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Wrong Turn at Tahoe
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by Jack Sommersby

"Gooding, Jr-OK/Ferrer-Marvelous"
3 stars

After the mind-numbing idiocities "Hardwired" and "Hero Wanted," here's a not-bad direct-to-video Cuba Gooding, Jr. offering.

Wrong Turn at Tahoe has a dumb title, and the first five minutes with its pseudo-philosophical dialogue almost drove me to eject the disc out of the player, but it settles down soon after that, and the rest of the time its appropriately short eighty minutes goes down agreeably. Best of all, it gives that underrated character actor Miguel Ferrer a plum starring role alongside Cuba Gooding, Jr. in this undemanding but assured low-key crime picture. Ferrer was dynamic twenty-two years ago as a good-hearted bandito in Tony Scott's south of-the-border romantic thriller Revenge; charismatic and burningly talented, he effortlessly stole every scene shared with star Kevin Costner. That same year he was similarly scene-stealing as the foul-tempered FBI forensic pathologist in the first season of David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks, and from there he continued to impress in supporting roles in otherwise-forgettable cinematic fare like Deep Star Six and Point of No Return. Hollywood did wise up and give him lead roles in the black-market-organ thriller The Harvest and the Stephen King-based sci-fi curio The Night Flier, but, like Wrong Turn at Tahoe, they went straight to home video and didn't give Ferrer the wide audience his excellent work deserved. Here, playing a small-time crime boss out to avenge the death of his wife who's been killed by the hoods of another boss higher up the criminal chain, he doesn't indulge in the standard tough-guy mannerisms and tics we've grown to expect from this subgenre; he starts with the man, not the machismo, and gives us a multi-layered performance of nuance, thought, judgment -- none of it's plucked from past performances of past tough-guy-portraying actors; he's too honest and creative an actor to resort to sloppy seconds. With his understated concentrated intensity, Ferrer is a joy to watch, and the moviemakers have done the right thing in not trying to make him secondary to Gooding, Jr., who plays the boss's right-hand enforcer. Gooding, Jr., who was absurdly overpraised for his just-passable Oscar-winning work in Jerry Maguire, still hasn't developed much in the way of timing and control, and he doesn't hold the screen with the confidence of Ferrer, but he's more tolerable than usual, not trying so hard to Act by contorting his face and bustling for a volatile tension he just doesn't possess. (He always seems to be the stand-in for the real star the crew's waiting to show up on the set.)

The movie takes place in the state of New York, as we see from the license plates of the cars the characters drive; probably due to budgetary reasons, the setting seems to be the suburbs just outside New York City, where the crime bosses live in their posh upscale houses. Ferrer's Vincent, after learning from a kooky longtime friend that a semi-medium-level drug dealer means to take him out, sets off a chain of events that have him and Gooding, Jr.'s Joshua knee-deep in double crosses, foul-tempered bodyguards and enough gunfire to put the National Guard on high alert. We even get Harvey Keitel, legendary for his criminal roles over the last three decades, comfortably sitting in his manor, drinking champagne, and advising Vincent he's certainly no one to mess with. (Usually unsurprising in parts of this limited type, Keitel manages to inject some ironic, witty spin to his line readings this time around.) Wrong Turn at Tahoe barely has any context, but it really moves: with just twenty minutes left in the running time, you realize it's never really gotten out of second gear; but with the secondhand writing this is a good thing for it stays on the appropriate level and doesn't bombastically whip things up in a frenzy just because other movies have resorted to that as if it were a requirement. It's mostly low-key stuff and properly proportioned so there's nary an iota of padding or flab; coldly efficient as the anti-heroes, it sticks to business and delivers the goods without a fuss. And though a lot of blood gets spilled, the violence isn't off-puttingly unpleasant -- the overall tone is far from jovial, but it doesn't grind us down by rubbing our noses in the violence. (There's an admirable scene where Joshua discovers his wife's mutilated body tied up in their bed, and we get just fleeting glimpses of her rather than a smorgasbord of easy exploitation. Besides, Ferrer's naked emotionalism conveys all that's needed.) Praise also goes out to Franck Khalfoun's agile directing, Patrick McMahon's smooth editing, Christopher LaVasseur's crisp lighting -- undeniable attributes for something that didn't get a theatrical release, especially when many theatrical releases don't boast this kind of technical craftsmanship. Oh, the grand finale with Vincent and Joshua outgunning four times as many opponents is stretching things a lot, and the movie pales in comparison to last year's Kill the Irishman (the best of its kind in a very long while). Yet it's a lot more watchable than you might think, and even boasts an affecting ending based on that old fable Scorpion and the Frog that satisfyingly caps things off.

The DVD boasts excellent video, decent audio, and a nice behind-the-scenes featurette.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=23896&reviewer=327
originally posted: 06/15/12 10:32:23
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USA
  17-Nov-2009 (R)

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