Saturday, October 11, 2008
MovieWatch: "Body of Lies"
"Body of Lies"
Director: Ridley Scott
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 63
In a Nutshell: [I feel like I've already over-blogged today. I mean, if I get this posted by the end of the evening, that'll be three posts in one day. Who do I think I am, Sepinwall? Even if it doesn't get posted til tomorrow, it'll still be excessively prolific. And I still won't have done my week-old review on "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist." Oh well. What I'm saying is that this may be a short review.]
"Body of Lies," which I saw because you're supposed to see Ridley Scott movies on the big screen just in case they're any good, isn't a bad movie. What it is is a movie with no imperative reason for existing. It's a movie that Ridley Scott made between other projects he wanted to do more simply because the script and cast were in place. It wasn't a movie Scott made because he had a story he needed to tell. It wasn't a movie he made because he had a desperate desire to work in a new genre or a new part of the world. It was just something to do. And that lack of urgency is tangible in the movie.
There are great directors who can still make great movies even with a lack of personal urgency. Scorsese's done it. Spielberg's done it. It's just not Scott's M.O.
Heck, Ridley's brother Tony has made a whole career out of simulating urgency that didn't otherwise exist, out of forcing so much visual frenzy onto a movie that you only sometimes notice that there wasn't a darned thing for the movie to hang its hat upon. OK, actually you often notice that there's no steak, only sizzle in Tony Scott's movies, but at his best, he distracts you.
So I guess that with "Body of Lies," Ridley Scott has actually made a pretty decent Tony Scott film. Of course, Tony Scott made his version of the same movie in 2001 when it was called "Spy Game."
Full review, as short as I can make it, after the bump.
Produced before 9/11, but released just two months later, "Spy Game" took on a depth it never actually had as pundits rushed to speculate on whether or not mainstream audiences were ready for that sort of international geopolitical thriller. In the seven years to follow, the genre has become a cottage industry, but pundits still aren't sure if the box office is there. So while "Body of Lies" has a level of intellectual depth that "Spy Game" certainly didn't possess, the new film comes on the heels of "The Kingdom" and "Syriana" and "Rendition" and a dozen other films that similarly use our contemporary political climate as either the surface or substance for more traditional films.
And not only has Tony Scott made this movie before, but Ridley has as well, albeit spaced out over two films. "Body of Lies" is a more commercially friendly combination of 2001's "Black Hawk Down" and 2005's "Kingdom of Heaven" (the extended and far superior director's cut, at least), an examination of white interventionism in post-colonial territories where we fail to understand the language, the culture and the terrain. Like those two films, "Body of Lies" is shot in Morocco, which has become the Scott family's official surrogate for nearly every dusty country in the world.
Although he's working with a new cinematographer in Alexander Witt, Scott makes sure that "Body of Lies" looks like a Scott Free Production. It's consistently well-composed and thanks to Pietro Scalia, tightly edited. It doesn't really have a single trademark set-piece and several traditional suspense scenes are underplayed to the point that no real tension develops. It's like "Body of Lies" is trying to make it clear that it's a notch above the genre and therefore has higher things on its mind than just being exciting.
William Monahan's screenplay has a very good sense of the way tough men talk to each other and, as such, it has a good sense of how spies interact. It's not quite on the level of "The Departed" probably because of the source material. Or maybe not. I haven't read David Ignatius' novel, so I can't say how effectively the well-written bluster and posturing of the spy game play against what is a very run-of-the-mill story of Middle East intrigue. Yes, the talk of terrorist attacks in Western countries and the war in Iraq give the story some finger-on-the-pulse currency, but discovering that American on-the-ground intelligence isn't being helped by the suits in Washington isn't much of a revelation and that's just about the best "Body of Lies" can do for an observation. I mean, it was Professor Harold Hill who taught me that you've got to know the territory and the lessons haven't changed that much whether you're starting a brass band or attempting to find common ground with Jordanian thug.
"Body of Lies" is the latest entry in a genre I'd like to dub Leonardo DiCaprio Grows A Beard And a Conscience, in which the baby-faced superstar uses his scraggly facial hair (I should talk) as a sign of his growing maturity, but also his conflicted nature. Facial hair not only allows DiCaprio to avoid getting carded, but it also gives his face angles and builds concern into his visage. The scars also help, since DiCaprio's character takes the sort of beating usually reserved for the film noir hero whose nose is constantly being stuck in the wrong place. His character here is supposed to be young, so he isn't inappropriate and his physicality and speech give some indication of why this is a men other men would follow. One line of dialogue suggests that the character is supposed to be from North Carolina, but DiCaprio's Southern accent is a mess and the scenes I enjoyed most were the ones where he didn't seem to be doing an accent at all.
DiCaprio's character is saddled with a contrived and problematic relationship with a Persia nurse, played by Golshifteh Farahani. Not only is the developing relationship implausible in context, but it also sets into motion a climactic series of events in which nearly every character basically loses every iota of common sense we respected in them previously. Farahani, a newcomer, makes a strong impression, but how can she hope to get Hollywood work in a industry in which the same Middle Eastern actors are relentlessly recycled constantly, but the lead Middle Eastern character in this particular movie is played by Mark Strong, a British actor whose ancestry is Italian. Strong is perfectly fine as the threatening Jordanian Hani, though his performance could best be described as "Andy Garcia by way of Amman."
As a companion to the Leonardo DiCaprio Grows A Beard And A Conscience genre, "Body of Lies" also joins the Russell Crowe Grows A Gut and a Conscience (Often With a Southern Accent) genre. Crowe doesn't have all that much to do here, but he fleshes out with meager character with an accent, the added girth and a buzz-cut. I'd say Crowe is doing what he thinks actors are supposed to do, which is mix it up, be willing to blend into the background and doing good support in other A-listers' vehicles. It's admirable enough, I guess.
Only a few hours after walking out of the theater, "Body of Lies" has already begun to blend in with the other Middle Eastern thrillers of recent years. Other than its stars and its director's pedigree, it doesn't have much to help it stand out.