MOVIE REVIEW: Only God Forgives




Throughout cinema history, there have been numerous great actor/director partnerships.  For a superb list of one source's top 40 collaborations, check out this extremely thorough Empire magazine piece.  The roster is filled with true greats of from yesteryear (Wayne/Ford, Hitchcock/Grant, Capra/Stewart, Scorsese/De Niro, etc) and the present (Burton/Depp, Fincher/Pitt, Spielberg/Hanks, etc).  These memorable collaborations have always been mutually beneficial for both actor and director.  The director brings the best performances out of the actor, often to critical acclaim, and the popular movie star brings success and attention to the filmmaker, enabling both to bankroll their shared success into more open doors and more successful projects down the road.

One current actor/director team that is hoping to get a roll going is Ryan Gosling and New York-raised Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn.  They would love to be on that list.  Gosling and Winding Refn kicked off their team-up with 2011's much-loved Drive and are back together again with another crime/revenge thriller, Only God Forgives, which premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival competing for the Palme d'Or this past May and is now making its way to the states via a concurrent theatrical and On-Demand release.  The hot "you-wanna-fight?" trailer has generated the required buzz, but let's just say it now.  I think these two are more Uwe Boll and Natassia Malthe, than Scorsese and De Niro.  If it wasn't for colossal blockbuster flops like After Earth, White House Down, The Lone Ranger, and R.I.P.D. earning headlines and bankrupting studios, Only God Forgives would go down as the biggest waste of your time and money this summer.

It often seems like everyone and their brother loved Drive, this team's coming-out party.  I am not a part of that majority whatsoever.  Drive didn't do anything for me but motivate me to check my watch every fifteen minutes.  Sure enough, like the recipe from above, the film certainly broadened Ryan Gosling's range as an actor, showcasing a tough-guy side we had not seen to that point.  

Drive also bought Nicolas Winding Refn a seat at the big kids' table as an up-and-coming filmmaker people buzz about, generating whispers, comparisons, and labels as the "next Christopher Nolan."  I have no problem defending my stance on Drive as a movie fan and a movie critic.  I found it as hollow as decayed log and as slow as a church sermon.  It was a drama posing as a thriller with no thrills, outside of the dynamite opening sequence and the sporadic spurts of violence that showed up every now and then for one reason or another.  Gosling was boring and Carey Mulligan's blankness just made it worse.  The only interesting character was Albert Brook's villain.  Had I reviewed it for the website rather than waiting until DVD to see it two years ago, I would have given in two stars, tops.

Drive had all the calculated style in the world and plenty to spare by playing like a pulpy 80's flick, but, to me, that wasn't enough for Winding Refn to make a coherent movie.  Ryan Gosling has charisma and looks.  We all know that.  We've seen it in Crazy, Stupid Love, The Notebook, and, more recently, The Place Beyond the Pines.  

At some point, he's got to do more than stand around, look cool, and occasionally take a swing at a guy.  Go see Gangster Squad from this past January and it's almost like Gosling is getting worse instead of getting better.  He's trying too hard to channel James Dean or a young Marlon Brando while mumbling through his lines with angst and that mousy voice.  He's nowhere near the talent Dean or Brando was.  Yeah, I said it.

Only God Forgives is everything Drive was only slower, quieter, dumber, and more incoherent in every methodical way possible.  It's yet another case of something that is all style and no substance or point.  In the same way, Drive called upon memories of Michael Mann, Walter Hill, and John Carpenter from a prior era, this time around, Nicolas Winding Refn thinks he is Wong Kar-Wai and Zhang Yimou mixed with Sergio Leone.  The cocktail doesn't work.

Only God Forgives is a revenge thriller that takes place in the seedy underworld of Bangkok, Thailand.  Gosling plays Julian Thompson, an American expat running a Muay Thai boxing club while really earning his respect and stature under the table as a drug smuggler.  He keeps a prostitute (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, better known as Thai actress and pop star Yayaying) around as his sometimes-girl.  Speaking of hookers, his older brother Billy (newcomer Tom Burke) gets in hot water for brutally raping and killing an underage prostitute before giving himself up to the Thai authorities.  The lead cop on the scene is Lieutenant Chang (played by local Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm), who's known on the streets as the "Angel of Vengeance."

Chang is an expressionless, all-business, blade-wielding local legend that deals a decisive and brutally different style of justice to the people he pursues and no one steps to him.  Chang allows the prostitute's father to beat Billy to death for killing his daughter, but then swiftly chops the father's hand off for even allowing his daughter to be a prostitute in the first place.  He fancies himself as a god.  Yup, he's THAT kind of justice.  Screw Walker, Texas Ranger!  What does he do for kicks away from the cop beat?  He sings karaoke, of course.

With the death of the Billy, Julian learns of the "Angel of Vengeance" and delays retribution until his ruthless mafiaso mother Crystal (Academy Award nominee Kristin Scott Thomas of The English Patient) arrives in Bangkok.  Crystal is the twisted Lady Macbeth-type of maternal influence and desire.  She demands blood and revenge for Billy's death.  This mandated quest sends Julian and Chang's crews on a spree of "you-kill-one-of-mine-and-I'll-kill-three-of-yours" towards a one-on-one collision course of their own to settle the violent rivalry.  I take that back.  "Spree" is an awfully strong word.  Let's go with "long, exhausting stairway."

Only God Forgives makes the paint-drying Drive look like a Tom and Jerry cartoon in speed and pace.  The story is simple, but the investment is minimal outside of finding cool ways to stab, slash, and shoot people.  Yes, stylized violence is something often-celebrated as a dynamic trait of cult favorites and shock-value filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez all the way back to Sam Peckinpah and Alfred Hitchcock.  The trouble is, unlike those artists, Winding Refn gives his impressive stylized violence zero emotional input.  We simply don't care about the attacker or the victim because there's zero story to go on.  There's no salt to make the wound sting.  No sting means no effect.  That's what's going on here.  You get one great hand-to-hand showdown between Chang and Julian that matters and it's fleetingly short and entirely anticlimactic.

In between clashes of criminal-versus-silent-cop, there's not much else to provide auditory volume.  Gosling might speak about 24 words (three of which actually get yelled) the entire movie for maybe three minutes total while staring seriously for the other 87 minutes.  The only sustainable noise that hangs around for any amount of time is probably Pansringarm's native karaoke singing, which carries no subtitles.  For all we know, he could be singing "I Will Always Love You" or "Piano Man."  That's pretty sad.  The only performer reveling in any moment is Kristin Scott Thomas, cussing her vitriolic hate to and towards everything around her.  It's not enough to get her the kind of awards attention that Albert Brooks got two years ago.

Somehow, Only God Forgives is just 90 minutes long, but it feels longer, much like the equally-90-minute slumber party, Valhalla Rising, Winding Refn's 2009 Viking film featuring a mute warrior/prisoner, played by Mads Mikkelsen of TV's Hannibal.  That film will make pin drops break speakers and it feels twice its length as well.  Just when you think things can't get more strange and random in Only God Forgives, they do.  From trippy symbolic visions of events to come, slow walks down pretty hallways, and stagnant staring contests, there is not much going on to register any pulse for Only God Forgives, outside of that one good fight.

That's where I get my aforementioned labels for Nicolas Winding Refn's effort.  Without any of Drive's atmospheric soundtrack, Only God Forgives wails like a long flute note from a Chinese Zhang Yimou martial arts quest like 2002's Hero, a movie with far more emotional involvement. Moving from Drive's Michael Mann-style of neon to the equally-neon Asian palette of Thailand and its lush interiors, Winding Refn sets his violence in scenes that look like they came out of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai's obsession with decor and imagery from 2000's In the Mood for Love.  

By building to an all-too-brief and anticlimactic showdown at a glacial pace, Only God Forgives feels like a low-rent Sergio Leone western with no snap or panache.  Sure, Eastwood made a living with zero facial expression for years, but at least he (or at least Leone) delivered some suspense while doing so.  I may sound like a total film snob and cinema geek for referencing those obscure foreign filmmakers, but when judging someone that other film snobs fashion as an equally in-vogue, foreign, and obscure virtuoso-in-the-making, I'll gladly bring my A-game to make him and his movie look as worthless and stupid as they really are.  Don't let the high-brow praise or pretty Gosling face fool you.  

Only God Forgives is flat and boring, not stirring and decadent.  Please, big-time film critics, find someone else's nuts to swing on, and I don't mean Terrance Malick either.  Break the boredom and find some real substance.  Substance beats style every time.

LESSON #1: DON'T KILL UNDERAGE PROSTITUTES.  BETTER YET, DON'T HIRE THEM EITHER-- When you have to get your freak on, spring for someone 18 or older.  She (or he) might have a few more "miles" on the tires at that old age of 18, but it beats pissing off cops and fathers for really breaking the law with gusto.  Most of all, just do what her job entails.  Don't kill the girl, idiot.  If I was a cool cop, I'd get the prostitute's father and have him beat you do death too.

LESSON #2: DON'T PISS OFF A CRIME BOSS MOTHER-- Crystal Thompson is not a soccer mom pissed that you won't take her receipt for that Target return for $0.49 off of her six-pack of Lunchables for the kids.  Crystal Thompson is one ice cold chick.  She won't be massaging your ego.  She will be chewing you out.  If you piss her off, she's going to want someone's head on a platter, just like the trailer says.  She's the type that is used to getting what she wants.  Don't cross her or her family.

LESSON #3: DON'T F - - K WITH A COP THAT HAS THE NICKNAME "ANGEL OF VENGEANCE"-- I get that nicknames are sometimes arbitrary labels of novelty, celebrity, and self-importance bestowed to memorable or larger-than-life characters or personalities.  That's all fine and good if you're "The Dude," "The Black Mamba," "The White Mamba, or "Hit-Girl," but some should be taken seriously.  This guy is the MFing "Angel of Vengeance" and chops dudes up for fun between karaoke gigs while wearing a badge that grants him authority.  Maybe, just maybe, that's not the cop you want to f--k with.  Go after "Captain Coffee Pot," "Detective Donuts," or "Lieutenant Lasagna."  You know, not the guy severing limbs and filling body bags.