Drive Hard (2014)

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I think John Cusack and Thomas Jane are both great. Jane has a flair for comedy, as well as being cinema’s best Punisher; and Cusack has been untouchable in my eyes since the late 80s. So any film that puts them together is already most of the way to being decent. Add in director Brian Trenchard-Smith, Ozploitation master and one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourites, and you almost can’t fail.

What the trailer doesn’t make much of a fuss about is that this film is Australian – I only realised Trenchard-Smith’s involvement when the film had started. If you were no good with accents, the only real clue is that the cars are all right-hand drive – the unique Australian countryside and feel is really never brought up. Is it a film that was ready to roll, the funders pulled out and an Australian company stepped in at the last minute? Or is it an Australian company trying to get into the US market? Doesn’t really matter, I suppose, and me expecting something uniquely “Australian” is more to do with my perception than it is any obligation on the part of the filmmaker.

Jane is Peter, a former race-car driver who retired when his new wife decided the sport was too dangerous for a man with a new baby (the wedding was of the shotgun variety). He’s now a sad-sack driving instructor, his wife basically ignores him and his kid thinks he’s an embarrassment, until one day Simon Keller (Cusack) asks for a driving lesson, ropes him into a bank robbery, then kidnaps him and forces him to drive to a far-distant dock where a getaway boat is waiting. A couple of FBI agents – referred to as such many times, despite Australia not having an FBI – give chase; as do representatives of the robbed bank, which it turns out is a front for an international crime cartel, which Keller used to work for before being stiffed on a job and left to rot in prison.

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That’s about it for the plot, really. The film hinges on Peter and Keller’s relationship as they spend so much time in the same car, and it’s…okay. You know they’re going to be “friends” by the end of things, one of them will help the other escape, and so on, and that’s exactly what they do. But it’s the nuts and bolts of the film I really wanted to talk about – the way it’s edited, the use of locations, the order of the scenes, and so on. It’s a pretty good lesson in how not to make a movie, really. This will, of necessity, involve some minor spoilers, but have you ever noticed how I don’t spoil good movies?

Editing. We see bits of Cusack stealing some bonds from a safe inside a “bank” (like an investment place, really) near the beginning. I think there’s two ways you can do this sort of scene. One, have someone walking in, then immediately cut to them running out, arms full of cash. Two, show how they get past all the security. This is a weird halfway house, not giving us enough of either to be satisfying or funny. This is the main thing, but there’s little bits later on, like how the scenery behind them is turning (due to the truck they’re filming on turning a corner, presumably) but Peter never bothers steering the car. Just avoid shots of his hands!

Locations. I’ve already mentioned the lack of use of anything specifically Australian, but this ties in to the rhythm of the movie. The very first time our two heroes pull over, they’re on the news and the guy there starts to shoot them. At this point, I’d probably avoid taking any more breaks, but about every 20 minutes for the rest of the movie, they stop off somewhere else for a lame non-reason, someone spots them and starts shooting. The smart move would have been to just stay on the damn road, maybe steal a car that gets good petrol mileage or something? I have to assume that the film is operating as some sort of tourist video for the Gold Coast area of Australia, and the places they stop contributed funding to them. Because otherwise it makes no sense.

The A & B stories are weirdly laid out too – again, bear in mind, spoilers. There’s a couple of crooked cops on the criminals’ payroll, and they’re following the car chase, along with the two feds. They never catch up to Peter and Keller, but right at the end there’s a confrontation between the two sets of police, and all four of them end up shooting each other, getting shot and dying. I don’t see the reason for the two stories not to meet, and it leads to all sorts of conspiracy theories; like they filmed the Cusack / Jane sequences, waved goodbye to them both, then realised they were half an hour short. It’s not like there’s flashbacks or anything, they’re all in roughly the same area at roughly the same time.

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It all feels a bit half-finished. John Cusack clearly enjoys improvising dialogue – watching his films, you’ll often spot little exchanges that don’t have that “normal” movie cadence to them, and in this one he’s clearly been given free rein. I don’t think it really works here – it could do with a few snappier exchanges between two great actors, rather than the sort of conversation I could have any time (with less talk of murder, admittedly). I just hope he didn’t turn down “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” in order to film this.

Talking of “Hot Tub Time Machine”, a main storyline in that movie involved one of the characters claiming “power” back from an overbearing wife by doing something entirely unrelated to that relationship, and this one has a very similar thing. I don’t like the idea of women being prizes to be rewarded for good behaviour, or heroism, rather than relationship compatibility or working out their differences or whatever. It feels backward, from a less enlightened era.

It’s got funny moments, certainly, and I would watch pretty much anything with John Cusack in it, but perhaps Brian Trenchard-Smith should have stayed in obscurity if this is all he can manage nowadays. For a film called “Drive Hard”, there’s not a lot of hard driving in it! Aside from the decent (if low-rent) getaway at the beginning of the film, Thomas Jane’s character wasn’t really needed for the rest of the film at all. Heck, Cusack could have got a taxi from the scene of the crime to his final getaway point, and never had a single problem. Why the two main cast members are American in Australia is also never mentioned, which would have been quite nice to get a bit of information on. Ah well.

Rating: thumbs down

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Someone’s Knocking At The Door (2009)

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A group of medical students, in varying stages of drug addiction, start rapidly falling apart when one of their number is found brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer thought to be long dead. Or do they?

I was tempted to leave the review at that, but we don’t get the big bucks (current ISCFC wages: £0) for writing two sentences. This film is billed as a throwback to the days of grindhouse, where blood was chucked about liberally, political correctness was an unknown concept and blah blah blah violence and sex. Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, this lineage of cinematic rubbish (seriously, try and watch some “real” grindhouse films and see how long you last before your brain just gives up) is now influencing a new generation of filmmakers, including the makers of this.

The one thing this film absolutely nails is the tedium of drug talk. Now, my friend (definitely not me) told me many stories of getting stoned as a University student, and the endless boring conversations that would break out in the room. People congregated because they liked drugs, not because they liked each other, and there was always that passive-aggressive asshole who everyone wanted to beat the crap out of. “Someone’s Knocking…” ramps it up a bit, but otherwise it’s distressingly well-observed and made me, er, my friend, flash back to those bad old days.

The students are experimenting with a drug called Taldon, and for reasons unknown this causes a long-dead psychopathic rapist-murdering married couple to come back to life and start killing people again. Or does it? There are arrests, strangeness and a pivotal moment where the cast decide to visit the disused records wing of an old psychiatric hospital to find the information about the killer and what they can do to stop him.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of this film. As with all films featuring mental breakdown and heavy drug use, you can be fairly sure there’s going to be a “whoops it was a dream” fakeout at some point; and the slightly unreal nature of even the most tedious of scenes leaves you with a sense of never being able to get a handle on things. The sound is absolutely magnificent and whoever did all that should be working on much bigger films immediately – auditory hallucinations abound, and it’s the most effective part of the characters descent into their own hells.

But as far as the film itself goes, I don’t think I can recommend it. It’s like a teenager trying to do handbrake turns during his first driving lesson, and although you can get a sense of what the filmmakers are trying to do, they’ve a love of gore over plot combined with a really trite ending to cope with. But I think they could really do something good. Director Chad Ferrin is used to working at the no-budget end of things, but give him a better script and a few $$$ and I think he could become a director worth watching.

 

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Django Unchained (2012)

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Self indulgence is something well known to Quentin Tarantino and is evidently displayed heartily and unashamedly coursing throughout his directorial back catalogue. It’s hardly a surprise though that the Weinsteins give him free reign since he almost single-handedly saved Miramax from going under in the 90s with Reservoir Dogs and, most notably, Pulp Fiction. The problem now is that he doesn’t have anyone to actually produce his films properly, say no to him or edit the fluff in the cutting room, in fact Tarantino has only one film in his canon that follows a recognisable narrative structure and holds the interest for its full run time, Jackie Brown.

It seems that Tarantino’s onanism reached something of a nadir following the eye-gougingly boring Deathproof and the sloppy Inglorious Basterds as with Django Unchained he returns to the Jackie Brown template of telling an actual story in a comprehensive manner. Maybe he listened to the negative press regarding his recent output and noticed that general interest in his work was cooling with only his fan base showing the levels of appreciation that have plummeted since his mid 90s heyday or maybe he just wanted to show that he can still be considered a cutting edge director with his finger on the filmmaking pulse.

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Django Unchained follows QT’s latest muse Christoph Waltz as bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz and an ice cool Jamie Foxx as the titular hero around the American south in search of the latter’s German born girlfriend Broomhilda. Along the way they meet a variety of Tarantino-esque villains and curiosities, as usual all filled by aging and past it stars ripe for the QT resurrection, Bruce Dern makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo and Don Johnson shines as a caricature of Colonel Sanders. The ace-in-the-hole though is when our mismatched heroes reach the Candyland cotton plantation where Broomhilda is being kept and we’re introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie and his house slave Stephen as played by Samuel L Jackson.

It’s here that the story jumps into fifth gear, helped no end by the performances of the principal cast with DiCaprio and Jackson in arguably their best character roles. Leo, complete with tobacco stained teeth and dark bags under his eyes, plays Candie with an unsettling megalomaniacal tension that bubbles just under his pristinely dressed surface and viciously erupts when lessons need teaching, which we see when he has one of his Mandingo slaves torn apart by dogs, and when he discovers the duplicitous nature behind Waltz and Foxx’s reason for visiting his property which leads him to threaten the life of Broomhilda in the film’s best scene.

Jackson gives Stephen a limp and a cat like sneer to prove that this isn’t as grey as a black men versus white men battle of good against evil as it turns out that Stephen could just be the baddest of the bad with constant back-stabbing of and snitching on our protagonists even wishing a slow and painful death against Django after he could walk away a free man. Waltz is a joy as ever but does basically play a benevolent version of exactly the same character he was in Inglorious Basterds and Foxx plays it the straightest out of all the leads.

There’s been a lot said about the amount of negative cultural language used in the film and its depiction of racial inequality but this is a film about a time and a place in America where this behaviour wasn’t just rife it was the norm. It’s painful to see how humans without white skin were treated then and some of the punishments bestowed on them like the hot box are particularly disgusting but these things happened, it’s understandable that some people don’t want to be reminded of it but we do need to look back to move forward and when we’re faced with the reality of mistakes from our past then we’re more likely not to repeat them.

Because of the grotesquely vibrant characters and the ridiculous situations they find themselves in I can understand why the racial issues can be misunderstood, since at times, it verges on the cartoony, but that would be missing the point of the film, it’s just a story that takes place when this other stuff took place, nothing is glorified or gratuitously overplayed and there are good and bad people from all races. In fact the two main sympathetic characters, one black and one white (Waltz and Foxx), need and rely upon each other to fulfil their individual tasks.

The film is about half an hour too long displaying lingering remnants of Tarantino’s vanity but fortunately it’s not overly detrimental to the final product and the more familiar structure helps the pacing not to sag or dwell just when it seems it might. The stellar acting, cracking screenplay, beautiful costumes and typically booming soundtrack make Django Unchained an entertaining, gloriously violent trudge through a beautiful part of America in a time when the people were anything but.

– Greg Foster

Django Unchained on IMDB
Buy Django Unchained (DVD + UV Copy) [2013]