Monday, April 14, 2014

We Could Have Had It Aaaaaaaaaaaaall... (Push)

Purely by coincidence, today is Chris Evans day on the blog. Why? Because today we're going to talk about two Chris Evans movies with pre-date his time with Marvel, but also happen to be the kind of properties that could easily have been big franchises, only they just kind of weren't. I'm talking here about Push and The Losers.

Now, admittedly, I didn't sit down and think, "What movies has Chris Evans been in that I haven't seen but that would work as interesting examples to look at the right and wrong ways of making an action franchise?" Mostly, I was browsing through tumblr when I saw a couple of gifsets that reminded me that I'd been meaning to watch these movies, and then I sat down and watched them. It was only later that I realized that they both happened to have Chris Evans in them. 

Interestingly, they both have other actors who have become staples of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in them as well, but we'll get to that more in a minute.

So, let's start off with Push, an independent superhero-esque movie that came out in 2009 and completely and utterly failed to cash in on the previous popularity of Heroes or any of the other "superheroes in plain clothes" franchises. It's a good story, but it didn't really work as a movie. Here's why.

The film takes place in an alternate universe where some people have special powers, and pretty much everyone knows about it. The powers vary a lot, but the most common kinds are things like Movers (telekinetics), Watchers (precogs), Sniffs (touch-telepaths), Shifters (shifters), Bleeders (sonic scream), Stitches (healing), and Pushers (telepathic influence). I mean, there are other ones too. It's actually a really well fleshed out world.

These powers have been around for a while, but the people who have them have never been lucky. The Nazis experimented on them, trying to build the perfect soldier, and while the Nazi party died at the end of World War II, the experiments lived on in the United States, carried out now by a governmental department called Division. Division's goal is to amplify their powers and make these people into the perfect little weapons.

But unfortunately for Division, it's not easy to amplify powers. Well, it's not easy to amp them up if you want the patient to stay alive after. Everyone who has taken the drug (and they never take it voluntarily, mind), has died. 

Everyone until one girl doesn't: Kira (Camilla Belle). Kira somehow survives, and then escapes, leaving almost no trace. The worst part is, Kira's a Pusher, which means she could influence anyone to take her anywhere. Division is blind. Oh, and she stole their copy of the drug and her DNA, so they can't recreate her success unless they find her.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Nick Gant (Evans) is a low level Mover bumming around the underworld. He's not very good at Moving, which means that while he keeps trying to cheat at dice, he's not good enough to win, and he's in deep with a lot of the wrong people. Also, Division keeps finding him. They killed his dad, so he's not exactly a big fan.

Nick's life gets a little more interesting when he gets a knock on the door and opens it to find an American teenager: Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning), a thirteen year old Watcher who needs his help. She needs him to help her find a suitcase and a girl, and doing so will probably save the world. Or at least save all of the people like them in the world. And after a couple of near-death experiences and run-ins with the Hong Kong mob, Nick agrees to help.

From there on out, the movie actually has a pretty straightforward plot. Kind of. It's a standard MacGuffin storyline: everyone is looking for the briefcase because what's in it is super important. Unfortunately, everyone also has superpowers that they can use to spy on everyone else, so they're all locked into a weird cycle of kidnapping each other, threats, and desperate attempts to find it before anyone else can.

Nick and Cassie eventually find Kira (who happens to be Nick's ex-girlfriend for unclear plot reasons), but they don't find the case. They do find Carver (Djimon Hounsou), the lead operative for Division and the man who killed Nick's father, but Carver gets away. 

And they get some help from an unlikely band of allies and enemies, including but not limited to: a Stitch played by Maggie Siff, a Sniff played by Ming-Na Wen, and a Shifter played by Cliff Curtis. 

Did I mention that this movie has a fabulous cast? Because it so totally does.

The climax of the film is really where the movie hits its stride, though, casting off the old "who will find it first?" plot in favor of a much more compelling idea: How do we steal the case without letting a Watcher be able to predict our decisions enough to get it before we do?

In other words, How do we cheat the future?

And how the movie does that is actually really brilliant. SPOILERS, it involves letters, memory wipes, and flying completely blind, with each person knowing only their job and nothing else. It even accounts for seemingly unaccountable events, which is super cool, and this is really one of the only places I've seen that work.

Unfortunately, when I say that the climax is where the movie really gets going, I mean it. Up until then, the movie is interesting sure, and even a bit engrossing, but it's not fun. It's not edge of your seat, what the hell is going to happen next fun. And that's a problem.

It's a problem because the movie is also lacking in one other major area: character development and emotional investment. While the story concept is cool, and it's all executed with precision and a deft hand at writing fight scenes, I don't really feel attached to any of these characters. And it certainly doesn't help that Evans' Nick and Belle's Kira have about as much chemistry as two inert gases. There's no reaction.

This is in contrast with Nick's relationship with Cassie, which is overflowing with chemistry - enough that it actually gets a little awkward, because she's a teenage girl, but you're still sitting there realizing that you want her to end up with the clearly in his twenties hero, and now you feel like a very bad person. Which you should, because you are. But still, the chemistry between Nick and Kira is so lacking, and the sparks between Nick and Cassie are so fun that you find yourself feeling very confused.

Overall, however, there just isn't anyone to get attached to. Nick's nice and all, but he's really not developed, and he never goes through a substantive character shift. Cassie is nice, but again, she doesn't change. Kira is a piece of furniture who has to be hauled around the city, saved, and is passed between sides like an ugly mug getting regifted. The other characters are great in their roles, but they're never given the chance to take center stage.

What we get when we put all of this together turns out to be a rather unimpressive film. It's not bad, exactly. I had fun watching it, and I think other people will do so too, but it is underwhelming. The cast is so talented, the story is so cool, and the cinematography isn't half bad. But the sum of all of that? Not that great.

It's not great because in a film where you can't emotionally connect to any of the characters, we don't even get to start having fun with the plot until the very end. Up until then, we're just sort of slogging through the storyline. It's not awful, but it's certainly not something you want to sit through more than once. It's a slog - there's just this stuff that has to happen and you have to understand in order to get to the really cool bits. And, honestly, I hate that.

I hate it because this is a film with so much potential. Not only is it Chris freaking Evans and Ming-Na Wen and Dakota Fanning and Djimon Hounsou and Maggie Siff prancing around Hong Kong in an independent, original science-fiction movie, it's also a movie that passes the Bechdel Test, the Race Test, and even some other tests that you could probably make up. It's got an amazing, diverse, hella talented cast, and the storyline, aside from focusing mainly on two white characters, is surprisingly well-rounded. 

And yet, it's not a very good movie. It's fine, yeah, but it's not great. It could have been great. I resent that.

Which brings us back to the point I made above, about why these movies, which seemed poised to be franchises, never really took off. Personally, I think that Push failed for exactly the reasons I stated above, but mostly this: It didn't have enough heart.

As much as we love our cerebral science fiction, and as much as we adore new innovative concepts and are sick to death of origin stories, I think that most people, when they watch a movie, want to watch someone change. Good or bad, we want to see a person transformed. And when they aren't, when that person ends the movie the same way they went in, we feel a little bit cheated.

I think that's because life, really, is about change. It's about the choices we make and how they shape and shift who we are. All good stories, all stories worth telling, are about choices, and how the define you. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is about Steve Rogers choosing to uphold freedom at the cost of security. Pacific Rim is about the choice between hiding and waiting for death or striding out into the ocean to meet it. Push is about the choice between...I have no idea.

And that's the problem. There's no heart. There's no choice. I don't know who Nick Gant is, so I don't know who he becomes. Now, admittedly, I know Nick and Cassie better than most of the characters in this, and I do like them. They come the closest out of everyone to this idea, but they still fall short. They just survive. They don't transform.

I do think it's interesting that from this movie we got Chris Evans, who now plays Captain America, Ming-Na Wen, who plays Agent Melinda May on Agents of SHIELD, Djimon Hounsou, who will be appearing in Guardians of the Galaxy, and a bunch of other really fabulous actors who will probably get snapped up by the MCU at some point. It's just weird that this movie they did together isn't the one that united them. That honor goes elsewhere while this film (and the franchise it intended to inspire) slowly rots.

Because it's not a story that tells me anything. And a successful franchise should tell me something about myself that I didn't already know.

Though the worldbuilding was excellent in this.

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