Saturday, June 4, 2005

Enough is Enough

Out of all the stylish, artsy revenge movies I've seen over the last year or so--including Man on Fire, Kill Bill, and Sin City--the widely-praised Oldboy is the most unpleasant, the most pretentious, and the most preposterous. And that's saying something because Man on Fire, Kill Bill, and Sin City set pretty high bars for, respectively, unpleasantness, pretentiousness, and preposterousness. Although the biggest problem with these movies is probably that they're all really dull: they can't even manage to be unpleasant in an interesting way. And, again, Oldboy earns top honors: though its opening is promising--setting up a compelling Takashi Miike-does-Twilight Zone premise--it quickly turns into a substandard entry in the Convoluted Asian Action Film sweepstakes, throwing in badly choreographed fight sequences in between completely nonsensical plot points.

Worst of all, Oldboy builds to a "shock" ending whose impact relies on the audience buying into all the nonsense. If the movie had made sense up to that point, the ending might actually have had the emotional resnance and deeper meaning the movie's admirers see in it. But the movie doesn't make sense, or rather, even though on a basic A-follows-B-follows-C level the movie is semi-comprehensible, at no point in the movie can you imagine that any actual human beings would ever behave the way the characters in the movie do. Ever.

And so, watching the movie's shocking, intense, highly-charged ending, I felt that someone had tacked the end of one of Euripides's plays onto the end of one of Johnny To's goofy, slapdash action comedies. The lead actor, Min-sik Choi, who has been relatively appealing throughout the movie, suddenly starts over-acting--he writhes and emotes with such fervor that he makes Sean Penn and Toshiro Mifune look like masters of restraint--and the only sane response an audience member can have is to ask, "Wha'?" I assume the filmmakers expect you to leave the theater pondering the nature of revenge, of guilt, of justice, but I left the theater wondering why I should care about characters that are so obviously contrivances and a plot that is so obviously constructed to make a point.

Some fans of the movie seem to argue that the story's preposterousness is part of its meaning: the movie doesn't need to make sense because revenge itself doesn't make sense; the characters' motivations are nonsensical because revenge itself is a nonsensical motivation. But it's entirely possible to make a movie about the emptiness of revenge and still populate it with characters whose motivations are understandable, if not applaudable. Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart did it in a bunch of westerns, for starters.

And I think at this point I've had enough of the Artsy Revenge Fantasy genre, in general. I understand why certain filmmakers like to make these kinds of movies: the revenge plot is a basic template that lends itself to be gussied up with pop culture in-jokes, super-stylized visuals, and nihilistic philosophizing, while still allowing for the visceral kick of action-packed retribution. Audiences can get their thrills and the flmmakers can maintain the illusion that they're doing something more important and meaningful and transgressive than a standard action-movie blockbuster. (It makes sense that Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns--the greatest Artsy Revenge Fantasies and the inspiration, directly or not, for most of these new ones--are among the shallowest of all great movies.) And it's that central dishonesty that has really soured me on this kind of movie.

These movies aren't really any deeper than a crowd-pleaser like Independence Day, except that we leave them feeling as if we've been kicked in the teeth. That's probably one of the reasons certain film critics--usually sensitive film critics of the male persuasion--who loathe rousing, Rambo-style revenge pics and standard Schwarzenegger-style macho bullshit, love these kinds of movies: they can get their fix of sadistic violence and then take their punishment for enjoying something that they know they shouldn't like.


Anonymous said...

Dizzam! 2 shots at Edels in 1 week!

Jon Hastings said...

I was thinking about taking another shot at him for the way he ended his review of Cinderella Man, where he confessed that he feels guilty for enjoying Ron Howard's movies. What a weird thing to write! And he puts it pretty strangely, as if waking up after enjoying a Ron Howard movie is like waking up after having anonymous sex or an alcoholic bender or some other kind of disreputable behavior. But I guess for a with-it, New York, intellectual like Edelstein, liking Ron Howard is pretty disreputable. Its almost like he's afraid that if he doesn't let us know that he feels guilty for calling Cinderella Man "a great movie" then he'll be kicked out of the hip film buff club (or something).

But seriously, I only pick on Edelstein because when it comes to writing about what is actually going on, on the screen, he's better than just about any other critic out there. I just find the way his liberal guilt continually manifests itself kind of annoying/interesting.