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Eastern Promises, The King of Kong, Shoot 'Em Up, others

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THE BRAVE ONE It was simpler back in 1974, when it was called Death Wish. After thugs murder his wife and rape his daughter, businessman Charles Bronson hits the streets with the purpose of blowing away all human vermin. As a film, it's unpretentious, straightforward and effective as hell. This is basically a retread of Death Wish, only with a sex change for its protagonist and, given the director (The Crying Game's Neil Jordan) and star (Jodie Foster), a more distinguished pedigree. It also purports to add dramatic heft to the moral implications of the situation, with an ad line that blares, "How Many Wrongs To Make It Right?" But the movie itself clearly doesn't believe in its own promotion, resulting in a finished product that works as exploitation but fails at anything more socially relevant. Still, the very setup of the piece -- radio host Erica Bain turns vigilante after street punks kill her fiancé (Naveen Andrews) -- makes it impossible not to line up behind her, and on that primal level, this delivers the goods. Tempering the bloodshed is the relationship between Erica and a sympathetic detective; Terrence Howard is effectively low-key as the cop, just as Foster brings everything to the table for her raw performance. I just wish she would accept a different sort of part; she's rarely less than excellent, but for years now, she's settled into making movies in which she portrays a largely desexed woman who's all business and no pleasure (Panic Room, Flightplan, Inside Man, etc.). Mind you, I'm not suggesting an insipid romantic comedy opposite Bruce Willis, but I'm sure there's a happy medium to be found somewhere. **1/2

EASTERN PROMISES In a sense, Eastern Promises is a bookend to the last film made by director David Cronenberg and star Viggo Mortensen: 2005's excellent A History of Violence, about an ordinary cafe owner who may or may not have been a vicious mobster in his earlier years. Both films run along parallel tracks, full of whispery menace, marked by probing studies of masculinity at its extreme boundaries, punctuated with bursts of sexual and violent excess, and coping with abrupt endings. A History of Violence's hurried third act still carried enough weight to leave viewers satisfied, but Eastern Promises falls a bit short in the final count, taking some turns that are far more conventional than just about anything Cronenberg has ever done in his long and eccentric career and not allowing viewers enough time to come to terms with these contrivances. As Nikolai Luzhin, a taciturn chauffeur who works for the Vory V Zakone outfit (the Russian mafia) in London, Mortensen delivers a measured and restrained performance, whether dealing with the drunken son (Vincent Cassel) of the powerful crime lord (Armin Mueller-Stahl, absolutely chilling as the soft-spoken yet vicious kingpin) or trying to protect a hospital midwife (Naomi Watts) whose recovery of a dead prostitute's diary places her right in the middle of a particularly sordid scenario. A steamroom sequence in which Mortensen's character fights two assassins in the buff is sure to generate plenty of Internet chatter -- if only Frodo could see him now. ***

THE HUNTING PARTY Writer-director Richard Shepard's The Matador, about the relationship between a hit man and a family man, was a smooth blend of jet-black comedy and hard-edged drama, and he's going for the same mix again. Thus, we find TV journalist Simon Hunt (Richard Gere) and cameraman Duck (Terrence Howard) drinking, joking and whoring as they make their way through the world's hot spots. But one day, a slaughter in a Bosnian village causes Simon to lose it on the air, and as a result, his career is over. Five years later, Duck returns to that area, where a disheveled Simon needs his help to land an exclusive interview with an exiled war criminal. Loosely based on an Esquire article, this opens with a disclaimer that "only the most ridiculous parts are true." As it stands, that's only partially correct. It's no problem accepting that everyone (including the CIA) knows the whereabouts of the world's most heinous war criminals but can't be bothered to apprehend them; we are, after all, living in a country that gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden a long time ago, meaning that bureaucratic incompetence and indifference are all too easy to believe. Rather, the parts that are hard to digest are the ones that feel more like movie conventions than anything based in the real world: the Lethal Weapon banter between the leads, the shoehorning in of a sketchy character (Jesse Eisenberg as a rookie reporter) for nebbishy comic relief, the dramatic last-minute rescues. It's a testament to the convictions of Gere and Howard that the movie succeeds at all; without them, The Hunting Party would continually be shooting itself in the foot. **1/2

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