Tom Jolliffe takes a look at when good concepts are badly executed…
Occasionally you’ll see a film or a TV show and you wonder why they bothered at all. Everything goes wrong. Sometimes it starts from the very concept. In the case of remakes for example, you know right off the bat that some films don’t have a demand to be remade, and the very notion of remaking said film (case in point, Point Break) is nailed on disaster. Or you have something like Jupiter Ascending that sounded terrible from conception to delivery (not least because how the Wachowski’s output had been since the first Matrix).
However, occasionally there’s a concept that could work. A good concept with bad execution is particularly galling as it wastes the potential of an idea with great possibilities. By the same token you can take something deceptively simple, that perhaps shouldn’t work, but does brilliantly well. Look at Mad Max: Fury Road (or indeed The Road Warrior), or Duel. Very lithe concepts, but it’s all about how well they’re delivered. Or Jaws. A shark terrorising people? A creature that in essence can only exist in water, in a film that in large parts is set on land? In lesser hands it would have been awful, at best a corny B-picture. Spielberg delivered a classic.
Looking back over the history of TV and film there have been numerous examples of good concepts that failed to deliver and sent out something to the table that was half-baked, and not even what we ordered in some cases. Most immediately to my mind is Jean-Claude Van Johnson, the recently canned Amazon series. Granted, part of the reason it was cancelled boiled down to a change in studio head but it also goes without saying that the show itself was decidedly mediocre. So the whole idea of the show is that the man we know as Jean-Claude Van Damme is actually a spy, out on world saving missions who uses his movie persona as cover. There’s potential there. Okay, to me there’s potential and perhaps it may only apply to Van Damme fans but he had made his way back into pop culture significance thanks to his Coors Light and Volvo adverts. To a lesser extent, his role in The Expendables 2.
The show was billed as a comedy and action show. On both counts it didn’t particularly deliver. The plotting was haphazard, and the odd irreverent Timecop gag aside, the show just wasn’t that funny. The pilot was the best of the bunch. It was okay, had its share of problems but the sort you can forgive on an intro show, and that you expect to be ironed out. There was one particular reason, aside from being a Van Damme aficionado, that I felt this idea could work. I’d seen it before.
10 Years ago Van Damme did a film, slap bang in a period of career declining mediocrity, which to the small audiences who found it, was a sensation. That was JCVD, a comedic drama where he portrayed an exaggerated version of himself caught up in a botched post office robbery and finding himself chief suspect. At the time hearing that concept would have sent people running for the hills. Not least his own fans, but a teaser scene was released before hand that showed Van Damme displaying great comical timing and dramatic subtlety. A surprise to many (myself included). That paved the way for the film to be made. To date (and probably forever) it remains his most critically acclaimed film. In fact it’s the only film he’s done with a solidly positive response.
What made JCVD great, which JCVJ never managed to get close to capturing, was the comedy. They picked a tone, very dry, based in reality with some slaptstick layered over but more importantly the film was laced with pathos. On the surface Van Damme is sort of pathetic in the film and he’s nothing at all like his action persona. You expect him, his fellow hostages expect him, to save the day, but he’s not going to. This is ‘reality.’ The film looked great. Beautifully shot, from the opening one take salvo, to the set up and delivery of Van Damme’s now infamous ‘monologue (well…to those who have watched the film), it all looked fantastic. Van Damme’s performance too was also a revelation. Personal but still considered, engaging and deeply heartfelt. It suggested the potential for a mainstream career, to be a character actor. He quickly descended back to direct to video action before adverts and an Expendables film brought him back (briefly) to the limelight.
So JCVJ, off the back of something like JCVD had masses of potential. It could take things into more elaborate territory. There was nothing wrong with Van Damme himself as the central performer. He was invested in what he was doing but the scripts just were not there. They did little to utilise his now established comedic powers, involved acting style (when challenged) and a certain unpredictable energy he can bring to projects. Neither did they even scratch the surface on the dramatic potential that Van Damme has. Ultimately you could make a silly, disposable show about a super spy posing as a movie star, but TV is shit-hot right now. You have to be extremely good to maintain a run. You need to blend all your elements seamlessly and people have to care. There was no dramatic depth to JCVJ at all. It wasn’t written with enough depth or pathos. Ultimately because they never got out of 3rd gear on any aspect, the show failed to engage enough to pick up the second series.
There have been many more failed concepts, even looking back to The Expendables series whilst on the subject of Van Damme. What could have been a Wild Bunch-esque, blaze of glory for some rusty old broken down veterans, never got close to fully realising the potential. Then I look at Sly Stallone’s career, which has a host of concepts which failed (Judge Dredd) or one that people will probably not remember which was called D-Tox. Right around the time his career was in freefall and he was doing things like the American Get Carter remake (terrible idea, terrible delivery) and Driven (terrible idea, terrible delivery) he did this bog standard serial killer thriller called D-Tox where a bunch of PTSD suffering cops are taken to a remote retreat to recover, but get snowed in and then slowly picked off by a killer. For me that concept had the bones to be something fantastic under the right hands, with the right, psychologically engaged script. It ended up feeling decidedly mediocre. Standard video fare, because it never delved deep enough into characters, nor did they fully utilise the settings potential claustrophobia (see, The Shining for a how to guide in that).
More recently you could look at several M Night Shyamalan films, notably The Happening. Potentially interesting concepts that fall prey to poor delivery, and occasionally foul of poor casting too (Wahlberg was woefully miscast). Or a film like Purge with prescient issues and Orwellian motifs that never get fully utilised in a concept that falls into exploitation rather than deeper meaning. Granted it succeeded as far as enough demand for sequels, but it never got deep enough into a concept that had so many dramatic or sociological avenues to explore. Suicide Squad also had great potential to do something engaging with a motley group of super villains forced to fight for good. It ended up as a dour, murky and messy piece which never found the platform it wanted to go from.
Let us know your thoughts below. Great concepts that were poorly delivered…