After last week’s unexpected horror extravaganza, this week in film brings us back to the late winter norm. We’ve got one belated Oscar contender that never caught on along with two overblown studio movies deemed unfit for a summer release. Yep, you’re looking at table scraps this week, folks, starting with the gripping, if familiar, dirty cop drama Rampart, moving on to the expensively ludicrous Ryan Reynolds/Denzel Washington action flick Safe House, and closing off with the almost unbearable 3D family adventure flick Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.
To be honest, none of the movies demand to be seen, but at least Rampart is pretty good and I suppose Safe House is decent. Okay, so it’s not an exciting lineup of flicks, but at least it’s not a collection of complete disasters. I’m sure we’ll have one of those weeks coming up soon enough (and the craptastic The Phantom Menace is getting a 3D re-release this week as well, so I guess that counts). This is the weakest time of year for film releases, folks. Yay!
The Good: Rampart
Rampart reunites budding writer/director Oren Moverman with Woody Harrelson after their Oscar-nominated collaboration on The Messenger. Though filmed in the same shaky-cam reality style and boasting another stellar performance from Harrelson, their new film is an entirely different beast. It’s a corrupt cop story in the Bad Lieutenant style with Harrelson playing a dirty, violent, racist, and sexist LA police officer who suddenly develops a semi-conscience after a headline-grabbing racial beating. The movie follows the character on an inevitable downward spiral with little hope for redemption despite a sudden burst of self-awareness.
Harrelson is a fantastic sleazy and charismatic lead, and Moverman fills in the supporting cast with strong character actors like Steve Buscemi and Ben Foster to ensure even the smallest roles are compelling. He also co-wrote the script with legendary hard-boiled crime novelist James Ellroy (LA Confidential), so the gritty crime character types are spot on even if the scale of the story is rather small by Ellroy’s standards. The novelist could have easily turned the 1999 Rampart controversy into an epic, but working with the more intimate storyteller Moverman, that material fades into the background (probably a wise choice since The Shield already went there for seven seasons).
It’s definitely a dark and compelling movie that’s easy to get lost in. The only problem is that this ground has been covered many times before in movies like the aforementioned Bad Lieutenant and even the underrated Dark Blue (which Ellroy also had a hand in). Moverman clearly wants Rampart to be profound, and certainly he’s a strong enough filmmaker to create many scenes that will burn into your memory.
Despite all of the memorable and powerful moments in the film, there’s an undeniable feeling of familiarity that lessens its overall impact. Even the recent The Guard (easily one of the best films of 2011) had a more original spin on this material. Rampart is still a compelling dirty cop character study that’s well worth seeing; it’s just a shame that the movie doesn’t quite have the impact the filmmakers were so clearly striving for.
The Decent: Safe House
Do you really, really, really want to see a new Bourne Identity movie, but can’t wait until the summer for the next official sequel? Then I’ve got good news — Safe House rips off the Bourne style and tone so much that it practically feels like a spin-off.
Denzel Washington stars as a spurned former CIA super agent who became so disgusted by the corruption in the system that he's gone rogue. Now he sells sensitive information to the highest bidder, or at least he did until he got caught in Cape Town and was sent to a secret South African US safe house. Once there, he’s about to be tortured for everything he knows before a mysterious team of possible terrorists show up with machine guns to bust him out. A rookie CIA safe house watcher ends up the only guy alive and takes off with Denzel as his prisoner.
He’s soon frantically calling superior officers at the Pentagon for advice on what to do, but they’re all mysteriously vague. It seems that Denzel is holding sensitive information about corrupt US and British secret agents and suddenly the international criminal seems more trusting and morally conscientious than the government Reynolds works for.
It’s all Bourne-lite action shenanigans with an endless series of shaky-cam action scenes peppering a tale of political corruption that seems intelligent on the surface but really just uses evocative images and ideas as minor plot devices (waterboarding rears its ugly head early on, but feels like a post-9/11 spin on a Bond supervillain torture trap).
The performances are solid across the board (particularly from Denzel who just doesn’t do bad work), the story zips along at a crisp pace, and the action is well staged, yet the whole thing just doesn’t hold together as well as it should. In the end, we’ve seen everything here before and it gets less interesting the more we see it. If you’re looking for a fun, action-packed night at the movies you could do worse, but you could also do a hell of a lot better.
In the end, this is just repetitive blockbuster fluff with delusions of political commentary grandeur. Safe House is not particularly good and it’s not particularly bad. It just is and will unceremoniously disappear from theaters just as quickly as it arrived.
The Awful: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
Remember Journey To The Center Of The Earth? You know, it was that very early 3D movie starring Brendan Fraser that was only memorable because most people hadn’t experienced the fancy-pants new-fangled 3D yet. Well, now they’ve gone and made a sequel, as if audiences actually cared about the franchise. It also stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and he’s probably the best thing in the movie. Yep, it’s just as bad as you’d think.
The film follows the teen protagonist (Josh Hutcherson) from Journey To The Center Of The Earth who is now saddled with his new ex-Navy SEAL stepfather (yep, The Rock) as his action partner. In the world of this franchise, the works of Jules Verne are fact, so now Hutcherson and The Rock are heading to the Mysterious Island to save the teen’s grandfather, played by Michael Caine (clearly more interested in a tropical vacation and a paycheck than, you know, acting). They pick up Luis Guzman and Vanessa Hudgens along the way to give the movie a some comedic relief and a love interest and then bounce from one ludicrous slapstick CGI set piece to the next until the whole thing is mercifully over.
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is a bad movie and, frankly, it's a total mystery to me why it even exists. Audiences barely remember the first movie from four years ago and the title even seems to conceal the fact it’s part of that franchise (I guess the studio hoped audiences would just assumed they’d missed Journey 1 and desperately needed to catch up). The cast are all fairly talented folks, but you wouldn’t know it from this movie as they have nothing to do but play stale archetypes, react to imaginary cartoon creatures, perform insipid slapstick, and learn grating lessons about family values. Even the 3D that was the selling point in the first movie feels tacked on as an afterthought here.
In the end, this sucker is a big ol’ waste of time and only really worth seeing if you’re in need of something, anything, to get the kids out of the house and distract them for a few hours. I suppose it’s a decent January babysitter in a time fairly devoid of family fare, but don’t be surprised if the little tykes complain that you’ve taken them to the first movie they truly hate. I wouldn’t blame them for feeling that way.