Quick Picks: “Body of Lies,” “Sex Drive”

“Body of Lies” (Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Strong, Alon Abutbul)

The world is “much simpler … to put to an end than you might think,” explains desk-bound CIA operative Ed Hoffman (Crowe) in “Body of Lies,” and coming from a man who begins and ends wars with a single keystroke, it’s as much a chilling threat as an observation about post-9/11 America. And it’s the glue that holds all the pieces — and there are many, many pieces, too many to count — of this Labrynthine espionage thriller together.

Donning Regular Joe khakis, a too-snug windbreaker jacket and oversized glasses, Crowe is creepy, hyper-informed Big Brother personified: He directs CIA operations in Iraq, Jordan and Syria from his air-conditioned Langley office, missions that quick-thinking field agent Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) carries out. Attempting to smoke out terrorist mastermind Al-Saleem (Abutbul), the harried Ferris partners with the Jordan Intelligence Agency’s shrewd chief, Hani (a cold, calculating Strong). The rest unfolds at a breathless, whiplash-inducing pace, and there’s too much to digest in one sitting. (Here’s a film that both demands and rewards multiple viewings.)

Still, this is much more than a blow ‘em up cat-and-mouse game — the focus on character development forces us to care about what happens to these agents as much as WHY it happens. (Just try not to squirm and wince during a brutal torture scene.) Solid but never showy performances make this possible. DiCaprio grows more subtle and effective with each role; long gone are the “Teen Beat” days when his flawless bone structure overshadowed his considerable acting chops. Here, his Ferris is no too-cool James Bond wannabe (sorry, Mr. Ebert) flashing a gun and a grin to charm the enemy. He’s a real agent in real danger, caught between two power players out to one-up each other — regardless of the collateral damage.

Which is where Crowe and Strong come in … not with a bang, but with a quiet determination that’s twice as unnerving. Ordinarily a bit-part actor, Strong, cast in the similarly complex “Syriana,” is freeze-your-blood good as Hani, who’s learned enough about America’s CIA operatives to manipulate them, turn them against one another. Crowe, too, turns in a fine, nuanced performance as Hoffman, who fires off world-changing orders — assassinations, bombings, you name it — in-between slow bites of breakfast cereal. Absolute power, it seems, hasn’t corrupted him; it’s just made him eerily complacent. In fact, it’s Hoffman’s total lack of remorse and conscience, his cold detachment and never-ruffled mannerisms that make him as sinister as Hani or the powerful anti-American terrorist ringleader Al-Saleem.

Yet it’s a testament to William Monahan’s smart script that neither Hoffman nor Strong are pigeonholed as villains. In Hoffman’s words, “no one’s innocent” in this war — words that burrow under your skin and stay there long after the credits have rolled.

Grade: B-

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“Sex Drive” (Josh Zuckerman, Clark Duke, Amanda Crew, Katrina Bowden)

If “Sex Drive” feels oddly familiar, there’s a good reason: This uninspired teen sex/road trip comedy contains traces of everything from “American Pie” (note: Zuckerman bears a striking resemblance to “Pie” alumnus Thomas Ian Nicholas) to John Cusack’s whip-smart “The Sure Thing” to last summer’s gleefully foul-mouthed romp “Superbad.” What it lacks? Oh, say, one-tenth of the originality and heart of any of these better movies. The been-there, seen-that plot centers on shy virgin Ian (Zuckerman doing a half-hearted Michael Cera impression), who steals the tricked-out 1969 GTO owned by his musclehead brother (James Marsden as you’ve never seen him – with a pulse) and drives to Tennessee to meet Ms. Tasty (Bowden), his “Playboy” centerfold-hot online girlfriend. Along for the ride are womanizing BFF Lance (Duke), who nails anything in a skirt, and Goth gal pal Felicia (Crew), the object of Ian’s affection who, of course, has the hots for Lance. Various sex- and alcohol-related pratfalls take place (most of them in what can only be described as a Reform Amish community) and lead up to a soppy, unsatisfying close. There are flashes of originality — Seth Green is snarky brilliance as a sarcastic Amish mechanic; the phrase “visiting grandma” gets a cringe-inducing makeover — but ultimately “Sex Drive” is too derivative and sloppy to leave much of an impression (excluding, of course, the double-entendre title).

Grade: C-

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