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Daily Archives: November 21, 2010
Let us pause, for a moment, and think about the challenges facing the 21st-century action hero. Studios want to make huge franchises. Superhero films promise either untold riches or unimaginable embarrassment. Computer-generated effects mean that anything can be faked, but also that everything can look fake.
And, standing against all of this — with a low-budget, low-down gritty action film without a single pixel of CGI and a mean streak as wide as four lanes of blacktop — is Dwayne Johnson. His new film, “Faster,” sees Johnson take on the role of a recently released convict — known only as “Driver” — working a bloody to-do list as payback for the post-bank heist robbery that left his brother dead and saw him imprisoned for a decade. Johnson knows he’s got an uphill climb ahead of him playing a normal guy fueled by will and want as opposed to mythic powers or superhuman abilities. Speaking with him in Beverly Hills, it’s clear he relishes the challenge. “I’ve been privileged to do some pretty good action movies in the past that have done some pretty good business … that I’ve enjoyed doing,” he says. “Getting a movie like this — getting a script like this — was very refreshing. I like the idea, I like the notion of all the action. And not only physical action, either: All the action in the movie was driven and motivated by emotion, such great emotion throughout. So for me as an actor, I was excited for something meaty that I could sink my teeth into and embrace and enjoy the challenges of that, too.”
Of course, it wasn’t all acting challenges and moral morasses. Johnson also gets to drive a block-rockin’ car and shoot a gun the size of your head. Asked about the Chevelle his character drives — and the Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan he shoots — Johnson lights up. “There were two cars presented on the lot at CBS. It was myself and (director) George Tillman. Both Chevelles. One was blue, one was black. It’s written in the script to be blue with a white stripe. They had one in black made, and George says, ‘Which one is Driver?’ Immediately went to the black. Got in it, started it up, heard the supercharger, revved it. I said, ‘I’m home.’”
As for the other piece of heavy metal Johnson employs, well, that was just as immediately appealing. “The gun? One of the biggest revolvers in the world, the Super Redhawk Alaskan,” he says. “Went down to the gun range, held it in my hands, loaded it. Before I fired it, our weapons adviser said, ‘It has tremendous kickback. You’ve got to hold it with both hands.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to hold it with both hands in the movie. It’s not my interpretation of it.’ He said, ‘You have to, though. It has tremendous kickback.’ I said, ‘Let me try it without holding it with both hands.’ Fired it with one arm, went just like that. Maybe moved about 3 inches. He looked at me. His eyebrows went up like, ‘Wow.’ I looked at him and said, ‘There’s my baby.’ It was awesome.”
Dwayne Johnson’s “Faster” marks an interesting milestone in the actor’s career: It’s being released in the 10th year since he leapt from the wrestling ring to the big screen. I ask Johnson what, over a decade of acting, he’s learned — about the field and about himself. “One of the important things that I’ve learned, that helped me and that’s been pivotal, is to fully embrace what you do and who you’re playing,” he says. “Whether it be in a comedy where you can wink at the audience and have fun; whether it be in a family film; whether it be in an action movie, whether it be in a drama; whether it be in an animated movie, fully embrace what you’re doing. You cannot lie to two things: a camera, and the public and the audience. They see, they know what’s real; they know what’s not. Overall, they’re suspending their disbelief — of course, it’s a movie — but they see the individuals who are dedicated and committed to the role and who are owning it. That was important.”
Earlier in the day, the “Faster” press conference offered plenty of laughter, not just from Johnson’s single-entendres about his workout regimen (“Bigger is always better” the actor noted), but also from Billy Bob Thornton’s no-holds-barred take on his character, known only as “Cop,” and on the state of modern moviemaking. Asked about the challenges of the modern press, Thornton took the road less travelled to talk about what, exactly, doing a film like “Faster” meant to him in this day and age.
“I’ll put it this way,” he said. “We’re living in a time in the entertainment business when if you have the opportunity to do something real — and that’s one of the reasons this particular movie, maybe in a different time, might be just considered an action movie, but this movie did not rely on computers and things like that. People are saying this is like a ’70s movie. It kind of is. It does have a contemporary feel because of the editing and the sound design and all that stuff , but at the same time, it is a real movie, so, in other words, if we’re chasing each other down a hallway, it’s a hallway.”
“We’ve done something real here, and it is nice to be able to talk about it in this day and time, because most movies are about vampires in 3-D or fantasy movies and war eagles and all these kind of things, or whatever they are. And so when you’re an actual actor and you like to do real movies and you want to stay grounded, over the years … it’s real nice to be able to do good work and work with you guys like these and come in and talk to you guys about it. But right now, we rely on you guys when we actually do a good movie or a real movie, or at least we’re trying to, whatever it is, to come in and be able to say, ‘Hey, good to see you,’ without getting stuck in the ass.”
But Thornton also waxed poetic about enjoying his role as a smack-shooting cop, weary but doggedly intent on following the trail of blood in Dwayne Johnson’s wake. “I think one of the flaws in most commercial action movies is that the characters are usually not very developed,” he said. “They’re just there to serve as the job, you know what I mean? In other words, a lot of times you’ll have the movie-star hero and then some bad guys who are just there to be killed by the hero, and they’re nameless, faceless people. As a result, you’re usually not afraid of them — because you don’t see them ask somebody to pass the salt, you don’t see them with your kids, you know what I mean? So in this script (screenwriters Joe and Tony Gayton) gave each of the characters a story, and that sort of world-weariness of my character, I think, added to the movie because he’s not black or white. It puts him in a very gray area.” “Faster” opens nationwide Thanksgiving Day.
Mandy Moore voices the lead role of Rapunzel in “Tangled,” the latest Disney animated fairy tale, which is not only coming to the screen in 3-D, but is also the 50th animated full-length feature from the legendary studio. Moore and her co-star Zachary Levi (“Chuck”), however, didn’t know they were part of that milestone while they were filming. “No one said anything to us until a few weeks ago — someone mentioned it when we were doing an interview, I believe,” Moore says. “I remember both Zach and I were sort of, ‘Wow, oh!’ I wasn’t aware of it, at least, going in. I feel like that would have maybe added some undue pressure.
“I was just more excited to be a part of the Disney family and to be playing a Disney princess. I think back to a lot of the films I loved growing up — ‘Aladdin,’ ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘The Lion King,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ — those were part of my childhood, so to think I will be a part of that collective history? It was overwhelming. It still kind of is.”
With her close-cropped brunette hair, tan silk blouse and black shorts, the 26-year-old Moore looks about as far removed from her blond fairy-tale princess Rapunzel and her 70 feet of computer-generated hair as possible. It’s a disconnect that, as Moore explained, made it easy for her to simply enjoy the finished film: “I think I’m able to really separate myself from this movie more so than watching a live-action film because I do not resemble Rapunzel at all. Except at the end when she is a brunette; I’m pretty sure I’ve had that same haircut before, so that was the only time I sort of did a double-take.”
And unlike Moore’s previous experiences with leading men (including John Krasinski, Adrian Grenier and Billy Crudup), the nature of modern animation meant that Moore didn’t even get to meet co-star Zachary Levi until the press tour long after recording was done. “I was excited when the movie was cast and I found out there was such a good group of folks involved. I immediately thought, ‘It’s going to be so much fun, everyone’s going to become fast friends, the camaraderie, going into the booth together.’
“And alas, you find yourself in this giant, empty room. I think I probably would have not gotten as much work done if I had worked with Zach, because he’s ridiculously funny and goofy, and I’m sure there would have been a lot of ad-libs. I’m a really easy laugh, too, so I think I would have been distracted by that.”
Moore also considers herself fortunate to be part of Disney’s storytelling tradition — even if she’s not quite sure what’s next for her acting career: “Zach kept saying “bucket list,” checking it off the bucket list. It perfectly describes this. I’m so happy to be able to check that one off, even if that’s as good as it gets — where do you go from here, anyway? It’s pretty cool. It’s something that will live on forever.”
And a legacy in the hearts of kids isn’t that bad a thing to have, as Moore pragmatically explains. “There’s — believe me — there’s so many projects I’ve done that I wish would find a way to get swept under the rug of time and just disappear completely, just disintegrate. This is one that I’m so proud to be a part of, and I’m excited that for long past my time, it’ll still be hanging in there.”
Lanky and relaxed, Zachary Levi is a self-diagnosed “Dis-nerd” — his term — a huge fan of the company’s rich animation tradition. “I’m a huge Dis-nerd. I mean huge,” he says. “I could go off for days on all the Disney movies. And not just those that were my generation, starting with ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘Aladdin,’ ‘Pocahontas,’ ‘Mulan,’ ‘Hercules,’ so on and so forth. Growing up with wonderful VHS tapes of ‘Jungle Book’ and ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘The Rescuers’ and ‘Fox and the Hound.’ Then going farther back than that, obviously the ‘Snow White’s and the ‘Bambi’s and the ‘Dumbo’s. But Disney also has so many amazing, more obscure little features and featurettes, like ‘Johnny Appleseed’ and ‘Paul Bunyan’ and ‘Ferdinand the Bull’ and ‘Lambert the Sheepish Lion,’ and all these incredible films. The Disney Channel was my babysitter for a good portion of my life, me and my sisters.”
“Faster,” the new hard-R-rated action film starring Dwayne Johnson, is far from perfect. It has an entire subplot that could be excised from the film, and that removal would probably be for the good. It is clearly made on the cheap, without a single pixel of CGI visible in its mayhem, relying instead on muscle and metal and sweat. The plot is unadorned, starting with a bloody bang and going from there in a straight, unbending line with only a few minor, easily predicted twists along its path.
And yet, there is something to admire: a certain nobility of ignoble purpose; its willingness to explore territories of revenge and regret and repentance that few action films even hint at; the way it revolves around characters who are not superheroes or spies or mythic beings being set up to launch a franchise but instead simply mortals put in motion to tell a single story. Much like the ’66 Chevelle that its lead character, called only Driver, uses to speed through the sun-burnt sprawl of California and Nevada, “Faster” feels like an artifact from another, simpler time, but it still has plenty of power when the people behind the wheel hit the gas.
Written by Joe and Tony Gayton, the movie starts with the ballistic bullet-path simplicity of “Point Blank,” as Johnson is released from a 10-year prison stint. Leaving the prison, he runs to a local car lot, finds his Chevelle waiting with a gun and a stack of papers in the front seat, drives to the closest address on a list in the papers, walks in to a small business … and shoots a man dead. No hesitation, no warning, not a word spoken. And then on to the next one.
“Faster” is not simply “Dwayne Johnson Shoots People in the Head,” though — and even if it were, in an age of video-game and comic-book adaptations, doesn’t something that primal and simple sound immensely appealing? Instead, as the ragged, haggard character Cop (Billy Bob Thornton) and smooth, sociopathic Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) track Driver’s mission from what seem like either ends of the law, Driver’s mission to avenge his murdered brother — killed in the wake of a bank heist that got hijacked — becomes as much of a moral journey as a geographic one. Much as the under-seen and under-appreciated “Way of the Gun” did, “Faster” delivers pure excitement, to be sure — but it also uses those heart-pounding sequences as a window into the souls of its characters. There are three scenes in “Faster” that have more emotional power and moral complexity than many of this year’s would-be Oscar contenders.
Director George Tillman Jr. (“Men of Honor,” “Notorious”) keeps “Faster” on track — although I’m still trying to figure out what, if any, actual purpose Jackson-Cohen’s OCD hit man serves; his scenes, and his subplot with Maggie Grace as a confusingly complicit true love, serve minimal purpose. Thornton is excellent: Cop is bedraggled and beaten, 10 days from retirement, and, yes, it is a cliché role for an actor of Thornton’s caliber, until the film makes it clear why an actor of his caliber was required. Jennifer Carpenter (“Dexter”) has one scene, brief and brisk and brutal, that put the hairs on the back of my neck to stirring with its haunting power. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gets a scene with Johnson that plays out with the bleak Biblical power of a Johnny Cash song. And Johnson, both unstoppable force and immovable object, shows a richer, darker side than any of his prior action films have allowed him to demonstrate, while still filling the film’s every moment with poisoned purpose and murderous magnetism.
In an age where so many action films strive for the kind of “perfection” that results in multipicture deals and tie-in products and safe, steady returns on investment, a film as brutally simple and yet unexpectedly complex as “Faster” becomes a pleasure in and of itself, and a thing to be cherished. Handmade, cheaply made and simply made, the rough edges of “Faster” still cut cleanly, and I’ll take that over the bland, blunt, committee-crafted excesses that bigger companies and bigger budgets offer us. I can’t tell you that “Faster” will last long in theaters, but it’s already echoing in my head and heart with a combined sense of power and purpose as welcome as it is unexpected.