Thursday, December 18, 2008

This Gun For Hire - James Foley

This week I finally watched At Close Range, the 1986 family/crime drama starring Sean Penn and Christopher Walken. I can't believe no one had shoved this film down my throat before, it's so friggin great. It's stuck in the '80s in a few ways, but the story and the performances stand up to time and watching the credits I saw something that made me smile - directed by James Foley. Foley's is one of those names that seems to slip in to my mind every couple years as an afterthought to an enjoyable film - as in - that wasn't bad, who directed it again? I've always assumed, perhaps unfairly, that he was a journeyman, a director for hire, a competent captain for somebody else's project, but looking back on his, (admittedly uneven), body of work, I'm impressed. So, a list.


5)The Corruptor - I remember 1993, seeing The Killer and Hardboiled and the A Better Tomorrow movies and thinking Chow Yun-Fat was absolutely the coolest gunslinger in cinema, (thank you George Pelecanos btw). Then he and John Woo got sucked into the Hollywood machine and started making "real" movies, (read - in English) and it went downhill pretty fast. But the first couple of get to know ya films Chow Yun-Fat made for Western audiences, The Replacement Killers, (get it?), and The Corruptor were not half-bad, the former, (helmed by Antoine Fuqua) was an attempt to indoctrinate Occidental audiences with the ultra-stylized Hong Kong brand of two-fisted bullet shucking, which Yun-Fat remains the ultimate icon of, and the latter was an attempt to form the icon of bullet ballets into a classic American hardboiled street cop with a rainbow of gray in his heart. And it worked alright. Gone were the uber-choreographed action pieces, replaced by grittier, nastier violence and uh, Mark Wahlberg, (at one of the higher points of his career).

4) Confidence The onslaught of heist/con-man pictures at the millenium's birth, driven by the success of Ocean's Eleven, hit benchmarks like Neil Jordan's remake of Bob le flambeur, (The Good Thief), and Johnathan Glazer's fever dream, Sexy Beast, but quickly played out into lazy games of cinematic gotcha fronted by leading men topheavy with dash and rounded out by a pretty smirk. So when trailers for Confidence started circulating, featuring Edward Burns, never looking more like Ben Affleck, as a con-man topheavy with dash and sporting a pretty smirk - (one that both co-stars Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman seem to be intent on kissing off), it looked like a colossal waste of time. But then I had a lot of time on my hands then, so I paid five bucks, (remember $5 movies?) and found myself entertained against my better judgement. First you gotta love the cast - the supporting cast, that is. Paul Giamatti, Robert Forster, Donal Logue, Luis Guzman, Louis Lombardi, the aforementioned Hoffman and Weisz and Andy Garcia. Then there's the script. It should have sucked - all that con slang spritzed about like perfume at a truck stop rendezvous, (Burns' character's name is Jake Vig for petessake). On the page it must've looked like Mametese for first-graders, but the delivery was (mostly) gold and it was just exactly the breezy brand of entertainment it aspired to be - the "what happened to my two hours? maybe I'll go again sometime." variety.

3) After Dark, My Sweet Jim Thompson's body of work ran the quality gamut, (when greatness and alcoholism collide) and so too have adaptations made of his books and short stories, (compare the film versions of The Grifters and This World and Then the Fireworks). After Dark, My Sweet hit the source material squarely in its dark, dark heart. Resisting the urge to make a self-conscious period piece decked out with fedoras and old school slang, Foley and co-screenwriter Robert Redlin, smartly contemporized the 1955 story without sacrificing an ounce of its ill-will. Jason Patric, desperate to grow out of pretty-boy roles, found a great vehicle to show off dramatic chops and he stumbles through the film as an escaped mental patient/ex-boxer who may or may not be as dumb as he looks, (an essential Thompson theme). And Rachel Ward finally got noir right, (after the comedic Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and the ill-advised Out of the Past update Against All Odds). Bruce Dern, is dead on in his ever creepy, deliciously malicious way as the mastermind of a kidnapping where everyone gets hurt and the day-glow back-drops make the tone even more sinister. It's headed to a bad bad place from frame one and you just can't wait to get there.

2) At Close Range Remember when Sean Penn was a heart-throb? Even his blond hair and muscles popping out of his tee-shirt can't distract you from the earnest intensity radiating out of him as Brad Whitewood Jr., a small town kid looking to prove himself to his suddenly present, outlaw father, (Christopher Walken before his cadence was a cliche and every blink a wink). He recruits his younger brother, (an excellent turn from the late Christopher Penn, who - as a possible bastard - is even more desperate), and friends, (including Crispin Glover and Kiefer Sutherland), bored with rural Pennslyvania summers into a gang of tractor thieves as an audition to join his dad's crew, (Tracey Walter, R.D. Call and David Strathairn to name a few). Brad Whitewood Sr. is a charmer and manipulator who plays with his sons' affections the same way he would a one night stand's. In one excruciating scene he pulls out his gun at a diner and places it on the table asking his boys if they'd like to have it. The younger Whitewood brother, Tommy, snatches it up and begins playing with it like a six year old who's just been given his father's fishing gear. Brad Sr. then takes it back and says "Well you can't. It's mine." The pain on Tommy's face is as naked as the amusement on his father's. Brad Jr. falls quickly for 16 year old Terry, (Mary Stuart Masterson) and joins his father's gang for some quick money that he can use to run away with his girlfriend, but gets into deeper and darker waters than he wanted to believe his father capable of swimming in. Based on the true story of Bruce Johnston Sr., it's a crime movie of perfect tone and scale.

1) Glengarry Glen Ross You've seen it right? What do I need to say? Career bests for... etc. etc. Perhaps when you have Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin and Johnathan Pryce stranded on a sound stage with a David Mamet play, you don't need a director. But, I've seen other movies made from Mamet plays and none come close to this one.

From now on if I see "directed by James Foley", I'm giving it a closer look.

1 comment:

Kieran Shea said...

Glengary, Glen Ross... pound for pound, gets me every time. Odd thing is it never really gets classified as a crime drama, but it is. Mamet at his most ruthless. Ricky Roma (Pacino) is the Übermensch of Übermensches (Sp?)and Baldwin? Please. Little story, I know a sales trainer friend who uses that early opening scene as a starter for his training sessions...nice.