How dedicated is director Ben Affleck to capturing 1979 in his splendid new film, the political thriller Argo? He makes sure that the Warner Bros. studio logo that fills the screen at the beginning isn't the glossy WB shield that's instantly recognizable to today's audiences but is instead the old-school W made up of three parallel lines against an oval backdrop. It's a tiny detail - even an irrelevant one-- but it demonstrates how thoroughly Affleck has committed himself to his third directorial effort.
Those naysayers who were waiting for the filmmaker to stumble after the one-two punch of Gone Baby Gone and The Town will just have to keep waiting, since Affleck is firing on all cylinders here. Argo is an amazingly proficient film in which great swatches of humor never get in the way of the suspenseful saga at its center. Based on a true story, it relates the smaller drama that was playing off stage next to the main attraction of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, when militants invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and captured 52 Americans. While this hostage situation was dominating international news, little was known about the plight of six Americans who managed to slip out of the embassy undetected.
As seen in the film, the six find sanctuary in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Knowing that the group will eventually be found and most likely executed, the U.S. government weighs a number of lousy options - for starters, giving the sextet bicycles and asking them to pedal their way out of the country - before reluctantly settling on the one proposed by CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck): Head to Iran under the pretense of making a movie, and then bring the stranded Americans back under the guise of various crew members.
Mendez heads up the operation himself, but in order to be convincing, he first travels to Hollywood to get expert counseling from two boisterous individuals: John Chambers (John Goodman), an Oscar-winning makeup artist (Planet of the Apes) who also aids the CIA on the side, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a producer who agrees to help promote the fake film but only if the fake film can be a hit (while Chambers is a real-life figure, Siegel is not). For their movie, they settle on a screenplay titled Argo, a derivative science fiction flick set in an exotic locale.
Unlike such pandering nonsense as Taken 2, Argo doesn't traffic in mindless jingoism. While the ingenuity and resourcefulness of America (and Canada, which cosponsored the rescue) takes center stage, the script by Chris Terrio (based on a Wired article by Joshuah Bearman) also takes time to explain how it was this country's interference in foreign affairs that directly led to the hostage crisis. Affleck and Terrio treat the portions involving the stranded embassy workers with the solemnity they deserve, largely leaving the humor for the Hollywood sequences featuring established cutups Arkin and Goodman. Indeed, the only levity to be found in the Tehran-set sequences involves the dopey 'staches found on the American men - then again, that's just Affleck engaged in period verisimilitude.
If the movie gains any traction, expect one of its snatches of dialogue to permeate our collective consciousness. I won't reveal it here - it involves the film's title as well as an expletive-- but it just might match "I drink your milkshake" as an omniscient Internet meme.
HERE COMES THE BOOM
There's a pleasant surprise involving the new comedy Here Comes the Boom. No, it's not particularly good - that would rank as a miracle more than a surprise - but it does showcase Kevin James in his most appealing turn since 2005's Hitch. James has been a washout as a big-screen comedian - a plight that affects many performers who tether their careers to Adam Sandler's - but he exudes a natural sincerity that others in his field cannot, and Here Comes the Boom plays off that as much as it plays off his limited comic range.
James stars as Scott Voss, a biology teacher who's crushed when he learns that school budget cuts will result in the axing of the music department and the termination of its inspirational head, Marty Streb (Henry Winkler). It will take $48,000 to save the extracurricular activity, but none of the teachers are willing to help out except for Voss and the school nurse, Bella Flores (Salma Hayek). Voss finally comes up with a plan: He'll raise the dough by becoming a mixed martial arts fighter, since even the bout losers come away with cash in their pockets. You can see where this is headed: Under the tutelage of his muscle-bound friend Niko (a likable turn by real-life MMA champ Bas Rutten), Voss becomes good enough to ascend to a nationally televised match.
There's also some predictably tired gags involving foreigners attempting to become U.S. citizens, the usual heavily relayed message about chasing dreams, and the typical patriarchal-Hollywood fantasy that allows someone who looks like Kevin James to bag someone who looks like Salma Hayek. But although the movie is produced by Sandler's company and directed by Sandler flunkie Frank Coraci, it's refreshingly devoid of the crudity and stupidity that usually run rampant in these films.
As a result, the film's position on school cutbacks, despite being only surface-deep, seems heartfelt rather than cynical, and James is able to make audiences root for Voss and his mission. Here Comes the Boom never comes close to breaking the grip of mediocrity, but for his part, James at least is able to get off the mat.
Is there a more authoritative presence in movies today than Liam Neeson? The Irish actor has always had stature on screen, but ever since his character laid out the rules to the Albanian dirtbags who kidnapped his daughter toward the beginning of 2009's Taken (the speech that opens with "I don't know who you are" and ends with "I will find you, and I will kill you"), he's subsequently shown that no one or no thing - whether it be humans (Unknown) or wolves (The Grey) - should mess with him. When he speaks, his gruff voice and no-nonsense demeanor mean we should listen - heck, were Neeson to show up at my front door right this minute and calmly tell me that I need to set fire to my own residence, I would start hunting for matches immediately.
A similarly destructive request is forwarded by his character in Taken 2, in which he returns as ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills. As he's held prisoner by the thugs hoping to avenge those he killed in the first film, he's communicating with his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) via cell phone. In order for her to locate his whereabouts, he needs to pinpoint his position, so he orders her to toss grenades(!) over the rooftops of Istanbul so he can listen for the blasts. Somehow, I doubt Bryan would be so quick to explore this route if he was being held hostage in a California or Pennsylvania suburb, but such is the "us against them" view taken by this cheerfully xenophobic series that, intentionally or not, mainly pushes the notion that Americans should stay home since the rest of the world is a dangerous place populated with nothing but sex traffickers and gun-toting loonies (since, God knows, we don't have any of these types in the U.S. of A.).
Such a myopic view is easy to ignore because these are disposable popcorn pictures with little political or moral heft - besides, the first Taken was actually an exciting, accomplished movie that expertly mined its premise (cuz, really, who doesn't want to see Liam Neeson blow away sleazoids who turn teenage girls into drug-addled sex slaves?).
Taken 2, however, is nothing more than a lazy retread, with a director less skilled in the art of action choreography (Olivier Megaton replaces the first film's Pierre Morel), generic villains rounded up from Central Casting (at least the bad guys in the first film managed to ooze pure evil), and an endless car chase that somehow manages to run 100 minutes in a 90-minute movie. Unless my math is way off, in which case it just felt that way.