Sunday, October 10, 2010

Wrong Turn at Tahoe

In his first movie, “P2”, Franck Khalfoun created a decently crafted, low-budget, direct-to-video thriller that caught some people’s attention, at least enough attention to land names like Cuba Gooding Jr., Harvey Keitel, and Miguel Ferrar for his second movie “Wrong Turn at Tahoe”. Okay, Miguel Ferrer may not be a huge catch, but he’s still rad.

Joshua (Gooding Jr.) collects outstanding debts for the mob, and tells you early on that all he has to live for is revenge. He is calm and level headed about his duties, while his partner Mickey (Johnny Messner) prefers to slap his victims around. Joshua, in his surface tranquility, winds up being the most intimidating of the two. He isn’t going to scream at you or rough you up, and he won’t enjoy fucking you up. This isn’t personal, this is business, this is his job. But that won’t stop him from burning the bottom of your feet with a hotplate.
Joshua works for Vincent (Ferrer), a middle-tier gangster. The two have been together for years. Vincent trusts Joshua implicitly, and Joshua in turn, is fiercely loyal to his boss. When word comes down that Frankie Tahoe (Noel G.), a local drug dealer, wants Vincent dead, they pay him a visit and take care of him that time tested way that gangsters have, by throwing him in a deep hole in the middle of nowhere.
You start to wonder about the accuracy of Joshua’s revenge statement when he talks to his kid, who lives in some undisclosed place, on the phone. Obviously he has motivations beyond simple revenge, though they are never fully explored, and he even tries to quit his job so he can be with his son, a move that doesn’t exactly work out.
Unfortunately for Joshua and Vincent, Frankie Tahoe wasn’t an independent operator. He worked for Nino (Keitel), who just happens to be the biggest damn crime kingpin around. Vincent tries to cut Joshua loose and deal with the situation on his own, but Joshua, ever devoted, insists on accompanying him on one last ride.
“Wrong Turn at Tahoe” is built on secrets and lies, like a good crime movie should be, and the real story is how the players deal with the consequences of these deceptions. A quiet tension hovers over the story and the characters, and is matched by the dark, grimy feel and style. The main characters are interesting and well drawn, and it is worth watching for the cryptic back and forth between Ferrer and Keitel, two different brands of badass, where they compare their situation and themselves to various aspects of “Jaws”. And a guy gets choked to death with an American flag, that’s a nice touch.
This is a well-acted movie, and the construction and camera movement are meticulous and interesting. The muted color palate of cold blues, sickly greens, and monochromatic grays may be standard for a crime movie these days, but everything about the film is put together very well. While that may be the case, there are issues that hold “Wrong Turn at Tahoe” back, all of which are connected to first-time writer Eddie Nickerson’s script.
Quirky characters are fine, personality ticks make can make someone interesting and set them apart, but everyone in Nickerson’s script has a cute little twitch to them. For example, it’s not enough that Jeff (Michael Sean Tighe) be a sketchy junkie who has been friends with Vincent since they were kids, he has to be convinced that aliens abducted him. Of course the wingnut believes in extraterrestrials. On top of being forced and omnipresent, the idiosyncrasies aren’t unique enough to make them remarkable at all. The alien thing is bland and groan inducing.
In a similar vein, the dialogue is too clever for its own good. If one or two, or hell, even all three central characters, talked like they talk, it would be fine. You spend enough time with all of them that each has their own manner of speech, their own cadence, and all of them are intelligent, so it makes sense that what they say is quick and cunning. The banter between the main guys even works in moments when it probably shouldn’t, like when Keitel and Ferrer are shooting at each other in the kitchen and talking about protein shakes.
But like the quirks, the script piles it on too thick, and everyone in the entire film is always on point, full of wit, sarcasm, and adroit turns of phrase. That means everyone from the thuggish guard at Frankie Tahoe’s club, to the quartet of thick-necked goons playing Scrabble, who only exist to be slaughtered, are full of razor-edged quips and jaunty repartee. After a while everyone sounds the same.
“Wrong Turn at Tahoe” is a decent enough movie, especially amidst the throngs of low-budget DTV crime flicks. It isn’t at the top of the heap, especially given the steadily increasing quality of films in the DTV market, but if his first two films are any indication, Khalfoun is going to make some very badass films in the near future.

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