Middle Men (2009)

Rating: B-

Dir: George Gallo
Star: Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Gabriel Macht, James Caan

To be honest, we only watched this because it was largely filmed in Phoenix, and we know some of the bit parts in it [one of the Russian gangster’s bodyguards is a local wrestler, and our daughter’s stomach can clearly be seen in one shot, as shown on the right. 49 minutes in, if you’re counting]. However, it’s an interesting glimpse into the dark side of Internet commerce: a seedier version of The Social Network, if you like. A pair of largely incompetent druggies (Ribisi and Macht) virtually stumble into the secret to accepting credit-cards online, and use that to sell porn online. Their success leads to an unwise partnership with the Russian mafia, and Jack Harris (Wilson) is brought on board to straighten things out and turn it into a stable business.

He succeeds, beyond everyone’s wildest dreams, opening the gateway to a Pandora’s box of risks and delights. Will he be able to make his way through the maze of perils and retain his sanity, self-respect and soul? Not to mention his life, because Russian gangsters are not exactly the most accommodating of business partners, and when they send a thug to collect a six-figure debt, even Jack finds himself out of his debt. It’s Wilson who makes the film tick, making Harris easily the most sympathetic character. He tries to do the right thing, but he’s operating in a world where a moral compass points in a completely different direction, and surrounded by people with radically different aspirations. There are some fascinating anecdotes here, such as the story, apparently largely true, of how porn helped track down terrorists, and you root for Harris to get through.

On the other hand, the supporting characters are more irritating than engaging, not least Harris’s whiny wife; Ribisi appears to be channeling Hunter S. Thompson, via Johnny Depp. Wisely, the film consigns them to the sidelines, and also dumps the non-linear structure that threatens to derail the story before it even begins. When it sticks to Harris, and the central theme of the seductive appeal possessed by easy wealth and sex, it’s an entertaining yarn. Interestingly, Christopher Malick, the film’s producer on whom Harris was based, continues to be dogged by controversy. Shortly after the movie came out, his ePassporte business apparently folded, leaving behind a large number of disgruntled customers. Odds on that being used for the sequel, appear slim at this point.