Passing the Baton – Ron to Josh

In my last film themed blog post, I focused on Ron Perlman. Today he passes the baton on to Josh Hartnett.

Bunraku (2010)

In some post-apocalyptic future guns are banned, and all personal combat takes the form of martial arts. Ron Perlman, superbly sinister as the axe wielding Nicola the Woodcutter, is the criminal kingpin in a never named town where the gangs have run wild and the police are for sale. Two strangers arrive, the Drifter (Josh Hartnett) and Yoshi (Gackt), both with agendas that put them in direct conflict with Nicola and results in their becoming the catalysts for a popular revolt against his rule. After fighting both the police and gangs, then taking on Nicola’s Killer elite, the stage is set for a showdown in the Woodcutter’s palace. This is a film that delights in doing things differently, possibly as a way to distract us from the fact that the plot is simply a convenient pretext to hurl a lot of martial arts action at the screen. The backdrop to all this fighting seems more like a stage set than anything else, and one decorated by the set designers responsible for all those lurid colours in Corman’s Masque, with The Spirit another possible template that comes to mind. It’s an original stroke, and fills the screen with vibrant colours and a sense of vitality, while the gangs seem rather like a cross between Kill Bill’s Crazy 88 and the Henchmen R’Us who added colour to the Batman TV series. There’s plenty of fight scenes, performed with an almost balletic grace and skill, while the big showdown at the end was worth waiting for, with the advantage going first one way and then the other. My biggest problem was with the characterisation. While Perlman’s Nicola has depths to him, with motives for his actions and a quality of world weariness that adds to his presence, and some of the other bad guys, such as Killer #2, bring an engaging sliminess to their roles, the good guys seem like ciphers, with no three dimensionality to them, the feeling that they’re just there to take the hits and come up smiling. Also on the plus side, nice to see Woody Harrelson as a wise cracking bartender come saloon stool Yoda, playing counterpoint to his Cheers role, and Demi Moore got a look in as love interest for both him and Nicola. I enjoyed it, but more for the spectacle than the story, which was rather limp.

The Faculty (1998)

Staff members at Herrington High in Ohio begin to act strangely. They’ve been possessed by an alien entity that is intent on taking control of Earth and thinks school is a good place to start. There’s a star studded cast, including Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick, Piper Laurie, Salma Hayek, Elijah Wood, Famke Janssen, and Jordana Brewster. Josh Hartnett plays under achiever Zeke, a rebel without applause who supplements his income dealing in his own brand happy drug. Fortunately his drug is the key to outing and killing the aliens, and at the end of the movie he is rewarded with acceptance and a place on the football team (not that much of a rebel then). Okay, it’s an easy on the eye and undemanding monster munch movie, with a few scenes of mayhem worthy of the name, but with script by Kevin Williamson and Robert Rodriguez directing I was hoping for something more memorable. Bottom line – it’s high school horror in the manner of an extended episode of Buffy but without the wit and panache of that show. The outsiders get to be the heroes, only to then abandon all the things that made them different and become the new in crowd, with establishment approval and a ringing endorsement of family values. Like Zeke, it’s an under achiever, with no real surprises.

The Black Dahlia (2006)

Directed by Brian De Palma and based on a book by the wonderful James Ellroy, which in turn was inspired by the 1947 murder and dismemberment of Elizabeth Short (the Dahlia of the title). Hartnett plays police officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert, who is also a talented boxer. A PR bout with fellow officer Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) results in the two becoming fast friends, a team at work and the constant companions of blonde beauty Kay (Scarlett Johansson). Central to the story is the search for the killer of Short, an aspiring actress who made a pornographic film, but in reality it’s just a pretext and the real thrust of the narrative concerns the relationship between the two detectives. Lee is obsessed with the Dahlia’s murder as it mirrors the death of his sister, but there are a lot of other things going on his life and his motives are far from pure. For Bucky the trail leads to bisexual beauty Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) and her filthy rich but barking mad family. Too late, Bucky realises that his partner is singing from a different hymn sheet, and if justice is ever to be done for the murder of the Dahlia then it will have to be off the books and on the QT. The plot here is wonderfully convoluted, as you’d expect given the provenance, with every character double dealing and shovelling dirt as fast as they can to keep their secrets buried. There’s an element of rivalry to the central male relationship (in the boxing ring; for Kay’s affections), and for Bucky the discovery of Lee’s dark side comes as a real blow, especially as he’s been used to abet a murder, one that dents his faith in his partner, and yet at the same time he still feels a certain loyalty to the man. Bucky’s own hands are far from clean – he throws a boxing match to raise money to get his father in a care home, he accepts sexual favours in return for withholding evidence, and at the end he shoots an unarmed woman. In many ways it’s the story of his undoing as a moral being, with compromises eventually leading to total collapse, underlining a common Ellroy theme having to do with corruption, pragmatism, and the realpolitik of police work. Everyone here is on the make, be it career ambition or money grasping, sexual gratification or jockeying for social standing. Perhaps the most innocent character is the Dahlia, played marvellously by Mia Kirshner, her personality shown in audition tapes where she comes over as vulnerable and self-deceiving, searching for something that will always stay outside of her grasp, accepting sex in lieu of love. At the end, faults and all, she is one of the few characters we can genuinely care about. The explanation for her death doesn’t quite satisfy, in that it depends on a warped family who would have given the Addams brood a run for their money. It feels hollow and contrived, but as I’ve already stated in many ways the Dahlia mystery is just a side issue or catalyst to the real concerns of the film. Nobody should come to this expecting a whodunit (more like who didn’t do it). On imdb I notice Dahlia has the lowest rating out of these three films, but personally I thought it was the best. It’s not quite on a par with L. A. Confidential, the other big Ellroy adaptation, but a fine film in its own right and one that captures well the essential sleaziness of its source material.

So, anyone want to take a guess who Josh will be passing the baton on to when I next blog about films?

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