Thursday, June 28, 2007

Screengrab - Revenge

"You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn't know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes. Carrion was shared not by the sharer's design but by a pattern set before anyone knew there were patterns. The vulture had just eaten a rattler run over by a truck outside of Nacozari de Garcia, a little town well off the tourist run about a hundred miles from Nogales. The coyotes would follow the vulture's descent out of curiosity whether or not they were hungry from the night's hunt. As the morning thermals developed more vultures would arrive until the man's dying would have an audience."
- Jim Harrison, "Revenge", 1979

Jim Harrison is one of those writers no movie can ever get right. His books can seem almost silly, such is their gonzo macho poetic fatalism, his interest in landscape, nature, food, sex and violence. He writes about men, men alone in America, on the road, searching for themselves, or for love, or for revenge. He writes about families and history. And he can really write. He is a poet and that talent is evident in his prose, in his facility with language, his knack of capturing a moment in a few lovely phrases, of painting a character indelibly in a few precise, sharp strokes. His best work feels timeless and somehow archetypal in its purity and in the epic, simple stories he likes to tell. Those stories would seem to be perfect material for cinema.

Harrison's most famous work is "Legends of the Fall" a collection of three novellas, published together in 1979. The titular novella, a compressed and poetic tale of one families tragedies over half a century, was turned into a fuzzy, awful movie starring Brad Pitt by Ed Zwick in 1994. It does no justice to the book whatsoever, replacing the mythic, ancient tone of Harrison's storytelling with sentimentality and cliche. David Lean had wanted to make a film from the novella, and it is the type of story that needs his comfort and skill with that level of Epic narrative. The opening novella in the collection - "Revenge" - was written with Harrison's friend Jack Nicholson in mind for the lead role. John Huston wanted to direct it, once Harrison had completed a screenplay, but the content proved worrying for a series of studios and filmakers over the next decade, and it was finally attempted in 1990 by Tony Scott.

Scott was riding high in Hollywood at the time off the back of two massive hits in "Top Gun" and "Beverly Hills Cop II", his leading man, Kevin Costner, was one of the biggest movie stars on earth, and his leading lady was Madeline Stowe, perhaps the greatest beauty of her generation of American actresses. Yet "Revenge" was a critical and commercial failure. Scott had faced constant battles with his producer during production, and he insisted for years that the version released in cinemas was not the film he had wanted to make. The recently released "Unrated Directors Cut" is much closer to his original vision.

He's an odd, problematic director, Tony Scott. Undoubtedly gifted with a great eye, seemingly a natural storyteller, he is also comfortable with actors, and has gotten decent work out of some real heavyweights over his two and a half decades in the film business. But hes also a faddist, his visual style is terribly mannered and cliche, and his films never seem to be about anything at all. They're mostly entertaining (I'll exclude "The Fan" (1996) from this category) and slick products, but Scott is basically a high-class hack. Which isn't such a bad thing to be when it produces movies like "True Romance" (1993), "Crimson Tide" (1995) and even his attempt at a Vertigo tribute, last year's "Deja Vu". But it means that he is generally at the mercy of his screenplay. His visual sense, always so bold and obvious, can seem cheap and gimmicky when applied to the wrong material. Give him a witty, well-paced screenplay, and he'll give you a nasty little entertainment like "The Last Boy Scout"(1991). Give him a shallow, derivative star vehicle, and he'll supply "Days of Thunder"(1990).

His first film, "The Hunger" (1983) suggested that he would be a very different director indeed. Arty, obscure and narratively sluggish, its only really indicative of the course his later career would take in its very deliberate visual sheen. But its commercial failure meant that Scott didn't direct another film for 3 years, before Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer gave him the chance to direct "Top Gun" in 1986( he reportedly had to win a swimming race with Simpson to secure the job). With that film and "Beverly Hills Cop II" a year later, Scott was instrumental in establishing the look that would come to be associated with the Simpson-Bruckheimer brand. Derived from MTV, television advertising and Miami Vice, it relied heavily on colour filters, light diffused through billowing curtains and glamourous, visceral action sequences using slick, fast editing. "Revenge" , which was originally released in 1990, was meant to be Scott's return to the darker, more personal filmaking of "The Hunger".

It tells the story of Cochran, a US Fighter Pilot, who travels to visit his old friend Tibey in Mexico after he is discharged from the Air Force. Tibey is some sort of ultra-wealthy Godfather-figure, with links to the mob and politics, but he is very fond of Cochran, who treats him with a healthy disrespect and affection. Cochran inevitably falls in love with Tibey's new, young, lonely wife, Miryea, and they begin an affair. When Tibey finds out, he and his men leave Cochran beaten in the desert to die, and dump Miryea in a brothel. The films second half details Cochran's recovery and hunt for revenge. In the original, cinematic version, Cochran's journey was something of a picaresque odyssey through a part of Mexico,meeting and interacting with various characters. Scott has cut much of this for the new version, streamlining the central thrust of the narrative. He has restored some footage to the sex scenes, making them much more explicit and erotic. But the films flaws remain frustratingly the same, and they originate in Harrison's novella. The story is almost too simple, too archetypal. Where Harrison can rely upon his own talent as a writer to elevate his pulp story to another level, its asking a great deal of a dirctor to do the same.

Scott does his best - his landscape shooting is lovely, and the films action scenes are terrifically brutal - but it all still feels shallow and secondhand. The cast are all fine - Costner and Stowe have some chemistry, Quinn always seems to be enjoying himself - but without the interior life so vividly rendered by Harrison's prose, they seem empty ciphers, moving about at the bidding of the story. Harrison himself cowrote the script, and the dialogue, never an obvious strength or weakness, is serviceable.
Its not a bad film, and the starkness of the premise which is indicated in that first paragrah, which is the opening paragraph of the novella, combined with Scotts ever-baroque visual flourishes mean that its always interesting. But it should have been made by John Huston, you feel. He was a director comfortable in any number of genres and with almost every type of story, and he may have been able to steer a course between romantic drama and revenge thriller which Scott has trouble finding. Scott has typecast himself as an action or thriller director at this stage, and its hard to see him ever doing any other kind of film. Costner, who had originally wanted to make "Revenge" his directorial debut, is also slightly miscast, a little too straight-backed and moral for Cochran. Jack Nicholson, in his 70s pomp, would have been infinitely more believable, in the love story sequences at any rate, where you feel he would have sized up Miryea and communicated his intentions instantly.

One of the films most interesting aspects is its treatment of Mexico. Scott has long loved the country and the people, which is obvious in "Man On Fire" (2004), his attempt to apply the style and energy of "Amores Perros" to a genre film, and a love letter to Mexico City. He also attempted to make a biopic about Pancho Villa during the 90s, and "Revenge" was shot in various locations around the country, making each look beautiful and atmospheric in its own way. It plays with the concept, familiar from many Westerns and crime stories, of Mexico as the last remaining frontier for Americans. South of the border, the law sticks less easily, life is cheap, the women are beautiful and the men quick to violence. "Man on Fire" offers a similar view of the country. Its the Wild Bunch idea : a gringo goes South, things go bad, and the locals have to die. But Scott's affection is skin deep. As with so many things, he wants to photograph Mexico, to make it look beautiful, but he really has nothing to say about it beyond retreading old Mexico cliches. Harrison, meanwhile, seems to love Mexico, and his novella bleeds the colour of the place, brings its people noisily to life, and makes sense of its recurrent usage this way in American popular culture by doing it right. Its just unfortunate that no movie can ever seem to get Harrison himself right, "Revenge" included.

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Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I haven't read this book, or seen the film. This one doesn't make me want to watch the film as much as your other similar posts have, and I don't even have anything against the stars or indeed the director.

I dunno, I'll try the book sometime soon. Maybe watch True Romance.

What happened to Madeline Stowe anyway? She was awesome, where'd she go? I can't remember seeing her in anything for ages.

8:47 pm  
Blogger David N said...

You should definitely read the book, its fantastic. The film : not so much. As I think the post suggests. Which is maybe why you don't want to see it.

Madeleine Stowe seems to have moved into TV stuff. The last big movie she was in was We Were Soldiers, in the token wife role. Shes at that awkward age for an actress, I guess. I read something about her having written a script for a Western most of Hollywood loved but she wouldn't sell the rights to anyone if she couldn't star in it. which she obviously couldn't...

10:54 pm  

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