Saturday, July 11, 2009


Some comedians will do anything for a laugh. Sasha Baron Cohen has already proven his penchant for getting laughs in his previous improvisational mockumentary farce “Borat.” “Borat” (2006) consisted largely of gross-out jokes aimed at exposing racism and religious hypocrisy done guerrilla “Candid Camera” style on clueless, unsuspecting rubes. Cohen repeats the “Borat” formula in “Bruno.” If you thought “Borat” constituted the nadir of bad taste, nothing in “Borat,” including the nude wrestling match between two guys, can compete with the smutty jokes, outrageous sight gags, and flagrant display of genitals in “Bruno.” Indeed, “Bruno” (* out of ****) attacks homophobic rednecks, parochially minded prudes, and nincompoops desperately seeking their 15 minutes of fame in the ubiquitously mediated society. Anybody who doesn’t like to laugh at jokes that are liable to offend them shouldn’t see “Bruno.” Watching “Bruno” is the equivalent of having your friends make a YouTube video of you sticking your finger down your throat to see how far down you can get it before your hurl. Another way to describe “Bruno” would be to think of the last really awful traffic accident that you went out of your way to stare at because everybody else was gawking at it.

Calling Bruno (Cambridge native Sasha Baron Cohen of HBO’s “Da Ali G Show”) conspicuously gay qualifies as a hopeless understatement. Bruno cavorts about in clownishly obvious costumes that leave little to the imagination and takes his gay masquerade to incendiary levels of idiocy. Added to that he utters every word in a falsetto voice that nobody in their right mind would attempt without feeling self-conscious. The thought that Cohen could be taking swipes at Gay Liberation isn’t that difficult to fathom considering the subject matter of “Bruno.” Indeed, Bruno could have stepped off a spaceship from another galaxy with his uber-queer performance that alienates everybody except the most feeble-minded. While Cohen’s cretinous Kazakhstani journalist in “Borat” amounted to a somewhat sympathetic character, nothing about Bruno is remotely sympathetic. At the outset, Bruno stars in a European television program entitled "Funkyzeit." He has to leave his native Austria after he disgraces himself at a fashion show in Milan when he shows up dressed in an all-Velcro outfit. Predictably, every place Bruno turns, he attaches himself to curtains, backdrops, and models and then stumbles out onto the stage in front of the crowd. Afterward, Bruno decides to fly to Los Angeles and to become "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler."

Bruno takes a stab at producing a reality show called “A-List Celebrity Max-Out mit BrĂ¼no” where he interviews luminaries. He invites Paula Abdul to a posh house where Mexicans on their knees and elbows to act as furniture. Abdul looks around suspiciously at the live-action furniture, and she isn’t quite sure what to make it. Bruno invites her to have bite to eat and Abdul decides to exit when Bruno tries to serve her sushi from the body of a naked Mexican. Later, Bruno tries to ambush Harrison Ford for an interview. Yes, the guy actually looks just like Harrison Ford. Ford doesn’t take long to let Bruno know where to get off. Afterward, Bruno’s agent arranges for a focus group to evaluate his show. During the presentation, Bruno twirls his genitals like a cheerleader and the expressions that he elicits from the focus group are horrifying. Predictably, Bruno cannot imagine why they are so repulsed by his program. Later, cornering the recent libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul in a bedroom, Bruno begins to disrobe. The witless Paul realizes his error and exits in a heartbeat. Eventually, Bruno decides that the only way that he can scale the summits of superstardom is to straighten himself out. He visits a minister in Alabama who tries to help Bruno renounce his homosexuality. Along the way, Bruno visits a karate studio where he learns methods of defending himself from gays who might be stalking him. The karate instructor is either the greatest actor in the world or he was in on the joke because he looks genuinely convinced that Bruno is deathly afraid of homosexuals. Finally, at a cage fight in Arkansas, Bruno masquerades as a heterosexual fight promoter inciting brain-dead rednecks for forthcoming fights until he shocks them with a gay love making scene that devastated the entire crowd.

Director Larry Charles, who knows a thing or two about embarrassing people in public, helmed Cohen’s earlier film “Borat” as well as Bill Mahler’s “Religulous.” The biggest problem with “Bruno” is that you know some of the scenes had to have been staged with the participants in on the joke. Indeed, in this respect, because it is so obscene, “Bruno” must have been worked out ahead of time. The most clueless of the clueless is Bruno who never realizes how out-of-place that he is around ordinary, everyday people. Reportedly, Universal Studios deleted a scene with La Toya Jackson where Bruno tried to obtain Michael Jackson’s phone number. Nobody can say that Sasha Baron Cohen lacks nerve, because it takes a lot of nerve for him to serve up some of the sights that appear in this 82-minute mishmash. The karate scene is the best that “Bruno” has to offer. The scenes with the religious figures are far too cruel. Mind you, a lot of what transpires in “Bruno” is deliberately mean-spirited. Not even stupid people deserve the treatment that Cohen gives them. Believe me, nothing you’ve ever seen will prepare you for the sights in the R-rated “Bruno.”


No, surgeons cannot carve your face off and graft it onto somebody else like they do to John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in “Face/Off,” a provocative, high-voltage crime thriller. Surgeons may eventually perfect this operation, but for now it is impossible. Just because real surgeons cannot cut off faces and slap them onto other people, however, need not deter their ersatz Hollywood counterparts. Face swapping makes for an audacious movie premise, especially when it plays a key part in the razzle-dazzle, bullet-riddled duel of champions from celebrated Hong Kong action helmer John Woo. If you’ve seen the Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller “Hard Target” or the previous Travolta epic “Broken Arrow,” you’ve been Woo-ed. If you’ve never rented Woo’s super-charged video classics, such as “The Killer,” “A Better Tomorrow,” and “Hard Boiled,” you’ve missed some of the coolest thrillers since “Miami Vice” left the airwaves.

Nicolas Cage is cast as the insanely evil terrorist Castor Troy. Troy shoots Federal Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta of “Broken Arrow”), but his bullet passes through Archer and kills Archer’s young son Michael. Archer has made it his crusade to capture Castor Troy. Six year later, Archer catches up with him. Castor has just planted a bomb with a plague that’s “a tad worse than Gulf War Syndrome.” Before Castor can fly away, a task force of choppers, cars, and SWAT sharpshooters converge on the airport. This scene evokes memories of the Bond movie “License to Kill.” Like the Bond villain, Castor finds his jet stopped and the Feds swarming over it. He manages to kill a few before he is trapped in the deadly draft of a wind tunnel.

Everybody cheers Sean Archer. Castor lies in a coma, while his brother Pollux Troy (Alessandro Nivola in an effective performance) rots in prison. When the Feds inspect Troy’s plane, they discover a computer disc and learn about a dedly bomb. Just when Archer thought it was safe to cross the street, BOOM! An initial dragnet of Castor’s accomplices yields a date, but Pollus refuses to talk. At least to anyone other than his brother Castor. That’s when a black bag, super-secret operation is mounted. Hollis Miller (CCH Pounders of “RoboCop 3”) persuades Archer to swap mugs with Troy. With the specter of a devastating plague in L.A., Archer consent to their harebrained scheme.

The ingenious Mike Werb and Michael Colleary screenplay piles on absurdities galore with the same reckless abandon that some fast food restaurants heap on the lettuce, pickles, and tomatoes. “Face/Off” (***1/2 out of ****) spins itself off of the well worn plot when the good guy has to go so deep undercover that the only people who can help him are the first ones who the villains slay. If you’ve seen Burt Reynolds in Joseph Sargent’s “White Lightning” (1973), or Paul Newman in John Huston’s “The MacKintosh Man” (1973), or Johnny Depp in the recent Al Pacino caper “Donnie Brasco,” you know the plot basics. “Face/Off” is an unbelievable thriller that dresses itself up with realism. Even if half of the stuff in “Face/Off” couldn’t happen, director John Woo stages it so that it looks not only pictorially possible but visually splendid. The idea that John Travolta and Nicolas Cage can swap bodies is hokum of a clever but far-fetched nature. So the moviemakers rely on the indulgence of the audience. Of course, Travolta cannot become anything like Cage. But it’s fun to see how their characters change in this out-of-body experience. And the moviemakers go a step further when they include a surgical scene that is an homage to those old Hammer horror movies when Dr. Frankenstein dunked everything in a fish tank!

If you like movies where the heroes spend a lot of time trading shots with each other, “Face/Off” should be the right caliber for you. The arsenal of weapons is impressive; especially Castor Troy’s matched brace of gold-plated automatic pistols. Werb and Colleary chart the vendetta between Archer and Troy in a series of deliriously poetic shoot-outs that resemble a Sergio Leone extravaganza. You see bullets after they have been discharged leaving the barrel. Whenever it looks like it’s going to run out of plot, “Face/Off” loosens a burst or two of ammo in a gunfight. You get to see a lot of reloading close-ups. Every time a bullet hits anything, whatever it struck erupts into a fountain of shards. And then you have the cameras gliding through all of this mayhem with stunt people jerking and tumbling, shell casings flying, and guys dodging bullets. Woo surprisingly keeps blood and gore to a minimum.

The heroes and villains in “Face/Off” want to destroy each other. Archer is the straight-arrow hero and Troy is the villain. It’s a classic example of the struggle between good and evil. As villains go, Troy is mean to the marrow. He drips evil in a slinky, malignant way. He revels in violence for fun and profit. “Face/Off” tampers little with this image, except where Troy shows concern for his younger brother Pollux by constantly tying his shoes. When Castor gets his comeuppance, you want to cheer because he grows increasingly slimy as the plot thickens.

John Travolta alternates between jaw clenched expressions of rage and soul searching displays of agony. He allows his commitment to the law drive him beyond it. His heroism is tainted by grief for his dead son and his desire to kill Castor. This is one of Travolta’s more toxic performances, especially when he absorbs Castor’s personality.

The undersea prison in “Face/Off” is straight out of a sci-fi movie and another subtle hint about what director John Woo faced if he had remained in Hong Kong. In this prison, which is constructed of steel, the convicts wear steel boots. When a riot breaks out, the guards magnetize the convicts’ boots and zap them with cattle prods. The symbolism of “Face/Off” is fundamental. Woo shows us that there is a little good and evil in us all. When Travolta’s Archer agonizes about the plastic surgery, he says he’s being forced to break the laws that he has been sworn to uphold. He changes more than his face literally to crush evil. He proves this when he uses Castor’s henchmen against his own FBI agents who surround Castor. The filmmakers have a field day with the face symbolism here. The Archers’ use—both husband Sean and his wife—of a hand swipe over their respective faces to restore cheer to themselves in a pre-duel showdown is an example. Castor and Archer in different bodies aim their guns at each other with only a mirror standing between them. The subtle irony that they are going to shoot the evil in the mirror that each reflects but that their bullets may kill the real source of evil on the other side is pretty heavyweight stuff for a summer Hollywood blockbuster.

The worst thing you can say about “Face/Off” is that it never knows when the break it off. There are about five ballet-like staged shoot-outs between Travolta and Cage. Each gunfight resembles pyrotechnical pistolero polkas complete with fireball explosions. Everybody sprays hail storms of lead and everything get the confetti shot out of it. As the reigning maestro of movie violence, Woo has few equals. “Face/Off” emerges as an acrobatic ode to male violence. There is a frantic boat chase with a subsequent fireball explosion, and a prison riot and their portrayal are so fanciful that you forget that you’re watching a crime thriller.

For those who demand happy endings, “Face/Off” features a happy ending. The film also contains some socially approved messages which right-wing critics will no doubt overlook. Characters in “Face/Off” who smoke cigarettes are warned that tobacco products will kill them. A little boy is reprimanded for playing with a gun. Finally, “Face/Off” bristles with that signature John Woo image that seems to be plastered over every movie rental video box: a Mexican stand-off where two guys point guns at each other. If you don’t think that John Woo’s actioneers haven’t influenced Hollywood, you should now!