[27 December 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There is nothing wrong with flaunting convention, especially when the subject (or in this case, cinematic genre) definitely deserves the revisionist tweaking. For decades now, the thriller has gone through several seemingly important permutations - erotic, political, domestic, international, personal, psychological, horrific, humorous - while maintaining the same basic bland motion picture formulas. Thanks to fright film configurations like the slice and dice slasher category, or the overworked (and thoroughly predictable) police procedural, edge of your seat entertainment definitely needs a reimagining boost. About the closest it’s come to an overhaul is Paul Greengrass’s hand-held hedonism of the Bourne Franchise.
So when David Twohy of Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick fame announced that he was taking on the type in a completely unconventional manner, audiences had a right to be excited. If anyone could instill some new life in the old cat and mouse, it had to be the man who made Vin Diesel palatable. Sadly, what the filmmaker delivered was less of A Perfect Getaway and more of a soulless slog through whodunit boredom. The overly simple story centers on a couple - Cliff (Steve Zahn) and Cydney (Milla Jovovich) - who travel to Hawaii on their honeymoon. There, they run into another couple - Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Gina (Kiele Sanchez) - and the news that there is a pair of serial killers on the island. Of course, everyone suspects everyone else, and it’s not long before tempers flare…and truths are finally revealed.
As you can tell by the set-up, A Perfect Getaway (new to DVD and Blu-ray) is not a complicated movie. In fact, it’s so simplistic it’s fetal. This is a film that believes it is pushing the boundaries of the creative category, and yet accomplishes said reinvention in the most mindless way possible. For instance, Twohy clearly decides that the best way to handle the concept of suspense is to have none at all. That’s right - for the first hour and ten minutes of the overlong film, nothing remotely dreadful or fearful happens. There is a lot of innuendo and a great deal of mindless chatter, but with the audience lacking any information that would inspire horror, A Perfect Getaway takes the notion of being lifeless literarily.
The twist - the lifeblood of any attempted crackerjack chiller - is also telegraphed far in advance. Once we learn who the killers are, we then wait for the deadly denouement to play out. Again, Twohy holds back. Instead, we are treated to a wacked out flashback/hallucination where motives are drawn like stick figures in a child’s kindergarten class and psychological complexities are tackled with dialogue so mannered that even Shakespeare would consider it convoluted. In fact, there’s a moment when Twohy stops the action dead, trying to illustrate the cockeyed perspective of his murderer. Instead, we laugh at the directorial flourish, convinced that nothing good can come out of the otherwise hilarious attempt at middle school mind games.
It doesn’t help that there are only six characters in the story - and two have to be the killers. By the time we get to the 80 minute mark, two of the sextet are MIA. That means we are left with a dumbfounding 50/50 shot at who indeed are the nutjobs. And since Twohy hasn’t take much time to develop the characters beyond a superficial sketchbook snapshot, the psychological clues are almost non-existent. Again, this could all be part of the filmmaker’s attempt to flummox expectations. While we don’t necessarily like having a second act suspect show up and draw suspicion away from the mains, it would have helped. Without a commentary track or other way of understanding what Twohy was up to, A Perfect Getaway plays like a screenwriting manual’s example of how NOT to create a nailbiter.
And then there is the ending. Without giving much away, our couples come under the judgmental jurisdiction of the police, warned (per standard screenwriting convention) by a cellphone that now somehow works. As the stand-off between victim and villainy transpires, as Twohy tries to make us guess where the SWAT team’s bullet will find its mark, the plot punks out. It offers up a lame “gotcha” that doesn’t even deliver the sense of satisfaction that one should get when getting rid of the bad guy. Instead, there’s a head wound, a kiss off last line, and a lot of unfulfilled promises. A Perfect Getaway, by trying to be different, simply ends up being tiresome. Instead of reinventing the genre wheel, Twohy flattens it without a spare in sight.
Of course, the new Blu-ray release offers a “director’s cut” that does little to expand its theatrical likeability. In fact, unless you are the kind of celluloid detective who uses their photographic memory to recall every intricate narrative detail, you’ll be hard pressed to see the differences between the two versions. And since the disc doesn’t offer any interviews or cast and crew discussions, intent and effect are impossible to infer. No that the actors would have much to add, one assumes. Of the four main players, Olyphant seems to be having the most fun, taking lines without much meat on them and fleshing them out to the best of his muscled suntanned ability. Zahn is zoned out most of the time, while Jovovich gives what could best be described as a tarted-up zombie performance. That just leaves Kiele Sanchez to bring something compelling to the mix. She can’t.
Indeed, instead of trying to do something different with the Cineplex warhorse, Twohy should have taken his skill at action and adventure and turned A Perfect Getaway into the best illustration of the genre mandates ever. After all, Hitchcock constantly relied on filmmaking stereotypes and shortcuts to get his otherwise masterful suspense efforts across, and he remains a certifiable genius. Unless you really have something new, novel, inventive, or unprecedented to bring to the motion picture mix, leave your desire to “shake things up” for the occasional writer’s block daydream. If you ever need a reminder of why, just take a look at A Perfect Getaway. After a major box office bomb, David Twohy clearly was looking to defy expectations. What he ended up defying was logic, entertainment - and a prosperous career in the industry.