I guess different people are free to interpret Elmore Leonard different ways, but to me he writes serious stories that are funny. As far as this movie is concerned he writes comedies. I guess that’s the GET SHORTY approach as opposed to the OUT OF SIGHT/JACKIE BROWN/Justified one. Too bad this isn’t as good as GET SHORTY.
It’s been years since I read the book, but I think this is fairly faithful. In my memory Skip (Christian Slater) is one of the main characters, which is not really the case here (despite the terrible cover making him way bigger than everybody else). But the basic storyline I think is intact and the movie’s biggest strength is lots of funny dialogue, largely from the book I believe.
The big difference is changing it from the ’80s (when the book was written) to the ’70s. I don’t really get it. You know I love the styles and culture of the ’70s, but it’s not the most authentic portrayal. And as far as I can tell it has no purpose other than to get cheap humor from dressing people up in silly outfits.
Joseph EVIL DEAD LoDuca attempts a “funky” score, but that makes it all worse. Not to be auto-racist, but I don’t trust a white man to make a blaxploitation score unless he was there doing it at the time. This one’s too cheesy, and also keeps switching to made-for-cable-detective-movie saxophone. (On the plus side, Funkadelic’s “Funky Dollar Bill,” from the more adelic than Funk 1970 album Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow, is an unusual choice for the opening credits.)
Ironically, Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN seems to take place around ’97, when it was made, but it feels way more like a ’70s movie in sound, spirit and visual style than this period piece does. And not just because it has Pam Grier in it. (This one has Gloria Hendry of ACROSS 110TH STREET, BLACK CAESAR, BLACK BELT JONES, etc.)
The story is about an ex-’60s radical lady named Robin (Breanne Racano) who ropes a hippie-bomber-turned-movie-pyrotechnician (Slater) into helping her extort Woody Ricks (Crispin Glover), the burnt out millionaire who ratted her out back in the day. Standing in their way are Mankowski (Billy Burke), a meddling detective kicked off of the bomb squad, and Donnell (Michael Jai Motherfuckin White), Woody’s scheming ex-Black Panther bodyguard/manservant. The movie didn’t do a good job of reminding me of the relationships between these characters, because it crams most of that into a Famous Images From the Turbulent ’60s With a Side of Fake Newspaper Articles opening credits montage. And the low budget leads to some messy storytelling. A movie about a series of bombings – bombings perpetrated by a guy who makes explosions for movies, no less – really needs to have some real movie explosions in it. Instead they do two bad CGI ones, two inexplicably off screen ones, and one that’s a white flash and a broken window and I had to rewind it and watch it again to be sure it wasn’t supposed to be gunfire from outside.
All of those took me out of the movie. I know CGI is easier and safer, but they used to do this shit every damn week on CHiPs. It can be done. Hire some professionals. Skimping on the bombs in a movie about bombs is a mistake.
There are also some horrendous stylistic choices: the fonts, the cute chapter title intertitles, the obnoxious page-turn wipes straight out of iMovie, basic effects filters used to simulate a drug trip, wacky cutaways to Photoshop mockups with cartoon sound effects… it’s kind of shocking that somebody would purposely do any of those things. It’s not like Neveldine/Taylor or anything but by normal human standards it’s a failure of restraint and taste.
And I’m sorry to say that some of the major players in this ensemble don’t have the screen presence required. Burke is passable but not compelling enough for what is sort of the protagonist, Racano comes across like an off-brand Eva Mendes and I don’t buy her as an ex-militant. Unfortunately I don’t think Slater fits his character that well either, and mostly just gets laughs by dressing up funny. He could do better.
I feel bad trashing this movie, because I think it meant well. It was a labor of love for writer-director Charles Matthau. (Yes, he’s the son of Walter Matthau, and I noticed he put THE FRONT PAGE and THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE on marquees in the background.) He made a weak movie in my opinion, but it’s not a total bust, and the reason pretty much boils down to Michael Jai White and Crispin Glover.
I wish Glover didn’t have to wear a cartoonish ruffled tuxedo, because he doesn’t need it to be hilarious. He gets to use his weirdo space cadet mode completely unfiltered as Woody, a guy who must’ve blown his brain out on psychedelics back in the day. Now he spends his days floating in a swimming pool fully clothed, drinks a martini with his morning cereal and only recognizes women by their breasts. He’s so confused that when an acquaintance (Sabina Gadecki) confronts him about sexually assaulting her at a party he tries to propose to her, and it’s so pathetic that she feels sorry for him.
Donnell is almost more like a nurse than a bodyguard to “Mr. Woody” as he calls him. He’s a funny combination of ignorant and clever, a great character who made it onto the screen with his Elmore Leonardness intact. I’m sure BLACK DYNAMITE got MJW this role, because he’s got a badass swagger, he wears some audacious ’70s threads when he’s not in his green Adidas track suit, he greets white people by saying, “Morning, honkies,” and also he uses his comedy chops. He gets to be tough-funny, like when Robin tries to lead him by his dick, talking about old times, and he cuts her off saying condescendingly, “Girl, I have to tell you, that wasn’t the last time I had pussy, understand? I’ve had some since then.” He also gets to be silly-funny, like when he exasperatedly tries to hint for gibberish-spewing Mr. Woody to add him into his will, and later when he wears reading glasses and hunt-and-peck types the new will. He didn’t do that in UNDISPUTED II.
And there are good lines and funny moments throughout the thing. I guess I enjoyed it overall. But I wish I could say it was good.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.