A commercial passenger plane carrying a bomb with enough explosives to wipe out the entire eastern seaboard of the United States has been hijacked. Fortunately, Steven Seagal has come up with an idea to get his squad of commandos on board and contain the threat. It’s also a blessing that in the first twenty minutes of Executive Decision, Seagal dies during the midair transfer. There! I spoiled it for you. I’m not big on spoilers, but this is worth it because I believe it’ll entice you even more to watch this scrappy, under the radar action picture directed by Stuart Baird.
Before all of the action gets started, Kurt Russell makes his introduction attempting to land a small plane during a flying lesson. I wonder if that’ll play into the story later. Hmmm!!!! Russell plays David Grant, a consulting analyst for the US Army. Dressed in his tuxedo, he’s swept up from a dinner party and informed of the terrorist hijacking at play. Grant is familiar with the lead terrorist and his ideals. For whatever reason he’s instructed to board a specialized jet with Seagal’s crew. This jet carries a tube that will attach to the hull of the captive plane in midflight. The soldiers will climb aboard and go to work. Complications ensue though, and after that harrowing scene is over, four members of the elite squad (one becomes paralyzed) have made it on board along with Grant and the design engineer (Oliver Platt) of the jet. Now the fun begins.
Baird invests a lot of moments with the commandos (led by John Leguizamo) sneaking around, and drilling small holes in the ceiling and floorboards of the plane to insert tiny cameras and get a look at the activity going on. Every so often the terrorists threaten or give scary looks and we hope they don’t look down that hallway or in the elevator shaft. The bomb also has to be deactivated but it’s never as easy as knowing to cut the blue or red wire, and there’s a “sleeper” passenger who can detonate the bomb by remote. Where on the plane is that guy, though? As well, the government debates with shooting down the plane of 400 passengers before it reaches America. So, there’s a lot going on here. Kurt Russell is especially good as a “work the problem” kind of leader who manages to earn the assistance of a flight attendant (Halle Berry). We may know how this standard story will end up. However, that doesn’t mean the journey can’t keep us on pins and needles.
Executive Decision is never boring. It’s engaging from beginning to end, even if we’ve seen this very basic formula countless times before. Credit has to go to Stuart Baird and his lengthy experience as a film editor (the Superman and Lethal Weapon films), as well as the cast. Kurt Russell is always reliable with upholding the tension of a situation. Like Harrison Ford, he’s really good at playing the everyman caught up in a jarring, nerve-wracking situation. Look at his film Breakdown for further evidence.
Beyond Seagal’s early demise, the most amusing part of Executive Decision is watching Marla Maples Trump as another flight attendant emoting the worst panicked expressions for Halle Berry to act off. Marla never delivers a single word of dialogue. Even in 1996, long before the Trump name became regarded for many other reasons I need not discuss here, this likely unintended joke generated so much amusement for me, personally. It must be seen to be believed.
That being said. Don’t watch Executive Decision just for Marla Maples Trump and Steven Seagal. Watch it for the taut, suspenseful story it is, with a fantastic lead role performance from Kurt Russell, a solid supporting cast and a gripping assembly of tension from Stuart Baird.
DIRECTORS: The Wachowskis CAST: Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon, Joe Pantoliano, Christopher Meloni MY RATING: 10/10 ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 89% Certified Fresh Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch an Independent Film”
PLOT: A petty thief and a mobster’s girlfriend get romantically involved and plan to steal $2 million from the mobster, but, as with all simple plans, complications arise.
My girlfriend and I have found ourselves walking out of a lot of movies over the last 5 or 6 years talking animatedly with each other about how we would have done something differently. For example: At the end of Avengers: Infinity War, we came up with an amazing lost opportunity to have Black Widow be one of the characters who got “blipped.” Then, when Bruce Banner discovers her fate, his shock triggers him to finally “hulk out” again, but out of grief instead of anger. Now THAT would have been a tearjerker.
By contrast, Bound is one of those letter-perfect thrillers where the plot has been worked out so neatly, so thoroughly, and everything proceeds with such perfect logic, that it’s impossible to see how anything in the movie could have happened in any other way. I can see no way how this thriller shot on a shoestring with such exquisite creativity could have been improved by a bigger budget or bigger stars. It recalls the heyday of film noir – Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Pickup on South Street – but it also feels fresh and modern, due in no small part to the fact that the protagonist couple is composed of two women.
But before I get to the nuts and bolts of the movie, let’s talk about that same-sex plot device for a second. Corky (Gina Gershon) is a petty thief fresh out of the slammer. Violet (Jennifer Tilly) is arm candy for a mid-level Mafia hood named Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). I can vaguely remember when this movie came out in the mid-‘90s, and this lesbian relationship caused a minor sensation. It even included – gasp! – a sex scene. An explicit sex scene! Not pornographic, mind you, but nothing more or less explicit than the coitus featured in other notorious sexy potboiler/thrillers, like say, Basic Instinct or Fatal Attraction or Jagged Edge.
One of the things that makes Bound so cool is that the whole lesbian angle, even though it’s a huge part of the plot, is never really…what’s the word I’m looking for…exploited in any kind of way that might now be described as progressive or, dare I say, woke. There are no melodramatic scenes showing anyone getting fired because they’re gay, or being bullied because she’s gay. Nor is the movie making any kind of statement that that kind of ugly behavior doesn’t exist. To me, Bound is simply saying, “Here is a great thriller, and the two romantic leads are women. We are showing people that it’s possible for a movie to be a superior genre film with two clearly gay characters as the leads. Let’s get on with it.” If the main couple had been a man and a woman, the overall effect of the movie might have been diminished to a degree, but the underlying story is so good, the movie might still have worked.
Then again, it probably wouldn’t have the notoriety that turned it into a cult classic, so what do I know.
Anyway, the movie. In a tale as old as noir itself, Corky and Violet hatch a scheme to steal $2 million from Caesar. How that plan leads to an astonishingly tense scene with a trio of corpses in a bathtub and two policemen in the living room standing on a blood-soaked carpet is only one of the delicious little joys on display in this film.
Take the little details. The $2 million in question gets unexpectedly splattered with some unlucky bastard’s blood. Caesar is forced to literally launder the money, then steam-dry every single $100 bill with an iron and hang them up throughout the apartment like the most expensive load of laundry in history, resulting in one of the coolest, most surreal shots in any neo-noir I’ve ever seen:
Then there are the wicked little visual innuendos scattered throughout the movie as subtle – and sometimes not-so-subtle – references to Corky and Violet’s sexual preferences. At one point, Corky visits a lesbian bar called…wait for it…The Watering Hole. That’s one of the not-so-subtle jokes, but one which I did not “get” until maybe the third or fourth time watching the movie. Sometimes I am not…smart. Or how Corky is unscrewing the pipe in the U-bend under a sink to retrieve an earring. As Violet, wearing a tight skirt, stands provocatively close to Corky while she works, we get a close-up of Corky’s hands as water from the sink suddenly splashes onto them. Or note the shot that slowly pulls out from inside the barrel of a revolver. (You know, maybe NONE of these visual jokes are subtle…I might just have been really dumb when I first saw the movie…)
And the dialogue…if there were a way for me to phoneticize a chef’s kiss in prose, I would. (<mwah>…that’ll have to do.) It puts a modern spin on the best of the old film-noir tough guy talk, that heightened kind of realism that really only exists in the movies. Take this bit when Corky is talking to Violet, formulating her plan to steal the money from Caesar:
“For me, stealing’s always been a lot like sex. Two people who want the same thing: they get in a room, they talk about it. They start to plan. It’s kind of like flirting. It’s kind of like…foreplay, ‘cause the more they talk about it, the wetter they get. The only difference is, I can f*** someone I’ve just met. But to steal? I need to know someone like I know myself.”
Nobody actually talks like that, but that’s one of the greatest passages in any crime movie, ever. I could cite example after example, but I don’t want to ruin any surprises.
Another beautiful example of how well this screenplay was constructed is how it plays with your expectations, especially if you’re a fan of the classic noir genre. In classic noir, a hero or heroine comes up with a plan, only to be betrayed by random chance or their own hubris. Sometimes someone who seemed trustworthy at first reveals themselves to be nothing but a conniving opportunist. Bound addresses that concept head-on in a conversation between Corky and Violet, where they talk about trust and ask each other very specific questions. “How do I know you won’t just run once you get the money?” “How do I know you didn’t just plan this whole thing to get me to do your dirty work for you?” In classic noir, these kinds of questions usually lead to mistrust, betrayal, and a very non-Hollywood ending, and so the Wachowskis almost seem to be telegraphing what’s going to ultimately happen. But believe me: nothing in this movie telegraphs anything. Not even those snatches of conversation we hear in Corky’s head at the very top of the film when we first discover her bound and gagged in a closet.
And even THAT’S not really giving anything away…that’s how inventive this screenplay is.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the sound design of Bound. Watching it the first time around, it’s subtle enough to be unnoticeable. Watch it again, though, and really listen, and you can hear the unmistakable way the Wachowskis manipulate sound effects to create a unique atmosphere in the same way they would go on to do in the Matrix trilogy. There are many instances where, for example, in the two or three seconds before a phone rings, you’ll hear the ring in a crescendo, quiet at first, then peaking at the exact second the phone rings. It’s a little hard to describe in a review but trust me. Watch it at least once while paying attention to the sound, and you’ll hear a lot of things that sound exactly like The Matrix.
(Which might mean that Bound actually takes placein the Matrix universe…? …nope, not pulling on that thread.)
There’s quite a bit more I could say about Bound, but I think I would start spoiling some of its real surprises if I did. Put it this way: I recently compiled a list of my 100 favorite movies of all time, as a “challenge” from one of my fellow cinemaniacs. Bound wound up at #73, ahead of movies like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Dark Knight, and Finding Nemo. I don’t know if that cuts any ice if you haven’t seen Bound yet, but if you haven’t, it’s my sincerest hope that I have encouraged you to seek out this movie on Amazon or Ebay and make it part of your collection. You won’t regret it.
QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC
Why did you choose this particular film? One, I’m not sure a lot of people realize this was an independent film (released through Gramercy Pictures, now defunct), and two, it’s a movie that doesn’t get mentioned enough, or at all, when folks list their favorite crime dramas. This movie deserves way more recognition than it currently gets, in my opinion.
Best line or memorable quote: “You know what the difference is between you and me, Violet?” “No.” “Me, neither.”
If you explore the career of Edward Norton, you may find a common theme of duality in many of his roles. Certainly, The Incredible Hulk (man vs literal green monster). There’s also the heist film The Score where he is an aspiring thief with a talent to take on a mentally handicapped persona. American History X offered a wide transition from downright evil to wholesome redemption from the worst of sin. Even the remake of The Italian Job shows one kind of jerky guy early on, and later there’s another kind of cad on display. Yet, Norton’s role as a church choir boy named Aaron Stampler in his first film, Primal Fear, is maybe his most apparent, and it remains an astonishing performance.
I had read William Diehl’s novel long before the movie was even made. My impression of the film is that it is well cast. Early on in the story, Aaron is apprehended following the grisly murder of Chicago’s Archbishop. His clothes are covered in the priest’s blood and he’s captured on the news trying to outrun the police. This looks like an open and shut case, which is why hot shot attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) wants to take on defending Aaron, pro bono.
Simply the name of Gere’s role, Martin Vail, could not be more appropriate. He thrives on vanity and pride, ensuring that when he gives an interview it is none other than a cover story. Gere is perfectly handsome and his energy is so right for the part. He wears his suits with natural and self-assured swagger. When Martin attends a benefit dinner in the first few minutes of the picture, everyone in the room knows who he is, whether they only at least admire the guy, or downright despise the ego he proudly carries. Only Martin Vail will insist that young Aaron with a boy scout, puppy dog expression could be innocent. Everyone else has deemed his client as “The Butcher Boy.”
The accused is a simple kid who was brought in off the streets by the Archbishop. He’s a nobody. It’s the victim who is prominent, and one of the first strategies that Vail engages in is putting the deceased Archbishop on trial because it could lend to just what he needs for exoneration – reasonable doubt. That could mean other prominent figures in the city will get caught in the web.
Like many mysteries and courtroom dramas before and after Primal Fear, red herrings abound. The side stories dealing with botched real estate investments within minority neighborhoods feel like they sprung from a completely different cloth, like an episode of L.A. Law. What keeps them above water though are the performances of the supporting cast with John Mahoney and Stuart Bauer, respectively portraying the state district attorney and a Hispanic well-established mobster that Vail represents. Somehow, Diehl’s murder trial story circles back to these guys and what the Archbishop had to do with them.
A twisted sex scandal within the church also comes into play. After all, where there’s murder there is motive. The math is not that simple though.
To lend a little more conflict to the film is the prosecuting attorney Janet Venable. She is played by Laura Linney, maybe doing a little over acting, who once had a tryst with Martin. Honestly, it comes off as an unnecessary subplot, perhaps only there to give quick witted resentful dialogue for Janet to serve at Martin, while Gere puts on the teasing smirk to send back over the net. The opposing counsel try to psych one another out, but we all know that Martin is the smarter attorney of the two.
Primal Fear hinges on Edward Norton first and Richard Gere second. Norton’s performance is written, and thereby performed, to come in under the radar for the first half of the film. Aaron is a quiet, frightened, uncertain kid from the backwoods of Kentucky. Gere and the supporting cast populate much of the first half of the movie. Later, Aaron offers up a surprise delivery that turns the film on its heel, and the story takes on a whole new trajectory.
Gere is superb with the conceit of the character. Director Gregory Hoblit places Martin Vail front and center during transition shots where he gives statements to the press while entering the courthouse. It’s a subtly effective way to uphold how proud and cocky the attorney is. When the surprise from Norton comes around though, even a hot shot, intuitive lawyer like Martin can’t immediately figure out what to do next. The surprise works even though it comes out of nowhere.
Primal Fear offers a lot of standard stuff from other typical courtroom thrillers. Some players are introduced that could lend to why the crime occurred. Some are there to distract you. Some are there to circle back around in the third act. There’s a ping pong volley of objections and witness testimony. There’s the blood splattered crime scene investigation. We’ve seen it all before. Nevertheless, I don’t hold any of that against the film. I still get a thrill out of standard car chases and shootouts the same way I stay alert through another courtroom mystery. It’s fast paced and until the puzzle is completely assembled, I’m engaged especially if the cast is working on all cylinders.
The end leaves you thinking though because just when you believe all the pieces have been put back into place there’s one hanging thread that is left unraveled and you may be asking yourself how that got past me. That’s when you know you are watching an entertaining movie. If you have to think about it long after it is over, then the movie got one over on you. Primal Fear accomplishes that feat.
Sidney Lumet is the director known for shining a light on police corruption. His films were not crime dramas or legal thrillers really. They were an examination in what turns righteous professions within the confines of law and order into something tainted in violations of morality. Night Falls On Manhattan showed what can happen when the politics of New York City could be stained by the policemen who lost their sense of distinguishing right and wrong.
Andy Garcia plays Sean Casey, a newly deputized, very green district attorney and former street cop. His image looks perfect to prosecute a big time drug dealer who wounded his own policeman father, Liam (Ian Holm), and killed two other cops. Richard Dreyfuss does an inspired Alan Dershowitz personality portraying the defense attorney for the dealer, by angling a theory that police corruption is unfairly working against his client. It seems like a very open and shut case for Sean, which occupies the first half of the film.
Afterwards, Sean appears to have a white hot image in the public eye and he is quickly nominated and wins an election as Head District Attorney for the city, following a heart attack from the incumbent and his boss played by Ron Leibman. Conflicts arise though when it is uncovered that perhaps Liam, along with his partner Joey (James Gandolfini), have been taking money under the table as part of a group of dirty cops spread among three precincts.
Sidney Lumet’s films always present topical and complicated real life problems with no expected solutions. These issues of transgressions exceed any kind of quick fixes. He’s shown this time and again with films 12 Angry Men, Serpico, and The Verdict. With his original script here, Lumet gets a little personal. What can you do when a city relies on your image of ethical practice, but your own loving father may be a traitor to the laws he’s vowed to uphold? How can Sean work ethically for his constituents while his father and his longtime partner are possibly betraying sworn policy?
I was always engaged in Night Falls On Manhattan. What is Sean going to do? The dilemma is never patched up with a band aid. It actually feels like it gets worse and worse because it is next to unsolvable. Cops are heroes in this film and a cold blooded killer seems to have been rightfully sentenced? So how can Sean, Liam, Joe and the rest of the cast live with themselves when the end results they wanted all arrive, but came about in all the wrong ways?
This is a terrific assembly of talent. Most especially, credit has to go Ron Liebman as the head DA whose overbearing loud mouth is necessary for the city that never sleeps and the endless amount of police troops and city prosecutors he has to answer for. If New York City had an actual voice that emanates and speaks the endless noise of the Big Apple , it is Ron Liebman. He should have been Oscar nominated. He comes carved out of the concrete of the city landscape.
This is really an unsung picture of Lumet’s that should be seen, much like Find Me Guilty with Vin Diesel. My one issue is the preachy monologue that Sean delivers at the end of the picture. It comes off like a concluding statement and left me with the impression that the conflict of the story painted these characters into an inescapable corner. So, tack on a speech to bring on the credits. The monologue just didn’t work for me though. It didn’t give me that bookended impact I was hoping for.
Other than that, however, Night Falls On Manhattan is another fine piece of filmmaking rooted in a metropolitan setting that becomes a character all its own. Lumet was a genius about acknowledging his settings. This is another perfect example.
Brian DePalma directed the first installment of Tom Cruise’s film adaptation of the Mission: Impossible series. It’s good, but not necessarily the best of the bunch.
DePalma’s approach with a script by screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) & David Koepp opens with last ditch effort at a Cold War setting. (By 1996, Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond had already abandoned that point in history.)
Cobblestone streets in Prague glisten under wet street lamps as a team of spies, led by Jim Phelps (the “Captain Kirk” of the original series) with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as point man. They are attempting to prevent a buy/sell exchange of a disc containing identities of undercover agents spread across the globe. There are shadows. People walking covertly and other people watching people through cameras on eyeglasses and computer monitors. Everything is going according to plan, until as we expect, nothing goes according to plan, and Tom Cruise seems to be the only one surprised by it all. Now he’s accused of being a traitor having gotten his whole team murdered and he must go rogue (he does this a few times in the M:I films). DePalma’s opening is straight out of a John LeCarre novel. All good stuff.
More good stuff appears in act 2 when Ethan Hunt has to infiltrate CIA headquarters to retrieve another disc and allow himself to cable down into the most high tech secure room in the…well lets just say the world, that is conveniently run by the most incompetent dweeb in the…well let’s just say the world…again. The primarily silent sneak is as beautifully choreographed as a Russian ballet. It’s spectacular.
Even more good stuff occurs in act 3 in a high speed super train crossing through the Chunnel in Europe. There’s a helicopter and Tom Cruise on the roof of the train and even some exploding chewing gum. Act 3 is where DePalma, Towne & Koepp opt to leave the Cold War behind because let’s face it, no spy can remain covert when a helicopter gets tethered to a high speed train in a tunnel.
So yeah, there’s lots of goodies in Mission: Impossible, but it falls terribly short because Tom Cruise produced the film with his ego in the way. For example, he sets up a team of four, all with different specialties. They get properly introduced and then they are given not much to do except watch Tom Cruise “Ethan Hunt” his way out of one dangerous situation after another. Ving Rhames seems like an especially interesting character but all he’s reserved to is typing on a keyboard. Vanessa Redgrave puts on a charming mystery about herself for one short scene as an arms dealer only to do nothing else but sit on the train later on.
Lots of talent was assembled for this film including Jon Voight, Emilio Estevez, Jean Reno and Kristen Scott Thomas but they’re only here to be a live studio audience for Cruise’s heroics.
Compare this film to Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop. Murphy is no doubt the centerpiece, but he does not own every scene. Big moments come from the supporting cast as well. There’s more variety to that picture, which Murphy produced, than Cruise’s production.
A well utilized cast can be the difference between a good picture and a great picture.