TIFF 2011 Day 2 – Killer Elite, Drive, The Kid With A Bike

I’m really not sure what strategy Robert Deniro is using to pick his roles these days, but if Killer Elite is any indication, he’s putting a premium on cliches. Not that he’s the central attraction — most of the film has him relegated to the sidelines, leaving Jason Statham to do the heavy lifting. Fortunately, Statham isn’t being asked to do anything as pedestrian as emoting or building character: once again, he’s around just to embody masculenity at its purest. But while that approach has paid dividends in movies where stylish direction and ridiculous premises balance out his stone face (see the Crank and Transporter series, because they are awesome), Killer Elite has little in the way of visual panache to carry it. Instead, it’s a series of action cliches strung together with a basic competence that seems determined to avoid being particularly interesting. With the exception of one fight scene where Statham takes out a pair of highly trained agents while tied to a chair, Elite is a time-filler at best.

Nicolas Refn’s Valhalla Rising had a killer soundtrack and a few intense moments, but the langorous pacing somehow made vikings snooze-worthy. Not so with Drive, which sees Ryan Gosling take on the role of a man who lives and breathes cars, and whose brief efforts at human relations don’t go so smoothly. Gosling’s performance here is fantastic — actually, I won’t single him out, as Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Cary Mulligan all do great work throughout — but for me the most impressive thing about Drive is how Refn makes the pacing work this time. Individual shots carry on much longer than you’d expect, with Gosling practically luxuriating in the silences between his lines of dialogue, but the tension never lets up. The overall effect is to identify with the constant cool of Gosling’s Driver (the character’s name and profession both), no matter how intense the situation. The violence, when it happens, is absolutely brutal. But the characters are believable and likable throughout, which makes it a film you’ll want to revisit, no matter how emotionally draining the experience.

Despite their festival darling reputation, I’ve only seen one other film by the Dardenne bros — but it was a hell of a film. L’Enfant follows one of the most irredeemable protagonists I’ve ever seen, a grown man who has no qualms abot selling his child on the black market the second his girlfriend turns her back. The Kid With A Bike’s main character is just as flawed, spending the film getting into fights, biting people, and running away from authority, but at least he has an excuse: pre-teens aren’t known for their good judgement. On the plus side, the Dandennes coax a near-flawless performance from their child star, who is entirely believable as a kid abandoned by his father, uncomfortable in his group home, and unsure how to react when a stranger starts showing him genuine kindness. The relationship between that stranger and the kid is at the heart of the film, but while the Dardennes’ looseness generally benefits the film, it also leads to sequences that feel a bit overly repetitive, and an ending that just sort of happens.

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