6 November 2011

Cinemascope: The Rum Diary; Loot

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Hunter, but leashed

Director: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart

13 years after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Depp reprises his performance as Hunter S. Thompson, original gonzo journalist and ceaseless experimenter with intoxicating substances. The timeline is a little wonky: Depp, now 48, plays an approximately 23-year-old version of Thompson, based on a semi-autobiographical novel that Thompson wrote in the 1960s but only managed to get published in 1998.

Right from the opening shot of a red glider plane wending its tipsy way over the beaches of 1950s San Juan to the sound of 'Volare', it's clear that The Rum Diary is going to be soaked in atmosphere – and a lot else. Thompson's alter ego here is Paul Kemp, a young man with good looks and some nascent writing talent whom we first meet nursing a hangover in a hotel room with a trashed minibar. Kemp somehow expects to 'find his voice' while working for an English newspaper in Puerto Rico whose editor – not unexpectedly – wants him to churn out horoscopes and profiles of the ugly American tourists who overrun the island's bowling alleys. He soon shacks up with the paper's shaggy, genial photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the crazed Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi) who used to be its Crime and Religion reporter, and starts to discover – admittedly through a fugue of beer, rum and unidentified drugs supplied by Moburg – what "the bastards" have planned for this desperately poor 'tropical paradise'. He is also immediately seduced by the scarlet-lipped Chenault, fiance to dubious PR man Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who lives in a glass-fronted mansion on a fenced-in 'private beach' and spends much of his time defending both beach and fiance from the ostensibly lustful gazes of the locals.

Unfortunately, the film seems to meander drunkenly in and out of various possible avatars, neither gathering enough gumption for a serious sock-in-the-face to American imperialism nor enough lunacy to be a truly epic take on the drinking life. Kemp's sudden sense of a journalistic mission never seems convincing, and neither does his attraction to the too-young, inarticulately flirtatious Chenault (Amber Heard). The film's atmosphere is further riven by caricatured characters whose sole purpose is to make excessive-sounding pronouncements: red-faced US armymen who think Cuba ought to be bombed "off the face of the earth" to "let its people live in peace"; the editor of the San Juan Star (Richard Jenkins) who never makes an appearance without ranting his way through it; the teetering-on-his-feet Moburg who, when he's not wearing his bizarre and filthy flowing robes, likes dressing up as Hitler.

This film is probably the cinematic equivalent of what it was like to have the real Hunter S. Thompson regale you with stories of his life: full of colourful episodes, exaggeratedly macho, superbly self-indulgent and more than a little disjointed. It isn't the big deal it claims to be, but it's sort of entertaining.

Disturbingly drab

Director: Rajnish Thakur
Starring: Sunil Shetty, Jaaved Jaafery, Govinda, Mahesh Manjrekar
Loot adds another yet forgettable namoona to the seemingly unending series of Hindi crime capers starring a bunch of buffoons from Mumbai let loose in a new location: preferably foreign and passably posh, but not unaffordably so. South and South East Asia is thus the region of choice: Double Dhamaal was set in Macau, Rascals in Thailand. Loot sends its collection of suitably silly goons – Akbar (Javed Jaafery), Builder (Sunil Shetty, who has also seen fit to sink his money into this film as producer), Wilson (a ridiculously chubby Mahaakshay Chakraborty – yes, yes, Mimoh) and Pandit (Govinda) – off to rob the karodon-se-bhara safe of one Batliwala in Pattaya.

As is to be expected, however, our heroes are tricked into robbing the wrong man. Breaking and entering the house they're directed to by their Thailand liaison, a simpering, cleavage-baring character called Tanya (Shweta Bhardwaj), they find themselves robbing the personal tijori of a Pakistani underworld don called Lala Bhatt (Mahesh Manjrekar) who's hiding out in Pattaya. The safe turns out to contain little cash and a whole stack of cassettes, which the foursome dutifully steal. Thus begins a pointlessly convoluted plot, which manages to rope in Ravi Kissen as a devious Ghalib-quoting intelligence officer and Prem Chopra as a Pakeezah-obsessed gangster called Khan Sahab, and waste them both entirely.

Like other films of its ilk – though in slightly milder fashion – Loot pays zero attention to its women characters (the annoying Tanya is quietly killed off without the slightest ceremony, while Rakhi with her notorious 'Choos le' song makes an appearance only in the end credits) and treats its foreigners with barely disguised racist contempt (the completely gratuitous scene where Govinda walks into a Thai car rental agency speaking in a fake singsong accent). There is also an unfunny subplot involving a Thai hold-up artist and his Indian assistant who have their car stolen by our Hindustani heroes.

There is something strangely dated about Loot – it's not just the presence of the once-sparkling Govinda in this distressingly dheela avatar, but odd things like the fact that the entire film, in this age of the digital, revolves around cassettes.

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