In 1999, Doug Liman Decided to Go to a Career High

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In 1999, Doug Liman Decided to Go to a Career High

Doug Liman is not a writer-director, but in 1999, he could have been mistaken for one – specifically one who emerged in the post-Tarantino goldrush, hoping to carve out a piece of that personality cult for themselves. Swingers zeroes in on a Los Angeles subculture of movie-biz hopefuls, winking at its own Reservoir Dogs homages, and Liman’s immediate follow-up Go retreads enough of its predecessor’s L.A.-to-Vegas pathway to make Liman seem particularly fixated on the nervous-energy patterns of semi-fashionable teen-to-twentysomethings at the end of the 20th century. The thing is, Liman didn’t actually write either movie’s pop-cult, crime-time banter. Swingers was penned by Jon Favreau, who would go on to direct his own buddy comedy with Vince Vaughn (2001’s less-beloved Made) before making blockbusters like Elf and Iron Man. Go is the cheerfully screenwriter-y feature debut of John August, who went on to write a number of Tim Burton films in the following decade-plus. Liman himself mostly moved over to big-ticket Hollywood action pictures, most recently the Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle Road House; though he’s dabbled in more intimate fare in the 25 years following Go, he never made anything quite so scrappy or hopped-up ever again.

Yet a quarter-century later, Go feels like a crystallizing moment for Liman and his aesthetic, even if the exact nature of the movie’s chattiness originated with someone else. Even beyond the dialogue, Go really shouldn’t feel particular to Liman’s work; in its triptych of stories, their chronological scramble, and the movie’s tense but often comic treatment of violence (or at least the threat of it), it seemed to progress the director from goofing on Reservoir Dogs to all-out stealing from Pulp Fiction, the Tarantino film that helped define (and possibly doom) a certain sector of indie cool in the 1990s. That Go remains well-regarded, perhaps even more so now than in 1999, is thanks to Liman and August’s canny ideas about what might be productively nicked from Tarantino – and the answer was not funny nicknames, audaciously violent shocks, or the presence of unexpectedly loquacious hitmen.

As Roger Ebert pointed out in his contemporaneous review, characterizing Go as a particularly astute post-Pulp project, its “characters are closer to ground level.” Ronna (Sarah Polley) and Claire (Katie Holmes) are supermarket workers, old enough to have apartments (or at least Ronna is, as she’s facing eviction when the movie begins) but still some kind of underage (at one point, Ronna gives her age as 17; though it’s hard to tell whether she’s bluffing to scare off a cop, she surely isn’t more than 20). The film follows Ronna as she attempts to make some rent money with the “favor” of drug dealer Todd (Timothy Olyphant, issuing an early signal of his talent). Her story branches off to two more: Her coworker Simon (Desmond Askew) takes a trip to Vegas with his buddies (Taye Diggs, Breckin Meyer, James Duval), while the guys who ask her for drugs in the first place (Scott Wolf, Jay Mohr) have an odd encounter with a cop (William Fichtner) and his wife (a pre-30 Rock Jane Krakowski). Eventually, the movie circles back to Ronna, left in a precarious position around the one-third mark.

These are not the antics of the teen-related movies that came out around the same time as Go, like 10 Things I Hate About You or Cruel Intentions or Never Been Kissed. Even Election, Alexander Payne’s grown-up masterpiece of a teen movie that came out just weeks after Go, takes place mostly in high school hallways.

To root the characters firmly in 1999, much of the action revolves around a Christmas-season rave, but the movie seems to understand that this has more to do with youthful trends than some kind of seismic cultural shift – an understanding Liman also applied to the near-instantly dated pseudo-hepcat scene the guys navigate in Swingers. Similarly, Liman treats that post-Pulp Fiction landscape as a good excuse to play around with chronology and zippy dialogue, not proof of cool. The characters speak in pop-culture-y terms because they’re self-conscious young people, and the most overtly Tarantino-esque among them seem like they could be consciously imitating a cool movie whose poster might hang in their drug den. I’m specifically thinking of Todd, who keeps imposing references on Claire: The Breakfast Club (underlining the name she shares with Molly Ringwald’s character), for example, or the comic strip The Family Circus, which Claire meets with something between polite engagement and an eyeroll. She thinks he’s cute (“medium cute,” anyway). But not because of his facility with smarmy cultural references. It’s less obvious but entirely plausible that Simon, a Brit on a destructive jaunt through Vegas (“Is your British ass happy now?” demands Taye Diggs’ Marcus, his most frequent foil), gets his id-driven impulses (touching strippers after being repeatedly instructed not to; pulling and firing a gun that doesn’t even belong to him; paying for stuff with a drug dealer’s credit card) from the hipster movies of the day. It’s like he’s been mainlining Swingers, Trainspotting and Tarantino in heavier doses than any of the drugs he’s been taking. Later, Wolf and Mohr’s characters – both actors – talk through a potentially grisly situation by pretending that they’re shooting a scene.

Again, the pop-culture live-wire is not exactly an image of Liman that’s played out in his subsequent career. But style-wise, the youthful jitters of Go did stay with him, even as his protagonists aged up. It’s why his Bourne Identity remains the most vital of the series, despite the ever-shakier camera of the Paul Greengrass-directed sequels. It’s what propels Edge of Tomorrow forward with such relentless buzz, using Tom Cruise’s repeated do-over deaths as punctuation. It’s there in his less successful movies, too, from the time-skipping Jumper to the antsy COVID dramedy Locked Down. He rarely makes a movie as purely delightful as Go, but he often appears to be chasing that pre-millennial high. (The movie doesn’t specify that it takes place at the end of 1999, in a way that makes it seem like it probably doesn’t, but it’s running out the clock on something.)

That quality has turned Go into a nostalgic mixtape (sample selections: “Steal My Sunshine,” “Gangster Trippin” and “Magic Carpet Ride” – a remix, naturally) even as the movie itself holds no particular sentiment about the wild overnight ride its characters experience. The fact that Go doesn’t make any overt points about their culture, doesn’t even leave them much of anywhere but temporarily mostly-safe and probably-sound, makes it feel all the more authentic to 1999 in retrospect. If Election was the 1999 teen movie for the ages and the year’s lesser entries were John Hughes and/or Shakespeare, reheated with ’90s fashions, Go is the one that demands to be enjoyed now, now, now – because who knows what might happen to any this in the 21st century.

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including GQ, Decider, Polygon, Vulture, and, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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