Film Reviews

Going, Going, Gone

Blink -- or, more likely, doze -- and you will miss it, this tiny beautiful oasis in the middle of an otherwise barren wasteland. For a moment -- a precious, frustrating moment to be treasured in a movie that flaunts its disposability -- Nicolas Cage reminds us of how good an actor he can be, when he attempts to transcend the trash in which he so often wallows. Wearing a smarmy smirk, a shiny suit and a glint in his wide-open eyes, Cage, playing Randall "Memphis" Raines, chats up a Ferrari salesman in a high, preening, mocking tone of voice, insisting he doesn't want to be one more L.A. "weenie" pulling up to a burger stand in a fire-red sports car. "What else ya got in the warehouse?" Memphis wonders, no longer able to contain the car thief within. The only thing he doesn't do is wring his hands and lick his lips. For that split second, Cage looks like a man unhinged, a jive-talking dude cruising for a good time at the world's expense -- Face/Off's Castor Troy out for a joy ride.

But Gone in 60 Seconds is not an actor's movie, and Cage instantly retreats within himself. The fire in his eyes is extinguished; the lilt in his voice goes mute. He's back to playing a human prop in yet another vacuous thrill-seeker produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who makes movies the way politicians deliver speeches: loudly, with absolutely nothing of substance beneath the burnished surface. There's little time for flesh and blood in a movie about the theft of 50 cars in a 24-hour period. The sound of a human voice simply can't compete with the magnificent roar of a 1967 Shelby Mustang GT 500, otherwise known as Eleanor, the object of Memphis's desires and his white whale, to boot. The actors are superfluous: Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Aston Martin and Porsche should have received top billing.

Cage tries his damnedest to make something of this hollow, cynical vehicle. As the reformed car thief who now teaches children how to steer their tiny scooters, Memphis wears a look of resigned unhappiness. He has given up the life, as per Mommy's (Grace Zabriskie) orders, but is easily lured back in once his brother Kip (Giovanni Ribisi) botches a job for British gangster Raymond Calitri (Christopher Eccleston), who threatens to kill Kip unless he gets his 50 cars.

Memphis then spends the next hour assembling the old gang to complete the job Kip bungled: wily veteran Otto (Robert Duvall), old flame Sara "Sway" Wayland (Angelina Jolie), Donny (Chi McBride), the Sphinx (a mute Vinnie Jones) and Atley (Will Patton). They're Memphis's A-Team.

Tailing Memphis like a pesky rash is detective Roland Castlebeck (Delroy Lindo), a cop who regrets he never put away Memphis back in the day. Letting the car thief elude him all those years is the one disappointment in an otherwise stellar career. Castlebeck follows Memphis's every move. He somehow knows exactly which cars he's going to steal, and the precise moment when he will make his move.

That a film in need of a single sentence of plot description would take so long to get going is baffling. Director Dominic Sena (whose sole film credit is 1993's Kalifornia) spends the first hour idling its engine with needless exposition and vapid character development. "All his life [Kip] looked up to you, he wanted to be you," Mama Raines says to Memphis. "Now, he is you." Two hours later, near the movie's woefully familiar showdown in an apocalyptic warehouse, Atley gives nearly the same speech to Kip, as though the filmmakers were convinced we're so slow that we've yet to catch up by film's end. Sena is so convinced he has made a meaningful movie about the depth of brotherly love that the car-stealing scenes become boringly repetitive and, finally, incidental.

H.B. Halicki's 1974 film, upon which Sena's "remake" is based (without credit), is infamous, at least on the extant drive-in circuit, for a single car chase that lasts 40 minutes and results in the destruction of nearly 100 vehicles. No doubt, that's the stuff of which Bruckheimer's dampest reveries are made. It's right up the producer's narrow alley: a film in which plot and exposition are nonexistent, unnecessary, eradicated by a single, never-ending pursuit and the accompanying wreckage. One could easily apply that description to the litany of vapid bang-'em-ups that litter Bruckheimer's résumé: Bad Boys, Con Air and Armageddon, to name a few.

But the car chase that appears near the end of Sena's Gone in 60 Seconds is expurgated, proverbial, even dull; turns out Memphis is just really good at driving backward. It ends just as it begins to get good, with Memphis jumping his Eleanor so high and so far the whole stunt appears to have been computer-generated (and indeed, it was). But it's a shrug of a finale. Memphis disappears, and with him, any remnants of thrill-seeking. By the time the chase resumes on a pier crowded with construction workers, bulldozers and tanks full of gas that whiz around like misguided missiles, it loses its momentum. Gone has nothing on Bullitt, The French Connection II or, for that matter, Smokey and the Bandit.

Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg (who penned Con Air and worked on Armageddon uncredited) hasn't written a script; he has written a litany of nonsensical non sequiturs and overwrought clichés and lines so silly you're forced to take them with a straight face. Otto, explaining his new life as a restorer of cars instead of a stealer of them, tells Memphis, "I'm no longer a destroyer. I'm a means of resurrection."

Worse, Rosenberg throws in several extraneous plots, all of which peter out before they're given a chance to play out. An uncredited Master P, mouth full of gold and head full of marbles, shows up as Johnny B, a fellow car thief who insists Calitri's job should have gone to him and his posse. But before Johnny and Memphis's rivalry has a chance to resume, Rosenberg conveniently jettisons Johnny from the film in a slapstick scene right out of Cannonball Run. It's as though Rosenberg and Sena weren't convinced the main plot could hold up on its own, so they threw in little nothings meant to distract us, to no avail. As a result, the movie plays like a series of B-sides -- all filler, no killer.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky