Rock rolled

Pub date November 9, 2010
SectionFilm Review

FILM Danny Boyle is a director whose projects seem chosen largely to have nothing in common with anything he’s done before. Mid-career at 54, he’s been good at a lot of things. But what, exactly, is his ideal fit?

Falling in the “good” department are 202’s 28 Days Later, which revivified the zombie flick at the cost of subsequent overexposure, not to mention introducing that whole “fast-moving zombie” conundrum. Children’s fantasy Millions (2004) had real charm almost overwhelmed by ADD; Sunshine (2007) was sci-fi so gorgeous you could almost ignore the black hole its narrative vanished into.

Not so hot were 1997’s A Life Less Ordinary and 2000’s The Beach, the latter from a novel that “couldn’t miss.” Which proved Boyle is capable of seizing on an approach entirely wrong for his material, his confidence unflagging to the bitter end. Shallow Grave (1994) was a cunning debut that owed a lot to John Hodge’s screenplay, yet made sure you couldn’t miss the directorial panache.

Which leaves 1996’s Trainspotting, the one perfect match of gonzo content and hyperactive execution. Plus 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, of course — a Piccadilly masala of tragedy, coarse humor, melodrama, spectacle, outrageous fortune, grotesquerie, and whipped cream. Did Boyle and company truly fuse those elements, or just smash them haphazardly together? Most people were too dazzled by exoticism to care. But will its brief vogue eventually look like one of those pop anomalies more puzzling than nostalgic?

After that large-scale, Oscar-draped triumph, 127 Hours might seem starkly minimalist — if Boyle weren’t allergic to such terms. Based on Aron Ralston’s memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place, it’s a tale defined by tight quarters, minimal “action,” and maximum peril: man gets pinned by rock in the middle of nowhere, must somehow free himself or die.

More precisely, in 2003 experienced trekker Ralston biked and hiked into Utah’s Blue John Canyon, falling into a crevasse when a boulder gave way under his feet. He landed unharmed … save a right arm pinioned by a rock too securely wedged, solid, and heavy to budge. He’d told no one where he’d gone for the weekend; dehydration death was far more likely than being found.

For those few who haven’t heard how he escaped this predicament, suffice it to say the solution was uniquely unpleasant enough to make the national news (and launch a motivational-speaking career). Yes, it was way worse than drinking one’s own pee.

Opinions vary about the book. It’s well written, an undeniably amazing story, but some folks just don’t like him. Alternating chapters between the canyon crisis and prior “hair-raising adventures,” Ralston is the life of every party, the apple of every eye. He’s forever leaping gung-ho into avoidable near-catastrophes (risking death by bear attack, drowning, etc.), then marveling at his luck in surviving them. Stuck passing long, possibly final hours in Blue John, he briefly experiences “regrets about not focusing on the people enough” in pursuit of “the essence of experience.” Example: once he lost two good friends by recklessly getting them near-killed in an avalanche. But oh well!

This being a Danny Boyle movie, it has of course has a much cooler soundtrack than Ralston would have mixtaped (it’s a no-Phish zone), albeit one sometimes quirky to a jarring fault. While hardly a pop-culture felon à la Baz Luhrmann, Boyle still easily errs on the side of excess flash. His 127 Hours has passages where the MTV-like cinematic gymnastics performed to keep us interested in a trapped hero are just trivializing and gratuitous.

Still, subject and interpreter match up better than one might expect, mostly because there are lengthy periods when the film simply has to let James Franco command our full attention. This actor, who has reached the verge of major stardom as a chameleon rather than a personality, has no trouble making Ralston’s plight sympathetic, alarming, poignant, and funny by turns. His protagonist is good-natured, self-deprecating, not tangibly deep but incredibly resourceful. Probably just like the real-life Ralston, only a tad more appealing, less legend-in-his-own-mind — a typical movie cheat to be grateful for here.

127 HOURS opens Fri/12 in San Francisco.