ASSAULT ON WALL STREET (2013, Uwe Boll): 5/10
[There are going to be spoilers galore in this review, but do you really care? ]
People keep saying Uwe Boll is the worst director in the world. The headline for the Village Voice review of this film says “Uwe Boll, Legendarily Bad Director…” before going on to mention several well-crafted scenes in it. Wiki says he is described as “the Ed Wood of the 21st century” in its first paragraph. Another Village Voice piece on him — an interview, no less — is titled “Uwe Boll, Worst Director Alive…”
But like most things borne of conventional wisdom, this seems to be a load of shit. First of all, I’ve never met anyone who actually thinks this — or even too many who have seen any of Boll’s films. But I’ve now seen three of them, and if you wanted me to list the directors I think are worse than Boll, we’d be here a while.
All that said, Boll hasn’t really made any films I’d consider actually “good.” They’re all problematic, none of them totally successful. But they’re also all interesting, provocative in different ways (even if that’s at the expense of intelligence or good taste), and clearly exhibit a guy with a decent of amount of skill behind the camera — at worst he’s merely competent. The most recent Boll film I’d seen before this week was BLUBBERELLA, a camp comedy about an obsese half-vampire superheroine in Nazi Europe. It’s as outrageous (and subtlety-free) as it sounds. Here are some things that happen in it: Blubberella helps Adolf Hitler set up a profile on JDate. A Nazi opens up a boxcar full of Jews, sprays air freshener into the train, then locks it back up. Blubberella uses rolling pins as weapons in one action scene, then motorboats a guy to death. In voiceover, she claims she’s an outsider because “I have trouble fitting in… to cars, and airplanes…” She kills Michael Pare by sitting on his face and farting, claiming “this moment brought to you by fried chicken.” All of this is, of course, button-pushing for effect, and even when it celebrates the slaughter of evil Nazis, you can’t pretend the film is any sort of bastion of tolerance while it’s using every trick in the book to make fun of fat people. But its entertainment value lies in how briskly it fires off these boundless jokes of bad taste, definitely proving to be a so-bad-it’s-good type of film. I doubt I’ll ever sit through it again, but it certainly has as much merit as any similarly campy-terrible John Waters film.
The other Boll work I’d seen — my first exposure to him — was RAMPAGE, a much more sobering film. It’s also fairly plotless and lumbering, following a Columbine-style young man who gears up for destruction, then spends the rest of the movie casually moseying around town killing everyone in sight. It’s violent, cruel, and seemingly pointless. At one point the killer imprisons several victims in a library or something, but stops before shooting them, instead letting them live — but then he comes back later in the movie to shoot all of them anyway. The film is nihilistic and numbing, but also very immediate and effectively tense; you’re never at a distance from anything and there’s no meta-cuteness to take you out of the experience. Furthermore, Boll doesn’t even punish his anti-hero: the kid gets away with it and lives.
Okay, that’s enough rambling about movies that aren’t ASSAULT ON WALL STREET. I recently read that the film was only released in one theater in Los Angeles, its fate resting in the hands of VOD. Well, I went to that one L.A. theater this evening, and I was the only person there. The theater owner graciously gave me a complimentary bottle of water and told me to “enjoy” my private screening. It’s hard to say I really enjoyed ASSAULT ON WALL STREET, but it’s a complicated experience and one about which I have a lot to say — more so than many films that are much better.
ASSAULT is essentially a remake of RAMPAGE but for the Occupy Age. Instead of a disillusioned youngster, it’s a hard-working nice guy who goes on a killing spree. And, like in RAMPAGE, he gets away in the end — another of Boll’s uncomfortable “happy” endings. But what’s even more disturbing than the refusal to punish a kill-crazy terrorist is the insistence on making the audience sympathize with him. Boll spends a good 70 minutes piling disaster after disaster after bad-break after bad-break for this sad protagonist, to the point where even country music songs aren’t this cry-in-your-beer. A working-class meathead who drives an armored car for a living — yes, literally taking someone else’s money from one bank to another without ever getting to touch it himself — and has a background in Army training. This soldier background is not only justification for his sniper skill in the final third, but also there to make an obvious commentary on what the military institution can do.
And obvious commentaries don’t end there: in a series of super heavy-handed scenes, poor Jim finds his investments liquidated, his bank accounts drained, and his house foreclosed upon. The only thing he has left in his life is his loving wife, who a) gets a lot of cute scenes of romantic banter (“Hey boy…” “Hey girl…”); and b) has just survived cancer only to have to deal with its crippling side effects (e.g. diabetes from glands overreacting to brain tumors that once existed). A lot of screenplay space is spent on the verisimilitude of Rosie’s medical condition and the trouble with paying for it (terms like “coverage cap” are tossed around until we think Michael Moore’s SICKO is going to appear on a DVD shelf). And this all is there to drive home the sympathy we’re supposed to — and do — feel for Jim. It’s then almost laughable when Rosie is so despondent that she slits her wrists in their marriage bed, leaving her corpse there for Jim to discover on the day he comes home from being fired (after all, an armored car company can’t stay insured if they employ a man being hunted by collection agencies). But it’s not laughable; it’s just depressing and even though it’s totally unmotivated (I know she feels like a burden to him, but does she really want to take away the one thing he has? Why not just leave him and run away?) and thus kind of bad writing, it has the desired visceral effect of making us just feel defeated by life.
And that’s what makes good ol’ Jim snap and go full Travis Bickle. Even before his Bickle-esque scene in the mirror where he practices drawing guns on himself, he does the buy-black-market-weapons-from-a-shady-dude thing — only it’s Clint Howard (who was also in BLUBBERELLA) as the salesman. His ensuing killing spree is predictable and by-the-numbers (he even starts thumb-tacking magazine articles about his victims to his hotel room wall, then crosses out their photos in red marker — seriously, does anyone do that?) and fairly efficient in that not a single bullet fails to hit its intended target. But on his way to the final bloody climax, Jim gets in an elevator and thus begins the one truly great shot in the film — if nothing else works about this (but some things do) and if a hardened critic couldn’t find anything else to praise here, there’s one shot that just rules. Jim is wearing a face mask to hide his identity (necessary for his final escape), but the mask is all white — stark white — and it’s smiling. And for a moment, Boll slows down the pace of the massacre to sit in this elevator with one smiling white-faced man, standing in profile, waiting to unleash hell. It probably lasts fifteen seconds max, but it feels like 10 minutes.
And in case you weren’t clear how intentional it was to make the bad guy a smiling white man, Boll then ensures all the shooting victims are male, and all the secretaries in the office who get to leave unharmed are female. All of the bankers, investment managers, and CEOs are smiling white fatcats. It’s bargain-basement criticism, one-note and shallow (Boll really can’t muster the depth and nuance necessary to really rally the 99%; he starts his film off with a random assortment of TV clips of Bush and Obama, merely praying that the images will do the work for him). But it leads the audience to that uncomfortable feeling of identification. So does the casting — Jim is played by Dominic Purcell (previously unknown to me), who isn’t by any means a great actor, but he’s certainly capable and moreover lacks any sort of movie star charisma. You can’t help but buy him as the bull-headed working class schmo you’re watching. Driving home, I started to feel a little guilty that I was kind of rooting for a terrorist. Boll successfully manipulates the audience into empathizing, then puts us in the squirmy position of complying with this massacre as a result. It’s a brutal trick, the mark of a shock filmmaker and a bit of a sadist, but it does make the experience adequately complicated.
I haven’t seen most of the films that everyone talks about when they mention how awful Boll is, and I don’t really want to. Evidently, HOUSE OF THE DEAD, ALONE IN THE DARK, and BLOODRAYNE are truly awful. And maybe they are. But now after three films, none of which are legitimately good, I find myself in the most bizarre position of not only defending Boll, but having just written the longest review yet posted to this site. And so despite all the things that are objectively bad about ASSAULT ON WALL STREET, it’s undeniable that no film this strange and unique, capable of making me wrestle with it against all odds, can be the mark of the world’s worst filmmaker.