Substance can really be overrated. Sometimes, if the mood is right, a little style is all you need. Big-screen newcomer Demian Lichtenstein's debut film feature, 3000 Miles to Graceland, is something of a triumph of style over substance. It had to be.
Five of the unlikeliest Elvis impersonators ever to don the cape -- Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell (OK, four of the unlikeliest, as Russell actually played the King in a 1979 made-for-TV, a performance hailed by some as the best Elvis ever) are joined by Christian Slater, David Arquette and Bokeem Woodbine -- attempt to pull off the king of all heists: hitting a big-time Vegas casino to the tune of $3.2 million in the middle of the 2001 International Elvis Convention. What part of this premise isn't going to be about style?
Elvis, may he rest in peace, was style personified; Vegas, the storied city of high rollers and Rat Packers, is all about style. And a shoot-em-up flick with a script just this side of soulless has nothing going for it but style. Luckily, writer/director/producer Lichtenstein knows how to make the most of just such a mish-mash. This is no Con Air or Reindeer Games. The vibe of Graceland is Red Rock West meets Freeway and makes a U-Turn. Call it a neo-noir Western road movie with kick-ass cinematography and a seriously skewed sense of humor; it isn't as smart as a John Dahl effort or as satisfying as an Oliver Stone outing, but Graceland covers itself in the same off-kilter grit.
Surprisingly, Lichtenstein starts the film with the juxtaposition of manipulated desert footage and, of all things, computer animation. Two of the scariest-looking scorpions you've ever seen go head to head in the wasteland, all tail and teeth, until finally the victorious one raises his claws in triumph -- providing a perfect frame for a billboard for the Elvis convention that's about to get all shook up. The scorpions are an apt metaphor for the story that is about to unfold (and one that will surface again), but their shiny, digital danger provides a bizarre beginning just the same. And a signal that script isn't really what this one is going to be about.
Which is not to say that the script is completely absent. Costner and Russell, those aging kings of cool, make the most of their Elvis-wannabe characters. The two form an uneasy alliance that turns into a there-can-be-only-one face-off. The only distinctions made here, as one character observes, are between those bad guys who die caught and those who die bloody.
Costner is the man with the plan, a cigarette-flicking, cold-to-the-core criminal whose only charm lies in his belief that he's the illegitimate son of Elvis Aaron Presley. Russell plays the familiar bad-guy-next-door; he shoots people if he has to, but he's decent to women and children in a chauvinistic tough-guy sort of way. All he wants is his money, so he can get away from all of this. The woman he hooks up with at the Last Chance Motel on the night before the big job (and her kleptomaniac son) are only going to complicate matters. Courteney Cox Arquette is surprisingly good here, as Cybil Waingrow, a charming, sexy, single-mom grifter hellbent on getting both her share of the haul and her man. (Much is made of the fact that she is "Cybil with a C" -- one of the film's shockingly few nods to Elvis lore, perhaps, in a veiled reference to his most talkative ex-lover, Cybill Shepherd?)
The heist, of course, goes bad. But only after one breathless, electric sequence that proves once and for all that the only thing better than the bells and blinking lights of Sin City is gunplay on the casino floor. Lichtenstein's music video background, evident throughout the film, prepared him well for these scenes. There is a curious charge to seeing shots of Costner, Russell and gang taking on casino security inter-cut with shots of prancing showgirls and strutting impersonators, all to a soundtrack that's a mix of today's best angry alternative music and Elvis' immortal Such a Night. The timing and choreography here is all craft and is worth the price of admission alone.
Our Presleyesque protagonists escape the casino, but Bokeem Woodbine's character buys it in the get-away helicopter (no car for these Kings). One less Elvis means more cash to go around. And then the double-crossing fun begins. The cool cars, the cash and Cybil change hands for the rest of the movie, building up to a fierce showdown that might be predictable, but certainly isn't disappointing.
Graceland is a mess, but it's interesting to look at. Are the people and events described improbable? Probably. But taken as piece of absurd, vibrantly violent eye candy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is more than a little sweet.