At some point after Watergate, sports reporters began to suffer from the malady that has infected modern journalismthe delusion that a news story isn’t thorough unless it’s negative, world-weary, and skeptical. Even sports has been invaded by self-styled hard-hitting reporters, who confront the man who’s just scored a game-winning touchdown to ask him about his first-quarter fumble, his fear of failure, or his off-season contract dispute.
For the frustrated sports fan, Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings is like some wonderful daydream. Twenty-three years ago, Gast followed Muhammad Ali and George Foreman to Zaire, to document their legendary heavyweight championship bout, dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” He was accompanied by the world media, who were also there to see the accompanying music festival (which featured James Brown, B.B. King, and The Spinners, among others) and to witness the colossal egos of two other men just ascending the world stage: Don King, ex-con boxing promoter, and Mobutu Sese Seko, the authoritarian dictator of Zaire.
Two boxing enthusiasts, George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, also made the pilgrimage to Zaire that autumn of ’74, and they show up again in When We Were Kings to reminisce about the fight and the spectacle. Their perspective on Foreman and Ali is invaluable, as is their knowledge of boxing; they give as much insight into the importance of footwork and into the significance of leading with a right cross as they do into the mind-set of the fighters. Seeing them, one pines for that sort of nuts-and-bolts sports reporting, which focuses on the techniques and strategies of competition and builds up the combatants into fascinating titans.
Not that there weren’t tough questions as far back as 1974. Most experts figured Ali would be clobbered, and there was some regret that the once-mighty fighter, who had shaken up the world with his fists and his political convictions, would be laid low by the brute destructive force of the robotic Foreman. But the men with the microphones were satisfied to ask leading questions and to let the performers explain themselves. In so doing, the reporters stimulated further conversation, rather than shocking the athlete into silence.
After Gast shot the footage that would comprise When We Were Kings, it sat on his shelf for two decades, waiting first for various music rights to clear, and then simply for money to finish the editing. Time has been kind to his material, especially the footage of Ali, who is all the more fascinating for his currently diminished presence. Gast himself has also been kind to his material, resisting the temptation to expand his film too far beyond the event he’s documenting. With the exception of a few, modern-day interviews and two brief montages dedicated to Ali’s career, Gast sticks with the story of what happened in Zaire.
And what happened there makes for rich viewing indeed. From the exciting performances of the J.B. Soul Revue to the constant stream of poetry, jokes, and ideas flowing from Ali’s lips, When We Were Kings is funny and thrilling. Right before the fight was set to start, Foreman got cut above the eye, which led to six weeks of milling around in Zaire, training and waiting and talking. The bulk of Gast’s film derives from the anticipation of the main event and the contrast of Foreman and Ali in repose. During the wait, Ali walks crowded African streets, laughing while children chant his name; Foreman, meanwhile, sulks in his air-conditioned hotel room. But Ali’s fear of Foreman is palpable, particularly in one riveting scene in which he skips rope and shouts insults at his imaginary foeand, ultimately, at himself. When the bell finally rings, the tension is almost unbearable, even with the outcome already known.
In a dream world, When We Were Kings would be the first in a series of sports documentaries tracing the impact of a player, a season, or a single contest on the national psyche. Fictional sports films have become too contrived and obvious, removed from the real drama that surrounds sporting events. But there’s nothing contrived about Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in a single basketball game, or Jack Morris pitching 10 shutout innings in Game Seven of the ’91 World Series.
And there’s nothing contrived about Muhammad Ali, who was larger than life in a time when life itself seemed bigger and more out of control. He said interesting, important things about race, spirituality, and, above all, his sport, which he revolutionized and uplifted. As When We Were Kings documents, when Ali left the ring, reporters closed their minds and notebooksand the word “champion” lost its meaning.Noel Murray
The blank generation
John Cusack can look sleepy and incredulous all at once, as if he’d been awakened in Goldilocks’ bed by bears. The look serves him well in Grosse Pointe Blank, a dark comedy so freakishly inventive it points out how inert most screen farces have become. Cusack plays Martin Blank, a bright, secretive loner who vanished from a Michigan suburb on prom night when he was 17. Without notice, 10 years later, Martin reappears in his hometown of Grosse Pointe with an agenda: to attend his 10-year high school reunion, to visit the prom date (Minnie Driver) he stood up a decade beforeand to carry out a contract killing while dodging fellow assassins.
A hit man attending his high-school reunion is a nifty ideaone that should tickle any alumnus who’s faced a barrage of “So what do you do?” Grosse Pointe Blank gets the expected comic mileage out of the situation, but in ways we don’t always predict. The movie establishes its pitch-black humor in the very first scene, in which Martin calmly discusses his reunion with his secretary (Joan Cusack)while scoping cross hairs on a corpse-to-be.
From there, the extraordinarily sharp-witted script (by Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, and Cusack, who also coproduced) treats hired killing as the ultimate dead-end job with lousy hours and no benefits. It’s no wonder a beefy colleague code-named the Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) wants to unionize the industry and make the unwilling Martin a sort of murderous middle-manager. However, what starts out as a rude, absurdist farce about the business of killing turns into an offbeat romantic comedy about how Martin reclaims the missing 10 years of his life.
Murder-for-hire comedies are tricky business: They must be either deft and stylized enough to overcome our moral queasiness (as in Married to the Mob) or explosive enough to make the violence itself comic (as in Yojimbo). Grosse Pointe Blank attempts to do both and very nearly succeeds. It certainly has the right director for the job. George Armitage spent the early 1970s writing exploitation flicks for Roger Corman; in drive-in wonders like Vigilante Force and the indescribable blaxploitation parody/fantasy Darktown Strutters, Armitage leavened formulaic genre assignments with bizarre set pieces and outrageous plot twists. As director, Armitage has made only one movie since 1976’s Vigilante Force, but it’s a doozy: Miami Blues, a fluky, doggedly unpredictable 1990 thriller that’s among the best crime movies of the decade.
In Grosse Pointe Blank, Armitage flexes a real talent for surreal, what’s-wrong-with-this-picture juxtapositions of mayhem and mundanity: an assault interrupted by polite conversation, a life-or-death struggle at a reunion, a shoot-out in a convenience store while an employee blithely plays a video game. (A typical throwaway gag: When Martin enters the store, the version of “Live and Let Die” on the soundtrack segues from Guns N’ Roses to Muzak.) One scene, destined to be a classic, explains how two itchy-triggered gunsels with beads drawn on one another go about the process of ordering breakfastin the kind of earthy-crunchy omelet mill that serves specialties like “I Left My Heart in San Fran-Cheesy.”
The snarky humor about strip-mall culture works for the most part, but some of the details are off. The characters, attitudes, and even hairstyles seem too old and too rigidly settled for a 10-year reunion, even in Dullsville, although the strained small talk between Martin and his classmates is painfully funny. And the movie isn’t above exploiting the ’80s nostalgia it ridicules. It resurrects the 1980s with a wall-to-wall carpeting of New Wave faves by the Clash, the Specials, the Violent Femmes, and three dozen more; while it’s fun to play name-that-tune (“99 Luftballoons!”), the soundtrack congratulates itself for its hipness in every scene. Besides, with the dough it must’ve taken to license these nuggets, you could off the president, the Pope, and the next five frontmen for Van Halen.
The main problem with Grosse Pointe Blank is that it fires in all directions at oncethe movie is part action thriller and part absurdist farce, with a romance and a character study crammed in alongside. At least one element is bound to suffer, and it’s generally the study of Martin’s character. The explanation for his career pathbad parents, bland surroundings, etc.is both dramatically unsatisfying and insufficient, especially since these scenes are staged fairly seriously. (There is, however, the neat suggestion that slacker anomie is a job prerequisite for a cold-blooded assassin.) In these moments, Armitage’s deadpan tone becomes a liability. It’s exciting to see a movie that doesn’t telegraph its every laugh or emotional turn, but the shifts from satire to pathos sometimes seem ill-prepared, as if the filmmakers kept changing their minds about the kind of movie they wanted to make.
And yet it’s precisely this volatility that makes Grosse Pointe Blank such a surprise. Movies written by committee these days usually reek of mass production, but the four screenwriters here compete to top one another with outlandish situations and original dialogue. Not since Pulp Fiction or Heathers has a script seemed so dense with unique exchanges, tossed-off lines, and turns of phrase. (One fleeting example: Martin describes a deserving victim as having “the résumé of a demon.”)
It’s also a pleasure to see John Cusack, a charming, grossly underrated actor, giving a smashing comic performance in a dream role. He brings Martin needed traces of weariness and forlorn sweetness, and he looks mighty cool and Costello-esque in black duds and black shades. It helps that he’s surrounded by expert scene-stealers, including a fizzy romantic foil in Minnie Driver, an unusually effective Aykroyd, Jeremy Piven as a grade-school buddy, and Hank Azaria as a government bad-ass. And watching Cusack’s assured, feline hit man revert to gawky adolescence is a delight that never wears out. His elastic face, with its thousand shades of disbelief, registers the grimly funny truism at the heart of Grosse Pointe Blank: Murder is banal, but suburbia is strange.Jim Ridley
A pain in the ice
When you see a lot of movies, everything begins to look like a movie. When I read Smilla’s Sense of Snow two years ago, I could see the movie in my head. First and foremost, the actress playing Smilla would have to disregard the book’s chilly portrait of an angry scientist; she makes a compelling narrator for a novel, but a movie protagonist needs to be more open. Second, the focus of the story should be less on the mysterywhy an Inuit boy suddenly ran off a roof in Copenhagenand more on the seemingly inexplicable cover-up of the mystery and the bizarre revelation at its center. Finally, the film must preserve the chilling final image of the novel: a man fleeing in terror across a broken ice floe, dwarfed and threatened by the very nature he has failed to control.
Bille August’s film adaptation of Smilla swings at, but misses, all three pitches. His star, Julia Ormond, struggles gamely as a thorny Smilla, but her interpretation of the character is too monotone. As for the script (by Ann Biderman), it gets so wrapped up in the dead boy that it loses sight of what the dead boy sets in motion. It looks as if August and Biderman filmed every scene from the book verbatim, then cut the footage indiscriminately.
Someone unfamiliar with the book might be intrigued by the twisty story, which leads from Denmark to Greenland and goes from a simple murder mystery to an out-of-left-field science-fiction climax (with prehistoric worms and radiating meteorites). But even a neophyte is likely to be put off by the unlikable Smilla, the glacial pace of the film, and the clumsy way characters explain their motivations rather than act on them. At the end, rather than showing a man racing across the tundra, August has him slowly sink. Not what I had in mind, but an apt image for this dull production.Noel Murray
The least of all saints
A balance sheet might be a better tool than a review to assess The Saint. On the plus side, chalk up Val Kilmer, an energetic and charismatic star who has wisely cast aside the dubious benefits of the Batsuit. Elizabeth Shue plays a scientist who has stereotypical brainy blond beauty, along with a novel nervousness and naiveté. And Leslie Charteris’ adventurous novels are terrific source material, offering a cheeky hero in the Scarlet Pimpernel tradition, a man whose brazen thievery masks obsessive principles.
Two big debits, however, drive the movie deep into the red. First, the trend toward action movies that are all viscera and no brains has invaded this proper British material. The Saint is supposed to outsmart his opponents, not assault their senses until they beg for mercy. Second, the sloppiness of Philip Noyce’s direction seems to increase in proportion to the size of his budget. His little Australian sailboat thriller Dead Calm was tight and effective. But given millions of dollars, Noyce refuses to use a camera setup or a location twice, leading to great confusion over where the action is taking place. This fault is compounded by his distrust of the venerable and therefore boring master shot, which has been jettisoned here in favor of editing that simply implies the spatial relationships between the chaser and chasee.
Perhaps the most ominous feature of the technical incompetence that plagues The Saint is that Noyce has finally found a sound design that complements his visual style. A typical car chase has Graeme Revell’s score playing nonstop in the background, while a different metal-electronica soundtrack hit is playing in each vehicle, and a liberal sprinkling of ear-splitting sound effects overrides the whole mess. We can only pray that this innovation never falls into the hands of The Rock director Michael Bay.Donna Bowman
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