This film of magical heists and mystery looked like just a fairly fun outing from the trailers, and I’m glad to say that is what I received. Now You See Me has a great cast of talent that delivers, a script that is smart enough, and a premise that maintains your interest to see where the next twist will take you. It’s not brilliant, but it is well designed to entertain.
An elite FBI squad, led by Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), is pitted in a game of cat and mouse against “The Four Horsemen,” (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, David Franco) a super-team of the world’s greatest illusionists who a year ago were mere street performers. “The Four Horsemen” pull off a series of daring heists against corrupt business leaders during their performances, showering the stolen profits on their audiences while staying one step ahead of the law. Their sensationalistic crimes also ensnare the attention of Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who now debunks and exposes the tricks of magicians for his own gain. As the Horsemen’s grand game of misdirection and slight of hand escalates towards their grand finale, it’s a cunning game of wits for all to pull the curtain back to unveil the hidden truth behind it all.
Indeed, what sells this film in general is the excellent acting talents involved. Morgan Freeman is surefire as this former magician who now seeks to debunk the best in the business for higher fortune. He keeps the riddles twisting around the audience leading us on, but never fully revealing the next step. How he deconstructs how the Four Horsemen executed their tricks and heists is smartly done. Freeman does a wonderful job here bringing his usual intellectual savvy to this perceptive character.
The Horsemen themselves are vibrantly portrayed with Jesse Eisenberg being the strongest of them as J. Daniel Atlas. He really projects some smart, quick witted savvy that demonstrates Daniel’s leadership, and his humorous banter with his co-stars is quick and sharp. He definitely feels like the guy who could outsmart anyone in the room, and do it with style. Isla Fisher plays nicely off of Eisenberg as Henley and Daniel have some romantic fallout between them, but it’s kept light and smart. Woody Harrelson puts in a real good performance showing Merritt McKinley to be a very intuitive personality from his skills as a mentalist. He can read people up and down, inside and out to pull little hints of information from them, and Harrelson uses that to solid comedic effect. Dave Franco might seem like the weak link in the team, by design, but he eventually gets his moments to shine as street hustler Jack Wilder. Altogether, this is a great foursome of sharp talents that never upstage one another, but instead, complement each other in a cohesive fashion. They’re very fun to watch.
And of course, Mark Ruffalo is a charming treat as Dylan Rhodes. Ruffalo brings charisma and a rough edge to Rhodes, but maintains him as an enjoyable, smart guy that you can connect with. He is always portrayed as a competent and solid FBI Agent, but you see him trying to deconstruct all of these theatrics with regular investigative work. So, it’s a fun ride to see him weave through it all dealing with Thaddeus Bradley as well as French Interpol Agent Dray, who you’re given reason to suspect as being not entirely as she seems. Ruffalo has decent chemistry with Mélanie Laurent. There are never sparks flying between them, but it’s an honest and sweet pairing that has its light humor and genuineness. Basically, if you liked what Ruffalo did as Bruce Banner in The Avengers, I think you’ll enjoy the humor, heart, and charisma he brings forth here.
The visual effects throughout the film are very excellent. They sell the flash and style of the Horsemen’s illusions with stellar results. There might be one or two moments where the CGI isn’t as good as it is elsewhere, but in the vast majority, this is seamless and awesome work. It gives the film its visual flare and style. And it is an exceptionally well shot movie. Director Louis Leterrier really knows how to put together a visually solid movie as I did very much enjoy The Incredible Hulk, and the integration of visual effects into live action is superbly done under his direction. Leterrier beautifully utilizes all the rich talent he has at this disposal here, and executes this script with smart direction that kept me engaged and guessing.
And while I expected fun and flashiness, I was pleasantly surprised that the film had some nice action sequences. There’s a decently well stage foot chase through the crowded streets of New Orleans with some clever beats. Later on, when the FBI is closing in on the Horsemen, we get an extremely impressive and acrobatic fight scene with Franco and Ruffalo. There’s some great, fast, and fluid moves in this that just stunned me from Dave Franco. He’s combating people with swift actions like that of a ninja, and this sequence showcases smarts and sharpness in every second. Following this, there’s a really good car chase through Manhattan, New York. All of this action is very well done with only a few minor moments of shaky cam, but it ultimately came out to be very pleasing. The film’s climax isn’t really action based, but focused on the story and motives behind this elaborate magic trick. It unfolds nicely with fine dramatic beats, but surely, I won’t be spoiling any of these well written and executed reveals to you at all.
How the mystery all plays out is engaging and intriguing. I kind of view the movie, going in, as The Prestige crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, and that’s generally how to look at it in concept. It doesn’t match the brilliance of either of those films, but as I said, it’s a fun, entertaining experience. It is the twisting and turning puzzle that the Horsemen are constructing that make it interesting. You don’t know what the next trick will be, but it’s about even more than that. It’s not just the magic that they perform and how they did it, but the motives behind it keep you guessing. It’s cleverly designed through and through. How it’s all setup with a mysterious benefactor bringing together and enabling this foursome, even the Horsemen don’t know the full truth, and so, there is a layered mystery at hand. The FBI is just interested in catching these performers in the act of the crime, and Bradley is interested in burning them down for his own self-serving fame and fortune. So, everyone has their motives, and they all nicely interweave into the reveals at the film’s end. The ultimate twist is something I’m a little divided on. I liked the moment of the reveal as it is dramatically and beautifully played, but it wasn’t quite setup in the film. All of the other pieces are there to assemble the motives and interwoven storylines together. As a magic trick played on a grand canvas, this film does a really excellent job of doing that. The ultimate reveal just felt like it needed a little more punch. Something like a Keyser Söze reveal where the clues were there the whole time, but you couldn’t pick up on them. Something subtle, something between the lines that would strike you at just the right moment. I could figure out the why, but not entirely who amongst this cast or beyond would be the Horsemen’s ultimate benefactor. It’s far away from being a poor ending, but it could’ve benefitted from a little more setup.
Frankly, I think Now You See Me is just a fun time to have at the movie theatre. I’m sure if you went into it with a critical mind you could nitpick it apart, and see how really unbelievable the plot is in all its little nuances. Thankfully, I was enjoying myself consistently throughout this movie, and was able to sit back, relax, and just have a pleasant time with it. Just like magic, you have to let your mind go and just allow yourself to be entertained by the cleverness and spectacle at hand. The film is smartly written overall, in my opinion, and I found that there was plenty of subtle setup and pay-off for practically everything in here. This film captures the spirit of magic very well, and it’s almost refreshing to see a film of so many vibrant characters without a real villain in the mix. Everyone is enjoyable in their own ways, and next to no one is tinged with villainy. It’s just a fun ride that I think essentially anyone can enjoy if they’re willing to just embrace it.
It was mere coincidence that I reviewed the Die Hard clone movie of Sudden Death this past day. It was on my TiVo for months, and I just needed an action movie to occupy my attention. Olympus Has Fallen does indeed follow that Die Hard formula very closely, but also executes it extremely well. This is surely one of the better action movies I’ve seen in recent years, and it is a rock solid R rated outing with the violence never holding back for an instant. So, while Sudden Death was Die Hard in a hockey arena with the Vice President taken hostage, this movie is Die Hard in the White House with the President taken hostage. Believe me, this is a gigantic step up that should please audiences.
When the White House (Secret Service Code: “Olympus”) is captured by a terrorist mastermind (Rick Yune) and the President (Aaron Eckhart) is kidnapped, disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) finds himself trapped within the building. As our national security team scrambles to respond, they are forced to rely on Banning’s inside knowledge to help retake the White House, save the President and avert an even bigger disaster.
This is a very well directed effort by Antoine Fuqua. I love that he keeps the film very grounded in the severe drama and peril of the situation, and never feels the urge to indulge in cheesiness. He avoids having anyone spout out one-liners, or do anything to diminish the imminent danger at hand. The film’s first act really sets up the characters well by establishing close relationships around Banning with the President himself and his son Connor. The film begins with a tragic car accident that claims the First Lady’s life, and Banning feels responsible for that. While I did know full well from the trailer that this would happen, the sequence still had an emotional impact on me. The film then flashes ahead eighteen months where Banning is working at the U.S. Treasury, no longer feeling fit for or at ease in the White House. These are all excellently done sequences establishing emotional weight on Mike Banning, and setting him up in a very fleshed out and relatable way. Then, of course, all hell breaks loose upon Washington.
There was a point during this long incursion by the invading forces that I felt it was going on too long, but then, I caught myself. I realized that, one, such a siege would be a lengthy operation and unraveling in multiple parts. Secondly, it was when Banning got into the thick of things that it all picked up for me. It made the violent, frightening sequence less broad, and focused it more on someone that I already identified with. This is where the film has it’s real juice. Focusing in on the character of Banning combating these forces as an extremely capable one man assault made me excited. Getting behind him as the hero energized the movie for me, and got me invested in what was happening. Another reviewer I follow stated that if you replaced Gerard Butler as a Secret Service Agent with Bruce Willis as a New York cop, this would’ve been the perfect Die Hard 5. I entirely get that statement, but Mike Banning is a distinctly different person than John McClane. Banning is a sharply trained tactical force who knows how to handle a situation like this, and how to manipulate his way through the White House, messing with security cameras, moving through hidden passageways, accessing secret vaults with a satellite phone, weapons, and so on. This is an expertly trained agent that systematically and efficiently takes down these terrorists. This is what really sold me on every bit of action.
Gerard Butler is a solid action lead. He puts in a very well-rounded and awesome performance. He certainly has some fun, yet lethal moments with the character, but never goes down the path of witty quips. Even when that humorous bad attitude surfaces, his words hold the weight of a vehement threat. He’s not mouthing off, he’s making strong, direct statements to people. Still, we do get that humor through extreme circumstances that still felt distinct to the character. The filmmakers nor Butler were trying to have Banning be an imitation of anyone else. He’s his own great character. Butler handles himself exceptionally well in every aspect of action here from the tactical gunplay to the hand-to-hand combat. There are some very impressive moves he showcases when he’s squaring off against a deadly opponent. Banning’s definitely a tough guy, but what further makes the role great is the sentimental value we see from him. This mainly comes out with both protecting Connor, and when Mike finally gets on the phone with his wife, who is a doctor in the midst of triage. We get to see the humanity of Banning from early on, before the action, and later on during the action to maintain that balance and dimension with the character. Overall, it’s a very solid character in both conception and execution through Gerard Butler’s talents. He kicks ass in all kinds of ways.
The film’s villain is Kang, portrayed by Rick Yune, and he is one immensely merciless, vile piece of filth. Yune is just awesome as this man who seeks to unleash a horrible fate upon all of America, and unite Korea through military force with very powerful motives behind him. This is absolutely a villain who is despicable and shockingly violent, but maintains a cool head about him. He’s in control of everything, and is willing to demonstrate that control and dominance on a whim. He’s very calculating and intelligent while being disturbingly violent. Rarely have I seen an action movie villain of this serious caliber. Again, the film does not degrade anything by delving into cheesy qualities or eccentricities. Kang is as serious as they come, and his ultimate plans are horrific. Yune gravitates a lot of weight around him, and sells every ounce of this role. He’s definitely the villain this film deserved.
The rest of the cast is filled out with heavyweight talents. Aaron Eckhart is stellar as President Benjamin Asher. The charm and warmth of him is seen early on, but when the hostage crisis befalls him, we see his strength and conviction show through. He won’t allow anyone to be a martyr to him in that bunker, and he never backs down from Kang and his people. Eckhart’s an amazingly strong actor for a role of this sort, and he fills it admirably. And Finley Jacobsen is top notch as the President’s son Connor. He’s a very sweet and enjoyable kid that has a strong bond with Mike Banning. I could definitely feel for him early on when his mother, portrayed by the excellent Ashley Judd, perishes in that plunge off the icy bridge.
We also have Morgan Freeman living up to his high standards as the Speaker of the House Alan Trumbull, who must assume the roe of Acting President in this crisis. Freeman carries Trumbull’s burden with realistic weight as he grapples with these massive decisions of life and death. How he asserts authority over Robert Forster’s General Clegg was a real solid moment that I liked a lot. Angela Bassett, who I think is an amazingly talented screen presence, is here as Banning’s Secret Service Supervisor. She’s all around superb, as is everyone in this picture. We’ve got all these people assembled at the Pentagon, and they come into regular contact with Banning along the way as they try to coordinate their efforts. These scenes carry so much poignancy and immense weight on a global scale, and no one could have asked for a better collection of actors to carry these scenes. And it is a testament to Antoine Fuqua that he was able to utilize these talents so fully and powerfully. Still, that should come as no surprise from the director of Training Day where he directed the excellent Denzel Washington.
And the action sequences Fuqua gives us are exemplary. While the CGI is definitely undercooked more than usual, I could mostly move beyond that to embrace the quality of the action. The digital effects mainly come into play during the air strike scenes with planes, fighter jets, and helicopters being digitally rendered as there was no way they were going to be actually crashing things into the real White House. Aside from that, we get some visceral, pull no punches violence. People, both good and bad, get ripped apart like Swiss cheese by automatic gunfire and are blatantly executed. This is an action film that is selling the realistic intensity of both of these lethally trained forces who will not leave their adversaries alive. There’s a generous helping of blood all over the movie, and it seemed mostly realistic and not digitally created. I think a lot of squibs were used on this, and only a few enhancements were done in select places. If that is indeed the case, I applaud Fuqua for going that route. Far too many action movies these days go the lazy route, and use next to no practical blood effects.
Getting back on track, though, we are treated to some very good action through this runtime. Banning is given plenty of intense scenarios to fight out of, and it is all shot very well. There’s a little shaky cam in there, but it’s fairly mild and the editing is quite good to maintain coherence throughout. It’s just hard hitting stuff that results in the biggest body count I can recall seeing in an action movie, but due to the nature of the plot, one must expect that a shocking volume of bodies fall protecting the White House. The brutality that we get is necessary to selling the tremendous tragic weight of this event, but putting that aside, it’s the veracity in which Banning goes after these infiltrators is where the entertainment value truly lies. The only time he leaves anyone alive for questioning ends up in an awesome, quick scene of extremely persuasive interrogation. He’s not ready to dish out mercy, and has no hesitation in ramming a knife through someone’s skull. It’s scenes like this that really make Banning an entertaining and bad ass hero. We’ve seen him be a nice guy and a solid professional, but in this scenario, he’s not holding back on the bloodletting. He knows the stakes, and has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to rescue the President and take Kang and his people down in decisive, graphic fashion.
It didn’t take me long sitting there in the theatre to take special note of how good the score was. This is a big action movie score the way it’s meant to be done. Composer Trevor Morris has not done anything really worth noting before this movie, but I damn well hope that this is the start of a very noteworthy career. As with the rest of the movie, Olympus Has Fallen does feel like something birthed out of the 1980’s or 90’s in all the right ways. This score is right up there in that vein of Under Siege, Con Air, or Die Hard. It has a sprawling, tightly dramatic style that paints on a large musical canvas for a film of big stakes and large action sequences. It’s very impressive stuff.
Olympus Has Fallen is also greatly written by a pair of apparent first-time writers. This is their only credit on the Internet Movie Database. So, if this is your break into Hollywood, I say it’s a hell of a great first effort. Yes, it is a Die Hard clone, but it takes all the hallmarks of that formula and builds upon it with a story of huge consequences and well written characters. The movie doesn’t put all its cards on the table at the same time. Kang’s ultimate intentions are not fully discovered until the final act of the film, but I will not spoil that here. The script cleverly just lays one piece of the puzzle into place at a time allowing you to be concerned with one major thing at a time. It shows the intelligence of Kang very well, and creates a very solidly plotted film with plenty of anticipation and suspense as realized by Fuqua.
I just say go to the theatre and see this right now! For one, hard R rated action films have been taking a nose dive at the box office, and while most of it has been justified, when something of this damn good quality comes along, it really needs to be supported. Overall, this is simply a fun, exciting ride with the weight of serious stakes and big action. It really beefs up the old formula with a cast of amazing talent, and helmed by a damn good director who knows how to sell something of this scale. This is proof positive that any well-treaded formula can still be executed with impressive results. All it takes is filmmakers with ambition and a solid script to make it a creative success. I surely hope that it will prove to be a financial success because it really does deserve it. Olympus Has Fallen is a solid, hard R action movie that you should absolutely see!
Back in my favorite year in film, 1995, David Fincher brought us a terribly disturbing and gripping crime film in Seven that changed the genre dramatically, and set Fincher forth on a very successful, high profile directorial career. His previous film was Alien 3, and that was plagued with production difficulties and creative clashes. It was not a success, but Seven showed what an unencumbered David Fincher was capable of. Supported by a powerful cast and a brilliant screenplay, this didn’t just spark his career, it ignited it.
Lieutenant Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a seasoned investigator who is on his final days before retirement. Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young, impulsive cop looking to make a difference, and maybe even a name for himself, here on the grimy, ugly side of this nameless city. They are put together on a series of murders that Somerset soon determines is the work of a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins. Each crime is more ghastly than the last as this sociopath “John Doe” uses them as a garish method of preaching. While Mills is quickly convinced that this killer is a certified whack job, Somerset sees the calculating, educated rationale behind these crimes. Both men slowly descend into this frightening and disturbing world that culminates in an unforgettable climax that tests the resolve of both men.
While there had been serial killer films before this, Seven really applied an original concept and environment to the subgenre. Having the killer, John Doe, be motivated by the seven deadly sins opened up the film to social commentary, and that is handled exceptionally well. Somerset is someone who you would like to know what kind of person he was before he was damaged by the apathy and amorality of the world. He’s someone that appears to have once strongly believed in certain admirable principals, but has since lost his zeal for them. He’s perhaps looked far too deep for too long into the grimy darkness of humanity, and Mills is someone who, likely, hasn’t looked deep enough. He judges everything on surface appearances, and doesn’t entertain the possibilities of a deeper psychological analysis of their adversary. Somerset slowly tries to educate Mills to be a more insightful and knowledgeable investigator, and while it brings them more into alignment with one another, it can’t wholly change who Mills is at his core. The scenes of both Detectives discussing philosophies on Doe’s motives and how they reflect upon society are amazingly well written and perfectly acted by Freeman and Pitt.
With the film never stating what city this takes place in, it creates an enveloping environment in which one can never get quite comfortable, and you’re not supposed to. The world of Seven is dangerous, seedy, disturbing, and filthy. This feels like a city where decency of any kind is in the extreme minority. The production design creates a world that is probably even more weathered than Somerset is. There is deep texture put into every aspect of every setting to give it a worn down history. There’s nothing new and shiny here. It’s all old and deteriorated by time. The grime seeps through in every frame of film, and the color timing adds to that further with a slightly de-saturated quality. The near constant rain just adds to the miserable conditions that these characters have trudge through every day. It was an excellent choice to have the entire climax take place outside of the bleak urban environment and put it into a sun-baked desolate open field. The visuals in that sequence depict a dead landscape.
The cinematography of Darius Khondji enhances the production design further with a modern noir quality to it. This is much different than a Michael Mann type of neo noir where things are glossy and colorful, but still offering a depth of darkness. This is a style of noir that emphasizes the dreadful and macabre aspects of this world. It’s meant to show off a gritty, unsettling realism that will horrify. Khondji composes shots with a lot of dramatic weight, and makes use of dolly tracks very well in specific moments. I love the tracking shot after the duel interrogation scene after the “lust” killing. It’s just Somerset and Mills sitting in separate interrogation rooms quiet and still. They are taking a long moment to recover from everything they’ve just witnessed and experienced. The shot smoothly tracks from the one-way window of Somerset’s room to Mills’ room. It’s a quiet downbeat moment for both the characters and the audience to soak it all in. The main action sequence of the Detectives chasing after John Doe is exceptionally well shot maintaining a solid sense of geography with each character, and letting each shot count as the sequence moves from one location to another. The scene constantly evolves adding in new obstacles and dangers along the way. Every aspect of its execution is excellent. Overall, the cinematography of Seven is superb and masterful. It is definitely a result of a cohesive artistic vision.
Rob Bottin was a special make-up effects master starting with his amazing achievements in John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982. In Seven, his signature grotesque and stunningly detailed work is highly evident. He knows how to bring out the garish realistic horror in his creations. It fits Fincher’s visual style dead-on presenting the smallest details with great clarity to make you believe that everything your seeing is frighteningly real. Bottin worked with great filmmakers like Joe Danté and Paul Verhoeven before joining with Fincher, and I could praise Bottin’s body of work to endless extent. It has always had a particularly off-beat and strange approach which reflects Bottin’s personality very well. While Seven went grossly under-appreciated at the Academy Awards with only a well deserved nomination for Best Editing, Rob Bottin won a Saturn Award for his work here, and it was also very well deserved.
It is a very taut and suspenseful story that Andrew Kevin Walker wrote and Fincher executed. No time is really wasted getting our characters into the plot. We learn about them along the way through the investigation instead of introducing them in a standard first act structure of seeing them go through their daily lives before something adverse occurs. How they each approach the case tells us all we need to know about Mills and Somerset, as I stated earlier. The case and plot unfold with a strong sense of mystery and intrigue as both Detectives uncover the chilling theme behind these murders. Each homicide becomes increasingly more graphic and horrific, thus, heightening the twisted psychological state of the killer. Meanwhile, there is Somerset getting to know David and his wife Tracy, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, who tries to adjust to their new home, which she is not very fond of. She confides in her husband’s new partner after getting to know his sensible and compassionate manner. These scenes and character beats are nicely interwoven to continue developing these characters and their relationships. This maintains an audience’s invested interest in how they deal with everything that’s going on, and the repercussions of what they encounter.
The film presents a definitely interesting psychological state of its killer. How he gets into police custody is quite unexpected, and sets up a very compelling final act where John Doe is in control. He might be in handcuffs, but he’s the one leading the Detectives towards a chilling conclusion. A friend of mine believes that Brad Pitt over acts drastically in this climax. I’ve never had a problem with it. In that moment, David Mills is severely torn in an agonizing emotional state where he wants to lash out, but repeatedly tries to restrain the urge. He’s already established as an impulsive and brash person, and attempting to not lash out in anger would be extremely difficult for a man like David Mills to do. He’s fighting raw, instinctual emotion, and that would likely result in the reaction Pitt presents here.
Brad Pitt’s performance all around is rich with depth and emotion. Mills is a guy who cares about what he does, and wants to make a difference. He could easily become an ignorant jerk of a character with his brash attitude and closed mindedness, but Pitt gives him enough heart and humanity to make him likeable. He takes the hard headedness, the intensity, the loving husband, the optimistic outlook on humanity, and the naivety and mixes them into a cohesive whole. As do all the characters in this film, David Mills has his complexities, and Pitt makes it all work and make sense. Pitt also visually inhabits the role well giving Mills a dirtier, more gritty look than Pitt had ever adopted before, and truly makes the character seamless with the world he inhabits.
The synergy between Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman is solid. They counterbalance one another beautifully with their characters existing with polar opposite mentalities. They hardly ever agree on anything, but are both motivated to see this investigation through to the end. When they occasionally do get on the same page, it’s a great spark that quickly motivates the story forward.
Freeman, as always, is exceptional. He embodies the dour philosophical mindset of William Somerset wholly. Again, he’s a man worn out from the moral decay of society, and only reluctantly gets pulled towards this case. At first, he wants to avoid it, but Somerset’s intuitive and educated mind drives him towards it. Freeman greatly captures that reluctant attraction, and conveys the character’s psychological investigative approach with a great deal of skill and weight. Somerset is very meticulous, never jumping to conclusions, and Freeman has the right seasoned quality and grasp on tone to sell those qualities well. So much of the film’s tone is sold through him. Prior to the appearance of John Doe, all of the religious ideology and deconstruction of motive is carried by Morgan Freeman, and I don’t think anyone else could’ve done it as well as he did. While the screenplay explains it all very well, if handed over to the wrong actor, it might not sell remotely as well or as coherently. Again, it’s all in the tone, which is pitch perfect through Morgan Freeman’s deeply talented abilities.
In the same year that Kevin Spacey gave us his exceptional performance in The Usual Suspects, he also gave us this fascinating surprise performance as John Doe. It’s a greatly subdued and conservative piece of work that makes Doe so much more unsettling. Throughout his screentime, there’s that knowledge that Doe is not done, yet. There is something more chilling and frightening still to come, and Spacey’s performance is very foreboding in the most subtle way possible. He’s in control, and he is reveling in the impending completion of his masterpiece. It’s all amazingly compelling. Spacey won an Academy Award for his turn as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, and this role is equally deserving of that accolade.
The supporting cast is very solid. R. Lee Ermy is the tough Police Captain, but never falls into that Full Metal Jacket stereotype people like to shoehorn him into. While he doesn’t have a great amount of screentime, his character is given enough character beats to make him feel fleshed out and genuine. Gwyneth Paltrow is perfectly cast as Mills’ wife Tracy. She’s a very compassionate and loving woman who is not pleased with their current situation moving into the city, but has no desire to cause David any stress or turbulence by voicing her worries. She is an exceptionally decent young woman that definitely is out of place in this decaying urban setting, and Paltrow plays these emotional beats with depth and heart. Everyone else filling out the cast holds their own strongly, and help to create a very full and dimensional world for this film.
Lastly, Howard Shore composed a strong score by bringing weight to the grim, horrifying atmosphere. It truly emphasizes the drama, urgency, and intensity of the film. It’s not a score that jumps out at you, and nor should it be. It maintains and enhances dramatic tone throughout. Shore has proven to be a widely diverse film composer, and he is able to complement David Fincher’s darker cinematic style so very well here.
Andrew Kevin Walker put together a deeply impressive and stunning screenplay here, and Fincher was the absolute perfect choice to realize it. Much of what I write in these reviews is more than just saying if the film is good or bad. In a case such as this, it’s about spotlighting the brilliant achievements in filmmaking, and analyzing what made it such an instant, powerful classic. Seven is a landmark film for the genre, and especially for New Line Cinema. It was really their first A-list type of film attracting high profile movie stars like Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, and securing an amazing director with incredible vision in David Fincher. It’s entirely shot as a major studio film, and strongly moved New Line Cinema into contention as a serious, big budget studio. Only six years later would they release The Lord of the Rings trilogy to massive commercial and critical success. This was a pivotal film for both the studio and David Fincher. It is an all around shocking and amazing piece of work that delivers an intelligent story with thematic and dimensional elements along with startling images of graphic horror.
Admittedly, I am not a book reader. Whatever my issue, I find it difficult to sit down and read a full novel. So, while I have a good amount of say regarding this film, I have no frame of reference on the James Patterson novel it was based on. I like the Alex Cross character very much in what Morgan Freeman has given us, but with all of two films from more than a decade ago, it’s never been much of a film franchise. Both this and its follow-up Along Came A Spider (whose novel is actually a prequel to this) have similar problems, but Kiss the Girls is definitely the better of the two. Still, it doesn’t live up to the potential it could’ve had.
Washington, D.C. forensic psychologist Dr. Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) travels to North Carolina to investigate the apparent kidnapping of his niece Naomi. The local police have the evidence, but not the investigative intuitiveness to put the pieces together. Meanwhile, the strong willed, yet compassionate surgeon Dr. Kate McTiernan (Ashley Judd) is abducted and later escapes from this collector and killer of exceptional woman who calls himself “Casanova.” Now, aided by the sole escapee, Cross begins an investigation that takes him from one coast to the other and back trying to identify and capture the disillusioned “great lover.”
The actors in the film’s central focus, Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, are both very good. Judd makes Kate a very empowering character from the start, and she is easily presented as someone you can care about and feel strength from throughout. She’s physically tough, is confident, determined, but also, shows that she has vulnerability and compassion. It’s great that the film introduces her prior to her abduction in order for the audience to see the woman as she is naturally. From there, we are emotionally connected with her through her trauma and recovery. She was a strong person before, and this experience merely solidifies those qualities within her. Judd has plenty of gravitas and vibrancy. She keeps Kate McTiernan a forefront character that continues to stand tall throughout the narrative. It easily demonstrates the strong core of Ashley Judd’s acting ability, and why she has become such a revered talent over these many years.
Freeman is masterful as Alex Cross. He’s always been a very intellectual actor allowing the audience to see the gears turning in his head, and establishing a very particular manner for his roles. He inhabits them all well, and makes them subtly distinct. In this role, he shows us one of the best investigative minds in fiction. Cross is able to see the lines of connection that others can’t because he’s so detail oriented in his work, the same as Freeman is with his acting. When he walks into the squad room with all the abduction victims on the board, it doesn’t take him long to put it all together to understand why they were picked, and what Casanova’s agenda is. Just how Freeman’s eyes operate in a scene say so much of what Alex Cross is thinking and deducing. Cross is also tempered. He is calm and calculating in his investigative process. While the local cops are all a little smarmy and egotistical, Cross maintains a cool perspective on everything bringing a serious psychology to the case. He rarely allows his emotions to dictate his behavior, but even if he doesn’t show it, they can influence it. There’s no denying his personal stakes in this investigation, and that alters how he handles everything. In an interrogation scene, he can’t help but become enraged as a sleazy suspect talks sexually ill of his niece, and that shows that Cross is just as human as anyone. While he can remain focused and professional, maintaining his cool in dangerous situations, he has his limits. Still, he is able to rebound, admit his errors, and ultimately tie things up. Alex Cross, as portrayed by Morgan Freeman, is truly a fascinating characters full of potential. However, despite the strength of the character and the actor, that is not enough to lift the film into exceptional territory.
The unfortunate side of things is that the story and how it unfolds lacks compelling development. The bi-coastal killer plotline with the Gentleman Caller essentially has no pertinent relevance to hunting down Casanova. It comes off as a divergence ultimately added just to throw in some gunfire and stakeout scenes. While it does connect with the main story, it’s ancillary. You could cut it out, and it wouldn’t make a real difference towards the capture of Casanova. It only amounts to a gunshot echoing through the woods that leads Cross to finding the lair, and in time, they likely would’ve found it, regardless. This subplot is there so the characters have somewhere to go and something to do until the final act with its weak twist ending.
This is a negative mark against both Alex Cross films. They both have these twist endings that come out of nowhere which have no organic flow from the story or characters. By how Kiss the Girls is presented, Casanova could’ve turned out to be anyone or no one. Casanova ends up being a character that’s been there in the film all along, but no one knew it. The problem is that there is zero evidence presented throughout the movie towards that end. You take Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects for an example here. When you watch that movie for the first time, you see his performance in one way. However, on repeat viewings you see an entirely different performance because of what you discover at the film’s ending. Spacey himself hasn’t changed, but your perception of the character has. You see a subtle thing here or there that does seem peculiar, and does add up to something more substantive and telling later on. Unfortunately, none of that is here in Kiss the Girls. You can’t re-watch this movie and pick up on something you didn’t notice before in the performance of the actor who turns out to be Casanova. It’s played straight in every scene as if the character is exactly who he appears to be, but then, the performance changes entirely once the twist ending begins. That is very shallow and generic work from script to direction and beyond. A movie with a twist ending like this needs those little clues you can pick up on throughout, but not be able to fully assemble them until our protagonist has. However, when you look back, you see how all the pieces of the puzzle come together seamlessly. None of that exists in this screenplay or film. The ultimate reveal of who Casanova is turns out to be unsatisfying because of this issue.
This is not to say that the actor in question handles this turn poorly. It’s quite an exceptional performance that has substance and an unsettling quality. He sells it well, and doesn’t need a mask or shadows to make him appear intimidating and chilling. It’s simply the execution and lack of pre-existing evidence to that effect which is the failure here. Not to mention, the film ends kind of flat. It’s more about structure than anything. Casanova is dispatched with, and the film ends. All of the character resolution happens before this to make way for the surprise twist after the audience has let their guard down.
I feel like Alex Cross is an extraordinary character inserted into a mediocre film. The story structure is not tight enough to remain thoroughly satisfying, and the mystery of Casanova is not complex enough to really take advantage of Cross’ compelling intellect. There is more mystery about finding Casanova than actually exploring him. In another similar film like Manhunter, it’s all about putting every little piece of forensic and psychological evidence of the killer together to drive the protagonist of Will Graham towards confronting and stopping Francis Dollarhyde. Finding him is as important as discovering who he is from the inside out because they are symbiotic. It’s a chain reaction of one revelation begetting another. Within Alex Cross’ first moments on the case, he’s already figured out Casanova from the inside out, and it just becomes about finding and identifying him. However, this happens so early on in the storyline that actually finding Casanova requires the film to tangle up in a lot of unnecessary plot developments. It’s a great aspect of the character of Cross that he can do that, but it’s also a complication in the plot progression. Every new plot development is a red herring. It misdirects the characters towards something that ends up at a dead end, and only serves to pad out the run time. Also, the Gentleman Caller subplot almost immediately can be perceived as a bust to the audience because his behavior is such a stark opposite to what we experienced with Casanova earlier. Casanova is not a violent, impulsive person. He’s more subdued and even tempered. It’s not a good swerve in the plot, and results in no furthering of the plot or characters.
On the positive side, the cinematography of Aaron Schneider envelopes this film with excellent visual atmosphere. There is definitely some neo noir edge present with strong blacks, a little haze, and solid blue tones throughout. There’s enough light and shadow at play with a restrained color scheme to create a consistently tense visual style. It never gets too heavy, but it surely sets the tone of the world we’re delving into. Despite the shortcomings in the screenplay and story, Schneider’s work makes Kiss the Girls look especially good. The camera work itself might not be of particular note, but its subtle touches punctuate the right dramatic beats. One can take or leave the heavy use of Dutch angles in the final scene, but it’s probably more of sign of the times in the late 90s.
Adding upon that is the very good production design which gives life and personality to various environments. The police squad room looks authentic looking to have many years of use behind it. Casanova’s lair has its peculiar warmth in stark contrast to Dr. Rudolph’s cold, modern home. I like how Kate notes that it doesn’t feel like Casanova, and that design element alone fuel hers and Cross’ inquisitive minds. The environments reflect the characters that primarily inhabit them, and the cinematography captures them perfectly.
The supporting cast is good, some better than others, but none of them have much importance to the story being told. They serve their purposes and roles well, but in most cases, they are easily forgettable. Plus, I find it surprising that the always astounding Brian Cox is wasted in a minor role as Chief Hatfield. He puts in a strong performance, but why use such a powerful, diverse actor in what is essentially a nothing role? This film just seems to have a bad habit of wasting its potential.
I don’t have much exposure to director Gary Fleder’s other work. I recall seeing Runaway Jury several years ago, but it was more the performances from the heavyweight cast that made the impression more than anything. Here, it’s obvious he has a good handle on how to present the genre, and get some stellar performances out of his main actors. However, the loose storyline and pointless plot developments show that he’s not so much interested in presenting a tightly wrapped, riveting, or smart thriller as just going by the numbers. He tries to pass this off as a mystery when there’s only enough genuine storyline to fit into a 30-45 minute film. Everything else is pointless filler that amounts to nothing. Again, I do not know if these issues exist in James Patterson’s novel, but in this film, that’s what I perceive.
Kiss the Girls had the right base elements for a hell of a good thriller with an amazing lead character backed by an equally great actor. Ashley Judd anchors the film well giving Freeman someone to carry the weight with him. The film is boosted further with some nicely atmospheric noir cinematography. The premise is good but underdeveloped. There’s no real chase involved between Cross and Casanova. Nothing where one has to be more cunning than the other to stay ahead. That takes away the urgency, or at least, the relevant immediacy of the plot. You never get the feeling that there’s a connection between the hunter and the hunted, and the best films of this genre establish that in one way or another. Casanova never reacts to Cross as genuine threat, and Cross is too busy chasing down false leads to truly be in sync with his prey. Kiss the Girls is a decent thriller that is generally enjoyable, but lacks enough relevant plot developments to make it anything more than average. Again, Alex Cross feels like a potentially iconic character waiting for a film that is as intelligent and intriguing as he is. Whether we will eventually get that remains to be seen.