Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Unthinkable

With a title like Unthinkable, you have to ask yourself exactly what would be "unthinkable?"  That's right...the title makes you think about what would be unthinkable.  Is that a sign of a clever movie, or just a stupid one?  I'm not going to answer that question for you, and neither is this movie.

Yusuf (Michael Sheen), formerly known as Steven Younger, sent a homemade recording to government agencies, where he announced that he has hidden three identical nuclear bombs in three American cities and they will explode in just over six days, unless his demands are met; he will issue the demands soon.  What follows is an examination of the usefulness of, and the government's right to, torture suspects in extreme cases.  On the torture-is-bad side, we have FBI Agent Helen Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss) and her team, who investigate the hundreds of (usually useless) tips from citizens regarding possible terrorists on American soil.  In the middle are the suits, the higher-ups that want plausible deniability in case any torture is made public, but also want results at any cost.  On the torture-is-effective side, we have Jack Bauer a man called H (Samuel L. Jackson).  H doesn't legally exist because he is an expert in effective torture.  But his torture is well beyond waterboarding and the like.  Within a minute of entering the interrogation room, he cuts off Yusuf's pinkie fingertip, without even asking a question.  That is as nice as H gets, and he will never be that pleasant again.  I don't have much positive to say about this movie, but I will admit that H's methods were occasionally shocking and, dare I say, unthinkable.  The film goes on to ask a great many questions.  Is it ever okay to torture?  What are the limits to torture?  Can good people allow torture?  Torture torture torture torture?  You get the idea.

I am normally a fan of Samuel L. Jackson in just about anything, but this is the most cartoony effort I have seen from him.  And I don't appreciate the man for his subtle acting skills.
Case in point.
I think my problem is that his character is a mean SOB and the smartest man in the room.  He's thinking at least two steps ahead of all the other good guys, so when he does something awful, like castrating Yusuf, it builds to something important ten minutes later.  What's bad about that?  He sounds like Batman!  Well, the problem is that the film doesn't support his actions; this movie balances both sides of the torture issue and H is often seen as a bad man.  That's just mixed messages, folks.  Having Carrie-Anne Moss and her pseudo-emoting doesn't help the human rights side, unfortunately.  She frets and she hovers, but she is nowhere near strong enough a character to compare with Sam Jackson when he's cutting off fingertips.  Michael Sheen does a decent job, but his acting style (at least, when he's not playing a werewolf) is too subtle to compete with Sam Jackson.  There is a surprising number of recognizable actors in supporting roles here (Brandon Routh, Gil Bellows, Martin Donovan, Benito Martinez, Stephen Root, and Holmes Osbourne), but they are given absolutely no screen time or character development.  Director Gregor Jordan gets the point across that there is no consensus on the torture debate, but that is about all he accomplishes.

What makes this movie underwhelming is the sheer number of moments that made me ask, "Really?" aloud.  In an absolutely irrelevant bit of plot, Agent Brody's team is sent to question every single person they are keeping tabs on, which happens to include H's Islamic wife.  H, being a bad-ass, takes down (but doesn't kill) the first agents that show up at his house; he does bad things for a living, so who knows if those are fake badges, right?  Well, H is then questioned and then the governmental higher-ups have him released, only to return to the movie less than five minutes later as Mr. Interrogator.  What was the point of all that?  Why not just introduce him as the interrogator and cut the rest?  This movie was twenty minutes longer than it needed to be, and it's only 90-some minutes long!  And why did all this happen?  The CIA accidentally sent over a file on H and his family to the FBI --- and that is not a building block for any other plot lines.  It's just, "Oh, the CIA mail boy is stupid, finds confidential files, and mails them to random government agencies."

The worst part of the whole movie is the ending.  SPOILER ALERT, IN CASE YOU STILL WANT TO SEE THIS CRAPPY MOVIE.  All along, it has been said that Yusuf stole between 15 and 18 pounds of fissionable bomb-making-stuff.  All along, it has been said that each of his three bombs has 4.5 pounds of the fissionable stuff in it.  If you do the math, that adds up to 13.5 pounds of danger fuel, which implies that there is a fourth bomb somewhere.  I figured that out on my own, about a third of the way through the movie, but H is the only character that figured it out, and he doesn't mention it until the last few minutes.  So, maybe it's a twist.  That could be, but Yusuf manages to commit suicide before the fourth bomb is proved or disproved, and the movie ends moments later, with Agent Brody taking Yusuf's children out of whatever building all this took place in.  Fade to black, roll credits, and forget that there was a twist only three minutes earlier, where a nuclear weapon was left unaccounted for.  I have to admit, this is the first time I have seen a movie where the heroes are looking for a nuke, don't find it, and then the movie ends.  Normally, I would call that sort of plot development moronic, but in this case I'll call it unthinkable.

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