Are you in control? Think again.
To the Court's supreme disappointment, this film is not the story of Don Cornelius as a hit man hired to put Michael Bolton out of our collective misery. And there's not a single Stax/Volt or Motown hit on the soundtrack anywhere.
Facts of the Case
This year over 350 million tons of cargo will pass through Rotterdam. (Already the film has alienated that 90% of the American audience who think "Rotterdam" is the place Rottweilers come from.) It is the largest port in the world and a financial gateway to all of Europe. (That largest port thing is the subject of semantic debate. Rotterdam handles more cargo by weight than any other port, but both Hong Kong and Singapore handle more volume. Ain't economics fun?) 96% of all transactions are conducted safely and without incident. (Unless this film is about that other four percent, the next 97 minutes are going to seem like a geologic era.) That leaves 4%. (Whew!) Now here's the rub—the rest of the movie film has nothing to do with the movement of cargo through the port of Rotterdam. Although the story takes place in that Dutch city, for all it has to do with the plot, the setting might as well be Riyadh, Reykjavik, or Rio de Janeiro. Which renders this intro an incompetent waste of the viewer's time.
Skeet Ulrich (Scream, Chill Factor) stars as corporate hotshot KEVIN BURKE: INTERNAL SECURITY. (This is the kind of movie where captions identify each character as he or she is introduced, because the filmmakers know the storyline will never be sufficiently comprehensible for the audience to figure out who the devil these people are.) Kevin works for Dutch megabank Jorgensen Financial, where he's just been elevated to vice president by his immediate superior MISTER FICKS: HEAD OF SECURITY (Serge-Henri Valcke), with the blessing of head honcho KARL JORGENSEN: MANAGING DIRECTOR (Derek de Lint, Deep Impact). This move makes Kevin Jorgensen Financial's youngest executive, and vaults him over the tousled head of KARL JORGENSEN JUNIOR: INTERNAL SYSTEMS (Antonie Kamerling), the boss's odious computer-wizard son.
Kevin seizes upon his newfound prominence as a golden opportunity to propose marriage to his girlfriend ROSALIND BREMMOND: COMMODITIES BROKER (Katherine Lang) in the honeymoon suite of a posh hotel. Rosalind's not keen on Kevin's new post, which apparently consists of hurling himself in the path of bullets aimed at Jorgensen stock traders—people are still pretty cheesed off about that whole Enron thing even in Holland, I gather. (Don't vice presidents of major corporations have low-paid employees to do the more dangerous bodyguard work? Jorgensen management needs a crash course in the Star Trek Red Shirt System of Disposable Security Underlings.)
But it's Rosalind who ends up taking one for the team when a hit man disguised as a room service waiter interrupts Kevin's proposal with a blast of hot lead to her midsection. ("Hello, front desk? We ordered a magnum of Champagne, not a .357 Magnum.") "Don't you die!" Kevin pleads, but Rosalind's a strong-willed woman who's determined to die if she feels like it—which she does, with half the blood in her body soaking into her terrycloth bathrobe through the gaping wound in her abdomen.
Now Kevin is left alone with all these troublesome questions: Why would someone send an assassin to kill his girlfriend? Why does an Interpol agent show up to investigate the homicide, instead of the Rotterdam gendarmes? What's on the hard drive from Rosalind's office computer that might explain it all? And why is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the one from the movie, not the one who was Daphne in Scooby-Doo) stalking our hero?
There might have been a modicum of potential here. The late John Frankenheimer, say, might have taken these same elements and cooked up a halfway tolerable motion picture. Too bad Frankenheimer wasn't around to prevent this mistake.
Let me begin by saying that Soul Assassin is the most visually repellent film I've seen in many a moon. Rookie feature director Laurence Malkin (another music video veteran, and it shows), perhaps feverish from worrying about paying off his mounting loan debt from USC Film School, came up with the harebrained notion of processing all but one scene of his movie through ice-blue filters. (The one exception is the hotel room sequence—and the endless flashback reprises of it—which leaps off the screen in supersaturated color for contrast.) The symbolism Malkin is attempting to achieve will be painfully obvious to all but the most obtuse viewer, but the net effect on this member of the audience was that I went hunting for my thermal underwear. A scene or two employing this kind of visual signature can be powerful and dramatic. When it's continued for 90 minutes of a 97-minute film, it's tedious and oppressive.
Into the midst of this blue lagoon, Malkin drops every annoying effects technique he learned at USC: scene after scene of slow-motion, speed-motion, hyperactive editing, and intercutting solid black frames with actual footage to replicate a flashing strobe. Couple the headache from eyestrain (think of staring into a flickering monochrome monitor for an hour and a half) with the headache from trying to follow Malkin and co-writer Chad Thumann's needlessly knotty plotline, and Soul Assassin is migraine-inducing cinema.
The actors, most of whom are European, stagger through the film as though the screenplay was written in a tongue alien to the entire cast. (The dialogue is mostly in English, my native language, and the script made no sense to me, either.) Skeet Ulrich is a dull, uncharismatic actor in the best of circumstances, but when called upon to anchor the emotional center of a complicated story, he turns completely to stone. Kristy Swanson, in a thankless, underwritten role, appears to be here only to help secure financing from Buffy-obsessed Dutch investors. The rest of the performances exhibit all the life-force of a wooden shoe.
But ultimately, the blame for this mess of a movie lies with director Malkin, who—if there is any justice—should spend the next decade directing second unit for a filmmaker who knows what he or she is doing before being allowed in the folding canvas high chair again. Watching Soul Assassin is like watching a film-school project: it's self-consciously arty, needlessly complex and confusing, plodding, directionless, and relentlessly monochromatic. It's the kind of amateurish exercise in which a character types the name "Nikolai" into a computer and immediately brings up a dossier on a master criminal, complete with address. How many Nikolais do you suppose there are in Central and Eastern Europe? A couple million, maybe? Heck, even American baseball player Barry Bonds has a son named Nikolai. Good thing Skeet Ulrich didn't show up on the home run king's doorstep packing heat.
Somebody explain this: the same studio that's picking the DVD-buying public's collective pocket with feature-barren Superbit releases of entertaining flicks like Anaconda can dole out the Benjamins to lavish a director's commentary, a documentary featurette, and footage and interviews from the world premiere on dreck like Soul Assassin? Shame on you, Columbia TriStar.
As a disc, it's acceptably presented. The transfer is as sharp as the source material will permit—the film itself is often dark and grainy—but only in the handful of normal-color sequences can one truly appreciate the digital quality. During the rest of the film, the low-contrast blue tint that permeates every frame makes even a good transfer difficult to watch. Less edge enhancement is evident here than in the typical Columbia release. Overall, the print is clean (if soft) and without major defects.
I found the crispness of the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track somewhat lacking. The dialogue is routinely recorded at too low a level—again, this may be a residual holdover from the original film. The surround effects come in at uneven volumes, almost as if different engineers mixed different parts of the track. An alternate English stereo track is also included. If you choose, you can also listen to the movie in French or Spanish. My facility with either language is inadequate to determine whether the script reads any more intelligently in them. But if you're bilingual and up to your eyeballs in ennui, please be my guest.
The presence of director Laurence Malkin's commentary seems superfluous: if someone has yet to prove he can actually direct a decent film, do you really want to hear him chat for 90 minutes about how he directed a lousy one? For what it's worth, Malkin is enthusiastic about his project, if not terribly insightful. The director's remarks are, in large part, read from a manuscript, which gives the proceedings a dry, pretentious overtone. At various points he is joined by some of the European cast members, and these portions flow a trifle livelier, but not enough to redeem the commentary as a whole. Malkin clearly labors under the delusion that his movie is far better than it is. Budding filmmakers may wish to note all of Malkin's observations and do exactly the opposite of what he did. Perhaps the results would be better.
Similarly, an 18-minute documentary about the making of a dreadful movie would appear, to this Judge at least, a case of attempting to teach a pig to sing. It's a mediocre example of the usual production featurette, with interview snippets from Malkin (on a heavy gel day) and his stars Ulrich, Swanson and de Lint. It goes much too long and has far too little of interest to add. At least it's in widescreen. Following this is six-plus minutes of vapid interviews and paparazzi-gazing from the Netherlands premiere of Soul Assassin.
For those who have yet to attain maximum Soul Assassin density, Columbia tosses in a full-frame trailer, a stills gallery containing about a dozen snapshots (most of which, predictably, are very blue), a biographical summary for director Malkin, and filmographies of the cast (a four-page bio for a guy who's made all of one film, while the actors rate threadbare filmographies?). We're also treated to trailers for four other low-budget Columbia TriStar releases (Zig Zag, Green Dragon, True Blue, and Bare Witness), the first two of which look like they'd easily be more entertaining than the picture at hand. Not that that's high praise.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Maybe Soul Assassin would have been better with Dolemite in it. Then again, maybe not.
Title aside, there's no soul in Soul Assassin. In fact, there was more soul in Soul Man—as soulless a movie as Hollywood ever made—than in this labyrinthine drivel. Skeet Ulrich's trip to Rotterdam is more Dutch uncle than Dutch treat. Kristy Swanson fans (and you know who you are) should rent Buffy for the umpteenth time instead. All others, avoid tiptoeing through these tulips.
Soul Assassin and everyone associated with it is sentenced to ten years hard labor offloading container ships by hand at the port of Rotterdam. We are adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Laurence Malkin
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