A WALK IN THE WOODS
Based on a widely adored nonfiction from 1998, A Walk in the Woods finds Robert Redford's Bill Bryson (the book's author) and Nick Nolte's Stephen Katz embarking on a months-long trek along the Appalachian Trail, and from his first moments here, you fear for the latter's health. By which I mean you fear for Nolte's health. Because based on the 74-year-old's initial appearance - hauling his substantial frame out of an airplane seemingly half his size, his face nearly purple from the effort - and that strained, gravelly baritone that sounds like heavy rocks in a wood chipper, Nolte doesn't appear at all capable of surviving this particular Walk. (It should go without saying that even though he's finally starting to look his age, you don't feel similar trepidation for 79-year-old Redford, given that his voice and hair - or "hair" - still suggest a man in his late 30s.)
Yet the happy surprise of the film, if also its occasional disappointment, lies in no one involved seeming to have melancholia, let alone tragedy, much in mind. There's a sweetly rueful scene near the end in which Bryson and Katz, finding themselves in a perilous position, share some mild regrets, and Nolte has a lovely bit explaining why the recovering alcoholic Katz has a stashed pint of whiskey in his knapsack. Director Ken Kwapis, however, keeps the overall mood of A Walk in the Woods feather-light and unremittingly genial, and even Nolte's girth and growl are employed almost exclusively for gentle, empathetic laughs. Tonally, the movie is much closer in spirit to Grumpy Old Men than The Bucket List, and even those of us hoping for something more meditative and substantial from a Redford/Nolte pairing should find it easy to like Kwapis' effective, sneakily moving screen sitcom.
When I mentioned to my sister, who read and loved Bryson's comedic travelogue, that Redford was playing its author in the film version, she incredulously replied, "How does that work?", given that Bryson and his pseudonymous friend Katz were both 44 at the time of their hike. The answer: not at all badly. A few breezy brushstrokes by screenwriters Bill Holderman and Rich Kerb - an awkward talk-show engagement, a noisy grandchild, a friend's funeral - establish the desire behind Bryson's "last hurrah" trip, and a few more connect him with Katz, whom, in this Walk in the Woods iteration, Bryson hasn't spoken to in decades. (In a nice touch, Katz finds out about Bryson's need for a 2,900-mile traveling partner through a mutual friend who turned down the offer, Katz himself being nowhere near Bryson's list of potential trailmates.) During their airport reunion, the dichotomy between Redford's reserved, embarrassed Bryson and Nolte's boisterous, profanity-hurling Katz promises all sorts of Odd Couple amusements, and they're quickly provided through torrents of good-natured insults and sight gags, including the early image of Katz wheezing and limping a whole 20 feet into their expedition.
Not having read Bryson's book, though, I truly didn't expect A Walk in the Woods to stay funny, and perhaps the chief pleasure of Kwapis' adaptation is that it allows its stars to appear relaxed and endearingly silly - and in leading roles, no less - in ways they haven't for ages. Barring his brief, sly turn in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you have to go back nearly two decades (to 1996's Up Close & Personal) to find a Redford portrayal this easygoing, and further than that (1992's Sneakers) to find one this enjoyable. As usual, the Hollywood legend still seems a bit removed from the proceedings: an unapproachable star where an actor should be. But he's certainly verbally dexterous and quick-witted here, and for genuine acting, we've got Nolte, who floods his role with so much authority and outsize personality that after a while, the mere sight of him makes you grin. Some of their routines are dopier than others; I could've easily done without the pandering, preview-ready bunk-bed gag, as well as the slapstick detour that found an incensed husband wanting to smash Katz's face in for dallying with his wife. (For a stretch, the movie turns into Sideways: Senior Edition.) The performers' charming, unforced byplay, however, salvages even the weaker asides, and their inherent poignancy is so subtle that when the men reached an agreed-upon end to their trip, I was astonished at how quickly the offhanded decision made me well up.
As you'd imagine, most of the film is a two-hander. Yet it never feels underpopulated, partly because the Appalachian vistas (gorgeously photographed by John Bailey) keep you continually aware of the larger picture beyond the men's travels, and partly because familiar, wonderfully welcome peripheral figures keep popping up. There's a terrific cameo for Nick Offerman as (surprise!) a comically deadpan sporting-goods salesman, and Kristen Schaal, playing an obnoxious hiker, continues to walk her singularly fine line between incessantly irritating and abjectly hilarious. Mary Steenburgen, luminous as ever, drops in as a friendly motel proprietor who stares at Redford with an abashed flirtatiousness suggesting she's just met ... well, that she's just met Robert Redford, actually. (A lingering, bothersome question for those who've seen the film: When our leads flee Steenburgen's establishment after encountering that pissed-off husband, do they skip out on the bill?) And for about 15 blessed minutes, Emma Thompson lends sanity, bite, and eternal warmth to the proceedings as Bryson's understandably worried spouse, who, prior to his trek, leaves her husband strategically placed articles on Appalachian bear attacks and Post-its of support reading, "What are you thinking?" A Walk in the Woods is a delight, even if it's clearly a fictionalized take on Bill Bryson's memoir, considering no man in his right mind would ever want to spend five months away from Emma Thompson.
THE TRANSPORTER REFUELED
The most noteworthy thunderously stupid moment in the thunderously stupid The Transporter Refueled is one familiar from its trailers, in which retired mercenary Frank Martin zips around a European cul-de-sac in his Audi and intentionally knocks the caps off a quartet of fire hydrants, their eruptions allowing him easy getaway from his pursuers. If I may ask: What cul-de-sac on Earth features four equidistant fire hydrants? Wouldn't one be enough for any fire in the vicinity? Is this locale somehow prone to spontaneous infernos coming from all directions at once? I laughed like mad at this imbecilic and badly staged set piece, but no more than I did thinking that anyone could have considered it a good idea to reboot the Transporter franchise with Ed Skrein cast in the Jason Statham role, given that Skrein exudes about as much charisma as Statham's chin stubble. (And even that might be unfair to the stubble.) Director Camille Delamarre's action thriller opens in 1995. After its "15 years later" jump, it still appears to be 1995; the movie is every compendium of hoary clichés - heavily accented Russian thugs, vacantly damaged prostitutes, shady computer transactions, a middle-aged lothario bedding two women at once - you hoped would've vanished by the end of the last millennium. Ray Stevenson adds a bit of fun as Frank's former-spy father (even if his screen son hasn't inherited one-tenth of Pop's personality), and there's a moderately clever chase that results in Skrein's Audi navigating the interior of an airport terminal. But The Transporter Refueled, with all of the traditional genre beats landing exactly when expected, is an unnecessary and groaningly repetitive bummer, worthwhile only for the derisive chuckles it elicits. Pressed for a favorite beyond that fire-hydrant eye-roller, I'd probably go with the shot of our streetwalker heroines club-dancing in matching platinum-blonde wigs, and the villain's moll - viewing them on surveillance camera - saying, "They all look exactly the same - you cannot tell them apart." Which would be true if one, and only one, of the hookers weren't Asian.