Everyone knows, when you want something done right, you hire some unsuspecting schmuck to do it for you. Wait, that’s not how it goes. The bad guys in these two films are doing it all wrong, which is why this Smackdown includes, among other things, a competition for the title of undisputed laziest criminal in movie history. In one corner we have Dwayne, played by Danny McBride in the new comedy 30 Minutes or Less. In the other corner, Mr. Smith — no not that Mr. Smith; the one played by Christopher Walken in the 1995 thriller Nick of Time. These villains don’t want to get their hands dirty, so each one scopes out his surroundings and picks out someone randomly to act on his behalf.
Guys, didn’t you ever listen to your high school guidance counselors? You’re never going to get what you want, because you’re simply not putting the work in. Also, your randomly chosen protagonists might not fully cooperate.
In 30 Minutes, we follow Jesse Eisenberg’s Nick, a 20-something pizza guy who gets forced via bomb vest into helping Dwayne collect an early inheritance by doing away with Dwayne’s father (Fred Ward). In Nick of Time, Gene Watson (Johnny Depp) has his daughter taken from him by Walken’s Mr. Smith so that he will participate in a conspiracy aimed at assassinating the governor of California. [Aside to keep things straight: 30 Minutes or Less has a character named Nick and an actor named Nick. Nick of Time has no Nicks to speak of, except the one in the title.]
Befitting their names, both these movies move fast – the longer one, Nick of Time, clocks in at 90 minutes – and both of them use that clock as a vital plot element.
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From Ruben Fleischer, the director who brought us Zombieland, comes 30 Minutes Or Less, a nice romp with Eisenberg’s Nick, as he gets kidnapped by Dwayne and his accomplice Travis, played by Nick Swardson (Reno 911, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan). The two strap a bomb to Nick’s chest and tell him to bring them $10,000 or else he goes boom. Scared out of his mind, Nick enlists the help of his ex-best friend Chet, Parks and Recreation’s Aziz Ansari, to accompany him as he robs a bank to get the money.
Although some people might not see it this way, a bomb being strapped to your chest can be a blessing in disguise. It was for Nick in this script (by Michael Diliberti, with story help from Matthew Sullivan), because it helps him see what’s important in life, including reconnecting with his ex-best friend. And what’s a best friend for, if not to rob a bank with you?
The trailer promises us the borderline offensive comedy we’ve come to expect from Swardson and McBride (Your Highness, Eastbound & Down), and the movie delivers, along with a side of Eisenberg’s snark and Ansari’s dimwitted hilarity, such as the little song he sings in the car while spray-painting the toy guns on the way to the robbery. Despite this movie’s action premise, it feels like a comedy all the way.
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The Defending Champion
John Badham was once a go-to director for a certain kind of kinetic action film, often with humor (Saturday Night Fever, WarGames), but after Nick of Time he directed only one more film before shifting over to television. Maybe if this movie had gotten better reviews and grossed more than $8 million, things would have been different. Maybe this movie would have been different.
Nick of Time follows Gene Watson (Depp), an accountant who has just returned to Los Angeles with his daughter after attending the funeral of his ex-wife. The two are intercepted by Smith (Walken), who flashes a fake badge and leads them to a van, where they’re told that either Gene kills the governor within 90 minutes, or Smith and his partner Jones (Roma Maffia) will kill Gene’s daughter.
Badham and writer Patrick Sheane Duncan waste no time getting started, sending Gene on a quasi-Hitchcockian mission to confront the governor while trying to figure out how to get his daughter and himself out of this mess. The story’s far-fetched but it moves fast, and Depp and Walken are fun to watch.
You would think it’s unfair to compare movie action sequences from 1995 to those of 2011, since we’ve come such a long way in terms of technology even within the last two years, let alone the last 16. Still, when it’s done well, the action holds up, and in Nick of Time, Badham handles it just right. He also uses just the right amount of Christopher Walken being a badass. The scene in which Mr. Smith nonchalantly murders an assistant with that look on his face that says, “I’m Christopher Walken and I can do whatever the hell I want” is classic entertainment for fans of the actor.
The action in 30 Seconds is even more outrageous. For example: Flame throwers, gangsta strippers, and guns… Oh my! This is the kind of stuff that’s expected from Fleischer after Zombieland. In that first stab at feature-length directing on the silver screen, he showed a nice balance of funny lines, likeable characters, and enough mayhem to inspire yelling “YEAH!” at the screen. (Although I recommend refraining from shouting while in the theater. Also, turn off your cell phones.) He got his formula for success down pat and doesn’t advance it much here. If it ain’t baroque, don’t fix it, right?
The casts of these movies were superb. It’s hard not to be entertained when on one hand you have Aziz Ansari (a bright light in Funny People), Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, and Nick Swardson; and on the other, you have Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken, who can make even the worst roles come alive. All make an impression, but I have to deduct a few points from Walken due to the horrendous facial hair he sports in Nick of Time. His hard death stare kind of loses its effect when it looks like a Muppet inhabits his upper lip.
Both films have stories that are borderline ridiculous, but only one of them has the good sense to treat its plot comedically. As for the characters, in 30 Seconds, Aziz Ansari and Danny McBride help create the right amount of chaos and hilarity to balance out Jesse Eisenberg’s awkwardness. By no means is this film going to top any best-of lists at the end of the year, but it was entertaining to see these wild personalities clash. By contrast, while the leads in Nick of Time are great on the surface, there’s no dimension to them, other than a father willing to do anything for his kid. While that behavior is admirable in a cliché sort of way, Badham doesn’t take the time to develop much more of a reason to care for Depp’s character. In the end, the action isn’t enough, which is why 30 Minutes or Less beats Nick of Time in a heartbeat.