Friday, August 30, 2013

The Grandmaster: All the right moves

The Grandmaster (2013) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence, drug use and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.30.13

This is the Dr. Zhivago of martial-arts epics.

Having agreed to a martial arts duel with the angry Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), Ip Man (Tony
Leung) wagers the match's outcome on the precision of his particular brand of kung fu.
The resulting skirmish is a masterpiece of graceful choreography and tighty edited
The parallels are so striking that I’m convinced Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai must have studied David Lean’s 1965 film intimately. It’s not merely a matter of the factual elements in Kar-Wai’s biographical drama hewing closely to key plot points in Boris Pasternak’s novel; the luxurious work by Kar-Wai’s cinematographer, Philippe Le Sourd, evokes strong memories of Freddie Young’s Academy Award-winning camerawork, in Dr. Zhivago, just as Kar-Wai’s composers, Nathaniel Méchaly and Shigeru Umebayashi, deliver a lush (and Western-based) symphonic score very much in the mold of Maurice Jarre’s haunting themes for Lean’s film.

Factor in William Chang’s sumptuous production design for Kar-Wai, with a segment that evokes the “winter palace” chapter from Lean’s film, and the comparisons become too numerous to be accidental.

More to the point, Kar-Wai’s film — which he also scripted, in collaboration with Jingzhi Zou and Haofeng Xu — takes its core characters through similar spirals of triumph and shattering tragedy, against a backdrop of world events that scatter them like helpless leaves in a hurricane. Individual lives are of no consequence within the inexorable march of history, and yet we better grasp such nation-changing events because of such individual lives.

All this, and The Grandmaster also is an exhilarating parade of ever-more-exciting martial arts bouts, very much like genre classics that range from lowbrow action flicks (Enter the Dragon) to highbrow dramas (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

That’s an impressive to-do list ... but, then, Kar-Wai is an impressive director: one of very few who understands how best to exploit the medium, blending every element — sound, image, emotion — for maximum impact. Far too many filmmakers create dialogue-heavy works that are little more than radio with pictures; Kar-Wai, first and foremost, puts the “motion” into his motion pictures, unerringly amplifying viewer response with touches as subtle as falling rain, or the graceful slide of a shoe on a slippery surface.

We cannot help being amazed, transfixed, even transported.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Closed Circuit: They're watching us!

Closed Circuit (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and brief violence
By Derrick Bang

Nobody does an edgy, paranoid espionage thriller better than the British.

No doubt it comes from living under the unblinking eyes of all those surveillance cameras. (Big Brother, indeed!)

With their supposedly slam-dunk case having gone increasingly pear-shaped, Martin
(Eric Bana) and Claudia (Rebecca Hall) wonder about their next step. Trouble is,
they shouldn't even be a "they"; because of the nature of this terrorism trial, Martin
and Claudia aren't supposed to communicate ... even when each begins to worry
about pernicious surveillance.
Way back in the day, Closed Circuit would have been a tidy little B-entry, designated as the bottom-of-the-bill companion to some prestige A production. The irony is that many of those so-called B-films were far more entertaining than their big-budget cousins.

The same can be said for Closed Circuit, which outshines several of this summer’s disappointing blockbusters: better acting and directing, and a vastly superior script.

And yet, sadly, it probably won’t make a dime. Getting released immediately prior to the Labor Day weekend is akin to television’s Saturday evening kiss-of-death timeslot: Nobody will notice.

That’s a shame, because scripter Steven Knight definitely knows his way around this genre, having previously dazzled us with his twisty plots for 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things and 2007’s Eastern Promises. This guy can write; he has a gift for putting ordinary people into extraordinary situations, while avoiding the burst of brilliant resourcefulness that turn American action stars into invulnerable, lone wolf superheroes.

When the two protagonists in this narrative eye each other bleakly, during a calm between storms, and acknowledge that there’s no way to put this particular Humpty Dumpty together again — no successful exit to the catastrophe — we know they’re right. The situation is beyond salvation, beyond their control.

And, maddeningly, it always has been.

Closed Circuit — marvelous triple-entendre title, by the way — opens its ripped-from-the-headlines story with a terrorist attack at a busy London market. With 120 civilians dead and the British public screaming for justice, an anonymous tip leads police to one surviving member of the suspected terrorist cell: Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto).

Preparations begin for what promises to be the trial of the century.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Spectacular Now: Dangerous Liaison

The Spectacular Now (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, alcohol abuse and some sensuality, all involving teens
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.23.13

We must be our own best advocates.

It’s a difficult, often bitter lesson. Sometimes we get lucky, and somebody comes along who believes in us wholeheartedly, unreservedly.

Aimee (Shailene Woodley), never having enjoyed the thrill of romance, falls heavily in
love with Sutter (Miles Teller), despite knowing full well that he's bad news. Indeed,
everybody in school knows about Sutter's self-destructive tendencies. The question,
then: When he goes down in flames, will he take her with him?
Sometimes that isn’t enough.

At first blush, 18-year-old Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) seems the life of every party: vibrant, good-natured, aggressively spontaneous. He enjoys a relationship with Cassidy (Brie Larson), one of the most popular girls in their high school; they’ve obviously been intimate for awhile.

But Sutter’s glad-handing exterior masks uncharted depths of pain and uncertainty that he has absolutely no desire to confront. He’s a smart kid who doesn’t bother to study, much to the dismay of a concerned math teacher (Andre Royo). Sutter is left on his own too much, because his single mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Sara) often works double-shifts just to keep a roof over their heads.

And Sutter drinks. Far too much, far too often. He is, in fact, a teen alcoholic, rarely seen without the shiny hip flask that he regards as a badge of ultra-coolness. He’s cheerfully on the fast-track to nowhere, a road he has traveled for several years. Doesn’t bother him a bit: If confronted, he smiles broadly and extols the virtues of living solely for the moment, for the “spectacular now.”

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who did such a marvelous job with 2009’s (500) Days of Summer — their own original script — have done some equally sensitive work with this adaptation of Tim Tharp’s 2008 novel.

The Spectacular Now stars off as a hip, flip teen saga, displaying the raunchy language and earthy behavior we’d expect from something shallow like the American Pie franchise ... but that similarity fades quickly. Sutter Keely is badly damaged goods, and Teller throws himself into the role with a reckless abandon that his character would recognize.

Before we know it, director James Ponsoldt has taken us into dangerous waters; we realize that things can’t end well. The only question is how much collateral damage will be involved.

The World's End: What a way to go!

The World's End (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for violence, pervasive profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang

This is, without question, the funniest pub crawl ever brought to the big screen.

Another pub, and still only the same single flavor of beer. By now, our heroes — from
left, Andy (Nick Frost), Peter (Eddie Marsan), Gary (Simon Pegg), Steven (Paddy
Considine) and Oliver (Martin Freeman) — are startng to wonder if something other
than franchise blandness might be to blame...
It’s also a cheeky delight that gets much of its fizz from the slow, tantalizing unveiling of What’s Really Going On: a reveal that deserves to remain a surprise for every viewer, much in the manner of 1998’s The Truman Show. That’s unlikely — which is a true shame — in an era when media outlets scramble over each other in an effort to unleash mega-spoilers.

Because The World’s End is best viewed the way my companions and I did last night: with an advance preview audience that hadn’t the faintest idea what would come next.

So if this review remains elliptical and vague in spots, blame my desire not to spoil any of the fun.

Life hasn’t been kind to Gary King (Simon Pegg). Twenty years ago, his compulsory secondary education at an end, he was on top of his world: young, free-spirited and popular with the lads and lasses. By way of celebrating their impending release from school, Gary and his four mates vowed to drink their way through the 12 pubs dotting the “golden mile” of their bucolic UK community of Newton Haven.

They didn’t quite make it, but that’s immaterial; the camaraderie was key.

This introductory flashback unfolds, like a series of video snapshots, to Pegg’s sassy off-camera narration. But his enthusiasm fades as we’re brought to the present day, to discover that Gary is sharing this saga during a group therapy session.

Time has moved on; Gary hasn’t. He’s still a self-absorbed layabout: a poster child for arrested adolescents who failed to launch. A 40-year-old man (to quote this film’s equally droll press notes) “trapped at the cigarette end of his teens.” And it eats at him.

His former best buds, long estranged, have done better. More or less. Andy (Nick Frost) is a corporate attorney; Oliver (Martin Freeman) is a buttoned-down real-estate agent who shifts seven-figure properties. Steven (Paddy Considine) founded a successful start-up, sold out when the time was right, and now enjoys the companionship of a personal trainer half his age.

Peter (Eddie Marsan), the meekest member of the one-time gang, got stuck with the family business — selling cars — and seems little more than an afterthought to his wife and two children.

No surprise, then, that Gary first broaches his “inspired” plan with Peter: to re-visit that tempestuous night two decades back, but this time to succeed ... starting with The First Post and concluding with The World’s End. (Just in passing, all 12 of these Newton Haven ale houses are named for actual English pubs.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones — Completely mundane

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense fantasy violence and action, and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Every time I endure a clumsy fantasy such as this one, I’m reminded of what a rare and wonderful creature television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, during its run from 1997 through 2003.

Our so-called heroine is Clary (Lily Collins), the one cowering at the far right. Despite
some intriguing powers, she's pretty useless in a fight, unlike her new colleague
Isabelle (Jemima West), every inch a gritty warrior. Goodness, even Clary's longtime
— and fully human — friend Simon (Robert Sheehan), despite his constant terror, is
more resourceful.
Which is to say, I’m reminded of the care that Buffy creator Joss Whedon took, with respect to characters, plotlines and — most essential of all — tone. Buffy was droll without being stupid, and Whedon and his fellow writers rigorously obeyed the rules that had been set forth, sometimes years earlier.

And if characters developed a fondness for each other — sometimes pairing off in highly unexpected fashion — they did so reasonably maturely (well, allowing for the crazed parameters of the show’s universe, anyway). They behaved like strong, self-assured and intelligent young adults. Most of the time. When not driven by ill-advised impulses ... but, even then, we rarely rolled our eyes in scorn.

Whedon respected us, as viewers.

In great contrast, director Harald Zwart and scripter Jessica Postigo don’t respect us at all, with their big-screen adaptation of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. It’s the epitome of a dumb fantasy, and its core characters — male or female — behave, at all times, like puerile little girls with absolutely no control over their emotions.

Which begs the question: What is this film’s target audience? The violence and monsters are too vicious for 8-year-olds, but the material and tone are too juvenile for older tweens and teens.

I hoped, going in, that this film would be a gender-flipped Harry Potter clone, with a stalwart female lead whom viewers could embrace. Instead, Zwart borrows much more heavily from the long-suffering sighs, pouty expressions and moronic motivations typical of the Twilight series. Our so-called heroine, Clary, simply isn’t worthy. And if our mortal realm honestly depends on her — and her hormones-in-hyperdrive “Scooby gang” — for survival, then we’re all in a lotta trouble.

Zwart’s film is based on the young adult fantasy series by Cassandra Clare (actually a nom de plume for Judith Rumelt), currently up to six books and counting. I’m not familiar with the books, and therefore unsure who to blame for this film’s breathlessly melodramatic tone. Perhaps Postigo made the best of what she was given, in which case Clare’s young readers deserve better.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Kick-Ass 2: Still bustin' skulls

Kick-Ass 2 (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, brief nudity, crude sexuality, plenty of violence and buckets o' blood
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.16.13

Sequels are de rigueur in the comic book world, even when the material doesn’t necessarily demand subsequent chapters.

It all builds to this: As Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) watches from the sidelines,
Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, center) confronts his wildly garbed arch-nemesis
(Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in anticipation of a true battle royale.
I’m pretty sure writer Mark Millar and artist John Romita Jr. never expected 2008’s Kick-Ass to be more than an eight-issue miniseries, although Millar did leave himself an out, with the aggrieved young snot Red Mist demanding revenge in the final panel, following his evil father’s quite fitting death.

But the original series became a smash success, and director Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 film adaptation — which he co-scripted, with Jane Goldman — was one of that summer’s biggest surprises: a gleefully violent guilty pleasure that delivered the right blend of snarky humor and gory mayhem.

No surprise, then, that Millar and Romita re-teamed for the seven-issue Kick-Ass 2, which kicked off in December 2010 ... followed by the five-issue Hit-Girl, which began last August; and the ongoing-as-we-speak Kick-Ass 3, which debuted in July.

No surprise, as well, that director/scripter Jeff Wadlow has unleashed a big-screen sequel.

But I approached this second movie outing with more than a little concern. Millar has a reputation for pushing the envelope of good taste — hell, he shredded the damn thing several years ago — and his comic book Kick-Ass 2 is unforgivably mean-spirited, even given the violent realm within which his characters operate.

Fortunately, Wadlow’s cooler head prevailed, and he recognized — quite correctly — that mainstream viewers wouldn’t tolerate casual rapes or the pointless execution of little children (a needless story element I suspect Millar would like to recant, in this post-Sandy Hook era). Indeed, Wadlow makes his point rather emphatically, when this film’s über-villain — Red Mist, albeit with a new nom de bad, and back for his predictable revenge — balks at the offer of killing a dog, insisting “I’m not that evil.”

In yo’ face, Mr. Millar.

Wadlow actually bases his script on elements from both the Kick-Ass 2 and Hit-Girl story arcs, opening as our two triumphant heroes — Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz) — attempt to resume normal lives. For Dave, that means hanging out with best friends Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Augustus Prew), or watching TV at home with his father (Garrett M. Brown).

Friday, August 9, 2013

Blue Jasmine: Superb study in self-delusion

Blue Jasmine (2013) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, mature thematic material and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.9.13

From the first scene, we can’t take our eyes off her: an unholy cross between Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara and Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, layered with the bland contempt that comes only from Manhattan socialites.

During a visit to New York, working-class Ginger (Sally Hawkins, right) encourages her
husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, center right) to seek investment advice from the
wealthy and privileged Hal (Alec Baldwin), an aggressive Wall Street shark married to
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett). Ginger figures there's no downside; after all, Jasmine is her
sister, and nothing is more important than family ... right?
Cate Blanchett’s title character in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is a frightening creature: a woman so accustomed to aristocratic excess that she cannot fathom existence among the 99 percent. Yet she’s also a figure to be pitied, and that’s the hypnotic magic of Blanchett’s performance: We simultaneously loathe and feel sorry for her, wondering how somebody who once was an ordinary little girl, could have grown into an adult so cut off from her humanity.

She’s Marie Antoinette or Eva Braun: a woman who can’t precisely be described as evil, because she really don’t know any better. Morality, integrity, loyalty, simple kindness ... these are qualities suited only for the common herd. Jasmine swans above such flawed behavior; she lives only for her own tightly compartmentalized pleasures, and for the attention lavished upon her by a doting and über-wealthy husband.

Allen has written really close to the bone this time, with an unflinching dissection of the privileged, often vacuous wives who proudly stand alongside the Bernie Madoffs, as they blithely screw the rest of us. Do these women even perceive, let alone understand, the monsters they take to their beds each night?

Allen has resurrected his career, phoenix-like, more times than I can count, and he’s once again on a roll: perhaps the best thus far. Midnight in Paris was both clever and delightful: an adult fantasy that brought him another well-deserved Academy Award. Blue Jasmine, in turn, will do the same for Blanchett. I don’t care what comes out between now and Dec. 31; nobody will top her bravura performance in this film.

She’s nothing short of amazing, and Blue Jasmine stands among Allen’s finest works.

We meet Jasmine during a plane flight from New York to San Francisco, where she has arranged to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), while attempting to pull her life back together. Jasmine’s personality is revealed during this airborne prologue, for she has trapped a seat mate — an elderly woman too polite to object — into enduring a litany of self-centered justification.

We don’t get many pertinent details, merely enough to understand the sheer torture that the oblivious Jasmine is inflicting on her temporary companion.

Elysium: District 10?

Elysium (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, gore and strong bloody violence
By Derrick Bang

Based on the evidence thus far, filmmaker Neill Blomkamp has only one story to tell.

Elysium feels much like his previous film, District 9, writ larger: another saga of oppressed “aliens” seeking a way to rebel against their cruel and privileged overlords. The setting and opposing teams have changed slightly, and Blomkamp clearly has a bigger budget this time at bat, but the key plot points are essentially the same; even the hardware and weaponry look familiar.

His impulsive plans having failed yet again, Max (Matt Damon) finds himself trapped on
a medical table, while the coldly arrogant Delacourt (Jodie Foster) orders some
purloined computer data stripped from his brain ... not at all bothered by the fact that
this process will kill him.
That said, political oppression has been a big-screen sci-fi staple going all the way back to 1927’s Metropolis, and it often produces great drama. So we can forgive Blomkamp the familiarity ... this time. (He would be wise, however, to move in a different direction henceforth.)

The South African-born filmmaker has a solid eye and ear for social strife — no surprise, given his homeland — which contributed, in great part, to the narrative power of District 9. Now embraced by the seductive lure of Hollywood, Blomkamp has turned his disapproving eye on the United States, and its dysfunctional immigration policy; the results aren’t likely to be embraced by red staters.

The year is 2154, and the entire Earth has become an environmental wasteland, ruined by industrial excess, land mismanagement, resource depletion and various other unchecked global horrors we currently practice, with no eye toward future consequences. Every country, in turn, has become part of a planetwide ghetto, the 99 percent left to scrabble and squabble among themselves.

But not entirely. Movement and behavior are monitored by android peacekeepers that employ computer-chip tracking to maintain a veritable police state bereft of basic human decency. And humor: Just as it isn’t smart, in our here and now, to crack wise when stopped by a traffic cop, it is sheer folly to act smug with one of these gun-toting “law officers.”

George Orwell’s influence weighs heavily, and his vision has come to pass: Big Brother really is watching, and doing so from a massive orbiting space station dubbed Elysium, where the very wealthy have fled in order to enjoy a life of pleasure and privilege among lush gardens and sparkling architecture. Automated med-bays can repair, reconstruct or eradicate anything, from broken bones to cancer.

Blomkamp knows his science-fiction, Elysium being a verdant cross between the domed forests of 1972’s Silent Running, and the technological wonders of Larry Niven’s Ringworld novels.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Percy Jackson, Sea of Monsters: Mythbegotten

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: PG, for fantasy action violence
By Derrick Bang

Conventional wisdom suggests the value of a winning formula.

Movie studies, infamous for getting things bass-ackwards, sometimes cling to a losing formula.

Having successfully invaded Polyphemus' lair and snatched the fabled Golden Fleece,
our young heroes — from left, Tyson (Douglas Smith), Clarisse (Levin Rambin), Grover
(Brandon T. Jackson), Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and Percy (Logan Lerman) —
discover that keeping their prize will be even more difficult.
2010’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief offered fabulous monsters, slick special effects and an A-list cast of cameo players ... and nothing else. The film was dumb, soulless and atrociously acted; the entire cast delivered every line with smirking condescension, as if mocking the material as a waste of time. Needless to say, if the actors don’t seem to believe in what they’re doing, we certainly won’t.

Critics dismissed the film with contempt, and it was justifiably loathed by fans of Rick Riordan’s teen-lit fantasy series; Craig Titley’s snarky script completely failed to respect the source novel. The biggest surprise? Chris Columbus occupied the director’s chair, and you’d certainly think that the guy who helmed the first two Harry Potter movies would understand how to bring fantasy to the big screen.

You’d think.

Despite earning only $89 million in the States — on a budget of $95, which qualifies as a failure — the results were far better worldwide, with a final tally of $226 million. Those numbers spell S-E-Q-U-E-L, despite everybody’s recognition that they were dealing with a dog.

And so now we’re graced with Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters ... which offers fabulous monsters and slick special effects, and is dumb, soulless and atrociously acted. Despite the presence of a new director (Thor Freudenthal) and scripter (Marc Guggenheim), little has changed. The young stars may be three years more mature, but their performances haven’t improved much. And it’s rather telling that the first film’s big names — Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Steve Coogan, Rosario Dawson and Catherine Keener — opted out this time.

Indeed, we never catch the barest glimpse of the Olympian gods who played such an important role in the first film. Oh, they’re mentioned here, now and then, but that’s it. Instead of Zeus, Hades, Poseidon and Medusa, we get Hermes and Dionysus. Our favorite centaur, Chiron, now is played by Anthony Head (a fan favorite from the days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), rather than Brosnan. Although I’ve no desire to slight the talents of the esteemed Mr. Head, whose work I admire, one gets the distinct impression that these filmmakers settled for the B Team.

Freudenthal deserves credit for attempting a more serious tone; he mostly eliminated the smug atmosphere that poisoned the first film. But Guggenheim’s script takes even more liberties with the second entry in Riordan’s book series, leaving us with an “adaptation” in name only. I’m sure Riordan's fans will be equally unhappy.

Friday, August 2, 2013

2 Guns: 2 droll 2 be taken seriously

2 Guns (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for violence, profanity and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.2.13

This summer could be subtitled The Revenge of the Comic Book.

Or, perhaps, yet another reminder that imitation isn’t always the sincerest form of flattery.

Bobby (Denzel Washington, left) and Stig (Mark Wahlberg) eye each other warily,
navigating serious trust issues, while they wonder what to do with the drug kingpin
they've trapped in the trunk of their vehicle. As it turns out, that guy's gonna be the
least of their worries...
I don’t refer merely to obvious candidates such as Iron Man 3, Wolverine or Man of Steel. RED 2 and R.I.P.D. also are based on graphic novels, and the latter demonstrates the folly of believing that folks will queue up simply because something IS a big-screen adaptation of such a property.

Clever ideas are a great start, but they’re no substitute for a sharp screenplay that understands the need to sustain our involvement for the next few hours. Many of today’s one-shot graphic novels suffer from the same malady that infects numerous movies: a slick one-sentence concept that doesn’t know where to go from Page 3.

Happily, 2 Guns — derived from Steven Grant’s five-issue miniseries of the same title — rises above that level of mediocrity. Blake Masters’ screenplay is quite witty, and stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg get plenty of mileage from their snarky frenemy dynamic. If the core plot doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny, that probably wasn’t high on director Baltasar Kormákur’s goals anyway; he obviously set out to make a pleasurable popcorn flick, with enjoyable results. He achieves a tone that evokes pleasant memories of 1987’s Lethal Weapon.

As was true with RED 2, we’re not that bothered by whatever propels our central characters, as long as they keep entertaining us.

And, credit where due, this film’s twisty first act definitely keeps us guessing. If my next few paragraphs seem unduly vague or misleading, blame a desire to preserve at least some of the early surprises.

We meet Bobby Trench (Washington) and Michael “Stig” Stigman (Wahlberg) as they case the Tres Cruces Savings & Loan from a diner across the street in a small Texas border town. Their goal seems decidedly larcenous, but they can’t really be bad guys, because they flirt so coyly with the waitress, and because they’re our stars, fercryinoutloud.

One flashback later, it appears that Stig and Bobby are trying to set up Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos), a drug kingpin who does his dirty work in Mexico, while leading what seems an ordinary life as husband and father in an upscale Texas community. At least, it seems like this is what’s going down, but the edges quickly get fuzzy; far too many additional players pop up at the fringes of this undercover sting ... if indeed that’s the game in the first place.