Before we get to the main thrust of this post, a bit of preliminary venting (and I am well aware of what a First World Problem this is, shut up and let me do my thing): fucking Netflix has sent me two separate discs of Zanjeer, both of which have been irrevocably fucked up. This pisses me off because a few weeks ago I saw Amitabh in Sholay, and for those of you who don't yet know, Amitabh Bachchan is basically the guy who when John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Toshiro Mifune, Charles Bronson, and Chow Yun-Fat finish beating Chuck Norris to death and they're trying to figure out if it's even theoretically possible for anyone to best them in either combat or general badassery, Amitabh walks in and they're all like, “right, that guy. Well, shit, fellas, we're all competing for second place.” Sholay is so fucking good you have to start bringing people like Sergio Leone and John Ford and all the above-mentioned leading men into the discussion to explain to people, and it's not even like Amitabh's the coolest motherfucker in the picture by any kind of wide margin either. Co-star Dharmendra's so fucking cool in it he's the one who gets the girl. There's decades-long vendettas, mind-blowing action set pieces, and you'll never hear the phrase “How many men were there?” without shitting yourself the rest of your life. So, naturally, I wanted to see the picture that made Amitabh a star, and from what I've heard, in Zanjeer he plays a cop who doesn't play by the rules. Fuck and yes. Done. Bring me that movie, modern society. So listen up, and listen good, you red-envelope so-and-sos: send me a non-broken copy of Zanjeer.
So that's me last night. I was all set to watch Zanjeer only to have those dreams cruelly snatched from me. Since I was already in movie-watching mode, I decided I'd give the other two DVDs a shot. They could not have been more different from Zanjeer, but had some superficial connections with each other, both being 2010 releases by major Hollywood studios. One widely panned, one widely praised. I decided to watch The Tourist first.
The Tourist has a lot of assets at its disposal. Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie are two of the biggest movie stars in the world, and the two of them together is like exotic sexiness critical mass. Add in the fact that it's set in Venice, it's directed by the genius who made The Lives of Others, and the story sounds like straight up Hitchcock, and you got yo'self a whole mess of promise. Or, if you fuck up the execution, you got yourself a mess.
It'd be tempting to take that very contrived build and cap it off with “The Tourist, sadly, is the latter.” But the thing that's weird is that it doesn't totally suck. It's nearly crippled by an awkwardly stitched-together script, Angelina looks like she was rendered by a state-of-the-art sapience simulation program, and some truly stupid things happen. And yet, The Tourist has its charms.
It takes a while to get to them, though. The first ten minutes of the movie are wheel-spinning horseshit, and weaken the movie, because at least six of those minutes are spent trying to figure out whether Angelina's an android, on Valium, or needs a sandwich, and going “when the fuck's Johnny Depp gonna show up?” It's like the writers were in a morning-after coke coma and the designers and camera crew were like, “fuck it, somebody's gotta make this movie.” And they do their jobs really, really fucking well on this movie. Everything the entire picture looks absolutely gorgeous. (Well, except Steven Berkoff, but we're not there yet).
Ten minutes in, we have what really should have been the opening scene: Angelina made up and dressed immaculately, slowly walking through a train looking for a patsy, and coming across . . . Johnny Depp. The entire opening ten minutes of exposition are conveyed in the one shot of Angelina gliding through the train; there would literally be nothing of any value lost if you chopped the first ten minutes out of the picture. And Johnny is by far the best part of this whole movie. He's been in a couple dipshit Tim Burton movies (and a couple good ones, which feel like a while ago now), and the Pirates things are incoherent and oppressively frenetic, but Johnny fucking Depp is a movie star. He's an actor of great skill, to be sure, but like most true movie stars, there's a point at which you can't buy him as an ordinary person, because he's an otherworldly entity.
This is why the three biggest lies I've ever been told are:
1—“Yeah, dude, this shit is totally straight from Amsterdam.”
2—“I swear I won't get mad if you tell me what you really think.”
3—“Johnny Depp is a dorky, unworldly math teacher from Wisconsin.”
Now, let's be clear. I'm not knocking Wisconsin; they have enough trouble these days with that lunatic union-busting fuckstick governor of theirs. Math teachers either, I had one in high school who was an actor when he wasn't teaching (this meant he never slept and frequently got emotional and would rant at us in this half-Paul Lynde half-Yiddish patois that more often than not ended with him letting us read for the rest of the period while he went outside to exorcise the dybbuk with a cigarette; that dude was fucking awesome). I'm not even knocking unworldly dorks. The latter isn't something you have any power over, and neither is the former, most times.
The only problem is, Johnny Depp. If he was a math teacher, it would be in like fucking Sri Lanka or Suriname, or some such place where the women are brown, the weather is gorgeous, and everything is like one of those paragraphs in magic realist novels where you're just like “All right, already, my life is prosaic, stop rubbing it in.” (Ed. Note: if you're keeping score, no such place actually exists except in a Johnny Depp movie where he fucks some woman who's so beautiful you can't even fap to her because it would be rude). He's not a normal dude. This isn't a hierarchy thing, normal people are fucking great. Johnny just ain't in that genus.
So there's that. But here's where Johnny the actor manages to prevail against Johnny the movie star: he does all his “oh shit I'm a dork in over my head” business so goddamn well he shames anyone who's ever had to play this kind of role. Well, except Cary Grant. But dude. Cary Grant. Johnny's so good he keeps making you forget how retarded the rest of this movie is whenever he's on screen.
How retarded is the rest of the movie? Very. Some mysterious ex-lover of Angie's is sending her cryptic notes telling her to be places at certain times, and seemingly every cop in Europe has her under surveillance, led by Paul Bettany in full-on shithead mode. You ever notice how the bigger a prick Paul Bettany is, the worse the movie ends up being? He was a really cool guy in Master and Commander, Master and Commander was great. He was something Russell Crowe could do without in A Beautiful Mind, A Beautiful Mind was a movie we could do without. He was a useless psychotic turd in The Da Vinci Code, The Da Vinci Code was a useless turd of a movie. The Tourist falls somewhere mildly favorable but still hugging the middle on that spectrum, as Paul Bettany is kind of a shithead, but he's not malignant. Seriously, if you read about a movie, and Paul Bettany is playing the heavy or some random shithead, wait for the DVD. If he's playing the good guy, watch it. Unless he's playing a priest. He needs to stop playing priests.
So on top of the cops, Steven Berkoff and a whole bunch of Russian henchmen are after Angie and her mysterious ex. Angie tries to get everyone to think Johnny Depp is the mysterious ex, but the cops don't fall for it, except Steven Berkoff's man inside the cops tells Steven Berkoff that Johnny's the guy. So everyone starts chasing everyone else and Johnny and Angie look hot and Angie looks more and more like a computer-generated character and blah blah blah.
Right when you think the whole movie is going to be a total pile of bullshit, it springs a motherfucker of a third-act twist on us, that would have made the whole movie so much better if we'd known about forty-five minutes earlier: Johnny Depp actually is the mysterious ex. And he and Angie sail off into the sunset. What makes this so frustrating is that the whole movie you're like, “these two things would make this movie actually be good.” And you have to wait til like, what, five minutes left for that payoff? After a whole lot of inelegant scripting and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck playing the part of Sisyphus trying to overcome the shitty script and actually make the kind of movie the script fucks up at being? Sigh. So close. And yet . . .
After a brief intermission, I put the second movie in: The Fighter.
I remember seeing Micky Ward fight on TV a few times. I think I saw him lose to Zab Judah (back when Zab Judah was good, it was hard to tell one fight from another, he just beat the fuck out of guys), I know I saw parts of the epic career-concluding Arturo Gatti triptych, and the isolated highlight from the rest of his career. I knew little bits and pieces about him—he was from Lowell (which rhymes with prole), sportswriters liked him because he was white and not very athletic (the biggest boners recorded by science are the ones sportswriters have for short, slow white athletes), and his not inconsiderable success was attributable almost entirely to balls.
If the above sounds negative, I should clarify that I didn't really know anything about the guy that I didn't learn from sports media, which is a singularly frustrating beast. Mainstream sports writing is dominated by a very cloistered, sentimental, white, middle-aged, heteronormative male perspective unaware that any other perspective exists. This has eased up a bit in recent years, but only a bit. The irony of my distaste for the prevalent tone in mainstream sports journalism is that I am a white guy, I'll be middle-aged someday, and most of these dudes who get all teary-eyed whenever a five-foot-six-inch white guy bunts have seen way more of the world in person than I have in my life. I should be just as bad as they are. But sorry guys, David Eckstein is a shitty baseball player.
What this has to do with Micky Ward is that the media coverage of him was basically slashfic, and since so many of these little white fetish objects (of whom David Eckstein is basically Angelina Jolie in Gia) suck at sports, one sometimes assumes they all do. The three Arturo Gatti fights went a long way toward dispelling this impression of Micky Ward, as those fights were legitimate boxing legend, and Ward was damn close to winning all three of them.
So I was interested in seeing The Fighter, especially since practically everyone I know who saw it was like, “Holy fuck, dude.” And that was the first time some of them had ever said “fuck” or “dude,” so I knew they were serious. I popped it in, preparing myself for the worst—sports movies tend to be written from much the same perspective as sports journalism, and almost all of them adhere to some form of the “underdog overcomes adversity and wins the big game/race/fight at the end” formula—and hoping for the best.
What I wasn't prepared for was . . . holy shit Christian Bale. The Fighter is one of those movies where you need to watch the making-of doc afterward because otherwise you'll miss the fucking eerie way he became Dicky Eklund. Every last mannerism is right there. Despite the fact that Christian Bale is about fifteen years younger than Eklund and his hair hasn't gone gray, people who had known Dicky Eklund all their lives occasionally thought Bale was actually him. It's as a good a Method performance as you're ever going to see.
The fact that the rest of the cast manages to not get blown off the screen by not only Bale the Method actor but by Dicky the character is an enormous credit to the force of their performance. Mark Wahlberg is sneaky good as Micky: he spends almost the entire movie having other people speak and act for him, and it never reads as weakness in his acting. Every last insecurity and moment of fear reads clearly on his face and in his posture. If you want to do the Method dick-measuring contest between him and Bale, well, after you go fuck yourself I'll concede the point that Mark Wahlberg (and yes, he's good enough in this I'm suspending Marky Mark jokes for the duration of this post) doesn't transform himself into Micky the way Bale does Dicky, but he gives the performance this movie needs, a rock-solid movie star performance that serves as an anchor. Some roles need the Christian Bale Method Magical Mystery Tour, some roles need a movie star. Christian Bale is a Serious Ac-TOR, Mark Wahlberg is a movie star. If they were trying to out-Method each other the whole shithouse would go up in flames and it'd be a plodding wankfest, and if Bale didn't plumb the depths and go to the scary places he had to go to become Dicky and just spent the whole fucking movie posing for the trailer, it would have been pointless. Each does what he needs to do, and as a result each is as great as the other.
The whole rest of the cast is right up there on the same level. Jack McGee, a character actor of not just “That Guy” but “holy shit, THAT GUY! I fuckin love that guy!” status (it's a fine distinction, but a distinction it most certainly is), plays Micky's father, and is fucking great. He adds to his portfolio of great lines, which include these gems—
“Get the guy with the penis!” The Doors
“She makes me want to go out and buy rubbers.” Lethal Weapon 2
(Michael Douglas asks him “He had a girlfriend?”) “No....she did.” Basic Instinct
“Sorry man, John Wayne time. You're on your own, boss.” Backdraft
—with a fine assortment of terse quips about being afraid of his wife. There are two reasons Jack McGee is able to do this without seeming like a pussy. One is, he's Jack fucking McGee, fuck you. Two is, the wife in question is Melissa Leo, about whose performance one can only sit there not blinking for about an hour with smoke slowly wisping out of one's ears, murmuring faint unintelligible shit that might be language.
Melissa Leo, as the mother of not only Micky and Dicky but a truly terrifying armada of Massachussetts-accented daughters, is just unbelievable. It's hard to talk about just where she's coming from without sounding like either a sociology textbook or a condescending prick; suffice to say her violent distrust of anyone who isn't blood family is rooted in class insecurity, fear, and a ferocious maternal instinct. She's the general, and those daughters of hers are the army, and if you fuck with them you are on your way to the past tense.
Amy Adams, as Micky's girlfriend Charlene, manages to fuck with this group of women simply by existing. This highlights one of the great truisms of class warfare: no one openly cannot fucking stand each other like two ever-so-slightly different members of what appears to any la-di-da outsider to be one homogenous group. Amy Adams is from the neighborhood, she works at the local bar, she's a redhead just like a few of Micky and Dicky's scary sisters . . . but she went to college and she's prettier than they are, so she can do no right. Not to mention once she takes up with Micky and starts speaking for him (because he won't), shit is on.
The thing that particularly impressed me about what Amy Adams does in this is that she manages to play someone who isn't always a particularly nice person—Melissa Leo and the Leoettes are actually right, she does put on airs and talk to them like insects, and it isn't all due to their provocations—while still making it perfectly clear what Micky sees in her (beyond the obvious fact that she looks like Amy Adams). She's every bit the equal to all the other acting heavyweights in her midst, which is especially welcome in a role that in a lesser movie would be the textbook Annoying Girlfriend Role.
A certain amount of credit for all this great acting has to go to David O. Russell. It's one thing to assemble a bunch of really good actors, it's another thing entirely to actually get all of them together in the same movie. Russell grounds everything in a vividly realized Lowell, achieving a really impressive level of verisimilitude, selling the audience that this world he's created is real. And really, if you take away what Russell and the cast (and the brilliant choice to shoot all the fights with the same TV crews who shoot actual fights on TV) bring to this movie, you're left with a script that's pretty straight-up sports movie formula: Micky's an aging fighter not really getting anywhere, his ne'er-do-well brother drags him down, the brother gets locked up and rediscovers purpose, Micky rededicates himself to boxing, the brother gets out of jail and working together, Micky wins the title. The producers repeatedly say, without a hint of irony, that their inspiration was Rocky. Even if you like Rocky—which I really, really don't—you have to concede its formulaic structure, where the only thing keeping it from being simply unacceptable is the climactic fight itself (wherein Rocky really brings it, and though he loses he puts up a good fight, literally).
What Russell and the actors do with The Fighter is inject that same basic formula with such intensity, grounding it in a recognizable reality where the people are three-dimensional, that its only after you're done watching it, charting the sequence of events, that you go, “wow, yeah, that hit every single boxing movie beat except it hit them all so well I didn't notice.” Or maybe you do, but I got so caught up in the movie that I didn't. I ended up just repeating “wow” a whole lot, especially then when I watched the making-of doc and went “Goddammit, what the fuck did Christian Bale do? He fucking turned into that guy!”
Ultimately, one thing jumped out at me about this double feature. These two movies, watched consecutively, are an object lesson in the importance of execution. The Tourist has two of the sexiest movie stars who ever existed, a premise and setting tailor-made for two sexy movie stars, and yet is undone by an ever-so-slightly off-key tone and a script that seems like it started off shitty and then underwent a number of frantic, dissonant rescue rewrites done by too many different writers. And then there's The Fighter, which seems like it should be just another scrappy underdog boxing movie, and through sheer force of execution comes damn near the Body and Soul/Raging Bull caliber of boxing movies (the fight scenes really bring those two to mind; some of the shots are total James Wong Howe on roller skates shots, and Mark Wahlberg takes some hits that feel even more brutal than the ones De Niro takes in Raging Bull).
Execution. You can have all the assets, or all the liabilities in the world, but it's the work done with those assets or liabilities that makes the movie. You can have it all and blow it, or you can turn “meh” to gold. Sometimes you even make a movie so good it makes up for the absence of Amitabh Bachchan. But per that last point, and I cannot stress this enough, do not press your fucking luck. If that third copy of Zanjeer doesn't play in my DVD player, shit . . . if I'm not back by dawn, call the president.