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The activist and the bureaucrat: (l-r) Weisz and Fiennes in The Constant Gardener.

Tragedy in Africa
By Ann Morrow

The Constant Gardener

Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Adapted from the John Le Carré novel about corruption in the pharmaceutical industry, The Constant Gardener is a provocative, moving, and visually arresting film that eventually sinks under the weight of its own resignation. Having built a tragically airtight case for the impossibility of fighting transglobal profit mongering, the film nearly negates everything it’s about: namely, the difference that can be made by determined individuals. What carries this complicated and sometimes overly fabricated plot to its powerful denouement is its love story, a beautifully rendered account of a brief marriage that embroils both spouses in a widespread conspiracy.

Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is a low-level diplomatic bureaucrat who is swept off his feet by a 24-year-old activist, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), who convinces him to take her to Kenya with him. When the film opens, Tessa and her driver are leaving for a trip to Lake Turkana. Shortly after, an associate informs Justin that Tessa and the driver were killed in an ambush. The film then tells the story of their marriage in flashback, until it catches up with the unsolved murders. Director Fernando Meirelles, an Oscar nominee for City of God, peels away the niceties of “foreign aid” in a dazzling, semi-documentary style, exposing the little-seen realities of Kenya as a series of burning images and nearly hallucinatory sequences of its abject poverty and countless dangers.

Unbeknownst to Justin, Tessa and her colleague, Hubert Kounde (Arnold Bluhm), are investigating an outbreak of fatalities among African AIDS patients who participated in a drug trial. The tests were conducted by the Three Bee Corporation, an intermediary for an even larger conglomerate with ties to the British government. The experimental drug was designed to fight a superstrain of tuberculosis that’s expected to reach epidemic proportions in the Third World. The drug is also expected to have unprecedented sales potential, especially if its possibly lethal side effects can be suppressed.

Justin’s superior, Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), is just one of many dignitaries who consider Tessa to be a loose cannon. A fiery, confrontational idealist, Tessa puts her activism ahead of her marriage, and mild, introverted Justin allows her to, fueling rumors that she is having an affair with Kounde. It’s through Tessa’s eyes that we see the slums of Nairobi and the pathetically inadequate clinics. The scorching, color-saturated cinematography is so wrenching, it sometimes conflicts with the rest of the story. In contrast, the Quayles’ marriage is portrayed in dreamy, edgy vignettes that build suspense as to Tessa’s real feelings for her conventional husband. While Tessa becomes increasingly frantic, Justin takes refuge in his gardening.

Weisz is a haunting presence, but it’s Fiennes who drives the narrative. His self-effacing and soulful performance tells us more about their relationship than the minimum of dialogue we’re allowed to hear. With delicate nuance, he reveals Justin’s conviction and devotion: After Tessa’s death, he picks up the investigation where she left off, unraveling the staggering reach of the conspiracy. One hapless participant is a dedicated doctor (Pete Postlethwaite) barely keeping his clinic afloat in the harsh countryside.

The moral ambiguity of the perpetrators (some of them African) creates an ethical quagmire that is disturbingly without resolution. And along with some sharp twists, there are incredulities regarding the drug industry every step of the way. Even so, the film makes a convincing case for the likelihood that the strife in Africa is being exploited in ways that do not make the evening news. The film’s harrowing central issue, as one character puts it, is that the drug trials are not killing anyone who wasn’t going to die anyway.

You Just Can’t Move Like That

The Transporter 2

Directed by Louis Leterrier

Directed by Hong Kong veteran Corey Yuen, The Transporter was 2002’s tautest actioner. The Transporter 2 finds Jason Statham’s enjoyably no-nonsense ass-kicker-for-hire, Frank Martin, back behind the wheel. Frank is a professional driver known for delivering the goods with no muss and no questions asked, and he’s filling his downtime with a temporary job in Miami. Driving an adorable tyke to school everyday isn’t his usual gig, but then, the pay is probably in his ballpark, since the boy’s father (Matthew Modine) is a billionaire. Although crisply executed, the sequel is a letdown compared to the original, which was driven by the kick of Statham’s iron-willed, iron-muscled, and stiffly British persona. Here, he’s just as unflappable (both movies were co-written by Luc Besson), but Frank’s personality barely matters amid the ridiculous action sequences.

Frank’s easy-money job gets a lot more complicated when the boy, Jack (Hunter Clary), is kidnapped by a gang of psycho criminals with a larger agenda. The gang includes Lola (model Kate Nauta), a lingerie mannequin-cum-homicidal maniac who is mistress to the gang’s boss, Gianni (an over-the-top Allesandro Gassman). Gianni is an international terrorist-turned-businessman, but business must be slow, since apparently he can’t afford to buy his mistress waterproof mascara: Lola spends most of the movie with dripping raccoon eyes. Or maybe that’s just the director’s way of making her look more lethal, even though she guns down a least a dozen people without breaking a stiletto. Brit character actor Jason Flemyng makes an appearance as a mad Russian scientist, just to keep things utterly preposterous.

Since one of Frank’s rules is to never make a promise he can’t keep, and because he promised Jack he would protect him, “Mr. Driver” goes into high gear to return to the boy unharmed to his mother (Amber Valetta). That she comes on to him in a moment of vulnerability—Frank turns her down cold out of sheer professionalism—doesn’t quite add to the situation’s poignancy, although it does provide another role for a model (always an important criteria in a Besson production).

The estimable Yuen has been replaced by Louis Leterrier, assistant director on the first Transporter. Whereas Yuen’s improbable action sequences suspended disbelief while making the most of Statham’s brute force, Leterrier goes in for totally unbelievable, Bond-type gimmicks, such as a sedan that flies into the air and flips around like a trained dolphin. There’s plenty of inventively farfetched combat (choreographed by Yuen), utilizing an iron pipe and a fire hose, among other handy objects, but the transporter himself is just a prop.

—Ann Morrow

Skip This School

Underclassman

Directed by Marcos Siega

Moviegoers who found Nick Cannon so appealing as the troubled but talented drummer in Drumline will be hard-pressed to figure out what’s to like in his latest flick, Underclassman. Seemingly tailored to usher the Nickelodeon star’s transition from teen idol to manhood, the film is a series of tired clichés riffing on everybody from Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop to Will Smith in any number of his badass-but-cute roles.

Cannon plays Tracy Stokes III, a third generation cop itching to move from bike patrol to detective. His chance comes when a preppie at ritzy Westbury High is found dead; suddenly we’re in 21 Jump Street territory with Tre going undercover. This translates into scenes of Tre injecting seemingly much-needed blackness into white-bread suburbia, particularly when it comes to basketball (do black filmgoers ever object to the notion that all of them are innate tremendous hoops stars?), rugby, smartassing in classes and flirting with the midriff-baring Spanish teacher (Roselyn Sanchez) with such no-fail one-liners as “You’re the gangsta-est teacher I ever had!” Tre’s target is class prez Rob (Shawn Ashmore), who looks as if he’s taken one too many rugby balls to the head (both as a character and an actor). The plot, such as it is, involves stolen vehicles, narcotics and several chances for Tre to shoot up, blow up or just all-out destroy a number of gasoline-powered objects.

Cannon’s apparent attempts to find himself are all over the place, with the only constant being obnoxiousness. I almost rooted for the prep kids to bust his ass, so much did his character need a leveling tonic to his rudeness. Cheech Marin tries hard to pass unnoticed as Tre’s boss, and Kelly Hu, who gamely braved serpents, flaming arrows and the Rock in The Scorpion King, here is asked to provide makeshift toilet paper to a fellow cop in, er, dire need, thus breaking up a supposedly suspenseful surveillance and providing our “hero” with yet another chance to shoot a gun, fail, and then blame the universe for his failure. Cannon’s got better opportunities in his new MTV series, as well as in the promising-looking Roll Bounce; until then, interested parties should avoid Underclassman at all costs.

—Laura Leon


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