Monday, October 3, 2016

In Theaters: DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Peter Berg. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O'Brien, Ethan Suplee, J.D. Evermore, Trace Adkins, James DuMont, Douglas M. Griffin, Brad Leland, Dave Maldonado, Peter Berg, Stella Allen. (PG-13, 106 mins)

This riveting chronicle of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, which led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history, reunites LONE SURVIVOR star Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg. Berg shot this back-to-back with the upcoming PATRIOTS DAY, with Wahlberg as a cop working security detail on the day of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. These three Wahlberg/Berg collaborations tentatively form a loose trilogy of ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary situations and summoning a fighting spirit from deep within to do whatever they need to do to survive. With AMERICAN SNIPER and SULLY, Clint Eastwood has also staked a claim to this territory, but Berg (who came onboard at Wahlberg's request after A MOST VIOLENT YEAR director J.C. Chandor quit over creative differences during pre-production) doesn't resort to Eastwood's hagiographic tendencies, nor do he and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand have to pull a SULLY and invent a bad guy to manufacture dramatic tension. The tension is there from the start, when Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), the installation manager contracted to run operations on the Transocean-owned semi-submersible oil rig, is arriving for a 21-day stint and already butting heads with corporate guys from BP, who had a longstanding lease on the Deepwater Horizon. The bad omens manifest before they even get on the rig, from a bird strike on the plane ride out, to Harrell--"Mr. Jimmy" to his loyal crew--superstitiously requesting that smug BP pencil-pusher O'Bryan (James DuMont) take off his magenta-colored tie.

Mr. Jimmy is irate over BP's cancellation of a standard cement test in order to cut costs. All over the rig, little things are malfunctioning and snowballing into bigger issues--the wi-fi, the smoke alarms, pieces of drilling equipment are showing their age or even breaking. Chief electronics tech Mike Williams (Wahlberg) stands by Mr. Jimmy in his mistrust of BP's assigned rig supervisor Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), who thinks the gauges indicating too much pressure represents a fault in the gauge that's not a cause for concern. While most of the crew is in the mess hall celebrating Mr. Jimmy getting a safety award from O'Bryan, Vidrine and another BP rep, Robert Kaluza (Brad Leland) essentially bully senior rig worker Jason Anderson (Ethan Suplee) into proceeding with the drilling when the blowout preventer malfunctions and all hell breaks loose. It begins with a massive oil eruption followed by an explosion caused by gas leaking from damaged and aging valves. 11 people were killed in the tragedy, with 115 evacuated to the nearby supply ship Damon Bankston, captained by Alwin Landry (Douglas M. Griffin).

While any film of this sort takes some dramatic liberties, DEEPWATER HORIZON for the most part sticks with the events and the timeline as the disaster unfolded. It makes no attempt to mask its contempt for the years of systemic corner-cutting by BP, whose reps aboard the vessel are only concerned with getting the work done as quickly and cheaply as possible (and, it should be noted, they're the first ones scurrying to the lifeboats when the shit hits the fan), and Berg does a very good job of conveying that sense of encroaching dread over a compelling first 45 or so minutes where we meet the characters and get a strong sense of who they are as they go about their routines, often speaking their own shorthand and work jargon (like Eastwood, Berg understands the importance of this). It shows us that these are reliable people who know what they're doing as Berg has the camera follow them around as things get increasingly tense, shaky, and claustrophobic. The film is perhaps a bit too ham-fisted when it comes to Malkovich's cartoonishly malevolent depiction of Vidrine, using an over-the-top Louisiana drawl that illustrates what might happen if James Carville was cast as the next Ernst Stavro Blofeld. There's plenty of blame to throw to lay at the feet of BP and their negligent malfeasance without Malkovich slathering on the faux-folksy local color so thick that even the late, great Justin Wilson might politely request that he take it down a notch. The actor gets dangerously close to CON AIR mode here, and other than some scattered shots of the now-mandatory unconvincing CGI fire, it's the one big misstep the film makes.

Wahlberg is fine as Williams, who became the face of the heroic rescue, and his scenes with Kate Hudson as Williams' wife and young Stella Allen as their daughter have a believable, lived-in feeling of genuine affection that Berg wisely doesn't oversell like Vidrine's villainy. But the key character in DEEPWATER HORIZON is the no-time-for-your-bullshit Mr. Jimmy, who joins the ranks of USED CARS' Rudy Russo, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK's Snake Plissken, THE THING's R.J. MacReady, THE BEST OF TIMES' Reno Hightower, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA's Jack Burton, TANGO & CASH's Gabriel Cash, TOMBSTONE's Wyatt Earp, DEATH PROOF's Stuntman Mike, BONE TOMAHAWK's Sheriff Franklin Hunt, and THE HATEFUL EIGHT's John "The Hangman" Ruth in the annals of essential Kurt Russell characterizations. Russell is an actor who's generally liked by critics while at the same time never hailed as a great actor, and that's a shame. There's a Russell persona that the actor has perfected over the years, even in fantastical genre fare like his work with John Carpenter. Though he's proven his versatility, Russell excels at playing the kind of guy DEEPWATER HORIZON is all about: working men of ethics and principle with a strong sense of duty and a code of honor who get shit done. The Russell archetype is a quiet, thinking man's badass (Jack Burton being an exception) and even now at 65, with the lines in his aging face showing a leathery weariness that reminds one of Clint Eastwood, he's still showing everyone how it's done. Even spending the second half of the film hobbling around and blinded by glass in his eyes, Russell's Mr. Jimmy is a fearless leader. DEEPWATER HORIZON pays tribute to everyday working men who lost their lives on the job, and while it may be a Mark Wahlberg movie, the star and producer is smart enough to realize it's just as much a showcase for the underrated icon that is Kurt Russell.

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