By John H. Foote
(***) In Theatres
Michael Bay has been the target of much scornful film criticism the last few years because his movies have, frankly, sucked. Though he is a master technician, capable of creating stunning action sequences, massive bits of chaos onscreen, and overwhelming visual effects, character development has never graced his films. There are always some small surprises in his early films, the reminder of what the nurses and hospitals endured on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 in his film Pearl Harbor (2001) was a shocking wake up call, the startling bits of humanity on Armageddon (1998) that elevated the film far above anything it had a right to be, but the last 10 years his career has nose dived into five Transformers films, and God help us all, and The Island (2005), a dumbass thriller that lacked a single thrilling moment. When his name is mentioned it is never with Oscar potential or even good reviews, we have all but given up on him. Let us be fair, Armageddon was a terrific ride, with a commanding Bruce Willis in the lead and some of the best character actors in the business having some fun, Steve Buscemi most of all. Billy Bob Thornton was noble and unshakable on earth as the NASA chief hoping his motely group of drillers do their job in destroying a meteor speeding to earth which will obliterate planet earth and every living thing on it. Armageddon is a guilty pleasure of mine and so beautifully put together you are willing to forgive the inconsistencies in the story, you strap in and have fun with it. Though Pearl Harbor was met with brutal reviews and a ridiculous final half hour, and that simply stupid scene of Roosevelt (Jon Voight) miraculously rising out of his wheelchair (cue tears), the sequences of the actual attack were visceral and astounding, the honesty in what the men went through that day haunting, and the scenes of the nurses bathed in blood, revelatory. But Transformers movies? Brutal, it seems Bay was taking his career into the depths of hell from where he would never emerge.
His new film is a wild ride, bolstered by fine performances (yep, I said that), a believable premise (well, with a wink), crazy wild action sequences and a pulse pounding, straight forward narrative that makes this one of the best action films in years. Remember that giddy feeling we got watching Speed (1994) for the first time? Dennis Hopper’s villain, the premise that if the bus slowed below 50 mph it would explode, the intense focus of Keanu Reeves and the glorious Sandra Bullock? It was an action flick that was fun, in which the performances – Hopper and Bullock especially – worked, and the cinematography, sound and editing were drop dead brilliant. Not Bay’s film, but a similar film to this.
The smartest thing to do when a director is faced with a light screenplay, one that could go either way is cast well, find actors audiences like, who can act and sell the story. Remember the great Jon Voight in Anaconda (1997)? He knew the screenplay was dreadful, that the writer had left them with no one to play, that the premise of the film was stupid beyond words, so he decided to give a huge, broad performance and have a blast with it. His eyes gleam with mischief throughout the film because while the rest of the actors are flailing their way through the mess, he is having a ball. His iconic moment comes when after being ingested by the massive snake, he is spit out, his body broken from being constricted, and he winks at us. HE WINKS! That is Voight telling us all I get it, this is terrible, but go with it. Turn your actors loose when the script fails you, which Bay does.
It might be the smartest move of his career.
Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen III) is a decorated war veteran struggling to pay his bills and faced with a massive hospital debt that he cannot afford for an operation to save his wife’s life. Without it she will die and very soon, but his insurance will not pay for the life saving surgery despite his service to his country. After exhausting every avenue to get money he reaches out to his adopted, estranged brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) hoping for a loan, but Danny has other plans. He will give Will the money he needs if his brother takes part in a bank robbery, helping Danny and his crew steal $32 million. Danny, you see, is a bad guy, a criminal and one very bad dude if pushed. What can Will do but accept? His cut will be more than enough to pay for the operation and a new lifestyle for his family. His wife wants him nowhere near his brother and has no idea Will has gone to see him. Seeing no other way, not willing to lose his wife, Will is in.
The film moves along through the introductions nicely, but when Gyllenhaal shows up, he takes it to a different level with a Nicolas Cage-esque performance that walks a fine line between being brilliant and dangerous to almost a cartoon he goes so far over the top. But Gyllenhaal is far too good an actor to ruin the film with an overacted performance, he knows just when to pull back. His Danny is a dangerous guy, no question, but he is not stupid and when the robbery goes horribly wrong he is there with answers and ideas as to how to get out. The bank robbery should have gone easily enough, but when it did not bodies started piling up, Will and Danny commandeer an ambulance complete with an EMT worker trying to save a cop the men have shot. They speed off into the busy streets of Los Angeles with the police in hot pursuit and all too visible in the ambulance.
As the young EMT, Cam (Aiza Gonzalez) works frantically to keep the cop alive, improvising with the tools she has onboard the emergency vehicle, the ambulance tears through the streets avoiding the police at all costs. Both Danny and Will are painfully aware if they stop, they are dead and neither wants that outcome, so their mantra becomes “We don’t stop!”
The great strengths of the film are the acting, direction, cinematography and editing which combine to give the audience a wild ride and great rush of adventure. It has been a very long time since Bay toned down what he had on screen and worked with basics, which he does here, giving us his best film since Armageddon.
The performances are terrific, perfectly in tune to the film, especially Gyllenhaal’s Danny who can be speaking calmly and with rationality one second but suddenly go mad, with vein bulging temper tantrums that should scare anyone near him. It is a fine performance, his Danny is a dark guy, and Gyllenhaal finds the perfect tone to portray the character within Bay’s vision.
Abdul-Mateen III is equally fine as Will, a man driven to a desperate act out of love for his wife. Every bone in his body knows it is wrong, everything in him screams stay away from Danny, but out of love he goes along with it. We can feel and see the regret in him onboard the ambulance and it is heartbreaking. What will he say to his wife if they survive? Will they survive?
Gonzalez spends almost the entire film working on the wounded cop, in some state of motion or panic throughout, a difficult kind of emotion to maintain. That she does it so well is a credit to her an as actress.
In the end the film belongs to Bay, and he does not disappoint.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.