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OVEREXPOSED: When Good Movies Go Bad

by Jeremy Hart

_Man on Fire_ pic I've got nothing against bad movies. No, really; I've watched more than my share, it's true, and they're bad, and I know it, but that means that I can just accept it, shrug, and move on. I mean, c'mon -- yes, the half-assed Charade remake The Truth About Charlie was one of the worst movies I've ever sat through, and it was annoying from start to finish, but hey, at least it was consistently bad. When it was over, I knew I could put it behind me and get on with my life. A few hours lost, and yet another reason to generally avoid remakes; no big deal.
What does get to me, though, is when a movie shows promise but then veers off down that darkened road that leads to Crapville. A bad movie is a bad movie, and that's fine; but a bad movie that is almost a good (heck, even a great) movie, well... It's like hearing a good band play the first verse of an interesting-sounding song and draw you in, making you emotionally invested in the music, only to turn around and throw in some stupid cliché and way too much wah-wah pedal for the chorus. Am I too sensitive about this? Yeah, probably. It shouldn't bug me like this, but I can't help it; it does.
Take The Life of David Gale, for example. It wasn't necessarily a great movie, but it could have been a really good one, despite the heavy-handed moralizing. Spacey is Spacey, after all, and anybody who doesn't like Kate Winslet needs to be smacked, as far as I'm concerned. So what went wrong? For those who haven't seen the film, it jumps several times between shots of David Gale's (Spacey) jailhouse testimony to investigative reporter Bitsey Bloom (Winslet) and the actual events leading up to the crime of which Gale's been accused, which is perfectly fine. The part that's not fine is that every time the movie jumps from the present to the past it does so via a vertigo-inducing swirling-camera effect, thus taking a serious, thoughtful drama and endowing it with about as much gravitas as the "doodle-dee-doo, doodle-dee-doo!" flashbacks in Wayne's World. Not only did the spinning make me queasy, but it ripped my attention away from the actual action up on the screen, forcing me to wonder "why in the hell couldn't they have just done a slow fade or something?"
Now, it's been pointed out to me that Hitchcock himself used that same effect, and yes, he did -- in Vertigo, where it was meant to make you feel ill. Alan Parker, on the other hand, decided that the perfect time to use that handy little trick was when his characters were sitting on solid ground, on either side of a prison phonebooth. It was just plain stupid. As my father-in-law's fond of saying, "use the right tool for the job"; the makers of the movie damaged their own film by throwing in a dumb effect they didn't need.
The reason this occurs to me now is because I recently caught Denzel Washington's latest attempt at being a badass, Man on Fire. I've never seen the original (the Denzel Washington film is a remake of a late-'80s flick starring Scott Glenn and set in Mafia-riddled Italy), but I have to admit that I was hopeful after seeing the trailers for the update. "Ah," I thought, "maybe this will actually deliver what Training Day promised but couldn't." And truthfully, it almost did. The story follows Creasy (Washington), a burned-out ex-Marine-turned-mercenary who is hired by a wealthy Mexico City industrialist to protect his Mexican-American daughter Pita (played by the eerily precocious Dakota Fanning) from kidnappers. The plot works, for the most part, the bonding between Pita and Creasy is incredibly real -- I caught myself believing that yes, Denzel had indeed decided life was worth living again because of an impish little girl -- the side players are great (particularly Christopher Walken as Creasy's shady expatriate buddy and Giancarlo Giannini playing a sleazy-yet-honest cop), and the Mexico City settings are nicely grand, yet still gritty and authentic.
Even the violence isn't as over-the-top as I'd worried it might be, going by the previews. I'll admit that it was disturbing to hear my fellow moviegoers cheering and hooting as Denzel's Creasy cuts, burns, and shoots a swath through the Mexico City underworld, but I can't say I wasn't warned; this is a revenge film, after all (and I was less disturbed by the violence than I was by other people's reactions to it, really). And at least the motives are believable, given the attachment to the kidnappers' prey, and the violence is realistic, less Rambo and more The Bourne Identity. To top it all off, the ending (which I won't give away) is nicely ambiguous, turning the tables a bit on the audience members who yell and laugh as Creasy chops off fingers and blows people up. All in all, the movie was headed towards being a good, suspenseful action film.
And then the director got in the way. Look, I like Tony Scott -- really, I do. I thought his Top Gun was a great movie (for its time, anyway), I thought he did a better job with Tarantino's screenplay for True Romance than Tarantino ever could've (I've read the unedited version of the script, and it just goes overboard), I enjoyed Enemy of the State, and I even thought Spy Game was reasonably entertaining. With Man on Fire, however, Scott let his artistic ambitions take over (in fairness, I suppose it could've been cinematographer Paul Cameron, since Swordfish, his last big effort, blew). After a while, the movie began to resemble nothing more than a series of haphazard, mangled jump cuts punctuated by Harry Gregson-Williams's grinding, clanking, "dirty"-sounding pseudo-industrial score -- in short, it became a two-and-a-half-hour music video. I'll grant that the arty shooting worked alright for the scenes where Creasy's wrestling with his inner demons, but it goes from there to show up in nearly every scene I can remember. The music and herky-jerky camera became the focus, overpowering even the incredible Mexico City backdrop, and the whole thing gave me the biggest headache I've had from watching a movie since Mike Figgis's nearly unwatchable (but still somehow fascinating) Hotel.
The net effect, in the end, is that just as with The Life of David Gale, the filmmakers overdid it. They took what should have been a good, solid, mayhem-filled revenge flick with a glimmer of humanity peeking 'round the edges and dragged it down to the level of a Nine Inch Nails video (or hell, maybe even Tank Girl). And that's a damn shame.
(20th Century Fox/Fox 2000 Pictures/New Regency Pictures)

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