By Amy Nicholson
By Juan Barquin
By Stephanie Zacharek
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By Amy Nicholson
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By Alan Scherstuhl
Blink -- or, more likely, doze -- and you will miss it, this tiny, beautiful oasis in the middle of an otherwise barren wasteland. For a moment, a precious, frustrating moment to be treasured in a movie that flaunts its disposability, Nicolas Cage reminds us how good an actor he can be when he attempts to transcend the trash in which, these days, he so often wallows. Wearing a smarmy smirk, a shiny suit, and a glint in his wide-open eyes, Cage, playing Randall "Memphis" Raines, chats up a Ferrari salesman in a high, preening, mocking tone of voice, insisting he doesn't want to be one more L.A. "weenie" pulling up to a burger stand in a fire-red sports car. "What else ya got in the warehouse?" Memphis wonders, no longer able to contain the car thief within. The only things he doesn't do are wring his hands and lick his lips. For that split second, Cage looks like a man unhinged, a jive-talkin' dude cruising for a good time at the world's expense -- Face/Off's Castor Troy out for a joy ride.
But Gone in 60 Seconds is not an actor's movie; it's barely a movie at all, more like a thousand car commercials spliced together in an hour, and Cage instantly retreats within himself. The fire in his eyes is extinguished; the lilt in his voice goes mute. He's back to playing a human prop in yet another vacuous thrill-seeker produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who makes movies the way politicians deliver speeches: loudly, with absolutely nothing of substance beneath the burnished surface. There's little time for flesh and blood in a movie about the theft of 50 cars in a 24-hour period. The sound of a human voice simply can't compete with the magnificent roar of a 1967 Shelby Mustang GT 500, otherwise known as Eleanor, the object of Memphis's desire and his white whale to boot. The actors are superfluous. Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Aston Martin, and Porsche should have received top billing.
Cage tries his damnedest to make something of this hollow, cynical vehicle, which is less a Mustang than a souped-up Pacer. As the reformed car thief who now teaches children how to steer their tiny scooters, Memphis wears a look of resigned unhappiness. He's given up the life, as per Mommy's (Grace Zabriskie) orders, but is easily lured back in when his brother Kip (Giovanni Ribisi) botches a job for British gangster Raymond Calitri (Christopher Eccleston), who threatens to kill Kip unless he gets his 50 cars. "I didn't do it for the money," Memphis says fondly of his boosting days. "I did it for the cars. I'd boost her and blast to Palm Springs, instantly feeling better about being me. But I didn't like what I'd become." Still, it's not enough to keep him from bailing out Kip; a brother's blood is as thick as 20W-50.
Memphis then spends the next hour assembling the old gang to complete the job Kip bungled: wily veteran Otto (Robert Duvall, his days of thunder turned to spring showers), old flame Sara "Sway" Wayland (Angelina Jolie, whose blond, matted hair does all of her acting), Donny (Chi McBride, as comic relief), the Sphinx (a mute Vinnie Jones), and Atley (Will Patton, resurrecting his Armageddon pose). They're Memphis's A Team.
Tailing Memphis like a pesky rash is Det. Roland Castlebeck (Delroy Lindo), a cop who always regrets he never put Memphis away back in the day. Letting the car thief elude him all those years is his one disappointment in an otherwise stellar career. Castlebeck follows the thief's every move. He somehow knows exactly which cars Memphis is going to steal and at what precise moment. Castlebeck is indeed a superior cop: He apparently has ESP.
That a film in need of a single sentence of plot description takes so long to get going is baffling. Director Dominic Sena (whose sole film credit is 1993's Kalifornia, prompting one to wonder about the seven-year gap on his résumé) spends the first hour idling the film's engine with needless exposition and vapid character development. "All his life [Kip] looked up to you, he wanted to be you," Mama Raines says to Memphis. "Now, he is you." Two hours later, near the movie's woefully familiar showdown in an apocalyptic warehouse, Atley gives nearly the same speech to Kip, as though the filmmakers are convinced we're so slow we've yet to catch up by film's end. Sena is so convinced he's made a meaningful movie about the depth of brotherly love that the car-stealing scenes become boringly repetitive and, finally, incidental; they're background fodder, which surely is the opposite intention.
The 1974 film of the same title -- directed by, written by, and starring the late H.B. Halicki -- upon which Sena's "remake" is based (without credit) is infamous, at least on the extant drive-in circuit, for a single car chase that lasts 40 minutes and results in the destruction of nearly 100 cars. No doubt that's the stuff of which Bruckheimer's dampest reveries are made. It's right up the producer's narrow alley: a film in which plot and exposition are nonexistent, unnecessary, eradicated by a single, never-ending pursuit and the accompanying wreckage. One could easily apply that description to the litany of vapid slam-bang-'em-ups that litter Bruckheimer's C.V.: Top Gun, Bad Boys, The Rock, Con Air, and Armageddon (the last of which was the most gloriously propagandist film made since Leni Riefenstahl capped her lens).
But the car chase that appears near the end of Sena's Gone in 60 Seconds is expurgated, proverbial, even dull; turns out Memphis is just really good at driving backward. It ends just as it begins to get good, with Memphis jumping his Eleanor so high and so far the whole stunt is obviously computer generated. But it's a shrug of a finale. Memphis disappears and with him any remnant of thrill-seeking. By the time the chase resumes on a pier crowded with construction workers, bulldozers, and tanks full of gas that whiz around like misguided missiles, it loses its momentum. It becomes confusing (how, for instance, does Delroy Lindo, previously stuck on a traffic-jammed bridge, once more wind up behind Memphis?) and, worse, redundant. Its best gag -- a wrecking ball taking out a cop SUV -- has already been played out in the film's trailer. By the time it shows up in the film, it's anticlimactic. Gone has nothing on Bullitt, The French Connection II, or for that matter, Smokey and the Bandit.
Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg (who penned Con Air and worked on Armageddon, uncredited) hasn't written a script; he's penned a litany of nonsensical non sequiturs ("Calitri's after my brother?" "Like stains on a mattress"), overwrought clichés ("Kip's jammed up bad"), and lines so silly you're forced to take them with a straight face. Otto, explaining his new life as a restorer of cars instead of a stealer of them, tells Memphis, "I'm no longer a destroyer. I'm a means of resurrection." Memphis stares at him blankly: He looks as though he's trying to contain a giggle.
Worse, Rosenberg throws in several extraneous plots, all of which peter out before they're given a chance to play out. An uncredited Master P, mouth full of gold and head full of marbles, shows up as Johnny B, a fellow car thief who insists Calitri's job should have gone to him and his posse. But before Johnny and Memphis's rivalry has a chance to resume, Rosenberg conveniently jettisons Johnny from the film in a slapstick scene right out of Cannonball Run. Same goes for another plot line involving Latino gang members furious that Memphis's mob has taken over their territory; they too disappear without good reason. It's as though Rosenberg and Sena aren't convinced the main plot can hold up on its own, so they throw in little nothings meant to distract us, to no avail. As a result the movie plays like a series of B-sides: all filler, no killer.
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