Before he became ABC Family Channel’s go-to director to garner knockout ratings helming the network’s smash successful made-for-TV movies, Gil Junger was most famous for garnering knockout performances while breaking out two very different stars in two very different mediums.
Directing one of television history’s biggest water-cooler moments when Ellen DeGeneres came out on her eponymous ‘90s series under his guidance, Junger also introduced American movie audiences to Australian import Heath Ledger.
In 1999, Junger made his feature filmmaking debut, helming late Oscar winner Ledger in his breakout role taming Julia Stiles’ shrew in Touchstone Pictures’ teenage take on Shakespeare, 10 Things I Hate About You.
While some of Touchstone and indeed ABC Family parent company Disney’s original television movies are so filled with contrived conflicts, cookie cutter paradigms and cardboard characters that they range from downright to bearable to – particularly during the 25 Days of Christmas event – nearly interchangeable, Junger’s titles have fared better than most thanks to his energetic direction and clever material selection, with My Fake Fiance being a particular standout.
And fortunately, his latest offering, produced for the channel by the WWE and distributed by Warner Brothers Home Video is no exception, bringing viewers a refreshing change-of-pace with regard to both genre and character.
Avoiding the clichéd chick-lit infused Christmas carol tradition of repetitive features centering on workaholic singletons whose stagnant love lives are jump-started thanks to that particular title’s varying gimmick (from ghosts to time travel), Junger gives us an action packed comedy. This time around the obligatory romantic plot-point is used as a through-line woven into the story as a whole rather than serving as the overall point of the picture.
In Christmas Bounty, love doesn’t define or obsess our heroine and the movie is all the better for it, as instead of a call to action arriving in the form of a male romantic prospect, our heroine’s call to action comes in the form of a threat from a male villain.
Layering love into a much larger and unexpectedly hip plot, Bounty introduces us to Tory Bell (Francia Raisa), a beautiful Manhattan schoolteacher who’s content to move on from her past as a successful New Jersey bounty hunter working alongside her parents, cousin and former boyfriend Mike (Mike “The Miz” Mizanin) in the family business.
Keeping up a façade of graceful femininity for her students as well as her wealthy investment banker boyfriend (Will Greenberg) whose blue blood parents would certainly disapprove of her blue collar background, Tory’s new life in the Big Apple is jeopardized when a dangerous mobster she’d put away as a teenager escapes from prison and threatens her over the phone.
Returning to New Jersey, Tory’s struggle to live in two very different worlds comes to a dangerous head when her adoring boyfriend follows her home for the holidays and gets caught in the crossfire. Complicating matters even further, Tory is stunned to find her old partner in love and bounty business – Mike – still fighting crime alongside her parents and seemingly still hoping to win back her heart.
While the romance is predictable, the action is not, as Bounty delivers a feisty family friendly crime film with its share of impressive (if benign) fight scenes that thankfully manage to entertain parents long overdue for movies which target a wider age range than 4-14.
A comedic action hybrid that – from a storytelling perspective – crosses Janet Evanovich’s bounty hunting Jersey girl Stephanie Plum with the culture clash romance of My Big Fat Greek Wedding that arise when Tory’s past, present and future spread across two states, two men and two personalities collide.
While some of the Jersey Shore style Garden State stereotypes of gaudy big hair and fake tan excess threaten to turn not only the Italian villains but some of the movie’s heroes (most notably Tory’s parents) into borderline live action cartoons, Bounty remains so darn likable that it’s easy to forgive.
Moreover, from her mother’s ability to figure out ahead of time when they’re being set up (despite giving off a bimbo vibe in her earliest scene) to a mob sister who makes her brother promise not to bring crime to her wedding, a few of the players surprise us in their – admittedly limited – complexity.
Likewise in its refusal to go along with the chick-lit formulas so often trotted out during this time of year that turn female Scrooges into Hallmark princesses, Tory Bell winds up being one of the most genuinely affable characters we’ve seen in the network’s original channel movies in a long time.
Whether she’s diving onto a moving vehicle to thwart a kidnapping or trying to decide which man she should choose, Raisa’s characterization of a brainy, brawny beauty reminds young viewers that women can be more than just one of the girls or one of the boys. And with Tory’s realization that the best thing to be is a one-of-a-kind, only she – Bounty’s lesson to be true to yourself is better than any gift you can put under the tree.
Though I’m utterly unfamiliar with Mizanin’s main career as a wrestling superstar, his range in the film moves impressively beyond the physical, going past his boy-next-door looks and ability to lay down some serious smack to serve up a good-humored, charmingly relaxed turn that even manages to convey genuine romantic longing in a way that fans of "The Miz" will be interested to see.
Thus, in only his second movie so far, Mizanian proves he’s either a natural or a quick study and reminds us once again of Junger’s unappreciated ability to bring out the best in his actors onscreen.
While it certainly won’t replace contemporary Christmas classics including fellow Warner Brothers favorites Elf and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, for those who worship at the altar of the WWE or have a Christmas cookie like craving for made-for-television holiday fare of an altogether different variety, this is one Bounty you’ll be very happy to catch.
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