The Devil Has a Name’ is a ‘master class in casting


By Richard Roeper

Signal Contributing Writer

‘The Devil Has a Name’

Momentum Pictures presents a film directed by Edward James Olmos. Written by Rob McEveety. Rated R (for language, some sexual material). Running time: 97 minutes.

Friends, we have a strong candidate for the most bat-bleep crazy movie of 2020. “The Devil Has a Name” is a contaminated-water legal thriller in the tradition of “Erin Brockovich,” “A Civil Action” and “Dark Waters,” but whereas the heroes and villains in those fine films were relatively grounded and sane people, just about everyone in this story has a couple of wobbly screws. They could have gone ahead and called this “Erin Nutsovich.”

Directed by the veteran actor Edward James Olmos and written by Robert McEveety (and what a crackling and often darkly funny script this is), “The Devil Has a Name” is a master class in casting, starting with David Strathairn as Fred Stern (because he’s stern!), a crusty old widower who has a farm in California’s Central Valley. Olmos plays Santiago, Fred’s farm manager of some 30 years and also Fred’s best friend, and we know they’re best buddies because not only do they constantly banter and bicker with each other, they actually take it to the next level and wrestle around Fred’s living room like teenage brothers.

A humongous Houston-based oil company owns a nearby oil rig, and when evidence surfaces indicating longtime environmental pollution on Fred’s farm, the evil head of the company, known as The Boss (Alfred Molina), enlists the services of the ethically bankrupt PR/fixit man Alex Gardner (Haley Joel Osment) to lowball Fred and strike a quick deal.

Nothing doing. Fred hires the crusading liberal lawyer Alex Gardner (Martin Sheen, who else?), who has the front grill of a Pinto mounted on his wall to mark his greatest victory, won against the makers of the infamous subcompact car. Meanwhile, Kate Bosworth’s Gigi Cutler, who also works for the oil company, is swaggering about in cowboy boots and is constantly nipping from a flask and seems a bit unhinged as she tries to work both sides of the game. Oh, and then there’s Pablo Schreiber’s Ezekiel, an intimidating enforcer who has a thing for working in a little S&M when he’s working over his victims, male and female. Like just about everyone else in this movie, Ezekiel doesn’t seem quite right and is not to be trusted.

“The Devil Has a Name” has a timeline that skips this way and that, and drops in some heavy-handed social and political commentary about immigration and our current president in between wild scenes, e.g., Osment’s PR guy engaging in a booze- and drug-fueled threesome with the co-anchors of a local morning TV chat show where he has been making regular appearances and giving out money from the big oil company to the hard-luck locals. Even when we get to the obligatory courtroom sequences pitting underdog Fred the almond farmer against the big bad oil company, there are moments when we’re skirting the border of parody.

Not to fret. Strathairn and Olmos have a great, old-warriors chemistry, Sheen is practically playing himself and having a ball doing so, Osment lets his freak flag fly as the nuttiest public relations man in recent film history, Schreiber is a suitably hiss-worthy villain, and Bosworth owns every scene she’s in as the cigar-chomping, booze-swilling, tough-talking Gigi, who can walk into a room filled with arrogant and condescending men and slash them to their knees before the meeting is over.

‘Honest Thief’

Briarcliff Entertainment presents a film directed by Mark Williams. Written by Mark Williams and Steve Allrich. Rated PG-13 (for strong violence, crude references and brief strong language). Running time: 99 minutes.

When I heard Liam Neeson was playing a criminal mastermind known as “The In and Out Bandit” in the new thriller “Honest Thief,” I was hoping against hope he got that moniker because he celebrated every successful heist by sending a big sack of In-N-Out Burgers to the frustrated feds. But this gray and brooding and plausibility-defying actioner is set not in California but in and around Boston, and Neeson’s Tom Carter has been given that name by the FBI because when he hits a bank in the dead of night and cleans out the safe, he’s in and out, just like that!

As opposed to what, the Lingering Bandit, who takes his sweet time and waits until he hears sirens before making a run for it?

Let’s also make it clear, Tom Carter is nothing at all like the middle-aged-but-not-to-be-trifled-with characters Neeson has played in the “Taken” trilogy, “The Commuter,” “Non-Stop,” “Cold Pursuit,” “Unknown,” “The Grey,” “Run All Night” or “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” OK? This guy is completely different from all those other stoic and rugged individualists who find themselves thrust into the most extreme circumstances imaginable and will do anything to set things right. Nothing like them at all.

Neeson’s Tom is a former Navy demolitions expert with a particular set of skills (sorry) who for the better part of a decade has been pulling off a series of seamlessly executed bank robberies. But now he calls the FBI, identifies himself as the In and Out Bandit (a name he despises) and says, “I’ve robbed 12 banks in seven states … in eight years … I have $9 million.” He wants to turn over the cash — he hasn’t spent a dime of it, for ludicrous reasons explained much later on — and surrender in exchange for a lenient sentence. Why? Because Tom has fallen in love with Kate Walsh’s Annie, and he’d like to come clean, do his time, have a fresh start in life and not always be looking over his shoulder, waiting for the feds to swoop in. He wants to become the Sorry ‘Bout That Bandit!

Tom meets with FBI agents Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos) to turn himself in and hand over the cash. Big mistake, Tom. Huge. These guys are corrupt — Nivens in particular is a homicidal maniac — and next thing you know, things go horribly wrong, murder is afoot, Tom and Nivens are engaged in mortal combat and tumbling out of a hotel window and onto the street, just as Annie is arriving to meet Tom, and that’s how Annie finds out there’s a little more to Tom than he’s told her.

Neeson and Walsh are lovely together; it’s nice and quite rare to see such a giddy, crazy-for-you romance between two characters who are over 50. And the reliable character actor Jeffrey Donovan is terrific as Agent Meyers, a good-guy fed who carries around a dog with him because that’s the only thing he got in a recent divorce settlement. (I’m thinking FBI agents probably don’t bring pups to work, but there you have it.) But this is one of those second-rate action movies where smart people keep having to do dumb things just to keep the plot rolling, and nearly every scene has us asking, “Why would you do THAT?” The In and Out Bandit should have anonymously donated his loot to charity and disappeared into the mist with Annie when he had the chance. 

Copyright 2020 Chicago Sun-Times

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