Under the Skin
American History X apparently had some paternity issues long before it headed to theaters. A leaden, presumptively shocking exposé about skinheads and surrogate fathers, X was reportedly marred by budgetary squabbles, a temporarily AWOL director, and an editing-room battle for control of the final cut. Neat industry chatter, to be sure, but on the screen, X is a mess of a film no matter who its daddy is.
X's title is taken from a school assignment skin-in-training Danny (Edward Furlong, chain-smoking where he could be acting) is forced to write after handing in an appreciative five-pager on Mein Kampf. Danny's been told to detail the trials and tribulations of his older brother, Derek (Edward Norton, slogging admirably through X's overall muddle), a local neo-Nazi bigwig. Derek's been doing time for the gleeful murder of some Crips, but he's remembered by little bro as a good student, an emotionally wounded fatherless child, a semicourageous guy willing to stand up to Venice, California's black and Latino toughs.
Having reduced racism to a kind of adolescent coping mechanism, X takes a mildly curious path to its foregone conclusion, writer-director Tony Kaye putting his leads through the somehow comforting 'hood-film paces. A proud, been-there black principal (relentlessly noble Avery Brooks) acts on the assumption that your average teenage skinhead needs love and guidance as much as your average movie Crip, making the big question not why or how our boys will abandon hate but whether they can do it before various first-act chickens come home to roost. X strikes such ghettocentric chords as wasted potential, haggard single moms, gang-banger camaraderie, old friends who can't accept newfound positivity, and, of course, prison-house set pieces aplenty, from the ever poignant moment when a convicted murderer takes up reading to the always life-altering shower-room rape. The 'hood movies certainly don't own these clichés, but X turns its meager insight about the stupid things marginal boys of all races do into a victimization pissing contest. There is something perversely pleasing in watching white guys strain to play urban-myth catch-up, but new and daring it ain't.
Unassumingly preposterous, Soldier is the kind of flick that comes into its own on cable, fitting in between abysmal Sci-Fi Channel "originals" [sic] and the good stuff everyone's already seen. Offering a passable SF fix, Soldier grafts an Arnold-less remake of Terminator 2 onto the fast-twitch exoskeleton of action flicks made for video-game addicts. (Director Paul Anderson's first film was Mortal Kombat.) The title refers to the fighting men of the future, stiff-jointed cannon fodder raised in an emotional Skinner box to follow orders: show no mercy, kill, kill, kill, etc. Todd (a pumped-up Kurt Russell, who opens his mouth about four times) is the best of the Pavlovian best, but genetic engineering has now rendered him obsolete. After taking a drubbing by one of the newfangled test-tube baby types (Jason Scott Lee), Todd's literally thrown out with the garbage, landing on a windy junkyard planet. The plucky local scavengers will, of course, show Todd the meaning of love, hugging, and family just in time for his replacement to show up, with mayhem and payback to ensue. With a cheerful disregard for characterization and visual texture, Anderson relies on his cgi-jocks and set dressers to flesh out David Webb Peoples's by-the-numbers script. Although Soldier technically kind of sucks, it's hard to warn anyone away from it with any enthusiasm. Star Wars: Episode One is looming on the horizon, and in the meantime certain itches do need to be scratched.
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