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The Measure of a Movie

Revolver, Street Kings, and There Will Be Blood help us categorize film.

12:00 AM, Apr 11, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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THERE ARE ANY NUMBER of ways to classify films. You can label them by genre--what's the best noir, or comedy, or science fiction movie? You can break them down by era--were the pre-Hays code gangster movies better than the watered down (but far cleverer) films that followed? You can identify them by their stars--Cary Grant or John Wayne? Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger?

In the broadest terms possible, however, films can be divided three basic ways: the irredeemably bad; the watchable (and enjoyable) but not great; and the masterpiece. It was my good fortune to catch one of each in the last week.

Revolver, recently released on DVD, falls squarely into the first category--the realm of the hopelessly bad movie. The latest flick from Guy Ritchie, Revolver was supposed to be his return to the clever caper film, a genre he did great things with in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Revolver gets off to a promising start: Ritchie regular Jason Statham is just out of prison and ready to take revenge on the man that sent him there. But before he does so, he must face off against his inner demons. Or something. The plot is incomprehensible. I don't mean dense, or difficult to understand--it is literally incomprehensible. So much so that, as the credits begin to roll, psychologists sit in front of a camera explaining the movie's final act.

Now, Ritchie and screenplay "adapter" Luc Besson probably came to realize this after their film tanked with critics and audiences alike, but allow me to offer one piece of criticism: if you need Deepak Chopra and his ilk to explain what the "Ego" is and how it relates to your film, you have failed as a screenwriter. Revolver is pretentious without being thought provoking, poorly acted without at least offering campy entertainment, and shot in the most garish color palette I have ever seen. If I may paraphrase another (far more entertaining) film: Mr. Ritchie, everyone in the room is dumber for having seen your film; I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Luckily for the viewer, very few films are as hopelessly awful as Revolver--indeed, these vapid failures number a tiny fraction of all releases each year. I offer for your consideration Street Kings, the Keanu Reeves police procedural opening this Friday. Like every other film Keanu Reeves has ever made--from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure to Speed to The Matrix--his latest practically defines my second category. It's a perfectly watchable, utterly predictable, and thoroughly enjoyable popcorn flick. It will win no Oscars, but it has no pretensions other than to entertain for a little under two hours and, if you're open to the idea, might make you think about the difference between doing wrong and breaking the law.

It's not the type of movie that does well with critics. Indeed, it will probably be despised by critics. At the critics' screening in Washington last week, the excruciatingly clichéd dialogue drew a number of annoyed chuckles. The film itself is one long exercise in tired tropes and silly contrivances. Keanu Reeves plays the street-tough cop with a heart of gold--he'll bend the law and gun down a group of pederasts, but he's not about to take out one of his brothers in blue for dropping a dime on him. (Beat him to a pulp, maybe, but not kill him.) Intrigue layers upon intrigue, Reeves isn't sure who to trust, events spiral out of control, and in the end even the straight cops turn out to be dirty. As I said, terribly predictable.

But predictability does not necessarily preclude entertainment. It's not a film made for critics, but a mass-market production; at a second screening (this one with a paying audience) the film was received joyously. Cheers went up at various points. Un-ironic laughter filled the air at comedic moments. People were thoroughly entertained and there's not much more you can ask from a movie like this. The vast majority of films fall into this category--some amusing moments, but not something you throw on your DVD shelf when it debuts at Best Buy six months later.

There Will Be Blood, on the other hand, is a movie that must go on that shelf. Paul Thomas Anderson's character study of Daniel Plainview, a turn-of-the-century oilman brought to deliciously hammy life by Daniel Day Lewis, is, quite simply, the best American film of the decade. Released on DVD this Tuesday, There Will Be Blood is, in every respect, a masterpiece: the performances are top notch; the cinematography is amazing; and the score is a wildly original triumph.