The Mechanic (2011)

I suppose there could be, in fact, professional hitmen of the sort portrayed by Jason Statham in The Mechanic. Cool, detached people who are paid to kill other people they neither know nor care about. As long as there are people out there who need killing, and people who want them killed, there will be other people willing to do the deed. The movies, however, seem to be rather overpopulated with professional assassins. Just last year, George Clooney played one in The American, a movie with more than a few superficial similarities to The Mechanic. Clooney's movie offered much less bang for the buck than The Mechanic, which provides a lot of bang, and not much else. 

One consequence of the abundance of elite assassins in movies is that they inevitably must turn on each other. Apparently there aren't enough of us non-assassins who need to be whacked to keep the pros in gravy. Or at least, there aren't enough of us so worth killing that anyone is willing to pay for it. I suppose that's good news. It's a pretty safe bet that in any movie about an assassin, he or she will eventually become the target of another assassin, usually hired by the very same low-down double-crossing people who employ the first assassin, which is what happens in The Mechanic. Which is to say that if you've seen one movie about an elite hitman, you've seen The Mechanic. (You might also have seen the1972 Charles Bronson movie on which The Mechanic is based.)

Statham is Arthur Bishop, an assassin who specializes in murders-for-hire that don't look like murders. Drownings, heart attacks, and apparently random street crimes are among his specialties. He's knowledgeable, efficient, and discreet, and he is rewarded handsomely for his skill and lack of qualms. But in case the audience has any qualms about the murder-for-hire biz, the victims of Arthur's expertise are all cartoonishly and vaguely bad people who might deserve to be professionally and efficiently dispatched. Arthur fancies himself an aesthete, living in a spectacular house in a Louisiana swamp, listening to his hi-fi, and rebuilding a vintage car. ("Mechanic" is a euphemism for assassin, but Arthur's also an actual mechanic, which might have seemed more interesting on paper than it is on film. The extent of his automotive activity is to give a socket wrench a couple of twists.) Arthur's detachment extends to his sex life: he prefers the uncomplicated company of prostitutes, although he pays them well. 

Arthur's tranquil life gets complicated when he gets an assignment he doesn't want: killing a personal friend (he doesn't have many of them). Then there's another complication: the dead man's son Steve (Ben Foster), not knowing who killed his father, wants to learn Arthur's trade. The kid doesn't have much going for him, so Arthur takes him under his burly wing. Much of The Mechanic involves Arthur teaching Steve the ropes, in a series of assassinations that don't go as smoothly as planned. Murders that go off without a hitch are kind of boring, I guess. The ones that go badly end up in fisticuffs and shoot-outs and spearings, with people rappelling down skyscrapers and getting thrown through windows and other exciting stuff. Steve, who lacks Arthur's sangfroid and nose for trouble, tends to get into difficulty rather more than is healthy for an assassin who plans to make a career of it. Steve, with his emotional neediness and daddy issues, is also more interesting and sympathetic than Arthur.

Under the direction of Simon West (Con Air), The Mechanic is a pretty good looking movie, with briskly paced and sporadically imaginative action. (In one scene, Arthur and another hitman go at it on an airport shuttle bus, turning various bits of quotidian transport into deadly weapons.) That's not really enough to make this movie worth watching. One problem is Arthur. He is not interesting or likable. You wouldn't want to spend time with the guy. While the movie tries to make an issue, of sorts, out of the ethics of assassination (hey, every profession has its professional ethics), if Arthur is capable of deep thought about such things, he doesn't let on. Statham is a fine physical specimen, but aside from a lot of intense glowering, he doesn't betray any emotion. He's like a pilot light that never gets lit -- nothing gets to Arthur, and so, there's really nothing to Arthur. Foster is better as the callow, reckless, and emotionally ragged Steve, and Donald Sutherland is quite good in a small role. Sutherland keeps getting cast in little roles in unmemorable (or terrible, or occasionally good) movies -- would somebody please give this guy something worthwhile to do?

If we wait long enough, all the movie assassins will eventually kill each other, until there is only one left. Maybe Donald Sutherland will play him.


The Fighter (2010)

Boxing movies tend to have a pretty rigid and predictable structure. Down and out fighter gets beat up and knocked down, in the ring and by life. Fighter works hard, fights back, gets a shot at a comeback, redemption, and... gets beat up and knocked down again before triumphing in the end. This is also the basic structure of most kung fu movies, and most sports movies too. (But not most sporting events. Just ask the New York Jets.) It's more or less the basic plot of The Fighter, based on the true story of "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a welterweight boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts whose career conveniently followed a course made for movies. 

Micky's bouts in the boxing ring are a cakewalk compared to his family life. Start with his motormouthed half brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a once-promising boxer whose career peaked when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, an accomplishment he is quick to recount to anyone who will listen. Micky grew up idolizing his big brother, and remains loyal to Dicky even though he's a crackhead. With Dicky as his trainer, and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) as his manager, Micky's chances of success are slim. To call Micky's family dysfunctional -- in additon to Dicky and Alice there are his seven furious, fractious sisters -- is an understatement. Micky's a fairly quiet, passive guy. It's easy to imagine him spending his whole life never getting a word in edgewise, and getting shouted down every time he tried. He's not so different as a boxer -- he lays on the ropes, and takes a beating, wearing down his opponent and waiting for a chance to strike. The question for Micky, the central question of The Fighter, is whether Micky will ever find it in himself to get off the ropes and fight his family.

There are good reasons to think he should. Family matriarch Alice clearly favors Dicky. Dicky, for his part, is more interested in his own comeback than in guiding his little brother. Micky's a surrogate, fighting not so much for himself but to give his grandstanding brother a second chance at glory, and it's not at all clear that anyone has his best interests at heart. Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky's girlfriend, a scrappy, tough-talking barmaid who stands up to Alice and her seven daughters when Micky can't. She can also throw a mean punch when she has to.

The Fighter is less about boxing than it is a love story, a family drama, and a complicated tale of fraternal love and sibling rivalry. It's crazy, funny, sad, profane, and sometimes profound, and a nimble, lively, psychologically complex story. There are really a multitude of fighters in The Fighter, and the obvious one, Micky Ward, is the least pugilistic of the bunch.

Bale's performance -- he seems to reinvent himself for every role -- is quite extraordinary. He's gaunt, wild-eyed and energetically frantic, revealing not only the ravages of Dicky's drug addiction, but also the athlete he once was. Dicky runs, punches, spars, and never stops talking, as if willing his body to do things it really shouldn't be able to do. He's a clown, a raconteur, a fighter, a mama's boy, a mentor, a charmer, and smarter than he looks -- he never stops thinking about strategy, even though most of his personal decisions, impaired as they are by drugs and drug-seeking, are quite bad. 

Leo's Alice is in the dubious company of other mythically terrible movie mothers -- she chain smokes, she badgers, she storms, she hurls kitchenware, she denies and defames, she roars. She undermines Micky's career even while she exploits it for money and attention. Micky, it is clear, can never be better than his big brother in Alice's eyes, and whether she does it intentionally or not, she sees to it that he never quite succeeds. Only Charlene dares to face down the harridan and her vulgar, vicious daughters who, between them, use enough hairspray to keep the ozone hole open for business. (That the family cooperated with the filmmakers is interesting, to say the least.)

Wahlberg's performance is quiet, like Micky. He seems to be waiting for something, and watching from the outside as Charlene and the Ward and Eklund families duke it out. What they're fighting over is, of course, Micky's destiny. Micky's personality, and Walhberg's performance, parallel the progress of the story, which is, in the end, about a quiet, passive, non-aggressive man who finds the fighter in himself, and finally discovers something worth fighting for.

The Fighter, filmed in Lowell, is appropriately gritty and grimy, with the hardscrabble working class town looking as desperate and ground down as its fabled son Dicky. Director David O. Russell nicely captures the shabby weariness of this former industrial town, and the poverty that blighted it in the 1990s, when this story takes place. Russell (*Three Kings*, *Flirting with Disaster*) doesn't make anything pretty in The Fighter -- not the town, or the people. The fights are brutal, and that goes double for any fight involving Alice and her flock of harpies. Russell's directing style is energetic and fleet-footed, and the movie is lively, thoughtful, hilarious, and moving, and frequently veers in unexpected directions. Russell aims to reimagine the boxing movie with The Fighter, to both conform to boxing movie conventions, and to upend them. In doing so, he both satisfies the expectations of the genre and moves beyond them, to create a movie that's richly complex, moving, and genuine.


The Green Hornet (2011)

I had a Hornet car once. It was green. I also had, simultaneously, a cat named Kato. I didn't name the cat; he was named by a friend who was a Bruce Lee fanatic. Lee played Kato in the 1960s Green Hornet TV series. But the durably long-lived Green Hornet himself dates back to a 1930s radio show. In virtually every version of The Green Hornet (radio, movie, TV, comic book), the Hornet is the alter ego of Britt Reid, do-gooder publisher by day, vigilante by night, aided by his faithful sidekick/chauffeur/manservant Kato.

As imagined by star and screenwriter Seth Rogen (who co-wrote the movie with Evan Goldberg), the 21st century Britt Reid is a layabout, a hard-partying, fast-talking, spoiled brat who inherits a newspaper when his stern father (Tom Wilkinson) dies. Britt discovers the amazing talents of his father's car mechanic and personal barista Kato (Jay Chou), a skilled engineer, artist, and inventor. Britt engages in some vandalism, gets into hot water, and hatches a scheme to become a masked crimefighter who poses as a criminal. It's not really clear why he feels it necessary to pose as a criminal, but the plot is the weakest link in The Green Hornet. It barely makes sense, but it also barely exists.

The Green Hornet has a cool car, called Black Beauty, that's tricked out with nifty features like machine guns, flamethrowers, missiles, and bulletproof glass. (My green Hornet didn't have any of that stuff, which is probably for the best, although we will never know now.) Kato, the brains behind the Green Hornet, and also the brawn, created the car, the name, and the masks. He also does all the crimefighting while Britt does all the talking. Britt talks pretty much nonstop, is generally inept, and frequently requires rescue, since he lacks even the most rudimentary of crimefighting skills. The running gag of The Green Hornet is that Britt Reid is a doofus superhero who can't do anything right, and his sidekick does all the work. And gets the girl.

The girl is Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), Britt's overqualified secretary. The Green Hornet's nemesis is Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), a criminal kingpin suffering a midlife crisis. There's also a corrupt district attorney (David Harbour) who turns out to be a villain as well.

A lot of action movies lack characters. They're filled with explosions and fights and car chases, and the people in them have plenty to do, but they lack dimension as characters. The Green Hornet is full of car chases and fights and explosions, and the characters have loads of personality, although, strangely, they don't have much to do because the movie is a more or less random series of incidents that are connected primarily because they've been spliced together by an editor (Michael Tronick).

And yet, The Green Hornet can be fun. Rogen, who can be fairly irritating, uses that quality to good effect, since Britt is a fairly irritating guy whose principle accomplishment is that he irritates bad guys. He should be called The Mosquito. Rogen and Chou (a major Taiwanese pop idol) have a funny, loose rapport. Chou speaks as slowly as Rogen speaks quickly, and is low key, quiet, and graceful, while Rogen is loud and awkward. Waltz, who was terrifically funny and terrifying as Colonel Hans Landa in *Inglourious Basterds*, is funny in The Green Hornet too, although he's playing a character who is like a lite version of Landa. Chudnofsky is merciless, and surrounds himself with yes-men (no-men don't last long); he's an insecure criminal mastermind, one who worries that he's not scary enough, and ponders ways to be taken seriously. He's not so different, in that way, from Britt, who also just wants to be taken seriously.

Director Michel Gondry (Be Kind, Rewind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) makes his first foray into action movies, after a career making quirky, brainy, highly imaginative movies and music videos. The Green Hornet shows little of Gondry's usual lightness and inventiveness, but it pops up from time to time in some of the more imaginatively staged action sequences, like the extended car chase that literally stops the presses when it ends up at Britt's newspaper offices. Gondry's goofy, slapsticky approach to kung fu fighting and bromantic comedy enlivens The Green Hornet, but the movie is an atypical entry in the director's oeuvre, one that offers few opportunities for the quirky beauty and emotional intensity of his best work. Gondry's affection for the characters shows, and he gives Britt and Kato lots of cool, unusual toys to play with, but as a director and writer, he tends to work with trippy, unconventional narratives and stories that slip and slide between layers of reality, and The Green Hornet really needed someone with the will to bend its freewheeling riffing into a more conventional narrative. (This movie features slapdash, anemic 3-D. It was not originally filmed in 3-D -- the studio decided to convert some scenes to 3-D in post-production, and it's nothing to write home about. It's a scam to get a few extra bucks out of the audience.)


The King's Speech (2010)

Cruel fate conspires against poor Prince Albert, son of King George V. He grows up with a stammer, but, being the Duke of York, he is sometimes required to speak publicly. That humiliation is bad enough, but then radio comes along and amplifies his every stutter and agonizing silence, and sends it to the four corners of the British Empire. Fortunately, he is in little danger of ascending to the throne, as the crown is to sit on his brother David's head. But his brother, the man who would be King Edward VIII, is head over heels in love with an American divorcee. He famously abdicates for love, thus sticking Albert with what feels like a crown of thorns. Oh, and there's a world war looming, too.

Fate has a sense of humor too. The King's Speech, directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler, recounts how Albert reluctantly ascended to the throne and grew into the role of king with a little help from a quirky therapist. Albert, or Bertie (Colin Firth) as he is known to his family (he has no friends), has sought numerous cures, from numerous quacks, for his speaking problem. His patient and sympathetic wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the future Queen Mum, finds an unorthodox speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian who promises to cure the monarch. He also promises to ruffle the royal feathers by insisting, among other things, that therapy sessions be held in his shabby office, and that he and Bertie be on first-name terms. Bertie finds him irritating and impertinent, but also effective.

Lionel's plan is to dig up and expose the root of Bertie's problem, something the reserved, private prince prefers not to do. What follows is part comedy, part therapy session, part odd couple story as Bertie and Lionel talk and confide and bicker. Lionel, whose opinion of the monarchy is low (though he holds Bertie in high esteem) occasionally oversteps his bounds. Bertie resists Lionel's efforts to probe into his painful childhood and family life, until circumstance -- that troublesome, impetuous, lovestruck brother -- forces him to confront everything all at once: his past, his future, Hitler. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.

For all that heaviness, for all Bertie's anger and anxiety, The King's Speech is a mostly lighthearted movie that primarily aims to entertain, and so it does. There's a bit of a history lesson squeezed in for good measure, but the hammy (in a good way) performance by Rush, and Firth's ability to maintain a stiff upper lip while letting fly with a stream of stutter-free expletives (which inexplicably earned the sex-and-violence-free movie an R rating) make this an enjoyable romp through a dark period of history.

The movie gives little time to the crisis that was nearly Bertie's (and maybe the monarchy's) undoing: brother David (Guy Pearce), and his affair with Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). In only a few scenes, the movie slyly hints at the perhaps perverse nature of their relationship, the unconventional power dynamic between them, and David's unwillingness, or inability, to give up Wallis for honor, for power, or for country. Pearce reveals much about David's temperament, his intemperance, his imperiousness, his whingeing and sense of victimhood, and his cruel torture (both intentional and unintentional) of his brother. There's an interesting movie to be made about *that* guy (and if they cast Guy Pearce to play him just as he does in The King's Speech, all the better). If the monarchy is good for nothing else (and that's a distinct possibility), it's good at producing dysfunctional families and high drama.

The King's Speech is a film that's eager to please, even when it must delve into the royal family's unpleasantness. The movie creates an effective sense of Bertie's options diminishing -- he seems forced to navigate many long, narrow corridors, and to confront an increasing number of microphones that, in the way that inanimate objects like 1930s mics can do, seem to scowl at him. (Unlike most dramas about royals, The King's Speech abjures palatial opulence, making the monarchs look practically middle class.) There's a growing sense of both necessity and desperation, and Firth's portrayal reveals King George VI to be a man who will do what he must for his country, even speak to it. The title refers to Bertie's speech in general, but also in particular to a crucial speech he must broadcast, informing England and the world that they are going to war against Germany. It's an important, defining moment, both for the man and the country, and The King's Speech effectively and movingly shows how the two are one, their fates intertwined. The king's little story of overcoming personal adversity will be mirrored in the courage and solidarity that Britons famously exhibited during the war. In some ways, the stories that The King's Speech implies but doesn't tell promise to be even more interesting than the one it does tell, but it is nonetheless a poignant and interesting personal drama, and a diverting, fun, juicy historical drama as well.


True Grit (2010)

Vengeance may be a dish best served cold, but the actual serving of it tends to be a hot mess. This is especially true when Joel and Ethan Coen are involved, as they have, over the years, specialized in tales of killings and crime where things tend to go awry, with violent consequences. In True Grit, a remake of the 1969 film that starred John Wayne and Kim Darby, there are a lot of killings, and most of them are pretty messy. Death doesn't come quick and painless when knives and rifles are involved. True Grit is based on the novel by Charles Portis, and as before, its a comic Western that goofs around with the heroic Western archetype. When John Wayne played US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, he played against an archetype he'd embodied for much of his career. When Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, he shuffles and stumbles and slurs, and exhibits little of the dignity one might expect of a storied lawman. On the other hand, his "one-eyed fat man" surely looks like a fellow who spends days in the saddle and weeks sleeping in the dirt, with nought but a bottle of whisky for company. It's probably a lot closer to the reality of being a frontier lawman than the classic movie image of clean-shaven men in buckskin suits and boots with jangly spurs.

There is a fellow in buckskin and spurs in True Grit. That'd be Texas Ranger LaBeouf, a pretentious man with a big mustache and a high opinion of himself. That opinion is not shared by Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who compares the fashionable lawman to a rodeo clown. Mattie is a 14 year old girl from Arkansas, who has hired Rooster Cogburn to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the miserable, no 'count man who murdered her father. LaBeouf (who pronounces his name "La Beef," in the Texas way) is also tracking Chaney, and has in mind to collect a large bounty for him back in Texas. Mattie seeks justice and vengeance for her father, and she's heard that Cogburn is not particular about whether he brings outlaws back dead or alive, which suits her just fine. She wants Chaney dead, whether it's by the bullet or the noose, so long as it's in Arkansas.

Revenge is sweet, but Mattie is not. She's smart as a pistol, and all business, whether she's negotiating the sale of some ponies to a crooked horsetrader, or settling on Cogburn's fee. She's tough through and through, and she won't be trifled with, which makes she and Cogburn kindred spirits of sorts. Steinfeld is terrific in her feature film debut (I predict an Oscar nomination), playing Mattie as a humorless but nonethless hilarious, steely little fast talker who makes up for her small size with a very sharp tongue. Bridges and Damon are also quite good -- Damon's LaBeouf suffers numerous indignities, and turns out to be more complicated than he at first seems.

The script by the Coen Brothers is terrific -- wordy, witty, funny, profound, taking numerous digressive detours and meandering along on an unexpected trail to revenge and redemption. This is a Western uncharacteristically built on words -- these are characters who tallk and tell tales, who weigh and consider and negotiate, whether it's about the price of a horse, or the worth of a human life.

The Coens' previous Westerns (No Country for Old Men and, arguably, Raising Arizona), were set in modern times, but in True Grit, they work within the Western genre in a more traditional, though still revisionist way. In some ways, True Grit is a step backwards from No Country for Old Men, which, for my money, capped off the genre. True Grit shows that the Western well hasn't totally run dry -- there is still more to say on the subject of outlaws and lawmen, complicated good and unrepentant evil. The movie isn't particularly stylized or quirky, which is to say that it is not a typical Coen brothers movie, although I'm not sure there is a typical Coen brothers movie anymore. They have matured into very complete and complex filmmakers -- good storytellers, masters of the visual, with a sense of history and purpose, and also a sense of humor. There are no cheap laughs in True Grit, and the Coens don't make fun of the characters. There are odd flourishes here and there, and strange characters who turn up from time to time. But what makes True Grit unique and so interesting is that it's a serious and thoughtful film about serious people who mean to lay some Biblical, eye-for-en-eye wrath on a ne'er-do-well -- the movie can be violent and bloody -- but it's also extremely funny and entertaining. That's not an easy combination to pull off, but in True Grit, it is pulled off to perfection.