Troy Duffy’s “The Boondock Saints II” – I’m strangely uncomfortable with it

And Shepherds we shall be, for Thee, my Lord, for Thee.
Power hath descended forth from Thy hand,
that our feet may swiftly carry out Thy command.
So we shall flow a river forth to Thee,
and teeming with souls shall it ever be.
In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.

Spoiler warning: This review will contain spoilers for the original Boondock Saints film.

Troy Duffy’s 1999 film The Boondock Saints got a meager theatrical release, mostly owing to its proximity and minor resemblance to the Columbine High School shootings, but found quite a cult following on DVD. And my friends and I absolutely ate it up. Along with Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, this was my indie darling in high school. And oh, to be 15 again. To live in a cinematic world where heaven is a slow-motion shootout of dual silenced pistols, exploding cats, and gratuitous silicone tits, and where the best thing that can happen to a good movie is a sequel with an increased budget.

The Boondock Saints 2: All Saints’ Day, whose subtitle makes about as much sense as that of Die Hard 2, has more or less the same plot as the first film. Mobsters are bad, Jesus is good (kinda), and the McManus brothers – Connor (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Murphy (Norman Reedus), along with their father, Il Duce (Billy Connolly), and brand new Mexican sidekick, Romeo (Clifton Collins, Jr.), are anointed by God and cinema to wax as many evildoers as possible. With the mob, the Boston PD, and the FBI hot on their trail (after a very public mobster killing at the end of the first film), the boys must survive using only their wits, their guns, and their uncanny ability to avoid all return fire while sitting immobile on their haunches flailing their gun-arms wildly.

In the first film, Willem Dafoe had quite a memorable role as FBI Agent Paul Smecker, and while his investigation of the boys’ carefully delivered crime scenes didn’t make even the slightest bit of pop-forensic sense, it produced some of the most fun scenes in that film. Blaring opera music through his portable CD player, he cavorted omnisciently around each set piece reconstructing the crime in his mind, during which we saw flashbacks of that very crime in progress (since we only knew as much as he did by then). It was a silly, but effective storytelling device in that film.

After ten years, Willem Dafoe has gone on to bigger and…erm…better…things, and Paul Smecker has been replaced by Special Agent Eunice Bloom (Dexter‘s Julie Benz). She does the same superficial dance as Dafoe around the crime-scene, sporting earplugs instead of headphones (seemingly to block out the Boston PD’s endless cavalcade of incompetence and sexual harassment), and can miraculously reconstruct a perfect timeline of grisly events. But while Benz looks gorgeous as a redhead and is clearly having a great deal of fun in this role, her fake southern drawl is downright repellent, and she just comes off as a ham-fisted (and mostly unsuccessful) attempt to recapture the fun of Dafoe’s character.

In much the same way, Clifton Collins, Jr., one of the most talented and prolific character actors in Hollywood, has joined the party as the Saints’ new bumbling non-Irish sidekick, Romeo. The boys refer to Romeo as “[their] Mexican”, Collins’ mulleted, mustachioed, tattooed madman is utterly cartoonish, and yet an absolute pleasure to behold. His initial meeting with the Saints on the boat-ride from Ireland provokes the kind of instant acceptance seldom seen outside of a Dungeons and Dragons match (“You seem trustworthy!”). This character is ridiculous, but immensely fun.

But Romeo is really just a replacement sidekick for the Saints, following the departure (from this mortal coil) of their old buddy David Della Rocco (David Della Rocco). But don’t you worry, fans, Rocco may be dead, but he’s not gone. In the middle of the film…practically in the middle of a shootout, in fact, it suddenly and inexplicably cuts away to the boys sitting in an Irish pub, with Rocco behind the bar pouring them shots. The scene jumps wildly around from the bar to a downtown Boston [read: Toronto] rooftop, and finally to a hockey rink, as Rocco gives a blaringly incoherent, Denis Learyesque rant about what it means to be a man, and what a man should do (“things” is apparently the answer). The scene makes absolutely no sense, interrupts the flow of an already overlong film, and may be the worst example of pandering fan-service ever seen put to screen.

As for the Saints themselves, what can I really say? They’re back and doing their thing, and it’s basically the same as before, except they just look a bit more tired and deliver their awesome killing prayer (above) a lot more robotically. And while it seems Flanery and Reedus have aged about 15 years in the ensuing 10, Billy Connolly looks like he may have actually gotten younger, and the film tries to expand upon his character by giving Il Duce, the scourge of the Boston mob, his very own origin story. We can tell it’s a flashback because of the desaturated color (a trope I truly never get tired of), and Il Duce’s backstory is at least marginally interesting. Some mobsters killed his boss, he goes to kill mobsters, he realizes he likes killing mobsters, his buddy betrays him and then comes back for revenge (Yes, you read that correctly), and so on. There was a time when I might have found this story more compelling, but a decade and four seasons of Dexter later, all it inspired was a tepid yawn. His back story amounts to a fairly simplistic (and yet strangely incoherent) revenge and serial killer tale, and just comes off as padding a shallow film with needless exposition.

As a continuing fan of the first film who can admit that it’s actually not that good, I can’t see much here that justifies the sequel’s existence. It just feels like a ten-year reunion of callbacks to the first film, as reenacted by a high school drama department. The thoroughly engrossing soundtrack of grand, over-epic requiems and Celtic jigs has been abandoned in favor of abrasive and extremely generic rock music. In one scene, the music blares over Connor McManus sprouting a notable gun-boner over a pair of monstrous black pistols, with the lyrics inviting me to go “BALLS DEEP, MOTHERFUCKER!!!”. Sound advice.

As you might’ve guessed, even as a shadow of its predecessor, there is a meager amount to enjoy in The Boondock Saints II, as long as you’ve not strayed past a certain threshold of emotional maturity. This film definitely has all the ingredients of a high schooler’s “cult classic”, but I can only hope that if Troy Duffy returns after another decade-long hiatus to make The Boondock Saints III-D, a few of them might see the error of their ways.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10
(mercifully, this was also the price of my ticket)

James Cameron’s “Avatar” – A savage and gorgeous Eden

Spoiler Warning: This review will include plot details revealed in the theatrical trailer.

Five years and $300 million in the making, James Cameron’s Avatar has finally arrived. The film takes place in 2154, when a completely industrialized Earth has sent a massive and militarized mining party to a lush forest moon called Pandora. The moon is rich with native flora and fauna, but it is also rich with unobtainium – a term originally developed as a humorous stand-in for a valuable and impossible compound, but which is used quite literally here. Unfortunately, there is also a massive indigenous population of intelligent, tree-dwelling, ten-foot-tall humanoids called the Na’vi, a tribe of which lives directly on top of the richest deposit of the precious material.

So naturally, we need them to move. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a Marine who is tapped to join the Avatar program, the brainchild of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). The avatars are Na’vi bodies grown and designed to be piloted by humans via a neural link. Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the abominable head of security, and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the shrewd mining administrator, order Sully to infiltrate the Na’vi village and gain their trust, and find a way to convince or force them off their land. In the course of doing so, he meets Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), a Na’vi princess who agrees to show him the ways of her people.

And that’s where I’ll stop with the plot description… If you’ve seen the theatrical trailer for this film, you already knew all that and more. In fact, there was very little mystery going into this film. Even the technology developed for it was subject to significant hype. A new and proprietary 3D camera system developed by James Cameron and Vince Pace, motion capture like Zemeckis’ Polar Express and Beowulf (minus the creepiness and dead eyes), and an impressive array of creature design.

So did it live up to the hype? By many of my usual standards, no. The plot was indeed quite familiar – “Fern Gully meets Dances With Wolves” is the popular phrase, although I’d include a few shades of Independence Day (we’re the hostile aliens; the White House is a huge freaking tree). Most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional, and the storytelling bumbles along with some atrociously scripted exposition scenes, in which Sully alternates between voiceover and speaking directly into the camera (under the auspices of recording “video logs”). The nobility of the Na’vi, the superiority of their way of life, the ineffectuality of trying to convince them to move from their home – every plot point of this film is vomited forth in flowery, excruciating detail. Mercifully, these scenes don’t last very long, and they are balanced with some adept performances.

Zoë Saldaña is the standout, giving an absolutely sublime performance as the Na’vi princess Neytiri. Sam Worthington is enjoyable when he’s not delivering plodding exposition, and Sigourney Weaver is fantastic as the inexplicably chain-smoking scientist. Stephen Lang delivers a fun, scenery-chewing performance of the absurdly one-dimensional Colonel, who supervises an invasion between sips of his hot, steaming mug of eeeeeeevil, and Giovanni Ribisi portrays the administrator with such a comical level of callousness that he absolutely steals every scene he’s in.

So only one question remains… Was the visual spectacle of this film enough to make up for its shortcomings? Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. In addition to the technical achievements above (on which I could spend several more paragraphs), I could not take my eyes off a single frame of this film, and I spent most of my first viewing completely awestruck with my mouth hanging halfway open. James Horner blankets this film with a fantastic score – easily the most rich and majestic I’ve heard since John Williams did Jurassic Park. And the world is simply stunning. It’s as if Cameron saw the BBC’s Planet Earth and thought to himself… I can do better than that. He clearly adores bioluminescence, as it is featured beautifully (and pervasively) in this film. With Pandora, Cameron has created an absolute Eden – a rich and savage world with a complex ecosystem.

What’s more, he has crafted a fascinating (and literal) representation of Gaia – the notion of an entire planet as a single, complex organism. The Na’vi are a fantastical, idealized version of humanity, acting as symbiotic shepherds rather than masters of their environment. They sport a long braid of hair which conceals a hidden strand of nerves that can spring forth and attach to other life forms. This has allowed them to make use of a variety of creatures, including land-based and flying mounts, which they can control telepathically through the link. Even the trees of Pandora form a vast network of neurons and synapses – even more than exist in the human brain. The Na’vi refer to this network as Eywa, their goddess, and can use their neural links to speak to the planet directly.

And this may be the most fascinating thing about the Na’vi. They worship a god whose existence is absolutely certain – to both human science and Na’vi faith. Even an afterlife is assured, as they can use their neural links to upload their memories to Eywa when they die. And what’s more, the Na’vi are extremely resilient. They can move fast, jump high, and survive every peril this world can offer. And their every need – food, water, a safe place to sleep – is largely tended to by their ecosystem. Disease is conspicuously absent, even in a world of rampant, unprotected, telepathic hanky-panky. The Na’vi exist in an absolute Eden. They want for nothing and have no fear of death.

So what can humanity offer them? We try all the usual trappings of human progress – roads, schools, hospitals… But according to Sully, the Na’vi have no use for these things.

Humanity’s definition of progress has always been a bit muddy, but it seems to entail both exploration and mastery of its domain. To extend its reach – even to the stars – and to increase its population and lifespan. The Na’vi are often casually referred to as savages in this film, and I would argue that this is an apt term for them. They are wild and untamed, and we would probably call them a stagnant society. But in such a pristine environment – with no significant threats to the species or struggles within its society – our definition of progress completely falls apart. This is Avatar’s most fascinating theme, and yet simultaneously its least explored. We must take the film’s word on the superiority of Na’vi culture, since we are not privy to its stability in the long-term. And what’s more, we only gain the slightest idea of what state humanity is in.

But we can infer a great deal. It is implied that Earth is completely industrialized, and humanity is clearly still in the business of invasion, forced relocation, and wanton slaughter. In fact, this may be the most pessimistic sci-fi treatment of mankind ever put to screen. We aren’t wiped out by aliens, robots, nuclear war, or climate change. We live on, and apparently learn nothing.

Spoiler Warning: The following paragraph contains details about the film’s ending.

Colonel Quaritch does have one thing right – Sully does betray humanity in favor of the Na’vi – and yes, “betray” is the correct word. He even abandons his crippled human body in favor of a more powerful (and undamaged) Na’vi body. In the end, he purges every trace of humanity from himself, referring to his former race as “aliens” and supervising their eviction from Pandora to return to their “dying planet”. I’ll grant that with this branch of mankind acting as usurpers and destroyers, it’s hard to argue with Sully’s decision. But in the end, this film relies upon some disturbing implications of the intrinsic cultural supremacy of the Na’vi. And given their blatant allegorical resemblance to Native Americans, this comes dangerously close to relegating the film to the ineffectual, self-hating bin of white guilt.

While Avatar‘s societal allegory has a few problems, it nonetheless boasts some provocative and effective environmental themes. And on a technical and creative level, James Cameron has brought a marvelous vision to life with this film, and it will surely impact cinema for years to come. If it is successful enough that Cameron can finish his planned trilogy, I would certainly hope to see some of the above concerns addressed with additional storytelling. Avatar is an impressive spectacle, but it has merely teased us with the potential of its rich, engrossing world. It could eventually be the stuff of great science fiction.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Additional reading:

Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” – Wish I could have been there, instead of seeing this.

Poster for Clint Eastwood's "Invictus"

Spoiler Warning: This film is based on true events, and as such, this review will contain more spoilers than usual.

Oh, what can I really say about this film? Clint Eastwood has spun me the inspiring and true story of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and his leadership of the newly post-apartheid South Africa. How he asked the leader of the national rugby team, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to lead his team to victory in the Rugby World Cup in order to unite the nation. How Pienaar and his team rose to the great leader’s challenge, and went on to an underdog victory against the highly rated New Zealand All Blacks. He has shown me all of this, and yet he has also shown me how saccharine, overlong, and utterly unsubstantial a film can be made of it.

While Eastwood has continued to show his prowess as a filmmaker in recent years, he has never been one for subtlety (as shown by his last treatment of racial issues, Gran Torino). But while Invictus is at least a pleasant-looking and well-composed film, there’s really not much else to it. And because of its grand scope and drawn-out runtime, the film just plays out like an endless cavalcade of missed opportunities.

It could have been a film about rugby, but it wasn’t. Apart from some convincing physicality and camaraderie by Damon and company, the players don’t do much to differentiate themselves, and we really don’t learn anything about their strategy or gameplay. Likewise, it could have been a film about South African politics, but to hear this movie tell it, the only two issues facing the country are race and rugby (the latter being the solution to the former). A dark and unintentionally funny moment ensues when Mandela assures his adviser that if they sort out rugby, then they will be free to sort out “the rest” (e.g. the failing economy). Riiiight…

But rather than focus on sports or politics, Invictus tries to be a film about both, and still fails to evoke any interest. Mandela’s support for the team is largely a political maneuver, and his advisers challenge him several times on this point. But even this mildly interesting aspect of the story proves fruitless for two reasons. First, Mandela’s political shenanigans are completely pure-hearted. And second, his strategy for ensuring the rugby team a win appears to consist of interrupting every one of their practices to shake their hands and tell them how much their country is counting on them. On the eve of the quarter final match, as the team feverishly practices, another hilarious moment ensues when Mandela swoops over them with a helicopter, landing in the middle of the pitch, then assuring them that he doesn’t want to interrupt their practice. But hey, they gave him a team hat. So it’s all good.

Still from Clint Eastwood's "Invictus"

I’m going to interrupt my rant here and say… I really wanted to like this film, and there are a few things to like in it. Morgan Freeman absolutely looks and sounds the part, and let’s be honest…he could play this part in his sleep, and of course he does a fantastic job. Matt Damon clearly bulked up and trained like a madman for this role, and continues to prove himself one of the finest and hardest working actors in Hollywood. In addition, Tony Kgoroge gives a fine performance as one of Mandela’s bodyguards (who ultimately gets a more interesting arc than Damon’s character). And how can I argue with the events? This was a great and inspiring moment in both sporting and South African history, and I wish I could have been fortunate enough to see it in person.

But instead, what I’m presented with is an expensive imitation, and it plays more like a parody of inspiring films than a genuinely inspiring one. At the game’s end, we see a montage of celebrations, as blacks and whites the country over embrace each other in the newfound (and instantaneous) harmony of the Rainbow Nation. One particularly incredible sequence involved a pair of white police officers and a small black boy who hangs out near their car in order to listen to the game on their radio… While he is understandably wary of getting billy clubbed early on, the cops eventually let him stick around. But at the end of the game, the scene just goes too far. The officers hug him (okay!), hoist him into the air (less likely, but okay!), and finally put a police hat on his head (sorry, but I just don’t buy it).

Most of the later scenes play in this way, and as a member of the audience, I just felt manipulated. In another semi-plausible sequence, the rugby team visits Robben Island and is awed by the site where their president was wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years. But once again, the film takes it too far. Pienaar locks himself in Mandela’s former cell, and several apparitions of Morgan Freeman fade variably into view… Sitting in the cell…lying in the cell…reading poetry…Chopping rocks outside… Chopping rocks…in another part of outside…

And again, I have to concede that if I were really on Robben Island, I might well have a similar reaction. But this film attempts to convince us of an intensely personal moment for Pienaar, based on a relationship between him and Mandela that is not particularly well fleshed out.

For a historical tale to be inspiring, we need a little distance from it. We need perspective. We need some sense that the inspiring effect has lasted. Fictional films like Remember the Titans work precisely because of their confined scale and believable effect. At the end of that film, I can really believe that a small town’s racial tensions could be resolved by the intense interracial brotherhood that develops amongst a high school football team.

But stories like this work in fiction precisely because we have to take the filmmaker’s word on the story’s end. I would do South Africa a disservice to discount the impact of this great man and glorious moment for their nation, but as I watch South African politics a decade and a half later – the crime, the violence, the economic strife…the corruption and leadership struggles between Thabo Mbeki – Mandela’s successor – and Jacob Zuma – another former political prisoner of Robben Island… I’m reminded that history encompasses much more than just great moments and great men.

The story goes on. And a simple and languidly paced freeze-frame of a single shining moment of that story just doesn’t inspire me.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” – A brilliant and timely character piece

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate road warrior who spends over 300 days a year flying around the country firing people for a living. He spends his life in airports and hotels, brandishing an impressive collection of Executive Gold Club Cards as he bounces from one bastion of transient hospitality to the next.

“When I swipe my card”, Ryan informs us in the opening voiceover, “the system prompts her to say…”
“Pleasure to see you again, Mr. Bingham!” the clerk cheerfully announces.

Ryan is clearly in love with the road, in spite of (or perhaps because of) all the temporary trappings that come with it. The film’s treatment of air travel falls somewhere between Catch Me If You Can and Fight Club, and Ryan meets no shortage of single-serving friends along the way. One of these is Alex (Vera Farmiga), an enigmatic career gal who is on the road as often as Ryan. They bond after a brief hotel fling, and resolve to meet up the next chance they get.

And yet, those chances may soon come to an end, as Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a brash, young coworker, proposes to slash the company’s travel budget and switch to firing people via videoconferencing. Facing the end of his life on the road, Ryan reluctantly agrees to take her along to show her the reality of his business. And that reality is a dubious one.

“Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world has sat where you’re sitting,” intones Ryan as he fires a man named Steve (Zach Galifianakis, in a great cameo), “And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.”

This is a line we hear several times, and Clooney’s brilliant, tongue-in-cheek delivery leaves the audience constantly wondering whether or not he believes his own rhetoric. Indeed, his true motivation is one of the film’s central questions…

When Ryan isn’t passing out pinkslips, he makes appearances as a motivational speaker, advising people how to avoid connections in their lives. His message is clear – “moving is living”. He has a silver tongue, and would clearly say anything to convince Natalie why he should stay on the road. And yet as the film goes on, his firing scenes are peppered with what seem to be moments of genuine humanity. During one such scene, in which he fires a white-collar fifty-something named Bob (J.K. Simmons), Ryan gives a touching speech about what Bob needs to do in order to be admired by his kids.

And this may be the most provocative thing about Ryan. Whether or not he believes in his rhetoric, it has exactly the intended effect. Ryan has his own reasons for wanting to stay on the road (including a coveted number of frequent flier miles), but he constantly tries to impress upon Natalie how important and personal the moment of firing is. To hear him describe it, it sounds almost noble. They are the priests, administering the last rites to the doomed before they pass into oblivion, all the while assuring them that there is something bright and beautiful on the other side. “We are here to make limbo tolerable”, declares Ryan, and he is soundly mocked for it by Natalie.

The film constantly tries to have it both ways with Ryan. It is implied that he has had a multitude of one-night stands, and yet the very first one we see – Alex – is the one that might just turn serious. The film grants him semi-omniscient voiceovers that are equal parts self-aware and self-deprecating, but shies away from taking a position on whether he truly believes in what he’s doing. But somehow, Clooney’s performance just makes it all work. He plays with this ambiguity so well that the character is incredibly effective, especially in the interplay with his young colleague.

Still from Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air"

Natalie is a fascinating character – the consummate young career gal, ruthless and cynical, but with a very human side, full of all the self-imposed deadlines and anxiety about her future that all twenty-somethings tend to have. Anna Kendrick, who I’d only seen previously in a small and ineffectual role in the Twilight films, gives a masterful performance as Natalie, and is surely one of the actresses I’ll be watching for in the future.

It is only with the character of Alex that the film comes dangerously close to contrivance. She comes right out and tells Ryan to just think of her as “[himself], but with a vagina”, and assures him that she’s not a girl he needs to worry about. The character seems a bit facile at the beginning, but Vera Farmiga gives a fantastic performance. And as her relationship with Ryan develops, the character seems more and more plausible. And while it’s fairly easy to see where the story is going with this character, she does treat us to one of the film’s best scenes, in which Ryan and Alex share their views on love and marriage.

The script for Up in the Air, adapted by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner from a novel by Walter Kirn, contains some of the richest dialogue and most effective scenes I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year. The performances are also something to see. In addition to the three strong leads, Jason Bateman gives a impressive turn as Bingham’s boss – he’s a ruthless company shark with just a bit of a humorous streak to him, seemingly channeling Stephen Root in No Country for Old Men. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen from Bateman, and I was quite impressed.

We also see dozens of people being fired in this film, and most of them were quite convincingly played by real people who’ve lost their jobs during the recession. The film even includes an end-credits song that was seemingly performed on spec on the director’s answering machine. This could easily have come off as pandering to an audience in economic turmoil, but it just lends so well to the relevance and immediacy of this film.

While Up in the Air bears a few similarities to Reitman’s last bit of corporate satire, Thank You For Smoking, it has a much more somber tone. It retains the same darkly comedic style (and presents another fantastic soundtrack) while covering a lot more ground. It takes a great number of risks, but stops just short of spreading its characters too thin. And it is one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10