If United 93 was the Delta Force of 9/11 movies, then I guess “World Trade Center” is the Die Hard. Like in the John McTiernan classic, you’ve got a New York cop who’s stuck in a building that’s been targeted by terrorists, and the only comfort he gets is from talking to another cop he can hear but not see and – nah, scratch that. “World State Center” is closer in spirit to Touching the Void, another harrowing survivor story. Except that was a documentary, whereas “World Trade Center” uses every trick in the Hollywood playbook. Maybe I could compare it to Amazing Spider-Man #33, the issue in which Spidey is trapped beneath tons of fallen steel and…
Ok. No more comparisons. “World Trade Center” is a fairly straightforward picture about John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), two Port Authority policemen who went into the Twin Towers on September 11, had the damn things collapse on their heads and somehow made it out alive, but not before spending almost a whole day under the rubble before being rescued. The film starts out like a regular day for them, getting up in the early morning, driving to work and getting dispatched. Then before the 10 minute mark, we get a glimpse of the shadow of a plane zooming through the city. We hear the impact but don’t see it – like the majority of New Yorkers would have at the time. TV news is where the full horror of what happened is revealed to the characters, as it was for most people. But unlike you and me, our heroes don’t just sit there in shock: “We’re going downtown.”
The sight of the WTC ablaze remains apocalyptic, as is all the injured people and bloody mayhem around the scene. And these coppers are not running away like everyone else, they’re actually going in there. Incredible. But if I can put on my critic hat for a minute, I have to say that this could have been even more intense. The similar early scenes of War of the Worlds, for instance, are much more effective, even though it’s science-fiction.
Oliver Stone is a great filmmaker, but his direction is merely adequate here, relying too much on slow-motion and a tear-jerking score to make us feel for the characters. Still, credit much be given to him and actors Peña and Cage for not letting the drama stagnate, as they’re literally pinned down under Ground Zero throughout most of the movie. I liked the small-talk they exchange so they can stay awake and not potentially die from internal bleeding, and there are a few good twists, what with the aftershocks, fireballs and that gun going off (you’ll see). The cutaway scenes and flashbacks with Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who play the wives, are not bad, but certainly less compelling than what their husbands are going through.
Then you’ve got what might the most intriguing figure in this story, Dave Karnes, who’s portrayed by Michael Shannon, probably best known as a player in the Jerry Bruckheimer company (he appeared in “Pearl Harbor”, “Kangaroo Jack” and “Bad Boys II”). Karnes is an accountant and ex-Marine from Connecticut who, upon learning about the terrorist attacks on 9/11, stopped by his church to talk with the pastor (“I gotta go to New York… God gave me this gift to be able to help people.”), went to get an army buzzcut then drove his new convertible Porsche at 120 mph to “the pile”, hoping to find survivors – which he did. Crazy, eh? The details of the subsequent rescue of McLoughlin and Jimeno aren’t very clear and the overall last stretch of the film is underwhelming, though.
If you play the comparison game with “World Trade Center”, holding it up against Stone’s masterpieces, United 93 and whatnot, it can’t help but feel disappointing. But on its own, it’s a rather gripping and emotional picture.