BP Saturday Night Movie: One Step Behind (2008)

Driving is one activity that forces us to look in the mirror.

Kenneth Branagh’s shambling version of Hanning Menkel’s Swedish cop is what drove all three smart and handsomely produced BBC productions of Menkel’s crime novels.

Melancholy suffuses all of the films, but it seems especially prevalent here, with Wallander seemingly too old, too distracted, too dulled to catch a murderer in his Swedish oceanside community.

I like to see this Branagh as the flip side of the character he played in his film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (1993).* He was young, handsome, and filled with brio, content to trade barbed witticisms with Emma Thompson in sun-dappled Tuscany as the day is long.

Now the day seems very close to night, Thompson is a distant memory (they were married for more than a decade) and Branagh is slogging through BBC made-for-TV movies.

Of course, I’m projecting. The real Branagh is re-married and is directing the Marvel big-budget Thor, so he appears to be fine. Kurt Wallander, however, is another story, one that Branagh effectively portrays. It’s an affecting performance; he’s a caring, troubled man, weighed down by a heavy heart.

The film has much to suggest about the way we alienate ourselves from our lives through the lure of work.  It surrenders to some serious genre cliches late in the game, however. (It also rather apes the plot of 1986’s Manhunter, the first Hannibal Lector film.)

Branagh has appeared in the thrillers before. He’s well remembered for his turn, with Thompson, in the Hitchockian Dead Again. But fewer viewers might remember Robert Altman’s compelling (if a bit by-the-numbers) The Gingerbread Man from 1998, which seems to be rather reviled on imdb.

* Why was Keanu Reeves in that movie again?

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BP Quick Hitter: The Naked City (1948)

Of all the bridges in all the world, they had to walk on to mine.

Directed by Jules Dassin

Written by Marvin Wald and Albert Maltz

Starring Barry Fitzgerald and Howard Duff

This landmark cop film received the Criterion Collection treatment, but it’s charms were fairly lost on me. It virtually invented the police procedural, and that’s likely why it feels so familiar. It’s plays out like a Law and Order episode with an action climax involving (of all things) a chase on the Brooklyn Bridge.

They’re tropes now, but the film was a monster hit when it was released. And its documentary-style mise en scene was chiefly the reason why. Its most bizarre element involves a voiceover narration from the film’s producer, Mark Hellinger, that was jarringly at odds with the realistic portrayal of New York City. It completely takes the viewer out of the movie.

Barry Fitzgerald, playing his standard wise, winkin’ Irishman, grew on me. At first, he seemed all wrong for the role as the senior detective, but the movie took place in a Manhattan where ethnicity played a larger role than now. And when movies still liked to use people over 50 as lead characters.

BP Quick Hitter: Lethal Weapon (1987)

The 80s: When Mel Gibson’s characters were the ones who were crazy.

Directed by Richard Donner

Written by Shane Black

Starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey

Writing critically about Lethal Weapon would be a ridiculous, meaningless thing to do. Like umpiring a t-ball game or digging a hole in a swamp.

But re-watching this tried-and-true cable TV actioner a few weeks ago, I was struck what a slick, well-built piece of machinery it really is. Like many films that helped launch a wave, its formula has been replicated, repurposed, twisted, and inverted so many times that the original is termed guilty by mere association with something such as Collision Course (Jay Leno and Pat Morita!) or Turner and Hooch (Tom Hanks plus dog).

Lethal Weapon didn’t invent the dreaded “buddy-cop” genre, but you could argue it perfected it.  Wikipedia has an enjoyable entry tracing the evolution of the concept. It claims the first such film might have been In the Heat of the Night” but the modern father is 48 HRS, a movie I keenly remember seeing as teenage. I liked it so much I came back and watched it again (and which, sadly, featured another insane mofo. And Nick Nolte.)  You could even make an argument for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as the first “action-comedy.”

Movies and television were rife with these kinds of partnerships in the eighties. Roger Ebert labeled them “wunzas”—as in “One’s a cop on the edge. . . .”

(Sidenote: Who killed this genre? Jackie Chan? Owen Wilson? Josh Hartnett? And when is it coming back?)

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