Power producer Neal Moritz’ (Green Hornet Fast & Furious) company is called Original Film which is ironic because he hasn’t made a truly unique motion picture in some time. His latest effort Battle: Los Angeles isn’t groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination but packs enough punch to leave you saying “Thank you sir may I have another?”
Jonathan Liebesman (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) directs this massive movie about a race of aliens colonizing our planet but as the title suggests the action is centered on the City of Angels. Instead of watching the world at war we witness the American military’s last stand on the West Coast by following a single squad of soldiers on the ground as they fight their way through the city to pick up scattered civilians before the Air Force levels Los Angeles. 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) leads the troop but is too young to be calling the shots in a cataclysmic event like this. Thank heavens Squad Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) was called back in for one last mission because it doesn’t take long for the rest of the battalion to realize that the reluctant hero is their best chance for survival.
It’s a good thing that Liebesman and his technical crew are on the top of their game in Battle: LA because most of the other aspects of the production are just downright foolish. Writer Chris Bertolini took the framework from a handful of classic war movies and applied them to his script resulting in highly predictable scenarios and a pace that marches to the beat of past genre entries like Independence Day and Black Hawk Down. His dialogue filled with military jargon and 5th grade humor is quite literally laughable at some points while the thinly crafted characters are all token “team members” that you’ve seen before in films like Jarhead from the soon-to-be-father who’s not sure if he’s going to make it back to his wife to the new recruit/virgin who’s too young to die to the guy with the chip on his shoulder. We get brief glimpses of their back-stories in the first twenty minutes of the movie but as Nantz says during his Bill Pullman moment when the tide begins to turn “none of that matters now.”
What does matter is that Battle: Los Angeles is a roaring thrill ride that barely lets up from start to finish. From the moment the soldiers hit the streets they’re thrust into a tense and gritty survival situation that vaguely mirrors the urban environments in which our Marines are currently engaged in the Middle East. Liebesman uses handheld cameras and close-ups to capture the calamity of combat giving the picture a documentary quality that helps it find some semblance of individuality. Though his actors aren’t required to do much acting (save for Michael Pena whose small role as a dedicated father stands out) and the script as stated is noticeably sub-par capturing their facial expressions as hovercrafts blow fighter jets out of the sky brings out emotion that most of them wouldn’t be able convey in a more traditional performance.
As I continue to heap praise upon the film’s technical achievements I must also note editor Christian Wagner’s chaotic cuts that heighten the soldier’s state of paranoia and the overall sound design of the picture. Until we get up close and personal with one of the aliens Liebesman doesn’t show us much; we have a hard time seeing them because they move so fast but we can hear their quick movements and the affect is quite unsettling much like the performances from Michelle Rodriguez Ne-Yo and a slew of the films co-stars.
Whether or not the filmmakers originally intended on making a movie that was more than the average alien invasion flick is neither here nor there. Is it a rehash of the most exciting moments in War of the Worlds or Red Dawn? Sure it is but it’s also an electrifying film that manages to be engrossing and entertaining in spite of its flaws.
Ideas simply flow around DJay (Terrence Howard) a philosopher of sorts who waxes prophetic to whomever will listen. But this Socrates isn't from the hoity-toity world of togas Grecian gods and flowing wine. No DJay is a shrewd pimp from the sweat-drenched southern streets of Memphis. Living on the fringe of society he hustles his women from his car and wonders often out loud what happened to all the big dreams he had of making in the music business. But when he runs into an old friend Key (Anthony Anderson) a sound engineer with similar aspirations a light bulb goes on. DJay starts to write down his freestyle raps and teams up with Key and Shelby (D.J. Qualls) a church musician with a beat machine to lay down bass-thumping crunk tracks full of heart and soul. Suddenly DJay's whole attitude changes much to the surprise of the women in his life including Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and Nola (Taryn Manning). So much so that they too get caught up in DJay's flow and set out to help him. DJay knows it's now or never. He knows he's gonna have to hustle like he's never hustled before if he's ever going to break out and live his dream.
Terrence Howard is one of those quintessential character actors whose name you can never remember but whose enigmatic and superb performances--as well as his pair of mesmerizing eyes--you can never forget. He's played a fellow pushed to the edge in Crash a smooth jazz player in Ray and even a biker boy in Biker Boyz. Now it's his turn to be in the limelight. He is simply astounding in Hustle & Flow playing the sometimes dangerous sometimes kind DJay as a guy on the edge--whatever that edge may be fame or disaster. Whether he wants it or not this is going to put Howard on the map toward movie--and possible Oscar--stardom. Of course Howard is also assisted by a superlative supporting cast. In the women's corner Manning (8 Mile) as DJay's top earner Nola and Henson (Baby Boy) as his former "go-to" girl sidelined with a pregnancy turn in performances of a lifetime. Henson's especially exceptional: her innately sweet and giving nature influences DJay in ways he never imagined. Anthony Anderson who has been scoring major points for his malevolent turn on TV's The Shield continues his dramatic break from inane comedies (thank GOD!) as Key the voice of reason in DJay's wild world. Also holding his own is Qualls (Road Trip) the "skinny white boy" who still knows a thing or two about crunk. And once again rapper-turned-actor Ludacris makes a memorable cameo appearance as a former Memphis boy who makes it big in the hip-hop world only to turn his back on the ones who helped him get there. Kudos all around.
Like many well-made independent films before it Hustle & Flow is a testament to passion--a fervent vision from a filmmaker who has not only lived the life he's so lovingly recreating but who also wholly believes in its virtues. First-time writer-director Craig Brewer who hails from the same Memphis streets creates Hustle & Flow straight from his heart. Through his poignant script and unfaltering gritty and grainy vision Brewer gets everyone pumped up." This is a Memphis story--a movie about making music by any means necessary " Brewer explains. "Music has been our common love and language. It's our chance to take our pain our struggle our tools and put it into something that has a beat raw and unfiltered." Director John Singleton was so enamored of the script's pulse which introduces us to the world of crunk--a subdivision of southern hip-hop--that he personally financed and produced the film. Also duly impressed were the folks at the esteemed Sundance Film Festival who handed the film its Audience Award back in February. Memphis crunk rapper Al Kapone who provides two of DJay's most memorable tracks "Hustle & Flow" and "Whoop That Trick " adds "We've got such a deep history of music out of this city from Stax to Elvis to rock-and-roll to the blues…we always knew there was something here but we were never able to carry the torch. We always had this energy wanting to bust out--we wanted to be heard and be recognized." And now it can. Hustle & Flow will crunk your world.
February 22, 2002 11:20am EST
The film begins with three ten-year-old girls burying a decorative wooden box in the woods while making a pact to remain lifelong friends. They also vow that upon their high school graduation they will return and dig up the box which contains items that reflect their goals and aspirations. Eight years later however Lucy (Britney Spears) Kit (Zoë Saldana) and Mimi (Taryn Manning) have grown apart. Lucy is the virginal valedictorian Kit is unscrupulously popular and Mimi is the pregnant rebel. On graduation night nostalgia gets the best of them and they decide to rekindle their friendship and embark on a road trip each with their own goals. Lucy would like to see her mom who abandoned her when she was a child; Kit needs to confront her fiancé in Los Angeles; and Mimi wants to enter a singing contest. They get Ben (Anson Mount) a mysterious stranger with a bad rap to drive them across the country in his '73 Buick convertible and in a matter of days--and a couple of 'N Sync songs--seem to forget how much they actually hate each other.
In her acting debut Britney Spears trades in her trademark Day-Glo tan for a more demure girl-next-door look. While she cries convincingly with puffy eyes and all her delivery seems forcibly understated and wooden. For example when Lucy breaks down and tells her father she feels as though she got nothing out of her entire high school experience she snaps out of her gloomy mood instantaneously when her father disagrees with her. Anson Mount (Urban Legends: Final Cut) who plays her love interest Ben is natural enough and completely suave next to Spears. Except for the scene where he protests a little too much to the girls driving his car (he literally kicks up dirt for what seems like an eternity) he plays the part in a down-to-earth manner without any showboating. The two sidekicks played by Taryn Manning (crazy / beautiful) and Zoë Saldana (Get Over It) are at opposite ends of the spectrum. While Manning comes across as sincere Saldana seems like she's playing the part of Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. For kicks see if you can spot former MTV VJ Jesse in the background crowd.
How director Tamra Davis went from helming the hilariously clever Half Baked to Crossroads is unfathomable. The characters in the film especially Lucy and her father are unoriginal and stick to stereotypes: the rigid blue-collar father who pressures his daughter into medical school and the all-too perfect daughter who constantly seeks his approval. And even though Davis also tries to camouflage the musical sequences peppering them throughout the film (Lucy sings to anything that comes on the radio including Madonna and Sheryl Crow) the movie still comes across as just an excuse for Spears to sing. More blatant is the scene where the threesome takes part in a karaoke competition in the dead of Louisiana. Although Spears' rendition of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" is not that bad I don't know of any karaoke bars that have a DJ of that caliber (or have an emcee like Kool Moe Dee). Can't pop stars cross over into film without bringing their song repertoire with them?