The opening scene of writer-director’s John Herzfeld Reach Me is a perfect microcosm of the film. Colette (Kyra Sedgwick), a skinny, upper-middle-class white woman serving out the last days of her jail sentence for attempting to kill her philandering husband, avidly watches a morning talk show in the prison’s recreation room. The show’s guest is E-Ruption (Nelly), an ex-con turned successful rapper who praises the anonymous, eponymous self-help book that turned his life around. When a fellow prisoner—a cornrowed, zaftig black woman—insists on watching children’s cartoons instead, a brawl ensues. Colette loses, and her forfeit is to kiss the other woman’s posterior. Instead, at the moment of contact, Colette smashes a chair over her opponent’s back, claiming a victory that both earns her fellow inmates’ respect and somehow doesn’t prevent her imminent release.
The book that galvanizes the plot, written by the reclusive guru Teddy (Tom Berenger), ostensibly outlines a process of mental self-realization meant to help the reader achieve his or her personal and professional goals. However, while praising its life-affirming message, most of the book’s advocates actually achieve their goals by inflicting physical and psychological violence on their antagonists. The faceless, nameless criminals they vanquish are largely black and Hispanic, and their guilt is presumed and goes unquestioned by the filmmakers. It’s as if Herzfeld wanted to create a multifaceted social drama, then decided halfway through that it would be more entertaining to make an action exploitation film full of outdated racial and gender stereotypes. The result is an uncomfortable mix of the trite social politics of Paul Haggis’s Crash and the shallow character development of Pulp Fiction. At times, it almost works as a parody of the Los Angeles multi-story film genre, before inevitably and repeatedly succumbing to saccharine melodrama and smug moralizing.
Like Colette, the gunslinging cop Wolfie (Thomas Jane) is also introduced enacting righteous, brutal justice against a faceless minority. His bêtes noires are Latino gangbangers, whom he constantly foils in their dastardly deeds, be it robbing a bank or raping blond white women. After he learns the self-help tips of Teddy’s book, via Colette, his ethical transformation consists of beating up the film’s recognizable white villains, mobster Frank (Tom Sizemore) and sleazy actor Kersey (Cary Elwes). This is also his pathway to love, as brutalizing Kersey helps Wolfie bag the hot, young up-and-coming actress Kate (Lauren Cohan), whom Kersey inappropriately touched during Kate’s first on-screen sex scene. Additionally, this new brand of violence gets Wolfie’s priest off his back, thereby also guaranteeing his spiritual salvation. This mix of blunt sex and brutality on the one hand and equally blunt sentimentality on the other is thoroughly disorienting, though to no apparent purpose.
Yet while the film makes no sense in ethical terms, its narrative propulsion and heavy dose of sex and violence carries it along at a brisk enough pace. Herzfeld’s combination of strong narrative instincts and absurd characterization results in some great ham acting, such as Sylvester Stallone mispronouncing and salivating his way through the role of a grandiloquent publisher of a muckraking newspaper and amateur abstract expressionist painter. In casting Stallone in this role, Herzfeld combines and reduces the nuances of these vocations to fit the dimensions of a blunt, one-dimensional action hero. The filmmaker takes his characters from the world of social drama and transforms them into the violent caricatures of exploitation cinema. But such broad strokes square with the rest of the film, which is content to embrace every kind of stereotype to keep the plot moving at a steady clip.
It’s revealing that the ideas of Teddy’s book are never fully developed. In practice, when we see him putting his philosophy to use on his patients, he seems to rely mostly on having them yell at the ocean. Yell long enough into the void, the film implies, and your problems will vanish. The same could be said about “independent” cinema in America. Reach Me was financed via a growing trend in Hollywood: crowdfunding. Yell the word “independent” loud and long enough and people might forget that they’re seeing the same old, patronizing Hollywood clichés, recycled, rebranded, and regurgitated for their gullible, eager consumption.