review by Eddie Cockrell, 25 January 2002
Palm Springs International Film Festival
In a public park, a woman stands
chained to a hot dog vendor’s cart by a pair of handcuffs attached
to her ankle. She’s in the sights of a man with a high-powered
rifle in the window of an office building across the square. They
communicate by cellular phone, and the rifleman’s game of verbal
cat-and-mouse turns into a spirited, high-stakes debate about gun
control, grief and responsibility. There’s also a bomb ("a really
big bomb," he adds helpfully) in the hot dog cart, rigged to go off
when her phone battery dies.
This is the central conceit of
writer-director Kari Skogland’s ambitious and provocative new
film, Liberty Stands Still. During the course of the
confrontation, the basic tenets of the American action film get a
fresh new workout by dint of her obvious passion for the material
and some audacious casting. If the results aren’t as much of a
commercial slam dunk as, say, such well-oiled political
conspiracy-cum-social responsibility movies as Enemy of the State,
chalk that up to some narrative implausibilities in the name of that
passion, as well as audience expectations based on that casting.
The woman in question is Liberty
Wallace (Linda Fiorentino), wife of genial but ruthless gun
manufacturer Victor Wallace (Oliver Platt). It’s while on her way
to an assignation with actor and lover Russell (Martin Cummins) as
he prepares for the closing night of his most recent play that
Liberty’s lured to the hot dog cart via phone by Joe (Wesley
Snipes), who taunts her mercilessly but for no immediately apparent
purpose. Turns out Joe’s got an agenda, fuelled by a genuine need
for revenge and justice.
Generally speaking, Skogland’s
narrative moves with a brisk and focused pace. If Russell’s
subplot never really fits (or makes much sense) and the police
occasionally appear conveniently inept, these weaknesses are swept
aside by the continuously inventive ways veteran B-movie
cinematographer Denis Maloney finds to circle the camera around the
subjects. The exercise is massaged by Michael Convertino’s urgent
score, which updates a Lalo Schifrin-era percussion-based cacophony
with electronic bleats and squiggles.
The acting is fine in that taught,
clipped way so conducive to the best thrillers, Fiorentino laying on
her trademark sass and Platt treading a fine line between repellence
and relaxation. Yet as good as Snipes is in a rare non-flashy role,
his very presence represents a challenge: when one of our major
action stars takes a part that requires him to do little more than
squint down a gun barrel and fiddle with some high-tech equipment,
the entire project is at risk. Credit Skogland’s incisive script
with managing to hold audience interest by never really doing what
they’ll expect it to do, right up until the downbeat yet
completely logical fade.
If the world really needs a distaff
version of Ridley Scott, then Skogland’s the real deal. Since 1994
she’s bounced between TV and theatrical projects, and her work
includes episodes of "Family Law" and "Queer as Folk" as well as
1997’s Men with Guns (not the John Sayles film) and the
2001 Canadian thriller Zebra Lounge. She’s clearly got all
the technical chops for the job, and if she’s sitting on other
properties with the broad social subject matter and personal urgency
of Liberty Stands Still (think of a clutch of Kevin Smith
characters, all breathless enthusiasm -- but with something really
smart and important to say), audiences will be hearing a lot more
from her. And if she isn’t, she’s clearly in line for the kind
of megabudget, action-oriented fodder that will probably never go
out of style in the boardrooms or at the box office. Either way,
Kari Skogland wins, and Liberty Stands Still is a noteworthy
step in that direction.
Recently screened as part of the
Nortel Networks Palm Springs International Film Festival, Liberty
Stands Still is apparently slated for a first-quarter 2002
commercial release via Lion’s Gate Films.
NR- Not Rated.
This film has not
yet been rated.