Industrious Thuggery

Three run-of-the-mill action films, one brilliantly crafted film noir.

The Devil’s Own
Directed by Alan J. Pakula
A Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures release

Double Team
Directed by Tsui Hark
A Columbia Pictures release

The Saint
Directed by Phillip Noyce
A Paramount Pictures release

City of Industry
Directed by John Irvin
An Orion Pictures release

Last week, primed to see a rousing, big-budget thriller, I found myself trudging from one dire would-be blockbuster to the next, only to wind up at a bleak, low-budget film noir that left me unexpectedly exhilarated. The movie, City of Industry, had been open awhile, and I had to see it at midnight in a Times Square fleapit with ice cubes in the urinals and a cat prowling the aisles for rodents. This felt like Buckingham Palace, though, after The Devil’s Own, Double Team, and The Saint. A great movie can blow the windows out of the skankiest dump.

The Devil’s Own, rumored even in production to be a disaster (the script had no ending), has been greeted with surprised, respectful reviews, which suggests how impressed critics are when garish violence is accompanied by hand-wringing. In the film, directed by Alan J. Pakula, Brad Pitt plays an Irishman who says “aye” instead of “yes,” and whose appearance is sometimes underscored by pan pipes. But he is no Celtic bard. He’s a man of violence, an Irish Republican Army operative who is smuggled to New York to escape the English juggernaut bearing down on him. (When he was but a youth, hooded loyalists blew away his peaceful fisherman dad at the supper table, and he has since, in turn, mowed down his share of Brits.)

In America, Pitt’s Rory Devaney is installed in the home of a man of peace: Harrison Ford as Tom O’Meara, the world’s most sensitive policeman. New York’s finest have been known to kill people who’ve accidentally bounced footballs off their patrol cars, but this cop is squeamish even making arrests. (A long car-and-foot chase is staged so that he can be shown removing the handcuffs from a tackled shoplifter and shooing the repentant teen-ager on his way.) O’Meara has never shot anyone, and lectures his partner (Rubén Blades): “We’re in the police business, Eddie, not the revenge business.”

The movie regularly stops dead for roomy, unenlightening monologues on bloodshed–a subject on which the unflinching Northern Irishman and the flinching American just can’t see eye to eye. “It’s an Irish story,” intones Pitt’s IRA gunman, “not an American one.” Actually, The Devil’s Own is neither an Irish nor an American story. It’s a Hollywood story. Despite its laudable anti-violence sentiments, the picture boasts a creepy villain (Treat Williams) who orders nice Irish lads decapitated and whom we want to see die in agony. (He gets his, whoopee!) Plus, there’s the cop partner who talks about his imminent retirement, a sure intimation of his imminent demise. The film features plot turns of howling implausibility, leading up to a mechanical climax that resolves the story without forcing either of the principal characters to make the uncommercial decision to blow the other away.

Pitt is not as flamboyantly terrible here as he has been in recent, more strenuous outings, and he actually has a couple of vivid scenes with Williams’ unctuous weapons-dealer. Playing his cards close to the vest, his Rory affects a look of choirboy ingenuousness, from under which flash hard rays of cunning. (Williams meets those rays with sharklike glints of his own.) But as soon as Pitt is required to suggest a complicated inner life, the Tin Man re-emerges. Pakula can do little with this pretty-boy prima donna, but he does create some nice scenes among Ford, Margaret Colin as his wife, and their two daughters–who are believably intrigued by (and yet embarrassed around) their teen-dream houseguest. That Ford is so believable in this far-fetched role and with this particular co-star must have come from playing so many scenes opposite a Wookiee.

I t was Tsui Hark (pronounced “Choy Hok”), the Vietnamese-born, Texas-educated, Hong Kong-trained director/producer who introduced many of us to the highs of Hong Kong action movies with Peking Opera Blues (1986), and who went on to direct such jaw-dropping flights of fancy as Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and its superior sequel. Hark’s movies are pixilated marvels, in which superheroes really do leap tall buildings in a single bound; battles have the trigonometric intricacy of farce; and armies of Zen warriors soar, tumble, and somersault with a whoosh, their swords lopping off limbs with such fleetness that the violence is almost subliminal. Hark churns out scores of formula pictures, and yet each has his own characteristically lyrical drive.

Until now. Directing his first English-language film, a Jean-Claude Van Damme martial-arts picture called Double Team, Hark delivers an abstract exercise in style, a movie so dissociated from any recognizable human emotion or behavior that its actors come to seem like animatronics. The film tells the story of a special agent (Van Damme) who is lured out of retirement to go head-to-head with a terrorist (Mickey Rourke) whom he is about to blow away when he sees that the villain is embracing his young son. Holding up and allowing the bad guy to gain the advantage, Van Damme ultimately provokes a massacre of his own forces, which results in his being imprisoned by his own side in a high-tech fortress while the terrorist kidnaps his pregnant wife and are you bored hearing about this? I’m bored writing about it.

“For me, it’s personal,” says Van Damme of fighting bad guys, although there’s nothing remotely personal–or personable–about the “muscles from Brussels,” a preening, humorless gay-bar pinup who makes his co-star, basketball’s monstrous Dennis Rodman, appear modest and laid-back. Indeed, it’s Rodman, with his electric, two-toned hair, his studs, nose and lip rings, and those heavy-lidded feminine eyes, who gives the movie a shot of exoticism, and who must have inspired its visual style, its canted angles and colored neon hues. Apart from a battle between Van Damme and a lethal Chinese dervish with a blade between his toes, the fight scenes are disappointingly down-to-earth. The producers must be trying to turn Hark into fellow Hong Kong action titan John Woo. The pity is that, left to his own devices, he’s twice as good as Woo.

T he Saint–based on the Leslie Charteris stories (and subsequent films and TV shows) about a suave, do-gooding Englishman who’s a wizard at disguises–attempts to follow in the footsteps of the first Batman, directed by Tim Burton and written by Sam Hamm, which brilliantly fused Bruce Wayne’s superheroism and his damaged, darkly obsessive personality. After a traumatic boyhood in a Catholic orphanage, where he’s beaten by a sadistic priest for not answering to his given name, the one that alludes to his bastardy (“You ungrateful cur!”Thwack! “Now what is your name?”Thwack!), the lad who calls himself Simon Templar morphs into Val Kilmer, who can shed one disguise and adopt another so effortlessly because he … has never developed an inner core, a faith, a Self. “Who are you?” asks Elisabeth Shue, the charmingly addled nuclear scientist (she discovers cold fusion!) who has won his heart. “No one has a clue and least of all me,” says the Saint, existentially wracked.

Witty though he is, there has always been something unformed about Kilmer, which is one reason The Saint seemed so enticing at the start. Applying a Stalinesque mustache, Kilmer makes impudent faces in the mirror and tries out his Russian accent, an actor amusing himself and us. I can’t understand why his parade of characters–the Russian, the languid Romantic poet, the Jerry Lewis-like nerd –didn’t give me more pleasure. Well, maybe I can. The film is too metronomically paced for Kilmer’s routines to develop any rhythm. The direction by Phillip Noyce is fluid but impersonal. Endless studio tinkering seems to have dissolved its spine. Before long, the trickster-with-no-name is clutching his true love’s hand and dashing through Moscow’s sewer system, steps ahead of rushing water and Russian bad guys like any other bland leading man. The Saint has about five endings without a single coherent climax. The badness of the picture seeps into you like the Russian damp.

D espite the exotic setting, Moscow doesn’t play much of a role in The Saint. It’s merely a backdrop, an international capital whose turmoil is exploited by filmmakers with no vision of their own. But in City of Industry, masterfully directed by the Englishman John Irvin, the setting, Los Angeles, is the central character, a living organism that serves, in the words of Lewis Mumford, as “a container of organized violence”–an extension and reflection of its inhabitants’ corruption. Day and night, rapacious criminals prowl its alleyways, hotel rooms, clubs, and vacant lots, singly or in gangs–industrious in their thuggery, at one with their environment. The movie’s psychopath, played by Stephen Dorff, is almost literally coughed up from the bowels of this machine, roaring out of the heat and dust with his stereo blasting. The natural world is dead, the characters viewed against a parched landscape blanketed by poisoned fumes. It wasn’t just the stench at the Times Square theater where I saw it: This movie gives you the vapors.

Scripted by Ken Solarz, a TV writer who initially meant to remake Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1955), the film is French in its poker-faced ambience, and anti-Tarantino in its lack of camp. (The thieves wear dark glasses, but they’re not much for small talk.) The film begins with the planning and execution of a Palm Springs diamond heist, a brutal (but not lethal) operation that combines the talents of four small-time hoodlums (Harvey Keitel, Timothy Hutton, Wade Dominguez, and Dorff). All goes swimmingly until one of the participants pulls a shocking double-cross that kicks the picture out of its clockwork plotting and into something nastier–an odyssey of vengeance, a near-mythical descent into a sooty, metropolitan Hades. Unlike all the disjointed, miserably compromised thrillers playing around it, City of Industry is all of a piece. Even its protagonist, Keitel, fits into the landscape–stony-faced, transcendent in his very lack of transcendence. Foulness has never seemed so pure.

Switchblade between the toes: Jack Quinn (Van Damme) meets a multidexterous assailant (33 seconds):

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“Who are you?”: The Saint (Kilmer) flirts with Dr. Emma Russell (Shue) (45 seconds):

{Sound06 - theSaint.avi or {Sound07 -; download time, 3.75 minutes at 56K {Sound08 - movie-the_saint.asf or sound only