Joe Carnahan’s The Grey rises above its action thriller surface and its survival of the fittest outline to pose the most fundamental existential question: in the face of indifferent nature, how will a given individual face survival alone in the wilderness. Liam Neeson’s nuanced performance takes the challenge head on. He’s one of those quiet loners with a past who end up on arctic oil rigs. His job: to shoot predators that get too close. After an airplane crash, he emerges as the voice of reason – and as the voice of solace to the dying. Finally, alone, the tables turn and prey becomes hunter, hunter prey. The ensemble that comprises the flight manifest is superb, revealing compellingly complex characters. In fact, The Grey is admirable in its respect for its audience and delivers a film that is at once a thriller yet dares to penetrate the surface of the genre to peer into moral questions regarding what it means to be human. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)
Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire is the polar opposite of The Grey. Gina Carano is a martial arts champion who brings those skills, but no others, to bear in Mallory Kane, special ops warrior. In his review for the NYT, A. O. Scott observes that “A large part of what we crave is action: running, jumping, fighting, driving, flying. Sometimes everything else — plot, character, emotion — can seem superfluous. This appears to be the working hypothesis behind Haywire….”
Can an action thriller be an action thriller if it is so predictable that you utterly fail to be thrilled? Such is the case with Daniel Espinosa’s Safe House. It’s more than competent: the actors are self-assured (Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds play well off of each other, and the supporting cast is impressive: Brendan Gleeson, who is always a joy to watch, Vera Farmiga, Robert Patrick, Rubén Blades); the cinematography is lovely; the fights are tight and well-choreographed. It’s just… (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)
Apparently there were more than a few crashes for the star and stunt players who make David Koepp’s Premium Rush a candidate for Best Movie Chase Scene. Joseph Gordon-Levitt did much of his own pedaling through the streets of New York, a decision that landed him on the pavement when an SUV drove into lanes closed for production. Rather than swerve into live traffic at 30 mph, Gordon-Levitt chose the alternative and smashed into a taxi, gashing his right forearm. Wilee (Is that like…? Yes.) is a bike messenger inadvertently entrusted with a valuable package that a NYC cop with a bad gambling habit and worse debts is determined to get. At first it’s Wilee’s professionalism that motivates him to protect the package, but with time he comes to understand the greater human significance of his charge. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review and Popular Mechanics article)
I wasn’t going to see David Ayer’s End of Watch until I read Manohla Dargis in the NYT. It’s an episodic, cop buddy movie that tries to go a little deeper than the genre usually goes, centering on partners Brian and Mike (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, both quite good), their brotherhood in arms, and the challenges of patrolling South Los Angeles. In addition, Ayer is, if not making a commentary on, at least looking at the degree to which the camera mitigates our lives. Brian is taking classes in pre-law and fulfilling one of his assignments by filming their days with a hand-held camera and mini cameras clipped to their uniforms. But just about every other kind of camera figures into the movie – surveillance cameras, phone cameras, night vision, etc. It’s not Big Brother paranoia; it’s just an observation on the extent to which we live in an age in which the capturing of images is ubiquitous.
Another movie that pushes the envelope of its genre is the hard-boiled, mob vengeance of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, based on the George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade. The film is set against the backdrop of the 2008 financial meltdown and the final weeks of the presidential campaign in the mean streets of New Orleans. Car radios and bar TVs broadcast rhetoric from the candidates and Henry Paulson that defends the necessity of propping up criminally corrupt Wall Street. I usually like A. O. Scott’s NYT reviews, but on this one I have to disagree. Scott says of this parallel, “It’s a clumsy device, a feint toward significance that nothing else in the movie earns.” Brad Pitt plays the hit man Jackie Cogan, hired to kill off punks who have robbed a game. Richard Jenkins is wonderful as the mob’s middle-man who conducts business in his generic recent-model sedan. The mob, like the banks, has become modernized and decentralized, and leaves it to middle management to mediate with the riff raff. The analogy works for me and the ensemble is a joy to watch. Ray Liotta runs the game, and James Gandolfini does a turn as a washed up, self-pitying hit man. Another criticism I heard of Killing Them Softly was that it was slow-paced. To its credit, at times it is, which allows Gandolfini to deliver a wonderfully long, self-indulgent monologue to Cogan. Foreign directors are willing to give scenes time, but it rarely happens in an American movie. When Cogan’s payment for his hits is short, he leans in to the mob's go-between on the tails of campaign declarations issuing from the bar's TV to explain under his breath, “America isn’t a country; it’s a business. Now give me my money.”