Friday, August 6, 2010

Middle Men: An Internet Gangster Story (With Heart)

Strip away (no pun intended) the internet jargon, e-commerce and .dot-com millionaires, and "Middle Men" is essentially a gangster movie centering on porn, money, and cops, and mobster shakedowns, not too dissimilar from other stalwarts of the genre ranging from Get Shorty to Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.

The difference is that Middle Men is supposedly inspired by a true story. The other difference is that it portrays an compelling portrait of the birth of the online porn industry. Its tale of mobster interest, murder, underage porn, and middle-eastern terrorists infatuated with a 24-year-old's porn site is both plausible enough to feel authentic and exaggerated enough to deliver a satisfyingly tense storyline of an essentially good family guy who gets in too deep with fuck-ups, the FBI, and mobsters.

Luke Wilson plays Jack Harris, a Houston businessman, married with two kids, who just happens to know a slew of shady characters. Screenwriter and director George Gallo spends the first act jumping around Jack's timeline from 2004 to 1988 to the mid-nineties, establishing his business savvy and experience with various minor gangsters and know-it-alls, interspersing his story with little visual essays on the various ways in which men find to whack off, giving the movie a kind of mocumentary meets "Sopranos" feel.

But where Gallo is really going is deeply into how Jack hooks up with a pair of high-strung losers - Wayne and Buck, played with pitch perfect wackiness by Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht - who have inadvertently invented the first online credit-card payment system while trying to get tittie pictures onto the internet. Wayne and Buck have involved themselves with some bad-ass Russian mobsters, and Jack has been invited in by his old friend, Jerry Haggerty (James Caan) to help extract the two from their mess. In the process, Jack has the bright idea that they shouldn't be making porn themselves; they should instead just get a 10% cut of everyone else who wants to collect an online payment. In essence, they can get even richer if they just make themselves the web porn middle-men.

That's essentially what they do, although in the process of paying off the mob, Jack gets one of the mobsters inadvertently killed. This leads to all sorts of trouble for do Wayne and Buck, who even when they become .dot-com millionaires never get their shit together.

The rest is basically the standard genre mob story, but I found it refreshingly compelling. Until now, things like online credit-card payment gateways seemed way too nerdy for something like a Giovanni Ribisi drugs and porn cut-up flick, let alone murder and lurking FBI agents, yet Gallo pulls it off, explaining it all while keeping the cut-em-up pace going.

No doubt there are some diversions here from the "true story," but as someone who has worked in the industry (internet, not porn), I can attest that these crazy connections with Russian mobsters and porn stars is not so far fetched. If anyone lived through the "dot com bubble" can remember, it was an entire zeitgeist. The business about FBI agents tracking down terrorists with porn sites may be a bit of a stretch...but it's fun, nevertheless (although Chris Mallick, the producer of the film upon whose life this story is based, claims that even the FBI stuff really happened.)

Gallo keeps the movie at a personal level, however, ultimately testing Jack's mettle in life-and-death situations. Why I think I like this movie so much is that it ultimately espouses an ethos: that a man of honor earns respect, even from the most ruthless people. And Jack ultimately learns a lesson. He's asked to give up all the money and "addiction," as he calls it, to the fast lane of sex, drugs, and wealth in exchange for a human connection. And even though he does so to essentially save his own skin, the movie suggests that that connection ultimately means more.

In a day and age when so many movies espouse an easy nihilism, this may seem like simple gangster moralism. And in fact, Jack has a discussion with Audrey Dawns, his live-in porn actress, about the difference between mere moralism and what's essentially the act of saving one's soul. Jack, and the movie, opt for the latter. It's not a complicated decision, and its certainly forced upon him by circumstance, but nice to see a movie advocating for personal meaning for a change.

That may make the movie sound more straight than it is. Trust me, it's got a full quotient of guns, ass, and drugs, so it earns a bit of family sentiment by the end. Part of the success here is Wilson, who manages to balance both boyish sincerity and real-man swagger. This may be his first real adult role, but he wears the part well, and serves as a nice foil for the crazy shenanigans of Wayne, Buck, and Haggerty.

An object lesson, then, in how a simple genre plot, a life lesson, and a bit of recent history can be combined into an original, entertaining romp. And it doesn't hurt when you've got actors like Wilson, Ribisi, Macht, and Caan to make it all zing.

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