Like Training Day…without the action!
No one can possibly see all of the movies, but film buffs have passing familiarity with most mainstream movies. Come on, you know you've passed judgment on films you've never seen. Admit it.
Upon receiving Scenes of the Crime, I was puzzled because I'd never heard of it. The DVD cover prominently features Jeff Bridges and Morris Chestnut, powerful selling points indeed. Was Scenes of the Crime one of those "before they were stars" kind of flicks? No, it was released in 2001. Furthermore, it is a Columbia TriStar release, not exactly a low profile studio. Big name studio, recent release, star power, and in the crime genre to boot…but my mental radar was still showing zilch.
"This thing must reek, then," I told myself. But when I popped in the DVD, I discovered a stunning transfer, engaging premise, great sound, and fine acting. What had I missed? Eventually, the truth about this DVD presented itself and the mystery was solved.
Facts of the Case
Lenny Burroughs (Jon Abrahams) is an aspiring mechanic with meager ambitions: he wants to marry his ultra-hot girlfriend, start up a shop, and live in peace. You have to take risks to get ahead; Lenny's risk is local hood Rick (Peter Greene from Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects). Lenny drives Rick around for extra cash, but doesn't get involved with Rick's underhanded dealings.
Until today, when the underhanded dealings get involved with Lenny. Rick's delivery is notorious gangster Jimmy Berg (Jeff Bridges), whom Rick kidnaps and throws in the back of Lenny's van. Lenny is not pleased about this, being a good guy and all. But he shuts up and drives.
Things quickly go awry, and Lenny finds himself in a standoff against three teams of Jimmy Berg's bodyguards. Lenny has four assets: a gun, a cell phone, a hostage, and intuition. Lenny keeps Jimmy under guard while he tries to figure out an escape plan. He calls Rick's boss, and is soon torn between the boss's directives, Jimmy's insidious advice, and his own instincts. All Lenny wants is to get home in one piece, but to do so he must stand down a gaggle of hardened professional killers.
Having steeled myself for B-movie tripe, I was immediately proven wrong. The sheer quality of production values alone is stellar. The image is absolutely crisp, with penetrating blacks, sparkling colors, great contrast and even saturation. Not only is the video squeaky clean, the visual artistry employed was great as well. The most notable shot is a flyover of a cloverleaf highway intersection that is perfectly composited and executed. There were also slow motion effects and color enhancements that made certain moods happen. Lighting was employed effectively to enhance drama in both interior and exterior shots. Rarely have I seen equivalent video quality.
The audio was also impressive. The track shows masterful restraint—giving powerful effects when needed, but easing off to let the drama unfold unimpeded. Dialogue is crystal clear, perfectly mixed with background noise. The few times that sound plays a role I was physically jolted, such as when the van doors were ripped open. There were some unusual audio decisions, such as an extended period where Rick is listening on his cell phone and looking for a hidden item. The absence of any meaningful sound had me checking to see if the center channel had shorted out somehow. Also, the general rumble of unfocused "dramatic bass rolls" seems somewhat misplaced.
Lots of movies look and sound good, yet fail to deliver worthwhile entertainment. Scenes of the Crime, again, was impressive in this regard. So many actors were cast against type that you have to really consider the characters to figure out who is who. The performances are uniformly solid. Furthermore, the opening events and middle act seem to be laying the groundwork for a truly spectacular showdown. The plot introduces and brings together an impressive array of supporting characters. Two thirds of the way into Scenes of the Crime, I was convinced it was a winner. The middle act finally reached its zenith, and I held my breath to see how this complex web would untangle.
Then something extraordinary happened. (Warning, this is a minor spoiler…but you'll probably be glad to know the nature of the ending beforehand.) Lenny is walking down the street with a very important item. A passerby bumps it out of his hand and into the sewer. We get a worm's eye view of Lenny peering into the sewer grate. Cut! The infamous written wrap up tells us the fate of Lenny via white words on a black background. That's it, folks. Bye now.
What the hell? Where is the ending? Where is the payoff for the previous hour of meticulous character establishment, slow simmering of tension, and scattered subplots? Suddenly, the entire movie came crashing down like a house of cards beneath a fan. In a handful of seconds I was forced against my will to reassess the previous scenes and characters. You mean, I just watched Morris Chestnut tend a convenience store for a half hour, and that was it? You're telling me that nearly an hour of terse conversation between two mob bosses is not going to lead to a confrontation? Lenny isn't going to do anything clever or desperate to get out? All of those extra characters you introduced us to were just that…extra characters? Above I stated that I have rarely seen equivalent video quality. By the same token, rarely have I been so utterly disappointed in a movie ending.
Once the nasty truth revealed itself, everything clicked into place. According to Yahoo! Movies, "Production started on this movie on October 12th, 2000 in Los Angeles on a budget of $10 million, and wrapped in mid-November, 2000." It isn't hard to put two and two together. Columbia handed a modest budget to first time director Dominique Forma, a music video director with a gritty urban script. In retrospect, it is easy to classify Scenes of the Crime as Columbia's answer to Training Day. Either the leash was too short or the budget too small, because after a month of shooting everyone was packing their bags. I can almost envision the frantic rewrites at the end to give Scenes of the Crime some kind of closure.
Scenes of the Crime was never released to US theaters. It showed on the STARZ! channel and now comes to DVD consumers in a bare bones release. This explains why I've never heard of it, despite the star power involved.
Was the plug pulled too soon? Was Forma's vision too limited to pull together such a character-based drama? Whatever the actual truth may be, one thing is clear: Scenes of the Crime fails to satisfy. It is too bad, because the film shows tons of potential.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The cast is well chosen. Their acting far outpaces the material. It is difficult to separate out an individual performance because everyone makes a go. Jeff Bridges gets precious little to do. Morris Chestnut shows his usual charisma, which distracts us from the emptiness of his scenes. Perhaps the most notable performance is Noah Wyle in the role of a menacing heavy. He threatens, improvises, and leers his way through an uncharacteristically nasty role. Unfortunately, his one action scene is in the beginning, which means he builds up an aura of menace that is not fully exploited. The actors come together and give us something to watch. Had there been any sort of payoff at the end, these acting jobs would have been worthwhile investments.
The direction shows flashes of brilliance. Forma contrasts the normalcy of the surroundings against the secret tension simmering in the van outside. We are apprehensive when average Joes get near the scene. Again, the film really seemed to be building towards something. To keep the audience engaged for so long is a trick in itself.
Some people may be able to enjoy Scenes of the Crime despite the cop-out ending. There are several great moments of interaction and a handful of good action scenes. But without a firm finale, we are left with a bunch of people talking and sitting, then going home. It could have been so much more. Scenes of the Crime ultimately leaves a bad taste in your mouth and doesn't offer you any water to flush it out.
Tragically, the court must find for the prosecution. Some films just don't reach their potential.
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