Friday, September 14, 2012

Double Feature: 'The Words' and 'The Cold Light of Day'

Last weekend was something of an historic moment for Hollywood. While the beginning of September has kids going back to school and is often a weak time for theaters in general, and production companies shove out what they believe to be some of their less prestigious fare, a feat was achieved in the release of ensemble drama The Words and action thriller The Cold Light of Day. The pair of new releases added little to a weekend in which the top twelve grossing movies brought in only $51.9 million, the worst since 2008 and one of the lowest weekend grosses in recorded history. Both films featured rising stars and proven performers, so why did nobody turn out to see them? Where did it all go wrong?

Of the two releases, The Words was felt to have far more potential. Beyond the original story (centering around the harmful effects of plagiarism) that would on the surface appear to agree with the literary-minded set of Hollywood, this was a time-traveling ensemble piece that more than a few people expected to contend for awards this winter. Pulling it together is the talented cast led by The Hangover's Bradley Cooper but also featuring Jeremy Irons, Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde, with Cooper giving a surprisingly soulful performance that stands far out from his previous, more light-hearted efforts. The only negative thing I can say about Cooper's work is that the script does its best to get away from him in order to tell the story; when he's center stage, however, he's electrifying.

Don't worry; you're not forgotten, Mr. Irons.
But if there's one performance that will be remembered this award season, it will be Jeremy Irons as the nameless Old Man from whom Cooper's desperate author accidentally cribs in creating his best-selling novel. It's funny how Irons has reinvented his career in the past year, with his success on the Showtime series The Borgias likely a major factor in his casting. The Old Man vocalizes wide swaths of the tale, but that's no problem; if Irons' throaty rasps could do all narrative voice overs for the rest of time, I'd never complain about them again. The work he puts in here is exemplary, and cannot be easily defined by a few lines of text. He's easily redefined himself as one of Hollywood's go-to scene-stealers.

Yup, this is me at crunch-time.
But The Words' rookie co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal just don't have enough narrative clout to make this film work overall. While most of the movie takes place in Cooper's present and Irons' past, a third time frame presenting the preceding events as a work of (maybe autobiographical?) fiction from ANOTHER author (Quaid) falls flat, although I can at least understand why the storytellers felt they had to go in this direction. However, the result is a choppy narrative that tries to delve too deeply into what shouldn't be all that difficult a message. Some great dialogue is wasted on a mediocre movie, though at least The Words was not the worst widely released movie to come out last weekend.

That distinction gets to belong to The Cold Light of Day, a low-tech action thriller that riffs off of the Bourne series without any of the charm and excitement that made those films such unexpected hits. The story pits an everyday guy (Immortals' star Henry Cavill) in an unbelievable situation; despite the extremely long odds, we've no doubt as to who will come out on top. When I first saw trailers for this film I was under the assumption that this would be the one to catapult Cavill into recognizable status leading into next year's Superman reboot, but apparently it wasn't even going to get a wide release in the states following the drubbing it got overseas. But with The Words as their only competition, it seems Summit Entertainment had a change of heart and started throwing the film at whatever theater would carry it. Honestly, they probably would have been better off going the limited release route.

Simply put, this is a dry, unoriginal action piece that has some decent actors rattling off inane dialogue and performing stunts that have been done to death in better, more groundbreaking productions. French director Mabrouk el Mechri certainly knows how to work his chosen genre (as he proved in the surprisingly good JCVD), but this movie has none of fun, charm and wit that is needed to carry a really good action flick. I get that every director needs to pay their dues until they get a REAL Hollywood job, but making films like this just because you don't want to give someone a shot just yet is kind of ridiculous.

The most awkward father-son chat EVER.
To make things worse, most of the veteran talent seems intent on cashing their paychecks, for all the enthusiasm they shrug into their performances. This should have been a big year for Bruce Willis, but between the last second delay of the GI Joe sequel, the "been there done that" of Expendables 2, and his uninspired performance here, it's been a mixed bag for the action star. Moonrise Kingdom has been his only legitimately good gig lately, and he might earn some points sitting across from Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the upcoming Looper, but overall this has to be a disappointing year for him. Likewise preening for the camera is Sigourney Weaver, which is a personal pain for me. In recent years Weaver has stopped caring about the roles she takes, and for every great cameo in Paul or Cabin in the Woods is matched by even more godawful dreck not fit for public consumption. What on Earth happened to Ellen Ripley and Dana Barrett? This used to be an actress I loved to see in movies; now she's little more than a famous face brought in to spruce up a sorry paint job. Finally, Cold Light does little to showcase Cavill as a potential action star. He's definitely working harder than his veteran cast-mates, but still lacks that special something that makes someone a movie star. Maybe that will change come Man of Steel's arrival next year; maybe it won't. But for whatever reason he doesn't have the inhuman strength required to carry this particular movie all that far.

Trying to hold a nonexistent audience hostage is not a good idea...
Hmm, normal guy whose existence is stripped away with the revelation that his family is not what he thought it was? And then in Bourne-like fashion he fights against all odds to retain his life, only to succeed thanks to highly irregular coincidences? Where have I heard of this before? Oh, that's right, that was the same story as Abduction, one of the worst films of 2011! You know things aren't right when you're copying the mission statement of a Taylor Lautner vehicle, but hopefully Cavill's career won't take the downward spiral that will siren-call Lautner after the final Twilight film releases. Cavill has the talent and potential to be a bigger star than most of the current "Next-Gen" actors currently working their way up the Hollywood ladder. Thankfully, nobody really sat down and watched this film, so he is in no danger of becoming the next Brandon Routh just yet. But it does raise yet another red flag in relation to the upcoming Superman film; with almost nothing (especially director Zack Snyder) pointing towards a positive experience with Man of Steel, can everybody involved in the project really step up and do a better job than they've ever done before? Because for that movie to even meet the insanely high expectations placed upon it, Snyder, Cavill and company are going to have to do just that. And The Cold Light of Day does nothing to allay those fears that it won't.

No comments: