The Films of F. Gary Gray
Set It Off
A Man Apart (March 29/03)
A Man Apart stars Vin Diesel as Sean Vetter, a DEA agent who vows revenge on the vicious drug kingpin responsible for the death of his wife. A Man Apart's been directed by F. Gary Gray, who helmed the above-average thriller The Negotiator. He's got a good eye for glossy style, and never bogs the film down with overamped action sequences. In fact, the film features a gun fight that harkens back to some of the classic action flicks of the 1980s; lots of people get killed (a few are even mowed down by moving cars), and there's actually a fair amount of blood and guts to be had. The temptation must have been there to throw in a lot of quick cuts and add a heavy metal soundtrack, but Gray keeps it simple. Aside from Diesel's charismatic lead performance, Gray's direction is the most effective aspect of A Man Apart. The pace is brisk and the story never becomes confusing, despite the dozens of characters. But the script, written by first-timers Christian Gudegast and Paul T. Scheuring, is completely predictable and almost pedestrian in its approach to the characters. Even if the trailer hadn't seen fit to divulge the fact that Vetter's wife gets killed, the screenplay makes it all-too-obvious by idealizing the couple's relationship to an absurd extent. But the script does allow for shades of gray amongst the characters, particularly Vetter. Despite the obligatory sequence featuring Vetter being stripped of his badge and gun by his captain, the character becomes somewhat mysterious in that we're never entirely sure what he's going to do next. After coming face to face with his wife's killer (in a manner that's absolutely laughable), he essentially beats him to death - but his faithful partner, Hicks, ensures that the killing is legal by shooting the man twice in the chest with another villain's gun. The behavior of the characters is far more intriguing than anything the storyline has to offer. Diesel's got screen presence to spare, and his performance here is just as involving as anything he's done before. But the real surprise here is Timothy Olyphant as Jack Slayton, a sleazy and flashy Beverly Hills drug trafficker. Known primarily for playing nice guys that finish last, Olyphant seems to be having a great time in this role - and though it's a fairly small part, he leaves an indelible impression on the film. Along with Diesel, he's the real reason to see A Man Apart - which is, admittedly, slightly better than some of the other recent action/thrillers that have hit theaters.
The Italian Job
Be Cool (March 15/05)
Be Cool just might be the worst sequel to a mediocre movie ever made, although calling this a sequel is far too generous; the film is essentially a remake of Get Shorty, minus the excessive profanity (unbelievably enough, it's rated PG-13!) Right from the get-go it's clear that the film has been crafted to appeal to a younger audience, with the inclusion of a variety of popular singers in starring roles and the aforementioned PG-13 rating. As a result, Be Cool has virtually nothing to offer viewers over a certain age (ie those of us who no longer watch MTV). The story picks up a few years after the events of Get Shorty, and Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is sick of the movie business. After spotting a talented young singer named Linda Moon (Christina Milian) at a local club, Chili decides to take her under his wing and make her a star. Problems emerge when Linda reveals that she's already under contract with Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) and his inept protégé Raji (Vince Vaughn), a situation that's complicated by some angry Russian mobsters and a sleazy record producer (played by Cedric the Entertainer) who always seems to travel with a gun-toting posse. There's a lot going on in Be Cool, and yet none of it is in the least bit interesting. Despite a promising opening that features an all-too-brief cameo from James Woods, the film quickly sinks into tedium - thanks primarily to director F. Gary Gray's reliance on non-actors in starring roles. This is particularly true in the case of Milian, an R&B singer who does an absolutely terrible job of stepping into the shoes of...an R&B singer. Worse yet, the film subjects us to two bland, utterly forgettable songs by the performer within the first 30 minutes - a disastrous choice that serves only to alienate a large portion of the audience (something that can also be said of Chili's third-act trip to an Aerosmith concert). The actual actors in the film fare a whole lot better, with the exception of Vaughn - whose white-guy-trying-to-be-a-black-guy shtick worked a whole lot better in a two-minute SNL skit. Travolta is expectedly engaging as Chili Palmer, though Peter Steinfeld's script doesn't give him much to do other than look cool (in terms of character development, Chili remains at a standstill). Keitel and The Rock (playing a gay bodyguard), wasted as they are, provide the film with a couple of unexpectedly entertaining moments as Keitel delivers a two-second rap that has to be seen to be believed, while The Rock performs a scene from Bring It On as an audition piece. But the bottom line is that Be Cool is just dull; there doesn't seem to be any reason for the film to even exist, thanks to a storyline that emphasizes the same sort of elements that made the original such a success. Add to that the watered-down vibe presumably dictated by the studio, and you've got a recipe for an all-around waste of time.
Law Abiding Citizen
Pervasively absurd yet generally entertaining, Law Abiding Citizen casts Gerard Butler as Clyde Shelton - a dorky family man who embarks on a vicious campaign of revenge after his wife and daughter are brutally murdered by an almost comically sleazy criminal (Christian Stolte's Clarence Darby). His initial taste for vengeance satisfied, Clyde decides to go after those responsible for Darby's less-than-grueling prison stint - which undoubtedly means big trouble for the ambitious district attorney (Jamie Foxx's Nick Rice) who signed off on Darby's plea bargain. There's little doubt that Law Abiding Citizen is at its best in its opening hour, as director F. Gary Gray - armed with Kurt Wimmer's screenplay - has infused the movie with a blistering pace that's backed by an absolutely irresistible premise. Butler's expectedly captivating work effectively allows the viewer to initially sympathize with Clyde's plight and root for his success, with the character's subsequent (yet inevitable) shift from protagonist to antagonist triggering a lull that persists for a good portion of the film's midsection - as Foxx, though competent here, is simply unable to match Butler's effortless level of charisma (and it certainly doesn't help that Nick ultimately comes off as a comparatively bland figure). The increasingly preposterous storyline reaches its zenith in the unapologetically over-the-top third act, which admittedly proves instrumental in recapturing the viewer's waning interest but also ensures that any and all traces of authenticity are effectively obliterated (ie the movie finally bears more of a resemblance to a parody of revenge thrillers than to an actual revenge thriller). It's nevertheless impossible not to derive some enjoyment out of Butler's progressively convoluted machinations, with the end result an uneven piece of work that'll probably fare best among viewers with an inherent interest in this sort of thing.
Straight Outta Compton
Straight Outta Compton charts the rise and fall of the seminal 1980s rap group N.W.A., with the movie focusing on the internal strife that inevitably forms between the various members (including O'Shea Jackson Jr.'s Ice Cube, Corey Hawkins' Dr. Dre, and Jason Mitchell's Eazy-E). There's little doubt that Straight Outta Compton fares best in its relatively captivating opening hour, as director F. Gary Gray, working from Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff's screenplay, does a superb job of establishing the volatile atmosphere in which the characters' reside - with the constant harassment from the police, though far from subtle, certainly painting an effective picture of the inherent anger that paved the way for N.W.A.'s creation. It's clear, too, that the film benefits from an expected emphasis on the group's early recording sessions, as these scenes possess a vitality and electricity that's awfully tough to resist, which ultimately does ensure that Straight Outta Compton's shift into an overlong, plodding second half is especially disappointing. Burdened with a running time of almost two-and-a-half hours (!!!), the movie begins to demonstrably fizzle out somewhere around the midway point - with the focus shifting to a series of padded-out, far-from-essential sequences detailing the growing animosity between Eazy-E and his increasingly alienated band members. (It's curious that Gray stresses elements of a decidedly uninteresting nature and yet the filmmaker refuses to answer a number of key questions, like how each member got their nickname or when N.W.A. went from playing small shows to selling out arenas.) Straight Outta Compton's final stretch consequently suffers from a by-the-numbers-biopic feel that's mostly been absent from the remainder of the narrative, and it is, in the end, clear that the movie would have benefited from a much, much shorter runtime (ie this is not material that needs or deserves such an epic length).