“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.
“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).