Tom Hardy

Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy star in LAWLESS.

Photo Credit: Richard Foreman, Jr. | Photographer

The first trailer for “Lawless” looked like a film way too light and action-packed for director John Hillcoat, who relentlessly punished audiences with his last two films. “The Road” and “The Proposition” are gorgeously photographed, impeccably crafted works of misery and human cruelty. “Lawless” keeps the hard edge that defined Hillcoat’s earlier work while mixing in a healthy dose of fun, making for a work just as effective but far more entertaining than anything Hillcoat has produced before.

Between this film and HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” Prohibition-era gangsters are making a bit of a comeback in pop culture lately. “Lawless” is set in Franklin County, Virginia, the biggest moonshine producer in the world. The three most proficient bootleggers are the Bondurant brothers: the gruff, notoriously resilient Forrest (Tom Hardy), the young and eager Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke). Unfortunately, Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) is after them, and the threat that he poses is not just to their business, but to their lives.

Between this film and “The Dark Knight Rises,” Hardy is really coming into the public eye. His performance as Bane was a highlight of the summer and a perfect prelude to his coiled, monosyllabic work here. Forrest is a man of very few words, and it’s a testament to Hardy’s charm that he’s able to get a laugh with nothing more than a grunt by the end of the film. There’s a myth building around Forrest that he’s immortal after a few close calls, and the way Hardy engages that perception — playing Forrest as a heavily guarded, decisive instrument of destruction — is a blast to watch. Hardy’s scenes with Jessica Chastain, the de-facto mother of the crew, have a tenderness that stands out amongst the bloodshed, and watching her slowly peel away Forrest’s defenses is a lovely showcase for both actors.

Unfortunately, the main character of the film isn’t Forrest, it’s Jack. LeBeouf can be good in the right role, but he’s utterly unconvincing as a hard-ass bootlegger. Jack’s character arc is your basic crime lord origin story, straight out of “The Godfather,” but instead of becoming the king of anything, Jack continually screws up. A strong character grows and changes over the course of his story, but Jack rushes into situations half-cocked and relies on his brothers to cover his back all the way through the film’s climax. Unfortunately, LaBeouf fails to make any of this material particularly interesting, and his best scenes often involve him working with Hardy or Mia Wasikowska, who plays his love interest with a relaxed, alluring confidence.

Also worth mentioning is Pearce’s work as Agent Rakes, the film’s hammy villain. Pearce gives a fascinatingly opaque performance, and all of the different strokes he brings to the character combine to make Rakes seem as alien as possible in the Virginia backdrop. And Rakes is a propulsive element in the film, wreaking havoc across Virginia with reckless abandon. Nick Cave’s script has simple, smart dialogue, and seems to understand the stubborn sense of independence that drives the bootleggers at the film’s center.

Cave also collaborated with Hillcoat on “The Proposition,” and this film has the same hard-jawed, bloodthirsty sensibility. The difference here is the amount of fun Hillcoat has is having with his action. Even when things turn ugly, there’s still a pulpy appeal to every moment of the film. The skilled direction and Hardy’s gruff, fantastic performance combine to make “Lawless” an exciting and worthwhile.

Review

Christian Bale stars in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Has there been a film this year more anticipated than “The Dark Knight Rises?” Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman saga has lent an unprecedented level of prestige to the superhero genre, and for the four years since “The Dark Knight,” audiences have been asking if Nolan would be able to stick the landing in his finale. While it’ll take repeat viewings to determine how “The Dark Knight Rises” stands among its predecessors, the film is a truly grand finale, an epic conclusion that beautifully contrasts crushing despair and unyielding optimism.

Eight years have passed since Harvey Dent was killed and Batman slipped off into the night. A bold new act stemming from Dent’s death has freed Gotham from crime, and a retired Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been reduced to limping around his mansion in solitude. However, new problems are always rising, notably in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy), a relentless mercenary with an elaborate plan to bring Gotham to its knees.

Audiences have been bombarded with marketing for the film for the past year, but one of the movie’s simplest pleasures is seeing how the disparate pieces of the story fit together. Nolan has a lot of ground to cover, from Bane’s reign of terror to Batman’s return and to Commissioner Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) overwhelming guilt over his role in Batman’s exile. The film is tightly wound, its pieces precisely measured. Nolan builds an unrelenting momentum throughout, packing the film with grand, elaborate set pieces and establishes small recurring motifs that tie the film’s themes together elegantly.

There’s a definite sense of things ending here, and Nolan operates with pure confidence. He shows the most prowess in his direction of the film’s action scenes, and his use of IMAX cameras gives the film an appropriately epic scale. He also makes some bold choices, taking things to unexpected levels of chaos, and the final battle for Gotham is a marvel, a sweeping orchestra of violence and sacrifice. Even more effective is Batman’s first fight with Bane, a punishing encounter that puts Batman in some very real danger with Nolan staging the throwdown as an intimate but hopeless conflict, the moment when Batman finally meets his limit.

Bane was always an interesting choice for this film, but Nolan deploys a fascinating version of the character, finding strong thematic parallels between his hero and his villain. It helps that Hardy gives an intense, nefarious performance, playing Bane as a strategic and physical menace, and the cold mercilessness Hardy carries himself with is just as frightening as the gnarled mask that nearly swallows his face.

Fellow “Inception” alumni Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard show up here, and while Cotillard plays Miranda Tate with unflappable warmth and professionalism, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance as rookie cop John Blake proves to be one of the film’s most valuable assets. Blake has a lot in common with Bruce Wayne, but instead of putting on a mask, he puts on a badge and an uniform, with Levitt bringing a genuine decency and nobility to the character. It’s hard to make a compelling character out of someone so fundamentally decent and sure of himself, but thanks to Levitt’s incredible work, Blake is a vital character — an optimistic beacon in Nolan’s pitch-black universe. Meanwhile, Anne Hathaway proves another worthwhile addition to the saga, bringing her easy charm to the slippery Catwoman.

Christian Bale has always been hard to read as Bruce Wayne, and it’s never been clear whether Wayne’s guarded demeanor demonstrated remarkable control or a lack of range. In this film, Bruce is taken to some very low, vulnerable points, and Bale brings out a desperate side to the character, taking visible joy in the slow redemption Bruce earns over the course of the film. One of the few legitimate complaints about “The Dark Knight” was the over-the-top Batman voice, but here, Bale has perfected his hero’s gravelly rasp, using it sparingly and to great effect.

Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman have represented a trifecta of figures that Bruce and Batman look up to, and each of them gets strong moments to play here. Freeman is at his best when he’s letting his twinkling enthusiasm for Bruce’s alter ego out of the bag, while Caine’s performance is more nakedly emotional, full of fear for what Bruce’s return to the cowl might mean. However, Oldman’s take on Commissioner Gordon has always been one of the strongest parts of Nolan’s trilogy, the most decent man in a town desperate for them, and Oldman remains a smart, vital ingredient to the film.

On the technical side, Nolan is working at the top of his game. His creative, extensive use of IMAX technology aside, the film is gorgeously shot by frequent collaborator Wally Pfister, and Hans Zimmer turns in an impeccably constructed score. Zimmer works in small themes for each major new presence in the film, and as things build to a climax, the different musical notes begin intersecting and playing off each other wonderfully. Also worthy of special mention are the film’s sets, which are memorable and detailed, especially the dank, rocky hole in the ground where a massive chunk of the film is set.

Repeat viewings are needed to see how “The Dark Knight Rises” will play in the future, and small nitpicks like plot holes and a few false notes in the closing moments might stick out more. However, that doesn’t make Nolan’s final chapter any less entertaining, the first showdown between Bane and Batman any less terrifying or the fiery return of the bat signal any less triumphant. While “The Dark Knight Rises” isn’t a perfect movie, it’s easily a great one, and when the Dark Knight finally does rise, it’s pure cinema, a moment of catharsis and victory, and an absolutely worthy finale to one of cinema’s best trilogies.

Chris Pines and Tom Hardy star in McG-directed “This Means War,” a romantic action film in which the two fight for the affections for a character played by Reese Witherspoon (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox).

There’s lots of potential for “This Means War” to be a great time at the theaters. Director McG knows his way around a fluffy, paper-thin storyline, having cut his teeth on the short-lived “Charlie’s Angels” franchise, and Chris Pine and Tom Hardy are both interesting, likeable rising stars. Add in the film’s intriguing spy vs. spy premise and “This Means War” could have been the rare enjoyable Valentine’s Day movie, one that guys can take their dates to and come out with all brain cells intact. Unfortunately, all of those ingredients come out to make a half-baked, badly written film that’s about as memorable as the soda you’ll drink while watching it.

We’re introduced to agents Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine) in a slick opening sequence in which the two charm women, wear suits and fight bad guys. All appears to be well with their rock-solid friendship. Then they both fall for Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) and, after deciding to let her choose between them and setting a few ground rules for their competition, immediately begin undermining each other in their quest for romantic supremacy.

For most of its runtime, “This Means War” is an easygoing, entertaining distraction. Its central friendship doesn’t feel forced; Pine and Hardy have a lived-in, quick-witted rapport that proves a solid foundation to build a film on.

Unfortunately, as things become increasingly sour between the two, the film begins to rely on their chemistry with Witherspoon. While she plays well with others and none of her scenes are painful, Witherspoon’s character is too inconsistent to invest in, fluctuating between a romantically conflicted sympathetic figure and an emotionally manipulative witch a bit too frequently.

McG also performs fairly admirably. He keeps the film moving at a fast clip and stages plenty of stylish action scenes. He also packs the soundtrack with classic rock and even slips in a fun “Goodfellas” homage. Even if McG occasionally stumbles with a spastic, conspicuous editing style, his earnestness and enthusiasm for the project shine through.

Many of the problems in “This Means War” can be traced back to its screenplay, which, with a few more drafts and some plot twists, could have built on its intriguing premise to make a much better film. Unfortunately, writers Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg created a film in which almost every plot beat for the rest of the film is predictable from the first 20 minutes. Is it possible that the baddie (Til Schweiger), Tuck and FDR fight in the opening sequence and will return for revenge? Once Tuck and FDR make rules concerning their relationship with Lauren, is there any chance they’ll break them all immediately?

Even though it’s clear where the film is going, the ending has a much more significant problem. As the romantic conflict reaches a climax, “This Means War” becomes shockingly mean-spirited and cruel to its characters and then casts all the potential conflict stemming from the terrible things they’re doing to each other aside, having them reconcile all too easily. It’s disrespectful to the characters, to the film’s commitment to its premise and to the audience. And it leaves the film on a nasty, bitter note.

“This Means War” is by no means a terrible film and a pretty ideal release for Valentine’s Day. It’ll make boatloads of money from the romantically inclined but will quickly fade from all of their collective memories before winding up a forgotten film in the $5 DVD bin at Wal-Mart. While that’s the destiny for many lackluster films, it’s a shame that this one has to join the ranks because with that cast, that concept and that director, it really could have been something special.

Printed on, Tuesday February 14, 2012 as: Spy film falls short of potential