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<i>Shoot 'em Up, Eastern Promises, The Brave One</i>

Matt Brunson

Shoot ‘Em Up **

A confirmation has proven difficult to nail down, but it’s long been rumored that Clive Owen, who was seriously considered for the role of James Bond, turned it down early in the series revamping process, presumably because the Oscar-nominated Closer actor wanted the freedom to explore more serious fare. But if Shoot ‘Em Up -- the antithesis of “serious fare” -- is any indication, Owen turned down the role because -- let’s face it -- Bond is kind of a wuss when compared to the he-man Owen plays in this nonstop demolition derby of a movie. Certainly, 007 bedded his share of women in the Ian Fleming franchise, and plugged holes through an endless succession of villainous henchmen. But both at the same time? A piece of cake for Owen’s singularly named Smith, who never experiences coitus interruptus with sex partner Donna Quintano (Monica Bellucci) even as he rolls around the bed and floor (and slams up against the wall) simultaneously banging Ms. Quintano and bang-banging the baddies. Clearly, Shoot ‘Em Up is simplistic, nihilistic, misogynistic, sadistic and just about any other “-istic” that comes to mind. Just as clearly, this is the movie that writer-director Michael Davis obviously wanted to make: It’s a picture with a purpose, and that purpose is to shoot first and never get around to asking questions later. Sharing some plot DNA with Eastern Promises, the story involves the protection of a newborn (and instantly orphaned) baby by folks who want to keep the child out of the clutches of murderous mobsters.

Eastern Promises ***

One of the central gags in Knocked Up involves the efforts of Seth Rogen and his pals to create a website that catalogues all the nude appearances made in motion pictures by actresses of all ranks. Of course, sites of this nature really do appear all over the Internet, though it’s unknown (at least by me) if a similar site exists that tackles male movie-star nudity with such dedication. If so, then Viggo Mortensen’s turn in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises will be right at the top of the site’s “Most Searches” list. In one of the climactic scenes, Mortensen’s Nikolai Luzhin, a taciturn chauffeur who works for the Vory V Zakone outfit (the Russian mafia) in London, is relaxing in a steamroom when he’s attacked by two knife-wielding (and clothed) assassins. Without time to even pick up his discarded towel, he ends up fighting both assailants in the buff, and thanks to cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s camera angles, we can examine Mortensen from vantage points that even his personal doctor probably hasn’t seen (it’s astonishing that the prudes on the MPAA board gave the film an R instead of an NC-17). Some might think that Cronenberg is merely giving the ladies in the audience equal time, but on a thematic level, the skirmish makes sense: Nikolai has been living a life full of betrayal and deceit, and it’s time to strip down to his essence in order to make an attempt to reclaim his true identity. In a sense, Eastern Promises is a bookend to the last film made by Cronenberg and Mortensen: 2005’s excellent A History of Violence, about an ordinary cafe owner who may or may not have been a vicious mobster in his earlier years. Both films run along parallel tracks, full of whispery menace, marked by probing studies of masculinity at its extreme boundaries, punctuated with bursts of sexual and violent excess, and coping with abrupt endings. As the mob driver and occasional enforcer, Mortensen delivers a measured and restrained performance, whether dealing with the drunken son (Vincent Cassel) of the powerful crime lord (Armin Mueller-Stahl, absolutely chilling as the soft-spoken yet vicious kingpin) or trying to protect a hospital midwife (Naomi Watts) whose recovery of a dead prostitute’s diary places her right in the middle of a particularly sordid scenario.

The Brave One **1/2

The Brave One is basically a retread of Death Wish, only with a sex change for its protagonist and, given the director (The Crying Game’s Neil Jordan) and star, a more distinguished pedigree. It also purports to add dramatic heft to the moral implications of the situation at hand, with an ad line that blares, “How Many Wrongs To Make It Right?” But the movie itself clearly doesn’t believe in its own promotion, resulting in a finished product that works as exploitation (like Death Wish) but fails at anything more socially relevant. Jodie Foster stars as Erica Bain, the host of a particularly dreadful-sounding NYC radio show called Street Walk. She and her fiancé David (Naveen Andrews) are blissfully happy, but everything changes after a brutal attack by street punks leaves David dead and Erica in a coma. Once Erica awakens, she’s become a different person, afraid of the city she calls home and terrified by even the thought of leaving her apartment. Mustering up her courage, she goes out and illegally buys a gun for protection. But quickly learning that happiness is a warm gun, she sets about using the weapon on anyone who threatens her, from punks on the subway to a killer in a convenience store. Detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard) obviously has no love for the victims, but he feels that it’s nevertheless his duty to stop this vigilante. Via a massive coincidence, he also becomes friends with Erica, little suspecting (at least at first) that she and the vigilante are the same person. Obviously believing they’re creating something meaningful, Jordan and scripters Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort add superfluous moments that lessen rather than heighten the story’s impact. Still, the very setup of the movie makes it impossible not to line up firmly behind Erica, and on that primal level, The Brave One delivers the goods, as a string of evil men get what’s coming to them. Foster is rarely less than excellent, but for years now, she’s settled into making movies in which she portrays a largely desexed woman who’s all business and no pleasure (Panic Room, Flightplan, Inside Man, etc.). Mind you, I’m not suggesting an insipid romantic comedy opposite someone like Bruce Willis, but I’m sure there’s a happy medium to be found somewhere.

The Hunting Party **1/2

Between this past spring’s The Hoax and now The Hunting Party, Richard Gere continues to demonstrate that he’s in his prime as an actor -- left behind are the smug smiles and crinkling of the eyes that passed for character development in many of his earlier films. And between the new releases The Brave One and The Hunting Party, Terrence Howard is fulfilling his promise as a rapidly ascending actor, having already scored an Oscar nomination for Hustle & Flow and continuing to choose interesting roles. The Hunting Party benefits immeasurably by having both along for the ride. Television journalist Simon Hunt (Gere) and cameraman Duck (Howard) cover the world’s hot spots, drinking, joking and whoring as they make their way through dangerous terrain en route to various awards banquets honoring them for their achievements. But one day, a slaughter in a Bosnian village causes Simon to lose it on the air, and as a result, his career is over. Five years later, Duck (since promoted to a desk job) returns to that particular area, with a virgin reporter (Jesse Eisenberg) -- the son of a network V.P. -- in tow. They encounter a disheveled Simon, who needs Duck’s help to land an exclusive interview with an exiled war criminal known as “The Fox” (Ljubomir Kerekes). Soon, the trio is combing the mountains for The Fox’s hideout, mistaken for CIA agents and putting their lives in considerable danger.