Terrific cast, camerawork fail to heat up revenge tale

 
 
Posted12/5/2013 5:30 AM
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  • Steelworker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) goes into revenge mode during the final stretch of Scott Cooper's "Out of the Furnace."

    Steelworker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) goes into revenge mode during the final stretch of Scott Cooper's "Out of the Furnace."

  • Steelworker Russell (Christian Bale), right, shares a tense moment with a sociopathic drug dealer (Woody Harrelson) in "Out of the Furnace."

    Steelworker Russell (Christian Bale), right, shares a tense moment with a sociopathic drug dealer (Woody Harrelson) in "Out of the Furnace."

Even the worst-made violent tales of personal revenge can push an audience's emo-buttons so hard that viewers scream in ecstatic approval with each "quality kill" they witness. (Take "Homefront." Please.)

"Out of the Furnace," Scott Cooper's highly nuanced, atmospheric tale of personal revenge, is so impersonal, protracted and passionless that its cold on-screen executions barely keep people from ducking out for concessions.

A lot of top talent went into making "Out of the Furnace," starting with stars Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, topped off by director Scott Cooper, who scored a popular and critical hit with the character study "Crazy Heart" and earned Jeff Bridges a best actor Oscar.

Here, Cooper indulges himself with a style-burnished production that could be titled "Lazy Heart" in that its rote characters invite none of our empathy or concern in a plot unencumbered by depth or surprises.

Bale, bearing a scraggly beard, plays Russell Baze, a regular guy working at the local steel mill in 2008 in North Braddock, Penn. His quick-tempered, stubborn younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq War vet, has adjustment problems as evidenced by his gambling debts to a local loan shark named John Petty (Willem Dafoe) and the fact he still wears army-issued trousers.

Russell seems to be a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy living with his gorgeous girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) and holding down an honest job.

One night while driving home, Russell can't avoid hitting a car that suddenly pulls into his path.

Years later, emerging from prison after a manslaughter conviction, he discovers a changed world. His girl has hooked up with Sheriff Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). His brother has taken up bare-knuckle street fighting to pay his debts.

Up until this point, Masanobu Takayanagi's moody cinematography and Therese DePrez's grimy, gritty art direction have carried the story along through lengthy stretches of establishing atmosphere.

At about the hour mark, the plot's catalyst finally kicks in when short-fused, stubborn Rodney agrees to take a fall for Petty and a New Jersey fight boss named Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson), a drug kingpin and drug user as well as a tough sociopath with bad teeth. (We know he's bad from the movie's opening in which he forces a hot-dog down the throat of his date at a drive-in movie theater, then pulverizes a good Samaritan who comes to her aid.)

Putting prideful, short-fused Rodney in a situation where he has to take a dive proves to be a bad idea -- and big-brother Russell steps in when Rodney goes missing.

Despite the hot talent in "Out of the Furnace," we've seen these characters countless times before: the quiet hero with a resolute sense of justice (we know Russell isn't inherently violent because he refuses to shoot a cute deer during a hunting trip with Dad (playwright Sam Shepard)); plus the ruthlessly sociopathic villain who can only be introduced to people while eating, drinking or playing cards.

Early in their edgy relationship, Russell asks DeGroat, "You got a problem with me?"

"I got a problem with everybody!" DeGroat replies.

Not quite as snappy as in 1986's "Cobra," when a supervisor asks Sylvester Stallone's bad cop if he has an attitude problem.

"Yeah," he says, "but just a little one."

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