About Me

My photo
I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Shopworn Private Eye Takes on a Tail Job

Directed by Noah Buschel from his own screenplay.
Starring Michael Shannon, Frank Wood, Amy Ryan.

You don't see many really old fashioned hardboiled detective films these days -- the kind where the shamus is hired to do an unsavory job, runs into dangerous criminals along the way, gets sapped unconscious by the bad guys, has a femme fatale betray him and at the end has to decide whether to do the right thing or simply take the money and walk away.

I'm talking about movies like The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon: films in which the hero cracks wise at tense moments, most of the mayhem takes place off screen and the murders are relatively bloodless.

Even good noir thrillers these days are ultra violent, with bodies dropping like elevators with their cables cut and at least one unlikely freeway chase that ends with a fireball that leaves a carful of bad guys flambéed.

I'm happy to say that The Missing Person is old-school noir that features a wise-cracking private detective, the requisite femme fatale and a shadowy conspiracy. What's more, the protagonist gets knocked out twice as the plot progresses, not just once.
Rosow listens in to the conversation in the next
room. Snooping is what private detectives do, right?

Does he do the right thing? Like all good noir, it depends on your point of view. As the protagonist, John Rosow (Michael Shannon) says in the voiceover narration: "What is that -- 'the right thing?'"

You see, Rosow is a former New York City cop who turned in his badge and fled Manhattan for reasons that aren't immediately made apparent. When we first meet him, he is sleeping in his underwear in a dingy Chicago walkup so close to the elevated railway that he could read the Tribune in the light from passing trains -- if he could afford to buy a copy.

Unfortunately, the primary things Rosow uses his investigative skills to get to the bottom of are gin bottles. He is clearly trying to sleep off the previous night's drunk when he gets an early wake-up-call from, Drexel Hewett (Paul Adelstein), an attorney who wants Rosow to tail a mystery man from Chicago to California. The only thing the attorney will tell the private eye about his quarry is that he will be on the California Zephyr to Los Angeles at 7 a.m. that morning.

From almost the first frame of the film we are led to believe that Rosow is not just a drunk -- he's a drunk who's not very bright. First, when Hewett mentions the Zephyr, Rosow rather stupidly says, "Zephyr -- that's a wind, isn't it?"

When Hewett's attractive assistant, Miss Charley (Amy Ryan), shows up to give Rosow photos of his quarry and a retainer that seems ridiculously large for the job he is being hired to do, Rosow's clumsy pass at her is shot down. He then tries to impress her with his astuteness by sizing her up as someone who is "pretty now," but was a tom boy who grew up in a household with three brothers."

Miss Charley: Adding a touch of romantic interest.
She smiles drily, says he is "perceptive," then sarcastically counters that she was an only child who spent all her time playing with dolls.

Despite these two strike-outs, Rosow takes the assignment and pulls himself together in a brief sequence that burnishes his image as an inept slob: when he puts on his shirt, his necktie is already looped around the collar and tied in a loose four-in hand, an indication he is so lazy he never unties it. You can clearly see his shirt has a patchwork of little wrinkles pressed into it, evidence that he ironed it himself, badly.

As you can see, our protagonist appears to have everything working against him: he comes off as an alcoholic slob who's as dumb as a box of rocks, and charmless to members of the opposite sex; less than ten minutes in, the viewer has a very clear idea where the movie is going and what will happen along the way: Rosow has been set up to fail.

But that's where The Missing Person takes a sharp left turn and never looks back: Rosow, we start to realize, is not as dumb as he seems; and his heavy drinking is the result of a nightmarish event that made him leave the police and flee New York. We discover he is haunted by a terrible loss, something he has in common with Harold Fullmer (Frank Wood), the man he was hired to follow.

After a number of false starts, Rosow finally figures out who Fullmer is and how all the various loose ends fit together. Rosow realizes he was never intended to complete this assignment in the first place: the only reason he was hired was because "everyone figured I'd muck it up."

I don't want to spoil the plot, but the history of loss that Rosow and Fullmer share sets up the final conflict that will force Rosow to seize control of his life or crawl inside a bottle for keeps. By the time the credits roll, it is clear that everyone has underestimated the private detective -- including Rosow, himself.

For those who have seen Shannon only as Nelson Van Alden, the murderously hypocritical treasury agent in Boardwalk Empire, or as mob hit-man Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman, his performance as John Rosow will be a revelation: the character appears tough, but actually is tender-hearted, sensitive, considerate and deeply troubled by the ethics of his assignment.

For example, he is picked up in a bar by the femme fatale, a woman named Lana (Margaret Colin) who has been hired to keep tabs on him. She accompanies him to his motel room,  is taken aback when he wants to slow dance with her  instead of jumping into bed. The sequence where they move to an old rhythm and blues tune is touching: he, oblivious, is clearly just enjoying the comfort of holding a woman again; she, on the other hand, is uncomfortable with his old fashioned loneliness, uncertain what to do with her hands or whether to rest her head on his shoulder.

Lana: Are you like everybody else in this town? In show business?
Rosow: No I'm the hiding and seeking business.
Lana: Which are you doing now, hiding or seeking?
Rosow: (Draining his glass) Right now I'm drinking.
The violence in the film is minimal: other than the two times Rosow is knocked out, a brief period in which he is held at gunpoint and his glimpse of a dead animal alongside the road as he follows Fullmer to Mexico, there really is none.

The requisite wisecracks are traded, but author/director Buschel doesn't get carried away with them. Rosow is no Philip Marlowe, but his attempts at wit show he has a sense of humor -- and is considerably brighter than his associates think.

There are some technical flaws that may challenge the careful viewer's suspension of disbelief.  At one point, Rosow follows Fullmer to an isolated village in Mexico by abandoning his rental at a gas station 15 miles away and hitching a ride in the trunk of a taxicab. At the village he is quickly discovered and interrogated by a man named Don Edgar (Yul Vasquez) and in the next scene we see him returning to L.A. in his rental. But it is never explained how he got back to the hired car in the first place.

Perhaps more problematic is the fact that the California Zephyr runs from Chicago to Emeryville, not to Los Angeles.  And the trip takes more than two days, so there is no way that Rosow could drink martinis for dinner in the dining car the day he left Chicago, pass out afterward and wake up the next morning at Union Station in Los Angeles.

Finally, some of the dialog smacks of improvisation, which always troubles me. Exchanges between Rosow and Don Edgar, and Rosow and Harold Fullmer, specifically, have the halting quality of lines that are being made up on the fly. Given that that the plotline of The Missing Person is fairly thin to begin with, the occasionally improvisational nature of the dialog tends to distract the viewer from the flow of the story.

Despite these minor flaws, The Missing Person works. It turns out to be a hard-boiled yarn with a surprisingly tender heart, and the viewer will be quick to warm to Rosow and realize there is more to him than the people who surround him realize.
I had to watch this movie twice to be sure I liked it. Now I am considering buying it. I deduct a noose because of the technical flaws and dialog problems I mentioned above, but I feel good about giving it the remaining four nooses. I think you'll like this, one, so check it out.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Dyer's Killer Cell is DOA

Hunter Cell
By Joshua Dyer

(Cover art and design by Christopher Stroud)
March 15, 2013
182 pages
Sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Mash-ups can be fun to read, though probably a good deal less to write. To blend more than one type of story effectively -- for example, steam punk, which splices historical fiction with fantasy or science fiction -- takes confidence and a certain degree of fearlessness; How else can you be sure that what you have written while pursuing one genre doesn't violate the rules of one of the others you are following? It can be difficult enough just to keep the elements of your fictional universe sorted out as your tale progresses, let alone color within the lines of each type of story you are jamming together.

In short, there is a hell of a lot that can go wrong in a mash-up, which is probably why exceptional examples don't readily come to mind.

Characters can be less than compelling, description inadequate, dialog unbelievable or hackneyed. Sometimes the universe a writer constructs doesn't differ enough from the one we all normally live in to drive the story. Sometimes the details of the comingled genres don't really mesh. Occasionally the plot is too dense and complicated to easily follow; at other times it is too thin to engage readers and draw them in.

Sometimes all these things go wrong at once. When that happens, Katie bar the door.

Hunter Cell, Joshua Dyer's new novel, is a good example. Dyer has grafted a mystery story onto a science fiction yarn set in the not too distant future in which the sheer volume of crime has caused a breakdown in the traditional justice system. The guilt of suspects is considered a given and their traditional right to challenge their accusers is non-existent. Normal trials have been abandoned for the most serious types of crimes, and suspects are simply killed by a hand-picked team of government assassins that works in anonymity -- the hunter cells of the title.
Joshua Dyer: This Cell Won't Hunt!

The system begins to fall apart when members of a mysterious underground begin to interfere with these executions. One man in particular who is slated for assassination engages in a series of hairsbreadth escapes while the members of the hunter cell that is supposed to eliminate him find themselves among the hunted.

The concept seems a bit like Judge Dredd Meets The Watchmen; I couldn't help but think of these comics as I was reading it, and not in a complimentary way: The idea  has promise, although it seems much too derivative for my comfort.

The problem is not the basic concept or even the particulars of the plot; in my opinion, the reason the book stumbles is because Dyer handles all his elements in such a clumsy fashion.

For one thing, he can't seem to work out how he feels about the hunter cells themselves. He gives its members a sort of twisted camaraderie-in-arms, setting them up in situations where they chat and joke together in a diner, complain about bureaucracy and mutter about the boss, just like cubicle jockeys at a Silicon Valley startup.

With one exception --the suspect whose flight triggers the conflict in the book -- their victims are painted as cold-blooded monsters, bereft of a shred of decency. At the same time, it is clear that at least a couple of the government killers are psychopaths themselves, literally capable of killing without remorse at the drop of a hat.

This raises the question: who are we supposed to be rooting for in this story? The good guys or the bad guys? Do we support the hunter cell assassins who represent the forces of law and order or are we appalled at their violence, brutality and extra-judicial executions?

Dyer gives us little guidance in Hunter Cell, which is billed as the first in a series of novels. Perhaps after he has published several more, we will be able to figure out how we feel about contract killers who operate under an official government aegis, but we are given no hint in this first installment. For the most part, they seem to be at least as brutal and bloodthirsty as the bad guys they are assigned to exterminate.

Perhaps it would be easier to accept the moral ambiguity of the hunter cells if Dyer had created a more interesting world for them to inhabit, but that is not the case. His world of at least a half century in the future seems very similar to our own: everybody in the novel seems to smoke, either synthetic cigarettes or the real thing. In addition, they costume themselves like a futuristic version of the Village People -- one is an outlaw biker, one a film noir style private eye, one a female ninja who seems to have been drafted from Mortal Kombat or some other video game. 

There is even a bionic man in the mix, who powers himself around on a set of mechanical legs as if the upper body of Frank Castle, the Punisher, had been Superglued to the lower half of the Tin Man of Oz.

Did I mention that the boss who runs the Hunter Cells seems to do so by piping directly into his agents' brains through some sort of electronic mental telepathy? I guess that's one way to save taxpayer dollars: get rid of cellular telephones.

These minor high tech details -- coupled with a repressive legal system -- seem to be the only things that differentiate the present from the future, however. We still drive around in single-occupant vehicles, no doubt burning fossil fuels. The freeway is still one of the primary modes of transportation. 

Despite this retrograde travel technology, there is no mention of climate change or rising oceans. Everything seems to be pretty much the way it already is -- only more so.

The one thing that Dyer seems to have done to get readers to follow his story is to end the first installment with a cliff-hanger. The question is, will readers be willing to accept the inadequacies of Dyer's future world simply in order to find out what happens next?

This one will not; The new John LeCarre is waiting for me on my bookshelf, and I would rather spend my spare time in the most unconvincing world LeCarre has created than the best one summoned up by Joshua Dyer.

One noose.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

How Petty, The Gods That Rule Olympus!

Olympus Has Fallen!
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett

Memo to the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the Secret Service: 

Next time you're in a jam, don't bother sending in all those troops that specialize in weapons use, military tactics and martial arts; it doesn't matter whether they are SEALS, Green Berets, whatever: they are all going to be wiped out like rats anyway.

Instead, send in the one guy who can clean up the situation singlehandedly. You know which one he is: just check with HR: he's the guy who used to be in the Special Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines -- which one isn't important because they are all just so darned special), who was disgraced in his last assignment through no fault of his own and who is so insubordinate to everybody in a position of authority that it is amazing he can even hold a job.

That's the man you want. If you marshal your resources and send him in to begin with, you will save a lot of lives and narrative time. Because everybody else in your elite force is just window-dressing -- a collection of breathing warm bodies whose only real reason for existence is to serve as hapless victims who are summarily eliminated by the bad guys.

Gerard Butler as agent Michael Banning, the most insubordinate employee ever hired by the U.S. Treasury Department.

I'm sending you this memo after seeing Olympus Has Fallen! the actioner that stars Gerard Butler as a Secret Service agent who launches a solo counter-attack against roughly 100 North Korean terrorists who have seized the White House and taken the President and his top staff hostage.

These are really bad people -- we know because they are North Koreans, the guys who keep threatening to use nukes on the United States. North Koreans are made to order as geopolitical villains; after all, the country's military leaders and lunatic dictators starve their own people while their Dear Leader globe-trots with international has-beens like Carmen Electra's ex-hubbie. They send suicide missions across the DMZ even though none of those missions have accomplished anything of substance. They have exchanged nuclear technology and information with the terrorist-infiltrated military that runs Pakistan. 

So what's to like?

Of course, North Korea is a somewhat unlikely candidate to mount a successful strike on U.S. soil, let alone take over the White House. It is, after all, an isolated dictatorship whose primary infantry weapon is a Russian-designed assault rifle introduced 66 years ago; it seems to get caught every time it clumsily sends a hit squad across the border into South Korea; its guided missiles -- the ones it threatens to use in a first strike against the U.S. -- barely fly, and rarely hit what they are supposed to. 

In fact, the country's primary contribution to modern military materiel seems to be those ridiculously huge hats its officers wear: their crowns are as big as the OB beer umbrellas shading tables in a Seoul sidewalk cafe; what holds them up, only Kim Jong-un knows.

Anyway, in Olympus, the North Koreans, led by a reptilian psychopath named Kang (Rick Yune) manage to infiltrate and replace an entire South Korean diplomatic delegation that is meeting with the President (Aaron Eckhart) to discuss the latest Korean crisis. And they manage this even though the South Koreans are probably the most paranoid people on the planet and have an espionage agency, the National Intelligence Service, that boasts 60,000 employees in 37 different departments and spends the equivalent of nearly a billion dollars a year spying, primarily on North Korea.

The oleaginous Rick Yune as Kang, master plotter extraordinaire, a 21st Century stand-in for Dr. Fu Manchu.  He sought to change the world, but forgot to get Mike Banning out of the way, first. . .

North Korean terrorists launch a stealthy attack that involves a C-130 armed with cannon, the destruction of the Washington Monument, a fleet of exploding garbage trucks, a tour bus wired with TNT and the aerial bombardment of the White House. No, seriously. . .

Special Agent Mike Banning, who used to head the White House security detail but was removed from the post after he failed to save the President's wife (Ashley Judd) from death in a freak auto accident, happens to be watching from his new desk job at Treasury when the terrorists appear.  

He hustles down to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, not only avoiding being shot to death by the terrorists but also by an army of cops, Secret Service agents and -- well -- the Army, as he races down the street waving his semiautomatic pistol and dispatching bad guys. Through some marvelous quirk of fate, he ends up inside the presidential dwelling, the last living man with a gun who isn't a terrorist.

The remaining run-time of the film is spent with Banning rescuing the president's plucky son, Connor (Finley Jacobsen), picking off the terrorists one at a time and messing with the heads of Kang and his troops.

He also serves as the eyes and ears of the hastily-appointed acting president, Speaker of the House Trumbell (Morgan Freeman, who probably spent a lot of this movie wishing he was still playing Easy Reader on The Electric Company, a Children's Television Workshop series for PBS in the 1970s. At least the dialogue on The Electric Company was aimed at slightly more mature viewers.)

The writers have attempted to make Banning a classic tough guy by putting Phillip Marlowe dialogue in his mouth, but the smart cracks wear thin quickly and Butler, frankly, just isn't the guy to deliver them.  A good example of what he has to work with: 

Says Banning to Kang at one point, "Let's play a game of 'Go Fuck Yourself,' you go first."  Ah, the incredible  wit of the Hollywood action film script writer.

Banning's job of overcoming the evil-doers is made immensely easier by the gaping holes in the plot.  For example, about mid-way through the movie a renegade ex-Secret Service man who is working with the bad guys (Dylan McDermott), is sent out by Kang to kill Banning.

Dylan McDermott gets to play another sleazy villain.  Maybe his agent could get more sympathetic parts for him if he didn't look like a sleazy villain?

Precisely how he gets out of the president's bunker under the White House is never made clear -- an egregious continuity mistake highlighted by the fact that Kang and his  key troops later have to use C-4 to blow a hole in the bunker's supposedly "nuclear-hardened" wall in order to get out, themselves.

The movie is literally loaded with howlers like this. 

Some other examples: at one point Kang and his minions can view Banning killing terrorists by using the White House closed circuit security system, but that system apparently focuses on only one hallway and the rest of the building has no cameras whatsoever, since the terrorists lose track of Banning immediately afterward.

Another gaping abyss in the plot involves entering three separate code words into a computer that controls all U.S. nuclear missiles -- the president, in fact, is being kept alive solely to get his password for the system. Yet Kang and company later use a cryptographic computer program to figure out the third code word without the president's help -- which raises the question, why wasn't the president killed as soon as the second code word was recovered from his staff?

You can get away with a perforated plot line so long as the action creditably carries the film forward, but the goofs and inconsistent characterizations come so hard and fast in this turkey that even an inattentive viewer can't help but notice them. If you doubt it, wait until you hear turncoat Dylan McDermott explain why he has been helping the terrorists by telling Banning ("I guess I lost my way.") 

I guess. Sort of like the writers who came up with this garbage. 

As is usually the case, the females in the cast are strictly Smurfettes, added for gender diversity or to be menaced by the bad guys. Ashley Judd lasts less than five minutes before she goes into a river near Camp David. Melissa Leo (who portrays a haggard Secretary of Defense) spends most of the film shrieking with fear. Radha Mitchell, who plays Banning's wife, a nurse, spends the few on-screen moments she gets staring at television cameras with a worried look.

Angela Bassett, as director of the Secret Service, is the only woman in the cast who has coherent lines to speak. Barely. And even hers are hokey.

Consider Olympus Has Fallen a warm-up exercise for White House Down, which appears to feature a very similar plotline (cop is trapped inside White House during terrorist attack, plucky kid is menaced by evil-doers, etc.) If you have the stomach for a double dose, by all means see both pictures. 

Personally, I will be skipping White House Down; I prefer Brentwood to Hollywood as my source of summer corn. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Richet's Mesrine Has No Instinct for the Kill

Mesrine, Part One: Killer Instinct 
Mesrine, Part Two: Public Enemy Number One
Directed by Jean-François Richet
Starring Vincent Cassel

I have to admit, there is almost nothing I enjoy more than a biopic about a notorious criminal. I am looking forward to seeing Michael Shannon as The Iceman, got a huge kick out of Johnny Depp as Dillinger in PublicEnemies, and loved Ray Liotta as the tweaky coke-head Henry Hill in Goodfellas (though I never could figure out why they dropped Nick Pileggi's original name for the story, Wiseguy).

Michael Shannon as hitman Richard Kuklinski
Depp as John Dillinger

Despite my guilty pleasure at this type of film, sometimes a movie about a real life criminal just doesn't ring my bell, regardless of who plays the part. Maybe it's because the criminal lacks the charm of a Johnny Depp, or the doomed romantic chemistry of Dunaway and Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde. Maybe the lead simply doesn't project the same toxic creepiness as Michael Shannon.

This was the problem I faced with Mesrine: Killer Instinct and its sequel, Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One (both released in 2008)I just couldn't get into the main character in any substantial way.

The films, directed by Jean-François Richet, form a two-part dramatization of the life of Jacques Mesrine, a French gangster who was a one-man crime wave during the late 1960s and 1970s. Robberies, kidnappings, murder -- Mesrine seemed to do it all.  He was a globe-trotting criminal who appeared to have sprung from the pages of the comic strip, Modesty Blaise, and his crimes took him to Mallorca in Spain, the Spanish-owned Canary Islands off the north coast of Africa and Quebec province in Canada.

The real Jacques Mesrine: Killer Instinct to spare. . .

Richet's films seem to parallel key episodes in Mesrine's life and storied career, depicting numerous homicides, at least one attempted murder and a host of stick-ups, including one of a casino at Deauville. Two abductions are depicted and no less than two escapes from prisons, one of them La Sante, France's ostensibly escape-proof maximum security facility.

On the surface, this should be the stuff of a terrific movie, but Richet's two-parter seems flat, listless and uninvolving. Mesrine, parts One and Two, are fine as long as they concentrate on the action; but the films never really give us any insight into what drove the French gangster, and the harder they try, the less we feel we know about the man whose exploits drove the headlines.

I found the picture uninvolving for a number of reasons. For one thing, some of Mesrine's crimes come across as flat-footed and clownish, but not in the amusing way the two hit men occasionally behave in Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player

For example, when Mesrine and Besse rob the casino in Deauville, they have to abandon their getaway vehicle and flee on foot. While crossing a stream, the gangsters lose a suitcase full of cash in the water. There isn't a smile's-worth of humor in the entire sequence, and Mesrine's ineptitude in the scene sorely undercuts his image as a master criminal.

In Truffaut's hands, the comic elements slightly leaven the grim, fatalistic story. Not so in Mesrine. The buffoonery is presented literally, not played for laughs.

Vincent Cassel won a Cesar Award -- the French equivalent of the Oscar -- for his portrayal of Mesrine. His performance is intense, but the man he plays seems to lack the personal charm and charisma to be a 20th Century Robin Hood. In scenes in which Mesrine is shown jousting with the police or reporters he seems slightly out of his depth and projects an  individual who wants to maintain his personal popularity but isn't quite sure how to do it because he got it accidentally in the first place.

During a sequence in which he argues politics with a leftist friend, Mesrine, himself, seems uncertain what his personal convictions are. He appears to be working them out as he goes, trying to come up with things to say to keep his friend on his side. In the end, he takes an essentially apolitical stance.

But his comments lack conviction. They are one-dimensional and disingenuous. As delivered by Cassel, they seem more like lines learned by a rather talentless actor than a legitimate statement of his point of view.

Perhaps that is the point Richet is trying to make: that Mesrine was the star of his own screenplay, and was making up his part as he went along.

(Warning: the remainder of this essay contains spoilers.)

If that is the case, the melodrama ended in November 1979 when Mesrine was ambushed by a French SWAT team as he and his girlfriend were on their way to an outing in the country. Tipped where he was, the police pulled in front of him in an unmarked van, threw open the rear doors and shot the notorious outlaw to death in a scene reminiscent of the climax to Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde.

It's a measure of Mesrine's inaccessibility in these two films that when he is machine-gunned by police, I felt nothing whatsoever. 

It would be wrong to criticize Richet for treating  a cold-blooded killer too sympathetically in this film. The real shortcoming of Mesrine, Parts One and Two, is that they maintain such a careful neutrality that when the gangster meets his demise, it has less emotional impact on the viewer than a bug hitting his or her windshield during a Sunday drive.

Clearly Mesrine was a more complicated and interesting character than he is portrayed in these two films.  Richet's failure to capture that complexity -- or even hint it existed -- is a critical failing, and turns what could have been a fascinating case study of sociopathic behavior into a shoot-'em-up without an actual core.

Two and a half nooses. Close but not close enough. . .