WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”
On the slick Miami streets it should be easy for a top-notch bounty hunter like Bucum Jackson (Ice Cube) to make a buck. Yet with his unorthodox ways of catching criminals that make him unpopular with the local cops and his boss big money has so far eluded him. Enter con artist Reggie Wright (Mike Epps) a smooth-talking punk whom Jackson has put away before and is about to again. Reggie escapes from Bucum into the getaway van of two jewel thieves (Carmen Chaplin and Roger Guenveur Smith) after a big score but it seems the two have stolen fake diamonds. Not good especially when their boss (Tommy Flanagan) finds out. Wright escapes again and winds up at the apartment of his girlfriend Gina (Eva Mendes). They find out the lottery ticket Reggie bought for Gina earlier has won a $60 million jackpot. But the winning ticket happens to be in the wallet he accidentally dropped in the van which is now in the possession of the bad guys. Oops. Then Jackson shows up. (With me so far?) Reggie manages to convince the bounty hunter to hook up with him to try to get the lottery ticket back and split the winnings. Bucum sees the advantages right away. If they find the ticket they're in the money. If not Jackson will nab the criminals and get the fame and fortune he needs to set up his own private investigation firm. With so much cash at stake including the real $20 million stash of diamonds it's not a bad deal.
Despite the convoluted plot the acting remains pretty one-dimensional. Ice Cube has a certain charm which he's carried with him in his films. He has it in Benjamins but he plays Bucum almost too straight without much texture behind the character. The thing Ice Cube does well though is play off his co-stars as he did with Chris Tucker in Friday and with Epps in Next Friday. It's obvious Ice Cube (who also co-produced and co-wrote Benjamins) is trying to capitalize on his success with Epps. Unfortunately the chemistry between the two stars in Benjamins misses a step. Epps' Reggie comes off far more annoying than anything else and in some moments you wish Bucum would just shoot Reggie to put us out of our misery. Everyone else in the film plays their stereotypical roles as best they can. Mendes tries to be a little too much like Rosie Perez in White Men Can't Jump while the bad guys try to be a little too much like every other bad guy we've ever seen. Valarie Rae Miller who has turned heads as a tough lesbian on the hit TV series Dark Angel is completely wasted as a wannabe bounty hunter trying to partner up with Bucum.
Benjamins wants to be that buddy action flick where the banter is quick and the guns are blazin' with the Miami setting giving the film a Miami Vice feel of water boats and hot women in bikinis. Unfortunately it tries too hard. There are moments of hilarity--a few scenes with Epps and Mendes and especially a scene with Epps and two older women after they've scammed a local convenience store--but they are few and far between. The script has almost too much going on (hence the difficult time trying to keep this description of the plot to a page) while the characters fall too easily into cliches. Even though Ice Cube is certainly a player in Hollywood having successfully produced many of his own films he does a much better job putting himself in his own element where the surroundings are more familiar. He's going for a bang-up run-of-the-mill action movie here instead of giving us a slice of life like in his Friday movies. Sorry a slice of life is far far more interesting.