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Fishing expeditions

Discussing 1993's year in movies, veteran Hollywood scriptwriter William Goldman--who wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, and Marathon Man and authored the classic how-to book Adventures in the Screen Trade-- singled out Free Willy as a story he wished he'd written. He noted that whatever snooty folks might think of a film about a boy and his seagoing mammal pal, they'd still have to admit it was a shameless joyride for family audiences, and that it knew exactly what it wanted to do and did it superbly. "From the moment the kid says, 'We've got to free Willy!', the movie is on rails," Goldman said.

He was right, but I'd pick an earlier moment to illustrate his point. I think the picture is on rails when its motherless juvenile delinquent hero, Jesse (Jason James Richter), says something deeply personal to his imprisoned killer whale pal, and the whale pauses in the water and tilts his head slightly to one side, as if carefully considering what the boy has just told him. I felt an indefensibly childish rush. Suddenly I was eight again watching a Lassie movie, pointing at the screen, and exclaiming, "Look, mom! Look! Lassie's thinking! She's thinking!"

I felt the same rush throughout Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home. Like its predecessor, it isn't a great movie, but it's an amazingly guileless and professional movie. There's nothing inherently wrong with sequels. After all, who among us hasn't wanted to revisit a place that made us happy? The tough part is coming up with a story that builds on the success of an original movie without simply Xeroxing it.

The script to Free Willy 2 pulls off this difficult trick. Although it's credited to three separate writers, it doesn't feel patchy or mechanical or soulless. It's not very inventive, but it's a solid and honorable piece of work. It serves up sharply etched characters who have real emotions, real fears, and real needs, then ties those qualities directly to the ensuing action. This movie hops onto Goldman's magic rails and rarely strays.

A lot has happened in two years. Jesse has grown from a sullen troublemaker into a strong, confident adolescent who loves and trusts his foster parents (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson). And he's grown in other ways, too: when the whale expert buddy from the first movie, a Native American named Randolph (August Schellenberg), sails into town with his sweet, spunky goddaughter, Nadine (Mary Kate Schellhardt), Jesse is instantly attracted to her, and is determined to find a way to impress her.

An opportunity presents itself when Willy swims back into his life, bringing his family along; a scene where Jesse and Nadine play with the whales down in the cove is a surefire kid-pleaser, but it also works as a hilariously unsubtle metaphor for the young lovebirds' impending sexual awakening. (Jesse convinces the squeamish Nadine to pet his whale buddy, and she sort of likes it until the whale gushes seawater all over her. Gee, mom, what does that mean?)

Not that Jesse's life is completely pleasurable. He's aghast to learn that his long-lost momma recently kicked off in New York, leaving behind a tough 10-year-old with the unlikely name of Elvis (Francis Capra), who joins the family and reopens some of Jesse's old emotional wounds. Then, during a gettin'-to-know-you seaside camping trip, an oil tanker runs aground, trapping Willy and his whale family in a cove. An oil slick is rapidly approaching the aquatic clan; it will take all of Jesse's ingenuity and pluck, plus plenty of help from adult friends and family, to save them. Toss in an underhanded oil company executive who wants to engineer a fake "rescue" of the whales and then sell them for a hefty finders' fee to an amusement park, and you have the makings of one shamelessly manipulative movie.

Remarkably, though, the picture rarely feels canned or insincere, mostly because Jesse is a fully rounded person who has sound reasons for doing what he does. After all, Willy isn't just his flippered pal--he's the kid's alter ego. The film treats Jesse's considerable emotional scars--his ongoing fear of abandonment and motherlessness--seriously. When he goes into action, he's fighting to make sure the bad things that happened to him as a child don't happen to Willy and his relatives.

All of which makes the picture hang together even when it's stretching plausibility to the breaking point. Free Willy 2 is virtually guaranteed to make young viewers weep and cheer, but they probably won't feel conned because the story earns these responses honestly. It's a good movie about people who are determined to do the right thing. They might be acting on behalf of whales, but you get the impression they'd do it for jeopardized humans, too, whether they knew them personally or not.  

The performance of Michael Madsen, who plays Jesse's foster dad, Glen, typifies what I most enjoy about this series--its low-key moral righteousness. When I first heard Madsen, who specializes in playing street hoods, cops, and psychotic killers, had been cast in the original Free Willy as a sensitive father, I was skeptical; I didn't think the ear-slicer from Reservoir Dogs could be convincing in a part like that. But Madsen's steely-eyed, no-nonsense toughness grounded the picture, lending it an edgy quality it might not have otherwise possessed. Glen is a quiet, unsentimental, decent man who sticks by his loved ones, and it doesn't require lavish displays of affection to know he's a good father. The same goes for Glen's wife, Annie, who's nurturing and sensitive without crossing the line into smotherhood. She gives the kid some emotional breathing room, and Jesse obviously appreciates her for it.

One of Free Willy 2's biggest (and most unexpected) pleasures is the way it details Jesse's complicated relationship with Glen and Annie. You instantly sense that Jesse has changed between the last movie and this one, and that age is only part of the reason; his folks are the rest. Looking into Jesse's face, you can see hints of Annie's sensitivity and Glen's righteous decency. Jason James Richter is growing into a very convincing and likable young actor--he understands that Jesse's heroic unselfishness is a response to the pain he's experienced in the past. When he acts, it's not because he wants to make his own life better; it's because he wants to save someone else's.

I'm a sucker for movies about people who genuinely care about one another, and immediately rush to protect each other when the chips are down--people who do brave things because of who they are, not merely because the plot requires them to. There's an empathetic quality to the Free Willy movies that feels sincere. The characters love each other, their whale friends, and the land itself.

That's why, when the oil slick begins discoloring the shore and poisoning wildlife in the harbor, Jesse's anger seems more than just a PC plot contrivance. These guys aren't just polluting the earth--they're fouling the little Eden Jesse and his loved ones have created. This paradisiacal strain is woven into every scene in the movie, which is a lot more beautifully constructed than its clunky-but-functional predecessor. Director Dwight Little and master cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs fill the film with one lyrical image after another.

I don't think I've ever seen a more affecting first kiss than the one between Jesse and Nadine, who climb out of the water after frolicking with the whales and stand there dripping wet, grinning and laughing at each other, quivering happily over the precious moment they're about to share. And there's a dissolve from Jesse's brooding face to a long shot of a pod of whales leaping high against a boiling orange sunset which, in a single striking transition, solidifies the boy's psychic ties to the ocean and its inhabitants. And there's one shot so strange and poetic that it seems stolen from a lost Samuel Coleridge poem: Jesse's harmonica dropped from a dock and floating down into the murk, water flowing through its holes, producing mournful notes that beckon the whales like Morse code pulses from a lonely boy's heart.

Speaking of giant, blubbery, slow-moving, inexpressive mammals, Steven Seagal is back in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, a megabudget sequel that's literally on rails from beginning to end. Narratively speaking, though, it never pulls out of the station.

Unlike the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series--whose trappings the Under Siege franchise rather cynically combines--there isn't a spark of wit or human interest in sight.

The first movie was about a humble Navy cook named Casey Ryback (Seagal), who, unbeknownst to the terrorist who'd taken over his admiral's battleship, was a supercompetent, viciously violent ex-SEAL. It was basically a glitzy B-movie ripoff--Die Hard on a Boat. But the gifted Andrew Davis--who also helmed Seagal's surprisingly gritty, exciting debut, 1988's Above the Law, and went on to direct The Fugitive--made it feel fresh. His fluid, unpretentious action scenes were a model of brutal economy. Best of all, he let cavorting supervillains Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey set the picture's tone, and their antics pushed the film into the realm of action slapstick. It was all in fun.

Fun is definitely in short supply in this picture, which pits Ryback, who's riding a luxury train with his niece between Denver and Los Angeles, against a team of mercenaries led by a crazed military techie (Eric Bogosian) and a stone-faced soldier of fortune (Everett McGill). They've seized control of an orbital death ray, set up the train as their undetectable moving headquarters, and are planning to blackmail the Pentagon to the tune of a billion dollars.  

As you probably expected, the picture is one long paid advertisement for Steven Seagal, Professional Badass. There isn't a single frame containing this actor that doesn't feel custom-tooled to convince us that he's the strongest, smartest, fastest, toughest hombre on the planet Earth.

There are plenty of things to despise about Seagal: the laughable lies he tells to journalists about his supposed top-secret work for the CIA; his smug arrogance; his single, implacable, Buddha-like facial expression, which amounts to utter vacuousness passed off as Zen supercool; and his complete lack of anything resembling acting ability or personality. Compared to this chunkhead, Van Damme is Lord Laurence Olivier.

But the least savory part of the package is his obvious insecurity. This guy is so terrified of not being taken seriously as an action icon that he won't allow anybody pitted against him onscreen to lay a finger on him. And as if that weren't enough to establish his studliness, each new Seagal project must contain at least one scene in which a knowledgeable bad guy goes on and on and on about how dangerous he is.

Since Seagal probably isn't smart enough to have figured this out on his own, I'll go ahead and break the news: the first Under Siege was a success in spite of him. It used him as a running joke--a beefy, scowling sight gag. Davis kept him offscreen for nearly two-thirds of the movie's running time, and contrasted his humorless supercompetence and robotic invincibility with the delightful pettiness of the bad guys, their henchmen, and their victims. Like James Bond baddies, Jones and Busey reveled in their monstrousness; they got a tremendous, sick charge from getting away with implausible atrocities.

That's why the idea of Seagal routinely thwarting their every move was so amusing. These two very human villains, who were so full of raucous, nasty life, were being beaten by a man completely devoid of emotion or charisma--a homicidal automaton. They were two Wile E. Coyotes being humiliated by a lardassed, karate-chopping Road Runner. When Seagal finished off Jones by pushing a thumb through his eye, sticking a knife in his forehead, and shoving him face-first into a computer screen, his expression suggested that he'd just finished taking out the garbage. He was as merciless and inhuman as the weather.

Unfortunately, this time, the joke isn't on Seagal anymore: it's on us. Like the enjoyably wretched ecothriller On Deadly Ground, this one spends an inordinate amount of screen time building up our hero as the ultimate fighting machine--a cross between Dirty Harry, Bruce Lee, Oliver North, and TV's McGyver. "Do you have any idea who we're dealing with here?" asks the apprehensive McGill, a sandblasted warrior who looks like he could probably bend Seagal over his knee and paddle his gelatinous butt in real life. This is the kind of movie where the hero gets on the radio at the end and announces to his superiors that he just saved the day, and a roomful of people bursts into sustained applause. If you won't cheer Seagal, he'll cheer himself.

Director Geoff Murphy, a New Zealand stylist whose aboriginal revenge parable Utu was praised by Pauline Kael as one of the most powerful movies of the '80s, moved to America soon after. To date, he's done nothing else of note, churning out a series of progressively more expensive and less interesting action pictures, including Young Guns 2 and Freejack. This one doesn't even offer brutish, nasty pleasures. It doesn't serve up anything stylish in the way of editing, camera movement, or fight choreography--all of which partly redeem even the stupidest action movies by John Woo, Walter Hill, and Andrew Davis.

The film's much-publicized state-of-the-art digital compositing technology, which was partly responsible for swelling the picture's budget to $70 million, is only intermittently successful. Sometimes special-effects supervisor Richard Yurichich seamlessly merges sets and miniatures and moving backgrounds so that you can't tell where reality leaves off and fantasy begins, but other times the results look like the filmmakers borrowed a used rear-projector from the producers of "The Love Boat." (There's one real innovation: thanks to the miracle of computers, rather than strategically cutting away at the last moment, we can now follow people who've tumbled off a high cliff as they bounce from rock to jagged rock.)

Even cheesier is director Murphy's attempt to hype his star through photographic and editing tricks. He shoots the fight scenes very close up, using a telephoto lens to blur Seagal's movements and make them look more mysterious and less clunky. And unless my eye deceived me, it looks like he also snipped out frames of film every now and then to artificially speed up key punches, kicks, and flips. Now that's a trick I haven't seen employed since "The Lone Ranger."  

It's all for naught, though, because no matter what life-threatening situations Ryback gets himself into, he always looks utterly disinterested, and Seagal, who keeps getting slower and fatter and more pompous with each new movie, is too unconvincing as a silent-but-deadly death dealer to distract us through sheer violence.

Only two things mark this movie as noteworthy: one is that for the first time in my memory, Seagal actually allows a villain to strike him. But of course, it's just one hit, and the other guy gets bounced around the room like a handball in retaliation.

The other is the picture's title: this is the first Seagal movie that doesn't flow organically from the advertising-ready phrase Steven Seagal Is... Does this signal some kind of creative advancement? I hope not, because I always hoped he'd someday star in a film whose title revealed the true secret behind Seagal's invincibility: Steven Seagal Is...A Wuss.

Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. Warner Bros. Steven Seagal, Eric Bogosian. Written by Richard Hatem and Matt Reeves. Directed by Geoff Murphy. Now showing.

Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home. Warner Bros. Jason James Richter, August Schellenberg, Michael Madsen. Written by Karen Janszen, Corey Blechman, and John Mattson. Directed by Dwight Little. Opens July 21.


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