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Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2004

It's a different kind of payback time

Mystic River

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Running time: 138 minutes
Language: English
Opens Jan. 10
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Revenge flicks are a staple of cinema, largely due to the fact that they can present otherwise unpalatable doses of violence and brutality under the moral cover of "payback." Mad Max can burn a man alive, or The Bride in "Kill Bill" can lop off a defenseless victim's limbs, and we can enjoy the cathartic rush we get from this because, well, they had it coming.

News photo
Sean Penn in Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" (C) 2003 WARNER BROS. ENT. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED (C) 2003 VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS (BVI) LIMITED

That, however, is a very dangerous message at a time when 75 percent of Americans view the war on Iraq as some sort of payback for the events of 9/11 (a tenuous connection at best.) It's more than a little ironic that so many films in the past year have been highlighting the consequences of red-eyed revenge, of vigilante actions and mob justice (or a "coalition of the willing," to use the newspeak term), and their tendency to find the most convenient culprit, which may not necessarily be the guilty party. From "Irresistible" to "City of God," from "Hero" to "Heaven," all have reminded us that revenge is a dish best served cold, if at all.

It's rather surprising, then, to see director Clint Eastwood -- Clint of "Dirty 'go ahead, make my day' Harry" fame, the king of the vigilante cops -- strike a similar chord with "Mystic River," a sharp, well-acted tale of murder and retribution in blue-collar Boston.

Eastwood's working in the modern crime/suspense mode that he's pursued of late in films like "True Crime" and "Blood Work," but the lynch-mob mentality on display could have been lifted from any of the genre westerns in which he started his career. However, "Mystic River" is shrouded in bad karma, an unspeakable past and dark destiny, that recalls nothing so much as Eastwood's finest film, "Unforgiven." And it's this atmosphere of dread, in which past mistakes will come back to haunt us, that keeps "Mystic River" gripping from beginning to end.

The film, based on a best-selling novel by Boston-based crime writer Dennis Lehane, starts on a lazy, early autumn afternoon circa 1975, with three boys -- Jimmy, Sean, and Dave -- playing a game of street hockey. A car pulls up and an angry man, who says he's a cop, starts berating the kids over an act of petty vandalism and orders Dave to get into the car. All three kids think something's not right, but Dave gets in anyway. Turns out he's been kidnapped by a pair of old pervs, and only manages to escape four traumatic days later.

Cut ahead 25 years to the same neighborhood: Jimmy (Sean Penn) runs a corner store and has three kids with his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney). He's connected with the neighborhood hoods, but after doing time for robbery, he's now on the straight and narrow, mostly for the sake of his kids. A hard man, though, he's still feared and respected on the street. On the opposite end is Dave (Tim Robbins), a shambling, dazed ruin of a man, working odd jobs and nervously overprotective of his young son.

Sean (Kevin Bacon) is the only one of the boys to have left the 'hood. He now works as a homicide detective for the state police with his partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne). His marriage is a wreck: His wife calls him on his cell phone from overseas and says nothing, only listening while Sean tries every trick in the book to get a normal conversation going. Sean doesn't know it yet, but a random murder on a late Saturday night is going to bring him back to his old neighborhood, and back in touch with Jimmy and Dave, both connected to the murder, but in completely different ways.

Let's leave it at that: Lehane's story is so well constructed, its escalation of grief, rage and suspense so involving, that you shouldn't read it here first. Unlike so many fantasy/over-the-top films of late, in "Mystic River" you can believe in the characters and the situation, and it's this aspect that really draws the viewer in. Would you, like Jimmy, turn to the neighborhood enforcers -- a pair of thick-necked, bull-like men known as the Savage Brothers -- to take care of the murderer before the police can catch him? Could you, like Sean, investigate your old childhood buddies, in the name of upholding the law? Could anyone go through what Dave did and continue to function in life without snapping? "Mystic River" is a movie that forces you to imagine yourself in these morally complex situations, and to wonder if you could manage any better.

Eastwood perfectly captures the insular feeling of life in a working-class urban neighborhood, where generations grow up in the same walk-up apartments, and nobody's sins are private. Penn, for his part, nails the sort of Irish Catholic tough who has no problem with going to his daughter's first communion on Sunday, and planning to put a bullet in someone's head on Tuesday. You could call Jimmy the "De Niro" role, as it involves a lot of yelling, a threatening physicality and a surprisingly likable, affectionate side as well. (Jimmy even has a cross tattooed on his back, a la De Niro in "Cape Fear.") But if there's one actor in America who can walk in De Niro's shoes, it's Penn, whose recent body of work -- "Dead Man Walking," "Hurlyburly," "Sweet & Lowdown," "21 Grams" -- is second to none.

Bacon is good in the way he's been good ever since he acquired enough lines in his face to counteract the cuteness, while Lawrence Fishburne is always welcome (when he's not MC-ing at raves in Zion). Surprisingly, it's Robbins who is the film's biggest let-down: He overplays Dave's weirdness, making him seem too suspicious, something Robbins was also guilty of in "Arlington Road."

In the end, though, "Mystic River" is as good as its script -- excellent when it sticks to the here and now and the real, somewhat more strained when it strives to be "literary": Both Robbins and Linney get overly written monologues that fall flat. Fortunately, there's more of the former than the latter, and "Mystic River" is worth taking the plunge. Look for this one to clean up the awards this spring; it's not the best film of 2003, but it's one of the few Hollywood flicks where the actors get to act, and that's something these days.

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