You can shoot two hours of guns, violence, sex and explosions, but if you don’t have a story to tell you might as well not bother. This stands doubly true for anything labeled “Based On A True Events” – if it’s not an interesting narrative who cares if it really happened. Fortunately, not only does George Gallo’s Middle Men have a true story to tell, but a completely insane one.
Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) is a fixer – he can take any company with issues, teach it how to manage those issues, and walk out the other side back to his lovely wife and family in Texas. Unfortunately for him, he knows a corrupt lawyer named Jerry Hagerty (James Caan) who tells him about this pair of drugged-out losers (Giovanni Ribisi, Gabriel Macht) who have stumbled upon a trillion dollar idea: upload pictures and video of naked women on to the internet and charge men to see it. With Jack’s help, the three of them make more money than they could have ever dreamed of. But with that kind of money problems are never far behind, and when you’re dealing with the porn industry, the Russian mafia, the FBI, and juggling more than a few lies, those problems grow quickly.
Based on the true story of Christopher Mallick, who served as a producer on the film, Middle Men is wickedly fast-paced, almost to a fault. It demands every second of your attention and even the quickest of bathroom breaks could easily leave you lost amidst its 105 minute run time. Multiple plot details arrive in every scene, either by the action or Wilson’s ever present voice-over narration. What makes it work is that the film’s story and characters are engaging enough to make focusing on what’s happening effortless. Detailed though it is, it seems certain that there was even more to Mallick’s story, left out of a script already bordering on being overly-cluttered.
Critical to Middle Men’s success is the performance of Luke Wilson, a talented actor who hasn’t had a role this worthy in far too long. Very much the level-headed balance to the wacked out characters played by Ribisi and Macht, Wilson’s Jack Harris could have easily been played as a stoic by someone with lesser talents, but you’ll feel for him as he finds himself stranded in a world he stumbled into completely by accident. Jack’s is a man who recognizes a great idea when he hears one. By running with that idea, Harris ends up out of his element, dealing with government agents and organized crime syndicates. When he needs to show a backbone he does, and when he needs to be frightened he is.
Good though Wilson is, it’s Ribisi and Macht who steal every scene. One is a former veterinarian who scheduled ill-advised surgeries to score pet pain pills and the other is a disgraced NASA engineer fired for using coke in a wind tunnel after hours. Together they make up a team that, in any other world, would consider getting up off the couch a win. Individually they work well enough, but it’s the pairing of the two that really raises the bar. Though long time friends and roommates, they frequently end up at each others throats, and it’s funny every time. Middle Men is really about Jack Harris, but it’s these two that stoke the narrative’s fire.
The true story of the birth of internet porn is every bit the wild ride you’d expect. Filled to the brim with winning characters and subplots – the biggest problem for Middle Men is that a 105 minutes isn’t really enough to do it all justice. At some point writer/director Gallo and writing partner Andy Weiss must have had a crucial decision to make: cut out something important in favor of a more linear and straight-forward story or do Mallick right by including everything possible at the expense of clarity. It’s a no win situation, but you have to respect them for choosing option B. Middle Men is not a great movie, but it does right by an unbelievable legend.