I never cease to marvel at the endlessly creative ways the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis recycle their old junk films into more derivative junk-film Xeroxes. The subject rises from the dead anew, like Lazarus, with the latest Bruce Willis opus, a nasty, violent, lunkheaded potboiler called Hostage. Producers and directors must sit around munching conference-room sushi out there in the Land of La, saying, “What do you mean, kill him off in the first scene? Take a look at the Bruce Willis demographics on the last piece of crap,” and “Who needs stuff like plot and dialogue? Just buff him up and put a machine gun in his hand. The guy acts with his tits!” And so another toxic Bruce Willis flick hits the streets, polluting the ozone.
Hostage is all the pulp thriller Bruce Willis movies you’ve seen before. Based on one of those Robert Crais books you see commuters tossing into trash bins in Amtrak stations, it follows the dots until that’s all you can see with your eyes closed. Spilling vicious carnage from beginning to end, it opens with a lot of extraneous brutality when a small boy and his mother are murdered in cold blood and Mr. Willis, a hostage-management expert for the LAPD, is unable to control the situation or change the outcome. This has nothing to do with the rest of what happens in Hostage, but serves the sole purpose of establishing the star’s sensitive side. When the bodies stack up, he needs a hug.
A year later, he’s left the L.A. stress behind and we find him working as a police chief in a small precinct in Ventura, bald and devoid of the old moxie, with a crumbling marriage and a lot of guilt. Not much crime here, until three punks follow a wealthy accountant and his two kids to their ugly palatial estate (designed by the kind of California architect that should be under house arrest for defiling the landscape) and try to steal their S.U.V. But things go awry and they end up killing a lady cop and holding the family hostage. Time for Bruce Willis to answer his mobile. His eyes squint, his Adam’s apple throbs, his jaw locks, and the master class is in session at the Bruce Willis School of Dramatic Arts. He’s hopping mad now, and out for bear. No matter that it’s the same formulaic stuff he’s been doing in his sleep since Die Hard. As Mae West used to say, still rolling her hips in her 80’s, “My fans, uh, expect it of me.”
O.K., so your typical pulp-fiction ensemble-the wealthy father, the sexy daughter and the brilliant adolescent boy who knows a lot about technology and guns-waits inside the locked security vault with a view they call home and wait for the star to rescue them. But this dad (Kevin Pollak) is no flag-waving retro patriarch from sitcom hell. He’s a crooked bookkeeper who launders money for the mob and keeps all of the illegal account data on a secret disc inside a DVD cover of Heaven Can Wait. The plot morphs to the consistency of triple-cut thick-sliced baloney-er, bacon-when yet another gang of murderous psychos kidnaps Bruce Willis’ own family in an attempt to get their hands on that DVD of Heaven Can Wait. And not because they want to catch Warren Beatty as a ball-playing angel, either.
Now Mr. Willis has two sets of hostages to rescue, not to mention two separate stories, when he can scarcely handle one. The delinquents inside (headed by creepy, eye-twitching Ben Foster, who plays the crazy art student on the TV series Six Feet Under) panic and burn the house down. The gangsters outside, who show up masquerading as the F.B.I., are played by the smartest actors in the movie because they all wear masks. Meanwhile, the girl hostage is stripped and humiliated and almost raped, while her little brother, pursued bloody and screaming through the crawl space into the ventilation ducts of the burning house, finds the DVD inside the Heaven Can Wait jacket label. But this movie is not over. What nobody figured on was the fact that there are two movies with the same title. The Heaven Can Wait the ruthless killers want is the 1943 version with Don Ameche and Gene Tierney, not the one from 1978 with Warren Beatty. And so while everybody is bleeding to death and talking to each other on cell phones, I kept thinking, “What we have here, inadvertently of course, is a movie about cold-blooded killers with good taste in movies.”
Nothing so hip ever emerges on the screen. The acting is from hunger. The action is so predictable that even the noise barely registers on the Hollywood Richter scale. The profanity and gore is piled on by French director Florent Siri, making his English-speaking film debut. He has a lot to learn, and he can start with the language.
Occasionally, I have found myself trapped on a rainy Saturday morning with the television in the background tuned to an alarming, mean-spirited subculture of teenage crime shows featuring big-breasted Amazonian crime solvers who can wipe out regiments of gangsters and crack a villain’s head open like a walnut using nothing but their thighs. I’ve stared incredulously at this garbage, grateful that I cover bad movies, not bad television. But now the bets are off. A whole gang of bone-crunching teens have been unleashed in D.E.B.S. It’s enough to make you pray for a revival of Junior Miss.
D.E.B.S. is a secret society of spies who have passed a secret test hidden within their SAT exams that reveals a supersonic talent for lying, killing, maiming, destroying fast cars and tracking rats to the holes where they play bad disco music. It’s a secret sorority of dangerous and extremely boring Valley Girls in pleated plaid miniskirts who are more at home with a pistol than a parasol. Instead of showing off their Jimmy Choo shoes at Spago, they’re pulling grenades on contract killers and saving hostages locked in bank vaults of solid steel. They address their roommates affectionately as “bunk bitch.” Their biggest challenge is a villainous lesbian (in movies like this, the two are seldom mutually exclusive) named Lucy Diamond, the last surviving member of a crime syndicate of diamond smugglers. No D.E.B. has ever fought her and lived. Now Lucy is back in town, trying to get laid and participating in dialogue like, “So you’re an assassin. How does that work?” “Mostly freelance. I really wanted to be a dancer.” But history is about to be made when Amy, the sweetest, blondest Barbie in the D.E.B. doll collection, falls in love with Lucy and goes over to the dark side. In D.E.B. country, that’s not just putting tax-free contributions for same-sex marriage laws to work. It’s also treason.
While the whip-cracking D.E.B. director-played by Holland Taylor, who seems to have modeled her performance and her pink suits after Martha Stewart-yells, “This is not the Girl Scouts! This is espionage!” (Ms. Taylor must be a great actress to say a line like that with a straight face. But don’t forget-she once starred in the biggest one-night flop in Broadway history, called Moose Murders), Amy knows it’s not in the D.E.B. rulebook to betray your friends and country for a lesbian fling with a supervillain. I mean, would James Bond spend the night in the arms of Dr. No? So she tells Lucy she really wants to go to art school in Barcelona “when I rid the world of people like you.” Then they go into a lip lock. Meanwhile, the lurid Lucy falls so hard that “being bad doesn’t feel good anymore.” Eventually, the other D.E.B.S.-a chain-smoking sexaholic, a borderline psychotic and a thief with a rap sheet-swallow a liberal pill and pool their talents to see that Amy and Lucy give up the F.B.I., C.I.A. and Homeland Security and find a happy ending in the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. In the end, they get perfect scores on their missions and get the highest award bestowed on a dedicated D.E.B.-the Mary Jane!
God only knows what delusional audience this fiasco hopes to attract. Moral-issues advocates and protectors of family values will be outraged. And unless I know nothing about the world of today’s youth (which probably goes without saying), I predict that few teenagers are stupid enough to emerge from it without yawning. It has been suggested that the producers hand out lapel buttons to every member of the audience that reads: “I SURVIVED D.E.B.S.!!” The nauseating camerawork has lipstick traces on the lens. The amateur-level writing and lame direction, both by Angela Robinson, seem to have been inspired by an overactive thyroid gland and funneled through a pink soda-fountain straw. Oh, yes: D.E.B.S. stands for “Discipline, Energy, Beauty, Strength”-none of which is remotely detectable in a single frame. The girl-power super sleuths on their way to a Hugh Hefner audition are all unknowns. They will remain that way.
For the perfect lump of sugar to stabilize so much acid, the British film Dear Frankie is a soft-hearted but soberly made little movie that gives sentimentality a good name. Frankie is a 9-year-old deaf child whose abusive father deserted the family, leaving the lonely son he never knew to be raised by a struggling single mom and a nicotine-addicted grandmother who always pretends the man of the house is perennially away at sea. Frankie’s well-meaning mother Lizzie (the splendid Emily Mortimer, who looks amazingly like Margot Kidder) keeps the boy’s spirits up by writing him affectionate letters he believes are from his missing dad-and even encloses exotic stamps from foreign ports. As a result, the boy is obsessed with all things nautical while living ashore with the two women above a fish-and-chips shop where the meals are a sorry substitute for the adventurous marine life of his fantasies. Lizzie has devoted so many years to the hoax that Frankie’s father is a good man who loves his son that she has sadly lost hope of any life of her own. Complications arise on the day a real merchant ship called the H.M.S. Accra (the name of the vessel she made up) docks in the Glasgow harbor, and the false image of Frankie’s dad that Lizzie has created threatens to blow up in her face unless she finds a man who is willing to pretend he is Frankie’s father for a day of shore leave.
Of course, the bloke she hires not only plays the role to the hilt, but enhances the elaborate fiction in his own charming way, wins the hearts of both the boy and his mother, and transforms their lives. Played by handsome, charismatic hunk Gerard Butler, the doomed but sexy Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, this warm, sympathetic stranger may be too perfect to be true, but the feel-good effect is so bracing that I don’t think you’ll mind. His invitation to join the family triangle for the bogus “reunion” injects a massive dose of what everyone’s been missing into the household dynamic. His mixture of masculinity and vulnerability sends shock waves through Lizzie’s tightly constructed little universe and gives Frankie a new star status in the Boys Who Have Dads Club. When he leaves, the people on the screen are not the only ones with tears in their eyes. Life resumes on a happier plane until Frankie’s real father materializes, demanding to see his son one last time before he dies of cancer. Never underestimate the intelligence of a child. Frankie has gained a wisdom more profound than any of the grownups envisioned, and Jack McElhone, the youngster who plays him, is endearingly convincing; his sweetness and humanity provides a precise and gentle ballast for the chaos around him. Shona Auerbach is a director to watch, but as a cinematographer she makes objects glow, imbued with light that bounces off water and skin, heightening the boy’s expressions as he reads lips and adding more heat to a chemistry between Ms. Mortimer and Mr. Butler that is already hot enough to fry an egg. Few things are more rewarding in movies today than a gentle, perceptive and beautifully honed exploration of the vagaries of the human heart. Dear Frankie provides this reward, and more.