By James Kenney
Misconduct is another in my Stealth Cinema series, films featuring notable casts in genre exercises that would have received 1,000 screen releases a decade ago, but now are consigned to a Video On Demand release as Hollywood has become solely obsessed with superhero and “tentpole” pictures at one end of the spectrum, and self-important Oscar-fodder on the other end.
The character-driven genre piece done on a human scale is almost entirely absent now from the theatrical experience, but it hasn’t died out completely. The “straight-to-video” release no longer features David Carradine and Eric Roberts, but instead stars high-wattage celebrities such as Robert De Niro, Clive Owen, Hugh Grant and Bruce Willis.
Of course, while I bemoan what Hollywood has become, it doesn’t mean every star-driven mid-budget genre film is a gem. Misconduct, which comes off as if a fairly dim 14-year old non-English native tried to make a Brian De Palma film, certainly has the cast: Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Malin Ackerman and Julia Stiles are the topliners in this twisty (i.e., ludicrous) thriller about the cat & mouse games going on between a crooked pharmaceutical titan played by Hopkins; the head of a high-end law firm (Pacino) intent on bringing Hopkins down; the, err, security expert (it’s not really clear what she does) played by Stiles who is employed by Hopkins to investigate his girlfriend Ackerman’s vanishing shortly after she’s given valuable information to an ethically challenged lawyer (Duhamel) whose wife (Alice Eve) is in a state of depression over the death of their child. Oh, and there’s an ominous Korean gentleman, played by Byung-Hun Lee, who rides around on a motorcycle threatening people, likely cast to satisfy the Korean market, much as the diminutive “Rain” was cast in John Cusack and Jason Patric’s The Prince as a most improbable henchman to Bruce Willis’ Louisiana mob boss.
The film has an attractive enough cinematic look notwithstanding its presumably low-budget; cinematographer Michael Fimognari does a respectable job using the wide-frame in a kind of Peter Hyams low-key well-framed style, although extras are sometimes conspicuously absent and are inadequately directed when employed.
The script is full of awfully written dialogue, with Stiles at one point forced to tell Hopkins to be as “calm as ice.” Is ice calm? It sounds as if the writer didn’t comprehend idiomatic American English, but one wonders why Stiles didn’t speak up on set. I guess she’s a take-the-script-and-do-it-as-written type gal, and perhaps can be applauded for it, although she’s pretty feeble in this admittedly dumb, nothing role. Hopkins underplays and murmurs much of his dialogue like lots of stars do when cashing a check in what he must have known was a turkey, while Pacino goes the other way, hamming it up. His oomph is the only real vigor the film has, as lead Duhamel mostly meanders around looking sullen and confused, playing a character so morally compromised it’s hard to emotionally invest in his quandary.
The film ends on a series of “shocks” and “reversals” that need much more style and finesse than first-time helmer Shintaro Shimosawa supplies, and closes with a concluding twist that is more inexplicable than intriguing. Primary fans should know that Hopkins and Pacino do show up in enough scenes that they should probably watch the damn thing, unfortunately. Their heroes are here, if not seen to best advantage. If De Palma or Dario Argento, who as far as I can tell both need work, had been offered enough money, they might have signed up for this thing and made something of it. But, as it stands, Misconduct is mostly interesting in how it ill-uses institutions such as Hopkins and Pacino; once they signed on for their million-dollar paydays, wouldn’t it have been worth, say, ten grand to employ some starving but competent playwright to generate some better lines than “Be as calm as ice”?