Once Fallen (2010) is the kind of movie you’d most likely only find at a film festival in the huddled masses of other enthusiasts doing a poor job of time management and filling their schedule with copious amounts of nutrients, beverages, and screenings. You’d probably first catch Ed Harris (who needs no introduction) in the credits followed by Taraji P. Henson (Hustle & Flow, The Curious Case of Ben.Button) and Amy Madigan (Gone Baby Gone) and consider whether or not to see yet another zombie horror flick or yet another crime drama. You might stumble across the DVD at your local rental place, one copy tucked between an alien space saga and a sketchy rom-com and think to yourself, who is the writer-director behind this film?
Writer-director Ash Adams, who is also known professionally as Jason Adams, began his career on television in the hit ABC daytime drama “Ryan’s Hope” and followed with a string of successful series, bit parts and larger roles which inevitably put him in several feature films, though mostly B-types and straight-to DVD fare. As a filmmaker, his early work garnered modest attention domestically and his documentary “The Distance” was recently picked up by Image Entertainment for distribution. Adams actually appears in this film as a bad cop on the take with a short fuse and attention span that while not a failure never quite elevates from every other good cop gone bad type we’ve seen countless times before – only it is apparent no one else on set has much input on his delivery. Denzel Washington breathes just such a needed vigilance into his character in Training Day as well as does Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, Clockers, and Copland). Have you seen Gary Oldman’s remarkable performance in Léon (also known as The Professional and Léon: The Professional)? If not, you’re missing out an entirely riveting and unfaultable performance. Keitel and Di Nero go way back, all the way back to Scorsese and Mean Streets and they’ve built quite a career on memorable, indelible characters worthy of an editorial all their own. But this is about a film that falls well below that mark.
Once Fallen doesn’t pretend to be more than just another crime-drama, an amalgamation of more successful film and television plots and character scenarios ad infinitum these days in the war between cable and mainstream programming, but it does fall quickly into movie of the week territory as neither character nor story is move with any urgency or surprise. The clunky scenes play almost entirely for effect. If you’re interested in racially charged family crime sagas or just out of prison second chance stories, you’d do better with American History X, Carlito’s Way or Poetic Justice. If subtlety and specificity are important you’d find much in films like The Woodsman (Kevin Bacon) or try the quirky but soulful Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton) – all different films but the import of theme that works in those films is clearly absent here. In place of theme we’re delivered thin type copies staggering through a San Pedro skyline that could be anywhere and might just be. These characters are based on the real thing or half sketches of people you see walking dark streets with neon for makeup and dead-white eyes but those aren’t the people we get in this movie. Instead the filmmakers borrow haphazardly from bigger films and clichéd archetypes set up like dominoes in uninspired and predictable patterns that hardly stray from the ensuing mess that transpires.
It is unknown whether Once Fallen could have succeeded given the omission of originality and so many tedious scenes of needless exposition. This isn’t a movie about gene splicing or the effects of gravity on the bowel system of astronauts. We can’t know if Ed Harris (The Hours, Cleaner, Winter Passing) as the incarcerated white supremacist with a conscience might have given us something more that we know he is not only capable of but frequently delivers. Peter Weller (Robocop) is the only well sketched out character in the movie, as a jive talking bee-bop baddy who seems to be the only one having fun though one must wonder how much of the character was written and how much Weller found in the role out of sheer boredom. One can almost see all the right ingredients gathered together, a central star in Harris surrounded by lesser and lesser known character actors like Tajiri Jehnson, Amy Madigan, and Chad Lindberg (Sons of Anarchy, I Spit on your Grave) but Peter’s doesn’t have a clear vision or a voice with which to realize any of it.
Some have actually gone so far as to draw direct comparisons to American History X and Once Fallen to which I would argue the comparisons and differences separate quite early and never fully regain any meaningful similarities. Sure, the subject matter is about racism, about the Arian nation and white supremacy, about gang violence and the consequences of action, but where this film fails and American History X succeeds, is that we are rooted too far in the simplicity of everydayness and devoid of understanding that decision is as much about where we are from as where we are heading and ultimately what we want to do when we get there. If a story is worthy at all is takes us someplace and in the case of Once Fallen we never really leave one long, vacuous parking lot that corrals as much as it defines the limited dreams of the characters to truly move on with their lives.
While my first reaction is to say miss this film because it is most likely just too much of the same films you has already watched dozens of times before. I offer, however, a glimmer of hope that you might take away from this film some moment, some instance in the vein of The Deer Hunter, at the end, when Chris Walkin’s character has a moment of clarity and for that moment, for the seconds where Robert Di Nero’s character and Walkin’s exchange a kind of holy communion where one life is beginning at the exact moment another one is ending and there, in the span of seconds, we are given a glimpse at the power of cinema to understand, reveal, and question the complexities of life that the world as we know it takes form. In the end of Once Fallen we finally arrive at the closure of one chapter so the next can begin, that where the father remains ardent, unyielding and resolved to maintain what he is and pays the ultimate price for his inflexibility, is son on the other hand embraces change and for that lives another day.
That is life. That is death. That is the life behind us, before us, and the one that awaits us tomorrow and the tomorrow after that if we survive to see it.
Oddly enough you won’t find many reviews of this film. Perhaps it is due to the fact that theatrical distribution was both limited and short-lived and as a result many critics have moved over this one for more recent, headliners. I’ve assembled a handful of track backs here so I hope these, and the review, are helpful.