Film Reviews

Fishing expeditions

Page 2 of 4

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.

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Matt Zoller Seitz