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life_of_crime

A couple of criminals who don’t quite trust each other…a wealthy husband who doesn’t exactly want his kidnapped wife back…a kidnapped wife who doesn’t really want to go home…a Nazi-obsessed associate who’s not completely sane…a love-struck friend who’s almost an idiot…a conniving mistress who’s everything but an idiot…1970s Detroit…sounds like quite the predicament, eh? In the wrong hands, this many disparate elements and plot threads would be an easy recipe for disaster: good thing that all of the above was the handiwork of one Elmore Leonard, the patron saint of quirky crime fiction for over 50 years.

With a battalion of classics under his belt, Leonard’s novels have been a go-to for filmmakers for some time: indeed, one need only look at the tremendous box-office success of adaptations like Get Shorty (1995), Jackie Brown (1997) and Out of Sight (1998) to see what a perfect fit Leonard’s hardboiled, if tongue-in-cheek, prose and instantly memorable characters are for the silver screen. The latest Leonard adaptation, based on his 1978 novel The Switch, is writer-director Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime (2013). Thanks to a pitch-perfect cast, a great script, exceptional production values and one of those patented twisty-turny Leonard plots, Life of Crime sits comfortably next to the aforementioned classics, proving that good writing never goes out of style.

Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (Yassin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def), a couple of small-time crooks plying their trade on the streets of late-’70s Detroit, think they’ve stumbled upon the perfect crime: they’re going to kidnap Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the trophy wife of notorious drunk/golfer/real estate baron Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins) and hold her for a $1 million ransom. With the assistance of their Nazi-obsessed associate, Richard (Sons of Anarchy’s Mark Boone Junior), the pair pull off the kidnapping without a hitch, spiriting their captive away to Richard’s “safe house.”

The problem, of course, is that Frank is a real asshole: he’s currently canoodling with his mistress, Melanie (Isla Fisher), in the Bahamas, and could really give two shits about his wife’s situation. Even worse, he’s actually planning to divorce Mickey and marry Melanie: as such, Frank and Melanie decide to call Louis and Ordell’s “bluff” and refuse to pay for Mickey’s safe return. This, obviously, isn’t quite what they had in mind: after all, what use is a kidnappee if no one wants to pay for said person?

As Louis and Ordell try to figure a way out of their situation, complications arise exponentially. Creepy Richard develops an unhealthy interest in Mickey (he’s particularly fond of peeping on her via numerous hidden holes throughout his house), Frank and Mickey’s family friend, Marshall (Will Forte), is secretly in love with Mickey, blundering his way into the sticky situation and Melanie is working some angles on her own, constantly keeping an eye on the ultimate prize of lifelong financial security. To top it all off, Louis finds himself developing feelings for Mickey, who proves herself to be made of much steelier stuff than all of them put together. Will Louis and Ordell get their “just rewards?” Will Frank get the comeuppance that he so richly deserves? Will poor, pathetic Marshall ever get a clue? As our hardy group of oddballs knows, living a life of crime may not be easy but it sure as hell ain’t dull!

There are a lot of moving pieces to this particular game and, to Schechter’s immense credit, he manages to make the whole thing look rather easy. Working from his own script (he also edited the movie), Schechter proves a steady hand with not only the acting and dialogue (paramount to any Elmore Leonard adaptation) but also the film’s numerous setpieces: the opening scene where Ordell runs over a thug with his van, the kidnapping and Richard’s SWAT team stand-off are all top-notch action scenes, executed with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of flashy nonsense. One of the film’s best moments is the fist-pumping scene where Marshall escapes from Richard, set to the tune of “Don’t Pull Your Love”: it’s a brilliantly executed, fun and endlessly thrilling scene, recalling nothing so much as the giddy heights of Tarantino’s trash-culture aesthetic.

Production-wise, the film looks and sounds fantastic: cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards gives everything a crisp, colorful burnish and the ’70s-era mis-en-scene is effortless, as far from gimmicky as a period piece can get. The score, courtesy of the Newton Brothers (who also did the score for Oculus (2013)) is equally great, accentuating the action scenes while keeping us right in the funky, swaggering heart of the 1978 Motor City.

As good as everything looks and sounds, however, the acting is what really vaults this particular production over the top. To put it bluntly: there isn’t a bad apple in the whole batch. Hawkes and Bey are absolutely fantastic as the untrustworthy partners, so symbiotic in their performances that they come across as a well-oiled, decades-in-the-making cinematic team. Aniston is extraordinary as the kidnapped wife, finding not only the vulnerability but the inherent strength of her character: the scene where she pokes a lit cigarette into Richard’s peeping eye isn’t just an awesome moment (which it certainly is) but it’s a perfect representation of Mickey’s growth as a character. Robbins and Fisher are equally great as the slimy philanderers, with Fisher bringing a miniature universe of subtle tics, quirks and facial expressions to her performance: it’s a role that could have been utterly thankless but, in Fisher’s hands, becomes something much more interesting.

On the supporting side, Boone Junior is a revelation as the kooky supremacist, finding the perfect balance between empty-headed animalism and a slightly sympathetic doofus: it’s nothing whatsoever like his role in Sons of Anarchy and makes me wish more filmmakers utilized him in better roles. Forte is typically great as the simpering, slightly confused friend who holds an unrequited torch for Mickey, showing that he slips into dramatic roles with the same ease that he does comedic ones. And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of my all-time favorite actors, Kevin Corrigan, even gets a bit part as a put-upon police detective: he may not get much screentime but he hits an absolute home-run with what he gets.

All in all, I was massively impressed with Schechter’s version of this particular Leonard story: not only does he hit all the right beats and tones (the film is actually much more serious than it at first seems, winding up in the same general tonal area as Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, rather than Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty) but he really makes the material his own, no small feat when we’re talking about Leonard. When the film wants to make you laugh, it has no problem doing so: the interactions between Ordell, Louis and Richard are absolutely priceless, culminating in the fantastic scene where Mickey finally gets a wide-eyed look at Richard’s assorted Nazi paraphernalia, to which Louis deadpans, “What’s the matter: don’t you like history?” When the film wants to thrill you and keep you on the edge of your seat, it has no problem doing that, either: the actual kidnapping scene is one of the best I’ve seen in recent years.

As a filmmaker, Schechter has been on my radar ever since his low-key, clever treatise on film editors, Supporting Characters (2012), first crossed my path some years ago. At that time, the writer-director-editor definitely seemed like someone to keep an eye on: his latest film only confirms my original belief. Here’s to hoping that Daniel Schechter finally earns a spot at the Hollywood “big kids table”: in an age where multiplex action films are big, loud and dumb, Schechter’s brand of subtle, smart thrills sounds like the perfect antidote. At the very least, someone needs to get him funds for another Leonard adaptation: when the iron is this hot, you damn well better keep striking.

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