Have you ever sat through your average shoot ‘em up action film – Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, the Bourne Trilogy – and thought to yourself: wouldn’t it be great if instead of being suave, ruthless, trained killers, the leading roles could be stoned off their tits? Well, that’s what Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan thought (Knocked Up, Superbad), presumably while in a similar state themselves. This is apparently how, through a smoke ring, the weed action thriller was born.
Take a deep drag now: stoner Dale Denton (Seth Rogan) and dealer Saul Silver (James Franco) are rudely ejected from their reefer-induced hazes when Dale witnesses a murder at the hands of local drug baron, Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and his bent-cop girlfriend Carol (Rosie Perez). Traced by the incredibly rare roach made with Pineapple Express weed that he left behind while hastily exiting the scene, Dale seeks refuge at his dealer’s flat.
Both find themselves inadvertently in the middle of a drug war between Ted Jones’ murderous cronies and ‘the Asians’. Taking only the essentials – food, weed, snacks – the pair go on the run from those hell-bent on getting rid of any unfortunate witnesses, well, that and their own weed-based paranoia. Still, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean you aren’t actually being pursued by a dangerous drug lord.
Penned by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg (Superbad), the role of Saul the dealer was originally intended for Rogan himself, until Franco asked if they could switch parts. This laissez-faire switcharoo proved to be fateful for the pair because they’re each the exact (mis)fits for their parts: for one, Rogan couldn’t have quite pulled off that bandanna.
With a voice that sounds as if he’s been gargling gummy bears, his mop-top hair and dazed expression, Dale looks like the cautionary muppet for an anti-weed campaign. Franco equally aces his role.
After parts like the troubled Harry Osborn in the Spiderman films and the eponymous lead in Romeo and Juliet-lite, Triston + Isolde, it was hard to imagine that Franco could ever execute a character like Saul. Not so. Think Brad Pitt’s brilliant turn as the eloquent stoner Floyd in True Romance. Franco makes drug dealing adorable: perfecting the slightly-too-long-to-be-comfortable eye contact and playing the blissed-out, sweet-natured dealer without a fault. He lopes around in his character’s custom-made T-shirt, pyjama bottoms and slippers like he’s been wearing them all his life and proves that there is nothing more endearing than a stoned man sat on a park swing, sobbing into a burger and dipping his bare toes into the sand.
The pair make for an excellent odd couple. Dale, at first in denial that he is of the same ilk as dealer Saul, soon finds out that his superiority is misplaced. The two drift through the action, routinely getting stoned and causing more trouble for themselves than any real danger could: a scene where Dale meets the murderously protective parents of his girlfriend, the beautiful Amber Heard, being a prime example of this. Like two easily distracted children they’re beset by delayed reactions and realisations, hiding in a forest to avoid any real danger because they simply can’t be bothered getting involved. Why hasn’t James Bond ever thought of that, eh? Probably because he always has his wits about him. What a fool.
They’re pursued by a Pulp Fiction-styled duo, Budlofsky (Kevin Corrigan) and Matheson (Craig Robinson), although they don’t actually need anyone chasing them because their own paranoid fantasies of triangulation and heat-seeking missiles are enough. At least until they become so distracted that when they should be finding safety they run around a sun-dappled forest playing leap frog. It does help their cause somewhat that the bad guys are all stoned too.
While not exactly glamorising pot-dealers, this film goes some way to taming their image. From Saul’s granny flat complete with bunny pictures on the walls and eighties sitcom 227 on the box, to middle-man Red’s (played by the up-to-now underused Danny R. McBride) newly carpeted bungalow.
So it’s understandable that you might well wonder what message director David Gordon Green and co are trying to convey. Then you realise: it’s not about making any big changes; it’s about coming to terms with who you are. Be that a dead-end loser, a well-meaning dealer or an aerodynamic man who is still grieving for his dead cat. A sweet message rolled up in a deceptively shallow plot.
The beauty of Pineapple Express is that it is a concept-driven film that actually works. It might be violent but at heart it’s a buddy movie. Dale, Saul and Red are like an entertaining version of the three stooges, with fight scenes that are brutal, cartoon-like – and funny.
It isn’t really until the final third that the film really gets bloody, and as by this time you’ve been gently lulled into a false sense of security, the violence is so incongruously shocking it’s like being woken up by a boiling coffee pot to the face. All this, of course, is gloriously entertaining.
Any gripes would be regarding the relationship between Dale and his girlfriend – the sub plot is well used but dwindles to nothing. The plot is pretty simple and the violence might be a bit much for those expecting a light, laid-back comedy. Which it is, but it’s also a bit cleverer than it appears, and it has no pretences about what it is: a weed action thriller.
Who couldn’t love a film that contains a scene where the leads sit stoned in a café, bruised and bloody, eating hangover breakfasts and performing a free-flowing discourse of their favourite bits of the film. Maddeningly genius.
Pineapple Express is on general release.