Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, Michael Keaton and Kurt Russell were major draws. They were in the prime of their careers and could do no wrong. But as with any aging actor, a new crop of young bucks began to steal their thunder in the late ’90s, and though they never really disappeared, they didn’t draw the same attention as they once did. So it’s good to see both of their now weathered mugs still finding work, even if it may not be in the same high-profile type of films they used to make (though Keaton is starting to cross back over with his role in February’s Robocop reboot). And what these boys prove in their newest respective films, Need For Speed and The Art of the Steal, is why they were such sought after actors in the first place — and why they deserve to regain their high-profile status.
On the surface, both films couldn’t feel more different. But with nearly identical inciting incidents that propel the main narrative forward, the films share more in common than you might think.
In The Art of the Steal, Kurt Russell delivers a great comedically subtle performance as “Crunch” Calhoun, a broken-down motorcycle stuntman who was once the most prominent wheelman in a team of art thieves. His skills and prowess as an actor help raise the bar of everyone else on screen, including Chris Diamantopoulos as Guy, a French master forger; Kenneth Walsh as Patty, the man with the connections; and another former high-profile star, Matt Dillon, as Crunch’s half-brother and the team’s idea man, Nicky, whose world-view couldn’t be more different than his brother’s.
Crunch believes in honor among thieves — you are only as good as the people you can trust. So when Nicky sells Crunch out to save his own skin after botching a heist (and subsequently sending Crunch to prison for seven years), you can imagine how well that sits with Crunch. Down on his luck, he’s looking for a way out of his less-than-honorable life style, and when Nicky screws over another of his partners, he sees his opportunity to get back in the game for one last score, despite the grudge he still holds against Nicky.
At first glance, the job doesn’t actually feel that big — not for a movie like this. The goal is to steal a rare book and deliver it to Detroit for a payday of about a million and a half. Split among the entirety of the team, which now also includes Crunch’s wayward protege, Francie (Jay Baruchel in the best role of the film), this type of score seems far too low for a highly-skilled team of pros to be so excited about. But then, with movies like this, there’s always a hidden agenda (or an unexpected twist) and the one involved here works perfectly, even if it may end up being too little too late.
Which for me, isn’t the case, as Russell’s chemistry and timing with everyone on screen is impeccable, especially with Baruchel and Dillon, who all create a wave of banter and camaraderie that sings like a sparrow. At the same time, though, there’s only so much he can do as an actor, and with a tone that bounces between grounded comedy and slapstick with hints of hyper-realistic ridiculousness (no more so than with the over-the-top Interpol agent (Jason Jones) tracking the boys with all the silliness of a cartoon character), it’s hard to really invest in the film as a whole and take the movie seriously as a legitimate piece of art.
Need For Speed, on the other hand, is anything but high art. Based on the successful video game franchise, it’s a chaotic, heart-pounding, visually kinetic film about a mechanic named Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) who, fresh out of prison, flies across the country in a Shelby Mustang to enter a highly sought-after, secret illegal street-race and clear his name. The reason: like Russell in Steal, Tobey was hung out to dry after an old rival, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), accidentally kills Tobey’s best friend (Harrison Gilbertson) and leaves Tobey holding the bag for manslaughter.
The racing sequences in the film are done quite well, as are the segments that follow Tobey, his love-interest, Julia (Imogen Poots) and their team across the country. It’s enough to keep some of the more absurd moments from interfering in your believability of the action sequences. There are some subplots and character developments that are left in the dust (as well as some that don’t pay off as they should), but what are we to expect from a brainless popcorn action piece, where the script is more of a road map than an actual stone tablet. If you’re willing to let go and allow the filmmakers to take you where they want, it’s a fun little joy ride.
It’s Michael Keaton, though, who adds all of the spice to the proceedings as Monarch, the creator and promoter of the DeLeon street race. Keaton’s high-octane energy is so magnetic, you can’t wait for him to return to the screen, which can’t be said for Tobey and his crew of misfits. That’s not to say the team isn’t fun, or don’t have any great moments (which each of them do), but their on-screen power and chemistry is no match for Keaton’s exuberance.
The only one who comes close is Poots, who sizzles as Julia. She’s charm, sex, fun and intelligence all wrapped in a beautiful British-accented package. She’s a rising star to watch and if you don’t fall in love with her, you probably have no heart.
It’s just a shame Keaton is locked up in seclusion for the entirety of the film (filming all of his scenes apart from the rest of the cast) because there is no doubt in my mind that, like Russell, he would have elevated the performances of this younger set of stars. In other words, having Keaton around the cast would have given the film the authentic spirit it needed to be as awesome as it claimed itself to be.
My Grades — Steal: B; Speed: A-
Next week, new movies include Divergent and Muppets Most Wanted. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.