Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Everything that can go wrong does go wrong for a couple of corrupt homicide cops in “Disorganized Crime” director Jim Kouf’s “Gang Related,” (*** out of ****) an ensemble police procedural thriller that springs one startling surprise after another on its unsuspecting audience. This above-average but unsavory chronicle of a crime coming unraveled boasts a talented cast in a heavyweight tragicomedy of errors. What elevates “Gang Related” several notches above the ordinary gangsta epic is the film’s old-fashioned portrayal of good and evil in a morally ordered universe where everybody must atone for their sins. The filmmakers have borrowed elements as diverse as O’Henry’s classic comeuppance storytelling style and combined it with bits and pieces from big-budgeted movies such as William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985) and Joseph Ruben’s “Money Train” (1995). Indeed, Kouf’s accomplished piece of filmmaking looks like the flip side of Peter Hyams’ buddy cop movie “Running Scared” with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines, although the cops that Crystal and Hines played were good guys to the core.

The characters in “Gang Related” serve as the pawns of a serpentine plot. None of them exert control over what transpires and the irony of this isn’t lost on audiences. Few ensemble movies reach the big screen anymore, so this proves both surprising and gratifying to see such a polished effort like this one. Writer & director Jim Kouf produced a similar saga with his 1989 crime spoof “Disorganized Crime.” Everything went awry for a gang of thieves in “Disorganized Crime.” In “Gang Related,” everything goes awry, too, but for the police. The chief difference is that Kouf plays it straight right down the line. Although the parable teeters at times on travesty, Kouf never shifts the accent to buffoonery. You know something is different, too, when a couple marquee stars shows up in minor of crucial roles. You can barely recognize Dennis Quaid at first as a remorseful derelict and James Earl Jones’s arrival occurs straight out of the blue.

As Detective Frank DaVinci and Rodriguez, James Belushi and Tupac Shakur create a credibly chummy chemistry. Arguing that drug dealers constitute the scum of society, they set them up for buys, knock them off, and then attribute the murders to gangs. According to DaVinci, "Drug dealers don't qualify as people. Never did, never will." DaVinci and Rodriguez have iced nine drug dealers with this reliable method of operation, using narcotics secretly liberated then later returned to the police evidence room. DaVinci and Rodriguez get the shock of their lives when they learn that their latest victim, Lionel Hudd (Kool Moe Dee of “Panther”), was an undercover D.E.A. agent. Moreover, Hudd’s superior, Agent Richard Simms (Gary Cole), is determined to do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of Hudd’s murder and applies a lot of heat on the L.A.P.D. to find a suspect. Neither detective wants to confess to the crime so they search for a patsy. Several patsies don’t pan out because they have iron-clad alibis, but this doesn’t stop our unscrupulous protagonists from trying to set them up. They bring them into an interrogation room and slide the murder weapon across the desk at them and these poor fools catch the gun and wind up handling. One examines the revolver in detail and then cleverly wipes it clean and sends it sliding back at the cops. Eventually, DaVinci settles on a street bum. No sooner has Joe Doe (Dennis Quaid of “The Rookie”) been arrested than it turns out that he is a rich man thought dead for seven years. It seems that William Daine McCall, son of the founder of a major telecommunication corporation, was a celebrated surgeon who stepped out on his wife with a nurse. An argument between McCall and his wife prompted her to fly into hysterics, enough so to take their two kids and leave their home. Tragically, about a mile from home, the wife and children died in a car accident and McCall goes on a bender. Meanwhile, things keep getting worse for our protagonists. They enlist the aid of a stripper named Cynthia Webb (Lela Rochon of “Waiting to Exhale”) as an eyewitness. It seems that DaVinci is banging her on the side when he is sleeping with his wife. Cynthia buckles in court, however, when defense attorney Arthur Baylor (James Earl Jones of “Clean Slate”) tears up her contrived story under careful cross-examination, and she admits to perjury. Pretty soon the relationship between DaVinci and Rodriguez begins to deteriorate because Rodriguez lacks DaVinci’s cold, calculating nerve to kill people without a qualm.

James Belushi of “Mr. Destiny” plays an out-and-out villain here in a change-of-pace casting. He invests his character with more depth than you would normally associate with him. At times, his performance is so charismatic that you want evil to triumph. In his final screen appearance, the late rapper Tupac Shakur shows that his artistry will be missed as much by music enthusiasts as moviegoers.

Writer & director Jim Kouf has breathed new life into a routine plot by standing it on its head. Half of the fun of “Gang Related” is watching DaVinci and Rodriguez dig themselves deeper the more that they try to dig themselves out of disaster. Usually, in a movie like “Gang Related,” the heroes are the guys who are in trouble, but neither DaVinci nor Rodriguez qualify as heroes. They only character with any shred of integrity here is Cynthia. When she commits perjury, she refuses to divulge the identities of her cohorts. That’s what makes Kouf’s police thriller different and that difference might alienate orthodox crime movie junkies who need a hero to cheer. The ending is absolutely terrific!


Seldom does Hollywood produce a comic book prequel as potent and perfect as “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (**** out of ****), a no-holds-barred barrage of CGI visual effects, and brawny brain-dead, derring-do that will overwhelm you with its sheer extravagance in less than 120 minutes—actually a trim 107 minutes. “Tsotsi” director Gavin Hood and savvy scenarists David Benioff of “Troy” and Skip Woods of “Swordfish” shove enough testosterone into this larger-than-life spectacle to fuel an entire franchise. After the anemic as well as dismal closure that Brett Ratner’s “X-Men: Last Stand” provided the “X-Men” trilogy, “X-Men: Wolverine” brings you back to life like a shot of adrenalin to the heart. Reprising the role that make him a household name, a mutton-chopped Hugh Jackman wields the razor-sharp knuckle knives that he deploys like a Cuisinart in the original “X-Men” to slash and gash anybody and anything that gets in his way. Like any really good prequel, “Wolverine” brings the action full-circle so that we learn how Professor Charles Xavier wound up with many of the wards that he supervises in director Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” (2000). Mind you, “Wolverine” lacks the subtlety that distinguished the first two “X-Men” movies, but this prequel makes up for it with high-octane, slam-bang, edge-of-your-seat, action sequences that make your blood pump.

Essentially, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is a melodrama about two mutants that traces their origins back to Canada's Northwest Territory in the year 1845. As the two half brothers, James Logan (Hugh Jackman of “Australia”) and his older, more unstable semi-sibling Victor Creed (Live Schreiber of “Scream”) flee from their family in Canada and seek refuge south in America after Logan kills the man that he believes is his father. Hood and his scribes spend more time probing the back story of the highly conflicted Logan from his turbulent childhood to his tragic romance with a school teacher. Nevertheless, every episode of Logan’s life entwines with that of his unruly brother who suffers from anger management issues. Yes, eventually, Victor will become known as ‘Sabretooth,’ but for now he is just Victor. The credit sequence depicts our pugnacious pair--Logan and Victor--displaying their extraordinary strength, nimble dexterity and protean ability to regenerate no matter how devastating their wounds as they wade through the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam. Logan exerts more control over his bestial nature, while Victor wallows in his blood lust for death and violence, even when it prompts him to turn on his own men.

In Vietnam, Victor plunges off the deep end. He murders innocent Vietnamese civilians as well as American G.I.s. The Army slaps both Logan and him in front of a firing squad. Of course, these indestructible killing machines cannot die from ordinary bullets. They survive the firing squad’s fusillade but find themselves chained up again until General William Stryker (a nefarious Danny Huston of “The Aviator” at his oiliest) persuades them to be "part of a special team with special privileges.” (Incidentally, Brian Cox played an older Stryker in “X-Men 2.”) This black-bag, covert operations unit called Team X consists of fellow mutants, including Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds of “Blade: Trinity”), Agent Zero (Eurasian newcomer Daniel Henney), Wraith (novice Will.i.Am), Fred J. Dukes/The Blob (Kevin Durand of “Smokin’ Aces”) and Bradley (Dominic Monaghan of TV’s “Lost”) and resembles a mutant “Magnificent Seven.” For the record, Wade Wilson is a wizard with a sword. Agent Zero handles pistols like a gunman from a John Woo shoot-up with Chow Yun-Fat. For example, after he empties both magazines in his automatic pistols, he drops the clips, sends his sidearms somersaulting into the air like Wild Bill Hickok, snatches two fresh clips from his belt, and jams them into the grips as the guns fall spinning into his fists. Wraith specializes in teleporting. He’s somewhere one second and another place a second later. Bradley handles electricity like a conjurer.

During a bloodbath of a massacre in Nigeria, Logan quits Team X and masquerades back home in Canada as a ordinary, everyday lumberjack who has settled down with a luscious schoolteacher Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins) with has a knack for getting people to do what she wants, including muscle-bound Logan. Meanwhile, Logan wants nothing to do with his angry half-brother, but the bond between Logan and Victor proves to be stronger than even they imagined. Moreover, Victor isn’t content to let Logan skip out on him and he sets out to track him down with predictable results that forces Logan to confront his bestial nature on grounds that he cannot control. The treacherous Stryker lures Logan back to his laboratory and convinces him to participate in his highly hush-hush program Weapon X and Logan is reborn as Wolverine with an impenetrable alloy known as adamantium that makes him indestructible. Raving like the usual mad scientist, Stryker informs everybody about how he is going to create an army of these killers, but he forgets that Logan can hear him. Logan succumbs to his beastly nature, transforms into Wolverine, bursts out of the tank, and takes off.

Director Gavin Hood attracted praise for his first effort “Tsotsi,” a formidable drama set in South Africa about a teenage hoodlum who discovered an infant and shielded it from the elements. Hood’s second movie “Rendition” with Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal withered, but “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” finds Hood back in top form. Hood stages several incredible as well as outrageous combat sequences between not only Wolverine and Victor but also Wolverine and other antagonists. The violence is the stuff of far-out fantasy with no relation to anything realistic. Hood manages to juggle multiple characters with ease so that we’re never confused about who is trying to smackdown whom. Marvel Comic’s purists may quibble about the liberties that Hood and his writers take with the source material, but “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” qualifies as a first-rate, old-fashioned smackdown that will keep you rooting for the hero through thick and thin.