The Death and Life of Bobby Z (2007) / Action-Thriller
aka Let's Kill Bobby Z
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, sexuality, brief nudity, drug content, and language
Running Time: 93 min.
Cast: Paul Walker, Laurence Fishburne, Olivia Wilde, Joaquim De Almeida, J.R. Villareal, Keith Carradine, M.C. Gainey, Michael Bowen, Josh Stewart, Jason Flemyng, Jason Lewis, Jacob Vargas, Tracey Walter
Director: John Herzfeld
Screenplay: Bob Krakower, Allen Lawrence (based on the novel by Don Winslow)
Review published April 9, 2007
Paul Walker (Eight Below, Running Scared) stars as ex-Marine Tim Kearney, a "three-time loser from Palmdale", who is sent to prison for a very long time, and while in there, gets into a heap of trouble with the criminal brotherhood (he kills their leader), which means certain death for sure if he were to go back into the prison population. He gets a conditional release from the DEA agent, Tad Grusza (Fishburne, Five Fingers), if he is willing to pretend to be legendary surfer and drug dealer Bobby Z, who has been missing the last several years, in a hostage exchange with a Mexican drug lord, Don Huertero (De Almeida, Whore), in exchange for Grusza's partner.
However, it doesn't work out according to plan, leaving him, as Bobby, in the hands of Huertero, who plans to kill him. Kearney makes his escape, aided by Elizabeth (Wilde, Turistas), a former lover of Bobby's in Huertero's care, and Kit (Villareal, Akeelah and the Bee), a boy who is rumored to be Bobby's illegitimate son. Now he has everyone on his tail: the DEA, Huertero's men, and a group of ruffian biker gang members who want revenge for Kearney's deeds while in prison.
Although the plot is essentially nonsensical (why train Kearney in how to look, act, talk, and know every intimate detail of Bobby Z if you're planning on killing him right away?), The Death and Life of Bobby Z isn't the sort of film that's going to let a little thing like logic get in the way of an action-packed good time. As is typical for a John Herzfeld (2 Days in the Valley, Two of a Kind) thriller, the emphasis is more on colorful characterizations, plenty of violent confrontations, and a high degree of quirky energy, cohesive storyline be damned. Your enjoyment of the film will primarily depend on what sort of entertainment you're looking for going in, as it delivers plenty for action junkies, and a decent amount of sex and violence, but somewhere along the line, Don Winslow's original book gets lost in place of the more sensational side of things.
There's an interesting assortment of characters, although fairly typical for a film like this. Essentially it follows along the lines of your average "man in deep cover" thrillers (Walker has made quite a few now(The Fast and the Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Running Scared), with the protagonist always in mortal jeopardy, dammed if he gets caught, yet damned if he strays away. It's a bit difficult to believe that Kearney isn't more readily identifiable by others, but if you can swallow that Bobby Z is mostly a legend (or urban myth), perhaps you can also swallow that a man as obsessed with Bobby Z for years wouldn't have seen a single picture of him. Elizabeth, a former lover of Bobby's, forms a physical connection with Kearney, but doesn't reveal she knows until later, although it does call into question why she doesn't dig deeper into his past and motivation during their time together. The strangest connection that is formed is between Kearney and Bobby's would-be son, Kit, which features many lingering stares between the two. It's easy to understand how the visage of his long-lost father would leave a young boy transfixed and want to know more, but Kearney returns the same lingering glances -- it's a little creepy from that perspective, since it isn't his own son, and he doesn't know it is Bobby's until sometime later.
If there's anything that doesn't linger, it's Herzfeld's direction, which jumps from character to character, locale to locale, trimming everything down to the bare essentials from a plot standpoint to bring forth more scenes of action, stunts, and menacing villainy. While he makes it exciting visually, the conversations between any two characters is abbreviated and mostly inconsequential, as if Herzfeld were bored by needless chatter, plowing through the minimal dialogue as if any "downtime" would lose audience interest and action momentum. The fighting is definitely the film's main draw, choreographed by Mike Gunther, who did equally impressive work for such action films as Catwoman and Elektra, with input from former UFC champion Pat Miletich. There are many deaths throughout, mostly made to look "cool", but none of them leave you with any feeling, as all of the characters are painted with broad strokes and stereotypes. Even one torture scene (shown off screen) is framed to look sexier than would be believable from a real-life perspective. It's a superficial film that keeps everything on a kiddie-pool deep, eye candy level throughout.
For all of the criticism I've thrown at Paul Walker for his limited acting ability, he seems to have come into his own in action movies. He does exude that California surfer look and is built well enough to look like he is a tough guy in a fight. The demanding choreography of Bobby Z caters well to Walker's physical attributes, and considering the lifestyle of the dregs of humanity he is rubbing elbows with in the film, as well as the fact that he is supposed to be unsure of what's going on throughout, the limited nature of the role keeps the need for a great performance in check. Fishburne is, arguably, the best actor of the bunch, but he isn't on screen most of the time, and his role is more of a throwaway in his career. If it wasn't for a paycheck, my guess his interest in the film primarily resides in his desire to be in every film he can with "Bobby" in the title (Bobby and Searching for Bobby Fischer are his others).
The Death and Life of Bobby Z is one of those borderline calls, as it does work much better as a standard action movie, with some nifty stunts and exciting hand-to-hand fighting, beefed up though the casting of UFC pros like Chuck Liddell and Tim "The Maine-iac" Sylvia. However, I'm going to have to hedge a recommendation, as the thriller elements, which constitute the bulk of the running time, are average at best, and at worst, a real test of one's ability to suspend disbelief (again, that whole "training to be Bobby Z for no apparent reason except for story convenience" portion is a plot contrivance too ludicrous to ignore). If you like Paul Walker, or just exciting action without intricate plotting to get in the way of your popcorn movie, it's worth a look, but it definitely could have been much better developed from a script standpoint. Depending on the country, it's being released as the book's name of The Death and Life of Bobby Z, or the less ponderous, Let's Kill Bobby Z, but the way it plays in terms of playful tone and visual style, another fitting title could rightfully be Get Shorty for Dummies.
©2007 Vince Leo