"The Interpreter": Impossible Romance
The gimmick that's supposed to gun our engines about "The Interpreter" is that it was shot inside the United Nations headquarters building in New York. That's right: Inside the UN! A first! Never before been done!
Unfortunately, this is a gimmick without a payoff. And the deal that had to be struck to acquire this dubious bragging right is deplorable. In order to shoot the picture inside the UN, the filmmakers reportedly had to give top UN bureaucrats the right to approve not only the script, but all the footage shot within the building. And so the completed movie has all the zing of one of the droning diplomatic blather-fests in which the UN General Assembly, when it's assembled, generally specializes. (This would also appear to explain why, although we hear lines like "Human rights are fundamental" uttered without irony, we are not informed that the current composition of the UN Human Rights Commission includes such odious tyrannies as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia.)
Another considerable restriction under which the filmmakers agreed to operate was a prohibition against using the UN's halls, observation booths and endless carpeted corridors at any time other than nights and weekends, when the place was empty. Consequently, in the movie, despite occasional clots of extras cropping up, the place looks ... kind of empty.
Into this unpromising set-up, director Sydney Pollack has dumped a story, concocted by at least five writers, that is only intermittently coherent. Nicole Kidman plays Silvia Broome, a UN interpreter. Among other languages, Silvia is fluent in "Ku," the native tongue of the (fictional) African nation of Matobo, where she grew up. One night, alone in her translator's booth high above the General Assembly room, she overhears on her headset a whispered plot, spoken in Ku, to assassinate the president of Matobo, Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), a onetime freedom fighter long since turned murderous autocrat.
Silvia is spotted and flees. Later, after relating what she heard, she is confronted by Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), a Secret Service agent assigned to the "Dignitary Protection Squad." Keller is on the scene because President Zuwanie is scheduled to appear at the UN in a week to announce his latest bogus program of "democratic reform." Zuwanie's protection is Keller's main concern, but he also suspects Silvia of ... something. He says she's "lying." He fumes and grimaces. But since we've sat in on his questioning of her, and noticed nothing particularly suspicious, we listen to his rants and mutterings, and we begin to think he may be unbalanced in some way. (We've been shown that he's a heavy drinker, in mourning for his recently deceased wife.) Later we learn that Silvia has been holding something back; but Keller still seems inexplicably troglodytic.
Circling around this central situation are Zuwanie's sinister security chief (Jesper Christensen), a cynical Matoban opposition politician (George Harris) and a sleek black assassin named Jean Gamba (Byron Utley). There are also various ambassadors, cops, FBI agents, token Africans, a Portuguese janitor and a doomed bomb maker. The movie is crowded and confusing.
And listless, God. Director Pollack is unable to maintain any continuity of suspense amid all the walking and talking and wondering and mumbling that goes on in this picture. (It must also be said that the dialogue falls upon the ear like pots and pans from a kitchen cabinet. Penn to Kidman in a tender, post-crisis moment, mooningly: "You can't say stuff like that with blood all over your face.") Apart from one tense bomb-on-a-bus sequence which seems to have fallen into the script out of another, better screenplay, the picture droops all the way down to one of the limpest, most inconsequential final scenes I personally have ever witnessed.
The insoluble problem at the center of "The Interpreter" is the casting of Kidman and Penn as the leads. With her sun-bright blonde hair and famously flawless porcelain skin, Kidman has never looked more radiant. Penn, on the other hand, with his gruff, sodden grumping and grumbling, has the charm of a troll. We're supposed to believe that these two are attracted to one another, and the movie makes one or two awkward lurches in that direction. But Silvia and Keller have nothing in common, and there's no spark between Kidman and Penn, so we never buy into this impossible romance.
And on a purely physical plane, we can't help noticing that Penn, like many a mortal man, is slightly shorter than the dizzyingly tall (indeed, all but snow-capped) Kidman, and that therefore they spend most of their scenes together in sitting positions; in the one sustained mid-range two-shot in which Kidman is standing, Penn is hiked up on a railing. In the end, though, both of them tower over this dim and fuddling movie, so unworthy of their talent, and our time.
"Kung Fu Hustle": Hot Fuss
Hong Kong director Stephen Chow's latest slapstick action flick is a sort of kung-fu cartoon: The actors are real, but a lot of the things they do — getting their heads punched through a floor or being hit so hard they go flying across a street — clearly derive from the Road Runner school of elastic mayhem. It's all wildly silly and pretty entertaining.
As in his last picture, "Shaolin Soccer" (made in 2001, but held back here for three years so Miramax could have sufficient time to mutilate it), Chow stars as a young man named Sing. The time is the 1940s, and Sing, having spent his childhood getting cuffed around and peed on by neighborhood bullies, has concluded that nice guys are losers. He desires instead to become a gangster — specifically, a member of the Axe Gang, a group of bad guys made memorable by the crossed hatchets tattooed on their chests, the big black top hats affixed to their heads and the synchronized disco dance steps they break into at the oddest times. (Should you not get the message, they're also likely to just tell you, "We're the bad guys.")
In order to join the Axe Gang, Sing has to kill someone. To do this, he goes to a place called Pig Sty Alley — a neighborhood that doesn't look like much, but is actually filled with unassuming martial-arts masters who are living there on the down-low. Sing fails to kill anybody here — he's lucky he doesn't get killed himself — and when the Axe Gang shows up to take a shot ... well, as I say, it's pretty entertaining.
The 42-year-old Chow wears his cinematic influences right out where you can see them. There are echoes of Sergio Leone's dusty spaghetti-Western showdowns and Quentin Tarantino's jokey approach to violence. (The very busy martial-arts master Yuen Woo Ping, who choreographed the fight scenes in Tarantino's "Kill Bill" movies and the "Matrix" films, as well, contributes his balletic expertise to this picture, too.) There's a great gush of blood reminiscent of a similar pictorial element in Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," and a sudden blossoming of Spanish guitar music that seems to derive from the taxi sequence in Martin Scorsese's "After Hours." (Much of the rest of the music on the soundtrack might have been lifted intact from some ultra-obscure '60s spy movie.)
Stephen Chow is a directorial prodigy who's come into his own. "Kung Fu Hustle," his seventh movie (he's appeared as an actor in dozens more), flies by on bursts of dizzying slapstick invention; apart from an unnecessary romantic subplot, which is too minor to make much of a difference, there's rarely a dull moment. But the picture goes on too long, and the wise-guy tone and the non-stop frenzy wear you down. The Road Runner never stopped moving, either; but he knew when to move on.