Though it flopped in wide release following surprisingly strong limited play, last year’s “Atlas Shrugged: Part I” evidently did well enough — or its producers are simply committed enough — for this second of a projected trilogy to be made. “Atlas Shrugged: Part II — The Strike” has a whole new director, cast and crew, with slightly higher production polish and more familiar faces onscreen. Nonetheless, it’s consistent with its predecessor as a somewhat awkward translation of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel to our current era, handled with bland telepic-style competency. Theatrical biz will be middling, ancillary better.
With the economy collapsing, the government shutting down private industry and the “best minds” all mysteriously disappearing, Taggart Transcontinental chief operating officer Dagny (Samantha Mathis) and self-made Rearden Steel magnate Henry (Jason Beghe) are the last bold individualists who give a damn about this once-glorious nation in a sea of lily-livered takers, including her weak brother (Patrick Fabian) and his bitchy wife (Kim Rhodes). Naturally this only makes our heroes hotter for one another, though it’s hard to find time for mashing lips when so many crises must be contended with from sea to shining sea.
As the dread too-big government increasingly legislates their own businesses out of their control, Dagny tries to unlock two secrets: how to work an electromagnetic motor she’s found laying about (with help from Diedrich Bader’s wacky rogue scientist), and figuring how who the hell that John Galt guy is anyway. In a plane-pursuit sequence that begins and ends the film, she finally gets her wish — though auds will have to wait until “Part III” to see Mr. G. (D.B. Sweeney) in more than just silhouette.
As before, Randheads will be divided between those who find the pic insufficiently grandiose enough to be the “Atlas” of their dreams, and those so in thrall to the author’s ideas that any reasonably professional product will suffice. Others, particularly those who haven’t read the book, will simply find it silly, talky and dull. That said, John Putch (a more experienced TV helmer replacing the first film’s Paul Johansson, another actor-turned-director) maintains a decent pace and a straight face. Still, the whole project remains hobbled by the initially budget-minded decision to set the story more or less in the present rather than the 1950s, when it already seemed somewhat improbable.
This renders the story’s railroad emphasis wildly anachronistic, despite some attempted explanation. It also requires the pic to pretend ours is still a primarily self-contained national economy, rather than bound to the modern global one. (The filmmakers themselves couldn’t quite pull that off, as the end credits reveal substantial post-production work was done in China.)
Thus, a time-warp air hangs over the whole affair, though the film’s three scenarists have dropped a few up-to-the-moment buzz phrases into the mix to seize their just-in-time-for-elections moment; Rand’s cartoonish conflict between industrious quality people and lazy, effete quasi-socialists is now “job creators” vs. “looters.” There are repeated glimpses of Occupy-like protestors, who eventually turn against their alleged government benefactors, although notably, none of them gets so much as a single line to speak.
Though the actors this time come with higher-profile track records, they’re surprisingly not much of an improvement, and in some cases (notably Esai Morales as decadent playboy-cum-secret-free-market superhero Francisco d’Anconia), quite the opposite. Of course, with dialogue this clunky and expository, one can hardly blame them; with no attempt at finding a stylistic equivalent to Rand’s heightened worldview (a la King Vidor’s 1949 film of “The Fountainhead”), they’re stuck playing real in a context that feels unaware of its unreality.
The mostly blah corporate and hotel settings are in a sense apt, but add no flavor. While “Part II’s” attempt to encompass Rand’s sweeping narrative on a far-below-major-studio budget is admirable, the underwhelming f/x dampen its few opportunities for action sequences.