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I Really Wanted to Get Smart

By Adam Lippe

wanted_angelinaWanton violence and nihilism is not always a bad thing. As with anything, it is entirely about tone.

Having just finished watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, in all its studio-polished, R-rated glory – where the question of character deaths was not an “if” proposition, but rather a “when” – it became clear what the major difference was between TCM: The Beginning and Wanted. TCM: The Beginning is joyless and perfunctory, the filmmakers filling the screen with bored dread. It is made even more disingenuous by watching it on DVD, even in its unrated form, because there are hundreds of underfunded exploitation films that don’t have (or need) the money to add such a glittery sheen to its brutality and don’t have the benefit of a theatrical release. All they have to rely on is their willingness to be offensive and over the top, well past what any mainstream house would allow. So it would be a curious choice to choose TCM: The Beginning over one of its lower budgeted and more honest brethren, like Ichi the Killer, Mute Witness, or May. Why worry about the level of tastelessness if you’re willing to put yourself through unsettling violence in the first place? The professionalism and money simply makes it less honest.

An abundance of money, however, is the only way that Wanted could have been made. Taking the energy and ridiculousness of his Russian hits, Night Watch and Day Watch, director Timur Bekmambetov pushes his fantastically nonsensical creativity to the limit. Night Watch and Day Watch were both quite entertaining and ambitious, but slightly hampered by financial limits. Wanted has no such issue. All of the stunts that he couldn’t quite pull off in Russia have been exaggerated here and go so much further than even the Wanted trailer suggests. This self-aware pastiche of John Woo gunfights, Fight Club-style story and CGI is the most wonderfully disreputable studio film since Crank. It is exactly the film that last year’s Shoot Em’ Up should have been, straddling the line between intense and serious when dealing with the story, allowing for an acceptable level of emotional involvement, and entirely mind-blowing gun fights that completely ignore any sense of physics, logic, or common sense.

Wanted is also one of the few recent films to handle voiceover properly, without making it seem like a studio addition intended to over explain plot to the audience. The voiceover allows us into what appears to be a typical, clichéd world, wherein James McAvoy deals with his pent-up frustration of dealing with office politics and the fact that he is aware that he is a complete non-entity as a person.

wanted-mcavoy-freeman-loomYes, we get a very Matrix-y revelation that, in fact, McAvoy is “the one” – a wizard with guns, bequeathed through hereditary means. This happens as he is swooped up (literally) in a car by the heroin(e) (a tranny-looking Angelina Jolie, in medias res) so he can be trained to be an assassin. It gives us the impression that we’ll have to sit through generic training sequences, but these are the most inventive and silly since 36th Chamber of the Shaolin, and involve more mousebombs than you would have thought possible.

Wanted is simplistic in theory, boy must become a man, but has a twist or two that would generally be beyond a film of this ilk. The way the assassins choose their targets, using a loom machine, is amusingly silly, but also reveals the religious overtones involved in their code, with a special emphasis on the notion of fate. There’s even a parody of the typical action gun fight conclusion in the standard “steam and flame factory;” which, with its convenient catwalks and explosions, cause many a visual distraction.

Sure, there’s the occasional awful digital effect thrown in (note to the computer visualists, CGI looks good in close-up, silly and distracting from a distance) and Jolie’s angular features resemble a cubist painting, and do not infer someone who can fight like a pro and curve bullets. While an elitist could easily scoff at Morgan Freeman selling out in his boilerplate leader role, it is clear that he, along with the other actors, are having such a good time in this fanciful universe that it becomes infectious. Wanted is stupid, profane, and violent enough to question the logic of giving it an R rating. It is some of the best trash imaginable.

getsmart1On the other hand, Get Smart is a totally generic and indistinguishable cash-in.

Steve Carell’s deadpan can work wonders and, indeed, he’s the whole movie here. Every other character seems to be the straight man – which is five too many. But this is a dreadfully dull script, oddly drenched in attempts at legitimate action sequences. Indifferently directed by the king of anonymity, Peter Segal (Anger Management, Tommy Boy), the movie clearly never decides whether or not it wants to beat the dead horse of an ancient TV show (such as the movie version of I, Spy), or a forgettable action-comedy that has nothing to do with the source material (I, Spy). I think it is more of the latter, as the movie never puts in any effort to get near the wackiness and absurdity of the Mel Brooks-created original.

This is something that has plagued big budget Hollywood films for a long time. It began in the early ’90s with films like Hudson Hawk, Demolition Man, and Last Action Hero – movies that should have played as straight comedies, satires of ridiculous action, but fell victim to what I call genre-breeding. Basically, the producers get cold feet and figure that they can’t spend $100 million on a comedy, and only action films can deliver the payload, so they shoehorn it in, defeating the entire purpose. So you get a comedy that makes fun of middling action movies, but simultaneously is one, and therefore a total wash.

Get Smart isn’t helped by the miscasting of Anne Hathaway, who is entirely out of her element as an action heroine. And the fact is that most of the serious action moments were already parodied nearly 15 years ago, in True Lies. I can’t think of a single scene in Get Smart that doesn’t seem extraneous and badly organized (including a pointless Bill Murray cameo). Segal even steals from himself, repeating a gag from his own My Fellow Americans, when a sharp object goes through the windshield of a car to the point of near decapitation of the passenger. The other two funny moments are in the trailer, so just stay home and watch that.

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By Adam Lippe

Whenever there’s a genre parody or ode to a specific era of films, such as Black Dynamite’s mocking of Blaxploitation films or Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, the second half of Grindhouse, the danger is that the film might fall into the trap of either being condescending without any particular insight, or so faithful that it becomes the very flawed thing it is emulating.

Black Dynamite has nothing new to say about Blaxploitation films, it just does a decent job of copying what an inept [...]

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Featured Quote (written by me)

On Cold Fish:

Though the 16 year old me described the 1994 weepie Angie, starring Geena Davis as a Brooklyn mother raising her new baby alone, as “maudlin and melodramatic,” Roger Ebert, during his TV review, referring to the multitude of soap-operaish problems piling up on the titular character, suggested that it was only in Hollywood where Angie would get a happy ending. “If they made this movie in France, Angie would have shot herself.”

Well Cold Fish was made in Japan, where Angie would have shot herself and that would have been the happy ending.