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License to Bore

Getaway stalls out and The Grandmaster kicks itself senseless.

Getaway

I‘m not someone who derives satisfaction from solving a movie’s plot before the movie solves it for me. I’m paying for the satisfaction of surprise. I’m paying for a movie to mock my sense of cleverness or compound it with some cleverness of its own.

You’re always five scenes ahead of Getaway, and it’s exasperating. Euro-baddies have kidnapped the wife of a traumatized former race car driver (Ethan Hawke) and commanded him, by cell phone, to steal a Mustang rigged with surveillance cameras and drive it around Bulgaria in a way that causes maximum chaos. If he refuses, they’ll kill her. But he has no idea what their ultimate goal is. He’s the labor.

It’s not long until Selena Gomez hops into the passenger seat (she happens to be the car’s rightful owner and she appears to be wearing a Tigers baseball cap). Gomez explains the technology pulling Hawke’s strings (she happens to be a computer genius, too). First she does so with the exasperation of a tween teaching her dad to text. Then she does it with the relief of an actor who remembered her lines (“It’s not encrypted, it’s uploaded to a public server!”). Anyway, now if she gets out the car, the wife still dies.

Once Gomez deduces what all this driving is about and tells Hawke what her father does for a living and seems to have put the bad guys’ whole scheme together, you start to change your mind about what an obnoxious brat she’s been, because she cracked the case. But instead of making it all explicit, she says: “I just wish I knew what he was after.” This is not what you want to hear from a woman initially famous for her TV wizardry.

But if Gomez were allowed to be as smart in this movie as she would be while watching it, Getaway would last 35 minutes. As it is, this hour and a half reeks of contractual obligation. Why were Hawke and his non-Bulgarian wife living in Sofia in the first place? Was their tax break as good as the one for the film? The production couldn’t have enjoyed outstanding police protection since the depiction of Bulgarian law enforcement makes the Keystone Kops seem like the FBI.

The whole movie should end after Hawke’s first driving stunt, since no police department would allow that car to get away. Yet that Mustang escapes again and again and again. When a pair of officers gets close, Hawke drives into a cul-de-sac and shuts off the engine. And they don’t see him. The bad guys have more success chasing that Mustang than the police do.

If the movie is as much a commercial for the Mustang Shelby GT500 as it appears, be sure to ask your dealer for the model that’s indestructible, bulletproof, and never runs out of gas. If movies need us to suspend disbelief, you have to supply your own clothes hangers for Getaway. The budget is an alleged $18 million, but that can’t be right. Half the film has been shot with webcams. Nothing that looks this terrible should cost even $18,000.

This is a movie that makes gruel of better hits — Die Hard, Taken, Drive, nearly anything with Jason Statham. But in each of those vehicles, the star got to demonstrate starriness. You keep waiting for the film to let Hawke flash some wit or grit, but he doesn’t. Gomez isn’t the actor he is, but she’s been given more to do. She’s the hero; the child of Sandra Bullock in Speed.

But even that feels more like an accident than a strategy. The director is a Canadian schlock producer named Courtney Solomon. Instead of devising a visual strategy, he just randomly dropped cameras and used whatever they captured. That explains why the movie’s villain — who’s shown from behind, hunched over a laptop, but mostly from the nostrils down, once or twice sipping a martini (the identity of this person is withheld either as a source of suspense or an act of integrity) — is filmed from multiple angles that reveal only an editor’s indecisiveness.

Most action sequences now rely on an abundance of edits. But I’ve never seen a movie in which so much of that action is just editing (it’s credited to Ryan Dufrene). There are two decent chases. One’s between the Mustang and a guy on a motorbike with a gun at the site of a commuter rail station. But that ends in the sort of explosive overkill that says, “You guys, we’ve only spent $1 million so far!” The other chase has the Mustang trailing an SUV at dawn, and it’s exciting because it’s a single take in which the driving and stunt coordination feel intentionally under-rehearsed. It feels real. You can hear the shifting of gears and the revving of motors. The shot is exciting, because your nerves are being properly jangled rather than shredded. But it just doesn’t culminate with anything exciting the way it might have with an artist like Nicolas Winding Refn or an absurdist whose commercial instincts are as uncanny as Luc Besson’s. You never sense with Getaway that you’re in the hands of a competent director. You feel like you’re behind the wheel with a hack.

The Grandmaster Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster tells the story of Bruce Lee’s martial-arts teacher, the legendary Ip Man (Tony Leung), and it’s almost as incoherent as Getaway. But the movie’s problems are, in part, those of a great artist trying something new. It’s a fine mess. There are a half-dozen endings and the passage of time — from 1930s China to Hong Kong in the 1940s and ’50s, then back to China — doesn’t happen with any kind of drama or urgency. Instead it’s marked by the insertion of place cards that explain exactly how that time has passed. We don’t get war. We get text telling us that war happened, people died, and it’s no longer the 1930s.

But amid all the disjointedness is some of the luminosity and lusciousness one expects from the director of Ashes of Time, Chungking Express, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, and 2046. The Grandmaster runs on a diet of ellipses and slow motion and unconsummated attraction. It is very much the Wong experience in that sense. His attempt to make both a biographical film and a martial arts movie are another matter, and a lot of what’s interesting about the movie involves the experience of a director applying his trademarks to such a well-established genre, in the same way that his fascinating but unsuccessful debut in English, 2007’s My Blueberry Nights, applied his sensibility to what ultimately was a nighttime soap opera.

His way inside Ip’s life is through the sort of repressed love story Wong prefers. What appears to be both a tale of territorial martial arts mastery (north versus south) and differing combat styles is distilled down to something more intimate than epic. Ip, who’s from Southern China, butts heads first philosophically with the Northern veteran Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), and then with Gong’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). After her father loses to Ip, she pledges to defend her family’s honor with a duel. The film is given the arc of an important person’s story, beginning near the end of Ip’s life and ending at the beginning, and these tutorial fights — the lessons — are the source of the action.

The tussle between Ip and Gong Er isn’t the film’s first. Wong shows Ip preparing for a showdown with Gong père as a series of preparatory contests. The names and disciplines of Ip’s more seasoned opponents appear in a top corner of the screen (Leung, by the way, is 51, but he continues to age in the opposite direction), and they partake in a robustly choreographed exchange of fists, feet, and forearms. Ip’s encounters with Gong Er are something else. Whoever is the first to break a piece of furniture in their housebound duel loses. It’s an exercise in violence predicated, in high Wong Kar-wai fashion, upon restraint. There is comedy in the near misses, but there’s also absurd heat, like when she goes sailing over him and her face comes within millimeters of his.

Ip and Gong Er should have become lovers, but you know how it is. War, honor, and spouses: They’re always in the way. In this case, the war is the Second Sino-Japanese War, and when it arrives at Ip’s door in 1938, he moves himself, his wife, and his children to Hong Kong. The film is at its most incoherent at this point. The place cards explain the tragedies that have befallen him. He reunites with Gong Er, but she’s a changed woman, her spunk snuffed. A flashback to 10 years earlier explains why, and you have to fight to stay with the scrambled calendar. You also have to fight the disappointment that Zhang has put away the wild and wildish things of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Rush Hour 2; House of Flying Daggers2046; or the all-Mandarin version of Dangerous Liaisons.

Zhang is so committed to patrician suffering that she even fights with a frown. Nonetheless, this is a character the martial arts universe rarely sees: a woman whose skill surpasses some men but whose sense of decency forces her to keep that superiority and her “64 Hands” technique to herself. Asked at some point to break her pledge, she says, “Heaven would know. Earth would know. My father would know.” The only way Jane Wyman could have improved on that line would have been if Douglas Sirk made movies in Mandarin. The Grandmaster has its partisans. Some of them are Wong loyalists. But he fills me with ambivalence. His lugubriousness can be enervating, and his interest in things left unsaid and untouched is the sexual equivalent of being stuck in traffic: You can see your exit, you just can’t get off. His intensely rapturous imagery doesn’t come all the way through here and neither do most of the supporting characters. There’s some sex and comedy in the fighting. And the rustling of moving fabric is unlike any rustling you’ve ever heard (and for $17.50 in Dolby Atmos, it should be). The movie’s been shot digitally, and some images have the lush surfaces of certain watercolors; some look as if the paper has refused the paint. The version being released in North American theaters by the Weinstein Company is shorter by at least 20 minutes than its popular Chinese counterpart. I don’t know what the excised minutes include, but they seem crucial.