Get Carter

  rocky it is not
He's All That: Sylvester Stallone and Rachel Leigh Cook get vacant.

2000, Warner Bros.
All Rights Reserved

I must have seen a different movie.

There's no other explanation, as I see it. "Get Carter" (IMDb listing) has been sliced up and slammed by most critics (including one here in Filmfodder), and I can't understand why. I walked into the theater with high hopes for this movie, which these days usually spells disaster for me, because I had a gut feeling this film would be different than most action films.

I was wrong, but in a good way. This wasn't an action movie. In fact, there are only a few "action" scenes in the movie that entail violence. This movie is a drama, and a fine one. It has the elements of a crime-thriller-mystery, but it comes down to the characters and great acting, especially by its star Sylvester Stallone. People usually crucify Stallone when he tries to sincerely act, and that seems to be the popular response here as well. I think he gives a brilliant performance, maybe his best ever.

Stallone plays Jack Carter, a mob enforcer in Las Vegas who travels to Seattle to investigate his brother's death. He tries to help out his grieving sister-in-law (Miranda Richardson, effective but underused) and his troubled niece (Rachel Leigh Cook, a revelation) while investigating the mysterious death. Along the way he meets some truly irksome characters, including Mickey Rourke as a thug-turned-pornographer and Alan Cumming (is there anyone better at playing slimy?) as a computer whiz millionaire.

When Carter arrives, he goes through the motions of a typical revenge-redemption plot. He's trying to do the right thing and leave his violent past behind (director Stephen Kay cleverly weaves in tense episodes where Carter's mob boss tells him repeatedly to get back to Las Vegas or else). But soon Stallone begins to defy his own stereotype. In the beginning of the movie, he utters dribble like, "My name is Jack Carter, and you don't want to know me," and it's clearly being forced; Carter doesn't look comfortable in that rock-like hero mode. But as the film continues, he begins to break down into a lonely, angry and vulnerable human being through Kay's deconstruction of Stallone's hero image. At the point where most movies would have the character going through a silly, sappy redemption, Carter blows up and goes in the opposite direction, regressing to his roots as a violent criminal.

I was sure the movie would resort to mindless action, but it kept its course, following Carter through a emotional downward spiral that plays more like a Shakespearean tragedy than "Demolition Man." The best example of this is film's true climax, a scene late in the movie between Stallone and Cook on a rooftop that flips the switch on Carter's regression. It's the best scene in the movie, and one Stallone's best ever.

And the direction is also superb. I don't know what other films Kay has done, but I'll be sure to check them out. He takes a bold approach in filming this movie, one that I would compare to David O. Russell's in "Three Kings," a true classic in my opinion. While Kay isn't on the same level in Russell, he makes some clever choices, often bypassing the violence to take a more stylish, indirect view. There's a good scene where Carter, on the revenge warpath, confronts a villain on a balcony who is begging for his life. Carter quietly asks, "If it was your family, what would you do?" — and a car alarm penetrates the tense silence while the scene holds for a few seconds. The film then cuts to a shot of the man lying face down in a bloody mess on a car below on the street, the car alarm still ringing.

Kay takes a different approach to virtually every scene, and even the bad scenes, such as an obligatory car chase, are made watchable because the director shines it through his own prism. I had just two complaints that kept this movie from getting a straight "A." First, the story threw in a needless plot twist at the end that did nothing to enhance the film and actually made it harder to follow. Second, the film sports a cameo from Michael Caine, star of the original 1971 British film "Get Carter." It's a puny role and it could have easily been eliminated. If you're going to use Caine, give him better material.

I'll confess that, while not a rabid fan, I usually enjoy Stallone when he gets good material behind him, as in "Get Carter" and "Copland." I'm also rooting for him now because he, like Bruce Willis, isn't afraid to branch out, take risks and push himself beyond perceivable limits. Even when he takes chances and tries to break out of the mold he himself cast, however, audiences don't give Stallone the same chance.

And that's the ultimate problem with this movie. Some critics didn't like the story or the direction style; that I can understand. But many people have hammered the film specifically because it is a Stallone vehicle. The bottom line is that if this movie had an unknown star, people wouldn't have gone gunning for it right out of the gates. They would have called it a great small movie, an artsy film with an original look. I think it's better with Stallone, because it's self-aware of the genre and the stereotypes it reverses(much like Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven"). It's a little movie with a big star, and its doesn't fit into most people's definitions for movies. That's a shame, but I hope it doesn't deter Stallone from taking risks again.

Filmfodder Grade: A-