“Extraordinary rendition” is the very real practice of transporting terrorist suspects to a foreign country where they can be interrogated or held for the purpose of gathering intelligence or to face trial. In other words it’s a way to torture someone into confessing terrorist connections. And as the CIA’s head of terrorism Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) explains rendition is a necessary evil in catching the bad guys. But what happens when they nab someone who truly is innocent? Such is the case with Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) an Egyptian-American chemical engineer who is taken while on his way home from a business trip in South Africa and then shipped off to an undisclosed North African city for interrogation. His pregnant American wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) is frantically trying to find him even asking an old college flame (Peter Sarsgaard) now an aide to a U.S. senator for help. Meanwhile Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal)--a CIA field officer who happens to be in the location of the latest terrorist attack Anwar is accused of being a part of—is sent in to observe Anwar’s “questioning” by the local police captain Abasi Fawal (Yagal Nior). Douglas doesn’t really care for the job—and eventually does something about it. The Arab actors far outshine their American counterparts in Rendition—save for perhaps Meryl Streep who could read the Yellow Pages and make it intriguing. Her tough-as-nails bureaucrat is utterly convinced what she is doing is the right thing—and the actress plays it with complete resolve. Metwally (Munich) has the unenviable task of being filthy and naked not to mention tortured throughout most of the movie but manages to bring humility to the role. Nior too commands the screen whenever he is on it. But the other American actors bring Rendition down. Witherspoon is required to play her thankless role without her usual pep and we miss it. Not even her Oscar moment in which she screams at Streep’s Whitman demanding to know the whereabouts of her husband can invoke much emotion. Gyllenhaal is also fairly lackluster as the very green CIA agent who witnesses the horror of torture tactics. When he finally springs into action it’s almost too late for us to care about his character. Sarsgaard is entirely wasted merely the conduit to explain “rendition” to the audience and Alan Arkin as the U.S. senator simply barks a lot. Although South African director Gavin Hood gave us the searing Oscar-winning foreign film Tsotsi he may not yet have enough experience to handle something on a grander scale. Visually Hood knows what he is doing. The camera is fluid and the shots well framed but Rendition fails to inspire in its message. It moves slowly manipulatively—even the torture scenes albeit always hard to watch are almost rudimentary. Plus why see a movie about something you can either read about in the papers or watch on the news? The only time Rendition truly shines is in screenwriter Kelley Sane’s far more interesting subplot revolving around Fawal and his defiant daughter Fatima played with exquisite beauty by newcomer Zineb Oukach. The traditional Fawal is unwavering in his disciples so much so that he has driven his daughter into the arms of a mysterious young man who offers excitement and the promise of freedom. It’s obvious Hood feels more comfortable framing the more intimate small details. In fact had this plotline been the focus Rendition would have soared. The title would have had to change though.
In the late 19th century Dr. Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) a misunderstood monster hunter is summoned to Transylvania to ferret out Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and kill him once and for all. When Van Helsing gets to the small village where the vampire was last spotted he discovers he also must contend with Dracula's three seriously twisted vampire brides Dracula's angry henchman/werewolf--and a lovely gypsy princess named Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) who is hell-bent on eradicating Dracula and his bloodsucking kind for slaughtering her entire family. Oh and let's not forget Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) who holds the key to Dracula's evil master plan--something about releasing his minions of unborn bat-like children from their goo-filled cocoons so they can wreck havoc on the world. Yuck. Sounds like our resident monster stomper and his sword-swinging gal pal have their work cut out for them. If Van Helsing does manage to kill all his monster foes does that mean he's out of a job?
Jackman has the whole antihero thing down pat. He adequately embodies the younger more virile Van Helsing dishing out as much pain and torture as he can on the undead--but the Aussie actor isn't given nearly as much meat to chew on as he did say delving into the complicated Wolverine in X-Men. Instead the monster hunter is relegated to carrying big weapons wearing a big hat and muttering something about having bad dreams to a past he can't remember. Same goes for Beckinsale. The British actress was oh-so-cool on the other side of the fence playing the chic vampire Selene in Underworld cutting her way through a myriad of werewolves. As Van Helsing's heavily accented female counterpart Anna however she just runs around with her sword blurting out such pathetic dialogue such as "Dracula took everything away from me and now I'm alone in the world" while Roxburgh's Dracula--who can't hold a candle to other far more charismatic Draculas before him--wails about being so very alone as his luscious brides hang upside down in front of him. Give me a break. At least Australian actor David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings) provides much-needed comic relief as Van Helsing's sidekick Carl a Catholic friar who doesn't much like playing hero.
With the requisite dark mood and tone action sequences and snazzy CGI-creations including the winged vampire brides and formidable werewolves you can see exactly where writer/director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) spent Van Helsing's nearly $150 million budget. But even all the bells and whistles can't tie together the film's vacuous nonsensical mumbo jumbo as Sommers attempts to bring classic movie monsters together in the same movie. Maybe in a tongue-in-cheek Abbott and Costello movie it could work but as a serious action-packed thriller clearly Dracula Frankenstein and the Wolf Man do not need to meet. On top of that Sommers steals from other movies as well such as recent films Underworld (the whole vampire vs. werewolf conflict) and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (Van Helsing defeats a rather familiar-looking Mr. Hyde at one point). Whatever originality there is in the film leaves you either scratching your head--Dracula has kids?--or rolling your eyes--Anna needs to kill Dracula so her nine-generations of family can reunite in Heaven? Please.