I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Bobby Z

tn_bobbyzPaul Walker won us over while starring in his six great FAST AND FURIOUS movies, so it’s a wonder he had time to do much in between. As you saw with yesterday’s JOY RIDE review I wanted to take the occasion of our saying goodbye to Brian O’Conner to pay tribute to his work again. The trouble is I’ve already reviewed most of his starring vehicles: RUNNING SCARED, EIGHT BELOW, every FAST AND FURIOUS movie… buddy, I saw BRICK MANSIONS in the theater, that’s the type of individual you are dealing with here. Luckily I remembered there was this one based on the book The Death and Life of Bobby Z by Don Winslow, the author of SAVAGES.

BOBBY Z (released in some countries as KILL BOBBY Z or LET’S KILL BOBBY Z) is no SAVAGES, that’s for sure, but it has alot of the same elements: legendary surfer turned ultra-rich California marijuana magnate, Iraq vet turned violent criminal, crooked DEA agents, ruthless Mexican cartels, genius businessman friend turned unlikely kingpin, women scheming while taken for granted as sex objects by the empire. Walker plays the vet, Tim Kearney, a crazy long hair kicked out of the Marines for beating up an Iraqi general and turned into a lifer for three dumb strikes. Now he’s facing certain death from the Aryan Brotherhood for killing a fellow con named Mad Dog (UFC legend Chuck Liddell).

DEA Agent Tad Gruzsa (Laurence Morpheus Fishburne) offers him a crazy, convoluted deal: he looks kinda like this marijuana kingpin named Bobby Z, who cartel leader Don Huertero (Joaquim “Evil Phil Hartman” de Almeida, FAST FIVE) wants in trade for Gruzsa’s kidnapped partner. He says they don’t know the real Bobby Z is dead so if Kearney pretends to be him and successfully makes the trade the DEA will just let him go and he can try to escape from a deadly cartel or whatever but not have to go back to prison. I mean, it’s kind of the honor system I guess. If he wants to go back to prison that’s cool.

mp_bobbyzSimple, right? And that’s just the version of the plan he’s told, which is not necessarily the real plan. Gruzsa actually tries to shoot his partner and Kearney during the trade, only succeeding with the first one. Kearney escapes Gruzsa but ends up staying in a palatial villa with a cartel underling (Jason Flemyng), waiting for the Don to come meet with him under the guise of Bobby Z. Luckily there was a whole Mr. Orange style undercover training sequence where he practiced every detail of being Bobby Z including eating vegetarian and left-handed.

There’s alot that’s unclear or nonsensical about this premise. Why doesn’t he immediately take off? Does he just want to enjoy the luxury for a bit? And why doesn’t he fess up to who he is and how he got betrayed? He doesn’t turn out to be scheming anything that would require being Bobby Z, and his half-assed explanation for not telling the truth (“He wouldn’t believe me”) comes way too late in the movie for me to let it slide. The worst part is the idea that he could impersonate this guy not just for people who haven’t met him (and would have no idea if he was left or right handed anyway), but for his actual ex-girlfriend Elizabeth (TRON LEGACY‘s Olivia Wilde). The real Bobby Z is not played by Walker or even a Walker brother, he’s played by Jason Lewis (MR. BROOKS). They look close enough to be stunt doubles, but not to pull a PARENT TRAP or PRINCE AND THE PAUPER type maneuver.

And he has sex with her! Did she lose her contacts or something? How can she not notice that this looks, sounds and smells like a different guy? What if their dicks are totally different? Morpheus wouldn’t have known that. We later get an explanation for why Elizabeth does what she does, but not him. Why the hell would he believe that she believed him? Why would he even attempt it?

And furthermore, why did they bother to train him in the first place? Even in the fake plan that they told him there was no expectation that he would have to do a detailed con. It was just a bait and switch with people who were not supposed to have met him before.

These are not nitpicks, these are impossible to ignore major drawbacks if your mind isn’t able to just go with it. I was able to get past them enough to enjoy it anyway. In the prison scenes Walker is goofy-crazy, like an evil Deedle. This Mad Dog guy keeps dogging him and instead of being intimidated Kearney needlessly fucks with him. For example he watches Mad Dog kick the hell out of a duct-taped heavy bag in the yard and then makes a Bruce Lee noise and fake karate move like a dumb kid making fun of a movie. And it just confuses Mad Dog.

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He must be just playing dumb though because once he gets out and cuts his hair he seems different, more like FAST 4-7 O’Connor. He’s occasionally a smartass too. At the beginning when Gruzsa asks him “How’d you get to be such a loser, convict?” he says “Ah, what is it? Low self-esteem, lack of impulse control… Man, I can’t remember what they decided.”

It’s like that great part in the first FAST AND THE FURIOUS when he’s lost his car to Dom in his race but he looks delighted and he says “I almost had you!” He can pull out the dumb surfer kid part of himself for a laugh.

At this time I would like to unveil my Paul Walker Puma theory. I have noticed that in the first two FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies Walker wears Converse All Stars. He’s not in part 3, of course, but in part 4 he returns as an FBI agent, and when he changes out of his dress shoes to go undercover again he puts the Chucks back on. But at the end of the movie, when he’s given up on the system and is headed to bust Dom out of prison he is wearing Pumas, a choice he maintains through the rest of the series. I believe these durable, cool looking sneakers represent the rebel spirit of Brian O’Conner. And in BOBBY Z, where he’s another honorable outlaw, he wears Pumas too.

The only hole in my theory is that he also wears Pumas in JOY RIDE, where he’s just an ordinary college kid and not a criminal or anything. Maybe he just likes Pumas. Or maybe it’s this: “Brian Earl Spilner” and “Brian O’Conner,” the fictional undercover personas, wore Chucks. But when Brian O’Conner or any Paul Walker character is being true to himself he’s wearing Pumas, like he probly wore as a skateboarder.

Oh wait, no. Bobby Z is undercover. God damn it. Well, Both Tim Kearney and fake Bobby Z enjoy Pumas. Anyway, Puma-wearer Tim Kearney is an outlaw and a fighter but he’s a good guy, good enough to hesitantly take a kid (J.R. Villarreal) who thinks he’s his dad with him when he makes a run for it. He’s mostly annoyed with him, a reluctant babysitter, but he can’t bring himself to leave him behind. Because he needs a badass juxtaposition.

I was pretty impressed by the action. I like the scene where he’s on a horse in the desert chased by guys on motorcycles, and he knocks a guy off his bike, kicks the helmet off his head, takes the bike and immediately starts catching air all over the place. Like anybody would do. Most of all I liked the fights. Walker was a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (posthumously awarded black belt). You see him use some moves in some of the FAST movies, but much more in this movie, especially in a great sequence where he gets chased out in the desert by a bunch of ranch hands and has to take them all on.

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I noticed a ton of legendary UFC people in here besides Liddell: Pat Miletich, Robbie Lawler, Tim Sylvia, Rory Markham, Ben Rothwell, probly others. Miletich fought in the UFC and has since become one of the most dominant trainers, and he apparently coordinated the fights for this movie, so I imagine he probly recruited most of those guys to play various henchmen and gang members and stuff. The great Oleg Taktarov has a bit part as “Oleg,” a guy who’s being grabby with a woman in a hot tub at the villa so Kearney comes over and gives him a barefoot kick to the head, then dunks him under the water. It’s a pretty crucial scene because apparently the real Bobby Z was a selfish dick who never would’ve done that, so that catches the eye of Elizabeth, who says he’s changed since she knew him. And the irony of that is that it kinda seems like he only does it because she’s there and he feels pressured to do it, thinking it must be what tough guy Bobby Z would do. Or at least that’s my interpretation.

As flawed as BOBBY Z is, it has many of the elements that make a crime movie enjoyable. There’s some ridiculously stylized dialogue, some funny lines, some violence, some sex. There’s a big cast of colorful characters: drug gang members, law enforcement people, racist bikers. Many familiar character actors pop up: Keith Carradine, Michael Bowen, M.C. Gainey, Margo Martindale, Tracey Walter. (Bruce Dern is a weirdo narrator on the making of featurette, but I think his stuff was cut out.) And though it feels a bit compromised it’s not completely generic, it has unexpected moments. For example when (SPOILER) the bad guy is killed in front of the kid they don’t act like everything’s okay now. He just found out the guy was his grandfather and then watched him die. So they at least take a bit to sit and contemplate that.

This went straight to DVD but clearly wasn’t designed to. It’s kind of epic in the amount of wide angle shots of various landscape on the borderlands as well as mansions, ranches, yachts, airplanes and what not.  Nothing about it feels DTV. So hats off to director John Herzfeld (15 MINUTES, INFERNO: THE MAKING OF ‘THE EXPENDABLES’).

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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 2nd, 2015 at 2:10 pm and is filed under Action, Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

12 Responses to “Bobby Z”

  1. John Hertzfeld directed Inferno? Wow, his career went to shit.

    Bruce Dern is actually in the opening of the film, he narrates as a crazy guy on the beach. I have no idea what the point of this character is, but he is there.

    I recommend reading some of Don Winslow’s novels. Of course I liked Savages, even thought it was kinda sophomoric, and too stylish with it’s two word chapters etc. But The Winter of Frankie Machine is really good, like it was made for Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann (both tried to get the film off the ground with Bobby D in th lead, but it still hasn’t happened), and Satori is great (I just read the first part but it’s all great stuff), Leonardo Di Caprio bought the rights for this, and The Power of the Dog is pretty good, but it has really long chapter, compare to the short cinematic chapters of Savages, Frankie Machine and Satori.

    I’m not sure he is a new Elmore Leonard, but he is the closes we got today.

  2. When I see (or in this case, read about) movies that have characters making decisions or taking action that make no logical sense I think of a review I read about BATTLEFIELD EARTH that the reviewer said, “The plot depends on the most ludicrous decisions and senseless actions ever made by a thinking race.” As I dabble in my own writing I’m always asking myself, “Is this something someone would really think/do/say or am I just manipulating the story to get to the solution I want?”

    I also wonder, no one involved in this thought they should mention how much it didn’t make sense? Someone had to see it. Were they just grinding it out to get the paycheck? Was it the vanity project of some big-wig’s nephew? There has to be some story behind it when something like this happens.

    But it sounds like this movie might be worth a viewing for the fights, so I’ll check it out some night when I’m in a mellow enough mood to let the rest slide.

  3. I watched this right after reading the novel so I think I was able to fill in the plot holes a little more easily with my insider knowledge. I do think it’s a plot that works better in prose, where you don’t have to look at two obviously non-identical actors and think about how the fuck anyone could mistake them for the same person. But the film does benefit from having better production values than I was expecting. The action didn’t feel skimped on, and Walker brought the same confident physicality to the role that he did to Brian O’Conner. I had a hard time picturing him as the character at first, but he surprised me, as he often did. He didn’t have a ton of range but he made up for it with commitment.

    In the end, though, the movie feels a bit secondhand, which fits the source material. As Ghost mentioned, Winslow became quite a good writer with a distinct (sometimes too distinct) style that I don’t think he quite had a handle on with THE DEATH AND LIFE OF BOBBY Z. It feels a little borrowed. He got better, though. I liked SAVAGES more than Ghost did, it seems, but my favorite of his so far is THE DAWN PATROL. Maybe he just had to get a little older to start writing about the kind of regret-fueled middle-aged dudes I prefer my crime novels to be about.

  4. Actually Savages is probably my favourite book of him, I just get a little embarrassed by it, and some if more sophomoric writing, and it’s kinda style instead of substance, even thought there are some underlying themes. It’s the only book I have read twice of him, because it so fast, but some of the stuff is kinda gringe worthy. You read the book, and love it, but when you think back about some of the stuff that happened and the dialogue, if feels a lot more juvenile. I did read Savages two years before I read The Winter of Frankie Machine (and I had even read the script before hand), and I started to read the Power of the Dog after Savages, and that is such a mature novel, even thought it become a little Hollywood in the end.

    It’s weird that I find the first 130 pages the most interesting of Savages, which is all before O gets kidnapped. All the suspense and action beats never gets that exciting, and it never really gets to be the rescue mission that you think it might become.

    Savages has a interesting and very funny writing style, but it’s kinda juvenile. I need to continue to read Satori, it’s really well written and have feel of an old spy novel (it’s a sequel to Shinobi by Trevyan I think, which just make it more interesting).

    I wanted to read The Dawn Patrol, which I think is a series of books. Need to get through Satori.

    Also read the King of Cool, but it’s kinda lacking and never feels it get going. Also it seem so weird that all their parents are connected in similar drug deals etc. Worth a read by never really got going.

  5. I also read The Winter of Frankie Machine and The Power the Dog in Norwegian which makes them seem a little more mature. I don’t think Savages has been translated, and I don’t think it would work that well translated. Dawn Patrol and the Gentleman’s Club just got translated, or last year. I still feel Don Winslow is best in English.

    I always wonder how it’s reading a Scandinavian book in English with all the different names.

  6. I agree that SAVAGES has some cringe-worthy stylistic conceits and verbiage, due to the fact that the narrative is filtered through O’s perspective and maybe hot young chick slang is not Winslow’s strongest suit. But it’s a good story that I think Stone kind of butchered with the compromised ending and his own desperate attempts to stay hip and edgy. (I mean, techno for the action scenes? In 2012?) It felt like an comfortable old guy’s approximation of an angry young man movie.

    It’s funny, but even with all the Scandinavian crime fiction coming over to America since THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I’ve never read any. I just don’t really care for translated works. So much of what I love about fiction is the flavor of the writing, and that’s not really possible to translate. I’ve read some translated works and it either feels very dry and flavorless or a bit too arch, like the translator is showing off how cleverly he adapted the original prose. I can imagine that a lot of Winslow’s surfer James Ellroy patois would get lost along the way.

  7. Vern, you haven’t reviewed INTO THE BLUE. Just gotta keep it real. I think it was supposed to be an underwater FAST AND THE FURIOUS. Not as good but I recall it being fun.

    Evil Phil Hattman! Yes! That’s who Joaquim del Almeida looks like!

    Honestly, I’m sold on those screen grabs alone. I am watching this movie. Brian beating up the smarmy FBI douche in FAST IV is one of my favorite moments. More of that, please.

  8. The Death and Life of Bobby Z was kind of a transitional novel for Winslow. He’d just come off doing a series of detective novels, and while they had settings like the London punk-rock subculture, the prose style was a little more traditional. I think Bobby Z was his first attempt to go full-bore Elmore Leonard (there’s also a spy novel he did under a pseudonym which I haven’t read).

    Besides the books others have mentioned above, I really enjoyed California Fire and Life.

  9. I haven’t read any of his pre-BOBBY Z books. I got the sense that they were sort of yeomen work, training him for his future trade. But I love traditional detective novels so I should check them out.

    CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE was also pretty great. The obsessive research into the minutiae of arson investigation showed a Chuck Pahliniuk influence, I thought.

  10. Don Winslow comes out with a sequel to The Power the Dog in June called the Cartel. I assume that will be about the modern day war against drug, as I think the book ended in 1997. He also planned to adapted both of the books into two films with Shane Salerno (Armageddon (adaptation?!), Shaft, AvP (no credited on imdb, but worked on the film for 15 months), Savages, Avatar 4 (in 2019?!).

    I think they should make the books into a limited series on HBO instead of two films, there is just too much stuff happening.

  11. MR. Majestyk – Don Winslows bio is very interesting (http://don-winslow.com/bio/). He worked once as a private investigator in New York, and also in California for 3 years while leaving in Hotels with his family. The Life and Death of Bobby Z made him a full time writer. He seem to have written his detective series when he was a private investigator and when he traveled around the world.

  12. I could not get through Savages. The style was too cute and pretentious. But making the first chapter just “fuck you” is trying too hard to be tough. It was consistently unreadable tho. He tones it down a little in the prequel.

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