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Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2003

Invasion of the Hollywood plot-snatchers


Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Vincenzo Natalie
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: English
Opens Jan. 18

Hard Cash

Rating: * (out of 5)
Director: Predrag Antonijevic
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

There's a scene halfway through "Cypher" -- director Vincenzo Natali's long-awaited followup to the mind-bending "Cube" -- in which Lucy Liu, sporting an orange, hacked hairdo that screams "oops!," proffers a syringe to the film's hopelessly befuddled protagonist, played by Jeremy Northam. "The whole thing is just a ploy to keep you distracted," she barks, her body encased in a cyberpunk leather jumpsuit. "If you want answers, take the shot."

News photo
Jeremy Northam in "Cypher"

Now stealing is all well and good, but if you're going to rip off the Warchowski brothers' "The Matrix," you'd better have the moves to back it up, never mind the budget. "Cypher" (titled "Company Man" in Japan) has neither. In fact, it doesn't even have the lines. Compare the above line to Morpheus' infamous monologue in "The Matrix": "Take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes . . . Welcome to the desert of the real."

I almost feel like I took the red pill this week; the world's turned upside-down, as I find myself praising a Hollywood flick in order to pan an indie flick. But seriously, there's only one thing worse than bad Hollywood flicks (which "The Matrix" certainly is not), and that's bad wannabe Hollywood flicks. Welcome to the desert of "Cypher."

The film starts promisingly: Northam plays a bland corporate drone named Sullivan, with an absolutely blank expression that recalls Peter Sellers in "Being There." It's this unremarkable, instantly forgettable quality that makes Sullivan the perfect candidate for working as a corporate spy. He's recruited by the high-tech DigiCorp to attend a series of trade conferences, where ostensibly he is gathering information.

Sullivan gets a new identity, and gets to create his new personality from scratch, indulging in vices he had long denied himself -- scotch on the rocks, cigarettes, and sultry femmes fatales like Rita Foster (Liu), whom he picks up at a hotel bar.

But something's wrong: He's having headaches and weird nightmares, there are mysterious phone calls and people he doesn't know giving him instructions. Then he takes the drugs Rita gave him. It turns out the "conferences" he's been attending are actually a twisted experiment in brainwashing and mind-control. Soon he's approached by Sunways Systems to act as a double-agent against DigiCorp. Sullivan starts losing touch with who he really is, and wondering who's really playing him against who.

As you can probably tell, this is another conspiracy nutter's flick, where everything you know is wrong and, of course, you can trust no one. But compared to other recent "ontological thrillers" -- films like "Memento," "Open Your Eyes" and "The Matrix" -- "Cypher" feels less clever and more contrived. There's always a character ready to neatly explain the whole next level of plot psychosis, and the finale's "surprise" revelation is telegraphed like a Jackie Chan kick to the head about one reel before its delivered.

It becomes all too clear that "Cypher" suffers from "Cube's" weakest aspect -- two-dimensional, cartoonish characterizations -- while the special effects and plot twists aren't nearly enough to compensate. Natali's Orwellian future of omnipotent faceless corporations, underground data silos and black helicopters is a bit of fun -- with nods to '60s sci-fi such as "Alphaville" and "The Prisoner" -- but the ending is such a cheat. And, to make matters worse, it's almost identical to the insipid John Travolta flick "Swordfish."

Moving right along, we go from the wannabe Warchowskis to the wannabe Tarantino, an insufferable B-movie called "Hard Cash." This one deserves the Truth in Advertising Award for the year, because it's clear that hard cash was the only thing that got talent like Val Kilmer, Christian Slater and Daryl Hannah into this clunker.

News photo
Christian Slater (left) in "Hard Cash"

"Hard Cash" almost has some reverse appeal, in a "How bad can it be?" sort of way. Certainly, Kilmer vs. Slater hints at a Godzilla vs. Mothra-like battle of the superegos, two notoriously showy method actors trying to steal the scenes from each other. But alas, even that pleasure is denied us, as director Pretrag Antonijevic (of the watchable Bosnia conflict flick "Savior") handles this inane McScript with a mind-numbing lack of flair: The dialogue sinks like badly digested mochi, while the soundtrack is used like a cattle prod. If Tarantino's approach is postmodern cut-up, then Antonijevic's is preschool connect-the-dots.

The plot's your standard-issue "Reservoir Dogs"-styled heist, with a bunch of colorful crooks who mess up one robbery after another before turning on each other. The opening scam -- in which Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer emerges from a toilet to blow away a thug -- promises an over-the-top silliness which the rest of the film fails to deliver.

Balthazar Getty whines, Daryl Hannah's stuck with bared midriffs and the same bad masturbation joke, and Slater -- as the gang's leader -- maintains a serious but sensitive scowl throughout the film, trying his damnedest to be De Niro in "Heat." But the joke's on him, as the material here would be barely enough to sustain a video-game narrative.

Kilmer, as a crooked FBI agent who manipulates the gang into working for him, has a better sense of irony. He gives his character a wild-eyed, camp edge that might have worked if it wasn't smashing into Slater's brick wall of earnestness.

This one had "straight-to-video" written all over it, and sure enough, that was its fate in the States, as revealed by a search on the Internet Movie Database. I can't, however, beat the review by "Tiffany" on the IMDB for perfectly capturing the essence of "Hard Cash," so allow me to quote: "Rent another one, this one sucks."

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