Missions implausible: Life of Pi and Jack Reacher

29 December 2012

When selling the packaging over the product, details are everything: in ‘Life of Pi’, we’re seduced into accepting a fanciful tale at face value, while ‘Jack Reacher’ is an advertisement for its own persuasive storytelling.

At the end of Life of Pi, having related his fantastical tale of against-all-odds survival to a writer hoping to fictionalise it, Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) double-backs on his story in order to tell things how they really happened. For the second version, the essential story is retained but certain adjustments accommodate a wider threshold of plausibility: the fairy-tale version, the writer (Rafe Spall) infers on our behalf (and he’s been swept along by it as much as anyone), was merely an allegorical cover-up for what might have been a grimmer and apparently more ordinary tale.

When Pi rhetorically asks his listener which story he prefers, the implication is that he and we are to be thankful for fiction, with its inherent magic and its capacity to skirt over life’s uglier details… Indeed, that the “truer” tale would have entailed human interaction – whereas its symbolic equivalent does away with all of that at its beginning – is telling of the artistic approach in which the film’s makers (the story’s tellers) wish to invest their energy.

Half-promising their audience a proof of God’s existence, the story’s tellers (the film’s makers) shirk reality and retreat into an ocean in which no witness can challenge their authorial control. In keeping with times, the guarantee of religious conversion might be offered in only a half-serious tone, but make no mistake: this evinces all the irrationalism and confidence in its own mythmaking as does The Old Testament, and its woolly assertions of cultural tolerance – embodied by its central character’s chameleonic absorption of any religious faith he encounters – aren’t anything new.

Retroactively framed as it is, Life of Pi justifies its own, almost parodic whimsies. Its conceptual challenge, meanwhile, is in how firstly to make a story of a young lad’s solo drift at sea dramatically compelling, and how secondly to embed the chosen essentials of the plot in a believable manner. Said essentials are a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and, most significantly, a Bengal tiger, all of which are unwanted stowaways on the lifeboat in which young Pi (Suraj Sharma) makes his escape from a sinking ship. In this media-saturated age, of course, oral storytelling is something of a cultural anomaly after childhood, and Pi as a narrator (like Yann Martel, who wrote the 2001 novel from which this film is adapted) benefits from his audience’s willing suspension of disbelief in the absence of actual imagery with which to illustrate his points.

If a literary or oratory version of Pi’s events can gather momentum with its own flourishes, for director Ang Lee a cinematic version will live or die on how plausibly rendered its far-out scenarios are. For although the moving image allows an unprecedented verisimilitude, it also demands an exceptional attention to detail – and there’s plenty of creatures and moments here that warrant high-end production values.

But technology is on Lee’s side: following an almost insufferably distracting prologue, Life of Pi is such a conceptually compelling and dramatically convincing spectacle that its god-bothering coda is less bothersome than one might have feared. As the spectacular set-piece in which Pi came to board a lifeboat alone shows, his vessel, his animal co-habitants and the surrounding sea are all given amazingly believable texture and weight. Frantic and unable to gain purchase on the slippery wooden interior of the boat, for instance, the zebra leaps aboard and immediately changes the vessel’s balance. Other additions soon add to the chaos.

Soon after the decisive storm has waned and Pi realises the zebra isn’t his only shipmate, there’s an incredibly tense sequence involving the interaction of a hyena, an ape and the unfortunate striped equid. Stripped of their usual surroundings – an Indian zoo recently sold by Pi’s father – these creatures find themselves in an unthinkably concentrated situation wherein the food chain is writ large, with Pi watching helplessly on. Thereafter, the ebb and flow of a one-man drama has a suitably varied and surprisingly well-paced rhythm, and the detailed texture of Pi’s physical change – a gradual deterioration despite his best efforts to remain upbeat – is matched by Suraj Sharma’s winning performance.

At its core, the film concentrates on Pi’s survival strategies as he learns to live alongside a fierce Bengal tiger, whose own starvation becomes an increasing concern. Sharma pulls off the arc with ease, while his feline companion isn’t overly anthropomorphised: rather, the creature moves and reacts how we might expect it to – that is, with an absolute indifference toward Pi, as evinced in its repeated willingness to devour him. This persistent tension arguably provides the film its dramatic anchor – it makes Pi alert and us as an audience keen for the scenario to develop. All the better, then, when the eponymous protagonist reluctantly agrees to allow the tiger back onto the boat after it has dived overboard in search of fish (and has, briefly and amusingly, made an unsuccessful, half-submerged bee-line for Pi).

As a film whose central premise rests on the power of the representative, Life of Pi has repeated fun with names and the baggage they often carry. Its titular protagonist explains to us early on that he was originally named Piscine, after a Parisian swimming pool, and struggled through early schooling to shrug off unfortunate phonetic associations (the prologue is a running joke on “pissing”). Likewise, Pi (the truncation is only adopted by others following a maths lesson) refers to his tiger pal throughout as Richard Parker, the name it assumed following its botched transportation to Pi’s father’s zoo.

This thematic thread is echoed, incidentally, by the latest Tom Cruise actioner, Jack Reacher, whose eponymous hero has a formidable CV that precedes him and makes suited seniors quiver. In the film, Reacher himself repeatedly assumes the name of a New York Yankees second-base player, an often paper-thin disguise chosen less for stealth than for the hell of it. (One of his identities is Jimmie Reese, who was at the Yankees between 1927 and 1931, and who himself was born James Herman Solomon, adopting the name he became known by in order to avoid anti-Semitic prejudice.)

Tasked with assisting attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) in investigating the seemingly random shooting of five people, Cruise’s self-described “drifter” moves around the film’s Pennsylvanian backdrop like a literal ghost (writer-director Christopher McQuarrie worked uncredited on drafts of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol). Evincing a love for the editorial sweep of storytelling - Reacher and Rodin's ongoing task involves persuading others of the prime suspect's innocence - Jack Reacher is crammed with rapid conversations that straddle spatiotemporal boundaries: throughout this uneven but exhilarating adaptation of an airport novel by Lee Child (another pseudonym!), one character relates information to another character, and when we return to narrator and audience following inevitable illustrative cutaways, we find them in a different place entirely.

In fact, so much of the film involves characters narrating sequences to one another, that it seems to be priming us at a micro level as to how it wishes to be perceived overall: adapting from a source easily and no doubt pejoratively described as a “page-turner”, McQuarrie delays the more kinetic thrills of his film with an almost delirious amount of exposition – otherwise routine but made exciting by turns from Richard Jenkins (concluding a fine year that also included The Cabin in the Woods and Killing Them Softly), David Oyelowo and an unfathomably committed Werner Herzog.

That much of this scene-setting, place-hopping chat is underscored by Joe Kraemer’s pounding music makes it all the more refreshing when the action kicks in, by way of a noirish night time car chase, and McQuarrie opts against music altogether, preferring instead to rev up the guttural roars of the vehicles. It’s a technique favoured again at the film’s well-devised close, a shootout in a rain-sodden quarry (McQuarrie?), in which the zing of bullets hitting the exterior of cabins hammers one’s ears and churns one’s gut. I’ve written previously how framing and editing – two distinctly cinematic tools – can lend exhilaration and authenticity to ultimately implausible physical feats, and McQuarrie, whose previous directorial credit was 2000’s The Way of the Gun, demonstrates a fine spatial awareness even if the scenarios aren’t as physically intricate as Brad Bird’s set-pieces in Ghost Protocol (McQuarrie is co-writing and directing that film's follow-up).

This is not wholly new territory for Cruise. Films of this sort – strategising their way around political commentary – are advertisements for themselves, however, and Jack Reacher’s producer-star, who reached 50 in July, turns in a performance that is true to Reacher's own traits, borrowing from and amalgamating previous identities. The street brawl with a quintet of no-hopers, for instance, plays out like a more open version of that set-piece in Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004), wherein Cruise’s wolf-like assassin Vincent ruthlessly makes his way across a packed nightclub dance floor, taking out one henchman after another with swift, bone-breaking kicks to the lower legs. In these scenes too – aided no doubt by Cruise’s physical capabilities as an actor – McQuarrie shows a refreshing willingness not to jump in too close too soon, so that we can follow each impossible block and fight-ending blow as it happens. (A scene in which Reacher is attacked in a bathroom by two bumbling henchmen with baseball bats – first and third base? – meanwhile, is hilarious.)

Child’s Reacher has appeared, with one exception, on a novel-per-year basis, and Cruise himself has slowed down his output to the point where his latest film was released on Boxing Day, a year exactly since Ghost Protocol’s release (though he did appear in Rock of Ages, which came out in July). Whether or not this sort of fluff merits the kind of mega-budget talent that Cruise undeniably embodies is one thing, but at least its central conspiracy isn’t to destroy (or, more old-fashioned, take over) the world. Indeed, its stakes are refreshingly low-key: beneath all that fast-talking maguffin, the villains’ scheme has something to do with construction - and Herzog's last villain standing, known as The Zec ("prisoner") is more pathetic than megalomaniacal.

As is the case with any performer whose extra-textual celebrity has attracted its own narrative, the play-off between Cruise’s on- and off-screen personae carries an unshakable appeal in itself. And as the star of Top Gun enjoys a tongue-in-cheek heartthrob status at this all-out action-film stage of his career, he suggests there is a long way to late-career eminence just yet, by eliciting the humbling gravitas of 81-year-old Robert Duvall. As sniper range owner Martin Cash, Duvall provides Reacher vital non-violent assistance in the climactic set-piece by firstly listening to the source of opposite gunmen and then firing, with impossible precision, distracting bullets their way ("guns don't kill people...").

Doubting Cash’s ability to seek the enemy sniper whose unknown whereabouts is preventing him from entering the quarry, Reacher notes that sniping is “a perishable skill”. This might be true of marksmanship, but for a brief moment it’s not Reacher and Cash but Cruise and Duvall, and the reference to their shared profession carries a certain irony. Hereafter, Cruise’s means of communication is impressively bodily, but in response to his ageing talents, Duvall arguably says more with a mere squint of his eye.