Perhaps it’s a sign of my advancing age, but I find myself increasingly depressed by the desire of writers (both book and screen) to take a simple story and make it complicated by changing from a conventional linear structure to a sequence of scenes nested in time. While I can still follow the plot, it seems to me an unnecessary investment of my intellectual energy when all I want to do is enjoy the excitement of the chase. There’s nothing wrong with starting at the beginning and having separate point-of-view arcs that slowly converge until we get everyone together for the big climax. That way we watch time pass and the tension increase as time starts to run out. Once you elevate the plot out of a linear time sequence, you lose the effectiveness of time as the dynamic to drive the narrative forward. It becomes a mere plot device.
Premium Rush (2012) has a good story based on the traditional hawala system for transferring cash outside the usual banking system. In this case, Nima (Jamie Chung), a Chinese citizen, wants to send cash instantaneously to China. She goes to her hawala agent, deposits her cash and gets a receipt. This receipt must be delivered to the other party’s hawala agent on the other side of town. Enter our hero — a bicycle courier who’s paid a premium rate for a rush delivery. All he has to do is make the delivery no later than 1900. OK so this is silly. There’s no particular reason why this transaction has to be done at the last minute. Nima has been saving up the cash for months and could easily have made the transfer with plenty of time to spare. But, for the artificial purpose of making up the plot, everything has to be done against the clock. Indeed, everything about this film depends on terrible coincidences. Nima shares a room with Vanessa (Dania Ramirez). Needless to say, she’s a messenger and she’s always saying how reliable her boyfriend is. Meet Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and he picks up the receipt.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a corrupt cop, is losing a relatively large sum of money to a Chinese gambling syndicate. As if by telepathy, this syndicate knows the hawala teams will be exchanging a big chunk of change this particular afternoon and they give Monday an ultimatum. Get the receipt or say goodbye to life — as effective a motivation as you could hope to find. Frankly, if the hawala system was leaking information indicating who was making the transfer and at what time, the agents would not stay in business very long, but we’re supposed to suspend disbelief to get ourselves through to the end of the film. Ah, wait. I have a theory. Suppose in this fictional version of the hawala system the receipt is like a bearer bond, i.e. whoever holds the receipt can collect the cash from whoever issued the receipt (no questions asked). Now the intended payees in China could be looking to get paid twice. They tell their US agents to intercept the receipt and collect the cash. Nima will work to earn more money and send the due amount again.
Anyway, no matter how or why all this is happening, we have our crooked cop in a car pursuing our hero on a bike. In due course, Vanessa gets actively involved and, because he’s a jealous asshole, Manny (Wolé Parks) gets caught up in things and just won’t be told when to get out of the way — he’s not a unsympathetic character but his pigheadedness is slightly less than credible when he also refuses to listen to Vanessa.
None of this means Premium Rush is anything less than enjoyable. Yes, it breaks the KISS rule and is seriously unbelievable, but it’s also knowingly having fun with stereotypes. Bobby Monday is hilariously stupid as the gambling-addicted cop, but absolutely determined. This makes him dangerous because he feels he has nothing to lose. Michael Shannon chews the furniture rather well as he trades on his badge to chase down the receipt. The only strange acting decision was not to fall down dead when he was shot in the head. The on-off love between Wilee and Vanessa feels right and I can understand the frustrations of Manny who believes fervently he should have the inside track. But the real highlight is the quite surprisingly exciting stunt riding, often with a considerable sense of humour. There’s also an interesting slow-mo device as Wilee plots his way through the different road and off-road hazards, hopefully picking the route giving him the best chance of emerging without anything broken. In the end, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does just enough to make the hero believable as the bright postgraduate who would rather maintain his reputation as the best courier in New York instead of qualifying for the bar and sitting behind a desk. This almost exactly mirrors Paris Express or Coursier (2010) in which another professional delivery rider refuses to be beaten on an express delivery. Put all this together and Premium Rush is a good value-for-money film in the adventure or thriller mode.
Sucker Punch! is, in every sense of the word, an extraordinary film, i.e it’s highly unusual or, even, remarkable. However, before I get to a spoiler-rich discussion of it, I need to refer, yet again, to the fundamental dishonesty of the trailer.
You can just imagine the elation when the creative marketing team learnt it had won the job of promoting the new film by Zack Snyder. Like, he’s hot, having just reeled off both 300 and Watchmen (carefully forgetting Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole which was a bit twee). Yet, after sitting through the rough cut, you can imagine their despair. How were they going to promote this little baby? Well, the one sure way to get all the fan boys paying their way into cinemas around the world is to highlight the fantasy CGI sequences. Babes kicking ass is a sure-fire winner. It’s just a shame that’s not at all representative of what the film is actually about and, although I didn’t take a stopwatch into the cinema with me, probably doesn’t occupy more than 30 of a total 110 minutes screen time. So, if all you want to see is scantily-clad females waving guns and swords around, measure your threshold of boredom carefully before going. There was a lot of restless shuffling of feet and coughing during the second half of the film when I saw it.
If you don’t want to know what this film is about stop reading here.
This is a bait-and-switch film nestling in a framework representing the Matrix trilogy or Inception redux. Let’s start off with the opening sequences. This is highly stylised, creating a visual impression of the late 1950s overlaid with a contemporary music track — a dissonance that continues to the end. We see a double murder with the step-daughter framed and taken off to a beautifully recreated loony bin of the most primitive variety. Here the step-father bribes the corrupt head nurse to arrange for the girl to be lobotomised at the earliest possible moment. Hearing this, the girl escapes into what I shall call Tier 1 fantasy. We have watched all the careful shot selections as she is taken into the asylum. Now all this vanishes, with the hospital and staff transforming into the team running a bordello servicing the needs of the local mayor, corrupt officials and mafia-style criminals.
Our heroine is named Baby Doll (Emily Browning), and meets with four other inmates: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). When she is persuaded to devise a dance that will endear her to the men who will buy time with her, she enters the Tier 2 fantasy. Here she meets a guide. This may be an “angel” or, if you prefer consistency with the first Tier 2 scenario, a kung fu master. Either way, he’s played by Scott Glen who struggles not to call the girl Grasshopper as he offers elliptical advice, drawing on elements we saw so lovingly highlighted as the girl was forcibly inducted into the asylum. This is the escape plan.
Now you should see the parallel with Inception. We have a multiple level framework in which the “real” world is overlaid with two layers of fantasy. To break free in the “real” world, the two levels of fantasy have to work together to collect the means of escape, i.e. a map of the asylum, a means to start a fire as a diversion, a knife for self-defence and a mystery ingredient that “she” will recognise when she sees it. Most of the action takes place in the Tier 1 bordello where the head nurse cum pimp played by a delightfully smarmy Oscar Isaac is first tricked and then vengeful when the trick is discovered. We have four CGI sequences. The second and third are magnificent of their type. Some of the imagery is genuinely striking with the WW I trench warfare scenes particularly effective as zombie soldiers, biplanes and zeppelins offer token resistance. In the third, the disposition of the baby dragon is pleasingly unsentimental and the fight with the mother strong because it does not go on too long. The final element where things really start to go wrong is somewhat repetitive and less than original but, all things considered, these CGI elements are impressive.
As the Tier 1 world also starts to fall apart, it’s up to the survivors to make their escape attempt and so, for the first time, we get back to the asylum proper. It’s at this point, however, that events take an unfortunate turn. I will leave you to see the ending and make up your own mind, but I think this is a serious misjudgment — a misjudgment that’s actually compounded by the appearance of the “angel” in the “real” world. Except, of course, it may be that the whole sequence of events from the moment she’s admitted into the asylum is a fantasy. I suggest this possibility based on the way the final scenes on the bus are shot. It has a look and feel suggesting it’s not real. Thus, the whole escape scenario could be fantasised as a defence-mechanism to cope with the threat of the lobotomy. This would fit the general relationship between the Tiers of fantasy given that the patients we see in the “real” auditorium become the whores become the anime heroines, i.e. the “girls” could all be aspects of Baby Doll’s personality.
To sum up, the acting is adequate. Let’s face it, the girls don’t have to do anything particularly demanding, while the principal guys are only required to move the plot forward. Everyone else is cannon fodder. But the resulting whole is a very effective visual experience. The general shot selection is excellent and the cinematography is pleasingly atmospheric in a gothic style. The CGI sequences are great fun even though the fourth and last grows slightly boring. So, allowing for the interesting way in which the whole film ends, I am inclined to like it. I’m disappointed by the failure to carry through to the more obvious emotional pay-off, but I guess that’s life. Just as not everyone gets to escape from imprisonment in a secure mental hospital, so we paying customers can’t always expect to get what we want — think Shutter Island and Identity with Baby Doll an extremely unreliable narrator. Ignore the trailer and, if you want to see something out of the ordinary (that’s extraordinary, you understand) then this is worth going to see in the same way the Matrix trilogy and Inception were worth seeing, i.e. none of the films are life as we know it, Jim, but they are life as imagined or dreamed or whatever.