3000 Miles to Graceland
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Even if you know nothing about director Demian Lichtenstein's background, you won't have to watch much of 3000 Miles to Graceland before you realize how he started his career--as a director of music videos. You can see it in virtually every frame of the movie. The camera spins and twists. It zips down highways at super-accelerated speeds. It tilts and dollies. The editing jitters and zaps us through space. Nothing stays still that can be placed in motion, to twirl, to soar, to explode. And somewhere within this incredibly hyperactive filmmaking, a quintet of Elvis Presley impersonators stalk the Riviera Casino in Las Vegas, intent on pulling off a major heist. Amid the onslaught of filmmaking gadgetry--which even includes giant computer-generated scorpions that battle to the death--the Elvis impersonators drown.

When I saw the trailers for 3000 Miles to Graceland, I knew I had to see this movie. The idea of a gang of Elvis impersonators pulling a heist in Las Vegas is a marvelous concept. But it's also so over-the-top, so potentially surrealistic that Lichtenstein's cinematic gymnastics become redundant and irrelevant--and ultimately irritating. In film noir classics such as Double Indemnity or Out of the Past, the downbeat stories were evoked with a filmmaking style that underscored the fatalistic vision of the scripts. Filmmaking reinforced theme. In 3000 Miles to Graceland, Lichtenstein attempts to reinforce the outlandish story with his hyperactive filmmaking, but this approach isn't at the service of an underlining theme--which leaves us with overkill for the sake of overkill. We get roiling explosions reaching toward the sky, we get windows shattering in a hail of fragments, we get bullets smashing into foreheads, we get wait! This is a movie about Elvis impersonators? Well, only marginally. Primarily it's about pyrotechnics, sneers, and belligerence.

Guy Ritchie's Snatch is also about sneers and belligerence, but Snatch is only marginally about pyrotechnics. Ritchie is a model of restraint compared to Lichtenstein. 3000 Miles to Graceland gives us a barrage of jittery, hyperactive images at the service of a story that becomes more and more conventional as the movie continues. Eventually we're left with a rather ordinary, brutal Hollywood-style action movie in the Jerry Bruckheimer mold (think Con Air). This is how Hollywood prefers to make movies nowadays. They grab unique concepts and then inflate them with production razzle dazzle while letting the original concepts wither.

stills from
3000 Miles to Graceland
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In this case, the concept involves a quintet of Elvis Presley impersonators who plan to rob the Riviera Hotel and Casino during the International Elvis Convention. Kevin Costner plays the gang leader. Murphy (Costner) believes he's the illegitimate son of Elvis and thus heir to the King's estate. His thick sideburns seem to bear out his story, but he also underwent a court-ordered blood test along with 75 other people who claimed to be the offspring of Presley. 74 of the tests came back negative. But two were inconclusive--and one of those belonged to Murphy. Over 20 years later, Murphy's now an ex-con with a psychotic temperament.

Kurt Russell plays an ex-con named Michael. He met Murphy in prison and together they arranged the heist. But while Murphy is dangerous, Michael is the movie's moral center. He's capable of love and that makes us like him. Trotting out his Elvis impersonation--over two decades after he made a big splash as the King in the made-for-TV film Elvis--Russell is a joy to watch. He brims with charm and charisma.

Christian Slater, David Arquette, and Bokeem Woodbine round out the cast of Elvis impersonators. But they're completely irrelevant. Slater is totally wasted in a role that's virtually non-existent. Jon Lovitz scores much better in a cameo role that at least allows him to do what he does best--be officious and nasty. And Ice-T steps on screen just long enough to get riddled with bullets. He slides into a shootout while hanging upside down from the ceiling like a duck in a shooting gallery--blam! blam! blam! Courteney Cox doesn't score much better but unfortunately she's around for much longer. She runs a roadside hotel where she meets and falls for Russell. Cox delivers a generic performance. She's simultaneously sluttish and cute in a role that is horribly underwritten (but she's caught in a movie where women are largely irrelevant unless they're showgirls).

The filmmakers exhibit such little faith in their concept that they zip through the opening sequences as the Elvis impersonators head to Vegas and make their heist. Other filmmakers might have made the entire movie about this part of the story, letting us get to know the characters. But Licentenstein couldn't care less about his main characters. He gives them trite dialogue and sophomoric behavior until they become so insufferably self-centered and smug that it's a relief when three of the five Elvises are quickly eliminated from the movie altogether. From then on, however, the filmmakers are out of ideas and the movie utterly collapses.

During the final credits, however, something strange happens: we're treated to a self-contained music video that features Russell doing his Elvis impersonation--and this video is excellent. Finally, Lichtenstein finds an appropriate rhythm and venue for his over-heated visuals. Without a doubt, Lichtenstein is a first-rate music video director (and his lengthy music video credits include work for Sting, Eric Clapton, Queen Latifah, Gloria Estefan, and many others), but unfortunately he has no idea how to make a feature film.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]

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