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(2006) (Sean Penn, Jude Law) (PG-13)

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Drama: A political demagogue rises to power as the governor of Louisiana, only to face those opposed to his policies as well as his own demons.
It's the 1950s and Willie Stark (SEAN PENN) is an unpolished but passionate minor politician who's most concerned with the local corruption that led to several children perishing from shoddy school construction. His actions are soon noticed not only by local newspaper reporter Jack Burden (JUDE LAW), but also political operative Tiny Duffy (JAMES GANDOLFINI) who dupes Willie into running for governor, all for his handlers who think they can control the neophyte. But when Willie gets wind of this from Jack and his own press attaché Sadie Burke (PATRICIA CLARKSON), he discards his prepared speech and speaks from his heart.

His demagoguery soon attracts growing masses of the disenchanted masses, which doesn't sit well with the rich or corporations who fear what his idealistic desires might mean for them. It's not long before the recently fired Jack becomes his right-hand man and follows him to the governor's mansion when Willie is elected. With him, Sadie, Tiny and bodyguard Sugar Boy (JACKIE EARLE HALEY) making up his core team, he sets out to change Louisiana politics, thus drawing the ire of retired but still highly influential Judge Samuel Irwin (ANTHONY HOPKINS) who calls for his impeachment.

Inexorably becoming seduced by the power of his seat, Willie assigns Jack to dig up whatever dirt he can find on Irwin -- who just so happens to be Jack's godfather -- in hopes of persuading him to change his stance. As Jack tries to do just that, he's reunited with his former childhood friends, siblings Anne (KATE WINSLET) and Adam Stanton (MARK RUFFALO), the now adult children of a former governor. As Jack's romantic feelings for Anne are rekindled and they discuss how Adam, a doctor, has changed, the balance of power in Louisiana politics remains in the balance.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Considering the power and prestige of the position, the ever-present possibility of corruption, and everyone wanting a piece of people involved in it, there's little wonder about the truth behind the old phrase "politics make for strange bedfellows." Accordingly, that vocation and governing entity have long entranced Hollywood, but just like real-life politicians, the results can range from good to mediocre to bad.

"All the King's Men" -- the 2006 version -- falls into that middle category. A remake of the better and more entertaining 1949 film that won three Oscars, including Best Picture, it's likewise based on Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. It also has a bevy of talent both in front of and behind the camera, and arrives at a time when corruption is still found in governments around the globe, including here in the U.S.

Only time will tell how moviegoers will vote on this latest political drama, which -- like its predecessor -- focuses on a Huey "Kingfish" Long type politician from the Deep South. Yet, its main detriment -- which will also kill most any politicians' run for office -- is that it's ultimately rather boring despite pretending to be something else.

Writer/director Steven Zaillian (writer of "Schindler's List" and "Gangs of New York," director of "A Civil Action") seems to recognize this as he has the film start in the middle for a few moments, then rewind back to the beginning, build up to that middle point and then continue onward. It's a filmmaking convention that I don't like, as it rarely works in piquing the viewer's interest. That's especially true when nothing tremendous is suddenly left in midstream, as is the case here, like some sort of lame serial cliffhanger.

Here, we see characters played by Sean Penn, Jude Law and Jackie Earle Haley en route to some judge's home in hopes of getting him to change his mind about something of which we don't yet know the details. Law's character warns Penn's that the judge doesn't scare easily, prompting the latter to reply that he doesn't intend to scare (meaning as a verb) easily.

We then flashback to seeing Penn's character -- Willie Stark, loosely patterned after Long's real life persona -- in his more naive days. He's determined but unfocused about how to do the right thing, thus allowing James Gandolfini's persuasive manipulator to sweep in and sweep Stark off his feet, at least politically. It's nothing approaching Tony Soprano tactics (although the actor is going to have a devil of a time shaking that character type), but at least it grabs some of our attention as there's talk of corrupt deals, shoddy construction and some school kids who died as a result.

Soon "Tiny" has Stark running for Governor of Louisiana, but a reporter covering the beat -- that being Law's character -- and a political operative -- played by Patricia Clarkson -- decide to inform the would-be governor that he's just being used by a bigger political machine. Fueled by this treachery, he then abandons his scripted speech, goes off the cuff, and becomes the voice of outrage, reason, and hope for the poor working class folk.

Needless to say, and despite the saber rattling of powerful and rich individuals and corporations, he's elected. But with winning comes the need for greater power and the tantalizing allure of sweetheart deals, thus leading to the emergence of corruption.

All of which drags three more characters into the proceedings: A retired judge played by Anthony Hopkins who thinks the new governor and his voice for the poor ideology and practices are grounds for impeachment, as well as the reporter's childhood friends -- played by Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo -- who obviously serve as important cogs in what's to follow. And namely that's the governor hiring the now ex-reporter to dig up dirt on the judge to make him change his mind, all of which leads us back to the beginning and the talk of who's going to scare whom.

Like a carefully constructed campaign, the pieces would seem to be set in motion for a riveting drama about politics, politicians, corruption and more. Yet, despite a handsome visual look -- thanks to cinematographer Pawel Edelman and production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein -- and a terrific if perhaps a tiny bit overplayed performance by Penn as the fiery demagogue (who's hampered a bit by James Horner's overwrought score that's supposed to amplify his character's emotional speeches but ends up feeling too artificial), the film simply fails to ignite.

Yes, all of the seemingly requisite material is present, it goes through the necessary dramatic motions, and viewers will likely marvel at the great, Oscar-baiting cast. Yet, in the end, they'll probably come away with the conclusion of "so what?" Perhaps it's because the corruption on display here feels rather tame compared to real-life headlines, or that the plot ends up feel murky, as if things were left out from (or at least not explained as well in) Warren's original novel.

Whatever the case, it's not even as interesting as its own press kit that -- accidentally or not -- arrived with the pages out of order and some of them upside down. Maybe if Zaillian had done something as unusual with the film itself (no, not upside-down frames, but you get the point), it might have been more intriguing, compelling and/or engaging. As it stands, it can't help but resurrect an analogy on Lloyd Bentsen's famous Vice-Presidential debate line (about Dan Quayle not being President Kennedy) where one could say the same thing about this film and its far better predecessor, both cinematic and literary. "All the King's Men" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed September 12, 2006 / Posted September 22, 2006

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