Saturday, February 18, 2006

Mr. Jackson and "Freedomland"

Is it possible to like a movie tremendously but be utterly frustrated with it at the same time? I didn't think so. I thought it had to be one or the other, until I found the oddity that is "Freedomland."

At it's best, "Freedomland" is about a devoted cop, "Samuel L. Jackson" working harder than he has in many years as detective Lorenzo Council, trying to hold things together in the type of neighborhood everyone else has given up on. It's also about a woman, "Julianne Moore" on constant edge, who levels a charge - that her son has been kidnapped by a carjacker from the neighborhood - that could bring the whole situation crashing down. If only it had stopped there.

Onto this possibly compelling plot, normally reliable screenwriter and novelist "Richard Price" and studio executive turned director Joe Roth felt the need to tack on at least two too many tangential subplots that go nowhere and just feel like an insult to the viewer.

Jackson, through sheer power of will, manages to keep the story compelling when the spotlight is on him. When's the last time he played a character you actually cared about? I don't just mean a character who was cool, because he's the king of that. For me, the last time he played a character I felt a connection to was Elijah Price in "Unbreakable". Since then he's done a lot of shucking and jiving through unwatchable crap like "The Man" and sleepwalking through the "Star Wars" prequels.

But not here. In his quest to save the fictional N.J. town of Dempsy, separated as many northern cities are into racial enclaves, he reminded me of two other characters, both from television. The first is Andre Braugher's detecive Frank Pembleton from the much-missed "Homicide", who clearly felt he was above the common thugs he dealt with every day but still did what he could to keep Baltimore from falling into the Abyss.

The other is "Helen Mirren's" D.C. Tennyson, from the fantastic BBC "Prime Suspect" productions. If you haven't seen them, do. You can rent them all online, and it's the best fictional example I've seen of focusing in on one very tough case from start to often ugly finish.

If only "Freedomland" director Roth had had the sense to keep his focus so disciplined, he too could have told a great tale. At the moments when Jackson is trying to find out what actually happened to the missing child, and Moore just makes his work harder, "Freedomland" comes close to greatness.

It first gets distracted, however, when we are introduced to a group known as the Friends of Kent, led by a very earnest "Edie Falco", who specialize in finding missing children, dead or alive. I would have found this a fascinating subject for a movie in itself, but here it's just an inexplicable dead end.

The biggest sin of "Freedomland," however, is that after taking great strides to set up the racial strife, it cops out at the worst moment. I won't reveal to you the truth of what happened to Moore's child, but, since the director doesn't seem to care at all about this other sideline, I don't feel bad at all about telling you how it ends up.

After bringing things to a boil with the black residents of the fictional housing project facing off with a line of cops in riot gear, it goes straight for the incompetent director's favorite crutch: Slow motion. As the two sides ultimately clash, to the tune of what sounds disturbingly like Enya, we get slo-mo footage of cops beating kids over the head, blood flying everywhere, and that's it ... this is near the end of the movie, and unable to find any resolution, Roth just drops it and moves on.

Now, I don't frequently look for answers to life's questions in movies. To do is often silly, and more often futile. But when you go to all the trouble they did in "Freedomland" to set up the tension, you can't just sweep it all away and move on. Well, you can, but I really wish they didn't here.

All that aside, I would say I liked "Freedomland" more than I hated it, and all the credit for that goes to Samuel L. Jackson. His Detective Council is a rarity in big-budget movies, a cop who is very, very far from perfect but is determined to do the right thing without becoming a cliche.

Welcome back Sam. We've really missed you.

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