Friday, August 15, 2014
Here we go again. Again. There are a few factors weighing heavily against the third Expendables movie, a series ostensibly devoted to being throwbacks to action flicks of the 1980s. You know, the kind we don't see anymore because all action today is terrible, etc. It has a PG-13 rating, so that means less blood spraying everywhere (digital blood, for the record). That also means only one "F" bomb (strategically placed, we can hope), which, in the minds of action fans of the 1980s, means the film has been "neutered" and will therefore suck.
Furthermore, rumors abound that the film underwent some serious changes between shooting and release, altering one character's arc and removing at least one subplot / character. There's also the always problematic issue of including Mel Gibson as the villain, as Gibson has (mostly by his own doing) become a lightning rod for controversy and many people won't see anything he's involved with. That's not an opinion so much as it is a fact - did you see The Beaver, Get the Gringo, or Machete Kills? I did, but I know a lot of people who didn't and won't purely on principle. Also, one of them really sucked.
Also, there's the little matter of the entire movie leaking online three weeks ago in the form of a screener, allowing people who don't mind pirating a movie the ability to see a movie they weren't sure they wanted to pay for. These things do not bode well for The Expendables 3.
The Expendables and The Expendables 2, then you're going to like most of The Expendables 3, even if the narrative is totally unbalanced. The new additions to the cast are, for the most part, welcome and in many cases improve the overall genial spirit of the films. Regardless of how you feel about Gibson (and believe me, I'm not disagreeing with anyone who hates him - I get it), he makes a great villain as Stonebanks, a founding Expendable, and very quickly demonstrates that he's even more dangerous than Jean-Claude Van Damme was in the last film. I'm not sure how much of the film is director Patrick Hughes (Red Hill)'s and how much is the influence of Sylvester Stallone, but the action is a little easier to follow most of the time. If anything, the only thing missing for most of The Expendables 3 is a sense of camaraderie between returning cast members.
By this point, I really hope that people who claim to be fans of 80s Action Movies are done complaining that The Expendables movies aren't like Commando, which seems to be their frame of reference for the entire subgenre* (that, or the first four Steven Seagal films), but if it helps, a lot of the third movie is more cartoonish at the outset. It begins with a prison train transporting a high value asset back to a fortified hellhole, until Barney Ross (Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) fly up in the Expendecopter. They're here to make a high speed rescue, even if it means dodging fire from a ludicrously sized gun hiding inside one of the compartments. As it was in the opening of The Expendables 2, they make it inside with relatively little effort and rescue Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), another original Expendable who's been doing time. If you're looking for a "tax evasion" joke, you'll get it. But only one, thankfully.
It turns out Ross needs the Doc to help him with an assassination of a high value target on Church's list (Bruce Willis isn't in the movie, but they refer to him a few times early on). They arrive to find Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) doing recon, and everything looks good until the target appears. It's not just some arms dealer, as Ross had been told - it's Conrad Stonebanks, the man who betrayed the Expendables and who Barney was certain he killed years ago. Stonebanks doesn't take kindly to their presence and (SPOILERS BEGIN HERE) puts two bullets into Caesar before dropping a bomb on the team from his helicopter.
This, by the way, is the first major deviation that I've read from shooting to release: originally, one of the actual Expendables died (not the "introduce the kid and then kill him" like in the last movie). The scene sure plays out like Caesar is dying - Stonebanks shoots him in the leg and then puts one through his chest, and the exit wound is a big hole. Then they're blown into the water of a shipping port by the explosion, and Henry cuts to the team desperately trying to stop the blood. There are rumors that Caesar did die in the original conception, but the moment I saw him in the plane, I knew he would be back at the end. When Barney leaves his skull ring at the hospital, I realized that "nope, nobody's 'expendable' once again." Don't get me wrong - I love me some Terry Crews, but it really diminishes the threat of Stonebanks if his "kill" isn't really fatal. Also, it renders the entire speech about why Ross keeps the dogtags of fallen expendables on the plane kind of moot. We haven't seen one expendable character yet, and you're not going to in this movie.
It does cause Barney to dissolve the existing team and go to his buddy Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) to recruit younger, hipper, blood to go after Stonebanks. In a probably too long section of the film, Grammer and Stallone travel around the country to find Mars (Victor Ortiz), Luna (Ronda Rousey), Smiley (Kellan Lutz), and Thorn (Glen Powell). They're young and have attitude and skills that reflect the more "modern" approach to action films (hacking, basejumping, drones, smart rifles, MMA training) so while they do help Barney capture Stonebanks, they're also all immediately captured when inevitably the bad guy escapes. Barney gets away and makes it to the rendezvous point where Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is waiting.
(For the record, I was happy to see that the guy buying weapons from Stonebanks in the art museum was none other than Robert Davi. I had no idea he was in the movie, so it was a pleasant surprise)
Since Barney is stubborn and won't ask Lee, Toll, or Gunnar for help, he tells Trench to leave and decides he'll take Stonebanks up on his "you want them, come and get them" offer alone. One of Bonaparte's rejects, Galgo (Antonio Banderas) shows up and begs Ross to let him come - "I NEED action!" Despite the fact that his entire unit abandoned him and the fact that he just won't shut up, Ross agrees to bring him along. And then the other Expendables arrive, because why wouldn't they? Time for the big showdown!
I'm wondering if the complaints about The Expendables 3 being "boring" are coming from the mid-section, which is the bulk of the movie and deals with introducing four new characters, only two of which we every really learn anything about. Stallone and Grammer actually have great chemistry together, so it's fun watching them bullshit between picking up new Expendables, but only MMA fighter Rousey and Kellan Lutz have the slightest amount of character development. Lutz plays the "guy who doesn't like authority but learns to respect the team" and Rousey's Luna is the "woman everyone thinks is hot but can mix it up with the boys." That's about it, although Rousey has a great chance to shine late in the film with the scene stealing Banderas, who it turns out is really, really good a killing people.
Part of the problem of The Expendables 3 in execution is that we're constantly being introduced to characters as the cast swells. We might like some of them individually, but the aggregate effect is that the film feels bloated well before the big action sequence that closes things out. IMDB lists a character playing Gunnar's daughter, which is nowhere to be seen in the finished film, so apparently there were even more characters in the film. Meanwhile, Jet Li is in the film for arguably even less screen time than he was in The Expendables 2, and most of Arnold's scenes are near the end. Mickey Rourke still isn't back, Charisma Carpenter sat this one out, and forget any rumors about Milla Jovovich, Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal or Nicolas Cage cameos: they really aren't in the movie. Hell, most of the regulars aren't in the movie very much - it's Stallone most of the way.
I would like to mention someone who is in the movie for a lot longer than I expected, and it's actually a very welcome addition. When Bruce Willis priced himself out of The Expendables 3, Stallone brought in Harrison Ford, who I assumed would be some minimal cameo where he'd be gruff and grouchy for a few minutes and then peace out. Instead, Ford's Drummer is the CIA representative who "took care of Church" and is the one who helps Ross find Stonebanks. He's in a lot more of the movie than I thought, is more central to the story than I expected, and is clearly having a very good time with the action stars. He's mostly onscreen with Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Li, but Ford seems to genuinely enjoy the over-the-top action at the end of the film instead of just phoning it in. He also gets the distinction of delivering the PG-13 mandated "one F-Bomb," which at this point is almost as weird as when Harrison Ford said "tits" in Patriot Games.
Wesley Snipes also goes a long way towards reminding us why he deserves a place in the action star pantheon. Doc gets sidelined for a lot of the movie, but when he's onscreen it's a welcome addition to the cast. He gets paired with Statham frequently, which makes for an amusing subplot involving their mutual love of knives (and competition to outdo the other). Statham is good but barely registers, Lundgren finds a better balance between comedy and action than in the last movie, and Couture and Crews are once again not given much to do. At least Couture is with the team during the climax of the film, but other than stealing a tank with Gunnar, I can't remember a single thing he does.
Tank, you say? Yes, Stonebanks leads them to a mostly abandoned city that looks a lot like the one from The Expendables 2 to rescue the "kids," and then uses his connections with the local dictator to throw an army at the team. Also the building is wired with C4, and Smilee can only block the signal for so long, so there's a ticking clock to escape in Drummer's helicopter. There's a long and loud and intermittently fun action scene that involves dirt bikes, tanks, grenades, lots of shooting, and then Rousey and Banderas steal the entire show in what may be my favorite sequence of any of the scenes in the movie. Statham's "big fight" with the heavy felt a little undercooked because you don't really get a sense of who Stonebanks's "muscle" is, and also because Hughes keeps cutting away to Snipes taking out people nearby.
Meanwhile, Drummer, Trench, and Yin Yang (I had to look, because I forgot) are flying around in the copter, avoiding fire and shooting at anything that moves until they can safely evacuate more people than could possibly fit. And finally, there's the showdown between Ross and Stonebanks, which is, to be blunt, a total disappointment. The entire movie is built around Barney Ross wanting to take out Conrad Stonebanks, up to and including a great monologue by Gibson after he's been captured about the essence of being "expendable," and Hughes and Stallone can't stick the landing. Mel Gibson gives Van Damme a run for his money for the villain you most want to see Stallone brutally murder, but their respective final "fight"s are so lopsided, there's no competition.
Not only is the fight shot in such a way that you can't really see both of the faces in the frame 90% of the time, the unnecessarily padded nature of having so many characters trying to do so much in so little time means that Stallone and Gibson's "showdown" maybe lasts for five minutes of screen time. It's over so quickly and in such and underwhelming fashion that I can't imagine anyone being satisfied that The Expendables 3 builds to "that". It's a total let down, a waste of casting Gibson, and a failure to live up to the menace instilled in the bad guy. Not since Stone Cold Steve Austin caught fire and Eric Roberts caught a knife to the heart has a bad guy been given such a limp death scene. So if you decide to see this movie just to see Mel Gibson being murdered, don't get your hopes too high - it happens, but very quickly. Remember, explosions!
For the record, if you were annoyed by the constant referencing of "greatest hits" by the cast in The Expendables 2, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that it's toned down considerably in the first part of the film. Other than the "tax evasion" joke and a Demolition Man reference, I didn't catch anything that really made me groan. However, late in the movie there's a litany of one-liner reference jokes that will drive you nuts, including "Get to the Choppah," "I Lied," and a variation on "I Am the Law." I didn't catch a specific Harrison Ford joke, but I'm pretty sure there's either an Air Force One or Indiana Jones reference during the helicopter scene. There's also another Predator joke involving Caesar, Gunnar, and a mini-gun early in the film. I've forgotten some of the others, but they tend to pile up on each other towards the end of the movie, and not in a good way.
Once again, I'm looking at an Expendables movie that I mostly liked, but which loses its luster the more I think about it. There's probably enough good to counter the bad, but not enough to outweigh it, and the only reason it's over two hours long is because the addition of nearly a dozen new characters, many of which have extensive introductions, only to not do much later. Ford, Snipes, Banderas, and Rousey rise above the clutter, and Grammer makes a nice impression as a side character, but these films are getting too crowded. There simply isn't enough for everybody to do, and when the element that gets sacrificed is the hero and the villain's showdown, you're doing something wrong.
What's funny is that immediately after I finished the movie, I was in a good mood and I liked it. But the more I think about it, the more apparent its problems are and I have a hard time remember what it was I enjoyed about The Expendables 3. I'm almost positive that's not the intended reaction to the movie, but it's kind of the same way I felt about the first one. Less so The Expendables 2, but to date not one of these movies really "holds up" like it ought to, and I'm talking the bare minimum requirements of "holds up."
In fits and spurts, I expect you'll find The Expendables 3 to be entertaining, and you'll probably have fun, but in retrospect, the seams start showing and threaten to fall apart. I'm not sure this series can sustain itself much longer, but there's always the hope that "next time they'll get it right." I'm not asking for Commando, because there aren't actually many movies from the 1980s like Commando (maybe Rambo: First Blood Part II), but Stallone hasn't quite put together an Expendables film that does justice to the films that made him a household name. Yet. There's always hope that like Rocky Balboa or Rambo, he's got one killer Expendables movie in him, and, uh, we'll end on that hopeful, if naive note. In closing, see Escape Plan, available now on home video.
* Commando is the perfect storm of "no, that could never happen" with respect to continuity, machismo, one-liners, extreme violence, impossible coincidences, economy of story, and ridiculous fight scenes. Arnold takes out the entire army of Val Verde in the back yard of a mansion BY HIMSELF using a machine gun and garden implements. His nemesis is the henchman from The Road Warrior, he throws a pipe through his chest! I'm sorry, but if you expect every action movie to be like Commando, then only Road House is going to meet your expectations Or maybe Exit Wounds - Seagal blows up a helicopter with a handgun.
Thursday, August 14, 2014
On a whim, I decided to watch Leviathan a few days ago. While I'm pretty sure I never saw it on video, there was a sneaking sense of familiarity that crept in as the film played out. Normally I'd attribute that to the fact that Leviathan is a transparent knock-off of John Carpenter's The Thing, crossed with Alien for good measure, but parts of the movie (particularly the ending) rustled up a few memories. Maybe I saw it on television, years ago, and forgot about it. That's both good and bad, because while Leviathan is not what you'd call a good movie, per se, it is exactly the kind of flick that would take Summer Fest by storm.
Released in March of 1989, Leviathan had the unfortunate distinction of being the third underwater-based thriller, and it landed between the much worse Deepstar Six and James Cameron's The Abyss. In fact, if you remember Leviathan at all (and haven't seen it), you're probably thinking of Deepstar Six. I wouldn't say that Leviathan isn't memorable, but because it isn't as terrible / great as the movies that came out immediately before and after it that are, roughly speaking, the same kind of movie, it went largely forgotten. Directed by George P. Cosmatos (Cobra) and written by David Webb Peoples (Soldier) and Jeb Stuart (Lock Up)*, Leviathan isn't quite bad enough to be really fun, but not good enough to rise above its derivative nature. It's entertaining enough, but that's about it.
** below the surface, when they make a strange discovery: a sunken Russian vessel called, appropriately, Leviathan. It appears to have been deliberately sunken, but records indicate that Leviathan is an active ship in the Baltic sea. The corpses of the crew have unusual deformities, and the ships log (a videotape, by the way) indicate some kind of "infection." When the crew members foolishly decide to partake of the vodka pilfered from the Leviathan, strange things begin to happen, and the company they work for backtracks on their promise to extract the team. Can they save themselves, or will the fate of the Leviathan be theirs to share?
According to IMDB (and, I guess, the credits), the crew of Tri-Oceanic Corp's mining facility have names, but to be honest you're only going to remember them by their nicknames (handily written on their suits, for some reason). Names like "Six Pack," "DeJesus", "Doc," and "Becky," given to the commander of the crew, a geologist with a demonstrable inability to lead. In no particular order, they're played by Peter Weller (Screamers), Daniel Stern (C.H.U.D.), Hector Elizondo (American Gigolo), Ernie Hudson (The Crow), Amanda Pays (Spacejacked), Michael Carmine (Invasion U.S.A.), and Lisa Eilbacher (10 to Midnight), with a special guest appearance by Richard Crenna (Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell) as "Doc." Doc is notably absent when Beck (Weller) is overseeing a routine mining operation that goes bad. DeJesus (Carmine)'s suit malfunctions and almost implodes, and Beck has no idea how to help other than to insist he's fine. He is, in fact, fine and comes back safely, but it's clear nobody trusts Beck's leadership skills. Doc doesn't really have an excuse for where he was or what he was doing (he makes some joke about "golf").
Early on, Leviathan does its best impersonation of Alien: the crew is just a bunch of blue collar stereotypes trying to get along on the station for "three more days." We're treated to some uninteresting exposition and "character development" in the broadest sense possible: SixPack (Stern) is horny all the time, Jones (Hudson) hates bad weather, Bowman (Eilbacher) has big boobs, Willie (Pays) is British and training for NASA. Eventually Willie and Sixpack find Leviathan, and in his infinite wisdom, Sixpack steals the ship's safe, conveniently the one with all of the medical reports, captains logs, and vodka. Think of it as the "exposition trunk" from Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II. The vodka is spiked, of course, because how else would you trick Russian Naval crew members into being genetically altered?
Yes, genetically altered. Into fish monsters. (SPOILER) That's about as good of an explanation as Doc can come up with for what happens to SixPack and Bowman, and they just barely get their fused corpses (?) out of the station before all hell breaks loose. Unfortunately for them, a tentacle breaks away and two worm-like monsters grow out of it. Also, Cobb (Elizondo) gets raked across the chest, so he also changes, and uh, yeah. Look, rules stop being important at a certain point - Leviathan kind of turns into The Thing, but without the benefit of the "who's really real and who's infected?" angle. See if you can guess who the last three people to make it to the surface are. Then guess if all three of them are rescued or not. If you've seen Deep Blue Sea, you'll have a rough idea.
I'm not convinced that Leviathan takes place in the future, because while there weren't any deep sea mining expeditions / stations to my knowledge in 1989, everything from the technology to the fashion inside the station screams "Late 80s" and when the survivors surface, there's nothing about the rescue copter or the base they land on that similarly makes the case it wasn't contemporaneous. But then again, there's all sorts of gear used for mining underwater (including the suits) that seem suspiciously high tech in a low rent way. It's not really addressed, so you can speculate as you watch Leviathan, I guess.
What Leviathan has going for it is that the goopy, gooey monster effects (that also remind you of The Thing) are courtesy of makeup vets Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis (every Alien movie after the first one) and a willingness to be pretty gross. That's good, because other than rampant profanity from Weller and Hudson late in the movie, Leviathan is pretty tame. I can easily see how it can be cut down to air on television, although I have no idea how they get away with the last shot on broadcast television. The ending, in fact, is the reason I'd really recommend Leviathan - it's a one-two punch (almost literally) of "no, they aren't really going to do that" moments guaranteed to elicit laughter when it really shouldn't. One of them moves Leviathan into "also ripping off Jaws" territory. The other involves the shady Tri-Oceanic Corporation representative, played by Meg Foster (They Live). Both of them involve Peter Weller doing things I did not expect him to in any movie.
To be honest, Leviathan isn't really anything remarkable, but it's charming in a lowbrow way. It has just enough going for it to keep you interested, but you probably won't remember a lot of the movie thirty minutes later. You'll have fun if you pair it with a few cold ones and some like minded friends, but it's hardly the sort of movie that's going to make or break your weekend. If you happen to like The Abyss, Jaws, John Carpenter's The Thing, and want to see what it looked like if the "B" team had a go at it, Leviathan is right up your alley. It's really the kind of movie that Syfy should be making, the kind of "B" movie that used to be more prevalent. Nowadays it would look a lot cheaper and be crammed on shelves with other lousy CGI "spectacles" and "mockbusters." So on that level, I guess it has an edge. So that's something Leviathan has going for it: it's the kind of "B" movie that you'd like to see more of these days.
* Yes, that's a totally unfair representation - Cosmatos also directed the much better known Tombstone and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Peoples wrote or co-wrote Blade Runner, Twelve Monkeys, Unforgiven, and Ladyhawke. Stuart co-wrote Die Hard and The Fugitive. That said, it's a stretch to say Leviathan is anywhere near those movies.
** If you want to get technical, the opening text states the team is 16,000 Mikes Below the Surface, which is more than two miles, but at one point Jones says something about being "two miles" away from escaping.
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
It seems to happen every few years: two films come out at roughly the same time that have a similar narrative "hook". You might remember this from years past: asteroids (Armageddon and Deep Impact), magicians (The Prestige and The Illusionist), biopics (Capote and Infamous). fighter jets (Top Gun and Iron Eagle), or, uh, insects (A Bug's Life, Antz). This past weekend, I decided to look at such a pairing, this time dealing with a favorite subject of mine: the doppelgänger. Both films are from 2013 but were widely released this year: Enemy and The Double.
Okay, so I'm going to need you to bear with me here: after finishing a doppelgänger double feature, my head is swimming a bit. I'm trying to avoid Foreigner jokes, so feel free to make them yourselves. Enemy and The Double are distinct enough that they haven't bled together, but there is one unusual, albeit tertiary, connection: The Double is adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella of the same name. Enemy is also adapted from The Double, but not Dostoevsky's; it's based on José Saramago's novel of the same name. So even the source material has a "doppelgänger effect." Still following me? We've only scratched the surface of these strange films.
Or has it already? Enemy is thick with suggestive imagery, particularly of arachnids. The film actually begins with Anthony and the doorman from his apartments (Tim Post) entering a "hush hush" club in the sort of building you'd expect to see in Hostel. The main attraction for sweaty, uncomfortable businessmen, appears to be a woman wearing nothing but heels crushing a tarantula, which may or may not have a direct bearing on the narrative. Depending on how you interpret the "web" imagery throughout Enemy, or the eventual presence of a spider floating above the city, it's hard to miss the cyclical nature of the film. Villeneuve and Gullón spell it out early in the picture, both through Adam's lectures but also in the repetition of his day (teach, go home, sex with Mary, Mary leaves, visibly upset).
What the spiders represent and their connection to Adam and Anthony is also a matter of interpretation, as nothing is directly spelled out. A few visual clues sprinkled throughout Enemy suggest what might actually be going on, and there's a telling conversation between Adam and his mother (Isabella Rossellini) the nearly gives it away. But there's no real "twist" in Enemy - only a gradual unfolding of the repercussions of Adam's first lecture(s?). The final shot is, depending on how you read the spider metaphor, either a puzzler or the last piece of the puzzle, but I suspect that one could come to various "readings" of what Enemy "means."
The entire film is cast in a sickly, yellow pallor, indicative of the state of mind of at least one (but probably all) of the main characters. Gyllenhaal distinguishes Adam from Anthony so well, both in physical performance and in delivery of dialogue that I never doubted they were two distinct characters, despite knowing it was the same actor. Laurent is in less of the film than Gadon, but makes an impression that's hard to shake. Gadon carries much of the emotional arc of the film - she meets Adam before Anthony does, and her perplexed reaction to him (he doesn't know who she is) is crushing. The impact of his existence hurts her more deeply than it does Adam, a meek and shrunken individual every bit the opposite of the confident, scheming Anthony. That is, if either really exists. Without giving too much away, there are elements of Enemy that reminded me of Mulholland Dr, but in a more abstract sense. The shared dreams and experiences of the doppelgängers don't directly point towards a revelation in the story: Villeneuve and Gullón are content to imply, to suggest, right up until the very end. Or the beginning.
The Double is a less abstract but in many ways more impressionistic film exploring similar territory, albeit based on an older (and arguably more bizarre) story. A colleague of mine mentioned that he was impressed anyone would even try to adapt Dostoevsky's "weirdest" novel, which he described as "Jung 50 years before Jung." If there was anyone with a sensibility to make it work, The Double landed in the capable hands of Richard Ayoade (Submarine), who crafts it into a film that I can only describe as unique. I feel like doing The Double an injustice by suggesting that it resembles Fight Club by way of Brazil, but there's an element to Ayoade's stylistic approach that is highly reminiscent of the latter, with elements towards the end similar to the former. That said, The Double isn't quite like anything most of the time.
His one bright spot is a fascination (or is it obsession) with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), his co-worker who lives in the apartment complex across from him. He senses they're kindred spirits, but can't muster the courage to tell her. Instead, he spies on her with a telescope at night. It's the highlight of his otherwise miserable day, it would seem. One night, he looks up and sees a man staring back at him with a pair of binoculars. The man waves, and them leaps to his death. The police sent to investigate (John Corkes and Craig Roberts) ask Simon a few questions and determine he's a "maybe" for a future suicide attempt. This won't be the last time someone tells Simon he's going to kill himself, but let's not get too far ahead.
After being ejected from a mandatory company ball, Simon has a bit of a break, mentally, and the next day at work, James Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) starts in a similar job. Everybody loves James, and no one seems to notice that he looks exactly like Simon, much to Simon's consternation. Simon's co-worker Harris (Noah Taylor) admits that "maybe" they look alike, but that Simon has a forgettable face. Now, much to my surprise, unlike Enemy - which puts Adam and Anthony together sparingly - Simon and James are frequently inhabiting the same space, interacting, getting into trouble together, and pretending to be the other ("How can we get in trouble? We have the same face.") The outgoing, gregarious James gives Simon advice, and helps ease him out of his shell, while Simon gives James the necessary assistance to do a job he knows literally nothing about. But, of course, as with any doppelgänger, James has an ulterior agenda.
There is a predictability built into the story structure of The Double that worried me early on - the deck is stacked against Simon to almost comical extremes, but rather than make me sympathetic towards him, I kind of disliked his willingness just to take it. Ayoade asked Eisenberg to study Buster Keaton, whose body language epitomizes a man who accepts the rotten luck in life, and Simon is just content to take it. But there's only so much I could take at the outset of the picture. Thankfully, James is not immediately antagonistic, and the building of their relationship (if it exists in the first place) provides The Double with a breath of fresh air, like Sam Lowry's dreams in Brazil. The inevitable betrayal of that trust, coupled with Jame's conquest of Hannah, at least happens after Simon feels confident enough not just to take it. He begins to fight back, not always successfully, but a late revelation about the nature of his doppelgänger loops the film back on itself, and allows Simon to take advantage of James in a way the latter couldn't anticipate.
Ayoade's visual presentation of The Double gives it the feeling of a lucid nightmare, of a dystopian future that's simultaneously retro (while I don't think it's ever stated, The Double seems to take place in an alternate 1980s). It's doesn't draw attention to itself, but the television program Simon is fond of and the computers they use are clearly several generations removed from the 21st Century. His scene transitions are often inspired, capitalizing on isolated faces in darkness that suddenly emerge in new settings. While Enemy sparingly uses split screen or digital technology, Eisenberg is almost constantly interacting with himself, and the seams aren't apparent in the slightest. Simon and James are so different that it only becomes confusing near the end of the film which is which (you have to look at the shoes). Hannah is introduced in another subway car, bathed in an impossibly angelic light that I can only compare to cut-aways of Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers. Like Fight Club, that's not something I would imagine I'd be using to reference in The Double.
The screenplay by Ayoade and Avi Korine (Mr. Lonely) doesn't spend too much time worrying about the nature of Simon and James - there's a visual suggestion of when it happens, but not why. The film is, instead, focused on not wasting a single moment on superfluous information; everything (and everyone) is in some way relevant to how The Double ends. Every plot point, or seemingly irrelevant detail, comes into play as Simon goes barreling off the rails, to the final scene, which can be interpreted in a few ways. Oh, and without spoiling anything, Simon isn't the only person in the film who has a doppelgänger. It's a small scene, but one that hints at something larger in the world of the film.
Eisenberg is good - maybe too good - as the put-upon Simon, so much so that I was happy when James appeared to make the little weenie stand up for himself. James is less sketched out - Eisenberg plays him as an Id out of control, and it's easy to loathe him late in the film. It would be easy to suggest Wasikowska plays Hannah as the newly coined "Manic Pixie Girl" type, but there's something much more interesting about her performance. She taps into a longing that Simon senses, but not one that requires him to be complete. Her arc with James is arguably more interesting as the film goes on, reaching a conclusion that improves the overall narrative. There are a number of cameos from well known names and faces, some of whom worked with Ayoade in the past, but I won't spoil them for you. I will say that I didn't recognize Sally Hawkins, who has a tiny role in the film, but I did immediately catch the extended cameo from Dinosaur Jr. frontman J. Mascis as the janitor in Hannah's apartment building.
When it comes to this particular doppelgänger double feature, I'm not sure which one I would recommend more. On the one hand, Enemy is more abstract and relies on a serious reality "break" to make it clear what we're seeing isn't necessarily what "is." On the other, The Double is much less concerned with the "why" than its repercussions, but is more impressionistic in its presentation. Another friend of mine couldn't finish The Double - he said it was "too weird," and it does take a certain willingness to accept Ayoade's world on his terms (and, I would gather, Dostoevsky's). I wish I could speak to either of them as adaptations, but in this instance I can only judge them as films. Enemy makes for a great discussion piece, but might be too frustrating in its unwillingness to do more than imply for audiences. The Double is reminiscent of a number of films I'm very fond of but might alienate viewers at the outset with a protagonist who is only barely likable.
I don't wish to make it sound like I didn't enjoy either film. Quite the opposite is the case, and I'm hesitant to give either one the edge. Unlike, say, The Prestige, which I prefer to The Illusionist, it's harder to say clearly that Enemy or The Double is the better "doppelgänger" film. Each has its own merits, its own problems, and I feel like either film could spark a fascinating conversation between viewers. One is a distinctly suggestive mystery, filled with unaddressed symbolism, and the other is a very black comedy that makes little effort to suggest reality applies. I enjoy them for different reasons, and find the contrasts help, rather than hinder, the act of seeing them back-to-back. That said, I think you'd be just fine watching one or the other on their own, depending on which suits your tastes more. Double doppelgänger features might be too much to digest. At least you have two appealing choices.