Style Not Substance: Max Payne, Death Race, and The Good The Bad The Weird

March 9, 2009

The action film was always the B-movie. It has the A-budget now, and is the cash crop of the entire industry, but its thrills are cheap and visceral. Shallow, dumb, one-dimensional characters speed through a shoestring plot towards the inevitable climax that absolutely, positively must top everything that has come before it. The most inventive artisans with the largest teams come together and devote untold man-hours with the latest technology and the most cutting-edge photographic techniques to create the silliest and most disposable piece of trash they can. I do love action films. I also don’t expect much from them, which is completely unfair given how much work goes into each and every set piece, but still, I want it to be brisk and exciting. I want it to give me a reasonable degree of “WOW” and crank up the volume so I can’t hear the person rustling candy wrappers or crunching on popcorn behind me. Despite all the advances in the creative processes behind them, most are still made today for the same reason they always were. The basic thrills that a filmmaker wants to jolt into the viewer never change, and so it is no wonder modern action directors try so very hard to use new technologies to revisit and reinterpret the trends of the past.

Max Payne, directed by John Moore, seeks to meld classic detective noir via Sin City and The Matrix, which is even less original when you realize it has been based on a video game. Mark Wahlberg stars as the titular character, a depressed detective who still mourns the tragic loss of his wife and baby, who were killed in a still unsolved murder. In his off-hours, he contacts old informants and frequents underworld parties in an effort to piece together the truth behind the murders. He comes across Natasha Sax (Olga Kurylenko), who is soon savagely mutilated after taking a drug called Valkyr and leaving his apartment. His wallet is found on her, and now he’s the prime suspect. This should be where the film kicks it into gear. The wrongly accused cop must evade his former colleagues while seeking to find the truth that will resolve the murder and clear his name. Except, this doesn’t really happen. Not with any immediacy, anyway. Instead, Internal Affairs casually asks around and hopes to catch him, while he continues to speak with his old friends and contacts, slowly putting it all together. His wife worked for a pharmaceutical company, and if you haven’t made the connection by now, this might be a really shocking thriller for you. If you have, you have seen a moving picture before, and are probably wondering why the hell you’re still watching this one. Natasha’s sister, Mona Sax (Mila Kunis) enters the fray, as does Beau Bridges, and we’re now so bored we just want the guns to come out and blow things up real good. Well, it takes a bit longer, and when it does come, it isn’t that exciting.

There are so many peculiar aspects to this film that I assume they were trying to make it dull. The game itself had such a tight storyline that it lent itself to the kind of action flick that spends a minimal amount of time setting up the story and then blazing away for the duration. The decision to make the plot less complicated but more boring is not in service of the action-film excitement it should be going for, but rather the dark, depressed noir it aspires to be. There’s a real attempt to make Max’s pain hit home with the viewer, but the film is so stylized and ridiculous that it wasn’t even worth trying. On top of that, they’ve added visions of valkyries, the Norse winged demon-angels that carried the fallen of battle to Valhalla. They look neat, to be sure, but they’re completely out of place, and instead of throwing the bland, sad characters into a large epic struggle for justice, they’ve just exacerbated the silliness of the whole enterprise. The desire for a stylish look drowns out any hope of real substance. Virtually every outdoor scene is filled with a lilting snowfall, and the frequency only serves to take away the impact of what might have been an interesting visual flourish. Having the idea to combine Sin City with the colour palette of The Matrix really isn’t enough. The action scenes are occasionally solid, but more often they’re hampered by the slow-motion excess so prevalent in the genre today (in fairness to the film, it was probably more of an ill-advised attempt to reproduce the ‘bullet-time’ gimmick of the game as opposed to simply a trend-riding trick). The style overwhelms the pathetic stabs at substance, making the film a dull slog. The fact that the style is visually uninteresting is unforgivable.

Death Race, at least, is honest. It is a remake of 70’s B-flick maestro Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000, a hyper-violent car-chase trash film with tinges of satire. This film has no interest in being anything other than a hyper-violent car carnage-porn thrill ride, and it should be all the better for it. Without characters to care about or a plot worth considering, this should be a tribute to the glorious trashiness of action junk of days past. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out that way. All this really needed was a functional director, and it does not find one in schlock-master Paul W.S. Anderson.

To say this film is better than his previous efforts is to do a disservice to the phrase “damning with faint praise”. He’s never made a good film, and at this rate he probably never will. Still, it didn’t have me screaming for it to stop at any moment, which is definitely an improvement over Event Horizon, Resident Evil, and Alien Vs. Predator. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The plot, such as it is, features Jason Statham as ex-racer Jensen Ames, who at the beginning of the story is working at a factory and happily married. His wife is (SHOCK!) murdered and he is framed, but unlike Max Payne, he actually goes to jail. Prisons in the near future are all owned by private corporations, and have discovered they can make a decent profit by sponsoring gladiatorial-like games of death and destruction. Internet users buy a subscription to the events, the most popular of which is the Death Race. Several convicts drive around the island prison over a period days attempting to win their freedom, killing the competition in the process. Ratings are down and, what luck, there’s ex-racer Jensen Ames to bring some quality to the proceedings. Warden Hennessey (played by Joan Allen with a several spoonfuls of camp) is a devious sort, and we all know how it’s going to turn out. But, like everything in life, it is the journey, not the destination, correct?

So all this film really needs is a decent director. Crashing cars real good is the order of the day, and unsurprisingly, Anderson fails with aplomb. To his credit, there is a devotion to actual cars being smashed and exploded, and applause should be shown to a man who eschews CGI in favour of honouring the traditions of the genre. That isn’t enough, however, and Anderson gets bogged down in his own shortcomings. The biggest problem, especially for a director who specializes in action films, is that he can’t direct an action sequence to save his life. Michael Bay may make some of the most bone-headed, downright offensive films around, but he has a great eye for action sequences. His problem has always been a total lack of understanding of how editing works and its effect on the spectator. Anderson doesn’t even have the eye. This film is rusty and industrial, and about as pleasant to look at as the decapitations and impalements that pepper the race. The editing is so fast and the camera angles so nonsensical that the attempt to create something ‘visceral’ and ‘exciting’ backfires completely. So little of what happens makes any spatial sense that the viewer can’t help but step completely out of the film, thus creating a nauseating experience for all.

At least there’s the cast, right? Well, yeah, they’re actually pretty decent. Statham does his thing just as well as he normally does. The insanely over-qualified Allen does a fantastic job of being corporate evil incarnate while managing to not go over the top. Ian McShane doesn’t have much to do as Coach, Ames’ team leader, but it’s great to see him in anything. No, the problem lies solely in the lap of the director. I appreciate him jettisoning any notion of substance whatsoever, but there is yet another failure of the style here. The narrative might want us to care about who wins, but in the end, we all know who is really going to lose here.

All hope is not lost, however, thanks to Korean director Ji-woon Kim and his exuberant take on Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. The Good, The Bad, The Weird is an exceptional piece of genre-pastiche fun, and a prime example of how best to pay tribute to your idols.

The film takes place in 1930s Manchuria. The Clint Eastwood “Good” is Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung), the Lee Van Cleef “Bad” is Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Li), and the Eli Wallach “Ugly/Weird” is Yung Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song). Tae-goo’s train robbery is interrupted by Chang-yi’s robbery of the same train. He has been paid to retrieve a map of some unknown importance, a map that Tae-goo gets away with, and the resulting confrontation is interrupted by bounty hunter Do-won, who is after notorious killer Chang-yi. So yes, the plot is very similar to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and all the better for it. The three main characters will zig-zag across the Manchurian desert, there will be double-crosses, uneasy alliances, and they will be pursued relentlessly by a group of local bandits as well as, eventually, the Japanese army. It really is as gloriously ridiculous as it sounds, and it knows it. The action scenes are frequent and imaginative, from a chase through a black market to a shoot-out in a brothel to an epic desert chase. The performances are good all around, each of the three leads knowing he’s playing a type; Do-won is cold but noble, Chang-yi is cool with a past, and Tae-goo is generally pretty goofy. The slapstick elements are well handled, Kang-ho Song deftly pulling off the violent menace and slapstick buffoonery without going over the line in either direction.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird doesn’t set itself apart from the others with substance, however, as the film is nothing more than a playful homage. It doesn’t subvert the genre or the films of Leone, nor does it make a comment on anything, save some notions of prideful nationalism (much like another Leone homage, Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico). The use of Leone’s signature extreme close-up is used much like the Duster jackets the hero wears; they are a tip of the hat to the inspiration, and nothing more. Kim doesn’t have the patience to build tension, nor does he really care to do so. The film is fast-paced and frenetic, obsessed with washed out deserts outdoors and colourful greens and reds indoors. What really sets the film apart from Max Payne and Death Race is the love of what its doing. It is an incredibly fun movie, and if there is any prime virtue in B-movie action films, that’s it.

-M

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