Writer, Lawyer, Soldier, Spy: 2011 In Suspense

(Movies discussed in this post: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Point Blank, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Source Code, Unknown, The Adjustment Bureau, Limitless.)

Admit it: the suspense is killing you. You’re just dying to know what I thought of the year’s thrillers, aren’t you?

Well, wait no longer. The mystery is unearthed below.

Stupid comedies fail to engage me. A vapid chick flick won’t capture my attention. Torture porn is, for me… well, torture. But there is one genre that never fails to entertain me at least a little — the suspense thriller. I don’t know why. I’m a sucker for cheap thrills or those of a more expensive variety. It doesn’t much matter. I’ll take what I can get. I particularly love those trashy woman-in-jeopardy movies like The Net, Sleeping With The Enemy, or Double Jeopardy. Not because they’re good — but because they’re there.

Generally, the studio offerings are a mixed bag throughout the year, with action-thrillers failing at the crucial “thrill” part of the bargain. Not so this year. To my surprise, not only did we get some art films masquerading as mainstream commercial thrillers (or is that the other way around?) like Drive and Hanna, but even the more conventional genre exercises were above par, generally speaking. (At least the ones I elected to see.) There were not a whole of women in jeopardy, unfortunately for me. But I suppose men in jeopardy will do.

Things got off to a rickety start with The Adjustment Bureau, a March release that had some promising elements — the pairing of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, an intriguing premise based on a Philip K. Dick short story — something about mystical life “adjusters” who attempt to keep a lovestruck politician and dancer away from each other because their relationship will ruin their futures. But that compelling hook turns out to be totally ludicrous, as adapted by writer-director George Nolfi.

I couldn’t fully even explain the nonsensical “rules” of this movie world if I tried, but it goes something like this: the adjusters have existed for centuries to limit man’s free will. They wear magical fedoras and travel through enchanted doors, and sometimes freeze time and erase people’s memories (but prefer not to). What they did before fedoras were fashionable, I don’t know. They do have one weakness, however: rain, of course. It hinders their psychic abilities. (Why? Hey, don’t look at me!) I can’t think of another movie I’ve seen that has so many logistical problems. The actors playing the adjustors (including Anthony Mackie and John Slattery) struggle to convey this with a sense of urgency and straight faces, but it’s total hokum and everyone knows it. Nearly every scene raised a new question in my mind — and every single one went unanswered. What? Damon and Blunt have great chemistry and a few sequences work, but it’s all in service of a script that delivers nothing but hogwash. I know a movie like The Adjustment Bureau requires a suspension of disbelief, but they haven’t built cables strong enough for this one.

The bad taste of The Adjustment Bureau can be washed out, thankfully, by The Source Code — another movie based on a pretty preposterous premise, except this one works. Directed by Duncan Jones (Moon), the story follows soldier Colter Stevens as he is asked by his government to repeatedly relive the same eight minutes on a train in order to identify a bomber who’s planning to wipe out Chicago. The hitch? At the end of each eight minutes, the train explodes as part of the villain’s initial attack, so Colter must experience death over and over again. No big deal! Stevens both attempt to unravel this mystery as well as one surrounding the hows and whys of his assignment within the “source code” in the first place. Along the way, he falls in love with a fellow passenger named Christina and decides to alter the course of the past, though he’s been told that what’s done is done and nothing he does can change the passengers’ fates.

As Colter, Jake Gyllenhaal fully commits to the role, giving us more than was probably asked of him— viscerally conveying the fear, anguish, and other emotions where many other actors would have only gone through the motions. As love interest Christina, Michelle Monaghan is her usual lovable self, though the character’s a little undercooked. Vera Farmiga fares slightly better as Colleen Goodwin, the liaison Colter takes orders from, as she slowly grows more sympathetic to his plight. (Jeffrey Wright shows up, too, as the mustache-twirling villain.) The Hitchcock-meets-Groundhog’s Day plot serves up ample suspense, and it is a little shocking to see our heroes die repeatedly, even if they are soon resurrected. The Source Code may not be an instant classic, but it is that rare breed: a totally engaging studio thriller that delivers on nearly every level, and one of 2011’s best.Faring nearly as well is Limitless, written by Leslie Dixon and directed by Neil Burger, and containing yet another silly setup — 2011 just wasn’t the year for down-to-Earth suspense. Here, a schlubby writer is offered NZT, an experimental miracle drug that will increase his brain power to an unbelievable exponent. Naturally, he takes it, cranking out a novel in a matter of days, making savvy investments in the stock market, turning himself into a debonair Bradley Cooper-type (he is, after all, played by Bradley Cooper), and attracting the attention of his fed-up ex-girlfriend (Abbie Cornish). He is then shocked — shocked! — to learn that this experimental miracle drug might, um, have a few side effects.

It’s not the story that is Limitless‘ strong suit, though that works fine. Burger’s direction is stylish and satisfying, giving Cooper’s early scenes as the lazy, unkempt Eddie a drab tone and then brightening things considerably once he takes the drug. A few suspense sequences work like gangbusters, such as a showdown on the rooftop with some Russians gangsters and a chase through Central Park (resulting in a nifty ice-skate-to-the-face death). Plus, Robert De Niro plays a tycoon named Carl Van Loon, so there’s that. Limitless won’t change your life as NZT changes Eddie’s, but it will likely hold your attention for a couple of hours. And what more can you ask of such a film, really?Continuing 2011’s roster of desperate-riffs-on-the-same-old-story genre entries is Unknown, starring unlikely action hero Liam Neeson (Hollywood’s go-to B-movie star since Taken) as Dr. Martin Harris, a professor visiting Germany with his wife (January Jones). OR IS HE???, the movie pronounces in boldface, once Martin is in a car accident and awakens with the opposite of amnesia. See, he remembers very clearly who he is, but no one else seems to. What is going on?!?!

In order to put things right, Martin hooks up with the sexiest cab driver of all time (Diane Kruger), an illegal immigrant who saved his life in the initial accident.Together they attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding why there is another man posing as himself, who is wife now claims is her husband. Nothing that happens from that point on is particularly spellbinding and Martin occasionally behaves quite stupidly, but the twist is more clever than average, in a Bourne Identity knock-off kind of way. I can’t say I had a bad time watching it, though it’s far from the year’s strongest thriller.But the French Point Blank delivers the goods in a far more direct and efficient manner. A male nurse named Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) does a good deed by saving a man’s life in the hospital, but that comes back to haunt him when his pregnant wife (The Skin I Live In‘s Elena Anaya) is kidnapped right before his eyes. Samuel is forced to assist a prisoner’s escape from the hospital, which means now it appears he’s in on whatever mischief the bad guys have cooked up.

From there, Point Blank is one double-cross and breathless chase scene after another, but there’s something about the Europeanness of it all that feels less slicker and grittier than your average American action flick. (The emphasis on practical stunts and effects sure doesn’t hurt.) Director Fred Cavayé keeps things tight and taut; he entertains, pure and simple. There are no frills here, no subplots, and very little character development — nothing but kinetic action and suspense. It comes as a breath of fresh French air after so many contrived and calculated Hollywood thrillers (though, naturally, an American remake is to be expected).In related news: even the year’s Matthew McConaughey vehicle exceeded minimal expectations, thanks to a stellar cast. (Why so many very good actors were attracted to this material, I don’t know.) In addition to McConaughey, director Brad Furman manages to cram Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy, Josh Lucas, Frances Fisher, John Leguizamo, Michael Pena, and Bryan Cranston into this John Grisham-esque legal thriller about a lawyer who works out of his Lincoln (a detail that is totally inconsequential to the movie, by the way), defending a wealthy playboy (Phillippe) who may or may not be a sadistic killer.

It’s the sort of story that’s just barely an upgrade from your standard episode of Law & Order, with a twist that’s not even quite that good. But the cast makes it stick. Best is the chemistry between Tomei and McConaughey as an on-again-off-again married couple who can’t quite let each other go. More than any of the legal twists and turns, their sparks make the film memorable and worth watching, if not exactly a must-see.

The overall decency of 2011’s standard thrillers, actually, is what makes the one that should’ve been really, really good so disappointing. That’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by Tomas Alfredson, who made the chilly Swedish vampire flick Let The Right One In. The cold detachment Alfredson gave that Twilight-for-grownups tale is on full display here, too — too much so. Based on a John Le Carre novel of the same name, the story concerns a British intelligence known as “the Circus,” in which there is likely a mole spying for the Soviets. Charged with unearthing that mole is George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman. The tinker, tailor, and soldier (code names) are played by Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, and Colin Firth (in a role you’d think would be a lot juicier after his Best Actor win for The King’s Speech). The cast plus the director plus the intriguing source material rendered this film one of my most anticipated of the holiday movie season, so I’m sorry to say it only ranks mid-range amongst this year’s thrillers.

Like last year’s George Clooney flick The American, which de-glamorized the life of an assassin, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy features none of the slick maneuvers you’re likely to see in a Mission: Impossible, Bourne Identity, or 007 film. There’s a bit of killing, yes, though not as much as you might think. There is nary a chance sequence nor breathless escape to be found. The few gripping moments of suspense are fairly ordinary, such as when Smiley’s right-hand man Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) tries to extract a file from the agency’s libraries. He doesn’t go using any flashy devices or distractions, just a very old-fashioned trick. I have no problem with any of this in theory — in fact, I’m sure it could be quite interesting, and probably was in the novel and British miniseries — but in this incarnation, so many well-made sequences don’t quite come together as a cohesive or riveting whole.Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has some willfully confusing moments; the plot is determined to go on, with or without the audience quite grasping it. The opening sequence in Budapest was totally lost on me until much later in the story, as I expect it will be to anyone else who isn’t already familiar with the story. The narrative occasionally jumps back and forth in time without easily cluing us in, so we’re left to puzzle it out ourselves. That’s all well and good, if there’s something more to hang onto. But there’s very little sense of real danger for most of these characters, and the stakes feel curiously low. Alfredson constructs a striking atmosphere and style for his film, and defying the generic conventions is a bold move. Ultimately, though, the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy experience is a frustrating one because the characters are each given brief moments to shine, only to be thrust back into the dark for the rest of the movie.

Tom Hardy appears as what might likely be the film’s most dynamic character, and the most movie-ish — an agent who went rogue to rescue a beautiful woman. Now his life may be in danger — but, like so much else, this storyline is set aside in favor of others. Cumberbatch, too, holds a lot of promise as a younger agent who, at one point, must make a very personal sacrifice for the Circus — maybe. I think. Alfredson gives us only a glimpse of what that might be, which must be an intentional choice. It might be enough for some viewers, but not for me. As our protagonist, Smiley makes an unfortunately slight impression, and while I know that is in his character description for the novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy misses an opportunity to make his personal story more resonant. There’s a subplot involving Smiley’s wife (curiously, never seen in full) that could have been an emotional punch to the gut. Instead, it’s a mere detail, and the audience is asked to take or leave it as they please. On the one hand, I must admire Alfredson for refusing to connect every dot; however, one gets the sense that there is a much richer story here lying just under the surface. We need to see more to get the full impact of it, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gives us mere glimpses.

Least successful of all are the tinker, tailor, soldier, and so on themselves — Smiley’s peers are mostly interchangeable and lack distinguishing characteristics. Perhaps we are meant to take away from this story that spies aren’t the dashing, debonair James Bond types we like to imagine they are; fine, but then, who are they? We barely get to know the characters played by Firth, Jones, and Hinds. Perhaps one of them is the mole, but it hardly matters. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has what might be the most anticlimactic Big Reveal of all time — seriously. Blink and you’ll miss the mole’s unmasking, along with the entire climax of the movie.

Is it wrong to crave more suspense and drama from an otherwise well-made movie? I could care less about more gun play and breathless escapes — I wanted more from these characters. When the mole was revealed, I wanted to feel truly betrayed. Instead, I felt nothing besides occasional confusion — particularly at the curious inclusion of some scenes set at a school, which seem awfully gratuitous when you consider what else isn’t being shown in this movie. I’m afraid the nuances of Le Carre’s novel (I’m merely assuming they’re there) are primarily lost here; there are simply too many characters and subplots to be crammed into a two-hour movie. Brief bits here and there interest us, but then the movie wanders off to explore something else, never to return.

Which isn’t to say Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a total waste — far from it. Upon reflecting, the story strikes me as more memorable than I thought it’d be walking out of the theater. It may be the sort of film that is greatly enhanced by reading the novel or repeat viewings… though I’m not sure it made a good enough impression for me to bother.

The Source Code: Worth reliving over and over.

Point Blank: Oui.

Limitless: More like ecstasy than NZT — it won’t make you feel any smarter, but you’ll have a good time, at least.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Well-made, but some tinkering to screenplay might have made it more satisfying.

The Lincoln Lawyer: Not guilty.

Unknown: I’ve known better, I’ve known worse.

The Adjustment Bureau: Sorry, but the rain makes my magic fedora extremely intolerant of such gaping plot holes.

Thoughts?

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