Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Leonardo Job

There hasn't been a good art heist screenplay in over a decade. Does The Fugitive screenwriter finally crack the code?

Genre: Action/Adventure/Heist
Premise: A pair of rival art thieves must team up to steal a Leonardo da Vinci painting that nobody knows exists.
About: This is a spec script written by David Twohy. Twohy is probably best known by today’s moviegoers as the writer of Pitch Black. But his most well-known work is, obviously, The Fugitive. Right now, Twohy is currently filming the new Riddick movie with Vin Diesel. If they’re filming the same script that I read, that one will go back to Pitch Black’s roots, keeping things simple (Riddick stalking a group of men on an isolated planet).
Writer: David Twohy
Details: 117 pages – April 16, 2011 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I kind of love David Twohy. How can I not. He wrote The Fugitive, the best thriller ever. He also penned one of the great sci-fi screenplays of all time with “Pitch Black.” Not only did it have one of the coolest central characters you've ever seen in a sci-fi film, but talk about a midpoint shift! An entire planet turning dark and billions of aliens shooting out of the planet's core to feed on anything they can find!

Where I'm still smarting, however, is in Twohy’s last effort, The Perfect Getaway. That movie was awesome for about 90 minutes. And then……well, and then…the ending happened. The “big twist.” And oh boy was it not good. It was everything you don't want your twist to be. Manufactured. Forced. Nonsensical. So while my love for Twohy still remains, I still haven’t gotten over that flick.

But I have good news. Twohy is back! And if The Leonardo Job turns out anything like the script, it’s going to be great.

Steve Styles is a gadget heister. He's the kind of guy who will build a $50,000 mechanical dragonfly to scout out the room that houses the painting he's about to steal. And that's exactly how this movie begins, with Styles deftly using a number of gadgets to get into a museum and steal a 3 million dollar painting.

But as he’s speeding away in a getaway car, he's unaware that a man on a sled is secretly breaking into his trunk, stealing the very painting he just stole…AT 65 MILES PER HOUR. When Styles figures this out, he knows exactly who’s responsible: Kofax.

Kofax is much older than Styles and doesn't believe in gadgetry. He believes in good old-fashioned hard work. And this is just one of the many differences between these two rivals – art thieves who hate each other with every bone in their body.

After Kofax steals from the stealer, he learns of a big deal going down in Europe and so he flies there, where he eventually meets Gina, a woman who claims to know about a secret 23rd painting from Leonardo da Vinci. But this isn't any ordinary painting. It's a fresco. That means it's the size of a giant wall. It's also hidden behind another wall in a museum due to a misguided construction choice 500 hundreds years ago.

Kofax thinks the job is impossible (how do you even get behind a wall in an active museum?) and isn't convinced that the painting exists anyway. So he’s out. Enter Styles, who's eager to take on the challenge. But once Kofax realizes Styles is on, he wants back on too, and Gina’s solution is to have them work together.

Of course, since this is a Twohy script, there are lots of twists and turns along the way, and just when you think you know what's going on, you realize you don't. There is plenty of jockeying to figure out who here is telling the truth, who’s lying, who you can trust, who you can't. In the end, someone’s going to end up with this painting – if it indeed exists. The question is…who?

Let's start off with the obvious. This script is expertly written. This is what a script looks like from a seasoned professional who’s mastered his craft. Let me give you an example.

The movie starts out with an art heist. It's a reasonably simplistic scene that we've seen many times before. It's well written but nothing special. Yet here’s the difference. Most amateurs would stop there. They’ve written their opening heist scene. They’re done.

What makes Twohy different is that he’s not done. As Styles races away, we cut to somebody on a sled, picking the lock of the trunk. This surgeon of a man is about to lift the painting this guy just lifted. Now THAT’S something I’ve never seen before. In other words, the writer pushes himself to do something different – to do something fresh.

The next awesome choice Twohy makes is in the construction of the heist itself. Whenever you create a heist scenario, it's imperative that you make the heist look impossible. If it doesn’t look impossible, then we’ll have no doubt our hero can pull it off. And if there’s no doubt, there’s no movie. The doubt is what creates the drama! So the more of it you can produce, the more exciting your movie will be.

Thirdly, Twohy creates a ton of conflict between the two main characters. No, we're not talking Chris Tucker/Jackie Chan conflict here. Styles and Kofax have tons of history together and absolutely despise one another. They've stolen paintings from each other worth millions of dollars. So we have a real conflict and a real distrust between the two. That makes every scene between them fun.

On the flip side, there were a few things I didn’t like. One thing that always bothers me is when a writer starts the movie off with one character, then switches over to another character, who becomes our hero. The reason I don’t like that is because, mentally, I’m always waiting for that first character to come back and lead the story. He was introduced first, so naturally I assumed he was the hero.

So I kept waiting for Styles to reemerge, until, after 25 pages, I realized Kofax was the protagonist. Complicating this is that Kofax is introduced as the bad guy. He's the one who stole the painting from the guy we liked. It would be like in Raiders, if after Belloq stole the idol Indy just secured from the cave, that we followed Belloq for the next half hour. Do we really want to follow him? Or do we want to follow the guy who stole the idol in the first place?

I admire that Twohy likes to explore the antihero (as he did with Riddick), but it threw me off guard as I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be rooting for for the first 40 minutes.

Twohy also makes the questionable decision to bring in our villain late. I don’t think he shows up until page 75. This is something I tell writers to avoid if at all possible. Not only does the audience need someone to root against in these kinds of films, but it's really hard to build up an entire bad guy with just 45 pages left in a screenplay. So I wish Twohy would've found a way to get him in earlier.

Still, Twohy is such a great screenwriter that even with these unconventional choices, he finds a way to make it work. And like I always say, you have to do something differently in your script or else it feels cookie-cutter, which can sometimes be worse than writing a straight up bad script. So in the end, this is definitely a script worth celebrating.

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

What I learned: To spice up a predictable scene, add a ticking time bomb. There's a nifty little scene early in the movie where Styles is chasing Kofax after Kofax stole the painting Styles stole. Styles, in order to catch him, calls the On-star people on a fake police line, telling them that Kofax’s car is stolen. The Onstar people remotely turn Kofax’s car off, inadvertently stopping it in the middle of some train tracks. This allows Styles to confront Kofax, while in the distance, a train approaches. With the painting tucked into the trunk, neither of them will leave until it’s safely secured. – Notice how the ticking time bomb here adds tension to the scene. If Styles had simply run Kofax off the road, hopped out, and demanded the painting, there’s no “ticking time bomb,” there’s no reason to take care of things immediately. It might’ve been an okay scene. But it wouldn’t have been nearly the scene that’s in the script now. So add a ticking time bomb to your scenes to bring them alive (you’ll notice that we had a similar scene in The Fugitive – with Richard Kimble trying to get out of the bus before the train hit).