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Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s self-conscious road movies benefit from the dramatic topography of his native Iceland, but that’s only literally where they take place. In fact, his films revisit cinematic territory charted earlier by such contemporaries as Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, and Aki Kaurismäki. The previous Fridriksson effort shown in Washington, Children of Nature, featured a direct homage to Wenders; the new one, Cold Fever, is openly indebted to Jarmusch.
That’s partially explained by the involvement of producer and co-scripter Jim Stark, whose previous production credits include Jarmusch’s Down by Law, Night on Earth, and Mystery Train. Among the stars of the last was Masatoshi Nagase, who plays Fever’s principal character, Tokyo fish-wholesaling executive Atsushi Hirata. His presence signifies the film’s essential relationships: Fever explores the kinship between Iceland and Japan, both volcanic islands, as it attempts to import Jarmusch’s cool to the land of bubbling geothermal pools. (Hirata’s original vacation plan was to play golf in the more temperate volcanic landscape of Hawaii.) Oddly, though, the Jarmusch film that Fever ends up most resembling is not Mystery Train but the new Dead Man.
Both movies are spiritual quests, demented travelogues, and meditations on death. In Fever, the thoroughly modern Hirata is persuaded by his more traditional grandfather (played by Seijun Suzuki, the cult director whose work was surveyed last year at the National Gallery) to travel to Iceland to conduct a ritual in memory of his parents, who died there. (The film never explains what Hirata’s parents were doing in Iceland, but Fridriksson was inspired by the story of a similar ceremony performed in Iceland by relatives of some Japanese scientists who drowned there.) Hirata’s journey to the remote site where his parents perished is a would-be comedy of errors and inexplicable incidents, some of them suitably enigmatic, others annoyingly contrived.
Perhaps in a bid to engage the U.S. audience, Hirata is provided several encounters with American oddballs, including “funeral collector” Laura (Laura Hughes) and a couple, Jack and Jill (Fisher Stevens and Lili Taylor), who become steadily more disagreeable. These supporting characters do little more than pad this 85-minute movie, and their presence actually undercuts the mood set by the more uncanny figures, including a cabdriver who casually abandons Hirata to join an unexplained pageant and a fairy who revives the traveler’s Citroen with an eerie trill.
Fever was shot during an Icelandic winter using a haphazard—and suitably mystical—method. “I just drove and drove as far as I could on the slippery roads, until the car went off the road,” explains Fridriksson. “That is where I set up the camera. So God really chose the locations.” (Since those locations are frequently striking, God apparently was one of the director’s more reliable collaborators.) Despite some spooky moments, it’s not until the film’s final 20 minutes that Fridriksson fulfills his metaphysical premise. With the help of Icelandic “cowboy” Siggi (Children of Nature star Gisli Halldorsson), Hirata reaches the site of his parents’ death and performs the ritual that will put their souls at rest, sending two candles floating down a river on ice blocks. This transplanted ceremony is as moving as its counterpart in Picture Bride, where a Japanese woman (Youki Kudoh, Nagase’s Mystery Train co-star) performs a similar ritual in (where else?) Hawaii.
Unlike Dead Man, Fever doesn’t sustain a persuasive balance between its calculated zaniness and its transcendental moments. The culture-clash theme seems phony until Hirata and Siggi start sharing a bottle of Black Death, the potent caraway-flavored alcohol that is reportedly Iceland’s national drink, and swapping Japanese ghost and Icelandic fairy stories. “Just stupid people only believe in things they can see and touch,” Siggi tells Hirata, and that’s a suitable moral for a tale set in a mysteriously hazy realm of ice and steam. Alas, Fever is full of stupid people, and most of them are just pointless detours on the way to the film’s striking conclusion.
Some 35 years after he first appeared as James Bond, Sean Connery still has a distinctive brogue and a winning manner. Neither is really necessary to propel The Rock, however, nor sufficient to redeem Dragonheart. Both films are largely mechanical, which makes Connery’s charms superfluous at best.
A muscular if unsurprising example of the Simpson/Bruckheimer style of thriller, The Rock hurtles by so fast that there’s little time to dread the moments when the film will slow down to explain the main characters’ motivations. Serving a banquet of leftover Cold War paranoia, scripters David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook, and Mark Rosner send Brig. Gen. Francis Hummel (Ed Harris) and his hand-picked squad of psychopathic Marines to Alcatraz, the former prison on an island in San Francisco Bay. Hummel has stolen a supply of potent nerve gas, which he intends to shower on the Bay Area unless he receives $100 million from a top-secret Pentagon slush fund in the Cayman Islands. This money will somehow repay Hummel for his suffering about abandoning and disavowing covert troops he led into Laos, Iraq, and “south China.” (The last is not fully explained; perhaps Hummel’s service dates back to the Boxer Rebellion.)
Hummel’s principal adversary is no smaller a piece of work: Patrick Mason (Connery) is a British superspy who’s been held in U.S. prisons ever since he swiped FBI files containing the country’s “most intimate secrets” during the mid-’60s. (In other words, he’s James Bond in an alternate universe where British and U.S. intelligence agencies don’t cooperate.) Never acknowledged by his British spymasters, Mason has also never been tried, and has never revealed where he hid the microfilmed files. He’s the only man who’s ever escaped from Alcatraz, however, so the FBI reluctantly releases him to work with the Navy SEAL task force that’s assigned to liberate the former prison (and a boatload of tourists held as hostages) from Hummel and his men. Also on the team is Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), a twitchy (but secretly supercompetent) chemical-weapons expert with no combat experience.
Don’t worry too much about this premise—director Michael Bay (Bad Boys) didn’t. His film is mostly an excuse for blurred shots, quick cuts, massive explosions, and neo-Wagnerian flourishes (by Nick Glennie-Smith and Hans Zimmer) that combine orchestral pomp with heavy-metal power chords. Both Mason and Goodspeed are motivated to save women across the bay (daughter and pregnant girlfriend, respectively), but this fight isn’t exactly personal. It’s eminently impersonal, in fact, a bloody, triple-time pavane that reduces everything to machine-gun fire, knife thrusts, and the occasional melting-flesh effect of those chemical weapons.
The performances are as automatic as the rockets and grenades—Harris is icy, Connery twinkling, Cage whiny, the others negligible—while the staging is live-action cartoon. Mason and Goodspeed regularly outrun explosions and dodge machine-gun fire, and do a number of stunts on an underground rollercoaster somehow transferred from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the tunnel beneath Alcatraz. The latter prop is absurd but not inappropriate; Bay’s style of ultraviolence owes more to Spielberg than to say, John Woo, which is why The Rock leaves no pesky thematic aftertaste. Its carnage is sheer choreography—skillful, even exhilarating, but utterly without a moral dimension.
If The Rock is a well-lubricated machine, Dragonheart is a sputtering hybrid. Half failed medieval action/comedy, half sentimental fairy tale for kiddies, director Rob Cohen’s film is one of those movies that consistently summon only one emotion: embarrassment for the principal actors (in this case mostly British art-film veterans like Julie Christie, David Thewlis, and Pete Postlethwaite).
The tale opens in 10th-century Britain (although the locations are Slovakian), where noble knight Bowen (an uninspired Dennis Quaid) is trying to teach the “old code” (that is, Arthurian chivalry) to prince Einon. A peasant uprising leaves the king dead and Einon fatally wounded, but the queen (Christie) and Bowen take the boy to the cave of a dragon, Draco (the voice and facial mannerisms of Connery), who touches him, E.T.-style. The procedure saves Einon’s life, but leaves Draco linked to the boy, who grows up to be just as despicable a tyrant as his father.
Convinced that the evil in Einon (Thewlis) comes from the dragon, Bowen becomes a dragon slayer. He also pursues this trade for money, however, and scripter Charles Edward Pogue’s stiff, inept dialogue utterly fails to finesse Bowen’s transition from Sir Galahad into Jim Rockford. The tone only wavers further when Bowen allies with Draco, the last remaining dragon, in a scam: Bowen will pretend to kill Draco, and then collect his fee from the peasants he has “saved.” Unknowingly along for the ride is scribe and poet Brother Gilbert (Postlethwaite), whose odes to Bowen’s brave quest are supposed to be comic relief.
This sword-and-sorcery sting is interrupted by a zealous young peasant woman, Kara (Dina Meyer), whose red hair is supposed to denote her Celtic purity during this age of Anglo-Saxon barbarity. Like the films of last year’s preposterous Celtic revival—Rob Roy, Braveheart, and First Knight, in which Connery played King Arthur—Dragonheart is crazy for Celtic crosses, the myth of Avalon, and other romanticized signifiers of the noble Britons who were overrun by the Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans. Indeed, the queen is only able to enlist Draco because she is a “daughter of the Celts,” and Bowen and his pals recharge their chivalry in a cheesy set that professes to be Avalon.
Perhaps Cohen was hired to indulge a simple irony: He also directed Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. But the real-life mythmaking of that film was clearly no preparation for this sticky fable, in which one of the noble rebels ultimately ascends to heaven and is transformed into a star. It’s hard to imagine any director making that scene work, but Dragonheart fumbles the earthy moments just as clumsily as it does the celestial ones.CP