A week of movies: Reviews of The Commuter, Den of Thieves, 12 Strong

I had some time on my hands this week–big writing project done, and health improving–and decided to take full advantage of MoviePass, and see some flicks. I tend to love January movies anyway. I know, it’s Dump Month, when studios release a bunch of movies they don’t believe in and don’t know how to market. But I’m a movie nut. I’ll see pretty much anything, and generally find something to like in them all.

First off was The Commuter. Liam Neeson continues to reinvent himself as a septuagenarian action movie star, and power to him. Of course, it’s a little disconcerting seeing Oskar Schindler beating up bad guys. What’s the great line from The Simpson’s? “Oskar Schindler muy bueno. Señor Burns es el diablo.” Still, he’s a compelling actor, and generally sympathetic. Why not play an old tough guy with, you know, a certain set of skills?

The Commuter was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, a Spanish director with a knack for action and a real visual flair, and the movie begins with a terrific montage, showing insurance salesman Michael MacCauley dragging himself to catch his train and work in the Big City, day after endless day. It’s a fascinating sequence, engaging our sympathies for the guy, but also showing, uh, a certain drabness to his routine. And then, in the movie’s first scene, he’s fired from his job. He’s 60 years old, his son’s going off to college, and he just lost his job. Man, do we feel for him. Great beginning to a thriller.

The movie that follows is one of those movies, like Speed, that manages to be an exciting, well made thriller, extremely satisfying as long as you overlook the fact that the movie’s central premise is completely preposterous. Michael is on the train, heading home, like every day, when Joanna (Vera Fermiga), approaches him with a proposition. There’s someone on the train that doesn’t belong. This person needs to be identified, and a tracking device placed in his/her baggage. If Michael can do it, he’ll get $100,000. If he can’t, his wife and son will be murdered. Good luck.

And so we see Michael, who we learn is a former policeman, trying to chat oh so casually with his fellow commuters, to figure out who doesn’t belong. And he figures out some ways to narrow it down, and meanwhile, some of the people, as you might imagine, take exception. Violently, in one case. And Michael gets beat up, and still has to continue.

I found it quite compelling. It’s just a very exciting thriller. Of course, it’s also immensely stupid, but that’s not a drawback for certain kinds of movies. I thought it was a creatively conceived, satisfyingly executed, exceptionally enjoyable really dumb movie. I tell you, you could do a lot worse. The ending is particularly idiotic, but you know, I went with it. Willing suspension of disbelief. If you’re in the mood for pure escapism, I recommend it highly. Just don’t expect art.

Next up was Den Of Thieves, a cops v. robbers heist movie, starring Gerard Butler. Butler plays an LA cop, with the reliably American tough guy name of Nick O’Brian, with the LA County Sheriff’s department. Meanwhile, Pablo Schreiber (Liev Schreiber’s half-brother), is Ray Merriman, a former Special Forces soldier who has turned his skills to a life of highly profitable crime. So it’s Nick vs. Ray, the head of a bunch of renegade cops and the head of a bunch of renegade former soldiers. And the baddies are trying to pull of a particularly intricate bank job, and the cops are trying to stop ’em. Meanwhile, Curtis “Fifty Cent” Jackson played Enson, a member of the robbers’ gang who is also sort of helping the cops.

What a bad movie. Here’s my problem with it: the police are so unlikable, so violent and thuggish and mean, I couldn’t root for them. Basically, I was cheering for the robbers the whole way. This, despite the fact that in the first scene in the movie, we see this same gang of robbers gun down four cops for no particular reason. It doesn’t matter. Their plan is clever, and they’re disciplined and competent, and we’re on their side. And we never once see the police doing, you know, police work. Canvassing, talking to witnesses, examining a crime scene. Never happens. It was kind of like on the old Batman TV show: “who did this? It has to be the job of . . . the Joker.” They just decide they know who the bad guys are, kidnap one of them, and beat him up until he spills. And then engage in all kinds of supposedly intimidating macho posturing. They’re awful.

Plus, Nick is particularly awful. His wife is divorcing him (she apparently has some objection to him sleeping with his string of hookers/strippers/barmaids), and he decides it’s a great idea to to a party thrown by her New Guy and shove him around. After that scene, I only stayed in the theater so I could see Pablo Schreiber’s character shoot him. Which I also knew wasn’t ever going to happen.

Part of the problem is Gerard Butler, an actor, ahem, somewhat lacking in nuance. Fifty Cent is a lot better actor, as is Schreiber. Anyway, the bad guys pull off the big job, and the cops chase ’em down, and then–it’s LA–everyone gets stuck in a traffic jam. Now, the bad guys are former Special Forces–they have really big guns, with armor piercing shells that can cut through engine blocks like hot knives through butter. And the cops are really heavily armed too. And there are maybe thirty cars between the robbers’ getaway car and the main cop cars. So Nick and his guys run down the lane between all these cars, and the robbers open fire, and they all have this big firefight, right there on the street, with all these civilian cars everywhere. Final death toll: cops 2, robbers 4, innocent bystanders, 77, more or less. Probably. Yikes.

This is a completely terrible movie. And the only reason to see it is maybe if you’re a huge Fifty Cent fan. Even then, honestly, I wouldn’t bother. He’s gotta be in something better.

Final movie: 12 Strong. It’s a war movie, with lots of ‘splosions and gun battles and scenes in which Chris Hemsworth rides into combat against tanks on horseback. Hemsworth and Michael Shannon and Michael Peña play US soldiers, right after 9/11, tasked with meeting up and supporting a group of anti-Taliban Afghani soldiers, led by a General Dostum (Navid Negahban), in attacking a Taliban stronghold. It was a very entertaining and exciting movie, well acted and quite compelling, and six months from now I’ll have forgotten I ever saw it. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. A good popcorn movie is rare enough, they should be cherished when they come across our radar. I just think it’s a shame that something as tragic and awful and consequential as the war in Afghanistan got such insubstantial Hollywood attention. Chris Hemsworth is a fine actor, capable of a bigger challenge, I think. Instead, if I remember this movie at all, it’ll be ‘that movie where Thor won the war in Afghanistan.’ So why are we still there?

What’s my problem with it? It’s based on a real event, and the actual soldiers who fought there are worth our attention, obviously. They were genuinely heroic, and certainly did things, out of patriotism, that I wouldn’t be capable of doing. Why not make a movie about them?

Except, you know, it all felt . . . perfunctory. I’ve never fought in combat, but my understanding is that military assault rifles need to be reloaded periodically, that even American weapons don’t come with unlimited magazines. And while the Taliban are surely convincing bad guys, I’m not convinced that, whatever their failings, a complete inability to shoot accurately is among them. And while the soldiers in the actual battle did ride on horseback, I’m not sure I like the chances of horseback riding cavalry against tanks and armored personnel carriers. And Taliban rocket launchers might (I just say might) be better employed against enemy armies than against cliff faces. And so on. It’s a very well executed Hollywood action movie. Part of me believes that Afghanistan deserves a better treatment than that provided by a well-executed Hollywood action movie.

Still, the actors were all really good, and the movie was exciting. My wife and I enjoyed it. Recommended, with caveats.

I also saw Hostiles. Reviewed elsewhere here. That movie was genuinely terrific. Redeemed January all by itself. But it’s not always about good movies. And that’s okay too.

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