Then Playing — Stillwater; Platoon; Freebie and the Bean

Stillwater (Tom McCarthy, 2021). Stillwater is a fascinating hybrid. It begins and ends like a more realistic, sober-minded riff on one of Liam Neeson’s Taken or Taken-adjacent movies, with a Oklahoma roughneck in place of a well-trained oak tree with a particular set of skills. Between those narrative bookends, it’s a surprisingly sensitive drama about an unworldly, fundamentally decent man (Matt Damon) building a new life for himself in France, where his daughter (Abigail Breslin) is incarcerated for a murder she swears she didn’t commit. It’s that middle portion that works best, in part because Damon’s portrayal affords the character a lot of dignity without shrinking from his red-state gruffness. Director Tom McCarthy seems more engaged in these passages, too, showing the same patience and meticulous attention to detail that propelled his 2015 film, Spotlight, to Oscar glory. The rest of the Stillwater isn’t bad, especially in the first part when the father’s sleuthing feels more like an act of personal atonement than empty action heroism. It quest for the real killer does keep getting bogged down in the conventional, though. The empathetic portrait of gradual personal reshaping is far more gratifying.

Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986). There’s still a lot of power to the Vietnam war picture that vaulted Oliver Stone from a guy who made a schlocky horror film about a vengeful disembodied hand to the uppermost echelon of Hollywood filmmakers, with two Academy Awards for best direction collected in a four-year span to prove it. Platoon was celebrated for its immersive qualities, making the chaos of war deeply, devastatingly real on screen. The relative simplicity of his plot, with its good sergeant (Willem Dafoe) and evil sergeant (Tom Berenger), is effective in this context, laying out plain stakes that stand in contrast to confusion found in the jungle warfare. In terms of visual storytelling, this might be Stone’s strongest effort. It’s clear and direct, shorn of ostentation, in a way his films rarely would be again. When Platoon falters is in the acting. Dafoe and Berenger were both Oscar nominees and both deserving, but the other performances range from adequate to borderline embarrassing. Particularly in retrospect, it’s no shock that Charlie Sheen can’t meet the demands of the lead role, a raw recruit hardened by what he experiences in country, but too many of the character actors filling out the cast tilt towards the cartoonish in their broad portrayals, Kevin Dillon and John C. McGinley the most egregious offenders. It’s undeniably an important film, but the further it gets from its groundbreaking moment, the more the flaws rankle.

Freebie and the Bean (Richard Rush, 1974). The main takeaway from Freebie and the Bean is that it was difficult to go wrong casting Alan Arkin as one half of a mismatched pair in a comedic action flick. Not impossible, but definitely difficult. Arkin plays Bean, a San Francisco police detective partnered with Freebie (James Caan). They squabble constantly as they pursue their case against a notorious racketeer (Jack Kruschen), who they’re eventually roped into protected when competing underworld forces put a hit on him. The films is kinetic, boisterous, and deliberately messy. That it indulges in banter rife with racist, sexist language is only partially attributable given the copyright date. At one point, Bean calls out Bean’s bigotry, but that’s less a genuine attempt to reckon with the recklessness and more a case of having the fetid cake and eating it, too. Director Richard Rush stages all the action expertly, presenting a surplus of barge-sized automobiles careening around and over one another like dominoes tumbling out of an inverted satchel. It’s an entertaining abuse of Detroit products arguably unmatched until The Blues Brothers a few years later.

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