Start Making Sense

I am sympathetic to the problems of following up a masterpiece like Wings of Desire.... The history of film is filled with mediocre films by great directors, but Until the End of the World might as well be Plan Nine from Inner Space -- neither a noble failure nor a commercial make-work project nor the last work of an enfeebled former great. It's simply dumb, ill-conceived and ill-executed ... it fails at ambitions that hardly seem worth the effort in the first place ... If Wenders had spent the past three years laboring to bring forth a mouse, I might have been disappointed, but nowhere near as disappointed as I am at this bloated, ungainly, and -- worst of all -- dead Frankenstein's monster of a mouse.

That's what I wrote five years ago, on the release of Wim Wenders's Until the End of the World. Such a comedown from the director of Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas and The State of Things could perhaps be written off as a sad aberration, were it not for the fact that most of the same remarks could easily apply to The End of Violence, the latest from this former darling of the New German cinema.

If anything, The End of Violence may be even worse than Until the End of the World. It's a laughable piece of overwrought melodrama filled with symbols rather than characters and speeches rather than ideas. Indeed, all of Wenders's post-Wings work, including its sequel, Faraway, So Close, suggests that the director was at some point replaced by an alien clone -- a conspiracy theory that's only slightly less ridiculous than the plot of his new film.

Bill Pullman stars as Mike Max, a fabulously successful producer of Hollywood action films. Mike is so very absorbed in the making of his latest blockbuster, The Seeds of Violence -- now there's a believable title for a Stallone or Schwarzenegger film -- that his bored wife, Paige (Andie MacDowell), is threatening to leave him.

At the same time that Mike is watching digital video downloads of the rushes, a scientist named Ray (Gabriel Byrne) is scanning a bank of screens that appear to monitor the entirety of Los Angeles through a series of video cameras perched around the city. Ray has designed this system at the behest of a nameless, sinister law-enforcement bureaucrat (Daniel Benzali), who assures him it will wipe out street violence. "It'll cut down police response time by 200 percent," Benzali enthuses, apparently not realizing that this would mean the police arriving some time before the criminal act begins.

Ray is a classic absentminded technogeek, so absentminded that he doesn't seem to remember that the project is top secret. He sends Mike, whom he has briefly met at some sort of convention, an e-mail that describes the new surveillance system and suggests it might fit into one of Mike's movies.

While it hardly seems likely that the system -- which involves dozens of cameras perched in visible places -- will stay a secret very long, Ray's e-mail is such a security breach that it constitutes a death sentence for Mike. In a deliberately unclear sequence -- its very obscurity is one of the film's few interesting moments -- Mike is kidnapped and then (apparently) framed for murder. He immediately goes underground (even before he has any way of knowing that he has to) and is adopted by a family of Hispanic gardeners (including the great character actor Henry Silva).

Other stuff happens, none of it making a lick of sense, involving a stuntwoman (Traci Lind) making her acting debut, a boyish cop (Loren Dean) and a Guatemalan cleaning woman (Marisol Padilla Sanchez).

Wenders first showed his interest in the relationship between video and reality in the ludicrous second section of Until the End of the World. Here, he purees together a bunch of secondhand elements from Blow Up, Impact, The Parallax View and The Conversation and makes them into a leaden casserole that's both deep-dish and half-baked. It's not just that Wenders doesn't seem to have any new ideas about these well-worked issues; it's that he doesn't appear to have any coherent ideas at all. He seems to think he's tapping into the Zeitgeist of "Los Angeles, Today," but he's way out of sync. Except for the technological details, there's little here that wouldn't have fit in comfortably 30 years ago. In terms of being of the moment, The End of Violence might as well be The Big Broadcast of 1967.

Pullman and Byrne strive gamely, but there's nothing they can do with the script by Nicholas Klein, which contains some of the worst dialogue heard this year. Yet if Pullman and Byrne manage to survive with a modicum of dignity, MacDowell and Dean do not. The former -- who's left to moan such lines as "I have a yearning for life! Real life!" -- erases all memory of her competent post-sex, lies and videotape work with a return-to-Greystoke performance, while Dean appears to have wandered in from a different film altogether.

The best that can be said for The End of Violence is that Wenders doesn't manipulate his murky symbols as self-indulgently as he did in the nearly three-hour-long Until the End of the World. The End of Violence wastes only two-thirds as much of your life's precious time.

The End of Violence.
Directed by Wim Wenders. With Bill Pullman, Gabriel Byrne and Andi MacDowell.

Rated R.
122 minutes.

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