The Stunt Men


Go, the bluntly titled action-comedy directed by Doug Liman in wide-screen pulsarama, is a disaster film with an exceedingly witty premise. Instead of a terrorist, volcano, or extraterrestrial invasion, catastrophe is precipitated by the madcap behavior of rash and reckless American youth.

If Liman’s last feature, the indie smash Swingers, imagined a new sort of twentysomething lifestyle, Go provides that subculture’s imagined slumming entertainment: the grunge Speed. So primed to party that the rave begins under its studio logo, the movie will probably never have a better screening than its midnight premiere at the last Sundance Film Festival— where the altitude enhanced the heady promise of demographic payoff.

Replaying the same Christmas Eve three times from as many perspectives, John August’s script— his first— applies a fashionably cubist approach to the sex, drugs, and cheap-thrills antics of a few lumpen L.A. slackers. A hassled supermarket cashier named Ronna (Sarah Polley, the wan and calculating standout in a sparky young cast) takes over her colleague Simon’s shift so that this carefree Brit (Desmond Askew) can spend his holiday in Vegas. She’s about to be evicted, and so when two associates of Simon’s show up looking to score some Ecstasy, she decides to orchestrate the deal herself, dropping in on Simon’s supplier, Todd— menacingly bare-chested but crowned with a Santa’s cap in the spirit of the season.

The deal has an appropriately ceremonial flavor— in general, Liman is good at elaborating youthful awkwardness and distinguishing between degrees of uncool. If Ronna’s supermarket cohorts, including her more cautious friend Claire (Katie Holmes, the sweetheart of Dawson’s Creek), prove worse than useless in supporting her entrepreneurial spirit, the deal itself turns out to be a buy-and-bust setup— and that’s just for starters. The night is still young when Ronna graduates from dealer to burn artist, although her place on the herb-to-carnivore food chain is by no means secure, particularly when vengeful Todd reenters the picture.

After Ronna has a run-in with a car and lands in a ditch, Go rewinds the action to pick up on blithe Simon driving to Las Vegas with a car full of wired idiots— including a belligerent white Negro and a tantric black man. Vegas is the capital of impulse behavior and that’s certainly how Simon plays it— wandering into a wedding, falling into bed with two girls, inadvertently torching a hotel room, stealing a car, running amok in a raunchy lap-dance emporium. His escapades are certainly action-packed, but, less character-driven than those of the preceding section, they are also more predictable and ultimately tiresome.

Although the teenage Mack Sennett brutalism of bumper cars in the neon night threatens to capsize the entire project, Go regains its equilibrium and even a bit of spin in the final episode. The action backtracks once more to detail the surpassingly weird Christmas Eve spent by Adam (Party of Five‘s Scott Wolf) and Zack (Jay Mohr), the two soap-opera actors who set the scenario in motion by coming to the supermarket to cop. Although the alert viewer may suspect that their path will likely recross Ronna’s to tie the evening’s adventures into a neat bow, the means by which it happens is fraught with surprises.

Go gets a lot nastier before delivering the last of its Christmas gifts. But remarkably the movie never becomes oppressive. There’s a sense of detached problem solving, possibly arising from Liman’s status as his own camera operator. A showy exercise in nervous grit, Go never strays too far from a sense of itself as stunt. Does Liman direct movies so that he can shoot them? It’s that hired-gun brio that keeps Go from turning smugly bad-boy, a syndrome we might term Very Very Bad Things.

Launched in late 1952, Hollywood’s comically brief 3-D experiment peaked the following summer. The craze was long over by the time Alfred Hitchcock finished his contribution to the cycle, Dial M for Murder, and the movie was released flat. A pity because, as now can be seen in Film Forum’s stunning rerelease, Dial M for Murder was by far the most visually compelling of studio stereoscopic movies— rivaled only by Jack Arnold’s half-underwater Creature From the Black Lagoon.

Taken from a hit Broadway play (and recently remade as A Perfect Murder), Dial M is a genteel thriller. A reptilian ex­tennis champ (Ray Milland) decides to eliminate his wealthy, unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly), and blackmails an old schoolmate to do the job; when Kelly unexpectedly dispatches her attacker with a pair of scissors, Milland shifts gears to have her framed. Perhaps 90 percent of the action is confined to the couple’s cramped, incongruously dowdy living room, but Hitchcock made no attempt to open the piece up. While other 3-D productions assaulted audiences with hurtling tomahawks or Jane Russell’s bosom, Hitchcock positioned his actors behind a fussy clutter of monumentalized bric-a-brac and made visual jokes out of rear-screen projection. The lone use of the proscenium-breaking projectile effect is reserved for the murder sequence.

Dial M for Murder runs out of ideas after the killing (a typically kinky montage of jutting, boxy forms that supposedly took a week to shoot), with the film’s last half mainly sullen crosscutting between the overstuffed living room and the clean diagonals of the outside stairwell, where the proof of Kelly’s innocence is stashed. But even here Hitchcock’s canny restraint allows the stereo image to assert its own uncanny characteristics. The movie suggests that a minimalist like Yasujiro Ozu might have been the greatest 3-D filmmaker of them all.

Reopening this week as well, Federico Fellini’s 1962 8 1/2 marked the high point of the director’s personal legend. This self-reflexive essay on the vicissitudes of a successful, middle-aged movie director (given an undeserved grace by Marcello Mastroianni’s performance) was once so revered it’s worth noting that it always had detractors. Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris both panned 8 1/2 and continued to flog it for years as the sort of bogus masterpiece beloved by over-earnest English professors (Kael) or callow film students (Sarris).

However the ensuing decades have brought forth a deluge of bogus masterpieces, and Fellini’s, by comparison, holds up rather well. 8 1/2 may be lightweight, but its facility is inspired. The filmmaker was never smoother than he was here, guiding the audience through a series of superb set pieces: the opening traffic-jam nightmare, the harem fantasy, the cocktail party­press conference on the movie lot, the haunting and inimitable circus-ring ending. Fellini’s intercutting of reverie, dream, and reality is seamless and standard-setting. And as 8 1/2 was made before his style inflated to DeMille dimensions, his pet tricks— killing all the sound except the howl of the wind, or dollying the camera through a throng of ciao-hissing gargoyles— had yet to harden into mannerist tics.

More than any other foreign “classic” of the early 1960s, 8 1/2 was slick and entertaining enough to make a splash in the mainstream. The movie’s major flaw remains its romantic, self-serving portrait of the artist as a big-time moviemaker. This, of course, has been its fatal appeal for certain self-conscious Hollywood auteurs. Now that movies like Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz have slid down the memory hole, it should be easier to enjoy the maestro’s more adroit hokum.