Writer/director Brian Goodman bases this gritty look at a couple of tough guys growing up in South Boston on his own experiences. The reality he brings to the table is what makes this compelling tale a notch above others in the same genre. We first meet Brian (Mark Ruffalo) and best pal Paulie (Ethan Hawke) as they are caught up in a violent armored car robbery. Their entrée into a life of low-level crime is detailed early on in flashbacks in which they are operating under the guidance of a local criminal Pat (director Goodman). Catching up with them in the present day about 12 years later Brian is now married and has two sons while Paulie is determinedly single. Neither has graduated past the workaday life of the average hoodlum and are still taking their lead from the no-good Pat who decides to teach Brian a lesson by gunning him down and leaving him for dead in the snow. Time in prison -- and a conflict between the two friends -- make up the core of the film’s final act when decisions must be made about the eventual paths their lives will take. Fulfilling his promise as one of the screen’s most underrated actors working today Mark Ruffalo gets a three-dimensional role with real guts and complexity. His sterling performance is gritty and finely detailed immersing himself into this low-life loser who is desperately trying -- and failing -- to lift himself up and find a new life. Ethan Hawke is equally fine even if we just saw him play a similar role last year in Sidney Lumet’s similar crime drama Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Like Ruffalo Hawke completely throws himself into the mind of a Southie and captures the essence of such a character. It’s the two actors’ increasingly conflicted -- and at turns polar opposite -- relationship that makes up the heart of What Doesn't Kill You. Goodman as you might imagine acquits himself nicely in the local criminal role and Amanda Peet nicely underplays Brian’s suffering wife. Donnie Wahlberg (who co-wrote the script) is from that part of the city and adds a good deal of authenticity to his smaller detective role. Brian Goodman an experienced and seasoned actor turns to writing and directing for the first time with remarkably assured self-confidence and a command of exactly what he wants to say. Certainly he’s covering an area he knows well having lived this life in the exact locales in which he’s shooting. With the atmospheric dark gray cinematography of Chris Norr and Robert Hoffman’s sharp editing Goodman’s film delivers with just the right amount of grit and street violence. Mostly though it’s a strong character study. The combination of Goodman’s expertise on the subject and his lead actors’ superlative interpretation pay off in making What Doesn't Kill You so extremely effective. It’s a fascinating and informed look at a place most people will only get to know through the movies.
Based on the novel by Clive Cussler we meet master explorer Dirk Pitt who is just itching to go on his next treasure hunt. He gets that chance when he finds a fabled coin linked to a historical legend and heads to some of the most dangerous regions of West Africa searching for what the locals call the "Ship of Death"--a long-lost Civil War battleship that harbors a secret cargo. But don't waste a second of time wondering how a Civil War battleship found its way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sahara Desert; no one involved in the movie did either. Along for the ride is Dirk's wisecracking "sidekick" Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) who always knows just what to say in the most dire of situations. Not. The boys also meet Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz) a beautiful doctor who believes that the hidden treasure may be connected to a larger problem that not only threatens the lives of the locals but possibly like the entire world. Whoa dude! Although the guys spend most of the movie blowing things up together you just know that somehow their paths are going to cross again with Eva's and when they do it's gonna be EXPLOSIVE! Like literally. Duuuuuude!
Who can act with all those explosions going off? And in the middle of the desert? McConaughey is so suntanned so blow-dried so lovingly filmed in this movie that I was half expecting the distinctive twang of the "porn guitar" every time he made an entrance. In every shot he's glistening bronzed with a megawatt smile and that laid-back inflection of his that makes it sound like he just rolled out of bed stretched scratched himself and then moseyed himself down to stand in front of the cameras. Similarly Zahn who is usually cast as the hyperactive frenetic best friend is cast as--big surprise--the frenetic hyperactive frenetic best friend. The only difference is that in Sahara he must have been allowed to use McConaughey's personal trainer because Zahn has never looked more studly. He too is all windswept and taut muscles matching McConaughey's frosted tips to frosted tips and squint for squint. Oh yeah Penelope Cruz is in the movie too walking around with horned rimmed glasses perched on her face to show that she's a Serious Doctor Person. Yep that just about does it for the acting.
Matthew McConaughey tells us "the word Sahara actually means 'desert'." If we take our English lesson one step further we can define desert as: "A region of permanent cold that is largely or entirely devoid of life." Yep that about sums the movie up. Although director Breck Eisner has done his best to assemble all the elements and set pieces of an action/adventure film we've seen them all before. Never throw one punch when you can throw 10; never drive in a straight line when you can zoom around in a long sweeping curve being sure to kick up as much dust as you can. And don't sweat the small details like finding a working pay phone or a gas station in the middle of a desert or locating live ammunition in a ship that's 150 years old. Never say "I'll be fine!"(because for sure you're going to die). Or "I'll be right back." (because again you're guaranteed not to). And of course the ever popular "How many times am I gonna have to save your ass?" (c'mon that was rhetorical). We already know that a train is going to be involved; someone is going to get tied to a truck and somewhere somehow there will be camels. It's the desert for heaven's sakes. There's nothing fresh here. Dialogue is just a mere convenience to move the actors from one band of bad guys to the next and none of the actors are really given much to do other than whoop and holler a whole lot. Oh yeah and blow things up. Don't ask how the 150 year old cannonball can still explode. Just leave well enough alone.