A Season for Escaping

Armies of sailors, patriots and poultry join the fray in Hollywood’s summer game of box-office survival

Brian D. Johnson July 10 2000

A Season for Escaping

Armies of sailors, patriots and poultry join the fray in Hollywood’s summer game of box-office survival

Brian D. Johnson July 10 2000

A Season for Escaping


Armies of sailors, patriots and poultry join the fray in Hollywood’s summer game of box-office survival

Brian D. Johnson

School’s out, and for Hollywood that means one thing: war. As the studios square off in their annual battle for the summer box office, anyone walking into a multiplex should be prepared for an onslaught of military proportions. In the coming weeks, superpowered mutants save the world in X-Men; Clint Eastwood leads a mission of aging astronauts in Space Cowboys', and Michelle Pfeiffer plays a wife possessed by her husband’s dead psycho mistress in What Lies Beneath.

Meanwhile, in the two latest releases, George Clooney butts heads with a hurricane in The Perfect Storm, while Mel Gibson hews and hacks his way through redcoat waves of perfect storm troopers in The Patriot. Both movies are

directed by Germans—Wolfgang Petersen and Roland Emmerich, respectively—but that does not diminish their quotient of red-blooded American heroism. And although Gibson is Australian, in The Patriot he wraps himself in the star-spangled banner and displays a bloodthirsty passion that makes his turn as a Scots guerrilla in Braveheart seem almost genteel.

Heroic zeal is the hard currency of the summer blockbuster. And Gibson seems so comfortable as a Yankee Doodle daredevil that, in Chicken Run, he plays it as parody, voicing the role of a cocky American rooster offering to help a prison camp of English poultry fly the coop. In a season of animated features that includes the space antics of Titan A.E. and the retro Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the free-range Brit wit

of Chicken Run offers a refreshing break from formula. And it has given Jim Carrey’s Me, Myself and Irene a run for its money: the Claymation feature earned $26 million on its opening weekend, second only to Irene's $35 million. Using gross-out comedy to out-gross its rival, Irene boasts its own poultry joke, and all the wit in the world can’t compete with a police officer yelling: “Will someone get this God damn chicken out of my ass please?”

Clearly, summer is the time when filmgoers are supposed to check their brains at the door and have a little fun. Critics are expected lighten up, to go along for the ride. After all, what’s wrong with a little harmless entertainment? Well, if summer movies were as harmless and empty-headed as they pretended to be, that would be a lot easier. But ideas keep getting in the way. Big, dumb ideas.

THE PATRIOT Created by the producerdirector team that unleashed Independence Day and Godzilla, and scripted by

Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan), this American Revolution epic combines gonzo melodrama with highminded sentiment. Its a scary mix, a potent Fourth of July cocktail designed to make Americans feel good about themselves as only Americans can. The Patriot is a spectacle of righteous savagery, and its a toss-up as to which is harder to stomach, the bloodlust or the jingoism. That said, the movie is undeniably entertaining. Although it runs 158 minutes, the drama never drags, the performances are solid and the battle scenes stunningly executed.

The story is set in South Carolina, in 1776. Benjamin (Gibson), a former hero of the French and Indian War and a widower with seven children, is trying to live in peace on his plantation. He wants no part of the brewing rebellion, but he can’t stop his eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), from enlisting. However, after the British, led by the cutthroat Col. Tavington (Jason Isaacs), show up on Benjamin’s doorstep and kill one of his children, Dad digs his old muskets out of the attic and marshals a rebel militia. A ruthless Robin Hood, Gibson’s guerrilla hero orders his snipers to “start with the officers and work your way down,” appalling the enemy by violating the etiquette of “civilized” warfare.

As a spectacle of military strategy, The Patriotis impressive. But for all it invests in historical detail, it squanders as much in dramatic hokum. At one point, Benjamin’s soldiers, who are based in a swamp, take a one-week vacation from the war to join their families at a paradise on the beach. It’s a kind of South Carolina Club Med with thatched cabanas and generous buffets. The freed slaves are as happy as clams and play marimbas by the sea while the white folks dine alfresco, make romance and find time for a wedding. The furlough also allows Benjamin to reconcile with a daughter

struck mute by her father’s absence. How modern.

It’s no longer enough to fight for a cause. Like Gladiator, The Patriot is about a ruthless avenger who stands up to an imperial villain for the sake of his family. And family values have never been drenched in so much blood. Weapons are treated as fetishes. In one scene, Benjamin madly butchers a dead redcoat with a souvenir tomahawk from the Indian War—Mr. Mom finds his inner axe-murderer. And as a campfire ritual, he melts down his dead boy’s tin soldiers for musket balls. But the weapon to end all weapons is the flag, a ragged Stars and Stripes strung on a wooden lance aimed at the English monster like a stake at a vampire’s heart.

THE PERFECT STORM In this case, the monster is Mother Nature in a foul mood. The movie is based on the 1997 best-seller by American author Sebastian Junger, the true story of a swordfish boat, the Andrea Gail, that sails into “the storm of the century” on the North Atlantic in October, 1991. It’s not unusual for movies to take liberties with books, but The Perfect Storm is an extreme example. In essence, the filmmakers have turned a work of scrupulous nonfiction into wild fantasy, yet without changing the names of the real-life characters. Just how the story is fictionalized cannot be

explained without giving away the ending, which the studio has specifically asked critics not to do—even though Junger gives it away on the first page of his book. It seems ludicrous to protect an ending that was once front-page news—this is a disaster flick—but if the studio wants to treat it as a cliffhanger, we’ll comply.

Signs that the movie will founder are ominous in the early scenes, as a hackneyed script labours to give the characters some sentimental ballast before the crew leaves port in Gloucester, Mass. They include skipper Billy Tyne (George Clooney), who is on a losing streak and desperate to catch some fish; Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), who is clinging to his new girlfriend (Diane

Lane); and Dale Murphy (John C. Reilly), who is trying to support an estranged wife and child.

But none of this will matter much once they are in the teeth of the storm: character is drowned by special effects.

The movie portrays Tyne as a reckless cowboy who drags his crew all the way out to the Flemish Cap, 2,000 km from home, to find fish—disregarding dire weather warnings. (In fact, it was not until he was on his way back that the danger became apparent.) The first half of the movie is spent waiting for the storm, the last half enduring it. Some of the action scenes are staggering, with the Andrea Gail trying to climb the Everest of what Junger calls “a non-negotiable wave.” And there is a heartstopping sequence of a helicopter rescuing a sailboat crew.

But the interminable deluge of effects, with actors screaming through walls of water, gets tiring.

A bombastic score by James Fforner (Titanic) blows through the movie like an idiot wind, never letting up. And why do directors of disaster movies now feel obliged to torture the viewer with strobing lights? In this case, presumably, it’s lightning. But even the underwater scenes are lit like a disco, and having your optic nerve diddled for almost an hour is hugely irritating, a trip to a perfect migraine. The Perfect Storm turns an enthralling, unsentimental book into seasick shlock.

ME, MYSELF AND IRENE Canadian actor Jim Carrey is his own walking, talking blockbuster. As the Jekyll-and-Hyde split personality in Irene, he portrays a man at war with himself. One side of him is Charlie, a pathetically nice Rhode Island cop who cannot bring himself to write a parking ticket, like a parody of a polite Canadian. Then

there is the monster within, whose idea of courtship is a dildo and a botde of rum. It’s as if Truman and the Cable Guy are fighting for the same body. Together they form a triangle with Irene (Renée Zellweger), damsel on the lam.

The movie works hard to be politi-

cally incorrect—from the moment Charlie’s wife dumps him for a pesky African-American midget, leaving him illegitimate black triplets who grow into trash-talking teens with genius IQs. And various groups have protested the use of the term “schizo.” But its worst offence is that the story is just an excuse for the gags. Unlike Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s previous hit, There’s Something About Mary, Irene plays like a one-man show, and while Carrey is funny, even two of him cannot make up for a lame script. CHICKEN RUN Directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park, the British team behind the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit shorts, this Plasticene cartoon is smarter—and more three-dimensional—than most of the summer’s live-action features. Parodying films like The Great Escape and Stalag 17,

the action unfolds behind the barbed wire of Tweedy’s Egg Farm. Mrs. Tweedy (voiced by Miranda Richardson) is planning to turn her clucking inmates into chicken pies with a monstrous new baking machine.

Reminiscent of Babe, Chicken Run is darker than most kids’ flicks. We see the shadow of a chicken getting its head chopped off; a depressed hen crochets a noose; and the camp’s infernal pie-baking contraption has a hint of Ffolocaust ovens. But like The Simpsons, Chicken Run works on multiple levels—for all ages except very small children. It’s more fun than a movie full of Plasticene poultry has any right to be.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE When it first hit prime time in 1961, it was television’s pioneer post-modern cartoon. Now, director Des McAnuff (Tommy), a Toronto native, plucks TV’s punning moose and flying squirrel out of rerun limbo and drops them in a live-action world. Blundering villains Boris and Natasha morph into real-life characters, played by Jason Alexander and Rene Russo. Robert De Niro does Peter Sellers riffs as their Fearless Leader, while an ingenue FBI agent, played by the wholesomely sexy Piper Perabo, helps the cartoon animals save the world from being zombified by bad television. Recalling a time when we could enjoy deconstruction without knowing what it meant, this deadpan romp is oddly amusing—a cute distraction from the war zone of Hollywood’s gods and monsters. ED