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The 11th Hour, 3:10 to Yuma, others



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RESURRECTING THE CHAMP The black hole that goes by the name of Josh Hartnett has managed to swallow up many movies, but this isn't one of them. For that, we have to thank the force of nature that goes by the name of Samuel L. Jackson. To be fair, Hartnett is passable as a sportswriter who stumbles onto a career-making -- and subsequently career-breaking -- story: His earnestness works well for this character, and when a single tear journeys down his cheek late in the movie, it's possible that it's a genuine teardrop and not a dab of H2O shot on there by a spritzer-wielding assistant. But roiling emotions are clearly out of his range, and he's shown up as a lightweight in his scenes with Mr. Jackson. The latter delivers a formidable performance as a homeless man who calls himself Champ; raspy-voiced and not all there mentally, he reveals himself to Hartnett's Erik Kernan as Battling Bob Satterfield, a former boxing great. Realizing this could be his ticket to the big time, Erik devotes all his energy to turning Champ's life story into a must-read article, a pursuit that backfires when suspicions surface regarding Champ's history. The picture's various themes -- the union between fathers and sons, the importance of journalistic integrity, the ease with which history can be rewritten -- are handled with care, though there's nothing particularly revelatory on view here (Shattered Glass, for instance, is a far superior film about media misconduct). But towering over the entire picture is Jackson, who takes a showy role and invests it with so much humanity that it's impossible not to feel deeply for the character every step of the way. It's a knockout performance.  ***

RUSH HOUR 3 Exactly 50 years ago, Max Von Sydow was exploring philosophical issues of life and death in the recently departed Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece The Seventh Seal; now, he's relegated to a small role in the background to make room for the increasingly unfunny antics of Chris Tucker. If there's a more depressing commentary to be made on the current state of cinema, I can't imagine what it might be. The original Rush Hour was a high-spirited lark that milked its mismatched-cops formula well, but the sorry Rush Hour 2 was a prime example of a lazy sequel produced solely to cash in on the goodwill generated by its predecessor. Rush Hour 3 takes that same mercenary attitude and sprints with it. Jackie Chan, still up for any challenge at the age of 54, has considerably slowed down in recent years, and his up-close-and-personal brand of fighting has lost much of its vibrancy. It hardly matters, though, as even this longtime audience favorite is expected to take a back seat to the incessant shenanigans of his costar. Tucker once again lets loose with a steady stream of slurs that targets women, gays, Asians, tall people, fat people, French people (Roman Polanski appears as a Parisian inspector who enjoys performing rectal probes) and doubtless others that have slipped my mind. It's not funny, just tedious -- when it comes to insult humor, he's clearly no Redd Foxx. There's one great line involving Starbucks, and, as always, the outtakes provide a few smiles. Otherwise, Rush Hour 3 is a total dud, as well as the worst sequel to appear in this overcrowded summer movie season.  *

STARDUST This enchanting fairy tale offers the most fun to be had in a theater this summer. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, it's a fantasy yarn in the tradition of The Princess Bride and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, only it bests its antecedents by remaining light on its feet and by constantly surprising us with both its visual and narrative vigor. In the tiny English village of Wall, young Tristan (Charlie Cox) pines for the stuck-up Victoria (Sienna Miller) to such a degree that he will prove his devotion by journeying to the magical land resting just outside the town's border and retrieve the remnants of a fallen star that the pair had seen drop from the sky. What Tristan doesn't realize is that once a star has fallen, it turns into a human -- in this case, a woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). Add the desires of a wicked witch (Michelle Pfeiffer), the demands of a dying king (Peter O'Toole), and the dilemmas of a pirate (Robert De Niro) to the mix, and it sounds like there's too much plot for one movie to bear. But Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake), co-adapting Gaiman's novel, do an exemplary job of funneling all the disparate elements into one cohesive narrative. Pfeiffer clearly relishes portraying a villainess as much here as she does in the current Hairspray; as for De Niro, he's playing a pirate so fey that he makes Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow look as ferocious as Blackbeard by comparison. De Niro's grossly miscast, but that doesn't stop him from diving into the role. He's clearly having a lot of fun, as are we all.  ***1/2

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