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Films
by Kathi Maio

THE MODEST PLEASURES OF A SUMMER BOMB


THAT THE Hollywood machine, the media, and now even the general public, are increasingly obsessed with "box office" is a given. At some point the opening weekend gross became the ultimate indicator of the quality and viability of a feature film. And at no point of the year is this more true than during the summer, when the studios roll out their most bloated and action-packed films, hoping to top the last box-office champ. This fixation on initial ticket sales also means that the majority of highly anticipated movies are bound to be proven brands, aka sequels, whether in the family animation field (Despicable Me 2, Monsters University) or the action categories (Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, Man of Steel).

All this means that non-franchise movies that don't get as much marketing and don't wow with their opening grosses are going to be dismissed as "flops," "bombs," and "flame-outs" in the first few days of their release; with that label generally becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, who wants to go see a bomb? Well—I personally don't mind, as long as I have reason to believe the movie is likely to be moderately entertaining, and as long as the theater is adequately air-conditioned. So let me offer two summer "bombs" for further consideration and later home viewing.

First out was Pacific Rim, from sf/fantasy specialist (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth) and geeky fanboy extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro. Few filmmakers are better suited to the task of making this particular movie—a glorious clanging update to the old creature features from Japan's Toho Studios that had monster-named titles like Godzilla and Mothra. But Pacific Rim goes those classic B-movies one better, with giant, pilot-driven, twenty-five-story robots specifically designed to do battle with the mega-monsters.

It seems that in the not-too-distant future, giant demons —termed kaiju —arise from a fissure in the Pacific Ocean to lay waste to great cities like San Francisco, Tokyo, and Sydney. When traditional weaponry are unable to take down the increasingly gigantic sea creatures, the world's governments unite to build a fleet of giant machine warriors, called jaegers, to do skyscraper-level mano-a-mano battle with the enemy.

Each craft is piloted by two humans, one representing the left hemisphere, and the other the right, of the mega-robot's brain. The pilots must act as one and meld their own minds in a "neural handshake" followed by a mental integration called "the Drift." The need for completely simpatico duos means that many pilots are siblings or other close relations. Among them are the American brothers who pilot a craft called the Gipsy Danger. Cocky Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his older brother, Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff), are hot-shot warriors until the day when, distracted by the impulse to save a crab-fishing boat during a beastly battle, Raleigh inadvertently causes the death of his brother.

Raleigh's guilt and disgrace coincide with the inter-governmental shift away from a military solution to a foolhardy attempt to build land barriers to keep the monsters at bay. When building giant walls—a subtle commentary on immigration policy, perhaps?—proves fruitless, the remaining jaeger pilots join a "resistance" led by Stacker Pentecost (a suitably fierce yet dignified Idris Elba), himself the former commander of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps. Jaegers from Russia, China, and Japan join the struggle. But it should come as no surprise (to the target U.S. audience) that the pilots we learn the most about — and who are therefore most likely to survive, at least to the final reel—are Anglos like an Australian father and son pair (Max Martini, Rob Kazinsky) and our daring American hero, Raleigh. Sadly, there are no dashing Latino jaeger pilots, which is a shame, coming from a Mexican writer-director telling a multinational story.

While Raleigh is the rugged individualist you'd expect an American protagonist to be, he needs a new co-pilot if he is hoping fight another day in the Gipsy Danger. His perfect match turns out to be a petite young woman named Mako Mori (Babel's Rinko Kikuchi), who is a protected protégé of Stacker. When a few rounds of martial arts combat prove their ability to read one another, Mako is given her commission, only to come close to losing it again when her personal memories of a kaiju encounter during her first neural bridge to Raleigh turns into a near disaster.

That scene of hallucinatory remembrance is, in fact, the most powerful few minutes in the movie. In it, a very young Mako (Mana Ashida) runs screaming through the ruined streets of Tokyo, trying to hide from the giant creature that killed her parents. For once, the life-and-death conflict is not a loud, flashy yet emotionally detached machine versus monster battle. Here, we are brought into the terror of a small child almost too petrified to avoid annihilation. That scene packs an emotional punch that the rest of this knock-'em sock-'em actioner cannot match.

Still, I do not begrudge the movie being a simple creature feature. As such, I think Pacific Rim works admirably. The film's human characters are somewhat cartoonish, but in many cases entertainingly so. Among them are a rapacious dealer in black market kaiju body parts (played with relish by del Toro stalwart Ron Perlman) and two requisite nerd scientists—a hyper, kaiju-obsessive bio-behaviorist played by Charlie Day, and a mathematician who thinks everything comes down to an algorithm, played by Burn Gorman. They provide the comic relief in a plot that primarily involves serious heroic types spouting pompous dialogue while doing seriously heroic deeds in big mechanisms.

Charlie Hunnam, best known for his work (with Ron Perlman) in the television show "Sons of Anarchy" certainly shows movie-star potential in the robust central role. And the stunningly beautiful Rinko Kikuchi brings a subtle grace to her portrayal of Mako. No showy machisma required. Demure yet determined makes for a more intriguing character.

Director del Toro (who shares writing credits with story originator Travis Beacham) proves that he is still a proud member of the fraternity of fantasy fanboys by making such a roaringly entertaining popcorn movie. Sure, his latest has a regrettable title that makes it sound like a geological science or global finance documentary. And he dared to make a film with no big-name stars and no direct ties to an existing Hollywood franchise. Nonetheless, Pacific Rim has what it takes (big action and pan-nationalist themes) to find a worldwide audience, whether American movie prognosticators have characterized it as a "bomb" or not.

Another midsummer flick is more likely to earn its flop status fair and square. It is a film that has stars and action, but has little in the way of global locale and appeal. In fact, this movie is firmly set in one smallish American city, where the most famous monster is a green one at a very old ballpark. I speak of the city I call home: Boston. And before I get into the movie itself, can I acknowledge that (this year, at least) I am predisposed to like just about any film that makes full use of the charming quirky mix of old and new that is Boston. After the terrorist attack on Marathon day, many Bostonians have a heightened sense of affection and pride for our city. I count myself among them. So, I am readily admitting that its well-utilized location is one of the reasons I—foolishly, perhaps—quite enjoyed a film called R.I.P.D.

Like so many films hoping to set themselves up as a sequel factory, R.I.P.D. is based on a series of comic books, specifically a set of graphic novels written by Peter M. Lenkov before he became a TV writer for shows like Hawaii Five-0 and 24. Lenkov is not, however, the screenwriter for the adaptation. Story credits go to David Dobkin, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi, with the screenplay credited to Hay and Manfredi.

The movie R.I.P.D. follows much of the basic plot path of the first comic, albeit with many Hollywood flourishes and with less of a religious/satanic tone. Out on a drug bust, a flawed but well-intentioned cop named Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) is set up and murdered by his partner (Kevin Bacon). Sucked into a vortex of newly dead souls, Nick abruptly takes a lateral transfer. Landing in a limbo of a police precinct, the hero is enticed by a sardonic go-go booted precinct captain, Proctor (an agreeably tart Mary-Louise Parker), into joining the R.I.P.D, or Rest in Peace Department. At the busy Boston division, a group of post-life detectives is charged with hunting down deceased souls still hiding out among the living, "deados," who cause decay and disruption with their "soul stank."

As the newbie on the cosmic beat, Nick is teamed up with a veteran R.I.P.D. officer, a nineteenth-century cowpoke of a sheriff named Roycephus "Roy" Pulsifer. Pop Quiz: What did you think of Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski or as Rooster Cogburn in the 2010 remake of True Grit (both from the Coen Brothers)? Did you find his performances broad but appealing, or simply overdone and annoying? I ask because Jeff Bridges plays said Roy Pulsifer. And he does so as a mashup of Rooster Cogburn, The Dude, and a guy illustrating the "before" chopper-slip in a denture cream commercial.

I am a Bridges fan because I appreciate that even when you suspect monetary considerations were foremost in his role selection process, he is a performer willing to invest himself in a part he signs on to play. He seems intent on having some fun making a movie, and he seems more than happy to share that sense of amusement with the viewer. His loquacious Roy rants, blusters, philosophizes, and even sings a plaintive ditty while playing a concertina. So, it is likely to be your response to Mr. Bridges's over-the-top performance that will either make or break the film R.I.P.D. for you. Mr. Reynolds does a nice job longing for the pretty wife (Stephanie Szostak) he left behind, but as the co-protagonist still acclimating to an afterlife as a cop on the dead beat, he can do little of his normal cracking-wise shtick. He is instead relegated to straight-man status.

The plot itself is a variation on Men in Black with more fanciful costuming choices. One of the recurring sight gags of the movie entails the fact that Nick and Roy cannot appear as themselves to the living. So Roy's twangy old lawman has an avatar played by Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Marisa Miller, while the handsome young Nick appears to the world as octogenarian character actor James Hong. It's a conceit that's good for a couple of double-takes and chuckles, but is largely a wasted effort. Frankly, I have no idea whether Ms. Miller can act her way out of a silk chemise—but seeing her sashay through a couple of scenes wearing one, most male audience members would like to see her try. I was more offended by the pointless walk-on nature of Mr. Hong's role. He is a veteran actor who deserves to be something more than a visual punchline in a movie.

R.I.P.D. is a movie that suffers from a passel of lost opportunities. Outside of a nicely done frozen moment of Nick's death in the middle of a raid and blazing gun battle, most of the action is predictable or (as in the case of the final building-shattering chase through Boston's Financial District) simply destructive and chaotic. The timing on the comic elements also often seems off, although Nick's first deado bust, which teaches him about the self-incriminating power of Indian cuisine, is amusing.

Helmer Robert Schwentke, who most recently directed Red and The Time Traveler's Wife, never really finds a rhythm for R.I.P.D. So, even a rip-roaring bit of character recycling from Jeff Bridges cannot make this movie a true winner.

But even a not-very-good movie has the power to entertain us. Hence all those "cult movies" that continue to see play on streaming services and DVD. Will R.I.P.D. achieve cult status? I'd guess not. But that doesn't mean it's not worth catching on your favorite cable channel. As Nick Walker's storyline illustrates, even a man (or a movie) that appears to be D.O.A. can achieve a robust afterlife.

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