Tag Archives: C

ANTITRUST

Grade: C-

Paranoid thrillers have a long and sporadically distinguished history, and in the age of “The X-Files,” when society seems especially receptive to suggestions of conspiracy and hidden malevolence, they’re especially appropriate. They’re hard to pull off convincingly, though, and this tepid example (the title, of course, refers to both predatory business practices and the notion that, as Mulder’s famous poster warns, you shouldn’t have confidence in anyone when you’re up against a wicked cabal) doesn’t manage much more than a few clever moments.

The premise of “Antitrust” is the familiar, but still serviceable one about a brainy, ambitious but esssentially honest young man who takes a job with a company that turns out to be a nefarious enterprise, and who becomes a target when he decides to attack it from within. It’s a scenario that Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves both played out as budding attorneys in “The Firm” (1993) and “Devil’s Advocate” (1997), for instance. The twist in this case is that the business isn’t a law firm, but an equally powerful and (to most people) recondite operation, a computer software giant. Ryan Philippe plays Milo Hoffman, a programming genius just graduated from Stanford who’s lured from a start-up venture with classmate Teddy Chin (Yee Jee Tso) into working for Gary Winston (Tim Robbins), the legendary, fabulously wealthy and much-despised (by freedom-loving hackers) head of the behemoth N.U.R.V. Corporation. At first Milo and his long-time girlfriend Alice (Claire Forlani) are happy in the high-tech enclave Winston’s built in the Pacific Northwest, but before long Teddy’s killed while on the brink of a breakthrough, and Hoffman suspects that his boss’ plans, and the means he uses to promote them, decidedly cross the line of what’s acceptable even in the dog-eat-dog world of contemporary capitalism.

As this paraphrase should make clear, “Antitrust” shamelessly plays off concerns about the machinations of Bill Gates and Microsoft, with more than a wink and nod toward the firm’s current legal troubles. That’s a perfectly fair subject for cinematic invention, of course, but unfortunately Howard Franklin hasn’t found a way to make it work. He’s constructed the plot around the search for a system of digital conversion which will link all the world’s communications devices through a collection of privately-owned satellites, thus giving its creator/owner a virtual monopoly over the digital age, as well as mammoth profits to go along with it. (The whole thing doesn’t seem much more plausible than the computer-based tracking devices that made up the Hitchcockian MacGuffin in the recent “Charlie’s Angels,” but that was a comedy.) Winston hires Milo as a key member of the team putting the final touches to his version of such a scheme, a much-ballyhooed project called Synapse, which is scheduled to go on-line in a matter of weeks if the last bugs can be worked out. But in constructing a script around this premise, the synapses in Franklin’s own brain seem to have malfunctioned. The writer makes a cardinal error by revealing the Dark Secret of N.U.R.V. entirely too early (about 45 minutes in), dissipating any sense of mystery or suspense that the narrative’s managed to generate until then. This leaves him little choice but to fill up the rest of the running-time with genre conventions–chases and abrupt shifts of loyalty, mostly, but also a series of stock sequences in which the hero is engaged in some hurried effort to get information about the dangers around him while intercuts show the approach of a character who might catch him in the act. Even the most gifted director and editor would have trouble building much tension from the third or fourth reprise of such a hoary old device, and Peter Howitt and Zach Staenberg hardly fall into that category. (The curse of the computer movie also dooms these episodes. Despite innumerable efforts over the past decade, nobody has been able to make scenes of somebody sitting with face bathed in a monitor’s glow, tapping away at a keyboard, interesting or exciting. Even when the camera switches to show us the computer screen, which might be filled–as it often is here–with dandy graphics or videos, there’s a sense of detachment which saps whatever energy the scene might possess.) For his denouement, moreover, Franklin falls back on the close of “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), with some garage-based start-up geeks standing in for the New York Times. How things have changed!

The cast doesn’t compensate for the screenplay’s lapses. Philippe is mostly sullen and dispirited–understandable in view of the circumstances, perhaps, but hardly very invigorating. (He wears glasses in a vain attempt to give him a geeky appearance, but his beach-boy good looks keep shining through.) Robbins initially has some fun with his Bill Gates impersonation–it’s a hoot to see him with the same hair and grin–but soon he degenerates into a fairly stock bad-guy. The two leads don’t play off one another particularly well, either: Hoffman and Winston are supposed to be engaged in a sort of cat-and-mouse chess match in the final reels, thinking themselves into one another’s shoes, but a climactic scene in which they try to outwit one another by predicting what the other fellow will do is so poorly scripted and acted that it draws derisive snorts from the audience. Forlani and Rachel Leigh Cook are surprisingly nondescript as Milo’s squeeze and a fellow programmer whom he takes into his confidence. The lesser figures are even less impressive; there’s a fairly faceless collection of slacker types to play high-tech nerds (in comparison to whom Philippe looks all the more wrong), and none of the nasty dudes who do N.U.R.V.’s dirty work are at all memorable. (It might have assisted things if the villains had proven especially clever or resourceful, but they come across as a singularly inept group, despite all the technological wizardry and surveillance capability they’re supposed to have at their command.) The picture doesn’t look especially good, either: it has a curiously faded, washed-out appearance, and even the equipment on display seems dated. (The sole exception is a series of digital paintings that regularly change to suit the mood of whoever enters a room. They’re cool, and are effectively used in one scene when Winston comes upon Hoffman sitting at a laptop, unaware of his approach.)

As paranoid fantasies go, “Antitrust” can’t hold a candle to the real classics of the genre–Alan J. Pakula’s “The Parallax View” (1974) and “All the President’s Men” (1976), both of which really get under a viewer’s skin while Howitt’s movie just glides over the surface. It lacks the cerebral intensity of those pictures, opting for easy thriller chases and cliches rather than making its points through mood and suggestion. Nor does it match Robbins’ last foray into this territory, 1998’s “Arlington Road,” to which Mark Pellington brought a bit of Pakula’s savvy, despite some problems in the final act. It even pales besides John Badham’s “WarGames” (1983), in which the young Matthew Broderick proved a far more engaging protagonist that Philippe does here. By comparison this new effort is pretty pallid stuff. It might, however, perform a public service by making people think twice about the wisdom of reconsidering the plan to break up Microsoft.

BANGKOK DANGEROUS

Grade: C

Since Hollywood has done so many knockoffs of Hong Kong movies, surely there’s nothing inherently wrong with a Thai one. And “Bangkok Dangerous,” by the fraternal writing-directing team of Oxide and Danny Pang, certainly gets the look right. Flashy, neon-colored, slickly-cut, featuring the usual quota of slow-mo inserts, filled with ominous gunfights and soft-grained romantic interludes, drenched with gore and boasting a booming bass-heavy soundtrack, it certainly feeds the senses as well as its many models. And the plot–involving a deaf-mute hitman, his wounded best friend, the stripper girlfriend of the latter, the sweet-as-candy drugstore clerk the hero falls for, and the nefarious gang members our protagonists fall afoul of–is the same mixture of macho action, regretful angst, fervid brutality and heart-on-sleeve melodrama that the Hong Kong masters have been dishing out for decades. (The indebtedness to the conventions of the old Hollywood westerns–the young gunslinger, the fallen mentor he must avenge, the dance-hall floozie, the Machiavellian mastermind and his thuggish henchmen, the schoolmarm-like beauty who draws out the hero’s long-suppressed humanity, as well as the one- guy-against-many battles–has never been more apparent.)

The problem with the Pangs’ homage is that unlike, for instance, the classics of John Woo, “Bangkok Dangerous” seems entirely artificial and surface-oriented, a technical exercise above all else. Simply put, it’s the sizzle without the steak, a sleek cinematic body without a heartbeat. It’s a succession of set-pieces, each of them individually impressive but adding up to very little because there’s nothing between them to move us; the final effect is more exhausting than exhilarating, unlike in the best examples of this genre. As the sensitive Kong, our handicapped but hardly disabled killer, for example, Pawalit Mongkolpisit strikes all the proper poses but never comes across as anything but a convenient plot crutch–he’s obviously supposed to be a younger, leaner variant of the sort of iconic figure that Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson played in the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, the brooding fellow, laconic (here necessarily so) and drained of emotion by the brutality he suffered as a boy (in this case, he became a murderer-for-hire because neighborhood kids picked on him as a kid, as some artsy flashbacks show)–but never manages to become truly affecting. And the characters who surround him are merely cardboard figures. Some of the plot twists, moreover, are risible: after so many people have been offed, for instance, it seems more than a little absurd that an orgy of national mourning would ensue over the killing of–get this–a television executive!

Visually, though, the picture is impressive; the camerawork is often inventive (especially in the many assassination scenes–the homicide rate in Bangkok must be astronomical), the choreographing of some slaughter sequences adept, and the lighting and composition extremely professional. The throbbing score from Orange Music is a definite asset, too, though some will find it deafening. The picture also ends with a bang–one of those over-the-top gestures that the genre is famous for; in this case it’s what one could call the ultimate murder-suicide. If you should go to it, moreover, be sure to get there in time for the opening credits. They’re really cool.