* Prices may differ from that shown
Stumbling upon a film you'd never heard of, but that looks intriguing, is always an exciting thing, as it was when I came across the trailer for Unthinkable one day recently. A strong cast delivering seemingly powerhouse performances, a screenplay with a seemingly gripping central premise; this seemed right up my street. I did a little research and discovered that its director, Gregor Jordan, had previously helmed the brilliant Buffalo Soldiers. Safe to say, I was sold thus far. Of course, these things don't always turn out as we imagine or hope that they will. Not that Unthinkable is entirely disappointing but, for the most part, it doesn't deliver anywhere near the promise of what was a truly engaging trailer which presented a film that looked quite different from the average politically outspoken thriller. I usually tend not to be naïve about these things, and can often gauge quite safely how much I am going to like a film, so it's not very often that I feel like I've wasted my time. On this occasion, I'm afraid to say I would quite like to get my 90 minutes back. Or, at least, 75 of them.
It's a normal day at the office in the Counter-Terrorism Unit of the FBI Los Angeles Field Office. Agent Helen Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss) is going about her daily business, delegating tasks for the day and being firm but fair with one particularly over-eager agent, when suddenly a news report sends her down a path she couldn't possibly have seen coming. Steven Arthur Younger (or Yusuf as he prefers to be called, played by Michael Sheen), a devout American Muslim, is on the run from the authorities as a suspected terrorist. Almost as soon as Agent Brody is able to put the feelers out in an attempt to find him, she is swept away to a secret location where Younger is already being held and is keeping secret the locations of three nuclear bombs he has planted for the purposes of mass destruction. Brody is quickly, and reluctantly, recruited by the mysterious Henry Harold 'H' Humphries (Samuel L. Jackson) to assist him in his questionable methods of interrogation. Dragged down a path of intense physical and psychological torture methods, Agent Brody will question the very foundations of her personal ethics as H becomes more and more determined to find the locations of the three bombs in question.
The film is not without its plus points. It's a fairly brave undertaking in this day and age to create an American film that questions the manner in which its own government treats its dissidents. Without choosing sides, the at times intelligent script manages to argue both sides with some degree of reason, whilst at times shooting both sides down by showing their representatives (in character form) to be increasingly uncertain of the approach they argue the toss for. Michael Sheen is wonderful in his role as the strong-minded but ultimately broken protagonist and later into the film delivers the best monologue available with aplomb. The rest of the cast do a mostly decent job with the material available to them, but do seem at times a little uncomfortable with the twisty-turny arcs they are forced to follow. Jackson manages to be typically brilliant now and again, but whereas his H becomes more fractured and dangerous as the story develops, the acting performance becomes less and less convincing to me. Which is frustrating, since fractured and dangerous is something he usually excels at.
Where Unthinkable fails most of all is in its confusion about what kind of thriller it really is. Alongside its central theme of political commentary as race-against-time flick is a psycho-thriller about a man so determined to find the truth he is willing to take any steps he deems necessary, seeming to relish more and more the opportunity to punish a man he sees as nothing other than a source of information. Genre mixing can be a great thing when handled properly, and some of the greatest films of all time can be credited with finding a perfect balance of two or more genres, but the lines need to be seamless for it to work. Not so here, where this viewer felt as though he was being dragged from one kind of film to another without any real reason for it. Along with this, regular on-the-nose streams of dialogue and some pretty poor editing lead to the message being rammed down the audiences throat in a manner that is nothing short of preachy and uncomfortable for the majority of the film. This is no more present than in the final ten minutes, where Peter Woodward (who wrote the film) seems to have run out of things to say and closes proceedings in the least shocking, most noticeably contrived way possible.
All that being said, I have not been put off of Jordan's work for good. As previously mentioned, I really enjoyed his Buffalo Soldiers and have now been intrigued by his film The Informers, based on a novel by Bret Easton Ellis. There are flashes of decent filmmaking in Unthinkable, but these parts in no way manage to improve the whole to the extent that this is a truly enjoyable experience. The simple truth is that it's never anything more than decent and for much of the running time can be described as nothing more than shoddy. In such a saturated market, where films that initially seem as interesting as this one did manage to escape the attention of even the most avid film buffs, it is no wonder that there are so many movies going direct to DVD, as this one did in the UK. It's a shame to have to say it, but sometimes, as with Unthinkable, that's exactly where some films belong. Had I paid for a cinema ticket to watch this, I would not only be wanting some of my time back, but also a decent chunk of my money.
Last night the wife was out and I fancied monging out in front of the television. Alas, there was a severe lack of anything good on, so I hit the Box Office button.
I fancied something with a little action and not too much thought. I spotted a film in the list starring Samuel L Jackson. I have to say, with the exception of Snakes on a plane I don't think I've ever seen a bad film with him in it. So I knew it was worth a shot.
The blurb was a little cliché, I'll admit.
"A terrorist has planted 3 nuclear bombs in 3 American cities. How far will deep cover agent Samuel L Jackson go to find them?"
Don't be fooled though, the film is actually much better than it sounds. Unlike most Hollywood films, it doesn't have a happy ending, which is a breath of fresh air.
So what's the name of the game? Torture.
That's his 'deep cover' job - torturing information out of people.
The film is an meant to be an insight into how America is the enemy. How all their "values" make them weak compared to the "believers" in the various terrorist organisations and how the American Government say one thing and do another - i.e. torturing and mistreating prisoners.
The terrorist responsible for planting the bombs has been caught and is in the custody of military intelligence. It seems he wanted to be caught, which demonstrates a hidden intention which needs to be extracted.
I don't want to spoil too much of the film for you, so I'll try to avoid actually describing much more of the story.
It is a well-known fact that physical torture doesn't work. A human being subject to vicious abuse will tell their captor anything to stop the pain. Taken to the extreme, they will soon realise there is nothing left to lose and will probably be harder to break. This is why methods of information-extraction have been refined over the years. Psychological techniques such as sensory deprivation and disorientation are seen to be more effective. This film involves both, but will they work?
Cleverly, Unthinkable is a commentary on the human condition. How far will one person go to save the lives of millions? Would you break your personal values to protect others?
Unthinkable is well worth a watch and certainly worth some thought.
Despite being a very useful medium for low-budget indie filmmakers, going straight-to-DVD is hardly something you'd want if you can so help it -- especially if you're a big-name actor like Samuel L. Jackon or Michael Sheen. Having a movie released on home video formats, a majority of the time without getting a cinema screening, either means the film has neither a mainstream or arthouse audience for marketing, or is just so awful that it warrants very little viewing on the whole. In the worst incidence, it could be the film ticks both the boxes of these factors -- that is the case of Gregor Jordan's Unthinkable.
The plot involves black-ops agent "H" (Jackson) working with an FBI counter-terrorism team to interrogate an American Muslim named Yusuf (Sheen), who claims he has planted three nuclear bombs in three cities somewhere in the country. Special Agent Helen Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss) watches in horror as "H" uses a variety of deadly torture methods in an attempt to get a confession out of the suspect. Though despite her various appeals to have the torturing of Yusuf stopped, her superiors step in and overrule her as they are very aware that time is quickly running out and the whole country is at stake.
What will immediately strike you about Unthinkable is how incredibly wooden the acting is. Jackson (who seems to be getting worse and worse these days) is billed as this "big dangerous man" here who has no limits in his torturing methods -- he slits throats, cuts off fingers and electrocutes -- but it's never really believable that his character will end up doing the "unthinkable". Sheen (who proved how much of a great, versatile actor he was in The Queen and The Damned United) may seem like a logical choice to play an Islamic extremist, but, again, he's unconvincing; and Brody, as the moral character of the film, has the job of challenging the obscene methods of the US government, but lacks the emotional intensity that would really make us want to root for her.
Everything in Unthinkable feels incredibly staged, and this stems from the main root of the film's problem -- the writing. Sheen's character, particularly, is vastly underdeveloped, and there's a whole host of cheeseball lines that the actors are forced to spout ("Don't torture him! It's bad!"). Considering that the film is supposed to be this "serious political thriller", also, the violence comes across as very cartoonish and it becomes extremely difficult to take it seriously, and the film lacks considerable suspense as a result (demerit the director for this factor).
You'd seriously expect a lot more from this film, considering the big names that are involved. However, with the unconvincing acting, bad writing and dull direction considered, it's pretty easy to see why the "straight-to-DVD" label is considered to be such a derogatory term within the film industry. Yes, Unthinkable is a truly dreadful movie, and it's actually quite surprising that it even managed to worm its way to the public on home video formats. I feel sorry for the next person that picks up a copy of this, unaware of how unbelievably shite it actually is.
There's also an extended version of the film included with the option to view an alternate ending, but I haven't bothered to watch it as yet (I'm pretty sure that I won't at any point in my lifetime, either). Considering the deplorable nature of the original cut, one can hardly blame me.
(C) Andy Carrington, 2010.