Whoever coined that dusty old adage that crime doesn’t pay was clearly not much of a criminal. Obviously it does pay. That’s the main attraction of crime, I think. It does not, however, offer an appealing retirement package. Unless, of course, the prospect of being gang raped in prison for the rest of your life or being beaten bloody then blown away by your rivals appeals, in which case it’s all good. Anyhoo, I’ve got a couple of crime movies for you this week, which I hope explains this rambling paragraph.
Killing Them Softly (18)
This you have to see, and now. It’s not a grower or a slow-burner. It is instantly good. Though bang up-to-date it has the feel of a streetwise Seventies classic. Sometimes unbearably tense, other times so darkly funny you’ll snort aloud, it’s both ridiculously well characterised and written so smartly it’s like wiseguy poetry.
And boy, is there edge. You could shave with this film. I swear to God, you go see this, you’re gonna come out smooth. Really if there’s any justice in this world, any at all, Killing Them Softly will come to be regarded as a crime film no less significant than Goodfellas or The Godfather.
Though I didn’t care too much for writer/director Andrew Dominik’s last effort, the insufferably slow and arty The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, he sure scores a bullseye with this one, like he’s Robin Hood or that hungry Katniss girl.
“I saw a film populated by people in pursuit of a buck,” recalls Dominik of the writing process. “People who had absolutely no idea how unhappy they were, who found their jobs to be a total drag, who were victim to indecisive, incompetent bosses, anesthetizing themselves with drugs, sex and alcohol, who never want to look their victims in the eye, and I thought: this has to be a comedy.”
The plot is wisely simple. A pair of desperate, petty crooks knock over a Mob-protected poker game and chaos ensues. Monsters’ Scoot McNairy plays Frankie, a nervous, inconveniently sensitive type who’s just about smart enough to realise that he isn’t very smart. Animal Kingdom’s Ben Mendelsohn plays Russell, sordid of mind and filthy of body, he’s a sleazy, druggie mentalist for the ages, the Ratso Rizzo of our time. Though the cast are uniformly strong, when the next Academy Awards roll around, if Ben Men doesn’t win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, I might just quit watching them.
Brad Pitt’s in it too, as a composed, experienced and uncommonly insightful enforcer hired to track down and deal with the culprits responsible for destabilising the local criminal economy. Pitt’s so well cast in this. So charismatic in the role. And he has so much incredible talent to play off: From The Cabin in the Woods, Richard Jenkins, as a frustrated mob accountant; From The Sopranos, James Gandolfini, as an ageing enforcer with an unquenchable thirst for booze and hookers; and from Goodfellas itself, none other than Ray Liotta, as a likeable sort of crook who comes to discover exactly what friendship is worth in his business.
Slick, snappy and sometimes sordid dialogue drips with context from the lips of alpha actors at the height of their powers. Visually the film arrests like a supercop. It’s a proper, grown up cinematic experience. Even the music’s spot on, each song adding emphasis and flavour to every scene. It’s a tragic tale that is at once compelling, hilarious and perversely beautiful. I guess you could say I liked it.
Oliver Stone and crime movies go back a long way. Though I never bought into the crazy cool of Natural Born Killers, and to be honest, I’m rarely bowled over by his work, I’d buy the guy a beer just for writing Scarface. “Say hello to my little friend!” Now that was a fearless film. The chainsaw scene. The helicopter hanging. The mountains of coke and those cynical, sneering Pacino speeches about money and women and power. That movie was big and bold and boy, do I want to see it again now.
By comparison, although on the surface Savages appears to be full-throttle thrill ride through a Tarantinoesque world of sex, drugs and violence, while it’s easily watchable and certainly entertaining, it lacks the wow factor. Has no shock value. Doesn’t leave you with anything. It borders on bland, I suppose. Despite the big speeches, the larger-than-life characters, the sudden bloody violence and numerous hedonistic stylings, it’s oddly stale. Were it not up against Killing Them Softly this week, I expect I’d be kinder, but them’s the breaks.
Kick-Ass star Aaron Johnson and Battleship’s Taylor Kitsch play overachieving college pals who run a thriving drug business, dealing premium West Coast weed. The former’s a Buddhist botanist, the latter a mercenary baddist. Sharing girlfriend ‘O’, who’s played by Blake Lively but rarely lives up to her surname and narrates the whole damn thing like she’s just woken up and reading off cue cards, they’re an inseparable trio living the dream.
Obviously, it can’t last. Joining the party is a powerful Mexican Cartel, as run by a ruthless Salma Hayek with brutal henching from Benicio Del Toro. When they demand a piece of the action, and the boys’ refuse to play ball, the bad guys take the girl hostage, and the stage is set for a David and Goliath clash of criminal titans.
Oh yeah, and John Travolta’s in it too, playing a crooked DEA agent increasingly out of his depth. Having dropped a few pounds, Travolta’s pulled back from the brink of going full-on John Candy, but for whatever reason, he’s beginning to look alarmingly like Garry Shandling.
I suppose if the characters were more interesting, the ending was stronger and the so-called shocking stuff was less laboured and more surprising, I’d have been more impressed. Much like the central trio, who are adequate but lack personality and charisma, the movie as a whole passes the time well enough, but like a pebble dropped by a baby on the pavement, it doesn’t make much of an impact.