Missing, The

March 4th, 2004 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Starring; Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Aaron Eckhart, Val Kilmer

Directed by Ron Howard

There’s no denying that Ron Howard is one of the best directors in Hollywood, his work consistently realistic, slick and high quality. Since the days of Night Shift and Splash, he’s brought us some of the most watchable (and Oscar friendly) adventures of recent times, from Backdraft and Apollo 13 to Ransom and A Beautiful Mind.

The latter marked something of a sea change for Howard. With the help of our Russ he turned in a purely dramatic direction with none of the spectacular and emotive backdrops we’re used to from him, instead letting his characters and the performances of the actors who play them take us on their journey.

The Missing represents both a step further in that direction and a return to form for the kid who grew up watching the same Saturday morning matinees as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones give us two dramatic characters whose motivations and relationships are the fulcrum of the story, but it’s an unashamedly straight forward chase movie nevertheless. It’s also apparently a loose remake of the 1956 John Wayne film The Searchers.

Blanchett is Maggie, a feminist before her time, a doctor in an old west wasteland of bleak snow and forbidding mountains. She spends her days tending the local natives and raising her daughters single-handedly in their harsh surroundings. Her only real company is neighbour Baldwin (Eckhart), who’s angling to snap her up in marriage if he can find the right time to ask.

Then her father blows in, in the shape of a wizardish and craggy Jones, and we quickly realise her hatred of him at abandoning his family to follow the native way while she was still a child as she promptly rejects his offer to make amends.

Fate deals it hand when Baldwin and the girls go on a trading trip and are attacked by bandits rounding up young local girls to sell as sex slaves in Mexico. The eldest daughter is seized and Maggie has no choice but to enlist her father’s help to track the evil posse before it’s too late. The chase is on.

And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with The Missing, there’s something missing (see what we did there?) that’s hard to put your finger on. Could it be a bit more exciting? Possibly. Could there have been a bit more action? Almost certainly.

You’ll think the performances, plot and structure are all sound, and at some point in the movie you’ll realise the problem; for a big name director like Ron Howard, it’s all too easy. He’s done way better than this (and will again), but the story is something straight off a cheesy 20 year old western at the back of the local video shop.

It couldn’t have been done better than it was because while Howard (and his cast) are at peak performance as always, the material has a low ceiling that no director could break through to make this movie something special. It’s a small, B grade, Saturday afternoon TV western with a whole lot of money and talent poured in.

Blanchett is a little too two dimensional, settling for a look of brooding desperation throughout the film. Jones fills the personality of his character well, Howard giving his beliefs and convictions enough screen time to make him serious. And look closely for Val Kilmer as a confederate soldier in just one scene.

But even the chase premise goes awry a couple of times, most notably when Maggie leaves a hairbrush behind and the horrible chief of the bad guys finds it and casts a spell on her — long distance — from a lock of her hair, leaving her dying from a mystery ailment in a tipi while Jones and an Indian cohort try to stave of the evil magic.

It’s a sudden jolt from the logic of the rest of the story, similar to Harrison Ford’s psychic girlfriend pinpointing the prime suspect at the critical juncture in last years’ Hollywood Homicide.

Unlike that shocker, Howard brings proceedings back to the straight and narrow after speed bumps interrupt the flow, but unfortunately The Missing is, while entertaining, never more than average.

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