U.K.: Danny Boyle, 2013, Fox Searchlight
Trance, a new erotic thriller from Danny Boyle, is a fast and fancy dance over a whirling floor of crime, suspense and sex. It begins with the theft of a world-famous painting (Francisco Goya's spooky Witches in the Air), swiped from a London auction in mid-sale, and it continues through all kinds of stylish neo-noir alleys and crannies full of bloody gangsterism and Inception-like psychological mystery, until the whole show finally ends with an unraveling that twists and turns and radically changes a lot of what went before.
It's an exciting movie, and mostly unpredictable. But it's not completely comprehensible, even when it's all over and Boyle and his screenwriters have sprung their last wowser. In any case, you don't want to talk too much about what happens in Trance to people who haven't seen it, because it's got surprises that may genuinely surprise.
What seems to be happening at first is the complex, meticulously planned and daring theft of that painting, complete with smoke bombs and switcheroos, in the middle of a posh, exclusive London auction, by a brutal but stylish gang led by the fashionable Frank (Vincent Cassel). One of the auction house's junior employees, Simon (James McEvoy) tries to save the painting by encasing it and running off with it. (Or does he?) But he bumps into Frank and gets cracked on the head, and Frank gets the Goya package. (Or does he?) Soon we discover -- and it's not too much to reveal this, since it's a key point early on -- that Simon is part of the plot, and that the painting has disappeared, and that, apparently because of that head-crack, Simon hasn't the foggiest clue where it is. How to crack open his head, or memory, again? Well, Frank hires a luscious and oh-so-smart American hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to unlock the priceless secret in Simon's mind, which she starts confidently to do. (Or does she?)
Trance is the kind of movie that manages to be compelling even when it's confusing; I defy you not to scratch your head a little when the climaxes start climaxing. But it's a smart show. Boyle is rejoined here on the script by his first feature screenwriter John Hodge (of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting), along with Joe Ahearne, who wrote (and directed) the TV film, also called Trance, on which this picture is based. As in Shallow Grave, there's a touch of meanness about the movie, along with a high-style theatrical edge and a rollercoaster speed and frantic plunge and roll that can discombobulate and even alienate you, even if you still enjoy the ride. The actors are all razor-sharp and noir-ishly off-color -- including the hypnotic Dawson, the cracked-open McAvoy, and all the heavies (Danny Sapani as Nate, Wahab Shiekh as Riz, and Matt Cross as Dominic), and especially Cassel.
Cassel, who here has the kind of weathered grace the older Bogart or Widmark had, has specialized a lot in neo-noir, and he brings the part a casual criminal authority, without having to push too hard. McAvoy, on the other hand, makes a more ambiguous character of Simon, a seeming innocent with an evil side. His boyishness is seductive; his weakness is deliberately off-putting. I hate the idea of great works of art being handled like this (razored and ripped from their frames and raced around in the chaos of the robbery, and then lost). But the whole film is so artificial -- like a mix of Spellbound and The Thomas Crown Affair -- that you can't take it too seriously.
Trance isn't one of Danny Boyle's best films, but then again, he doesn't make many bad or uninteresting ones. The movie recycles one of his favorite themes -- sudden wealth and its consequences--in interesting new ways. And Boyle keeps it popping, even when the confusion outpaces the compulsion.
Bullet to the Head (B-)
U.S.: Walter Hill, 2013, Warner Brothers
Sly Stallone is 66, and he has neck and ribcage injuries sustained while working -- slugging it out with Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren on 2010's The Expendables -- so he probably shouldn't be swinging an axe in a movie ax-fight with another ax-wielding actor (Jason "Conan" Momoa) about half his age, in the new Walter Hill-directed movie Bullet to the Head. But Stallone veered his career away from Oscar-winning sentiment (the first Rocky) to pec-flexing action (the later Rocky and Rambo entries) decades ago, and he knows, by now, that what he's doing in movies like this is a little silly. So he also knows how to stand outside the action and make fun of it.
He can use the half-absurd scenes from Matz and Colin Wilson's graphic novel Du plomb dans la tête, about so-called New Orleans crime--with Stallone as sardonic hit man James "Jimmy Bobo" Bonomo, and Fast and Furious co-star Sung Kang as full-of-himself Korean cop Taylor Kwan -- as a springboard for a string of zingers and wisecracks. It's a mild surprise, though it shouldn't be, that Stallone is funny in this movie, which he doesn't take too seriously. His relaxed self-kidding way with his lines may be the result of coming off some slightly absurd projects, such as surrounding himself with that neck-breaking all-star old-guys crew in the Expendables movies.
Hill and Stallone never made a movie together in the 1980s -- and maybe they were right to wait. Bullet to the Head is one of the most entertaining things either of them has done in years. Hill is 71 himself, and he gets into the old guys vs. younger guys mood right away, staging a hit undertaken by Jimmy and his ex-cop partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) of a particularly obnoxious business guy (who has a hooker in his hotel shower). Jimmy and Louis are two been-there guys who whack that sadistic business dude in the middle of his liaison with the whore, a witness whom Jimmy imprudently leaves alive. Pretty soon the hard-boiled killer Keegan (Momoa) has shown up in a hot bar to whack Louie, and to start the bloody ball rolling.
No point in describing any more, because you've seen it all before -- and what makes a movie like this work is not originality, but energy and personality and the right kind of smart-assery. Stallone, using his huge bass voice and his big, dark eyes, supplies all the personality the movie needs. (Kang though, doesn't.)
The movie also boasts some evil suits (Christian Slater and Adewale Akinnuote-Agbaje), a lady tattoo artist (Jimmy's daughter Lisa, played by Sarah Shahi), exploding hideouts and a massacre or two. And guns, of course. And gun killings. It's the kind of disreputable show that some audiences like precisely because it's disreputable, and because it's amusing sometimes to see a little swagger in your movie heroes or anti-heroes.