21 Jump Street (2012)

Film #24: 21 Jump Street (2012)

21 Jump Street is an action-comedy film loosely based off the TV series of the same name that ran on Fox from 1987 to 1991. I never saw the show, but apparently all the 2012 film takes from it is the premise: Youthful-looking police officers are placed undercover as high school students. The two youthful cops that the film follows are Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum). They’re much the same as they were in high school – Schmidt intelligent but awkward, Jenko athletic but an idiot – but this is 7 years later, so even though they were at odds in their schooling days, they quickly become the best of friends during training. They’re terribly incompetent cops, though, and are stuck patrolling a park on bicycles. They get reassigned to the 21 Jump Street program after Jenko irresponsibly detains a perp, eschewing reading the Miranda rights in favor of humping the drug dealer while telling him to suck it.


Brick (2005)

Made on a budget of less than half a million dollars, writer-director Rian Johnson’s debut film Brick doesn’t bother restricting itself, spinning out a thickly plotted high school detective story. Hard-boiled and fast-talking, Brick enthusiastically embraces the style of its noir influences. Johnson and his cast – especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the lead – are wholly committed to the material, resulting in an original and fully realized crime film.


Drive (2011)

In 2008, director Nicolas Winding Refn turned stylized violence into art with the beautiful biopic Bronson. Three years later, he attempts to do it again with Drive, a pulpy artsy action movie starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver. The unnamed protagonist also moonlights as a professional getaway driver, a profession which lends this film one of the greatest opening scenes in recent years. As the opening credits began, I was all aboard Drive as an intelligent and stylistic action film. By the time the film ended, my expectations had been upset, but I could still walk away from the theater able to say that I saw a great movie.

From the exhilarating opening scene onward, it’s obvious that this movie is enamored of a sort of neo-noir style. Gosling leads us through the night life of downtown Los Angeles, a seedy world lit by neon letters and scored by electropopish pulses. It’s in this world that Gosling does his best work, evading the police through a mixture of cunning and driving prowess. In that opening scene, as he uses a police radio to track the progress of his own pursuit, he keeps the baseball game on the entire time, lending an air of normalcy to the tense situation. Here is a man who’s not trying to prove anything, he’s just a person who happens to be pretty stoic and a really great driver.

I was ready to love an intelligent noir film with a lot of driving scenes, but that wasn’t what Refn had in mind. After hooking us pre-credits, Refn reels us in with a character study of our unnamed hero. Gosling plays the role in the spirit of Clint Eastwood. He’s cool, quiet, and measured. A cipher with very few lines, he seems less a man than an unalterable pillar of karmic justice. The only times he expresses emotion (and then, only a recurrent feeble smile) is when he’s spending time with his neighbor played by Carey Mulligan and her son. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and her husband played by Oscar Isaac comes home from prison, unfortunately with some violent baggage attached.

The case of Isaac’s character, Standard, is a great example of how Drive is an outstanding film. It would be easy for Standard to be a bad guy, an obvious mistake for Mulligan that Gosling should clearly replace. But he’s not. He’s a guy who’s made mistakes, seems to seriously regret them, and is even (mostly) civil when he talks to the man who’s gotten close to his wife while he’s been gone. In fact, as the stone-faced hero, Gosling plays the least-developed character. The people around him are very real, complex characters, all handled adroitly by their actors. Shining especially bright is Albert Brooks as a rational but extremely violent businessman who ends up as the primary antagonist for Gosling and friends.

After such a solid start, I was strapped in for an action film. When it took a turn and developed its romantic thread instead, I was surprised but still on board. A third jarring tonal shift marks the third act, after a heist gone wrong leaves Standard and a seriously wasted (and unfortunately made-up) Christina Hendricks dead. It’s here that the film charges enthusiastically into the ultraviolence, with Gosling going on an Oldboy-style rampage – complete with a hammer for great justice. Between Gosling and Brooks, the violence becomes so extreme, so excessive, that the movie threatens to become campy.

The movie is well-crafted and knows it. The great cinematography is shown off with constant slow-motion that makes every shot linger for us to better appreciate. It’s secure enough in its quality to get extreme with its violence, never too shy to show it onscreen. It’s even smug enough to throw in a healthy amount of gratuitous nudity. But lest you try to charge that it’s all style and no substance, it never lets up in quality – a very suspenseful scene between Brooks and Bryan Cranston near the end is one of the film’s best, and a fine showcase for two of its many talented players.

I’ll be honest when I say I wanted Drive to be something else, wanted it to be a straightforward action movie that was sleeker and more intelligent than the rest. Instead, it seems to explore itself as it progresses, trying out different tones and eventually settling on sensationalized violence. There’s no doubt that it’s a good film throughout all of these developments. Still, I can’t help feel like a parent who’s proud of what his kid has grown up to be, but wishes he had used his potential to do something different.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse

The Trial (1962)

I had plenty of New Years resolutions for 2011, but the only one I actually stuck with was to read more. One of the first books I read in my fidelity toward this pledge was Franz Kafka’s The Trial. A work never finished and edited together by a friend posthumously, the existential novel about an accused man in an opaque legal system was strange and procedural.

Leave it to Orson Welles to make a film of such cerebral material. Welles had complete creative control over the project and an enthusiastic lead in a fresh-out-the-Bates Anthony Perkins. Like one can expect from Mr. Welles, the film is a technical work of art, excelling in its stylistic cinematography and lighting that are perfect for the tone. However, the story is presented in a manner even more confusing than the novel. Had I not read Kafka prior to seeing this, I don’t think I would have followed everything going on.


Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy is a 1989 independent feature that put its maker, Gus Van Sant, on the cinematic map. Starring Matt Dillon, it followed the antics of a small troupe of drug addicts (headed by Dillon) as they attempt to maintain a constant fix – and as they deal with the inevitable negative consequences that come of it.


Hard Eight (1996)

Hard Eight is Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature film. It’s no secret that I adore his follow-up, Boogie Nights, and I was also greatly impressed by Magnolia and There Will Be Blood (I haven’t had the chance to see Punch-Drunk Love yet, but I will soon enough). I was delighted to see that PTA can apparently do no wrong, because even his low-key premiere film is an extraordinary delight.


Heat (1995)

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are two monumental actors who previously worked together in Francis Ford Coppola’s acclaimed epic Godfather II. However, there they existed in disparate timelines; their characters never interacted. The first time these two actors appeared onscreen together was during Heat, Michael Mann’s epic heist movie that sets the standard for the genre.

Heat pits the two of them in direct opposition to one another in a battle of the titans. Pacino plays the cop and De Niro plays the robber, but don’t be expect those roles to decide who the movie presents as good and bad. Heat transcends such simplicity and focuses equal time on lawman and criminal, with an extensive probing into other characters as well. The film is much less an action film than one rooted in its performances; it’s multiple character studies rolled into one, with a formidable cast in roles both big and small.

Of course the two leads are the film’s claim to fame. These two men and their relationship makes Heat the fantastic film that it is. Both are at the top of their game and providing some of their greatest acting talent, no small tribute from careers that include many brilliant pictures.

Pacino’s LAPD Lieutenant is an obsessive man. He’s on his third marriage, and if the current situation is anything like his former ones, then you can guess that they ended because of his work. Pacino is his work; he’s devoted to his job for all hours of most days, straining his relationship with both his wife and his step daughter, played by Natalie Portman in a fine if sparse role. It’s taken its toll on him, as well. He shakes, yells, is frantic in every way; you wouldn’t want to hang out with him just in fear of ending up on his bad side. There are moments where Pacino reaches sheer craziness, and the role is perfect for his explosive and expressive style.

De Niro stands in stark contrast to Pacino’s character. Although he’s beginning to see a graphic designer played by Amy Brenneman, he still sticks to a rule of never letting himself get attached to anything he couldn’t leave in 30 seconds. He’s cool, calm, and collected. He can be ruthlessly efficient, but he never blows up in anger like Pacino does. They are antitheses to each other.

Despite their differences, the two characters have a lot in common, which discover for themselves over a very memorable diner scene. As they exchange facts that grow more intimate as the conversation continues, they discover that both of them are driven to obsession over their goals; goals that are mutually exclusive and necessarily combative. Mann doesn’t overuse the confrontations between the two leads. Their meetings are few and far between, but every one of them is powerful and very enjoyable.

Right after the infamous diner scene, at the film’s midpoint, is an exhilarating shootout on the streets of Los Angeles. The camera never slows down for an instant and keeps up with the frantic pace of the dangerous urban firefight. By time it ends, some of the characters have tragically been killed, and the audience member’s breath has been taken away.

It’s likely one of the best shootouts in the history of cinema. The climactic shootout is also very memorable. It balances out the earlier sequence with a very quiet and dark one-on-one chase. Though it’s not pure excitement like the first, it still is intensely suspenseful, and likely to immerse the viewer just as much if not more. Both scenes are supporting evidence for the claim that Mann is one of the best action thriller directors of our time.

The cinematography by Dante Spinotti is very involved and complimentary. Symmetry has supremacy, and its balanced compositions reflect the competing but equal forces at odds in the form of De Niro and Pacino. Other times, the camera is used as though to creep around the characters. With that, the tangential threads that develop so many characters are made all the more intimate.

Val Kilmer plays one of De Niro’s gang in a large role. He also sees problems with his lover as per Pacino, showing that the lifestyle of both cop and criminal proves to be incompatible with healthy and sustained relationships. Tom Sizemore is another member of the gang that refutes that position because of his family, but Sizemore and Danny Trejo, the last member of the gang, are a bit underused. They’re not as developed as the others, but by no means are they wasted.

Only one subplot stood out to me as superfluous and unnecessary. Dennis Haysbert plays a released criminal who eventually ends up with De Niro and his gang. His backstory seems out of place for a while, and though it provides another insight into a life of crime and its effects, in the end the film probably could have benefited from cutting it. Though the movie’s near-3 hour span is enjoyable throughout, a more parsimonious film would have been that much closer to perfection.

Heat is not only an amazing crime film, it’s also a very good film against any genre. The characters are unusually intelligent and articulate, and their meaningful insights are what allow us to root for both characters even though they are hopelessly at odds with one another. Though its story becomes somewhat complicated at times, it only does so because it trusts that the viewer is as intelligent as the characters on the screen.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse

The Bourne Identity (2002)

The Bourne Identity is an action spy thriller based on Robert Ludlum’s novel of the same name. Not being an avid reader, I’ve never checked out Ludlum’s book, so my review of this film is necessarily from a purely cinematic standpoint: I cannot compare it to the work it’s based on, so if you have that background information this may not be the review for you.

While I can’t say anything about the book, I can certainly say that the film is an enjoyable action film that stands out amongst its genre’s other usual fare. Which is not to say that the film is revolutionarily intelligent or original. It’s just good at being an exciting thriller.

The Bourne Identity stars Matt Damon as a secret agent who is found in the ocean with bullet wounds in his back, and who suffers from amnesia. Eventually, he takes the name Jason Bourne from one of many passports he finds in a safety deposit box, the code to which was in a chip inside his hip. During his mission to discover who he was, he meets up with Franka Potente, who then accompanies him as they are chased down by the CIA.

Like I said, the story isn’t anything groundbreaking, but that doesn’t make it any less engaging. Bourne is forced to run around various places in Europe as he learns more about his past and why he is being chased. His revelations aren’t very surprising, but it’s still fun to watch him discover that he can speak a ton of different languages or kill a man with a pen.

Damon is a great match for this role. He’s a fantastic modern action star, someone who may not be as traditionally tough or masculine as stars like Bruce Willis or Arnold, but makes up for it with intellect and speed, without lacking impressive physical capabilities of his own. Though Bourne is not a very emotional character, Damon is still able to portray him as a sympathetic hero, someone who we can get behind as they do whatever they can to get what they want.

Perhaps part of Bourne’s appeal is his relationship with Potente’s character. I’ve heard that in the book, he is much more threatening and short with her, but I think it’s a fine change to have them develop a sort of chemistry as the film goes on. Potente is a strong character herself; she is confrontational and makes her own choices, even if they are difficult ones. They’re really a good couple together, because it’s easy to believe that they are strong enough to survive and get through everything that they encounter.

The entire cast performs admirably, in fact, but the film is probably better known for its energy than its acting. The Bourne Identity rarely slows down and is unfamiliar with the term “boredom”. It’s a very kinetic movie that derives its movement from both the story and the style. Damon and Potente are always on the run, whether it’s during a very impressive urban car chase in the middle of Paris or it’s Damon chasing a man through a field. When the exhilarating action scenes arrive, they are edited with expertise. Saar Klein and Christopher Rouse, the film’s editors, find a very rare balance between exciting and comprehensible. While there are very fast cuts as Bourne battles his nemeses, it never prevents us from seeing and understanding what is going on. That’s a rare occurrence in modern action films, and it should not be taken for granted.

The only time the film slows down for a bit is when Damon and Potente go into hiding. It isn’t too long before the standstill ends, however, and that sequence actually ends with an excellent rural shoot out between Bourne and Clive Owen. Besides that diminutive delay, only a few things bothered me. One is simply a logical error: At one point an assassin comes through the window of a hotel and eventually exits in the same manner, yet somehow the landlady downstairs is found with a bullet through her head. That’s really just nitpicking, however.

I guess the only other negative thing to be said about the film is that it definitely doesn’t stand on its own. The ending clearly sets up for a sequel, despite its obvious pretense of a happy ending for the protagonists, and perhaps a little more closure could have made this a truly definitive modern action film. Even with this pandering to installments, however, that claim can surely be argued for, because The Bourne Identity is great at being an action thriller.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse

Swordfish (2001)

At the onset, Swordfish seems to have a lot to offer. The cast is experienced and entertaining, including John Travolta, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Don Cheadle, and Vinnie Jones. And the opening sequence is very, very cool. After this scene, however, aside from a few exciting action scenes before the end, Swordfish has little to offer and is one of the more brainless crime capers I’ve seen.


Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

The other week I watched Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a tongue-in-cheek neo-noir starring Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. I had seen it once before and liked it a lot, and I liked it almost as much the second time through.