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MATCHSTICK MEN

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman, Bruce McGill
Director: Ridley Scott
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 116 Minutes
Release Date: February 24, 2004

Im not a criminal. Im a con artist.

The difference being?

They give me their money.

Film ****

It's been a long while since I came across a single movie which balanced plot and character so incredibly well. Matchstick Men is indeed such a movie, and it serves as a reminder that even mainstream Hollywood can usher in a pure breath of fresh air. It also manages to pull off something few movies can even begin to do, which is comprise a movie of three separate stories, each of which supplying their own devious surprises, involving the central characters and blend them together with flawless perfection. It adds up to one of the truly best films of 2003.

The film begins by placing us right with the film's hero, Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage). Roy's quite an eccentric individual. He is crippled by a condition that seems like obsessive compulsive disorder on speed. He has to open and shut a door three times before completely opening one and if he spots a minor error on a carpet, he must take care of it right then and there. These neurotic panic attacks, which also include facial ticks, come into play, when Roy isn't on his medication, something he must take especially under working conditions.

Roy's profession is that of a con artist, and his profession is of a more subtle manner than what we're used to seeing in the movies. He and his partner, Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell), work out of their own private office and con people in a flawless manner, as demonstrated early in the movie. They call up on an unsuspecting couple; convince them that a tax refund is coming their way, and that a payment must be sent right away for a quick return. The two then head to the mark's house, pose as federal agents, and inform the couple that they are victims of fraud.

But Roy's neurotic condition is starting to weigh in his everyday life. When he accidentally knocks his medication into the sink, he visits his newly appointed shrink, Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman). Following a few sessions, and a newly issued prescription for his meds, Roy finds out a much alarming piece of news. The doctor informs him that he has a 14 year old daughter named Angela (Alison Lohman), who is desperate for a first time meeting.

Upon meeting Angela, Roy sees a much free spirited young woman who doesn't object to the fact that her father happens to be something of a criminal. It isn't too long before Roy is teaching the tricks of the trade to her, on the condition that she never attempts to pull a con on anyone. It's clear that when Roy meets the daughter he never knew he had, that he isn't too proud of what he does, and that he could be made into a better person when finally becoming a father to Angela.

At the same time, at the request of Frank, Roy is on the verge of pulling off his most daring con job yet, one that could bring in some huge bank. Frank has supplied the mark, a businessman named Frechette (Bruce McGill), who intends to turn a profit laundering a heavy amount of foreign money, which Roy and Frank happen to have on hand. The resulting con is a very tricky one, taking place in a crowded airport, and with Roy out of certain options, he may have to look to Angela to play a crucial role in the sting.

It would be wrong of me to reveal much of what follows in the story. Let's just say that like an elaborate con, Matchstick Men hold plenty of surprises in store. How good is the surprise in the end, you ask? Let's just say you may find yourself with your hand covering your mouth as the concluding twists unravels. That's certainly the reaction I had when I first saw the movie.

The performances Matchstick Men are of ultra-superb quality. Of all the performances that got snubbed at this year's Oscars, I think Nicolas Cage's work here was sorely overlooked, as was the entire film. True, Cage has been nominated numerous times, and has even won an Oscar, but his work here is among the best he's ever delivered. It's a bold and risky performance that I feel is one that would've been difficult to pull off by another actor, as Cage effortlessly brings the character to life. He has a scene in a pharmacy where he is about to manically explode if he can't get a certain prescription filled. That scene alone is worthy of an Oscar quality. In the supporting roles, Sam Rockwell is terrific and has some truly razor sharp moments, and Alison Lohman is quite touching as Angela.

Oh, and I haven't even mentioned that the movie is directed by none other than Ridley Scott. Known mostly for making high-scale pieces of entertainment, Matchstick Men represents a big time departure. Even though he's made a number of character oriented films (Thelma & Louise, White Squall) this is the perhaps the first one he's made which relies heavily on story and character to drive the overall film. And sure enough, it's one of Mr. Scott's finest films to date.

A pure triumph of character, story and performance, Matchstick Men is both a highly entertaining piece that is funny, dramatic and suspenseful. It blends the elements together with a wonderful sense of balance. Ridley Scott, along with screenwriting brothers Ted and Nicholas Griffin have crafted one ingenious movie.

Video ****

This stunning anamorphic job from Warner is quite simply one of the best and sharpest looking presentations of this year, and we're only two months in. Right from the opening WB logo, which is displayed with a background of a swimming pool, the entire presentation is as crisp as it gets. The image consists of a continuous clear picture, which makes good use of Ridley Scott's wide eyed shots. Colors are much marvelous, in addition. A full screen version is also available, but don't waste your time.

Audio ****

I was very much caught by surprise at how strong the 5.1 mix managed to make out of what is basically a film driven by words and story. There are a number of technical kicks applied by Ridley Scott in a few scenes, such as an early scene illustrating Roy's reaction to having a door opened to let some air in. Such scenes, along with Hans Zimmer's wonderfully tuned score, and perfected dialogue delivery add up to something of a surprise as far as sound performance is concerned.

Features ***

There are actually two primary extras on this disc, but they indeed merit a dose of extra credit. First, there is a commentary with Ridley Scott and screenwriters Ted Griffin and Nicholas Griffin. Next, there is a fully detailed three part documentary titled "Tricks of the Trade", which covers the making of the movie in pre production, production, and post production. Lastly, there is a trailer.

Summary:

Matchstick Men is quite simply a triumph on so many different levels. It balances the elements of the multi-layered plot so brilliantly and delivers strong, memorable characters in the process. The result is one of last year's very best films.