Thursday, October 23, 2008

Body of Uneven Movies

Ridley Scott is probably one of our great directors; it's rather a shame he doesn't make better movies. That's a terrible thing to say, isn't it? But I think I stand by it. Going to one of his movies is a complete crap shoot. I think, on the one hand, it's because he doesn't like to be pigeonholed, which is the mark of great, uneven directors.

He can do Alien and Blade Runner, then follow it up with Legend and Someone To Watch Over Me. He can take a cheesy sword & sandals pic like Gladiator and turn it into Oscar gold, follow it up with an almost banal Hannibal, and then produce an intense experience like Black Hawk Down.

So, I avoided seeing American Gangster in the theater last year. In fact, the last film I saw of his in the theater was Kingdom of Heaven, a sort of unfocused Crusade tale.

This year, he's made his Iraq War picture, Body of Lies, but it's only tangentially about said war, so I thought I'd give the old Brit a shot. Aaaaaand...well, it feels a lot like Kingdom of Heaven.

Basically, the story is that Middle East loving spy Leonardo di Caprio is trying to collect intel on terrorists. Russell Crowe is back home trying to pull the strings. Innocent people get killed in pursuit of the bad guys, who also get killed. Although the loutish, ham-fisted Crowe is fond of reminding di Caprio that there are no innocents in...well, where? Terrorist crowds? The Middle East? Crowe never elaborates on this theory.

Which, actually, puts you up the whole movie. Leo the American understands and loves the Middle East. I suppose that's part of what makes him the good guy: He wants to live there, not the USA. Crowe is dedicated but not very aware or sensitive: A typical American. His eagerness to get the bad guys results in decisions that ultimately could lose the bad guys.

I mean, seriously: While di Caprio is getting his ass blown off in Syria or Jordan or wherever, Crowe is talking to him while dropping his kids off at school or putting them to bed or watching them play soccer.

Ah, well, I guess Brits can be ham-fisted, too.

Ultimately the movie is a little slow, a little unfocused--though at least everything ultimately ties together, unlike the sprawling Kingdom of Heaven--and unwilling to commit to itself either as an action film or spy film.

It's not really a political film, either. Crowe opens with a speech that respects the jihadists as serious enemies, but overestimates their inexhaustibility--or so it seems in a world where Iraq is safer than Detroit. His speech feels like a parody.

Then, later on, di Caprio is challenged by his Iranian girlfriend's sister over the war. She sounded very real to me: certainly a lot of Middle Easterners feel the US doesn't appreciate their circumstances, and doesn't belong there. Leo's response, however, felt way too left wing for a guy on the ground. He basically places blame for all the bad in Iraq on the USA--and apologizes!--while never once mentioning Saddam and his genocide and torture, Al Qaeda in Iraq, or anything positive.

You know, why's he doing it, if that's the way he feels? (Actually, now that I think about it, do average Iranians actually object to the war in Iraq? Saddam was a pain in their collective ass for a decade.)

But that's about it for politics. What Crowe and di Caprio really are arguing about are procedural differences, not philosophies. They agree, at least, that the jihadists are bad guys.

Anyway, the weirdest part of this is that di Caprio's character is almost bizarrely naive. This is part of the "dumb ol' America" narrative, but he's constantly doing things that don't make sense: He promises sanctuary for a jihadist who gets cold feet when selected for martyrdom; he gets involved with an Iranian girl and then is surprised when she becomes a target; most incredibly, he sets up an innocent man as a bigwig terrorst, and then is shocked (shocked!) to find that the innocent man becomes a target for other terrorists.

This last is particularly incredible because the whole point in setting up the guy as the terrorist was to draw out the real terrorist, who's known to have a huge ego.

I'm making it sound worse than it is, just by noting all the things that, were it a better action movie, you'd just ignore.

With Gladiator, Scott just went full out and made a very high-class melodramatic sword & sandals epic. I mean, it's way better than those old Steve Reeves movies, but not all that different. The underlying message is a rather general one about human nature, and it taps nicely into all that Golden Bough crap.

Kingdom of Heaven had similar problems. For whatever reason, he seemed unwilling to commit to the genre there, and here we see it again. (Screenwriter William Monahan wrote the screenplay for both films.)

Also, di Caprio and Crowe are curiously unconvincing. Crowe's body language--he's an increasingly doughy desk jocky--works, but his accent and speech pattern didn't sell me. Leo sports a southern accent as well, and he really didn't seem plausible as the hard-bitten field agent.

I could be wrong on this; I'm not an astute judge of acting ability. I can see really bad and really good. But usually, if I notice, that's a bad sign. And I noticed. Mark Strong, who plays the head of Jordanian Intelligence, on the other hand, was very effective, evoking a sort of younger Andy Garcia--that wonderful mix of charm and menace that makes you not want to get on his bad side, but know you're probably going to anyway.

The other thing that didn't work for me was the sound mixing. The music was at the same level as the dialogue sometimes. Add in the foley, and parts of the movie were nigh incomprehensible. (Maybe this was the theater, but I recall having this problem in Ridley and Tony Scott movies before.)

I guess the real problem with this movie is that when you go see a Ridley Scott movie, you want to see something remarkable. Alien defined a decade of horror. Blade Runner gave us a completely different kind of science-fiction alternative to Star Wars. While not a great movie Thelma and Louise was a cultural moment. Hell, Legend is an almost unwatchable mess--at least the US cut is, I haven't seen the director's cut, and one could make the same claim ("mess") about Blade Runner--but it's a memorable unwatchable mess.

What's this movie got? The trademark giant video panel that sees everything in the world. The Scott brothers love that thing.

Body of Lies is just going to go on to the heap of largely forgettable Iraq war movies, I'm afraid.

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