Existential Review: Columbus Day.

This Val Kilmer crime flick stumbles its way through every rookie mistake you can imagine.

There’s nothing like a slick heist flick. Too bad this movie is nothing like a slick heist flick. The first feature film by director/writer Charles Burmeister lies flat upon the autopsy table. The potentially fatal wounds are too numerous to count. The only real mystery this lukewarm potboiler can muster is trying to figure out which of the grievous flaws is the one that actually killed it.

Columbus Day (2008).

Jon (Val Kilmer) restively prowls Echo Park in Los Angeles, flitting from payphone to payphone. He and an associate recently liberated a briefcase of drugs from a dangerous crime lord, and he’s trying to arrange for a new buyer and skip town before the thug catches up to him. Unfortunately, his hapless partner’s cell phone is tapped, the police and the gangs are closing in, and he forgot it’s Columbus Day, so all of the banks are closed.

“I need to offload the merchandise…”
“Sir, I’ve told you already, this is a Wendy’s.”

Conflict of Disinterest.

Burmeister seems to want to have it both ways with his film. It wants to be a slick, dialogue-driven, kiss kiss bang bang crime thriller, while also being a gritty and minimalist, character-driven drama. These two styles constantly pull at cross purposes, undermining each other at every turn.

Jon, as a character, begs to be viewed sympathetically. The very first scene has a distraught Kilmer chasing the original holder of the briefcase, who he seems to know. He tries repeatedly to get him to stop fleeing before reluctantly shooting him. As he moves in to finish him off, he apologizes and rationalizes it, before giving in and letting the man live. Most of Jon’s interactions go this way: Jon tries to do the hardened criminal thing, but his soft side prevents him from going through with it. It could work for the film, and Kilmer tries his best to sell it.

The need for action and biting dialogue undercut this characterization, stuffing tough guy lines into Jon’s mouth. A central relationship in the film is between Jon and a young boy in the park (Bobb’e J Thompson) who is obviously lonely and trying to engage him. After watching Jon struggle to reconnect with his ex-wife, daughter, and girlfriend, it feels out of place to see him basically tell the kid to take a long walk off a short pier. All so we could get a snippet of snappy patter.

Eventually the character’s start to click, but it takes way too long.

Bad Words.

There are bits of the dialogue that are pretty good. The problem is that the script seems to be written backwards, just to get to those lines. That first bit of give-and-take between Jon and the kid have some nice flourishes and slick contours. They just don’t fit the characters, and they require some ungainly set up.

Similarly, Jon and his ex-wife (Marg Helgenberger) do get to a point where they click and feel natural…but you have to swallow some excruciating small talk to get there, and Helgenberger’s character has to about-face pretty drastically.

The rest of the crime dialogue is forced and tacky. I had to get up and walk away when Val was on the phone with his febrile accomplice. The character is one clunky line away from being “special,” when what I think was intended was just drunk. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the scene where he’s driving to extract Jon from the park and gets into a drive-by. We see him keel over in the car, shot in the chest, and then clearly says on the phone “They got me, Jon!” That line would be a can of corn in a 1930’s gangster flick, let alone a 2008 crime drama we’re supposed to take the least bit seriously.

Mya, you mugs, they got me. It’s curtains, you see, curtains…

Punch Your Weight.

Burmeister needed to take stock of his available resources. It’s not impossible to make a tense and frenetic thriller where 90% of the action happens in one location, mostly on a phone. Kilmer does a good job wearing his emotions on his brow, selling his growing desperation over the phone. They should have leaned into this aspect…cause Kilmer does not excel at the action stuff anymore.

Kilmer looks physically better in Columbus Day that he’s looked in a while, but he’s still obviously lost a step from his Heat days. The chase scene we start with was good for a chuckle, as we see the other actor visibly out-pacing Kilmer, only to have a quick cut show them closer together. He’s realistically fleeing for his life; Kilmer jogs like a guy who has belatedly realized he really should not have signed up for a 5k.

Seriously, dude, stop running, I’m seeing spots!

The recreation of the heist is cringe-worthy all throughout. It’s one of those instances where I would have gotten more out of it through allusions. I could have imagined a nearly botched scenario based on telling details like Jon’s buddy still having handcuffs dangling off his wrists. To see how he actually ended up like that turns it into a farce. Neither the script nor the actor had the skill to sell it visually, so it winds up being an albatross around the film’s neck whenever they go back to it.

Long Holiday.

One part of me wants to go easy on Columbus Day. It is obviously a freshman effort. Its heart is in the right place, despite not having the ability to deliver on its aspirations. I’ve certainly seen a lot worse from direct-to-video crime dramas. I’ve wrecked my ship on the rocks of wannabe Guy Ritchie-style directors convinced their heist movie is the edgiest thing ever made. Columbus Day has a few sparks, but the kindling around them are mostly all wet.

That being said, there are some positively dreadful choices made here. Some of the characters and acting are atrocious. The visuals vary between workman-like, “crime drama on TNT”, to positively ridiculous. A flashback effect in one scene starts with an obvious digital tear, and then shows Val’s face as seen through water. That kind of hokey dissolve would get laughed out of a local tourism PSA, let alone a feature film. There are several musical choices that sound like call-waiting muzak from the 1980’s. The reliance on phone booths also begs for the temporal setting of the film to be explained.

Some times Columbus Day is so anachronistically bad that I wanted to laugh. Mostly, it made me want to set sail for some other destination, where the film-making was better.

I’d trust this crazy old tub to get me somewhere relevant before the plot of Columbus Day.

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