Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

I don't know if there exists a God of Cinema, but I now believe in cinematic karma. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) was the type of movie I needed to see after subjecting myself to The Big Hit (1998). Here is a cerebral, patient, tense, and occasionally funny thriller about a hostage situation on a subway. The emphasis here is not on action, wisecracks, and explosions but on characterization, suspense, and buildup. The body count is low, especially compared to most modern action movies, but the stakes are high and the excitement palpable.

Four armed men, each with a color-coded name and led by Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), have hijacked New York City Subway Pelham 123, and they are giving the city one hour to pay $1 million. For every minute the payment is missed, the hijackers will execute one of the seventeen hostages they've also taken. Heading up the response and attempting to negotiate with the criminals is Transit Authority Police Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), who's also trying to figure out how the criminals intend to escape the subway once they get their money.

Alfred Hitchcock famously described the difference between suspense and surprise: a bomb under a table unexpectedly goes off, that's surprise; a bomb under a table doesn't go off, keeping the audience waiting for when it will, that's suspense. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three milks the latter technique for all it can as we get closer and closer to the deadline. There's little "action" in the movie in terms of shootouts and chases, but it nevertheless remains gripping as we watch how events unfold.

Take the opening the scenes, for example, the hijacking of the train. We witness the hijackers, all wearing hats, glasses, and fake mustaches and carrying packages, one at a time board a separate car of the train. There's no verbal exposition about what they're doing; we just watch the plan in action. Later, when the city agrees to pay the ransom, the movie cuts back and forth between the criminals, eyeing their watches and looking menacingly at the hostages, and the efforts to get the money there in time: the federal reserve employees counting out the money, the police racing through traffic with the satchel in their squad car, the accident.

The film also includes a number of elements that keeps you wondering how they're going to payoff: the revelation that one of the hostages is an undercover cop, the tension between Blue and leering cohort Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), the chip on Mr. Green's (Martin Balsam) shoulder about his being fired by the transit and his continual sneezing, and more. Despite all this activity, the plotting of the movie remains tight and steady, and none of these details feel just added on for the sake of it; how they all pay off and contribute the plot's resolution is one of the movie's great joys.

Even with all the tension and suspense, the movie also possesses a sense of humor. Garber is a cynic, but he's a fairly amicable one at that, always throwing in pithy comments, at one point telling Blue he must be counting one on the entire city closing its eyes and counting to one hundred to get away. Plus, his main subordinate is played by Jerry Stiller as a sarcastic but effective transit cop. Even the criminals have some dry, dark laughs. Blue, calmly doing a crossword while waiting, begins answering a line of questions with a reply of "forty-nine minutes" to remind Garber how much time is left; Garber complains that negotiations won't get anywhere if he keeps repeating "forty-nine minutes," to which Blue replies "fort-eight minutes." The subplot involving the ill mayor and his political wrangling has some laughs, but at times, it's a bit too distracting from the main plot.

Performances are great by everyone. Many crime thrillers have a hotheaded, take-no-crap-from-anyone officer as its lead, but Matthau plays the role probably in a way we'd probably prefer such police officers in that situation to be: calm, level-headed, cerebral, more concerned about the safety of the hostages, and doesn't let thugs get under his skin. The only time he gets angry is at a subway supervisor who keeps complaining about negotiating with terrorists while he's got a system to run. And he's funny in a believable way that doesn't distract from the story. Equally effective is Shaw as the criminal leader: cool, clipped, focused, and uncompromising. At its most basic, the movie is the engagement of these two characters, a mental chess match between two great minds, and the joy of the film is seeing who can out-think who. Balsam is also quite good as the nervous member of the criminal group.

Based on a novel by John Godey, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was directed by Joseph Sargent in an effective, tense manner. The movie understands that excitement in a thriller is not based on how many shootouts occur, how many cars blow up, or how many stunts happen. Here, the excitement comes from putting these fascinating, believable characters in a pressure cooker and watching how they behave as we move closer and closer to the breaking point.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Big Hit

The Big Hit (1998) is like that scene in Predator where Arnold Schwarzenegger and his team open fire on the jungle with all the guns they have: occasionally, it hits something, but mostly it's a lot of misses covered up by sound and fury signifying nothing.

Hitman Melvin Smiley (Mark Wahlberg) needs $25,000 to pay for his girlfriend Chantel's (Lela Rochon) debts, oblivious that she's cheating on him. So, Melvin joins a kidnapping scheme with his friend Cisco (Lou Diamond Phillips) in which they abduct Keiko (China Chow), the daughter of Japanese businessman Jiro Nishi (Sab Shimono). But Melvin and Cisco don't know that: a) Nishi has just lost all his money making the most expensive movie ever made starring himself (title, "Taste the Golden Spray") and b) Keiko is the goddaughter of their boss Paris (Avery Brooks). When the kidnapping occurs, Jiro turns to Paris, who promptly orders Cisco to root out the kidnappers. All this and Melvin has to deal with his fiancé Pam (Christina Applegate) and her visiting parents (Elliot Gould and Lainie Kazan). There's also a subplot in which fellow hitman Crunch (Bokeem Woodbine) has just discovered the joys of masturbation and another involving a video store clerk (Danny Smith) constantly calling Melvin to remind to return his copy of King Kong Lives.

Got all that? Directed by Che-Kirk Wong, The Big Hit could be charitably described as busy, but chaotic and messy would be more accurate. There are so many characters running around doing so many different things that the movie doesn't so much progress or unfold as much as it careens from one thing to another. Rooms are shot up, people are killed, frantic phone calls are made, and Melvin does his best to keep a tied-up Keiko out of sight from his future in-laws.

The Big Hit tries its damnedest to be a dark, madcap comedy filled with wacky characters characters and situations that spiral out of their control quickly, but I must confess I didn't laugh very much. Most of the characters, especially Cisco and the video store clerk, really got on my nerves, and I just wanted them to shut up. In addition, the situations they get into just aren't that funny either, usually falling into the realm of predictable and obvious. Sometimes, there's a detail here or there I found amusing, such as Melvin complaining about blood dripping out of a bag of body parts as if it was milk leaking out of his groceries, but instead of escalating a scene to even more outrageous levels, the movie mostly gives us set-ups for jokes that don't really go anywhere.

The main problem I had with The Big Hit is I was transparently aware all the time I was watching actors be wacky and silly for the sake of it and not in any way that got me absorbed into it. The movie's like the class clown who's always hopping around screaming "Look at me being funny!" If he does it nonstop, it's just becomes tiring. There's no believable reality presented in the film to make me think any order is violated. The movie forgets one of the most basic rules of comedy: people who are trying to be funny are rarely as funny as people who try to be serious and fail. Look at Airplane, Leslie Neilson and Robert Stack give stone-faced, serious performances in the middle of such silliness, and it's hysterical. The Big Hit has folks overacting like crazy to show how funny they are, and the result is not funny.

One element I did like was the relationship between Melvin and Keiko and how it develops from kidnapper and hostage to kindred spirits to romance. Sure, the Stockholm romance has been done before, but these scenes stand out because they don't feel so frantic and in-your-face. Melvin doesn't like the idea of anyone not liking him (an amusing idea for a hitman to have that the movie could have explored more), and Keiko, long ignored by her father, is an engaging sass.

Maybe with fewer characters, fewer plot lines, and more focus, The Big Hit could have been free to explore its better ideas and take the comedy to the next level, instead of wallowing in realm of shrill mugging and contrived misunderstandings. Instead, to reference Shakespeare again, it's a poor player that struts and frets its hour on the stage and then is heard no more.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Kingdom Crystal Skull (2008), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) had the reputation as being the weakest of the series. Too dark, too grim, and too gory are some of the complaints I've heard lodged against it. Contrarily, while I was growing up, I considered it my favorite of the series, although I admit that might have been because most people I knew preferred Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and I wanted to be different from the pack. Looking back on it, I find it holds up remarkably well by charting into different territory that keeps it from falling into formula, making it perhaps the most unique entry in the series.

Following a botched deal in Shanghai with some gangsters in 1935 (making this a prequel to Raiders), famed archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) ends up in an impoverished Indian village with Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), a Chinese orphan, and Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), a nightclub singer. The village shaman tell Jones that the sacred Sivalinga stone has been stolen from its shrine, along with all the community's children, and he recruits Indy to help them to retrieve both the stone and children. Jones and his companions journey to Pankot Palace where, after a friendly reception by the young maharajah and his prime minister, they discover an ancient Thuggee cult operating in an underground temple, practicing human sacrifice, and using the village children as slave labor in the mines to search for the remaining Sankara stones. Things get even worse when the Thuggee high priest Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) drugs Indy with the "Blood of Kali," making him a slave of the cult.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was a globe-trotting adventure that took us from one exotic location to the next, from a South American jungle to the mountains of Nepal to a desert outside Cairo. It was a race against a ruthless enemy (the Nazis) before they could obtain an artifact of great power. Comparatively, Temple of Doom is more grounded in locale, travelling to fewer locations and less concerned with the chase for a sacred object than it does with showing our heroes digging themselves deeper and deeper into a hole, and the result is a more intense and claustrophobic story. Personally, I've always enjoyed stories about evil cults or other groups operating just beneath the surface of respected society and how our heroes stumble upon them, and Temple of Doom qualifies as this type of story. 

Much has been made about how dark the movie is - human sacrifice, child abuse, slavery, torture, etc. - and the violent imagery of a heart ripped out of a chest, children whipped and in chains, people dipped into lava, and the demonic skull outfits and mannerisms of the Thuggees, but in a story about descending into an insidious underworld (like Hell), it's only logical that the tone is nightmarish, best represented when even our intrepid hero goes over to the dark side. When the narrative moves outside the caverns of the mines and temple into daylight for the final confrontation between Indy and the Thuggees, it's relief for both characters and audience.

That said, Temple of Doom contains many of the same of action-adventure elements as its predecessor: the booby-trap-filled halls and passageways, encounters with assorted creepy crawlies, a thrilling mine cart chase, fights with henchmen, assassination attempts, and a romance with the leading lady and rescuing her from danger time and time again. The movie also employs a sense of humor, mainly though the relationship between Indy and Short Round, who is treated by Jones less as a ward and more as partner, and the encounters the pampered, sheltered Willie has with the local customs, cuisine, and creatures. The film also has a funny callback to Raiders when Indy, confronted by two swordsmen, goes immediately for his gun only to discover it's missing. That's immediately followed by Indy chasing them off with a sword and his trademark whip only for him to immediately turn tail and run when dozens of more Thuggees arrive.

Some flaws are more apparent now that I'm older. There's some very politically incorrect ethnic stereotyping of both Indian culture and the Hindu religion that contains horribly inaccurate details and conceptions about both (I'm pretty sure chilled monkey brains are not a typical desert in India). However, the most cringe-worthy element of the movie is Willie Scott, who spends her entire screen time shrieking, complaining about things such as broken nails, and generally being a shrill pain in the ass who's only along for the ride to be the damsel in the distress. It's especially glaring since Raiders had Karen Allen as Marion, a tough, no-nonsense, more modern woman who didn't hesitate to fight, could out-drink any man, and actually contributed something to the plot. I can't figure out what Indy sees in Willy.

Ford, once again donning the fedora, is in fine form as the archaeologist seeking fortune and glory but who finds a more noble cause by film's end. Short Round makes for an interesting sidekick who doesn't feel like he was shoehorned in to give the film kiddie appeal; he is pretty useful, his banter with Jones is funny, and it's his love that saves Indy (that and a lit torch). Meanwhile, Puri gives an absolutely chilling and demonically fanatical performance as Mola Ram. With his shaved head, skull headdress, and deranged stare, he carries an unforgettable presence, even though it's over an hour into the movie before he turns up. 

In short, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a great entry to the series. It continues the spirit and adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark while going off enough in its own direction before sequels carried on the formula. This wouldn't be the place to start if you're new to Indiana Jones, but you shouldn't skip it either.