As late winter segues into early spring, movie fans are generally treated to the dregs at the bottom of each studio’s respective coffee pot: be they tonal misfires, bungled vanity projects or top-to-bottom exercises in abject misery, there’s often very little in the way of quality major releases to choose from. But for genre fans – or to be more specific, a very particular subset of them – this time of year can prove particularly fruitful for examples of high-art theory being applied to low-art subjects. I’m speaking of the relatively recent concept of vulgar auterism wherein modern practitioners of the B-movie aesthetic (movies that champion style over substance) are given more than the cursory glance often afforded them by polite society. This weekend in cinemas affords a rare gift, with two releases that fall safely under vulgar auterism’s umbrella – Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii and McG’s 3 Days to Kill, both of which I enjoyed to varying degrees.
The last time Paul W.S. Anderson made a movie I enjoyed it was called Mortal Kombat, and I was 11 years old, which gives you something of an idea of his target audience. Specializing in taking pre-established brands (Pompeii is the first movie he’s made not based on a pre-existing property since 1998’s Soldier) and applying a slick visual sheen that makes effective use of the frame and is very distinctly his in the same way a Wes Anderson picture could be mistaken for no one else. PWS is uninterested in plot mechanics for the most part, which makes Pompeii‘s clean and straightforward narrative something of an outlier in his oeuvre – the story of a slave-turned-gladiator (Game of Thrones‘ Kit Harington) and the beautiful, wealthy merchant’s daughter (Emily Browning) with which he falls in love right as Mount Vesuvius is about to place the titular city into the past tense.
It understands one of the basic tenets of solid camp cinema: In the world of decent performances, the unhinged lunatic is king. Kiefer Sutherland plays Roman senator Marcus Valerius Corvus with overt mustache-twirling villainy while making no concessions towards blending into the period setting – the overall impression is of Jack Bauer taking up community theater Shakespeare. It’s a sneering, gaudy standout in a movie otherwise populated by workmanlike turns. (Lead Harington is asked to do very little beyond glisten.) Anderson is one of the cinema’s best at dealing with 3-D technology, presenting a deep frame with coherently staged action alongside a predilection for slow-motion fetishizing of his subjects. It isn’t without its problems (the violence in the picture feels oddly sanitized, perhaps the casualty of a PG-13 rating), but it’s solid middle-of-the-road entertainment that Hollywood frequently proves incapable of providing.
3 Days to Kill is a bit of a deeper vulgar auterist cut. While director McG has flirted with being placed into the canon of visual stylists who make distinct and critically ignored work, what puts this particular film firmly in that realm is co-writer/producer Luc Besson’s involvement. The shepherd of what seems at times like the majority of action cinema over the past two decades (creator of both the Taken and Transporter series of films alongside schlocky delights ranging from the severely underrated Unleashed to the severely properly rated Lockout), Besson’s raison d’être has always been aimed toward forming a perfect synthesis between kitchen-sink family dramas and white-knuckle actioneers. When working perfectly in unison, the effect is thrilling (The Professional), but more often than not the blend skews too heavily towards one pole or the other and the end result is a bit jumbled.
That is certainly the case with this story of a dying CIA operative (Kevin Costner) and his attempts to re-connect with his estranged wife and daughter (Connie Nielsen and True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld, respectively) while simultaneously helping a fellow operative (Amber Heard, in a series of escalating leather outfits) bring down a dealer of dirty bombs. It took a solid 25 minutes or so for me to get my bearings in the storyline, but once the film begins trying to juggle its responsibilities much in the same way as Costner’s character does, there is a good deal of amusement to be had. Costner’s frequent usage of his torture subjects for fatherly advice provides much of the film’s comic oomph, and the film’s banal treatment of violence (Costner rams a car over a bridge, and in wide shot you see extras continuing their daily walks unabated) serves its strange tonal balance whether intentional or not. Of the two pictures, Pompeii is the one I’d definitely classify as “good,” but both are extensions of the filmmakers’ obsessions and as such are worthy of contemplation if you’re anything like me and look for any thematic fertility in this cinematic fallow season.