One of the major problems with the advent of digital downloads is that anyone can get (buy, pilfer) copy of a movie very easily. This may pose problems for the financial future of a movie. One such movie is USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, which is available online and may still see traditional distribution by the Veterans Day holiday on November 11. The film chronicles the human drama of the Portland-class battle cruiser commanded by Captain Charles McVay (Nicolas Cage), that delivered parts of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima in 1945. As it is history – so no crying out for spoilers here – the ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine in Philippine Sea, resulting in one of the most catastrophic loss of lives in American Naval history: out of 1196 sailors only 317 survived – the rest were casualties of war, or died of starvation, wounds and shark attacks.
One would think that director Mario Van Peebles, who has a career full of genres one may have seen late night on HBO or rented on Pulse Global (remember them?), would have a clear-sighted agenda on how to pan out the incident. The screenplay, by Cam Cannon and Richard Rionda Del Castro, would and does map out chronologically, listing important people in the incident – sailors, first officers, the captain – checking mandatory checklists of personal romantic dramas (there is always a pregnant girlfriend waiting home, or a forlorn romantic triangle), and then when out at sea, fling into frantic moments of war, of eventual tragedy, survival and finally, the return home to either heavy-hearted celebration or heavy-handed penal reprisal.
In the case of USS Indianapolis, it was a mix of the two: Captain McVay was made into a political scapegoat and court martialed, and was eventually exonerated in 2000 by Bill Clinton – thirty-two years after he committed suicide.
Oscar-worthy material, right? The screenplay and the direction say otherwise. While the movie nods in the right foreseen places, the emphasis on the scenes, bland computer graphics, and the utilitarian lighting and cinematography, are factors that mount up the disaster, filmmaking wise. USS Indianapolis isn’t a big-budget endeavour; it has a price tag of $40 million – about $25 less than Angelina Jolie’s nearly-similar-in-patches Oscar contender Unbroken. Films on these topics, at one time when they were in vogue, had budgets worth of $80 million. Today, in a market driven by digital downloads, far more immediate piracy threats, big numbers like that is a bad call. $40 million is an acceptable sum. The movie, though, doesn’t look or feel that it is.
Characters are mere sketches of people one would recognise, but not feel a connection with. Tom Sizemore as Chief Petty Officer, McWhorter and Thomas Jane as Lieutenant (JG) and Wilbur C. "Chuck" Gwinn, are flung right in the middle of the narrative that makes little to no emphasis on who they are, or their heroics. Screen-stories, even documentaries, puff-up incidents for optimum emotional blackmail – events are played-up or down to accommodate an emotional response. Mr. Van Peebles, who directed New Jack City (1991) just fine, feels out of place in the digital medium – modern cameras are far less accommodating on skin-tones, the flow of motion and the handling of natural light falls-offs. It breaks the genuineness of scenes.
Speaking of Cage, the role of a sympathetic, grounded, experienced Naval Captain may have sounded good on paper; he is, however, side-swiped to perfunctory scenes. As an experienced actor, Cage proves time and again that he can pull off excellent divergences within the mundane work he is offered. Cage, who has a good war movie to his credit (Windtalkers, 2002), lacks passion in his acting. The rest of USS Indianapolis flounders with no real purpose, except the obvious one – to commemorate the veterans who are alive, or to remember the ones who lost their lives. It is a sad reminder of what could have been, and what it is – the context applies to both, to the incident and the motion picture. •
There are few movie stars who are famous world over. Be it routine cinema goers or anyone in the countryside; one man who lands a top position on the list is Jackie Chan. He is, undoubtedly, a living legend who makes audiences happy with his work. “Jackie Chan movie”, as people like to label his films, is a brand that has a distinct, enjoyable, formula that works because Jackie Chan makes it work.
The actor has an identity with a few pitfalls: he is a cop, and a good guy; he has to do the right thing, while getting imposed upon by a sidekick/partner. Within this set-up, he does the most mind-blowing action sequences ever seen, while keeping humour as its backbone. We love watching his action sequences and laughing on the jokes – one without the other doesn’t work. There isn’t any other Asian star with that kind of pop culture presence, (besides Bruce Lee, of course). Even now, in his golden years (age wise, not career wise), a movie that still has him jumping and fighting with gusto on the screen, is a joy to behold. However, when there isn’t much substance to it, it is a disappointment, that’s exactly what Skiptrace is.
The movie is directed by Renny Harlin, who isn’t known for his directorial prowess. He is unable to keep the movie neat, with a badly cut first half that looks like a generic T.V thriller at best. Plot wise, it isn’t a gem. However, the generic item on the script agenda is workable if shot right with the right gust of humour. Skiptrace works on the lines where the audience has to wait between action sequences for some humour– which hardly happens.
The overused concept has Benny Chan (Jackie Chan), a Hong Kong police detective, hunting a crime syndicate leader named, Matador, but Benny can never get to this thorn on his side. Chan has a personal motive at work as well – Matador had killed his partner a couple of years back. In Macau, we meet Bennie’s would-be partner: Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville), a conman who is out on a mission at a casino run by Matador’s people. While running from a Russian mob that wants him to marry their boss’ pregnant daughter, he witnesses a murder committed by Matador’s right hand man. The blame, however, lands on the Casino hostess, Samantha, who is also Benny’s former partner’s daughter. She, then, seeks Benny’s help. He finds out that Connor has the lead on Matador and decides to save him from the Russian mob as well as Matador’s people, and get him to the Hong Kong police.
Skiptrace is a long movie that could do better with a properly cut first half. Redemption comes in spurts, with a Jackie Chan-worthy sequence in a Russian matryoshka factory, and some parts where the film becomes a travelogue across Asia. But that’s not a big deal, when you consider how long one has to wait for such trivial offerings. •
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