Monday, 21 January 2008

Oh Dear...

Contains spoilers for The Sentinel

The Sentinel, directed by Clark Johnson, written by George Nolfi, adapted from the novel by Gerald Petievich.

When it comes to narrative logic, I am positively, pedantically autistic – which is unfortunate when a film like The Sentinel stumps up. It’s fun to throw bricks, but not at the disabled. That said, if you want to know how to conscientiously build character and narrative from the ground up, watch this film: it’s a veritable masterclass in how to get it all entirely WRONG.

The Sentinel is about three drafts away from a tolerably half decent but dull thriller. Forget the workmanlike direction from Clark Johnson and focus instead on the clunkingly ham fisted script. I mean, Christ, where do you start?

Perhaps the most glaring load of old hokum is the drastically underwritten subplot regarding Pete Garrison’s (Michael Douglas) private life. First off, he’s having it off with the First Lady (Kim Basinger – so that’s at least one of Douglas’s contractual obligations met). So far so good. However, Dave Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland), the relentless and brilliant Secret Service guy, is pissed off with Garrison as he blames Garrison for breaking up his marriage by sleeping with his wife, something that Douglas denies. In a completely unnecessary detour down a narrative dead end, Garrison meets Brekenridge’s wife, who admits to Garrison the real reason her marriage split up was because her husband was impossible to live with.

What this suggests is that in an earlier draft, some studio executive/reader decided that the conflict between the two leads needed to be ramped up a couple of notches: hence the painful shoehorning in of a convoluted subplot. Not only does a pointlessly artificial conflict clog up the narrative for no good reason, it also starts to play illogical games with Breckenridge’s character. Bear in mind that Breckenridge is supposedly a top notch investigator, able to analyse and deconstruct a crime scene in seconds – the same guy is completely unable to figure out what went on between Garrison and his own wife (i.e., nothing). But rather than using this dichotomy to provide some interesting character asides, it’s simply forgotten – Breckenridge ends up reunited with his wife and all is well. Gah!

Character development is another interesting way to look at this narrative, purely because there isn’t any. When the film starts, Garrison is a good ole boy (he saved the Prez twenty years before). When the film ends, he’s still a good ole boy (hey, whaddya know: he’s saved the Prez again). Yawn! Breckenridge’s character is similarly developed, and as for Jill Marin (the impossibly gorgeous Eva Longoria): what on earth is she even doing here? The only point to the character is to act as eye candy, not only for the audience but for the other characters in the film, who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time asking her out for coffee and looking at her ass (I mean, who wouldn’t?).

The central narrative is massively underdeveloped as well: Garrison is being set up as the mole in the Secret Service who is responsible for leaking details about the President’s movements so nasty terrorists with funny accents can nail him (said terrorists come from a fictitious ex-Soviet republic, scriptwriting shorthand for ‘let’s not offend anyone here, guys, especially those that reside in overseas markets’). The script then goes on to explain why the terrorists want the Prez dead – uh, no, hang on a minute, it doesn’t. You could argue that this isn’t the central thrust of the film at all, and you’d be right – however, why make such a big song and dance about it in the first place if it’s not important? Oh, and the terrorists are led by a guy who possesses a vaguely Cockney-ish accent. Uh? It’s probably best not to ask ‘why?’ as you will drive yourself insane with the sheer implausible sprawling mess of it.

You want more hokum? You got it!

- Garrison takes fifty minutes to go on the run in an attempt to clear his name. Douglas huffs and puffs about a bit before realising he’s far too old for all this nonsense, and sensibly wraps up the chase after half an hour – tension over.

- What happens to the Prez’s marriage (remember that Garrison was boffing the First Lady)? No idea! What this tells me is that if you have an unresolved plot point at the end of your script, just ignore it! As if by magic, the issue will disappear and no-one will remember it anyway. Problem solved!

- Jill Marin goes from rookie to experienced Secret Service agent purely on the basis that Garrison tells us. She does nothing of real note throughout, but does remember to bring her ass with her (see above), which of course is most fortunate.

The best way to watch a movie like The Sentinel is to completely erase it from your mind as soon as it’s finished. Or watch something decent like Serpico, which I did yesterday. Oh, and avoid anything written by George Nolfi (who apparently had a finger in The Bourne Supremacy - oo-errr, missus!) – that should just about do it.

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