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The square-dancing whiskey runners in the Prohibition-era Virginia-set movie Lawless may not think much of regulations from smarmy, moonshine-hating Yankees, but they sure do abide by melodramatic cliches.

If you're a timid would-be gangster who looks up to your invincible, cold-blooded criminal mastermind brother, you're sure to step in when your bro goes down to overcome your hang-ups and become a marauding booze baron.

If you're a pent-up preacher's daughter, you're sure to fall for the timid would-be gangster, gritting your teeth as he sinks deeper into a self-destructive web.

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If you're a smarmy Yankee federal agent sent to Virginia to clean up the corrupt, booze-swilling backwoods, you'll hurl gratuitous insults at all comers until you're smacked with a climactic comeuppance.

If you're an innocent sidekick hobbled by a childhood case of rickets, your life is as fragile as a glass bottle in a bar fight. 

There's nothing in the movie that takes you by surprise, but it's still as much Southern-fried fun to watch as a Dukes of Hazzard marathon. There's something inherently awesome about watching a moonshine-hauling jalopy skid down a winding dirt road, just out of target range of Johnny Law. 

The dim-yet-fun thriller casts Shia LaBeouf in the lead role — the timid would-be gangster, if you're keeping track. His performance is memorable because he's finally managed to find a script that doesn't order him to talk to himself throughout, as he did in all the awful Transformer movies, Disturbia, Eagle Eye and that Indiana Jones movie Harrison Ford likes to pretend he never made.

It's a welcome change of pace to see LaBeouf play a likable bad guy in front of a movie camera, rather than a Walgreens security cam. He sheds his peach-fuzzy innocence to slip on a grimy pair of boots, no doubt lined with lead to slam on the gas when it's time to make a getaway.

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Tom Hardy, free of the ridiculous Bane mask from The Dark Knight Rises, is LaBeouf's grisly older brother who e v e r  s o  s l o o o o w l y comes a'courtin' to an exiled Chicago dancer (Jessica Chastain). Taffy-pull-speed flirtation must run in the family, because LaBeouf also takes his time romancing the preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska), who somewhere under several layers of petticoats and underwear is a naughty girl yearning to hide out in tent distilleries.

Guy Pearce has some fun with the thankless villain role, a Chicago agent determined to shake down the boozehounds, attacking not only with tommy gun fire and rude kicks in noses, but words. He says the word "hick" as often, and with the same tone, that GOP convention speakers utter "liberal." The ungentle gentleman has end boss battle written all over his Pomade-slicked head.

Watching the movie unfold is a lot like witnessing a heated game of checkers go down. Only with booze, blood and bullets. Which makes the movie pretty much a win, especially for LaBeouf, since there are no CGI sentient robots swiping all the best lines and no sacred franchises or Walgreens destroyed.

Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska. Written by Nick Cave, based on the Matt Bondurant book. Directed by John Hillcoat. 115 minutes. Rated R.

 

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