August 09, 2013

Mexican Vacation Day 7: Remembering James Gandolfini With KILLING THEM SOFTLY

"America's not a country, it's a business.  Now fuckin' pay me."
Our exit out of Mexico went smoothly.  We returned our rental car after racking up close to a thousand fresh kilometers, grabbed a few bottles of mescal from the duty free shop, burned off our remaining pesos at the Bubba Gump Shrimp in our terminal and then flew home largely without incident.  We had a brief layover in Baltimore where we were able to grab some rich, delicious mac & cheese at an airport wine bar (a nice change of pace after a week of fried fish and tortillas) and then arrived home to find that our luggage never made it out of Maryland.  Considering that we handed off our suitcase after going through customs and then had an hour delay before finally heading back to Boston, I'm still rather mystified as to how our bag didn't make it onto our plane.  But Southwest was very accommodating and delivered the stray suitcase before I had left for work the following morning, so it certainly could have been much worse.

On the flight home I watched Andrew Domink's Killing Them Softly, which was actually somewhat appropriate since, unbeknownst to me, the film is actually set in Boston.  Strangely, no one ever actually says this out loud, probably because the film was shot in Louisiana.  So while there are plenty of local accents on display, there are no actual locations to be seen which makes the film feel reminiscent of the 90's, when there were plenty of Boston-set films but no one could afford to actually come shoot here.

I was a big fan of Dominik's verbosely titled The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, with its beautifully composed vision of the American west and a wonderfully nuanced performance from Brad Pitt.  I was therefore pretty psyched at the prospect of a crime drama with Pitt as a mob hitman going after a few low-level criminals who knocked over a protected card game.  Unfortunately this isn't nearly as strong an outing for either Dominik or Pitt.  While there are a few scenes that feature strong stylistic choices from Dominik, (notably Ben Mendelsohn's heroin-induced stupor, Pitt pulling a drive-by and the only scene/shot featuring Sam Shepard) most of the film is albatrossed by the near constant blaring of televisions featuring George W. Bush, John McCain and then-candidate Barack Obama discussing the impending financial collapse of 2008.  While the newsreels are supposed to mirror the same economic strife taking place in the organized crime world, which is now run by a group of hand-wringing, violence-averse white collar types personified by the always great Richard Jenkins, unfortunately the whole thing feels incredibly clumsy in its execution.  Everytime I heard a politician's voice, it was like Dominik was screaming at me, "These guys are like criminals!  And the criminals are like politicians!  Right?  GET IT?"  It also doesn't help that the script can't seem to settle on a protagonist, focusing first on Scoot McNairy's criminal Frankie and then largely abandoning him in the second half in favor of Pitt's Jackie Cogan, who spends most of his time on screen sitting around looking greasy and exasperated.

But the chief reason I wanted to watch Killing Them Softly when I did was because it was one of the last films featuring the recently departed James Gandolfini.  I've always been fascinated by the idea of an actor's legacy, particularly when someone dies unexpectedly and we're left with a final performance that doesn't exactly live up to the talent and reputation of a performer's full career.  (See: Farley, Chis and Almost Heroes.)  Gandolfini will obviously be forever remembered as Tony Soprano, but I never really got into that show, mostly because I didn't have HBO for the majority of the time it was on the air.  And yet I've always been a tremendous fan of Gandolfini's feature work.  He's just one of those guys who's always stood out, someone with an incredible capacity for both warm affability and deep, seething menace.  Gandolfini first popped for me as Bear, the stuntman turned bodyguard in the adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty.  He's really only got a few scenes, but even with his bushy beard and ridiculous ponytail he managed to hold his own against both Delroy Lindo and a resurgent Travolta.  No easy feat.  He had some nice turns in stuff like Fallen, A Civil Action and Tony Scott's Crimson Tide, but the moment where I really bought into Gandolfini was when I first saw The Last Castle, where he played the sadistic commander of a military prison who engages in a mad power struggle with an inmate played by Robert Redford.  The film itself isn't amazing by any stretch, but it's one of those movies that I'll stop and watch whenever I find it playing on TV just to see the incredible mental chess match between the two leads.  It's really something.

Gandolfini's work in Killing Them Softly is strong as ever, playing an aging hitman facing a third strike and the end of his marriage who's all but given up on life and succumbed to the simple pleasures of booze and prostitutes.  Unfortunately the film utterly strands him, giving him two scenes to spin his wheels entirely independent of the plot.  As riveting as Gandolfini's performance is, he could be cut from the movie completely and it would have absolutely no impact whatsoever on the rest of the story.  It's a nice bit of character work, but in service of nothing.

Thankfully this isn't Gandolfini's last hurrah.  He also appeared in Sopranos creator David Chase's film Not Fade Away, (which I hear is an underrated gem) and he's got a fairly cute looking romantic comedy coming up in Enough Said, where he stars opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfuss.  But more than anything else, I'm excited to see what looks to be his final film performance, next year's Animal Rescue by director Michael Roskam.  Gandolfini stars alongside Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and Roskam's Bullhead star Matthias Schoenaerts.  Here's hoping it'll be a fitting tribute to an actor who certainly had many riveting performances left in him before his tremendous heart finally gave out.

And thus ends my weeklong Mexican travelogue.  All in all, it was an excellent trip full of delicious foodstuffs and plenty of much needed relaxation.  It seems absurd that after living in Los Angeles for five years, I never actually made it south of the border until after I moved back to Boston.  But the important thing is that I went, and now I can't wait to go back again.

Title: Killing Them Softly
Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, Sam Shepard
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Redbox DVD

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