The often forgotten action poet Walter Hill stages kinetic, breathless pulp fiction with this modern-day Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a mixture of action-movie magnetization and post-industrial enervation. It’s a near horror-movie visualization of urban strife punched-up with vigorous conviction, if not depth, by Hill’s customary style – halfway between knuckle-dusting barn-burner and morality play where the near-amorality of the play is bracing without ever shuttle-cocking into sadistic.
Beckoned on by a mythic, clandestine treasure that turns out to be as much hoosegow as genuine find, the rum punch of the story kick-starts when two Arkansas firefighters hear tell of lost doubloons (well, gold of an equally quixotic caliber) trapped within the remnants of a ramshackle, hollowed-out East St. Louis building surrounded by a cemetery of similar factories and once-gleaming urban icons now little more than a mausoleum to the American Dream, a playground for gangs to lay down their own variant of the law in a society that has largely abandoned them.
Then again, the gangsters aren’t so different after all in this screenplay by a pre-Back to the Future Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (which unfathomably spent ten years in exile before being finally made). Although they appear as specters or hoodlums early on, the black gang fronted by the devilishly coiled king snake Ice-T and the more perturbed Ice Cube (early film roles for both) is treated with the same mix of melodramatic menace and nonchalant, off-the-cuff humanism as the two white buccaneers, played by Bill Paxton and a sadistic William Sadler.
Filmed in the torn-down wide emptiness of clutter and urban malaise that is a pre-Olympics Atlanta, the cinematography turns the building, an everyday marker of broken-down, denied post-industry America and urban emptiness, into something like a haunted house labyrinth containing a mythical treasure that everyone – regardless of race – can’t wait to get their hands on. The film isn’t exactly actively race-positive, but the rejection of the gangsters as the outright villains positions them as something like homeowners in an invasion film simply looking out for their territory. When conflict erupts, it isn’t because the African Americans torture the whites, but because the whites believe the gold – which they live hours from, unlike the gang – is rightfully theirs.
The gold itself more or less occupies a corollary space to the gangsters as forgotten phantoms that most whites treat with a mixture of assumed ownership or disinterest. That other people might occupy the same geographic region – and the same forgotten, tucked-away social status – as the gold doesn’t even interrupt the thoughts of these two firefighters. And it is ultimately this crisis of racial blindness and a failure to communicate, rather than racial hatred, that stokes the fire of a B-movie tragedy that Sam Fuller might have appreciated in his day.
Ultimately, though, everyone in the film – regardless of appearance – is equally prey to the predation of America’s greatest fortune or foe: money. It’s, essentially, a classic tale as old as dirt, of men of all walks of life united in their ability to be thrown into bad situations and their corruptible desires to move out of those situations. Rather shockingly, it isn’t a story of two white crackers besieged by inner-city hoods. The only thing all-American about Paxton and Sadler is their embrace of the magnetism of money in a film that essentially shifts and swivels between perspectives with equal validity and empathy, if not real “sympathy” – something Hill has never especially been interested in – but his hard-scrabble tale bears an odd resemblance to his The Warriors, Southern Comfort, and 48 Hrs, all stories with race waiting and lurking in the wings even as it isn’t the central focus.
In a vaguely post-racial way, the film proposes that the inner cities are, like anywhere in America, hot-beds of discontent and people with a craving in their eyes to rise above their surroundings. A modern-day Western, the film discovers in the inner city a frontier that once was, and may still be in spirit, a location where people exert their all to pursue opportunity, sometimes trampling on the lives of others in the process. Unlike Southern Comfort, the gangsters aren’t unclassified, unseen “others” but men trying to protect their own – the leader’s brother is hostage to the two white men – in a fable of elegant simplicity and straightforwardness, a world where everyone is equally a soul to suck out in the eyes of gold.
In the final wink, following but not foreclosing the shudder we’ve become privy to, the gold returns to the only man who really valued the down-trodden building as a beacon of life, or at least a stop-gap on the way to a certain demise, rather than simply as a circumstantial abode for gold. In the conclusion, the afflictions of greed and racial attrition are literalized as a self-propagating fire where the only escape is learning to weave in and out like a snake, not only within fire but within the mortal terror of a society hell-bent on rushing to its own success. In this story, the one who succeeds is the one who plays the others, the one who sneakily disrupts the status quo with an ostensible timidity and a secret cunning, the invisible one who utilizes the knife in the back rather than the axe to the head, the very man we are trained by middlebrow, middle-class norms not to look at, or even acknowledge he exists.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Recanting even the semi-logical cinematic jubilance of his coming-up-party Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is writer-director Robert Rodriguez’s nearly full-barreled reverie of animated cowboy gallantry, a tour-de-force of not caring. Denied the pit-stop of reason, Rodriguez speeds ahead until his film gloriously sputters out of control and, with a smirk, he tilts the narrative pile-up of unnecessary subplots and characters into a fracas of mayhem where the very point seems to be how arbitrary all of these characters actually are. His big-budget break was Desperado, a loose predecessor to this film, but if Desperado was more or less content to play around within action movie charisma, Once Upon a Time in Mexico feels less like his big break than his big breakdown. Whether or not that communicates a sense of derision or attraction to you is your prerogative, but don’t say it isn’t a recipe for a distinctive film.
The almost comically loose narrative would be impossible and useless to explain in a review, as explanation would be both more credit than the film deserves and somehow a way of actually discrediting its bon vivant razzamatazz that, honestly, has no use for a more diligent story that would only codify a film that is by and large crystallized by cartoon physics. The finale, a sudden-onset Mexican folk song where three pistol-whipping guitarists and raffish mariachi types save the day, is not only tongue-in-cheek, but tongue-ripped-out. The film can’t talk to us, to try to convince us that any of it is worth a dime, mostly because, deep down, Rodriguez’s crazed and cacophonous projection is more interested in raising a ruckus and enjoying the party than in making sure his audience was invited to the conversation about what is going on.
Case in point: Rodriguez is clearly infatuated with his acquisition of Johnny Depp, perhaps only for Rodriguez to flaunt his own name-brand status, as though reminding us over and over that he is a sufficient auteur to check A-listers like Depp off on his “to cast” list. Depp’s presence in the film is narratively irrelevant, tenuous at best; he intrudes on the film like a matador trying to wrangle a rampaging bull of a film and only succeeding in rankling the beast further. That Depp doesn’t belong in the film, though, is an animating principle for Rodriguez’s rough-hewn, uncanny, antic wit, dousing the character in an inebriated take on a Faustian bargain and parading him around uninhibited through the streets of Mexico City now de-eyed (yes, you read that right) and fashioning himself into a playing-all-sides Eli Wallach to Antonio Banderas’ Man With No Name.
Depp is the ricocheting spitball, the lone-wolf for whom a team is a temporary circumstance rather than a marker of infatuated allegiance. In Rodriguez’s pile-on of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, Johnny Depp’s character can be Bugs, Daffy, even the Road Runner striding by a film that is Wile E. Coyote, trying to impede on him with toy after toy until Rodriguez’s one-stop ACME shop just swirls the character up into its try-and-try-again insouciance where anything goes and we go along for the ride. Once Upon a Time is a fable, a parody of a fable, and an excuse for the director to have a ball sans expectation; insurrection and mutiny against the malady of conventionally good filmmaking is itself the purpose here. In what is undeniably a rust-bucket or a claptrap, the raffish zeal of the picture to go for melodrama with such loopy mental dislocation is endearing even when the film shifts from spinning around in kaleidoscopic circles to merely spinning its wheels. Even when it fails, it fails with such gusto that it succeeds.
The 21st century model Nicolas Cage, by and large, is a two-version creature. On one hand, we have the turgid action thriller lurking around every corner of the VOD landscape, threatening us with rummaging up reminders of Cage’s once halcyon days. The other, more rarefied, luxury-model is the protoplasmic outré hysteria vintage Cage that one searches for with an Ahab-like intensity and monomania, cutting through the jungles of the lesser deities with a machete as sharp as Cage’s razor-wire insanity. The Trust, a spry, lithe, genuinely undemanding passer-by, proposes a sort of third-way: borrowing the thawed-out barely-trying of the former Cage and the all-hands-on-deck insanity of the second variety for a mixture of bored and restless, miasma and carousel, a character whose life feels like a terrible VOD thriller suddenly enlivened by an insurgence of pandemonium.
An essentially pointless film that has a lot of fun being itself, The Trust is a garden-variety heist picture enlivened by an almost baroque commitment to the ticks and eccentricities of the two fugitives at its core. A little caffeinated by music video directors Alex Brewer and Ben Brewer in their debut feature film, this amusingly dysfunctional film is a hodge-podge more than a crystallized edict, a grease-painted monstrosity that isn’t exactly fully-formed but never sediments into still-water because of its generally plucky nonchalance about its clandestine, slantwise weirdness.
Playing two Las Vegas cops with an evidence-collection job, Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood more or less embody the waste-the-day-away slacker spirit so thick-on-the-ground twenty years ago and more content to wait in the wings of generally more manic films released today. The restful, almost placid, tone of the film that recalls those mid-‘90s delights is a refresher course in cinema with an eye for tangents and ostensibly pointless moments that don’t advance narrative but instead corroborate character or flex the fluctuations of mood. When the two lovable loners discover a diamond-mine locked in a store, they invade the hostile thief den overhead and tunnel down under in hopes of locating their piece of the American Apple Pie. Or, considering the prickly tone of the film, maybe a lemon tart in this case. You get the picture.
It’s basically a light character piece about an agent and a passive understudy muscled around by Daddy Cage, who himself evolves along the Cage spectrum from genially discombobulated soul to disquietingly, disturbed, discombobulated soul with a Cageian charisma and aplomb. He restively discomforts the screen without having to turn himself into a Pavaroti-like bucket of electrons like he usually does; it’s good Cage, but not pandering Cage, and although pandering is what the man has singularly elevated into an artform over the years, The Trust is a nice, shaggy-dog accompaniment to David Gordon Green’s Joe for a more unassuming later-period work from an actor who still has the moxie when he wants to. Cage’s unique brand of artifice, buried deep in concerns about social identity and the performance of one’s external self, finds Cage burrowing within himself to exhume the underground layers of our beings and bring them all to the glorious surface. This isn’t a great film, merely a passable diversion. But for Cage, it’s an escape plan.