Monday, January 31, 2011

DON'T DISTURB MY FRIEND, HE'S DEAD TIRED


Over the course of this week, the Batman reviews I've been mentioning are going to be posted on Tor. I've very much enjoyed—and am pretty sure I'll continue to enjoy—writing shorter form pieces without being allowed to curse. I probably never would have written on the Batman movies to such an extent otherwise, but it was a cool experience, and I'm pretty sure I didn't fuck anything up too badly.

That's it for now. I'll be back in a day or two with my thoughts on Tony Jaa, who's been blowing my fucking mind of late. Also, at some point soon I'll share my thoughts on a poignant, thoughtful meditation on duty and family which I recently saw (and had, bizarrely, not yet seen), a picture of the highest artistry and sensitivity, which evoked some of the strongest emotions of any motion picture I've yet seen. Here's a brief preview of said stunning work of cinematic art:

Saturday, January 29, 2011

WHY CAN'T WE BE FRIENDS?


Lethal Weapon 3 was one of the first movies I saw through a critical lens. I had, to that point, liked movies and not liked movies, but never really got into why. A while before, I had had the experience of watching The Addams Family movie and thinking to myself, “Wow, this plot is really stupid.” Then, in California visiting a friend of my parents (a professional writer), we happened to go out to the movies one night, and the only thing playing was The Addams Family, and as we were sitting waiting for it to start, my parents' friend asked me “So you've already seen this. Did you like it?” and I replied, “Yes, it's fun, but the plot is really stupid.” When the movie was done, he smiled at me and said, “You were right about the plot.” This is not just a Fisher Price My First Critical Assessment story, though; proud as I was of myself for noticing something like that, I started doing it more often, bringing us, relevantly, to Lethal Weapon 3, which I walked out of going, “Jesus Christ, that was really fucking stupid. The gang stuff was like they were trying to rip off Boyz N The Hood, except they fucked up because they're a studio and John Singleton actually cared about the movie he was making and getting stuff right.”

Yes, I developed my love for the word “fuck” at a very young age, but let's look at that again. A 13 year old boy walked out of a Lethal Weapon movie and thought it was stupid. If you do the math, and think about how stupid an action movie has to be for a 13 year old boy—who, despite a burgeoning erudition and an intellect that even then was considered quite fierce, was still a 13 year old boy—to find it stupid . . . yeah, if you're staring off into middle distance and exhaling slowly, I don't blame you.

Lethal Weapon 3 is a classic case of a franchise losing an accurate sense of where it came from. The first Lethal Weapon movie, it cannot be overstated, was an action movie with a handful of dumb jokes and funny lines. It was not a goofball stupid fucknut screwball comedy pratfall fucking thing with explosions. Also, the first two movies featured truly evil villains whose villainy had international implications. They were, in short, grown-ass man Evil White Guys In Suits. The villain in Lethal Weapon 3 is fucking bland. He's an ex-cop gun dealer developer manqué. Sure he might deal with some big-timers in the gun business, but he himself is a low-level dickface who, sure, kills some people and is not a nice person . . . but he isn't a proper Evil White Guy. He's more of a Mildly Unpleasant Caucasian, in the grand scheme of things.

The first two movies, bizarrely, managed to seem more realistic despite the fact that the Evil White Guys all had helicopters with machine gun mounts that they could fly around Malibu and downtown Los Angeles with no one noticing and massive armies of mercenaries capable of feats of badassery such as scaring Ed O'Ross (Ed O'Ross was fucking Viktor Rosta, okay? You scare him, eres chingón, 'mano) in the nightclub scene in the first movie where Gary Busey does his Liddy lighter trick. So for Lethal Weapon 3 they decided, hey, let's make the villain more “realistic”!

Only problem is with that approach, you actually have to make him resemble a real person. The bad guy, at one point, goes into a police station to personally kill a subordinate to keep him from aiding the cops. The fact that he manages to obscure his face from all the security cameras is supposed to make him seem all smart and shit, but when Internal Affairs cop Rene Russo reveals the existence of a brand new camera from exactly the angle they need to get a good shot of him, they know exactly who he is. Anyone who managed to stay a criminal long enough to be in charge of other criminals does not do that kind of shit. Bringing up The Wire in this context is like using C-4 to open your front door, but you never saw Avon Barksdale running around inside the fucking police station shooting witnesses. You get to be in charge by not acting like a fucking retard, and the villain in Lethal Weapon 3, Jack Travis or whatever the fuck his name is, is a fucking retard. That shit at the end where he's driving the tractor toward Mel at like two miles an hour and shouting out thirty different stupid variations on exhorting Mel to confront his imminent demise, and Mel stands there and watches him slowly inch toward him before picking up a MAC-10 with armor piercing bullets and finally shutting him the fuck up . . . sorry. Try again.

Then there's the whole thing where the bad guys have street gangs as their muscle. More bullshit, and in this case a truly weird attempt to capitalize on the currency of “hood” pictures like Boyz N The Hood and South Central (Menace II Society hadn't come out yet) by being exactly like the stupid portrayals of gangs in 70s and 80s movies that the cycle of Los Angeles-based “hood” movies were a reaction against.

Danny Glover has a big freakout and crisis of conscience after he accidentally shoots a gang member his son is friends with (don't ask, it's just more bullshit) but he pulls himself together over a truly saccharine funeral scene, scored to Boyz II Men's a cappella hit “It's So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday” in some of the cheapest sentiment seen in early 90s Hollywood.

Don't fucking get me started about Joe Pesci in this movie. Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam originally left him out, having some explanation about him having gone back to New York, but some dumbass exec thought people liked him, so he was written back in, utter superfluous other than to give Mel someone to make fun of. Such a waste; it's really painful watching Joe Pesci humiliate himself like this.

Surprisingly, the one thing that doesn't suck in Lethal Weapon 3 is the thing that, in a movie this stupid, should logically have been the worst offender: Mel's courtship of Internal Affairs investigator Rene Russo. First of all, with the shit Mel and Danny get up to in these movies, Internal Affairs should be up their ass. Second, Mel is enough of a dick to her that it makes her kind of sympathetic, so that when Mel is randomly over at her place and sees that she has a Three Stooges screensaver he's the one who has to stop being a dick to woo her; whenever it's the “tightass” character who has to “loosen up” the romance always seems fake. Especially since, in this case, she's doing a very valuable job: keeping cowboy assholes like Mel from violating procedure and blowing half the fuckin city up every five minutes. Also, since the two of them are totally emotionally 12 year old boys, it's both a cute romance and a plausible life partner match.

It's weird, with only one thing handled well in the entire picture—with the exception of some of the action scenes (but not all, the Joe Pesci at the hockey game one sucks wildebeest dick)—Lethal Weapon 3 ends up not being a total loss. You'll laugh, but I think that alone makes Rene Russo's one of the most underrated performance of the entire 90s. Consider she's the one thing that keeps this fucking movie from being a capital offense, and consider that this was 1992, the year of Marisa Tomei's Oscar (a clear sign that Oscar was showing the love to less-than-stellar movies), and I think you gotta talk about her as a Best Supporting contender that year. (Ed. Note: we're conveniently ignoring the fact that Angela Bassett, who wasn't nominated, should have won for Malcolm X, which should have swept every imaginable category for every award in the fucking universe that year; no, the author is not still bitter).


Lethal Weapon 4 is a huge improvement, by only being kind of stupid, though it's still a ludicrous mess and the action has long since abandoned the pretense of realism with which the first movie flirted occasionally. And Mel's Martin Riggs, by this point, had long since become more of an overgrown teenager than the legitimately crazy and dangerous motherfucker whose legit craziness in tandem with his fearsome fighting skills gave the movie its name.

The addition of Chris Rock as Danny Glover's new secret son-in-law is forced, and seems motivated more by “Hey, Chris Rock just re-invented himself as the greatest comedian in America [Ed. Note: irrefutably true circa 1998] and we can have him come in and do some shtick for a couple scenes, let's do it” rather than his character having anything more to contribute. His scene where he and Joe Pesci just stop the movie to riff to each other about cell phones for an hour, great as they both are, could easily have been cut with no problem.

Or, alternatively, replaced with more scenes of Jet Li owning motherfuckers. It should be no surprise, as a highly sophisticated cineaste with extremely refined taste, that I am a massive Jet Li fan. Evaluating his technical abilities as a martial artist is best left to people who actually know what the hell they're talking about, but I'll speak to the elegance and artistry of his moves, which make the direct and brutal moments like the one in Lethal Weapon 4 when he disassembles Mel's gun with one hand while his eyes are going “Man . . . seriously . . . go fuck yourself” all the more shocking. If anything, Jet is too good in Lethal Weapon 4; it's a stretch when Mel and Danny kill him in the end (sure, Jet's anger at his brother's death clouds his judgment, but that's a fucking lame excuse: when he's in his own movies Jet channels that anger into a mountain-leveling earthquake of kung fu, a bad guy apocalypse). To top it all off, the dude can act, too.

Jet's presence in Lethal Weapon 4, even if the movie itself wasn't a marked improvement over its immediate predecessor, would make it all okay, and he is most of what the picture has going for it. The “we all love each other” vibe of the supporting cast is hard to dislike, even if most of them don't really serve much of a purpose in the movie, and the scene when Mel, Danny, and Chris go to interrogate Triad boss Kim Chan at the dentist and accidentally all get fucked up on laughing gas (which is laced with truth serum or something, who knows) is very funny. But the story is clunky and lurches around all over the place, and poor Calvin Jung is saddled with the job of being the one token good Chinese guy who's tasked with explaining the entirety of Eastern culture to Mel and Danny. (I'm sure he was longing for the days when his only line in the picture was saying “Man, fuck you” to Robocop, at least one some level).

Really, neither Lethal Weapon 3 or 4 is much use other than giving the cast a chance to all hang out with each other again. You could do worse for a late-night cable movie than either, but the real Lethal Weapon experience is to be found in the first two movies. You know, when Martin Riggs really WAS a lethal weapon. The last two movies are profit-seeking engines powered by jokey-jokes and car chases; this would be okay in a series that didn't start out as promisingly, but is a bit of a letdown here.

However, in spite of that, it's not as though Lethal Weapons 2-4 are complete departures from the original. The elements taken by writers less talented than Shane Black and turned into the diminished quality sequels were there in the first movie. They kid around a bit, and ultimately it all comes back to family and how nice it is to have one, whether the one you're born into or the one you choose. It was subtler in the first movie, and the sequels could have correspondingly been subtle about it or taken it in different ways. But it was always there, and that's why as dumb and bad as Lethal Weapon 3 and 4 can be, they are not complete departures. They were always in the cards.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY!


As de rigueur as sequels (and remakes and reboots) are now, there was a time when it was not thus. I remember this because I remember it being a little weird, when Lethal Weapon was a bigass hit (grossing eight times its cost; by apples-and-oranges comparison, that's roughly the same ratio as Titanic) that it was a foregone conclusion there'd be a sequel. Sequels are a funny thing, because sure they're profit-motivated, but there are things one can do with them artistically to keep the enterprise from being purely pecuniary.

Shane Black was asked back to write the sequel. Whether as a reflection of his irritation at the first movie taking a more comic tone than he'd intended or simply an indication that his sense of the story and characers was different than that of Warner Bros executives, his script did not amuse the powers that be. In his draft, where the South African embassy in Los Angeles is using its diplomatic immunity to deal drugs and kill people (a good choice), Riggs dies in the end (not a good choice). When the studio started bringing in script doctors to “fix” things—there was also a scene where Riggs is tortured even more brutally than Al Leong did in the first one—Shane Black cut all ties with the franchise.

This is partly why the first movie stands out so. The new writers brought in—the guy who wrote Remo Williams and the guy who wrote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—emphasized the comedy, expanding federal witness Leo Getz from a minor character into a fairly big supporting player (and one who, for better or worse, would be in each successive sequel), and throwing in a number of running gags (the one about Murtaugh's hot daughter appearing in a condom commercial that makes every guy in the movie, practically, say “she makes me want to buy rubbers” is excellent).

This is all okay in Lethal Weapon 2, as the villains are still very, very bad (passing all four parts of the Evil White Guys in Suits test with spectacular grades) and they do very, very bad things. And, much like the villains in the first movie, this villainy had basis in reality: when Lethal Weapon 2 came out, Nelson Mandela was still in jail for his resistance to apartheid, which, sure he had guns and a whole shitload of leftist rhetoric, but it was fucking apartheid: what was he supposed to do, not violently overthrow those shitheads? The minority white regime that ruled South Africa was perhaps the most widely vilified in the world at the time, what with Gorbachev rehabilitating the Soviet Union's rep by subtly disassembling its power structure and letting Ronald Reagan take all the credit, but they'd somehow avoided being the bad guys in too many action movies (probably because the good guys would have to be black).

That all changed in Lethal Weapon 2. Due to the history of the narcotics trade in Los Angeles, long unofficially sanctioned by the LAPD as a means of pacifying the black population, going into drugs as a wholly gratiuitous “fuck you” by the South African diplomatic presence in the city is not outside the realm of possibility (probability's a whole other matter, but still). And “not outside the realm of possibility” is a firmer grounding in realism than most action movies have, so there you go.

We pick up the action with a BANG, right in the middle of a car chase, nothing except a big loud title card that says “Lethal Weapon 2” (Ed. Note: the text, translated, means: “Yes. You are in the RIGHT FUCKING MOVIE.”) Mel and Danny have reached, in the time since the events of the first movie, a state of bickering married-coupledom: Mel's still a mild eccentric with a tendency to go hard charging into action, but out of balls rather than batshit insanity. Danny merely sighs and says “Dammit, Riggs” a lot, and occasionally unleashes a barrage of motherfuckers and sonofabitches, but such is the life of a veteran policeman.

After a highly entertaining car chase involving a helicopter right in the middle of downtown LA (the movie has the decency to have captain Steve Kahan find this weird), Mel and Danny take possession of a whole trunk full of Krugerrand. “Fuckin . . . fuckin gold,” Danny says, respectfully. The looks on his and Mel's faces when Mel kicks open the trunk of the upside down, crashed car and all the gold comes pouring out is another thing you don't get in lesser action movies: genuine surprise at something strange.

The baddies are not pleased that their gold has gone missing. Joss Ackland (left), setting the gold standard for foreign-accented villainy, is the type who will put a dropcloth on his office carpet so that he can have the pleasure of watching lead henchnazi Derrick O'Connor (right, deliberately coiffed, made up, and lit to resemble Hitler, because subtlety is for fags; to hammer the point home even more obviously, Mel nicknames him “Adolf”) shoot dudes in the face without having to leave his desk chair. This is exactly what he does to the unfortunate schmuck who was in the car with all the Krugerrand in it. Once Derrick O'Connor has carefully blown the guy's brains onto the dropcloth, Joss Ackland gives him his new assignment: intimidate Danny Glover, the lead investigator working the case of their drugs and Krugerrand, by threatening his family. Derrick O'Connor takes one look at Danny Glover's photo and goes, “Goddamn kaffir . . . lovely.” (Ed. Note: “kaffir” is how they say the n-word in South Africa). I mean . . . it is almost impossible to hate villains as much as immediately as you hate these guys after this scene. Efficient writing and some solid direction from Mr. Donner (the best descriptor for whom may be “skilled journeyman,” but remember “skilled” is the first part of that backhanded compliment).

So Derrick O'Connor and his Nazi Ninjas break into Danny Glover's house and thoroughly scare the shit out of him and piss him off. To give him a break, captain Steve Kahan (Captain Ed Murphy) puts Danny (Roger Murtaugh) and Mel (Martin Riggs) on a lower-stress gig:

Captain Ed Murphy: I got something special for you boys. A guy by the name of Getz, Leo Getz has been placed in protective custody. And you two guys are gonna babysit him until Washington sends out the feds.
Martin Riggs: How long?
Captain Ed Murphy: Soon as all the red tape is processed. Couple, three days. This guy Getz is gonna testify before a commission of inquiry. Drugs, laundered money, et cetera, et cetera. This is not a shit assignment.
[Riggs starts smoking]
Martin Riggs: Yes, it is.
Captain Ed Murphy: No, it isn’t.
Roger Murtaugh: [coughing due to Rigg's smoke] It is.
Captain Ed Murphy: It isn’t.
Roger Murtaugh: Captain, it’s a shit assignment.
Captain Ed Murphy: Shut up, the both of ya.
[Another cop comes in and hands the Captain a file.]
Captain Ed Murphy: I guaranteed this guy’s safety.
Roger Murtaugh: Why us?
Captain Ed Murphy: Because you two are the most qualified for the job. And, after last night, you could use the break.
Roger Murtaugh: I can handle last night.
Martin Riggs: What are we supposed to do with him?
Captain Ed Murphy: How the hell should I know? Take him to Disneyland.
Martin Riggs: Oh, this stinks. This stinks. This stinks!
Captain Ed Murphy: I don’t give a fuck, Riggs. That’s why I don’t have an ulcer, because I know when to say, "I don’t give a fuck." Now here’s where he’s staying. It’s a nice hotel; all the expenses are being picked up by the Justice Dept, so enjoy yourselves. :[They start to leave] And Riggs, one more thing!
Martin Riggs: [Turning back] What?
Captain Ed Murphy: [Tosses him a small 'no smoking' sign.] You know what that says?
Martin Riggs: Yeah, yeah, same thing as that. [Points to the large 'no smoking' sign next to him on the door, smirking.] But I don’t give a fuck. [Throws the small placard back and walks out.]
Roger Murtaugh: [wafting the smoke away from him]You’re lucky. I have to live with that.

That scene, which I love (Mel's line reading on that last “I don't give a fuck” is genius) is a pretty good indicator of the newer tone of this movie, at least when we're among the good guys, and establishes the template for the rest of the series: when the good guys are amongst themselves, they banter, when the bad guys are amongst themselves, they do very sinister and cruel things, and when the good guys and bad guys meet up, cars go very fast and things explode.

Danny and Mel meet Joe Pesci, whom they immediately dislike, and not without reason. Joe Pesci is, of course, mindbogglingly awesome—and goddamn, his Napoleon complex has a Napoleon complex—but the character of Leo Getz is fucking annoying. He's supposed to be an unscrupulous slimeball who never shuts up, which already puts him on the trying my patience list. Joe Pesci manages to make the character mildly endearing, especially by the end of the movie, but in the wrong mood this character is nails on a chalkboard (he's irredeemable in 3 and 4).

The South Africans send a guy to try to kill Joe Pesci and the proceedings go out the window and into the pool, at which point Joe Pesci reveals he's laundered half a billion dollars in drug money. Danny and Mel are suitably impressed.

In their pursuit of this lead—OMG THEIR CASES ARE TOTES MCGOATS RELATED!!!!11eleven!!—they find that the South Africans are running their operations out of a house on stilts (side note: if they ever get the rights issues unsnarled, it'd be nice if Thom Anderson's documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself can get released, because it's fucking awesome; one of his big things in it is how movies always give bad guys these amazing modern architecture houses as villainous lairs, which really pisses him off for reasons he articulates brilliantly in the movie). Naturally, considering that the hotel guy shows up and there's a car chase, Mel and Danny bring all the other cops over there to make some arrests . . . only it turns out the baddies have diplomatic immunity, and Joss Ackland sneers that he'll be making a formal complaint with the State Department.

Not to poke holes in a movie I adore, but the diplomatic immunity issue is the flimsiest part of the story. If a bunch of diplomats were running around selling drugs and killing people and shooting at the LAPD with machine guns from a helicopter in the middle of downtown and shit . . . they'd be recalled by the South African government. They may have been racist fuckbags, but the only head of state in the history of the planet who would openly let his diplomats sell drugs and kill people is Kim Jong-il, which is why the only country that lets him have an embassy is China, because no one fucks with China. The South Africans would issue all kinds of statements decrying the deplorable behavior of their diplomats, bring them back to South Africa, and throw their asses in the prison they reserve for people they really don't like. Not out of any sudden incongruous desire to be good, but because their stupid asses got caught. As the great philosopher Harold Ramis said “Never hit anyone in anger, unless you're absolutely sure you can get away with it.” Wisdom.

As the cops leave the stilt house, grumbling, the movie introduces the proverbial Good South African, Patsy Kensit's lovely consulate employee Rika van den Haas. Rika is a fairly unique character by the undemanding standards of action movie love interests, in that she embodies two disparate types at once by being the proverbial Good Girl while still being simply walking sex. The latter may have something to do with her being Patsy Kensit but I kind of doubt it, considering she's been icily distant in everything else I've ever seen her in (including interviews, and that infamous Cool Britannia magazine cover she did with then-consort Liam Fookin Gallagher). Whatever the case, Patsy Kensit shows up and widower Mel gets the thunderbolt.

Since they can't directly approach the baddies due to the whole diplomatic immunity thing, Mel, Danny, and Pesci (even though he's a witness they're supposed to be protecting, they still take him around to all the action movie shit they do, which is kind of funny because he's so annoying they're probably half-hoping he gets killed) concoct a plan to get Mel into Joss Ackland's office at the consulate (the same place he has Derrick O'Connor kill people). It's a wonderful comic vignette, where Danny pretends to want to emigrate to South Africa, but the consul employee they talk to (who aside from being a tightass seems like a nice enough guy) tells him, “You don't want to go to South Africa,” and Danny goes “Why?” and he says (in one of the movie's finest moments) “Be-because you're bleck!” This gives Danny an excuse to get all militant, and in the ensuing uproar—utilizing the already in-progress anti-apartheid demonstration outside the consulate as cover—Mel sneaks into Joss Ackland's office and, when the baddies return, basically whips his dick out and tells them “Diplomatic immunity or no, your motherfuckin ass is grass.”

This turns out to be a major mistake, as the bad guys proceed to kill just about every single other cop in LA who isn't Mel, Danny, or Steve Kahan (including the sacriligeous-for-the-80s assassinations of such luminaries as Dean Norris and Jenette Goldstein; what sick son of a bitch kills Jenette Goldstein? They don't call em Evil White Guys in Suits for no fuckin reason, believe you me). Mel escapes the ire of the Sudafrikans by fucking Patsy Kensit in his trailer, while Danny is off babysitting Joe Pesci. Still, Danny gets ambushed in his home, Joe Pesci gets kidnapped by the baddies, Danny only survives by nail-gunning a couple guys in the throat, and there's a massive machine guns and helicopters action scene where Mel and Patsy and Mel's dog escape narrowly only to be bushwacked by Derrick O'Connor at her place.

Derrick O'Connor, it transpires, is the very guy who killed Mel's wife, as the very same shadowy drug dealer to whom Mel was getting too close way back when. THE PLOT THICKENS! To make matters worse, he's killed Patsy Kensit, so Mel flips his shit as only Mel can flip his shit, driving his pickup truck out to the stilt house with the objective of ripping it from its moorings and bringing it crashing down in a flaming, racist-immolating wreck. (Again, not to be a dick, and I know it's Mel we're talkin about here, but if any pissed-off borderline psycho in a pickup truck could throw a chain around one of the stilts and just pull the fuckin thing down, don'tcha think they wouldn't build houses on stilts? I mean, come on, the fucker would have to pass earthquake code, right? It is Los Angeles, after all . . .)

With the stilt house gone to the great drafting table in the sky (and Joe Pesci rescued), Danny informs Mel that he's figured out where the Evil White Guys are, so they go roll into battle to kick some ass. Mel's boss fight against Derrick O'Connor is pretty tremendous shit, as Mel's rage and encyclopedic arsenal of esoteric martial arts match up extremely well against Derrick O'Connor's weird Dancing Marquis of Queensbury Capoeira Master style. Mel polishes him off in highly satisfying fashion, only to have Joss Ackland light him the fuggup with a Mauser (they don't stop with the Nazi parallels) at ridiculous range. Danny arrives in just the nick of time for one of the great stupid action movie moments of all time:

Joss Ackland (tauntingly, holding up his ID): Diplomatic immunity!
(Danny Glover puts one between his eyes)
Danny Glover: It's just been revoked!

FUCK YEAH, DANNY GLOVER! Way to start an international incident that would result in George Bush cravenly apologizing to de Klerk in such a manner that would strengthen domestic reactionary resolve within South Africa to such a degree that apartheid would last for an additional decade or more, perhaps even becoming the North Korea of Africa (a truly harrowing thought when you consider how fucked up most of Africa was and still is). I mean, maybe. There's a chance that if the Americans managed to throw a quick net over the whole situation and fake a tragic accident or something that it might be okay. For everyone except Danny Glover, of course. His ass would disappear. You know, if the movie really gave a fuck. Instead they just let Danny stay with the gravely injured Mel and share some male-bonding yuks while they wait for the fuzz to arrive.

Although it's the Lethal Weapon movie I've rewatched most often and, subjectively, it's my favorite I still have to admit Lethal Weapon 2 is a lesser movie when compared with the first. The jokey-jokes are a bit much at times—though nowhere near as bad as they were the rest of the series, and the exploding toilet's good for a yuk, though god damn that bomb blanket was strong, to keep Danny and Mel from blowing up when they were literally right next to a bomb that blew up the whole top of Danny's house—and unlike the first movie's relatively scant “get the fuck outta here” moments, about every five minutes something utterly recockulous happens (like the aforementioned toilet, not to mention the South African accents are on some Dick Van Dyke shit in terms of broad caricature). As such, this is the picture that stylistically, tonally, and in nearly every other way, is what people usually think of when they think of Lethal Weapon. The first movie would remain a kind of outlier, as an action movie with comedy: the remainder of the series would mainly be comedies where lots of shit blew up and two or three interpolations of Great Seriousness.

Still, let's have no misunderstanding. Lethal Weapon 2 is awesome. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and holy fucking shit Patsy Kensit in those suits. Yow. She makes me want to go out and buy rubbers.

Up next: Lethal Weapons 3 & 4!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I SUPPOSE WE'LL HAVE TO REGISTER YOU AS A LETHAL WEAPON


Charting the supernarrative of a movie franchise is often kind of like watching a game of telephone played by a lot of rich people on cocaine. Invariably, after three or so sequels, the thing that started everything off—the first movie—is forgotten, and the franchise itself becomes an entity, rather than its individual parts mattering all that much. And by the last movie in the series, any resemblance to the original installment is cosmetic as best.

The Lethal Weapon series, weirdly, is not one of these cases. The evolution of the Lethal Weapon series into the cute & cuddly “we all love working on these movies and each other” denouement of the fourth movie, where the theme of family saw its conclusion as the characters' families of blood and choice paralleled the sense of the actors and crew being one big family, is mirrored within the first movie, when you look at it closely, and in the first movie's development from first draft to wrapped picture.

Starting as a very dark spec script by recent UCLA graduate Shane Black in the mid-80s, Lethal Weapon was written as a calling card in the “high concept” fashion that had come into fashion that decade. The high concept, originally, was roughly along the lines of “what if Travis Bickle was a cop [instead of a taxi driver]?” Protagonist, Vietnam vet narcotics cop Martin Riggs, is a deeply fucked up individual with no concern for his life in these early drafts, and is a genuinely dangerous entity on the LAPD.

In contrast to the assumed, faceless executive sending a memo with some asinine note like “can we make it funnier?” the way Lethal Weapon became a buddy action/comedy instead of Taxi Driver-on-the-LAPD was not a decision but an accident of casting. Casting director Marion Dougherty went like, “all right, I need a really crazy motherfucker . . . well, that's Mel Gibson.” Done and done.

That part makes perfect sense, since we all know Mel Gibson's crazy. The truly inspired choice Dougherty made was Danny Glover. In the original script, Murtaugh's race isn't specified, which generally means laziness and (to be generous, maybe unintentional) racism dictate “white guy.” Aside from the unusually progressive “hey, how about this guy” thought, the fact that she came up with this idea watching Danny Glover play the worst person in the universe in The Color Purple is a sign Marion Dougherty was damn good at her job. When Mel Gibson and Danny Glover got in the room with director Richard Donner, they clicked immediately and it was set.

It was the powerful chemistry between the two actors that steered the movie in a lighter direction, as their natural dynamic lent itself to banter and ball-busting. Without all that many major structural changes, Shane Black's pitch-dark cop nightmare movie about one guy became the definitive buddy cop movie. The moral of the story: never underrate the importance of casting in movies.

It was thus that Lethal Weapon as we know it came to be. Shane Black would later complain (with good cause in some cases) about his work being polluted by the studio development process, and by notes from studio executives motivated more by profit than art. In Lethal Weapon's case, though, a certain degree of lightness arguably helped the picture.



The parade of imitators that followed makes it easy to forget, almost a quarter-century after its release, how massive Lethal Weapon was upon its initial release. There had been buddy pictures (of which 48 Hrs must be considered the standard bearer), and there had certainly been action pictures (one love, Arnold), and there had even been action/comedies (Beverly Hills Cop, of course), but Lethal Weapon was the first picture to merge all of these elements together to create a gleaming alloy of fucking badass.

What sets the first picture apart from the rest of the series is that Lethal Weapon, despite having some funny bits, is most assuredly an action picture first, second, and third, and maybe a comedy fourth, or fifth. There is some seriously fucked-up shit in Lethal Weapon. The whole thing about the cop hero being a loose cannon who doesn't play by the rules became first a cliché and then word salad after a couple decades of le cinema de let's-fucking-blow-shit-up, but Martin Riggs (Mel) is 12 kilometers out of his fucking mind (Ed. Note: you need the metric system to measure the shit; dude is out there). The theatrical cut introduces Mel in a lot full of Christmas trees (a nice touch in LA, as is the fact that the scene is shot with magic hour Pacific sunshine) trying to buy some cocaine off a bunch of knuckleheads.

Drug Dealer #3: [Riggs is in a Christmas tree lot, and pretends to sample some coke for a buy] Good, huh? Tasty? Smooth?
Martin Riggs: Yeah, that's good...
Drug Dealer #1: [walking up with a beer] Here ya go, pal...
Martin Riggs: Thanks. Okay, so let's do it. How much?
Drug Dealer #3: How much for how much?
Martin Riggs: For all of it.
Drug Dealer #3: You want it all. He wants it all.
Drug Dealer #1: He wants it all, beautiful. Congratulations!
Drug Dealer #3: All right!
Martin Riggs: Maybe a nice six footer to put it under, huh?
Drug Dealer #2: You want a tree? I'll tell you what. I'll give you the best tree I got on the lot, for nothin'. But the shit's gonna cost ya... a hundred.
Martin Riggs: What, that much?
Drug Dealer #3: Hey, you said you liked it, that's a fair price.
Martin Riggs: Yeah... yeah! Hell, you only live once... get this together here...
[takes out his wallet, starts counting out a hundred dollars]
Martin Riggs: Twenty, forty, sixty, seventy...
Drug Dealer #1: Hey, what the fuck...
Drug Dealer #2: Hey, man... Hey!
Martin Riggs: C'mon, shut up man, I'm losin' count... Ninety-three, ninety-four, ninety...
Drug Dealer #2: Forget it, you dumbshit. One hundred THOUSAND. One hundred THOUSAND, DOLLARS!
Martin Riggs: A hundred thousand?
[laughs]
Martin Riggs: I'm sorry, I can't afford that, not on my salary. But I'll tell ya what, I got a better idea, here. Let me say I take the whole stash of your hands for free, and you assholes can go to jail.
[takes out his badge and puts it on the table in front of them]
Martin Riggs: What do you say about that? Now I could read you guys your rights, but ah, you guys already know what your rights are, don't you?
Drug Dealer #2: [drug dealers stare, then start to laugh] This badge ain't real. YOU ain't real.
Drug Dealer #1: No, but you sure are a crazy son of a bitch!
Martin Riggs: [They all laugh] You think I'm crazy? You call me crazy, you think I'm crazy? You wanna see crazy?
[Riggs starts slapping him self on the head, Stooges style, then pokes their eyes and slaps them, and pulls out his gun]
Martin Riggs: . Now that's a real badge, I'm a real cop, and this is a real fucking gun!
Drug Dealer #2: [menacing] Okay, pal...
Martin Riggs: Hey, noses in the dirt, asshole...
[And the guns start blazin']

(Ed. Note: all asides courtesy of imdb)

Mel, that whole scene, right up until he pulls his heat, has this cracked, alien, child-like vibe. The dialogue itself is pretty standard tough-guy stuff, but his delivery is straight up Martian. It's a little disconcerting, as is the fact that in the ensuing fracas, he lights up two or three of the bad guys without blinking and is about to blow the last one's brains out at point blank range, and a very nervous SWAT guy has to try and calm Mel down with a “it ain't worth it, man.” It's an intense scene, and conveys Mel's insanity as a very real, vivid thing. There was an earlier scene in the extended director's cut (which doesn't really serve any purpose other than making the first act twice as long) where Mel walks straight into a situation where a sniper is holding some kids hostage, and just walks slowly with the thousand yard stare in his eyes and just fucking ices the sniper. It's a great scene, regrettably superfluous, but it firmly establishes Mel as so fucking crazy he's barely in control, if he even is.

Danny Glover and the rest of the Murtaugh family, by contrast, are the model of the stable, healthy, American nuclear family. He's turning 50, his wife's a shitty cook, his kids are wiseasses and his (drop dead gorgeous) daughter is starting to date. Total square-ass, good cop. The story is set in motion when the daughter of Danny Glover's old Vietnam buddy (Tom Atkins) jumps naked off a high-rise balcony with a bloodstream full of drain cleaner-laced drugs. His grumpy captain (Steve Kahan; minor aside, I always wondered why Steve Kahan wasn't the grumpy captain in everything, because he's fucking awesome, but it turns out he's Richard Donner's cousin so he mostly only acts when cousin Rich calls him up and says “what up cuz, I need a middle-aged/old white guy to be awesome, you free?” and he goes “Sure!”) decides he needs a partner. Danny Glover, upon seeing Mel, immediately goes “bad guy” and when Mel gets out his gun to check the action or something, he goes “GUN!” and ultimately gets judo'd to the floor by Mel. “Meet your new partner,” says random other cop Grand L. Bush with a smirk.

Unlike most other random mismatched buddy pairings, which actually are random due to the movies being shitty, the contrast between Danny and Mel has relevant implications for the story. One is the thing that most buddy movies that bother to give a fuck about character development do, where each character helps the other. In Lethal Weapon's case that means Mel's fly by the seat of his ass wildman approach helps Danny Glover loosen up slightly and embrace his inner badass, and Mel manages to conquer his crippling isolation and suicidal depression over the death of his wife and rejoin the human race. Neither involves the kind of cartoonish transformation that one sees in lesser pictures, as both are plausibly enough drawn that the reciprocity makes them a good team rather than two completely different people.

The other major one is the Vietnam connection. Both of them are vets, but Danny Glover was in the early, “military advisors,” Gulf of Tonkin era of the war, and Mel was deep in the shit in the post-Tet, My Lai, Walter Cronkite openly going on TV and calling the war unwinnable part. This common ground gives them a grounds for mutual respect (leading to eventual harmonious partnership), and also ties in nicely with the villain's drug conspiracy.

This is another thing that sets Lethal Weapon apart: the shit its bad guys get up to is something that actually happened. One of the darker (and poorly kept) secrets of the Vietnam War was the drug business the CIA was doing it Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was highly profitable, and largely responsible, due to enterprising servicemen like Frank (American Gangster) Lucas, for the greater availability of illegal drugs in the United States from the 70s on. Now, a certain amount of poetic license was taken in the movie; the CIA does not fly around in helicopters on American soil and silence their bankers by machine gunning them through the window of their oceanside mansions. But Gary Busey's trick of holding his forearm over a lit cigarette lighter without flinching is straight up G. Gordon Liddy, for more historical relevance.

Of course, for all this talk of verisimilitude, Lethal Weapon is still an action movie, not a documentary. Mel is a supernatural shot with a pistol: the scene where he and Danny are yakking about this hooker who might have hotshot and/or pushed the naked suicidal daughter out the window on the shooting range, and Mel shoots a smiley face onto his target from like a gajillion yards out . . . it's awesome, and it's a great sight gag, but it is bullshit. Danny Glover gets all sadface about the fact that he can only hit dead center of the target off a quick draw, which is actually about as awesome a pistol shot as one can be in real life. But, like I said, it's an action movie. The verisimilitude is there to make it easier for us to suspend our disbelief. Which is as it should be.

Lethal Weapon is a little rough around the edges in terms of execution, something that helps emphasize its real-ishness. Danny Glover's performance is really kind of wonderful; his flat line readings used to bug me occasionally way back when, but repeated viewings (and oh how repeated those viewings have been) have led me to consider the awkwardness of some of his delivery as an aspect of his regular guy square-ass character. That guy is not smooth. If, for some bizarre reason, he calls Mel “you crazy son of a . . . [5 second pause] . . . bitch!” (I'm not exactly sure whether that was from the first one or one of the sequels, but that doesn't matter) it's not shitty acting. He's playing a guy who would say random shit really awkwardly.

And then there's Mel. Everyone is legitimately a little scared of Mel, as they should be, because he's nucking futs. That bit where he talks the jumper out of jumping off the building—which, by the way, is one of Lethal Weapon's departures from versimilitude—and then handcuffs the guy and jumps off the roof with him, to land in the gigantic airbag . . . well, okay. Let's back up. That scene is really fucking stupid, and I say that as an avowed lover of Lethal Weapon. First, if the cops had inflated a gigantic airbag right underneath where the dude was jumping, what does it matter if he jumps? Forget whether those things work in real life, whether you'd actually break a leg if you jumped on one or your neck if you got the angle wrong (shit, bulletproof vests stop everything short of a tactical nuke in movies). Clearly, in movie world, they work, because Mel jumps him into it and neither of them so much as have a hair out of place. So why does Danny Glover get all bent out of shape about Mel being suicidal, based on that? Mel has one of his better points in the whole movie: “You wanted him down, he's down.” Sure, it's an example of reckless behavior, from which I'm sure Danny Glover extrapolated and got the suicide thing (also, we did see Mel think about eating his gun in that one fucked up amazingly well-done scene earlier). And it leads to Mel's great speech about the job being the only thing that keeps him from checking out. So yeah, whatever, nevermind, the denouement to the jumper scene is great, but the scene itself reeked more of “we need something suspenseful here because it's the x minute mark” rather than it being legitimately necessary.

Once Mel and Danny go up against Gary Busey and the Special Forces All-Stars (led by asshole general Mitchell Ryan in a fucking rock solid Evil White Guy performance that he managed to pull off without even wearing a Suit . . . even though you know damn well he's got some really really conservative ones in his closet back home) shit gets real. The showdown in the desert is awesome. Mel has taken a shotgun blast in the chest and is presumed, by the evil white guys, to be dead (that one cop who sort of looks like John Spencer's tenor cousin abets the lie nicely) because he would be if he wasn't wearing one of those Shroud Of Turin ass motherfucking vests that can stop Zeus that dudes wear in movies. And the evil white guys have kidnapped Danny Glover's hot daughter just because they're evil (and stupid; any real drug dealers with CIA/Special Forces connections worth a shit would have just killed his entire family, not to mention they'd have gone for and 10-ringed a headshot on Mel) , so Mel decides to hide in the brush with a scope rifle (a real nice one too; he must have requisitioned it from the LAPD's special Action Movie Armory that they must have considering some of the weaponry movie fuzz gets to use). Here's my favorite part: when it's showtime, Mel manages to kill the bad guys in a manner so badass it has authorial style, leading Gary Busey to go “Damn it, it's Riggs.”

Okay. The idea that you can have a recognizable style in the way you kill dudes is frankly something that pleases me. I find it highly enjoyable. Second, that Riggs (Mel; I know I skip between character and actor names, bear with me, I get excitable) has a style so distinct that even though he's supposed to be fucking dead, Gary Busey recognizes from two gunshots not that it's some random other LAPD sharpshooter, or even Danny Glover's crazy-as-a-shithouse rat other Vietnam buddy (played, hypothetically and with leathery, reptilian swagger by a cynical, wisecracking Lance Fucking Henriksen) who has a flair for long-range hits. No, he recognizes it immediately as Mel. This is why action movies are sacred to me.

And, after all the bad guys are done being killed (including the immortal Al Leong in one of his exasperatingly few speaking roles), we end on a note of familial harmony, Danny inviting Mel in for Christmas dinner with the family, and Mel inviting his dog (with whom he lives in a trailer on the beach for reasons more cinematographic than practical) in, and the dog immediately getting in a fight with the cat. A fight, please note, that perfectly mirrors the initial conflict between Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. And, also note, this coming together prefigures the direction the rest of the series would take, and the ultimate resolution of the fourth movie. But we're not there yet, and we're running a little long, we'll pick things up with a discussion of Lethal Weapon 2 next time!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

BREAKING NEWS: OSCAR NOMINATIONS ANNOUNCED, WESTERN CIVILIZATION HANGS IN THE BALANCE


No big surprises with the Oscar nominations this year. The only real mess is in the Best Director category, where a year after Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director, two women who made pictures even better than Kathryn's (Debra Granik with Winter's Bone and Lisa Cholodenko with The Kids Are All Right; they both got screenplay noms, but still) got passed over in favor of David O. Russell and Tom Hooper (the Coens took Chris Nolan's spot).

This is more a reflection of 2010 secretly being a really strong year for movies. Even though the summer really pushed the boundary of retardation (for more, see the Razzie nominations), there were a lot of really wonderful and interesting pictures this past year, certainly way the fuck more than 2009, where they had to stretch to find five nominees for most categories, and most of the ten nominees for Best Picture were laughable.

It's nice to see, even if Debra Granik got snubbed, to see both Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes nominated for their performances. Jennifer Lawrence is less a surprise (she's been getting oodles of press lately and looks like she's on the cusp of superstardom) than John Hawkes, who's been puttin in work for decades, and finally graduates from “oh, that guy, he's good” status to that rarefied “shit yeah, John Hawkes is in this” territory. (Ed. Note: to the truly anointed, such as the author and legendary all-caps raconteur ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER, this has been the case for some time, but Olympus is an exclusive address).

Also, no Best Costume design for Inception? Excuse me, I have to go cut myself and listen to Peter Murphy records.

Because I actually care about being right (not about the stupid Oscars, just in general) I'm going to hold off on making predictions about winners for a few weeks, but we can be certain of a couple things right now: Best Foreign Film is not going to be Biutiful, because people have actually heard of it, in accordance with the unwritten bylaws of that category.

If Banksy wins for Best Documentary I'm going to fucking plotz. The Oscars will turn in on themselves and rupture the space-time continuum if something that awesome happens.

Anyway, woo hoo Oscar nominations. Looks like Justin Timberlake's got longer to wait for his EGOT than I thought, but he'll still have it before he's 40. YOU CAN TAKE THAT SHIT TO THE BANK(SY). Okay, I'm going now. Here's the full list of nominees. Peace.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE


Well it ain't half been a while, huh? Let's catch up: since the last post, I undertook the massive . . . undertaking . . . (coughcough) of reviewing every single Batman movie ever made for Tor. It was interesting, starting with the 1943 and 1949 serials, then moving to the Adam West/Burt Ward “holy kitschy 60s homoerotic silliness, Batman!” incarnation, then to Tim Burton, then to Joel fucking assnuts Schumacher—research revealed that he spent the whole second movie (probably) fucked up out of his head and (verifiably) screaming shit into a megaphone about not taking anything too seriously, verifying my most wild exaggerations—and then to the Extremely Serious And Fraught With Portent version brought to us by Christopher Nolan (who sure is good at casting: Anne Hathaway as Catwoman is going to be straight uncut meeeeeow). Basically, after that whole fuckin' thing was done I needed to get the fuck out of Batman world and into something wholly other.

Enter my buddy Abe, whose contagious Bollywood evangelism has led to me being that dickhead in the front pew who doesn't really know what's going on but fucking FEELS THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD. Starting a few months ago with Endhiran (which wasn't a Bollywood movie but it had Indian people in it and was a good gateway drug for me because it was really fucking expensive and had a whole lot of trippy FX) and continuing with a recent outing to see Tees Maar Khan—the subject of a splendidly popular post—I'm starting to really dig the shit out of Indian movies, because they understand a couple things that we kinda lost here in America:

(1) Movie stars are important. The guy needs to be awesome and the girl needs to be hot and that's not fucking negotiable.
(2) Stylized acting fucking rules
(3) Singing and dancing similarly fucking rules
(4) It's a movie. It's meant to be enjoyed.
Doesn't that sound exactly like what I've been saying all this time in between the cursing and the Schwarzenegger advocacy? It's a match made in geek heaven.

So, less than an hour after finishing up the Batman pieces, I hopped into the shower and on the subway and, with the Tees Maar Khan crew, took in a Bollywood DVD double feature. The first picture we saw was called Om Shanti Om, by TMK director Farah Khan. The best way I can describe Om Shanti Om is that it's about everything, and everyone is in it; neither of those is all that much of an exaggeration.

The hero is Shahrukh Khan, a man who gives you your money's worth (and who's damn near a billionaire in US bux just from acting, which is seriously badass in its own way), playing two roles. Kind of. When the picture starts out, SRK is Om, a “junior artist” (read: bit player) in the 70s who dreams of stardom and romancing Shanti, the staggeringly beautiful movie star of his dreams (Deepika Padukone, making her Hindi debut, which surprised the shit out of me, because girlfriend has movie star written all up and down her). A whole bunch of wonderful, completely non-naturalistic romantic stuff happens and it looks like Shanti likes Om back . . . only to have Om discover that Shanti is secretly married to Mukesh (Arjun Rampal), the jerkoff who's producing the movie! (Which, by the way, is called Om Shanti Om; Farah Khan is basically sitting there at the stove with a big old pot of meta saying “Oh, no, sweetie, you're so thin, you need more, you're just wasting away, have more meta, it's good for you” for this whole picture)

Om is heartbroken, because he overhears Shanti tearfully telling Mukesh she just wants their marriage to be public, forget the damage to her career (different culture, different rules; not being single would seriously fuck things up for her, but that's love for you). Mukesh flips out and, in a scene that raises the bar for villainy to Himalayan heights, totally tells Shanti that he's going to marry her on the set of the movie, and right when she gets all excited, he goes, “Actually, no, I think I'll burn you alive.” And he has his big muscle dudes guard the entrance to make sure she doesn't get out. Om, motivated by true love, makes a damn fine effort to get in and save her, but Mukesh's dudes beat the shit out of him, and with the wasted time, Shanti dies in the fire, and Om dies in the hospital. Right after Om dies, the wife of movie star Rajesh Kapoor (Javed Sheikh; also, as I understand it, “Rajesh Kapoor” is sort of like if the guy was named “Jack Stone” or something in an American movie, like a real generic “movie star” name), who hit Om with his car on the way to the hospital, gives birth. Which leads to them naming the baby Om.

Jump ahead thirty years to the present day. Om Kapoor (also, of course, played by Shahrukh Khan) is a spoiled, shallow, puer aeternus fuckhead nepotistic brat, totally career-minded in his stardom. He's starring in a movie where he's playing a blind, deaf, and dumb guy in a wheelchair, but he insists on all kinds of rewrites, that lead inexorably to this magnificence ending up in the movie:



That bit at the end, where SRK starts freaking out? It's because he's afraid of fire. Why is he afraid of fire? Because . . . HE'S THE REINCARNATION OF THE OM FROM PART ONE! Boo ya motherfucker, welcome to India. If you don't recognize how rad this is, there is no reaching you.

Om Kapoor gradually gets less and less douchey as more of Old Om seeps in, to the point where he's almost completely Old Om, to the point of reuniting with Old Om's Old Mom and Old Childhood Chum. And—this is the best part—launching a jaw-droppingly elaborate revenge scheme against Mukesh, who's spent the last 30 years in Hollywood and now calls himself Mike and speaks almost exclusively English. This gives SRK the chance to do a fucking splendid vacantly Californian airhead accent when busting “Mike”s balls.

The revenge scheme centers around a remake of Om Shanti Om, on the original set, which has been considered “cursed” since the fire. Om takes advantage of his industry cachet to get a big star to play Shanti, only he's planning to find someone who looks exactly like the old Shanti to splice into the dailies to freak “Mike” out and drive him insane (something like that, at any rate), and lo and behold he finds Sandy (also played by Deepika Padukone, conveniently), a gum-chewing, clumsy bubblehead who, wouldn'tcha know, is a dead ringer for Shanti! PerFECtion!

Events converge. Somewhere in all of this there's a party scene where literally almost everyone who's been famous in Bollywood in the last thirty years pops in to say what's up:



All hot girls put your hands up and say
Ommmmmmmmmmmmm Shaaaaaaaanti Om!
All cool boys come on make some noise and say
Ommmmmmmmmmmmm Shaaaaaaaanti Om!
Goddamn that's catchy.

Then there's this big awards show parody thing where everybody else who's famous in India shows up (in which Akshay Kumar literalizes a joke I made a few months ago about Liam Neeson in Taken and actually machine guns a bunch of guys with his dick). And then the actual movie starts back up and there's more singing and dancing and eventually, Om is the instrument of ghost Shanti's revenge on Mukesh. The end. Standing ovation.

Om Shanti Om is feverishly ambitious, and is every movie ever made. A point made in the intro to Filmi Girl's excellent “Bollywood For Beginners” series that made me realize why Bollywood makes perfect sense to me: it's an industry as old as Hollywood, evolving in direct, completely separate, parallel. If you're able to carry the one, so to speak, watching a Bollywood movie shouldn't be that difficult. Cinema vocabulary is universal, and as long as you bear in mind that what appears to be tonal inconsistency to a cinematically monolingual Westerner is actually on purpose because it's the most popular style in India (the masala picture, so called because the mix of styles is like the mixture of spices in Indian cooking). So, given all that, it makes sense that even though I haven't seen most of the specific movies Om Shanti Om might be referencing (whole subplots might have flown over my head) I know movies, so it makes perfect sense on that level. Also, Farah Khan is awesome, so there's that.

Of course, after the mind-blowing intense experience of the totality of cinema that is Om Shanti Om, we were totally gonna watch something else. Abe got out a bunch of DVDs and was like “okay, I've got this, it's a little weird, I've got this, which is something something, and this one has Salman Khan.” No-brainer, we're going with Salman Khan.

Non-initiates might not see the absolute logic of this decision, so I'll explain: Salman Khan rules. If that's still not enough explanation, let's try the opening of Wanted (no relation to the stupid, excessively-pleased-with-itself McAvoy/Jolie thing). We open, eccentrically, at a women's kickboxing match, where a badass gangster type takes a call wherein it's explained that he has to come back to Mumbai at once. Some guy tips someone off that the badass gangster type is on his way back to Mumbai, and the badass gangster type cuts the guy's throat and leaves him to bleed to death in public. We then flash back to Mumbai a couple months before, where due to circumstances that presumably include suicidal impulses, a warehouse full of guys decide to antagonize Salman Khan. He proceeds, in Statham-esque fashion, to fuck each and every one of them up with extreme prejudice. But the capper is that after he owns the living fuck out of every single henchman within a five mile radius, Salman Khan stops the movie to sing a song about how awesome he is.



That's swagger, my friends. (Side note: I love how in every single Bollywood movie I've been watching lately, Anil Kapoor shows up with a shit-eating grin on his face to hang out for a dance number; that guy must be having a lot of fun) The rest of the picture alternates between Salman Khan getting goofy over the lovely Ayesha Takia (though the way he neurotically fucks with her heart after it becomes clear she likes him back is a little weird, but hey, weird is better than boring) and owning the bejesus out of the entire Mumbai criminal underworld, with a few not bad songs, a whole lot of tonal inconsistency (I don't mean that as a critique, it's just the way these pictures are; as Abe, an avowed Bollywood lover, put it: “Tonal inconsisency, thy name is Bollywood”) and, at approximately where the third act break would be in an American movie, one motherfucker of a plot twist.

Turns out Salman Khan, badass criminal, killer of many men, lover of many women . . . is an undercover cop. And though there's been no apparent mention of it the whole picture, his girlfriend's yoga teacher is not only an ex-cop but his dad. This is the point when Wanted stops fucking around and says, “You want ownage? Okay, here you go.” The gangster from the first scene is summoned back to Mumbai to stop Salman Khan from owning everybody (hey, they wouldn't be bad guys if they weren't fucking stupid) and makes the horrible mistake of killing Salman Khan's dad. Before he checks out, though, Papa Khan out-Dennis Hoppers Dennis Hopper and reminds the baddie that he ain't no motherfuckin Christopher Walken by laying shit out for him: My son is going to find you and fuck you up. Which is hardly a surprise at this point, it's like telling someone “Oh yeah the sun's going to rise in the east and set in the west tomorrow,” but the way he lays it out is just badass. I wish I could find the exact quote, but take my word for it, it rules.

Following his father's murder, Salman Khan openly reveals his policeman status and has the corrupt rapist shitbag cop on the bad guy's payroll take him out to the Final Action Sequence Warehouse. To set the tone, Salman Khan decides to jump out of the moving police car, spin in midair, and start walking up a flight of stairs in one motion for no reason whatsoever aside from sheer swagger. About twenty henchmen deaths in a row consecutively win “most stylishly and brutally violent henchman death of all time.” At a crucial point, Salman Khan removes his shirt by basically flexing his pecs. This lead to the following conversation:

Female friend: You know, not to be a girl, but that's why his package is kind of small. All those steroids, doesn't do well for you there.
Me: Yeah, but metaphysically, he's packing serious heat.
Female friend: Yes, metaphysically, that's true.
Because if they had steroid testing in movies, SK would be in some trouble. On the other hand, American action movies were awesome when the heroes were all on steroids and haven't quite been the same since (just like baseball).

By the time he gets to the main baddie and the rapist corrupt cop, Salman Khan is so intense the screen vibrates when the director cuts to his reaction shots. No shit, there's like eight shots in a row where they cut back to Salman Khan and the whole movie goes BWOMWOMWOMWOMWOM for a couple seconds. Final ownage is dealt. Fin.

Sure, Wanted's a little long (about two hours and forty minutes). Sure it'd be almost an hour shorter if it was made in America (or England or Europe or wherever) with Jason Statham. But if you're seriously sitting there whining about that shit you have no soul. Consider that extra hour an extra hour you get watching Salman Khan swagger, watching Ayesha Takia's smile (and, though I'm not a fake tit guy, hers are kind of spectacular), and all those songs. More on my nascent Bollywood fandom as it unfolds.


In other news, playoff football and my Tor duties kept me from doing up a Golden Globes post. The republic will not collapse. I had planned to do some snarky shit about the bribery scandal as a preview, but time didn't permit. Afterwards, the only thing worth writing about was Ricky Gervais' hosting, which has been written to death since then, so I won't pile on too much except to say this: what Ricky did out there was straight up Friars Club style, which has been around forever and is an institution in comedy. People were whining about him being mean, being a dick, so on and so forth, but seriously. If I was nominated for something and Ricky made fun of my weight, substance abuse, frequently gender-indiscriminate crushes, or foul mouth, I wouldn't be thrilled but I wouldn't whine my balls off about it like everyone there. Robert Downey Jr. makes a crack about shit being “mean-spirited” before doing a bit where he pretends to have shtupped all the Best Actress nominees? No. The spirit is one and the same, dude, you just got away with it because all five of them actually would fuck you given the chance (and when applicable, a waiver from her husband/significant other). Both jokes are in-bounds. Lighten up.

So that basically brings us up to today. I'm back on my regular irregular schedule, and have a couple things in store for you this week, including an in-depth look at the Lethal Weapon series in honor of Warner Bros' craven, avaricious announcement that they plan to reboot the series. So stay tuned.

One last note: next weekend, a project in which I had the privilege of being asked to take part is being unveiled: Piper McKenzie's Dainty Cadaver! Everyone in the NYC area is advised to come by and behold its majesty, and everyone not in NYC is advised to get your plane ticket now. Check out this “interview” about the play. Happy Sunday, y'all!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A BRIEF HIATUS



For the next week, I'm going to be researching a large-ish project for Tor.com (see above for details), and so may not have time to spin my wheels about the usual shit around these parts. Fear not, I'll be back and cursing up a storm before you know it.

Coming soon, pending some ironing out of logistics: I'm starting a podcast! The content will be parts commentary, comedy, belligerent provocation, and kittens. My only regret is, per the awesome Scissor Sisters song, you can't see tits on the radio.

Until I return (which considering my flakiness, might just as easily be tomorrow as next week), keep checking Tor.com for new stuff. My latest piece for Premiere should be coming out any year now, so keep an eye peeled for that. And you can follow me on Twitter, where I'll probably be live-tweeting most of my research. Til we meet again!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

ONCE UPON A TIME IN LA LA LAND . . . SOMETHING SOMETHING . . . TEES MAAR KHAN!!!


Consensus among critics is rarely complete, in part because critics are also critics of other critics, which makes the whole enterprise like high school with bigger vocabularies and a lot more mentions of Ingmar Bergman. Critics catch a lot of shit, often deservedly so, because being a critic without being an asshole is a tightrope, from which an awful lot of professional critics fall to their nasty, capricious, ill-informed deaths (except this metaphor doesn't work because the motherfuckers simply do not die).

Most of the time when critics all unite and declare that a certain picture sucks, it does. Critics, assholes or no, usually know a bit about movies, and most bad movies aren't subtle about being bad, so a really bad movie will get everyone piling on. Every so often, though, one wonders what the fuck is wrong with the critical community. Just about every movie lover can think of at least one “what the fuck were they thinking” picture. One such is the recently released Tees Maar Khan.

I will not pretend to fully understand the reasons in the Indian critical community for panning Tees Maar Khan as viciously as they have. I've been told it's because they want to take the director, Farah Khan, down a peg, either because she's a woman or because Tees Maar Khan isn't enough like her previous picture Om Shanti Om, which was a big hit, or because the wrong megastar actor was in the lead. People are blogging about it, calling the entire Indian critical community a bunch of assholes. It's a giant mess.

I'd like to be able to evaluate the situation evenhandedly, but hey, this is a blog. Every so often I need to remember that, and my responsibility to be a flame-fanning shithead. I saw Tees Maar Khan. If you don't like this movie, you're a fucking Dalek. Everything about Tees Maar Khan is awesome. Nothing about it sucks. Yeah, yeah, yeah, “it's silly,” “the comedy's of a low-brow variety,” “it's politically incorrect.” Suck this, you nitpicking jagoff. I laughed so fucking hard at this movie I almost sprained both ankles. The prosecution rests.

The irony of so many of the bad reviews citing the fact that it was a remake as one of the reasons why it sucked is that the picture that it's a remake of, the 1966 Vittorio De Sica/Peter Sellers flop After The Fox, got a shit-ton of negative reviews its own self upon its initial release. The two pictures share a similar kind of satire of the movie business, and the respective national movie industries in which its directors work(ed), but where the similarities end is that After The Fox was written by Neil Simon, and Neil Simon can get fucked with a chainsaw. Neil Simon is the Jane Fonda of comedy writing: he sweats blood setting up every single awful, laboriously delivered joke, all to the end of utter failure. This makes After The Fox—more irony, if you aren't full to the point of nausea already—the perfect candidate to be remade: an otherwise promising picture with one or more glaring flaws that, if fixed, could yield a result either interesting or even good. Vittorio De Sica was a good director and a smart guy who unfortunately had bills to pay, needed a hit, and talked himself into doing a script by Neil Simon, then a hot playwright who'd yet to write a screenplay. Director and writer clashed, because the director wanted to make the movie interesting, and the writer was a choad. The result was, the critics hated it and the picture flopped, though it's since developed a bit of a cult following (composed of diehard Peter Sellers and Neil Simon fans), and it is notable for attempting to do some interesting stuff, even if those attempts were sunk by Neil Simon's leaden failure.

Tees Maar Khan has the distinct advantage of having been written by someone who was actually funny, in this case the director's husband Shirish Kunder and the picture's editor, Ashmith Kunder. This, combined with Farah Khan being clearly more in her element with this kind of picture than Vittorio De Sica (who, nothin but love for the cat, was a little more at home making heartbreaking “holy fuck” movies like The Bicycle Thief) makes Tees Maar Khan an absolute delight. It's also making a shitload of money, so there.

Leading man Akshay Kumar is kind of a god. As the title character—the “half Robin Hood” because “he robs from the rich . . . but he does not give to the poor”—Akshay Kumar is all that is male. He swaggers magnificently. He has that ineffable quality of Movie Star that is necessary to making a movie star picture. One does not, as the poet said, simply walk into Mordor; you can't just cast any old fuckin dickhead in a movie and tell the audience he's a badass. You need to cast a badass. (Ed. Note: I couldn't read the squiggly writing in the Hindi-English dictionary but I'm pretty sure it said “Akshay Kumar” means “He who shall fucking wreck your shit”)

So the story is basically, Akshay Kumar is Tees Maar Khan, a master thief with a penchant for Zen-like similies about what a badass he is (hey, self-awareness is a great thing), a knuckle-gnawingly hot girlfriend (Katrina Kaif; I don't mean to leer, but there's a shot of her ass in this movie that turned me black for five minutes) and a coterie of loyal, retarded henchmen. The cops lose TMK on a flight from Paris to Mumbai that involves a thoroughly hilarious and hilariously thorough establishment of TMK as a fucking legend, involving the magnificent swag of Mr. Akshay Kumar.

Once TMK lands, he has to deal with his jealousy over his aspiring actress girlfriend through the medium of dance, and with his mom not knowing he's a master thief; he's told her he's a movie director. This subterfuge, naturally, comes back to haunt him later when a pair of Siamese twins hire TMK to steal a massive amount of treasure off a moving train and TMK decides to stage a fake movie production as subterfuge.

This involves a wonderful sequence where TMK has to pose as Manoj “Day” Ramalan, successful American filmmaker, to convince movie star Aatish Kapoor (Akshaye Khanna, aka the Indian Bill Pullman . . . it is amazing how exactly like a younger Bill Pullman with a better tan this cat is, they even spaz out the same) to be the lead in this imaginary movie. It turns out that Aatish desperately wants an Oscar, since Anil Kapoor (playing himself and looking like he's tripping on laughing gas for all his scenes) got to go to Hollywood and make Slumdog Millionaire. Why not me? says Aatish.

Akshay as TMK cockslapping M. Night Shyamalan and having more fun than is legal in most of the world doing so, adopts an “American” accent and bullshits Aatish into doing the movie, promising him this will be his Oscar role. This scene is piss-yourself funny for several reasons:

(1) M. Night Shyamalan directing a movie that wins Oscars? Hahahahahaha
(2) TMK's henchmen do hilariously inappropriate caricatures of gay movie biz dudes
(3) M. Night having gay assistants
(4) “Manoj 'Day' Ramalan”? I'm pretty sure that joke gets you elected God.
(5) Akshay and Akshaye kill shit.
So TMK brings Katrina Kaif out to be the girl in the movie and they go find themselves this tiny little-ass town in the middle of nowhere with an extremely high “caricatured for comic effect” demographic (so what it's contrived? It's a fucking movie) where they set up shop. TMK and his dudes kill time getting into comic misadventures with the locals, robbing the local bank, stumbling upon a bunch of weed dealers in the middle of the woods who pretend there's a headless horseman haunting the woods to get civilians to fuck off, and shooting a bunch of really bad footage. Katrina Kaif acquires gays who serve as makeup/hair support and entourage, as any proper movie star should. (This, tangentially, is something I liked about this movie: it's a lot more gay-friendly than one might expect. Sure, flaming is played for laughs, but not maliciously. Ah, ya know, Rome wasn't built in a day.)

Eventually, right after shit almost gets serious for a couple minutes, the cops save the day by driving the treasure train up to be robbed. TMK's movie hijacks the train and he, his dudes, and the Siamese twins manage to elude the cops with all the goods, but the Siamese twins pull a fast one on TMK and he, his dudes, and everyone in the village ends up getting busted for robbing the train.

After a trial so chaotic TMK's lawyer does two of the funniest, droopiest spit takes ever committed to film, TMK cops to the whole crime by himself, accepting responsibility for his actions. Kind of. Everyone decides to finish the movie, which they do, and naturally there's a big glitzy premiere, which TMK is allowed to attend, having been the director. And he escapes, of course, because he's international criminal Tees Maar Khan.

I'm all out of fancy-schmancy movie nerd shit to say about Tees Maar Khan. It was just fucking fun. It's two hours, ten minutes and I literally think there were five minutes total in the whole movie where I wasn't laughing. The hero's cool, the girl's beautiful, the supporting players are colorful. The music numbers are good, and the main theme is catchy as hell.
Usually, I can understand why the critics whomp on something, no matter how much I enjoy it. Not in the case of Tees Maar Khan, not on the objective merits of the movie. Sure, if it's some political thing that I don't understand having to do with the context of a culture and movie industry I know next to nothing about, okay. But this very thing might make Tees Maar Khan the perfect picture for someone not familiar with Indian cinema (i.e. me) to enjoy. It's apparently got scads of in-jokes that went right over my head (if there was any significance to Salman Khan showing up to do a cameo for one dance number other than that it was awesome, I missed it), but even without that, it's such a goofy, cracked-out, awesomely hilarious movie that it doesn't matter. So yeah. Watch the shit out of this. But with friends, and not necessarily sober, even though—bizarrely—we all were the other night (unless the other four blazed without me, fuckers). Anyway, the point is, this is a party movie, to be watched with people who know how to let their hair down. Or alone. But that hair? Down. This is not negotiable.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

TWO GRAMS OF COKE AND THE BIBLE


Udo Kier. Man, legend, object of awe to shithouse rats (e.g. "holy SHIT . . . THAT motherfucker's CRAZY"). The AV Club sat down with Udo and more beheld than interviewed him. Do yourself a favor and read the living shit out of this.

Then, when you're done, watch Udo in Madonna's "Deeper and Deeper" video, with the best summary possible of the man and his work starting at about the 5 minute mark. Goddamnit I love Udo Kier.

Monday, January 3, 2011

NEW STATHAM FOR THE WIN (OH, WOW, THAT SPELLS NSFW)



You know who fucking kicks ass? Jason Statham. You know who's a pretty promising young actor who's good at playing psychos? Ben Foster. You know who rules as an evil white guy in a suit? Tony Goldwyn. This release couldn't come at a more perfect time; I'll have spent January catching up with all those deeply felt, keenly observed, exquisitely crafted Oscar pictures, and I'll want to see shit blow the fuck up.

Further evidence that Statham rules: he's remaking a Charles Bronson picture and my reaction was "Yeah, that sounds about right." Charles Bronson's LESS FAMOUS roles are more badass than other people's peaks (not like people forget he was Harmonica in Once Upon A Time In The West or anything, but you thought of Death Wish and The Great Escape first, didn't you?) Statham's up there. It's apples and oranges, or wooden Indians and English guys, but still. No one should be complaining. They should be marking their calendars.