There are so few genuinely original movies out there that I tend to coddle the ones I see that have a shred of originality in them. For that reason I wanted to go easy on Yamakasi, which takes one wonderful idea and absolutely kills it dead with a story that’s a shameless retread of bits and pieces of dozens of other movies. This, for me, is a depressing movie: We’re promised something exciting and new, and then we wind up suffering through yet another dumb concoction about Heroes Racing Against Time To Save A Little Kid In The Hospital. Even more disappointing is learning it was written and produced by Luc Besson, who has made a career out of movies that straddle the line between challenging and commercial. Yamakasi falls down on the commercial side of the line, hard.
The film deals with a crew of seven urban daredevils—the Yamakasi of the title—who do things like scale buildings barehanded, leap from rooftop to rooftop like Morpheus in The Matrix, and pull all sorts of other, similar stunts just for the sheer thrill and exhilaration of doing it. This is great stuff, not just because it’s clear that they’re all doing these things unaided and without CGI or doubles, but because they make it look like such effortless fun. Then we get to the actual story—which opens with a snotty police captain who hates the Yamakasi for stealing their thunder, or creating a nuisance, or whatever—and my heart collapsed. Great way to ruin a wonderful premise. (The character, by the way, is brought back for exactly one more scene and then abandoned, which told me that even the filmmakers did not have much faith in him either.)
We don’t just get the Pig-Headed Pigs, either. We also get the Kid In Danger subplot, and when this element came in—barely fifteen minutes into the movie, mind you—I groaned out loud. One of the boys who idolizes the Yamakasi tries to imitate them, falls out of a tree, and in the “24 hours before we have to do a heart transplant” the Yamakasi hatch a plan: Rob the men who run the organ-transplant intermediary company, and use their own money to pay for the kid’s transplant. Oh, and before that, they even save the boy’s distraught mother from jumping off a building—but we know she’s not doomed because the music doesn’t cut off abruptly when she falls.
It’s just that kind of movie, I guess—witlessly plotted, shamelessly manipulative, and with plot gears that grind like a Kenilworth eighteen-wheeler downshifting. And despite all that, there are two things that stand out. First and most obvious is the stuntwork, and there isn’t nearly enough of it, but what we do get of it is outstanding. There seems to be a positive backlash against wires and computer graphics in the stunt world; the success of stuff like Ong-Bak among knowing fans is proof of this. The second interesting thing is the subtexts in the film about the status of minorities—Moroccans, blacks, Turks, Asians—in France, and considering this film was made before the riots erupted, it’s oddly knowing about how the different classes regard each other in that country.
The good stuff is unfortunately undone by the dumb plotting, and by an obligatory element that seems to be an American import: the head detective or chief of police who is a total pig’s pig. Yes, we even get an early scene of his underlings giggling up their sleeves at him as the veins bulge out of the side of his neck. He does have one endlessly quotable line, though: “Japan had the Seven Samurai, America had the Magnificent Seven, and we are stuck with the Seven Pains in the Ass.” It’s probably the best line in the film, come to think of it—not a hard thing to achieve in a movie that is mostly forgettable dialogue and ludicrous machinations. The most annoying part is the movie’s cheapjack eye-for-an-eye pseudo-moralism: It’s OK to loot people who live in mansions, because the fact that they have money means they are all snooty, corrupt bastards.
One of the reasons I get annoyed very quickly with movies that take the low road is because reality is always more interesting than fiction, if you know what to look for. Police, for instance: The other week I read a story about a California detective who befriended the local graffiti gangs and turned them into the baddest-ass neighborhood watch that town had ever seen. Or the Yamakasi themselves: There’s a great little ’zine called Infiltration written by and for people who do “urban spelunking”—folks who go into steam tunnels or basements of big buildings, just to see what’s there. If Yamakasi had taken inspiration from stories like that instead of just recycling every other movie about cops, we could really have had something here, but the movie takes the relentlessly safe road all the way.
Roger Ebert’s editor Jim Emerson wrote not long ago that the movie companies are not in the movie business but in the risk management business. They have to guarantee a certain degree of return on their investments, and the best way for them to do that is to give people exactly what they’ve seen before in a slightly different package. Yamakasi seems to have fallen victim to that kind of thinking: if it’s too different, too daring, no one will see it, so we have to cram in all the pseudo-obligatory stupid crap that has been poisoning movies for decades now. This is the sort of film where a documentary about how they did it all would be automatically more interesting than the story they were trying to tell.
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