The Devil’s Double (2011)

August 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Dominic Cooper as Uday Hussein in 'The Devil's Double'

Written by Michael Thomas and Latif Yahia, based on the novel by Latif Yahia

Directed by Lee Tamahori

Starring Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi and Phillip Quast

The Devil’s Double is a tale of excess, decadence, psychosis and state funded petulance by the youngest son of Saddam Hussein, Uday Saddam Hussein. Dominic Cooper portrays the late dictator’s late son as a made man with a devilishly high-pitched laugh, a sneering buck toothed smile jutting out from under his bushy mustache as he wears garish overpriced designer clothing while jetting between parties filled with people who only worship and play with him for fear of losing their life or their family’s life as a consequence of not smiling when he points a gold plated pistol at them just for kicks.

One downside to being an all powerful dictator who treats his people like disposable toys is that you gain a few enemies. The Husseins combat this issue by finding doubles for themselves. The doubles must make the public appearances that the Husseins are either too busy or lazy to attend, or if there’s too high a chance for an assassination attempt. Otherwise, the doubles appear to basically hang out with the Husseins and be their mirror image as they live their decadent life styles.

The film begins when a lieutenant named Latif Yahla is plucked from duty and taken to a royal palace to meet Uday Hussein. Latif is a loyal, hardworking, blue collar Iraqi man who loves his family, likes his job, cares about his country and is otherwise a nice, normal happy fellow. Uday is, as mentioned before, psychotic. Uday explains to Latif that, if Latif wants, Latif can, for all intents and purposes, become Uday. He’ll cease to legally exist, he’ll be given carte blanche to all things of Uday’s possession (except for women) and that will be that. Uday couches this as a choice, but it’s very clear that the result of declining the offer would be inadvisable. With no real choice, Latif ‘accepts’ the position of Uday’s double and thus begins a surreal adventure in which Latif is forced to act like a psychopath while a proverbial gun is constantly at his head.

Uday has a lifestyle that looks nothing like a normal Iraqi’s. Everything he owns is from the highest end and most expensive designers of Europe and America. Everything he can gild is made of gold. His personal assistant is a dainty gay man, whose obviousness would probably not be tolerated under any other circumstances in Iraq. He runs night clubs where for all the people genuinely there to have a good time, many appear to be experiencing some sort of party-related indentured servitude for Uday, while he snorts more cocaine than Al Pacino in Scarface. Latif is able to sit back and watch is quiet disgust. If Latif wanted to he could participate, but Uday appears happy to just keep Latif around for the surreal pleasure of the situation. Latif is soon given plastic surgery and some prosthetics to look more like Uday and tries his hardest to make a genuine transition into life as Uday’s doppelganger slash playmate.

As Uday and Latif, Dominic Cooper’s performances are night and day. Though the two characters looks extremely similar- and must since it’s one man playing two men who look extremely similar- the distinctions between the two men, from their facial expressions to their body language are uncanny. It’s not a simple trick of one wearing glasses and the other not or some obvious tell like that. Dominic Cooper has recreated two separate men. Where Uday is energetic, cackles and flits around to his heart’s content making a fool at himself with no risk for social sanctions, Latif is quiet and generally embarrassed by the whole ordeal. Cooper has transformed himself into these two men completely. For proof of this, I challenge anybody who sees ‘The Devil’s Double’ to then go watch ‘Captain America’ in which Cooper plays Iron Man’s father ‘Howard Stark’ to see just how invisible Cooper is as Uday/Latif. There are some composite shots of his two performances interacting and sharing the frame. Some are more convincing than others, but the editing is decent enough to keep the illusion palatable.

Latif becomes emotionally unstable as Uday grows more psychotic. Uday keeps a woman, Sarrab, as his personal number one girlfriend, though he seems more interested in underage school girls and drag queens. Sarrab is instantly drawn to Latif’s quiet pride and his easily more mature personality, among other attributes that he excels at over his more powerful mirror image. Sarrab begins a torrid affair with Latif, while Latif begins to exhibit his own signs of madness at the terror he is forced to either participate in or bear witness to and turn a blind eye.

I won’t go into details about each example of Uday’s selfish, immature and cruel ways except to say that they’re quite explicit and heartless. Watching Cooper’s two performances grows simultaneously in opposite directions as the two men revert to the core of their personalities is fascinating when you consider it’s a single man performing both transformations.

There’s a surreal scene later on in the film during the Iraq’s push on the Kuwait in which Uday sends Latif to discuss military affairs with Saddam. When Latif arrives to talk to Saddam it’s obviously Saddam’s double giving Uday’s double instructions from the real Saddam meant for the real Uday. This is how surreal and preposterous things get. It’s done amusingly without any tongues in cheeks.

The way the film archs the story its much less a film about politics and more of a surreal gangster movie, for Uday lived a gangster’s life style. Imagine if Al Pacino’s Tony Montana was the most powerful gangster in Miami, then imagine he never had to hide what he did for a living. Consider how psychotic and obsessive he was under initial circumstances, now extrapolate that to a world in which he had absolute power. Uday Hussein is a bit like this. He’s terrifying and fascinating at the same time. He existence has no weight in reality or functional living. He’s a serial killer, a rapist, a coke fiend and still, a prince. Saddam Hussein doesn’t exactly enjoy his son’s escapades, but he, too, is so corrupted by power that he doesn’t see how anything Uday does could be anything less than acceptable, if not encouraged.

Latif, through a series of soul crushing events, eventually becomes numb to Uday’s obsession over him and his treatment as a favorite puppy. The threats towards his life and his family’s life feel meaningless and Latif begins acting out. The end of the film is, once again, rather surreal. Things have come full circle for Latif, while Uday doesn’t grow at all as a person, but that’s to be expected.

‘The Devil’s Double’ is not without its flaws. It runs a bit long, with some segments feeling unnecessary and repetitive. The visual style can also run a bit flat at times given the grand nature of the story. However, there is no denying Dominic Cooper’s tour de force double performance. This is his coming out party as an actor to follow and care about. For all I know, this is the performance of his lifetime, but even if it is, it should be studied and appreciated for how separate his two entities in the picture feel. It’s a meaty role and the role of a life time, I’m sure, as it should be. Cooper nails it and then some.

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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

July 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Chris Evans being outmatched by uber-Nazi storm troopers in the campy but quality 'Captain America: The First Avenger'

Based on the comic created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Written for the Screen by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Directed by Joe Johnston

Starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Toby Jones, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper with Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones

In the last nine years, since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, we’ve experienced a glut of big budget comic book movies. Prior to these, there was a smattering of weak attempts, including low budget versions of Captain America and Fantastic Four, a grunge-y adaptation of Blade and an odd assortment of lesser known comic book heroes not named Superman or Batman. Now in the past year we’ve had all the second tier characters on top of plentiful sequels for the A-list characters; The Green Lantern, the Green Hornet, Thor, Daredevil, Iron Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, the Hulk, etc.

So at this point we have an idea of what a comic book movie is, what to expect and what we like or don’t like about them. There’s the traditional school of comic book movies, such as Superman, Fantastic Four, etc. all slightly cartoonish and dreamlike. There’s the gritty re-invention adaptations such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and then there’s the newly minted Marvel-verse, which seems to take all its cues from Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man movie. Henceforth, it was inevitable that certain properties would be adapted eventually. Of these properties, despite the fantastical alternate realities most comics take place in, Captain America is probably the most difficult to translate to screen, given the facts.

It’s basically about a normal G.I. on super steroids who wears a colorful uniform, sports a cumbersome but effective shield and only carries a pistol, which he barely uses. Aside from the logistical issues in convincingly displaying Cap Am on the silver screen, there’s a political element as well; Captain America is a fairly jingoistic character that’s a little too Ra-Ra America at his core for our generation’s multi-culti world view to be entirely comfortable with. There’s also the question of who could successfully play Captain America. It can’t be an unknown- that doesn’t sell tickets- but at the same time, the truly square jawed All American type from the 50’s is simply too cardboard 1-dimensional for audiences to connect with or take seriously as a character to root for. At his core, Captain America is an every man, meant to represent the very best values and abilities our nation has to offer. He isn’t cursed by a troubled past, or by some horrible deformity. He’s tall, well built, good looking, confident, loves his country and is a perfect physical specimen, designed to be as agile and adept in combat as humanly possible. A.K.A. he’s on the greatest steroids known to man. To top all of this off, despite being a United States soldier and essentially doing normal G.I. infantry missions during WW2 in his initial inception, Cap chooses to wear a rather attention grabbing outfit replete with a red, white and blue color scheme and a face mask that one would think obscured his vision worse than any regular helmet possibly could. In short, at face value, everything about Captain America as a character is impractical, even if his biological functions are next to perfect.

So given all that, they still went ahead and adapted the comic. They cast pretty boy hunky all american actor Chris Evans as Cap, going a little younger than previous incarnations, filled the rest of the cast with serviceable character actors, plus some gravitas from the wonderful Tommy Lee Jones and the respectably scenery chewing Hugo Weaving as Cap’s super villain-esque arch enemy Red Skull, a Nazi so evil and messed up he’s supposed to dwarf Hitler’s ambition and capacities considerably.

What director Joe Johnston has somehow done is perfectly melded the realistic aspects of a modern World War 2 movie, with the gung-ho aspects of a classic old Hollywood John Wayne-esque WW2 men-on-a-mission vehicle and filtered all of this through the perspectives of our larger than life hero Captain America and our larger than life villain Red Skull. We get subtle nods to the history of Captain America, to his original costume, which, like many original comic book costumes, don’t translate well to screen and we see a personal journey for Steve Rogers, the weak man who’d be turned into Cap, as a very relatable journey of a man weak in physical attributes, but powerful in courage, commitment and character. Johnston’s film never loses site of the Steve we’re initially introduced to, the Steve who suffers from a litany of health problems and is bone thin. He’s discovered at a recruiting station by Stanley Tucci’s sympathetic fatherly German scientist, who serves as a surrogate father figure to the orphaned Steve. That Steve stays with us as Captain America. His spirit is imbued believably within what becomes a behemoth of a man with his engorged biceps, bulging pecs and rippling abs. No, I’m not salivating, but the physical differences are a fact and do inform the character. The good part is that they don’t define him. He’s also devoid of zingers, one liners or any tongue-in-cheek dialogue. He’s as close as a multi-dimensional person to a Captain America adaptation is gonna get.

He’s given a love interest in Hayley Atwell, a British intelligence attache to the super soldier project that gives birth to Captain America. The romance is underplayed, as she initially sees Steve Rogers as an inexperienced, awkward young man who is honest and polite, but unaccustomed to dealing with women. He’s accompanied by a commanding officer in the gruff but fatherly Tommy Lee Jones and an assortment of soldier cliches around to support Captain in his suicide missions. These are played by established actors like Neal McDonough (best known for ‘Band of Brothers’, another WW2-centric story) and Derek Luke (of Antwon Fisher, amongst other films), the token African-American member of the crew. There’s also a crass but lovable asian American soldier tossed in for good measure. It’s a veritable Rainbow Coalition of a WW2-era fighting unit. The soldiers are there to be recognizable extras in a movie that is all Captain America’s. There’s also Sebastian Stan in a muted turn as Bucky, Cap’s sidekick, and Dominic Cooper as the senior Stark, father of future Iron Man Tony Stark.

In a similar capacity, Toby Jones shows up as Red Skull’s chief scientist and right hand man, Arnim Zola. It isn’t clear if he’s being forced to work for evil or if he’s evil himself, but merely indifferent and burned out from all the work he does. Red Skull’s plan is a macguffin. Basically he’s found this ancient blue plasma stuff that can be weaponized into these standard-issue laser gun/cannons, bombs, etc. and he uses them to build his own army of super Nazis who aren’t really Nazis (they’re his own brand of evil, whose name I forget) with a belief in the occult, a ridiculous double-Nazi salute and lots of other vaguely Metropolis-esque future-tech and they wear these Darth Vader-esque black uniforms, replete with breathing masks. The fire fights seem pretty fare between the traditionally armed American soldiers and the Nazis with science-fiction blaster guns.

Everybody gets their day in the sun, including some awkward scenes where everybody is given what feels like forced lines as an excuse to remind us they aren’t simply extras. Every name actor, like Tommy Lee Jones, get their big scene. Dominic Cooper channels the cocksure but oddly alluring nature of the Stark gene pool without coming off as a cheap imitation of Robert Downey, Jr.’s take on his fictional son. The action is very comic book-y with neat tilted angles and lots of money shot moments where Cap tosses his mighty shield to kick the ass of one of the future-tech Nazi storm troopers.

The ending is a bit of a non-starter as we kinda go from action set piece to downtime to action set piece until you realize the film is closing in on its 2-hour-plus run time and the film simply sets us up for inevitable sequels and the Avengers movie. They tie it into the Marvel Universe with a very brief appearance by one of the linking characters in all these films (hint: he’s black) and a special trailer for the Avengers film once the credits end. (I like the gimmick that this is an actual trailer as trailers originally functioned at the end of movies and got their names)

All in all a hammy but satisfying adaptation. They did as best a job they could of adapting an out-of-date character and impractical character and universe to conform to modern standards of film making, entertainment and political correctness. In the end, however, it felt like the pilot to a cartoon show come to life. That’s not a bad thing, but it does leave one with a detached sense of an impersonal screenplay for a property that might be too ingrained in its own time to translate perfectly to film.

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