Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Dir. Robert Clouse

Written by: Michael Allin

Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Shih Kien


I’m not sure exactly when I first saw Enter the Dragon. It wasn’t the first movie starring Bruce Lee that I ever saw, nor was it my first foray into the kung-fu genre, but I do know that it made quite an impact on me at a fairly young age. For many people, Enter the Dragon stands as the high water mark of the classic era of kung-fu movies, and I don’t think that it’s a stretch to call it the most well-known mainstream martial arts film of all time. Lee’s star appeal was just beginning to break through in the United States, and Enter the Dragon was set to be his triumphant entryway into mainstream action filmmaking. However, Lee tragically passed away shortly before the film’s release, making Enter the Dragon the last film that he would live to complete. Though he left behind a relatively scant filmography, only starring in a handful of films, Lee has become synonymous with martial arts cinema, and is still one of the most widely recognized and celebrated martial artists to ever grace the screen. Instead of serving as a launching point into greater stardom, Enter the Dragon now serves as a reminder of Lee’s athletic ability, charisma, and viability as an action star.

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Enter the Dragon marks a diversion from traditional kung-fu narratives of the time, including significant Western influences and playing out something like a blend of a James Bond spy thriller and a traditional martial arts film. In the film, Lee (Lee) is approached by a British intelligence agency and is encouraged to enter into a martial arts tournament held on a mysterious island owned by Mr. Han (Kien), a suspected crime lord. While attending the tournament, Lee is to investigate Han’s compound and find evidence of his involvement with prostitution and drug trafficking. Lee agrees to attend the tournament after learning of his sister’s death at the hands of one of Han’s bodyguards, O’Hara (Bob Wall), and vows to avenge her death, as well as bring down Han’s crime syndicate. When he arrives on Han’s island, Lee meets Roper (Saxon), a gambling addict on the run from the mob, and Williams (Kelly), a Vietnam veteran on the run from the police. The three men are obviously the most skilled fighters in the tournament, and they quickly dispatch of their opponents, although each of them runs afoul of Han in some way for disobeying the rules of his island. By night, Lee infiltrates Han’s compound and discovers the extent of his smuggling operations, although he is captured by Han’s guards. Meanwhile, Han has tried to recruit Roper to his syndicate, but Roper refuses when he realizes that Han has murdered his friend Williams. The next day, Han orders Roper and Lee to fight each other, and when Roper again refuses to be used as Han’s pawn, a melee breaks out which leads to Lee pursuing and eventually killing Han in an epic fight. With Han defeated, Lee and Roper await the arrival of the British helicopters on their way to recover Han’s prisoners and clean up the last of his criminal operations.

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The influence of Enter the Dragon can’t be understated. The film was a box office and critical success, earning $25 million in American box office receipts alone, against a shoestring budget of less than $1 million.  As I mentioned, the film marked the real introduction of Western audiences to Hong Kong cinema and martial arts cinema, in general. Far from being just a martial artist, Lee served as a cultural ambassador and representative of Chinese philosophy for many American audiences who were unfamiliar with the tenets of martial arts. Without the success of Enter the Dragon, I really doubt that American audiences would have ever experienced the films of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, or scores of other martial artists who would emerge as key action stars both in Asia and in America in the years to come. The popularity of Enter the Dragon also kicked off a fervid interest in martial arts in America, with kids all over starting to take kung-fu and karate lessons, emulating their onscreen hero, and embracing the strength, hard work, and discipline that martial arts training instills in its adherents. Simply put, Enter the Dragon was one of the most culturally significant films of the 1970s.

As a film, Enter the Dragon is a joy to watch. Though it was shot on a limited budget and under unique constraints due to language barriers between the American and Chinese crews, as well as creative disagreements between Lee and screenwriter Michael Allin, the finished film is a thing of beauty. The setting of Han’s island is lush and vibrant, and his compound is a visually rich location that hints at the opulence that a life of crime can afford him. The film is perfectly paced, and though it is light on the exposition, it delivers on the promise of great action. Its espionage scenes are tense and exciting, underscored by a funky jazz score from one of the great film composers of the 1970s, Lalo Schifrin. The fight scenes, all of which were conceived of and choreographed by Lee, are shot impeccably, capturing the aggression and grace of the fighters perfectly. The film’s climactic showdown between Lee and Han, in which the pair eventually square off in a hall of mirrors is a stunning cinematic achievement. The precision with which the scene must have been filmed is hard to fathom, and I still don’t know how the crew managed to pull it off. It’s one of the most memorable fight scenes in the martial arts genre, and the image of hundreds of mirror images of Bruce Lee repeating into the background as he stalks Han through the mirrored room is one of the genres indelible calling cards.

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Kelly and Saxon certainly hold their own in their fight scenes, but Lee is the obvious star of the show. His lithe physicality is on display throughout the film, and his fight scenes capture the effortless way in which he cycles through movements, countering and striking with such ease and skill that he seems imbued with an innate sense of placement and momentum that the other martial artists simply don’t have. More than his obvious physical prowess, which had been on display in his other films, Enter the Dragon gave Lee the chance to introduce the philosophy behind his martial arts to the Western world. Particularly early in the film, Lee takes the opportunity to expound upon the ways in which his martial arts practice emphasizes living a balanced and harmonious lifestyle. Lee saw his martial arts as a form of self-expression, and his journey in life as one of constant self-improvement and of increasing the knowledge of self. Though much of the content relating to Lee’s philosophies and to Chinese philosophy, in general, was excised from the original American theatrical cut of the film, these scenes were reintroduced to later home video releases, and I think that the film is better off for it. If Enter the Dragon is to be seen as Lee’s magnum opus, it must contain at least some of the revolutionary thinking that he espoused and that ran as an undercurrent to his martial arts.

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Though it isn’t my absolute favorite martial arts movie, or my favorite Bruce Lee movie (that’s Way of the Dragon, which I no longer own), Enter the Dragon is a classic, and an interesting look at what might have been had Lee lived longer and continued making films in Hollywood. Lee’s impact on the action film scene of the 1970s was seismic, launching a kung-fu craze that lasted long after the release of this film and, of course, long after his untimely death. The film is often imitated, but never duplicated, and it serves as a perfect entry point for the uninitiated into classic kung-fu films. It has all the campiness and action that fans of the genre are looking for, but it’s also a film that is clearly grounded in Lee’s unique philosophical viewpoint. Lee’s star burned so brightly and his legend grew so outsize after American audiences got a taste of his prowess in Enter the Dragon that the film’s director cobbled together the film Game of Death from outtakes and partial scenes that Lee had filmed before beginning work on Enter the Dragon. Though his image and reputation have often been traded on in the decades since his death, mostly to diminishing returns, such is the quality and intensity of Lee’s small filmography that he will be forever seen as an action film legend. Lee was already a star by 1973, but when Enter the Dragon was released, he became an icon.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

Dir. Werner Herzog

Written by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Bruno S., Walter Ladengast, Brigitte Mira


I first encountered this strange film during my sophomore year of college when I was taking a class on New German Cinema. This was an important course in my development as it was my first introduction to the films of Werner Herzog, as well as Rainer Werner Fassbender and Wim Wenders, plus many other great German directors of the late 20th century. It opened my eyes to so many great films: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The American Friend, The Tin Drum, and The Marriage of Maria Braun, classics all of them, but the film that most intrigued me was Herzog’s Stroszek. I was fascinated by the strange mannerisms of Bruno S., and ended up seeking out his and Herzog’s first collaboration, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser on my own. Though Stroszek was a truly strange and beautiful film, it didn’t prepare me for the baroque fairy tale that is The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and to be honest, I didn’t really like the latter film at the time. It ended up in my collection because I purchased a cheap box set of early Herzog films a few years back in order to rewatch Stroszek, although I hadn’t gotten around to checking out this film again until watching it for this project. It was as deeply strange an experience as it was when I first watched the film at 20, but I think I may have found somewhat more of an appreciation for it.

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The film is based on the true story of Kaspar Hauser (Bruno S), a foundling child who arrived in Nuremburg in 1828 possessing very few verbal skills and no societal upbringing whatsoever. In the film, we see the early portion of Hauser’s life in which he lived chained to the floor of a basement, with only a toy horse for amusement, and an anonymous caretaker who feeds him only bread and water. One day, this man takes Hauser from his cell, teaches him to walk and a few phrases of speech, and then leaves him in Nuremburg at the break of dawn, with only a letter in his hand explaining his appearance and requesting an audience with a military officer in the town. The townsfolk attempt to socialize Hauser, teaching him some words and some basic manners, but ultimately decide that it would be best to profit off of his curious nature by putting him in a circus show. Hauser is rescued from the circus by Professor Daumer (Ladengast) who invites him to live in his home, and who, along with his maid Kathy (Mira), shows Hauser kindness and furthers his socialization. Far from being an idiot, Hauser shows a great capacity for understanding and learning, although he takes circuitous approaches towards the knowledge that is presented to him. Hauser seems to progress in his pursuit of knowledge, but the traumas of his upbringing are always present, and though he makes great strides towards normalcy, his mimicry of societal manners is always somewhat off. One day, Hauser is brutally attacked at random, and while on his deathbed he tells a strange tale of having visions of nomads travelling across the desert.

It’s impossible to imagine this film without its peculiar lead, Bruno S. Bruno was a street musician in Berlin who Herzog discovered and was immediately intrigued by. Though he had no formal training as an actor, Herzog cast Bruno S. as the lead in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and in the process found out that the actor’s upbringing actually had some similarity to the character’s history of abuse and neglect. Though the actual Kaspar Hauser was only 17 when he arrived in Nuremburg, and Bruno was 41 when the film was made, he brings a childlike quality to the role. This bait and switch shouldn’t work, but for some reason it does. Bruno’s wild appearance and idiosyncratic mannerisms are those of a child who has been abandoned and allowed to grow up feral. The performance that Bruno gives here is highly affected, his speech patterns stilted and his physical movements highly stylized and mechanical, sometimes almost appearing painful. Bruno plays the young Hauser as if his mental illness and stunted social and emotional development are physical maladies, outwardly expressing their symptoms through his odd performance. I have to imagine that he leaned heavily on his experience being institutionalized throughout his life when crafting this character, if he even considered the performance to be acting at all. There are times in the film when it would seem that Bruno is actually channeling the historical Hauser, receiving strange signals through the ether that inform his impersonation. It’s a performance that can’t really be accurately described without someone seeing the film, because it is simply too strange and doesn’t have many precedents in film, to my knowledge. Again, the casting of a grown man with a history of serious mental illness and no acting experience to play the role of a feral teen shouldn’t work, but somehow, not only does it work, I can’t conceive of another way Herzog could have brought this character to the screen.

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The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser fits in well with Herzog’s other early films. It furthers his cinematic obsession with idiosyncratic characters, many of which are driven to madness. Like Bruno, Herzog has always been something of an outsider artist, and I think that he, too, must have felt some affinity with the strange tale of Kaspar Hauser. Though it’s a simple and direct tale, Herzog presents his film with great style, giving this enigmatic fairy tale an air of import and profundity. The film is presented elliptically, and I’m not really sure how much time is meant to pass between Hauser’s arrival in Nuremberg and his sudden, shocking death, but it is a period of some years although it often seems like little time is elapsing at all. Herzog presents the film as a series of vignettes that show Hauser’s progress towards societal normalcy, but they often seem to have little causal relation to one another. Things seem to happen in the film at random, as there is no explanation given for a scene in which we see Bruno and the other circus performers fleeing from the townsfolk and hiding in trees, nor is there any reason given for Bruno’s attack at the hands of his neglectful caretaker late in the film or for the subsequent attack on him that ends in the stabbing that kills him. These events are simply presented, out of narrative context, as are a series of impressionistic sequences that depict seemingly faraway landscapes. These interstitial scenes are given a dreamlike quality through Herzog’s use of a Super8 camera, and the grainy, blurred images stand out in sharp contrast from the realist style of the rest of the film. Herzog never shies away from making unusual directorial choices and this particular film is clearly no exception.

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I’m not sure if I can say that I really liked The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser very much, but I did find it a more intriguing film now than I did when I first watched in 12 years ago. I had forgotten some of the film’s peculiarities, and it has certainly remained in my thoughts more after this second viewing than it did initially. Bruno’s performance is one of a kind, but I think that his acting is much better in the later Stroszek as he taps into an emotionality that isn’t present at all in this film. Still though, I won’t be forgetting his mechanical, rigid performance anytime soon. The Super8 scenes are equally memorable to me, providing the film with a haunted quality. It would seem that I’m in the minority from looking at the incredibly positive critical response to the film both at its release and into the 21st century, but to me The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser feels like a somewhat lesser entry in the incredibly prolific Herzog’s broad filmography. I don’t mean that it’s a bad film at all, and in fact I think that it’s a very good film, it just doesn’t connect with me on a meaningful level. It’s an interesting movie for me to think about for a bit, but overall I doubt that I’ll be revisiting it many more times.

The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man (1980)

Dir. David Lynch

Written by: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch (from the medical records of Dr. Frederick Treves)

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Freddie Jones


As I mentioned when I was writing about Blue Velvet last year, I have been an obsessive fan of David Lynch’s work since I was about 16 years old. That film and Mulholland Dr. were my introductions to Lynch’s cinema, and they were the only films of his that I watched regularly until I came to college. The Elephant Man was actually one of the last Lynch films that I saw, never seeking it out until it was screened in a class that I took when I was a junior in college. At the time, the movie felt decidedly out of step with the rest of Lynch’s oeuvre, with its period setting and traditionally romantic narrative sticking out like a sore thumb among Lynch’s less direct, more decidedly surreal output. However, as I’ve spent more time with the movie, and as my own opinions on Lynch’s cinema have changed and evolved over the intervening decade since my introduction to The Elephant Man, I’ve discovered that it absolutely fits into Lynch’s strange filmography and shares a distinct affinity with much of his more overtly experimental and strange output.

Based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (although in the film he’s called John), a medical anomaly who lived in England during the end of the 19th century, The Elephant Man focuses on the final portion of Merrick’s (Hurt) life during which he was under the care of Dr. Frederick Treves (Hopkins), and during which he gained a level of fame and notoriety in British society. The film opens with Treves attending a carnival freak show where a cruel and greedy master named Bytes (Jones) is displaying the unfortunate Merrick as an oddity that he has dubbed “The Elephant Man,” due to his unnaturally distorted and enlarged features and the preponderance of tumors that have given Merrick’s skin a hardened, scaly look. While the rest of the audience recoils in horror at the sight of Merrick, Treves recognizes him for what he is: an unfortunate human being afflicted with a debilitating and rare malady. Treves gets Bytes to agree to submit Merrick to medical testing, and Treves presents him to his colleagues at the hospital, where Merrick eventually is allowed to live as a ward. Though they initially assume that Merrick is an idiot, incapable of speech or advanced thought, the medical staff learns through Treves’s work with the patient that Merrick is, in fact, fairly intelligent and is quite capable of thought, emotion, and self-determination. Treves begins to work closely with Merrick, and as the two develop a bond, and the word of Merrick’s unique condition spreads, he becomes something of a celebrity, receiving letters from adoring fans and visits from members of the royal family. However, while he is enjoying the fame of celebrity by day, Merrick is still being subjected to brutal exploitation by night, as a porter (Michael Elphick) at the hospital has begun charging admission to sneak the curious into Merrick’s room where they can gawk at and mock the unfortunate man. Despite this daily torture, Merrick seems to take solace in his relationship to the kind Treves and maintains his quest for some small dignity up until the end.

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Although The Elephant Man would seem to be an outlier in Lynch’s body of work, it actually has more similarities to his other films than might be initially apparent. Though this film and its follow up, Dune, a project fraught with tension and one that Lynch would ultimately disavow, find the filmmaker operating with the least amount of authorial control in his career, decidedly Lynch-ian motifs and themes abound in The Elephant Man. The most apparent aspect of the film that could be considered Lynch-ian is the character of John Merrick, himself. Throughout his career, Lynch has exhibited a fascination with the grotesque, the macabre, and the freakish, and the tale of poor, malformed Merrick is one that the filmmaker would seem to naturally gravitate towards. That he presents Merrick as a pitiable, complex character, rather than a monstrosity is also trademark Lynch, as he has shown a career-long sympathy towards characters in crisis such as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks or Dorothy Valens in Blue Velvet. Lynch gravitates towards dark subject matter, but he attempts to find the light and the life in the characters that people his films, and Merrick is clearly no exception. Though the film, and by extension the filmmaker, certainly relishes the monstrous reveal of Merrick’s deformed body, a revelation that doesn’t fully come until 30 minutes into the movie, it goes out of its way to emphasize Merrick’s innate humanity and civility from that point on.

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The film’s structure also belies Lynch’s influence. After Merrick arrives at the hospital, the day/night dichotomy that is so often present in Lynch’s work becomes the film’s operative framework. By day, Merrick is able to enjoy his time with Dr. Treves and visitors who look upon him with curiosity, sure, but of a more benign sort. Merrick’s daytime world is one in which he can aspire to some level of normality, and gain a modicum of acceptance within society. By night, however, Merrick’s life is a dark carnival led by the greedy porter, Jim, who is reminiscent of the drunkard Bytes in his exploitation and mistreatment of Merrick. All of the basic humanity that Merrick has been able to achieve through his work with Treves during the days is washed away as Jim turns him back into an inhuman monster, something to be feared and scorned, by night. When he isn’t being tortured by Jim and his band of morbid curiosity seekers, Merrick is tortured by nightmares, his restless sleep interrupted by visions of terrifyingly rampaging elephants. These dreams have a specifically surrealistic bent to them, and are reminiscent of Lynch’s early experimental shorts, particularly in their marriage of monstrous imagery to chaotic, industrial soundscapes. Though he was working from adapted material for the first time in his career, Lynch found ways in The Elephant Man to further his cinematic vision, and established patterns and artistic tendencies that would continue throughout his career.

This was the film that broke Lynch into the mainstream, as The Elephant Man was a major critical and commercial success. It’s interesting to see a filmmaker who would become known as something of an iconoclast working in a more traditional milieu, but as I mentioned, this isn’t some generic film without artistic merit and beauty. The black and white cinematography is at once sumptuous and primal, remarkably beautiful, but not in a gauzy or nostalgic way. Instead, the film’s imagery is suggestive of the dark, dingy world of turn-of-the-century London that Merrick inhabited. The film’s greys recall not just the skin of the elephants that Merrick was compared to, but the cold greyness of industrial machinery. This focus on the industrial is backed up by the film’s soundtrack, which often features a faint, impersonal thrum, as of a distant engine cranking away somewhere. Lynch uses the full array of cinematic tools at his disposal to create a rich and evocative period piece, including the famed actors who perform in the film.

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Though Hurt was not yet a household name in America, which is part of the reason he was chosen to portray the deformed protagonist, Hopkins certainly was established as a renowned thespian by this point in his career. The two actors form a complementary pair, with Hopkins’s mannered, urbane performance giving the film a tranquil bedrock upon which Hurt can do his work. Though it would be easy to dismiss Hurt’s performance as being solely the work of the incredible makeup job that renders him totally unrecognizable, but it requires an actor of great sensitivity and poise to humanize the monstrous Merrick. Physically, Hurt renders Merrick’s anguished movements a grace that a man of his stature and predicament should not have, but the actor’s greatest work in the film is in his voice acting. Hurt uses a strained falsetto, giving Merrick’s voice a querulous timbre, both the result of his facial deformities and his constant mistreatment at the hands of others. Merrick stammers and stutters with the hesitance of a dog that knows it will be beaten for barking. Hurt’s belabored words drip with emotionality, revealing the broken, emotionally responsive and receptive heart that beats inside of Merrick’s chest, while his coal-black eyes reflect the deep despair that Merrick must feel. Merrick is a pitiable character by his very circumstances, but it is Hurt’s sensitive, emotive performance that brings him to life and helps the film reach heights of pathos and emotionality unseen again in Lynch’s filmography. In later Lynch films, displays of raw emotion are highly stylized, rendered nearly inhuman in their dissonance, but in The Elephant Man, Lynch gives in to sentimentality and Hurt’s genuinely plaintive performance shines through. It’s an exceptional and memorable turn.

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Though it might feel like an early career diversion, The Elephant Man is actually an important film in the development of Lynch as an auteur, and one that marked a breakthrough into the mainstream for the director. Though his experience on his next film would likely prompt his turn away from prestige projects towards a personally-focused filmmaking, The Elephant Man proves that Lynch can helm a mainstream narrative film while also imbuing it with his unique cinematic vision. It isn’t a movie that I watch frequently; in fact I almost only bring it out when I’m going through a heavy Lynch phase in which I find myself watching through his entire corpus, but it’s a movie that deserves as much attention as his later masterpieces. The film is enjoyable enough on the merit of its beautiful cinematography and the captivating performances from its leads, but for fans of Lynch’s work, The Elephant Man holds hidden pleasures in its somewhat overshadowed affinities with the rest of his cinema. It’s a movie that I should probably watch more often, because I really enjoy picking out the instances of Lynch-ian weirdness that seep into the film at the cracks. It is probably the one Lynch film that I can unequivocally recommend to anyone, as well.

Duck You Sucker

Duck You Sucker (1971)

Dir. Sergio Leone

Written by: Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone

Starring: Rod Steiger, James Coburn, Romolo Valli


I can’t believe I hadn’t watched this great Western until today. I’ve been a big fan of Sergio Leone since I was a teen, but his final Western, Duck You Sucker, had eluded me until a few years ago. I fell in love with Leone when I was 17 and I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for the first time. I was taken by the grandiosity of the film, its famous, epic Ennio Morricone score, Leone’s unique approach to montage and framing, and the performances of its titular trio as three outlaws whose paths are set on a collision course. I instantly wanted more films like this one, and I sought out the rest of Leone’s “Dollars trilogy,” Leone’s first three films which all starred Clint Eastwood in one of his early signature roles. I eventually tracked down Leone’s last two films, as well, Once Upon A Time in the West and Once Upon A Time in America, with the former becoming another of my very favorite films of all time, along with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Duck You Sucker, however, was a film that I didn’t even know existed until I was in my early twenties, and it was introduced to me as a somewhat “lost” Leone classic. Unlike Leone’s other films, this film was not as well received outside of his native Italy, so it didn’t gain wide distribution, and was difficult to screen until a series of remasters of Leone’s catalog in the 2000s led to its restoration and re-release on home video. I picked up a copy of the film on DVD at an FYE store that was going out of business in 2014 and it sat on my shelf, unwatched, for the next few years. When I conceived of the idea for this project, I just decided to wait until Duck You Sucker’s time came up for my initial screening. I’m glad to have finally gotten around to it, because this is a movie that I’d been anticipating for a long time, and I wish that I wouldn’t have waited so long to watch it because it is every bit as entertaining as any of Leone’s other masterful films.

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Duck You Sucker, or A Fistful of Dynamite or Once Upon A Time in the Revolution, depending on which version of the film you’ve seen and where, is set in the 1910s during the Mexican Revolution. It opens with Juan Miranda (Steiger), the head of a family of bandits, waylaying a stage coach and robbing its wealthy, Anglo occupants of their belongings and money. While the family are counting their spoils, they hear a series of explosions in a nearby canyon, and a masked rider on a motorcycle emerges from the smoke and rubble. The rider is John Mallory (Coburn), a former bomb maker for the IRA, who has fled his home country and sought refuge in Mexico. Seeing John’s proficiency with explosives and noting the similarity of their names, Juan suggests that their meeting must be destiny, and attempts to convince the Irishman to help him and his family break into the National Bank in Mesa Verde. John is committed to the revolutionary cause in Mexico, and sees an opportunity to use Juan in service to the revolution, so he allows him to believe that he is on board with the robbery. When the unlikely pair of allies arrives in Mesa Verde, they find it occupied by the army and meet with other revolutionaries, led by Dr. Villega (Valli), who is orchestrating a coordinated attack in the town. Juan and John hit the bank, along with Juan’s family, as a part of this attack, but when they start blowing open vaults, they find them stuffed with political prisoners instead of cash and jewels. Juan is incensed at being tricked, but finds himself lauded as a hero of the revolution when the attack is over for his role in freeing hundreds of prisoners. With the revolutionaries on the run after the attack, Juan and his family stay with John, although the former expresses some distaste for revolutions in general, noting that though it is academics who theorize social revolution, it is the poor who are actually called to enact it with violence and loss of life. Despite these reservations, Juan helps John to destroy an army detachment by blowing up a bridge, but while Juan is away from his family, they and dozens of other revolutionaries are slaughtered by the army. Juan is heartbroken, and strikes out on his own, though he is quickly captured and is facing a firing squad. John arrives just in time to save his friend, with a well-placed stick of dynamite, and his trademark cry of, “Duck, you sucker,” and the two escape on John’s motorcycle, recommitting themselves to the revolution, and to vengeance for Juan’s murdered family.

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For fans of Leone’s films, Duck You Sucker should feel familiar, as it borrows elements from his previous Westerns, and is dripping with Leone’s unmistakable directorial aesthetic. Leone’s unique vision of the American West (primarily captured through substituting Italian and Spanish locales), is evident from the first shots of the film. The sun-drenched landscape, and the sunbaked people who exist within it are similar to the ones we’ve seen in Spaghetti Westerns before. Juan and John form the same sort of unlikely duo that we’ve seen in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, teaming up to achieve a certain goal despite their differences in motive, and their initial distrust. Leone’s films are often peopled by outlaws, grifters, and malcontents, and these two feel right at home in that world. Juan is essentially a stock Leone character, one that would often by played by Eli Wallach, and John is a variation on the Man With No Name character made famous by Eastwood, although Coburn does put a unique spin on the trope. I don’t say all this to make Duck You Sucker seem derivative, because it takes these familiar elements and uses them in service of a narrative that is more nuanced and cynical than those of Leone’s earlier films, but to say that it is yet another example of a masterful filmmaker having established, and honed, his cinematic voice. Where Leone’s famous close ups and quick zooms were once mere stylistic tricks, highlighting the grimy, gritty nature of his version of the West and helping to create kinetic effects within his often still visual compositions, here they are often used in ironic counterpoint. Leone is retaining his visual style, but flipping its intended meaning on its head in service of a larger narrative argument that he’s making throughout the film.

Though he claims that he did not intend to make a political film, I don’t see any other way of reading Duck You Sucker. From the outset, the film asks its audience to consider issues of race and class, as they pertain to political revolution. Even setting aside the film’s epigraph, a quote from Mao about the necessity of violence in revolution, which was, predictably, excised from the film’s U.S. release, Duck You Sucker is still the most overtly political of all of Leone’s films. The opening stage coach scene, in which Juan is racially abused and mocked by a coach full of well-to-do Anglos, including a priest, is a perfect example of Leone using his trademark style in the service of this politically motivated criticism. The scene is shot in typical Leone fashion, utilizes a lot of quick cuts and eyeline matches, and a camera framing that is steadily bringing us closer and closer to the subjects. As the racial animus that the wealthy passengers are directing towards Juan starts to reach a head, Leone opts to cut to close ups of their mouths, gorging on food, spitting flecks of it from their lips with each invective. Leone visually links the ugliness of their attitudes and speech to their disgusting manners, undercutting the veneer of polite society that they pretend to live within. Also, in predictably Leone-ian fashion, Juan gets the better of his fellow passengers through some underhanded trickery. He allows them to hurl their insults, and plays the role of the stupid Mexican well, knowing that just around the bend, his sons are waiting to ambush the coach and turn the power dynamic on its head. After being called an animal and a brute by the racist travelers, Juan is happy to oblige their stereotypes as he callously robs, beats, and strips them, leaving them for dead in the desert.

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While the film, and by extension the filmmaker, doesn’t make an overt political statement, there are more than enough indications throughout as to where the audience’s sympathies are intended to lie. We are repeatedly shown the suffering of the individual and of the oppressed at the hands of the wealthy and those in positions of state-sanctioned power. Though I do believe that Juan’s rejection of revolutionary action, which convinces the intellectual revolutionary John to throw away his Bakunin, should be taken as the sentiment closest to Leone’s own feelings about war and revolution, I think that in this narrative the film is clearly favoring one side of the conflict over the other. The film has the highest body count of any Leone film, by far, and it depicts scores of both soldiers and citizens being killed, but only affords opportunities for pathos in the killings of citizens and revolutionaries. When an entire army battalion is dispatched of in the bridge explosion, they are as ants, crushed underfoot and easily forgotten about, but when Juan’s family and the rest of the rebels are murdered in their beds, the camera makes it a point to linger on their faces, humanizing the dead and evoking strong pathos and sympathy within the audience. Leone said that he didn’t intend anyone to read the film literally, and that the Mexican Revolution should be considered allegorically, but the repeated evocations of revolutionary conflicts across the globe doesn’t really allow for any reading of the film aside from a political/social one.

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But, even if one chooses not to consider the film’s larger arguments and political implications, it’s a masterful Western in the Italian style. Though he certainly wasn’t the first Italian filmmaker to evoke the American West, Leone firmly established the Spaghetti Western aesthetic, and the genre found its Platonic ideal in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Once again, Leone perfectly captures the Spanish countryside, filming breathtaking vistas and deserts that stand in for Mexico. His images are, as usual, underscored by Ennio Morricone’s breathtaking music, providing perfect accompaniment and counterpoint to the images. Morricone has scored some of my favorite films, and the themes in Duck You Sucker rank among his finest work. And, of course, the film features some strong performances from its leads. Despite not always seeing eye-to-eye with Leone, Steiger turns in a great performance as Juan Miranda, allowing an intellectualism and cunning to shine through the character’s motivating greed and avarice. Coburn plays John Mallory as a world-weary, but not resigned, intellectual. He often seems bemused at the circumstances that have led him halfway around the world, but he rarely wanes in his principled dedication to revolutionary action. The two actors play off of one another well and make the unlikely bond between Juan and John feel not just realistic, but deep and true. By the film’s end, it’s clear that these characters have grown not just to respect one another, but to feel a close affinity and kinship with one another, despite their differences. Leone has maintained that the film is ultimately about their unlikely friendship, and that the revolution is just the setting that allows that story to take place, and if one wants to read the film that way, he or she certainly wouldn’t be disappointed, either.

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I really can’t say enough good things about this movie. I’m kicking myself for not watching it sooner, because I think that I would have more insightful criticism to provide if I had a couple more screenings under my belt. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where Duck You Sucker should fit in the larger context of Leone’s filmography, and of the Western genre, as a whole. It’s a film that sees a legendary director starting to expand his palette while truly refining his signature style. Once Upon A Time in the West, the film that directly precedes this one in Leone’s body of work, is truly an elegy for the American Western, and felt like it was closing a chapter on the director’s career. So what, then, is Duck You Sucker? I think that it’s an example of Leone trying to work out other artistic and narrative concerns within a familiar milieu. If the West of his earlier films represented a filter through which to understand Americanism from the perspective of an outsider, then should we read Mexico and the Revolution in Duck You Sucker as a filter through which to explore and understand human relations and power dynamics, generally? I’ll need a few more viewings to truly settle my own thoughts on this movie, and I’m sure that I’ll take that opportunity as soon as I’m able, which makes me really happy. Part of what I was hoping to do in this project was to potentially reassess my relationship and understanding of movies with which I was intimately familiar, through unfamiliar juxtapositions, or meeting a film text at a totally different point in my life. In this case, watching a new movie has helped me to reexamine my thoughts in regards to a filmmaker that I felt I was already intimately familiar with. Finally introducing myself to Duck You Sucker was a real pleasure, but the most fun thing about it was how it started the process of helping me rethink my own understanding of Leone’s cinema. It felt like putting in a final puzzle piece and completing a picture. Of course, now I have the inspiring challenge of making sense of what that overall picture means to me.

Drunken Master

Drunken Master (1978)

Dir. Yuen Woo-ping

Written by: Lung Hsiao, Ng See-yuen, Yuen Woo-ping

Starring: Jackie Chan, Yuen Siu-tien, Hwang Jang-lee


Drunken Master is one of the seminal classics of the kung fu genre. I didn’t see the movie until after I had already become enamored with Hong Kong martial arts films and decided to trace the lineage back to some of the great films of the early period of the genre, but it’s still a favorite of mine. Like many Americans getting into kung fu movies, my journey began with the films of Bruce Lee, and then jumped forward to the modern kung fu films of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, whose American films were becoming very popular around the time that I started high school. After I tired of their late 1990s and early 2000s era Americanized martial arts films, I started seeking out Chan’s earliest work, and discovered a treasure trove of classic Hong Kong cinema. Jackie Chan has become a household name, and in many ways has come to signify a certain type of martial arts cinema. The roots of his particular blend of slapstick comedy and martial arts can be found on full display in Drunken Master.

The film casts Chan as the folk hero Wong Fei-hung, a revolutionary kung fu master who lived at the turn of the 20th century, and a common figure among popular martial arts media. In the film, young Wong is a troublemaker, who is only beginning his journey towards becoming a hero and martial artist. Wong is more interested in causing mischief with his friends and in picking fights than he is in learning the disciplines of kung fu, so his father, Kei-ying (Lam Kau), recruits the feared and legendary master Su Hua-chi (Yuen Siu-tien) to mentor the boy and mold him into a kung fu master. Master Su introduces Wong Fei-hung to a rigorous training regimen, meant to strengthen the pupil’s mind and body in preparation for his learning of Master Su’s secret style of kung fu, “drunken boxing.” Though he initially bristles at the torturous training, Wong eventually falls in line after suffering an embarrassing thrashing from Thunderleg (Hwang Jang-lee), a local contract killer and bully. Wong masters drunken boxing just in time to save his father from Thunderleg, who has been hired to kill him by a business rival to whom the elder Wong will not sell his land.

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Drunken Master wasn’t Jackie Chan’s first hit in Hong Kong, but it, along with its predecessor Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, also directed by Yuen Woo-ping, were Chan’s true breakthroughs. The films established the comedic style of kung fu that the actor would become synonymous with, and ushered in a sea change in the genre. The films also helped Chan to step out from Bruce Lee’s shadow, as he had been groomed as a potential successor to Lee as the next big star of Hong Kong action cinema. While Chan would go on to experience major success both at home and internationally, likely earning a place on the Mount Rushmore of modern action stars, he would do it through establishing a potent blend of comedy and action. Chan’s unique style of martial arts, acrobatic and lithe, is on full display in Drunken Master, and his comedic timing is enhanced by the film’s plot device that drunken boxing can only be optimally performed when under the influence of alcohol. Throughout the film, Chan glides through his fight scenes, displaying an oxymoronic graceful clumsiness and the sort of effortless physical timing that denotes a master. He nails his spots and his stunts, while maintaining the engagingly charismatic persona that makes him a star. Though the film doesn’t feature the daredevil stunts that would become Chan’s calling card later in his career, the seeds of his slapstick style of action comedy are clearly already on display.

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Chan isn’t the only engaging martial artist in the film, however. Drunken Master is full of great fight scenes that are entertaining, exciting, and funny. Yuen Woo-ping began his career with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and used that film and this one to cement his style, going on to further his credentials by working with several legendary martial arts actors and further the blend of comedy and martial arts. Though much of his cast in Drunken Master is not as famous or accomplished as the actors who he would make his name with, Yuen helps his performers stand out in unique ways during their fight scenes. Hwang is the perfect villain in the film as Thunderleg, and Yuen uses the actor’s physicality perfectly, crafting him as a traditionally one-dimensional, cruel and punishing villain. Though the Korean actor would continue to work in Korea and Hong Kong into the 1990s, Thunderleg is probably his signature role, and his unique fighting style in the film is memorable. Dean Shek, who had already been making films for Shaw Brothers Studios for a decade, stands out as Kai-hsien the assistant instructor at Wong Kei-ying’s school, whom Wong Fei-hung and his friends bully early in the film. He provides a lot of comic relief early on and is a good foil for Jackie Chan. Yuen Siu-tien, Woo-ping’s father and an established martial arts star, steals several scenes as Master Su. He plays the role of the drunk and the warrior equally well, snapping into action in the film’s fight scenes, while he dodders around, casually abusing Wong, during its many training montages. The many different styles of kung fu on display, and Yuen Woo-ping’s ability to excellently choreograph fight scenes that highlight those stylistic differences, make for a varied fight-fest that doesn’t get bogged down in the repetition that can befall some lesser martial arts films.

The film is, admittedly, fairly light on plot, but I don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing. I don’t really watch kung fu movies looking for intricately plotted narratives, and Drunken Master delivers on the promise of a fun, action-packed two hours of entertainment. The film’s plot will be familiar to anyone who is familiar with the archetypal narrative of the hero’s journey, generally, and intimately familiar to anyone who is familiar with kung fu films. It uses the traditional narrative of some outside force threatening the protagonist’s village/family/martial arts school, and the protagonist having to train to defeat that outside force, and becoming a kung fu master in the process. While some of the specifics of this narrative are unique to Asian cultures, the narrative itself is universal and bears a great deal of similarity to the classic American Western. I have always felt that the Western and the Asian action genres of martial arts and samurai films have had a great deal in common and have regularly been in cinematic dialogue with one another. There are obvious examples of crossover with The Magnificent Seven being a direct adaptation of Seven Samurai, and with A Fistful of Dollars being adapted from Yojimbo, but I think that overall the genres are constantly influencing and informing one another. Specifically in Drunken Master, I think that Yuen Woo-ping shows the influence of Sergio Leone early in the film, particularly in the way he has characterized and chooses to frame Thunderleg.  The sort of primal, direct narratives that Westerns and martial arts films traffic in are cut from the same cloth, despite cultural specificity, and the focus on “men of action,” while perhaps outmoded, is certainly familiar. I guess it isn’t surprising that these two genres are among my favorites, and that I’ll generally be pretty satisfied to watch any Western or martial arts film.

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Drunken Master is the sort of genre cornerstone that anyone who is interested in getting into kung fu movies, or Hong Kong cinema generally, should see. It is an early career classic from some of the central players in the New Hong Kong Cinema that would emerge in the 1980s, and its influence on the modern martial arts genre should not be understated. I don’t know that I personally love the slapstick style of Jackie Chan and the extreme emphasis on comedy in his early kung fu films as much as the traditional wu xia inspired kung fu films of the Shaw Brothers, but Drunken Master is too fun not to enjoy. The film’s fight choreography stands up to modern films, even 40 years after its release, thanks to the work of Chan and Yuen Woo-ping, both legends in the world of martial arts cinema. The film’s injection of humor makes it a perfect starting point for people looking to start watching more kung fu movies, and the presence of a mega-star like Jackie Chan make it fairly easily accessible, as well. Martial arts films had already reached a high level of artistic accomplishment by the release of Drunken Master, but the film’s success helped to reinvigorate the genre after the death of Bruce Lee, and helped to keep it relevant, if somewhat disregarded as “low art,” with international audiences. The film’s innovations wouldn’t be fully realized until Chan broke through as a star in Hollywood in the early 1990s, bringing along with him a wave of Hong Kong action stars and American releases of their films, but without Drunken Master, it’s arguable that this boom period for martial arts cinema wouldn’t have happened. If you’re only going to watch one kung fu movie, this might not be the Platonic ideal to choose, but if you want to explore the genre and seek out some of the more unique entries to its canon, Drunken Master can’t be missed.

Drug War

Drug War (2013)

Dir. Johnnie To

Written by: Ka-Fai Wai and Nai-Hoi Yau

Starring: Honglei Sun and Louis Koo


Drug War is the perfect action thriller to follow up last week’s movie, Don’t Say A Word, and to help wash that viewing experience out of my consciousness. Drug War is a great action movie, suspenseful, stylish and original, perfectly paced and shot. I’ve written before about my fondness for Hong Kong action cinema developing early in my teens when my friends and I would borrow tapes from one of their fathers. During those early years, I associated Hong Kong cinema, and Asian action cinema, in general, with the kung fu movies of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. It wasn’t until college that I discovered the wide array of films that were common in Hong Kong cinema tradition, including beautiful ghost stories informed by Chinese mystic traditions, the aforementioned kung fu classics and wuxia epics, and, of course, gritty police procedurals, which became some of my favorites. Over the last decade, or so, my appreciation for Asian action cinema, in general, hasn’t waned, with some of my favorite recent action films emerging from Hong Kong and Korea. I’ve found these imports to routinely be more unique and of a higher quality than the Hollywood action fare that is currently clogging the multiplex from April to October, and Drug War is certainly no exception.

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Drug War is something of a hybrid of a procedural and action film, exploring both the tedious minutiae of day-to-day vice investigations, as well as the explosively dangerous situations that drug enforcement officers in China find themselves in when attempting to apprehend drug traffickers. The film opens with Timmy Choi (Koo), a drug manufacturer and trafficker, crashing his sports car into a shop window while fleeing from an explosion at his methamphetamine factory. Simultaneously, we witness a sting operation led by Captain Zhang (Sun), a vice cop, in which a busload of drug mules are apprehended. Choi is brought to the same hospital that is treating the mules, and Zhang realizes that the man is connected to the trafficking ring, and though he attempts an escape from the hospital, Choi is apprehended and offers to trade information in exchange for his life. With Choi’s help, Zhang goes undercover, impersonating two different figures in the Chinese drug underground, and working his way into the organization. He is introduced to all facets of the drug trade, from manufacturing to distribution and trafficking, and he is gradually introduced to the major players of Choi’s syndicate. Zhang sets up a deal, posing as “Haha” a drug trafficker who operates a port and is looking to ship the syndicate’s drugs across the sea to Korea and Japan, but when it’s time for the deal to go down, the gangsters discover that there’s a rat in their midst, which prompts an epic battle in the streets between the police and the gangsters.

I think what I like the most about Drug War is that it feels authentic. Nothing about is glossy or over the top, and there’s not an attempt to glorify either side of the conflict. The drug dealers aren’t, for the most part, monsters, nor are the police shining white knights. Instead, both groups are depicted, realistically, as two sides of the same coin, having to come to unsteady alliances with one another in order to operate. Though Zhang isn’t sure if he should fully trust Choi, he knows that he needs him for the access that he can provide to higher ups in the drug trade, and though Choi can’t fully trust Zhang, he has to try to keep him happy or he’ll face the death penalty. The pair’s tenuous symbiosis is at the center of the film and it stands in for the larger parasite/host relationship that the drug traffickers share with society generally, as well as the predator/prey relationship that the police and the drug dealers share.


The film is also realistic in its depiction of police work. I’m a sucker for a good, slow-moving procedural, and though Drug War is a bit too action oriented to be a true procedural, I appreciate the fact that To chooses to slow the pace and put a damper on his typically bombastic brand of action cinema. Drug War takes special time to show the surveillance teams tensely listening in as Zhang goes undercover in a room full of dangerous criminals. It highlights the technology that the police rely on to gain information about their targets, as well as the planning and precision timing that are required to execute a successful raid or sting operation. We see teams of officers working in tandem, as a finely-oiled machine or a single-brained organism. This slow pace not only allows the audience to appreciate the complexity of the work that the officers are doing, it also creates a great deal of suspense throughout the film. Early in the film, To chooses to drag out several sequences, ratcheting up the tension as the audience shifts to the front of their collective seats, teasing a disastrous outcome for our protagonists, only to rectify the situation at the last minute, easing the tension and letting everyone take a quick breath. As Zhang gets closer and closer to the top of the Chinese drug underground, the stakes, and the suspense, only raise higher. The film, generally, is a slow build towards its ultimate violent denouement, punctuated throughout by short bursts of action, and the tension/release formula that To has mastered.

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The payoff for all of that suspense is the film’s explosively violent conclusion. To is known for his stylish depictions of violence, and the conclusion of Drug War doesn’t disappoint on that front. To makes his film’s big shootout poetic, capturing some two dozen players firing wildly in the street outside of a primary school, ducking in and out of cover, while his camera does the same, zooming in and out of the action, reframing the shots quickly to mimic the disorienting feeling of an extreme adrenaline rush. The camera often tracks out from the scene, affording the audience a glimpse of the whole street, which resembles a battlefield or chess board, reinforcing the idea that the individual players, be they cop or criminal, are the chess pieces in a larger game. Though this climactic gun battle is the film’s most virtuosic set piece, it still maintains the overall gritty, realistic aesthetic of the film. There is none of John Woo’s gun ballet on display here. In fact, To’s decision to shoot on location gives the scene an eerie, news-like quality that drives home its realism. Simply put, the scene is a great action set piece.

Drug War is full of memorable scenes, but one that sticks out especially for me, is the extended scene early in the film in which we see Zhang go undercover as two different underworld figures, “Haha” and Li Shuchang, who couldn’t be further apart in mannerism and personality. In the scene, Sun is asked to play three different characters, and he nails each one of them. Sun slides effortlessly from persona to persona, fooling the characters in the film as well as the audience. He first meets with Haha, where he must impersonate the stone faced Li Shuchang, saying very little, not allowing a glimpse into his internal processing. The scene then requires Sun to flip characters and impersonate Haha while meeting with the real Li, so he completely changes his physicality, loosening his gait and adopting Haha’s gregarious carefree style of conversation. The meetings are all incredibly suspenseful, as the audience waits to see if Zhang’s cover will be blown, but with Sun’s perfect mimicry, there’s never any real doubt. He doesn’t break until after the deal between Haha and Li has been secured, and only then does Sun return to the Zhang character. He’s taken too much cocaine, in order to sell his performance as Haha, and Sun enacts Zhang’s panic and fear of an overdose perfectly. As soon as the real Li exits their meeting room, he drops the pretense of being Haha and collapses to the floor, writhing and screaming. The layers of this performance, with Sun playing Captain Zhang, who is in turn playing two roles in his undercover meetings, always stands out to me. The three performances are all markedly different, and they are all realized in about five minutes of screen time.

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I don’t typically go for action movies or thrillers much anymore, because they’re often so derivative and one note, but movies like Drug War remind me that the genre is still quite fresh if you look beyond the scope of the Hollywood mainstream. It was on my top ten list in 2013, and it’s still a pleasure to watch a few years later. Even though I know how the story unfolds and when the action set pieces fall, To’s suspenseful film doesn’t lose any of its effect. Drug War is an expertly timed and acted slow burn, and To’s visual style keeps the audience immersed in the world of the film, typically hanging on the edge of their seats. The payoffs at the film’s end are even more satisfying because the tension has been ratcheted so high throughout the earlier parts of the film, providing an appropriate give and take between the film’s contrasting styles. When the violence does finally erupt in Drug War, it has a more cathartic effect than in a mindless action blockbuster because the film has taken the time to properly set the stage by developing its characters and their relationships to one another. It’s a highly satisfying thrill ride and one that I’ll be signing up for again many times in the years to come.

Don’t Say A Word

Don’t Say a Word (2001)

Dir. Gary Fleder

Written by: Anthony Peckham & Patrick Smith Kelley (from the novel by Andrew Klavan)

Starring: Michael Douglas, Brittany Murphy, Sean Bean


I had to write my review of Don’t Say a Word almost immediately after screening the movie, because it is a truly unremarkable and unmemorable film. The movie is the type of paint-by-numbers studio fare that I typically avoid, but somehow this disc ended up in my collection. It isn’t really my movie, having gotten mixed into my DVDs at some point when, I assume, a friend let one of my roommates borrow it sometime. The case has sat on my shelf for over a decade, mixed in among other movies that I’ve loved and watched many times over the years, and I’ve never had the impulse to take it out of the case and watch it until this morning. I have to say that my reticence to watch Don’t Say a Word was probably wise, as it provided an entertaining enough, though thoroughly uninspired couple of hours. Don’t Say a Word isn’t a terrible movie, but its familiar plot has been spun out in better, more original ways more than once.

Don’t Say a Word opens in 1991, with an exciting bank robbery scene, in which a gang makes off with a rare $10 million dollar ruby. However, in the chaos of the aftermath of the robbery, two members of the gang are able to double cross their leader, Patrick (Bean), and make off with the precious jewel, leaving him holding a worthless bracelet. The film then jumps forward ten years, introducing Dr. Nathan Conrad, a child psychologist who has been asked to work with a disturbed teenage girl, Elisabeth (Murphy), who witnessed her father’s murder as a child. Meanwhile, Patrick and his gang are released from jail, and are hell bent on finding the stolen ruby. The gang set up shop in an apartment above Dr. Conrad’s apartment, and proceed to surveille him and his family, before abducting his daughter. Patrick contacts Dr. Conrad and informs him that he has little time to save his daughter’s life, and that the only way to do so is to extract a six digit number that Elisabeth has locked in her repressed memories. It is subsequently revealed that Elisabeth’s murdered father was the member of Patrick’s gang who double crossed him, and that he hid the ruby in Elisabeth’s favorite doll for safe keeping. While Dr. Conrad attempts to crack the safe that is Elisabeth’s mind, a police detective (Jennifer Esposito) is tracking Patrick in connection with a string of grisly murders. Their trails all dovetail at the film’s climax, which occurs in a pauper’s graveyard on Hart Island.

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The film starts out promisingly enough. The opening heist scene is exciting, and though its rather conventionally blocked out and shot, it still provides an initial rush that propels the first quarter of the movie. However, when the film starts to downshift and introduce its psychological thriller components, it becomes a bogged down game of cat and mouse. Fleder tries to use dark settings-cemeteries, crumbling state-run mental hospitals-to give the film an eerie undercurrent, but these window dressings rarely serve to distract from the fact that what he’s presenting is largely a cookie cutter ransom film, with few points of specificity to set it aside from the rest of its ilk. The film takes very predictable courses to bringing Conrad and Patrick together for a confrontation, and hits on all the familiar tropes along the way. Even the film’s supposed twists, whether it be the fact that the kidnappers were in the apartment building all along or that Elisabeth’s murdered father was a member of Patrick’s gang, are easy to see coming a mile away. The film features a handful of action set pieces that should help to break up the monotony of its cardboard plot, but none of them are particularly memorable.

The performances are workmanlike throughout, with a pretty good cast having been assembled. No one is doing his or her best work in Don’t Say a Word, but the film doesn’t suffer from poor performances in any way. Douglas is fine as the distressed father, but his performance lacks any sort of immediacy. I felt that he was far more hell bent on getting to work in Falling Down than he ever was on rescuing his young daughter in this film. Bean is probably the star of the show, using his minimal screen time to great effect. He’s particularly effective as a chillingly calm and menacing voice over the phone, giving both Conrad and his wife, Aggie (Famke Janssen), cold instruction.

I do think that the film is to be credited for featuring several strong performances by women and giving its female characters prominent roles. Aggie is bedridden for much of the film, suffering a broken leg in a skiing accident, but when she does get the opportunity to rise and get involved in the action, Janssen delivers ably. She has one of the film’s best fight scenes, viciously dispatching of one of the kidnappers who attempts to snuff her out. Jennifer Esposito does the best that she can with the little amount of screen time and exposition afforded to her character. She plays Detective Cassidy as a tough, no-nonsense cop, and even though her character is an obvious caricature, Detective Cassidy is presented in a more positive light than her male counterparts, who are shown to ineffective, lazy, or both. Finally, Brittany Murphy shines in the movie in a role that she was likely pigeonholed into. Though she spent much of her too short career being typecast in just these sorts of roles, women with psychological issues in crisis, she never failed to deliver compelling, nuanced performances. As might be expected, much of her work in Don’t Say a Word is nonverbal, and she builds a performance on the tics and physical compulsions that drive her character. The film doesn’t have the most progressive view of mental illness, but Murphy’s performance does a lot to soften its rough edges. Her gentleness and longing help to humanize her character and give the film what emotional depth it does have.

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Overall, Don’t Say a Word isn’t a bad movie. It’s serviceable in all the ways that it should be, but it lacks any real dynamism, and it’s far too predictable to stand out in a crowded field of similar thrillers. In fact, it serves as a good reminder for me of why I tend to avoid these types of mainstream thrillers. They’re often so derivative that it’s difficult to distinguish one from another. The film’s cast does what they can to elevate the material, but the talented actors just aren’t given a great deal to work with. Fleder shows some flashes of compelling action filmmaking throughout, but rarely carries these over to the film as a whole, leaving the project feeling uninspired. This is probably the first unequivocally negative review that I’ve written so far for this project, and it likely isn’t a surprise that the first film that I’m reviewing that isn’t actually “mine,” in the sense that I didn’t purchase it or choose it to be a part of my collection. I was hoping that I would be pleasantly surprised by Don’t Say a Word, but there just isn’t enough there to make me desire a second viewing. If you’re in the mood for a psychological thriller, there are plenty of better choices.


Dogville (2003)

Dir. Lars von Trier

Written by: Lars von Trier

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany


Dogville, in which a stranger named Grace (Kidman), stumbles into a remote town in the mountains of Colorado, where she is reluctantly accepted into a cloistered society and discovers that behind many acts of human kindness there lies an avaricious motive, may be Lars von Trier’s defining masterpiece. The film marries the Danish auteur’s dark thematic explorations with the most radical example of his challenging and ever-evolving visual style. It’s a film that has challenged me since I first viewed it shortly after its release, sometime during my freshman year of college. Like the other von Trier films that I’ve written about, Dogville is a difficult film to “enjoy,” due to its dark and depressing subject matter, but it stands out as a startling and immediate piece of art. The film strips away the artifices of traditional cinema, replacing them with a starkly minimalist visual aesthetic that utilizes chalk outlines on a soundstage to block out its only setting. This extreme minimalism allows von Trier to focus in on the film’s narrative and dig deep into the roots of human nature, revealing a pessimistic, challenging world view that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who is familiar with the director’s oeuvre. Dogville is a profound film, seeking to explore aspects of the human condition rarely considered, and despite its barren aesthetic, it’s often a beautiful film. It’s an emotionally taxing, mentally exhausting experience to watch, but its host of strong performances and von Trier’s artful directorial choices make for an engaging, unforgettable film.

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Dogville is a tale told in nine elliptical chapters and a prologue, in which we are first introduced to the residents of Dogville, Colorado, a mining town hard hit by the Great Depression. Our guide to the town is young Tom Edison (Bettany), a self-styled writer who has rarely put pen to paper, but who doesn’t shy away from trying to inflict his own morality and high-mindedness on the often resistant townsfolk of Dogville. Early in the film, Tom is walking the town’s main street at night when he comes upon a stranger, Grace, who is on the run from a gang that Tom had previously heard firing shots in the valley below the town. Tom agrees to shelter her, but he must first convince the rest of Dogville’s residents to keep Grace secreted away from harm in their village, and many of them are less than eager to put their own safety and tranquility on the line to harbor a stranger, particularly one who may be dangerous herself. However, they eventually consent to offer Grace a trial period, provided that she earn her keep in the town by doing housework and chores for each of its residents. This arrangement continues well for some time, as Grace proves herself to be an asset to the town, and nearly all of the townsfolk begin to warm to her presence, particularly Tom with whom Grace begins a tentative romance. However, the situation begins to become more tenuous and dissolve when Grace’s pursuers, as well as the local police who are in the pocket of the gang, come sniffing around town, raising the stakes for the people of Dogville. Their initial welcoming attitude begins to gradually turn to resentment and suspicion of Grace, as the townsfolk’s true nature starts to reveal itself as they inflict an escalating series of cruelties on the stranger.

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This is von Trier at his most radically experimental, as he’s fully abandoned the realist tendencies of the Dogme 95 movement that he helped to spark nearly a decade earlier, creating a fully stylized and symbolic, if completely minimalist, visual aesthetic. Von Trier has mentioned that his choice to adopt such radical and theatrical staging for his film was an attempt to strip away the distractions of setting so that audiences would focus on the characters, the narrative, and the performances. Another side effect of this chosen visual aesthetic is that it makes the film immediately engaging because it is such a radical departure from the visual presentation of any sort of traditional narrative film. Taking a page from famed theatrical provocateur Bertolt Brecht’s playbook, and staying true to his own theory that cinema should be “as a rock in your shoe,” von Trier presents the audience with a set of distancing effects that counter-intuitively work to foster audience engagement and identification. As there is little to recognize about the physical setting of the film, audiences have no choice but to deeply and personally invest themselves in the characters and their highly-charged chamber dramas. In Brechtian theory, this would then cause the audience member to internalize the performances and undergo a sort of self-reflection, unearthing heretofore unknown truths. As a highly analytical and critical filmmaker, von Trier no doubt is seeking the same sort of agitation and self-examination in his audience, and if they take the lessons and attitudes of the characters in Dogville to heart, the truths that they find reflected may be challenging, to say the least.

Perhaps this is why Dogville is such a difficult and divisive film, appearing on many best and worst films of the year lists when it was released. The suppositions that it makes about human nature, and in particular, about the American national spirit, are confrontational and challenging, if not down-right appalling. Dogville finds von Trier at perhaps his most misanthropic, sometimes giving the impression that he sees the characters (and perhaps even the actors portraying them) in this morality fable as specimens to be studied, rather than humanistic equals. The coldness that he shows towards his subjects is reflected in the coldness that is revealed to be at the core of their beings. Dogville is a film without any “good guys,” where no good deed goes unpunished, and the strong ultimately lord over the weak and powerless. The quickness with which the townsfolk turn to abusing, and taking advantage of Grace is horrifying, and the savagery to which they descend is shocking, but to von Trier, those traits are true to the selfish, rapacious nature of the human animal. We have seen before in his films that his worldview is bleak and uncompromising, but in Dogville there are no pure souls, no Selma or Bess, to point towards the existence of decency or goodness in the world. When Grace finally gains her comeuppance on the townsfolk and watches them murdered and the town burned, there’s little satisfaction in the revenge for the audience, because it is we that she is dispatching of, at the same time that it is we who are gleeful in the killing. Audiences are indicted as killers regardless of whom they choose to identify with, and are left with a preponderance of difficult questions about their own position on the nature of human kindness and charity.

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Even in a film so bleak, however, and so coldly antihuman, there are many moments of warmth, primarily supplied by the excellent performances of the cast. Although there are several great performances in Dogville, Nicole Kidman owns this movie with her performance as Grace. Released at the same time that she was starring in prestige period films such as Cold Mountain and The Hours, for which she won an Academy Award, Kidman’s performance in Dogville seems to sometimes get overlooked. Perhaps it is the film’s overall divisiveness that led to Kidman not receiving much mainstream consideration for awards or commendations, but what vibrancy there is in the film is directly related to her performance. Kidman is radiant in the film, both in her performance and physically, as she is often shot in golden light that reflects in her red hair and seems to make her personage glow. Early in the film, her kindness is palpable and it begins to seep into the dark crevices of Dogville, inflicting itself onto the town’s hardened residents. The film also requires Kidman to demonstrate extreme range as an actor, as her character is taken on an extreme emotional journey over the course of the film, experiencing and embodying fear, happiness, humble service, love, distress, resignation, shame, and moral vengefulness, among many other complex and difficult to convey emotional states. Though the performance may not be as singularly memorable as Bjork’s in Dancer in the Dark, Kidman’s Grace is equally as impressive. The performance is less outwardly expressive and showy, more inwardly-focused and nuanced.

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Kidman headlines an impressive assemblage of talent, with several other standouts in supporting roles. Von Trier is often able to find himself working with some of Europe and America’s finest actors, and though they don’t always find the experience of working with the famously irritable and demanding director to be a pleasant one, he usually draws great performances out of already talented actors. Dogville is no exception, with famous character actors such as Ben Gazzara and Philip Baker Hall turning in great performances as lonely, but ultimately reprehensible, older men, alongside film legend Lauren Bacall whose Ma Ginger at first seems to be a sweet, if reclusive, matriarch, but whose vitriol becomes evident by the film’s end. Of course von Trier regular, Stellan Skarsgård, makes an appearance as Chuck, a hard working father who resents Grace for what she represents as an outsider who had previously enjoyed a life of luxury. Chuck is the member of the town who harbors the most outward animosity towards Grace, and Skarsgård plays him terrifyingly well, embodying seething resentment and a physical type of malice. John Hurt’s familiar, soothing voice is used to great effect as the film’s narrator, helping to set the scene, and providing near-ironic counterpoint through his calm voiceover narration of events that are rapidly descending into cruelty. In fact, nearly all of the film’s supporting cast stand out in some way, with Kidman’s co-lead, Paul Bettany, being one of the more forgettable aspects of the film. He is fine as the naïve, moralizing Tom, but he doesn’t really add much to the film through his performance. I don’t say that to diminish Bettany’s performance, but more to point out how difficult it is to stand out among a field of such accomplished actors.

Von Trier handles the ensemble cast masterfully, though. His earlier films were often focused on highly intimate and personal narratives that centered on a dynamic female protagonist, and though Dogville certainly is that, the film sees von Trier expanding that focus to provide the sort of character depth and interiority that he previously explored on the individual level to a society. He allows the audience to get to know the citizens of Dogville gradually, affording each one enough screen time to develop their own personality, and to properly inform their motivations and behaviors. He’s brought in actors intuitive enough to make the most of small gestures or bits of terse dialogue, and the result is a town that actually feels as if it could exist. In spite of its lack of visual specificity, Dogville is clearly mapped out, quite literally, and the interactions and relationships existing between its residents feel true to life. Their petty disputes, and their over-familiarity with one another will ring true to anyone who has spent time living in a small town, and perhaps this is what makes their monstrous turn in the film’s second half all the more disturbing. The people of Dogville are people that we, the audience, know. Again, they are us. Dogville is a studied portrait of the callousness of modern human society, from the perspective of a filmmaker who often doesn’t include himself in the larger strictures of human society, and though its scope may be played out on a more violent and even Biblical scale, it hits the nail on the head at the rottenness that is often at the core of people’s petty slights and swipes at their neighbors.

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Dogville is not a film for most people. It’s too avant-garde, too pretentious, too graphic, too nihilistic and misanthropic, to really cater to many audiences. Obviously, I am in the camp that considers it a masterpiece, which really shouldn’t be surprising given my affinity for von Trier’s other films. I don’t necessarily agree with the film’s totally bleak take on human nature and society, but I appreciate its provocative stance and von Trier’s willingness to be totally unrelenting in his vision, both aesthetically and in terms of his presented worldview. I enjoy films like this, ones that force their spectators to question aspects of their own identity or their own nature. I think that for every film that celebrates the beauty of life or of art, there should be another artfully challenging those assumptions and presenting necessary counterpoint. Life certainly isn’t all sunshine and flowers, and neither should our art be. Though I don’t recommend that anyone, myself included, watch Dogville often, I do think that it’s a film that people should at least try to engage with once in their life. It’s a stylistically audacious work of art that seeks to shake viewers out of their complacency and challenge their core beliefs. It’s a good thing to be shaken up from time to time.


Dogma (1999)

Dir. Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Chris Rock


Dogma was the most recently released film in Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse when my friends and I discovered the director. Coming on the heels of the critical success of Chasing Amy, Dogma represents a huge step forward for Smith and his brand of comedy. It is his first foray into bigger budget filmmaking, and it also shifts the focus largely away from the established world of his first three films, only tangentially tying back into them through the presence of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), this time cast as unlikely prophets. However, Dogma also represents a return to his past for Smith, as he wrote a draft of the screenplay before he filmed his debut Clerks, and only returned to the passion project when he felt that he had garnered enough technical know-how and industry clout to produce the film with the proper budget and production value. The final result is something of a mixed bag, not totally fitting in with Smith’s brand of lo-fi humor but also not divorcing itself enough from that milieu to be the successful action-comedy film that it wants to be. When reflected on in relation to the rest of Smith’s filmography, particularly his first five features and Clerks II, the movies that make up the accepted View Askewniverse, Dogma feels like an aborted foray down an unfamiliar, and possibly wrong, path.

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Dogma opens with fallen angels Bartleby (Affleck) and Loki (Damon) plotting a way to return to their home in Heaven, which they may have discovered after they are tipped off to the planned rededication of a New Jersey church by Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) as part of his new, image-conscious marketing campaign for the Catholic Church, Catholicism Wow! Through a loophole in Catholic dogma, the angels can enter the church in Red Bank, New Jersey on the day of its rededication and be forgiven of their sins, allowing them to re-enter Heaven, thus proving God fallible, and rending the fabric of the Universe and all existence therein. In order to prevent this cataclysm, Heavenly forces recruit Bethany (Fiorentino), a reluctant Catholic who works at an abortion clinic, to travel to New Jersey and stop the angels from reentering the church. Assisting Bethany in her journey are two prophets, the aforementioned Jay and Silent Bob, who serve as her guides from Illinois to their native Jersey, Rufus (Rock), the 13th apostle who was written out of the Bible, and who reveals to Bethany her true identity as a descendant of Jesus Christ’s family lineage, and several other Spiritual entities. They’re opposed by the demon Azrael (Jason Lee) and his trio of devilish hockey playing lackeys, who have secretly been guiding Bartleby and Loki all along for their own nefarious purposes. When all of the disparate parties arrive in Red Bank, a scene unfolds not unlike Armageddon and as the last scion of Christ, Bethany is the only one who has the power to save the Universe.

If the movie sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. As I mentioned, it was far and away the biggest project that Smith had tackled to that point in his career, with a larger cast, longer runtime, more locations, and more indirect approach to comedy than anything that had preceded it. However, rather than feeling like a culmination of everything that Smith had learned while working on his first three features, Dogma often feels like a rejection of those lessons. Smith has jettisoned his penchant for smaller indies in favor of action/comedy bombast, and the transition isn’t exactly smooth. Despite the personal nature of the project, and its lengthy gestation period, Dogma feels somewhat thrown together. It lacks the passion exhibited by the guerrilla filmmaking of Clerks and it doesn’t continue an exploration of the kinds of personal, emotional territory that Smith began to traverse with Chasing Amy. While that film found Smith beginning to peak as a screenwriter, with Dogma, he seems to have bitten off more than he can chew. There are too many characters involved in the film for the audience to become personally invested in any of them, and Smith doesn’t always do a great job of juggling the film’s multiple storylines and locations. Still though, I don’t think that tightening up the narrative would have improved Dogma, as it went through at least eight different variations before Smith settled on the final screenplay. The audacious scope of the film is part of its appeal, and it’s interesting to see the results of Smith’s first attempt to break out from his established niche. The fix for this film might have been in the works all along, however, as Smith reportedly shopped the film to other directors, including Robert Rodriguez, who turned it down citing Smith’s personal connection to the project as a reservation. I would be very interested in seeing what he would have done with this script, coming off of the schlocky, horror-action hybrid From Dusk Til Dawn.

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As intriguing as the prospect of a director slightly more suited to delivering on the promise of Dogma’s complex narrative and genre hybridity, I don’t know that it would have made up for some of the other major flaws that the film has. Overall, my biggest gripe with Dogma is that its cast is star-studded, but the big names are rarely used to their full potential. It may be the fault of the material that they were given to work with, but very few members of the cast are doing anything close to their best work in Dogma. Fiorentino is solid as the doubting, searching Bethany, but her performance isn’t memorable or dynamic. She gets a few scenes that indicate some depth as an actor, but overall her emotional and psychological journey are overshadowed by the mugging and zaniness that surround her character. Rock’s character, Rufus, is underdeveloped and doesn’t rise much above the level of a token black character, and his performance carries about as much enthusiasm as you might expect from the last sketch of the night on an episode of SNL. Rock isn’t the greatest traditional actor, but he is a gifted comedian, and it’s disappointing to see him fall as flat as he does delivering Smith’s dialogue. Selma Hayek appears half way through the film as a muse, Serendipity, whose role is to help provide Bethany with important information about her true identity, but again, she falls victim to underdevelopment. Her character is introduced in a strip club, and she’s largely used as eye candy throughout her brief appearances in the film. Mewes and Smith have a bigger part to play in this film than in the earlier View Askewniverse movies, but they don’t really bring anything new to their trademark roles.

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There are a few bright spots from a performance perspective. Alan Rickman is predictably great as the Metatron, God’s angelic messenger. His trademark sullen expression and exasperation are on full display as a condescending angel forced to deal with inferior humans. He brings a natural grace and poise to his performance that seems fitting for an angel. Conversely, Jason Lee is perfectly smarmy and calculating as the film’s primary villain, Azrael, a demon escaped from Hell with a penchant for central air and seer sucker suits. Lee again shows his ability to master Smith’s dialogue, and his performance as Azrael is my favorite in the film. He plays Azrael as sinister, but also charming, providing a much more nuanced character than do some of his more accomplished counterparts. This is one of the first films that I can remember seeing Lee in that really indicated he was able to craft a character, and that he would have a future as a mainstream actor outside of his collaborations with Smith. George Carlin’s Cardinal Glick is one of the film’s funniest characters, and even though Carlin isn’t stepping far afield from his stand-up routine, I could have used more of his character. Unfortunately, the most interesting characters in the film, including Azrael who should definitely be a more major presence, cede a great deal of screen time to the lesser developed and less dynamic characters. This imbalance is largely what I was referring to earlier when I mentioned that Smith has trouble juggling the film’s multiple storylines.

Affleck and Damon are enjoyable and multifaceted in their performances as the film’s main antagonists, but they’re both asked to do too much in carrying a film that just isn’t that good. I like Affleck a good deal in most of his performances, and he is pretty good here as Bartleby. Initially, Bartleby is the more level headed of the pair, attempting to reign in Loki’s murderous tendencies and keep him focuses on their mission. By film’s end though, the angels have switched moral positions, and Bartleby becomes obsessed with doling out lethal justice to sinning humans. Affleck handles this transition well, and his Bartleby is actually fearsome in the film’s climax, descending from the sky in golden armor, plucking up frightened humans and casually tossing them earthbound to an explosive and bloody end. Affleck had developed an edge to his performance style by this time, but unfortunately, Damon is less adept in the scenes that require him to play dark and villainous. Damon’s smirking visage is appropriate for Loki’s mischievous, trickster qualities, but when he actually follows through on the threats of his violence, the result is shocking but not quite believable. Still, the two have an obvious and natural chemistry, and their overall charm and ability to riff off of one another is a source of much of the film’s comedy.

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Unfortunately, outside of the relationship between Bartleby and Loki, and a few other standout instances that hit the nail on the head in their humorous critique of religion, Dogma just isn’t a particularly funny movie. Despite the assemblage of talent, Smith’s script doesn’t deliver on the comedy end. He attempts to balance high-minded satire with his standard verbose, crass dialogical humor and situational comedy. The results are disastrous, with the film’s satirical elements often feeling over-serious and obvious, and its gross out comedy descending to the levels of actual toilet humor and simply missing the mark. The film suffers from an overreliance on dick and fart jokes, and Mewes is too heavily featured for the first time in the View Askewniverse. I don’t think that my opinions on Dogma’s humor are the results of my maturity since first enjoying it, because I don’t remember ever thinking that the movie was particularly funny, as I did and do about Smith’s other 1990s movies. What has changed is my inability to excuse the movie for not being as funny as it could be, simply because watching Dogma as an adult it isn’t nearly as insightful, profound, or sharply satirical as I thought that it was when I was younger. Smith would later prove himself capable of creating a darkly effective satire in Red State, but Dogma is clearly the work of a younger and less experienced filmmaker.

On the whole, I was disappointed that I didn’t find more to like about Dogma on this rewatch. It’s probably pretty obvious that it was never among my very favorite Smith movies, but I did like it a good bit when I was younger. It still walks a fine line between being critical and reverent of organized religion, and Catholicism, in particular, but as I’ve matured in my own opinions about religion, the film’s tone doesn’t work as well for me as it once did. The film does have its bright spots, but Smith wastes the assembled talent of the cast, and doesn’t have the wherewithal to properly helm a narrative of the scope of Dogma. It isn’t a bad movie, per se, but it’s one that I think might have benefitted from a bit more collaboration and editorial guidance. Though I’ve seen nearly all of Smith’s films, Dogma was really where I stopped being a true fan of the director, and while it used to be in the rotation with relative frequency, I never had the affinity for it that I held for Smith’s first three features. Unfortunately, Dogma’s flaws have only become more apparent with time, and it will likely be a good while before I decide to revisit it, if I do at all.

Dog Day Afternoon

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Dir. Sidney Lumet

Written by: Frank Pierson (from the magazine article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore)

Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazale, Penelope Allen, Charles Durning


Dog Day Afternoon is one of the oldest DVDs in my collection, both in terms of its place on my shelf and in terms of the actual production of the disc. I would imagine I purchased it sometime in the early 2000s, shortly after buying the Playstation 2 that my family used to play DVDs, probably on a whim based on my affinity for Al Pacino at the time. I know that I hadn’t seen the movie before owning it, and I’m fairly certain that I was only tangentially familiar with it and its subject matter. As a crime movie from the 1970s, with a highly pedigreed cast and director, Dog Day Afternoon fit squarely into my wheelhouse during my teens, and it became one of my favorite movies during that time. It’s a classic crime movie that I don’t think gets enough credit today for being as interesting and influential as it really was. Though I don’t watch Dog Day Afternoon with any regularity anymore, I think that some of its subject matter has only become more relevant in the 21st century with the advent of reality television and social media.

The film is based on the real-life robbery of a Chase Manhattan Bank branch in Brooklyn in 1972. In the film version, the robbers are Sonny (Pacino) and Sal (Cazale), who are woefully unprepared and ill-equipped to pull off the heist. The inept robbers have arrived after the bank’s deposit has already been collected for the day, so there is just over $1,000 left in cash in the bank. To make up for his miscalculation, Sonny decides to steal traveler’s checks and prevent them from being traced by burning the bank’s check register. However, the bank’s neighbors see the billowing smoke coming from the building and call the police, prompting the robbery to turn into a true hostage situation, as Sonny and Sal barricade themselves inside the bank with the employees. What follows is a tense standoff between Sonny and police Sergeant Moretti (Durning), in which Sonny attempts to negotiate a way out of the situation for he and Sal, while Moretti tries to ensure the safety of the hostages in the bank. A huge civilian crowd starts to form, as the situation devolves into a circus, with Sonny repeatedly attempting to incite the crowd and the police, clearly enjoying his brief moment of notoriety. Though he feels that he has total control of the situation, and that he will be able to extricate himself and Sal from the bank safely, it becomes clear as the hostage situation extends further and further into the night that there likely won’t be a happy ending.

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The thing that’s immediately fascinating to me when watching Dog Day Afternoon in 2018 is how prescient and immediate the movie feels. Though perhaps not as much as Lumet’s next feature, Network, this film feels like, with very few alterations, it could have been made today. Though it’s been a feature of news media since the advent and proliferation of cable news, the type of instant celebrity embodied by Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon feels like a very modern phenomenon. Social media and the constant news cycle keep viral stories, such as the one presented in the film, in the public eye much more easily, and they allow for access to breaking news as it happens. It would be very easy to imagine a remake of the film in which the crowd doesn’t gather around the bank, but rather engages with the hostage situation via a Twitter feed, with the police not having to worry about the opinions of just New Yorkers, but of people around the world. It would be a more cynical type of film, but, were it made today, I can envision Sonny planning out the heist to further his YouTube brand. The bank robbery and subsequent circus scene that develops surrounding it have the perfect making of a viral marketing stunt, and, knowing Lumet’s other films, I have to imagine that he had at least some inkling of the watered down celebrity culture that was coming in the near future. While Warhol predicted that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame, I think that in modern culture that brief moment can be distilled down even further, and Sonny’s “Attica!” scene is a perfect example of the sort of brief video clip that has come to define viral stardom in the modern age. Lumet was often an acerbic critic of the media, and Dog Day Afternoon needs little creative interpretation to fall in line with some of his other cynical, satirical films.

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Of course the other aspect of the film that helps it to feel modern and alive is Pacino’s electric performance as Sonny. Delivered at the height of Pacino’s rise to fame, immediately after his star turn in the first two Godfather films, Sonny is my personal favorite Pacino performance of all time. The character is at the same time wired and exhausted, bursting with kinetic energy and mania, but always threatening to collapse in a heap from the stresses his life and his situation have foisted upon him. Pacino gets a (mostly) undeserved reputation for being bombastic and over the top in his performance style, but he plays Sonny to the hilt in this movie, and it absolutely works. He’s physical, he’s histrionic, he certainly gives evidence for some of the more overt tics that would emerge in his style in his later years, but he wraps it all in a believable and effective package, giving Sonny enough nuance to fill in the gaps between his outbursts. He balances his shouting, gestural performance style when hamming it up for the crowd and the police with the quieter moments that he shares with the bank tellers and with Sal, his accomplice. I had forgotten some of the truly touching interactions that Pacino and Cazale share in the film, seeming to genuinely care for one another as friends, and even more so I had forgotten about some of the great moments that Pacino shares with Penelope Allen, who plays the bank’s head teller.

Allen is great in her supporting role as a tough, no-nonsense bank teller who refuses to extricate herself from the hostage situation because she’d rather stay with “her girls,” and ensure their safety. She brings a matriarchal air to the film, but she’s also hardened in a way. She isn’t intimidated by either the robbers or the police, taking ownership of her role as pack leader among the bank’s employees. In many ways, she and Cazale’s Sal are the film’s stabilizing forces. Cazale provides an important foil to Pacino, as he did in the Godfather films. In Dog Day Afternoon, Cazale gets to show off his quiet, stoic side, much different form his better known role as Fredo Corleone. Although he doesn’t have much dialogue, allowing Pacino to do more of the verbose scenery chewing, Cazale’s reserved performance tells the audience everything they need to know about Sal. He’s maybe a bit dim, but he’s loyal and competent, and he’s able to keep a level head as the bank robbery continues to spiral out of control. Though his emotional register remains fairly neutral throughout the film, I always get a bit sad when Sal admits to being afraid to take the jet that Sonny has arranged for them to escape on as he’s never flown before. That extremely human admission, in a very small moment of the film, sells his performance for me entirely.

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The dynamic between Sonny and Sal is an important one in the film, and their opposing demeanors are borne out thematically throughout. Most obviously, the performance styles of the two actors vary wildly, with Pacino’s Sonny more outwardly expressive, performative, and rambunctious, while Cazale plays Sal with a restrained, calm efficiency. Lumet continues this dichotomy through his treatment of the film’s two primary locations, the interior and exterior of the bank. The bank’s interior becomes a still oasis, where Sonny retreats to think and plan his moves, while the exterior becomes increasingly raucous as the crowd of onlookers and police grows throughout the film. The film’s only moments of true physical violence all occur outside of the bank, with Sonny being attacked on the sidewalk by one of the teller’s boyfriends, and of course with Sal being shot at the film’s end. Although this doesn’t take place directly outside of the bank, it still happens outdoors. The bank’s interior, however, is home to moments of emotional authenticity and vulnerability, the vault becoming an important visual reminder of security and refuge. Sal’s aforementioned fear of flying is an example of this vulnerability, as is the bank manager’s (Sully Boyer) admission to Sonny that he has two children at home whom he would like to see again. But the film’s most immediate moment of emotional vulnerability is the scene late in the film in which Sonny finally speaks to his wife, Leon (Chris Sarandon), on the phone. By now, it’s been revealed that Sonny’s motive for robbing the bank was to pay for Leon’s sex change, and though their relationship seems to be contentious at best, it’s clear that the two really love one another. During this brief scene, you can see the realization that he’ll never see his lover again wash over Sonny’s face as Pacino physically slumps, weighed down by the reality of the predicament he’s put himself and everyone he knows in. The quiet resignation in his brief conversation with Leon stands in stark contrast to the bellicosity that Sonny has shown up to that point, and indicates a further layer of the film’s operative dichotomy of wild abandon and homebound safety playing out within his own character.

In Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet hews fairly close to the reality of the event that he’s depicting, with him and screenwriter Frank Pierson knowing a juicy story when they see one ready to be ripped from the headlines. It would be hard not to make the spectacular bank robbery into a good movie, but Lumet’s wry sensibilities and eye for capturing authenticity elevate the film beyond its already intriguing subject matter. He encouraged his actors to largely improvise their dialogue, allowing them the freedom to turn in personal, memorable performances. His sense of pace and of location tighten the film’s narrative and focus. As in any very good thriller, there’s no fat to be trimmed, and the tension is ratcheted up and released at just the right moments. The film strikes a delicate balance as individual scenes are allowed to play out with their natural ebb and flow while the overall work continues its propulsive momentum towards its ultimate, inevitable finale. It’s a slow burn that’s also allowed to crackle and pop from time to time. In short, it’s one of the better thrillers of all time.