Review by Gordon Justesen
Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Gabriel Macht, James Caan, Jacinda Barrett, Kevin
Pollak, Laura Ramsey, Rade Serbedzija, Terry Crews, Kelsey Grammer
Director: George Gallo
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 112 Minutes
Release Date: February 8, 2011
“If I've learned one thing, it's that business is a lot like sex. Getting in is easy, pulling out is hard.”
The chronicling of a set of characters' rise to power through crime or other illegitimate means has always made for fantastic cinematic storytelling. The two best examples that immediately leap to mind are GoodFellas and Boogie Nights, two of the greatest films of all time. By now, the story arc may be familiar but another film does this formula very well, and it's been a while since such a film has been made, the result can be extremely enjoyable.
Such is the case with Middle Men, which could be best described as a GoodFellas/Boogie Nights for the internet age. It may not hold a candle to the brilliance displayed by Martin Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson, but writer/director George Gallo has nonetheless crafted a razor sharp, intense, funny fast paced, super slick piece of filmmaking with a remarkable level of energy that draws you right into the story from the opening frame. Add a fantastic cast and a phenomenal soundtrack, also signature traits of the films that inspired this, and you've got one of the most insanely entertaining films of the past year.
The year was 1995, a time when VCR's remained the leading source for home entertainment and music could still be purchased in places once known as “record stores”. This was also the year that saw the birth of the internet in terms of world wide access. It helped to change how we were able to go about getting all kinds of services, most notably that of pornography.
The genesis for revolutionizing the accessing of adult entertainment, as it turns out, came two years later from the collaborative efforts of Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht). Two lowlifes who can be intelligent geniuses when they want to be (the reasons for both of them losing their previous, very privileged jobs is howlingly hysterical), Buck and Wayne were the ones who crafted the concept of the online credit card transaction. And since there's money to be made in porn, they begin selling adult photos to anyone willing to pay.
Turns out their scheme was a bigger success than they originally imagined, as they manage to rake in millions and millions of dollars. Of course, that kind of money mixed with their limited intelligence could only lead to some sort of catastrophe. The two decide to become business partners with, of all people, a ruthless Russian mobster named Sokoloff (Rade Sherbedgia), only to later spend all of their earnings instead of thinking to share it.
Enter Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), a man who has made a living off of fixing all sorts of business problems. Once he gets word of the situation involving Buck and Wayne, Jack takes it upon himself to sort everything out while at the same time devising a strategy that will make everyone happy and keep this new form of entertainment service flourishing. The neat twist of this is that Jack is a true family man and doesn't want to become involved in pornography, but nonetheless sees a way within the sleaze to help provide a much better life for his wife and son.
Jack's plan is to create a billing service with a legit name, 24/7 Billing. That way, when it shows up on any customer's credit card bill, a loved one won't get suspicious that money is actually being spent on the very thing they're selling. Sure enough, Jack's billing service is a major success, with many similar web sites wanting to use it, and all the money in the world starts to pour in.
Of course, instant success does bring with it a share of unexpected obstacles. Jack becomes tied up to the accidental murder of mobster tied in with Sokoloff, and even oversees the dumping of the body. He also breaks his family man code when hooking up with an online porn star (Laura Ramsey), even after admitting to his wife (Jacinda Barrett) about his real job in LA and promising he wouldn't get involved with the business beyond the lucrative side. And there's also the matter of the sleazy lawyer acquaintance (James Caan), who informed Jack about Buck and Wayne in the beginning, as he attempts to blackmail him over some earnings he feels entitled to.
And it doesn't stop there, as the FBI becomes involved in an unlikely manner. It turns out Jack's porn mistress is quite popular amongst terrorists in the Middle East, which they used to their advantage as the War on Terror rages on. Talk about a plot point to come way out of left field, and a most hilarious one at that.
But perhaps the greatest moment in the film comes when Jack confronts a Texas district attorney (Kelsey Grammer) who is planning to have Jack's son tried and convicted for tampering with the computer network at the school he goes to. It's not really a big matter, but the district attorney is going forth with it simply because he's aware of Jack's ties to pornography and wants to send a message. Jack then whips out copies of the politician's interestingly detailed credit card statement, and the matter is no more. I flat out clapped at the end of this sequence.
As I mentioned earlier, the cast is across the boards fantastic, with Luke Wilson giving what is unquestionably his best piece of acting to date in the lead role of Jack Harris. I've always liked Wilson as an actor, even though he's never quite been able to break out of his “nice guy” mode. And while Jack is a likable guy, Wilson is most revealing in the scenes where the character illustrates how good he is at his job, not to mention the moments where he has to do some bad things, and you buy every minute of it.
Middle Men, which surprisingly got next to nothing of an actual theatrical release despite a tremendous trailer that had me sold instantly, is truly one of last year's most sorely underrated films that is begging for a discovery now that its home entertainment incarnation has arrived. The filmmaking is first rate, the pacing is dead on, the storytelling is gripping, the performances are top notch and the soundtrack is awesome! It may not be Boogie Nights or GoodFellas, but the sheer fact that a single movie in today's movie climate is able to echo the best qualities of those great classics is enough for me!
Paramount has delivered a truly first-rate presentation with this Blu-ray release. The film carries with it a super-slick look to it, with a high level of saturated colors occupying nearly every frame. This would normally be a distraction, but it serves this movie tremendously well given the world it takes place in. Lukas Ettlin's cinematography is one of the most important ingredients of the film, and by way of the 1080p that fact is beautifully illustrated. Not a single visual flaw to be found here! The only benefit of missing this in the theaters is getting to experience it first hand through this format. Fantastic job!
The DTS HD mix has got quite a bit to work with here, since there's so much to balance out. The standout ingredient, without question, is the soundtrack. There's barely a moment in the film that isn't accompanied by a popular song from the time period. We get songs by the likes of Notorious B.I.G., Moby and Outkast, just to name a few as well as nicely used classics from George Thorogood, Tears for Fears and J. Geils Band. Every song is heard in riveting form and balances very well with the dialogue delivery, which is also clean and clear. The only thing that keeps this from getting a full rating is that most of what's heard isn't given the full surround sound effect, even though it still sounds tremendous for the most part.
Extras here are at a basic level, starting with a nice commentary with director and co-writer George Gallo, editor Malcolm Campbell and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin. We also get three Deleted Scenes, an Outtakes reel and a Slap Montage that runs for about a minute. Another letdown is that none of the extras are provided in HD, which Paramount is usually reliable on.
It's been a while since we've had a film detailing a fact-based account of a rise to power in a grim underworld. I'm always a sucker for a movie like this, and Middle Men captures a moment in internet history with a superbly stylized, in-your-face type of filmmaking that a story like this merits. Highly recommended for fans of true edgy fare!