Lowdown: Old style murder mystery with new style sex.
As I have said in the past, Brian De Palma is one of those directors I look up to. Obviously, he knows how to make films. In his latest (which by now may actually not be his latest), The Black Dahlia, he proves this point once again. However, he also demonstrates how a well made film is not necessarily a good film.
Set immediately after World War 2, TBD is a kind of a film noir movie. The story is told from the point of view of Josh Hartnett, a Los Angeles police detective in his day job and a former boxer in his previous life (or is it his spare time hobby?). Hartnet's partner is also a boxer and they actually fought one another to help raise policemen salaries. Described as Fire & Ice, these two cannot be set apart, and the partner's girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) is almost shared between the two.
Then a shooting incident happens, and then a bad dude that used to torture Johansson gets released from jail, and then this young actress get gruesomely murdered, and thus we have a murder mystery on our hands. The looks and the feel and the narration all make this murder story feel like one of those old black and white Bogart / Huston film, most notably The Maltese Falcon. The main thing that sets this one apart from the old vintage are the dominant sexual themes, another trademark De Palma feature (after all, De Palma is famous for directing Undressed to Kill). However, TBD is not as good as the Falcon. I had a real hard time understanding what was going on, partly because the film is meant to be one of those films where you slowly figure out what's going on, and partly because the film insistence on a particular style dictates that the actors talk quickly and using forties lingo, which means they are hard to comprehend. I know it sounds stupid, but I tell it the way it was for me...
Eventually, though, I did realize what went on. Then, however, I said to myself: so what? As in, was the trip worth the effort? I don't think so. Sure, De Palma wanted to say similar things to what Huston used to say in his films, but he didn't manage to say it that well. He ended up with a very stylish film, a very empty film.
Best scene: A trail of lesbian themed clues leads the detectives in their investigations and at one point they get to this lesbian club. In a show of fancy film making, we find ourselves in the middle of a K. D. Lang performance that is very well choreographed.
Picture quality: There is a dominant sepia finishing to the film that hardly leaves any colors in but doesn't wash them away altogether. Obviously intentional, it's a main contributor to the film's style.
Sound quality: Most of the time it is very subdued. However, in key action scenes the sound becomes very aggressive and very realistic. It's effective, but it's a pity not more of the movie is done with proper sound.
Overall: Style fails to conquer substance. 1.5 out of 5 stars.