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Saturday, May 14, 2005

Movie Night: Unleashed and Kingdom of Heaven

Soapy and Diane accompanied me to the movies on Friday night... taking in the blood and gore of Unleashed and Kingdom of Heaven. And not only did we get two-for-the-price-of-one, we actually got in free thanks to Soapy's magic box of Regal Theater Gift Passes. Soapy left early, rather than face a full five hours of Hollywood, but Diane and I were up to the task. And we endured the marathon, all without a single kernel of popcorn. Both films present an interesting challenge to the viewer, but both left this viewer unable to ignore their fatal flaw.

Unleashed asks you to accept the idea of a kung fu expert enforcer that has been trained since childhood to be an obedient dog for his gangster boss. After escaping captivity, he slowly learns to trust those paragons of human kindness Morgan Freeman and Kerry Condon, who attempt to create a normal life for him. Hoskins is expertly evil in his portrayal, but it is Li who will garner raves for his transformation from a merciless killer in the opening scenes to a terrified man hiding under a bed from a teenager offering him an electric piano (this, along with the ice cream scene are some of the best non-action scenes in Jet Li's career.) It's even more profound when you imagine Steven Segal attempting this kind of vulnerability. Unfortunately a few bad stylistic decisions, particularly during the gladiator pit scenes, turn what should be a taut character drama with startlingly good action sequences into unintentional comedy. This will cost Jet Li the Oscar nomination that he deserves.

Kingdom of Heaven is a sprawling epic filled with cardboard characters that serve as moral stances personified but have nothing you or I might call personality. They do look good, but Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson and Orlando Bloom all fail to command the screen the way that Russell Crowe can. Instead of being drawn into the human drama (as there is little, and even less chemistry between the actors,) Ridley Scott offers only impressively realistic 12th century military recreations to draw us in and entertain us while he spins his parable. These recreations however are fantastic, including the best siege warfare scene Stave It Off has ever witnessed. Scott also has some timely and profound themes to explore in KoH. The film eventually earns 3 stars because it leaves one thinking about the nature of activism, fundamentalism, and how we're still fighting the same wars 800 years later. It is perhaps too kind to the Muslim side, but given the setting (the Crusades) that's not so unreasonable.

Both movies make the claim that a life of violence is no good at all. Both main characters walk away from warrior status to embrace simplicity and love. However, both films preach peace while they titillate us with scene after scene of leg-breaking, head-crunching combat. At some deep level it's creepy to watch films inspired equally by Rocky and Gandhi. Granted, Hollywood churns out films that follow this formula all the time, but I still don't like it. _Cinema



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