Draft Day

There are so many things to love about life that some days it amazes me how often I’m in a bad mood. For instance, I love football. I’m a Trojan and I bleed Cardinal and Gold. I have season tickets to the new Arena Football team in Southern California, the L.A. Kiss. I had season tickets for the L.A. Express of the USFL and I went to Rams and Raider games when they were here in L.A.. I also love Kevin Costner. He can be weak in a movie and I can still enjoy it because he has star power still. Almost twenty-five years after he was the biggest movie star in the world, I can still look forward to a movie that he stars in. I love movies, obviously. For some reason, I love sports movies and Costner and sports movies go together like peanut butter and jelly. I love getting to see movies early. In the old days, when I was in the preferred demographic, I went to dozens of advance screenings and I still like a mid-night screening if I can work my old bones up for it. I am also developing a strong love for AMC theaters. They currently run classic films on the big screen, they host the annual Best Picture Showcase and they have the best rewards program in the business. So how does this all fit together? I got to go to an advance screening tonight of the new Kevin Costner football film, “Draft Day”, because of the AMC Stubbs program.

Oh, and in case you could not guess, I loved the movie. “Draft Day” is almost genetically engineered to appeal to me. It is an adult movie, about the game that I love, starring one of the most appealing screen actors of the last three decades. There are no real football sequences, just a few film clips that are used to familiarize us with the potential players. There is no big game, player showdown or coaching miracle. This is a story about the behind the scenes maneuvering in the NFL for draft positions and the strategies used to improve your team or solve problems. There is almost as much macho posturing in the war rooms of the draft as there is on the field. Everyone has an opinion and an agenda, but ultimately someone has to choose. In this story the man who has to make that decision is Cleveland Brown GM Sonny Weaver.

Weaver is in a no win situation, the Browns are notorious at failing their fans. The best joke about that which I know is the longtime Browns fan who requested in his will that the pallbearers at his funeral be Browns players. When they show up out of respect, someone asks if he really loved those players that much that he wanted to honor them with this request. The answer was “No” he just felt that it would be appropriate at the grave for the team to let him down one last time. Costner’s Sonny is the son of a legendary former coach who had died just a week or so before the draft.  It turns out that he actually fired his own father a season before. Everyone is rooting for the Browns to grab a Golden Ticket and make a run at the Super Bowl. An opportunity is presented to Sonny to trade up for the number one pick and a chance at a franchise quarterback, potentially of a Manning, Luck, Elway status. The pressure to make a deal, the desire to please the fans and his father’s legacy, seem to conspire Sonny into making a choice he is not entirely comfortable with.

The NFL must have a piece of the action on this film. There is so much inside access to the Draft day events and personalities that It almost becomes a commercial for the business (cynics will probably take out the word “almost” in that last sentence). Real figures with the current NFL mix with our fictional characters and it all plays out like a backstage musical where we get to see what goes on behind the curtain. The story throws in some personal conflicts in the form of a demanding widowed mother, Ellen Burstyn, and a pregnant girlfriend who happens to be the front office money manager for the team played by Jennifer Garner. There are a slew of good supporting players including the devious GM for the Seahawks, the impervious owner of the Browns, and a couple of other prospects that Sonny has his eye on. The movie goes deep with character actors and peripheral characters that add color and context to the events in the film. There is a good deal of humor and as the clock starts counting down on the draft, there is a good deal of tension.

I don’t think I have seen as much split screen use in a movie since the original “Thomas Crown Affair”. The director turns out to be Ivan Reitman and he knows how to make an otherwise dull phone call something of an event. The personal stories don’t get in the way of the dynamics of the business, they just flesh out the day a bit more. This is a movie that is well written when it comes to making the inevitable outcome suspenseful and entertaining.  Costner plays it real, never overdoing the drama and reflecting a man who knows what he wants but is not sure that everybody else will want the same thing. You will be cheering for the Browns and that is truly a piece of film making magic.

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3 Days to Kill

After yesterdays orgy of films in the Best Picture Showcase, it was time for a little palate cleaning with a new release that won’t be nominated for anything next year. That does not mean that it is worthless but it does mean that this movie is designed only to be consumed and disposed of like the popcorn you should be overdosing on while it plays out in front of you. Kevin Costner has always been a favorite of mine, and although he has gone out of vogue a bit, he appears to be enjoying a renaissance. This is the second of three movies that he has out in the first four months of the year and the second one where he is playing spy games.

When the movie starts you might be tempted to laugh immediately. Two of the characters that the CIA is going after are codenamed “The Wolf” and “The Albino”. I expected Clint Eastwood to show up and he and Costner to scale a mountain in the alps. This just sounded like stereotypically cliched writing from a 1970s spy film. When Amber Heard show up repeatedly in black leather or latex, like some dominatrix that walked in out of a Roger Moore 007 outing, it was even more embarrassing. I began to wonder if people had lost any sense of reality and what century we are in. There is an effective shoot out to begin the movie, but the exterior of the hotel did make it look like an abandoned area of Serbia, which given the technical credits would not be surprising.

As it turns out, the film is a bit of a comedy spy film. They try to play most of the explosions, chases and shootouts straight, but every now and then, Costner’s character makes contact with an opposition counterpart and a relationship begins to form. It is a little one sided but it works to make this a different kind of movie. The character of Ethan Renner is motivated by a different type of ticking clock and it is not just the bad guys he has to tangle with. He is trying to reconnect with his daughter Zoey, played by Hailee Steinfeld, from the “True Grit” remake back in 2010. She is a little older now and works well as the antipathetic and somewhat estranged child of a spy. It turns out that the nut does not fall far from the tree when it comes to the truth department.

The most satisfying element of the film takes place when our hardened spy takes on punks that are in over their depth. Four young men on the brink of drug induced date rape get the sort of ass kicking that every father would like to inflict on someone who dares to even look sideways at his princess. He suckers some professionals with a doorstop and simply displays a gun as a way of coping with some bouncer types at an underground rave. The laws of France appear to be a little to liberated from my point of view when it comes to your personal property, but Ethan manages to negotiate a sticky situation with his apartment in a manner that lets us know that even though he is a bad ass, he is not really a bad man.

Three or four times in the story, a convenient kryptonite moment shows up to make a conventional action scene a little more unique. It was actually annoying the last time it was used and it only exists there to give Amber Heard’s character one more thing to do during the story. The plot elements building a bond between father and daughter don’t go to the extremes of having her put in personal jeopardy by the villain, that was a change that I appreciated. The romantic interludes between attractive but older actors are told without the graphics that would turn younger viewers off, and the settings in Paris, make the film feel a little more familiar but still with an exotic locale. No one will remember this for long but it is enjoyable for as long as you sit in the theater.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

I will admit up front that I have never read a Tom Clancy novel. They were ubiquitous accessories in the times that I lived through. Almost everyone I knew carried a copy of one of the Jack Ryan books and thumbed through them at bus stops, in waiting areas of restaurants, any place where time was to be passed and long before the internet was available for us to kill that time with. Next to Stephen King, Clancy defined the world of popular fiction in the 1980s and 90s. When the first incarnation of Ryan arrived on screen in the form of “The Hunt for Red October” I was sold. This was a different kind of spy game and I thought the films did a good job making the stories work on screen. Jack Ryan was played over a twelve year period by three different actors and all of those movies worked to some degree or other. It has been twelve years now since this character was on screen and the reboot seems like it should work and we can look forward to some more of Dr. Ryan over the next dozen years.

It looks as though this is an original story rather than an adaptation of one of Clancy’s works. The update, getting Ryan involved through a 9/11 epiphany seems completely realistic for the times. In the long run it may date the movie, but I still can watch “Red October” even though the Soviet Union is long  gone so maybe it won’t matter. The helicopter accident that was mentioned in the 1990s films, becomes a part of an origins story for this movie. I liked the concept but the rapid time forward makes the focus less about Ryan and his character and more about the “evil plan” of the the moment. It is a convoluted attack on America, involving short selling of American bonds and a coordinated terror attack. It is fortuitous that the Russians have themselves rebooted to their cryptic and totalitarian ways. The current intransigence of Moscow makes this script a lot more believable in a time when most terror threats originate from the Islamic world of fundamentalist warriors.

Chris Pine is an up and coming star. He has a great look and he is capable of acting so if given a chance, the character may be sustainable for a period of time. The script here gives him some early opportunities to show us his chops, but once the plot kicks in, mostly it is action based yelling and jumping that will characterize his role. His best moments are trading lines with director and co-star Kenneth Brannagh. Each of their scenes together gives Pine an opportunity to play smart and to use body language and dialogue to tell the story. When we arrive at the climax of the attack, there is basically nothing to distinguish Ryan from all the other hard guy spies that we have seen in other movies. The motorcycle chase near the end makes very little sense except it keeps the star in the center of the action.

The director’s greatest asset in my opinion is himself when playing the role of actor. Sometimes in a story like this, we are given a bad guy who has legendary skills but those are only talked about rather than displayed. Except for a perfunctory introduction to us as a bad ass character who kicks the crap out of a sloppy nurse, all of Brannagh’s work here shows us his intelligence and dangerousness with skilled acting. Brannagh holds the screen with his face and his voice. He barely smiles even when it might be the right way to play off the covert agents he is up against. The traditional Russian accent is authentic enough without being reduced to a caricature of Boris Badenov. You can see menace and intelligence in his eyes. The script gives him a superfluous disease that is used only for a character point for Kiera Knightley’s doctor to notice. His calm delivery of the dialogue involving the simple torture he plans for his captive is more disturbing because we are listening to a serious character and not just a bogey man.

Knightley is fine as Ryan’s future wife, and the best joke in the film involves her discovery of his true job. Kevin Costner is solid in the role of recruiter and operator for the spying activities of the young Jack Ryan. He could easily have been cast in the role himself back in 1990. Had that happened it’s likely that instead of two relaunches of the character, we would now be seeing some of the more mature Ryan stories that feature him in a position of political power. You can’t rewrite history, so we will never know how things might have gone differently. “Shadow Recruit” is an effective action spy thriller, but it is not particularly special. The best thing about it is the performance from Kenneth Brannagh, but there is plenty of potential for long range development of the character, with some stronger plots. Generic but entertaining.