Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Right and the Wrong Guy for the Job

Sometimes, going through my Netflix queue is like travelling back in time. I usually can’t pinpoint actual events or anything, but I can see clumps of movies I added when I was feeling up, feeling down, feeling unwisely nostalgic, in the mood for challenging things, in the mood for utter trash, times when I was catching up on great 2007 films I missed, and so on. Sometimes, though, I can pinpoint something more specific—I’m obviously getting to a part of my queue built while I was playing Red Dead Redemption, because there is a whole lot of Sergio Leone in the weeks ahead. Right now, though, I’m clearly in the spot made when director David O. Russell was going to be making a movie out of Uncharted, my most treasured of current games. I’d never seen a Russell film, which isn’t too surprising as he hasn’t made many, so I was curious to see what made him the first choice.
            The first film to arrive was 1999’s Three Kings, which instantly made the case that Russell was perfect to adapt Uncharted, and wholly unsuited to such an endeavor. How so? Let’s see.

            The Uncharted games are special creatures, deeply mining a genre vein too often ignored by games these days—rollicking treasure hunts that span the globe. Our protagonist is Nathan Drake, treasure hunter and sometime thief, who has a professor’s command of history, a rogue’s charm, a hero’s guts, and an everyman’s exasperation and vulnerability but a superhero’s endurance, which he uses to track down lost relics of antiquity, hopefully before the bad guys get there first. So, clearly there’s a very specific cinematic touchstone here. How specific? Well:

            Yes, while Aliens remains the touchstone du jour of games, Uncharted chose Indiana Jones. Nate is very much a modern take on the Indy mold—he’s more self-aware and quippy, and much more marginalized and flawed, frequently with very dubious motives that lead to nasty consequences. But at heart, he remains the archetypal good guy, a ne’er-do-well that can’t keep himself from doing well when there’s real danger, usually getting in way over his head in the process. And getting in over his head usually results in something spectacular—if he happens to be in or around a vehicle at the time, look out. Indy would be proud. An Uncharted story creates the rhythms and characters of classic action-adventure in its own style, and does it with aplomb. Its characters are both stock, and distinctive, familiar and immensely memorable, and characterized with subtlety. The games are remarkably well written in two senses—the remarkably obvious way it gets the most credit for, in that the characters are witty and fun as they bounce lines off each other with screwball zeal, while simultaneously sounding like real human beings, but also the less acknowledged subtlety in characterization and the creation of history, allowing rhythms and acting moments to take the place of relationship exposition.
             We don’t, for example, know precisely how Nate and pirate dirtball Eddy know each other, but their casually testy back-and-forth speaks to some antagonistic, but not adversarial history, though it’s never made clear what did or didn’t happen between them, and their obviously contrasting personalities make it such that we don’t particularly need to know, the implication alone is enough to create a history that makes Nate’s confrontations with Eddy richer. The archetypal nature of the roles the characters occupy also plays a part—they fit a structure savvy movie hounds understand, the Hero and the Mercenary Goon, the writing just has to put up the drapes and arrange the furniture, the sort of decorating few games take the effort to do. Sully is the Mentor, Elena is the Action Girl Friday, Chloe is the Sultry Thief, Tenzen is the Local Badass, Harry is the Weasel, Roman the Nasty Patrician, Navarro the Rival, Lazarevic the Evil General, they’re characters you know, made great through the details.
            Contrarians like to counter that they’re only great in the game medium, on film, they’d be less so. I disagree. For one, we should consider just how depressingly far blockbuster movie making has fallen lately, too often going for a bigger splash rather than a smaller one involving a character we care about. For another, and even more sadly, Uncharted’s cinematic inspirations are not the sorts of action movies that get made any more, in this, the age of repackaged toy lines and comic book franchise starters. It’s ironic to think that a video game adaptation could count as a breath of fresh human air, but it would.
            So, why did Three Kings make such a strong case that director David O. Russell could have brought Nate and friends onto ye olde silver screen?

Firstly, and most importantly, the action sequences in Three Kings are dynamic, lucid, and handled with flair and classicism. The film predates The Matrix and the Bourne movies, but Russell doesn’t seem the type who’d be much interested in aping the style of either. As important as character is to Uncharted, it is an action movie at heart. But, character is important, and Russell shows an affinity there as well—indeed, Three Kings is remarkable for being an action movie largely driven by character.
It’s also a film with a distinct edge and playfulness, often very funny, and often very funny in how it enjoys the bad behavior of its characters. There’s a macabre wit, first seen when Mark Wahlberg asks “We shooting people today or what?”, then promptly plunking a single round into a man when he gets his answer. It’s an atmosphere of reckless immaturity that’s undeniably fun, but very suspect. The characters of Three Kings are, initially, boys behaving badly as George Clooney concocts the heist scam and leads them off into the desert, where Ice Cube tosses grenades taped to plastic footballs from the back of their Humvee. While this all is much darker and more pointed than an Uncharted should be, there are still elements that ought be present in an adaptation. Indeed, while Clooney and Co. start out thoughtless, reckless and selfish, they find themselves inexorably drawn to intervene for the sake of good, and are driven to sacrifice their lives and freedom for the sake of the innocent. There is a similar through-line in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves—each step the villains take is only managed by exploiting one Nate takes first, until suddenly Nate’s plans for a big payday have left a peaceful Tibetan village in the crossfire, and his fundamental decency compels him to make things right.
But as much as Three Kings made the case that Russell was perfect, as I said at the outset, it simultaneously made the case that he was absolutely not perfect. See, suffused throughout Three Kings is the unmistakable mark of a restless auteur. Color, film stock, montage, cutaways, animated sequences, whip-pans, and, to top it all off, it’s a film where Russell has something he wants to say, pointedly and particularly about American military adventurism (and it says something that would have been very prescient on September 12th 2001, though the message is somewhat old-hat by now)—Russell doesn’t seem like the sort who’d be content with the crafting of art, when he can be crafting Art. His sparse IMDB listing attests to this.
Fact is, Three Kings could have been an Uncharted adaptation without changing a whole lot—call it Uncharted: Nate Begins. The chronology is obviously way off, but it’s easy to imagine Nate as some intern interpreter or consultant, George Clooney’s role grafted to Sully, with Nate getting wrapped up in the scheme and learning hard lessons about the legit world when it all falls apart. There’s little on display in Russell’s work in Three Kings to indicate he’d have any interest in revisiting the same sort of material.
This last bit turned out to be true. Not long after being attached to Uncharted, Russell began sharing his vision. The original game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, had a simple and direct adventure plot: Nate, Elena, and Sully pursue El Dorado, following clues left by Sir Francis Drake, and are led to a tropical island, home of an abandoned Spanish colony, a secret Nazi naval station, and far darker mysteries, all the while being in turn pursued by Gabriel Roman and his hired goons, pirate Eddy Raja, and shady rival archeologist Atoq Navarro. Russell’s treatment apparently involved Nate as a member of a family of vigilante antiquities investigators, with two newly invented uncles played by Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. And he’d be played by Mark Wahlberg—an actor who’s played funny, but only funny in relation to his intensity, and who’s never been all that good at carrying a lead role. Tellingly, my reaction was that this sounded like a awesome batch of ideas, but it also sounded like Uncharted not at all. But, temperamental sort that he is, Russell left the project soon after.
So is there someone who I think might be a good idea to helm Nate through a movie? Much of the problem is, like I said before, movies aren’t made in this style all too often anymore, but based on a recent episode of “How Did This Get Made?”, I’ve become enamored with the idea of Lexi Alexander, director of the justly and unjustly maligned Punisher: War Zone. Obviously, the grim brutality of Punisher’s world is a far cry from the gleeful mayhem of Nate’s, but Alexander showed, again, a keen and clear eye for action, a suitably askew sense of what’s funny, an intense understanding of what’s suitable for the world she’s filming, an interesting visual sense, a rather heartening sense of obligation to do right by the original fans first and foremost, and, as confessed on HDTGM, a desire to be a badass woman action director, so that Kathryn Bigelow is no longer the only name cited. It took a woman, Amy Hening, to create Nate and bring his sort of cinematic rollercoaster to games, maybe another can bring them back to movies.

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