Blind man's ruff: Sappy revenge drama is worst in show
Missing from Unleashed is every hallmark of good filmmaking, but its most glaring omission is a cliché: Morgan Freeman's trademark voice-over. Freeman plays Sam, a blind piano tuner who dispenses homilies that, mysteriously, are restricted to the film's dialogue. One particular Freeman pearl"Pianos are a lot like people, you pound on 'em and they get all out of tune"is a guiding metaphor for protag Danny (Jet Li), who has spent his life enslaved to Bart (Bob Hoskins), a psychotic Glasgow loan shark. Bart raised Danny to believe he is a dog, and whenever Bart removes Danny's collarand commands, "Get him!"the otherwise docile Li becomes a deadly kung fu enforcer. After Danny escapes Bart and his cockney crew, he is adopted by Sam and his perky teenage stepdaughter, who teach their noble savage how to be a human.
In desperate need of its own tonal adjustment, Unleashed awkwardly appends its brief fight scenes to an incompatibly wholesome family drama. Written by Luc Besson, and directed by hack protégé Louis Leterrier (The Transporter), the bulk of this cloying dreck concerns Danny's sentimental education, and were it not for Li's intermittent martial arts sequences, this could just as easily have been a vehicle for Tom Hanks. The story slouches toward a vengeful denouement, but when Danny wants to kill Bart, Sam talks him out of murdering his former captor with pleas that sound cribbed from Freeman's unsuccessful appeals to Brad Pitt in Seven. Danny's restraint is a sign of his newfound humanity and an affirmation of Sam's unintentionally onanistic advice: "Nothing like self-discovery for turning a boy into a man." BENJAMIN STRONG
THE BICYCLE FILM FESTIVAL
May 12 through 15, Anthology
Few cinematic events can claim a more pinpoint demographic than the Bicycle Film Festival, but organizer Brendt Barburwho launched the fest in 2001 after being hit by a city bus while bikingis undoubtedly onto something. New York's aggressive traffic patterns have long engendered a sense of solidarity among those who choose two wheels over four, and the unexpected criminalization of spoked protesters Critical Mass during the RNC further radicalized urban alterna-mobile identity. Thus the BFF's mostly art-schooled shorts are assembled primarily for their community-celebratory value: Fast & Reliableprofiles a one-legged immigrant bike messenger who's overcome multiple hurdles to achieve the self-determination symbolized by his midtown trekking; Bike Kill provides a photo slide show of the Black Label Bicycle Club, who ooze post-collegiate-badass 'tude as only denizens of the outer boroughs can; and Messenger jump-cuts through a day with the fastest bike messenger in New York, according to the results of an athletic-shoe-sponsored competition. Feature doc Joe Kid on a StingrayThe History of BMX does the Dogtown thing for dirt bikes, with copious Super-8mm footage of early-'70s boys on their pedal-powered choppers, but for pure cinematic power is easily bested by A Sunday in Hell, a 1973 vérité record of the Paris-Roubaix road race by Jorgen Leth, mentor to Lars von Trier and co-director of The Five Obstructions. ED HALTER
KICKING & SCREAMING
Directed by Jesse Dylan
Universal, opens May 13
The Bad News Bears is getting remade twice this summer: officially in July, and unofficially this week as Kicking & Screaming, a soccer comedy that moves well beyond simple formula obedience into full-on emulation. The narrative similarities between the unsparing Bears and this perfunctory rehash are so pervasive you'd think director Jesse Dylan was working from a checklist. Will Ferrell plays Phil, the unwilling and unlikely coach of a team of lovable losers who rise from worst to first over the course of a charmed season. Like Matthau's Morris Buttermaker, Phil becomes so obsessed with winning that he metamorphoses from likable schlub to intolerable prick, and, like Buttermaker, Phil is redeemed through unselfish decisions inspired by an eleventh-hour speech from a knowing female character (because women are always the sensible ones in mediocre sports movies). Ferrell, straitjacketed in a bland role, only comes alive in an ingenious sequence in which Phil, drunk on power and caffeine, suggests the team eat one of its underperforming members. But even the intermittent laughs undermine Kicking and its winning-isn't-everything message. According to the plot, competition makes Phil insufferable. According to Ferrell's performance, it makes him hilarious. MATT SINGER
Directed by Renny Harlin
Dimension, opens May 13
Before he was hired to retool Paul Schrader's Exorcist prequel for the masses, Finland's worst export, Renny Harlin, tossed off this rote action-thriller exercise, which the Weinsteins have now deemed fit to purge from their vaults after a two-year wait. A group of elite FBI profilers is sent to a remote island for training only to find themselves victims of an unseen murderer whose own methodology suggests he's thoroughly absorbed Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, or at least played Clue. Compensating for the almost complete lack of suspense are protagonist Kathryn Morris's clenched-faced attempts to channel Linda Hamilton-Sigourney Weaver butchness, a gratuitous shot of Christian Slater's soapy ass, and a diabolical Val Kilmer purring lines like "Are we having fun yet?" (A most emphatic no.) In an era of wall-to-wall CSI, Mindhunters' ghoulish forensic hubbub not only feels tiring but hopelessly redundant. DAVID NG
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