Living & Dying:
Let's talk about cognitive disconnect. It's when you can't believe what you see because it's so far out of the bounds of reality, or two parts of it are so at odds there's no way it could make a logical whole. Maybe you see where I'm going with this. It's when a way-post-Tarantino film called Living & Dying promotes itself as being about 'Four Robbers, Two Killers, and Way Too Many Guns,' but ends with the line in voice-over "maybe, just maybe, I can help someone else out along the way." Help me, please.
Crime caper movies were once good, and you can hear dim echoes of Dog Day Afternoon and others as Living & Dying opens with the requisite everybody-get-the-F-on-the-floor bank robbery. Edward Furlong and Bai Ling (plus two others) slum it as banditos going for the gold in a border town. The heist goes swimmingly until it suddenly goes 180 (surprise!) and the robbers end up holed up with hostages across the street in a Mexican Restaurant. Not keeping heads above water with the hostage thing, the robbers are bummed to suddenly become hostages themselves of a pair of opportunistic killers (surprise!) who look to have just gone AWOL from a Bob Seger tour. Various cops, SWAT guys, ATF members and the FBI try to sort the mess out while everyone tells everyone else to keep cool, but by the end it's so messy it's best just to assume you don't know anything, and hope somebody is helped along the way.
Living and Dying is not a bad little shoot 'em up potboiler, but it's mixed in with this weird law-enforcement situation that looks to be from an entirely different movie - I'm guessing the Romanian version of Reno 911. Talk about far off the mark, Furlong and Ling shine up what they've got nicely while hostages clumsily philosophize sotto voce and everyone else just wants to see shredded scumbags. It's cleaned-up, low-budget grit and fine for a Saturday couch-a-thon. But the cops get lots of self-consciously roving, dynamic camera-work with which to show off their strangely foreign accents. Only rogue weirdy Michael Madsen sounds like he belongs, but he also sounds like an aging bulldog with a two-pack-a-day habit. Xenophobia aside, the foreign accents ruin it (I'll take a few, but almost all of them?) but even Texan drawls couldn't disguise the air of under-prepared bemusement with which the actors deliver. It's like they're working in some Balkan warehouse, moving pallets with a forklift and sharing a mediocre joke, only with no conviction.
Yet there's a fair share of pop! pop! pop! and a little bit of blood, and ultimately more rounds are fired than seem entirely logical. Furlong demonstrates that he's so far gotten the short end of the Hollywood stick, with a tough, knowing performance that hides some ambiguity - he'd probably surprise people with the right role. Bai Ling is under-mis-used, but still convinces with her truncated, victimized character. Madsen chokes through possibly scotch-influenced jowls on his way to being the next Gary Busey, and the rest range from pedestrian to proletariat. Uneven tone and laughably, unintentionally parodied police drama make Living & Dying's caper go sour, but certainly don't keep it from being loosely entertaining.
A 16 x 9 widescreen transfer of Living & Dying shows off the color-scheme dynamics well (orange for the 'bad guys,' gray for the 'good guys,') and betrays no compression artifacts. The picture is pretty clear and sharp - an all around good presentation.
An English 5.1 Digital Audio track is up to the task, though as usual the variance between whispers and screams is too wide. Always turnin' the volume up and down, I am. I like the more realistic sound effects used for the gun battles, the crazy loud explosions are kind of toned down into pops, with people dropping.
A handful of Previews and the usual Scene Selections and English and Spanish Subtitles probably shouldn't be considered extras. The Director's Commentary with Jon Keeyes is sometimes sparse, a little bit dry, but of course informative and serves to deepen our respect for the efforts involved. Keeyes focuses mainly on explaining the story, motivations and intents behind what happens in the story, and what it all means, plus other mechanics of film work. A 12-minute featurette, A Day In The Life of "Living & Dying" tends towards the EPK side of things, with interviews of all the principals and the director hashing out just what they were doing with the movie, it's not fantastic, not horrible.
It's impossible to escape the lackluster yet faintly smirking weirdness of the Eastern European cop activity in Living & Dying, and it sinks the movie. What's left over is a slightly-below-average, sometimes clumsily scripted shoot 'em up in the venerable tradition, with a little excitement, a fair helping of guns (sorry, not exactly too many) and a pair of decent performances from Furlong and Ling (that has a nice ring to it). Only you goofballs that like your Limburger with a side of blood might get some chuckles and kicks if you Rent It.
- Kurt Dahlke
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