Chuck Koplinski: 'Furnace' a gripping, if not original, tale of revenge

While writing his follow-up to 2009's "Crazy Heart," director Scott Cooper had Christian Bale in mind for the lead role in what was to become "Out of the Furnace."

He even went so far as delaying production until a window opened up in the actor's schedule. Cooper should be rewarded for his vision and tenacity as Bale almost singlehandedly saves a movie that, though noble in intent, is far too derivative.

No doubt, it is a well-made film containing arresting images of beauty and despair as well as performances that require its strong cast to cut to the core of their own emotions, as well as their character's. However, once the artifice is peeled away, "Out of the Furnace" is just a simple tale of revenge and self-destruction.

Bale is Russell Baze, blue-collar worker at a steel mill in a town that's on its deathbed. There's little margin for error where survival is concerned as he lives in poverty, barely making ends meet while trying to pay off his brother Rodney's (Casey Affleck) debt to John Petty (Willem Dafoe), a local businessman who is more than a bit shady.

Baze finds solace with Lena (Zoe Saldana), the one silver lining in his life of grit and smog. However, one tragedy after another befalls him as he winds up doing time on a manslaughter charge, has his girlfriend leave him while he's away and upon his return finds that Rodney has gotten involved with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a truly dangerous character who runs a bareknuckle fighting ring. When his brother goes missing not long after, Baze expects the worse and ends up searching for him when local law enforcement, led by Lena's current beau, Sheriff Barnes (Forest Whitaker), proves ineffective.

Shot in various parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi do a marvelous job of capturing these locales, at turns beautiful, drab and oppressive. So much of what takes place in the town where Baze lives has a washed-out look to it, as though all of the life has been drained from the place as well as its inhabitants. The mills are presented as hulking monstrosities that produce nothing but bitterness for those who enter and the environment surrounding it, while the wilderness outside the town is seen as providing only a brief respite from the character's troubles as it contains its own brand of danger.

Also of note are the many bridges in the film, all of them rusted and/or in disrepair, suggesting that they only lead to another trap for these people to fall into.

It's on one of the bridges that one of the year's best scenes takes place, as Baze and Lena talk for the first time since his release from prison; they each try to catch up on lost time yet know that their chance at happiness has passed. Bale and Saldana are excellent, conveying the heartbreak their characters are experiencing with a nobility and truth that transcends the medium. With the exception of Tom Hanks' final moments in "Captain Phillips," I'd be hard pressed to cite a more moving, honest moment presented on screen this year than this.

The cast is uniformly good, and I think what you have here is a wealth of talent, the sum total of which ends up challenging the individuals who make it up. Affleck has never been better as the frustrated veteran who feels trapped and abandoned, and Harrelson proves once more that he's one of our most fearless and unpredictable actors, dominating the screen whenever he appears as the very embodiment of rage.

But it's Bale who keeps everything grounded, bringing to life this kind heart in a cruel world that's forced to compromise his morality to survive. The actor and his cast mates all bring their A game to the production, making "Out of the Furnace" a gripping exercise, despite the fact that there's little originality at its core.

'Out of the Furnace" (2-1/2 stars out of 4)

Cast: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, Bingo O'Malley and Bobby Wolfe.

Directed by Scott Cooper; produced by Michael Costigan, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ryan Kavanaugh; screenplay by Brad Ingelsby and Cooper.

A Relativity Media release. 116 minutes. Rated R (strong violence, language and drug content.) At Carmike 13 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

Spike Lee delivers twisted noir with "Oldboy." (3-1/2 stars) While directors M. Night Shyamalan (Remember him? "The Sixth Sense" ring a bell?) and Spike Lee have both had to abandon their independent ways and have essentially become filmmakers for hire, at the very least you can say that the latter has managed to inject a bit of his unique style into the studio projects he takes on. As for the former, take a look at "After Earth" from earlier this year, and you can see what a by-the-numbers director he has become.

Lee knows his film, as well as genre history, both of which hold him in good stead with his latest "Old Boy," a remake of a cult movie from South Korea known for its excessive brand of violence as well as perverse plot twists. These two elements remain in this redo, but the director takes a more economical approach on the narrative, resulting in a taut film noir exercise that manages to trick the audience into thinking the main character has hit rock bottom of his personal despair — only to see him fall even farther.

Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is the man in question, and he's so bad, you can't even get away with calling him an antihero. A womanizer and an alcoholic, he goes on a massive bender after losing a major client for the advertising firm he works for.

He never makes it home, but not because he ends up dead in a gutter. Rather he's kidnapped and wakes up in a hotel room where he's being held captive. There's no phone, only a cross on the wall, a Bible and set of encyclopedias to read, a TV to watch and an Andrew Wyeth painting in the window to provide a faux landscape. He's fed Chinese dumplings every day along with a bottle of vodka, and over the course of his stay, he experiences rage, denial and depression, attempts suicide and finally decides to improve his body and mind hoping to be released one day.

Miraculously, after 20 years, he's set free with some money and a cellphone and immediately sets out to find out who his captors were and exact his own brand of vengeance.

Though it's saddled with showing Doucett's lengthy incarceration, the film moves at a brisk pace and is engaging from the first frame to the last thanks to Brolin's fine work. Even when his character is deplorable, the actor keeps us engaged with his intense engagement in the role, which is an interesting high-wire act; though Doucett changes, Brolin doesn't let us forget that there's a lost and damaged soul at the core that can never be fully trusted.

He's ably supported by Elizabeth Olson as an equally troubled nurse who repeatedly comes to his aid, Samuel L. Jackson as one of the men who holds some key information and Sharlto Copley as a man from Doucett's past who is instrumental to this mystery.

Be forewarned that this pulp noir is not for the squeamish as it takes the genre convention of the doomed man who cannot escape his fate to the most perverse level.

Still, it's good to see Lee push the narrative envelope as well as deliver something I never thought I would see again: a 2-1/2-minute fight scene, in which Doucett takes out 25 of his enemies, all in a single take. No spastic cutting here, simply good old-fashioned bare-bones filmmaking.

If anything, being able to see this piece of incredible choreography captured purely and in its entirety is worth the price of admission.

"Homefront" runs on autopilot. (2 stars) It's never good when your mind starts wandering while watching a movie. It is the rare film that keeps you in rapt attention from start to finish, but when you begin thinking about how much money each of the actors got to throw good judgment out the door or what they must have seen in a script that didn't translate to screen, you know you're in trouble.

That's exactly where my mind went halfway through "Homefront," a standard revenge flick that goes through the motions like a one-trick pony. Based on the novel by Chuck Logan, the screenplay by Sylvester Stallone is the sort of thing the actor would have starred in in his youth. Thankfully, he decided not to do so at this late point in his career and talked his "Expendables" co-star Jason Statham into taking the lead in this one.

When friends start doing you favors like this, it might be time to get some new friends.

The action star is Phil Broker, an ex-federal agent who goes into early retirement after a drug bust goes badly. As if that weren't a heavy enough burden to bear, his wife dies soon after, leaving him to raise their daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic) on his own. In an effort to find a bit of peace, he relocates to Rayville, La., which should be renamed Bullytown, USA, as it seems they make up the majority of the populace.

That old saying of "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all," certainly applies to Broker because he crosses paths with Gator Bodine (James Franco), a local meth dealer who has designs on breaking into the big time. Much like Pavlov's pooch, the ex-operative can't help but try to bring down his new enemy, especially when his daughter ends up in harm's way.

Once Broker goes on autopilot in taking out the bad guys, the film lapses into a similar mode of operation. Statham delivers the requisite number of kicks to the face and twisted wrists as each of Bodine's lackeys goes down one by one.

If "Homefront" proves anything, it's that Statham is still slumming (his quiet scenes with young Vidovic are the film's best), Franco's willingness to stretch himself has its limits (the performer does fine, but this is hardly a challenging role) and Winona Ryder is still around and looks great at 42 (she rocks the white trash mod look here).

My mind also turned to making my Christmas list while watching this, so in the long run, I guess it wasn't a complete waste of time.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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