Viewers might want to try this on eyes, ears
The riots begin early in Battle in Seattle, and not 20 minutes into Stuart Townsend’s portrayal of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, there’s a doomsday exchange between the city’s police chief and its freaked-out mayor: “There’s only one option left!” the cop tells Jim Tobin (Ray Liotta), who recognized the activists’ right to assemble and had forbidden the use of violence against them. So it’s time to get dirty, but after demonstrations, chaos, and greenlit use of force, where could the narrative possibly go for another 80 minutes?
Back to more of the same, essentially. For anyone who wasn’t paying attention nine years ago, Seattle had been scheduled to host the first WTO conference on American soil. Peaceful and apparently ridiculously well-organized protesters set out to shut it down, and they did—but only after five days of allegedly unprovoked police brutality and hundreds of arrests that turned the downtown area into “Beirut,” as the governor (Tzi Ma) puts it.
Townsend, an actor better known for being Charlize Theron’s boyfriend than for his roles in films such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, has created an unremarkable and often dull writing and directorial debut. His docudrama approach, which weaves real footage into his fictional story, was a good idea, and the war-zone bedlam of clashing masses comes across.
The lead anarchists, however, are less than gripping. Martin Henderson, a nonpresence in films such as The Ring and Torque, is equally uncharismatic here as Jay, an activist whose vengeance is personal. Lou (Michelle Rodriquez, playing, surprise, a tough girl) joins Jay’s group and serves as a forced love interest. And André Benjamin is Django, a save-the-turtles guy who’s meant to add levity but is mostly annoying, particularly when he tries to rouse a bus of arrestees by singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” On the other side of the conflict are—irony alert!—known activist Woody Harrelson and Theron, playing a riot cop and his pregnant wife, as well as Connie Nielsen, the token hottie reporter with a heart.
The cast spans the spectrum of acting talent, but even the best can’t make Townsend’s awkward dialogue sound good (especially Liotta, whose increasing panic is hilarious). Worse, there’s no mistaking whose side Townsend is on: The film begins and ends with WTO history lessons, with plenty of sermonizing about humanity versus money in between. The camerawork, too, underscores scenes of injustice, in one case cutting to worked-over protesters after the line, “Look around you!” just in case the audience fell asleep. Whoops, almost did.