I had heard some good buzz surrounding this gritty thriller set in the drug underworld of the Mexican Cartels, so was quite hyped up to sit down to it finally. Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow, Looper) plays an F.B.I. agent who attracts the attention of a team of government agents when she stumbles upon a crime scene associated with the Mexican drug barons. Given the opportunity to join a top secret mission into Mexico, she at first thinks this is a chance to further her career, until eventually she starts to realize maybe what she’s involved in may not be strictly by the book.
Skilfully shot and with a very authentic feel, this thriller was packed full of tension and drew me in easily with echoes of Stephen Soderberg hit ‘Traffic’ as well as aspects of cult TV series Breaking Bad. However with an emphasis on secret operations and misleading information, especially from the point of view of Blunt’s character I’ll admit I found this confusing for a good portion of the run time. The subject is nothing particularly new and doesn’t really go anywhere all that surprising, but with added support of a cool and mysterious Benicio Del Toro and the always enjoyable Josh Brolin … this at least had some solid performances to help me through a convoluted narrative. Blunt is especially good in an emotional role that cements her reputation as one of the more interesting British actresses around. I’d have really liked more action to offset the tension as it’s a movie where I was expecting something to kick off any second. Tense moments such as a claustrophobic tunnel scene and a drawn out freeway journey certainly added to such expectations. Yet much is left until the closing moments, which by then I was feeling more frustrated than entertained.
The movie however pulls no punches as far as showing the shocking lengths these drug dealers will go to, but with several confusing characters (not helped by similar Mexican names) and a pace that rushed through important plot details … this, although intriguing could have been so much better.
There was something about this movie upon it’s release and over the years that has always made me stay away from it. The bizarre appearance of Hollywood actor Johnny Depp as famed drug addict / journalist Hunter S. Thompson, the always cautionary ‘unfilmable novel’ cliché and then the combination of drugs and Terry Gilliam – one of the more out-there, albeit skilled surrealist directors around. It seemed a bad combination. Yet now with this challenge and as a long time admirer of the former Monty Python member, who still for me made the best time travel movie ever conceived (Twelve Monkeys) – this finally had to be worth a look, right?
Depp as mentioned plays Thompson, going under various names in a three day drug fuelled road trip to and through and back again from Las Vegas along with his attorney (Benicio Del Toro) to report on a motor cross race in the desert in 1971. With a back drop of the Vietnam war, president Nixon and the hippy counter culture … this had plenty going on, but finding much entertainment in it was a struggle. This was Gilliam on acid, and for a director who already is Tim Burton on acid – that’s saying something! Hallucinations, a wealth of oddball characters, drugs, gambling, more drugs and basically two hours watching two utterly risible people not quite kill themselves (or anyone else they come across). Depp’s performance is like a Tex Avery cartoon, over the top jittery, with a one tone drawl (not helped by the cigarette filter permanently hanging out of his mouth) and is loosely aided by an animalistic, borderline psychotic Del Toro. Cameos by the likes of Cameron Diaz, Christina Ricci and a nearly unrecognisable Toby Maguire prove fun … and a soundtrack covering (amongst others) classic hits from The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan turn out to be the biggest plus of this total head-f**k of an experience. By the end credits I actually felt like I’d been on some sort of trip … and not a particularly good one.
Gilliam’s direction is technically impressive and truly creates the feeling of a doped out, paranoid and trippy journey complete with unconventional camera angles and bizarre effects work (hotel guests turn into reptiles and eat each other, or have an orgy – I couldn’t be sure) … so hat’s off to him for that, but I watch movies either to be entertained or to learn something … and I didn’t get much of either out of this.
Always wanted to see this, mostly down to it having one of my favourite actresses in it, Naomi Watts. Yet I had never got around to it until now. Following what at first appear to be 3 unrelated stories, former drug addict Watts now married with two kids, an ex-con whose found God (Benicio Del Toro) and a heart-transplant patient on the brink of death (Sean Penn). One tragic incident then has a devastating effect on all 3 characters lives and ultimately brings them together. Told with a fractured narrative where it isn’t at first clear if you are viewing events from the past, present or future, with no actual explanation of when things are set, this thought-provoking drama could alienate some, who could first have a ‘I can’t make head nor tail of this’ reaction to it. Yet I seriously urge you to stick with it, because like a puzzle, the pieces slowly begin to fall into place, and hopefully like me you’ll have a ‘I get it!’ moment of realisation, coming away amazed by the movie’s intelligence and raw, emotional power.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s movie boasts three incredible performances from its three main cast members, with a career defining Naomi Watts, even better than her amazing turn in Mulholland Drive, and with moments of intensity and totally convincing acting, this is one of those movies where all 3 should have got Oscars. Sean Penn can add another great role to his already heavy-weight CV, and the often underrated Del Toro proves himself yet again as someone with real range and talent. Not exactly cheery subject matter, I admit and has some strong scenes of violence and sex, but the authentic approach, fly on the wall style and heart-breaking twists and turns left me, in a word … astonished.
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