Unknown was a lot more drama than actual action, despite what the marketing campaign tried to sell us. Obviously, the studio was attempting to capitalize on the success of Liam Neeson’s action thriller hit Taken by marketing this movie as such, but this is hardly in the same league.
Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris who was come to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit. However, attempting to return to the airport for a piece of luggage, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for multiple days. When he awakens, his wife suddenly doesn’t recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity. Ignored by disbelieving authorities and hunted by mysterious assassins, he finds himself alone, tired and on the run. Aided by an unlikely ally in the taxicab driver who saved his life (Diane Kruger), Harris delves into a dangerous mystery forcing him to question his sanity, his identity and just how far he’s willing to go to uncover the truth. Pieces gradually interlock to reveal more than Martin ever could’ve imagined about himself, and what is truly at work that he is now compelled to combat.
I’ve seen both positive and negative reviews praise the premise of the movie and its originality. I do not know what movies these critics have been watching because my thoughts are to the contrary. My main gripe is that the plot is a near carbon copy of The Bourne Identity with a few varying elements, but at its core, its the same basic plotline only not executed nearly as well. Both Unknown and The Bourne Identity were based on novels, but the novel that Unknown was based on, Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert, was published twenty-four years after Robert Ludlum’s well known novel. So, there’s nothing really new to see here, and no one even attempts to disguise it. Many films have similar plots, but the really good, even great filmmakers find ways to make it appear fresh, exciting, and interesting. Unknown did not achieve that for me. It’s not terrible, not at all, but it just comes off as not trying hard enough. There are very good actors in this, but none of them seem to really put their full heart into it. The film comes off as passable, not exceptional.
Neeson turns in a fine performance that carries the film nicely, possibly making it better than anyone attempted to make it, and of course, the action requirements are not a difficulty for him. Nothing here is a challenge for him, which may be a shortcoming of the movie, but he doesn’t slack off at all. It just doesn’t give him anything new to wrap his talent around. Of course, that’s not something I really have any issue with. What did bother me was how underused Frank Langella was in this movie. His appearance as a sort of an old government “spook” is painfully underplayed to the point that any actor could’ve filled the role and done it just as well. That’s a terrible remark to couple with Langella because he is an immensely powerful, enveloping actor with a wide range of talents. He has inhabited so many diverse roles throughout his career that it’s sad to see him take on a role that seems like a quick, phoned in paycheck. I can’t imagine he’s hard pressed for quality acting roles. However, this does work as an example of the movie. Whatever talent is involved is not motivated to push for anything better than mediocre. It’s all standard fare, average offerings.
The action is very good when it happens, but there’s hardly enough to sustain momentum or interest for the plot. I didn’t remain intently invested in the characters, or was as convinced of their motivations as better films have been able to do. Circumstances and plot twists just don’t impact deeply enough to create believable reasons for the characters to push forward with their intentions. Again, this is due to no one giving an extra effort to engage an audience’s invested interest.
The cinematography was entirely standard fare for the genre these days. More handheld, shaky cam, fast editing stuff. I’m beyond tired of that, and I wish filmmakers would get more inventive and clever when filming action sequences. There are so many untapped ideas in that realm, it’s aggravating how many films just do the exact same thing every single time. There was a time when action film directors had more self-identity and originality in the look and style of their own movies. That time seems almost entirely behind us, now. Why that is, I do not know, but this method of action cinematography and editing wore out its welcome a very long time ago. Director of photography Flavio Labiano and editor Timothy Alverson really have nothing notable on their filmographies, and if they keep up this unoriginal, uninspired work, they won’t get any. The same goes for the screenwriters and the director Jaume Collet-Serra. Seriously, the director of the House of Wax remake? I think that explains enough.
As I said at the start, this doesn’t have enough action to be really classified as a action film. It’s closer to a dramatic mystery thriller. It’s a lot of Martin Harris running around Berlin trying to piece together information and struggle with his sanity and perceptions. Action sequences are not all that frequent, and again, when they do occur, they are poorly presented. The quiet dramatic moments are nicely handled, mostly due to Neeson’s talent. However, films ultimately fail when they market themselves as something they are not, and that occurred with Unknown.
I’ve seen review quotes stating this film’s superiority over Neeson’s previous action thriller Taken. Personally, Taken was a far better crafted, more tightly executed, more emotionally investing, and more exciting action thriller. This doesn’t have the pace, energy, or momentum to rival that film, and the studio would’ve been wiser to avoid such comparisons. However, if they hadn’t they might have lost some box office revenue. Even on its own merits, this is still a mediocre movie. I can’t really recommend it because there are so many superior films in the genre, and other films that have done this premise with more success. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not particularly good, either.
I joined the party a little late with Final Destination. I didn’t see the first film in theatres as I was more interested in the then-ending of the Scream trilogy, but once I did see it, I became a fan of the franchise. However, while I thoroughly enjoyed the first two films, the following sequels signaled an ill decline in quality and tone. The third film felt like a direct carbon copy of the first, and the fourth was a big failure, in my eyes. I even saw it in 3D, and that was the last 3D movie I will ever see. So, that comes to the latest entry in this modern horror franchise. I believe I was skeptical at first, but reviews for FD5 were quite positive. A friend of mine even highly enjoyed it, but time was not my ally as I could not get to seeing it theatrically. So, I had to wait a few months for the home video release. An iTunes rental it was, and now, the DVD is part of my ever expanding collection. So, what did Final Destination 5 do right that the last few sequels got wrong? There are many answers to that inquiry.
Death is unleashed after Sam Lawton (Nicholas D’Agosto) has a premonition that saves himself and several of his coworkers from a disastrous suspension bridge collapse. Now, they are marked by death to correct this wrinkle in its plan. Federal Agent Jim Block (Courtney B. Vance) comes in to investigate this incident, and to probe into how and why these few survived. The survivors are chilled by the haunting, foreboding words of coroner William Bludworth (Tony Todd) about how death doesn’t like to be cheated, and all he has to say comes to shape everyone’s fates in how they attempt to cheat it further. Sam is joined by his uncertain girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell), his self-assured but soon grieving friend Peter (Miles Fisher) and his gymnast girlfriend Candice (Ellen Wroe), the attitude-heavy office assistant Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), the not-so-slick Isaac (P.J. Byrnes), the young factory foreman Nathan (Arlen Escarpeta), and their boss Dennis (David Koechner). They are all on the top of Death’s list, and time is not on their side as they frantically attempt to find a way to escape its sinister agenda.
Firstly, everything starts with the tone. The last two movies delved into dark humor, or more appropriately, bad humor. The more serious, suspenseful tone of the first film had been forgotten. FD5 revitalizes that approach to the franchise, and not just in direction or acting. Cinematographer Brian Pearson filmed this movie with a lot of dramatic character. The lighting alone has a great deal of weight and beauty. Just because it’s a horror movie doesn’t mean it can’t have artistic integrity, and I feel Pearson gave the film plenty of that. The visual style strongly compliments the direction of the movie. While none of the actors will really win any awards here, they generally hold up well. Those who need to be sympathized with are nicely cast. Those that are meant to be reviled or disliked seemed to work right for me, but it’s hard to tell if P.J. Byrne’s Isaac was supposed to be a misogynistic ass to like or dislike. I chose the former. Nicholas D’Agosto is a decent lead handling the more vulnerable side of Sam well, but he doesn’t have quite as much to work with as previous leads in the series. I feel Miles Fisher had the most to carry as the film went on with his grief morphing into something unforeseen. Coincidentally, Fisher bares a resemblance to Tom Cruise, and I certainly read a lot into that facial similarity. However, seeing beyond that, he confidently shoulders a lot of emotional weight by the film’s end, and he handles himself very well in both dramatic and action oriented scenes. Courtney B. Vance certainly shows his worth handling Agent Block with the right amount of uncertainty and inquisitive sense about him. He doesn’t buy into the supernatural explanations at first, but as things develop, he becomes willing to believe there is something more at work here than he can deduce. It’s quite original from the other law enforcement figures the series has offered us before.
So, okay – the acting is good, the thing is shot well. How good of a horror flick is it? Very good! As the end credits song from AC/DC says, “If you want blood, you’ve got it!” Final Destination 5 has a hefty helping of blood and gore that will satisfy any fan’s splatter craving. The deaths remain original and inventive. They become more elaborate with misdirection by laying out elements that take a little longer to pay off. While that is usual for the series, I feel this entry pushes it further towards more unique results. Every little element that Death sets into place is simply part of a chain reaction of events that don’t lead you to the death you are anticipating. This helps to enhance the suspense and tension throughout certain sequences by leaving you wondering how that loose screw the gymnast didn’t step on will factor into the scene later. You think she avoided the imminent danger, but the actual danger has yet to fully show itself. These scenarios slowly develop hooking your attention in more and more until the pay-off hits you like a punch in the teeth. This also shows that the screenplay is smartly written. That’s a good upswing from the screenwriter of the atrociously dim-witted A Nightmare on Elm Street remake. The brilliance of this franchise has been using a force of nature as the killer itself. There’s no personality to tap into, and no way to just turn around to see the maniac with the machete, butcher knife, chainsaw, or claws coming up behind you. It forces the characters to be more intelligent and aware for them to survive, and it also forces the screenwriters to become more inventive in how to setup each death. No longer can they rely on an off-screen kill or someone just getting stabbed in the blink of an eye. So, I am glad that Eric Heisserer has stepped up his game with FD5. Now, I won’t spoil anything for anyone, but I very much loved the turn in the film’s climax. The story elements laid out by the returning Tony Todd’s William Bludworth are tied up into a very original and enjoyable departure for the franchise. The climax twists things around a little bit creating a more physical confrontation than we’ve had before, but it doesn’t all end there. As with all the Final Destination films, there’s an extra added punctuation after the climax just when the characters feel everything is fine. For those not in the know, it is a hell of a turn that the film only lays extremely subtle clues at throughout the picture.
Now, director Steven Quale appears rather interesting. He’s only had a sparse list of credits stemming back to 1988, and I seriously mean sparse. This is the fourth film he’s directed in 23 years. I don’t know why that is, but I would hope that success with Final Destination 5 would open doors to push his career forward with more velocity. I say this because he displays a lot of great talent here in handling and balancing horror, drama, and action into a highly entertaining film. Apparently, Quale has worked with James Cameron on The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic, & Avatar. So, it is no surprise that the apparent 3D effects shots look great even in 2D. They still have visual and visceral impact without the three-dimensional effect. Begrudgingly, if I had the choice to now see this in 3D, I’d take the opportunity. In the past, the tech has not worked for me. I have no optical impairments. It’s mainly due to the fact that when images jumped out at me they became misaligned, like seeing double, and thus, ruined the illusion. I saw My Bloody Valentine 3D as well earlier in 2009, and that offered no better results than The Final Destination. So, I swore it off vowing I would never see another 3D film, but when things look this good in 2D, I’d have to concede that the proper three dimensional presentation would likely be quite impressive, to say the very least.
In regards to the visual effects, right from the opening title sequence, in both visuals and music, this movie made me feel like I was in for something ready to kick my ass. The credits sequence is awesome and original giving an audience some eye candy right up front to prepare them for the visual intensity of Final Destination 5. Again, since the only time I saw the previous two films were in their original theatrical runs several years ago, I cannot compare improvements in CGI, but from many accounts, it is superior here. The entire opening bridge collapse is massively successful, and CGI never entered into my thoughts while watching it. All effects were seamless and convincing meshed with some amazing cinematography. Quale clearly took a lot of time to construct this sequence to give it the visual scope and unnerving urgency it needed in every aspect. Each film in the series does try to top the opening disaster sequence of the previous, and I would be very intrigued to see if a sixth film can keep up that trend because this is a very intricately plotted out sequence. Much attention to detail was given. Now, the CGI in the rest of the film is as perfectly seamless, but it is very good. There is never any visual effects shot that takes you out of the motion picture. The quality is quite consistent and nicely integrated into the live action surroundings. It’s just how in your face they are that bring out any less than perfectly realistic qualities about them.
The make-up effects can sometimes be overlooked because of the CGI gore, but when I take a minute to think of them, they are immensely important to the strength of this film. Most of the gore in the film appears as a combination of special make-up and visual effects elements, but scenes like the acupuncture mishap perfectly display the quality of the practical effects. Of all types of films, it is the horror genre where I thoroughly enjoy seeing the behind the scenes look at how these things are done. Being able to marry the computer generated and practical effects work impresses me, and a film like this makes me appreciate the hard work that goes into it all because the use of the effects is never subtle.
While the characters may try to cheat death, fans are certainly not cheated with this movie! This is a winner! Final Destination 5 hits all the right marks, and delivers some bloody good horror. It’s possibly the best shot film of the franchise with a lot of high quality given to it in both large and quiet moments. Steven Quale deserves a lot of credit for delivering something so solid, impressive, and entertaining. I enjoyed this on many levels, and it gives fans what they basically desire as well. The entire series comes full circle with a smartly written screenplay that brings the right story elements together and wraps them up and around the characters very nicely. Everything flows easily without complicating the story. I am very impressed by this entry in the franchise, and I would hope that another Final Destination movie could come along to maintain this level of quality. Horror has taken many turns in the last decade that I haven’t cared for, and that has diminished my interest in the genre. However, that could change if this movie is a sign of things to come, if only for the franchise. Final Destination 5 receives a strong, positive recommendation from me! It is a reassuring return to form for the franchise that gives you more than you ever expected. Thoroughly satisfying is what this is!
The Mission: Impossible movie franchise always seems to find a way to outdo itself. Generally, I believe they’ve become progressively better films with each sequel, which is not the norm. In the least, they always happen to trump the big action sequences of the previous film. I absolutely LOVED the third film through and through. I felt it was great! Still, now that we’re at a fourth movie, have the filmmakers been able to keep up this strenuous challenge and succeed? Well, I surely couldn’t make a full judgment until the very end of the film as there are a few reassuring tags there. I do have some reservations about this film, but that’s not to say it wasn’t entirely enjoyable and entertaining.
A nuclear extremist known as Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist) seeks to obtain launch codes for Russian nuclear missiles. He intends to ignite a nuclear war to eliminate the weak from humanity to force the next stage of human evolution. An IMF operation, ran by Agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), to intercept those codes goes awry when assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux) promptly kills an IMF Agent and steals them for Cobalt. In response to this, the IMF sends Agent Carter and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) to extract Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of a Russian prison so that he can head up the mission to infiltrate the Moscow Kremlin, and locate files which identify Cobalt. However, everything goes wrong when someone hijacks the team’s communications signal to alert security to their presence, and then, detonates a bomb destroying the Kremlin. The IMF team is blamed for the bombing as an act of terrorism. The U.S. President initiates “Ghost Protocol” which disavows the entire IMF, but the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) gives Hunt an unsanctioned mission to bring down Cobalt along with his team without the aid of back-up. Incidentally added to Ethan’s team is William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Mr. Secretary’s Chief Analyst who has some personal secrets he must struggle with, and exceptional skills which attract Ethan to question just who Brandt really is. Ethan Hunt’s team must learn to work together beyond their personal vendettas and internal conflicts to avert nuclear disaster.
Really, my only major scrutiny with this movie is the untapped potential of Jeremy Renner and his character of Brandt. Renner plays his role exceptionally well hitting all the beats, both obvious and subtle, and he definitely is leading role material. He surely handles the action requirements with amazing precision and physical sharpness. My problem is that Brandt seems like a very interesting character to explore that could’ve been used as a more critical element in the story. More of the plot could have been hung on him in either an internal or external fashion. I believe a lot of talk leading up to this film was that Renner would be put into a position where he could possibly take over as the lead if Tom Cruise chose to step down from the franchise. While that was in the back of my mind, it was Renner and the character or Brandt himself that drive this feeling in me. There appears to be so much more to develop out of Brandt, and make him a more prominent player in the story. However, that’s not the agenda here. We get some general mystery about him, and a few moments for Renner to shine. Still, at the end of the movie, despite obtaining some absolution, he’s still just another member of the team. It’s not a situation of the filmmakers leaving you wanting more because they don’t give you enough of him in the forefront to whet your appetite. It’s unutilized potential of the right actor in the right role. Renner is very capable and quite impressive with everything he presents in this film. I just wish he was given a chance to standout more instead of exclusively being part of the supporting cast. Maybe there’s a chance he’ll reappear in a future sequel, but the IMF team mostly changes with every movie. Still, I have to hope for a better expectation.
That leads me to a small issue. Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell is not part of this team. However, he does have a brief appearance in the film’s final scene which is a nice coda to the adventure, but his rapport with Cruise is rather missed. It’s always been a highlight of franchise, but in a way, I understand why he was not part of the team. Part of the story is about a team that’s untested with one another having to find cohesion when they have no back-up and no resources to smooth out their mission. Putting Ethan and Luther back together would work against that idea and dynamic. So, I am glad there’s a story driven purpose to his general absence. Thankfully, Rhames’ single scene is quite funny, and it’s nice that they threw us that bone.
Beyond all that is pristine cinematic action gold. Like I said, each film finds a way to outdo the action set pieces of the last one. It’s not just the size of the building they break into, but the tension and various story elements that surround those sequences which enhance them further. Early in the film, Ethan has to scale the world’s tallest building in Dubai to break into a computer server room, and the electronic suction gloves start malfunctioning, forcing Ethan to slowly abandon the tech for human ability. It doesn’t even end there as nothing goes along perfectly, and he has to keep improvising when the time comes for an escape. Ghost Protocol piles on more and more elements to make the peril higher and the tension tighter. Plus, what I like about this franchise is that action sequences don’t end where they would in other films. Here, Ethan Hunt finds a way to keep it going. An on foot chase sequence gets a sandstorm thrown into the mix, and then, it turns into a car chase in a sandstorm. Mission: Impossible really lives up to its name by pushing the limits of what is possible by forcing its characters to do the extraordinary.
How the team works these operations is also very inventive. The team has to do what I call a “double fake-out” when trying to intercept the nuclear launch codes between the assassin and the buyer. They have to divide and conquer by impersonating both sides. I won’t spoil anything, but I found it to be a very original idea that further re-enforces that this has never been a lazy franchise. They don’t go the route of any other action film. They get smart, and work out far more satisfying scenarios which increase the entertainment value and story quality. There’s plenty of time for the action pay-off later as a cleverly woven plot is something I will always give great credit for. The plot is well crafted and nicely paced making the action scenes work for the story twists, and allowing the characters’ personalities to drive the action.
I am indeed a Tom Cruise fan. Risky Business, Top Gun, The Color of Money, Interview With The Vampire, & Collateral are all highlights that I thoroughly enjoy. Why people are surprised when a Tom Cruise movie is actually good is beyond me. He has gotten a lot flack for his personal life craziness, but as a professional, he brings it every time. He is absolutely one of the best actors of his generation, and he has a very solid professional business sense. He makes great films year after year, decade after decade. They are blockbuster hits, and modern cinematic gems. Plus, you can see he pushes himself to the max with these action scenes by performing many of his own stunts. He indeed did the scaling of the Burj Khalifa Tower himself entirely. With that precarious height, I thought it would’ve been a green screen effect like when Batman jumped off that Hong Kong skyscraper in The Dark Knight. Not at all. Plus, the man can RUN like I’ve never seen anyone do. When he is running on screen, you believe he is running for dear life with unwavering determination. Cruise is clearly in incredible shape, and he doesn’t allow himself to slack off in any aspect. As Ethan Hunt, he keeps bringing more layers to the character, and maintains an emotional continuity that creates a linking thread between every film. The screenwriters never forgot to touch upon what Ethan has been through and resolve that for Cruise and the fans. While this entry doesn’t have the deep personal and emotional motivations for Ethan as the previous sequel, Cruise still leads the film with his usual diverse qualities handling all the dramatic, charming, physically intense, and humorous moments with perfect balance.
Now, I surely want to spotlight Josh Holloway’s amazing sequence at the film’s start. I would definitely love to see a whole film with that amazing, action capable character. That’s no knock on Ethan Hunt, but seeing what Josh Holloway he does as Agent Hanaway in such a brief appearance really set an amazing tone for the rest of the film. It was a very exciting and dynamic way to introduce the character.
In comparison with M:I-3, I can only say that this film lacks a strong antagonist. Philip Seymour Hoffman was such a blockbuster villain as Owen Davian in the previous installment, and would be a hard act to follow. This time through, the villain of Hendricks is not given much presence in the story. It’s more focused on the nuclear threat, and the IMF team trying to absolve themselves of their alleged crimes. That’s not a bad thing at all, and maybe it’s better to change up that dynamic on occasion. Still, on the villainous front, Léa Seydoux is quite exceptional as the assassin Sabine Moreau. She has a dangerous presence, and backs that up well in her fight scenes. Plus, she has a very cool sexiness to her. Clearly, she’s physically attractive, but as Moreau, she creates en engaging quality with her coldly confident attitude. She is a top level professional, and has many subtle things going on that create a fully dimensional character with a definite personality and skill set.
And speaking of good women of action, Paula Patton eventually proves to be very solid. Her character of Jane Carter starts off as a slightly shaky agent due to the awry events at the film’s start. However, as the film progresses, she comes more into her own, and reasserts control of her wits and confidence. First, she shows how action capable she is, but later, is able to mix that field savvy with a very strong sexiness. I’m not saying that such a character requires a sexy edge, but as a man, I happen to notice these things quite prominently. Simply put, it is a compliment for Ms. Patton and the character she portrays here.
I also want to give very pleasing praise to Anil Kapoor in his suave and charismatic, yet playfully entertaining role as Indian multimedia mogul Brij Nath. He works opposite Paula in the scene where her assertive sexiness takes form, and the two play off one another so well. As Nath, Kapoor really takes a relatively minor character, and makes him really standout. Such an actor was necessary to keep the audience hooked into this part of the story, and it was done with exceptional success. Nath was a highly enjoyable character that added some extra flavor of fun late in the film.
Of course, speaking of fun performances, right from start, Simon Pegg brings his rich comedic ability to the movie reprising his role of Benjamin Dunn. At one point, I was afraid they would exploit it too much, but it eventually settles down into a situation-relevant personality trait which never hijacks the film’s tone.
Generally, I have nothing bad to say about the cinematography, but I also don’t have anything exceptional to say about it. I always remember some shots from the previous films of large dramatic scope. Something that allows you to take in the magnitude of a location or beat before a dramatic action sequence. The locations are very well represented from Moscow to Mumbai with some very nice aerial shots. Everything is well shot, and the action sequences are very competently staged, shot, and edited together. There’s just nothing that sticks out with the visuals this time out, but that’s merely a point made in context with the franchise as a whole. In and of itself, there is nothing at all to criticize about the work of Director of Photography Robert Elswit. I’ve seen many action movies shot without any artistic integrity or visual competence to say that Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is surely one of the far better shot films of the genre.
The visual effects are excellent. I was never once taken out of the film. Every last effect is seamless and realistic with its surroundings. They entirely serve the story by reflecting the tone and intensity of the moment. The music does the same. The classic Mission: Impossible theme is punched in every so often at the right moment, but overall, it services the moment by enhancing it but not overwhelming it.
Frankly, I believe Brad Bird should be highly commended on his live action directorial debut. I’m sure he had very supportive assistance from Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams, but at the end of it all, Bird is the one responsible for the final product that we see before us. Everything he was given was executed greatly, and I don’t feel there’s any fat in this motion picture. It’s very lean and well paced with smartly conceived and shot action sequences. This surely doesn’t disappoint as it delivers on the promise and expectations of the franchise. However, if their intention was to position Jeremy Renner to potentially take the reins of the franchise, I don’t think they succeeded. The screenplay simply doesn’t give him the opening to rise to an equal level as Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. Again, absolutely none of this is a failing of Renner himself. He has every quality needed to take on that role as franchise lead, but the story treated him as too much of a supporting character than one to step forward into the forefront. Regardless, I do highly recommend Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The franchise continues to please by improving upon itself and setting higher standards for each new outing.
By no means am I here to say this film is not worth the scorn it has received from day one. Highlander II: The Quickening absolutely conceptually butchered most everything that made the original fantasy adventure film so amazing. However, there are certain elements that people don’t give this film credit for in spite of its storyline and screenplay failings. Of course, it’s one of the worst sequels ever made, and it has more wrong with it than any one reviewer should torture him or herself to detail. So, I am exercising restraint to not scrutinize everything that is wrong with it. While I will blatantly point out why this film was a failure, I do want to give credit to what I feel are highly admirable qualities for the film. However, the bad outweighs any good you can find in this film, and while so many have covered why, it’s time to offer my perspective and insight into this notorious motion picture.
By the end of the 20th century, the Ozone layer has been damaged severely, and Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is the one who brings all the great minds together to create a protective energy shield around the Earth. However, a quarter century later, humanity lives in a perpetual nighttime world as the sun’s rejuvenating, life-giving rays do not penetrate the shield, and the world is in a state of depression. They’ve lost hope in this dreary world. Because of this, Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen) and her anti-shield team break into one of the Shield Corporation’s stations, and discover that the radiation above the shield is normal. This means the Ozone layer has healed itself, and the shield is no longer needed. Of course, it is a corporation, and they are just interested in capitalistic greed. Louise is the only one of her team to escape alive. Connor is now an old man, having become mortal after defeating the Kurgan to win ‘The Prize.’ While enjoying a night at the opera, he has flashbacks (similar to those during the wrestling match in the first film), but instead of the Scottish Highlands, he remembers his life as a rebel on the planet Ziest (or from a distant past on Earth, depending on which version you watch). Here is where he met Ramirez (Sean Connery), and battled the evil General Katana (Michael Ironside). For their rebellious acts, they are exiled to different points in time on the planet Earth where they will be immortal, and have to battle other immortals until only one remains. The winner will have the choice to return home to live out the rest of their lives. Despite the fact that MacLeod has been mortal for nearly forty years, and is a matter of months away from inevitable death by natural causes, Katana is not willing to wait any longer to see his enemy die. He sends two comical spiky haired warriors to assassinate Connor, but it backfires making MacLeod immortal again, taking into two Quickenings. One restores his youth, and the other allows him to resurrect Ramirez back in Scotland. By this time, Louise has found Connor in an effort to use his influence to get the shield shut down. Now, with his youth restored, they become sexually involved, and he becomes invested in her mission against the corporation. Meanwhile, Katana decides to dispatch his enemies first hand. He forges an alliance with the major tool that is Shield Corporation CEO David Blake (John C. McGinley) to combat MacLeod, Ramirez, & Louise. With two over the top villains, one more ridiculous than the other, our heroes don’t exactly have their work cutout for them, but that’s the least of this film’s problems.
Okay, this is actually not the worst Highlander film ever made. That dishonor belongs to Highlander: The Source. If you’ve seen it, and I surely hope you have not, I don’t see how you could disagree with that assessment. You thought it was impossible to sink below Highlander II, but you were proven wrong. Regardless of that, here’s why this film is so reviled. At its most basic, this first sequel takes what was pure wondrous fantasy, and turns it into cheap science fiction. There was a simplicity to the mystery behind immortals in what screenwriter Gregory Widen created with Highlander. “It’s a kind of magic,” offered up a sense of charm and wide eyed wonder to the idea. For me, the origin of immortals is unimportant. Through all the other films and the television series, where they came from was never as important as their journey to wherever they were going. The story of Highlander is one of adventure, love, legend, pain, heart, wisdom, and magic on an epic scale that spans countless centuries. Watching how our Clan MacLeod heroes battle through it all, and how it molds them into more seasoned, weathered, and wiser people is what it has all been about. It was never about aliens from another planet, time travel, shield generators replacing the Ozone, or weirdo assassins flying through the air cackling like hyenas. The premise of this sequel was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, and no matter which version you watch, it’s still a failure in that department.
The only thing Highlander II has going for it in its defense is that the production was full of problems, conflicts, money issues, and creative differences. That can explain the clusterfuck of bad execution, but still, people signed on board due to the screenplay and premise that this film was built upon. They have no defense for that. Christopher Lambert supposedly would only do the film if they brought back Sean Connery, and that resulted in a very peculiar resurrection. While Lambert and Connery have fine chemistry which provides the film with a good deal of fun, I have to admit that Ramirez was rather shoehorned into this. The entire film would likely flow along far better without him at all, and make room for more relevant elements to be fleshed out. Ramirez has some decent wisdom to impart that works itself into the story by the end, but it would be easy to write around, if needed. Still, it is good entertainment seeing MacLeod & Ramirez interact on more of an equal footing like friends or brothers instead of the student-teacher relationship they had before. Of course, I could’ve done without the out-of-place excessive humor resulting from Ramirez’s inclusion.
Now, Michael Ironside is indeed a fine actor that is able to stretch out into a wider range than he is typically typecast into. The failing of many Highlander feature film villains is that the screenwriters try to make them carbon copies of the Kurgan. They are given similar crazy scenes, over the top characterizations, and even all their names start with a ‘K’ – Katana, Kane, Kell. The television series ultimately became the real treasure trove of fascinating and original villains including my favorite in Xavier St. Cloud. Here, Katana is hard to take seriously most times. He is over the top, almost badly comical in certain scenes, and all for the wrong reasons. The original film handled its characters with weight and respect. It made them dimensional, textured people, or at least with the Kurgan, formidable and frightening. Katana constantly comes off as the bad guy whose already lost, and is just lashing out because of a bruised ego due to that loss. He seems desperate, and incapable of truly being a singular threat. He’s certainly not intelligent, as the film eventually and blatantly reveals, which I will get back to. He doesn’t have the bravado to truly become the adversary he needs to be to confront and take down MacLeod. I do not lay too much fault on Ironside. This is what the screenwriters and filmmakers gave him, and he did what was demanded of him. Still, I know he’s such a better actor, and definitely capable of being a better villain than this film allows him to be. John C. McGinley is the same way. I have seen him put in so many performances over the last twenty or so years that I know he can do better than this. He has even regretted how he portrayed this role. I am always glad when an actor can look back on their work, and make an objective assessment of what they did wrong.
Lambert is his usual charming self, but I feel all the world weariness and haunting sense of Connor MacLeod was lost. On one hand, I can see him becoming a lighter weight character due to having slain the Kurgan, and come to peace with much of what he’s lost. Still, we see that even more heartache has befallen him since then, and while he demonstrates mourning for it, it doesn’t carry with him throughout the film. Even the accent Christopher used in the first film is abandoned, and frankly, would never reappear with Connor ever again. Still, Connor MacLeod remains a character to invest yourself in. He’s still handled in a decently well rounded fashion. It’s the just the horrible “origin of immortals” scenes that really damage it all. It sort of makes all we knew of who Connor was in the first film nearly inconsequential, not to mention, wholly confusing to a mind boggling degree. That plot point alone creates more contradictions and catastrophic problems with the entire established mythos to the point of wondering, “Why the hell did they go forward with it at all?” And again, why they went back to an “origin of immortals” story with Highlander: The Source when it failed so miserably the first time? Of course, there are no good answers to those questions.
Anyway, Virginia Madsen is probably the only genuine, grounded talent in the whole film. She always turns in a solid, pitch perfect performance, and she does so here. She’s a fine love interest with a dash of action ability. She and Lambert work well together, but not amazingly so. It’s well handled and well played, but there is a missing romantic aspect that I think every Highlander love should have. The entire base concept of Highlander has a very romanticized nature to it. There is a sexual encounter here, but there’s not much intimacy between the characters to really forge a deep emotional connection. There’s just too much plot getting in the way for that, and of course, they needed to shove Sean Connery into the mix to detract from that relationship. You see, for every potentially good idea, there’s something else thrown into the film to detract from it. The potential of the elements that could be used to improve the film are limited to make room for something that brings down the film.
For instance, Russell Mulcahy, in these earlier years, always made gorgeous films with such enveloping cinematography. However, where the first film was able to mostly thrive in practical locations and expansive sets, in this film, the first major action sequence that is supposed to be a large area of the city is confined to a soundstage, and it looks like a soundstage. The scope and scale of it is so small, you can’t help but see the limitations of the production, and it detracts from the visual aspect of the feature. Sequences may be shot with great angles, unique lenses, and inspired camera moves, but you can almost always tell when they shot it on a cramped back lot or soundstage. A real city street has depth and scope with block after block of buildings, skyscrapers, and movement crisscrossing in the distance. It has character from its history and people over the decades and centuries. None of that can be seen here, and it only begins to sell how inferior this sequel is to its predecessor. And even for all the improved practical effects, and more visually impressive Quickenings, the bulk of the visual effects (pre-Special Edition) are not up to standards for a film that came out the same year as Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Regardless, when you get outside of that, and onto the truly beautiful and well designed interior scene sets, the production design and cinematography SHINES. Mulcahy’s music video-born artistry finally comes to glorious life, and you see that classic grand Highlander style manifest itself. The lighting is very theatrical, moody, and atmospheric at times. However, it seems a little heavy on the Blade Runner influence in both lighting and production design. Still, big dolly and crane shots really bring forth that epic, large scale cinematic feel which is why I am attracted to Mulcahy’s 1980s & early 1990s films on through to The Shadow.
The score by Stewart Copeland does have a lot of depth and richness. It is highly orchestral bringing a unique identity to this film as it is quite different from Michael Kamen’s score for the original Highlander. Like with Connor’s character, gone are the haunting or mysterious qualities in the music. And while there is essentially no Queen in the soundtrack, we do get a fine closing credits song from Lou Gramm of Foreigner titled “One Dream.” Gramm formed a band called Shadow King at this time, but it was very short lived. The song is hard to find commercially as no soundtrack was released in the US, but I have come to enjoy “One Dream” as much as any other Highlander musical staple. Now, I’ve always been put off that the final battle between MacLeod & Katana has next to no music behind it at all. Not to mention, it’s a rather brief duel. Anti-climactic indeed. It’s almost as if it’s there because it needs to be, and they just want to wrap up the film as quickly as possible. There’s no epic quality to it, no passionate intensity. It’s a bunch of dull clanging back and forth for a few moments. Still, the score has gained some good respect from the franchise’s fans, and Stewart Copeland is an exceptionally talented and diverse musician from his work as the drummer for The Police on through to many other film and television scores. He surely gave this feature a wide, full sound that may have been more than it deserved. It’s not always entirely to my liking, but I can respect the musical quality and artistry of it.
What I can’t respect is the creative process behind the idea of this movie. Okay. They wanted to do a sequel. That’s understandable, but that’s also the problem. The first film ends definitively. Connor wins ‘The Prize,’ and thus, there are no more immortals left in the world. There’s really no credible way around that ending, and making a prequel about Connor is foolish because there’s no mystery of who would survive. Gregory Widen wrote a fantastic, self-contained screenplay with no allusions for a sequel. Even still, how these filmmakers conjure up the idea of all immortals being aliens from another planet shatters all logic because everything they develop in the sequel contradicts everything from the original film. In later revised cuts of Highlander II, the immortals are changed to being from Earth’s distant, forgotten past. So, now they are time travelers which makes even less sense, but as I concluded sometime ago, there is absolutely no way you can re-cut this film to have either premise make any real sense. Every fiber of this plot is fundamentally flawed from every angle. The plot holes are atrocious, and are blatantly stated by the characters in the movie itself! How do you write a screenplay with such plot holes, do nothing to mend them, but have enough awareness about them to have the characters spell them out in detailed discussion? It sounds like a screenwriting paradox that could unravel the very fabric of the universe, or drive one totally insane trying to make sense of it. MacLeod states to Katana that he was ready to settle down and die peacefully, but then, Katana sends his cackling henchmen to change all that. Now, he’s immortal again, just where he didn’t want to be. Katana would’ve had his victory of MacLeod dying if he just sat on his ass and did nothing! Even his idiot henchman caught onto this, and Katana just slaps him in the face for having a rational thought.
The theatrical cut even made Russell Mulcahy walk out of the cinema within fifteen minutes. The editing in it was an abomination of continuity. They tried splicing together two different duels for one massive end battle, but it features Connor using two different swords in two different outfits. Subsequent re-edits such as the Renegade Version or Special Edition had more linear coherence, but hardly resolve any of the base issues with the movie. Frankly, as I said, that is impossible.
Flushing away the adventurous fantasy for idiotically conceived science fiction explanations leaves a horrible, bitter taste in any fan’s mouth. Beyond just the irresolvable continuity contradictions, this is a contradiction of all that Highlander was based upon, and later re-established itself as through the television series. Highlander II: The Quickening became so reviled that it was disassociated from all continuity. That’s not a regular occurrence for a franchise when millions of dollars are poured into a feature film, but it seems like it was an experience many would have rather forgotten in part, if not in whole.
While there are admirable technical qualities in the film, there is surely nothing within it that can hope to redeem this epic failure. It’s become legendary and notorious to the point where it’s awfulness has transcended through pop culture as a benchmark for a bad film. Christopher Lambert remains a solid lead for the franchise with an enjoyable performance, but as with so many aspects of the movie, it’s more indulgent in itself than really bringing something memorable to the table. Connery’s presence alone is self-indulgent, and Katana is a generally weak, one-dimensional villain played up more for laughs than as a cunning, intimidating adversary. The producers can continue to update the visual effects and refine the editing, but it’s only making a pile of garbage easier to look at. This is not a film where I say watch it for yourself to make your own determination apart from its reputation. Even on its own merits, it’s not a good movie. In itself, it has unforgivable failings, obvious limitations, and baffling errors in logic, to say the extreme least. It certainly wasn’t the only controversial misstep in Highlander, but it was the first. And for that, it will remain a stigma on the franchise for all time.
Marvel Comics had a long history of trying to get their popular superhero properties onto the big screen. Of course, it wasn’t until 1998’s Blade that they finally achieved some success, and it opened the door to the boom we’ve had since then with X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, and so on. However, in the late 80s, they were truly going about it all the wrong way. Where DC had Warner Bros. backing their prospects (since they had an ownership of DC Comics), Marvel was going to low budget B movie production companies to adapt their heroes into feature films. Many were planned, but very few got a final product. None of them were successes, and for rather good reasons. The Punisher might seem like an unusual choice when they had such family friendly characters to choose from, but in the era of the action heroes in Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis, this does make sense. In the right hands with the right budget, it could have been a contender. But for those unaware of who the Punisher is, how about a brief synopsis?
Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) was once a cop with a wife and children until that family was murdered in a mob hit. Faced with this horrific tragedy, and believe dead himself, he became the unrelenting, homicidal vigilante known as the Punisher. His mission is to punish the criminals and the corrupt without mercy or hesitation, but he remains the most wanted target of the police. Over a five year period, he has racked up a triple digit body count, and has weakened the city’s organized crime outfits. However, this has prompted Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé), one of their most powerful bosses, to come into town to take control, and bring them back to prominence. Unexpectedly, this move has gained the attention of the Yakuza, the most dangerous and powerful criminal organization in Asia. They decide to take brash actions to force the mafia’s allegiance to them. Many innocent lives are soon put into jeopardy from this, and the Punisher is coxed into taking action by his sole ally and street informant, Shake (Barry Otto). Meanwhile, Frank Castle’s former partner, Detective Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr), remains vigilant on finding the Punisher, and bringing an end to his blood soaked crusade against injustice.
I feel Lundgren makes for a fine Frank Castle. He’s not the best of the lot, but he easily holds the film strongly on his shoulders. He hones in nicely on the fractured soul of Frank, and adds some sense of self-reflection as a man seeking a reason for the injustice that has shattered his life. He’s not just a raging vigilante, he has an emotional core that is clouded with contempt. He’s a man with vulnerabilities, but chooses to bury them deep down beneath the hardened exterior. On the action side, Dolph handles that with ease, and does essentially all his own stunt work. He makes the Punisher a very practical threat as both a physically intimidating individual, and as a one man arsenal. Visually, after dying his naturally blonde hair jet black and throwing in some five o’clock shadow, he fits the role dead-on, aside from the absent white skull T-shirt or body armor. The motorcycle is a nice fit as well. It re-enforces the gruff loner aspect of the Punisher, and allows him to move quickly when action needs to be taken.
The supporting cast is decent enough. Everyone plays their roles with competent talent, but no one jumps out at an audience to make a memorable mark. Both allies and enemies of the Punisher make the story dynamics work, and the story itself moves along with a consistent pace and balance. Louis Gossett, Jr. probably has the most to work with as Frank’s former partner who happens to be tracking the Punisher. He has some emotional conflicts to deal with that Gossett does a fine job with, but the focus of the film’s emotional context really is with Frank Castle. So, the supporting cast doesn’t get nearly as much meat to sink their teeth into as Lundgren.
Jeroen Krabbé had previously played a Bond villain in the Timothy Dalton 007 film The Living Daylights, and this role as Franco is not much different. He plays it fairly well, but he never entirely sells Franco’s stature as a high ranking Mafioso. He’s too laid back. I would’ve preferred a stronger character or actor that could offer a more authoritative presence. I’ve seen some awesome crime bosses on film before that could likely leave Gianni Franco creaming his pants. There are a lot of enemies for the Punisher to combat in this film, but no one ever stands out as a major threat for him to conquer. No one ever appears to be more than he can handle. It’s only ever a numbers game that tends to ever overwhelm him.
In general, the action sequences are nicely conceived and executed. Numerous shootouts, chase sequences, hand-to-hand combat, and a few explosions make for a decently satisfying string of thrills. At times, Frank is given the image of a stealthy, covert soldier who can get into a location with ease, and attack with swift efficiency. That is another key for the character to pin down, and it was done well here in both concept and execution.
The story itself is sort of generic in terms that it doesn’t really adapt anything directly from the comics, and features no villains from the Punisher’s classic rogues gallery. Partially using the Yakuza was nice, but I’ve seen the Japanese criminal outfit used to better effect elsewhere. From what I’ve been exposed to of the Punisher, it seems that his stories work best when there’s a non-violent emotional motivation that propels him through the narrative. What some writers don’t seem to get is that the Punisher is not just some angry guy with a bad attitude and a nasty mean streak. There’s a deeper emotional turbulence to him stemming from the tragic, violent slaying of his family. He has a lot of deep down pain which he cannot overcome. Everything that he loved in life was violently robbed from him, and he can never get that back. Since society has failed to punish these people who victimize the innocent with due severity, the Punisher will do it for us. Frank Castle is indeed the very definition of a vigilante. He has no consideration or respect for the laws of society. He’s here to do what no one else can or will do, and our laws be damned. That’s not from a jaded or cynical sensibility, but an attitude from a man whose soul has been irreparably broken by gruesome tragedy. The best comic book adaptations are the ones that understand the core concept of the character. The ones that understand what makes them who they are, and what aspects have made them timeless, beloved icons of pop culture. They are built on ideals and themes that resonate with their audiences.
So, does this film hit that mark? Decently so. I’m sure it’s not the Punisher movie that hardcore fans were waiting for, but it hardly does anything to betray the core of the character. Various aspects of his history are changed like being a former cop instead of a Vietnam veteran, but he’s still entirely recognizable as Frank Castle. What we see is quite true to his more popular interpretations in comics.
Ultimately, what hampers this film is indeed the low budget. Sets that would otherwise be big and impressive are small, dark, and limited. Cinematography has nothing all that special going for it, especially the lighting. Every scene is lit about the same with full, flat lighting lending nothing to atmosphere or mood. This basically looks like a low rent television series pilot. And while this is vaguely meant to be New York, no effort is given to even purchasing stock footage, as was later done with Punisher: War Zone, to sell that idea. The film itself was shot in Australia. Surely, the Punisher is the one Marvel Comics character who benefits the most from the urban environment of Manhattan, New York. So, I feel getting the location aesthetics right is very pivotal. Yes, that is also a knock on the Thomas Jane Punisher film. Seriously, a black leather trench coat in Southern Florida? I don’t think so. Here, at least we do get gritty, grimy city streets at night to offer some contrast to the uninspired lighting throughout the rest of the feature. The screenplay seems like it works, but the budget limits how fleshed out the concepts, tone, action, and visuals could have been. Even then, a stronger villain would’ve elevated the quality of the movie like Frank Langella had done in another Dolph Lundgren movie, Masters of the Universe.
Simply said, it was a good try that stuck to the basics, but it didn’t have the financial muscle to make it everything that it could have been. Nor did it have a quality director behind it. This was the last film Mark Goldblatt ever directed, and only his second ever. It is a good watch, worthy of killing 90 minutes with, but it’s far from being a success. This was released the same year as Tim Burton’s Batman. That shows the huge contrast in handing a property to a major studio with a generous budget and a visionary director, and handing it to a low budget production company about to go bankrupt helmed by an editor-turned-second time director. Frank Castle would get another two runs at a fresh start on a film franchise, but neither would achieve what the studios needed them to. Hopefully, the future can have better fortunes for the Punisher.