Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category

GameSpite Quarterly Interview: Richard Honeywood on The Rise of Square Localization

Richard Honeywood Interview

In January 2011, I conducted a series of email interviews with Richard Honeywood, who worked at Square and Square Enix from 1997 to 2007. Honeywood contributed immensely to the development of localization practices at Square, building up a team of translators and building tools that are still relevant to the industry today. The bones of this interview appear in an article I wrote, “This Guy Are Sick: The Rise of Square Localization,” for GameSpite Quarterly 8. It was also published on Please read it, and think about buying a copy of GSQ8, which chronicles the history of Sony’s Playstation over the course of nearly 450 pages. Thanks again to Richard for giving me such a wealth of information. Writing an article with the information he gave me consumed my life for weeks and was far and away the most fulfilling project I’ve ever worked on. The full interview is presented below.

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Trials and Tribulations: Browsing the 10.1″ Web

The 10.1 Inch Web

It’s hard out there for a netbook. You think it’s easy, being ultraportable and Internet-ready 24/7? You think it’s easy, cramming the entirety of the Internet into 614400 pixels? Well, it’s not. Not one bit.

Take the ASUS EEE 1000H, for example. A rock solid 5 hours of battery life, a decent keyboard, and 10.1 inches of matte LCD made for peerin’ into the world wide web. Sounds decent, right?

Wrong. But it’s not all the computer’s fault. The 1000H is like the little netbook that could. It’s a 3 pound featherweight anticipating that first-round KO from a better faster stronger competitor like the HP Mini 311. But it’s still going to tighten its gloves, bite down on that mouth guard, and put up its dukes. And with the right web browser in its corner, it might even hold its own.

But that’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it? On a weak processor like the Atom, on a screen that doesn’t even hit 720p, how do you balance performance and usability for the perfect web experience? It’s all about finding the right web browser. Trouble is, none of them get it quite right. It’s tough out there for a netbook — let’s take a look at how Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Opera help and hinder our exploration of the 10.1″ web.

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The Good The Bad The Weird

The Good The Bad The Weird

Yoon Tae-goo races cheerily across the rocky hills of an endless Manchurian desert, his dead World War II-era motorcyle fading to his back. Further behind him lie the Japanese army, a gang of treasure hungry misfits, a vicious assassin, and an unrelenting bounty hunter. Tae-goo patters on, never stopping, never slowing, cackling with glee — and just like Tae-goo, the movie he stars in is an exhilerating high-energy adventure, stuffed with dazzling setpieces and thrilling cinematography that rivals any Western western from the past 20 years.

The Good The Bad The Weird wears its spaghetti western influence on its sleeve, drawing both name and plot points from Sergio Leone’s landmark conclusion to the Man With No Name trilogy. Writer/director Ji-woon Kim is clearly a student of Leone’s work, but he tempers his appreciation of the classic style with a remarkably original Eastern western. The Good The Bad The Weird is almost constantly upbeat, delicately balancing its gun battles between graphic violence and lighthearted action-comedy.

This is mostly thanks to Yoon Tae-goo (The Weird), a petty thief whose remarkable luck and survival skills take center stage throughout the film. His antics range from entertaining to knee-slapping hilarious, and as he continues to escape one outrageous situation after another, his own stature in the film’s world is slowly revealed. By film’s end, the character we once assumed to be a clumsy fool turns out to be…well, the best clumsy fool in all of Manchuria.

The Weird crashes a train heist planned by The Bad, who sports a giggle-inducing emo haircut and enough stereotypical asian bad guy mannerisms to make him the perfect villain. He looks out of place, which is partially the point; he’s too cool for all that cowboy shit, but he’ll still walk the walk and slice you up good with a knife or two. Tae-goo makes off from the train robbery with a treasure map in hand but soon crosses paths with Park Do-won (The Good), a valiant bounty hunter out to collect on both The Bad and The Weird. Even The Good, who hunts down nefarious bounties to satisfy his own sense of justice, can’t completely resist the treasure’s allure.

The Good may skirt closest to his analogue in The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly. Actor Woo-sung Jung plays the quiet badass, the lone gunman. He’s not Clint Eastwood…but he’s not trying to be, either. Rather than try to capture the grit and unmatchable screen presence of a grizzled, cigar-biting Eastwood, he plays The Good with an understated charm. He just assumes he’s awesome, and merely has to wait for us to catch on.

The Good dazzles, The Bad Sneers, and The Weird keeps us riveted, but all three are shown up by the you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it dynamic camera work. The zoom — a somewhat taboo technique in cinema — is put to brilliant use here. The camera sometimes tracks around and zooms in and out in one single long take, switching focus from an individual character to a bustling set. When you pair some of the best western action scenes ever imagined with audacious cinematography, the result is a film brimming with explosive excitement.

The Good The Bad The Weird definitely has its own Eastern flavor, set in a Japan-occupied Manchuria that encompasses the typical arid deserts of westerns and the decidedly untypical Chinese villages and bazaars. But Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns marched to a different beat than American cinema, while still retaining that western essence. Very few westerns since 1968 have lived up to Once Upon a Time in the West, and over the years spaghetti westerns have become almost synonymous with the best the genre has to offer. If another film like The Good The Bad The Weird comes out of Korean cinema, noodle westerns may well be the future. And if you’ve seen this movie, that’s a future you’ll be as excited for as I am.

Film Review: Date Night

Date Night

“Date Night” is the kind of lighthearted comedy that panders to its audience. The kind of inoffensive PG-13 comedy that mild-mannered suburbanites can enjoy, thanks to the perfect blend of raciness and family values. The kind of comedy that, frankly, should be utterly mediocre.

And yet, with the comedic talents of Steve Carell and Tina Fey in the starring roles, “Date Night” admirably exceeds expectations.

The names of the writer and director don’t do much to inspire confidence. Helmed by Shawn Levy, whose previous directing efforts include the (not so) thrilling “Night at the Museum” and (yawn) “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” and written by “Shrek the Third” contributor John Klausner, it’s hard to believe “Date Night” is anything but kitschy family fare. But with the exception of a few weak moments, the script is surprisingly funny, and the action well-filmed.

At times, “Date Night” reaches a bit too hard for its laughs. It relies on familiar, exaggerated characters — dirty cops, sassy maître d’s — to keep the audience on familiar ground. I found the crazy, fast-talking black cabdriver to be particularly cringe-inducing, the kind of “clever” character who’s not actually the least bit original — or welcome.

Just as unnecessary are the film’s callbacks to previous jokes. The self-referential, remember-this-funny-thing-we-did technique is hard to pull off well, and “Date Night” can’t pull it off. The dialogue, too, occasionally tries harder than it should to be funny, and can end up feeling forced as a result.
Thankfully, for every line of dialogue that overextends itself to grab desperately for an unconvincing chuckle, Carrell and Fey deliver another with enough zeal to keep the laughs coming. They play Phil and Claire Foster, an average married couple whose lives are consumed by the day-in, day-out struggles of juggling marriage, jobs, and kids. When they head into the Big Apple for a special date night at a fancy restaurant, they do something a little out of character — steal another couple’s dinner reservation, since they didn’t make one of their own.

An increasingly ridiculous comedy of errors ensues, as the Fosters are mistaken for blackmailers in possession of some very lucrative information. For the most part, they react like normal people would: with panicky, incoherent babbling and a whole lot of freaking out.

Fey’s and Carell’s comedic styles perfectly suit “Date Night” — their experience playing awkward personalities (Fey in “30 Rock,” Carell in “The Office” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin”) lends the Fosters an air of credibility as normal people stuck in a screwball comedy. Their excellent on-screen rapport keeps each scene moving at a brisk pace and quickly makes them a likeable leading couple.

The biggest surprise of “Date Night’s” hour and a half adventure is its hilarious, tightly choreographed chase scene, starring a souped-up Ferrari and a beat-up taxi cab, front bumpers intertwined, careening through the streets of LA at breakneck speeds. When Carell climbs onto the hood of the careening Ferrari and inches his way across to the taxi, we know it’s ridiculous — but so do the characters, and their own bafflement makes the situation all the funnier.

For a comedy that relies mostly on the witty banter of its stars, the few sight gags “Date Night” employs are, amazingly, pretty much guaranteed to elicit laughs. Though the car chase stands out, a short scene slow-moving motorboat delivers one of the film’s best moments, and Holbrook’s (Mark Wahlberg) six-pack abs dominate the frame every time they’re in sight, to Phil Foster’s dismay (and Claire Foster’s delight).

“Date Night” isn’t a perfect film; the screenplay could’ve been something great with a bit more work, and some of the funniest lines of dialogue show up in the end credits in the form of outtakes. More improvisation from Tina Fey could’ve provided laughs in the few scenes that just aren’t that funny. James Franco is also tragically underutilized, showing up for about five minutes of screen time. Still, despite its flaws, “Date Night” defies the odds by being better than most family-friendly romantic comedies. If you’re looking for a date movie, you could do much worse.

Film Review: Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass: More like punch-face.

At some point amidst the flamboyant violence, amusing dialogue and stereotypical high school trappings of “Kick-Ass,” I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Director Matthew Vaughan’s interpretation of the comic book “Kick-Ass” channels the graphic nature of Quentin Tarantino; gleaming swords dance deadly across the screen, bullets fly, bodies crumple and explode, and all the nihilistic action plays out against a pitch-perfect pop rock soundtrack.

Why, then, does “Kick-Ass” fall short of its lofty potential? When the action is on, it’s a well-greased machine of cinematic violence. But the story seems to slide into place a little too perfectly, a little too conveniently. And what was originally meant to be an homage to superhero comics that revealed their absurdity has, instead, become a flashy film that doesn’t quite ram home the fact that its characters are, in fact, quite deranged.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a normal teenager who makes a very abnormal decision. After one too many muggings for petty cash, Dave buys a comically ugly scuba suit off the Internet and decides to live out his superhero fantasies in real life. Fueled by adrenaline and stupidity, Dave’s fun pastime quickly leads to him being beaten, stabbed, and hit by a car.

He lives — barely. Undeterred, Dave keeps at it, prowling the streets in search of good deeds to be done. And when he saves a man from a gang beating, he becomes an overnight Youtube sensation.

Dave saunters around New York like he owns the place, and unwittingly becomes embroiled in a dangerous criminal underworld. His masked superhero antics inspire the film’s other principal players, father-daughter team Damon (Nicholas Cage) and Mindy (Chloë Grace Moretz) Macready, to don costumes of their own and assume the identities of Big Daddy and Hit Girl.

And this is where “Kick-Ass” begins to go astray. In Mark Millar’s comic, Big Daddy is nothing but a comic book geek, a maniac self-taught in the arts of murder and decked out with a massive arsenal of weaponry. In the film, Big Daddy is a former police officer, and his systematic destruction of mobster’s Frank D’Amico is driven entirely by revenge.

Big Daddy’s backstory may not seem like a significant change, but it’s only one instance of a tonal disconnection between the two versions of “Kick-Ass.” In the comic, there are no heroes, no supermen; only insane killers and a boy in way too deep. The pen-and-ink version is a more realistic tale, and the gouts of blood that jet from eviscerated bodies become a little sickening. And that’s entirely the point. If superheroes were real, if they were fighting criminals, they’d be insane vigilantes enacting brutal justice, not candy-colored boy scouts a la Superman.

“Kick-Ass” the film tells a different story; violent as it is, it doesn’t evoke the spirit of the comic, and the action scenes are mindless, cartoony eye-candy. Granted, they are tons of fun, and Hit Girl absolutely lights up the screen every second she has a camera pointed her way. She’s at once endearing and foul, charming and savage. If “Kick-Ass” were nothing but Hit Girl bouncing around the screen knifing drug dealers for two hours, I may have left the theater with a grin permanently stuck on my face.

Unfortunately, there’s a little too much downtime with Dave’s teenage life, and it rejects the sharper depiction of high school society Millar wrote into his comic. In Vaughan’s film, Dave gets the girl of his dreams, doesn’t take nearly as much abuse at the hands of criminals, and plays a gung-ho role in the shoot-em-up finale in mobster D’Amico’s penthouse apartment.

Overall, “Kick-Ass” is simply a cheerier, more lighthearted story than its comic counterpart. Sure, it makes for a fun night at the movies. But when the cheeriness goes hand-in-hand with graphic violence the characters shrug off like it ain’t no thang, “Kick-Ass” misses out on a chance to pack some moral depth in with its visceral action scenes.

Pilot Review: Parenthood


It begins with a family archetype you may recognize: responsible brother, crazy father, slacker younger sibling.  This new family unit of NBC’s “Parenthood” bears a superficial resemblance to the screwball Bluths of “Arrested Development,” the Emmy-award winning comedy “Parenthood’s” producers collaborated on from 2003-2006.  But there are no sitcom antics to be found here—even “Parenthood’s” silliest characters have both feet firmly planted on the ground.

NBC may have missed the mark advertising their new series, touting the involvement of producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, who also worked on the far more outlandish “Arrested Development.”  Though the commercials practically bent over backwards to highlight “Parenthood’s” comedic moments, a comedy it is not—this is family drama, through and through.

The show effortlessly pans across the daily lives of the Bravermans with an inviting openness that has left me eager for more insight into these characters each week.

So far “Parenthood” seems to be resting its weight on the sturdy shoulders of Adam Braverman, analogue to Michael Bluth, the only sane member of “Arrested Development’s” screwball family.  Adam, played by Peter Krause (“Six Feet Under”) with a confident and subtle depth, at first seems to be pegged for the role of family problem-solver.  But his character quickly evolves into the most attractive and watchable of the Bravermans as a father faced with the one problem he can’t fix: a son diagnosed with Asperger’s.

As the show pivots around Adam, it tackles a variety of plotlines featuring mid-life crisis sister Sarah (Lauren Graham of “Gilmore Girls” fame) and her two teenage kids, slacker brother Crosby (Dax Shepard) and workaholic sister Julia (Erika Christensen).  And when the show does make the occasional turn into comedic territory, it’s largely thanks to family patriarch Zeek (Craig T. Nelson), whose grandfatherly proclivities range from sarcastic interjections to toughening up his grandson with the occasional bloody nose.

Unfortunately, “Parenthood” seems to be the kind of television show NBC has found itself utterly unable to carry in recent years: a thoughtful and well-written drama.  A quick look at the past two years of NBC cancellations doesn’t bode well for “Parenthood’s” future.  Dramas such as “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “The Black Donnellys,” “Kings” and “Southland” all failed to garner substantial ratings on the network.

But who’s to blame if “Parenthood” fails?  NBC, for misadvertising the series, or the viewers who seem to have little interest in a drama without the gaudy sensationalism of “reality” television?

Parenthood may well be destined for cancellation, much like the short-lived series of the same name from 1990.  Both series are inspired by the 1989 Ron Howard and Brian Grazer film “Parenthood” starring Steve Martin; perhaps the slice of life family focus is simply too sentimental to work in the modern era of television.

But with every new episode, “Parenthood” delivers ample depth for each character, gradually building up the family into a tight unit without a weak link to be found.  Crosby’s plotline, a cliché “accidental father” scenario, gains traction as the show goes along.  And Julia, torn between her long hours as a lawyer and the challenge of bonding with her five year-old daughter, stands to sneakily become one of the show’s most compelling characters.

“Parenthood” kicked off with a strong pilot and promises to become a wonderful ensemble drama… if it gets the chance.  NBC recently coughed up a cool $45 million to kick Conan O’Brien out of the “Late Night” chair and hand it back to Jay Leno—surely it can afford to keep Parenthood on the air for a few months and give it a chance to build an audience.  Hopefully America won’t be too busy watching “Dancing With the Stars” to notice.

Pilot Review: Justified


Get out of town. Now, right now, or you’ll be shot on sight. Not fair? Not legal? Well, maybe not. But 100 years ago in the old west, lawmen practiced their own brand of frontier justice, and banishment wasn’t such a bad rap. It beat a bullet in the gut.

Marshall Raylan Givens should have been born a cowboy with pistols slung low on his hips and spurs on his boots. He is a man born a century too late, a man who reacts with confusion when he gets in trouble for shooting the armed criminal he ordered out of town. The criminal drew first, after all. Raylan was justified.

Unfortunately for Raylan, Miami in 2010 doesn’t appreciate his brand of justice. FX’s new drama “Justified” opens with a cute visual pun, giving us a few seconds to key in on Raylan’s white cowboy hat before revealing the palm trees of a lush Florida resort. After the shooting (justified, of course) Raylan finds himself shipped off to his home state of Kentucky to stay out of trouble. His first step is to get into a whole heap of it.

“Justified” is a smart police drama with tinges of black comedy thanks to the unusual combination of clever dialogue and good old country accents. Timothy Olyphant plays US Marshall Givens with a devilish gleam in his eye and an easy saunter in his step, drawing inspiration from his role as lawman Seth Bullock in the HBO western “Deadwood.” But though Bullock struggled with his position of leadership and responsibility in “Deadwood,” Raylan Givens is quite happy in his work.

The story flies along at a brisk pace thanks to Olyphant’s excellent performance, but he’s nearly shown up by Walton Goggins, who plays Boyd Crowder, a wild neo-Nazi who was a childhood friend of Marshall Raylan. Separately, the two characters drive the plot, but once they’re united the snappy dialogue really hits its stride.

“Justified” is adapted from a short story by prolific novelist Elmore Leonard (“3:10 to Yuma”), and the strength of the source material shows. The motif of a lawman born a century too late runs central to the show’s plot, but doesn’t completely define it: Raylan’s character clearly has an abundance of depth to be explored in later episodes.

The big question is how well the show can build on the foundation of Leonard’s writing. As entertaining as the intense western-style showdowns are, the star attraction is the dialogue. Between Olyphant’s casual, sarcastic delivery and Goggins’ excitable ravings,“Justified” certainly has a bright future ahead of it, assuming the writing remains sharp.

If the pilot is any indication, “Justified” may succeed where its main character fails: finding itself in the right place and time as a welcome alternative to the more traditional police dramas on television.

Based on Books: The Thin Man

While the Hollywood of the 1930s is hardly known for its raunch or bawdry, literature of the early 20th century is an altogether different animal. The rise of pulp fiction and the hardboiled genre in the 1920s meant popular literature was poking against the boundaries of polite society. And while the 1934 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s classic murder mystery The Thin Man tones down on some of the novel’s more indecent and suggestive dialogue, it perfectly captures the playful chemistry between the story’s leading couple.

Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell (in a Best Actor-nominated performance) and Myrna Loy, became one of the screen’s most successful couples after The Thin Man’s release. A few minutes into the film, and it’s easy to see why. Nick, a former private investigator, becomes embroiled in a murder mystery thanks to past associations, but he doesn’t tackle the caper with the tough guy mentality Humphrey Bogart would later popularize in the 1940s. Powell energetically bounces between flippancy, nonchalance and sharp wit, playing Nick as a devilish gentleman who has far more interest in drinking liquor and teasing his young wife than solving a murder. Loy does just as much to hold up her end of the couple, going toe-to-toe against her on-screen husband with comical facial expressions and banter aplenty.

In fact, the entire production of The Thin Man plays up Hammett’s underappreciated talent for comedy, resulting in an amusing twist on the typically serious detective genre. The film skews more on the side of entertainment than complex mystery, making a few minor adjustments to Hammett’s novel to for the benefit of the Hollywood presentation. Clyde Wynant (the titular thin man) actually makes an appearance at the beginning of the film, while he is only spoken of but never actually encountered in the novel. The first scene establishes Wynant’s character and his relationship with his daughter Dorothy, which ultimately leads to the girl meeting Nick and pleading with him to find her missing father.

In the novel, things aren’t packaged quite so neatly — Dorothy hasn’t seen her father since childhood, nor is she the pure-hearted innocent she appears in the film. Her brother receives similar treatment, having his role marginalized in favor of a one-dimensional, goofy persona purely in place for the laughs. Even so, once the film establishes its story to simplify things for viewers the plot moves along at Hammett’s brisk pace. Several portions of the backstory are excised for the sake of time, but everything comes together in the final moments in classic form, as Nick lays out the tangled, murderous details at a delightful dinner party packed with nearly the entire cast.

Hammett’s complex plot hardly seems to matter next to the electric relationship between Powell and Loy, who went on to star in five more Thin Man capers as the flirtatious husband-and-wife team. If the series had been established after John Huston’s genre-defining film noir treatment of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett’s penchant for devious mysteries may have taken on a more serious role in the film.

Thankfully, the Hollywood of the 30s took the laughs and ran with them, resulting in a rare balance between crime and comedy. In fact, any film made since 1934 combining the two genres may owe The Thin Man for writing the recipe of a perfect murder-comedy cocktail.

Based on Books: Masters of the Universe

Every so often, a story manages to brook the transition from written form to television to the silver screen.  Batman and Superman both began life as comic book characters, starred in a number of live-action and animated television shows, and eventually achieved success in Hollywood.  Masters of the Universe is not one of those stories.

In 1987, the popularity of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe had reached its fever pitch — the cartoon show and its spin-off She-Ra had just concluded, and the toy line from which the series was first born was still going strong.  It was time to take the muscle-bound, uncomfortably homoerotic hero to the big leagues.  Though this decision undoubtedly thrilled legions of 10 year-olds around the world, the resulting film was, not-so-surprisingly, a mess of bad acting, an utterly asinine script, and a hodgepodge of movie clichés.

The opening titles of Masters of the Universe look and sound as if they were ripped straight from 1978’s Superman, and the legions of ineffectual soldiers are dead-ringers for the black-helmeted crewmembers of the Death Star.  Even borrowing heavily from its betters, Masters of the Universe may have been a salvageable effort if it took place in the creative sci-fi/medieval fantasy world of Eternia.  Instead, everyone involved decided it would be much more fun to throw the heroes through a wormhole, drop them in New Jersey, and pair them up with a couple troubled teenagers (including a pre-Friends Courteney Cox).

If the relocation to Jersey wasn’t a clear indication, practically nothing in Masters of the Universe corresponds to the original He-Man comics.  Most of the major characters are represented, but other heroes like Stratos are nowhere to be seen.  And Orko, He-Man’s floating sidekick whose blunderings once served as comic relief in the animated series, is replaced by the film’s ugly Hobbit/troll mashup Gwildor.

Though Dolph Lundgren would’ve been a far better He-Man without ever opening his mouth, Frank Langella’s Skeletor may be the highlight of the film, simply because his make-up looks a little cool.  Considering how limited his facial expressions are behind Skeletor’s yellow-white skull exterior, Langella’s voicework outpaces the rest of the cringe-inducing cast…until the finale, anyway, when Skeletor transforms himself into some sort of Golden God and utterly ruins everything.

Kids may blissfully overlook the terrible acting and moronic plot, delight in Skeletor’s cliché blundering henchmen and be thrilled by the clumsy choreography of each painful fight scene.  They’ll even get a kick out of the real-world setting and the infusion of distraught teenagers, who rise to the challenge of helping a mostly naked man save his home planet and are rewarded with true love forever. For everyone else, Masters of the Universe is a textbook on how to make a bad children’s movie — take a terrible story, cast bad actors, and try to make it look as cheap as possible.  New Jersey seems to boast a population of about twelve people, but maybe that’s understandable — nobody else wanted anything to do with Masters of the Universe.

Based on Books: A History of Violence

“Ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations” — John Wagner’s foundation for the graphic novel A History of Violence, the story of a normal man caught up in a frighteningly real kill-or-be-killed world.  David Cronenberg’s film adaptation depicts the same extraordinary situation, but alters or cuts most of the extraneous plot points, resulting in a leaner film that is both more believable and intense than the original comic.

A History of Violence begins with a lengthy, continuous tracking shot, seemingly easing into the story with a relaxed nonchalance.  The same casual air continues for the first twenty minutes of the film’s running time, introducing us to Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife (Mario Bello) and children, a seemingly perfect family in an idyllic small town.

That all comes crumbling down when Tom kills two vicious robbers in self-defense, exposing his long-hidden identity to the demons of his past.  When those demons manifest in the form of the menacing Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), the Stalls are tossed into an incredibly tense battle for survival and sanity.  The slow build-up of the first half of A History of Violence introduces a cast of realistic, human characters, and the slowly-mounting tension continuously heightens the suspense.  The film gives us just enough information to understand each scene as it unfolds, keeping us guessing all the way through—is Tom really an experienced killer with a history of violence, or is he simply an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary situation?

Cronenberg’s film deftly maintains a level of balanced believability that makes its story so gripping — despite the insanity of the circumstances, each character reacts like a real person, and it’s that subtle storytelling that elevates A History of Violence well past its comic book roots.  Wagner’s story possesses none of the subtlety of the film, immediately beginning with a random murder and delving straight into Tom’s fight in his diner.

From that point forward, it’s obvious that Tom’s hiding dark secrets, and the eventual revelation leads into a long backstory substantially different than the brief glimpse of Tom’s past we get in the film.  We discover Tom committed all his misdeeds as a teenager, alongside his friend Richie; in the movie, Richie (William Hurt) is a mobster, Tom’s brother, and the evil Tom must ultimately confront to end his cycle of violence.

Despite the Tom of Wagner’s graphic novel seeming like a more normal everyman than Mortensen’s character, the comic strings together explosions, shootouts, and insanely evil forces.  Even the film’s fantastic characterization is nowhere to be found — Tom’s son “Buzz” throws out lame catchphrases, and his wife’s quick acceptance of his bloody past is almost laughably simplistic contrasted with the emotionally-wrenching fracture that comes between Mortensen and Maria Bello.

Vince Locke’s rough art continuously felt like the bare minimum of functionality needed to convey Wagner’s story — only a few rare scenes stood out or managed to exaggerate the horror of Tom’s ordeal.  The black-and-white sketchbook ugliness may be in keeping with the story’s tone, but with Cronenberg at the reins, A History of Violence tells a better story and wraps it in a superior package of haunting cinematography and an understated score.   Where Wagner’s comic tells a contained story that leaves little to the imagination, the film’s ending can only leave us yearning for more, as if A History of Violence was a glimpse into the lives of real people that’s over far too soon.