[7 February 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Thirty four years ago, George C. Scott starred as a Calvinist businessman from Michigan who travels to Los Angeles to find out what happened to his daughter. She suddenly disappeared during a seemingly ordinary school trip. The truth became the stuff of Internet meme legend. Like Hitler from Downfall finding out any number of hard to swallow pop culture facts, Scott’s Jake Van Dorn sat down in a dingy movie theater and watched as his innocent little baby became the stuff of practiced porn pimping.
Distraught and angry beyond words, his often-repeated mandate of “TURN IT OFF!!! TURN IT OFF!!!” has been used and abused as a means of indicating something - a song, a performance, a particular piece of news - was too disturbing for words. Of course, we could be wrong. Van Dorn just could have been the unfortunate beneficiary of a three decades too early screening of The Outsider.
Apparently, co-writer/director Brian A. Miller saw The Limey one too many times and decided that it needed dumbing down, quite a bit. He then decides to hire Craig Fairbrass as his lead, knowing full well that few outside the UK will know who the Hell he is. Along with his Jason Statham/ Terrence Stamp substitute, Miller also made nice with future paycheck cashers Jason Patric, James Caan, and Shannon Elizabeth. All three more or less sleepwalk through their roles, allowing the equally inert Mr. Fairbrass to seem practically energetic by comparison. Tie it all up in a narrative based on identity theft, corrupt criminal conspiracies, and fights reminiscent of Rocky Balboa’s 12 rounds with a side of beef and you’ve got something the smells decidedly like a direct to DVD release. If it wasn’t so somber and serious, it would be laughable. Because it’s so somber and serious, it’s deadly dull.
Fairbrass is a British military consultant in Afghanistan named…wait for it…Lex Walker. Told that his daughter has died of a drug overdose in sunny California (starting to sound familiar), our hero tells his superiors to sit and spin and heads off to the City of Angels to discover that the reports of his child’s death have been greatly - GREATLY - exaggerated. The body on the slab ain’t hers and now Daddy Lex has to figure out wha-appen? Turns out, a local waitress (Shannon Elizabeth) has some answers. So does every other dive bar owner and diner doll in the greater SoCal area. Eventually, Walker’s work along the streets draws the interest of a cop (Jason Patric) as well as a sleazy businessman (James Caan) who may or may not be the kingpin behind a massive plot to rob people of their important personal information.
Movies like The Outsider function as nothing more than mindless, midweek entertainment. They’re not good enough to stand alongside similarly styled offerings at your local Cineplex and tend to be more repetitive and routine than clever and creative. The plot is merely a place for director Miller to hang several slack action scenes onto and with Fairbrass’s less than lithe physique, said fisticuffs look more like longshoremen slinging slabs of bacon at each other. Missing is anything remotely exciting or invigorating. In its place is the obvious odor of a project given a perfunctory theatrical release before some subpar version of the USA Network decides to rerun it endlessly.
Of course, such derivativeness would be fine if we had characters we cared about or actors doing something intriguing with same. Instead, Fairbrass is just a concerned father, with everyone else essaying placeholders. Worse still, the story seems superficial. We never really care about Walker’s worries, don’t root for him to find his daughter, and laugh when the final denouement is revealed. All that machismo and posturing is more or less wasted, thrown in because we know we have to have some kind of genre fireworks to keep the audience captive. Of course, Mr. Miller is no Greengrass or Woo or Snyder. Instead, he’s a paint by numbers journeyman, doing just enough to warrant our attention without doing more to win over our undivided attention. This isn’t Taken, unless that’s how you feel after forking over $10 bucks to see this thing.
You can tell that everyone here knew they were making something slack. Patric and Caan in particular can smell the stink from this rotting turkey a million miles away. They wear the aroma on their dead, disinterested faces and their scenes appear piecemeal, derived from numerous takes where the two name actors otherwise couldn’t give a shit. Ms. Elizabeth is a bit better, if only because she’s more of a catalyst to events than a real cornerstone of the story. Other ancillary performances come and go, each one evaporating into the ether like so much hot air. Speaking of diabolical winds, our lead lumbers around like harried homunculus, his recognizable bulk bringing nothing but awkwardness to his work.
Again, The Limey offered a similar story, but thanks to director Steven Soderbergh and the cast he collected, there was a flash and finesse to the final tale. With The Outsider, all we get at the mechanics, creaking and grinding to an entertainment halt over and over again. Maybe with a different cast, or a different filmmaker behind the camera, or a different take on such material, this movie would have worked. It could have avoided its laughable bits of pretend suspense and provided something truly nail biting and exciting.
When Jake Van Dorn finally rescues his child from the grips of the sleazy smut industry circa the late ‘70s, she initially balks, telling her ultra-religious dad that being involved in the sex industry has provided her with a family and a sense of feeling she never felt as his daughter. She doesn’t reject him, but she doesn’t drive off into a dappled sunset with him either. Unfortunately, The Outsider doesn’t have such a ambiguous, melancholy payoff. When it does try to deliver, it merely comes up short. Incredibly short.