Saturday, July 23, 2011

Movie Review - Point Blank - An Intelligent Action Film

Recently, I had the privilege to see a screening of the new French action thriller, Point Blank (An Official Selection of the 2011 Tribeca International Film Festival,) of which I enjoyed immensely. However, I can only explain my enjoyment in providing some background to my relationship with action movies. Simply, I grew up on action movies. I didn't choose this genre as my obsession. Rather, my father chose to unwind from a long day of seeing patients in therapy with an engrossing action movie. At the fragile age of 11, I was watching all the Die Hard movies, all the Lethal Weapons, and even the intelligent, slightly campy, and ridiculously inappropriate, but excellent movie the Long Kiss Goodnight. I knew the rhythms of an action movie, its cadences, and the components: The explosive opening, the set up of a protagonist that plays by his own rules, dammit! An attitude that inevitably destroys his marriage and his relationships; the evil person, probably ethnic, an enemy doing something truly nefarious and possibly creepy (thinking of the opening of Die Hard 2. Yikes,) the stakes raised to fever pitch heights, the lone heroics despite dismal odds, unless of course, this is a buddy movie then the clichés change, and to top it off, the unlikely outsmarting of the better equipped or more fearsome ethnic enemy all with a catch phrase as the cherry on top. Take that outline, plug in some witty lines, add explosions and some models running around and viola, you have a blockbuster.
I quickly learned to differentiate between a clever movie and one that pandered to our desire to see stuff blown up (looking at you Michael Bay). This isn’t meant to denigrate the films that allow us to simply indulge in what David Foster Wallace coined FX porn. They serve their purpose, almost too well. These films penetrated into my personality. I walk into a room, check the exits, and size up the crowd for any possible terrorists or security threats. I scan the room for any makeshift weapons in case of a fight (a magazine, a pen, a fire extinguisher,) and consequently see opportunities for heroics at every turn. In an elevator, I simply assume that if need be I will climb out of the top, and then crawl through the air ducts to safety, or climb out to foil the plans of the bad guys who outnumber me 20 to 1. This borders on paranoia if not for the fact that I welcome the chance to display my heroic abilities. I simply take it for granted that if the situation arose I would know how to act because of my schooling in all the Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Seagal, Willis, Ford, and Gibson movies. Nowadays, though I watch less action films, I treat these movies as my comfort food. They provide the comfort of nostalgia and the simplicity of a world with obvious evil and obvious good. This overload of action films, besides altering my world view, allows me to sniff out an intelligent action film in the opening minutes.
Consequently, it is immensely refreshing to now see an action film that surprises me, that keeps me guessing and riveted to the very end. Taken, a great, "bad" movie, works for exactly the opposite reason. It caters to the viewers’ basic desires for an easy, linear obvious narrative, full of bad assery (He shoots his friends wife! Though only a flesh wound,) that never ceases. Additionally, the script is smart enough to realize the visceral pull of a father fighting for his daughter against the morally non-complex evil of trafficking women. It taps into some evolutionary drive that demands we protect our family at all costs. We simply enjoy each person Liam Neeson kills in some strange vicarious way. I enjoy it so much that I’ve seen it now over 15 times and have created a drinking game in its honor (Drink every time we see Neeson’s oddly grotesque hands, every time his daughter runs like an idiot, every time he says, “My daughter” in a very serious manner etc.)
Point blank, a film by Fred Cavaye, that follows in the footsteps of Taken, and the less well known Johnny Depp film Nick of Time, manages to overcome its derivative nature through its intelligent writing, deeply human characters and ultimately, through its compelling love story.
The film relies not on explosions, expensive stunts, fancy fight scenes, or riveting car chases to capture the audience but instead leans on the fine acting and writing of the film. To give away any part of the story is somewhat of a shame, but an outline should suffice. Samuel, played by the subtle, compelling Gilles Lellouche, a male nurse in training, stops a murderer from killing a patient. Then, someone attacks Samuel at home, kidnaps his gorgeous, feisty wife (The delightful, impish Elena Anaya,) and demands that he free the patient if he wants his pregnant wife back. I must say, though a slight cliché, the chemistry between the two lovers sparks immediately from their first interaction. Something about her ravishing beauty and his more subtle handsomeness, something about his immediate care for her and her playfulness bring their relationship to life within seconds. From there, I recommend that you see the movie because how it plays out is a lot of the fun of this brisk, thrilling action movie. What I can say is that the complex interplay between the different characters, especially between the criminals and our protagonist carries the bulk of the film. Sartet,  played by Roschdy Zem, the criminal at the center of all the trouble, shines with his stoic yet urgent performance. He says little, but speaks volumes of pain and revenge with a small snicker, or twitch of his eye.
The humanity of the movie distinguishes it from other larger than life action movies. The film captures what feels like a true, almost bungling attempt of a normal human being plunged into an inhuman situation. With movies like Taken, we must swallow the convenient pretense that the kidnapped daughter’s Dad just happens to have been a CIA agent with very special skills, but in Point Blank we see the real struggle of a deeply human person, one without a plan, one without any set of skills to stop the much more powerful men and women chasing him. Therein lies the pure fun and excitement of this movie: it portrays a real person dealing with an insane situation, forced to make choices that most of us could not fathom. (Also, without giving away too much, one scene, towards the end in a police station, portrays some of the cleverest action writing I have seen in a while, all with a jaunty sense of humor.)
The director allows us to focus on the performances of the actors with a healthy balance of interest in the story by leaving certain details of the story in the dark (Looking at you again Michael Bay. Tone down the ridiculous back story and just show us some Transformers fighting. Know your strengths. Revisionist history is not one of them.) In retrospect, the background details do not contain importance because the movie is about the urgency of the here and now, about fighting random arbitrary fate with simple human effort. I cannot think of the last action movie I could confidently say that about. The directors focus on certain parts to the detriment of other side stories heighten our attentions to this here and now, but also mimics the arbitrariness of life itself where we do not conveniently receive explanations for the randomness of life. Awful events just happen for no good reason in the movie, as in life, and even at the denouement of the movie we receive the barest of explanations of why everything happened the way it did. For that reason alone, if not for the numerous other reasons, see this movie. At 84 minutes, the movie might serve as that antidote to summer movies that require no thought, movies which leave you the moment you exit that beautifully air-conditioned theater.

Point Blank opens in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles on Friday July 29th and then will open all over the country.

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