splinter1.jpgBefore I jump into this review, it’s very important to make it clear that despite what I see as some fundamental problems, I really liked Splinter. This is a film not without its flaws, but there is a level of creative energy at work—even during some of the film’s weaker moments—and an earnestness that can not be missed or denied. Splinter is not a great film, but a good film with some really great moments.Enrique Almeida stars as Dreamer, a small-time gangbanger in Los Angeles’ Paradise Gardens, who is recovering from a drive-by shooting that has left him with a piece of bullet stuck in his skull, and has killed his older brother, Shaggy. The trauma of his brother’s death, and his own narrow escape of the grim reaper has taken its toll on Dreamer, leaving his memory ravaged and incomplete. He can’t remember details of the shooting, or much of anything else that has happened recently, which serves to frustrate Detective Gramm (Resmine Atis), a hotshot detective newly transferred from Chicago to Los Angeles. Shaggy’s murder is quickly followed by the brutal torture and murder of two of his homies, which Gramm is convinced are all related. But the faulty memory of Dreamer is not the only problem Gramm is dealing with; she must also contend with her new partner, Cunningham (Tom Sizemore), a once-great detective who has hit rock-bottom. Cunningham is a burned-out mess—a constant drunk who is a walking embarrassment to the department—and his commanding officer, Captain Garcia (Edward James Olmos), wants Gramm to keep a watchful eye on her partner.

Shaggy’s death brings with it serious complications. As the leader of his gang, he managed to parlay a truce with the neighboring Greenville Heights gang, bringing an end to years of violence. Although no one is sure who killed Shaggy, some believe the murder was committed by the Greenville crew. With Shaggy out of the picture, Trigger (Hector Atreyu Ruiz), a violent hot-head, takes over as the new leader, and is eager to lead his crew into war with the rival gang. Meanwhile, someone is killing more and more of the Paradise Gardens posse, Dreamer struggles to piece together his fragmented memory, Gramm searches for the killer, and Cunningham spins out of control.

Although it was probably not intentional, Splinter is two movies at once. First, there is a sort-of Boyz n da Barrio drama mixed with a bit of a serial killer thriller that makes up well over half of the film. Second, is a sort-of Training Day film about a morally bankrupt cop partnered with a much younger, and far more idealistic partner. On their own, each of these stories is compelling, and would be enough to make Splinter a decently entertaining film. Unfortunately, the marriage of the two is not as seamless as it needs to be to keep from becoming awkward at times. The plot revolving around Cunningham and Gramm is more solidly realized, and has a more organic flow to the story and character arc. The gangster element of the story is not always as organic, thanks primarily to the serial killer angle that feels more like an unneeded gimmick that eventually compromises the integrity of an otherwise strong storyline.

Dreamer is an interesting character, emotionally conflicted by the violence that surrounds him, and seemingly at odds with his friends. In a powerful scene where Trigger and the rest of gang decide to go to war, despite proof that Greenville killed Shaggy, there is a time when it seems as if Splinter is headed into a direction that will make it a subtle metaphor for the war in Iraq. But whether that was something I mistakenly read into the film, or something that was intentionally there, it is never fully explored. Instead, Dreamer’s story becomes increasingly bogged down in the histrionics of a psychological thriller that is so uncertain of its footing that it stumbles around a bit too much.

splinter2.jpgThe flaws that run throughout Dreamer’s narrative are apparent, but not enough to ruin the film. Part of the reason for that is that the other story element of Splinter, while being not that well interwoven to the overall story, is so solid that it helps keep the film afloat. I know that sounds a little odd, given that the two stories don’t always go that well together; but the fact of the matter is that the story surrounding Cunningham is so well done, and so compelling, that it alone makes Splinter worth watching.

Tom Sizemore, whose personal life has garnered more attention than his acting, gives what could be the best performance of his career. Sizemore is nothing short of brilliant as Cunningham, and were his performance in a bigger film, and his life not so checkered by tabloid fodder, this would be the sort of performance that would land him an Oscar nomination. And while Sizemore is a marvel to watch every second he is on screen, his performance is actually one of the biggest problems in Splinter, in that he is just too damn good. Sizemore acts circles around everyone else in the film, and his performance is so strong, it actually makes everyone else look weak. It is as if Sizemore is an aging major league veteran who can still hit the occasional homerun, but he is on a minor league farm team full of players hoping to be called up to the majors. That’s not to say the rest of the cast is bad, because pretty much everyone does a good job. But Sizemore is Cunningham, and everyone else is acting. The one exception, of course, is Edward James Olmos, who is arguably one of the greatest character actors of this generation. Olmos more than holds his own, and in the absolute best scene in Splinter, Cunningham and Garcia square off in a showdown that is simply brilliant, with Olmos as solid ice and Sizemore as raging fire. Even if you find little of merit to speak of in Splinter, this scene makes the movie worth 96 minutes of your time.

Directed by Michael D. Olmos, son of Edward, Splinter is an ambitious film with some noticable flaws. But those flaws can be forgiven, and are not so detrimental that they obscure Olmos’ talent behind the camera. Along with director of photography Bridger Nielsen and editor Jamieson Fry, Olmos has crafted a film that is always visually arresting.

Judging Splinter by the rather nondescript box art, there is little about the film that differentiates it from all the other anonymous urban dramas that litter the shelves of video stores everywhere. But the film is more than the packaging makes it out to be, and it certainly is a cut above a vast majority of the other barrio-bound gangsta flicks that are out there. Depending on how you look at it, Splinter is either a good film with some truly great moments, or it is a great film with flaws that throw off the cinematic balance, causing it to tip over enough that its strengths become compromised. But either way, the good outweighs the not-so-good.

Splinter is loaded with bonus material that may actually be better than the film itself, or at the very least serve as a great companion to the movie. The main highlight of the bonus features on the disc is an 18-minute interview with Tom Sizemore that is blunt and refreshingly candid. This is not the typical actor spouting off about how much fun it was working on the film; this is Sizemore essentially bearing his naked soul for 18 minutes as he talks about his life and his career. Sizemore is equally candid on the audio commentary he shares with director Michael Olmos, going so far as to say he believes his performance in Splinter is Oscar-worthy (which it is). The commentary itself is punctuated by extended moments of silence, but Sizemore really breaks down the acting process, as well as not holding back as he talks about the personal problems he was dealing with while making the film.

Without a doubt Splinter is worth watching, so I have no problem telling anyone to rent it. As for buying the disc, I can’t quite go that far. I will say, however, that not only is the bonus material “must-see” content, it would be the main reason I would give for making the decision to buy this film.



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