The Adjustment Bureau/Unknown/The Eagle
In 2004, there was a surprisingly competent thriller released to theaters. Unfortunately it had a title that was not all that memorable, The Forgotten, and it was amidst a glut of “my child is missing” films, one of which also starred Julianne Moore, Freedomland. It had a premise that sounded familiar, Moore remembers her child, but no one else does; including her husband, suggesting that she might be crazy. Now it would be easy to fall into the trap of having it be some big conspiracy involving kidnapping and forcing rich white parents to fork over a hefty ransom before a routine action climax. But The Forgotten actually toys with a supernatural theme, and its explanation that aliens studying humans are in fact pulling all the strings, suggests that the movie is going to go in a different direction. That is, of course, until the last 20 minutes or so, as the layers are revealed and those trying to explain things to Moore and us, are literally pulled into the air mid-sentence into the sky, never to return. The effect is at first surprising, but, like the exploding alien heads in Mars Attacks, has the exact opposite intended effect (in Mars Attacks, it eventually became boring), and the audience can’t help but burst out laughing.
One major part of the problem is that no ending has been properly worked out, neither the one in the theatrical version nor the alternate one on the DVD do anything but make concessions to audience expectations by the time they wrap up. This is an issue with a lot of The Forgotten screenwriter Gerald Di Pego’s scripts, such as Phenomenon, where the extraordinary circumstances of John Travolta’s newfound intelligence have a mundane explanation (a brain tumor) as opposed to sticking with the fantastical which is what had been working for the first two acts of the film. I’d assume the same will be true of his script for Little Murder, which deals with ghosts helping to solve murders, and is set to be released later in the year.
George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau plays like someone took one of Di Pego’s scripts and tried to improve all the lazy loose ends. It heavily resembles The Forgotten as it’s also about normally unseen forces who control our choices and influence our actions in the name of a grand “plan.” Since The Adjustment Bureau is based on a Phillip K. Dick story (the source for Blade Runner, Total Recall, Imposter, Minority Report, etc.), it also gives us the generic everyman caught up in a sci-fi situation, who can beat the odds only through sheer determination in his love for a woman. The other unfortunate similarity in Dick adaptations is that they all devolve into routine treadmill thrillers, with the third act of each film consumed with one repetitive chase after another. That’s often because Dick has supplied the meat of the story, which for some reason wasn’t enough for a two hour film, and the only way filmmakers have found to resolve the films was to repeat themselves (Imposter properly started as a short film, but then an hour of chases was added before release) before going with ends that all look like they simply ran out of film on the set and decided that this was as good a place as any to quit shooting.
There are elements of The Adjustment Bureau that diverge from the normal Dick template, such as the fact that the lead character, played by Matt Damon, may be an everyman, but that simplicity is exactly what has made him an electable politician. And unlike, Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Gary Sinise, and other heroes of Dick adaptations, Damon has the physique of an everyman; when he runs, and there’s a lot of running, it appears he might have at least two extra buttcheeks following him in the HOV lane.
Nolfi was able to provide other visual distinctions, apart from Damon’s additional appendages, but it’s funny how much it resembles The Forgotten’s warehouse setting, as Damon is confronted by uptight men with hats and trench coats who tell him that it’s not part of the plan from “The Chairman” (God, not Frank Sinatra) for him to stay with Emily Blunt, a “wacky” woman he met in the bathroom before he gave a political concession speech. Because of an error, possibly deliberate, one of the agents was supposed to spill coffee on Damon*, but napped through it, Damon caught The Adjusters freezing time, and with their fanciful tools and powers, manipulating some of his friends into making better business decisions, and he’s threatened with having his mind erased if he tells anyone (Julianne Moore is threatened with memory erasure in The Forgotten).
Now the fact that Damon ran into Blunt’s manic pixie dream girl (emotional, impulsive, into the arts, doesn‘t mince words, responds to questions like “who dared you to crash a wedding?” with “Me.”) more than once in New York City has an explanation, because of the aftereffects of his discovery of the agents, as opposed to how it would play in a normal movie, as an annoying contrivance. It doesn’t excuse The Adjustment Bureau’s lazy, literal Deus Ex Machina conclusion, which throws away any good will that was built up as the movie hinted at working its way through Dick’s normal themes of government and corporate control, and how controlling our impulses is how the world will eventually collapse into a 1984-style police state.
It’s a shame because, for a sci-fi premise, The Adjustment Bureau has a good one (that was clearly borrowed for Dark City), and by beginning the film as a rah-rah rags-to-riches political story of Damon’s rise to power, it makes us believe that the movie could go absolutely anywhere, especially once it introduces God into the equation. When the agent helping Damon (played by Anthony Mackie, other agents like Terence Stamp and John Slattery have purely expositional roles) explains that they can’t be followed while on water as it disrupts the signal, not only is that an interesting wrinkle about how much power God might have over the humans of this particular world, it hints at how the water might be used later**, but just becomes a conduit for the very elaborate final chases, which are less exciting and more exhausting. It suggests that the various Chairmen who contributed to this particular screenplay ought to have consulted a more imaginative higher power.
The same lack of creativity plagues Jaume Collet-Serra’s Unknown, which plays like The Adjustment Bureau in reverse, as instead of a man discovering that he has had very little input into the choices he’s made, Unknown has the man, Liam Neeson, realize how much more complicit he is with his surroundings, perhaps not the innocent he believes himself to be.
Playing like David Fincher’s The Game without Fincher’s trademark macabre humor, Unknown floats along pleasantly as it wraps itself in the mystery that Neeson, while attending a biotechnology conference in Berlin, is involved in a car accident and when he comes out of his coma, nobody, not even his wife (January Jones) remembers who he is. Obviously modeled on Taken, Neeson’s 2008 action-thriller produced by Luc Besson, Unknown is actually a lot closer to Besson’s From Paris With Love, with a vaguely European star (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) engaging in elaborate car chases which don’t suit him, avoiding the very lax/incompetent European police/security while he breaks down the doors of whatever lower-level tenement he can, harassing illegal immigrants so he can find out details of an international conspiracy and stop the murder of an important, but only faintly represented in the film, world leader. And, with the American equivalent of Besson, Joel Silver, pushing Unknown forward humorlessly and in an unnecessarily complicated fashion (the conclusion features at least 37 twists too many), that’s what we get.
Serra had previously worked with Silver on Orphan, which had the same overlit, grainy white and blue color scheme and otherworldly feel as Unknown, and was also unconscionably long for what should have been a quick, snappy thriller. Serra is not a steady hand with genre material, so like the horror of Orphan, the action in Unknown is third-class, like he didn’t have his heart in the requirements of those particular clichés. But Serra is good with building suspense, and Unknown’s first act with Neeson’s confusion and meeting his unnerving doppelganger (Aidan Quinn***, who has finally stopped looking 35 years old, which he did even when he was 18), and even most of the second act is quite effective, before it devolves into a completely different movie in the last section (not bad, necessarily, but just really tonally off). Serra contributes some interesting camerawork, such as when Neeson looks into a mirror and appears to us to be a robotic version of himself (aided by Jones’ deliberately stiff performance). As the Hitchcock-ian “Wrong Man” elements pile up, Unknown should be getting better, but gets lost in subplots about elderly private investigators and whether or not someone, who was already in disguise, would worry about being caught on a hotel camera. And as silly as Unknown becomes, it never reaches the heights where it might have. Neeson can play funny, and none of his recent renaissance of appearing in 6-12 movies a year will ever erase the delightful memory of his dancing with a funnel on his head, trying to amuse pigeons, while he basks in his own self-pity, in Darkman.
Kevin Macdonald has a lot of the same obstacles as Serra, and he struggles just as mightily with The Eagle. Macdonald, obviously instructed to get his 5 trailer money shots of medieval action (such as an effective scene where our heroes use their shields as an almost battering ram, as they attack their foes very low to the ground), leaves out what might have made those individual moments entertaining through incoherent quick cutting, barren sets, and an overall disinterest in making large scale battles palatable (just one wide shot of a supposedly enormous fire might have given you the scale of the damage and saved him), rendering the frenetic and muddled first 20 minutes of The Eagle pretty much unwatchable.
Macdonald finds his bearings later on, after dispatching with characters like an “intimidating” warrior, outfitted like Calvin Klein meets Jesus, a barrel-chested fellow with what looks like a lot of conditioner in his hair, and developing The Eagle into a very odd and inconsistent Buddy-Cop movie. Yes we’re in the gray skies, mud and religious fervor period of Roman dominated history, but that doesn’t stop Macdonald from turning The Eagle into an almost self-mocking parody of mediocre Gladiator rip-offs.
His hero, played by Channing Tatum (who performs like Josh Hartnett if he couldn‘t stop gritting his teeth with provincial disgust), has not been written as a smart fellow, and the screenplay makes no judgments on this matter (“don‘t piss on my father‘s name!” You know, instead of “You don‘t piss on hospitality!”). He’s arrogant, but with nothing to back it up, and after he decides to go searching for the titular golden figure that his father lost many years ago, taking with him only a British slave (Jamie Bell) and his sense of entitlement. Whether this is because Tatum had to recover from some CGI-aided horsery which should have killed him and he’s still concussed (he goes through the 4 concussion syndrome Jude Law describes in Repo Men) is unclear. All we know is, the journey through the land of “savages” amongst the “mud people” should be about how Tatum discovers how sometimes symbols are just symbols and recovering the eagle is not really the point****, but the movie plods along piling on inadvertent messages supporting imperialism and how “savages will be savages.”
I’m sure the bickering and Tatum and Bell is just supposed to be a simple counterpoint to the action, but it just reinforces the homoeroticism and how standard buddy-cop movies like 48 Hrs. would stop the story in its tracks just so the characters could have another fistfight. From what we see, Tatum’s character is stubborn and foolish, and should be killed pretty quickly, and would be, were he not the main character. His loyalty to his clan seems based on Jerry Seinfeld’s bit about how sports is just about “rooting for clothing,” and if his enemies regardless of their ideology, were on a different team, wearing a different uniform, he wouldn’t be fighting them. Surely Seinfeld would find the humor in such a mediocre movie like The Eagle still being so goofy.
* They’re like The Borrowers, only instead of moving your personal items, they interject small annoyances into your life.
** On top of the cleansing metaphor and the thought that the water issue is why Jesus walked on water, instead of underneath it.
*** What’s so great about the casting of Quinn is that he’s like Neeson’s shorter, less charming, less attractive, bitter stand-in. It’s like a coup for all those neglected stand-ins who we only see from behind in wigs and oversized clothing.
**** There’s a vague sense of Valhalla Rising throughout The Eagle, but there’s not one character nearly that introspective.