The Code
First Look Pictures // R // $28.98 // June 23, 2009
Review by David Cornelius | posted July 6, 2009
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Don't let the big names fool you: "The Code" is limp enough a thriller to deserve the direct-to-video treatment it's received. The film, starring Morgan Freeman and Antonio Banderas and directed by Mimi Leder ("Deep Impact"), is a low rent mess, full of stale premises and tiresome character work. It's full of the sorts of flat storytelling you'd expect from a bottom shelf B-picture; it's tough to imagine anyone thinking casting alone would make this a hit.

Banderas plays Gabriel Martin, a rough, inexperienced thief who, in the film's only exciting scene, attempts to swipe a briefcase full of diamonds while riding the New York subway; his failure leads to a tense showdown and a daring escape. This catches the eye of Keith Ripley (Freeman), a veteran burglar known for swiping high end artwork. Ripley has been hired/coerced by the Russian mob to relieve a couple rare Faberge eggs from a Russian jeweler, and since it's a two-man job and his old partner just bit the bullet, Ripley enlists Martin.

The rest of the film sputters along as the duo plan the heist while avoiding the cop (Robert Forster) who's on their tail. It doesn't really amount to much. A subplot involving the cop's run-ins with the feds who want him off the case isn't very involving; the Freeman-Banderas chemistry is next to nil, as both phone in their performances and add little charm to the cat-and-mouse game; the main heist lacks both tension and cleverness, repeating tricks we've seen before.

Indeed, the heist should be the centerpiece of the film, but there's just no invention to the break-in, just a series of lame diversions and formulaic maneuvers (really? the "crawl under the motion detector lasers" bit again?) that suggest this key sequence was conceived in a rush, the only real effort having gone into figuring out new ways to incorporate an iPhone in a shameless attempt at product placement. The best part of a caper flick is seeing who outwits what, and how. None of that is here, with every step of the plan copied over from better films, but without the excitement.

To help pad out the dull proceedings, the screenplay (from Ted Humphrey, a TV vet making his feature debut) drops in a romance between Martin and Alexandra (Radha Mitchell), the daughter of Ripley's late partner. Any attempts to steam things up in the bedroom are undone by Mitchell's wooden performance and (again) a lack of real chemistry between the stars. When Alexandra gets kidnapped by the mob as extra motivation for our heroes, Banderas can barely bring his character to care, and we're right there with him.

After trudging us through all this romantic filler and the overlong portraits of the Russian mob nightclub scene that come with it (Banderas' and Mitchell's slow grind on the dance floor is less sexy, more snoozy), and after finally working its way through the middling heist sequence, the script then decides to toss us a long, uninteresting string of twists that turn the picture into one of those "gotcha!" stories, the kind where we're supposed to think back, put the pieces together, and think "aha, how clever!"

These twists are too misguided and ineffectual, however; not only do they not serve any purpose other than to call attention to themselves as gimmicks, they're so poorly constructed that we get a little angry at the movie for trying at all. When done correctly, "gotcha!" stories can be a real thrill, where we're invited to outguess the writer beforehand and see where we've been properly fooled afterward. And "The Code" really, really, really wants to be that kind of movie, clueing us in early with playful "trust no one" dialogue and taking its final revelations to great extremes. It's also quite bland in its surprises, which amount to a string of secret identities and motives we really don't need.

Leder - whose once-impressive career apparently stalled after helming 2000's dismal melodrama "Pay It Forward" (this is her first movie since) - brings nothing to the material, offering direction that's as flat as her stars' performances. There's no liveliness to the crimes, no danger to the thrills. It seems nobody was excited about this picture when they made it. Seems nobody'll be excited watching it, either.


Video & Audio

The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a pinch soft at times but otherwise just fine. The nighttime scenes feature decent black levels, although as the film is given an intentionally muted look, colors remain as unexciting as the story.

The soundtrack is offered in both Dolby 5.1 and 2.0. Both are serviceable mixes, with dialogue always standing clearly. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.


The film's trailer (1:38) is the lone extra. A batch of previews for other First Look titles is also included; those previews also play as the disc loads.

Final Thoughts

"The Code" is as lifeless as its pointless, generic title (at least international audiences got treated to the mildly more interesting alternate moniker "Thick as Thieves"). It's a long, sluggish walk through well-worn genre territory, with nothing new - or even interesting - added to the mix. The disc offers nothing else, either. Skip It.

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