Still living with his immigrant family in Brighton Beach Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) has had enough--the family restaurant has no customers his cook brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) can't cook and his mother nags his devout Jewish father who is anything but Jewish. So instead of getting sucked into a go-nowhere life Yuri naturally gets into arms dealing. After selling a local hood an Uzi Yuri discovers that he might actually have the knack. He recruits his younger brother--more for moral support than business acumen--and begins to soar up the arms dealing food chain attaining wealth luxury and an exciting lifestyle along the way. The only thing he lacks is his dream girl--Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan) a Brighton Beach beauty queen-turned-supermodel. But Yuri finally wins her heart too by posing as a legitimate businessman with more money than he actually has. Ava senses he's not legit but just as long as they have their penthouse overlooking Central Park and a chauffeured limo she'd rather not know what he does. Meanwhile Yuri's interests clash with his chief rival Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm) an old-school gun runner coming to terms with the end of the Cold War. Backed into a corner Yuri is given a choice between continued competition or none at all and his decision sends Yuri into a spiral of rapid moral decay despite ever-increasing profits. His greatest struggle through it all has been with himself. In the end he learns to accept the Golden Rule of arms dealing: Never wage war with anybody especially yourself.
The highlight of Niccol's biting satire is undoubtedly Cage's performance as the amoral but charming Yuri. How is it that we root for this loathsome character when he deserves our scorn? Perhaps the answer lies in Cage himself who is adept at playing scoundrels with humor and aplomb. Not many other actors come to mind who can pull off a frantic matter-of-factness quite like Cage a crucial quality needed to disarm the audience into rooting for a guy who gets stinking rich by selling guns to murderers. Equally likeable is Yuri's best customer Baptiste Senior (Eamonn Walker) the president of Liberia whose only competition for the prize of Most Ruthless Killer is his own son (Sammi Rotibi). Meanwhile Ethan Hawke shows up every now and then as Jack Valentine a by-the-book Interpol agent hot on Yuri's trail. Valentine's adherence to the law allows him to routinely miss opportunities to nab his foe. He won't yield an inch and at one point even keeps Yuri in custody without charges for the full maximum of twenty-four hours but not a second more. Bridget Moynahan's performance as Yuri's wife is serviceable though she does effectively convey the hurt and sorrow of a wife deceived. Leto's turn as Yuri's drug-addicted brother has both its comedic and tragic moments--his character has the most defined arc and the young actor makes the most of it. Only Ian Holm as Yuri's chief foil seems out of place. Half the time he looks bored to be there the other half he doesn't seem to care. Any old British actor with a smudge of charm could have filled this character's small shoes.
The film opens with Yuri speaking to the camera (his narration runs throughout) but it's the following sequence that pulls us in. Starting at a munitions factory in the Soviet Union we follow a bullet from its creation as it travels through various ports on its way to an African country where it's loaded into an AK-47 and shot into a child's head--a powerful and stylish way to show us the tragedy of the arms business without being dogmatic. From there the film settles down into a standard narrative which is where Cage's impressive performance kicks in. Niccol who also wrote the screenplay offers no apologies for Yuri's detachment from his business dealings though it's tough to pinpoint what thematically he's trying to say. Perhaps it's that the arms trade is a fact of life something all governments partake in--particularly the United States the biggest arms dealer in the world. As we watch Yuri grow in wealth while losing everything else most people consider important--family friends morality--Niccol seems content showing us the world as is without offering solutions. The last we see of Yuri is in some war-torn part of the world standing among thousands of spent bullet casings. He has accepted his fate with a casual shrug telling us that so too should we.
Pilot Frank "Shut 'Em Down" Towns (Dennis Quaid) arrives in Mongolia to close down an unprosperous oil rig and fly the disgruntled crew home. Along for the ride are his partner A.J. (Tyrese) the oil company's fetching but feisty female foreman (Miranda Otto) the company man (Hugh Laurie) assorted grease monkeys and one very odd hitchhiker (Giovanni Ribisi). Townes foolishly decides to fly into a sandstorm instead of turning back resulting in a forced landing that has them stranded in the middle of the Gobi desert with little hope of rescue. Moviegoers will likely be comparing the film not to the original but to TV's similar plane crash story Lost. Like Lost there's a reluctant leader a spunky babe a wise Arabic guy and lots of life-or-death tension. (Sorry no polar bears). Once they realize no rescue is coming they concoct a risky plan to get home although not everyone's sold on the idea.
Dennis Quaid is his usual roguish self as Towns a crusty arrogant but still charming guy who might be Harrison Ford's brother from Six Days Seven Nights. Heavy lifting isn't required by the actors in a film like this but indie fave Giovanni Ribisi turns in a nicely twitchy performance as Elliott the fellow who turns out to be strangely important to their survival. Miranda Otto (Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings films) is once again believably self-sufficient and is spared any romantic overtures from her fellow survivors. Hugh Laurie's character is at first merely "the suit " but gradually pitches in with the blue-collar workers. Tony Curran and Tyrese buddy up as they pull together to salvage what they can from the wrecked plane. As the chef Jacob Vargas supplies much of the comedy while desert know-how comes from Kevork Malikyan.
John Moore who also directed the rah-rah actioner Behind Enemy Lines clearly likes stories about men in desperate circumstances leavened by unlikely bonding and humor. The Gobi desert never looked more beautiful or more ominous with its mysteriously shifting sand. The plane crash might not be able to rival The Day After Tomorrow's tornados or jaw-dropping tidal wave but is still horrifyingly riveting. If you can't predict every beat of the finale however you clearly haven't seen enough movies.
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.