the better truth

the better truth

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Dunce Ex Machina

The local theater had two choices for suspense films.  I viewed the trailers online. The former looked to be a revenge film centering around a formidable strongman trying to save his jailed son from both the Feds and gangs.  The second seemed less formulaic; some sort of dark romance with mob undertones.  I chose “Dead Man Down” because the “R” rating is more appropriate to the genre.  The other film, titled “Snitch” begged the question: how do you make a prison/revenge film while keeping the language and violence with the “PG-13” framework? I should have sought the answer to that question; instead joined the many victims of “Dead Audience Down”.

There is a scene in Sam Shepard’s play “True West” in which an illiterate drunkard tries his hand at script-writing.  He decides to run his ideas by a seasoned professional. One of his creations is a chase scene involving a man in a pick up towing a horse trailer. He runs out of gas and...... you guessed it.... he continues the action by exiting his car and using the horse.  The ‘real’ writer is aghast and explains that this sort of set up is contrived and ridiculous. I was channeling that experience while viewing this film. I started explaining the basic outline to my spouse who, after about two minutes, yelled “STOP... I don’t care.... let’s talk about something else”.  I felt the same sentiments in the theater but it is still winter in Vermont and I had paid $9.50. The basic premise of two protagonists caught in parallel revenge fantasies has a tried and true history. Hamlet and Fortinbras can speak to its merits; but J. H. Wyman is no William Shakespeare. In fact ‘writing’ seems to be a new avenue for this entertainment business veteran. His credits show him to be a well traveled actor in the 1990s - graduating to writing, producing and directing. This seems to be his screenplay debut but he has left his mark on the little screen.  I suffered through the last season of ‘Fringe’ despite the dramatic downturn in the writing (note: which wasn’t stellar from the start) . Low and behold it seems Mr. Wyman was a critical creative force in that shows demise having penned and produced six of the final episodes.

‘Dead Man Down’ begins with a Hungarian immigrant, who speaks English with no discernible accent, infiltrating a high end inter-racial gang which has dealings with the mob.  I didn’t realize crime syndicates were embracing affirmative action principles. A undercover Hungarian working for an African American seems a stretch as most gangs have stringent racial barriers.... but why quibble. Perhaps the boss recognizes something is... different... about the new hire. This particular immigrant isn’t merely a language wizard - he has the fighting ability of Jason Bourne AND the spy gadget production capacity of James Bond’s Q.  Actually he only demonstrates these qualities while conspiring against his boss in secret so I guess hiring the white guy was a nod to something else; equal opportunity in the underworld? Colin Farrell does a professional job bringing this comic book hero to life. In fact all the actors did their best. The love interest, Noomi Repace, was particularly snake bitten in terms of her character. She’s a beautician who has been horribly scarred by a drunk driver.  She is also tormented by a group of local children who pelt her with rocks and write ‘monster’ on her door.  This wounded bird is also saddled with a partially deaf french mother who is insensitive and meddling.  It is difficult to understand why she chooses to endure her mother placing a album of pre-accident beauty photographs in front of a prospective date; but ‘motivation’ is a continuing mystery in this work.  Neither mother or daughter feels the need to cover the “monster” graffiti. Ditto for Noomi’s need to hide her scares with... makeup... she IS a professional beautician. Although the script calls for her to appear as the elephant man, her facial disfigurement is relatively benign. Certainly Colin Farrell’s isn’t bothered.  Somehow his attraction is supposed to jibe with the children’s repulsion. It is very curious... but not as strange as the passive Noomi’s first encounter with Colin. You see Noomi has secretly video recorded Colin killing a man with his bare hands. Her window has a complete view of his apartment. Call me old fashioned but, for me, that would be a red flag in terms of dating. Noomi isn’t deterred. In fact she thinks it’s appropriate to present video phone evidence of her knowledge to Colin while they are alone in a car in front of a suburban house. This particular residence is where the drunk, who only served three months in jail for ruining her life, is back to his evil drinking. Noomi, who never raises a hand to the the rock throwing 10 year olds, reveals that she is blackmailing Colin into murdering her nemesis. Did I mention this is their first date? At this point I really considered sneaking out and trying to catch the remaining hour of “Snitch”.... but inertia prevailed. 

In a sense “Dead Man Down” is a cautionary tale about the contemporary film business. Wyman is a seasoned journeyman who has managed for over two decades to make a living in the industry.  One cannot underestimate the difficulty given the fact that the world is obsessed with the American entertainment complex.  Competition is fierce. What is fascinating is how someone with his breath of experience could concoct such a brazenly amateurish.... in the words of the suits...  product.  Other professions have their rules and regs. There are terrible doctors, construction workers and painters... but they understand the function of scalpels, hammers and brushes. Ballerinas do not mistake steel toed construction boots for toe shoes.   How does one account for an industry veteran writing such an obvious turkey? The professionalism of the other departments adds to the glaring miscues.  The camerawork, direction, costume design.... were solid and met audience expectations.

Early in the film there is an elaborate shoot out which begins with a hard-scrabble face-off between a Jamaican drug dealer and the head of the real-estate gang. The dealer is mid coitus when the gang surrounds his bed with their guns drawn.  They tell the prostitute to leave.  She leaps from the bed AND DEMANDS TO BE PAID. It doesn’t work in the same way that the huge lengthy war battle that ensues FAILS TO DRAW AN ARMY OF COPS. The problem is a failure of ‘movie logic’; not actual ‘realism’. Everyone who has witnessed a shooting or fist fight knows, there is no slo-motion. The true effect is quick and clumsy, rather than exciting and elaborate. The audiences come to see ‘movie truth’ and that REQUIRES artistry in order to hold our attention. Everyone was on the same page except the person writing the pages. We can accept stylized fight scenes or pithy dialogue. Unfortunately laziness in delineating characters, no matter how trite the genre, is absolutely unacceptable.  No one jumps out of bed in the middle of sex while surrounded by angry gunman and worries about whether or not the John can come up with the cash. You don’t have a machine gun barrage in the middle of NYC without drawing attention. There is a lackadaisicalness that permeates this material. It is as if the head baker at the Twinkie factory decided it was too difficult to produce the creamy filling and replaced that ingredient with something that is also white and sweet: sugar cubes.  Even banal screenplays require the hard work of squaring the circles of plot twists and character traits.  Not doing your job signals contempt for the audience. Once again back to the ugly monster woman who is really pretty; or the accent-less Hungarian, regular guy superman who decides to move to America and not vacate an apartment building under siege by the Mafia. One would have thought having an infant child and young wife might have given him pause: but he was summoning the same well of courage that made the meek Noomi go on a date with a stranger who is confirmed killer. It is a strength rooted in the expediency of bad writing. The finale of this film is Mr. Wyman’s chef d’oeuvre...  and for those who haven’t already been spoiled... SPOILER ALERT! 

Our hero’s plot to blow up the evil Albanians (don’t ask) and the multi-racial real-estate gangsters is foiled because Noomi fails to send the critical envelope with the sim-card video of the hostage Albanian brother that was meant to lure everyone to the bad’s guys headquarters. She substitutes a love token from her mother which has become a love token between her and Colin: a chartreuse rabbit foot (don’t ask). She does this because she loves Colin and doesn’t want him to be blown up in a vengeful suicide.  It parallels the same feelings of love Colin has for her which is why he only pretends to murder the evil drunk driver.  You see love trumps the rage of revenge! Unfortunately this revelation, written in last goodbye note, lures Noomi to his apartment where a member of the real-estate gang happens to be visiting. He takes her hostage while Colin is on the phone to her.  She is taken back to the bosses lair, which looks like a nice Forrest Hills mansion. The Albanians happen to be dropping in for a visit with bossman and they all receive a phone call AT THE SAME TIME (remember Colin is electronic genius) from our hero who tells them he’s coming to rescue his damsel in distress.  The odds aren’t looking good as we have approximately 15 to 20 heavily armed men in a stone house against Colin and his pickup. Don’t worry Colin makes a grand entrance (kudos to the production team as it was better than most exploding cars I’ve seen on TV commercials).  Colin’s grenades, rifles and electronics were all impressive but what really got me was Wyman’s incredibly clever denouement of the head real-estate guy. The damsel escapes her captors while they battle superman. She puts the sim card in the computer and plays the video of the Albanian hostage which tricks the mortally wounded Albanian (the brother of the guy on screen) to turn against the real-estate guy. (I bet it took some extra cans of Red Bull to come up with that idea) Enter Colin after they’ve finished one another off.  None of the neighbors have bothered about the extensive machine gun fire and the blazing mansion with a pickup truck size hole in the facade.  Colin and Noomi leisurely head off to start their life together. Once again: LOVE CONQUERS HATE.

The real story of “Dead Man Down” is that people who are good at the film business might not have any business writing films. This has always been true but there is an aspect to this particular  work that had me asking: can’t you guys even come up with a decent crappy movie? Stupid movies need not be... stupid. I wasn’t planning on viewing greatness but I noone should endure sloppiness born out of lethargy.   Ironically the same night I viewed the film The Guardian newspaper came out with a story titled “What Makes a Great Screenplay?” by a veteran English TV writer. (  Perhaps some executive will shove this article in Wyman’s moist palm and say “hey kiddo try reading this before the next one”.  Oh did I tell you about the next one: a re-make of “Warriors” set in LA.  I will only view this film if Mr. Wyman sends me $9.50; either that or he can listen to me practicing the tuba - I don’t play but I’d sure like him to hear my first 110 minutes on the instrument.  The old saying is:  Hell is full of amateur musicians. As a coda I would add: when the music stops, films written by industry hacks are shown.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant, amusing, biting commentary which almost makes the movie worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

what the hell does colin say in the end and why?