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3 Stars Movies

Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t bargain or negotiate in The Fugitive

Everyone remembers Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive for Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones’ chemistry (despite rarely sharing the screen) and its iconic action pieces (especially the train and dam sequences). But all of this must hang upon a plot framework, and the lopsided movie’s momentum dissipates as it gets bogged down in the details. The first half is so singularly focused on thrills, that it fails to set up the unexciting pharmaceutical company corruption details introduced too late in the game. For a movie like this, the conspiracy should be as interesting as the action.

It’s also hard to overlook the fact that the Marshal’s (Jones) most defining character trait, that the audience is clearly expected to admire, is that he proudly does not bargain or negotiate. Faced with a hostage situation involving a person of color, his solution is to summarily execute. I suppose this is to raise the stakes for the titular fugitive — you’ll be shot dead before you’re arrested — but even to early ’90s audiences, it’s impossible to imagine a U.S. Marshal treating an affluent white felon the same way as a poor black felon. Seems awkward now that this role earned Jones an Academy Award and a sequel.

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3 Stars Movies

William Friedkin’s The Hunted

Right after watching too many sloppily-made thrillers filling up space on Netflix (including Mercury Rising, Double Jeopardy, and Along Came a Spider), it’s a relief that The Hunted is so solidly made. You really can’t expect anything less from William Friedkin.

So why is it so unsatisfying? First, it doesn’t really capitalize on the potential of an intriguing character: a former special forces agent, trained to become a dehumanized killing machine, who can’t “turn it off”. Pitting such a damaged person against the man who trained him ought to have produced fireworks. Instead of a character study we only get a series of chase sequences.

Benicio Del Toro’s trademark blasé mumbling is his whole appeal, but here he just seems to be sleepwalking. At the time, Tommy Lee Jones was on the tail end of his plausibility as an action hero, but at least his performance conveys his character’s guilt in richer ways than the script does. For meaning and emotional oomph, the movie leans pretty heavily on a thuddingly obvious metaphor (a wounded wolf) and a Johnny Cash tune.

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2 Stars Movies

Double Jeopardy is one rewrite away from working

Not to imply that screenwriting and revision are easy, but Bruce Beresford’s Double Jeopardy is only one re-write away from being a decent action thriller. With its killer hook (jilted woman – framed for a murder that not only did she not commit, it didn’t even happen – is legally free to actually commit the crime if she wishes) and solid cast (Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones in roles they could both do in their sleep), it should have been a home run.

It all starts out rather well, surely better than its generally poor Netflix and Letterboxd reviews would imply. But the plot holes and implausibilities quickly pile up and you find out why people hate it. There are lots of issues to point to, but I was frustrated by its two biggest problems:

1. The failure to identify what should have been the core of the story: Tommy Lee Jones’ character coming around to believing his quarry may be innocent. Instead, he simply pursues her for a while, and suddenly offhandedly mentions near the end that he figures she didn’t do it. What should have been a key story beat was underplayed to the point of almost vanishing.

2. The final confrontation makes no logical sense. If Judd and Jones find her supposedly dead murder victim alive and well, then problem solved, right? Simply drag him in front of a judge and all of Judd’s problems go away. But no, instead they propose some sort of insane double-wrap-around blackmail scheme that makes no sense whatsoever, which produces a scuffle and then she shoots him anyway. I suspect the filmmakers were working backwards from a premise they were too attached to.

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4 Stars Movies

David vs. Goliath in Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah is a dark story about the psychological damage of war, certainly not a recipe for an entertaining night at the movies. This blogger will cop to finding it difficult to work up the enthusiasm to sit down for a movie on such a troubling topic, fearing the resultant depression (despite my love and respect for cinema as an art form, and staunch sympathy for the anti-war movement, sometimes a person just needs a little light entertainment). But writer/director Paul Haggis structured the plot as a murder mystery, with a few pinches of wry humor, to craft an excellent film that is not punishingly sad.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a pious, patriotic, and disciplined man. But he is also emotionally detached; he dispassionately investigates the mysterious death of his own son. Drawing upon his skills as both a former army soldier and police sergeant, he outwits both the army’s own investigators and the resident local police smartypants Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Impressively for an old coot, he is even able to locate a back-alley cell phone phreaker, in an unfamiliar town, using only a diner’s phone book. But the seemingly cold man does reveal his pain and weakness before the end, and even a buried unsavory side involving racism.

In the Valley of Elah
(Don’t Go Back To Sgt.) Rockville

The title derives from the Biblical parable of David and Goliath, a macho mano-a-manu beatdown that occurred during the battle of the Israelites vs. the Palestinians. Aside from the obvious parallels to the locale and participants of the ancient and never-ending Middle East conflicts, the tale is also a metaphor for how Deerfield views manhood and how he raised his son: to stand tall against any odds. But as Deerfield learns unpleasant truths about his son (drugs, torture, prostitutes) and his country (unjustified war, institutional corruption), he must, late in life, come to reevaluate his most core beliefs. So what makes this clearly liberal anti-war film special is its respect for exactly the type of person it might indict: the god-fearing patriot.

In the Valley of Elah
Whitman’s Sampler, my favorite!

Finally, I’d like to highlight one excellent scene (in every way: writing, acting, and directing): as Deerfield phones his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) to tell her their son is dead, the scene begins in the middle, and in the end the camera pulls back to show Joan has torn apart the room. A lesser film would have shown the whole thing, for the sake of melodrama.

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4 Stars Movies

Tommy Lee Jones’ almost unbearably gruesome The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Three Burials joins Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man as one of my few highly-rated westerns. Like Dead Man, its tone meanders from the darkly comic to the melodramatic, and is at times almost unwatchably gruesome. Which does nothing to explain why I liked it, I know.

Special mention to Barry Pepper for taking what must be one of the most thankless roles in movie history: his character is a onanistic, racist brute; beaten, dragged by a horse, forced at gunpoint to disinter a corpse, bitten by a rattlesnake, and not the least of which, spends a good part of the movie with his pants down (come to think of it, so does Dwight Yoakam).

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