Middle Men is a difficult movie to take seriously. Based very loosely on the early days of Internet credit card billing, nothing about the movie really rings true. The hyperactive visual style is ripped off from Martin Scorsese, as is the decision to use voiceover narration to tell the story (think Goodfellas and Casino). The acting is either over the top (Giovanni Ribisi) or too low key (Luke Wilson). It’s one of those movies that ends with onscreen text explaining the fate of each main character, leading us to believe we’ve learned about real people. Unfortunately, all of these characters are either composites, or invented by screenwriters Andy Weiss and George Gallo (who also directed).
Though I remember seeing trailers and TV spots for Middle Men fairly often, the movie ended up being basically a straight-to-video release. In August of 2010, it opened on 252 screens and grossed less than $1 million. Now available on Blu-ray, this loud mess of a movie takes interesting subject matter and hammers it into the ground. Wilson plays a mild mannered businessman named Jack Harris. In the mid-1990s, Jack is hired by a pair of stoner computer geeks, Wayne (Ribisi) and Gabriel (Buck Dolby). These guys have developed a then-revolutionary method of paying for things over the Internet using a credit card. They begin modestly, uploading porn photos and charging a fee to view them. Before long, their number of subscribers has gotten out of control.
Jack’s role is to establish a generic billing service as the company grows by leaps and bounds. He’s reluctant to be connected to pornography, being a clean cut family man. But since the money is too good to pass up he goes forward with the plan. As Wayne and Gabriel oversee the creation of a vast network of porn sites, Jack winds up involved with increasingly dangerous characters. Most troubling is the accidental death of a Russian mobster during a botched business transaction. Jack also gives in to the temptation offered by all the beautiful women, becoming involved with a porn star who complicates his personal life.
Luke Wilson doesn’t vary from his usual laid back style, which doesn’t really suit the character. When Ray Liotta starred as Henry Hill in Goodfellas (the very obvious model for the Jack Harris character), we believed that beneath his easy going manner, he was capable of violent rage. Wilson doesn’t convey this, and when he has to play hardball with a Russian mob boss or a crooked lawyer (James Caan, sleepwalking through a throwaway part) it seems false. Wilson isn’t compelling as he narrates the movie, offering endless commentary about the chaotic events Jack is being swallowed up by. In the end, Middle Men is all flash and copycat style. The camera keeps moving, the actors huff and puff, and there’s plenty of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But in the end it’s a lot of empty razzle-dazzle. The whole movie comes across as just a fantasy of the screenwriters. It’s a grouping of scenes they thought would be cool to put in a movie.
There is a hefty amount of variety in the settings and lighting situations of Middle Men. The 1080p high definition image is mostly impressive. The mood lighting of the various clubs and seedy backrooms never manages to compromise detail. The camera seems to be constantly moving during long stretches of the movie, but everything remains crystal clear no matter how much information is onscreen. If there is any problem, the black level seems lacking at times. Instead of a solid, deep black, dark backgrounds appear as various shades of gray. But this doesn’t take much away from the overall strong picture quality.
Middle Men is a very loud and rowdy movie, and the soundtrack represents that well. There is a steady stream of classic rock songs that are more prominent than the actual score by Brian Tyler. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio option will fill your living room with plenty of sound. Actors spend lots of time yelling, there are hard partying club scenes, and there is occasional gunfire. Luckily the mix is well balanced and keeps the dialogue easy to hear. The rear speakers get plenty of attention during the more action-heavy sequences. The bass is full and throbs nicely whenever a harder rocking song is featured.
As for special features, there is a so-so audio commentary from director George Gallo, editor Malcolm Campbell, and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin. The commentary gets stays pretty tech-focused, with lots of information about how certain shots were achieved and motivations for the film’s visual style. It’s the only feature that amounts to anything, as all that’s left are six minutes of deleted scenes and less than two minutes of outtakes. In the commentary, Gallo explains he deliberately threw lots of information at the viewer, moving the narrative forward at a quick pace. His philosophy was, “Screw you, keep up.” After watching Middle Men I had to wonder why I even bothered.