I'm not going to lie: on the whole, reviewing movies is pretty easy. If there's a challenge, though, it's not so much figuring out what to say about a given movie, but saying something you haven't said before. Whether or not that task is easy is not based on the basic quality of the film, but which elements, from the directing on down to the props, make the film entertaining (or not entertaining). Thus, the most challenging kind of film you can get stuck with is one that's neither here nor there: technically competent but lacking any creative spark or innovation. The Code is one of those films.
Morgan Freeman plays Keith Ripley, a thief looking to score big by stealing a couple of long-lost Faberge eggs from the vaults of Russian diamond merchant Romanov's. To accomplish such a task, Ripley needs a partner, so he enlists the help of Gabriel Martin (Antonio Banderas), a Miami diamond-snatcher currently doing small-time jobs in New York. Unfortunately, there are secret ulterior motives behind Ripley's dream job, and Gabriel gets himself romantically involved with Alex (Radha Mitchell), Ripley's goddaughter. There's also a cop named Weber (Robert Forster) on their tail, determined to finally bust Ripley after years of tailing him, and...*yawn*...where was I?
The bulk of The Code is a standard heist movie, hitting all the familiar notes with sleepyheaded malaise. Impenetrable vault doors, risky lockpicking, time limits, mistakes, voice codes, handprint identification, blah, blah, blah. Not only has the audience become intimately familiar with the cliches of a film like The Code, but by now they've even memorized the twists on the cliches screenwriters invented to spice things up: the adjustment of a glove, an additional code word...it's all exceptionally tired and boring. Even the movie seems half-engaged with its thrills at best. There's a scene where Banderas slowly inches into an area being scanned by invisible, moving motion detectors that Freeman can see on his iPod Touch, and after about five minutes of supposedly tense laser-avoidance, Banderas simply slides a magic device into the room that shuts off all the lasers and allows the pair to enter.
In terms of performance, Freeman and Banderas act like thieves in a meta sense: get in, get out. At no point during The Code's 103 minutes does either performer look like they're engaged or even interested in the movie they're making. Neither of them is bad, per se, but there isn't any nuance or verve to their characters; any viewer that pays to see either of them will get just that: they're there, on screen, to be seen. Between the two of them, I'd give Freeman the upper hand, in a backwards way. His performance is straightforward and professional, but Banderas, playing the smooth-talking bad boy he usually plays, just looks like he's outgrown the persona. He's got good chemistry with Mitchell, but otherwise, he just seems like any spark he might have had has been domesticated by Shrek films and old age.
Director Mimi Leder brings up the rear with point-and-shoot enthusiasm. I can't think of any reason a mildly famous director like herself decided to take on this project, other than the paycheck. Maybe she just wanted to reconnect with Freeman (the pair worked together on Deep Impact just over a decade ago), but she literally doesn't do a single interesting thing with the film at all. Admittedly, budget might have proved problematic -- The Code was clearly made on the cheap -- but I can't imagine it would be a directorial tour-de-force with more money behind it.
The Code ends with a reasonably well-thought-out twist. I doubt it will blow anyone out of their seats, but the third act was slightly better than the other two. Last year I saw 21, a film that I thought was so uninspired and lazy that I picked it as the second-worst film of the year (behind the atrocious Eagle Eye). The Code isn't the same kind of lazy. I don't feel the empty ring of Hollywood commercialism in it, it's just workmanlike in the most absolute sense of the word. Filmmaking is a job like any others, and sometimes, you just gotta keep your head down, go to work, stick to the basics and go home, even if a checklist of a movie isn't much of a movie at all. It's kind of like this checklist of a review: I don't have a lot to say, but having watched The Code, my options are limited.
The Code comes to DVD in a single-disc keep case that's as generic as the film it's holding. Big heads take the front cover, while poor Photoshop rules the backside. Doesn't anyone take a publicity still anymore? The menus are easy to navigate and the disc has more of the big heads. My copy of The Code also came with a top-label security sticker that noted the disc was a Best Buy Exclusive and an insert explaining the special content, which I'll explain more about in the extras.
There's a lot of extra content on this disc, and most of it is interactive material. I guess it seems to me like that would take up a fair amount of space, but in any case, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation offered for The Code looks solid. Blacks are good (although the numerous Bulgarian soundstages the movie was shot on never get particularly dark) and color is strong, with good detail. The image never appears too digital, either, which is nice.
There's some directional action in the 5.1 Dolby Digital track, but it basically just breaks down into two planes: the dialogue in the front, and a generic, faint block of environmental sounds in the back. I never had any trouble understanding anyone, but like the film, this is the bare minimum of effort as far as the soundscape goes. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are provided, although these are both disabled if you use the disc's interactive features, so you may have to activate your television's closed captions instead of either of the disc's tracks.
So, what's exclusive about the Best Buy DVD of The Code? It's called TellX (I don't know why), and it's an in-movie interactive remote-control feature clearly designed to take on Blu-Ray's Picture-in-Picture modes. At any time during the movie, the viewer hits the Menu button on their remote, and the movie pauses. A pop-up menu appears with six side options and a little control wheel in the middle. On The Code, the first option is a DVD contest/game called "Cracking the Code", for which you could theoretically win an iPod by cracking a safe code like the one in the film (I didn't play it). The second is a Map icon, which brings up the location in which the scene in question was shot. This is kind of interesting; sometimes selecting it will compare the location it's meant to be in the film vs. where it really is, but after clicking it three times, you'll realize that, yes, 90% of the movie was shot in Bulgaria. The third button is a film reel. At certain points in the movie, clicking on it will take you to a short behind-the-scenes video clip. In the middle is the control panel, with a house icon that will take you to the disc's actual menu, a Play button that will resume the movie, and a question mark that presumably plays the tutorial again. On the right side, there's a word bubble that leads to Fast Facts, which are centered around actors or real-life items in the movie (the Faberge eggs, for instance). Next, there's a book icon that allows you to bookmark scenes in the movie. I'm curious: does anyone actually use bookmarking? I have never had any desire in the decade I've been watching DVDs to bookmark anything. Lastly, there's a magnfying glass, which, thankfully, is an easy-click library of the video featurettes and Fast Facts in the film.
I played with the TellX interface for about an hour on my upstairs DVD player, and it works pretty well. On the other hand, I wonder what the point is. I love pop-up menu on Blu-Ray, but the TellX interface isn't as fast. The information available is pretty good: although director Leder and stars Freeman, Banderas and Mitchell don't participate, interview clips with costume designer Ane Crabtree and DP Julio Macat are happy to chat and highly informative about the production. Still, I don't see how it wouldn't work just fine as a more standard interactive feature (ala New Line's Infinifilm or the Follow the White Rabbit feature on The Matrix DVD) or a standard audio commentary (Crabtree and Macat are clearly commenting on video being placed in front of them).
The other obvious problem with the TellX system is that while it worked fine on that upstairs DVD player I was talking about, the DVD repeatedly froze on the Blu-Ray player I watched it on first. I have no proof that it's the TellX system causing the disc to occasionally lock up, but the solution (hitting the menu button to activate the TellX system, then hitting the Play button on the pop-up menu) would imply it was. Overall, it's a clever system, and if you really want to buy the DVD, I don't see why you wouldn't buy the Best Buy Exclusive to get some bonus features, but it seems like a lot of hassle for not enough payoff or real innovation.
The DVD opens with the TellX Tutorial (also accessible from the menu), and trailers for Direct Contact, Labor Pains, The Way of War and The Contract. A ridiculously hyperbolic original trailer for The Code is also accessible from the menu.
The Code is boring. The Best Buy exclusive TellX features are kind of interesting, but the interface is bulky and it can't make up for the quality of the film in question. Skip it and wait for a better movie with the next generation of TellX interactivity.
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