Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Guide (Roger review)

Got a spec that was picked up recently for tomorrow's review. I have a script from an Oscar winner that's gone unmade for seven years which some people have called "amazing." I have a recently sold thriller that's landed one of Hollywood's newest stars. I also have a script that's reuniting some Hollywood legends. Gear up and get ready. It should be a fun week. Now here's Roger with a script from Johnathan Lemkin.

Genre: Thriller
Premise: Jane Whitefield is a one-woman witness protection program who engineers the disappearance of people who are in danger. When the Las Vegas mafia hires a psychotic couple who use everything from sex games to attack dogs to track her down, she's forced to leave her fiancé not only to protect her client, but to protect her new family.

About: From the Hollywood Reporter: "The project originated from a series of novels by author Thomas Perry that trace the fictional life and experiences of [Jane] Whitefield. Those novels include 'Shadow Woman' –- understood to be the basis for the film –- 'Vanishing Act', 'Dance for the Dead', 'A Taste of Strawberries', 'The Face-Changers' and 'Blood Money'. Several writers have had their hand in the adaptation, including Jonathan Lemkin, Graham Yost, Ron Koslow, Elizabeth Chandler and Cynthia Mort." Producer Mark Gordon and Paramount Pictures were courting Halle Berry for the role of Whitefield. You may recognize Lemkin as the writer of "The Devil's Advocate."
Writer(s): Jonathan Lemkin, based on the novel "Shadow Woman" by Thomas Perry
Details: Revised Second Draft dated November 26, 1997.

Man, I love me some Lemkin.

I went to the wayback machine and chose this script not because I had read the novels by Thomas Perry, but because the screenwriter was Jonathan Lemkin. Previously, I reviewed his excellent specs $$$$$$ and Howl. Both are great reads, one a Die Hard-esque actioner with a cool concept, and the other is probably the best werewolf script I've ever read. They're both page turners, they're both fun, and you walk away from both knowing that you just might have learned something from both a born storyteller and a craftsman.

The question is, Rog, is The Guide a page-turner and does it work as well as those other two scripts?

Indeed, it is a page-turner. I blasted through it pretty fast, and although I don't think it's as great as those specs I referenced, it is a prime example how deft plotting and fast pacing can create a narrative drive that will carry a reader to 'The End', whether they feel lukewarm about the protagonist or not.

To be honest, it felt like there was something missing from the protagonist, Jane Whitefield. It's not that she felt underdeveloped, but, rather, she wasn't nearly as interesting as the villains. In fact, it even feels like the villains have more page-time than the hero, and that's not really a complaint but more like an observation. Hell, maybe it was even a conscious choice by the producer and Lemkin. I found the psychotic duo fascinating and unique while I found the hero, merely, I dunno, inscrutable.

In that way, it's kinda like The Silence of the Lambs, where the villain is a monster so intriguing every other character seems to pale in comparison.

If you approach this script from that perspective, that this thing is really about the monsters, then you'll definitely enjoy the read. If not, you won't really discover anything new, especially if you've read a lot of thrillers. However, it's still a solid read and there are lessons to be learned, especially if you're interested in that magical thing we call 'narrative drive'.

Who is Jane Whitefield?

She calls herself a "guide", a one woman witness protection program. She helps people in perilous situations and uses her resources to extricate them from danger, assisting them with documentation and credentials so they can start new lives.

While her strength may be engineering these escapes and eluding the bad people who put her clients in danger, her flaw is her overbearing need to protect these people at all costs, including her own life. She's a fierce chica with Seneca Indian roots, and much of her wisdom in the matters of evasion is woven with her knowledge Indian legend, folklore and history.

Pete Hatcher is an accountant for a Las Vegas casino who suddenly finds himself in the deep-end of the mafia hit-man pool. Seems like his bosses no longer trust him, and no matter what Hatcher does, his former employers see him as a loose end to their operation. When we meet him, he's running from two goons and escapes into a theater inside Caesar's.

Inside the theater, he rendezvous with Jane, who has set-up his disappearing act. After he exits the theater, he'll find a black Ford in a reserved space. He's supposed to drive to Cedar City, Utah, leave the car a couple blocks away from the airport, hop a rental to get there and he'll find a prepaid ticket in the name of David Keller. He should get to Denver by dawn, where he can live safely under a new identity she's arranged for him.

Hatcher literally becomes part of the sexy magician's disappearing act on stage, and he vanishes right in front of the mafia goons in the audience and he finds himself on his way to Denver, all thanks to Jane.

Turns out Jane's no push-over either. When cornered by the mafia muscle, she uses brains to bait them, and deceptive brawn to break bone and shatter cartilage to forge her own escape.

She makes it back to her headquarters in Deganawida, New York, where she accepts a marriage proposal from her old highschool beau, Dr. Carey McKinnon, with her client safe and sound in Colorado.

Or, so she thinks.

If Jane's the escape artist, who are the hunters?

The hook here is having the ultimate guide and escape artist hunted by the ultimate serial killers. They're eerie, uncanny. Super criminals who are so good at what they do you can't help but wonder if they're supernatural shape-shifters, an idea that comes into play towards the end when Jane and Hatcher are being hunted on foot in the Canadian wilderness.

Earl Bliss and Linda Thompson live in a gated community with security walls around their house, and when we meet them, Earl is feeding a bloodhound to his two rottweilers, "Halt! Aufhoren mit!"

"What the fuck are you doing?"

"I wanted to see how the two of them work when they've got something cornered. I think it could come in handy some time. I think I could beat two of them."

Linda is naked in the kennel, a well-muscled machine, and she tells Earl, a big Okie of a guy, that he's going to have to bury the thousand-dollar bloodhound. Inside their immaculate house that's all stainless steel, Nautilus equipment and armory, they begin to make violent love when they get a call from Vegas.

Seems like they're being hired, at the all expense-covered cost of seven hundred thousand dollars, to find Hatcher and make him really disappear. They pack handguns, tranquilizers, cuffs, listening devices, linesman's phones, kevlars vests and a British Arctic Warfare suppressed rifle and head to Hatcher's old Vegas condo, where they CSI the place and find very little.

They agree that Jane is good, and they sit on the balcony and begin to coldly deduce where Hatcher went. They break out a map, and go back and forth with possible theories and scenarios. I'm not gonna lie, it's a bit chilling how quickly they solve how and where Hatcher went, and it's at this point in the script where you realize that Jane is going to be hunted by Sherlock Holmesian serial killers.

In Denver, through clever subterfuge, they manage to get Hatcher into the trunk of a car, but thanks to local law enforcement, they're forced to give up their bounty, but not without killing a police officer first.

Hatcher escapes and calls Jane, and that's when our geography-trotting cat-and-mouse game begins.

So, what happens?

Jane leaves her concerned fiancé, who has just learned about her mysterious "consulting" business, and meets up with Hatcher in Wyoming.

At Hatcher's apartment in Denver, our villains trace calls made on Hatcher's landline and discover that whoever is helping him lives in New York. Earl and Linda split up. Linda heads to New York to investigate this elusive guide, and Earl stays on Hatcher's trail.

While Earl hunts Jane and Hatcher with his big rifle, attack dogs, and roided-lackey Lenny, Linda, through social engineering, disguises and computer hacking, discovers who Jane is and that she has a fiancé.

She purchases a house in Carey's neighborhood and befriends Jane's fiancé. The plan? Well, Jane's client list is going to be worth serious money to our two hired killers, and she's going to twist him to find Jane's whereabouts so they can torture her, get the list, then dispose of her. The fiancé is Linda's card in the hole, in case things get dicey.

And they most certainly do, as Jane and Hatcher learn that these two will never stop until they're both found, so the hunted must make the decision to become the hunters. What follows is a tense game of survivor as Jane, on foot in the Wyoming-Canadian wilderness, has to figure out how to best Earl, his weapons, his dogs and his man-servant, Lenny.

If she's able to do that, she has to make it back to New York so she can save her fiancé from the other half of the psychotic duo who has discovered all her secrets.

Does it work?

It's a fun little thriller that kept me reading till the end, mostly because I wanted to see if Jane was going to survive this whole Earl and Linda ordeal. I was more interested in seeing if she would save her fiancé rather than Hatcher, because those were the emotional stakes of the story.

While there seemed to be impossible odds and Linda and Earl set-up some tense traps and scenarios, some of the escapes seemed pretty circumstantial or pat, a little too easy for the fast-paced plot. These include police arriving to mess everything up, mistaken targets and, yes, bear attacks. Well, the bear attack thing is pretty cool and its woven into some character stuff with Jane and Native American legends, but still, what can you do?

All in all, a solid thriller for those who enjoy crime and detective stories, but this is a tale where the monsters outshine the heroes.

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

What I learned: Heroes are sometimes only as interesting as their villains. I wasn't that intrigued by Jane Whitefield. A character that can escort people to safety like Arnold in "Eraser"? Perhaps she has a caretaker and God-complex, but it's nothing that gets me excited. However, psychotic trackers that are as good at finding and killing people as Sherlock Holmes is at solving crimes? Suddenly, I'm interested. In this case, it seems like a wise move to give the antagonists just as much screen and page-time as the protagonist. For your own scripts, ask yourself who's more interesting? The hero or the villains? How do you find balance between them? Sometimes, you have to make your story as much about the bad guys as you do about the good guys.

Why a star (almost) chose to play this role: Jane Whitefield is a gal that shepherds people out of impossible danger and situations to havens of safety. She's playing God. But, I think the movie-stealing roles here are for Earl and Linda. They're psychotic villains in the vein of Hannibal Lector, Chigurh and The Joker. They genuinely scare and unsettle.