Full Disclosure: I don't hate Uwe Boll. I legitimately admire his business sense. I also like In The Name of the King and Rampage. I'm going to lambaste the shit out of him here, but let the record show it doesn't come from a place of contempt, only brutally honest criticism.
It's not easy being Russell Crowe. I should probably have another disclosure about him, how the controversies about his personality, his run-ins with the law, have been painfully blown out of proportion. He's a walking example of the "But ya shag one sheep!" joke. Tom Cruise at least has Top Gun and the Mission Impossible franchise to balance out his... more eccentric attributes. Crowe's filmography has been almost experimental for the most part, as if directors and producers don't quite know what to do with him. His early career tried to play him up as a suave, smooth-talking charmer or relatable everyman/hearthrob (A Beautiful Mind, LA Confidential). He seems most at home in action (Gladiator, Robin Hood), but he's also tackled very cerebral dramas (Master & Commander, Cinderella Man). Then, there's Noah and Man of Steel. Jury's out on those. I mean, I like them, and he's the best part of the latter.
His films are few and far between compared to most auteur A-listers, which unfortunately means every new entry is a tough sell against the deluge of controversy. When the trailer for Unhinged was released, there was no shortage of wannabe jokers in the comments calling the film a cinema verite style documentary about Crowe's daily life. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt that this is him effectively owning the controversy, some para-meta-ironic middle finger to his haters, but he's either too late to the party to pull the prank on the pretentious preppies, or he's killed the man and become the monster.
I'm calling this an unofficial entry/preview in a series of posts I've got in the pipeline entitled, "Reasons I Shouldn't Write Screenplays" an idea I freely admit to stealing whole cloth from Noah "The Spoony One" Antwiler. They're as much musings and meditations on various tropes and trends of the Hollywood dream factory as they are semi-serious sales pitches for reboots, reimaginings, retoolings, or redirects of some of the biggest franchises and flops dotting the greater pop culture landscape.
The plot of Unhinged takes it cue from horror writing 101. Take a mundane, inconsequential thing, and turn it into a matter of life and death. This isn't a bad thing, only a little tired. No movie is ever released in a vacuum and some of the dialogue is not helping to convince people of idea parallelism (a fancy legalese-esque word for a coincidence).
A single mother (Caren Pistorious) is driving home with her son when she gets stuck behind a pickup truck at a green light. In a fit of frustration, she emphatically honks her horn before giving up and driving around. The owner of the truck (Crowe) later confronts her that a brief tap of the horn would have been sufficient while explaining that he's been having a bad day, apologizing for earlier while expecting the same from her. She stubbornly dismisses him, and the conflict ensues. At one point on the driver's path of systematic destruction in the name of revenge, he reveals his intention is to show her what a bad day really looks like.
That line struck more than a few familiar chords with film-goers, with many mentions of the Alan Moore story The Killing Joke going hand-in-hand with the comparisons to the recent Oscar nominee Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix. The Killing Joke was written in 1988 hot on the heels of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns series in an effort to convince the wider public that the caped crusader was not the bright and colorful shark-repelling deputy cemented into the public perception by the Adam West-led TV series. It attempts to offer an origin story for the Joker, one that's meant to paint him as a tragic figure, a victim of circumstance. As part of his plot to garner sympathy for his situation, he opines that anyone could have become the Clown Prince of Crime as a result of "just one bad day."
Hollywood has toyed with this idea in the past, examples including the likes of Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Straw Dogs, and Falling Down (to name a few). Those movies predate the Columbine disaster by many years, and while mass shootings and other acts of terror by disgruntled individuals have a history predating those films (Dog Day Afternoon being loosely based on a real life event), an apparent increase in violent shootings and assaults have brought this trope under a new light of scrutiny. Much of the scrutiny feels misdirected, like it's working under a false premise that the main character of any movie is meant to be perceived as a heroic ideologue. It's true many misunderstanding movie-goers (mainly male) may make a manifesto of the malignancy and malice, missing the masqueraded meaning regarding motives, means, and opportunities. That is, these characters are only heroes by default, the lessers to greater evils. The circumstances that created them and drove them to their extremes are not triumphs, but tragedies not unlike those that befall the men who slay monsters only to become them in the process. The modus operandi of these misunderstood ordinaries are not meant to be mimicked outright, but mulled over.
To put this process in perspective, Roger Ebert described the comedic machinations of the Naked Gun movies thusly: You'll laugh, then laugh at yourself for laughing. You may well find yourself rooting for Michael Douglas as he obliterates a phone booth with machine gun fire to spite an impatient man eager to make a call. It's easy to find yourself dancing to Joaquin Phoenix's beat as you traverse any long sequence of steps. None of these reactions are inherently wrong. That's the magic of movies, if not the whole of storytelling in general.
I made an off-hand comment to a friend on Twitter about how Unhinged was essentially what we'd get if Uwe Boll adapted The Killing Joke but ran out of money and/or lost the rights to the Batman license partway through. Obviously, the film in no way, shape, or form resembles The Killing Joke beyond some throwaway lines that touch on the same philosophies about human nature, the choices we make, and our responsibility in light of the consequences of those choices. That said, the more I thought about it, the more I realized this plot has a stronger tie to the Batman universe than likely anyone involved in the film realizes.
Put simply, the Joker is no stranger to road rage.
Joker's Favor is an early, but much-loved episode of Batman: The Animated Series. While typically falling shy of any top spots, it often ranks highly on many best episodes list, and it's not undeserved. It also takes a mundane, inconsequential event and turns it into something far more sinister. An accountant named Charlie (voiced by Ed Begley Jr.) drives home from a bad day at work. His impatience with other drivers ends up getting him face to face with the Joker. Joker lets Charlie go on the condition that he may well ask him for a favor some day. Two years elapse before Charlie, despite having moved and changed his name, is contacted by the Joker to fulfill his end of the bargain from earlier.
What follows is a rather predictable turning of the tables in the cat and mouse game via an ordinary man being driven to extraordinary actions, though with the saving grace of a timely and graceful step back from the edge. What makes it work is the show's complete and utter commitment to the subject matter. It's played perfectly straight and allows you to suspend disbelief on how things will turn out for those involved.
Unhinged, just like Charlie's future in Joker's Favor, could go a number of ways. Monsters can be slain as easily as they can be made. Currently, its box office performance (including a delayed release thanks to the Coronavirus Pandemic) is less than impressive, a few million shy of halfway to its 33 million dollar budget (Falling Down was made for 25 million in 1997, a little over 40 million adjusted for inflation). Critics have been equally cold, dismissing it as uninspired, unable to justify its own existence against other films of its stated variety. Those jokes about Crowe's temper seem to have run their course. As for those other comments calling Caren Pistorious' character a Karen...