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Wilmington on DVD: The Mechanic, Blue Valentine, No Strings Attached


The Mechanic (C)
U.S.: Simon West, 2011, Sony

Remember 1972? The great movie year of The Godfather, of Cabaret, of Deliverance, of Frenzy and Junior Bonner and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Fellini's Roma, Cries and Whispers, Solaris, Ulzana's Raid, The King of Marvin Gardens, Avanti!, Sleuth and Play It Again, Sam?

One minor pleasure of that superb movie year was The Mechanic, an overviolent and somewhat sleazy, but cleverly written thriller about an aging hit man (Charles Bronson), his young, amoral protege (Jan-Michael Vincent), and their adventures in assassination-land.

1972's Mechanic was coldly filmed by the straight-ahead British action director Michael Winner (Death Wish). But the story and script were unusual. They were smartly written by the gifted and sometimes lyrical playwright-turned-screenwriter Lewis John Carlino, who wrote (and sometimes directed) interesting, offbeat films like Seconds, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, The Great Santini and Resurrection. Carlino's script for the first Mechanic has a classical sense of structure, irony, and a surprise ending that few forget.

I suppose it makes sense that, if you were going to remake a movie these days from 1972, it would be something like The Mechanic, something that was formulaic, but knowing. Even so, it reportedly took 17 years to put this show together, by the original producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff (and Chartoff's son William) -- with Carlino getting a co-writer credit (with Richard Wenk) and Simon West, of the ridiculous Lara Croft, Tomb Raider directing.

It figures. This kind of cold, cynical, head-bashing entertainment -- with two protagonists/anti-heroes who would be villains in most other movies -- is exactly the kind of gaudy, slick, bloody show many filmmakers try to make these days. The Mechanic's brutal vision of a world of guilty "haves" and triumphant opportunists, as well as its chic, punchy style, are both, unfortunately, "state of the art."

It even may be possible for somebody to see the first Mechanic as a movie ahead of its time, or a story that hasn't aged, or a movie that just needs a little Simon West Con Air flash and dazzle to get contemporary again. I see it more as a second-tier picture that was a precursor of bad times ahead. Bad times that include this remake.

In 1972, Bronson -- post-Once Upon a Time in the West, post-Rider on the Rain, his stardom here and abroad near its peak -- played Bishop, the cool killer who dispatched an old friend, Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn), then took Harry's son Steve (Vincent) under his wing to teach him the bloody tricks of his trade.

In the new movie, Bishop is played by Jason Statham, Harry by Donald Sutherland, and Steve by Ben Foster (the young soldier in The Messenger). The relationships are similar, only Sutherland tops his predecessor (and not by much). Playing a part like this, Sutherland's eyes are like great baggy pools of sarcasm and what-the-hell amusement, and his wry delivery is dead solid perfect. He's become an invaluable Michael Caine-Gene Hackman shot-of-reality style character actor.

Bronson played Bishop with his usual taciturn machismo and relish, but Statham is as grim, glum and grinless as if he had just wandered in from a pledge drive for the Black Plague. Vincent (co-star of the 1978 John Milius surfing classic, Big Wednesday) played Steve like a nasty surfer, waiting for the next wave or the next orgy. But Foster does it punkish and creepy, with little half grins that suggest a nasty voyeur, set to spy on Vincent's orgies.

The plot has become even more schematic and brutal, slavishly dependent on the action scenes we know will keep coming: the garrotings, the drownings, the explosions. Bishop has an evil, ultra-corporate fashion-plate of a boss named Dean (Tony Goldwyn), and Dean hires Bishop to kill Bishop's best friend (Sutherland), and then sends him off to dispatch a lot of scummy associates, including a slimy gun salesman, another hit man (James Logan as Jorge Lara), and a phony big-time media guru (John McConnell as Vaughn).

These killings are not just violent, but madly, unreasonably, almost laughably violent -- not clean and fast in the way you'd expect from a pro hit man, but stretched out and operatic, like grudge killings planned by a vengeful psychotic. Or action scenes designed to knock an audience bass-ackwards.

By the time Vaughn is sloppily strangled in his therapy room and Bishop and Steve hurl themselves, on cables, off the skyscraper roof, bullets raining around them, we know that no professional killer or "mechanic" in his right mind would have planned something like this. Especially a fastidious soul like Statham's Bishop, who lives in a posh hide-away house and whose classical vinyl collection includes Schubert's Trio in E-Flat, Opus 100.

There was a deliberate homo-erotic undercurrent to the 1972 Mechanic, and there's also some in the 2011 one. But here the killings are so overscaled and orgasmic, that one suspects old-time sex has become as out-of-date in this world as Schubert on a record player. The only "sex" we see is the coitus-far-interruptus between Steve and Lara, and one bout between Bishop and a lithe, athletic hooker. The latter is shot like a bullfight, and the former like a slaughterhouse. Bishop's climatic payoff, leaving the hooker a big tip, is played as a punch line.

The main difference between the 1972 Mechanic, which I half-liked, and the 2011 one, which I disliked, is that the first film, though it rarely strays from it, obviously portrays its world as a deviant (if powerful) one, while the second one acts as if its criminal world has become some kind of evil norm. (and, in movies, it has). Here, the old "straight" world, or even the world of the cops, has become almost irrelevant. (The second Mechanic also blows the ending.)

I found this new Mechanic deeply unpleasant, slick but unentertaining, fast but empty. And the movie's fancy, over-rich, over-composed visual style -- which some critics have praised -- is a lot of what makes it seem so hollow and dead. (Extras: deleted scenes.)

Blue Valentine (B)
U.S.: Derek Cianfrance, 2010, Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay

An uncompromising drama about a busted romance, told in two alternating story-tracks: one where the couple (Ryan Gosling and the somewhat higher-class Michelle Williams) first come together, one where they finally split apart. The subject of some idiotic MPAA controversy about sex, this is a real moviemaker's showcase for newcomer Derek Cianfrance, and an actors' showcase for Gosling and Williams, who burn up the screen. With their acting. As for the sex, isn't that what most couples do? (Extras: commentary; deleted scenes; featurette; home movies.)

No Strings Attached (D+)
U.S.: Ivan Reitman, 2010, DreamWorks Video

A movie critic friend of mine wrote me the other day that my review of Ben Stiller's and Robert De Niro's Little Fockers should have ended right after the first sentence. Thus: "After rambling on and on about the Coen brothers' True Grit, I wonder if there's any real need to say anything at all about Little Fockers except just this: This movie is not funny."

Well, I've got a second chance to follow his advice, thanks to director Ivan Reitman and his mystifyingly unentertaining so-called romantic comedy, No Strings Attached, starring the unchemical couple of Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, doing a sort of cross between Last Tango in Paris (sex without mush) and When Harry Met Sally (friendship and sex) and Mutt and Jeff (the long and the short and the tall).

Here goes: There's no need to say anything about No Strings Attached except this: It ain't funny. It ain't sexy. It looks like it was shot in a permanent smog attack. And what a criminal waste of Kevin Kline.

There, that's already more than I should have said. (Extras: commentary by Ivan Reitmen; featurette; deleted scenes; alternate storyline scenes.)

The Usual Suspects (A-)
U.S.: Bryan Singer, 1995, MGM, Blu-ray

Director Bryan Singer's and writer Chris McQuarrie's twisty neo-noir heist movie borrows Claude Rains' great Casablanca line and often gets the cynical, violently hip mood of the classic noirs as well, along with a surprise ending that rocks this world. Kevin Spacey won an Oscar as the squealer; his fellow suspects and cops include Chazz Palminteri, Gabriel Byrne, mumblin' Benicio Del Toro, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak, Giancarlo Esposito and Pete Postlethwaite.

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