Hollow Man Could Have Been Worse; Croupier's Aces

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:57

    Hollow Man Directed by Paul Verhoeven

    Ideally, this movie is not seen at home or in the company of other people. You run into it when you're for some reason stuck in Willy Lomansville for a night or two. You're too tired to read or go out (oh yeah, you remember: there's nowhere to go), so you turn on the tv to the place where there are no commercials. A movie has just started, a movie you wouldn't even think to go see in a theater or to rent. But there it is. You gape at it for a few minutes, thinking, This is lame, maybe I should check out that Gideon Bible. You keep watching, though. You realize that the movie's look is polished, it has some interesting second-level stars and even a few ideas bouncing around. Mostly because your brain's at low ebb, you curl up and think, This isn't so bad. And in the context, it isn't.

    I offer this mainly as a route toward explaining why Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man didn't make me angry. Perhaps it's just that we're so far along in the summer that most of the disgust and ire the season naturally generates is largely spent. But beyond that, Hollow Man doesn't broadcast the self-importance of, say, X-Men or The Perfect Storm, crummy movies that on some level want to be taken seriously. Aside from its capital-intensive veneer, Verhoeven's sci-fi thriller looks like it might've been made to go straight to HBO or Cinemax.

    You will have gathered that it has nothing to do with T.S. Eliot. Or, for that matter, Ralph Ellison. Though the title clearly called for was The Invisible Man, that was presumably off-limits, and "Hollow Man" makes precious little sense (except metaphorically: I'll get to that). While H.G. Wells receives no credit, the premise that he supplied to James Whale's 1933 The Invisible Man?mad scientist makes himself invisible, wreaks havoc?is, in fact, the same one operative here.

    Except that we're no longer in the innocent English countryside. The film's Prometheus, Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), lives and works in Washington, DC, where his research into invisibility serves the Pentagon. When the story opens, he's just made a crucial discovery but is equally interested to find out who's sharing the bed of his ex-girlfriend, Linda McKay (Elizabeth Shue), who happens to be his chief lieutenant. She, in turn, is anxious that he not find out she's sleeping with their coworker Matt (Josh Brolin). Does she suspect Sebastian might turn into a homicidal maniac if provoked by jealousy (or given the chance to be made invisible)? The hint is planted at this point, but for the first act Sebastian remains the nominal protagonist?a little hyper and controlling, perhaps, but no monster.

    Hollow Man has all the hallmarks of a film that was made due to the availability of certain special-effects technologies, a cart-before-the-horse approach to filmmaking that's perhaps no screwier than many distortions of creative will in Hollywood. The movie's first half-hour forms a buildup to the first major display of that f/x wizardry, which comes when Sebastian and his team test their new serum on an ape. Strapped to an operating table in the scientists' underground bunker, the beast is injected with a colored liquid that gradually renders all of his internal organs and veins visible while leaving his skin transparent. The effect, in other words, is exactly like those plastic "Invisible Man" statuettes used to teach biology in school?which is appropriate enough, since the movie itself recalls other stereotypical diversions of childhood.

    You know what's coming from the first, and after a few more predictable plot twists, it does. Sebastian decides to test the invisibility serum on himself. His colleagues are instructed to keep him confined to the bunker and monitor his every move (they see him by using heat-detecting cameras and goggles), but they don't count on the personality changes that accompany his disappearance from the realm of the visible. Does the serum make him nuts, or is it the power that comes with invisibility? That question is posed by the movie, and the answer is: Who cares? What counts is the mayhem that ensues.

    To feign visibility in order to return to the aboveground world, Sebastian dons clothes and puts on a rubbery mask that has holes for his mouth and eyes. Without sunglasses he does indeed look like a hollow man, although of course he's still as flesh-and-blood as anyone else. But it's when he's au naturel, completely invisible, that he wreaks the most havoc, and the film really gets to show off its special effects.

    Naked, Sebastian can only be seen when he's defined by some sort of gas (steam, say) or liquid (water, blood). Utilizing the sort of f/x technology that was strikingly novel at the time of Terminator 2, the filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of the secondary characters' desperate efforts to render Sebastian visible. This happens in the tale's final act, when, a la Alien, he pursues his coworkers through the now sealed-off bunker, murdering them one by one.

    It's precisely because this is all so unoriginal that it verges on appealing. A mad scientist who lays waste to the innocent human world with his nutty forbidden knowledge?didn't I see at least 50 movies like this on late-night tv when I was a kid? At least. Hollow Man takes itself seriously enough to know it's supposed to deliver the same kind of thrills, but not so seriously as to think that by doing so it's reinventing the genre.

    What's more, Verhoeven is undeniably skillful at this kind of high-tech, tongue-halfway-in-cheek action romp. Hollow Man is the fourth large-scale sci-fi movie he's made since moving from Holland to Hollywood in the mid-80s, following RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers. All of those films have elements of a foreigner's satiric critique of American culture, and if Hollow Man is perhaps the least ingenious and thought-provoking in this regard, it's still full of Verhoeven's stylistic energy, his mix of manic conviction and unapologetic, almost aggressive cheesiness.

    So yes, it's as fun to watch as any movie that contains heaps of bad dialogue (Andrew W. Marlowe's screenplay doesn't stint on the cliches) and that ends with a giant fireball can be. But is fun all there is to movies? Verhoeven's other American films, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, hint that his work is driven not just by a mania for perfection and an underlying cynicism about the value of the movies that mania is expended on, but also by a certain guilt about both the work and the cynicism. As an auto-critique, one not unknown to European auteurs who "go Hollywood" (see Wim Wenders' The State of Things), this line of thinking is corrosive enough to leave any filmmaker feeling like, well, a hollow man.

    Maybe the title isn't entirely misguided. And maybe there's a hint of Eliot to the enterprise, after all. But if Hollow Man can be seen as a confessional self-portrait, it also cancels out that implication with the joke that its subject, in reality, can't be seen.

    Croupier Directed by Mike Hodges

    Back on the micro level of real cinema, the summer's happiest news by far has been the word-of-mouth success of Mike Hodges' Croupier. For reasons that defy understanding, the British film was effectively dumped by its producer, Film Four, which didn't enter it in international festivals or do the other things one normally does to attract foreign buyers. Eventually seen but passed on by the larger U.S. indie distributors, it was released by Shooting Gallery Releasing, a newcomer that's been doing very good work but had yet to turn up a real hit. Now, thanks entirely to the kind of advertising that money can't buy, it has one.

    I was sorry to be behind the curve on this one, but happy to discover, when I finally caught up with Croupier last week, that its success is so well-deserved. Hodges' contemporary noir centers on a young would-be writer (brilliantly played by Clive Owen) who, unable to get his creative juices flowing, takes a job running the roulette wheel in a casino, a locale bristling with enough ethical and psychological pitfalls to inspire any writer?at least, one who can avoid being caught in the quicksand himself.

    Written by Paul Mayersberg (who previously scripted The Man Who Fell to Earth and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence), Croupier's screenplay is immediately captivating not only in the way that it adopts a writer's viewpoint?which includes a use of voiceovers that's unusually rich and purposeful?but also in how particularly its characters are drawn. The protagonist, for example, grew up in South Africa and went to boarding school. Movies seldom give us this kind of precise, detailed information without meaning to capitalize on it plot-wise within a few reels. But in Croupier it serves to make the characters almost startlingly specific, which in turn helps make them unavoidably intriguing.

    Also unconventional is Hodges' carefully mannered style, which is polished and meditative rather than grittily realistic. Departing from the naturalism that's so common to British art films with contemporary settings, the film was shot mostly in a studio in Germany. The result is a subtly expressionistic realm that's ideal for Hodges' elegant camera moves and the tale's aura of slowly unfolding psychological menace.

    That tale keeps you guessing throughout, not only about what will happen to the characters but also about the intent and nature of the film itself. That it ultimately declines to become a thriller?or at least a neat, tidy, obvious one?may strike some as a fault. But it left me all the more enthralled by Croupier's long suit, an extraordinary meshing of mood, character and authorial probing.

    This is easily one of the year's best films, and certainly the choicest British import since Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy. Be sure to catch it during its summer of understated triumph.


    Correction: Due an editing error in my review of Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us last week, the word "gnostic" appeared capitalized. It may be a minor difference, but I didn't mean to imply that the filmmaker belonged to any organized group or sect, especially one that flourished many centuries ago.