Ain't It Cool News - Review 2

Last Update: 29 October 2002

Ain't It Cool News Review

Source: Ain't It Cool News

October 2002

One of the things I love about sites like CHUD and AICN is that we can choose to support a film whether it’s got a $50 million marketing budget or not. We’re not like most magazines or press outlets, where the size of the release mandates the size of the coverage. Instead, it’s as simple an equation as this: if we like something, we talk about it. If we like something a lot, we talk about it a lot.

So it doesn’t surprise me to see Nick Nunziata gettin’ behind Kurt Wimmer’s still-unreleased sci-fi action/thinker EQUILIBRIUM, a movie that plays like GATTACA and THE MATRIX got into the Brundlechamber and emerged as some uneasy hybrid. What works is downright awesome, and what doesn’t is still pretty good. So why the hell has this been sitting on a shelf since last summer?

The Grammaton Clerics are part religious order, part crime-fighting super unit. Cleric John Preston (Christian Bale) is the best of the best, a hardcore killer who has proven the intensity of his devotion, paying the highest price there is. He gave his own wife up for sense crimes. She stopped taking her Prozium, you see. Prozium is what you take every day, you see. Several times. Everyone has their watch and their little injection gun, and when the alarm goes off, you just put the needle to your neck and SNAP! Instant harmony. Everything is mellow.

Permanently. No highs. No lows. Just a simple moderate passive acceptance. This is the way it has to be. This is because of man’s own nature, the nature that led to the third world war. This is because man’s nature will inevitably lead to a fourth war, one that may not be possible to survive. The Grammaton Clerics are the ones who make sure that other people don’t step out of line. They track down and destroy sense offenders. And as terrible as it is in FAHRENHEIT 451 when they destroy books, this is worse. This is the destruction of everything of any kind that might make you feel or dream or hope or laugh or cry.

It’s life with no reason to live it.

John Preston’s wife tried to tell him that, but he didn’t listen. He just kept up his Prozium, and he made sure his children kept up their Prozium, and he kept going to work every day, enforcing the law, feeling nothing.

You don’t have to be a psychic, or even a particularly rabid genre fan, to know where the story is going to go in the broad strokes. He’s going to have some sort of awakening. He’s going to question the world he lives in. He’s going to choose something that goes contrary to his place in society. He’s going to have to fight.

One of my very favorite films is Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL. I love the way Sam Lowry is slowly brought into the real world though his encounters with Buttle and Tuttle and Jill and his mother and Mr. Helpmann and Jack Lint. I love the way he finally chooses to fight back by simply retreating into the dream life he has built for himself. EQUILIBRIUM gives us a main character who has a very different reaction when his mask slips a bit and he suddenly sees the world for what it is. Preston’s first moment of real discomfort comes when he tracks and kills his own partner, Cleric Partridge, who is played by Sean Bean in a great, soulful cameo. He gives great brood here for the few minutes he’s in the film. He and Bale have a very interesting dynamic, very specific. Bean is resigned to the fact that he’s a criminal. He knows he’s going to be discovered. He knows he’s going to be destroyed. The joys of a Keats poem are worth it, though, and he embraces his fate willingly. He’s not strong enough to fight the system, but he is strong enough to remove himself from the game. He knows Preston will kill him for his sense offense, and he doesn’t do a thing to stop him.

Not that he could stop him. The first major action scene in the film is a shootout in the dark that is just breathtaking. It’s original, a great idea executed to perfection, and in some films, this would be the very best thing you saw. In this film, it’s a warm-up for what comes later. Christian Bale is utterly convincing as a man who training and sedatives have transformed into a perfectly-balanced weapon, a killing engine that can be pointed at anyone and simply released.

And we get a great indication of that when he shows up for his first major incident in the film. There’s a group of sense criminals holed up in a warehouse where they’ve stored some emotional relics, the sort of thing that stirs up their passions. Paintings. Music. Poetry. Anything that challenges you to feel. Bale has the advance team knock out the lights in a room, then knock out the lights in the hallway outside so that when he opens the door and enters the room, there’s no silhouette. There’s no anything. It’s pitch black. Wimmer stages this entire first sequence in the absolute black of that room, illuminating it only with the muzzle flashes from the two guns that Bale wields with remarkable, almost supernatural precision. He bends his own body in various bizarre contortions as he does so, something we later learn is part of the training for the Clerics. They’ve figured out the mathematical possibility of combat, and they put themselves in the least statistically possible place to be hit at each moment of a fight, so he’s not just posing so it looks cool. He’s simply outmaneuvering every shot fired at him, even as he picks off the people in the room based on where their shots are fired from. It’s a startling burst of kinetic violence, original in concept and execution, and it’s not the best moment in the film. Not by a long shot. And when you see this scene, and you lose your mind... and if you’re a self-respecting action geek on any level, you WILL lose your mind... then I want you to remember I said that. What you just saw is not the best scene in the film. Or the second best. Or even the fourth best.

That’s what sort of ass-kicking you’re in for.

I think EQUILIBRIUM’s got weaknesses. I think there’s a strange sort of narrative hiccup in act two where Bale’s character just sort of square-dances in place for a while. But a lot of that is because Wimmer seems determined to give Bale room to play, and the results of that can be so striking that I’m willing to overlook anything I don’t think works. Bale goes through his own awakening over the course of the film, encouraged by supporting players like William Fichtner (interesting, as always) and Emily Watson (strikingly shot for the second time this year, and playing a similarly underwritten role), and there are a few highlights along the way. In particular, there’s a scene involving a Beethoven record that I thought was very touchingly etched by both Bale and Wimmer, and an action scene centered around a dog that is just stunning.
EQUILIBRIUM’s not a wildly expensive film, and it shows in some of the establishing shots of this bleak futurescape. Still, I like the design. Even though things don’t look real at every point, there’s a very clean and sterile look to the world that works to help make the point. This place has been leeched of everything worthwhile, and it’s all at the will of Father, society’s benevolent dictator who speaks only by hologram. The Master Cleric (THE CRADLE WILL ROCK’s Angus MacFadyen) is Father’s spokesman, the one who speaks directly to the rest of the order, and he and Bale have the most directly antagonistic relationship in the film. There’s a young Cleric (Taye Diggs) who believes that Bale is breaking down and starting to feel, and he’s determined to catch him at it. Their relationship is overplayed, mostly on Taye’s end of things, but it pays off in one of the coolest action beats in the whole film, so again... I’ll take the bad with the good.

I can’t praise the film as an action movie without specifically praising the people who managed to build the action. Tom Rolf was one of the editors of HEAT, a film that I thought had supercharged action sequences, and EQUILIBRIUM hits an equally high mark. Dion Beebe, the cinematographer of the film, is also responsible for CHICAGO this Christmas, and the work I’ve seen on that film is incredible. Beebe seems to be especially good at recording motion in a way that allows us to see the full range of that motion with crystal clarity. People who complain that they can’t follow most action scenes because of rapid cutting are going to glow with an inner peace after seeing these scenes, where each cut, each motion, each new beat of the scene, all seems to be one long, liquid, incredibly communicative thing that you not only follow, but that you get sucked into. You feel these action scenes. Mr. Beaks described this as “gun-fu,” and Nick at CHUD described it as “gun-kata.” Both terms sound about right. It’s martial arts, basically, with guns used not only to fire bullets, but also used as extensions of the fighter. There is some swordplay here, too, but what idiot brings a knife to a gunfight? Bale (and what I’m sure must be a team of stunt people) proves to be quite expert with whatever he picks up, so each scene is different, charged with the energy of this particular foe or that particular tight corner.
Overall, I think this is a tricky film to sell. I think Nov. 8th and December 6th, the two dates I’ve heard mentioned so far, both suck. You blew it with BELOW, Dimension. Don’t kill this film, too. Hold it until the spring. Find a two-week window in March or April where no one else has an action film coming out. Cut the trailer you need to cut... the trailer you know you can cut with the amazing footage you have to choose from here... and start selling this film. Kurt Wimmer started his career writing movies for the Barbarian Brothers (DOUBLE TROUBLE) and directing Brian Bosworth (ONE TOUGH BASTARD), and he’s written a few studio movies, including one that I quite liked, the John McTiernan remake of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. This film serves as an announcement, though, that whatever he did before was a warm up. He’s ready to step up and start making some serious science-fiction action films. Studios would do well to start figuring out what they’re going to do with this guy, because it’s only a matter of time before he connects with something and makes his own MATRIX, his own TERMINATOR 2. He’s got that good an eye for this stuff. I’m still mystified as to why Betty Thomas is making THE STARS MY DESTINATION for Fox. I mean, I saw I SPY, and as amiable as it is, it’s no EQUILIBRIUM when it comes to delivering hard, stylish, cold-blooded action. This one is a reminder of what it is that makes us genre fans in the first place.

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