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01/10/2006 - MUNICH
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MUNICH by Tom McCurrie


Action-thrillers come and go, basically because most have nothing more going for them than action and thrills. The action-thrillers that stay with me, the ones that truly resonate over time, have more on their mind than genre tropes. Steven Spielberg's MUNICH is one of those action-thrillers.

Written by Eric Roth and award-winning playwright Tony Kushner, and based on the non-fiction bestseller by George Jonas, MUNICH is about Israel's revenge on those Palestinians who planned the massacre of their athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. As befitting an action-thriller, MUNICH delivers both the action (a gripping attack on a PLO safe house in Beirut) and the thrills (as the Israeli hunters, led by a fine Eric Bana, eventually become the hunted). Spielberg hasn't lost his ability to quicken the pulse, and his gritty, hand-held camerawork gives MUNICH a semi-documentary immediacy that keeps it from being another stodgy period film.

But Spielberg does more than give us an empty roller-coaster ride. He challenges our pat moral preconceptions, bringing up issues that are as relevant to our contemporary War on Terror as they were to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the 70's. Is there a difference between government-sanctioned killing and murder? Does violence defeat terrorism or simply enflame it? Most provocative of all, does violence destroy those who use it, crippling them with despair, paranoia and guilt, even if that violence is committed in a supposedly "good" cause? Questions like these sear the soul, making MUNICH a deeper, more memorable experience than can be had with your typical action-thriller.

If there is a problem with MUNICH it's that at 160 minutes, it is too much of a good thing. Like KING KONG, MUNICH would have worked better at two hours. The second act is unnecessarily bloated, a series of assassination scenes that, however excitingly staged, soon grow repetitive. Over and over again we see the Israeli hit team knock off their Palestinian targets, and without any new information in the form of plot or character development, narrative momentum stalls and interest wanes as the story seems to be going nowhere. Compressing some of these hits into a fast-paced montage would have remedied the situation.

It's only later when the Israelis become hunted by mysterious assassins themselves, precipitating a descent into paranoia on Bana's part, that the story recovers. This is a good lesson in raising the stakes. Though they face some obstacles on their hits, the Israelis still take their targets down fairly easily. So there is little reason to fear for their safety, causing suspense to slacken. However, when the Israelis become the targets, getting picked off one by one with no way to fight back, the stakes are raised, along with fear for their welfare. This boosts tension and interest.

Removing extraneous material would also have tightened things. A character named Papa, who supplies Bana with information about the Palestinian ringleaders, is given substantial screen time in MUNICH. Though I love the French actor who plays Papa, Michael Lonsdale, the long sequence where Bana goes to Papa's estate and learns about his anti-government/anti-nationalist views is unnecessary and could have been cut without any loss of coherence. Cutting Papa's jealous, bitter son, a character who never pays off dramatically, would also have been wise.

But I'm really just grousing to justify my job as a film critic. Despite its flaws, MUNICH is one of the best movies of the year. Don't pass it up.


Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're now archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently working on his first novel.

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