POSTED ON MARCH 6, 2013:
Fe Fi Fo Dumb
Some movies better left un-done
Jack the Giant Slayer is just about everything that's wrong with movies. Blow $195 million on a soulless, pixel-laden kaleidoscope of uninspired bullshit that only exists because some executive somewhere (who will soon be losing his job) thought they could make a killing on a recognizable property.
An easy lay-up, right? A classic fable, a story full of action, derring-do, romance and a fantastical world with big, CG, farting giants because, you know, giants throwing the occasional fart makes it a kids movie -- because kids love farting giants. Just spend the GDP of a small nation on it, bring in three writers to spackle the script into load-bearing shape and the market-researched audiences should inexorably be drawn in like moths to a bug zapper.
Good Side. If Ed Harris emerges from a submarine in Phantom and sees his own shadow, it means an early summer.
So it's hardly amazing that the clear product of so much hard work winds up feeling so lazy. And it's kind of great that audiences didn't fall for it. A $28 million opening weekend off a nearly $200 million budget (not including Warner Brothers half-assed marketing)? Ouch.
What's really sad about Jack the Giant Slayer is how it precipitates the further fall from grace for director Bryan Singer. Not because he directed it awfully, it's just awfully conceived and written. But financial bombs destroy careers. Jack the Giant Slayer is this year's John Carter -- except that John Carter was actually somewhat good. And it's sad that the guy that made two fine X-Men movies and the legitimately great The Usual Suspects has come to this.
Jack (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies) is a peasant farmhand who has grown up on tales of the war between the humans and giants. The giants were banished to their kingdom in the sky by King Erick the Great, who crafted a crown that controls their actions. The crown is buried with him, as well as some magic beans that are a bridge to the giant's homeland.
Decades later Jack finds himself in the city and inadvertently in the possession of said magic beans, when the monk who stole them exchanges them for the horse Jack was supposed to sell for money. He's advised to take the beans to the monastery to receive his payment, and to not get them wet. Of course, he forgets to do all that.
The monk is being pursued by the King's advisor, Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci, Big Night) who is in possession of the giant-controlling crown. He's up to no good because that's what Stanley Tucci does. He's also engaged to the King's daughter, Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson, Alice in Wonderland, to which this film bares a painful resemblance), who is chafing at her eminent betrothal.
When Isabelle goes for a ride to clear her head she gets lost in the rainy night and winds up at Jack's leaking hovel. Jack's already accidentally dropped the beans, one of which has fallen under the house, gets wet and sprouts a gargantuan beanstalk that spirits Isabelle to the land of the giants. Of course, Jack must go rescue her -- accompanied by Roderick, as well as his creepy sidekick, Wicke, and the noble knight Elmont (Ewen Bremner and Ewan McGregor reuniting for the first time since Trainspotting).
The script (by a trio of writers including, sadly, The Usual Suspects scribe Christopher McQuarrie) tells a plodding story in the most uninspired, easily digestible way possible. Singer does his best to work around the choppy, on-rails plotting and parchment-thin characters. But the whole thing feels anemic, lacking any true momentum, even as Singer does what he can to make it interesting.
Nicholas Hoult is wallpaper; impactful his performance isn't. Generating little chemistry with Tomlinson, Hoult feels out of place here, a far cry from his mostly charming turn as a zombie returning to humanity in Warm Bodies. Tucci is doing his best to chew scenery. Only McGregor is really having a blast, seeming invested. Ian McShane (Deadwood) brings some gravitas to the King, but he's wasted in an afterthought role.
Indeed, the money is on the screen. The giants look okay (though, for my money the giants of Wrath of the Titans were more convincingly realized) and their leader, Fallon, is well-voiced by the great Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead). Aside from the high dollar FX, the lush British locations are sumptuously photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel (Drive) and the action is generally well cut. Singer knows how to make something look big and glossy and comprehensible.
And it's a total waste of his, theirs and our time. Jack the Giant Slayer is an almost uniformly boring film that exists despite no one asking for it. The modern day coda that ends the tedium hints at a sequel, which comes off like a wry joke, because there will thankfully be no Jack the Giant Slayer II: Jack in Action -- unless, after this, Singer is forced into directing porn. Couldn't be worse.
It's weird to say you like a movie while wondering why it got a theatrical release. Phantom is the kind of movie that would seem to most likely wind up going straight to VOD and disc. It's got a small budget, it's a military thriller with a pretty great cast of actors who are working in between more high profile projects (hopefully), and it has an unassuming vibe that makes it feel a little like something you'll see getting played to death during Saturday afternoons on TNT.
But Phantom actually deserves its theatrical release. While it never rises to the intensity of the mother of all submarine-based movies, Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot (The Boat), Phantom is a scrappy, well-acted, practically shot and economically directed bit of storytelling. And it boasts a cast that rises to the occasion, making the inherently Spartan production cinematic.
It's 1968 and America and the Soviet Union are none too fond of each other. Demi (Ed Harris, A History of Violence) is a Russian Naval captain who is assigned to take the first submarine he ever commanded on its final voyage before it's refitted and sold to the Chinese.
Giant Obstacle. Ian McShane plays a king who really looks up to people in Jack the Giant Slayer.
Demi has his longtime crew with him for the seemingly routine voyage. His first officer, Kozlov (William Fitchtner, Drive Angry) is his loyal comrade; Pavlov (Johnathon Schaech, The Doom Generation) is the political officer whose duty to the Politburo might supersede his loyalty to his friends and Semak (Jason Beghe, The X-Files) is the ship's doctor and seemingly all around nice guy.
But the cozy situation is disrupted by a pair of tag along, fanatical KGB agents, Bruni (David Duchovny, The X-Files, again) and Tyrtov (Sean Patrick Flanery, The Boondock Saints) who attach a mysterious device to the sub and assert co-command of what was supposed to be a mundane mission that is clearly something more. Worse, Demi's history on this sub reveals a few lethal skeletons in his captain's quarters.
To say more would do a disservice to the film. Phantom needs its surprises. It tells a tight, somewhat pulpy story with a "based on true events" designation that is probably stretched to the limits. But that is one of the reasons it's so fun.
Written and directed by Todd Robinson (Lonely Hearts), Phantom is something of a throwback to the late Cold War, Soviet/U.S. paranoia films of the '80s. While it owes more of a debt to The Hunt for Red October and especially Crimson Tide than it does Das Boot, Robinson does bring a subtle and contained aesthetic to the proceedings, making the film feel propulsive while never quite realizing the claustrophobic tension of something like Das Boot. But then almost nothing does.
Robinson has an able hand with his story. While he's rather workmanlike, he paces the narrative well and wrings as much tension as he can from his Movie of the Week concept. Some points are clumsy (seriously, if Sasha [Jason Gray-Stanford] was claustrophobic the whole time, how could he hack being on a submarine at all?) and the mostly American cast doesn't even bother with Russian accents. Hey, Connery played the most Scottish Russian ever put to film and nobody cared. Watching guys like Harris, Fitchtner and Duchovny do bad Russian warbles would probably do more to take me out of the movie than their straight American delivery.
That said, it is the cast that makes Phantom what it is. Harris brings his trademark intensity to the role of Demi, crafting a smart and flawed character from some fairly well-fleshed writing. Fitchtner isn't given a ton to do but he's solidly charismatic. It was really fun seeing Fox Mulder play a bad guy while Johnathon Schaech brings his A-Game and a mad pimp mustache to the role of Pavlov. The script ultimately gives them all plenty of grist to work with to lend Phantom a decent sense of tension and mystery.
It'll probably sink at the box office, and that's too bad. It was way better than Jack the Precious Minutes of Your Life Slayer.
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