The Films of James Mangold
Kate & Leopold
Identity (April 24/03)
With its better-than-expected performances and sporadically suspenseful atmosphere, Identity surely had the potential to be a really great little thriller. But Michael Cooney's script tries too hard to contort the rules most thrillers are governed by, and in the process, the film has been saddled with one of the most ludicrous conclusions to come along in quite some time. Set primarily within the confines of a rundown motel in the middle of nowhere, Identity follows the establishment's nine guests as they're slowly picked off one by one by an unseen assailant. It's a great setup, and the execution is surprisingly effective. Director James Mangold does a fantastic job of establishing mood, with the majority of the movie shrouded in darkness and rain. The creaky, run-down ambience is certainly the most intriguing aspect of the proceedings, which is initially surprisingly taut and suspenseful. Cooney does a good job of setting up the various characters, and manages to turn them into more than just archetypes. And with a cast like this, it's hard not to be entertained on some level. Cusack and Liotta are expectedly excellent, but the supporting roles have been filled by a surprisingly talented group. John C. McGinley plays the polar opposite of the sort of cocky character we've come to expect from him, and is completely convincing as this meek man. Likewise, Amanda Peet, Jake Busey, and Clea DuVall all create identifiable characters - despite their limited screen time. That's all well and good, but it's the last 15 minutes that sink Identity. Presumable Cooney wanted to create a twist ending that nobody could've possibly guessed, and on that level, he's succeeded. But in doing that, he's undone everything that came before it and turned what should've been a taut thriller into a mediocre one. There's a difference between an ending that makes the viewer want to re-evaluate what they've just seen and an ending that completely obliterates everything that came before it. Based on the acting and the initial set-up, Identity might just be worth seeing. But it really is too bad that the film takes that disastrous left-turn towards the end; it could've been a classic thriller along the lines of Breakdown or even the recent Joyride.
Walk the Line (November 18/05)
Though Walk the Line features several phenomenal performances and a lot of thoroughly enjoyable music, the increasingly laid-back pace - coupled with a final hour that is, at times, surprisingly dull - prevents the film from becoming the electrifying piece of work it clearly wants to be. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, Walk the Line revolves around the various ups and downs in Cash's life - from the childhood loss of his brother to his record deal at the legendary Sun Records in Memphis to his eventual relationship with June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Director and co-writer James Mangold employs a cookie-cutter sort of approach, imbuing the film with virtually the exact same structure that Taylor Hackford used in last year's Ray (right down to the traumatic childhood and relentless drug use). As a result, Walk the Line eventually becomes tedious and repetitive - something that's exacerbated by the almost total lack of music in the film's latter half (there are maybe two songs in the last 45 minutes, both of which aren't even played all the way through). And as good as Phoenix is, he never quite becomes Johnny Cash to the extent that Jamie Foxx became Ray Charles; we're always consciously aware that we're watching Joaquin Phoenix pretend to be Cash. But really, it's the emphasis on Cash's drug problem over his music that eventually sinks the film - as it's the sort of story we've seen many, many times before, usually to far better effect than this.
3:10 To Yuma
Uneven yet entertaining, 3:10 To Yuma follows several old-west gunslingers as they attempt to transport a notorious criminal to a nearby train station - with the ongoing presence of said criminal's gang undoubtedly complicating matters. It becomes clear almost immediately that 3:10 To Yuma, as compelling as it sporadically is, would've benefited from a much short running time, as director James Mangold proves unable to hold the viewer's interest for the entirety of the film's 122 minutes. This is despite the inclusion of several admittedly thrilling sequences, as Mangold - working from Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, and Derek Haas' screenplay - peppers the proceedings with all the expected accoutrements of the western genre (ie shoot-outs, stagecoach chases, etc). The overly talky vibe is initially offset by the strength of the various performances, with stellar turns from Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, and particularly Ben Foster effectively infusing the proceedings with more depth than one might've anticipated. It's worth noting, however, that the degree to which Crowe's villainous character has been portrayed as a thug with a heart of gold does become fairly ludicrous, as his Ben Wade ultimately seems to be just a little too helpful in sealing his own doom. Still, 3:10 To Yuma is a solid little effort that hardly reinvents the western yet proves engaging enough to satisfy fans of the genre.
Knight and Day
All style and no substance, Knight and Day follows Cameron Diaz's June Havens as she encounters a mysterious yet charming stranger (Tom Cruise's Roy Miller) just prior to boarding a flight - with the movie subsequently following the pair as they're forced to evade all manner of gun-toting pursuers. There's little doubt that Knight and Day fares best in its opening half hour, as the movie's easygoing and lighthearted sensibilities prove effective at immediately capturing the viewer's interest. It's also worth noting that the almost egregiously familiar dynamic between June and Roy - he's smooth and ultraconfident, she's clumsy and jittery - is initially not quite as problematic as one might've anticipated, with the two leads' charismatic work heightened by the palpable chemistry that exists between their respective characters. Knight and Day's pervasive mindlessness ultimately plays a rather significant role in its downfall, however, as the relentlessly slick action sequences - which are, to be fair, relatively well done (ie they're devoid of shaky camerawork and rapid-fire cuts) - infuse the proceedings with an artificial and downright cartoonish atmosphere that results in a distinct lack of authentic thrills (ie there's nothing real at stake for these characters). The degree to which the film consequently runs out of steam is nothing short of staggering, and there inevitably reaches a point at which the increasingly over-the-top set pieces become more desperate than anything else (ie Roy and June's climactic efforts at simultaneously outrunning a stampede of bulls and an armed cadre of thugs). It's a shame, really, given that the movie features an eclectic supporting cast that alone should've elevated one's interest, yet the terminally broad vibe effectively renders Knight and Day's few positive attributes moot.
The first genuinely ineffective entry within the ongoing X-Men series, The Wolverine follows Hugh Jackman's title character as he's reluctant drawn into a feud involving the descendants of a powerful Japanese businessman - with the situation complicated by Logan's romantic feelings towards said businessman's daughter (Tao Okamoto's Mariko). There's little doubt that The Wolverine does, in its early stages, possess a great deal of promise, as the movie opens with an engrossing WWII-set sequence that establishes a tone of unexpected grittiness - with that vibe perpetuated by an initial emphasis on Wolverine's solo antics within the remote wilderness. It's not until Logan arrives in Japan that The Wolverine begins to lose its hold on the viewer, with the movie's almost unreasonably subdued vibe compounded by a distressing lack of compelling elements. (There are, for example, virtually no intriguing periphery characters here, which makes it awfully difficult to work up any real interest in Wolverine's ongoing exploits.) With the exception of an appreciatively over-the-top fight atop a speeding bullet train, The Wolverine boasts few action sequences that are able to inject any energy into the otherwise lifeless atmosphere - with the feeble final act, involving Logan's yawn-inducing battle with a giant robot, ensuring that the movie ends on a seriously anti-climactic and underwhelming note. The end result is a curiously half-baked endeavor that makes the reviled X-Men Origins: Wolverine look masterful by comparison, and it's ultimately clear that the movie simply doesn't have anything interesting or relevant to say about the iconic Marvel character.
A vast improvement over The Wolverine, Logan follows an older, more grizzled version of Hugh Jackman's title character as he reluctantly agrees to help a young girl (and fellow mutant) (Dafne Keen's Laura) escape sinister forces. It's immediately clear that filmmaker James Mangold is going for a much different vibe than one generally associates from superhero flicks, as Logan, particularly in its early stages, boasts an almost astonishingly deliberate and somber vibe that's perpetuated by a grim storyline and gritty central performance. (Jackman's take on the Wolverine character has never exactly been lighthearted, but this is a whole other level.) And while just a little context for this world might've been nice - eg why is Logan living like this? where are the X-Men? etc, etc - Logan's momentum picks up considerably once the aforementioned young girl's power is revealed and it's clear, too, that the movie benefits from a periodic inclusion of engrossing sequences (eg Patrick Stewart's Professor X incapacitates an entire hotel with his mind control). The film's surfeit of positive elements ultimately can't quite combat a palpably overlong running time and thoroughly bland villain, however, with the buildup to the predictably action-packed climax, for example, suffering from a meandering and overly lackadaisical vibe that's problematic (to put it mildly). Said climax, when it finally does arrive, is unquestionably worth the wait and the whole thing concludes on an impressively spellbinding note, which, when coupled with the movie's refreshingly adult-oriented atmosphere, confirms Logan's place as one of the best comic-book adaptations to come around since Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy.