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Speed, Baby, Speed 

Doug Liman's gone Go

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
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Photo by Tracy BennettGO IS AN AMERICAN GRAFFITI FOR THE END OF THE millennium -- it's pure pop fizz. Entertaining and slight, topical and cannily familiar, this post-ironic comedy of errors involves a trio of teenage supermarket jockeys, a sexed-up drug dealer, a carload of players, some pneumatically enhanced strippers and a pair of gay soap-opera stars, all bumping against one another in a 24-hour period. If the cast sounds like manna for the younger, better Robert Altman, the film itself owes its framework and much of its reckless vibe to L.A.'s other éminence grise, Quentin Tarantino. A friend describes the movie as "Pulp Fiction for kids," but that's true only in part. Director Doug Liman and his screenwriter, John August, owe a debt to Tarantino's savvy blueprint -- Go is told in three interlocking chapters, features a cataclysmic drug deal and even a character who seems to expire midway through the story -- but their film has an accelerated pulse, an energy that in comparison makes Pulp Fiction seem close to geriatric.

The Tarantino effect extends even to the casting of Go's leading actress, Sarah Polley, who looks like an in vitro Uma Thurman, but one who can act. The presence of Polley is a significant indication that Liman, whose first film was the overhyped, expendable Swingers, isn't as eager to sell out as his debut suggested. The sloe-eyed Canadian, who's most familiar from Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, in which she played the incest victim turned avenging angel, has none of the ingratiating, desperate vibe that's become chronic among young American actresses. There's a steely resolve to Polley, who commands attention with her vitality rather than with the vulnerability you might expect from someone who looks like she weighs 80 pounds. Even when she's not onscreen, she dominates the film, giving it emotional and expressive inflections that don't exist in August's self-consciously glib script.

POLLEY KEEPS GO REAL, BUT AUTHENTICITY ISN'T THE point. The film is its own point. The cinematic death knell has been ringing for at least a decade, and with the rise of digital technologies the clanging has become more deafening. But contrary to the excited warnings of tech-age capitalists, digital won't kill the movies; if the last 100 years are any proof, the only thing it will change is how people make money, and how much. In the meantime, as the vigil continues for better, smarter, more necessary films, digital or not, a handful of new filmmakers has emerged that is making its own imprint on the way movies not only move, but feel. Liman is part of this group, as are The Matrix's Wachowski brothers and the writer-director of the forthcoming, eminently enjoyable new German film Run Lola Run, Tom Tykwer. What all these filmmakers have in common is pop verve, a keen sense of the imperative present, and a way of manipulating cinematic time and space that shows just how dated, plodding and mid-20th-century most movies continue to be.

There are antecedents to this newest wave, with Armageddon's Michael Bay trolling the lower end of the continuum and Hong Kong visionary Wong Kar-wai, writer-director of Chungking Express and Happy Together, dominating the pinnacle. Bay has the requisite energy (and technical support), but no definable aesthetics; he owes his phenomenal success in large measure to producer Jerry Bruckheimer's genius for pop spectacle. Bay, Bruckheimer and the rest of these directors share an intuitive understanding that the way you tell a story is, finally, more important than the story itself. That doesn't mean that the writing is irrelevant; it's just that the delivery of the words is more crucial than their meaning. Go sounds as if it had twice as many pages as the average Hollywood script, with dialogue that runs faster than most studio and indie movies both. It's often very funny, and even, on occasion, as hip as it seems to think it is. But for all its posturing, its verbal jabs and throwaway jokes, the film is not much about anything except living in the overwhelming, all-consuming present.

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Go is full of good performances, and as he did with Swingers, Liman shows just how adept he is with ensembles. (Polley is the star of the film's first chapter, a kinetic cautionary tale about buying, selling and dropping Ecstasy; the puckish British actor Desmond Askew steals the second, about a misbegotten Vegas trip; while Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf, as ethically challenged TV stars, and a wonderfully creepy William Fichtner form the unlikely triangle at the center of the film's third, and weakest, chapter.) For a couple of non-natives, Liman and August also have a convincing feel for this city. The movie really plays like an L.A. movie, from its parade of disaffected, beautiful youth, to its underlying ache of impermanence and dislocation, to its silly, shrugged-off good humor (a supermarket called SONS, an 818 insult). But it's the sense of the here and the now -- in the face of a near-total absence of meaning -- that is the film's most striking quality.

Impermanence defines Go much as it does the films of Wong Kar-wai, one of the few filmmakers around who know how to make meaning through images. For Wong, telling a story is not a matter of well-wrought scripts (his stories are often carelessly constructed, flimsy) or exquisitely composed mise en scènes. What matters is the way the words are said, the way the music cues, the way the images move, move, move. One of his signature shots is of the soulful loner amid the kaleidoscopic blur of his surroundings; it's as persuasive a representation of existential aloneness as contemporary film has ever offered. The bittersweet sadness in Wong's movies, the romanticism, artistry and deeper meanings are only a little evident in the films of Doug Liman, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, and certainly nowhere present in Michael Bay's. But there is something that connects these filmmakers nonetheless -- the unabashed pop purity of their creations.

These new directors aren't interested in (or even, perhaps, capable of) making meaning that cuts any deeper than the emulsion. They're the equivalent of that great Top 40 tunesmith whose hook infects your head like a virus, but they've cranked the beat up to techno. And while the makers of Go borrow liberally from Pulp Fiction, unlike Tarantino or Boogie Nights' Paul Thomas Anderson, they're not engaged with film history. Where Tarantino and Anderson are consumed by precedents to the point that each of their features can be seen as a sort of meta-movie, these new cinema speed freaks are in it just for the ride from beginning to end. They're not out to change movies, much less history, or to add their names to some moldering canon. (What good is a canon anyway when nobody under 25, much less the country's leading critics, knows the difference between Lubitsch and La Cava?) At the very least, and at their most accessible, what filmmakers like Liman are doing is injecting movies with a desperately needed adrenaline, making them matter not just to purists but to the rest of the world. This may sound dire to die-hard cineastes, but in an age in which every other movie has been calculated to appeal to pubescent sensibilities that can't tell the difference between low-end sitcoms and high-concept features, when indies seem stuck in redundancy, if not irrelevancy, and satisfyingly crafted movies such as Clint Eastwood's True Crime seem as lethargic and as pertinent as an IBM mainframe, a well-wrought pop fantasia like Go has its appeal, and its pleasures.

GO | Directed and photographed by DOUG LIMAN | Written and co-produced by JOHN AUGUST | Produced by PAUL ROSENBERG, MICKEY LIDDELL and MATT FREEMAN | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

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