureaucracy and state. Denzel and co might’ve been in it for the message, but got handed a lame duck. Too bad. Q was watchable, sometimes enjoyable but too often felt painted on.

Oh, and about that insurance story about me seeking a cure for the sniffles? Right. Turns out when the account turns over and I’m formally signed on, I’ll have to pore over massive amounts of emails directing me to website after website for full disclosure of tax records, criminal records, child abuse clearance, physical results, pony ride expenses and even more light years of hypertext. And I’ve been a registered conscript there for over two years. I know the president of the hospital personally. He knows I’ve never killed anyone. Yet.

Just send me another email, HR. I know where the ER is, and I ain’t sick.

*click-click*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. John Q was competent, had decent (albeit wooden) drama and made ya think a little. It was mediocre, but was buoyed by the great cast. As well as some wish-fulfilling, Maybe.


Stray Observations…

  • “Here we go.”
  • Heche’s niche was in sleaze. She never really realized this and therefore her career went aloha. As did Ellen.
  • “You may be overqualified, but we’ll keep your application on file.” Don’t let the door slam your ass on the way out, punk.
  • Pay phones?!?
  • “Please sit down.” Three of the ugliest word combos ever.
  • love James Woods. Did you know he has an 180+ IQ? Really! Ignore his résumé for a fart.
  • “Welfare? We both have jobs!” “That’s too bad.” And too real and often.
  • Saw the good doctor against that lit cross. Wanna bet his future?
  • “Don’t have it!”
  • Epidural. Another ugly word.
  • “I’ll buy ya a steak.”
  • This took me a lot of notes and many stray observations for how dense this film grew.
  • “I’m not taking no for an answer.”

Next installment…

Matt Damon is The Informant! Wow! So?!?


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 41: Rod Lurie’s “Straw Dogs” (2011)

 


Straw Dogs


The Players…

James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgärd and James Woods, with Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Drew Powell and Laz Alonso.


The Story…

Who says you can’t go home again? Well, that’s exactly what David and Amy aim to do.

After her father’s passing, Amy inherited his house in rural Mississippi. So she and David uprooted themselves from LA to start a new life away from the trappings of crowded, urban blight. It should prove to be an idyllic life, hopefully mending a rift in their tenuous marriage.

It’s unfortunate that the locals don’t cotton well to city slickers. It’s also unfortunate that Amy’s old high school sweetheart Charlie’s been bitten by the green-eyed monster. It’s really unfortunate that David isn’t a football fan.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to leave home behind. Far, far behind.


The Rant…

Okay, sorry it took so long to get around to this week’s mashup. For reasons I will explain later, the gap in time between Red Dragon and Straw Dogs is due to my cinematic ignorance.

*gasps*

Yeah, despite all my charms, trivia and thousands of hours wasted watching movies instead of doing something really productive (like finding the cure for rectal cancer and/or Rob Schneider), even I fall out of the loop once in a while. Hey, you can’t be expected to see everything, especially since movies have been around for, what, at least 30 years? That’s a lotta VHS to unfurl. Besides, my NES ain’t gonna play itself and Yoshi’s getting hungry.

What?

So, no. I haven’t seen everything. Working on it, but it’s a long road to walk. It takes patience, undying curiosity and some moronic drive to keep at a blog like this. Lots of potholes. Sometimes there are a few setbacks. Like what, you may ask? For the first time I ain’t talking ’bout a movie you should not view near an open flame holding a Molotov cocktail. Worse.

I’m talking about remakes.

*screaming, rending of garments, passive urination*

Yeah, I feel the same way. See, Hollywood’s gone remake happy over the past decade. With greater and greater diminishing returns, BTW. Don’t misunderstand me; remakes of classic films have their place, even not so classic films. But as I pointed on in my I Am Legend installment, things can get out of hand. I cited with that remake review that in 2004 alone (you know, over a f*cking decade ago), there were about 40 remakes, sequels or prequels churned out. Even the Coen brothers got in on the act back then.

*screaming, rending of garments, passive urination*

Who had the asparagus? Anyway, I ask myself: what gives? What’s with all these unoriginal films? Was there really a demand for Total Recall ver 2.0? What about that Spider-Man reboot a mere three years after the last one? The new RoboCop anyone? Surprise, surprise, I have a few theories. Pull up a chair.

*screaming, rending of okay you get it*

For one, I think remakes are somewhat cheaper to produce than original movies. Not in budget per se, but I’m willing to wager a silk pyjama that it’s quicker to churn out an adaptation of a previously penned, established storyline. I highly doubt we had a scenarist burning lean tissue into the night pumping out the script for the fresher, shinier The Fog or Halloween (sorry, Mr Zombie). There was already an outline. Color by numbers and fill in the blanks, and pray the audience is either curious enough to see the train wreck or ignorant of the original.

That leads to my second premise. Never in the history of the human race have we been so blessed with so much immediate, instant access to info as we have now. And people are dumber than ever for it. The number one Internet search in 2015? Funny animal pictures. Screw mapping the human genome, Angry Cat needs its own movie! On Lifetime, for f*ck’s sake! We have the history of the world at our fingertips, and the butt end of Gen X into the Millenials don’t know jack.

It makes for good business. Hollywood is doubtless aware of this social learning curve (or gap, as it were), and lately have hedged their bets on the public’s willful ignorance to drop slop done before—some sh*t that was only middling the first time out—and wait for the dollars to ooze in. And cross their fingers anyone between the ages of 15 and 50 do not have Netflix streaming, YouTube or any of Leonard Maltin’s film guides. Can’t be many with those kicking around, right?

Most moviegoers have attention spans of gnats with ADHD. With so much media saturation, surely Tinsel Town can get away with slipping us a mickey now and again. Like every summer. And winter. Sometimes fall, too. Only spring before Daylight Savings take effect. Folks got so much stimulus bombarding their brainpans—I repeat, Hollywood is keenly aware of this—that a virus uploaded into the palsied minds of casual movie fans is a safe bet for some fast cash. Hollywood Trojan horses these needless remakes to empty the uninformed pockets. And the hell of it, this wouldn’t be an issue of most of these remakes were actually ripe for revision, let alone good. The many my idiot self has seen over the past decade have been neither.

Of course there have been exceptions. But before I get to my limited, hopelessly biased list permit me to enlighten you further about the nature of remakes. Here, put on this pair of Depends. Right. My take is this: if a director/writer gets a wild hair up their ass and feel the need to boldly go where someone has gone before, they sure as sh*t better have something new to add to the mix. You can’t just do boilerplate. You can’t just connect the dots. And you not to have any delusions of homage ricocheting about your vodka and blow addled imagination (I’m not saying such directors are addicts. I’m not saying they’re not, either. If the spoon fits use it).

A director and/or scenarist must give their unique spin to the original product. Either enhance the storyline, rely on an impeccable casting director or simply put a signature stamp on the final product, wrapped up in a nice, neat, tasteful package that actually brings something fresh to the table. It’s been done before, and maybe can be done again. Lately though? I have my doubts.

Some cool remakes over the past few years? Glad you asked. Here, let me loosen those restraints a bit. Okay, let’s play compare and contrast. You learned math in elementary school, right? Same rules.

Scorsese’s The Departed (which won Best Picture in 2006. Marty’s apology Oscar, BTW) was lifted from a Chinese gangland flick called Infernal Affairs. Besides Scorsese’s signature stamp, the film worked well thanks to the tight performances from DiCaprio and Nicholson (Jack’s best sh*t in years if you ask me). We also had Ocean’s 11, also under the helm of solid director Soderbergh and the charms of Clooney and Co. Hell, even the 1996 take on The Birdcage was wild, wooly and witty. These are but a scattered few winners.

But despite my focus on recent remakes, there are quite a few notable flicks remade well prior to the Internet generation. I mean, hey, did you know The Wizard Of Oz was done four times? It’s true. The first was a silent version. The next was a talkie, but sans the high tunage and technicolor extravaganza that we got with Judy Garland and her amazing pipes for the third, definitive version (and let’s not forget The Wiz, awash in R&B and overtones of urban blight).

Casablanca was done three times. Not including the iconic classic, the source material was the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, which was done twice before Elsa got on that plane. Michael Curtiz’ masterpiece almost didn’t get made, BTW. Something about lousy casting or something. What do I know?

We had The Front Page against His Girl FridayThe Man Who Knew Too Much was done by Hitch twice (three times if you remember Billy Bob Thorton’s effort). Seven Samurai got morphed into The Magnificent SevenThe Hidden Fortess borne Star Wars: A New HopeThe Good, The Bad And The Ugly wrought Yojimbo. The list goes on.

Another aspect of the remake hangs on the wobbly pretense of basing films on pre-exisiting texts. I’ve seen three interpretations of Hamlet on the silver screen (two with casting mistakes of Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh portraying the titular tragic hero. Hamlet was a teen. Gibson was straight off the Lethal Weapon train. He was way too old for that sh*t). Speaking of Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet has numerous incarnations. Not just Shakespeare but a lot of great films were lifted from great literature. Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness was adapted for Apocalypse Now. Bloch’s Psycho became flesh by Hitchcock (and we’re gonna ignore the frame by f*cking frame remake with a miscast Vince Vaughn). And the last time we were out, we were introduced to Hannibal Lecter’s salad days via Manhunter and Red Dragon, both based on Thomas Harris’ novel.

It’s fortitudinous really that Red Dragon was the previous whipping boy at RIORI. It makes a good companion piece to this week’s beauty and ruin, this Straw Dogs remake. Remember eons back when I said I haven’t watched everything? Before I watched Red Dragon I had already seen Manhunter many years prior. If you read the installment, I felt compelled to compare the older version with the new one. Directors Mann and Ratner brought different meals to the table, their own visions. Both were good, but markedly different. I had read Red Dragon miles before I saw the films, and dug each version’s unique take.

I never read Straw Dogs‘ source material, Gordon Williams’ The Seige Of Treacher’s Farm. Didn’t have immediate access to it. F*ck, never knew the film(s) were based on it until the end credits. More importantly, regarding the viewing of Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs—

(here it comes)

—I never saw Sam Peckinpah’s original. I can’t see everything. I heard about the original with the Director’s Cut reissue in Entertainment Weekly back in the mid-90s (when I still read that rag), and the plot intrigued me. But I lived in a cultural armpit of Pennsylvania, and Netfilx didn’t exist and the local Blockbuster was stocked to the rafters with endless copies of Ghost, so I missed that bus. But like I said at the beginning of this screed, know that Lurie’s version was a remake, and me never seeing the original, and me being well-versed with Manhunter serving as a tonic to my Red Dragon review, I decided I’d be remiss in my duties to take apart Lurie’s version without being acquainted with Peckinpah’s film. So I took the time to sit down and watch the original. A copy of Williams’ Siege wasn’t to be found at the library as a control, either. Which explains the delay in churning out this installment regarding Lurie’s “vision.”

Despite patience being a virtue, I think I might’ve made a big mistake…


City life isn’t for everyone. David and Amy Sumner (Marsden and Bosworth, respectively) quietly fled crowded, polluted LA to Amy’s family home in rural Mississippi. They want an idyll life, far from the stress and strain of the West Coast.

Speaking of strain, their marriage is an uneasy relationship. It’s reflected in their move, as well as a change in direction. David’s a screenwriter, tired of playing the Hollywood game. He throws himself into a new, personal project: a historical documentary, miles away from the glitz he tiredly has churned out. Amy focuses on the restoration of her late dad’s homestead, as well as rediscovering her roots.

Speaking of roots, the locals don’t take kindly to outsiders. David’s viewed as some Calfornia “cream puff” and Amy is little more than eye candy. Especially to Charlie (Skarsgärd), her old flame from their high school days. As more or less a favor, Charlie and his crew have been hired to help Amy achieve her dream by restoring the barn adjacent to the antebellum mansion. This permits Charlie and his cronies ample time to ogle Amy and intimidate David.

Speaking of intimidation, what starts out as an tenuous relationship with Charlie and the locals slowly escalate into psychological warfare. They don’t like wussy David. They want Amy on a platter. They want them gone. Who needs some f*ggoty Hollywood sh*t mucking about town? He don’t even like football. And how the f*ck did he score that blonde cupcake? Charlie and his buds have malice on their minds, and the Sumners need to be taught a lesson and chased out of the f*cking county as fast as f*ck as possible. Or else.

Speaking of else—

The Sumners don’t wanna know what else…


After watching this version of Straw Dogs, I performed an about face and checked out the original. I told you all that. I’m telling you this again for a good reason. About halfway through Peckinpah’s version, I paused it. I was mad. I was mad not about the quality of the 1971 version, which was intriguing. And outright I’ll say Dustin Hoffman made for a much more interesting David than Cyclops did (big shocker there), as well as rural Cornwall as setting. No. I was mad because Lurie’s version was identical to Peckinpah’s. Not slightly. Not passingly. Completely.

Like I said earlier, if you’re gonna do a remake of a classic film you sure as sh*t better bring some twists and turns to story. Otherwise, you have a Gus van Zant travesty on your hands, and a lot of dissatisfied (thinking) movie fans. Rage and ruin. Overturned popcorn buckets. Bitching like mine. Screaming. Rending of garments. Passive pee covering the theatre floor. You thought it was sticky already? Boy, howdy.

Sorry.

Lurie’s Dogs was less of an homage and more like a rip-off, but it wasn’t a total loss. Quite the contrary, at least until the second act (more on that later). At the outset though, the film had nice rising action. There was some good, icky tension between Charlie and company with the Sumners. The whole feeling of unwelcome was palpable, and made me cringe in the best way possible. The menace was there, with Skarsgärd operating with smarm and disdain disguised as Southern Hospitality. Upping that ante was a signature, over-the-top performance of James Woods as redneck ringleader Coach Hadden (with my takedown of White House Down, Woods always makes for an exceptional villain with his shuck and jive, interspersing humor within his odious shenanigans).

The tech stuff was in there where it mattered, too. The editing was smooth, almost seamless along with steady camera work. The soundtrack was great, really highlighting the tension. The landscape was beautiful; give that location scout a hug. All these things worked well.

But only so far.

I fast learned by watching Peckinpah’s film that Lurie’s version was missing the point. 2011’s Dogs was ostensibly meant to be an extension of Peckinpah’s meditation on violence and how the kindest of people could resort to desperate measures. Instead, we get violence for its own sake here. There’s too much of a Hollywood stamp: shock and awe as a substitute for substance. Days of the true psychothriller are gone. If one happens to pop up unexpectedly, the media practically lunges at it like a starving tiger. In the meantime we get a lot of flash, dash and viscera to keep the masses entertained. Truth be told, Lurie’s Dogs didn’t quite follow that line, but the movie felt as if scene upon scene was staged for some sort of explosion later on. There was no slow build after act two. The delivery was halting, and began to lose steam. There’s a difference between foreshadowing and Kafka’s Gun theory and setting up your marks. Like I said, a remake like this hung its bets on an audience not in the know to sell tickets.

That and the help of a very pretty cast.

That’s the major crime here in Dogs. Our dramatis personae. The acting is rather stiff, and our leads are horribly miscast (save Woods, who chews so much scenery it’s a wonder he’s not crapping out drywall). Dogs relies more on name recognition and face value than a coherent ensemble. This is especially true regarding True Blood‘s Skarsgärd. I have to admit—and I am straight as an arrow, regardless what the wifey believes—his Adonis-like looks and build are distracting, and doesn’t a country bumpkin make. Even when he’s being sinister Skarsgärd lacks menace, and that lack made for a very late-in-the-show unconvincing heavy, as well as the cheesiest REDACTED scene ever (the original’s scene made me want to puke, if that tells you anything). The final execution feels like a sick teen comedy. Minus the rococo angst.

Yes, I actually wrote that line. Back to the prettiness.

Marsden is totally out of his element here. In the original, Hoffman’s David is a nerd to be sure, but he’s also wary about his circumstances. He carried an air of suspicion. Marsden by contrast is just clueless. He keeps asking for it from the locals. Over and over and over again, as a square peg to a trapezoidal hole. It doesn’t take long until wanna smack him, over and over again more than the rednecks who’ve targeted him. Sure, his naiveté works with great humor in the first act, but the joke is old by the second. His innocence is ultimately not endearing. He doesn’t engender sympathy. He’s hollow and stereotypical. He didn’t even shoot lasers from his eyes. Gyp.

Even though I’m not a fan of Marsden’s and Skarsgärd’s acting, they weren’t dull. Stereotypes maybe, poor fits both, but even with their faults they did sh*t. Bosworth (of whom I am not a fan period) is so passive it’s almost as if she’s not there. Frankly, at this point in the game I felt any other actress would’ve fit the bill. Pick one. Anyone. Just make sure they have a little confidence and not screaming potential victim. I mean, it’s inevitable bad things are going to happen Amy. I just don’t want to see it coming a light-year away.

Okay. And now for something completely different. Ignoring its flaws, Lurie’s interpretation was, in all honesty, not that bad. Barring the whole second act thing I keep flogging, the movie as a whole was entertaining. It’s not like a “more than the sum of its parts” scenario. But everything hung together pretty well for the most part. Again like the dichotomy of Red Dragon was made to entertain while The Silence Of The Lambs was made to penetrate, both Dogs follow that mold. Peckinpah’s film was awash in social commentary. Lurie’s film simply hoped to thrill. I am loathe to admit it did, despite the poor cast and graphic violence for shock’s sake. The original film was far cleaner in its execution. Only by act three the fit hits the shan. Lurie’s aforementioned icky tension shows the movie’s hand too soon. It would’ve been better with a slower build up and less of that scene building.

In sum, the message of violence here in Dogs gets a bit too on the nose for Lurie’s interpretation. I hate to keep comparing apples to kumquats, but the original film was about “chronicling the beast within.” Lurie’s film just can’t wait to blood butter everything. Meaning breathe it in, punk. There’s an after school message here. A blood-soaked message to be sure, which in turn hides the true meaning of Dogs. What began with good, icky tension ends up with forced, cloying suspense. It’s like a timer went off, and stuff quits making sense. Sh*t descends into mediocrity. Even though there are (vague) motives for the locals to target the Sumners, said motives never really gel. Despite the obvious machinations put into motion, you walk away with “Huh?” Does this movie want to endear contempt for everyone involved? If you can’t get behind anyone then when the climax hits it lands with a fizzle, not a roar. Like I said, at least Hoffman was interesting. Marsden needs a spanking.

This movie ultimately made me feel scummy, like I needed a shower afterwards. It wasn’t the violent climax that upset me. It was the message, glorifying violence. Don’t misunderstand me. I like a decent splatter flick on occasion as well as the next idjit, but a little depth wouldn’t hurt neither. At the end of it all, Lurie’s Dogs remake initially had a lot going for it. Really. I dug it until…well, you know. Its undoing (besides the floundering cast) was reveling in sex and violence, with nary a whit of irony. Some films embrace this, sometimes with a modicum of success. Some of them even remakes, too. One out of three ain’t bad for this Dogs.

But hey, Lurie’s take had zydeco music. That’s sumpin’ different at the table.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A reluctant relent it, and it’s a real shame, too. Here was chance to make a remake about a vital topic. Instead we get Hollywood’s idea of depth. Lurie did an admirable job, just not a respectful one. If you gotta watch it, watch both.


Stray Observations…

  • “You know what? I’m gonna drive.”
  • Hipster music. What better way to alienate oneself from the Skynyrd lovin’ locals?
  • “Thought you was off duty.”
  • Marsden may be a nebbish, but Bosworth is a stick.
  • “Sorry ’bout Flutie.” Keep the change.
  • All of a sudden David becomes John McClane. Zydeco can do that to you.
  • “Shoot anyone that isn’t me.”
  • Stalingrad. I get it, I get it.

Next Installment…

I got a feeling that this film titled Project X has nothing to do with experimental, super smart chimps. Monkey business maybe, but no chimps. Broderick reference!


RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 3: Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down” (2013)


white-house-down-poster-new


The Players…

Channing Tatum, Jaime Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joey King, Jason Clarke and James Woods.


The Story…

When a paramilitary group lays siege to the White House in order to abduct the President, it’s up to lone cop John McClane to save the day.

Er, sorry. John Cale. It’s up to Cale to be the hero. You sure that’s not a typo?


The Rant…

Hey! Here’s an idea! Let’s talk about a good movie before we get to this week’s thrashing. Pertinent to this installment, we’re going to explore a classic of the action movie genre, the original Die Hard. Hell to the yeah!

Die Hard was a groundbreaking movie. In addition to now being a classic in the action film canon, it set many precedents—for ill and for good—about what an action movie could do and where it could go. Prior to its release, most action movies were exercises in testosterone, profanity and sh*t going kaboom. All vital things, by the way. After Die Hard, out the window went the rulebook and every action potboiler since has been either following its trail or lapping up the crumbs.

Besides pure entertainment value, Die Hard was important for introducing a triad of ideas eventually incorporated into every modern action movie template.

Here we go:

First, it almost single-handedly created a sub-genre of the action film: the “location-specific” movie. Director John McTiernan set the scene of John McClane’s trials in an office building, and nary did our hero nor the audience leave that setting until five minutes before the credits rolled. In comparison, past high watermarks of action films often took place against sweeping backdrops, did a lot of globetrotting (think the Indiana Jones or James Bond movies), crawling in the endless trenches of combat or even taken to the limitless wild, blue yonder. For example, The Great Escape—one of the finest action films ever made, I feel—took place across not only in a seemingly endless POW camp, but also across the German countryside and into Switzerland, for Pete’s sake. Talk about sweeping, and all of us following Steve McQueen on a motorcycle to boot. Rock on!

Not Die Hard. Despite being a vast high-rise skyscraper, Nakatomi Plaza was a warren of endless office cubicles, precipitous elevator shafts, half-finished floors under construction and a lot of hard angles with poor lighting. Very insular. The building was under lockdown; no one getting in or out, especially McClane. This forced our protag into a claustrophobic lair, having to survive by his wits, being resourceful and operate almost solo. No outside force was going to intervene on McClane’s behalf. He was alone, and Nakatomi was his prison.

Now director McTiernan did not single-handedly create the “location-specific” subgenre of action movies, but he was the midwife for making it effective. His work was not unlike Henry Ford and the auto industry. Ford didn’t invent the automobile, he just made it readily accessible. Other past action movies had a key starting point, yes, like The Great Escape’s POW camp or Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Amazonian treasure chamber to set the stage. These prototypes with their location-specific flavor with setting-as-character were rendered solid in McTiernan’s sophomore effort, Predator.

Predator was a fun, taut, bait-and-switch kind of action movie that tricked the hormonally challenged male into believing they were gonna see another Schwarzenegger vehicle of him yelling, shooting and quipping his way through his “wilderness years” between The Terminator and…well, Predator.

Oops. Not this time. To quote Axl, “Welcome to the jungle.”

Predator at its time was the latest iteration of The Most Dangerous Game, but with a nifty sci-fi/socio-political twist. That and a very specific setting: the rain forest of Latin America. Now, with Rambo 2, the jungle was just a part of the setting and scenery; it wasn’t really exploited as a dramatic element. For Predator, the endless tree canopy and rushing waters, wide open and unending swaths of green—not unlike its urban counterpart with the infinite grey floors of Nakatomi Plaza—and lots and lots of mud were the titular villain’s stomping grounds. As well as our doomed heroes’ rat maze. The setting became a character, a antagonist in and of itself. The jungle was just as much a part of Predator as the high-rise was in Die Hard. Location specified, create claustrophobia, give an impression of no way out. All that never-ending green and later late-80s corporate grey metaphor resulted in a dehumanizing neutrality that would make one feel, well, outside and vulnerable. Excellent scenario to generate tension, as all action movies should have in spades.

So I said, with Predator and later Die Hard, the actual setting of an action film became its own character, and with such success that the formula eventually spawned many, many derivations. Speed, Die Hard on a bus. Under Siege, Die Hard on a boat. Air Force One, Die Hard on a plane (with Han Solo! How’s that for validating a genre?). The surroundings were no longer just backdrop anymore. They became part of the integral plot. It was especially important with McTiernan’s follow-up to Die Hard: the big screen adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. What’s more isolating than life aboard a submarine? Talk about location specific.

Here’s the second leg of the triad, an extension of location-as-character. Die Hard would’ve gotten nowhere without its protagonist established as both fully-dimensional and regular guy, not all sweaty like Rambo or Dutch. Before McClane, most action heroes were not self-effacing, vulnerable and God forbid guys who got scared. McClane’s just some schlub trapped in a building crawling with heavily armed “terrorists” a wee bit peeved at him for being a fly in their proverbial ointment. His bewildered, “how did I get into this mess?” outlook defined the character for the duration of the movie, as things go from bad to worse.

Prior to Die Hard, the gold standard for action was Rambo: First Blood, pt. 2. There was a case that Sly was decidedly none of those things. Stallone gallivanted through the jungle, well-oiled and throbbing, dispatching the baddies with an arsenal of seemingly endless ammo that would shame your average doomsday compound-owning redneck back to Hope Depot looking for RPG launchers. And with Rambo, no wisecracks were uttered nor a smirk cracked, just a lot of growling and grunting. Okay, granted Rambo was nuts, but even the most hardened of marauders chuckle once in a while.

Rambo was bulletproof. McClane was not. Hell, he wasn’t even glass-proof.

John McClane was your Average Joe cop on Xmas vacation. He was not expecting trouble (okay, maybe some from his wife), he didn’t ask to be plopped down into some byzantine caper—unlike Rambo or Hiltz, who both had orders to follow—and he sure as sh*t couldn’t bulldoze his way out of his predicament. McClane was no Rambo. He wasn’t Indy. And he definitely wasn’t Riddick. No. McClane was a chain-smoking, estranged family man who was under-confident, outgunned, cried, got injured (a lot) and even appeased the Lord above to make sure he lived to see the next day. Would Ah-nuld ever do that? Uh-uh.

It was this relatable streak of everyday humanity that made Bruce Willis’ character such an icon. Sure, some days we want Superman, but sometimes we need Clark Kent. We need someone to keep us grounded, connected and extend a hand of sympathy. McClane did that, with humor and determination, and lo and behold, a new action (stereo)type was born. Again, for good and for ill.

By the way, I eventually read the book Die Hard was based on. I also watched the movie relentlessly the summer before I entered high school, like almost daily. I guess this explains a few things. It was called Nothing Lasts Forever by Rod Thorpe. The book was published a decade before the movie proper, and has since been re-titled Die Hard, doubtless to reflect/capitalize on the franchises’ success. Forever was a dark beast, with this stripe of unending pessimism running throughout. The book was filled with meditations of family dysfunction, corporate greed and the rise of “new terrorism.” It’s ending was considerably more downbeat than the movie’s. But moreover, the hero of the book—one Detective Joe Leland, not “John McClane”—was a dour, humorless man with barely a whit of warmth or irony. In fact, the only (in)direct references caged from the original book was the hero being shoeless and the line “Now I have a machine gun” (McTiernan and company added the clever “Ho-ho-ho”). For a slim read—it was only 188 pages—Forever was a slog, and had very little humanity going for it. Here’s a rare case where the film version is superior to the book

Anyway, back to our hero. Before Die Hard, Willis was mostly known as a comedic actor. Fox Studios initially balked at him starring in their new big budget thriller because he had been too busy making America laugh with his wit and smirk on Moonlighting; then later—in his motion picture debut—trying to woo Kim Basinger in Blake Edwards’ Blind Date (a rather underrated screwball comedy). In sum, the studio heads were snuffling, “What does this clown Willis know about testosterone?”

Back in 1988, not much. But Willis indeed knew humor. That humor later became a trademark in both the original Die Hard and the (law of dwindling returns) sequels that followed. The humor made McClane accessible. It made him likeable, like a bar buddy. It also made his points across being scared and anxious and worried for his wife’s well-being as much as he was. I mean, don’t we all at one point in our lives inject brittle humor into times of stress? If you say you don’t, you’re a liar with a cold, cold heart. You probably didn’t ever so much as simper watching Brian’s Song. Punter.

So both by wit and grit—boom—Willis becomes the iconic, working class action hero. To a fault really, resulting in all the derivative ciphers that dropped in Die Hard’s wake. It’s now the case that Willis, by his own admission, is inextricable from action movies. He’s gone from the quintessential, reluctant, wisecracking hero to the quintessential, reluctant, wisecracking hero actor. Again, so much so that I heard Willis opted for a Disney film once because he wanted to star in a movie “his kids could watch.” At least the RED movies are trying to actively deflate Willis’ dubious legacy, with a wink and a smile.

Willis has become a victim of his own legacy. What’s more, for every Jack Traven, Casey Ryback or Dr. David Grant, we must thank and/or blame John McClane for birthing this now hackneyed action type. Others have tried, some have succeeded, but none have done it better than former loose cannon, goofball Bruce Willis. Yippie ki-yay, motherf*cker. Till death do you part.

Okay. Thanks for your patience. I got the vibe from my readers that, “Hey, blogger, you’re rambling. Again.” Heard you. Reeling it in. Quite soon.

Like Cosby, I told you those stories to tell you this story; the third leg of the triad The endless derivations of McTiernan’s beast that now cannot be fed. Sometimes when I want to sink my teeth into mindless, sweaty, defy-the-laws of physics kind of action movie…well, these days, few are to be found. They all are “gritty and earthy” like so much potting soil. Ghosts of John McClane. What was revo a quarter-century ago has now become as well trodden as the lines at the local Cineplex. So much that I’m wishing for an exaggerated, anti-hero like Rambo again. At least his films delved into utter stupidity with no shame unlike the dozens of Die Hard rip-offs that’s polluted the filmscape for the past three decades.

At their core, action films are meant to either revel in dumb fun, or set the stage with a cool story that’ll eventually result in dumb fun. It’s the delicate balance between engaging your neocortex while giving your brainstem a hand job. McTiernan did it. His film did not pander like a lot of the interchangeable 1980’s shock-and-awe boomfests. McTiernan learned from these mistakes, and instead gave us a smart story with well-rounded characters and engaging action. Who could ask for more? The original Die Hard never pandered.

Anyway, still reeling it in. Director McTiernan achieved success three times (once even with a Baldwin brother). But Die Hard, a tight, confined action-drama that the likes have never seen before or since set the standard, for better or worse. Good job, John—both director and his creation—and now, despite all the millions you’ve made for Hollywood, you’ve never received open credit for your donation to film.

I’m doing it here. Thanks John McTiernan. And curse you, too.

So there you have it. I know I’m not the first guy—nor the last—who waxed all philosophical about Die Hard. The movie’s been dissected a million ways to Sunday by endless cinema buffs. I figure the film wouldn’t be left well alone if it weren’t such a defining classic. Its success launched both many sequels (most of which are car wrecks) and endless imitators (most of them twisted metal). Some good (Speed), some bad (er…Speed 2) and some trying either to pay homage or add a new twist. Most with dwindling quality.

Welp, here we go again. Too bad you were tall enough for this ride.

White House Down is the latest incarnation in this never-ending line of toys. You think I had a lot to comment about with Die Hard? We should check out what disaster movie maven Roland Emmerich had to say with White House Down.

But more on that later. First, there’s something sinister lurking in the District of Columbia…


It’s a hard-won goal to get your dream job.

Stressed out Capitol police officer John Cale (Tatum) tries and tries and yet can’t reach his brass ring: to be a member of the Secret Service. Sure, he’s been decorated in combat, and has a more or less reliable CV, but overall he’s been coasting. Cale’s been doing either the “safe” thing as a cop (a position he basically fell into) or simply the middling thing to get by being a working-class schmo cum absentee parent. He’s got a lot of nerve, passion and very few prospects. Especially when it comes to the big deal job of his dreams: ensuring the President’s safety.

On one of his weekends, Cale comes to pick up his daughter Emily (King) who is a burgeoning politics wonk. The kid wants to tag along for Dad’s interview with the big cheese, Carol Finnerty (Gyllenhaal) who will give the yay or nay if John has the right stuff to be a Secret Service agent. Cale and Finnerty have some history, personal and otherwise. Of course the interview does not go well, so Dad has to break the news to his daughter:

“I think I have a shot.”

With that offhand remark, Emily drags her worn out Dad on a tour of the White House. Sure, what else now does Cale have to do with his time? Much to Emily’s surprise—as well as John’s—President Sawyer (Foxx) is home, and on his way to Congress to argue his proposal to ensure all American troops are out of the Mideast in due course. Ever the statesman—and knowing that any press is good press—Sawyer offers up the highlights of his proposition to Emily and gives her a shout out on her blog to boot. Yep, she’s in heaven. And it’s a nice change for John and Emily to share a moment together rather than an argument.

Meanwhile, not all is well in Camelot.

The head of the Secret Service, Martin Walker (Woods) has a bone to pick. Ever since losing his son in the Mideast, Walker has become increasing disenfranchised with the political machine he’s sworn to protect for all these years. Especially having to uphold the President’s latest efforts of peacekeeping, which Walker views as another pie in the sky. But he’s retiring! Time to wave all that bureaucracy bye-bye, settle down, maybe mourn a little, write some memoirs, take up knitting, whatever.

Nuh-uh. Walker’s aforementioned picky bone.

So now the President wants to make all nice with the enemy. That’s all hunky dory. Where was this action back when Sawyer was getting re-elected? It took a back seat, as well as Walker’s son. And Walker is not alone in his dismay about how the administration’s been run under Sawyer. Turns out that there are a lot of disgruntled ex-government workers who sympathize with Walker’s plight. It’s high time that this upstart Prez quit crawling into bed with the baddies and takes care of the homefront first.

But how…where do you attack your enemy where they’d be most defenseless?

Of course! On his home turf…


Director Emmerich is no stranger to making things get all blow’d up good on screen. He’s a master of disaster—the movie kind, that is. This is the guy who re-invented the summer blockbuster—as well as give Will Smith acting career a boost—with Independence Day and later unleashing his Godzilla remake, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.

Uh. Wait. Hang on.

All right, with the possible exception of ID4, most of Emmerich’s films have been schlocky at best and outright stupid at worst. But you wanna know what?

I think he knows this.

All his big-budget fiascos have their tongues firmly in cheek. There is not an air of pretense or solemnity in his work. There’s no apologies either, or giving a damn what critics say. The man’s having fun and making merry! Hopefully the audience will follow him down his rabbit hole. Quite often they do.

Despite their tight, linear and technically executed production, Emmerich’s movies have a ramshackle quality to them, like everything’s gonna fly off the hinges with the next scene. Disaster films are like that though; we’re expecting to see havoc wreaked and sh*t going kerblooey. We want to see innocents in danger, running around and screaming in a panic, punching each other in the head trying to put the fires out. We especially want special effects that insult the gravitational constant of the Universe. We want the boomy things. Can’t forget that.

Emmerich’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants aesthetic has worked to greater or lesser degrees for over twenty years. In addition to that cutting edge/disheveled quality of his productions, his movies almost have an improv aspect to them; we’re just makin’ it up as we go along here, people. Here we go! Let’s go for a ride! Ka-blam! Splat! Whee! It’s this kind of maverick attitude that makes his films just so darn endearing. Here we got an adult male in the director’s chair—ostensibly all grown up—but give him his toys and implements of destruction and whoopee! All bets are off; he’s nine again on Xmas Eve. Here we go again with another circus, dancing elephants and all. People keep getting suckered into watching his silliness, and laughing at themselves for it every time.

Here’s a tired but apt metaphor: Emmerich’s films are roller coaster rides. Yeah, yeah. That one’s been used since the damned things were invented. Still, his fly-by-night operations are pretty fun if you go along with the joke. And most of Emmerich’s body of work has been one big winking joke. He knows this is all about fun and nothing else. In truth, that’s what all movies are supposed to be about. Art form, social commentary, exposé? Pish-aw. Emmerich’s squealing at the naked emperor. He does it with every one of his movies, thumbing his nose at the public and needfully deflating hipster film critic egos. No artistic merit? Who cares? The first motion picture was about a f*cking train robbery! The first movie wasn’t some pithy Shakespearean adaptation. It was an action flick! It’s as though through his lens, Emmerich is screaming, “Remember that, you yutzes!?!” Boink!

Now, you’re probably saying, “Wait a minute. Hey, blogger. What about Michael Bay? His crapola’s a big, fat joke, too. And you talk about explosions? Right! And where are your pants?”

Good question (never you mind about me pantaloons). I draw a fine line between Bay’s popcorn-chokers and Emmerich’s “play it fast and loose” escapades. Note: fine line. Sure, both Bay and Emmerich love to play around with pyrotechnics. Both employ storylines that can be derivative (especially here with Down), with stars that seem either out of place or out of sync with the film’s tone. Both guys operate a little thin in the human drama department.

So what’s the diff? Here’s that fine line, and I bet some of you are gonna groan and start up with the goddam beer cans again. Quit that!

Where Bay’s exercises in cinematic excess are designed to distract you from the fact that his movies are infinite loops of non-Euclidean logic, Emmerich’s histrionics are used to drive the (often unoriginal and threadbare) story. They enhance the feeble plots, and not used primarily as wallpaper. That’s right, “enhance.” Bay’s sh*t leads up to and is eventually punctuated by fireworks, but is nothing more than shock-and-awe. Emmerich’s nonsense is woven in and out of the story like some tapestry. This makes his oeuvre a lot smoother and allows a little breathing room for story, drama and acting. Granted, not a lot of those things—nor seldom good—but their presence are better felt than the baiting Bay uses. And who is a better smooth-talker, pouring honey in your ear, than a guy with a knowing sense of humor? Emmerich’s slapdash is awash in corny jokes, sight gags, one-liners, hammy characters and an overall feeling of “Gotcha!”

Long story short, Emmerich’s movies are organic and funny. Bay’s are neither.

White House Down is no exception. It follows the usual, tried-and-true Emmerich formula. It’s chockfull of the mindless goofiness and hair-brained spectacles we’ve all come to expect from his demented brain. But there are a few twists, and it’s these novelties that keep Down afloat and not come across as yet another obvious Die Hard rip-off. Even if it is.

Let’s talk about Cale for a moment. Now Channing is no Bruce Willis, and maybe that’s good thing. It’s made clear at the outset that Cale is Joe Average, but not in a humble, underdog kind of way. In fact, Cale is kind of a slacker, and people often have a lot of contempt for foot-draggers. Cale never completed any necessary education to be a Secret Service agent. He only got his current job out of blind luck. His marriage failed and his own kid won’t even call him Dad. Cale’s neither a loveable loser nor a plucky charmer who’s down on his luck. Nope. He’s an absentee father and kind of a drudge. How is an audience supposed to get behind a hero like this?

The key about Down’s execution is, for once, our John McClane cipher is not operating alone. Our John Cale (and who wants to wager the writers were Velvet Underground fans?) may be the focus of our adventure, but he’s not the lone wolf like McClane was. Our schlumpy hero actually has some allies in his struggles, as well as an actual partner, the POTUS himself. Not only that, but “Our Man in Berlin” is Finnerty, who Cale keeps in radio contact to keep apprised of what’s going on outside the action. Finally, Cale has own inside man—er, daughter running point to keep the baddies distracted. It’s a family affair.

It’s through these interactions that Cale becomes accessible. Prior to all this madness, Tatum is just John Cale, working-class nobody. Once plopped into all the chaos, he rises to the occasion. Now that he’s got a real mission—to save not only the Prez but his daughter, too—Cale musters up enough courage to fight back and take out the bad guys. You kind of got the impression from Die Hard that McClane wanted to save his skin, whack Hans and company and rescue his wife, in that order. In Down, Cale’s motives are highly personal and start to come across as even selfless. Eventually—but definitely not at first—Tatum makes a decent action star. Not great, but serviceable. Maybe even likeable. Doubtless the character—and story as a whole—wouldn’t’ve panned out that way without a good supporting cast behind him, literally and figuratively.

Like I said, our protag has in a partner in Down, namely the President. And what a delightful, protean character he is, too. Foxx’s Obama-meets-Denzel-meets-Urkel role is a little schizo, but Foxx’s charm and comedic talent make it work. His President Sawyer is one moment, dedicated statesman, then leader of the free world, then determined family man, then fighter. All of these disjointed facets would usually confuse, even insult audiences’ sensibilities. But you forget this is a Roland Emmerich film! Our Prez is the comic relief. He gets almost all the good one-liners. He’s awkward but determined to save his home, his life and his agenda, and he’s not afraid to pick up a gun and take out these home invaders. Sawyer’s the guy that Cale’s not: a leader in words and action. Between their uneasy partnership (not unlike the Lethal Weapon movies), both find union against a common enemy.

And boy, oh boy, have we got an enemy for you. James Woods has always been a smooth smoothie. His acting style is laid-back and to-the-point, but has a gift for delivering tension is very subtle ways. Most folks might agree with me—at least those who’ve paid attention to Woods’ long career—that Woods’ outward genial nature underlies a simmering anger and sinister bent, like his characters always have a personal agenda. They often do, but Woods delivers it patiently and slowly, until the hero realizes, “Oh, sh*t!” and it’s too late.

You hear me. Woods plays bad guys really well, and not just his unglued Walker here. He’s always been good at being slimy and chewing scenery without hamminess. I remember a couple of movies from the 80s that were definitive Woods, but neither at all blockbusters. One was Best Seller, where Woods plays a hitman who kidnaps a novelist so he can write Woods’ memoirs, as well as drag him along for one last target: the one who got away, as well as his daughter. The other was simply titled Cop, where Woods’ detective character goes off the grid to hunt down a serial killer who’s been offing all the women in Wood’s life. Dark stuff, and Woods’ pulls it off with a flintiness and barely-there smile that just screams anti-hero. Even his role in Contact, as the administrator trying to disprove Jodie Foster’s contact with extra-terrestrials, Woods comes across as coolly logical and determined, but not being cast as truly a “bad guy.” When you take in what Walker’s motives are for the siege, and his demands proper, he almost seems, well, reasonable. It’s that even-handed poise that makes Woods so sympathetic and such a great villain.

A good action movie should use intimate pieces of humanity to buffer the adrenalin. Down would be just another boomfest without engaging, likeable and above all fun characters amidst all the organized chaos. It’s an Emmerich movie; it’s lighthearted, despite all the gunplay. There’s lots of clean, easy action tempered with sharp humor. No muss, no fuss, (SPOILER) even when a subplot about a government conspiracy against the President is introduced in the third act. Conspiracy theories are also a lot of fun, and I’ve already pounded on what fun is to making this movie work. There are a few loops here that usually aren’t a part of Emmerich’s go-to, straight-line storytelling style, but like the explosions, they’re interwoven in such a way that they don’t detract from the story’s barrel-roll tempo. And don’t think for a moment that the bits that are of a heavier concept backbite the relentless, nutzoid action scenes. The pacing was really smooth, with barely a lull. Isn’t that what action’s all about?

Okay. So Die Hard will never be topped, and yes, there will thousands more of movies like White House Down coming down the pike (be ready to catch Frosty! Die Hard on an ice cream truck). But you gotta give some props to a crazy, whimsical, carnival barker-type director like Emmerich to do a rip-off so shamelessly and admittedly funny. If you think about it, Down is a Die Hard satire. We’re all woefully familiar with the formula by now, and as I said, Emmerich knows this. We ain’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, but we’re having fun knocking out a few of the spokes to see where the wagon crashes.

Kapow!


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Three words: This was fun. Stupid, giddy fun, Disregarding the histrionics of the source material, but paired with Emmerich’s verve, White House Down injects some much needed goofiness into the Die Hard knockoffs that keep sprouting up. Yippee…oh, whatever. You get it.


Stray Observations…

  • “That’s a talent?”
  • With the Capitol Dome collapsing, would that be an allusion to 9/11? One would think people, including Emmerich, would still be sensitive about that. Then again, you gotta set the stakes high at the start of an action movie.
  • “…which got blew up in Independence Day.” Ha!
  • Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony?” Really?
  • “Get. Your. Hands. Off. My. Jordans!”
  • Nicorette! Again: Ha!
  • “Please don’t touch my toys.”
  • Lorazepam. Yeah, it’s not for just any ol’ headache.
  • “What is with this family?”
  • If only Emmerich had access to CGI twenty years ago…
  • “Did you see my routine?”
  • I know this installment ran a little long. Sorry and too bad. You made it all the way down here, didn’t ya?

Next Installment…

Jon Favreau understands that the job of a Chef is hard, but learns that the job as a dad can be far harder. Fire the boards!