Although its Mideast trappings have become terribly familiar in any number of recent movies from Syriana to The Kingdom to director Ridley Scott’s own Black Hawk Down William Monaghan’s (The Departed) tight script still has pertinent things to say about the lies and deceptions inherent in our covert operations in the region. Cloaked in a cat and mouse thriller format the story centers on Roger Ferris (DiCaprio)--a top CIA operative fluent in the Arab language-- who roams from country to country trying to penetrate top secret terrorist cells and uncover plans for mayhem. In trying to smoke out a shadowy terrorist who has been directing a series of key bombings against civilian targets in Europe Ferris comes up with the ingenious idea to create a phony rival group that appears to be taking credit for the “real” Al Qaeda-type organization’s business. Complicating matters for Ferris is his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) back at CIA headquarters who sees the world in black and white and believes there is no such thing as going too far to achieve goals in the best interest of the U.S. Both must also deal with the head of Jordanian Intelligence Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) who recognizes that each is useful for his own counter-terrorism efforts. There are a LOT of explosions that keep getting in the way of the dramatics--and much of the Crowe/DiCaprio teaming is played out on opposite sides of a phone line. But Body of Lies incorporates a first-rate cast including many local Middle Eastern performers who make strong impressions. Crowe--adopting some sort of quasi-southern accent (apparently from Arkansas)--creates an amusing CIA boss who sees the world from one perspective--his. Juxtaposing his duties to family as well as America Crowe creates a full blooded portrait of a husband father and CIA lifer who thinks he knows all the answers. His few scenes when he is face to face with co-star DiCaprio are worth the wait and both stars play off each other with ease. DiCaprio is back in Blood Diamond territory here as a rogue operative using his own ingenuity to make a difference. His on-screen command of some Arabic phrases is unforced and impressive and he earns the audience’s empathy particularly when he winds up in well over his head. There are also some nice scenes opposite a Muslim nurse he strikes up a relationship with while in the hospital. Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani is beautiful and nicely understated in these moments. Strong who also is very fine in another of the week’s new releases RocknRolla is suave and powerful as the shrewd Jordanian Crowe and DiCaprio cross swords with. Other regional actors fill out their roles with uncommon authenticity. There can be no question Ridley Scott is a master of the film medium. Body of Lies moves very well and thanks to the Scott style manual has lots of urgency. Employing his usual use of multiple cameras getting simultaneous angles in every scene Scott doesn’t rely on actors having to do a lot of takes and in the process manages to give the film a documentary kind of feel. Although the filmmaking approach sometimes leads to more confusion than we would like it also puts us right in the center of the action. And there’s plenty of that. Working for the fourth time with Crowe the two clearly have a rapport and similar seat-of-the-pants way of working which DiCaprio seems to have picked up nicely. If this isn’t as impressive an overall achievement as Black Hawk Down it’s still an entertainment that is a cut above some of the other recent spate of Middle East-set thrillers. Locations are well used too with Northern Africa and specifically the Moroccan environs filling in for the some dozen countries identified on the screen.
Nate Johnson (Cedric the Entertainer) an insurance agent thinks it would be a great idea to take his estranged wife and three children to his family reunion in Missouri by car from California. Nate's motives are sincere enough: He is separated from his wife Dorothy (Vanessa Williams) who has custody of teenagers Nikki (Solange Knowles) DJ (Bow Wow) and Destiny (Gabby Soleil) and hopes the road trip will help them bond as a family and with any luck re-ignite that loving feeling with the mother of his children. But everything that can go wrong does even before the trip begins. Nate brings his SUV into the shop to have an 8-track tape player installed in order to listen to his old Motown classics but what he gets is something straight out of MTV's Pimp My Ride although not even West Coast Customs would do something this gaudy. Off they go in their Burberry-outfitted low-rider Lincoln Navigator complete with four TVs and 26-inch Spinners. Vehicle with up-to-the-minute gadgetry notwithstanding the Johnsons encounter every clichéd road trip disaster including running out of gas and needing a pay phone. It's hard to figure out what's more trite--the journey to Missouri or what happens when they actually get there.
Cedric the Entertainer's trademark observational comedy which made him stand out as a cast member of The Steve Harvey Show simply isn't enough to carry an entire film. Cedric is truly the only funny thing Johnson Family Vacation has going for it and he has a few gags that are simply hilarious including a scene in which he bans CDs from artists who have been shot like Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. from being played in the car. Imagine his dismay when his wife points out that also includes Marvin Gaye "who was shot by his daddy--twice." But the comedian's arsenal of jokes--no matter how witty--do not a story make. Speaking of wasted talent the casting of stunning Williams as Nate's wife Dorothy is quite baffling. While Cedric the Entertainer could be married to someone this hot poor Nate probably couldn't. Nonetheless the quick-witted Williams holds her own next to one of the Original Kings of Comedy. Seventeen-year-old Bow Wow has worked hard to prove that he's not just a flash in the pan--and it's worked for the most part. He proved with Like Mike that he can act but the role of DJ here gets buried in this lousy film.
Christopher Erskin who makes his directorial debut here delivers a mess of a movie despite having squeezed out everything he could from his stars. Visually the sets resemble skits on a TV variety show rather than professional feature film sets the worst being the sequences where the family is in the SUV--almost half the entire film. To wit: you see them driving with the same scenery in the background--it's like in the The Flintstones when Fred would drive past the same palm tree next to the same rock house again and again. You can't help but picture the actors sitting in the Lincoln Navigator prop car in front of a large blue screen windows rolled down with a wind machine pointed at them. Matching the abysmal visuals are writers Todd R and Earl Richey Jones' ill-paced script. The film drags as the Johnson family encounters unoriginal setbacks and the end is not even a payoff; it's punishment. See the film doesn't end when family finally reaches Missouri: Moviegoers must the sit through the actual reunion and the Johnson family's Brady Bunch-style musical performance costumes and all. The only moment of brief relief is Steve Harvey's guest appearance as Nate's brother. But wait! It doesn't even end then--we have to follow the family back home to California.