PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Think way back, way way back, to 1979, and you might recall that Kurt Russell played Elvis in a tv movie that changed the course of his career. John Carpenter’s This Is Elvis made it clear that Russell was not just a good child star; he had become a charismatic adult actor. In 3000 Miles to Graceland, Russell revisits this role, in a roundabout way. He plays Michael, a somewhat reluctant but also lethal member of a crew that robs Las Vegas’ Riviera Casino, all dressed as Elvises. Since it’s International Elvis Week, this might be considered a clever disguise, or it might just look like a rip-off from any number of heist films, say, last year’s Reindeer Games, in which the robbers wore Santa Claus costumes to rob a casino during the Christmas season.
The concept is tired, yes, but if carried off with some small modicum of wit or speed, it might still pass for self-consciousness. Sad to say, producer-writer-director Damian Lichtenstein’s 3000 Miles to Graceland is neither witty nor speedy. It goes through all the usual motions of a heist film—heist, betrayal, chase, showdown—and then, in case you missed them the first time, it goes through them again. The Elvis look-alikes, led by a psychotic Elvis devotee named Murphy (Kevin Costner in awesome sideburns), are Michael, Franklin (Bokeem Woodbine, who looks a little like Kool Keith in his Black Elvis mode), Hanson (Christian Slater), and Gus (David Arquette), with a chopper pilot named Jack (the irrepressible Howie Long). They’re all mean and ornery guys, but Murphy is the worst, the meanest and the orneriest.
Believing that he is the King’s illegitimate child, Murphy has a particular bone to pick with the Establishment (apparently, whoever does the DNA tests on folks claiming an Elvis lineage), which long ago denied him his just desserts for being so royal (his DNA results were inconclusive). And so, Murphy’s decision to rob the Riviera (run by Paul Anka, looking very short next to his huge bodyguards) in his Elvis get-up is motivated not only by the fact that the haul is some $3 million, but also by his obsessive need to wear the glittery caped costume, big wig, wide belt, and sunglasses. This motivation comes through in the extended shoot-out scene at the casino, where Murphy’s cape and the glitter and the sunglasses get lots of slow-motion screen time.
Michael is the relative “good guy,” just out of prison and not exactly enthusiastic about the deed to be done, but doing it anyway, perhaps because he spent some time as Murphy’s cellmate. You know Michael’s the relative good guy because he’s immediately hooked up with the film’s only girl-with-lines, named Cybil (Courteney Cox). She’s a skeezy-but-cute love interest he meets meets her at a truck stop/motel en route to Vegas, by way of her adorable little boy, Jesse (David Kaye), who steals Michael’s special lugs off his snazzy red 1959 Cadillac convertible. You see immediately that man and boy will bond, given their shared affection for things having to do with cars, guns, and Cybil. Michael and Cybil’s sex scenes involve that banal sign of comic passion—the bed slamming against the wall—with the added hilarity of little Jesse sneaking in during these sessions to steal Michael’s wad-filled wallet.
Still, though Michael throws his boot at Jesse and yells at Cybil when he finds his money missing, he’s plainly a good-hearted guy, with something worthwhile to offer the fatherless family unit. In other words, no matter what evil deeds Michael might commit, he’s not as bad a man as Murphy. Where Murphy mows down people in the casino or shoots some gas station guy because he feels like it, Michael tends to do things like shoot up glass ceilings to fall on Las Vegas cops and (ridiculously) incapacitate them, rather than blast the cops outright. Plus, he’s mean to the boy. Then again, everyone’s mean to the boy at some point, including his mother.
It may be that every actor save one can write this movie off as a career misstep. Costner and Russell have always made hit and miss choices, but this movie manages to make Slater, Arquette, Cox, and even Woodbine look pedestrian. Even the magnetic Ice T—who has about three minutes on screen as a super-sneery mercenary and who has notoriously bad taste when it comes to picking scripts—looks like he’s made an unusually bad decision this time. Not so Howie Long. As a Fox football commentator, the former Raider does all right, but, in everything else—from his starring role in Firestorm to his current gig as Teri Hatcher’s pitch-buddy on the Radio Shack tv spots, Long’s performances have been consistently boring.
And so, he fits right in here. Compared to movies that cover similar territory—say, movies about heists, father-son bonds, trashy love interests, psycho killers—3000 Miles to Graceland is strictly dullsville. It’s not snarky enough, funny enough, smart enough, or even nasty enough to stand out. It is, instead, excessively flashy, rife with visual tricks, like fast-cut car chases, slow motion shoot-outs, unmotivated explosions, time-lapse traffic and clouds, and that blurry stop-motion technique that Wong Kar-Wai uses so well. 3000 Miles to Graceland is a crass and silly movie. Worse, for all its fiery explosions shot from five angles, creaky Elvis shticks, and camera acrobatics, it’s tedious.