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Fighting to survive: (l-r) Cheadle and Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda.

Managing Madness
By Ann Morrow

Hotel Rwanda
Directed by Terry George

Paul Rusesabagina saved more than 1,200 lives, and he did it by staying true to his instincts as a hotelier. Hotel Rwanda, directed and cowritten by Irish filmmaker Terry George, tells the true story of Paul’s pragmatic heroism during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, during which

800,000 civilians were killed, many of them hacked to death by machete. Faced with incomprehensible evil, Paul (Don Cheadle) utilizes the only resources he has: an impeccable sense of civility, experience in calming the ruffled feathers of important people, and a reserve of single-malt scotch.

Quickly and vividly establishing the political ferment between the Hutus, the country’s most populous tribe, and the Tutsis, who traditionally held most of the power, the film’s harrowing narrative continues over the hundred days of the slaughter. Spurred on by blood-curdling radio propaganda, the rebel Hutu militia embarks on a chaotic killing spree to exterminate all Tutsis, including women and children.

Paul, a Hutu, is stringently apolitical; his loyalty is to the Belgium-owned Hotel des Milles Collines. Located in the capital of Kigali, the luxury hotel is a favored way station of high-ranking foreigners and nationals alike, including the corrupt commander of the armed forces, Gen. Bizimungo (an exceptional Fana Mokoena). Paul first gets a glimpse of the future while buying liquor from a black marketer; as the Hutu bootlegger proudly shows him crates of cheap machetes imported from China. Later, a neighbor is dragged from his house and beaten to death. Paul tells his Tutsi wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), that he is “saving up favors” owed to him by influential guests in the event that he needs to protect his family. But Tatiana takes in the entire neighborhood, and after narrowly escaping from the militia, Paul relocates all of them to the hotel. Word gets out that the hotel is a safety zone, and the arrival of refugees and orphans swell the hotel’s “guest list.”

As the barbarity in Kigali rapidly escalates, a shamefully small UN peacekeeping force proves completely inadequate. Again and again, Paul averts mass murder by remaining resourceful under pressure, and by doling out bribes cadged from the hotel. Trained in the highest traditions of hospitality, his belief that reason will prevail gives him courage, no matter how many times he witnesses the most brutal manifestations of murderous insanity (admirably enacted by the filmmaker, and implying more horror than is actually shown). Even so, Paul is quick to accept the commander’s warnings that help from the outside will not be forthcoming.

As a dramatization of the genocide, Hotel Rwanda is a gripping, invaluable movie, despite a nearly maudlin tendency to play on white guilt (which more appropriately might’ve been portrayed as world guilt: It wasn’t just the West that turned its back). There’s a powerful but off-key racial apology by the U.N. captain (Nick Nolte) to Paul, who brushes it off—he’s got more crucial things to think about, like convincing the hotel’s Belgium owners to pull some international strings. Paul’s calculatedly stoic (and effective) phone call to the CEO (Jean Reno) is perhaps the subtlest example of Cheadle’s remarkable performance.

Brief attention is paid to a reckless Irish journalist (Joaquin Phoenix, who appears unprepared, as if he showed up just to lend his star power to a worthy indie project), and not enough to the African journalist who is introduced as the best reporter in Rwanda, and who then vanishes instead of bringing some bearing on the conflict. But if the audience is confused by the various factions, so too are the protagonists. And one faction needs no explanation: “the crazy people,” roving bands of young men crazed by bloodlust.

Okonedo as Paul’s terrified but determined wife holds her own with Cheadle for heightened realism. Both actors are Oscar nominated, and without them, the film’s human drama would’ve been too cursory to be affecting. Tatiana’s conviction that her neighbors and acquaintances are as indispensable as her immediate family puts her and her children in even greater danger. It’s also a moving representation of how the instinct for self- preservation can blossom, under the unlikeliest of circumstances, into altruism.

Last Man Standing

Assault on Precinct 13
Directed by Jean-François Richet

As with many other thrillers, if you thought too much about any particular plot point in Assault on Precinct 13, the entire story would collapse in a messy heap of ridiculous improbabilities. As with any good thriller, however, director Jean-François Richet’s loose remake of John Carpenter’s no-budget 1976 classic puts the proper emphasis on action and character, leaving the niceties of logic for higher-minded entertainments.

In a great daisy chain of cinematic theft, Carpenter’s film was, in turn, a rip-off of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. And like Dean Martin’s drunken sheriff in that movie, the new Assault is built around a used-up cop with a serious substance-abuse problem.

Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) is a wreck. A botched undercover operation has left him a shell of a man, hooked on pills and booze and reduced to a nothing desk job in a nowhere Detroit precinct. Every week he has to meet with Alex (Maria Bello), a smartass police shrink who’s convinced Jake doesn’t want to pull himself together. And she’s probably right.

Jake’s going to have pull himself together, however. It’s New Year’s Eve, and the last night of operation for the decrepit Precinct 13. This should mean that the only folks left in the building—Jake, secretary Iris (Drea de Matteo) and fellow cop Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy)—should have a quiet night. Except that they will be caught in the middle of a fight to the death between a gangster, Bishop (Laurence Fishburne, still doing his cooler-than-cool Morpheus shtick), and a crooked cop, Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne).

The fun part is, to survive an assault by an army of well-armed S.W.A.T. police, Jake must join forces with the gangster and an unpromising assortment of inmates including junkie Beck (John Leguizamo), con man Smiley (Ja Rule) and teenager Anna (Aisha Hinds). This crew is a real bunch of characters, and the film makes the most of the cast’s many talents.

The siege setup has a beautiful simplicity, and director Richet wrings every bit of tension out of it. With the exception of the ice-cold Byrne as the main bad guy, the enemy trying to kill our “heroes” remains chillingly faceless. This is really smart: It’s easier to sympathize with this motley assortment of losers when they’re pitted against an implacably evil army of killers.

The filmmakers do another smart thing, too: They kill off characters you wouldn’t expect to be killed, and at surprising moments, too. This creates an uncertainty for the audience that is distinctly pleasurable, because one really can’t be sure where the movie is going.

This makes the final series of confrontations surprisingly tense. While it’s reasonably certain that Hawke’s hero is going to rise to the occasion, it isn’t at all certain that he’ll survive it. When was the last time a Hollywood thriller pulled that off?

—Shawn Stone


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