Hollywood is such a cocktease. The Black Dahlia hard-on segues limply into All the King's Men blue balls, which shows nothing so much as the dreaded arrival of the Oscar season, and what safer way to make a grab for the damn statuette than remaking a previous winner? Steve Zaillian insists he has not seen the 1949 classic, leaving us with executive-producer James Carville's annotation on the renewed topicality of Robert Penn Warren's novel as the picture's genesis. Dubya or no Dubya, Zaillian surely felt some kinship with Robert Rossen, another screenwriter-turned-director wrangling a Great American Novel to the screen; in the braying-redneck-despot department, I far prefer Raoul Walsh's A Lion Is in the Streets to Rossen's heralded adaptation, although Rossen was shrewd enough to boil the book's essence into rousing filmic hysteria, vocalizing postwar disillusionment while sowing the seeds of Elia Kazan's own loudmouth eruptions the next decade. The new picture, meanwhile, is static and dreary, drained of juice and drenched in "respectable" lighting, its gloom not a sign of disenchanted times but a studio's shameless stab at end-of-year prestige. "They called it idealism," laments the narrator, but Zaillian and Co. are already experienced hands at turning out polished Academy Award bait; their Louisiana is amply equipped with crucifixes, pigs, the buzzing of insects, yet the soil itself comes off as no less phony than the gumbo accents sticking like peanut-butter to the mouths of the overpriced cast.
Phoniest of all is Sean Penn at the center, wadding through a swamp of histrionic jiggling. The story is about corruptive power, so Penn's Willie Stark needs a moment or two as a humble 1950s stooge before switching to fire-breathing demagoguery and potential dictatorship, though the actor plainly can't wait to trade the soda pop of subtlety for the liquor of apoplexy -- the emblematic image in All the King's Men is of Penn sweating to suggest fervid massiveness under a looming shadow, gesticulating, bellowing, belching to the rhythms of James Horner's swelling score as the frame around him folds away into the background, scrambling for earplugs. Stark's speechifying at the podium lassoes the hick masses, so all it takes is a patronizing montage of galvanized faces for him to reach the governor's office and even less than that for him to succumb to the dark side of politics; all is observed and commented on by Jude Law's presiding chief conscience, a reporter called Burden with troubles of his own. Saddled with flashbacks (Kate Winslet silhouetted against the golden light of a lost past, namely), Law, even more of a dandified wisp than usual, leeches the film of whatever surface vigor Penn pumps in; Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, and Patricia Clarkson pad around pallidly, only Jackie Earle Haley, swept from under the Bad News Bears carpet and propped up like an old Warner Bros. figure, leaves footprints. Zeillian uncorks a laughably literal river of blood for the finale, but the only sanguine thing around here is the seasonal hardening of cinematic arteries.
Whatever it may be -- self-reflexive documentary of a sequel, new millennium reconfiguration of Mack Sennett, the most extensive display of nude male flesh outside of gay porn -- Jackass Number Two strives for no Oscar, unless it's tied up to a rocket and fired out of somebody's rectum. The opening gag literalizes the stampede in suburbia that has always been the transgressive appeal of the old MTV series, the pranksters serenaded by Ennio Morricone while dodging furious cattle; Johnny Knoxville invokes Jack Smith by raising his black cape, and the Flaming Creatures are unleashed with Chris Pontius sticking his cock through a hole in the wall into a hungry serpent's lair. The gloryhole bit efficiently sets the tone of imbecilic romping, and more aberrant daredevilry follows, each stunt an autonomous brick of avant-garde slapstick. Knoxville is gored by a bison, an anaconda is wrestled inside a kiddie ball pit, a horse is jerked off for a cum milkshake swallowed by Pontius, who then announces himself ashamed; Steve-O forces a hook through his cheek and throws himself into the ocean to bring in the sharks, and later apologizes to his parents before lending his ass for the Butt Chug. Somebody noticed the show's proximity to Pink Flamingos, so John Waters materializes to help out with the magic. All one can do is laugh and vomit and catalog the influences -- Avery, Pasolini, Kuchar, Von Trier, Miike.
While on the matter of influences, the leech-to-eyeball close-up suggests a tip o' the hat to Buñuel, and indeed the great surrealist gets a thank-you in the end credits. Jackass will never be Un Chien Andalou, though its unashamed, shit-smearing adolescence might place it at least next to such exercises in jubilant anarchism as Zazie dans le Métro and Hallelujah the Hills. When shock is the single color in an artist's palette, however, coming up with grottier jolts becomes the only possible way to advance, and the strain is all over Number Two: everything is super-sized, the excremental ratio is doubled, the bulls and snakes are bought by the dozen, Bam Margera's ass is branded three times with a smoldering iron. Another cloud passes over their playpen -- the guys are already pushing thirty, and some of them are closing in on forty. The sense of youthfully freakish energy is too infantile to truly congeal into rebellion (either political or sexual, which makes the insistent assplay little more than knowing winks scored to "Johnny Are You Queer"), and the older the pranksters get the grimmer their stunts feel. The big, glitzy finale, a sonorous Busby-Berkeley-Mel-Brooks whopper, just palpitates with desperation, though it climaxes with a touching bow to the original bone-cruncher, Buster Keaton. Parts of Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie present the grenade that Jackass could have been if vigor had been shaped into revolt, or at least awareness; as it is, why plug Steve-O into a bubble-boy costume so that his face swims in puke? "Cuz it's funny," Ryan Dunn retorts. Not good enough anymore.
Action film is another arena into which aging can rudely intrude, and Jet Li, now 42, is shrewdly aware he has only so many years of ass-whomping still in him. So here's Jet Li's Fearless, the Chinese star's "final martial-arts epic," properly garlanded with a reverential subject to match the alleged farewell -- the story of Huo Yuanjia, founder of the Jingwu Sports Federation, who pulverized international adversaries while preaching peace and cultural pride. An initially arrogant head-buster, Li's Yuanjia tastes the contaminating sides of violence after vengeance strikes home and spins out control, to be found in a peasant village and nursed back to health (and to enlightenment) by a saintly, blind girl who reminds him that "every knot can be untangled." Ronny Yu directed, though the auteurs are Yuen Woo-ping, the fight coordinator whose exhilaratingly intricate spatial patterns are recognizably personal, and Li himself, whose themes of virulent brutality were already evident in the underrated Unleashed. Hardcore fans may want less bucolic montages and more fists through torsos, but the film still makes for a satisfying show, and, if you buy the whole last-action-film bit, a honorable send-off.
Reviewed September 28, 2006.