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Tim Grierson on the Critic-Proof Charm of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

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When you see posters advertising his movies, he’s identified as Dwayne Johnson. But nobody calls him that. We all just call him the Rock. There’s something incredibly telling about that. One name — the one we see on posters — is the name of an actor, a movie star. The other — the one we all prefer — belongs to his old life, when he was more of a cartoon character than a real person. But even Johnson seems to understand this reality, even embrace it. He wants to be an action hero, someone taken seriously in Hollywood, but his movies are almost beside the point. He’s bigger than the movies he stars in. And he’s definitely better than them.

Friday sees the release of “Snitch,” which will start screening for most critics this week. I haven’t seen it yet, but I find myself optimistic that it’ll be good. There is no reason I should feel this way. When you look at his recent output, it’s a mixed bag. He’s fun in brief comedic roles in “Get Smart” and “The Other Guys,” essentially spoofing his own tough-guy persona. But then you have the utterly terrible family fare like “Tooth Fairy,” where he was billed as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and the so-so action-drama “Faster” where his grit mostly went to waste. Most times, I walk out of his films liking him but not liking the film much at all. Even when the film he’s in is a dog, he’s incredibly charismatic, and he’s funnier than just about any other pure action star out there. Outside of Jason Statham, there’s no movie star for whom I so consistently give the benefit of the doubt, no matter how many times he’s disappointed me.

Before he was an actor, he was a wrestler. A fairly successful one known as the Rock. He looked the part with his rippling muscles and cocky demeanor. But he also seemed to understand that most people know wrestling is fake, and so he walked a delicate line, acknowledging the absurdity of the whole thing while at the same time playing into the make-believe. His film career really hasn’t been that different. He knows we all call him the Rock and that his movies aren’t high art. He plays the tough guy, but a tough guy who gets that tough guys are kind of a joke. He won’t deny you the pleasure of enjoying him as a tough guy, but he also doesn’t take it so seriously.

This isn’t to suggest that people who go to his movies think of them as knowing self-parodies. Judging by the commercials for “Snitch,” the movie looks very much like it’s in the same vein as “Faster,” positioning Johnson as an action hero who’s comfortable with drama, albeit that of the B-movie kind. The guy’s clearly ambitious, and he’s willing to try anything. He’ll do inspirational sports movies (“Gridiron Gang”), he’ll do nervy indie dramas (“Southland Tales”), and he’ll do the franchise stuff (“The Scorpion King,” “Fast Five,” “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”). But his appeal lies in his ability to not seem like a comer: Whether it’s on his Twitter feed or in his “Saturday Night Live” appearances, he works the aw-shucks self-deprecation with such sincerity that if he’s faking it’s his best-ever performance. He’s been on the big screen for more than 10 years now, and yet he’s still able to keep our expectations in check. We may not like his movies but, weirdly, we don’t blame him. He’s that one kid on the baseball team who’s really likable and fun to be around, and who cares if he can’t hit? You just enjoy being with him.

That can’t last forever, of course. Eventually audiences will get tired of him, or a newer actor will swoop in and steal the parts that he used to get. But for now, Johnson is unique among movie stars, and that uniqueness is worth celebrating, even if it does mean sitting through junk like “Journey 2.” Frankly, at this point the movies are just an excuse to have him around in the culture cracking jokes and being all Rock-like. There are plenty of movie stars with more depth than him. But there aren’t many who seem to enjoy their stardom as much as he does — and make it so enjoyable for the rest of us.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

Bourne

Bourne to Run

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Bourne Movies

Catch The Bourne Ultimatum this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

You know his name, as the Super Bowl teaser for the upcoming summer blockbuster Jason Bourne reminded us. In this era of franchise films, that seems to be more than enough to get another entry in the now 15-year-old series greenlit. And gosh darn it if we aren’t into it. Before you catch The Bourne Ultimatum on IFC, here are some surprising facts about the Bourne movies that you may not know. And unlike Jason Bourne, try not to forget them.


10. Matt Damon was a long shot to play Jason Bourne.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Coming off of Good Will Hunting and The Legend of Bagger Vance, early ’00s Matt Damon didn’t exactly scream “ripped killing machine.” In fact, Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe and even Sylvester Stallone were all offered the part before it fell into the hands of the Boston boy made good. It was his enthusiasm for director Doug Liman’s more frenetic vision that ultimately helped land him the part.


9. Love interest Marie was almost played by Sarah Polley.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Damon wasn’t the only casting surprise. Franka Potente, of Run Lola Run fame, wasn’t the filmmaker’s first choice for the role or Marie in The Bourne Identity. In fact, Liman wanted his Go star Sarah Polley for the part, but she turned it down in favor of making indie movies back in Canada. A quick rewrite changed the character from American Marie Purcell to European Marie Helena Kreutz, and the rest is movie history.


8. Director Doug Liman was obsessed with the Bourne books.

Universal Picutres

Universal Pictures

Liman had long been a fan of the Bourne book series. When Warner Bros.’ rights to the books lapsed in the late ’90s, Liman flew himself to author Robert Ludlum’s Montana home, mere days after earning his pilot’s license. The author was so impressed with his passion for the material, he sold the rights on the spot.


7. Liman’s father actually worked for the NSA.

Universal Picutres

Universal Pictures

Part of Liman’s fasciation with the Bourne series was that his own father played the same spy craft games portrayed in the books while working for the NSA. In fact, many of the Treadstone details were taken from his father’s own exploits, and Chris Cooper’s character, Alex Conklin, was based on Oliver Stone, whom Arthur Liman famously cross examined as chief counsel of the Iran-Contra hearings.


6. Tony Gilroy threw the novel’s story out while writing The Bourne Identity.

Universal Picutres

Universal Picutres

Despite being based on a hit book, screenwriter Tony Gilroy, coming off of The Devil’s Advocate, had no idea how to adapt it into a movie. He said the book was more concerned with people “running to airports” than character, and would need a complete rewrite. Director Doug Liman agreed, and Gilroy claims to have condensed the original novel into the first five minutes. Getting that out of the way, he then wrote his own story, based on a man who wakes up one day not remembering anything but how to kill.


5. Damon walked like a boxer to get into character.

Universal Picutres

Universal Picutres

Damon had never played a character like Bourne before, and was searching for a way to capture his physicality. Doug Liman told him to walk like a boxer to give Jason Bourne an edge. Damon took that to heart, training for six months in boxing, marital arts and firearms.


4. Damon broke an actor’s nose.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Damon’s training for the films is legendary, but mistakes still happen. While filming a scene for The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon hit actor Tim Griffin so hard, he shattered his nose. Apparently, the space the scene was filmed in was smaller than originally intended, throwing Damon off just enough to exert a real beat down.


3. James Bond visited The Bourne Legacy set.

Eon Productions

Eon Productions

Actor Daniel Craig stopped by the set of The Bourne Legacy to visit his wife, actress Rachel Weisz, who was starring in the movie. While having James Bond on a Bourne set must have been exciting, The Bourne Legacy was the only Bourne movie to not actually feature Jason Bourne, meaning our bets on who would kick whose ass would have to wait for another day.


2. The Bourne Identity was nearly a bomb (in the box office sense).

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

As reshoots began to pile up, and an all-out war between the studio and director Doug Liman spilled into the press, expectations were that The Bourne Identity was going to flop. Matt Damon told GQ that, “the word on Bourne was that it was supposed to be a turkey…It’s very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and it’s good.”


1. Matt Damon wasn’t the first actor to play Bourne.

Warner Brothers Television

Warner Brothers Television

Aired on ABC in 1988, the TV movie adaptation of The Bourne Identity, while not exactly critically acclaimed, was a more faithful version of Ludlum’s book. Richard Chamberlain, of The Thorn Birds fame, played a much less ass-kicking spy, while “Charlie’s Angel” Jaclyn Smith played love interest Marie. If you like your Bourne movies heavy with poorly lit ’80s melodrama, this might just be the adaptation for you. Otherwise, you should catch The Bourne Ultimatum when it airs this month on IFC.

Dwayne Johnson calls “Hercules” his passion project

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For Dwayne Johnson, getting to play “Hercules” for Brett Ratner is literally a dream come true. In fact, it’s something he’s been dying to do for over a decade.

“The next shoot, I’m really excited about, a passion project I’ve had now on my mind ever since I got into Hollywood, over 15 years now, ‘Hercules.’ I can’t wait,” he told MTV News. “We’re going to shoot that in Croatia and Budapest. I’ve been preparing for this role now for the good part of a year.”

Beyond the fact that Johnson could play a very convincing version of the mythological Greek, he said he’s always related to the character. This time it’s Radical Publishing’s comic books “The Thracian Wars” and “The Knives of Kush” that are being adapted, but Johnson seems happy just to get to play Hercules no matter what the source material.

“Understand, for me when I was a kid, Hercules was always a hero of mine, from Steve Reeves to the multiple guys who have played Hercules, but the idea and the notion of this man,” Johnson said. “When I first got into movies, I thought, ‘Gosh, I would love to do that one day.’ I always thought that the version of Hercules that I want to play was one that was more dramatic and survived in barren lands and not necessarily slick in any way or anything like that. It’s been around and been on my mind for some time.”

Ryan Condol wrote the “Hercules” script that Ratner is going to direct off of. The movie is due out on August 8, 2014.

Do you think Johnson is a good fit for “Hercules”? Tell us in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Tim Grierson on the Enduring Legacy of “Die Hard”

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On July 15, 1988, the weekend’s big action-thriller was a film featuring one of Hollywood’s most beloved characters played by one of its biggest stars. I’m speaking, of course, of “The Dead Pool,” the last of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” movies. But that weekend also included another release, although it was only on 21 screens. Starred some TV actor. Had a kinda ridiculous premise. It was “Die Hard.”

It’s been 25 years, and a lot of the movies from that summer have been forgotten: “Cocktail,” “Young Guns,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.” But “Die Hard” has endured. This Friday sees the release of the franchise’s latest sequel, “A Good Day to Die Hard.” Over time, the series has gotten increasingly more ludicrous and cheerfully over-the-top. But at its core, the scrappy, underdog spirit of that original “Die Hard” remains. Which is another way of saying, thank god for Bruce Willis.

When the original “Die Hard” opened, Willis had enjoyed a little success in films thanks to the comedy “Blind Date,” which had come out the year before. (He followed it up with “Sunset,” a bomb.) Still, Willis was primarily known for his Emmy-winning role as David Addison on the comedy-drama series “Moonlighting.” He wasn’t the most obvious choice to play John McClane, a NYPD officer who has to take out a bunch of terrorists holding a gaggle of hostages (including his estranged wife) in a Los Angeles skyscraper right before Christmas. This was the 1980s, when action heroes were played by Schwarzenegger or Stallone.

But the secret to the film’s success — the whole franchise’s, really — was that Willis didn’t try to be one of those action heroes. Instead, he seemed to take a page from Harrison Ford, whose “Star Wars” fame had only grown due to the Indiana Jones films. As Indy, Ford never wowed us with his hulking frame; it was his sarcastic, black-and-blue ordinariness that made the character so appealing. He was a hero not because it was easy but, rather, because it was really hard. Willis took wisecracking David and turned him into a reluctant gun-toting, explosion-evading grumpy smartass who wanted to defeat the bad guys mostly because they were annoying the hell out of him. Eddie Murphy had proved the viability of the high-octane action-comedy with the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies, but in “Die Hard” Willis leaned more toward the action than the comedy. In ’88, people probably didn’t go to “Die Hard” because it was funny. That was just a lucky side benefit.

It also didn’t hurt that he was paired with a truly fun nemesis. As Hans Gruber, Rickman did a variation on every super-snide James Bond villain that came before, except he was actually smart and not campy. It’s almost as if Rickman wasn’t aware that ’80s bad guys were supposed to be really cheesy. Best know for his work on the stage and on television in England, Rickman wasn’t well-known by film audiences. For all we knew, maybe he was a criminal mastermind. (And for all the fine performances he’s given since, his cool, slightly haughty demeanor has been their constant through-line, connecting him back to Hans forever.)

Another reason the film has held up is because it’s simply ingenious. Based on the 1979 book “Nothing Lasts Forever,” “Die Hard” basically invented a whole new genre of action movie: one in which a regular guy is trapped in a location with a bunch of heavily-armed baddies. (As luck would have it, though, these “regular guys” often just happened to be buff dudes like Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.) This was a major change from most action movies, which drew their excitement from elaborate chase sequences or scenes in which the hero has to infiltrate the villain’s stronghold. With “Die Hard,” McClane was constantly hiding in the Nakatomi Plaza trying to evade capture while communicating via walkie-talkie to a local cop (Reginald VelJohnson) outside the building. The film was more of a cat-and-mouse thriller than a conventional shoot-‘em-up. (Although, granted, there is still a lot of shooting ‘em up.) Maybe that’s why none of the sequels was ever quite as good: They all had Willis, but they opened up his world to make them more like other people’s action movies.

This isn’t to say that “Die Hard” is perfect. As groundbreaking as the film is, it features one of the stupidest side characters in all of action movies. That, of course, would be Dwayne T. Robinson, the LAPD chief played by Paul Gleason who’s almost maniacal in his distrust of McClane. As Roger Ebert said perfectly in his review at the time, “As nearly as I can tell, the deputy chief is in the movie for only one purpose: to be consistently wrong at every step of the way and to provide a phony counterpoint to Willis’ progress. The character is so willfully useless, so dumb … that all by himself he successfully undermines the last half of the movie.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but Robinson does deliver the film’s unforgivably dumbest line: After a FBI helicopter is destroyed, killing everyone inside, he matter-of-factly comments, “We’re gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess.” It’s entirely possible Gleason is playing the same numbskull from “The Breakfast Club.”

But when you go back and watch “Die Hard” now, fondness will probably help you forgive those types of problems. Above all, what’s great is that the movie doesn’t realize it’s going to give birth to a genre or a franchise. It’s just this plucky little movie about a dude in an undershirt winning back his wife by saving her and her coworkers. The movie is simply a great idea executed extremely well.

The sequels realized that they never could recapture the once-in-a-lifetime ingenuity of the “Die Hard” plot, so they had to keep expanding the concept and adding new quirks, all the while joking about the fact that, yes, it is completely preposterous that the same shit keeps happening to the same guy over and over. In “A Good Day to Die Hard,” which I haven’t seen yet, he’s fighting alongside his son — a plot point that I’m sure Fox is hoping will extend the brand after Willis really is too old to be doing these movies. But it’s funny how the franchise has come full circle. “Nothing Lasts Forever,” the book that inspired the original movie, was written by Roderick Thorp and was itself a sequel to his book “The Detective,” which became a movie starring Frank Sinatra in 1968. In “Nothing Lasts Forever,” the hero (Joe Leland) is an older guy trying to save his daughter and grandchildren from terrorists. No doubt Fox decided to make McClane younger for “Die Hard” so that it seemed more realistic. Nowadays, McClane’s old enough that such a storyline doesn’t seem nearly so farfetched anymore.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

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