Saturday, January 5, 2013

We Rank 'Em: The Dumbest Smart Crime Films

I didn't like The Dark Knight. Let's just get that out there right away.

What makes a crime film "smart"? Generally speaking, a director's delusions of grandeur, an ensemble cast, and a refusal to edit. These movies essentially mimic The Godfather, often without success. They seek to be epic, but are often cliched, overblown, and too damn long.

Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown wasn’t loved when it was released. The film was after all Tarintino’s follow-up to Pulp Fiction. Though the movie was fairly boring, we need to consider the context. Pulp Fiction didn’t “define a genre.” It changed film. Disjointed storytelling, ensemble casts, pop culture references: this is what made “cool” films cool in the nineties. Perhaps not coincidentally, Jackie Brown is the least Tarantino of Tarantino’s movies. The movie feels more like what it is: a so-so adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel. The film has its moments. Pam Grier is mesmerizing in every scene, Samuel L. Jackson is evil, Brigit Fonda delightful, Forester the definition of likable. The problem is that every single scene, every single shot, every interaction between characters, is at least ten seconds too long. Which adds up to a sluggish movie experience.

The Dark Knight
I am sitting in a theater watching The Dark Knight for the first time. I am a lifelong Batman fan, but like most people I have been disappointed with every Batfilm. I am excited about this one. It looks for real. The movie begins. I am enjoying what I see. The movie continues. Heath Ledger is the Joker. The movie ratchets up. A damn fine car chase. The movie ends. The movie continues. OK, two endings. Interesting. The movie keeps on continuing. I am getting annoyed. What was the best Batman adaptation is getting less awesome by the minute. The movie doesn’t end. Introducing Two Face for the sequel. Not bad. The movie refuses to end. The Two Face plot is resolved. Poorly. They’ve wasted the second greatest Batman villain. I now hate The Dark Knight. In the ensuing weeks and months, my alienation from the rest of humanity deepens.

The first of Soderberg’s lecture series, Traffic is what I would call a worthy effort. Soderberg’s characters don’t talk, they share information, facts, figures. I wish people on political talk shows were as articulate and persuasive as them. But this sort of messaging does make for good dialog. Traffic’s main problem isn’t its preachiness. The problem is that it’s boring and cliched. Like most of Soderberg's films, it doesn't take any real chances. The anti-drug politician’s daughter is a crackwhore. Consider the irony.

I imagine that a healthy chunk of frat boys who’ve bought a Scarface poster or t-shirt have never really watched the film. Maybe they were once in a room where the film was playing. Maybe they've seen YouTube clips. But they didn’t actually watch the movie. It’s long, ridiculous, gratuitous, preposterous. (That sentence is unintentionally Jackie Chilesesque.) And Pacino delivers what is perhaps the poorest performance in an otherwise shameful career. There’s no need to get into Tony Montana’s accent. And even the name. Montana? I grew up in East Bakersfield, I’ve lived in Spain, and I have never met a Latino or Spaniard named “Montana.” If the movie had been made a decade later, the protagonist’s name could have been “Tony Dorito” or “Tony Bell Grande.”

The Town
Crime films like The Town exist for only one reason: to give handsome white actors a chance to play working-class folk. Of course, Hollywood could write stories about actual working class people. Struggling to pay the mortgage, getting laid off, trying to keep the family together. There’s drama in working class lives. But screenwriters are relatively-privileged hacks, who simply pilfer from existing conventions. Instead of realness, we get clichéd characterizations. The Irish Catholic crime film, for example. The Town trots out all the clichés. Thief in love with a civilian. Psycho partner/old buddy from the neighborhood. Obsessed investigator. One last heist. Cool disguises. Plus it takes place in Boston, a place that I am fairly sure exists no longer outside of movies.

I have lost friendships over the utter piece of shit that is Heat. I have never been so angry at a film. Heat is everything that was bad about the ‘90s movie: too many actors and too many stories; attempts at ironic synchronicity; uninteresting violence; Tom Sizemore. It’s bad enough that Michael Mann just remade his own TV movie. The result is the worst “smart” crime film. Heat could have been good with some heavy editing—considerably more editing than The Dark Knight requires. But Mann had no intention of making a good movie; he was making a great one. Fucking fail. The scene where Pacino hugs the African-American mother of a murder victim is an incredibly thing to watch. A truly execrable film.

Honorable Mention:
Once Upon a Time in America: Long. Boring. That’s all I remember.