January 29th, 2009

MAN ON WIRE (2008) ***

In 1974, a French performance artist and tightrope walker named Philippe Petit strung a wire across the World Trade Center and walked across.  Man on Wire is a documentary about that event and also covers Petit’s preparation and planning methods, his other tightrope walking feats (including tightrope walking across Notre Dame), as well as the New York City police’s reactions to his “crime”.  (He got off with a slap on the wrist.)


Petit remains an enigma for the most part because in on camera interviews, he always shies away from “WHY” he did it.  (“Because it’s there!”)  Basically, he did it because he’s a crazy ass Frenchie street performer and those fuckers will do anything for attention.  The actual footage of Petit walking across the World Trade Center is quite amazing, but I was a little bummed that the filmmakers had to resort to Unsolved Mysteries style reenactments for a lot of scenes.  At least one of these scenes is a Clockwork Orange inspired fast motion sex scene between Petit and a high wire groupie.  (There aren’t many of THOSE around; that’s for damn sure.)  To me though, the most fascinating part of the film was the stock footage of the Towers being constructed.  It was sorta chilling to think that something that took so long to construct could be decimated so quickly on 9/11. 


Man on Wire isn’t a perfect film.  It gets kinda dull in spots and featured way too many scenes of Petit riding around on a unicycle like a goddamn mime from Hell for me.  If anything though, Man on Wire is a good document of a crazy motherfucker doing something fucking crazy.  Although I have zero tolerance for street performers (especially French ones), even I have to give the man some props for doing something that insane. 


(Special Note:  I don’t want anybody giving me shit for calling Petit a mere “street performer” since he was performing 110 stories ABOVE the street.  His AUDIENCE was in the street looking up at him; hence a street performer.)

CITY ON FIRE (1987) ** ½

A group of thieves rob a jewelry store while wielding machetes.  The robbery goes bad (as all movie robberies must) and an undercover cop named Chow (Chow Yun Fat) starts thinking that he might be in over his head.  When he gets recruited for another heist, he ends up befriending one of the thieves (Danny Lee).  The robbery gets botched (again) and Chow likes his new buddy so much that he stops a bullet for him during the robbery.  In the end, the thieves hole up in a shack, which pretty quickly gets surrounded by cops who are quite unsympathetic to Chow’s real identity.


It has been said by (far too many) critics that Quentin Tarantino ripped off this flick when he made Reservoir Dogs.  Allow me to set the record straight once and for all.  Reservoir Dogs contains the same essential plot as City on Fire (an undercover cop gets embroiled in a jewel heist gone wrong) and features a similar Mexican standoff scene with various thieves pointing their guns at each other while the undercover cop (Fat) sits on the floor with a bullet in his gut, but that’s about it. 


Director Ringo Lam’s approach is totally different than Tarantino’s.  Lam tells his story in a straightforward manner, concentrating more on Chow’s story and how he fights against not only gangsters, but disrespectful detectives.  He also turns the robbery into an action set piece.  In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino is more concerned about the robbery’s aftermath and uses flashbacks to flesh out the other thieves and never once shows the actual heist.  Also, City ends with the thieves getting shot by the police and Dogs ends with them shooting each other.  


I must admit that Tarantino’s flick is vastly superior, but City on Fire is a decent Fat flick when taken on its own merits.  Fat is in fine form, giving an excellent performance and he has a great rapport with Lee.  (The duo would go on to star in John Woo’s seminal action film, The Killer, two years later.)  City on Fire is no Reservoir Dogs though.  While the first half of the film is sluggishly paced (Tarantino wisely nixed the lovey dovey subplot from his movie), the action scenes still have a kick to them (there’s a knife through the hand and some pretty gory gunshot wounds), even if they are few and far between. 


Thanks to Reservoir Dogs’ immense reputation, fans of that movie will definitely want to check out City on Fire as more of a curiosity piece than anything.  It’s got its moments, yet it never fully works as a whole. Ultimately, if Tarantino wasn’t accused of plagiarizing this movie, I doubt if anyone would’ve given a shit about City on Fire.  It’s an OK action flick, but it’s not like it’s Hard Boiled or anything.

ROCKNROLLA (2008) **

After the debacle of Swept Away and the shitfest that was Revolver, director Guy Ritchie attempts to make a return to form with RocknRolla.  Well, it’s much too muddled and inconsistent to be called a “return to form”, but it’s a step in the right direction I guess.


The plot has Gerard Butler and his crew trying to pull a real estate scam with the help of a local gangster (Tom Wilkinson).  When Wilkinson reneges on the deal, Butler and company are left holding the bag and have to scramble to find a way to make the dough back to cover their investment.  From there the plot begins spinning out of control.  There’s a sexy banker (Thandie Newton) who wants her cut of some laundered money.  A cracked out rock star who is in possession of a valuable painting that Wilkinson wants to get his hands on.  A Russian crime lord who… it just kinda goes on like that. 


All these characters are introduced into the mix just to make things more chaotic.  The fact is, there’s a decent movie buried somewhere inside of RocknRolla, but there are way too many characters and “plot twists” that get in the way.  The flick runs almost two hours and has enough plot for four. 


Although I quickly became disinterested in this flick, some of the performances made it tolerable.  Wilkinson was quite good as the crusty gangster and Butler fared OK in a role that was clearly made for Jason Statham.  Unlike Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, none of the supporting characters made much of an impression and there were only brief glimpses of Ritchie’s trademark humor. 


Before the credits roll, there’s a title card that promises us a sequel.  Unless Ritchie can get his shit together and make it as funny as his first couple of films, count me out.