TBT: Bad Boys (1995)

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Ah yes, the glorious return of TBT continues! So I actually had this idea at one point where I’d possibly substitute this month’s batch with an entirely new idea: I’d call it ‘Masterpiece May.’ It would focus on films most people regard as classics. But because I couldn’t get my shit together in time, I bailed on the plan. Maybe one day something like that will happen, but for now we have more Throwback Thursdays to look forward to. We leave the music scene behind and enter into buddy-cop action-comedy territory with

Today’s food for thought: Bad Boys.

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Destroying the ‘hood since: May 19, 1995

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I don’t know what I was doing when Michael Bay’s outrageously fun Bad Boys debuted, but I wasn’t in a theater showing it, that’s all sure. At the end of 1995 I would be moving from the “great” state of Texas — my family’s Plymouth Rock having moved from England five years prior — to Tennessee (where I live now). I guess I was busy trying to get rid of the accent I had, a clinging to my parents’ rural Essex county dialect. No one would believe me now that I had one, but that doesn’t matter. I’m just glad I never picked up on the Texan drawl having lived on the southern panhandle for half a decade.

Texas wasn’t all bad. It was where I saw my first movie in theaters — Andre — and where I was introduced to the world of Toy Story on the big screen. I missed a lot of good movies though, and it seems this would be included. Michael Bay’s Bad Boys is cinematic escapism almost at its finest. It’s big and bombastic, loud and obnoxious, sexy and exhilarating. I hesitate to call this a perfect escape because while this is arguably the best thing Bay has done thus far, especially considering it was his feature film debut, our adrenaline was nonetheless assuaged by Baymaggedon.

Bad Boys features Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as two undercover loose cannon Miami detectives, Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett respectively, who have four days to recover $100 million worth of heroin, originally seized from local Mafia and brilliantly snatched right out from under the Miami Police Department’s nose. Time being a factor, Mike recruits a friend named Max (Karen Alexander), who in turn insists her friend Julie (Téa Leoni) join her, to help scout out potential suspects, people who have seemingly come into a lot of money very quickly.

Bay’s directorial touch, a subtlety equivalent to that of an enraged Decepticon, has in recent times been scathingly criticized and more often than not it has been deserved. Bad Boys represents a habit-forming process but at least in this fairly breezy outing the “exposition-explosion-explosion-explosion-conclusion” is a structure more palatable than it is predictable given Smith and Lawrence’s mordant rapport. Still, let’s not give Bay too big an ego here. The end game fails to add up to anything more than your typical American action extravaganza: get the drugs/money, save the damsel in distress — Leoni’s call girl (wowee) becomes ensnared in Mike and Marcus’ operation after surviving a gang-related shooting that tragically claims Max’s life — all while looking (being?) indestructible the entire time.

In the same way I learned to outgrow my British accent, over time Bay has, purposefully or not, learned to strip away most of the enticing elements that made Bad Boys a romping good time. With his Transformers franchise, particularly the unabashedly bombastic sequels, if you are able to characterize the choreographed chaos as having any kind of personality, you have a rare talent. You’ll have to let me know your secret; how to distinguish the original from its fourth iteration (soon to be a fifth). The only term that flashes upon the marquee of my mind is ‘generic action flick.’ Bad Boys doesn’t have novelty working in its favor consistently but the performers transform (sorry) trademark action blandness into something thoroughly enjoyable through sheer likability. On the casting of Smith and Lawrence alone Bay deserves applause. (Or at least casting agents Lynn Kressel and Francine Maisler.)

All of this is to say, what exactly? Do I regret not having been old enough to enter a theater playing this occasionally melodramatic buddy-cop action flick? Kinda sorta. Am I glad to have finally caught up with everyone else who has been singing its praises for years? Absolutely. Would I watch it again, or better yet — am I looking forward to Bad Boys II (and now, apparently, a second sequel)? Sigh. Yes, I suppose, but as far as the latter goes, I probably won’t rush to any theater to see that.

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3-0Recommendation: This mid-90s actioner is a solid Michael Bay film, although I suppose one should take that with a decent-sized grain of salt. It’s action-packed and well-acted, despite a clunky script and often stilted dialogue. But the pair of leads ensures most people, the ones who buy into Will Smith and Martin Lawrence at least, will have an enjoyable albeit mindless two hours of cinematic escape. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

TBTrivia: “I love you, man:” just before filming the ending scene, Michael Bay and Will Smith got into a lengthy argument about whether or not Smith’s character should tell Martin Lawrence’s character “I love you.” Bay wanted him to say it, but Smith held his ground. Within 15 minutes of having to film the scene a frustrated Bay told Smith “he didn’t care whether he said it or not,” but finally Smith did say it. This is the clip they used as the final cut. 

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Photo credits: http://www.moviesongs.com; http://www.fernbyfilms.com

The Drop

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Release: Friday, September 12, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Fairly unsurprisingly, The Drop is a compelling modern entry into the gangster/crime genre.

Tom Hardy. James Gandolfini. There’s something foregone-conclusion-y about pairing those names together and sticking them in a mobster flick. It’s likely to be damn good. Of course you’d be forgiven for not being taken with the relatively bland title. But for dismissing lonely old Bob Saginowski (Hardy) who carries around a pit bull pup for most of the movie? Totally inexcusable.

That’s a side of Bane you won’t see too often. Even less from Charles Bronson. And doubtful there were many times in Tommy Conlon’s life where he felt so sensitive.

As striking a visual as Hardy nursing an abused and abandoned puppy can be there’s something more poignant in the reincarnation of Tony Soprano as “Cousin Marv.” The duo are indeed cousins who run a dive bar in Brooklyn, with the latter having proudly owned the operations for decades now and the former merely tending bar. If only life were actually that simple, though. Targeted as a ‘drop’ location by a dangerous Chechen criminal syndicate, this particularly dingy cave suddenly magnetizes all sorts of dirty money flowing in from various unsavory individuals.

When two dim-witted thugs hold the bar up one evening, Saginowski and his cousin find themselves in hot water with Chovka (Michael Aronov), a mob leader not even Tony Soprano would want to cross on a good day. The pair are left scrounging for the missing $5,000 before they too find themselves disappearing in a windowless conversion van parked in the shadows of some nondescript alleyway.

Hardy — if you can believe it — puts on a stellar performance as a sheltered, fumbling everyman whose social ineptitude symbolizes that part of the iceberg we can see peeking above the surface. Sooner or later we’ll get to know how deep it goes into the water. Before we do, there are several layers to Cousin Marv we need to peel away before coming into the frightening realization of how truly shady this whole operation is. This place is rotten from the inside out, and the last thing we are ultimately concerned with are the drops themselves.

The Drop blends sharp social commentary with an indomitable devotion to creating atmospheric tension. An unnerving turn from Matthias Shoenaerts as Eric Deeds, a renegade criminal with a keen interest in the dog Bob discovered in a neighbor, the broken but beautiful Nadia (Noomi Rapace)’s trash can one night on his way home from the bar, adds to that greatly. Seemingly channelling his inner Joker in his unrepentant disregard for logic or reason, Shoenaerts casts a shadow that puts the dreaded Chechen gang in perspective. Clearly there are degrees of evil here that we ought to be aware of. Therein lies the genius in having the omniscient perspective: we eventually learn no one is clean but as the story develops our willingness to take the lesser of two evils is directly proportional to how much we’re shocked by the developments.

Rapace isn’t the focus of attention here but her fragile state’s still worthy of mention as she offers up a vulnerability not found in the male characters. And her performance proves yet again how kaleidoscopic the Swedish actress’ image truly is. For Bob Saginowski Nadia represents a chance to outgrow his circumstances and become something more, all while still wrestling with a dark past of her own.

Perhaps owed to the effectiveness of the transfer of book to film at the hands of writer Dennis Lehane (responsible for both versions), you will likely not come across a more atmospheric and capably-acted crime drama this fall.

Or, maybe you will.

But it won’t have James Gandolfini in it, who in this case doesn’t even need to raise his voice to remind us of the ease with which he could command the screen. Additional credit must be given to the strong direction of Michaël R. Roskam, who’s only had one previous film released (and to similar critical success, as a matter of fact), for never allowing the sobering reality of Gandolfini’s absence hang too heavy over the proceedings. Marv is chameleonic, blending seamlessly with the decay of his surrounds. As the big man once again does with his favorite material.

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4-0Recommendation: Reiterating, the appeal is pretty clear here. The box office draw comes twofold in a dreamlike pairing of Hardy and Gandolfini in a thoroughly well-written and well-crafted reflection of a much harder life in America. Despite there being a substantial amount of commentary on the subject already, The Drop offers a clear-eyed view of some very, very, very gray areas indeed. Aside from a few limited moments of bloodshed, the lack of substantial gore might be one immediate way you can distinguish this effective thriller. It relies on studying and assessing character motives and relationships, and if that’s your sort of thing, you should be buying yourself a ticket right now rather than reading this blog. (But seriously, thank you for reading this blog.)

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Are you doing something desperate? Something we can’t clean up this time?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: Enemy of the State (1998)

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With After Earth taking a plunge into less-than-mediocre territory since its opening a couple months back, Will Smith seemed there for awhile to be part of a conversation that I’m not used to him being included in. His judgment has been seriously questioned and criticized ever since getting his son on as the lead role in the most recent M. Night Disappointment. It’s weird to hear the bashing because if you consider his career of role choices, they’ve consistently been big, badass and mostly quite successful. He’s typecast as all hell, but he’s a fun typecast that usually elevates any given movie’s quality that he happens to be a part of. I haven’t seen After Earth myself, so I don’t know how good/bad young Jaden Smith’s limited acting chops were here. I am aware of how limited Big Will’s role was, however. The consensus seems to be that while at times the young actor fits into the moment, he’s simply not developed enough yet to carry a role this significant. Hence, some of the questioning: maybe, just maybe — did the Fresh Prince misjudge the situation? 

It doesn’t matter. July has now turned into Will Smith month. Each throwback post will be about a classic Big Willie-style flick — we began with Independence Day.

Today’s food for thought: Enemy of the State

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Release: November 20, 1998

[VHS]

Will Smith exercises good judgment here by tempering his Bad Boys persona (which I’m imagining is far closer to his actual personality) in order to let his dramatic side come through in the form of Robert Clayton Dean, an attorney whose daily life quickly changes when he finds himself caught in a dangerous game between a ruthless mafia boss and the unexpected proponents of a government conspiracy theory.

Enemy of the State is violent, complex (for a film that is decidedly more action than it is drama) and intelligent blockbusters you’ll see with Will Smith’s name attached. He is but one piece of a large puzzle in this story about a government aiming to cut into the lives of the public with greater ease, an effort to inflate anti-terrorist sentiment. Director Tony Scott may occasionally dive into melodramatic territory here, but for most of the time, the drama and tension really keep the film afloat aside from the occasional lull in action. Even these moments are rich with sharp and poignant commentary. We get healthy doses of edgy jabs aimed at the government, about as much as we do get your typical action schtick. . . not to mention, a robust performance from Scott’s impressive ensemble cast.

Aside from Smith, we have the legendary Gene Hackman — here playing the ex-NSA agent Edward Lyle, a.k.a “Brill;” Jon Voight is once again not one to truffle with as the opprobrious Congressman Thomas Reynolds; his shady NSA correspondents include the likes of Barry Pepper, Jake Busey, Scott Caan, Jack Black and Seth Green; and we have Tom Sizemore playing the mobster boss Pintero who makes for a great adversary against not only Dean but the treacherous politician as well. The trio of Smith, Voight and Sizemore spearhead a cast that is performing at the top of its game — Jack Black and Seth Green also are surprisingly restrained in this film and are great to watch if ever we have forgotten that the two can take on serious roles for a change. (For Jack Black, see Bernie, also.)

When a tape that contains footage of the murder of a high-level government official falls into Dean’s bag one afternoon while he’s out shopping for a gift for his wife, members of the NSA invade Dean’s life with a swath of technological devices to gain intimate information about him. After losing most of his dearest assets, including the trust of his wife Carla and his job with the law firm, Dean recruits the help of Lyle. Initially opposed to the idea of coming out of retirement for Dean’s sake, Lyle decides to cooperate in making Dean a formidable enemy of his state — stripping him of the bugs and other tracking devices, then turning the NSA’s tactics against them and Congressman Reynolds. The pair’s effort to prove Dean’s innocence (and save his life) would also be a last-ditch effort to prove that the tape implicates both the Congressman and Pintero. While the final showdown occurs in a secluded mafia kitchen, the location is right across the street from an FBI secure location. As it turns out, Dean has adopted some of the craft and skill that Lyle used in his days as an NSA employee; he forms a plan that ends up ultimately leveling the playing field for good, allowing him and Lyle to walk away clean.

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Here’s Will Smith paranoid, getting into his car. . .

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Here’s Will Smith paranoid in an elevator. . .

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Here’s Will Smith paranoid in a lingerie store. . .

A lot of what makes this movie so compelling is the fast-paced tempo. And, okay, yes — the large doses of action/chase sequences on display. Largely though, these are second to the fact that Enemy of the State delves into a subject matter that is 1) disconcerting and 2) original. Watching our lead character being stripped of his basic civil liberties makes for an exciting albeit, disturbingly personal, experience. Though the film is an exaggeration, it is interesting to sit and contemplate how many traffic cameras there are on intersections; how many speed cameras; how many crooked businessmen are out there; how politically-motivated crimes can (and do) get covered up (and how many are). There’s relevance to this storyline, and some realities might be just as chilling as the events that unfold in the film.

Scott’s successful late-90s entry into the sizable action thriller genre is also quite the stylish one. Snappy, tight editing and color schemes contribute a genuine conspiratorial vibe to the picture. It features scenes where Fiedler (Black) and his cohorts are establishing ways to identify the missing videotape — there’s some great technological plugs here, insights into how organizations like NSA operate (even if these people are corrupt in the movie). The appeal of the metro D.C. area is rather dirty and grimy. The retreat back into Lyle’s warehouse when the pair are being hunted down by NSA agents is yet another dark, drab accent.

Fortunately for me, my life is nowhere near this active or high-profile, so I won’t have to be worrying about turning a corner and being instantly and brutally interrogated. Nor do I need to be concerned about tracking devices planted in the heels of my shoes, in my shirt pockets or in my fire detectors at home. But while I’m at it, I’m just going to check the T.V. to make sure I don’t see my face on any channel. . .

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4-0Recommendation: This is one of Will Smith’s greatest movies, and perhaps one of his finer performances as well. If you’re an adrenaline junkie like me, Enemy of the State is a classic. Unlike me, you should have it on DVD by now and have watched it quite a few times since. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 132 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.deviantart.com; http://www.imdb.com; http://www.dfiles.me