Jerry Bruckheimer is an ’80s holdover in ways that Molly Ringwald never dreamed of being—trading in “high concept” as if it were going out of style (not, that is, as if it had gone out of style 10 years ago). He gets viewers on the boat with a kickass premise and inevitably follows through in the execution, which blows up more stuff than it kicks. Keeping the setup simple and logical, he lets the rest unspool in a blinding orange fury of explosions and an aggressively “interesting” mix of overqualified actors.
Now that the average moviegoer can no longer depend on basic slick competence for even most paint-by-numbers genre flicks, now that even big dumb action movies and small sweet romantic comedies are so psychologically berserk and formally scattershot they seem to have been directed by graduates of the Stan Brakhage Academy, Bruckheimer’s solid, red-meat thrill rides are welcome oases. Or were. With Gone in 60 Seconds, Bruckheimer hands the directing reins to Dominic Sena, veteran of many a music video (and the too-hip serial-killer flick Kalifornia), and Sena’s apathy toward the demands of the premise—the Action-B-follows-from-Situation-A thing—knocks this brawny vehicle off balance.
Memphis Raines, played with the mouth-breathing self-deprecating murmur that has become the once-great Nicolas Cage’s signature style, is the world’s greatest car thief, now retired. He is contentedly running a Go Kart track outside of Los Angeles when he gets word that a very evil man is about to smush his little brother, Kip (Giovanni Ribisi), for messing up a haul. Memphis, apparently, never wanted Kip to follow him into the family business, but it doesn’t dawn on him that perhaps leaving the kid unsupervised isn’t the best way to keep him out of it. Anyway, the very evil man (English actor Christopher Eccleston, enunciating each syllable as if leading a lip-reading course for the evil) offers to make a trade with Memphis: the life of his ne’er-do-well kid brother for a major boosting spree—50 cars in less than four days.
Well, sign me up, Jerry; I’ll bring the popcorn. Judging from your resume here, we can expect Memphis to anguish like Michael Corleone or William Holden or any number of retired bad boys called back for one last job, to assemble his crew of quirky thieves, to rekindle a romance with the one female member of the team, and to attract the attention of two decent cops who are dying to nail him. Then we can sit back while the next hour is taken up with the boosts—the first few easy, then a snag, then a narrow escape—the camera roving from one subset of jolly ex-cons to another, nail-biting suspense and gravedigger’s humor jostling for attention, building up to Memphis’ wild drive in his nemesis and first love, a ’67 Shelby Mustang GT 500 he calls, in a Cagian coo, “Eleanor.”
Check, check, check, check and…do what again? Memphis does have his Hamletish ponderings, does round up a fun crowd of former naughties—Vinnie Jones as the silent heavy, the Sphinx; Chi McBride, all wisecracks and expertise; Robert Duvall as the old-guy mechanic, Otto. Even Kip has a slovenly entourage, a sort of mini-Memphis cabal of slackers who trade generation-gap banter with the grizzled old hands.
And Memphis does listlessly recall old times with Sway (Angelina Jolie), who is far too beautiful and mesmerizingly assured, even in her new job as a hot-rodding bartender, for Mumblegums. Timothy Olyphant and Delroy Lindo do materialize on the scene when they hear Memphis is in town, dogging him in a series of blaringly obvious unmarked vans that even thick-headed Memphis manages to evade. As for the rest of the film, it jumps all over the place—after the expertise of each crew member is carefully delineated, we never get to see him or her doing his or her thing. Kip’s got a goofy-looking pal who can “drive anything on wheels, and some things without wheels.” Don’t bother spending the rest of the film waiting for the plot to put this fellow to the test. Sway is an expert mechanic, as is Otto (get it? does Bruckheimer have something really juicy on Robert Duvall to compel him to play gruff-but-paternal mechanics?), so perhaps they could demonstrate this ability, seeing as there are so many, you know, cars around.
But the movie has other priorities—weird ones. The cast keeps mentioning “Long Beach” as if it were a product placement, but the film vrooms us by the hot Los Angeles locations of the swinging ’80s—the sizzling neon signs of the Frolic Room, Hollywood Park, and the Yamashiro Sky Room. (The actual product placement is saved for friend Pepsi—yes, Pepsi, the drink that refreshes thieves.) Detective Castlebeck (Lindo) and his partner are foiled at every turn by Memphis’ team, but the movie can’t decide whether the cops are figures of fun or well-matched adversaries. The dialogue is a Mennonite’s idea of roguishness, and the sexy interplay between Sway and Memphis—did they get together originally because they figured two people with such ridiculous nicknames had no choice?—as they wait to boost a roadster is something out of a 13-year-old’s imagination (a 13-year-old who just figured out that “gearshift” can be a smutty metaphor).
Gone in 60 Seconds isn’t terrible, just pointless. The 1974 original was a vanity project for one H.B. Halicki and made on a budget of dimes rescued from beneath the couch cushions; it promptly sank back into the mire of ’70s muscle-car action flicks. Bruckheimer’s only goal in green-lighting such a remake was to take it to another level, one made possible by a cast that’s worth some real money and a truckload of bitchen special effects. Instead, the movie wanders around, lifting the occasional vehicle, before stuffing Cage into the ‘Stang and sending him on one of the most bloodless, blatantly video-game-derived car chases of all time. John Frankenheimer, whose Ronin sported the greatest chase scene to enter the recent canon, must be wondering why Bruckheimer bothered. But a more damning indictment comes from the original itself—for all its cheesiness, its ending chase is legendary among aficionados of suchlike. Halicki, who perished in a stunt while filming a sequel, must be spinning in his grave. CP