The Films of David Dobkin
Shanghai Knights (January 23/03)
Like the first film, Shanghai Knights, which follows John Wayne (Jackie Chan) and Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson) as they attempt to take down a crooked member of the Royal Family, relies on the chemistry between Chan and Wilson - the former often relegated to playing straight man to the latter - to propel the story forward. The plot is secondary here; the film uses it as a way of getting the two characters from point A to point B, while throwing in a fight sequence every 15 minutes or so. And even though that tends to be the formula for every Jackie Chan movie nowadays, it seems particularly noticeable here. The fighting portions fare quite poorly, as it seems like they've just been dropped into the screenplay at random points. Unlike, say, Police Story (still Chan's best film), the action sequences in Shanghai Knights never feel as though they really belong within the story. Chan undoubtedly believes his audience expects a certain amount of acrobatic martial arts in his movies, and has included them here for that very reason. To be fair, there's no denying that Chan is still amazing at this kind of stuff (and even Wilson gets the chance to show off a little bit), which does provide these sequences with a good amount of energy. The most bizarre aspect of Shanghai Knights isn't anything that's up on screen, but rather the man who sits behind the camera. Director David Dobkin has only one other film to his name, an odd little thriller called Clay Pigeons. How he managed to go from that small independent film to this big-budget extravaganza is almost more compelling than anything that's contained within Shanghai Knights. Still, Dobkin proves to be an effective choice for the helm of this sequel (Tom Dey, the man responsible for the original, was presumably too busy with the terrible Eddie Murphy/Robert DeNiro flick, Showtime), though virtually any director would've been fine here. It's an easy-to-follow formula (insert Wilson wisecrack here, follow with Chan fight sequence, etc) that doesn't exactly allow for a lot of creativity. But Dobkin does a decent job in keeping the chaos in order, and even gets the chance to insert his own sense of style every now and then. What it really comes down to is this: If you enjoyed Shanghai Noon, you'll surely get a kick out of Shanghai Knights. And as far as mindless entertainment goes, one really could do a lot worse.
Though the majority of it is surprisingly engaging and often extremely funny, Wedding Crashers suffers from a third act that's painfully overlong and needlessly dramatic. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson star as Jeremy and John, divorce mediators who spend several weeks a year crashing weddings and sleeping with as many lonely women as they can. Problems emerge after John finds himself falling for the bride's maid of honor (Rachel McAdams), despite the fact that she's currently dating a pompous environmentalist (played by Bradley Cooper). Director David Dobkin infuses the first hour of Wedding Crashers with a breezy charm that's difficult to resist, while the uniformly superb cast (particularly Vaughn, who's essentially playing a variation on his Trent persona from Swingers) often grounds the often exceedingly silly material in reality (or something approaching reality, at any rate). But at a certain point, the film shifts gears and becomes a conventional romcom - complete with the requisite and much-dreaded fake breakup. And then there's the final half hour, which all but abandons the comedic vibe in favor of something far more serious. Though this portion of the movie leaves it with a horrible aftertaste, there's no denying that the majority of Wedding Crashers is just about as entertaining as one could've hoped (if only for Vaughn's broad, genuinely hilarious performance).
Saddled with an absurdly bloated running time and a relentless emphasis on melodramatic elements, Fred Claus is far from the light-hearted, family-friendly comedy its promotional materials have been promising and it's ultimately clear that the film's target demographic - ie small kids - will find exceedingly little here to embrace. The premise is certainly sound - Santa Claus' older, resentful brother comes to the North Pole for a visit - but in the hands of director David Dobkin and screenwriter Dan Fogelman, the movie quickly establishes itself as a plodding and thoroughly tedious piece of work. This is despite the inclusion of an opening half hour that's actually fairly effective, as Dobkin infuses the proceedings with an appropriately fairy-taleish sort of vibe (complete with a narrator and a house in the middle of the forest!) The inevitable arrival of Vince Vaughn's Fred Claus, however, transforms the movie into an entirely different animal - with the actor's free-wheeling, fast-talking screen persona coming off disastrously within the context of a family-friendly endeavor (ie he's just not funny here). Vaughn's grating performance is exacerbated by the undercurrent of familial drama that becomes increasingly pronounced as the film progresses, and it's not much of a stretch to envision both children and adults finally losing patience with Fred Claus - which is too bad, really, given the effectiveness of the various supporting performances (Paul Giamatti, as Santa, is obviously a standout, but Kevin Spacey, John Michael Higgins, and Elizabeth Banks are all quite good here).
The Judge (December 9/14)
Given its extreme overlength (141 minutes!), The Judge ultimately fares a whole lot better than one might've anticipated - with the movie benefiting substantially from its strong performances and stirring courtroom sequences. The narrative follows hot-shot lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr) as he returns home to his small town to attend his mother's funeral, with the character's short stay extended indefinitely after his cantankerous father (Robert Duvall's Joseph) is charged with murder. It's clear immediately that scripters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque aren't looking to reinvent the wheel here, as The Judge boasts some of the hoariest cliches that one could possibly have envisioned - with Hank's steady transformation from cynical to kind certainly ranking high on the film's list of eye-rollingly predictable elements. And yet there's little doubt that filmmaker David Dobkin does an effective job of sustaining the viewer's attention, with the sporadic peppering of legal elements throughout the proceedings going a long way towards keeping things interesting. The movie's courtroom sequences are, in particular, an ongoing highlight here, as such moments have been infused with a nail-biting, unexpectedly engrossing feel that's heightened by Billy Bob Thornton's absolutely electrifying work as opposing counsel. But the movie's rough-cut feel ensures that it drags in several spots throughout, with the final third, in particular, padded out to an almost unreasonable extent as Dobkin offers up a series of false, increasingly ineffective endings - which, naturally, confirms The Judge's place as an extremely erratic yet consistently watchable legal drama.