At roughly 105 minutes, writer/director Darnell Martin's Cadillac Records is so jam-packed with character, story, incident, and musical interludes that it sometimes feels as though six or seven movies are being projected on the screen simultaneously. This is not meant as an insult. Films that overreach oftentimes give audiences too much of a fine thing, yet Cadillac Records is just enough of a really fine thing - a soulful, impassioned, beautifully enacted drama that delivers all the pleasures of the musical-bio-pic genre without the obviousness and sanctimony.
A sprawling, kaleidoscopic exploration of the Chicago-based Chess Records - musical home to such legends as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James, Willie Dixon, and Little Walter - the movie could easily rile blues, R&B, and rock historians and purists, as much of its focus is devoted to studio entrepreneur Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), completely ignoring the existence of Chess' brother and business partner Phil. Yet so long as you don't take Cadillac Records' truths as gospel, there's an almost obscene amount to enjoy. The chronological narrative allows major figures to appear and reappear in a way that's constantly surprising - Beyoncé Knowles, outstanding as James, first arrives after the film's halfway point - and bursts of emotional and physical violence erupt without warning; Cadillac Records has a charge and momentum that feels like life.
Its musical numbers feel more like heaven. Some of the actors - all of whom do their own singing - sound more like their inspirations than others, but there's such spectacular, infectious wit in Jeffrey Wright's Waters, Mos Def's Berry, Eamonn Walker's Wolf, Cedric the Entertainer's Dixon, and Columbus Short's Walter that their every on-screen moment is cause for celebration. (This movie doesn't require sequels, but certainly deserves spin-offs.) The subplots involving Chess' and Waters' wives (Emmanuelle Chriqui and Gabrielle Union) are underdeveloped, and the musicians' rags-to-riches-to-emotional-rags arcs are rather bio-pic-conventional; for all its accomplishments, the film doesn't break any new stylistic ground. Yet it's still a dazzling entertainment. If Cadillac Records were a little less traditional, it might've been a masterpiece, but I'll happily settle for it being very, very good.
PUNISHER: WAR ZONE
Punisher: War Zone is so ridiculously ultra-violent, and Dominic West is so absurdly hilarious as the film's unsightly cartoon nemesis with the exaggerated New York accent (he pronounces "law" with an "r" sound), that director Lexi Alexander's comic-book offshoot had almost no choice but to be an absolute riot. It isn't one. Despite the shameful fun in watching a villain being ground to hamburger within a vat of broken glass - and surviving - and another getting his face literally punched in, this brutal exercise boasts incoherent editing, laughably bad dialogue (never worse than when aiming for "funny"), physics-defying skirmishes, and, West excepted, weak performances, with Ray Stevenson's titular portrayal the weakest of all. (It's not just that Stevenson is a stiff, lifeless actor here; he isn't even interesting to look at - his expressionless mug suggests Russell Crowe asleep.) All in all, it's just another tired, Hollywood-by-way-of-Canada follow-up, even though Punisher: War Zone isn't being sold as a follow-up, but rather a "rebooting" of 2004's The Punisher with Thomas Jane, which was itself a rebooting of 1989's The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren. Call me crazy, but if you reboot something twice and it still doesn't work, it's probably time to throw the damned thing away.
By contrast, director Olivier Megaton's thriller Transporter 3 isn't a reboot; it's a good, old-fashioned sequel, though "old-fashioned," in this context, isn't all that accurate. Neither is "good."
In his third go-around as the most bad-ass FedEx guy on the planet, the sleek, dryly comic Jason Statham pulls off some enjoyable stunts - engaging in a high-speed chase on a kid's bicycle, taking on a roomful of hired goons using only his designer wardrobe as weaponry - and remains an unfailingly watchable screen presence. Yet even considering his grimly determined deliveryman role, Statham doesn't appear to be having a very good time here. This is partly due, I'm guessing, to his having already enacted this film's plot in 2006's far-superior Crank, in which the star would die if his accelerated heart rate dropped; in Transporter 3, he dies if he wanders more than 75 feet from his car. (One bastard child of Speed ought to be enough for any actor's career.) But Statham also seems intensely peeved to be stuck with his Transporter 3 cargo, who is played by Natalya Rudakova, and whose character might be the single-most irritating Russian tramp in the history of cinematic Russian tramps.
The heavily freckled Rudakova whines, pouts, acts blotto drunk (only for a few minutes, and badly), pees on a convenience-store floor, and seems incredibly uncomfortable with the English language. For some unfathomable reason, though, Statham's transporter finds her irresistible, and their half-hearted romance - which Statham grimaces his way through - continually stops the movie cold. Like the underwhelming, uninspired Transporter 3 itself, Statham goes through the motions with dutiful professionalism, but if I were in his position, I'd seriously consider walking that 76th foot.