you can understand why he does it: Who really wants to watch Richard Gere tap-dance? But Martin is an endlessly inventive comic contortionist. For all the use Shankman makes of him here, he might as well have used—well, Richard Gere.
In an early scene in Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun, a besieged Catholic missionary in civil-war-torn Nigeria tells Navy seal lieutenant A. K. Waters (Bruce Willis) to “go with God.” Waters replies, “God already left Africa.” If you have an ear for this sort of thing, you can almost predict a grateful refugee will end up saying to Waters, “God will never forget you.” God is big in Tears of the Sun. So is manly stoicism and floridly photographed scenes of carnage. Waters has been ordered to retrieve a Doctors Without Borders physician (Monica Bellucci) from a remote village, but she won’t budge unless Waters promises to bring her flock to safety. He and his squadron are perpetually good-to-go. They balk at the extra baggage, but then, with Waters leading the charge, they develop a crushing case of conscience. They become heroes, and martyrs, for defying orders.
In a movie with so much graphic suffering by innocent Africans, it’s a bit disconcerting that so much loving attention is paid to Bruce Willis’s anguished mug. There’s an uncomfortable Great White Father (and Mother) aspect to this movie, which perhaps explains the insertion of the film’s soggiest moment, when an African-American seal tells Waters that the evacuees “are my people, too.” Just in case we forgot. What this film is really about is movie-star sanctification. God will never forget them.
Irreversible, starring Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci (it’s a busy week for the Italian bombshell), is such a ferociously unpleasant experience that, as powerful as it is, I’m hesitant to recommend it without first issuing a slew of disclaimers. It features two sequences—an attack in which a man is literally beaten to a pulp and a brutal rape scene—that are almost impossible to watch. Though many have made the charge, I don’t think anyone can rightly accuse Gaspar Noé, the film’s director, writer, editor, and cinematographer, of using sex or violence as titillation. He shoots his sequences in long, unbroken takes, and the unblinking horror that results is, I think, the opposite of exploitation. There has been so much lurid bloodletting in the movies that you might think nothing could faze us anymore. Think again.
Noé isn’t really investigating the nature of violence; he’s just placing it before us in a way that is more sadistically charged than anything we’ve become accustomed to. The value in this, if indeed there is value, is that Noé forces the audience to examine its responses to what is real and what isn’t. Watching the film makes you feel trapped and crazed—much the way you might feel if all this were actually happening before your eyes. He reclaims the power of cinema to astonish, but in the most hellish of terms.
The difference between Noé’s film and, say, Pulp Fiction is that Tarantino plays around with mayhem with a movie maven’s brio and shuffles time schemes because he likes puzzles. Noé, on the contrary, is deadly serious about the mayhem he inflicts on us, and his time-juggling is philosophically purposeful: The filmÂ’s story, in which the two lovers snuggle and screw and argue before moving on to a rock-the-house party that Bellucci fatefully leaves alone, unwinds in reverse—an especially horrific ploy because we know what will happen. We begin in horror and end in tenderness.