Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On DVD: "The Code"

I love a good heist picture, and I’ll see Morgan Freeman in just about anything. You might feel the same way. So here’s a warning: those predispositions will get you through about the first five minutes of his straight-to-video caper The Code. After that, you’re on your own.

An ascot-wearing Freeman plays Keith Ripley, one of those only-in-the-movies “master thief” types, who lives comfortably and classily and has always managed to outwit the oafish police. While casing some Russians for a job, he observes Gabriel Martin (Antonio Banderas) pull a ballsy robbery in plain sight on a moving subway car; he’s impressed, so he brings the young (ish?) buck on for a monster score, stealing a pair of Faberge eggs for the Russian mob. On their tail is Lt. Weber (Robert Forster), the NYPD detective who Ripley has outfoxed; Ripley’s goddaughter Alexandra (Radha Mitchell), who Martin has the hots for, adds further complications.

The film, originally called Thick as Thieves (it was apparently ret-titled to sound like an Asylum Studios rip-off of The DaVinci Code), was directed by Mimi Leder—once the great directorial hope of DreamWorks Pictures, she (deservedly) hasn’t made a feature film since the horrifying Pay It Forward. Her lead-footed direction is a major problem here; it drags and shuffles from scene to scene. Heist movies need a spark, some sense of fun or at least the thrill of the job. The Code has none of that. Leder and her cast just move from one obvious sequence to the next.

But Leder is the secondary villain here; the true perp of the cinematic crime that is The Code is screenwriter Ted Humphrey, penning his first (and hopefully last) feature film script. Humphrey’s previous credits including writing and producing for David Mamet’s TV series The Unit, and he’s clearly trying to ape the multiple-twist, “nothing is as it seems” template of his boss’ best scripts. He fails miserably; The Code is like Heist or House of Games with a frontal lobe injury. He has an absolute tin ear for dialogue; there’s not a line in it you haven’t heard before. When the leads first meet, Banderas asks, “To what do I owe this act of generosity?” and Freeman replies, “I have I proposition I wish to discuss with you,” and your heart sinks. Everyone in the picture talks like characters in bad books, not people in real life (or even characters in good movies).

As bad as the thieves’ lines are, they’re positively Shakespearan compared to the hoary clichés that poor Robert Forster gets saddled with. Throughout the film, he’s stuck mouthing the worst kind of tough-guy cop-show dialogue, and when he finally thinks he’s got Freeman at the climax, he announces triumphantly, “Now it’s my turn!” to no one in particular. And of course, since there’s a marginally attractive man and woman, we have a tired, perfunctory romantic subplot, full of cringe-inducing callbacks and forced laughter and dull sex scenes, all underscored with laughable “Latin lover” music cues (Atli Örvarsson’s score couldn’t be more generic if he was doing a spoof movie). Some of Humphrey’s finest bon mots are saved for their scenes; at one point, Banderas actually says (hang on, I wrote this down) “Promises blow away in the wind… but feelings are real.” Deep.

With all this muckety-mucking around, by the time it finally gets the big job (which appears to be planned and executed entirely on Freeman’s product placement iPhone), we’re so apathetic we can barely muster up any attention to pay; in what may be the most spot-on line in the film, one of the guards notes, “This is becoming quite boring”. What’s more, in spite of all that we’ve heard about what brilliant crooks these guys are, the plan they execute is pretty dumb—it involves porn and birthday cakes—and certainly can’t hold a candle to the climaxes of Heist or The Score or the Ocean’s pictures. It’s also dopily, obviously shot; when they make it in, Leder’s camera does a slow push in as they grin at each other widely (you half-expect them to give each other a high-five).

All of that is merely a warm-up, however, for the script’s series of lame, third-act twists. Simply put, they don’t hold water; the film quickly degenerates into total nonsense, and the narrative falls apart if you give the turns more than a moment of consideration. I’ll dodge the key details, but here’s a couple of questions to ask, if you have the misfortune of sitting through the film: A key event involving Freeman was staged; who, exactly, was it staged for? Considering what we discover about Banderas, what the hell is going on atop that subway in the opening? And wouldn’t any capable cop know better than to fall for the business with the mob boss?

It’s hard to believe that none of the capable people involved in the movie had any concerns about the gaping holes in the script; maybe they were paid really well. Freeman is an actor I continue to respect, but he’s sleepwalking through this one (his only good moments are the quiet ones, like the bit alone in the vault). Mitchell is a decent actress, but you’d never know it from watching her work here. And Banderas can play a soulful, revenge-seeking mariachi till the cows come home, but he’s all wrong for the role of brilliant thief; his attempts at gritty intensity (“all I can tell you… is the truth! ”) are laughable, and that accent of his mangles some already clumsy lines. The Code is a handsome-looking movie (Julio Macat’s cinematography is lovely), and it makes fine use of its NYC location. But whoever thought this script was ready for production needs to have their head examined.

There’s a good general rule to follow as a savvy filmgoer: If a movie you’ve never heard of is full of marquee actors, there’s probably a reason you’ve never heard of it. As a film writer, there’s a tendency to hope you’ll discover an occasional mismanaged diamond in the rough, like the excellent and unseen Tommy Lee Jones vehicle In The Electric Mist, but that picture was clearly the exception to a pretty reliable rule. Freeman is building up quite a little library of these direct-to-video stinkers; I’m not sure if Edison Force or The Contract is any better than The Code, but I can’t imagine they could be much worse. Avoid it. Rent Seven or Nurse Betty again instead.

"The Code" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 23rd.

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