Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Aaron Eckhart, Val Kilmer, Sergio Calderón, Eric Schweig, Steve Reevis, Jay Tavare, Simon Baker, Ray McKinnon, Max Perlich, Ramon Frank, Deryle J. Lujan, Matthew E. Montoya, Joe Saenz, Gandi Shaw, Rod Rondeaux, Juddson Keith Linn, Alvin William 'Dutch' Lunak, Elisabeth Moss, Yolanda Nez, Angelina Torres, Deborah Martinez, Clint Howard
Written by: Ken Kaufman, based on a novel by Thomas Eidson
Directed by: Ron Howard
MPAA Rating: R for violence
Running Time: 137
Date: 11/26/2003

The Missing (2003)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Direct 'Miss'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A movie is only as good as its villain, so they say, and the new film The Missing has a particularly lousy one. It's an American Indian who kidnaps young women and sells them into prostitution. His face is covered in dark scars and he has bad teeth. He's so one-dimensional, it's a wonder he doesn't actually go around saying, "Me kill white man!"

But that's no surprise; director Ron Howard has never been much for surprises.

Looking at his films, one doesn't come away with a sense of passion for cinema, only a firm knowledge of current filmmaking trends. He's technically assured, but not creative. Howard's greatest goal seems to be to meet expectations, never to rise above them.

His films serve one of two purposes: either to win awards or to earn huge box office. Consider his most recent films, The Grinch and A Beautiful Mind. The former earned $300 million at the box office and the latter won a bunch of Oscars. Yet both films hit precisely the same emotional notes at the same time, as if following a predetermined formula, to ensure that no one watching could possibly be left behind.

And so goes The Missing. This new film is ostensibly a Western, although it shows no previous knowledge or understanding of Western filmmaking -- not even such fundamental masters as John Ford or Sergio Leone. Certainly Ford's The Searchers (1956) should have been a prerequisite for telling a kidnap story like this one.

Cate Blanchett plays Maggie Gilkesona, a rural farmer and doctor who believes in science over the spiritual. Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) and Jenna Boyd (Dickie Roberts) play her two lovely daughters Lily and Dot, respectively. The older Lily longs to get away to the big city to see new things.

One day Maggie's father Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones) turns up. Having left his family at an early age and wandered around his whole life, Samuel has picked up the spiritual ways of the good Indians, but has left Maggie in a snit. The two clash immediately.

But when the bad Indians kidnap Lily, Maggie enlists her father's tracking skills to help find her. They trek all over New Mexico and get into a few scrapes, chases and shootouts, all exactly on cue.

Howard's action scenes borrow from the dullest and most mainstream of current action cliches, shaking the camera around whenever anything vaguely tense happens, and cutting with the precision of a blender.

Ken Kaufman's dialogue consists of Blanchett and Jones hammering away at each other, each sticking rigidly and illogically to his or her own one-dimensional beliefs. Howard coaxes them both to play to the back row and bring on giant-sized emotions at every turn, when silence -- or even the occasional pause -- would have worked much better.

But Howard makes his biggest mistake by showing the villain (played by Simon Baker) early and often. If he had instead kept him a mystery it would have increased his power, as Peter Weir did so effectively with the enemy ship in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

This error kills any kind of suspense The Missing might have had. And Howard belatedly tries to make up for it by blanketing the film with another of composer James Horner's overproduced, drippy scores. As a result, he informs us that we ought to be feeling suspense rather than actually generating the suspense.

Many will no doubt be happy with the empty distraction The Missing so readily provides, but those of us looking for something else -- some kind of surprise or excitement or emotional connection -- would do well to look elsewhere.

(This review also appeared in The San Francisco Examiner.)

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