Shamelessly and unblinkingly derivative, George Gallo’s Middle Men is so in hock to Goodfellas-era Martin Scorcese, that I was shocked that the great director didn’t get some sort of co-writing or co-production credit. Complete with constant voice over narration; sleazy lowlifes trying to make an easy buck; weighted down dead bodies thrown over the side of a boat; crooked mob lawyers; Russian gangsters; an endless barrage of period rock songs; and mountains and mountains of cocaine, the film is so color by numbers, connect the dots Scorcese that it should by rights be dismissed outright as a soulless knockoff long past its expiration date. Which it kind of is, except that it’s kind of awesome too, and it actually mostly kind of works, both as straight up homage and as a rollicking, sometime gonzo, sometimes tragic, but genuinely entertaining entry into a subgenre of film that had seemed to have vanished with the ’90s.
Allegedly based on true events, but in reality probably fabricated out of whole cloth (as the end credits reveal), Middle Men imagines the rise of the internet porn industry in the mid-’90s through the mid-’00s through the eyes and ceaseless voiceover of one Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), a successful businessman who found himself, quite by accident, in the center of a media revolution. Brought away from his happy family life in Houston out to LA to resolve a crisis of a family friend, Harris somehow finds his way into managing the burgeoning online porn enterprise of two sleazebag smut peddlers (Gabriel Macht and Giovanni Ribisi). These two, whose great contribution seems to have been finding a way to enable credit cards to be used for online commerce, find themselves flush with money, flush with women, flush with a river of cocaine, and deeply, deeply in over their heads with the Russian mob. Wilson is called in by a crooked Vegas lawyer (a gristly, hammy James Caan) who gets wind of all this and sees an opportunity to swoop in and make a quick couple million of these doofuses.
Wilson proves the man for the job, though his righting of the ship pisses of just as many people as it pleases, setting off chains of events that roll along with a certain inevitability. From about the 30-minute mark on, the film becomes an episodic catalog of fairly predictable, stock crime/petty gangster film elements. Nothing really shocks or surprises, and the film clicks along merrily, ticking off one plot point after another.
The good thing about this formula is that, when it works, it generally works fairly well. At no point is Middle Men less than entertaining, and it has some late third act bizarro twists that turn its straight up Scorcese-aping into post-Tarantino weirdness (a truly left-field terrorism subplot seems so strange that I can imagine the possibility of this particular vignette being true). And perhaps my assessment is tinged by a bit of nostalgia – I grew up on films just like this (well, Goodfellas mostly, over and over again), and it’s a shame that they don’t really get made any more, so I’m willing to cut it a lot of slack for bringing exactly nothing new to the genre.
If I have any quibbles at all, it’s that for such a salacious subject, Middle Men proves very hands off with regard to the porn industry, almost a bit prudish. I would expect a film about the internet porn to be… well, a bit dirty, but Harris is such an upstanding, moral guy (everything he does is for family, even if he is in fact abandoning the family and being seduced by the glamorous jetset life that he has fallen into), that his semi-prudishness rubs off (ha!) on the rest of the film. He does have a brief dalliance with a porn star, but it is treated as a meet-cute type romance rather than the sort of mercenary relationship I imagine it really would’ve been.
But the across the board solid performances make up for weakness in other areas (the self-pleased script, the rapidfire editing). Luke Wilson generally nails these straight man type roles, and here his serene, unflappable mien is perfect for his role as the quiet center of the storm. Meanwhile, Giovanni Ribisi, buried beneath greased back hair, a skeevy beard, and aviator glasses, gives a great gonzo scenery chewing performance, full of bloodshot paranoia and coke-addled fantasies of grandeur. And the excellent character actor Rade Serbedzija, who has made a career out of playing Russian gangsters or terrorists, is equally great at playing a (surprise surprise) wild-eyed, menacing Russian gangster.
Though its limited, and short, release into theaters last summer seemed to portend a quick forgettable slide into obsucrity, Middle Men might find a second life as a genuine cult film on DVD, especially among Scorcese aficionados. Though it’s no one’s idea of a masterpiece, compared to a lot of the other crime-themed films out there these days, its quaint, almost anachronistic formula and love for the genre might give it staying power as years go by.
I had high hopes of some for some sort of behind the scenes/interview heavy featurette delving into the veracity of Middle Men ’s core story (again, the film disclaims itself after the final frame, but then the filmmakers swear up and down in the dry commentary track that it’s all based on the life experience of one Christopher Mallick, who also produced the film), but alas, there’s nothing here. Five minutes of deleted scenes, two minutes of bloopers, and a 90 second compilation of characters getting slapped (which I didn’t realize happened so frequently as to rival an episode of a Spanish soap opera) are all the extras the DVD offers up, and they are so negligible that they may as well not even exist.