When I reviewed Gregory's Girl, I argued that coming-of-age movies are… MoreWhen I reviewed Gregory's Girl, I argued that coming-of-age movies are both thin on substance and have a limited lifespan. Films as varied as American Graffiti and Dirty Dancing revolve around the same old stories of young love and heartbreak; the ones that last are not just those that evoke their period, but which contain some kind of deeper truth about the process of growing up.
Being a young man still somewhat within the coming-of-age bracket, it is hard for me to say how good Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will look in ten years' time, when the gaming world has moved on and young people no longer talk like extras from Juno. All that can be said right now, five years on from its original release, is that this is the one of the best coming-of-age comedies I have seen in a long, long time.
For starters, Edgar Wright has managed to make a film about video games which doesn't feel like a video game adaptation. The plot on paper does seem like a video game: defeat a series of bosses to win points and get the girl. But unlike, for instance, Tomb Raider, the film doesn't feel like you are watching someone else playing a game and expecting you to be interested. The fight sequences feel like natural continuations of the story, and the character development in-between is a damn sight more complex and insightful than the swathes of exposition in something like Silent Hill.
The film has an extraordinary visual style which is somewhere between Tron and Sin City. Like Tron, you feel at moments like you are inside a video game rather than just a spectator. And as in Sin City, the film retains a very literal comic book structure, albeit without the dull pomposity of Robert Rodriguez's film. The video game elements in both the design and content of the battles are used to complement and enhance the conflict; the powers gained and used by Scott and his foes do not become distracting goals unto themselves.
Like the comic it is based upon, Scott Pilgrim jumps from one form of reality to another without warning. There are many flights of fantasy which are either poignant or hilarious, and the film explores issues of love and death with a fascinating alacrity. It makes no bones about its comic book violence, shooting the battles in a playful and entertaining manner with minimal focus on any lingering amount of pain. We still believe the characters are in danger, but as in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies there is no real need to demonstrate their danger beyond stylised forms of suggestion.
Several moments in the film really stick in one's mind. Towards the end, Pilgrim is 'killed' by Gideon, the last of the evil exes played brilliantly by Wes Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman. He finds himself in some kind of desert, identical to the dream in which he first saw Ramona. He then uses the 'life' he had gained before to replay all the previous events and finally defeat Gideon. Having the exes shatter into piles of coins when defeated is ingenious, as is the spectacle of sound waves forming into two dragons and taking on a giant aural gorilla during the Battle of the Bands.
Despite its large quantities of geeky references to video games and the like, the film gets away with it for the simple reason that it doesn't take itself too seriously. So many other films with video game elements fail as much from being po-faced as they do from being plotless. For all its visual style, Silent Hill is not scary, and for all its seeming intensity, Max Payne is not exciting. Scott Pilgrim, on the other hand, has an incredible and knowing lightness of touch. It drifts like its central character from one scene to another, paying enough attention to follow what's going on while still finding time to escape into fantasy and have fun.
The film is laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end, with jokes coming so thick and fast that you struggle to keep up or breathe. The humour comes in all shapes and sizes, from physical slapstick to witty one-liners. We have Wallace, Scott's gay roommate, who hits on everyone's boyfriends and can seemingly text Scott's overprotective sister even whilst slipping into unconsciousness. We have Todd, the third evil ex, whose status as an arrogant vegan has given him psychic powers. We have the Japanese twins, who look like a bizarre marriage between Kraftwerk and Siegfried & Roy. And we have all of Scott's embarrassing verbal slip-ups, such as confusing 'love' for 'lesbians' and asking Ramona if she's into drugs.
Jokes like this drift very close to the more putrid adolescent comedies, like National Lampoon's Animal House, Porky's or Superbad. But despite all the moments where we cringe at the characters' actions, Scott Pilgrim is not out to make us wriggle uncomfortably in our seats. The more intimate scenes, including those of Ramona in her underwear, are shot with an underlying sense of respect. The film treats its female characters on a level playing field, not just by demonstrating they can fight as well as the men, but by refusing to fall into the trap of laughing at their misfortune during the break-up scenes.
In the midst of all its belly laughs and eye-popping visuals, Scott Pilgrim is a very tender treatment of young love, demonstrating not just how to get the girl but how to deal with the baggage that goes with all relationships. Both Scott and Ramona have issues with commitment, with the latter admitting that she went through a phase of being a total bitch. And like in Gregory's Girl, there is the faint suggestion that the girl Scott falls for may not be the one he is destined to be with. In the original draft of the screenplay, which preceded the final comics, he ends up with Knives instead.
In defeating the evil exes, Pilgrim is not just standing up to other people's demons but also confronting his own insecurities, and in doing so gaining self-respect. The film genuinely conveys the sense of heartbreak on both sides which comes at the end of a relationship, and it doesn't pretend that our heroes are perfectly compatible and therefore destined to be together. Ramona's changing hair colour and tendency to withdraw at crucial moments both represents the fragile nature of love and encapsulates the modern age of complicated relationships and how hard communication can be, despite (or perhaps because of) new technology.
The performances in Scott Pilgrim are all of a high calibre. Michael Cera, who can be annoying, puts in his best performance since Juno, taking his familiar dweeby character and refining it to make Scott genuinely empathetic rather than simply pitiful. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is terrific as Ramona, possessing a sense of mystery while being completely natural and down-to-earth. Kieran Culkin is hilarious as Wallace, and Brandon Routh is very good as Todd, turning in a performance which is a million times more charismatic than his work in Superman Returns.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of the best films of 2010 and is destined to be a cult classic. It isn't quite a masterpiece, being slightly too long and feeling somewhat rough around the edges. It takes time to adjust to its peculiar execution, and I would be hard-pushed to say it was Wright's best film. But as a document of teenage love and insecurity, it edges out over Juno, and is therefore essential viewing for anyone in their early-20s.
Cinema is full of food-related scenes which are guaranteed to turn… MoreCinema is full of food-related scenes which are guaranteed to turn one's stomach. We have La Grande Bouffe, in which rich people eat themselves to death; Peter Greenaway turning cannibalism into an art form with The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; and the famously gross Mr. Creosote sequence from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. And then there is Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock's appropriately queasy debut documentary.
Super Size Me follows Spurlock as he attempts to survive on nothing but McDonalds for an entire month. The rules are simple: he must eat three meals a day, he can only eat what is offered at McDonalds, he must try everything on the menu at least once, and he must answer "yes" if they offer him a super-size meal. In between tackling his alarming diet, Spurlock is closely monitored by a small army of doctors, and the only exercise he undertakes is walking the same daily distance as an average American.
Although it's an intensely personal, first-person documentary, the film has none of the self-obsession or navel-gazing which has dogged Michael Moore or late-period Nick Broomfield. For starters, Spurlock is a lot more likeable than either of these: we don't just enjoy his company, we get the impression that the film crew did as well. He is populist, rational and refreshingly self-effacing, in complete contrast to Moore who, in the words of Mark Kermode, seems mainly concerned with inflating his own ego.
Furthermore, Spurlock is pursuing a subject matter of great importance but getting under the surface with a bigger intention than scoring political points. Where Fahrenheit 9/11 frequently went off the boil for the sake of making Moore look good, Super Size Me keeps its eyes on the prize, being reasonably thorough and comprehensive in its investigations. In one of its best moments, Spurlock gets under the skin of a spokesman from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, getting him to admit that the lobbyists which he represents are part of the problem in the State-side obesity epidemic.
Like the films listed in the opening paragraph of this review, there are a number of scenes in Super Size Me which make you want to throw up. On Day 2 of the challenge, Spurlock orders a Big Mac and vomits it up in the car park. The camera looks away as he does it, but then shows the horrid yellow mess left on the tarmac. Equally disgusting are the close-ups of the food before it enters his stomach; suffice to say, it's nothing like the pictures. Worst of all, about halfway through we get to witness keyhole surgery on a gastric band operation, set to the main theme from The Blue Danube.
Critics of Super Size Me have pointed to these scenes as evidence of the film's partisan approach. Their argument goes that since Spurlock didn't test other restaurants or brands of fast food, he has a particular grudge against McDonalds and is using the film as a form of propaganda. The camera's lingering on Spurlock's discomfort, or his claims about his sex life suffering, are means of manipulating people into boycotting one company, rather than exposing deeper truths about the industry as a whole.
While the documentary may paint a far-from-rosy picture of McDonalds, such criticisms are unduly harsh. Spurlock makes clear from the start that this is not a clinical trial or a hard scientific experiment. He chose McDonalds for the reason that it has the most outlets across America, with the largest number of customers, and therefore would provide a more representative sample than a study of any other single chain. The evidence produced by Spurlock is pretty conclusive but not medically binding, which makes it all the more extraordinary when we discover in the epilogue that McDonalds has withdrawn its Super Size options.
The documentary is very even-handed in a number of points that it makes. At one of the schools examined in the film, the students are given a presentation by Jared Fogle, who lost a large amount of weight by eating Subway sandwiches (supposedly). The crew then interview a teenage girl who admires what Fogle has done, but who cannot afford to eat Subway three times a day. The positive goals which celebrities like Fogle are setting are as unhealthily unrealistic as the impossibly airbrushed bodies of girls in magazines. In terms of self-esteem among teenagers, role models of any kind are portrayed as doing more harm than good, at least in regard to this industry.
Super Size Me identifies three key areas in which there has been neglect, ignorance or cynical foul play with regards to the consumption of fast food. The first, unsurprisingly, is with McDonalds itself. Spurlock sheds light on the immense amount of money spent on advertising, which far exceeds the national budget for promoting healthy eating. The prevalence of TV advertising means that no parent, no matter how responsible, can guarantee their child isn't being poorly influenced, and individual McDonalds chains (at the time of making the film) are not displaying adequate levels of information about the nutrition content of their meals.
The second area which has fallen short is the American government. More recent documentaries such as Waiting for Superman have detailed the years of neglect and underfunding in the American state school system in a much more thorough and comprehensive way. But Super Size Me does show how the use of outside food contractors to provide school meals has led to a race to the bottom, in terms of price and in terms of quality. So much of the food served in schools requires no preparation other than reheating, and because the choices are limited children are brought up to accept nothing better, let alone healthier.
But thirdly, Super Size Me has the balls to point the finger at the individuals who consume McDonalds so frequently. Having made a very solid case against fast food companies and lobbyists, and spoken about the frightening extent of fast food advertising, the film concludes by saying that it's as much down to us not making the effort as it is the society in which we are constantly exposed to such food. This might seem like a cop-out, considering how much righteous anger the film generates through its arguments against the industry and the power it wields. But it is refreshing that a documentary has the balls to 'blame' the public without overly guilt-tripping them in the process.
On top of everything else, Super Size Me is a very entertaining piece of work. As well as making you feel angry or sick, there are at least as many moments in the film which will provoke laughter. Hearing Spurlock's girlfriend talk about their disappointing sex life is hilarious; she comments, for instance, about how she always has to be on top since he started his diet. On the day that we see him throw up, Spurlock cracks jokes about the side effects of fast food on his system, muttering about "Mc-twitches" in his arm and other such complaints. Such scenes are pleasant interludes which make the experience more bearable, and counteract any negative feelings we may have - for instance, the urge to shout at Spurlock to stop it, lest he should kill himself.
Super Size Me is a very good example of populist documentary filmmaking which is a good balance of entertainment and information. Its impact will be greater the less one knows about fast food in general or McDonalds in particular, and many may be bothered that it doesn't go into enough detail when it needs to. But as an introduction to a subject which many have barely considered, it is both admirable and successful.
When I reviewed Moonrise Kingdom more than two years ago, I complained… MoreWhen I reviewed Moonrise Kingdom more than two years ago, I complained that it was hard to form strong emotional bonds with the characters because the entire film felt overly choreographed. While Wes Anderson's brilliance as a cinematic craftsman was never really in any doubt, it all felt a little too tightly controlled to pass muster as a genuinely heartwarming story about young love and free spirits.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is equally meticulous in its craft, but is a much better vehicle for Anderson. Its status as a caper comedy places a much more conscious emphasis on the various plot machinations, allowing him to show off his knowledge of and affection for cinema without undermining or overshadowing his characters. The result is a very funny slice of finely-tuned frivolity which finds Anderson almost back to his best.
As with all of Anderson's work, The Grand Budapest Hotel looks absolutely beautiful. There is the same powdery quality to the colour scheme as in Moonrise Kingdom, but the emphasis has shifted from summery yellows and woody browns to darker, more regal blues and frothy pinks. Anderson's compositions are as meticulous as ever, and the film utilises many of his familiar tricks, such as symmetrical wide shots, carefully timed circular pans and quirky model shots.
As with all of Anderson's films, however, there are unusual narrative quirks which can sometimes threaten to make the experience too arch and alienating to bond with the characters. In this case, there is his device of handing over the telling of the story from one person to another. The film begins with a lady reading a book in front of a statue of Tom Wilkinson; then Wilkinson (the author of the book) hands over to Jude Law (his younger self); then Law talks to F. Murray Abraham, who finally begins to recount his memories.
It's easy to understand the point that Anderson is making through this device. He is positively besotted with the art of storytelling and is trying to convey that love through a visual medium rather than a literary one. There's also a sly nod with the casting of Abraham, since Amadeus employed a similar device of its main character recounting the story in his old age. But while this device is affectionate, it is not entirely necessary to the story being told, and your enjoyment therein will depend on whether you regard it as an apt demonstration of passion or a needless indulgence.
To some extent, this dilemma is presented in the visuals of the film. While the main action takes place in the early-1930s, with the horrors of World War II still far away, the introduction takes place in the late-1960s. Interwar opulence and luxury is counterpointed with Soviet-era functionality, and by repeating mechanical actions in both periods (such as the strange transport to the hotel), an air of decline and melancholy quickly descends upon proceedings.
Having created an intriguing mood, Anderson gives us a number of quirky, interesting characters with whom we bond and whom we find very funny. Much of the praise has deservedly centred on Ralph Fiennes, who is absolutely brilliant as Gustave H.. The performance works because he believes so deeply in the character on a dramatic level; Fiennes' chops give Gustave a weight and purpose which an out-and-out comic actor would not have achieved. It's an irresitible blend of whimsy, pathos, elegance and mischief, and may be one of the best performances of Fiennes' illustrious career.
As I mentioned in my Moonrise Kingdom review, much of the pleasure of Anderson's films comes from him getting performances out of actors that no-one would have expected. It's not too much of a stretch to have Willem Dafoe as a thug in knuckle-dusters, or Jeff Goldblum as a stuffy, by-the-book lawyer (who ends up losing his fingers). But it is a pleasant surprise to see Adrian Brody as the villain of the piece, or Tilda Swinton as Gustave's elderly lover whose death sets off the entire caper.
In executing the caper aspect of the film, Anderson plays a very crafty trick. The quirkiness of his characters leads us to accept that they will speak in a manner which is different to our own; we accept this within the first five minutes as part of the overall style. This quirkiness allows him to have characters delivering exposition at break-neck speed, and yet it feels like a long joke rather than plot details.
There are numerous scenes in The Grand Budapest Hotel which are just characters reciting plot exposition directly to camera, something that would have been roundly lambasted had the film been helmed by another director. But rather than do as Alfred Hitchcock did and "sugar-coat" exposition with suspense, Anderson deliberately draws attention to it and uses it to celebrate the caper genre in all its ridiculousness. It's not so much hidden in plain sight as a Brechtian device, with the film constantly reminding you of its artificiality.
This is further reflected in the film's set-pieces. Take the hysterically funny sledging sequence, in which Gustave and Zero chase Jopling down a slalom course and ski jump, ending with Zero flinging Jopling off a cliff. The close-ups are achieved with the Hollywood technique of back projection, while the aerial shots are consciously done with detailed scale models. It's arguably just a massive Hitchcock reference, looking back to the skiing scene in the opening of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Like Bertolt Brecht's work, The Grand Budapest Hotel draws our attention to the artificial, mechanical nature of the story in order to illuminate some deeper, universal truth. On top of being a great, frothy caper, the film is about the passing of an age and with it a particular kind of character. Gustave is characterised throughoutt as being the last of a breed, someone already out of sorts in his own time and longing for release. The film presents its own fictional take on the build-up to World War II, with Gustave coming across like a lighter, more dandyish companion to Christopher Tietjens, the protagonist of Parade's End.
The true success of Anderson's film is that it allows you to enjoy it on whichever level you please. It operates on the same principle as Gladiator: it is both a philosophical exploration of death, morality and a life beyond this, and two hours of people hitting each other. You can read into The Grand Budapest Hotel's colour schemes, seeing the pink motif as a symbol of faded passion and sexuality, or you can just sit there laughing louder and louder at the brilliant action. Both responses are valid, and while the film is not as deep as Gladiator, it deserves praise for achieving this balance.
The Great Budapest Hotel sees Anderson returning to form, delivering a film whose whimsy and quirkiness is anchored and balanced by enjoyable, empathetic characters. While some will still balk at his approach to storytelling, and it isn't as thematically rich as perhaps it could have been, it is still an immensely enjoyable, funny and rewarding watch. It is a good way to introduce newcomers to Anderson's signature style, and is one of the most enjoyable films of 2014.
It's widely acknowledged that adapting a source from one medium to… MoreIt's widely acknowledged that adapting a source from one medium to another may cause many of its most distinctive elements to get lost in translation. On the rare occasions that an attempt is made to re-adapt the adapation back to its first form, the results can be disastrous. This is the fate that befell The Producers, which started as a great Mel Brooks film, then became a very good stage show, and finally ended up a rubbish second film at the hands of first-time director Susan Stroman.
At first glance, Hairspray should be cause for concern since it follows the same troubled route. Cult director John Waters' 1988 film was a modest hit, which became a huge, award-winning hit on Broadway, which in turn has now produced this adaptation of the musical helmed by Adam Shankman. But despite the director's lack of pedigree, and less emphasis on politics than fans of the original may like, the end result is a perky, uplifting, thoroughly entertaining romp which makes the most of both its newcomers and established cast.
The first of many surprises with Hairspray is the fact that someone as bad as Shankman could have pulled it out of the bag. Shankman's directorial roster either side of this is, in the words of Mark Kermode, "a load of old poop", containing duds like Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Pacifier and Rock of Ages. His background in choreography would lead us to predict another High Society, namely a musical where the director (whether Shankman or Charles Walters) is far too concerned with giving his actors enough room to dance to worry about the small matter of capturing emotion.
A more illuminating comparison, however, is with Jon M. Chu, who directed the second and third Step Up films around this time. The differences between the directors' projects seem obvious even at first glance, with the Step Up films lacking a period setting, political ambitions or sometims even a coherent storyline. But more crucially, Shankman understands that there is more going on in a musical number than just the song or dance - and on a wider level, that a musical film has to be more than just a series of said numbers. While Chu's films are at their most basic a series of disconnected music videos, Shankman manages to keep his eye on the story even when things are at their most visually flamboyant.
For a story about civil rights and the marginalisation of the Black community in America, Hairspray is surprisingly, perhaps even refreshingly, shiny and light. The original was one of Waters' more mainstream efforts, garnering a PG rating where his previous work had been X-rated almost by default. But even given its Broadway background, where big emotions and melodramatic storytelling run riot, it is striking to find a mainstream musical this willing to enjoy itself. Certainly the campy spirit of the original prevents us from accusing the remake of 'lightening down' the premise or message.
When I reviewed High Society three years ago, I said that its biggest problem was a lack of subtext to which the central relationships could be anchored. I said that "when you have a cast of so many famous faces, we need something to believe that we aren't just watching a lot of stars enjoying themselves with no regard for the plot." For all the charm of seeing Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra together, or the historical significance of Grace Kelly's last performance, the film lacked the substance and narrative discipline of The Philadelphia Story nearly two decades before it.
It's fair to say that neither Hairspray film is going to meet your expectations if you come looking for the likes of Selma and 12 Years A Slave. Both versions are films which wear their hearts on their sleeves; they don't tease out their message through composition and clever dialogue, they flaunt it on the back of big facial expressions and catchy music. The campiness of the original is exchanged here for the wide-eyed, earnest yet carefully rehearsed optimism of Broadway. In each case, the subtext is there if you want to go looking for it, but it's presented in an entrist, accessible way for its target audience, and never feels the need to talk down to them just to make a point.
The question that immediately follows from this is whether a remake was entirely necessary. Despite being acclaimed at the time, the original Hairspray isn't as widely known as perhaps it should be; certainly it's no less. campy in some respects than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This remake is very faithful to the original in several key respects, and it's unclear how much people it will draw to the original by virtue of its existence. But it also manages to justify itself as a musical in its own right, with memorable characters, well-written songs and some good performances.
Whether to appease fans of the original or simply out of love of Waters' film, Shankman goes out of his way to include references to the original. Ricki Lake, whose career was launched by Waters, has a cameo appearance as one of the talent agents, while Waters himself gets a very brief cameo as a flasher in 'Good Morning Baltimore'. On top of the original film and Broadway cast turning up in reasonable quantities, many of the new faces seem to have been cast partly to resemble the old ones, with Michelle Pfeiffer's hairstyle and cheekbones echoing those of Debbie Harry and John Travolta carrying on the drag tradition embodied by Divine in his final film role.
In any other circumstances, this abundance of winking at the audience would either become overbearing, like the many cameos in John Landis' films, or prevent this version of Hairspray from standing on its own. But Shankman pulls it off, positioning the old faces so that the fans will appreciate them but not so that they derail the plot by self-consciously sticking out. Even with the physical resemblance, Pfeiffer still has the natural charisma to make the part her own, delivering lines about "screwing the judges" with acid aplomb.
Much has been made about Travolta's appearance in the film - an appearance which required him to spent four hours in make-up each day to apply silicone prosthetics to his head and neck, along with foam on his legs and arms, and a spandex and foam body suit. Having turned in so many lazy performances over his long and frustrating career, it's refreshing to see him throw himself into a role without any ego or self-consciousness. And while he's not as immediately charismatic or funny as Divine, neither is he creepy or unnerving. Ultimately it's not his film anyway, so you can enjoy it even if his performance rubs you up the wrong way.
This brings us on to the musical numbers in Hairspray, which are generally really good. Many musicals derived from films throw in a bunch of songs where they were never going to be useful or necessary, simply because songs are needed for it to be a musical. But Hairspray justifies its numbers very well, partly through their congruency to the background music of the period, and partly by the performers delivering them. One of the old-school highlights sees Travolta and Christopher Walken convincingly duetting on '(You're) Timeless to Me', while the climactic 'You Can't Stop The Beat' is completely irresistible.
There are a couple of drawbacks with the new Hairspray which prevent it from being a knock-out success. It is nearly half an hour longer than Waters' version, and at certain points this really shows, with scenes such as those with the different groups of children noticeably dragging out. Shankman's hardly the most disciplined director around, and his editor Janice Hampton keeps the pace of the film at the same steady tempo throughout, when really we should feel it gathering speed as it builds towards its climax. Having a much higher budget than Waters enjoyed, it's an example of how having more resources isn't always a good thing.
The other big niggle with Hairspray is its earnestness. The campiness of the original meant that it could be appreciated both with a straight face and ironically, something which isn't an option with this version. While Broadway and musical fans will be used to the style and approach to charactersation, the film's lack of any edge or hard underbelly could prove alienating. If you struggled to get through the later Step Ups, late alone the High School Musical series, this will be a difficult watch for you.
Hairspray is a highly enjoyable, light-hearted romp which, unlike many remakes, justifies its existence to a very large extent. Its main performances are enjoyable, its songs are well-written and nicely executed, the visuals are bright and perky, and despite its occasional bagginess it holds together really quite nicely. Purists and Waters fans may still clamour for the original, whether for its politics or its camp value, but for anyone just in search of a good time, this is an ideal selection.
When cinematographers turn their hand to directing, the films that… MoreWhen cinematographers turn their hand to directing, the films that result often look appealing but lack the substance or storytelling skill of the films which they only helped to shoot. The career of Dutchman Jan de Bont is a classic case in point. As a cinematographer, de Bont lensed some of Paul Verhoeven's finest work, including Keetje Tippel and The Fourth Man, as well as lending his considerable expertise to the likes of Die Hard and Black Rain. With the exception of Speed, his directorial career has been poor, from the largely underwhelming Twister to his totally brainless remake of The Haunting.
It's a very similar story with Cradle 2 the Grave, directed by Polish cinematographer Andrezj Bartkowiak. His reputation within the industry is not as high as de Bont's, with his credits ranging from the engaging Prizzi's Honour to the risible A Stranger Among Us. But compared to the heights of his work in his original trade, this is a disappointingly unremarkable venture which fails to tell an entirely engaging story and doesn't make the most of Jet Li's talent.
In my now-ancient review of Westworld, I talked about the way that films directed by novelists often fall flat because they lack an understanding of how cinematic storytelling works. The issue, I said, was that writers "are so attentive to verbal content that they neglect the visual characteristics of great cinema." With cinematographers, it is to some extent the other way around: they understand how to light and assemble a shot so that it looks gripping or intriguing, but they can't string these shots together to serve a story. Often, as in this case, the story isn't distrinctive enough to merit all their visual labours.
In terms of its plot, Cradle 2 the Grave is pure meat and potatoes. It is a nuts-and-bolts action thriller with a heist at its centre, whose plot involves rival criminals coming together to face off a bigger threat. The supposed drama comes from the different attitudes and approaches of the characters, along with the conflict of being forced to work together. After a few minor skirmishes, including some kind of chase or other set-piece, the different groups finally agree to work together and everything builds up to the final showdown. That has been the template for hundreds of films, particularly since the likes of Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop.
There's nothing inherently wrong with making a film within clearly defined narrative parameters, or with taking a genre which seems as old as dirt and trying to bring something new to it. Inception worked brilliantly because Christopher Nolan intrinsically understood the mechanics of the heist film; he know where he wanted to push the envelope, and he knew the means by which to achieve this. The point is, if you are going to make a genre film and don't have the talent to reinvent the wheel, you need to have sufficient skill or verve to put your own stamp on it.
The single biggest problem with Cradle 2 the Grave is that it is unremarkable to the point of being tedious. With the exception of one scene (which we'll come onto that later), there really isn't a single shot that you can identify as being unique or distinctive to the director. Bartkowiak is, with the best will in the world, a hack: he can put scenes together efficiently and compently, but he doesn't bring any energy or commitment to the overall project. He's not an utterly talentless hack, in the manner of Brett Ratner or Michael Bay - people who often can't even assemble a shot properly, let alone tell a story. But this film has no creative stamp at all, nothing to indicate that it was anything more than another day at the office.
To be fair to Bartkowiak and to the performers, a lot of the blame for Cradle 2 the Grave's nature lies just as much with the script. Channing Gibson, who developed the screenplay from John O'Brien's story, is at heart a TV writer, best known for his work on St. Elsewhere. Whatever he managed to bring to that series, his film scripts are incredibly formulaic and the dialogue is both unmemorable and unoriginal. His other credits, Lethal Weapon 4 and the remake of Walking Tall, are ample evidence of this.
The film is so much a product of the 1980s that it's a wonder why Bartkowiak didn't simply recruit the like of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone for the main roles. There's no inherent reason for DMX and Jet Li to be in this film: their characters are so generic and stereotypical that there's no reason for them to be of Black or Asian descent. The sub-plot involving the kidnapping of the protagonist's daughter was old hat even before Commando came along, and the film does nothing new or interesting with the buddy movie formula. Even the final showdown between Su and Ling, which is built up to quite a large degree, is very close to the final fight in Lethal Weapon (and makes about as little sense).
As for the performers themselves, they're all completely unremarkable. DMX joins the long list of musicians in general, and rappers in particular, who have a total inability to act. He's neither as obnoxiously annoying as Vanilla Ice in Cool As Ice, nor as goofily hammy as Ice Cube in Ghosts of Mars. Like many musicians who attempt to transition into acting, you never get the sense of him playing a character; he's just posing on screen as himself, as if he was too worried that if he actually gave a performance, people might forget who he was.
Other members of the cast are equally disappointing. Gabrielle Union gave a really good performance in Bring It On three years earlier, but here she has too little to work with and the scenes where she has to play the sexy role are clunky and exploitative. Anthony Anderson was fine in Romeo Must Die (also directed by Bartkowiak), but in this film he's relegated to a more comic background character, playing the sort of role once filled by the late John Candy. Most disappointing of all is Jet Li, who was fantastic in Hero just before this was filmed. While Li has never been Jackie Chan in terms of charisma, Zhang Zimou clearly knew how to channel his talents in a way that Bartkowiak never manages. As a result he's reduced to the 'wise, all-knowing Oriental' stereotype indelibly associated with Pat Morita.
All of this would be possible to tolerate if the action scenes were in any way gripping or memorable. But once again, the film settles for the ordinary (and boring), either acknowledging the fact that it's completely disposable or simply lacking the willpower to make a case for itself. The martial arts sequences are functional, and you can at least see a lot of the choreography play out since these scenes are paced and edited properly. But the chase sequences and the motorcycle jumps are generally uninspired, being a lot less exciting than the bike-based climax of Mission: Impossible II.
When John Carpenter was in his prime, one thing which always set his work apart was its visual style. Even though he was often working on very low budgets, his knowledge of camera angles, faith in special effects and use of anamorphic lenses made his films look like they were made for a great deal more money. Cradle 2 the Grave cost around $28m - around the same as Ghosts of Mars when adjusted for inflation - and yet it looks much cheaper than that in places. Daryn Okada may have lensed Stick It and Mean Girls, but here his angles are unengaging and much of the film looked needlessly washed-out.
The only truly memorable scene in Cradle 2 the Grave involves the death of Ling. Having been forced to swallow a capsule containing synthetic plutonium - our McGuffin for the evening - we see Ling convulse and hoarsely scream as his throat and face are burned into nothingness. The special effects are pretty memorable, falling somewhere between the cancer gun scene in Videodrome and the scene in Return of the Jedi where Han Solo is released from the carbonite. It may be gratuitous and over-the-top, but after all the predictable fodder that has gone before, it's arguably the best scene in the film.
Cradle 2 the Grave is as nuts and bolts as they come, filling 101 minutes with nothing in particular. Its story and execution are functional at best and derivative at worst, and most of the main performances are uninspired. But it serves its purpose as a disposable action film and is by no means the worst cinematic vehicle for a rapper that we've seen. It won't send you to the grave to see it, but you certainly won't be shouting about it afterwards.