Tuesday, 26 July 2011

THE DEATH AND LIFE OF BOBBY Z: Straight to death by video

It's not surprising I never came across the movie adaptation of Don Winslow's The Death And Life Of Bobby Z, as it went straight to video almost everywhere in the world (Japan, Egypt and Israel being a few of the exceptions) after Warner Bros. passed on the finished product. It isn't hard to see why—there were a lot of possibilities in Winslow's breakthrough 1997 novel, which was already somewhat tongue-in-cheek . Tim Kearney has had problems in the Marines and problems in prison, including a fatwa put on him by Hells Angels, so when the DEA offers him an out by impersonating the legendary drug dealer Bobby Z, he takes it. But when his handover to Bobby Z's Mexican connection goes wrong, it begins a story of pursuit that sees just about everyone chasing either Tim or Bobby...including the son Bobby never knew he had.

What's most interesting about the film, in retrospect, is how clear it seems that the characters of Bobby Z and his erstwhile partner Monk appear to be dry-runs or models for Ben and Chon in
Winslow's recent masterpiece, Savages (you can link to my review here), which Oliver Stone is making into a movie which ought to eclipse this one as Winslow's finest cinematic adaptation.

The problem with the film is it can't decide on how straight they want to play it, and frankly Paul Walker isn't a strong enough actor to be able to straddle approaches. This becomes painfully evident whenever he shares a scene with Laurence Fishburne, even though Larry seems to be sleepwalking through much of his menace. Walker's somewhere between Jason Statham and Chuck Norris, not as pretty as the former, not as tough-seeming as the latter (although, as an aside, it's it odd to see the curiously vertically-challenged Norris appearing smaller-than-life alongside various Tea Party bozos?). Oddly, the business with Walker reacting to Bobby's son is probably his strongest emoting, so perhaps there is hope. He isn't helped by his love interest, Olivia Wilde, who's painted-on face has a range of emotions that makes Walker look like Charles Laughton, if she were any more wooden she'd be outside cigar stores.

Walker's at his best when, in effect, playing straight man for his more talented adversaries: Fishburne of course, but also Joaquim de Almeda as the Mexican drug lord Don Huertero, Michael Bowen as the biker Duke, and most interestingly Keith Carradine as Huertero's foreman, Johnson, who is really the only one who gets the idea of balancing comedy and thriller absolutely right. It's a shame that two of the excellent stars of Justified, Margo Martindale and Raymond J Barry, don't get bigger parts, because they could put the whole thing on the right keel, as they've done in that great TV show (Timothy Olyphant is much more talented, but suffers from some of the same problems as Walker; his is a small screen talent).

The balance, however, is never right. The biker Boom Boom, a explosives 'expert' is played by MC Gainey with some seriousness, quickly seems to have drifted into the gang that chased Clint Eastwood in his orangutan flicks. Josh Stewart doesn't really have the menace to play Monk, Bobby's erstwhile partner. Jason Flemyng, as Huertero's right hand man, Brian, seems to have wandered in from one of those Brit gangster flicks. And it reaches an absurd conclusion when we see the real Bobby Z, and he looks about as much like Walker/Kearney as I do. Which helps deflate a really funny and clever ending, in which his presumptive fatherhood becomes his literal salvation. It's a sign that the screenplay adaptation was, at heart, a solid one, but either director Herzfeld couldn't take in the right way or, more likely, his actors couldn't cope. Having said that, the bookending sequences with Bruce Dern doing his best Dennis Hopper imitation as a crazy man on the beach, telling the legend of Bobby Z, make me wonder whose idea all this ill-judged zaniness might have been.

In the end, there enough action to cover most of the cracks, if little originality to reward you, though Carradine's expression just before his death is priceless. It's also interesting to see MMA star Chuck Liddel look less threatening than you might think in his role as a Hell's Angel heavy; look quick and you'll also spot Oleg Tartarov, Robbie Lawler, and Pat Miletich. When you're more curious about UFC fighters than the love interest, it may be the ultimate definition of straight to video.

The Death And Life Of Bobby Z (2007) directed by John Herzfeld
screenplay by Bob Krakower and Allen Lawrence, based on the novel by Don Winslow

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