4 Films, One Fatal Flaw Away From Greatness

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Imagine if the studio’s wishes had been fulfilled, and Robert Redford had been cast as Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Or imagine if Raiders of the Lost Ark had been scored by Randy Newman. What would it be like if Apocalypse Now ended with a musical number, complete with Montagnard cabaret dancers and Marlon Brando doing the cancan? As a point of clarification, that last one isn’t wishful thinking.

There have been a number of films over the years that have been 9/10 jobs, movies that manage to build themselves into potential masterpieces or classics, but put a foot wrong with tragic consequences; a film that may have been a great, but fell just short all by its own doing.

Here is a run down of four such films, and a look at the easily resolvable flaw in each that dragged them down from potential greatness.

Heat

A crime epic in every sense, Michael Mann’s Heat is pretty much a big event film. You have sweeping cinematography, a solidly mounted, expansive story and some truly brilliant set pieces, most notable of them a running gun battle in downtown LA. Oh, and it was hyped up since it was the first film in which Al Pacino and Robert De Niro would share screen time.

It’s the tale of a cop (Pacino) and a robber (De Niro), as the thief orchestrates a series of highly effective, sophisticated raids on banks and armored cars, pocketing millions in the process, while the burnt out, obsessive detective throws himself into catching him. Backed by a great soundtrack (including a couple of Moby tracks), great supporting cast and superb direction, Heat seems on paper to be destined for multi-award, hall of legends status.

Undone By: The Script

Alas, Mann was clearly so focused on getting Heat right that he determined to do everything himself, adapting the script from his earlier, low budget flick L.A Takedown, and of course directing too. This was his baby. Unfortunately, it seems he was too close to consider getting some help.

While the plot is excellently constructed, it’s in the dialogue that Heat hits a significant bump in the road. For a film with such talent on screen, it really tortures the stars by having them utter some inane, often empty and occasionally mind boggling lines of dialogue. The victim to suffer the most is Diane Verona as Pacino’s wife, who is forced to utter such gems as: “You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down.”

Pretty poetry, perhaps, but painful when presented conversationally. Same goes for Pacino’s faux coke addict performance: “I gotta hold on to my angst. I preserve it. because I need it.”

The result is that the characters rarely ring true, with the exception of Dennis Haybert’s ex con, and as such you never really get sucked in as you should. Rather than an amazing cinematic experience, Heat becomes a marvelous spectacle, never quite hitting you emotionally as it should, never forcing you invest your feelings. It’s something with a decent script doctor could easily have solved, a fairly routine change that might just have given Heat a heart, not a sensibility.

Kingdom of Heaven

(This entry applies to the Director’s Cut)

Kingdom Of Heaven is an example of Ridley Scott again taking charge of a genre flick in a genre that has collected a layer of dust. After Gladiator saw the return of Romans to our screens, this middle ages set semi-factual blockbuster is a truly mammoth take on the Crusades, a rip roaring, swords and chain mail clad epic.

From a script by William Monaghan (Oscar winner for The Departed), KOH is the sweeping legend of Balian, a Frankish blacksmith mourning the loss of his wife, who winds up traveling to the Middle East in search of redemption, and winds up in the middle of a war between the Christian Crusaders and Saracens, becoming a hero in the process.

Stretching from snowy France to exotic Tripoli, on to the rabid Arabic deserts and the holy city of Jerusalem, Kingdom of Heaven is one of the most gorgeously mounted films of the 2000’s. Beautiful cinematography mixed with a profound script, superlative supporting cast – Liam Neeson in an obligatory mentor role, Jeremy Irons, Eva Green, Brendan Gleeson, Ed Norton, David Thewlis… – and a captivating story makes for a true event picture, a tantalizing tale of redemption, honor and spirituality. Everything seems to be in place…

Undone By: Orlando Bloom

Alas, the Ridley Scott casting bug of recent times…

Because of its premise, and fairly basic arc structure, Kingdom of Heaven absolutely relies on the ability of its leading man, requiring an actor who can express various emotions, and can transform from empty shell into charismatic leader, true warrior. Balian needs to be played by an actor who carries the audience’s affection, empathy and is utterly authentic as a man of his time.

Orlando Bloom is not this actor. While not giving a terrible performance, it is a distinctly average one, monotonous and far from varied, while delivery of inspirational remarks and speeches to his men is forced, lacking in heart or conviction. In short, pretty boy Bloom is unconvincing and, as a knock on of this, his character is un-engaging and frankly quite dull compared to Ghassan Massoud’s Saladin, Norton’s King Baldwin and even Alexander Siddig’s Imad.

A compelling, spiritual tale is undermined by the presence of an un-emotive leading man who can barely carry his lines, let alone the arc of his character or the weight of the film’s themes and ultimate poignancy.

The Dark Knight

Like the previous two entries, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is considered to be a giant in its respective field, and an artistically commendable film which bridges the gap between comic book/superhero blockbuster niche and conventional action thriller.

Following on from the events of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight sees Batman (Christian Bale) attempt to keep order in the streets of Gotham City derailed by the emergence of psychotic criminal mastermind The Joker (Heath Ledger). Batman’s alliance with cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and local district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is stretched thin as the new villain wreaks havoc, plunging the city into chaos and threatening to destroy Batman in more ways than one.

Thematically stunning, not to mention visually and audibly memorable, The Dark Knight brings a far moodier, more foreboding feel to the series as morality comes under scrutiny and the philosophy of crime fighting is tested in the face of an enigma. Thoughtfully made and gleefully constructed, the film boasts a great premise and escapes the clutches of the Batman stigma by sheer dint of ferocity. There’s seemingly not a flaw to be found.

Undone By: Too Much Plot

Perhaps a harsh indictment, The Dark Knight ultimately falls at the final hurdle by trying to do too much. Though its lengthy running time allows for plenty of leeway, the film is still overly crammed with subplots, narrative turns and minor characters vying for attention and a piece of the action.

As well as the straightforward plot – the Batman/Dent/Gordon vs The Joker conflict – we have secondary arcs that include Batman impersonators, an accountant who knows Batman’s identity, a news anchor taken hostage, a secret project run by Bruce Wayne, a money swindling scheme by The Joker and an overrun court case. That’s not even going into the Bruce/Rachel Dawes relationship or Dent’s fall from grace.

The end product feels alot like a complex crime novel which should really have been cut down for its adaptation. Although none of these story strands are superfluous, they are not essential and often provide too much food for thought. The crescendo ending loses some impact because of this, since there was so much to precede it, while Bruce Wayne is neglected as a character.

For all that The Dark Knight dazzles, it could easily have packed a heftier emotional punch in its climactic final stages, were the story perhaps given an aggressive pruning before production. Too much of anything can be a bad thing.

Mississipi Burning

White hot in terms of story and politics, Alan Parker’s searing and controversial drama thriller taps into the heart of the insidious and frothing racial tensions of the 1960’s in the rural South, and in particular within the titular state.

When two civil rights activists and their black friend disappear in Mississipi, the FBI send the unlikely pairing of old fashioned former sheriff Gene Hackman and modern bureau man Willem Dafoe to solve the case. All they find is irresolvable hatred between the white locals and the African-American minority, and their efforts to find the victims are undermined at every step by the hostile locals, making them wonder whether there will ever be a solution to the race row.

With Hackman and Dafoe in great form, not to mention sterling work from Frances McDormand and Brad Dourif, and a thoughtful, bluntly forceful plot really capturing the tensions of the time, Mississipi Burning has all the hallmarks of a classic.

Undone By: The Final Act’s Mood Whiplash

That is, until it abandons its own themes and crux of point in the climax and instead opts for a Dirty Harry style resolution that is one part audience pandering, two parts panic button impulse.

This comes after Hackman brings about his own rules to the investigation, which includes beating down the offenders and using illegal methods to secure ultimately paltry jail time. It’s presented as a victory in the film, and deeply satisfying on a basic level to see the racists subjected to some street justice. But it raises so many ethical concerns that the conclusion feels hollow. After spending the whole film depicting the plight of the black community as a long battle towards a more evolved civility, and a test of solidarity and dignity, we come to a vengeful campaign of terror on terror as a resolution.

It also seems strange having established every drastic action from the FBI leads to a corrosive reaction from the KKK, the final confrontation seems to have no negative consequences, though this isn’t really the point. Nothing is really solved, which is hardly to be expected, yet the ending presents the final retribution as a conclusion to the tale. Having built itself as more contemplative and scathing, Mississipi Burning descends into contradictory, knife edge idealism, far removed from the mood and tone that had set the film up as a powerhouse great.

 

By Scott Patterson

6 Comments
  1. samd11 says

    Good analyses. I always felt that Orlando Bloom was a little lightweight when up against the great actors in that film. However, I still enjoy Kingdom of Heaven with its semi-historical view of the Crusades.

  2. Ted says

    I couldn’t disagree more on Heat. If it’s those two lines that are the criteria for it not being a “classic” then throw in fifty more films. There is nothing wrong with the line spoken by Pacino, it’s not like a cop his age and rank doesn’t have a vocabulary.

  3. Jared K says

    I highly disagree with the Kingdom of Heaven approach and The Dark Knight analysis, but i agree with Heat and Mississippi Burning. Deeezy, you are the biggest retard of all time; first, it was Christian Bale’s voice every time he spoke as Batman, and second, the newest Batman films are the BEST.

  4. Deeezy says

    Great analysis. I would also add to Dark Knight that every line Batman utters is simply terrible. I spent the entire time laughing at Bale’s awful voice, tuned and “fixed” in post production to fill it with growls and groans that weren’t needed and were already bad enough before they screwed with it. It would be funny if as a way to get back at an audience that critiqued Nolan’s use of Bale’s voice so badly that after the curtain lifts on “Dark Knight Rises” we would realize that Batman never actually said a single word in the movie. Kind of a “suck it” from Nolan.

  5. Scott Patterson says

    Thanks for the feedback, Bill. I kinda agree about the ‘getting coffee’ scene, also I understand it wasn’t rehearsed before filming, which is why it feels very awkward. If it had been written better, and wasn’t just the two of them throwing one liners at each other it would have been pretty memorable.

  6. Bill Mesce says

    Incisive stuff, Scott. I’d add to the problem with HEAT was that face-off scene in a diner between Pacino and DeNiro. It really feels shoe-horned in there, as if Mann knew a scene between them was obligatory, however much it stretched credibility, and however little they apparently had to say to each other. They made a more interesting set of dueling partners moving and counter-moving at a remove then sitting across the table from each other.

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