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Off the Deep End

The adventurous moviegoer who doesn't mind wrestling with a little bafflement will probably find many things to admire in Wim Wenders's The End of Violence--not least its coolly ironic title, the Germanic vigor with which it seeks to whip the causes, effects and flagrant merchandising of violence into a heady philosophical brew, and the malevolent glee it takes in ripping off cinematic milestones like Blow Up, The Conversation and Natural Born Killers.

Some of this stuff is admirable and enjoyable, even when the filmmaker needlessly obscures it.

Herr Wenders hails, of course, from the country that in this century turned mass murder into a national pastime. Little wonder that he takes more than the usual interest in the uses and abuses of brute force and in the ways our mythomaniacal pop culture--from action movies to gangsta rap to advertising--have turned violence into a consumer product. These are some of the concerns of this brooding and quite often dense take on the antagonistic energy of the Nineties, the decade that gave us, among other things, the best-selling lyrics (and sudden demise) of Tupac Shakur, high-tech overload, a lively increase in death-by-handgun and ethnic cleansing from Bosnia to Rwanda to Rocky Mount. Clearly, the Good German means to do Good Works.

Apparently, End is far more coherent in its current release version than the mess of a thing that confronted audiences at last spring's Cannes Film Festival. But that's a matter of degree: A devotee of American film noir and the shenanigans of deconstruction theory, Wenders has never much troubled himself to connect the dots. Not in Paris, Texas. Not in Wings of Desire. Not here.

This time around (and around), the director and his co-writer, Nicholas Klein, provide a gaggle of characters loosely joined, more or less, by a Los Angeles kidnapping and subsequent double killing. They include a self-centered Hollywood producer called Mike Max (Bill Pullman)--also the film's narrator--whose bloody, stylish crime movies have earned him a cult following, a silver Mercedes and a huge beach house in Malibu. There's Mike Max's neglected wife, Paige (Andie MacDowell), who's about to leave him. There's a thoughtful stuntwoman called Cat (Traci Lind) who has faked death for the cameras so often that she wonders what the real definition of violence is.

There's a surveillance expert (echoes of Gene Hackman) named Ray Bering (Gabriel Byrne) involved in an Orwellian government plan to use telescopes to catch criminals in the act (echoes of Antonioni and Blow Up). There's a slick-talking black rap artist named Six (K. Todd Freeman) whose bread and butter, like the movie producer's, is the fantasy of violence. There's a star-struck police detective named Doc (Loren Dean) who can't quite distinguish between a real-life case of murder under a lonely crosshatch of freeway overpasses and the seductive details of a Mike Max thriller (shades of Oliver Stone in his satirist's hat).

Set Wim Wenders loose among this bunch, and he's bound to start messing around in twisted zeitgeists, troubled consciences and personality reinventions. To wit: Shocked by a crime and hunted by plotters, the rich movie producer leaves his half-dozen cell phones by the pool and takes up a secret life among poor Mexican gardeners. Plagued by second thoughts about the morality of his work, the surveillance expert takes up with a South American maid (Marisol Padilla Sanchez) who was once tortured by death squads. Unnerved by her search to define violence, the stuntwoman tries to become an actress, in a Mike Max movie-within-the-movie called--what else?--Seeds of Violence.

Thus does Wim Wenders deconstruct the Hollywood action genre itself, then rebuild it into his convoluted plot as a commentary on art and responsibility, pop culture and the differences between real blood and its assorted imitations. Tied up by a couple of hired killers who happen to love his movies, Mike Max expresses the whole real/unreal ethos of the piece when, pleading for his life, he lets fly with one of the picture's rare japes: "I wanna give you a million bucks," he tells the guys with guns. "In points."

This is not exactly the kind of thing that will float the boat of the average Terminator fan. Deeper thinkers may find it fascinating in places, but it's so self-consciously art-house, you can practically hear the espresso machine gurgling away out in the lobby. Of course, this is the same filmmaker who once played Cupid to an angel come to Earth and a notably mortal trapeze artist in the streets of Berlin. Not only that, he made a sequel.

The End of Violence is an intriguing but relentlessly self-absorbed film (there's even a German movie-director character who wonders aloud if he really should be making movies in the U.S.), and by the end, you might find yourself wondering if our Mr. Wenders fancies himself as much a philosopher of art as a guy who stands behind a camera, trusting new forms of narrative to tell a complex tale. Good luck getting a straight answer out of him.

The End of Violence.
Screenplay by Nicholas Klein. Directed by Wim Wenders. With Bill Pullman, Traci Lind, Andie MacDowell, Gabriel Byrne and Loren Dean.

 
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