Monday Morning Critic – Jack Nicholson, Vin Diesel, Riddick And The Franchise Problem of the Modern Movie Star – Welcome to the Punch

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This past week has been fairly innocuous when it comes to film; not a lot of real news. The biggest was the fake news of Jack Nicholson’s retirement, which was explained by Nicholson’s reps claiming he was still looking at scripts. Nicholson has done enough over the years that he doesn’t have to work, not for the money or the laurels, and thus it’s understandable why he hasn’t made a film since that piece of crap romantic comedy with Paul Rudd and Reese Witherspoon.

He doesn’t have to; he can pick his spots. So it’s easy to see why he’d pick a film like How do you Know. That film had an exorbitant budget ($120 million) for the genre and Nicholson cashed $12 million of it just to show up for what was a glorified cameo role. It was the definition of a paycheck role for Nicholson and I can’t blame him for taking it; after great turns in The Bucket List and The Departed sometimes you can’t fault an actor for just saying “screw it” and taking the biggest check offered.

And it got me thinking … Nicholson became a star in old Hollywood and managed to stay one because he always found great projects. In this day and age, if Nicholson were in his 20s and coming off a similar project as Easy Rider, he’d be destined to try and find a franchise to cement his status instead of moving on to Five Easy Pieces. He’s only been in one sequel, The Two Jakes, and his career has always been about projects that weren’t designed for more than one film. It’s the old path to stardom: the actor as brand.

It’s the new path to stardom … and we just saw it this weekend with Vin Diesel.

Diesel has never been all that talented of an actor; he’s just charismatic enough (and muscular enough) to be confused with an action hero. He’s not, of course, but he’s talented enough to be confused for one. It’s why he returned to his two signature franchises, of course, and it’s his key to doing what he wants. The key to big checks is now through a franchise; everything else will flow elsewhere. It’s the new path to movie stardom, a much more limited one at that, in that an actor now has to become a franchise star first before trying to become a genuine movie star.

And if we need to find a specific time when this changeover it occurred with one film: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.

Before that film Johnny Depp was an actor who appeared in weird films that didn’t gross money, often working with Tim Burton. He was the guy the Goth girls in high school had on their walls, nothing more, and from that film forward Depp has become an intergalactic level star. In one fell swoop he went from being an actor to a star. There’s a reason why he commands $20 million plus per film these days: Captain Jack Sparrow made him a star and nearly everything he’s touched has turned into gold since.

Depp has the ability to pick and choose his projects because he can always hold a Pirates sequel over everyone’s heads; the fourth one was easily the worst of the series and made an ungodly sum of money. It’s how he can get a film like The Rum Diary greenlit despite no one really wanting to see it en masse. It’s why Ryan Reynolds keeps trying his hand at big time leading man status, and failing, when he should be a comedic leading man in smaller films.

Once you can headline a $200 million film and make your budget back and then some you can punch your own ticket in Hollywood. If you can be a superhero and lead a billion dollar franchise you can pick projects more to your liking down the road. Every massive flop of 2013 is rooted in this sort of thinking: if you can be the king of a brand you can extend out beyond it.

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

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This Week’s DVD – Welcome to the Punch

Ever watch a British film and just wonder when on Earth it’ll wind up being remade by an American studio? That’s the general conceit I had when watching both the trailer and the film for Welcome to the Punch.

It’s a simple setup. Max (James McAvoy) is a badass cop haunted by the fact that he let the baddest criminal mofo in Britain, Jacob (Mark Strong), get away. He didn’t really let him; Strong shot him in the leg mid-escape. He escaped the country and is living the retired criminal paradise, a nice home in an extradition free country under an assumed name, when life leaves him wanting to come back to London. Jacob’s kid winds up in the hospital after a botched robbery, one which he was a part of, and now Jacob has to come back for his son.

Max knows this and what starts out as a trap to capture Strong winds up becoming much more, and much deeper, than either of them ever knew. Combining forces, the two make for an uneasy combination to find out the truth about things much bigger than personal vendettas.

It’s a punctual, first rate thriller that combines an interesting cop/criminal dynamic, two members of the underrated actor squad (McAvoy and Strong) and a great way of setting up big story moments. Throw in some excellent shootouts and you’ve got a strong crime thriller that just reeks of being remade with Americans in the lead.

Strongly Recommended.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and community college co-eds with low standards at the Alumni Club

The Family – Robert De Niro is a mob member in witness protection with his family. Shenanigans ensue.

Skip it – Chalk this up to De Niro’s apparent tick upwards in quality comes with it a price: crappy films in between good ones.

Insidious Chapter 2 – More ghosts messing with Patrick Wilson and family, apparently, as something followed him back from the first film and is haunting them again.

Skip it – Just looks sort of “Meh” … nothing more, nothing less, than “meh.”

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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