Monday, November 5, 2012

Cinema 2005: One commuter’s cautionary tale

The 2005 thriller "Derailed" presents its opening credits over an ominous device: an anonymous man in prison is writing in a notebook while Clive Owen’s main character Charles Schine begins voice-over narration. Director Mikael Håfström might be trying with this film noir tease to keep the audience off-balance, but soon enough viewers should be able to get "one step ahead" of the screenplay, based on James Siegel's novel.

Schine has it all: a beautiful two-income family, a house in the Chicago burbs. But on this particular morning our family man boards his train for work without a ticket and without the coin to purchase one. But Schine's predicament produces an improbable benefactrice: the leggy, all-sex-in-a-business-suit Lucinda (Jennifer Aniston), who pays Schine’s fare despite sitting half a train car away. Subsequently a grateful Schine takes a shine to Lucinda.

At the office later that morning, Schine is booted off his biggest account without even a heads up from a boss whom he confuses for a friend. Schine is in a permanent state of confusion and the movie eventually becomes the story of the scales falling from his eyes. But before that learning curve can be climbed, Schine confuses coworker Winston Boyko (RZA) for the stone-cold backup he needs to get himself out of a jam. Schine’s first blunder that fateful day was of course to mistake a high-heeled fallen angel for a lonely kindred spirit.

Schine is eager to wine and dine Lucinda. They arrange to meet at a bar where they throw back shots like a pair of undergrads. But the fumbling, self-proclaimed first-time adulterers both struggle when the moment of truth approaches. Lucinda has her reasons for hesitating but they remain hidden from the audience until it is too late to care. Nor does that flaw in the script excuse Aniston’s flat performance as a scowling seductress.

Owen attacks his role subtly, using the most of the film to gradually unfold a visceral change in his character. Early on he is helpless to the point of not being able to take charge when it comes to the affair. He has no answers for his curious wife and can’t even command a cabbie as the cheaters careen toward a destiny neither could foresee. Later, when Schine has figured out the complexity of the web he has helped weave, something the audience will have suspected from the beginning, he begins to take charge. But before this can happen, he needs repeated wake-up calls, learning more each time about the deception and ruthlessness that are at the heart of this game.

Owens’ transformation from docile family man into self-reliant vigilante also proceeds too slowly. The silver lining is that RZA is able to steal scenes and create an original persona, quite a feat in this day of ripped-off and recombined characters.

The main villain, LaRoche, is played with sneering panache by Vince Casell, but his character is cut from the same cloth as many heavies before him. LaRoche is vicious, yet coldly debonair, using his native French to charm Schine's wife and daughter, while allowing himself a crude joke at their expense, certain these Midwesterners won’t understand his Parisian idiom.

LaRoche’s flunky is Dexter (Xzibit), a boring thug even if he does pack the biggest gun since Dirty Harry. Dexter’s best scene, where he muscles Schine into the bad guys’ lair while proposing Schine help get him the break he needs to have his rap music used in commercials, is too reminiscent of Travolta’s Chili Palmer beating up the very stunt man he admires in “Get Shorty.”

Giancarlo Esposito adds a much needed dose of the police procedural to the film with his spot-on rendering of a veteran big city police detective. But his scenes are too few and Chi-town itself is never given the chance to stamp its personality on this film. Still, "Derailed" deserves a screening, if only for its film noir bookends and some of the best last words a villain has ever heard.

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