#79 - The French Mistake
1933 - 2009
Greetings, friends and neighbors, and welcome back to this week’s installment of your Electric Theatre. We’ve got another big-time summer blockbuster and a new Tales From The Queue recommendation, so let’s get right into it, eh?
NOW IN THEATRES
As one’s enjoyment of the new Star Trek appears to hinge on how much of a Trekker you are (or Trekkie or whatever you’re calling yourselves this week), perhaps I should start by laying out where I stand on the franchise. As a kid, I enjoyed Star Trek quite a bit. I watched (and occasionally taped) reruns of the original series, went to the movies and even read some of the tie-in books and comics. I was a fan of The Next Generation for awhile, but my enthusiasm began to die out before the series did. Not that I necessarily thought the quality of the show was declining. Simply that my interests were heading away from most science fiction. I continued to see the movies but never did see a single episode of Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise. By the time Star Trek: Nemesis came out, I had tuned out entirely and I still haven’t bothered to catch that one. In other words, I approached this latest Trek as one who knows maybe a bit more about Gene Roddenberry’s creation than the average moviegoer but a whole lot less than a bona fide Trekker. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t have a stake in the whole continuity business. I just wanted to see an entertaining movie.
Make no mistake, that is exactly what J.J. Abrams has delivered. This is not as straight-forward a task as it may seem. Over the years, Trek has painted itself into a bit of a corner. Decades' worth of episodic television, feature films and tie-in novels have been generated, all of which are considered to be part of the canon by the Trek faithful. This means that folks who don’t like Trek (and their numbers are legion) are predisposed to resist anything under that banner. They look at it as an insular saga all but impenetrable to outsiders. Abrams and his team have cleared this obstacle ingeniously. Frankly, it would almost be enough that they even made the effort at all. It would have been a simple matter to just start from scratch and erase the board entirely. Instead, their take acknowledges and respects all that has come before but clears the deck just enough to welcome newcomers aboard. It recaptures what attracted so many of us to Star Trek in the first place: a sense of camaraderie, curiosity and optimism in the face of insurmountable odds.
The cast Abrams has assembled inhabits their characters as if they’ve been playing them as long as the original actors. Chris Pine as Kirk manages to evoke the spirit, attitude and posture of William Shatner without resorting to a Shatner parody. Zachary Quinto has an even harder time of it, since his predecessor actually shares the screen with him, but makes you believe that this Spock does in fact age into Leonard Nimoy. Best of all is Karl Urban, channeling DeForest Kelley’s McCoy so well that you know who he is before he even shows his face, much less says his name. Even the actors I was the most concerned about, like Simon Pegg as Mr. Scott, step into character as if they were born to play them. Arguably the only false note in the casting is Winona Ryder as Spock’s human mother, Amanda. Not that she’s bad, necessarily, so much as distracting. Why bother casting anyone her age in a role that requires her to wear not entirely convincing old-age makeup throughout?
Awhile back, I suggested that Watchmen would have been much improved by worrying less about what the fans might think of any deviation from the graphic novel. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is proof that the fans don’t always know what’s best for them. Trekkers second-guessed every snippet of information that leaked out while this movie was in production. And while most fans seem perfectly delighted by the movie, there are still nay-sayers and nit-pickers, as there always will be. Perhaps because to enjoy this Star Trek, you have to acknowledge that the original mission of the Enterprise had run its course. Either Gene Roddenberry’s creation was going to die or be ignored, either of which would be a huge disservice to its legacy, or something like this had to happen. Or maybe what bothers them the most is that J.J. Abrams has managed to accomplish something that the fans stopped trying to do years ago. He has convinced the rest of the world that there is something highly enjoyable about Star Trek. Maybe, just maybe, the new fans will finally be inspired to check out what they’ve missed. Even if they don’t, Abrams’ vision of the future is a delightful blend of old and new. In its best moments, I was twelve years old all over again, eagerly waiting to hit “Record” on a repeat of Space Seed. (* * * ½)
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
No Name On The Bullet
Audie Murphy is one of those actors who I was aware of without having ever seen one of his pictures. Murphy was a real-life WWII hero, the most decorated American combat soldier of the war, who went into acting upon coming home, appearing mostly in westerns and war pictures. Perhaps his most memorable role was as himself in the biopic To Hell And Back. Given this background, I really didn’t expect Murphy to be much of an actor, nor did I ever expect to see him in anything but heroic parts. The 1959 western No Name On The Bullet surprised on both counts.
Murphy plays John Gant, a notorious gun-for-hire. He rides into a little town in the southwest, checks into a hotel, and almost immediately word spreads of his arrival. It’s known far and wide that when Gant shows up, he’s been hired to take someone out. He’s quick on the draw and never loses a fight, thanks to his simple methodology. He lays low for a few days, sizes up the territory, then provokes his target into a fight, ensuring he’s always able to claim self-defense instead of the cold-blooded murder it is. To make matters worse, nobody knows who his real target is. Before long, the town is fully in the grips of paranoia, with secrets brought to light and no one entirely sure that they aren’t in Gant’s crosshairs.
Despite his smooth face and slight stature (he appears to stand a good four or five inches shorter than most of his castmates), Murphy is eminently believable as a callous assassin. His gaze is piercing and intense. Most importantly, he’s a man of great intelligence. You can see the wheels turning as he takes stock of the town and the people in it. Indeed, No Name On The Bullet is considerably more cerebral than your average western programmer. The movie was directed by Jack Arnold, best known for such 50s sci-fi pictures as Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Arnold fills the screen with tension, ratcheting up the suspense while keeping the actual gunplay to a minimum. It’s an effective technique, giving the violence more power than is typical for westerns of the era. No Name On The Bullet is a tight, efficient movie that simmers where other westerns boil over, well worth seeking out for fans of the genre on the lookout for something a little less formulaic.
(* * *)
Thanks to the anonymous tipster who sent in this week’s TFTQ recommendation but didn’t sign his email. No Name On The Bullet was just one of several cool titles he sent in, so write back and tell me who you are so I can give credit where it’s due next time! That goes for the rest of you, too. If you know a movie that’s Queue-worthy, drop me a line and let the whole world know what great taste you have.