- "Calm down. You're playing a writer, not a gladiator."
*State of Play (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
State of Play, Kevin Macdonald's feature adaptation of the critically acclaimed BBC miniseries, was originally set to reunite Fight Club stars Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. But after hitting a few potholes on its journey across the Atlantic, the film has arrived in theaters starring Oscar-winners Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck in a small miracle of casting and a testament to the underrated rule of addition by subtraction.
While the latter pairing may not have the same box office appeal as Pitt and Norton, they are equally formidable as co-stars.
Written by the brainy A-list trio of Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), this fast-paced, engaging political potboiler stars Crowe as Cal McAffrey.
MacAffrey's a D.C. reporter investigating the death of a woman who worked as a researcher for a committee headed by his closest friend, up-and-coming congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck) — who was also having an affair with the victim.
The complicated history shared by McAffrey and Collins would seem to give the reporter a conflict of interest in the front-page story, but fortunately journalistic ethics take a backseat to ad sales for Cal's fiery editor (Oscar winner Helen Mirren), who pairs him with rookie reporter Della (Rachel McAdams). At first, Cal thumbs his nose at Della because she writes for the Web, not print, and he doesn't believe that she should be cutting her teeth on such a sensitive story. But with everyone spinning a different tale to service personal agendas, Cal eventually comes to realize that Della may be the only person he can trust.
Resisting the temptation to pad the already-full running time with a romantic subplot involving Cal and Della, the smart script instead keeps its doggedly determined focus on connecting the dots. Before you can say 24, there's a full-blown political conspiracy. The intrigue involves PointCorp, a security corporation with a privatized army that it outsources during times of governmental crisis.
Though he tones down his macho Gladiator act, Crowe employs his physicality well as the aggressive reporter who asks the tough questions and uses his pen as a sword to cut through the BS of D.C. politics. Affleck is also nicely suited for the slippery, well-coiffed politician we can never quite pin down. McAdams exhibits the right mix of brains, brawn and low-key beauty; Mirren makes her intimidating veteran presence felt in the newsroom scenes; and Robin Wright Penn grounds the film with real human stakes as Collins' jilted wife.
Jason Bateman provides a welcome touch of comic relief as a flashy publicist involved in PointCorp's shady shenanigans. The strong supporting cast also features Jeff Daniels, Viola Davis, Harry Lennix and David Harbour as various Washington types.
Just when you think you have it all figured out, the suspenseful, unpredictable State of Play reveals one more layer of political intrigue. The film may not be a perfect thriller, but Macdonald does an admirable job with tricky material — which in compressing a six-hour miniseries suffers from a dense second half that relies on one too many surprises.
Still, State of Play manages to connect as satisfying popcorn entertainment. Its strong cast and gripping sequences such as the film's parking garage scene — which has Cal hanging off the edge of a car — will have you on the edge of your seat.