I’ll admit I never paid much attention to the Germs — for me, the LA punk scene of the ’70s and ’80s always meant X and Black Flag. But you don’t have to be a fan of the Germs or their enigmatic front man Darby Crash to admire Rodger Grossman’s What We Do Is Secret, the latest in an intermittent wave of sly, insinuating musical biographies (Control is one, I’m Not There is another) determined to find a new way to talk about pop musicians and their times. It’s the sort of film that quietly creeps up on even the unruliest of subjects and gets under its skin with an emotional probe.
Essentially, the band invents LA punk, develops a rabid following, gets banned from clubs due to bad manners, drifts apart because of drugs, reforms for one gig, and then Darby crashes. The punch line is that the lead singer’s OD death was overshadowed — hell, obliterated — by the demise of John Lennon the next day. That, ladies and germs, is echt punk. Crash, born Jan Paul Beahm, is shown doing all the things a credible punk lead singer should do. He makes incoherent declarations about fascism, reads Nietzsche as a kid, shoots heroin, chooses a circle as the band’s cryptic logo, agonizes over his writing, etc., as well as fronting the band at various LA area gigs. His wisecracks are pithy, like his lyrics.
Actor Shane West, from TV’s ER and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, takes a “termitic” approach to Crash, in the best sense of that expression coined by the late film critic Manny Farber — that is, he and Grossman reveal the character carefully, slowly, in increments, the way a termite eats a house. West’s voiceover narration as Darby Crash is just as revealing as his stage antics in the forefront of LA’s punk scene in the late ’70s. Like many self-made men, he has a Five-Year-Plan.
For punks, the band members are surprisingly good-natured. Bassist Lorna Doom (former model Bijou Phillips), guitarist Pat Smear (Rick Gonzalez), and drummer Don Bolles (Noah Segan), workaholics all, are balanced out by pimple-faced hanger-on Rob Henley, played by actor Ashton Holmes as something more than just Crash’s best friend. Their gay overtures accumulate. All around the Germs the LA punk scene is seething, but writer-director Grossman (he wrote the screenplay from a story he wrote with Michelle Baer Ghaffari) wisely doesn’t over-contextualize. That’s a major plus, and it’s difficult when there are so many flamboyant flunkies prancing around — groupie Casey Cola (Darby’s suicide pact-mate), radio host Rodney Bingenheimer, punk documentary-maker Penelope Spheeris, performers Joan Jett and Billy Zoom, Slash magazine editor Claude “Kick Boy Face” Bessy, and the “fat cow with a trust fund,” Amber the band’s manager (played by Missy Doty), who buys their tacos and dope.
What We Do Is Secret is Grossman’s feature film debut. He co-produced the film with more than a dozen other people, including San Franciscan Todd Traina, and there have been a few spinoffs since it premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2007. Biggest of these is that actor West, who does such a convincing job he might as well be Darby Crash, joined original Germ Pat Smear as lead singer of the reconstituted Germs for the Warped Tour ’08. Long live the baby monsters.
Once we get past the obvious similarities to the Bourne franchise — rogue American ex-operative being chased all over the globe by CIA/FBI spooks who think he’s a terrorist — Traitor simmers down into a reasonably smart little thriller with a moral conscience, yet.
Don Cheadle plays Samir Horn, a US-born explosives expert who, after serving in Bosnia and Afghanistan, abruptly follows his Muslim principles over to the other side and hooks up with a nefarious international cabal of rich Islamic jihadists plotting anti-American bombings everywhere from Spain’s Costa del Sol to the American Midwest. Exactly why he’s doing this is a bit unclear, except that Samir is shown to be devout to a fault — the product of his Sudanese father’s teachings — and ready to mix a little Semtex into his religious beliefs. Such are Cheadle’s powers of characterization that we tag along with Samir for the length of the movie, not exactly unquestioningly but in the spirit of “Let’s play this one out and see what happens.”
What happens isn’t quite up to Bourne standards — what is? — but director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (writer of The Day After Tomorrow, who wrote Traitor‘s screenplay from a story he cooked up with Steve Martin, of all people) and Cheadle (one of a platoon of thirteen producers along with Martin) give Samir’s quest a convincing look to go with its able-bodied cast. Guy Pearce, always a credible cop, plays Clayton, the far-afield FBI agent who first encounters Samir in Yemen, then tracks him while puzzling out the dude’s hazy loyalties. Saïd Taghmaoui, Arab-French character stalwart in such pics as The Kite Runner, La Haine, Hideous Kinky, and Three Kings, plays Omar, Samir’s main man in the jihadists. Omar is by far the most interesting character in the movie, aside from Samir. He comes close to stealing the whole thing in the Yemeni prison scenes. Samir belongs to the deep-focus-stare school of protagonists — Omar is all in your face, all the time.
The rest of the characters behave according to the spy-movie rule book: avuncular-looking Jeff Daniels as a shadowy US national security handler; the beauteous Archie Panjabi (Bend It Like Beckham, Yasmin) as Chandra, Samir’s bewildered girlfriend back home; Aly Khan (A Mighty Heart) as the unctuous terror bankroller Fareed; and Neal McDonough as punch-’em-in-the-face FBI man Archer. Among the principals, only Samir and Omar have anything approaching complexity, so we tend to tune the others out — even Pearce, who usually excels in this sort of ambiguous role. The action unfolds in at least thirteen settings. The filmmakers accomplish this economically (after all, they rescued the production from turnaround limbo) using stock establishing shots for places like Madrid, London, and Washington, then actually shooting on location in Chicago, Ontario province, the French Riviera, and Morocco. So it’s sub-Bourne in more ways than one.
Samir clings to his faith to the bitter end, but the movie does nothing to calm American suspicions about the loyalties of Muslims in the US. According to Traitor, there are violent jihadist sympathizers all across the US and Canada, in any case at least a busload of them. Cheadle’s Samir, a Hotel Rwanda-style stranger in a strange land everywhere he goes, is the last moral man in the country.