Direct-to-DVD movies occupy a strange professional limbo. They're available to the general public and scattered reviews exist for many of the bigger titles, yet in a strange way they barely seem to exist at all. Just as a manuscript needs to get published before it can properly be called a book–books are what fill libraries and bookstores, manuscripts are what fill the circular file over at Simon & Schuster–a movie generally has to enjoy at least a token theatrical run before it merits being called a film. Otherwise, it inhabits the same sketchy direct-to-DVD no-man's land as cheapie titles featuring bums fighting, rappers bragging about their collection of upscale luxury goods, and women with low self-esteem doffing their tops in exchange for two pairs of booty shorts. Which begs the question: Is it more embarrassing for a full-on disaster to go direct to DVD or to withstand critical brickbats and empty theaters en route to an inevitable end as a passed-over Blockbuster also-ran?
That's a question that applies directly to the second entry in this week's Direct-To-DVD My Year In Flops theme week, Edison Force. The Justin Timberlake vehicle was originally titled Edison, which undoubtedly would have resulted in widespread confusion as to why that guy from N'Sync would choose a biopic about the greatest inventor/self-promoter our country has ever known as his first starring vehicle. Actually, Timberlake and Edison aren't as dissimilar as they might seem. Edison, after all, played a crucial role in the development of the light bulb, the record player, and motion pictures. Timberlake had that one song where he brought sexy back. I think you'll agree they're roughly equivalent legacies.
Alas, the film was re-titled Edison Force, which is both more generic and less misleading. And instead of playing the Wizard Of Menlo Park, Timberlake stumbled into a role for which he's arguably less suited: a hotshot renegade investigative reporter doggedly chasing a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering a massive web of corruption. Writer-director David J. Burke has assembled a formidable cast, but it's a discouraging sign when Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, and John Heard all have sizable roles in a movie where Justin Timberlake, L.L Cool J, and Dylan McDermott handle most of the dramatic heavy lifting.
Let me start off by saying that I am for the most part a Justin Timberlake fan. I've never owned any of his albums, but his singles are obscenely infectious. I actively look forward to his appearances on Saturday Night Live and I found the squirmy vulnerability of his performances in Black Snake Moan and Alpha Dog enormously touching, though I think Alpha Dog would improve dramatically (in more ways than one) if they cut out the scene where Sharon Stone appears to be wearing one of Martin Short's Jiminy Glick fat suits. (Stone felt that it was important to show her character bottoming out, a process that apparently can only be dramatized by an insane has-been impersonating Divine after washing down a handful of Percocet with cheap vodka. It's rare that two or three minutes of screen time can so drastically ruin an otherwise perfectly OK film.)
So it is with no relish that I report that Timberlake is egregiously miscast as a young man whose insatiable curiosity about the secret machinery behind the city of Edison leads him to risk his own life and career for the sake of journalistic truth. For the seemingly tranquil metropolis of Edison is secretly ruled by a sinister renegade police unit amusingly called F.R.A.T. for First Response Assault Tactical Unit. F.R.A.T.'s jurisdiction no doubt includes Jell-O shots, manning the beer bong at keggers, bikini inspection at sorority parties, harassing and killing criminals, stealing evidence, and money laundering. Like all good F.RA.T. brothers, this secret society favors 'bros over 'hos. Unlike regular frat brothers this is something of an official policy: F.R.A.T brothers aren't allowed to get married so when F.R.A.T brother L.L Cool J pops the question to boo Roselyn Sanchez his evil bosses get nervous, since Cool J can blow the lid off the corruption exemplified by partner McDermott. Training Day had Denzel Washington at his most enjoyably theatrical. Dark Blue boasted Kurt Russell's restrained naturalism. Edison Force has the over-matched and underwhelming McDermott, whose most heinous crimes involve over-acting, though his sinister facial hair is borderline criminal as well.
Cool J can't help getting romantically involved: ladies love his cool character. But Cool J can only stomach so much corruption and eventually teams up with Timberlake, powerful attorney Spacey, and publisher Morgan Freeman to expose a trail of lies and deceit that stretches across the city. By this point, Freeman can play these kind of tough-but-fair mentor roles in his sleep, and often appears to be doing so. Freeman does have one nice moment, however, when he busts out into a spontaneous and surprisingly funky dance. It's a stand-alone moment that has little to do with the rest of the film and it stands out both because it's so unexpected and because it marks one of the rare moments when Freeman isn't doling out tough love or delivering lectures about the responsibilities of a free press in a Democratic society.
Edison Force boasts ample problems beyond Timberlake's miscasting or the fact that Cool J and Timberlake are more likely to collaborate on a club banger than on an important investigation into police corruption. Also, when Timberlake's life is in danger, it'd be nice if he were able to muster an expression that conveyed a sentiment just a wee bit more resonant, intelligent, or considered than "Oh snap! I'm bout to get shot, yo!"
For all its talk of "a covert police state" and shadowy power-brokers, everything in Edison Force is pretty much exactly what it seems: the corrupt cops are sneering bad guys, the evil suits hide behind a veneer of respectability, the seekers of truth are pure-hearted and brave and the whole thing plays like a second-rate version of Training Day.
To address a question I raised earlier, I think it definitely works in Timberlake's favor that Edison Force was released direct-to-DVD. If it had been released theatrically, Timberlake undoubtedly would have been eviscerated, not without reason, by critics a la Mariah Carey in Glitter or Britney Spears in Crossroads. Instead Timberlake's infinitely more convincing, accomplished, and high-profile performances in Alpha Dog and Black Snake Moan have established him as a creditable dramatic actor in addition to being one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Timberlake probably looks back at his whole Edison Force experience as the cinematic equivalent of a high-school yearbook photo–embarrassing, yes, but far from fatal.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure