I’ve made some mentions of the Die Hard clone in recent months in reviews of Sudden Death, Olympus Has Fallen, and more. Now, just because you’re the first do something, or the one who sets the trend doesn’t always mean you did it best. However, in the case of John McTiernan’s blockbuster action film Die Hard, there is simply no equal. While I don’t list it as my number one favorite of all time, I cannot deny that this is likely the best action movie ever made, and there are a lot of qualities that go into making it that exceptionally awesome.
NYPD Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) has come to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company’s holiday party. However, as he waits for the festivities to end, the entire building is taken over by a heavily armed team perceived as terrorists, but their sinister leader, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), reveals that his interest is purely in greed. As the hostages are rounded up, McClane slips away with only his service revolver and his cunning wits at his disposal. What begins as a perfectly planned crime quickly ignites into McClane waging a one man war to save everyone before they are all blown sky high.
There are many things that set Die Hard apart from everything else, but I think the biggest key of it are the characters. Beyond just the performances, this film takes its time to introduce them to you, and allow for their dynamics and personalities to play out before any of the action begins. This is mainly the development between John and Holly McClane. Their turbulent marriage is fleshed out in smart, subtle beats that never feel like exposition, just natural conversation. These are real, relatable people in a grounded reality with normal problems that are soon thrust into an extraordinary situation, and because we get to know these characters through levity and emotional conflict, we care greatly about them once peril befalls them. Even the villains are given their due time to feel fleshed out and dimensional such as how Hans Gruber discusses men’s suits, art, and culture with Takagi before threatening him with a gun for the password to his vault. These moments make Gruber an interesting and engaging villain who has a fairly equal amount of depth to John McClane. This way, it is also a battle of wits and personalities as much as it is a pure action conflict. This is so much due to the time director John McTiernan and his screenwriters took to slip those important character building moments into the film, and that makes it a greatly more substantive action film that you would regularly get in any decade.
Now, the 1980’s were filled with the larger than life, nigh indestructible action hero. Then, comes along John McClane. This guy who is as vulnerable as the rest of us that gets beaten up, his feet sliced up by glass, bleeds everywhere, feels fear, and gets progressively worse for wear as the film goes on. All the while, under the intense stress of a violent life or death scenario, he’s cracking wise with everyone left and right just doing what he can to cope and survive. Where a Rambo or John Matrix type would just burst in blazing a full arsenal to wipe out everyone, McClane has to be clever and cautious every step of the way against these extremely well-armed killers. All he has is his wits, and Bruce Willis’ well established comedic talents blended perfectly into the quick witted quips of McClane. I’m sure there was speculation abound leading up to this film’s release as to Willis’ ability to be an action hero because of doing so many comedies, but he was able to bring a completely unique identity to this role that is hard to match. While it is the wisecracks that we remember so much, the purely human moments of drama really sell this character as one that stands apart from so many others. Bruce Willis really shows that he could do the full spectrum of acting here as he leads this film with charisma, heart, and physical intensity. He brings a fresh dimension and grounded realism to McClane that makes him the beloved, very human, bad ass icon that we so love.
Just how McClane is a distinct departure from the action heroes of the day, Hans Gruber distinguishes himself from many of the over the top, cheesy villains of the 80’s. Alan Rickman is brilliant as Hans Gruber. What truly makes this so is that he’s not obvious at all. Gruber is a guy who is smart, charming, smooth, educated, and charismatic. Yet, he’s a calculated, clever, ruthless villain. You can see that Gruber had every single detail of this plan plotted out perfectly, and is able to outsmart and keep ahead of everyone except for the one wild card in his brilliant crime in John McClane. As much of an sociopathic, murderous villain as Gruber is, you can be thoroughly entertained by the charisma and intelligence Alan Rickman injects into him, but you still rejoice when McClane finally does him in.
A little unexpected humor arises from the less than sharp minded LAPD and FBI. Paul Gleason’s Chief Robinson is clearly in over his head exercising clear incompetence while thinking he’s got everything under control. Then, FBI Agents Johnson and Johnson, a joke in and of itself, are too full of themselves with their gung ho testosterone to be perceptive enough to know when they’re being played. Add in more competent, yet still funny characters like Argyle the limo driver and Theo, Hans’ charismatic safe cracker, you’ve got laughs for miles without damaging the serious integrity of the action and drama of the movie. This is seriously one of the most quotable action movies ever.
Yet, amidst all the explosive thrills and well-timed humor, we get the tether of humanity with Sergeant Al Powell. Reginald VelJohnson connects perfectly in this role bringing the tired, wounded, and alone McClane into contact with someone on the outside who can be a moral and emotional support. An action film is great when the thrills are exciting and bombastic, but you get something exceptional when this thread of humanity is so strongly in place. VelJohnson gives us the full spectrum from lovable and funny to heartfelt and compassionate to stern conviction. Powell is ultimately given some depth and substance showing that this film wasn’t going to take a shortcut anywhere at all. The very human moments between Powell and McClane are a special strength.
But indeed, the action is ultimately the driving force of this movie, and once that spark of excitement is lit, it runs on pure adrenalin with riveting intensity and masterful execution. This is big action with a real sense of gravity and peril. The scale makes it amazingly fun and exciting while the weight of the drama makes it suspenseful and electrifying. I love the subplot with Karl’s vendetta against McClane for the murder of his brother, and when the two finally clash, it’s awesome. After all of the heavy gunfire and explosions, the few minutes of visceral raw physicality are a breath of fresh air before the scale of the action escalates further with the roof exploding signaling the third act rocketing forward. Die Hard does nothing but amaze you at every turn. Every step of the way, we care about these characters in the thick of danger, and we gradually see it escalate as Gruber’s plan unfolds. It’s also great seeing McClane figure things out a little at a time, such as wondering why Hans was on the roof, and then, realizing he plans to blow it sky high with all the hostages on it.
I tend to write these reviews while watching the movie so to pick up on all the nuances, but Die Hard is so consistently engaging, thrilling, and entertaining that I could hardly tear my attention away to type anything up. Whether it is the absolutely wickedly awesome action, the touching character building moments, or the great laughs it elicits from an audience, Die Hard is the perfect example of executing an action film correctly. There’s not a moment wasted, and the editing is dead-on sharp and perfect in its pacing and timing. Moments are so excellently punctuated with the right cut, and even more so with Michael Kamen’s remarkably intense and spectacular score. His is a masterwork of brilliant, sophisticated action film compositions. Not to mention, this is an expertly shot movie using those beautiful anamorphic lenses and that cinemascope widescreen canvas to accentuate the scale of the action. And where many action films today can barely keep the camera steady long enough to understand the geography of a single scene, McTiernan and cinematographer Jan de Bont do so many subtle things to layout the geography of this entire building. Early on, they walk you through the entire central area of the Nokatomi Tower over the opening credits so you understand where the hallways, elevator, offices, and stairway are so we can navigate it as competently as the characters. As the film goes on, we revisit the conference room, the elevator shafts, and the roof to maintain a familiar environment for the action. As a film lover and a filmmaker myself, this movie just makes me gush from a technical standpoint as it is so perfectly executed in every moment. This film is exquisitely made from a massively talented team of filmmakers, sonic geniuses, and brilliant visual artists.
This film was adapted from the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, and many of the mind blowing and clever moments in the film are taken directly from the novel. McClane’s jump from the exploding roof with the fire hose wrapped around him, the C-4 bomb thrown down the elevator shaft, and more exist in Thorp’s novel. Apparently, it was a novel written as a sequel to The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra, but he declined the role. Years later, it was supposedly intended as a sequel to Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, before being re-fashioned into the action classic that we now know and love. Indeed, everything has its right time to come to fruition, and Die Hard happened in the right way at the right time with the right talent.
Between this and Predator, John McTiernan established himself as one of the premiere action movie directors of the time, and of course, this launched Bruce Willis into blockbuster super stardom. Despite how Willis now feels about doing action movies, saying he’s bored with them at this point, we will always have these pinnacles of the genre when Willis was in his prime and eager to do his absolute best. Die Hard is probably the most perfect action movie I have ever seen as it hits all of the beats of excitement and character just right with a spot-on mix of drama and humor to make it an undeniably memorable experience. For anyone who has only ever seen either the fourth or fifth film in this franchise, you are doing a horrible disservice to yourself in basing the quality of Die Hard on those films. As I said from the start, there is simply no equal.
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.
I’ve really liked this film ever since its theatrical release. It didn’t get good reviews, and was a bomb taking in only $17 million out of its $25 million budget. It continues to show me that while I may love erotic thrillers, they are rarely marketable to a mass audience. However, the sexual aspects of this film are a backdrop for what I view as a fairly solid twisting thriller. What engages me about Deception are the performances of its leads in Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor, and Michelle Williams, and the rich, stunning neo noir cinematography by Danté Spinotti. The latter is no surprise as he has shot many Michael Mann films including Manhunter and Heat. I find Deception to be an intriguing thriller that is heavily aided by that striking visual atmosphere, and some smart directing from Marcel Langenegger.
Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is an auditor in Manhattan, moving from office to office checking the books of various companies. While working late, a smooth, well-dressed lawyer named Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) chats Jonathan up, offers him a joint, and soon they’re pals. Jonathan is a very lowly, modest man, but Wyatt soon opens him up to a world of pleasurable desires and sexual confidence. When their cell phones are accidentally swapped, Jonathan answers Wyatt’s phone to a series of women asking if he’s free tonight. He soon discovers it’s a sex club where busy, powerful people meet each other anonymously in hotels for discrete encounters. However, he fully breaks all the rules when he falls for one of the club members, whom he knows only as “S” (Michelle Williams), whom he’s also seen on a subway. Yet, during an intimate night out, she goes missing, patterns emerge, and Jonathan faces demands involving violence, murder, treachery, and a large sum of money.
An excellent neo noir tone of mystery and isolation is struck right from the beginning with the quiet and moody opening title sequence. It’s just Jonathan sitting in a conference room, alone, late at night, but the vibe just sinks in very deeply to establish his isolated nature. He’s isolated from the world around him, always removed from the activity of the offices he’s working at, and has no real social life to speak of. The film is very regularly set in at nighttime inside clubs, hotels, offices, taxicabs, and elsewhere allowing for that dark, subversive tone to seep in. However, even the daytime scenes have a certain drained quality that maintain that atmosphere. The visual tone eases up just enough in those moments allowing you to not get bogged down by the visual darkness. What we get, overall, is a multi-toned film that moves from that lonely isolation to a lively and exciting world that is full of mysterious passion, but then, segues into a very heartfelt romantic connection that becomes the emotionally motivating element of the story. From there, it delves fully into the tense and threatening first, main twist of the film where our villain reveals his true colors.
Within only fifteen minutes, the film establishes a strong relationship between Jonathan and Wyatt. It hits all the right beats fleshing out their personalities with quick, substantive exchanges, and showing us how Wyatt just pushes Jonathan out far enough to take some chances. He opens Jonathan’s mind to being outgoing and perceiving the pleasures that one can indulge in, when the opportunities arise. This then sets Jonathan off on his own seductive, sexually charged encounters that really liven up his life. The sex and nudity are never raunchy. Everything has a beauty, vigor, and sensual quality that is very elegant and classy. We are given context for this anonymous sex club as it is something for the excessively busy successful person to gain “intimacy without intricacy,” as Charlotte Ramplings’ Wall Street Belle states to Jonathan. Still, for someone like Maggie Q’s Tina, there’s a compulsion to the danger of being with someone mysterious and anonymous. It has an attraction and outlet for almost anyone, and for Jonathan, it builds a more confident man. However, as I said, the erotic elements are merely a backdrop, a facilitating plot element that surrounds the film, but never dominates it. They tie directly back into the plot regularly, and the sex scenes are never gratuitous. They all serve a purpose towards the development of the story or characters. Most erotic thrillers use sex scenes as frivolously as many lower grade action films use action sequences. When they have relevance to the story, they work, but when they are just there to fill the skin quota, that’s when you’ve got a late night Skinemax flick. Deception surely and thankfully fits into the former category.
Furthermore, there is nothing wasted in the run time of this film. The pace is tight with an even rhythm and stellar editing. The plot develops very organically, and progresses without a hitch. It’s never too brisk to sacrifice character, but never lags at the cost of the story. Every aspect of the characters and plot fit in snugly, and propel the narrative forward in every scene. The filmmakers knew how far to weave their plot threads, and never stretched them out or rushed through anything. It’s all evenly balanced to achieve the right pace. The story is rather lean, and maybe some would prefer a little more proverbial meat on the bone of the script. However, it really didn’t require or demand more. What we are given works very well giving us enough substance to make this a full narrative, and avoiding any over complicated indulgences or dragged out sections of the film. We are given a few well placed twists that are well earned, and more importantly, are setup with care and intelligence. The little seeds of knowledge are laid out here and there to make the deceptions solid and convincing. All the qualities of the narrative flow together very smoothly and smartly. The second half of the film shows Jonathan’s development as he has the confidence to take action against Wyatt, and become a more capable protagonist when under pressure. I also think the development of the romantic relationship between Jonathan and S is done beautifully, and brings a warm levity to the right parts of the film. This really sets the film apart from other seductive thrillers as they rarely feature a genuinely decent and charming romantic storyline. Ultimately, it is this element that the film is most concerned with, and does continue to make it a point of importance for the characters.
Ewan McGregor is an actor that I have a true fondness for. While I haven’t seen many of his movies, I do find him an exceptional talent who always shows dedication and enthusiasm for his work. As Jonathan McQuarry, he demonstrates a very modest quality. He’s clearly a man of humble upbringings that’s never been adventurous or daring. His new sexual experiences do energize him, but don’t taint the man he is underneath. He matures into a fuller person not held back by his old timid hesitations, but never loses the decency and heart that define him. When he meets and gets to know S, he is genuinely enamored by her in a touching, heartfelt way. McGregor embodies these endearing qualities authentically and with all the kind-hearted charm possible. There’s nothing disingenuous about his performance. It all comes straight from the heart, and when Jonathan’s forced into the more adversarial aspects of the film, the tension and fearful weight of the plot are carried wonderfully by him. He makes for an engaging and sympathetic protagonist.
I am also highly impressed by Hugh Jackman here, as I usually am. He’s also an actor I believe has incredible talent, and he really sinks his teeth into this role. He starts out as a somewhat charming individual who enjoys indulging in all the lustful pleasures of life. He’s charismatic and quite the arrogant jackass, but he’s able to ensnare Jonathan out of his shell with temptations of new, daring experiences. Despite Wyatt’s abrasive ego, you are able to accept him as an intriguing instigator of excitement in Jonathan’s life. Now, I don’t believe I’ve seen Jackman portray a full-on villain before, but he is intensely intimidating as one here. His manipulative turn later in the film is dark and devilish. There’s enough mystery about his character to make him threatening, but when you find out what he is capable of, that only backs up and enhances the severe, frightening qualities of Jackman’s character and performance. Overall, I think he relished playing every facet of this character, and it really shows through while never betraying the grounded weight of the film. Being a producer on the movie I’m sure only benefitted the quality of his on-screen work.
Michelle Williams puts on a beautiful performance, reflecting her own gorgeous physical beauty. She brings out a warm, soulful depth of heart to S. She just glows on screen with her bright smile and sweet presence. She also presents a sexually confident woman who is sensual and seductive, but not aggressive. Williams has a sparkling, heartfelt chemistry with Ewan McGregor that is the shining quality of this film. They play off each other with such genuine loving emotion that you truly feel how special this is for both characters. She is able to convey a rich array of emotions that really forge a connection with the audience in relation to Jonathan. She is a vibrant ray of light that gives this film an endearing emotional weight that we are regularly reminded of, and really has resonance in the end.
The score was done by Ramin Djawadi, who also later scored the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House, and he is amazingly consistent in his style and quality. As I mentioned in my Safe House review, his compositions are very evocative of the scores heard in many Michael Mann films such as Collateral. Meshed with Spinotti’s cinematography, that couldn’t have created a more desirable result for me. Djawadi does an impeccable job layering in tension, suspense, and an alluring, elegant mystique to the film. It’s just a work of excellence, in my view, and I’m glad to experience his work regularly on the TV series Person of Interest. He puts so much depth and lush sensuality into the Deception score, and I highly recommend checking out the soundtrack release.
Deception was partially shot on digital video giving a bold, clear visual quality to all these dark environments, and this film pushes the visual darkness to a new, deep level. The strip club scene early on has rich, pristine colors. Yet, other scenes are more muted mostly utilizing soft greens and ambers to evoke a very inviting visual mood. Danté Spinotti’s cinematography just makes such gorgeous use of color, as he’s been doing since Manhunter, and his camera work and compositions are stunningly beautiful. This man makes art out of every frame using light, shadow, movement, and depth of field to masterful extent and detail. The Chinatown sequence is a special favorite of mine that motivated me to visit Chicago’s Chinatown shortly after the film’s release. The Chinese architecture and visual culture really creates a romantic mystique for Jonathan and S’s most engaging encounter. Deception has a visual style that really is a feast and a pleasure for my eyes. It sets my artistic filmmaking imagination on fire. Now, I will admit that the first few times I saw the movie, the scenes in Spain at the end left me wanting from a visual standpoint. The rest of the movie was so rich with seductive atmosphere and shadowy moodiness that the soft, muted quality of the daytime scenes in Spain didn’t do much for me.
The ending in general, story wise, left me a bit unsatisfied for a while as well. I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that the film deserved a stronger, more intense pay-off. It could’ve used a more personal and emotionally charged comeuppance in light of everything that Jackman’s character had done. On early viewings, it did lack an especially impactful punctuation to that aspect of the story. Ultimately, it’s focused on the relationship between Jonathan and S, and I can surely accept that as a vital part of the story. I just felt that the ending we got just didn’t have as much resonance as I would have wanted between McGregor and Jackman. I’m not sure what that resolution would be, but it seemed like it needed a little more build up and pay-off. Of course, on repeated viewings, I have been able to easily accept it by way of familiarity. I still would prefer a stronger resolution to the adversarial conflict of the film, but I can enjoy the film quite well as it is today.
Regardless of this, I still feel that screenwriter Mark Bomback, along with creative input by director Marcel Langenegger, put together a very well crafted and sharply written script. The characters are fully developed and vibrantly inhabit this world and the story, and the plot is tightly wrapped around them. I think the character of Jonathan McQuarry has a wonderful arc that allows him to fully break free of his meek shell, and into a bright world of possibilities. Yet, he has to trudge through a dangerous and seductive world to get there, but it’s an evolution that he earns. The deceptions that weave into the story are very cleverly threaded, and culminate in some chilling, intimidating moments that sell the danger Jonathan becomes trapped in. It’s surely not the greatest mystery of all time, but for someone that just cannot write a mystery to save his life, I have to commend someone when they achieve a rather intelligently written manipulative tale.
So, the big critics didn’t like it, and many didn’t care to give it a chance. I’m not saying it’s some unsung gem of cinema, but Deception is a fine film handled with care by a lot of exceptional filmmaking talents. I really like the narrative it tells, and the qualities of emotion and heart it focuses on in our loving leads. Unlike many dark, edgy, and dangerous thrillers, it doesn’t delve you into the gritty violence or erotic sleaze. It’s an elegantly made film enveloped in a very shadowy, sultry world of treachery and passion. If you have an appreciation for neo noir, I highly recommend this film for the gorgeous, brilliant cinematography alone. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and find beauty in, and being a major fan of crime thrillers, I’m very pleased to see this film go into some different directions and find something other than fractured souls and tragic crimes. Of course, that clearly means I’m going to have to review some more Michael Mann movies shortly.
Time travel is the biggest pain in the backside to comprehend. It can become circular logical trying to make sense of the contradictions, continuity resolutions, and potential paradoxes. Timecop certainly has these problems due to half thought-out ideas, but where these issues would normally sour the entire film to me, Timecop has just enough entertainment value to dwarf those concerns. Peter Hyams, who shot and directed this film, clearly deserves much credit for bringing the right talents and elements together to achieve a result that is satisfying on all other levels.
In 1994, time travel is made possible, and upon learning of this, the U.S. government forms a confidential agency called the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC) to police time itself, and prevent changes in the past. Washington, D.C. police officer Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) accepts an assignment to this new agency, but on this very day, he and his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) are attacked. This results in Melissa’s death and the destruction of their home. Ten years later, Max Walker grieves still, but has become a respected TEC Agent. Max ends up having to take in Atwood, his own ex-partner, for tampering with the past with the stock market. When coxed about who hired him to do this, the name Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver) is named, but Atwood refuses to testify to this fearing for the lives of his family. McComb is a presidential candidate who has been stealing from the past to fund his campaign so that he can essentially buy the presidency. McComb quickly learns of Walker’s knowledge, and continually seeks to eliminate him and shut down the TEC entirely. Max becomes determined to expose the Senator’s criminal actions, which come to include multiple murders, but his TEC superior, Matuzak (Bruce McGill) keeps Max from going too far without evidence to support his claims. However, all things become interwoven as McCombs’ manipulative plans take Walker back to 1994 where his past and future come into peril. Can Max change history before it repeats itself?
There is just something about the old action heroes that is missing today. While Jean-Claude Van Damme has amazing physical ability with remarkable martial arts talent, he also has plenty of charisma and heart to really make his roles empathetic. He gives them enough dimension and charm to be someone an audience can thoroughly enjoy watching. The young Max Walker is a warm, light-hearted man with a lot of passion and love. The older Max Walker is more rough around the edges. He’s a lonelier man that is very dedicated to his job, and takes his commitment to it very seriously. He has a strong ethical and moral center that doesn’t allow him to back down from McComb. Still, he retains the charm and wit of his younger self, but with a tinge of conviction. Van Damme plays both versions nicely, and keeps an emotional connective tissue between them. He carries the film with plenty of heart, humor, and dramatic weight. He also has excellent chemistry with his co-stars.
Primarily among them is the late Ron Silver who made for an excellent cold blooded villain as McComb. His charisma is very sharp as he commands the screen with intelligence and conviction. He is very imposing and intimidating. McComb is a man driven by the need for power, and everyone in his path towards it is expendable. With the advantage of time travel, he can essentially prevent anyone from ever existing, but in some cases, he hardly sees a need to be so severe. He also doesn’t mind doing his own dirty work. He just can’t do it all himself. The younger Senator McComb has ambition and vision, but is not hardened, yet. His elder presidential candidate self is very cutthroat. Silver brings immense weight to the picture that fuels the dogged motivation in Van Damme’s performance. The two have very good chemistry playing off one another many times in the film. They have a very effective counterbalance that keeps the movie compelling and entertaining. They exchange several sharp, humorous remarks that entirely fit their characters, and maintain a tension between Walker and McComb that injects urgency into the plot.
I am continually impressed by Bruce McGill’s talent. I was first introduced to him on MacGyver as the humorous con man Jack Dalton, but since then, I have seen the vast range and depth he is capable of. From roles in The Insider, Collateral, The Last Boy Scout, Quantum Leap, and a very memorable episode of Miami Vice, I can seriously say that he is one of the best character actors around. As Matuzak, he holds his ground very easily as Walker’s boss with the weight of authority and a quick witted levity. He cares a good deal about Max, but he always keeps his priorities and responsibilities in check. He never lets his friendship compromise his position, at least, not until circumstances become desperate and Matuzak has to stretch his trust in Walker. McGill and Van Damme also have thoroughly entertaining chemistry that livens up the film, smartly. Walker and Matuzak are good, tusted friends with a lot of history behind them which adds to the depth of the story. Van Damme and McGill reflect that nicely giving the film some funny interactions that only a couple of good, long time friends could offer up.
Mia Sara is beautiful beyond just the physical. As Melissa, you have zero trouble believing in Max’s deep love for her. She’s compassionate, seductive, and lovely. The love for Max is always in her eyes, and definitely connects through to an audience. Mia Sara projects every emotion with heart-gripping depth. Her interactions with Jean-Claude are wonderful, as are all the relationships in the film. The whole cast really does a superb job playing off one another, hitting the right dramatic and tonal marks. The performances are very consistent and complementary. It’s almost surprising, but pleasantly so.
The visual effects are kind of mixed. The optical composites putting two Van Dammes or two Ron Silvers into the same frame at the same time are generally pretty good, and the time travel “ripple” effect is well done. There is also a wicked cool moment where Walker kicks the young McComb in the face, and then, the scar from it morphs onto the face of the older McComb. These little flourishes are exceptionally nice, and add some originality to the film. However, the more complex digital effects are rather primitive. I can only imagine this was due to budgetary constraints. CGI was likely still highly expensive in 1994 as only Steven Spielberg and James Cameron blockbusters got to make elaborate use of them. This wasn’t Industrial Light & Magic at work here. While there are only two such moments in the movie, one of which is a very critical moment that I cannot say how it will affect your enjoyment if you’re just watching Timecop now for the first time. I’ve known what to expect since Timecop originally hit VHS in the mid-1990s, and so, it doesn’t bother me at all. For a modern audience, it might be a sour note.
Finally discovering and getting my hands on the first ever widescreen release of this film on DVD, I can properly enjoy the wonderful cinematography by Peter Hyams (who also directed the feature). I can definitely tell it was shot by him due to the use of contrast through heavy light and shadow. The movie has plenty of visual atmosphere, but it never goes too far. There’s a certain noir aspect to much of Hyams’ lighting and cinematography in addition to my beloved 2.35:1 aspect ratio that give Timecop some solid production values. It also gives the film some distinctive identity and edgy dramatic weight. Hyams captures and directs the action very, very well. He has his pacing and composition crafted beautifully creating a very coherent string of action sequences that are thoroughly satisfying. Hyams puts Van Damme’s talent nicely on display. Jean-Claude has many awesome moments flexing his agility and ability. The shot of JCVD jumping and doing the splits on the countertop to avoid the stun gun was a memorable moment from the trailer, and remains as such within the film. His martial arts skills make for a unique and hard hitting style that really gives the film a lot of kick. The choreography is plotted out greatly to make the scenes develop logically and organically. The knife fight alone is a nice change of pace, adding to the creativity of the action.
Now, if it wasn’t for all this good talent elevating the quality of this film, it would not be a winner. Again, there are so many confusing issues that arise from the underdeveloped time travel concepts and plot turns in this, that you cannot hold the screenplay as a gold standard of the genre. The general story works very well supported by the acting talents involved, but analyzed at all and its mechanics fall apart. It’s too complicated to dissect here, but simply said, the space-time continuum should’ve imploded by the end of this movie. Paradoxes are abound with people being killed, partially erased from the timeline, resetting timelines, and people retaining knowledge of multiple timelines despite the continuity changing constantly with new incursions into the past. There’s never any constant in what makes for a good time travel story as there’s always some inherent technical complications. Even those that have a well stated theory of time travel can often fall apart, often with their sequels taking too many liberties with the plot. There’s no Doc Brown or Sam Beckett type characters present to really speak to the screenwriter’s theories of time travel. So, the film generally avoids getting too deep into it, and thus, it’s best to avoid rationalizing the logic of it all. In any case, for a little more insight into this matter you can visit an old favorite website of mine which takes a few moments to breakdown the basic flaws: Temporal Anomalies in Popular Time Travel Movies.
The production design is very good with some large sets that offer up some additional scope. The entire TEC facility has a slight futuristic quality, but retains a utilitarian mentality which grounds it. The control room, offices, and launch bay retain a purely functional design idea that would be akin to a secret government facility. It also allows Peter Hyams to create the aforementioned shadowy, noir inspired lighting schemes. The only area where the “futuristic” time of 2004 crashes and burns is the design of these butt ugly automobiles. I’ve never seen a concept car that took the armored, blocky design approach, and indeed, I’m glad that these filmmakers did not accurately foretell the future in this aspect. Aside from that, the art direction is very good, and maybe a little reflective of 1990s visual aesthetics (something that I have no problems with).
The good fortune of this film is that the filmmakers and cast worked hard to make it entertaining and enjoyable. The screenwriter abandoned any serious logic in the temporal mechanics so that the plot could work how he wanted it to. That’s never a good thing, but there’s enough quality put on screen to mostly cloud that shortcoming. Van Damme is great handling all the demands of the role smoothly from dramatic to humorous to emotional to the physical. The supporting cast is just as strong keeping the film consistently entertaining. The characters are well written, and even better realized with solid casting choices. Peter Hyams deserves a lot of credit for creating a film that features high production values with appealing performances and action sequences built on a script that didn’t make much sense, but was satisfying nonetheless.