The Films of Lee Tamahori
Once Were Warriors (March 31/16)
Lee Tamahori's directorial debut, Once Were Warriors follows a New Zealand family as they attempt to cope with almost extreme poverty and a violent, abusive father (Temuera Morrison's Jake). It's clear almost immediately that Once Were Warriors' greatest asset is Morrison, as the actor delivers a commanding and absolutely engrossing performance that remains a highlight from beginning to end - with Morrison's unexpectedly strong work here matched, to a certain degree, by a strong supporting cast that includes Cliff Curtis and, playing Jake's increasingly fed-up wife, Rena Owen. The film isn't, ultimately, quite able to reach the heights attained by its star, as the domestic-drama atmosphere, coupled with a decidedly deliberate pace, paves the way for a hit-and-miss vibe that's especially prominent during the sluggish midsection. There's little doubt, however, that the movie's searing look at the central family's less-than-savory existence keeps things interesting throughout, while the impressively powerful third act ensures that Once Were Warriors ends on an electrifying and thoroughly memorable note - which, in the final analysis, ensures that the movie remains a cogent foreign import more than two decades after its original release.
Director Lee Tamahori's follow-up to 1994's Once Were Warriors, Mulholland Falls follows a quartet of '50s detectives (Nick Nolte's Max, Chazz Palminteri's Elleroy, Michael Madsen's Eddie, and Chris Penn's Arthur) as they inadvertently uncover an epic conspiracy while investigating the murder of a young woman (Jennifer Connelly's Allison Pond). Tamahori, working with cinematographer Haskell Wexler, is clearly going for the vibe of an old-school film noir, as the movie has been infused with a proliferation of hard-boiled elements that prove effective at sporadically evoking the similarly-themed fare of yore. It's just as clear, however, that the almost aggressively meandering sensibilities of Pete Dexter's screenplay - as well as dialogue that's often just a little too clever for its own good (ie it feels inauthentic and forced) - play an instrumental role in establishing (and sustaining) the film's less-than-enthralling atmosphere, with the sluggish narrative subsequently weighed down by a myriad of undeniably needless asides and subplots. There's little doubt, however, that Mulholland Falls boasts just enough positive attributes to warrant a mild recommendation, as the movie benefits substantially from both its myriad of cameo appearances and the presence of several admittedly electrifying stand-alone sequences (ie Nolte's character takes on a trio of smug G-Men armed with only a blackjack). The end result is a watchable endeavor that's nevertheless a marked disappointment, with the talent both in front of and behind the camera leading the viewer to expect something more than just an affable time-killer.
Along Came a Spider (March 30/16)
A decent (if entirely unmemorable) followup to Kiss the Girls, Along Came a Spider follows Morgan Freeman's Alex Cross as he's drawn into a case involving the missing daughter (Mika Boorem's Megan) of a United States congressman (Michael Moriarty's Hank) - with the investigation eventually leading to a sinister figure known as Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott). It's fairly interesting to note that Along Came a Spider boasts few similarities to the James Patterson novel on which it's based, and yet the movie does manage to essentially (and effectively) capture the tone of its literary predecessor and, more importantly, the spirit of its virtually iconic central character - with Freeman's typically superb work anchoring the erratic proceedings from start to finish. (There's little doubt, as well, that Wincott delivers a better-than-expected performance as the conflicted, vicious Soneji.) Filmmaker Lee Tamahori has infused Along Came a Spider with a handful of impressively engrossing sequences, including a tense stakeout and an exciting chase through Washington, and it's clear that the movie, in general, boasts an appealingly adult-thriller sensibility that proves difficult to resist. The film's inability to hold one's attention on a consistent basis ultimately prevents it from achieving total liftoff, however, with the decidedly uneven atmosphere perpetuated by an overlong running time and the procedural-like bent of the narrative (ie the movie is often just a little to focused on Cross' investigation) - which, when coupled with a fairly anticlimactic finish, confirms Along Came a Spider's place as a distinctly middle-of-the-road adaptation.
Die Another Day
XXX: State of the Union (April 25/05)
Given that director Lee Tamahori's last film was the atrocious James Bond installment Die Another Day, it doesn't come as much of a surprise to discover that XXX: State of the Union comes off as an unimaginative, derivative, and ultimately dull riff on the Bond series. Tamahori imbues the film with the same emphasis on explosions and over-the-top action sequences that plagued Die Another Day, while also omitting fairly pivotal elements such as character development and exposition. Starring Ice Cube (Vin Diesel's character is killed off in the first 15 minutes), XXX: State of the Union follows Darius Stone's efforts to prevent a power-hungry Secretary of Defense (played by Willem Dafoe) from assassinating the President and Vice President. It seems fairly obvious that large chunks of the film's screenplay have been removed from the final product, as the majority of XXX: State of the Union doesn't make a whole lot of sense (eg why does Samuel L. Jackson's character go rogue early on?) There are many, many more instances of inexplicable plot developments, as Tamahori continually and ceaselessly pummels the viewer with one overblown action sequence after another. It's too bad, really, since Cube is actually pretty decent as a heroic leading man, while Dafoe brings an appropriate amount of smarm and menace to his role.
Thoroughly ridiculous yet basically entertaining, Next casts Nicolas Cage as Cris Johnson - a second-rate Vegas magician whose ability to see into his own future (albeit at two minutes at a time) has made him the target of both Eurotrash terrorists and a tough-as-nails government agent (Julianne Moore's Callie Ferris). There's little doubt that the inclusion of a needless and downright creepy romantic subplot between Cris and Jessica Biel's Liz sporadically brings the film to a dead stop, as one would be hard-pressed to come up with an onscreen pairing with less chemistry (that the two are saddled with some seriously banal instances of dialogue certainly doesn't help matters). Things improve substantially once the emphasis is taken off their burgeoning relationship, however, and the film does contain a number of genuinely compelling sequences sequences - with the obvious highlight those in which Cris uses his admittedly illogical abilities (eg his efforts to figure out the best way to pick up Biel's character). Cage's expectedly personable performance goes a long way towards keeping things interesting, though Biel and Moore seem entirely out of place here (Moore is, in particular, entirely unable to convincingly step into the shoes of her grizzled character). As an exercise in high camp, Next surely succeeds; it's an agreeable enough time-killer that completely falls apart in hindsight, yet - for a movie of this sort - one could certainly do a whole lot worse.
The Devil's Double
Inspired by true events, The Devil's Double follows Iraqi soldier Latif Yahia (Dominic Cooper) as he's essentially forced to become a body double for Saddam Hussein's feared, volatile son, Uday (Cooper) - with the film subsequently detailing Latif's efforts at blending into Uday's violent world and, eventually, escaping from it. Filmmaker Lee Tamahori has infused The Devil's Double with a slick and fast-paced sensibility that effectively (and instantly) captures the viewer's interest, with Cooper's thoroughly magnetic performance playing an integral role in confirming the movie's early success - as the actor does a brilliant job of stepping into the shoes of two vastly different characters. (Cooper is so good, in fact, that the film remains partially watchable even through its more tedious stretches.) Problems emerge as it becomes increasingly clear that the narrative doesn't really have anywhere substantial or interesting to go once the premise has been laid out, with the stagnant and downright repetitive midsection ensuring that The Devil's Double wears out its welcome long before the action-packed finale rolls around - which ultimately cements the movie's place as a sporadically intriguing yet disastrously undercooked thriller.