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Review: 'Arkansas' is great contemporary film noir

Updated: May 5, 2020

Fans of Clark Duke might recognize him as Barry from the TV show Two and a Half Men. Or Clark from The Office. Or maybe Jacob from Hot Tub Time Machine.

Arkansas marks his feature film debut, which he wrote and directed.

He also co-stars with Liam Hemsworth in this contemporary film noir tale of two men caught up in the dangerous world of illegal drugs.

The movie co-stars John Malkovich and Vince Vaughn.

Malkovich is a park ranger with one foot squarely in the drug trade.

The shadowy figure known as “Frog”, running the operation (and hiding in plain sight) is played by Vince Vaughn.

His nameless associate, known only as “Her” is played by Vivica A. Fox.

It’s hard not to love the film noir genre.

Dark stories of crime and corruption that are twisted and tantalizing. Early classics include John Huston’s Maltese Falcon, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).

Some of my favorite updated classics include: Shane Black’s The Nice Guys (2016), Curtis Hanson’s

L.A. Confidential (1997) and the cinematic masterpiece Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) which is on my Top Ten Movies of all time.

For me, Chinatown is flawless and timeless.

As dark and horrifying as contemporary film noir ever gets. A movie that everyone agrees would never get green lighted today due to its taboo story elements.

It’s a shocker if ever there was one. The screenplay, by Robert Towne, is number three on the list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays voted by the Writers Guild of America West (coming in behind Casablanca and The Godfather).

While Arkansas may not be Chinatown, it does a very respectable job of updating the genre.

As with any really good movie, it all starts with a solid script, and Clark Duke serves it up with two guys, living on the margins, whose unlikely paths cross when they are hired to deliver a truckload of illegal drugs.

They don’t get very far before being pulled over by a corrupt park ranger played by John Malkovich.

Rather than being turned in, they are offered an opportunity to pose as junior park rangers and become part of a very secretive, very criminal operation.

As with any good noir piece, they are drawn in further and further as the story unfolds, endangering their lives by degrees every step of the way.

As with all noir tales, you wonder how or if they will ever find a way out without being sent to prison or facing an ugly end.

True to that tenant, Arkansas is a well-crafted plot that is riveting and engrossing.

In addition to a gripping storyline, noir also requires likeable characters who you can pray for and others who you need to fear, a lot. In the case of Arkansas, the protagonists include Kyle played by Liam Hemsworth and Swin, played by Clark Duke.

Hemsworth puts his “Sexiest Man Alive” good looks aside and goes for toughness and resolve. He comes off as a ruggedly handsome guy of average intelligence who knows what may be in store for him as a result of the choices he’s made.

He just wants to somehow survive it all. Whatever it takes. And that includes the possible necessity of killing people.

Hemsworth is convincing. He’s not a cold-blooded psychopath.

He’s just a regular guy gone astray who is willing to do whatever he needs to do to stay alive in the land of the Dixie Mafia.

The same can be said of Clark Duke’s Swin, who is trying to stay ahead of the unfolding violence, brutality and chaos while ill-advisedly falling in love with a local woman who could inadvertently and unknowingly blow his cover.

You always have to be on the lookout for a femme fatale in movies like this.

Film noir requires protagonists who are not in any way law-abiding or morally straight.

They are damaged goods -- sinners with their own personal baggage and flaws, not always exercising the best common sense when it comes to romance or self-preservation.

Their vulnerability is what draws the audience in. They aren’t the sharpest knives in the proverbial drawer.

Their mistakes and miscalculations always threaten to trip them up in the end.

Conversely, noir villains need to be utterly ruthless and cold-blooded. At the very least, disturbing and frightening. And along those lines, Malkovich and Vaughn fill the bill.

To add another layer of depth, the story even takes the time to flesh out Vaughn’s character’s back story, explaining how he came to be the mysterious , malevolent character known as Frog.

We are also introduced to several other unsavory characters who weave their way to the movie’s suspenseful climax.

It’s sometimes difficult to bring something new to a familiar genre like film noir.

Perhaps no one can top what Robert Towne and Roman Polanski did in the final reel of Chinatown. But you need a big ending with an unforgettable twist.

On that note, Arkansas doesn’t disappoint.

I never give away movie endings. I dislike people who do.

All I will say here is that Clark Duke manages to play with your expectations by doing something both surprising and memorable.

In the parlance of film noir, that’s all you’re going to get out of me.

He’s done a rock solid job of freshening up a traditional genre known for stark reality and escalating suspense.

Arkansas is a wonderful homage to classic film noir. It is a movie that demonstrates love and respect of the genre, as well as the skill and competence to make it relevant and successful all over again.

Arkansas premieres May 5, 2020 on Apple, Amazon, and On Demand platforms.

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