Thursday, November 20, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray, Special "Cusackalypse Now" Edition: DRIVE HARD (2014) and RECLAIM (2014)

John Cusack in DRIVE HARD.  Or maybe RECLAIM.
For all the shit Nicolas Cage justifiably gets about the crummy movies he's been making, the precipitous decline of John Cusack--Cage's CON AIR co-star in better days for both--has flown under the radar with most mainstream critics and moviegoers who likely just assume he hasn't been busy. Oh, he's been busy. Any VOD denizen who regularly prowls the fringes of Netflix Instant's new arrivals or checks out a Redbox at the grocery store has probably noticed Cusack turning up in an alarming number of bad movies of late. It doesn't seem that long ago that he was briefly generating Oscar buzz for 2007's GRACE IS GONE, headlining 2009's mega-budget disaster epic 2012, and had a hit comedy with 2010's HOT TUB TIME MACHINE. In retrospect, it seemed like he stopped trying around the time no one really responded to his well-intentioned but smug and self-satisfied 2008 anti-war satire WAR, INC. There have been a couple of positives for Cusack in the last few years--even though nobody saw it, his reteaming with Cage on THE FROZEN GROUND produced a surprisingly compelling thriller, not something you can usually say about any film containing 50 Cent, and the Spanish GRAND PIANO was a goofy but enjoyable De Palma homage that featured Cusack mainly as a voice in an earpiece taunting concert pianist Elijah Wood from the balcony, threatening to shoot him if he plays one wrong note. Cusack is in David Cronenberg's upcoming MAPS TO THE STARS, which will mark the actor starring in his first respectably A-list production in years (not counting his brief bit as Richard Nixon in Lee Daniels' LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER), but it would appear to be an exception and not the rule.

John Cusack in RECLAIM. Or maybe DRIVE HARD.
Careers have peaks and valleys, but in recent memory, few icons--yes, with SAY ANYTHING, GROSSE POINTE BLANK, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and HIGH FIDELITY, I'd say Cusack is iconic with a certain demographic--have plummeted so quickly without some offscreen scandal or obvious and very public personal problems pulling them down. Almost overnight, Cusack went from box office draw to the undisputed king of Video-on-Demand. Working actors work, and to quote '70s exploitation producer Mardi Rustam on casting past-their-prime actors, "working's better than sitting by a phone that's not ringing," but with rare exception, Cusack's recent string of credits--THE RAVEN, THE PAPERBOY, THE FACTORY, THE NUMBERS STATION, ADULT WORLD, THE BAG MAN, and THE PRINCE--range from forgettable to flat-out embarrassing. A pilot he shot for a potential CBS series about a Wall Street investment firm wasn't picked up by the network. Cusack did star with Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li in Mikael Hafstrom's $50 million epic SHANGHAI, but it's been sitting on a Weinstein Company shelf for six years. The Cusackalyptic state of his career--honestly, an appearance in an Uwe Boll film can't be far off--has only become apparent to casual moviegoers in the last couple of weeks, when a poster for the Chinese period piece DRAGON BLADE, teaming Cusack as a centurion with Jackie Chan and Adrien Brody, made the rounds on the internet. Other upcoming Cusack projects include the Stephen King adaptation CELL, which maybe has commercial potential, and LOVE & MERCY, a low-budget Beach Boys biopic where he briefly appears as the older Brian Wilson (Paul Dano plays Wilson in most of the film) but other than that, it's business as usual, with a cop thriller called KICKBACK, where he co-stars with Famke Janssen, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Mischa Barton, and Tom Sizemore. Who knows if Cusack can pull himself out of this quagmire or if he's happy to just be working?  In the meantime, here's his two latest obscurities that you probably haven't heard of until this moment.

(Australia/UK/Germany - 2014)

A grating buddy comedy from Ozploitation legend Brian Trenchard-Smith, DRIVE HARD isn't the action-packed fun-fest that it seems to think it is. Cusack is paired with Thomas Jane--both appeared in Terrence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE--and presumably both are only here for the paid Australian vacation. A quickie shot in Gold Coast, Queensland in a mere two and a half weeks, DRIVE HARD has Jane as Peter Roberts, a former American racing phenom who left the circuit to marry Aussie attorney Tessa (Yesse Spence). They have an impossibly cute daughter and a beautiful house, but Peter is unhappy working at his dull job as a driving instructor and misses the circuit. One morning, Peter's first appointment is American Simon Keller (Cusack), a vaping oddball in a black baseball cap and sunglasses, who claims to be in town on business. Simon's eccentric behavior irritates Peter, especially when he asks Peter to stop at a nearby bank so he can quickly run in and "take care of something." The bank is owned by the mob, and Simon is a freelance criminal from Cleveland sent to swipe some mob cash in the form of bank bonds set up by scheming executive Rossi (Christopher Morris).  The connected Rossi uses his influence to keep the cops off as various unsavory sorts spend the rest of the film chasing the two Americans--with unwilling accessory Peter specifically targeted by Simon for his superior driving skills--who have to work together to survive...if they don't kill each other first!

Trenchard-Smith's storied history in stunt-crazed Ozploitation cinema of the 1970s and 1980s would seem to make him a natural for something like this, but he hasn't made a good film in about 25 years (no, LEPRECHAUN 4: IN SPACE doesn't count), and DRIVE HARD exhibits none of the past style and panache that have made him such an endearing figure in cult cinema. The actual car chases are sparingly shown and unexciting, things gets bogged down in Peter's marital problems and the investigation by a hard-nosed Gold Coast major crimes investigator (Zoe Ventoura), and there just isn't much of a story here. That would be fine if the action was good, but Trenchard-Smith seems so excited to be working with name American actors again that just lets them riff their way through it. Long stretches of the film consist of Cusack and Jane doing some uninspired improv in the car, with tiresome and endless banter that usually involves a yapping Cusack being an unfunny, hectoring smartass and Jane yelling, almost like they're both trying to be Vince Vaughn, and it doesn't work. Jane, in particular, is really hard to take here. He seems to be mistaking "being really loud" for being funny. His entire performance is one long spaz attack, while Cusack, who never takes off the hat and shades, has been given a green light to do whatever he wants. Simon's final monologue to Rossi, where he blathers on endlessly about Buddha before shooting the coke-addled banker in the balls, allows Cusack the kind of self-indulgent, incoherent nonsense you would've expected from late-period Marlon Brando. Cusack was obviously given the star treatment by the producers--his personal chef is credited twice--and he responds by at least coming to work awake, which is more than you can say for his contributions to THE PRINCE, but DRIVE HARD is just a dull, dumb, and loud exercise in Cusackalyptica with an Ozploitation twist, an action-comedy that struggles to find a tone and comes up lacking in both action and comedy. (Unrated, 96 mins)

(US/Australia - 2014)

I don't know if RECLAIM was shot immediately after DRIVE HARD or vice versa, but Cusack's wearing the same black hat in some scenes and he's introduced vaping, which has obviously become his personal prop of choice. Released on just ten screens, RECLAIM is like a less competent version of the kind of glossy, hot-button thrillers that dominated the 1990s. Indeed, if it came out 12-15 years earlier with the same leads and a bigger budget, it would've been a huge hit. Despite his top billing, Cusack has a mostly secondary role until a little past the midway point, with the real stars being Ryan Phillippe and Rachelle Lefevre as Stephen and Shannon Mayer, a Chicago couple arriving in Puerto Rico to finalize the adoption of seven-year-old Haitian orphan Nina (Briana Roy). Unable to have children of their own after a car accident several years earlier that caused a pregnant Shannon to miscarry and netted them a nearly $3 million settlement, the Mayers are desperate to become parents and have already paid $60,000 to a charity agency run by the altruistic Gabrielle Reigert (Jacki Weaver), but still must wait several days for Nina's passport and some general paperwork to clear. In the meantime, Gabrielle sets the Mayers up at a resort where they keep encountering the gregariously pushy Benjamin (Cusack, greasy-haired and disheveled), his girlfriend Paola (Veronica Faye Foo) and their extremely surly buddy Salo (Jandres Burgos). Benjamin and especially Salo (who beats the shit out of committed-to-sobriety Stephen in a bar after Stephen declines a drink) display enough red flags for the Mayers to inform Gabrielle that they're checking into another hotel, but of course Benjamin and his crew turn up there as well, and not long after, Nina goes missing. Stephen attempts to notify Gabrielle, but no one at the agency's office answers the phone, the web site is down, and the property vacant when Stephen pays a visit. Benjamin is part of a scam overseen by Gabrielle (not her real name) to bilk people out of exorbitant adoption fees and make off with the kid. The scam is common, according to the useless local police chief, played by Luis Guzman, in practically the same role he had in the recent Gina Carano actioner IN THE BLOOD. Feeling cheated out of his share by Gabrielle, Benjamin goes rogue and concocts his own scheme to get the Mayers' entire fortune.

Australian director Alan White really wants this to be a serious expose of child exploitation and trafficking, but it's really just a rote, formulaic B-movie, and not a very good one. It starts with Stephen and Shannon being entirely too gullible too many times, but even on a technical level, RECLAIM comes up short. It sports what may go down as 2014's most ineptly-shot car chase, which hilariously shoddy greenscreen work that moves entirely too fast and jerky and looks like a Hanna-Barbera wraparound background. Coupled with a scene where the Mayers' SUV is dangling off the side of a cliff, RECLAIM has the worst car crash CGI this side of 2011's IN TIME. Phillippe and Lefevre do what's required of them, but Cusack is in PRINCE mode here, looking haggard and sleepwalking through a Puerto Rican vacation either immediately before or after his DRIVE HARD Australian respite. Until the midway point, he really isn't in it that much and until late in the film, he's more of a henchman to mastermind Gabrielle. In some scenes, he defers to the hot-tempered Salo. Why is Cusack playing a stock heavy role that any jobbing character actor could've played?  I doubt he's even reading the scripts he's given--he's choosing his films based on where they're being shot and how nice a resort the producers are willing to book him (though his personal chef doesn't seem to have made the trip for this one). Cusack's a smart actor and an insightful writer--if he was finding anything challenging or professionally rewarding about his Cusackalyptic career choices, he wouldn't resort to vaping in two different movies in a desperate effort to provide his character with some remotely interesting trait. An end caption states that over a million children are trafficked a year, adding "They're invisible and they're everywhere." These days, the same could be said for John Cusack movies. (R, 96 mins)

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