Sunday, December 13, 2009

L.A. REX

For those of you consumed with all the Avatar chatter coming in after the big London premiere, you may have missed out on some way bigger news. Yeah, I'm talking about the release of this year's Black List. I gave my thoughts on the list's entries on Friday, and Saturday I did a quick breakdown of genres and agencies that made the list. You may want to check it out if you have any aspirations for making the list in the future. I know some of you have been asking questions about the list and the voting process and some more insider knowledge. I tried to recruit a Black List voter from my Facebook page but without success, so I'm going to make my plea now. Are there any Black List voters who wouldn't mind answering some reader questions? If so, please e-mail me (we don't have to use your real identity).

Anyway, in celebration of the list, we're going to be doing Black List reviews all the way until the end of the year. My personal goal is to have all the Black List scripts read by March, when I can give a more thorough and accurate analysis of the scripts chosen. Today, Roger tackles L.A. REX, a 2009 Black List Top 10'er, based on a novel by the same writer, chronicling his experiences as a real life L.A. Cop. Here he is with the review.


P.s. For those wondering about the Logline Contest. The top 25 will be announced next Monday, December 21st, at 6pm Pacific Time. Today I read a great first 10 pages from someone and it got me pumped to read more. Overall, I have about five entries that are leading contenders. But it's only 10 pages so far. It's easy to fade. And the slow-burning scripts are only going to get better.


Genre: Crime, Action
Premise: Rookie LAPD officer Ben Halloran gets partnered with scarred and tobacco-spitting Officer Marquez, and the unlikely team hit the streets of L.A. on the brink of a gang-rivalry explosion amid run-ins with the Mexican mafia, brutal gang murders, and corrupt cops.
About: The novel was written by a former LAPD Homicide Detective. Joseph Wambaugh describes it as “the 21st century noir thriller, what Apocalypse Now was to 20th century war movies...” After the book hit the literary scene, it was optioned by Scott Rudin Productions and Paramount Pictures. Beall also has another project set up at Dreamworks, about a cop who's also a zombie, called "Xombie."
Writer: Will Beall, based on his novel
Details: 128 pages

I wouldn't want to meet this guy in the streets. (this is Carson talking btw)

One of the reasons I bought Will Beall’s novel, “L.A. Rex”, was because of the Robert B. Parker blurb on the back. Last year, when I was going through a difficult time, a good friend gave me a grocery sack full of tattered Parker novels, and I was hooked. During that time, I read “L.A. Rex”.

It’s fucking good.

Will Beall’s not only a real South Central L.A. cop, he’s also a real writer. He’s got a real gift for language, and it sticks to your brain like homemade napalm days after reading it. And you know, he kicked through the door of the literary scene, guns blazing.

From Chandler to Cain to Mosley to Ellroy, Los Angeles has a remarkable noir mythology. When I see a first novel with a brazen title like “L.A. Rex”, of course I’m going to buy it. After all, it’s as if the author is saying, “My L.A. noir book is so fucking good it’s going to tear through the pantheon of crime writers and their canon like a goddamned Tyrannosaurs Rex.”

That takes cajones.

And only an author who has worked the streets of South Central L.A. could come up with a nightmare like this. Every sentence is like a preamble to violence, and the Scarface-like ambition of the characters (and their disregard for human life) creates a shadow of dread that stalks the reader from page to page.

How’s the translation from novel to script, Rog?

It’s pretty damn good. But it ain’t pitch-perfect. There’s so much knotted-up plot to distill into 120-ish pages, and the relationships between the bevy of characters are so complicated that trying to tell this story with clarity in a screenplay couldn’t have been an easy task. I mean, when you have chapters of back-story that add weight to the way a character glances at another character, you’re in for a helluva writing assignment.

It’s not light reading.

However, if not as good as the novel, this script experience is as savage and chaotic as being thrown into a dark hole full of crazed pit-bulls.

What’s the story?

Miguel Marquez is the type of oldschool police officer that gangbangers fear, respect, and loathe. An urban samurai, he’s fearless, brutal. When we meet him, Marquez and his rookie engage a group of bank robbers who are suspiciously armed with automatic weapons and other military-style firepower.

In bullet-ridden in media res, we’re not only cast into a six-page action sequence, but we’re thrown into the head-on collision with Beall’s shrapnel-strewn poetry-prose. When it comes to language, this guy is a performance artist. It’s bloody good, but as the script wears on, you get the sense that he shoulda varied his stroke, because by the end you decide, man, he overwrote the shit out of the A/D lines.

Anyways, Marquez loses his rookie in the violence and he almost dies himself, only to be saved by his old pal, LAPD Detective Bae Chuin, described as a “wry Buddha with a comb-over.”

We’re then treated to a Departed-esque credit sequence paralleling the history of LA race riots with our hero’s trials and tribulations at the LA Police Academy. By the time we reach images portraying the evolution of modern-day gang culture, our hero, Ben Halloran, graduates the Academy.

In true Training Day-fashion, Ben is apprenticed to Marquez, who still bares the fresh scars of losing his last rookie. Quickly, Marquez dispenses wisdom to Ben about surviving the streets of South Central, “Go home alive and apologize later. Or play nice and go home in a box.”

Marquez runs Ben through his urban version of the Kobayashi Maru by having Ben try to arrest a drunk wino. Only thing is, the wino is a dirty brawler that Marquez has paid to beat the shit out of Ben. Just when you think Ben is just another standard green rookie, he surprises both Marquez and the wino with some dirty moves of his own.

The plot kicks into gear when Marquez fixes his sights on a member of the Boot Hill Mafia, a banger named Deandre. Ben surprises Marquez again in the ensuing chase sequence. It starts out like something from a Dennis Lehane novel.

Following suspect in his car. Suspect makes a break for it.

Click the picture to buy the book.

Then it gets nuts as it turns into a footrace that could have been pulled out of “Point Break” or “City of God”, heatshimmer poverty and all. There’s ghetto parkour, angry dogs, pissed-off Latinos with aluminum bats, helicopters, and willingly jumping into freeway traffic.

It ends when Ben and Deandre crash through a skylight into the hideout of an Eme bagman named Wizard. And you see, Wizard has been tortured and murdered. His corpse has been rotting here for a while. And this is bad news, because, Eme is LA’s all powerful Mexican Mafia.

Someone’s disturbing the gangland balance of power by torturing and murdering Eme bagmen.

And Ben and Marquez charge into the LA underworld looking for Wizard’s killers. It’s a just-the-tip-of-the-iceberg situation as Marquez learns that Ben might be a key figure in the unfolding bloody brouhaha.

What’s the La underworld in this story?

In short, it’s fucked up. If this is supposed to be an accurate depiction of LA’s underbelly, then I’m never leaving the confines of my house.

Case in point: When Marquez goes knocking on the door of MS-13 Country next to the LA River, there’s a nightmarish factory set-piece that involves our two cops battling machete-wielding MS-13 warriors. Thrown into the mix is a fucking bear-trap (no, I’m not joking), homemade napalm (gasoline mixed-with sugar), and guns. It’s a nasty few pages that gets the blood-pumping.

There’s Darius, the super-intelligent commander of The Boot Hill Mafia, whose drug and music empire is the center sprawl of this unsavory crime world. In the book, Darius is actually the other main character besides Ben, and theirs is a journey of brotherhood that turns into bloodshed and competing interests.

He doesn’t have a lot of time in the script. I guess the main thing is that he owns a jaguar. Not the car. The cat.

Let me say that again.

Inside Darius’ mansion/castle, is a jaguar.

And this jaguar does some very nasty things in the 3rd act to one of our major characters.

Darius is the type of guy that owns vintage African weaponry, watches Dolemite, and kills and serves talent managers as barbecue to uppity musicians who try to get out of contracts with Darius. Darius also has a bodyguard named Jax that likes to scalp people. The fact that Darius owns such weaponry might mean that there’s a fucking sword fight in the 3rd act.

There’s also Carcosa, the leader of Eme, who we discover that Ben is working for. That’s right, Ben is a mole in the LAPD that works for Eme, the reasons of which I will not go into here. Carcosa is the type of psychopath that likes to use Vanilla Ice-like musicians named Sasparilla Whiskey as pi├▒atas.

The heart of this script is discovering the intricacies at play in the crime triangle between Carcosa, Darius, and Ben. Who is trying to double-cross who, and why? But the key puzzle pieces are the dirty cops that may want control of this underworld for themselves.

Cops Marquez may have a history with.

As you can glean, there’s a lot of conflict in this script, and it’s hard not to get caught and confused in the cross-fire of it all. So much so by the time you reach the 3rd act you may not be sure why characters are making the decisions they make.

Why do you think the novel is better?

In the script, I felt lost trying to keep up with Ben’s story. That never happened in the novel.

Darius’ story is just as important as Ben’s, and sadly, in the script, it’s been moved to the background. The novel equally focuses on both characters, and I was disappointed the script didn’t do the same. Following dueling protagonists worked to great effect in Monahan and Scorsese’s “The Departed”, and to me, that seemed to be the default template to follow.

Adapting this novel into a let’s-follow-one-protagonist (a la the trusted but formulaic spec script mold) journey suffocates the story. To fully understand Ben’s motivations, we have to understand Darius. We have to experience their story as an audience.

In the novel, the whole story hinges on so much stuff that happens in the back-story. What does that mean for this script adaptation? Unfortunately, all the important details are lost in the forced flashbacks. And sadly, it creates a protagonist that we can’t fully connect to.

For instance, the plot hangs off of Ben’s decision to join the LAPD. While the novel convinces us why, the script isn’t so convincing. In this iteration, it just seems confusing. You can’t help but ask yourself this question: You can hide from a drug lord by joining the LAPD? Really?

In the book, it’s emphasized that Ben really doesn’t have a choice. He belongs to Carcosa.

And this is a lot of stuff we learn in Darius’ Dickensian back-story. Without Darius’ perspective to help us navigate, we get lost in Ben’s journey, and sadly, all the crazy shit he chooses to go through isn’t as visceral as it could be because we don’t understand why exactly he’s there in the first place. Hell, some of Ben’s dialogue conveys that he doesn’t even know why he’s in this mess in the first place.

Psychologically, things get even more convoluted when we realize that Ben must choose between three competing father figures: Carcosa, Marquez, or his biological dad, a sleazy lawyer named Big Ben. It’s a clusterfuck of ethical and moral dilemmas that gunk up the sense of conflict.

It’s too much.

Want to open up this story?

Go back to what worked for the novel. Braid Darius’ story into Ben’s. It needs a parallel linear narrative that keeps moving forward. A novel can easily move back and forth in a non-linear fashion. With a screenplay, it’s trickier because a script depends so much on forward momentum that emphasizes action. And there’s a concrete time limit you’re forced to adhere to. In this case, the flashbacks feel like info dumps. And that’s no bueno.

Despite its flaws, the script for “L.A. Rex” is a compelling and must-read. This is a powerful effort for a first screenplay. If its weakness is the plot, its strength are its vivid and garish characters, its unrelenting and chaotic action, and its grotesque atmosphere. The use of language is at times brilliant.

I think if the flaws in the script are addressed so that it doesn’t lose the power of the novel, “L.A. Rex” has the potential to be the “Layer Cake” of L.A. crime films.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn't for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Beall has an amazing ear for dialogue, and this script has dialogue exchanges in it that could only possibly come from a writer who worked as an LAPD police officer for 10 years. And there’s a lot of it. In fact, Beall does an interesting thing. He uses dual column dialogue formatting trickery. Not to convey that characters are talking over each other, but so he can fit in more dialogue. Instead of reading down, you read it left-to-right, kinda like a comic-book. The effect of course, is that a 128 page script reads like its 180 pages. Is this going to be a new trend? I’m not sure. Although I was a bit put off by the format at first, I got used to it. But part of me thinks the script could be just as good if its pared down. Sometimes less is more.