The Pitch: Smile. You’re on candid camera.
The Review: The mention of Los Angeles conjures up images of Hollywood Boulevard, the Hollywood sign, glamour and glitz, prosperity and affluence. That can mask the greed and grasping that much of Hollywood and Los Angeles are built on, but the films of the Los Angeles night, from LA Confidential and Chinatown to Collateral and Drive, have oozed with menace, the Mr Hyde to the daytime face of Dr Jekyll. It should be now surprise that low-lifes and seedy characters can thrive in an environment such as this, but in Nightcrawler we are presented with a character who’s trying to drag himself out of the gutter by feeding on the tragedy and depravity of that very environment. Jake Gyllenhaal is Leo Bloom, a waster who’s edging ever closer to middle age without ever finding his reason for life, but for whom a chance encounter with an accident late one night might be just the opportunity he’s looking for.
That opportunity is in the world of news media, and for Leo the chance to benefit from the misfortune of others not only says much that you need to know about him as a character, but also about the world in which someone like him can thrive. When Leo sees a private news crew taking footage of a freshly crashed car, he’s intrigued by the potential for how that can get recognition via one of the plethora of local news stations. The news director Nina (Rene Russo) believes that Leo has a natural eye, but he’s still needs to learn the tricks of the trade, and competition with existing crash chaser Joe (Bill Paxton) proves to be a quick learning curve. To help drive a competitive advantage, he takes on an interm (Riz Ahmed) to be able to exploit, before they both find out just what it will take to get to the top of the news business.
Nightcrawler is absolutely Gyllenhaal’s film: he inhabits every single frame, with a face chiselled from pure smug and a vocabulary regurgitated from a hundred bad management self-help manuals. He’s the David Brent version of Travis Bickle, trying to worm his way into whatever cracks into society he can with no thought for anyone but himself and Gyllenhaal’s performance means you can’t take your eyes off him for a second. I’ve seen other reviews that describe this as a career best performance – how quickly people forget Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, Prisoners or even Source Code – but there’s nothing in his back catalogue quite like it, and everyone else is just fodder for Bloom to sleaze over and manipulate. The only one who puts up even the slightest resistance is Russo, but she’s working to her own agenda and serving as Bloom’s enabler is never likely to end well.
Nightcrawler also functions on the level of a thriller and a satire, and it’s fair to say that it’s better at the former than it is at the latter. Not least because it’s fascinated with, and keen to thoroughly explore, the minutest details of character and personality flaws but merely content to lay on the satire with a trowel. The view of the news world, of personal depravity feeding societal paranoia in a never-ending negative cycle, is in itself an enabler, so maybe the lack of subtlety can be excused. It’s the strength of the character study and the thriller elements that carry Dan Gilroy’s film, which exploits the darker edge of LA nightlife for all it’s worth, and perfectly mirroring the psyche of its protagonist. It’s also a clear demonstration that he should stick to directing his own scripts after an undistinguished screenwriting career ranging from Freejack to The Bourne Legacy. Nightcrawler might not be the subtlest tool in the box, but Gyllenhaal is mesmerising and worth the price of admission alone, helping to make Nightcrawler a guilty, trashy, thoroughly enjoyable cruise through the darker side of the City Of Angels.
Why see it at the cinema: Robert Elswit’s pristine cinematography makes the night scenes come alive, so don’t be afraid to watch them in the largest darkened room you can find.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong bloody crime scene detail, strong language. The most disturbing aspect might be that you can actually imagine these 15-rated images appearing on US news channels.
My cinema experience: Seen as the first film in a four film quadruple bill at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. Having parked out of town, my trek into the cinema was a lengthy walk, so I was glad of every minute of the twenty of adverts and trailers that Picturehouses are currently giving customers in front of their films. On the hottest first of November I can remember, it seemed a shame to be in the cinema, but for a Saturday lunchtime showing, an audience over half full proved I was far from the only person preferring the delights of the cinema over unseasonal sun.
The Score: 9/10
The Review: I was a little worried, after the untimely death of Tony Scott, that Denzel Washington may not have a suitable outlet for his more flamboyant tendencies. Sure, the likes of Antoine Fuqua and Spike Lee have made effective use of Denzel’s gravitas for a variety of purposes over the years, but the world’s most famous black actor who isn’t Will Smith has typically veered between Oscar bothering dramatic roles and more lightweight fluff that Washington managed to take to a higher level, and the likes of Crimson Tide, Man On Fire and Unstoppable were all big entertainments that pushed the right buttons. Step forward Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur to see if the void in the lighter side of Denzel’s CV can be filled, and he’s brought with him the star of his previous film Contraband, Mark Wahlberg, for a throwback action movie that feels very much like the kind of film Hot Fuzz would have been paying homage to had 2 Guns been made in the Eighties.
The idea of two mismatched cops or criminals thrown together isn’t going to win any awards for originality, although it’s surprising that no one’s come up with this particular wrinkle before. Denzel is Bobby Beans, a criminal attempting to set up a exchange of dodgy passports for cocaine with Mexican criminal Papi (Edward James Olmos), but when Papi won’t play ball, Bobby schemes with his new partner in crime Stig (Wahlberg) to rob a bank north of the border in order to rip off Papi to the tune of three million dollars. What Bobby’s not telling is that he’s actually undercover DEA agent Robert Trench, scheming with his lover Deb (Paula Patton) to trap Papi for money laundering. What Stig’s not telling Bobby is that he’s also an undercover officer, working at the instruction of his commanding officer Quince (James Marsden) to secure the money for covert ops for their Navy unit. What none of them know is what’s actually in the bank, which will soon see the shady Earl (Bill Paxton) on their trails to get back what’s rightfully his, by any means at his disposal.
Don’t panic if that sounds like a lot of plot; while it’s about a sixth of a Wikipedia synopsis, so there’s plenty more twists and turns left to play out in Blake Masters’ screenplay, it’s well structured and at all times easy to keep track of. Between Olmos and Paxton there’s a lot of evil going on (and you’ll not be surprised to hear a few of the other characters have some moral ambiguity) but never to the point where 2 Guns feels overloaded. It might be a comment on these trying economic times that everyone seems more concerned about the money than they are about the morality, but the characters all remain true to themselves to the bitter end. The tone varies slightly around the middle as desperation kicks in, but that same variation can be found in antecedents of the likes of the Lethal Weapon films, reinforcing the feel of familiarity that grips much of proceedings.
What keeps it alive, by and large, is the pairing of Washington and Wahlberg who put many married couples to shame in terms of their easy chemistry and improvised banter. Clearly having a ball, the movie sings whenever they’re on screen together and it’s become a pattern that Wahlberg’s best work seems to coincide with him seeming comfortable in his role. Kormakur keeps the action flowing, and while he’s no Tony Scott in terms of visual flourish the action is clean, efficient and in keeping with the generally relaxed mood. As an antidote to so many of the stupidly plotted blockbusters inflicted on us this summer, the clarity of purpose and undemanding nature of 2 Guns is extremely welcome. It’s not going to win any awards; indeed, you probably won’t remember much of it a week later but in the moment, it’s breezily entertaining and perfect for a Friday night with a few like-minded friends, all looking for the kind of film that low-brow purists like myself were worried they’d stopped making. If nothing else, it’s kept Denzel Washington off the streets until his next awards juggernaut rolls around.
Why see it at the cinema: The action is decent without ever been over the top and there’s a good amount of communal laughs to get the benefit from if you see it in company. See it on a weekend evening with the largest crowd possible.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong language and violence. 20th Century Fox, please take note: you can still make action movies at 15 and get a decent audience out to watch them if you make them well.
My cinema experience: Arriving in the screen at Cineworld Bury St. Edmunds for their Unlimited members’ preview just after the start of the adverts, the screening was already pretty full, with just the front row and the odd dotted seat spare. With rows of six on the left of the cinema, I spotted one seat at the end of a row and then failed to attract the attention of the person next to it. I then attempted to signal to the person next to the spare in the row behind, at which point the entirety of both rows stood up to let me in. I kept a low profile for the rest of the screening. The film itself got a good response from the sell-out crowd, and no issues on sound or vision. Only one jerk using their mobile on full brightness to report.
The Score: 8/10