Friday, 14 July 2017

SINGERS IN THRILLERS: The Bodyguard and Romeo Must Die

I watched a couple of boring thrillers featuring singers. To make up for this epic waste of time, I present a rambling breakdown of why these movies are so boring.

The Bodyguard (Mick Jackson, 1992)
Originally written in the Seventies for superstars Steve McQueen and Diana Ross, The Bodyguard finally made it to the screen with superstars Kevin Costner and Whitney Huston.

Someone is stalking superstar singer/actress Rachel Marron (Whitney Huston). When the threats turn to violence, her entourage hire ex-Secret Service man Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner) to protect her. As Farmer fights between his professional code and his feelings for Rachel, the stalker's campaign continues to escalate...

I did not see this movie for years. All I knew about it was the soundtrack, which my grandfather played constantly.

I finally caught up with it a few years back, and man, it was a bit of a downer. Going in, I knew the basic outline, but what I was imagining in my head was more along the lines of In The Line of Fire -- with dance numbers.

Re-watching it now, The Bodyguard is still a bit of a disappointment. The concept of a bodyguard protecting a superstar is already pretty thin. It requires a lot of strong components to make it exciting: the casting of stars is certainly important, but it also requires a really good script and exemplary direction to give the wafer-thin idea wings. But the makers behind The Bodyguard fail to accomplish any of this.

The key foundation of the movie is the love story, and that requires chemistry between the leads. On that count, The Bodyguard is a total flop. Huston is pretty credible in her role, even if the script gives her nothing that good to work with. Costner tries to model his performance on Steve McQueen, but it just does not come off. Cosnter's forte is the everyman; McQueen was more of a presence. Costner tries to go for McQueen's smouldering minimalism, but it's like pouring a glass of water in an empty swimming pool. We end up with long stretches of tedium with two people speaking words at each other with nothing behind them. They might as be two boulders in the desert.

On the thriller side of things, it's pretty skimpy. Once Farmer becomes Rachel's head of security, that plot takes a backseat to the love story, leading to a middle act where nothing is pushing the story forward.

The two scenes which pick things up are the cabin sequence, in which Farmer takes the Marron clan to his family abode in the woods, where they are attacked by Rachel's stalker; and the finale at the Oscars. It is the one scene where the filmmakers send up the glitz and glamour of Rachel's world - it's the sequence that is often ridiculed, and with good reason. For me, I wish it could be gaudier and dumber. 

Actually 'gaudier and dumber' is my note regarding the whole movie. It needed to lean into its inherent theatricality and cheese. As is, it's so sterile and safe that it just never comes across well. This is low melodrama, and the filmmakers should have treated it as such. 

The Bodyguard is one of those ideas that will probably end up remade. If it does happen, a proper musical is probably the best way to go. The recent London musical adaptation has sprouted touring versions around the world, and has been pretty successful so far. So The Bodyguard might get another go at the big screen before too long.

If you have not seen The Bodyguard, I'd stick with the soundtrack. The movie is the definition of 'okay', but I don't know if I can recommend it fully. Make it part of a drinking game with friends.

Romeo Must Die (Andrzej Bartkowiak, 2000)
Produced by uber-producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and The Matrix), Romeo Must Die was the first US starring vehicle for Hong Kong martial arts star Jet Li and the screen debut for RnB singer Aaliyah Haughton.

After his brother is killed, former cop Han (Li) escapes prison in Hong Kong and heads to America to avenge his death. He ends up in the middle of a rivalry between his father (Henry O) and a rival African American organisation led by Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo). When O'Day's son is killed, Han joins forces with O'Day's daughter Trish (Aaliyah) to discover the culprits and avert an all-out gang war.

I caught this one on home video just after it came out. Going into it, I had no idea who Jet Li or Aaliyah were. My parents rented it along with a bunch of Jackie Chan movies (I think Gorgeous was one of them). My brother and I loved Jackie Chan, and we watched a bunch of the American re-cuts of his Hong Kong releases growing up. Compared with those, Romeo Must Die did not come off that well. I don't remember too much from that viewing aside from three things: the kids discovering Han's brother hanging from the power lines; the x-ray shots showing bones breaking; and two women making out in a club.

Watching it some 17 years later, Romeo Must Die is rather interesting. An attempt to capitalise on the popularity of Asian action stars and hip hop, the film is a time capsule of late nineties pop culture. In a way, its attempts to be so contemporary wind up dating it more than The Bodyguard.

In its favour (and unlike The Bodyguard), the movie benefits from a strong cast that gel together. Jet Li is good as Han - he handles the dramatic requirements of the role well, and it's a given that he can do the action justice. And while the love story is never really built up, he does have a good rapport with Aaliyah.

Speaking of which, Aaliyah is surprisingly natural as Trish. She has charisma, and leavens her role with a bit of humour. There's not that much to the role, but she makes it watchable. It's too bad her career was cut short because she comes across very well here.

The love story is very underplayed here. At this point everybody probably knows the story about the test screening where people laughed during a kissing scene between Han and Trish. That scene was excised, but I wonder if there was more cutting throughout the film to remove that element. As is, the relationship between Li and Aaliyah is more believable than the one between Costner and Huston, but it does feel more like they will end the movie as friends, rather than romantic partners. For me, the main reason there is so little sign of attraction between them is the obvious disparity in age - during filming, Aaliyah was barely 20, Li almost 40. It feels more like a mentor-student relationship than something more intimate.

Across the board, all the acting in the movie is really good. DB Woodside and Russell Wong, the villains of the piece, are probably the most memorable. It's too bad the plot requires them to hide in the background, because once they show their true colours, they are enjoyably self-serving. Del Roy Lindo is also very good as a mob man trying to go the straight and narrow.

The script is kind of predictable but throws in some interesting set pieces (I love the machine gun in the brief case); the action is solid and the soundtrack is still great. There is just one thing about this movie which holds it back, and it is significant: the direction.

This movie is the directorial debut of cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak (Terms of Endearment, Speed), and it shows.

The movie's colour palette is very strange - it's cold and grey. I guess it was a choice to emphasise the movie's dramatic component, but it just drains the movie of energy. Apart from lacking in variety, it is significant because colour can play a big factor in how a viewer takes in a film. By limiting it to such a dour tone, it dampens excitement and undermines the tonal shifts of specific scenes.

And while the acting is fine, there is a feeling that the actors are stuck on their own. It's hard to put into words, but I feel like a better director could have teased out more of the romantic angle between the stars - Li was only just moving into English-speaking roles, and Aaliyah had no experience to speak of. A more experienced director would have been sensitive to these obstacles and made sure to counter them. 

He also ham-fists the action a bit. Li is a fantastic physical presence, but too often the filmmakers slice and dice the fight scenes so you only get bits and pieces of what he can do. There are too many close ups and angle changes that sap some of the impact from the fight scenes, and completely undermine the movie's attempts at comedy. The scene in which Li uses his skills during an impromptu football match with Woodside's goons should be great, but it is cut like confetti. As Tsui Hark, Jackie Chan, Stephen Chow and Charlie Chaplin prove, physical comedy (and action) works best in wide shots.  

Ultimately the main problem is tone. Despite its action movie credentials, the movie comes across as incredibly dour and one-note. While a certain level of gravitas is necessary (it's a movie sparked by inter-family murder), but as an action picture it needs more variation. Anthony Anderson gets a few good moments as a gormless henchman, but apart from that, the movie mopes about like a teenager.

While it has the components to be great (or at least a super slice of cheese) Romeo Must Die is not as exciting as it could be. If you like the stars, it's worth a look. But as a movie, it's a bit of a damp squib.

Related posts

Aaliyah (discography)

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