[Deep Focus]
Outlaw love.

Yes, I'll go see anything, even this fitfully coherent opus produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, widely regarded as The Man Who Killed Cinema, and directed by Dominic Sena, the blandly stylish music video director whose previous big-screen foray was Kalifornia.

The story has retired car thief Nicolas Cage being called out of retirement to pull one last heist in order to save the life of his brother Giovanni Ribisi, who originally botched the job. It's used as an excuse to gather a group of actors that includes Angelina Jolie, Robert Duvall, and Delroy Lindo. Those folks, in turn, are an excuse to ratchet a half-dozen reels of film toward an inevitable climax that includes high-speed car chases and extensive on-screen mayhem.

As in any big-budget Hollywood flick, the cinematography is so accomplished that the film is easy to enjoy on a superficial level. Such visual pleasure is betrayed by inert characterizations, dull contrivance and injudicious editing -- the narrative is cropped so close to the bone that you have to wonder why screenwriter Scott Rosenberg bothered to give his characters even a whiff of history. For example, Grace Zabriskie plays Cage's ma in a mother-and-child reunion scene that's blink-and-you-miss-it perfunctory. It's baffling to me that the handful of opportunities for a good scene are completely squandered, like somebody turned in a screenplay with entire pages marked simply [CLEVER, SENSITIVE DIALOGUE TK] and then forgot to demand that the necessary insertions take place before shooting began.

In fact, whenever something halfway interesting starts happening on-screen, that narrative thread is immediately abandoned as we hurtle toward the next utterly banal plot point. Even the boyish fetishization of metal curves and solid engineering that some of the early photography hints at is completely subsumed later on by what I can only describe as check-cashing professionalism. If anybody involved with this picture saw anything more interesting than dollar signs in the material, it can't be determined from this side of the projector. ("A brother's love," yeah sure.)

Despite the expected cavils, I was hoping for some jolly I-can't-believe-they-made-a-car-do-that spectacle toward the end, but was sorely disappointed. Here's another movie that really seems to have been photographed with television in mind, despite the choice to shoot in scope -- action that I could take in completely when seen the TV spots is rendered incomprehensible when projected on the big screen. Scaling it down for video can only help. And what does it all lead to? The money shot is one of those stunts where a convenient ramp sends a cornered fugitive completely airborne, allowing last-minute escape from pursuing coppers. Since the flying automobile in question is clearly computer-generated, I gotta wonder why anybody cares about seeing this stuff.

I was going to grade this a straight C on artistic merit -- this is exactly the sort of nondescript entertainment that you expect from a Hollywood blockbuster in the year 2000 -- and then grade it up a notch based on the appealing cast. On reflection, I decided it's foolish to give a film points just for wasting talent, and graded it down. Cage has one or two good scenes, and Christopher Eccleston imbues his villain with the sort of nihilistic spit and vinegar that the dialogue itself never suggests. Other than that, the key pleasure is the all-too-brief presence of Jolie, who gets to straddle a gearshift in a scene that reminded me, momentarily, of the erotic audacity of Crash. If only Sena's camera weren't clearly more interested in the generic skin tones of a bethonged -- and utterly anerotic -- California girl spied making hubba-hubba through a window, he might have been onto something.

Directed by Dominic Sena
Starring Nicolas Cage
USA, 2000

Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Panavision)
Screened at Regal South Beach 18, Miami Beach, FL

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