In-Depth Movie Reviews & High Quality Trailers

Archive for March, 2013

Bad Boys (1995)

Bad BoysPeople like to rag on Michael Bay a lot, but most forget he has a few gems amongst the over bloated messes in his filmography.  Quite frankly, I believe his first movie was his best, and that is indeed Bad Boys.  Burdened with a really bad script written for a Dana Carvey / Jon Lovitz comedy vehicle, Bay relied heavily on the comedic smarts and chemistry of Martin Lawrence and Will Smith to salvage it with extensive improvisation.  What he got was an exceptionally well made, tightly paced, and sharply stylized charismatic action hit.

One hundred million dollars worth of confiscated heroin has just been jacked from police custody.  Once the career bust of Detectives Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence), the missing drugs now threaten to shut down the narcotics division of the Miami Police Department.  The thieves turn deadly when they murder one of their own, a once crooked cop, and Maxine, a beautiful call girl who was a close friend of Mike’s.  Now, the only witness to this double murder and the link to recovering the dope is Maxine’s friend Julie (Téa Leoni), who must come under the protective custody of Lowery and Burnett before these criminals eliminate her permanently.

What really grabs me about Bad Boys is how sharp and funny Lawrence and Smith are.  These two have excellent chemistry that would be hard to constrain, but I think Bay had himself in sync with these two.  He directed their banter down the right line which wholly fits their characters, and never allows it to go on a wild tangent.  I like the quick scenes early on that just have them trading comedic blows, but it serves a purpose to build the characters and establish their relationship.  The opening scene is a big favorite of mine.  This is Michael Bay focused and driven to deliver something impressive.  He had something to prove in his directorial debut, and the script he had was so horrible even he called it a “piece of shit.”  I only wish he still had those standards today.  So, it was a lot of pressure making Bad Boys, but he surrounded himself in extremely talented individuals like Smith and Lawrence along with two blockbuster producers to make this a success.

This has all the hallmarks of a Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer production.  It’s slick, stylish, fresh, and exciting.  I miss the time where producers like them or even Joel Silver alone influenced the quality and style of the movies.  They were as big of a mark of quality as the right director.  Bay’s style is also evident here with a lot of dynamic camera angles, beautiful dramatic lighting, and some gorgeous sweeping camera movements.  Bay creates a very visually stunning work that energizes the movie, raising it up to a very high quality cinematic level.  It absolutely has that 1990’s music video visual scope and beauty which was essentially originated and refined by Bay.  There’s some elegant and artistic production designs throughout that just give it an extra flare of style that does feel very Miami.  The film also has very tight editing keeping the story moving forward at a great clip.  Unlike many later Michael Bay films, it doesn’t languish on indulgences in comedy and frivolousness.  Yes, there are almost straight comedy bits in there, but they just add to the fun of the movie.

The dramatic aspects of the film are handled as amazingly as the comedy.  There are several moments in the film where the impact of Maxine’s death reverberates and resonates.  Bay gives it epic weight to propel the motivations forward for Julie and Mike.  In many of Bay’s later films, those qualities are often drowned out by too much bad comedy or just poor characterizations.  Here, he shows he knew how to do it right.

I know there are many who find Martin Lawrence irritating, to say the least.  I can see that, but I just feel he does his best in this movie, especially when he has someone like Will Smith to work off of.  Marcus Burnett is a guy with a lot of stresses on him from not getting his “quality time” at home, and the constant danger everyone keeps getting him into.  The biggest being having to impersonate Mike for the sake of securing Julie, who trusts Lowery solely, and being forced to lie to his own wife about the arrangement.  So, the wiseass quips and abrasive attitude are dead-on-the-mark.  It also creates the classic buddy cop dynamic of conflicting personalities.  Mike is smooth and competent while Marcus is more excitable and apprehensive.

Of course, Will Smith is charming and charismatic, but injects a lot of toughness and conviction into Mike Lowery.  He’s not just a smooth player.  He’s a dedicated, determined, wicked good cop that works situations with savvy and sharp aggression.  Mike might be a rich kid with a comfortable lifestyle, but as he says he “pushes it to the max every day.”  It’s a great dynamic between Burnett and Lowery, and this performance showed Will Smith to be a vastly marketable leading man and action capable actor.  Proving that statement is the fact that his very next film was Independence Day.

Téa Leoni is really great.  The panicked, emotionally unsettled part of her performance has a lot of weight and depth.  Yet, she makes the transition to the lighter tone smoothly with really good chemistry with Lawrence.  She becomes even more enjoyable when Julie figures out that Marcus is really Marcus, and not Mike.  She plays around with him, and that just adds a little more intelligence to her.  Most of all, Leoni creates a very sympathetic and likeable character.

While Joe Pantoliano portrays almost the stereotypical angry police Captain, he’s great at it.  As always, he’s smart and funny.  Captain Howard barks orders with the best of them, but you understand the stress he’s under.  The biggest bust his department’s ever achieved is lost, and all of their jobs are on the line under a very tight timetable.  He has to motivate his detectives to work fast and smart before all their time and luck has run out.  So, Pantoliano has that relatable quality where his yelling never overshadows the consummate cop underneath.

Tchéky Karyo gives us a fairly good villain.  If there’s any weak area of the film it’s not his performance, but Fouchet is not well developed.  It’s rather generic, but Karyo elevates it to a higher level through his very good presence and subtle touches he puts into it.  He can evoke a calm tension when he speaks softly, but can really punctuate greatly when the aggression is unleashed.  If Fouchet was a stronger villain on the page, I think the film would feel like it has a beefier pay-off.

I absolutely adore Mark Mancina’s score.  The main theme is beautiful and perfect with its slight Latin flavor, hip hop rhythm, rock electric guitar, and epic scale strings.  It’s an inspired meshing of musical styles that feel just perfect.  His overall work on this movie was big, heart pounding, and dramatic flowing perfectly with Michael Bay’s directorial style.  The entire soundtrack just hits the right 90’s intensity and style all the way through.

If there’s one thing that I’ve never seen disputed about Michael Bay is that he knows how to do action sequences amazingly well.  He really is a master of epic action using score and weighty slow motion shots to intensify every dangerous scenario.  The entire climax is excellently done with plenty of explosive moments and greatly satisfying action.  The final car chase is insanely intense with its great use of tight close-ups, tense, pounding music, and extremely tight editing.  The violent, dramatic quality of it all is just masterful.  This really does follow in the tradition of Tony Scott, but pushed to the next level.  That is probably much due to the Simpson / Bruckheimer backing.

While the story is rather simple and straight forward, it is populated with a lot of fun.  Bay keeps the mix of dramatic momentum and comedic wit appropriately balanced.  The comedy might be in abundance here, but it never dilutes or dwarfs the dramatic urgency of the storyline.  Both the comedy and action stick strongly in your mind after the film’s over.  It all just blends together smoothly and smartly for a wildly entertaining and fun ride.

Bad Boys really set the tone for late 90’s action.  Very polished and stylized cinematography, largely dramatic slow motion action, and just an epic feel all around.  It launched the careers of Bay and Smith into the stratosphere as two the biggest blockbuster names around, and for good reason.  While Bad Boys isn’t as big of an action movie as either of them or Simpson / Bruckheimer were involved with, it’s greatly fun, exciting, and spectacularly made.  Sharp, smart, and beautifully shot, this vibrantly showed that there was talent here to harness.  These days, I think Michael Bay could use some restraints and more focused vision like he had here.  Even Bad Boys II came off a bit over bloated and self-indulgent by taking what was great in this first movie and amplifying it beyond what it needed to be.  Still, if a third movie ever does eventually get made, I’m sure I’ll be game to give it a fair chance as you should definitely do for this movie, if you haven’t already.


Forever Cinematic Video Movie Reviews

Recently, in order to expand the exposure of Forever Cinematic, I have begun doing video movie reviews on YouTube.  Now armed with my new high-definition camcorder, I’m putting forth fast paced reviews that summarize my feelings and critiques on various films.  Mainly, I am reviewing newly released films alongside the written reviews, but in lulls between those reviews I am taking stuff from the archives to further publicize the back catalog of reviews I’ve done.  The video reviews are an extension of the written ones, and I will not be doing a video review of something I have not done a written review of first.  These video movie reviews only enhance the content, not replace it.

So far, listed below these are the video reviews I have done which are posted to the RavensFilm Productions YouTube Channel.  The first two were shot prior to obtaining my Sony HDR-CX580V camcorder, and so, they are in standard definition quality.  From Miami Vice forward, you get 720p HD in 24fps which is a massive upgrade on every technical level.  There will also be occasional Forever Cinematic “Specials” where I maybe do a Top 5 list, spotlight some bad movies I own, do a run through of my complete Star Wars home video collection, or whatever else strikes me as fun and entertaining.  I hope you will enjoy these videos, share them around, and subscribe to the RavensFilm Productions YouTube Channel to catch all the new videos as they are posted.  Thanks much!


G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

G.I. Joe RetaliationI so wanted to start this review with the emphatic words, “THEY GOT IT RIGHT!”  Now, this is not to say this movie doesn’t move G.I. Joe into the right direction, but it left me lacking for many reasons.  One of them being that this movie had too many trailers that spoil too much.  If you’ve seen all three trailers for G.I. Joe: Retaliation, there are not many surprises left for you here.  But frankly, the big problem with this film is that the villains and far more entertaining and memorable than the heroes.  Simply said, I wanted Cobra to win because I didn’t care about the Joes.

Mercenary and master of disguise Zartan, who is still impersonating the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce), frames the G.I. Joes as traitors, and has them terminated.  However, three survive in Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) who must go it alone in order to fight back against those who conspired to kill them and their fellow Joes.  Meanwhile, Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) and Firefly (Ray Stevenson) initiate a prison break to free Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey, voiced by Robert Baker) to set the next stage of their plans forward.  Cobra Commander’s plan is to eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons so that Cobra can take over the world by threatening to use its massively destructive Zeus space-based weapon.  Roadblock, Lady Jaye, Flint, Snake Eyes, and Jinx team up with General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis), the “original” G.I. Joe, to stop Cobra Commander from implementing his plan and expose their treachery to the world.

What this sequel gets right that the first didn’t was the tone and style.  There are high tech gadgets and such peppered throughout the movie, but on the whole, this sequel features more visceral weaponry and warfare.  No more energy weapons, no more holograms.  This has a more grounded feel while still giving use a technological boost to make the story and scenarios work.  Also, the CGI is vastly superior in every way.  There wasn’t a single moment where my eyes caught a badly rendered shot, or witnessed anything that looked discernibly CGI.  Another thing that is gotten right are the iconic characters themselves.  Cobra Commander looks like Cobra Commander, and feels like a serious take on the character being a ruthless leader of a terrorist organization hell bent on dominating the world.  Although, with the now slightly garbled and digitally processed voice for him, at times, it can be difficult to understand what he is saying.  However, all in all, I was far more pleased with this representation of the character which never does anything to blatantly contradict who he was in the previous film.  At most, it’s barely acknowledged in order to simply move forward without dragging undo baggage along.

The action sequences are greatly done giving us that tougher, more hard edged style.  It feels like more straight forward military combat using recognizable tactics and weaponry.  It’s all generally well shot, but the camera can get a tad too unstable with some editing that is slightly quicker than necessary.  It’s a very tame shaky cam / quick cut mentality that really shouldn’t detract from your experience.  This is mostly seen in the close quarters combat, or when Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow fight.  That is another great confrontation that is again treated like a special attraction, but like before, we don’t get nearly enough of it.  Probably the best action scene is with Snake Eyes and Jinx fighting the ninjas on the mountain side swing back and forth taking shots and slashes at each other.  It’s dynamic, fun, and dangerous with plenty of smart turns.  I like the touches the filmmakers threw in where some of the ninjas either miss the zip line or hit a rock formation, causing them to plummet to their deaths.  It’s a very nice, smart touch that simply sells the precarious peril of the situation.  I also loved the clever setup and execution of the jailbreak sequence.  It had a lot of great touches that made it intriguing to watch unfold.  However, the problem of this film is that there is so much action but so little plot to justify it.

And even then, the plot itself doesn’t always flow smoothly or coherently.  At times, some plot elements feel disjointed and rushed.  This happens in one section of the movie early on in two segments.  First, we are introduced to Jinx as she trains with Snake Eyes while Blind Master, portrayed poorly by RZA, imparts some abrupt exposition in voice over that is just dropped on us without context.  There’s no setup to anything he’s saying about Snake Eyes having to locate Storm Shadow and bring back to face justice for what he did to their clan.  It’s just, “Where did this subplot come from?  What does this have to do with the main plot of this film?”  It just drops into the movie as if you missed a string of scenes somewhere.  Jinx has essentially no real introduction here.  She just happens to be there, and we’re just supposed to happen to know who she is.  Also, once Storm Shadow is there facing judgment, a whole bunch of new exposition gets breezed through in a flash about who really killed their master and why.  It’s very jarring and poorly handled as if they thought up this subplot on the fly and just crammed it into a tight corner of the movie just to have it there.  Even then, how Storm Shadow and everyone else jumps around from one conclusion to the next follows no stream of consciousness.  It’s implausible how they make these rapid fire connections and revelations.  It’s awful screenwriting and direction.  And again, RZA can’t act worth a damn.  Every line he delivers just sounds terrible.  So, I have no idea why they cast him in this role of a wise martial arts sensei.  He puts in the worst performance of the entire movie.  Yes, he is an exponentially worse actor in this movie than Channing Tatum, who actually does a better job in this film than the last.

There is also a scene where Roadblock, Lady Jaye, and Flint setup a plan to get close to the imposter President in order to confirm their suspicions and expose him.  However, the scene is laid out without really understanding what their plan is.  Roadblock is setup outside ready to take a shot at President Zartan after he’s lured out of the banquet hall, but it’s never understood what they plan to accomplish by doing this.  This sequence came off as confusing and disjointed because there’s no setup to understand what their ultimate goal is or what everyone’s purpose is in the scene.  It seems it served two purposes.  One, just to clue the Joes in on who was impersonating the President, and two, to setup another action scene where Roadblock and Firefly throw down.  It’s a damn good action sequence, but it was a lot of clunky screentime used up with little purpose.

The film has so much action and little plot that once we were actually in the third act, I couldn’t be sure it was the third act.  The movie doesn’t ramp up to another level of tension or urgency to signal that these action scenes are any different than the half dozen we’ve already gotten in the movie.  And the other problem is that I was more engaged by the villains than the heroes.  I didn’t want to see Cobra get defeated.  I liked those characters because they made the movie fun and entertaining.  I kept waiting to get back to seeing Cobra Commander, Firefly, and Zartan conspiring about evil schemes, and having loads of fun doing it.

Now, the most I will confirm to you about Channing Tatum is that he doesn’t have a lot of screentime.  I know I’m going to deserve a kick in the head for saying so, but I think the movie would have been better if he was in it more.  Tatum and Dwayne Johnson do have excellent comedic chemistry that really entertained me, and made their characters really fun and exciting.  This made Duke and Roadblock lively, relatable characters that I wanted to spend time with.  If we had this chemistry flowing through the whole film with them teamed up and trading sharp quips, taking on Cobra with a smile on their faces, I think I would have been more engaged by the heroes.  Instead, they fall kind of flat.

While Dwayne Johnson puts in a good performance, it just doesn’t seem like he was portraying a character.  It just seems like Johnson being himself, more or less.  There’s nothing distinct about Roadblock apart from Dwayne Johnson.  I didn’t really see a character in there that had his own distinguishing characteristics or attitude.  Maybe this is also a script problem, but you can watch an interview of Dwayne Johnson and he doesn’t seem any different from how he is in this role in this film or any other film he’s been in.  As the heroic lead of the movie, I felt letdown.  He doesn’t inject enough weight or action hero mentalities to really support this film the way it needed to be.  Once he no longer had Tatum to bounce that charismatic, funny personality off of, I found myself no longer invested in Roadblock at all.

Even Bruce Willis seems like he’s just being lazy Bruce Willis here.  There’s almost nothing more he does in this film than what you saw in the trailers.  General Joe Colton is a bland character with no depth, no interesting qualities, and no real back story given that links him with the G.I. Joes.  He’s mostly there just so they could have Bruce Willis in the movie for name recognition.  I’ve never seen him do so little in a role before as he does here.  What this movie needed was strong leads as strong characters with a real vibrant, passionate, gung-ho attitude, but no one here has that at all.

The rest of the Joes, aside from the always cool Snake Eyes, are throwaways.  By the time the film bothers to give us any insight into who they are, I had already stopped caring about who they were.  Jinx isn’t even given that much.  These are characters put into the film to fill out the plot and nothing more.  The script barely does anything with most of them, and the actors in many of these roles aren’t engaging, charming, particularly charismatic, or especially memorable.  They were just there, and I didn’t connect with any of them.

Conversely, same as with the first movie, we get great villains that make the movie as enjoyable as it is.  As I said, Cobra Commander gets the perfect makeover finally giving us the iconic chrome mask and militaristic garb.  He’s given a great presence, and an intimidating driving purpose in the story.  Destro is mentioned and technically seen, but Cobra Commander chooses to abandon him during the jailbreak sequence (which features a wonderfully funny and sharp performance by Walton Goggins as the warden).  Cobra Commander is a great villain being very single-minded but also intelligent and cunning.  He’s not the excitable, egotistical fool from the 1980’s cartoon.  He is very much like a cobra – sharp, deadly, and fierce.  I want to see more of him!

Although, I have to say my favorite villain here is Firefly, portrayed by Ray Stevenson.  Frankly, Stevenson is a born bad ass.  I have yet to see this man do wrong in anything he’s done, and he is an absolute pleasure to experience as this rugged, smart mouthed villain.  Being a major fan of what he did as the Punisher, I bought into every second of his action scene abilities here.  He clearly had a lot of fun digging into this character which is full of evil charisma and wit.  He probably has the most action scenes to his credit in this movie amongst all the villains, and I couldn’t have been happier to see him kick some ass.

And color me impressed by Jonathan Pryce sinking his acting talents into President Zartan.  Arnold Vosloo has not even a minute’s worth of screentime in this movie, and so, the portrayal of Zartan as the President falls entirely on Pryce.  Like Stevenson, he was having loads of fun being this charismatic, playful villain.  He is so much fun to watch, and not for an instant did I doubt he was fully into being Zartan in disguise.  Pryce usually portrays rather sophisticated, cultured characters, but this gave him the chance to just chew a little scenery and be a total bad guy that was loving every minute of it.  Cobra Commander, Firefly, and Zartan just make an excellently entertaining trio of bad ass bad guys.

And Byung-hun Lee does put in another excellent performance as Storm Shadow, but the story takes him in another direction than we saw before.  However, it is entirely in line with the character’s history as he has switched loyalties before, but I just wish his motivations had a better build up and pay-off.  This is in relation to the rushed and disjointed exposition scenes I mentioned previously.  It didn’t sell his turn in the story at all to me, and I kept waiting for him to pull a double-cross to make at least one satisfying plot turn for Storm Shadow.

In terms of creative direction, tone, and style, this is absolutely the better G.I. Joe movie.  It never outright contradicts the first movie, but instead, strips away what wasn’t palatable and make it a leaner, tougher action franchise.  However, the plot is kind of clunky never really finding its footing, and never adequately conveying the stakes or objectives to the audience.  It’s clear the characters know what they’re doing, but not often enough does the audience understand where things are going, what characters are planning, or what the scope of the threat truly is.  Frankly, I think the filmmakers weren’t that concerned with that.  The movie is generally fun, exciting, and technically well made, but the plot seems to exist for no more than to string a series of action scenes together.  There is a main plot here that is very good, does work, and could work amazingly well if handled with more care.  Unfortunately, the filmmakers just seemingly didn’t know how to utilize solid, fleshed out, and well flowing storytelling skills to make this plot fill up the movie.  You could take out maybe two extraneous, if not well done, action scenes, and use that screentime to smooth out the jagged edges in the story.  Use it to bridge the gaps and convey characters’ intentions as they move forward in the plot.  I just never got that feeling that the plot was developing towards an apex, or that even the heroes themselves knew what the stakes were going forward.  It seems the most the filmmakers felt we needed to know is that these are the good guys and they need to stop the bad guys.  If Paramount Pictures really did postpone the release of this movie at nearly the last minute to do a good chunk of re-shoots, I’m not sure what they were for except for maybe a single scene with Johnson and Tatum trading witty banter over some target practice.  It was a fun scene, but could’ve easily been cut.  I don’t think they shot anything to flesh out or smooth out the story more because, obviously, it could still use some work.  While this movie might have gotten squashed if released last summer, I’m not sure how much better it will fair in this early Spring release.

While I would recommend seeing G.I. Joe: Retaliation to an extent, I still wouldn’t recommend it above Olympus Has Fallen.  That was a much better put together action movie on every level than this with an action lead that an audience could really get behind.  I’ll be interested to see if this G.I. Joe sequel gets an extended cut on Blu Ray because it could benefit from some added scenes of plot and character.  Ultimately, the entertainment factor for me entirely came from Cobra.  When the film was focusing on the heroes, I couldn’t wait until we cut back to the villains.  They were just all kinds of enjoyable because the actors were charismatic and vibrant where the heroes where one dimensional and rather bland.  I mean, in a film where all of their friends and fellow soldiers are violently blown to hell, you’d think these heroes would have a fiery passion lit underneath them.  You’d think they’d be ready to throwdown an all-out assault, and wage a take-no-prisoners type of war against Cobra.  Unfortunately, there is no such fierce emotional drive to these heroes, and that’s what made them fall flat for me.  If you just want a slew of really good action scenes, this film will deliver that for you, but director Jon M. Chu is not the most competent storyteller.  Maybe there was studio interference that resulted in making changes here and there due to supposed poor test screening response.  But if there’s one thing you don’t sacrifice is good storytelling.  There was a really good story here, but not the right storytellers to make it good enough.


G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

g_i_joe_ver11Growing up in the 80’s I was a fan of G.I. Joe, and owned many of the toys that the cartoon generated.  However, I was never that hardcore of a fan.  As I grew up, the franchise didn’t stick with me as I gravitated towards Transformers overall.  When this live action movie, directed by Stephen Sommers, was being made and released, it didn’t grab my attention.  I didn’t give it a chance until a strongly opinionated friend of mine, who was a big G.I. Joe fan, stated that he did enjoy this movie.  One iTunes rental later, and I was approving of this movie.  Yes, it has problems, and has some serious unfaithfulness to the source material, but it’s a big, enjoyable science fiction stylized action movie, regardless.

Two soldiers stationed in Kazakhstan, Captain “Duke” Hauser (Channing Tatum) and his partner Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), are ordered to transport special warheads created by MARS, an arms manufacturer controlled by James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston).  When they are attacked by a highly advanced terrorist group, led by Baroness Anastasia DeCobray (Sienna Miller), they are saved by a top secret, international special forces unit known as G.I. Joe.  The leader of G.I. Joe, General “Hawk” Abernathy (Dennis Quaid) is on the trail of these thieves: an evil organization called Cobra.  While Duke and Ripcord train to join the Joes, McCullen is secretly working for Cobra and plotting to recapture his metal-eating “Nanomite” warheads.  Duke and Ripcord, with help from Heavy Duty, Snake Eyes, Scarlett, and the rest of the Joes, must prove that they are Real American Heroes by stopping the launch of these warheads before Cobra uses them to take over the world.

There are several alterations to characters and their relationships from the familiar comic book and cartoon source material.  Why filmmakers have this compulsion to make changes of these kinds escape me.  I don’t mind adapting a concept or idea to suit the live action filmed media as opposed to the more fantastical mediums of comic books and cartoons.  However, the changes here didn’t need to be made to make the idea of G.I. Joe work as a live action movie.  They were simply creative decisions made for whatever reason to tell the story these filmmakers wanted to tell, despite whether or not it fit into who these characters had been for over a quarter century.  I’ll touch on these as I comment on some of the cast, as I have done some light research to understand the divergences at hand.

This movie has some acting talents that seem questionable to me at both the time it was released and in retrospect.  Obviously knowing Marlon Wayans from increasingly badly received comedic vehicles, he was the most peculiar casting choice.  While Wayans’ character of Ripcord does have a playful, somewhat silly personality at times, he’s decently enjoyable once you begin to take the film as a light, popcorn movie adventure.  He even has a moment or two of charm as he begins to develop some friendly relations with Rachel Nichols’ Scarlett.  As the film goes on, and the threats become more serious and imminent, Wayans rises to the occasion to make for a nicely respectable cog in this action centric cast.

Channing Tatum is someone that I’ve come to know as a rather uncharismatic actor with not much to offer.  While he surely doesn’t give us anything close to the Duke fans knew from the original cartoon series, who was a very strong, authoritative commanding officer, he is fine in this younger iteration of Conrad “Duke” Hauser.  It’s not a particularly dimensional performance, which could have helped in some instances, but Tatum decently fits the role as written.  It’s fortunate that the film has so many characters you can fixate on so not to be distracted by Tatum’s limited abilities.  It’s not an outright groan inducing performance, just a flat one that is aided by some decent comedic chemistry with Wayans.  Still, a far better actor was surely available to cast in this role to make him a more standout lead instead of blending into the ensemble.

Thankfully, we have some strong, vibrant villains to enjoy.  Christopher Eccleston is sophisticated, intelligent, but also despicably vile.  He injects charisma and slick savvy into McCullen, aka Destro, that is distinctly different from his Sunbow cartoon incarnation, but ultimately, follows the character as he has been developed through other media over the years.  Eccleston has a very good presence conveying a contemptuous weight towards the world without it feeling one dimensional.  He has a very elaborate, smartly devised plan to place himself in control of the world.  He works greatly as a global level villain whose motives nor agendas are shallow in the least.  Plus, the English actor works a very solid Scottish accent.

The filmmakers made serious changes to the Baroness, who is supposed to be an Eastern European straight-up villain, but is now simply Duke’s American ex-girlfriend Anna Lewis who has been specially manipulated into being a villain.  Regardless of this, Sienna Miller is endlessly and immensely hot in this very femme fatale role.  She plays it with a lot of bite and sexy assertiveness.  She is a bad ass villain that would’ve been perfect if the filmmakers played it faithful, but as it is, she does a damn good job making the Baroness alluring, dangerous, and intriguing.  Essentially, this character change was made in order to create a romantic relationship for Duke to grapple with, and while it’s nicely executed, it still would’ve been more pleasing to see the real Baroness here.

Lee Byung-hun and Ray Park are probably the best parts of this movie portraying Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, respectively.  Both characters are straight awesome here.  Storm Shadow is beautifully lethal and stealthy with a real cutthroat, edgy presence.  I think he truly lived up to many fans’ expectations through an excellent, sharp performance.  Obviously, Snake Eyes has no dialogue, but Ray Park’s expert athletic and martial arts talents shine through.

Cobra Commander is here in this movie, but doesn’t declare himself to be as such until the end.  We are essentially given an origin story for him that is very much inline with that of the Baroness.  For those that haven’t seen the movie, I don’t wish spoil the film’s intended surprises, but let’s say that it’s not the Cobra Commander you’re used to or expect.  He was my favorite character from the 80’s cartoon series due to being a rather excitable, egotistical fool, and even there, his back story was never entirely consistent.  What we even got in the animated movie was not very palatable to me.  So, when I saw this movie, none of this new back story really hit a bad nerve, but it would have been nice if the filmmakers attempted to make him look like Cobra Commander in his final moments on-screen.  Reportedly, they were fixated on the hooded look for the character, and avoided using it for understandable iconography reasons.  Still, as the sequel demonstrates, the chrome masked version was easily adaptable, and its absence comes off as even stranger since the filmmakers put an odd translucent mask on him at the end, anyway.

The question is if all of these objectionable changes make this a poor movie.  I suppose that depends on your perspective.  I would imagine many very serious G.I. Joe fans with a knowledgeable and loyal history for the franchise would be upset by these arbitrary alterations.  For a more casual fan, like myself, they don’t break the movie, but certainly make it less than it potentially could have been.  It’s a tad surprising that this movie was co-written by Stuart Beattie, who I recently gave vast amounts of credit for his screenplay for Michael Mann’s Collateral.  That was a brilliant, introspective movie of great, unique depth.  This is far from that.  Beattie’s co-writers have shallow filmographies with nothing much to really say they are exceptionally good or bad screenwriters.  I’m not saying that this script is bad, though it has some shortcomings and flaws, but in terms of attempting to be a faithful adaptation, it has a lot of wrong turns that I’m not sure who is to directly blame for them.

Now, the quality of the CGI here is about standard for a Stephen Sommers movie, unfortunately.  The effects in The Mummy were really good for 1999, and still hold up fairly well today.  However, Sommers’ films have since become larger scale productions requiring more elaborate visual effects, and this is evidence of that.  The CGI is used extensively, and is not really that good to be given so much screentime.  Among six visual effects companies that worked on this, there’s no real distinguishing level of quality.  I would be hard pressed to say any of the visual effects shots are anywhere in the neighborhood of great.

Still, despite the lacking digital effects, Sommers delivers some solid action sequences.  They are big, explosives scenes with some inventive ideas and nicely choreographed fights.  All of this action is very well shot showing that Sommers knows how to present and construct action sequences very competently.  Plus, he knows how to inject a real sense of entertainment value into everything, even if some of the funny bits are somewhat extraneous.  Still, the sprinkles of comedy entirely suit Sommers’ style that we saw in The Mummy and so on.  A definite action highlight is seeing Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow battle, and Sommers treats it as a special attraction.  There’s an early on battle between them, but the climax gives us the real juicy stuff.  It’s just bad ass all the way through, if delivered sparingly, and I only wish there was more of it.  Hopefully, I will get my wish in the sequel.

While G.I. Joe always had a bit of advanced technology giving it all a slight science fiction edge to it, this movie really pushes that full boar by even stating it takes places in the “not too distant future.”  This is a movie of very advanced technology with people communicating through holograms, using nanomite weaponry, energy based weapons, entire underwater Antarctic lairs, and various other fantastical items.  It does fit alongside much of the established franchise mentality, but it probably pushed the envelope further than it needed to.  I like a little high tech gadgetry in G.I. Joe to make it feel special and unique, but I think a live action movie should probably ground the ideas more.  Take it more away from the cartoony aspects, and make it a little tougher, more hard edged with contemporary weapons.  While I found the film fun, this film franchise really does need to go that direction so it can plant its feet in the ground and push forward with a strong foundation.  Take away the almost cyborg-like accelerator suits and the energy guns, and give us more down and dirty stuff.  Ultimately, I think that sells easier and stronger to a wide audience.  We can take a little fantastical science fiction every now and then, but if you’re setting the film in a recognizably contemporary time and not the especially distant future, sell it that way.  Give us a bad ass military guy unloading live rounds from a machine gun.  Laser weapons were used in the cartoons because they were cartoons.  You couldn’t show people getting shot with bullets and dying in that medium.  This is a live action PG-13 movie.  Mature the content a little, and give action fans and the adults who were kids in the 80s something that appeals to them more.  Don’t make it too violent, but do enough to be bad ass, which is what the soon-to-be-released sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, seems to have done.  Still, we’ll see about that in a few days.

The climax itself is full of plenty of action with both Ripcord piloting a Night Raven jet to intercept McCullen’s nanomite warhead missiles, and the assault on McCullen’s Antarctic lair.  Like with the whole film, it’s tightly edited with constant energy propelling the story forward.  The dramatic tension is kept high, and these intercut storylines flow very well.  We get some very good, heroic pay-offs, but we ultimately understand that this is just the setup.  G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is the story that puts all the heroes and villains into their proper places to give the franchise a launching point.  Plots have still been set in motion by Destro and Cobra Commander that will be followed up on in the next film.

Again, this is a film that I do find enjoyment from, but surely not frequently as I’ve watched it maybe four times in three years.  It’s a nice, enjoyable ride with some very well executed action sequences that do aim to please, and a fine dash of humor and levity to keep it fun.  It has a decent cast that generally does enough to be closer to Stephen Sommers better work, but it’s still a movie that could’ve benefitted from some better creative direction.  I’m hesitant to give it a big endorsement because, again, there’s plenty of bad CGI all over the place and it fails to faithfully adapt the source material.  For what it is, I think it’s mostly well done.  It’s not the G.I. Joe movie that fans wanted or expected.  The animated movie really diverted into very strange territory that I still find not to my taste.  I don’t own that movie, but I do own this one.  It’s closer to what a G.I. Joe movie should be focusing on terrorism and advanced technological warfare, but it did need someone at the helm that could shape it into what the fans desired.  I do think it’s a better movie than reputation has seemed to label it with.  There is plenty of entertainment value that surely never gets to the annoying levels of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.  I would recommend giving it a chance, but knowing that it still falls short of its potential in several areas.  If for nothing else, it’s worth seeing Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes clash.


Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

Olympus Has FallenIt was mere coincidence that I reviewed the Die Hard clone movie of Sudden Death this past day.  It was on my TiVo for months, and I just needed an action movie to occupy my attention.  Olympus Has Fallen does indeed follow that Die Hard formula very closely, but also executes it extremely well.  This is surely one of the better action movies I’ve seen in recent years, and it is a rock solid R rated outing with the violence never holding back for an instant.  So, while Sudden Death was Die Hard in a hockey arena with the Vice President taken hostage, this movie is Die Hard in the White House with the President taken hostage.  Believe me, this is a gigantic step up that should please audiences.

When the White House (Secret Service Code: “Olympus”) is captured by a terrorist mastermind (Rick Yune) and the President (Aaron Eckhart) is kidnapped, disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) finds himself trapped within the building.  As our national security team scrambles to respond, they are forced to rely on Banning’s inside knowledge to help retake the White House, save the President and avert an even bigger disaster.

This is a very well directed effort by Antoine Fuqua.  I love that he keeps the film very grounded in the severe drama and peril of the situation, and never feels the urge to indulge in cheesiness.  He avoids having anyone spout out one-liners, or do anything to diminish the imminent danger at hand.  The film’s first act really sets up the characters well by establishing close relationships around Banning with the President himself and his son Connor.  The film begins with a tragic car accident that claims the First Lady’s life, and Banning feels responsible for that.  While I did know full well from the trailer that this would happen, the sequence still had an emotional impact on me.  The film then flashes ahead eighteen months where Banning is working at the U.S. Treasury, no longer feeling fit for or at ease in the White House.  These are all excellently done sequences establishing emotional weight on Mike Banning, and setting him up in a very fleshed out and relatable way.  Then, of course, all hell breaks loose upon Washington.

There was a point during this long incursion by the invading forces that I felt it was going on too long, but then, I caught myself.  I realized that, one, such a siege would be a lengthy operation and unraveling in multiple parts.  Secondly, it was when Banning got into the thick of things that it all picked up for me.  It made the violent, frightening sequence less broad, and focused it more on someone that I already identified with.  This is where the film has it’s real juice.  Focusing in on the character of Banning combating these forces as an extremely capable one man assault made me excited.  Getting behind him as the hero energized the movie for me, and got me invested in what was happening.  Another reviewer I follow stated that if you replaced Gerard Butler as a Secret Service Agent with Bruce Willis as a New York cop, this would’ve been the perfect Die Hard 5.  I entirely get that statement, but Mike Banning is a distinctly different person than John McClane.  Banning is a sharply trained tactical force who knows how to handle a situation like this, and how to manipulate his way through the White House, messing with security cameras, moving through hidden passageways, accessing secret vaults with a satellite phone, weapons, and so on.  This is an expertly trained agent that systematically and efficiently takes down these terrorists.  This is what really sold me on every bit of action.

Gerard Butler is a solid action lead.  He puts in a very well-rounded and awesome performance.  He certainly has some fun, yet lethal moments with the character, but never goes down the path of witty quips.  Even when that humorous bad attitude surfaces, his words hold the weight of a vehement threat.  He’s not mouthing off, he’s making strong, direct statements to people.  Still, we do get that humor through extreme circumstances that still felt distinct to the character.  The filmmakers nor Butler were trying to have Banning be an imitation of anyone else.  He’s his own great character.  Butler handles himself exceptionally well in every aspect of action here from the tactical gunplay to the hand-to-hand combat.  There are some very impressive moves he showcases when he’s squaring off against a deadly opponent.  Banning’s definitely a tough guy, but what further makes the role great is the sentimental value we see from him.  This mainly comes out with both protecting Connor, and when Mike finally gets on the phone with his wife, who is a doctor in the midst of triage.  We get to see the humanity of Banning from early on, before the action, and later on during the action to maintain that balance and dimension with the character.  Overall, it’s a very solid character in both conception and execution through Gerard Butler’s talents.  He kicks ass in all kinds of ways.

The film’s villain is Kang, portrayed by Rick Yune, and he is one immensely merciless, vile piece of filth.  Yune is just awesome as this man who seeks to unleash a horrible fate upon all of America, and unite Korea through military force with very powerful motives behind him.  This is absolutely a villain who is despicable and shockingly violent, but maintains a cool head about him.  He’s in control of everything, and is willing to demonstrate that control and dominance on a whim.  He’s very calculating and intelligent while being disturbingly violent.  Rarely have I seen an action movie villain of this serious caliber.  Again, the film does not degrade anything by delving into cheesy qualities or eccentricities.  Kang is as serious as they come, and his ultimate plans are horrific.  Yune gravitates a lot of weight around him, and sells every ounce of this role.  He’s definitely the villain this film deserved.

The rest of the cast is filled out with heavyweight talents.  Aaron Eckhart is stellar as President Benjamin Asher.  The charm and warmth of him is seen early on, but when the hostage crisis befalls him, we see his strength and conviction show through.  He won’t allow anyone to be a martyr to him in that bunker, and he never backs down from Kang and his people.  Eckhart’s an amazingly strong actor for a role of this sort, and he fills it admirably.  And Finley Jacobsen is top notch as the President’s son Connor.  He’s a very sweet and enjoyable kid that has a strong bond with Mike Banning.  I could definitely feel for him early on when his mother, portrayed by the excellent Ashley Judd, perishes in that plunge off the icy bridge.

We also have Morgan Freeman living up to his high standards as the Speaker of the House Alan Trumbull, who must assume the roe of Acting President in this crisis.  Freeman carries Trumbull’s burden with realistic weight as he grapples with these massive decisions of life and death.  How he asserts authority over Robert Forster’s General Clegg was a real solid moment that I liked a lot.  Angela Bassett, who I think is an amazingly talented screen presence, is here as Banning’s Secret Service Supervisor.  She’s all around superb, as is everyone in this picture.  We’ve got all these people assembled at the Pentagon, and they come into regular contact with Banning along the way as they try to coordinate their efforts.  These scenes carry so much poignancy and immense weight on a global scale, and no one could have asked for a better collection of actors to carry these scenes.  And it is a testament to Antoine Fuqua that he was able to utilize these talents so fully and powerfully.  Still, that should come as no surprise from the director of Training Day where he directed the excellent Denzel Washington.

And the action sequences Fuqua gives us are exemplary.  While the CGI is definitely undercooked more than usual, I could mostly move beyond that to embrace the quality of the action.  The digital effects mainly come into play during the air strike scenes with planes, fighter jets, and helicopters being digitally rendered as there was no way they were going to be actually crashing things into the real White House.  Aside from that, we get some visceral, pull no punches violence.  People, both good and bad, get ripped apart like Swiss cheese by automatic gunfire and are blatantly executed.  This is an action film that is selling the realistic intensity of both of these lethally trained forces who will not leave their adversaries alive.  There’s a generous helping of blood all over the movie, and it seemed mostly realistic and not digitally created.  I think a lot of squibs were used on this, and only a few enhancements were done in select places.  If that is indeed the case, I applaud Fuqua for going that route.  Far too many action movies these days go the lazy route, and use next to no practical blood effects.

Getting back on track, though, we are treated to some very good action through this runtime.  Banning is given plenty of intense scenarios to fight out of, and it is all shot very well.  There’s a little shaky cam in there, but it’s fairly mild and the editing is quite good to maintain coherence throughout.  It’s just hard hitting stuff that results in the biggest body count I can recall seeing in an action movie, but due to the nature of the plot, one must expect that a shocking volume of bodies fall protecting the White House.  The brutality that we get is necessary to selling the tremendous tragic weight of this event, but putting that aside, it’s the veracity in which Banning goes after these infiltrators is where the entertainment value truly lies.  The only time he leaves anyone alive for questioning ends up in an awesome, quick scene of extremely persuasive interrogation.  He’s not ready to dish out mercy, and has no hesitation in ramming a knife through someone’s skull.  It’s scenes like this that really make Banning an entertaining and bad ass hero.  We’ve seen him be a nice guy and a solid professional, but in this scenario, he’s not holding back on the bloodletting.  He knows the stakes, and has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to rescue the President and take Kang and his people down in decisive, graphic fashion.

It didn’t take me long sitting there in the theatre to take special note of how good the score was.  This is a big action movie score the way it’s meant to be done.  Composer Trevor Morris has not done anything really worth noting before this movie, but I damn well hope that this is the start of a very noteworthy career.  As with the rest of the movie, Olympus Has Fallen does feel like something birthed out of the 1980’s or 90’s in all the right ways.  This score is right up there in that vein of Under Siege, Con Air, or Die Hard.  It has a sprawling, tightly dramatic style that paints on a large musical canvas for a film of big stakes and large action sequences.  It’s very impressive stuff.

Olympus Has Fallen is also greatly written by a pair of apparent first-time writers.  This is their only credit on the Internet Movie Database.  So, if this is your break into Hollywood, I say it’s a hell of a great first effort.  Yes, it is a Die Hard clone, but it takes all the hallmarks of that formula and builds upon it with a story of huge consequences and well written characters.  The movie doesn’t put all its cards on the table at the same time.  Kang’s ultimate intentions are not fully discovered until the final act of the film, but I will not spoil that here.  The script cleverly just lays one piece of the puzzle into place at a time allowing you to be concerned with one major thing at a time.  It shows the intelligence of Kang very well, and creates a very solidly plotted film with plenty of anticipation and suspense as realized by Fuqua.

I just say go to the theatre and see this right now!  For one, hard R rated action films have been taking a nose dive at the box office, and while most of it has been justified, when something of this damn good quality comes along, it really needs to be supported.  Overall, this is simply a fun, exciting ride with the weight of serious stakes and big action.  It really beefs up the old formula with a cast of amazing talent, and helmed by a damn good director who knows how to sell something of this scale.  This is proof positive that any well-treaded formula can still be executed with impressive results.  All it takes is filmmakers with ambition and a solid script to make it a creative success.  I surely hope that it will prove to be a financial success because it really does deserve it.  Olympus Has Fallen is a solid, hard R action movie that you should absolutely see!


Sudden Death (1995)

Sudden DeathThe 1990’s brought us a wild trend in action movies – the Die Hard clone.  They were formulaic films that put our action hero protagonist into a confined structure or perilous location, whether it be a battleship, airplane, bus, train, cruise ship, or mountain, and pit him against a team of highly trained terrorists, mercenaries, or what have you.  People are taken hostage, and our hero has to battle to save them against impossible odds.  Just like with the slasher craze of the 80’s, there were good results and poor results.  Considering Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, and Wesley Snipes got their turns, it was inevitable that Jean-Claude Van Damme got his, and for him, the stage is an ice hockey arena.  So, is this a good result or a poor one?

Arson investigator and former fire-fighter Darren McCord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) has his daughter suddenly taken alongside the Vice President of the United States (Raymond J. Barry) during the Stanley Cup Championship game in Pittsburgh.  With the captors, led by the lethal Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe), demanding a billion dollars by game’s end, McCord frantically sets a plan in motion to rescue his daughter and abort an impending explosion before the final buzzer.

Sudden Death had good talent behind it with some nice turns in the plot, but the lack of ambition becomes apparent after not too long.  It never gets clever with the formula, and does feel like a weak imitation of Die Hard with thieves who appear to be terrorists and even our hero communicating with people on the outside.  The clichés of the genre can work to great effect if you have the right wit and charisma behind it, but ultimately, it’s the fault of the underwhelming screenplay by a guy who originally wrote this as an action comedy parody.  Considering his screenwriting credits include several Police Academy movies as well as the all-out action parody movie Loaded Weapon 1, it’s no surprise that was his intention, and no surprise that he was unable to move the serious incarnation of the script beyond its stereotypical trappings.

Van Damme’s fairly good in the movie.  At no point does he slack off, but the script doesn’t give him a great deal to work with.  Darren McCord isn’t written to showcase much stress, anxiety, or emotional strain.  He certainly has a desperate determination about him, but he generally maintains his cool.  Still, Van Damme brings a solid, grounded weight of drama, and a dash of humanity that makes McCord likable and relatable.  This is a regular strength for Van Damme.  He comes off like an average yet capable guy who has enough intelligence to pull him through these extraordinary circumstances.  It’s a rather stock protagonist giving us nothing exceptional or memorable, but Van Damme gives us a good quality performance, regardless.

Powers Boothe gives us a pretty intimidating heavy.  He’s cold and entirely ruthless as he casually murders his hostages.  Boothe is an actor who’s always carried a lot of weight and presence on screen, and there’s no exception here.  So, he is an effective villain, but again, in terms of writing, there’s not much to Joshua Foss.  I hate to make the comparison to Die Hard, let alone Hans Gruber, because that is such a uniquely excellent movie and villain, but while we never got much of a back story on Hans, we entirely understood his motivations, intentions, and psychological attitudes.  Foss doesn’t give us much aside from the knowledge that he himself is an active duty Secret Service Agent just looking for a hefty payout.  It adds a little something to his character by putting him a few steps ahead of the Vice President’s entourage, but on the whole, he just seems like a generic villain with little depth or purpose given to his actions.  Foss doesn’t get much opportunity to appear cunning or sharply ingenious, but he is played by an extraordinary actor who makes him appear to be more than he is on paper.

As is the standard for a film shot and directed by Peter Hyams, it has a great moody, almost noir atmosphere through the use of strong shadows, a realistic texture of grit, and strong contrast lighting.  I just love how his films look, and I can just tell when it is his artistic eye as cinematographer.  It’s a beautiful signature look that creates visual dramatic weight, and it works excellently in this film as it does all his others.  Everything is shot with great cinematic sensibilities.  The most impressive shot is near the climax when Van Damme is hanging from the opening dome roof.  The shot cranes from the action on the ice all the way up to the roof in one beautiful shot.  The picture is also very well edited with a solid rhythm and pace that allows the action to carry the momentum of the picture.

The hockey game sequences, which are between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks, don’t really add much to the momentum of the story except to give us a ticking clock.  There are definitely films out there that I would levy criticism against for employing such a cheap storytelling tactic, but Hyams is able to make that tactic work really damn well.  Intercutting between that and McCord diffusing one of the bombs, using some tight framing and good, tense music, it results in a reasonably taut moment.  Yet, these are fleeting and few moments.  They are necessary to the plot, but aren’t given as much focused attention as the movie goes on.  The best instance is when the hockey game does go into the obligatory sudden death overtime, delaying the inevitable while McCord is in no position to diffuse the additional bombs.

The action scenes are okay, but do get bigger and better as the film goes on.  The stakes increase, and the set pieces become larger and more perilous.  Unfortunately, you won’t get your fill of Van Damme martial arts awesomeness here.  There’s almost none.  While I can surely understand that someone of McCord’s profession wouldn’t realistically have those masterful martial arts skills, if you’re going to see a Van Damme movie, you expect to see that stuff.  Still, Van Damme throws himself fully into these action scenes, and clearly does his own stunts, which add quite a bit to the quality of these scenes.  The actual climax is all right with McCord and Foss battling on the catwalk as Foss attempts to escape via helicopter.  There’s a nice crash and burn ending, but it didn’t grab me.  The film just didn’t give me enough emotional investment to engross my attention.  It might be because Foss is almost too laid back of a villain, and we don’t get that vile aggressive quality that would amp up the intensity to give us a major pay-off.  Even in Under Siege, we get some charismatic villains that energize the film and invite our desire to see them meet a violent demise.  This film doesn’t give us this much, and settles for okay in far too many places.  The action is good but rarely anything exceptional, and on the whole, the film is largely forgettable.  Domestically, it earned only $20 million out of its $35 million budget, and that about accurately reflects the appeal of the movie.  It doesn’t have blockbuster written on it.  The talent was certainly there to potentially make it a better action movie, but it clearly starts with the script in this case, which has “not trying” over almost all of it.

If you’re just looking for a movie that will decently satisfy your desire for some late night action, like I was, I think Sudden Death is far from your worst choice.  Yet, it is no more than average or mediocre.  The hero nor the villain are memorable in the least, despite the best efforts of Van Damme and Powers Boothe, and those are two essential elements of a Die Hard clone.  Even just based on action movie standards, it’s no better.  Van Damme has done much better movies.  Basically, any action capable actor could’ve been cast as Darren McCord, and we would’ve had the same movie.  Aside from the little dashes of humanity Van Damme adds in, there’s nothing distinct he brings to the movie, especially with the absence of martial arts action.  Also, while I should criticize the fact that Foss waits until game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals, a game that wouldn’t even be guaranteed to happen until a day, maybe two, before it happened, to unleash this wildly complex plan of strategically placed explosives, hostage taking, and infiltration, it’s hard to apply that much logic to an action film of this sort.  As weakly stereotypical as this movie is, that large gap in logic is hardly the bulk of its shortcomings.

If you do want to check out the movie, avoid the solo DVD release as it is pan-and-scan.  Sudden Death was not given the widescreen treatment on DVD here in Region 1 until the release of the Van Damme Four Film Set alongside Hard Target, Lionheart, & The QuestSudden Death has been made available in full high-definition widescreen through various video-on-demand services.  I was able to watch this in what I call “partial widescreen” via HBO.  What I mean by that is the channel broadcasts the film in a 16×9 widescreen format, but it still chops off part of the full 2.35:1 anamorphic frame.  Overall, Sudden Death is not at all a bad action movie, but even for a Van Damme  / Peter Hyams movie, it’s still inferior to Timecop, which was a lot more fun even if the script was full of holes from its time travel plot paradoxes.


Collateral (2004)

CollateralOn a midnight screening in August, 2004, my entire filmmaking aspirations changed with this film.  While I had seen Thief previously, Collateral struck a brilliant, fascinating chord in my creative mind.  While I consider The Insider to be Michael Mann’s best film to date, and Manhunter to be my favorite, there is a special unique quality to this movie that I love.  I believe it stems from the atmosphere of isolation and nature of introspection that Mann delves into.  Above all else, Tom Cruise puts in one of the best performances of his career under Mann’s direction.

Max (Jamie Foxx) has lived the mundane life of a cab driver for 12 years.  The faces have come and gone from his rearview mirror, people and places he’s long since forgotten – until tonight.  Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a contract killer.  When an offshore narco-trafficking cartel learns they are about to be indicted by a federal grand jury, they mount an operation to identify and kill the key witnesses, and the last stage is tonight.  Tonight, Vincent arrives in L.A., and five bodies are supposed to fall.  Circumstances cause Vincent to hijack Max’s taxicab, and Max becomes collateral – an expendable person in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Through the night, Vincent forces Max to drive him to each destination.  And as the LAPD and FBI race to intercept them, Max and Vincent’s survival becomes dependant on each other in ways neither would have imagined.

I love how the movie is soaked into this dark, isolated feeling of the night.  While the film has those first few minutes of transition from the late afternoon into nightfall, it feels right.  We are getting an easy, gradual introduction to Max along with a very brief and enigmatic one to Vincent.  At this point, the film is relaxed and getting you comfortable, but once night sets in, the mood begins to soak in.  Los Angeles descends into this sparse, disconnected landscape.  There’s a sense of vast emptiness which isolates our characters into a somber atmosphere.  There maybe pedestrians in the background, traffic on the roads, but Max and Vincent are in their own reclusive scenario apart from the awareness of anyone around them.  Michael Mann achieves that deeply penetrating mood throughout the movie with a brilliant use of cinematography, music, and environments.  The nighttime world of Los Angeles is alive with danger and lethal threats on an ever-accelerating ride into darkness.

In the beginning of the film, there’s some lovely, heartfelt chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett-Smith in a cab ride together.  It’s a beautiful, warm introduction to both characters who we need to greatly empathize with as the film progresses.  This is especially true for Pinkett-Smith’s character of Annie, a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney, who doesn’t return to the film until the final act, but she makes such a wonderful, adoring impression that we haven’t forgotten a thing about her by then.  Both actors make a rich use of those few minutes of screentime together, and Michael Mann really strikes a different chord than he has before.  In his other films, it’s usually two people that have already had some history together, or are already married with some kind of emotional or ideological strain upon them.  We hardly see the initial spark of a romantic relationship, and never has it been this sweet and charming.  Jada Pinkett-Smith does a spectacular job in this role throughout all the light-hearted, heart-warming, and emotionally and physically intense demands upon her.

Jamie Foxx surely deserved the supporting actor Oscar nomination he got here.  He absorbs himself fully into Max, grasping the details of the character with a lot of care.  Max is surely a flawed person, but that’s what makes him relatable and real.  Max is an entirely unlikely hero.  He’s just a cab driver opposing a trained professional killer, but it’s that intensely real fear and genuine humanity of Max that makes him work.  He’s not designed to battle Vincent on a physical level.  Instead, it’s slowly getting into Vincent’s head, unraveling who he is and how he works that allows Max to gain some measure of courage to fight back against him.  However, it’s that journey from the guy who can’t even muster up the courage to ask Annie for her phone number, let alone out on a date, to someone that does take a stand against this cold, vicious killing machine which makes Foxx’s performance amazing.  It’s Max’s experience with Vincent, especially when he’s forced to impersonate Vincent in a meeting with cartel lord Felix, that begins to bring out that self-confidence.  Vincent repeatedly criticizes Max for taking abuse from his boss, allowing his mother to believe in false truths about his line of work, and being a general pushover that inadvertently mold and motivate Max into being an adversary instead of a frightened hostage.  Your attention might gravitate to the stronger personality of Vincent as the standout, but Jamie Foxx delivers a very textured, emotionally realistic, and genuine performance that does have a lot of substance and standout qualities about it.

Tom Cruise starts out as his usual charming self as Vincent, who warms himself up to Max so to convince him to hang with him through the night, feeding him a story of being a real estate agent.  It’s then a beautiful turn when that cold, calculating sociopath emerges.  That intimidating edge shows through immediately, and I love that you can see the gears turning in Vincent’s head.  He checks his surroundings, seeing who might’ve witnessed the dead body crashing onto Max’s cab, and determines his next move.  This is the detail Michael Mann instills in his actors in order to portray these characters as realistic, intelligent people with a specific way of thinking and reacting with a depth of history that stretches beyond the context of this story.  Vincent is a fascinating character with a complexity and depth that is the brilliant result of Mann and Cruise’s collaboration mixed with Stuart Beattie’s excellent screenplay.  He is a stone cold sociopath that has a justification for everything he does, and he regularly tries to impart that onto Max.  Perceiving a few dead bodies as insignificant on a cosmic scale makes it no wonder that he is so disassociated from any semblance of humanity.  Most of us rarely think of the repercussions of our actions on even a global scale, and the closer, more immediate the consequences are, the greater they have impact on our choices.  Vincent is likely the epitome of Neil McCauley’s “thirty seconds flat” rule from Heat of abandoning everything at a moment’s notice in order to stay ahead of the law.  McCauley dictated that in order to do so, you must not have attachments to anyone or anything, or risk being caught.  However, Vincent is even more than that as there’s clearly a far deeper, more emotionally fractured explanation for being as he is, and it is not just from a matter of staying out of a prison cell.  Tom Cruise conveys that complexity with masterful skill and a dash of natural charisma that makes him compelling.  There is so much depth and nuance to what Tom Cruise delivers in this performance of a sociopathic hitman that finds himself slowing cracking throughout this night that I couldn’t possibly detail all of it without making this into an entire essay about him.  If you want that, I immensely suggest listening to Michael Mann’s commentary on the film.  It provides more detailed insight than I can do justice to here.  In short, Tom Cruise is riveting and brilliant as Vincent, and delivers a relentless performance unlike any you’ve seen from him.  He’s an entirely different, fully absorbed animal in this film, and Vincent is a testament to Mann’s extensive work of building a character from the ground up, from the inside out with a massively talented actor.

The scene that sells the lethal threat of Vincent is the incident with the gangbangers who steal his briefcase.  The razor sharp reflexes he demonstrates in taking both of them down is near unreal, and shows that this is a man of hard earned, professional skills that should not be tested.  If he wants you dead, you’ll be a corpse before you know it.  As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, Tom Cruise is an amazingly dedicated physical actor.  He will put himself through whatever rigorous training is necessary to make his performance everything it needs to be on every level.  These skills are not learned easily or quickly.  Cruise had handled firearms before in the Mission: Impossible films, but this was a whole different level of discipline and dedication.  And indeed, it shows through in how he carries himself, how he cases his surroundings, and operates like an efficient machine in every action sequence.  He creates a full, total package that gravitates energy around him.

Furthermore, I really like Mark Ruffalo as Detective Fanning.  His look is excellent as a narcotics cop who looks like a dealer, but seeing him in the thick of things, you can see this is an LAPD Detective that is intelligent, instinctive, and seasoned.  He’s a consummate professional, but is also very streetwise and perceptive.  Ruffalo strikes that perfect balance which makes both work cohesively.  Fanning follows through on his instincts and intellect despite anyone’s insistence to the contrary, making him a capable secondary protagonist an audience can get behind.  He’s hotly on the trail of what’s going on as more and more bodies go down, and that motivates the law enforcement end of the story forward as they try to secure what witnesses they have left before Vincent can eliminate them.

Collateral is filled with solid supporting actors like Peter Berg’s combative Detective Weidner or Bruce McGill’s hard edged FBI Agent Pedrosa.  However, the two best standouts are Barry Shabaka Henley and Javier Bardem.  Henley portrays Daniel, the owner of a jazz club, and he gives us two brilliant showings in his scene.  The first is Daniel’s passion for jazz music as he relates a story about meeting Miles Davis, and the stunning impression it made in his life.  Then, when the scene turns imminently lethal, we see the purely human fear and subtle tremble that courses through his body.  It’s an inspired performance, and Daniel is someone that has a noticeable resonance upon Vincent.  This is the first moment where we see his sociopathic exterior cracking, and it is a gorgeous moment of dramatic and emotional storytelling.

Javier Bardem is just excellent as the cartel lord Felix.  He’s strongly intimidating and intelligent, but one of conservative emotion.  You can see the fire underneath when he learns that Vincent has lost his hitlist, but he’s a confident man that knows how to deal with problems decisively but has a short tolerance for failure.  Bardem has only one scene, but he makes a strong, intriguing impression that resonates for a quite a while after his screentime has ended.  It’s stellar work by him all around.

I think Collateral is possibly the Michael Mann film that most deeply peers into its lead characters.  While Manhunter gets very deep into their psychology, Collateral is focused more on the emotional level.  It shows what makes Vincent and Max who they are from the heart and soul outwards.  These two starkly different men are inexplicably connected on this violent, dangerous ride, and they each peer deeper into one another’s souls.  Collateral simply broods with this fascinating level of deep, introspective drama making itself just as much about the complex nature of its characters as it is about its adrenalin pumping danger and occasional action.

One of the things that attracted Michael Mann to this project was the idea of a compressed timeline.  All events take place over a single night which creates an inherent energy and urgency to the story and the actions of the characters.  Everything’s going down now, and there’s no tomorrow to deal with it.  There’s also the great feeling like we’re in the third act of another story, that of Felix’s impending indictment.  All of these events have already taken place to move these people into these exact situations on this night, and we’re dropped into a story where everything is already in motion.  Everything’s moving forward at a brisk pace, and there’s no slowing down now.  The whole movie has this feeling of an impending deadline.  The feeling that we’ve long passed the point of no return well before this movie began, and it’s all full speed ahead from here.  It’s not a film of break neck pace, but Mann is able to maintain that sense of urgency very cleverly through the actions and behavior of these characters.  The pacing itself is great, tight, and dead-on.  There’s such a great punctuation of drama and emotion using everything Mann has at his disposal at exactly the right doses at exactly the right times.  It’s an amazingly well edited movie.

Collateral features an awesome collection of score and music from eclectic artists.  The primary score is provided by James Newton Howard who creates the most emotional and stirring cues of the film.  It has the most presence and creates the grim sense of isolation and somber reality.  Howard is also responsible for the long form, tense, suspenseful, and ultimately, driving percussion score in the film’s action climax.  Antonio Pinto also has some excellent pieces of score that really penetrate the soul of select moments.  The addition of Audioslave to the soundtrack was a stroke of genius as “Shadow On The Sun” perfectly fits the vibe and tone of this movie.  It’s only one track, but it is used in a very memorable sequence.  Appropriately, we get some jazz in there, and a few other contemporary music tracks that oddly don’t feel dated in the least.  It’s been nearly nine years since the film’s release, and it still feels fresh, original, and excitingly new to me.  I own this soundtrack, and it is still a wonderful, moody listen to this day.

The vast majority of Collateral was shot on high definition digital video, and for this movie, it works beautifully and brilliantly.  Mann knew he couldn’t get that depth of clarity to see into the nighttime landscape of L.A. if he shot on film.  So, he embraced this new technology to create a signature look for Collateral.  What makes it work for this movie where it didn’t as much for Miami Vice or especially Public Enemies is how well it is shot.  I believe the cinematography work of Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe should have been given far more recognition at the time than it did.  It got some nominations and wins from a few organizations, but it may have been the unique digital video look of the movie that might have deterred some.  I embraced this look, and it inspired me to no end.  It still does.  Collateral is a brilliantly shot movie with an amazing use of color temperatures that evoke certain moods throughout.  It’s much different than Manhunter in that its feels very urban and grounded with the sodium vapor and mercury vapor street lights creating diffused orange, green, and turquoise tones.  It just makes the night come alive in a new way that had never been achieved with such vibrant, dramatic results before.  It’s also remarkable how so much of the film takes place in that cab, and each scene gives us a new camera angle or composition that suits the context of that scene.  It never gets repetitive or dull.  These filmmakers had to get inventive, and they ultimately achieved something with get artistic value.  There is plenty of handheld work, but it’s done immensely well.  Public Enemies was a blatant example of doing it terribly, and Miami Vice simply employed it too much to where it almost became a crutch.  The cinematography of Collateral is very similar to that in The Insider, but progressed further and given more vibrancy than before.  And those overhead aerial shots of Los Angeles are simply striking and inspired.  I’ve since seen this replicated in many other films and television shows, and I immediately make the connection back to Collateral when I do.

We have very few action scenes here, but the large doses we get are riveting and awesome.  The biggest is the Korean night club sequence where Max, Vincent, the FBI, and more converge in a violent exchange of physicality and gunfire.  It’s an excellently done sequence with sharp editing and a pulsating remix of Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready Steady Go.”  Vincent weaves his way through the sea of club-goers, dispatching of bodyguards with merciless efficiency, but it ultimately all breaks down into chaos.  Yet, it is this turning point in the film where all the law enforcement and other elements surrounding Max and Vincent are stripped away, and we’re left with a lean, intense final act.  As Vincent hunts his final target through a dark office of reflective surfaces, we are treated to some taut suspense and edge-of-your-seat tension.  This is another instance where only digital video could’ve been used.  On film, this would’ve been an unintelligible blob of nothing, but the high definition video gives the low light detail that feels so atmospheric and visually amazing.  The climax is just excellently done on so many levels, and ends with poignant drama.  I know there was a time early on that I felt the ending left a little to be desired, but I’ve since gained the understanding of it all with full respect and appreciation.  This is a very introspective film that documents Vincent’s somber emotional deterioration over this one night, and it ends with a weight of purpose and ironic reflection.  The climax might be very adrenalin pumping, ramping up the imminent, lethal danger of Max and Annie, but the final moments resolve the character depth and emotional resonance we’ve seen build up throughout this film.  It is a brilliant work of screenwriting by Stuart Beattie forged and meticulously crafted by the masterful talent of Michael Mann.

This is an amazing film that has a different substance of depth than Mann had given us before, and wraps that up in a very riveting, tense crime thriller.  Cruise and Foxx have excellent chemistry together that even sparks one or two humorous beats.  It’s just a great, happy surprise sparked from two great talents that have that charismatic spark of brilliance.  Overall, it’s a film that still inspires and drives me to this day to be a creative filmmaker in the dark crime genre where characters like Vincent are immensely fascinating, complex, and violent individuals.  I reference Michael Mann’s work often enough in my reviews of crime thrillers that I definitely want to actually get more reviews of his films done.  I’ve already done Miami Vice and Manhunter, but those were a good year apart.  Collateral should be the start of me covering more of his filmography in a shorter span of time with Thief, Heat, and The Insider surely on my slate for this year.  Reviews like this are more than just telling you if the movie is good or bad, but instead, they are delving into the depth of it all to really discover what truly makes it great and why it has enthralled me so much.  However, look for some potentially shorter reviews soon for a few soon-to-be-released movies that I hope will be quite good, but we’ll see.


Shakedown (1988)

ShakedownSo, after watching The Exterminator this morning, I chose to follow that up with a 1988 entry into James Glickenhaus’ filmography starring Peter Weller and Sam Elliott.  Backed by Universal Pictures, this film is a warp speed jump ahead in polished filmmaking, tight storytelling, and an entertaining picture with lots of energizing action.  Yet, it has plenty of substance and strong characters realized by great actors.  Shakedown was a fun ride that I would like to share with you now.

When a local drug dealer shoots a dishonest cop in self-defense, lawyer Roland Dalton (Peter Weller) and renegade undercover cop Richie Marks (Sam Elliott) join forces to clear him.  But when their investigation leads them into a maze of greed and corruption, they learn that in a town where everything is for sale, anything can happen.  Amidst this, Dalton realizes the prosecutor in this, his last case, is a former love interest, the smart and sexy Susan Cantrell (Patricia Charbonneau).  Throughout the trial Roland rekindles this former affair with Susan unbeknown to his fiancée Gail (Blanche Baker).  All of this twists and turns around Dalton and Marks as they battle through the web of corrupt cops who’d sooner see them dead at every turn.

This is a top notch movie all the way through.  We’re given a story that is sharply put together that always holds your attention, and keeps something moving forward at a tight rhythm at all times.  There are enough interconnected threads to allow the film to do that, but not remotely so many as to complicate things.  The trial of the drug dealer ties into the corrupt dealings of these New York cops, and with Dalton being the central focus of this plot, his own personal relationships branch out from that.  So, there’s always something unfolding and weaving its way into the momentum of the story to keep that energy and pace up.  Yet, even though the film has a polished style, it still delves into that seedy underbelly of New York that James Glickenhaus enjoyed spotlighting in his films.  So, we get something sharp, sleek, and immensely entertaining while still having that underlining presence of the sleazier side of things.  Glickenhaus hits the mainstream with great success fueled by a very well written script, and a spectacular cast of talent at his disposal.

Peter Weller is just amazing in this movie.  As Roland Dalton, he’s a very charismatic and lively guy who loves his Jimi Hendrix and has plenty of enjoyable flare.  He’s a very relatable and intelligent character portrayed by an actor who exemplifies those qualities.  Weller works the courtroom scenes with compelling energy and sharp wit.  He also carries strong emotional and dramatic weight throughout the film.  The building romantic relationship with Susan is touchingly handled with beautiful chemistry.  It help creates a full, well-rounded character that has various aspects to his life that all tie into the threads of the plot.  Weller really does have the meat of screentime, and thus, properly gets top billing.  Weller’s character never shies away from action or danger in his pursuit of truth.  He regularly gets himself into dangerous scenarios, but is able to handle himself competently.  Weller takes all of this in stride melding together a very fascinating, dimensional, and entertaining character.  I loved watching him every minute he was on screen.

Of course, this takes nothing away from Sam Elliott who fits comfortably into this rugged loner.  Richie Marks is very grounded, soaked into the thick of the grit of the city.  We first meet him waking up in a 42nd Street grindhouse movie theatre with crack vials littering the floor, and brushing his teeth in the graffiti laden restroom.  This is a guy whose luck is just about dried up, but he’s still a solid cop that can rundown the worst the New York streets have to offer.  Sam Elliott was only 43 years old when he made this film, and so, his shaggy gray hair and beard make him look older and gruffer than he truly was.  Thus, he was still able to throw himself into some physically demanding action scenes, which are great.  Elliott has a sly personality and fine charisma that make Richie charming in contrast to the filthy environment he surrounds himself with.  He’s a straight arrow cop that knows the crooked dealings in the department, but until now, hasn’t had much motivation or back-up to do anything about it.

Elliott and Weller simply work excellently together.  It’s not the typical buddy cop formula where two conflicting personalities clash with a single purpose to bond them.  Dalton and Marks might be distinctly different in how they lead their lives, how they present each other, but they are similar-minded men of law and justice that don’t need convincing to join forces.  They’re friends from the outset, and we see they are more alike than superficial appearances would suggest.  The two actors are tight fits, and have a sharp chemistry and wit that keeps the film energetic and entertaining.

Every other actor in this film does a tremendous, expert job.  I’ve loved Larry Joshua in everything I’ve seen him in, and he portrays the main corrupt cop Rydell.  He’s got that streetwise, slimy quality mixed in with Joshua’s usual charismatic edge and energy.  Rydell is enjoyably corrupt with just the right amount of despicableness to make a villain you love to hate.  You really want to see him taken down well before the end  Patricia Charbonneau is excellent as Susan Cantrell.  She brings a lively vibe with her, but balances that with a solid, assertive dramatic presence in the courtroom scenes.  It’s a full, well-rounded performance that holds up strongly opposite Peter Weller.  Richard Brooks, who portrayed Paul Robinette on the first few seasons of Law & Order, portrays the drug dealing Michael Jones, and he is a really, strong fit for this role.  It’s also a very well written role that works very much to Brooks’ strengths, and he couldn’t be better.  And for those that love him, John C. McGinley has a brief energetic and funny role as a lawyer and friend of Dalton’s.  There are no weak links in this cast anywhere at all.

Shakedown also has some first rate action sequences.  Glickenhaus seems very proficient in this realm as he always finds a way to amp up the scene at some point beyond your expectations.  He never settles for the standard chase scene.  He adds something especially exciting on top of what already was a damn good sequence, and gives you that memorable punctuation.  I was genuinely blown away at the intensity and impact of many of these scenes.  They really deliver in full force on every bit of adrenalin and pay-off you’d expect from a solid action film.  And I love that the film easily balances the action with the drama of the story.  The struggle for justice in the courtroom is given as much poignancy as the crime on the street.  They go hand-in-hand with this story, and it’s great to see that both sides are executed equally as well making for a very satisfying narrative.

As I mentioned, there’s more to the film than just action.  With Roland, you can see that the relationship with his fiancée does have its turbulence, but doesn’t come off as something that’s falling apart.  He starts out as a man on the verge of changing his life with a new career and a wedding on the horizon.  However, the man that he is becomes anchored by Susan coming passionately back into his life both professional and intimately.  It strikes a sentimental and deep chord with Roland, and I love where the film takes him by the end.  It’s a very satisfying character arc, and it never feels clichéd or contrived.  It’s smartly written with touches of levity, tenderness, and honesty.  All of the dialogue in the film is smartly written highlighting personality throughout, and keeping things fresh, sharp, and entertaining.

Shakedown is also really damn well shot.  I liked the use of wide angle lenses which highlighted either the excellent scenery of New York, or simply enhanced some big, dramatic action shots.  The film has a slick, polished quality that still delves into the seedier areas of 42nd Street with the grindhouse theatre and a sleazy sex club.  We get some nice uses of light and shadow mixed with neon colors that create a solid atmosphere.  There is nothing here that is not shot superbly.  I find it amazing what good filmmakers could do with $6 million back in the 80s.  This film is high quality all the way with great authentic on-location shoots in New York, crane shots, steadicams, and just a big budget polish to everything while never losing an edginess or personality for the film.  The editing is also excellent.  Editor Paul Fried had a short career that ended the following year, and it’s a shame because I can’t levy a single critique against what he did here.  It’s an exemplary editing job from start to finish.  It’s tight and sharp hitting all the marks and beats dead-on-the-mark.

The music of Shakedown is also really good.  It’s a solid action score using more of a rock driven style that really complements the energetic quality of the film.  Jonathan Elias doesn’t have many notable credits to his name, but the fact that he worked alongside John Barry, the regular composer of the James Bond films through to The Living Daylights, is a big mark of quality in my eyes.  If this film is any example, he learned quite a lot from Barry, and applied to with his own style that couldn’t have been better for this film.  Add in a little Jimi Hendrix “Purple Haze” and a solid upbeat rock/pop tune to close out the film, and you’ve got something that is greatly appealing and fun.  It’s a shame no soundtrack was ever released for Shakedown, and that aforementioned end credits song “Lookin’ For Love” by Nikki Ryder is really nowhere to be found.

As if I need to say it, I really, really liked this movie!  It was a lot of fun, and it gave me entertaining, dimensional leads with a lot of fresh chemistry and charisma to offer.  I cannot reiterate it strongly enough that Peter Weller is stellar in every second of screentime here.  I loved the character and his performance.  Meanwhile, Sam Elliott delivered beautifully on his end of things.  Shakedown was decently successful on its theatrical release grossing $10 million from a $6 million budget, and I think it deserves exposure to a wider audience.  I rented this off of iTunes, which has the film available for purchase or rental in high-definition widescreen.  I was thoroughly satisfied with this movie, which was released in international markets as Blue Jean Cop, and this gets my full fledged recommendation.  I will be glad to add this to my DVD collection, and I hope you will give this 112 minutes of your time.  It’s an exciting, fun ride that has a lot to offer the action movie fan.


The Exterminator (1980)

The ExterminatorIn 1980, writer / director James Glickenhaus brought us a gritty exploitation vigilante film known as The Exterminator.  I have some mixed statements to make about this film.  It has some great elements, but also some qualities that felt less than great.  A bad film it is not, but it has a few lackluster areas where some more refined filmmaking techniques would have sold me stronger on it.

Vietnam vet John Eastland (Ginty) launches a bloody vendetta against the New York underworld when his best friend Michael Jefferson (Steve James) is brutally beaten and paralyzed by a vicious street gang. Eastland becomes a vigilante hero to the public, but to police The Exterminator is a psychopath capable of dangerously undermining an entire government administration.

What’s of the most special note here is that Robert Ginty is a surprisingly solid fit for this role.  He looks like an average guy, clean cut, regular slender build.  He doesn’t look like the muscle bound bad ass the poster infers the Exterminator to be.  If made in the latter half of this decade with studio backing, you would’ve seen a Stallone or Schwarzenegger type actor mandated by a studio.  Ginty is unassuming, but delivers on the grim mentalities of the role.  He has his moments of compassion, showing that humanity is his motivating factor, but when he shifts into that vigilante mode, he’s a merciless, graphically violent force to contend with.  Overall, Ginty does a very, very good job in this role.  His performance compelled my interest in the movie.

The action and vigilante violence sequences are all excellently executed.  This is the film’s energy and weight.  Whenever Eastland goes out into that night to exact his own brand of justice on the criminal element, the film becomes alive and riveting.  These are expertly done sequences portraying the violence in a very gritty, realistic fashion, and having the visceral reaction desired.  The violence he inflicts includes a lot of bullets, burning a guy alive, and dropping someone into a meat grinder.  It’s all done in a very cold, decisive fashion.  Eastland is calculating and intelligent.  He’s not being controlled by passions.  He remains focused and level headed all the way through the film, and it creates a solid, intimidating screen presence that I really liked.  This is clearly an exploitation film showcasing the violence in unrelenting fashion, but with enough restraint to not try to shock you at every turn.  You get enough to sell the violence and gruesome victimization at hand, but it never drowns you in graphic visuals.  When I talk about gory horror films, I say it takes no skill to splatter gore all over the camera lens, but to know how to use the violence effectively against the audience does show skill.

The rest of the cast is okay, but with no standouts.  Christopher George is quite good as Detective James Dalton, and especially early on he seemed like a perfect fit for a tough cop.  His performance never goes down in quality, but the character is softened through the Dr. Megan Stewart romantic storyline to where he loses some weight and edge that was demonstrated from the outset.  He handles all the aspects of the role well, but he never really jumped out and gripped my attention.  I was more intrigued by Ginty’s screentime, frankly.

In the least, everyone in the film feels authentic to the time of that late 70’s New York grit.  There are the seedy, sleazy characters that are entirely credible, and are presented quite matter-of-factly.  Their sadistic, salacious acts are unsettling to a viewer, but it’s presented as being an honest look into the darker side of this urban criminal underworld.  This is reality in this era, and this film is not going to make any apologies for it.  This is the despicable activity going on in the shadows of this city, and Eastland is not going to allow it to continue.  I really like that idea, but I do think the film could have done a stronger job building up the character and his emotional motivations.

The Exterminator does feel very indicative of the time it was made.  Beyond just the violent, dark, cynical film that the late 1970’s would produce, the style of filmmaking is not uncommon for something of this ilk.  I would hold Walter Hill’s The Warriors to be the finest example of a 1970’s style hard edged, urban action movie.  The Exterminator is a much more methodically paced film, and tries to focus on mood more than a fast-paced intensity.  Still, there are aspects of pacing, structure, and atmosphere that I feel could’ve been improved to enhance that intention.  These are relatively minor things, but elements that make a marked difference.

For instance, the film feels like it cuts out a huge chunk of character building scenes early on.  Scenes of emotional motivation and a build up of dramatic momentum between where Jefferson gets attacked by the gang and Eastland goes after those responsible.  There’s not even a scene of Eastland reacting to the news of Jefferson’s paralyzing attack.  The attacks happens, and the next scene has him telling the news to someone else.  Then, he’s interrogating a street thug with a flame thrower.  Then, he exacts his revenge.  The character building scenes do occur after this, but they would have added more weight and dramatic drive to the film if they instead bridged the gap between the attack itself and Eastland becoming the Exterminator.  Those sorts of scenes would help delve more into John Eastland, and more sharply focus the narrative on him.  Up to this point, Jefferson seems like the protagonist of the film because he’s the one saving Eastland from danger and we see him with his family.  Little time is spent with Eastland to know much about who he is.  It’s a matter of dramatic structure, and while all the elements are there in the 104 minute director’s cut runtime, I don’t think they were arranged in the most effective way.

Something else that I thought was not done consistently well were scene transitions.  This is not wide spread, but there are a few instances where Glickenhaus just didn’t film any sort of artistic or dramatic segue from one scene to another.  So, instead, it just fades out from one random shot and fades into another.  This creates a bit of a disjointed flow in the narrative, and also, robs us of certain impactful moments.  Certain scenes could’ve ended half a minute earlier on a stronger note than allowing them to linger on monotonous activities.  Some scenes just don’t end with enough dramatic punctuation for the intent of the scene to resonate into the next.  For instance, Eastland kidnaps an Italian mobster, goes to his house to steal money, and gets mauled by the attack dog.  The scene ends with the attack dog, and leaves the issue of stealing the money unresolved.  Not every plot element really connects or is followed through on.   Even the romantic subplot between Detective Dalton and Dr. Stewart seems like a diversion from the vigilante plot, and honestly, has little to do with anything else in the story except to allow Dalton and Eastland to cross paths in the hospital.  It’s a nicely done subplot, but it just didn’t do anything for me.  Even Dalton’s own hunt for the Exterminator is not exactly dogged.  He’s enthusiastic about the investigation, but it never feels like an urgent manhunt or a personal determination on his part.  I would’ve preferred spending more time delving into Eastland, and creating more of an overall storyline for him besides just killing criminals at random.

The film is generally competently shot.  The cinematography is nothing to get excited about, but it’s also nothing to speak negatively on.  Although, the scene where Eastland interrogates the street thug with the flame thrower has horribly inconsistent lighting.  As the scene cuts from one angle to the next, the light source flips around 180 degrees.  First, it’s behind Eastland, then it’s behind the thug, then it goes back behind Eastland.  It was horribly distracting and blatantly obvious to me.  It’s just a bad piece of work, in only one scene, from whoever shot and lit this scene.  The rest of the film has no such problems.

However, on the editing front, I think the movie could have benefitted from some tightening up.  It unnecessarily takes its sweet time in too many instances where some smart editing and the right shots could’ve given the pacing and rhythm much more punch.  There’s extraneous footage all over this movie.  One great example is that there’s a scene where Eastland is drilling holes into bullets and filling them with mercury, then sealing them back up again.  I’m sure someone with firearms knowledge understands the idea behind this, but it is never given context or explanation to the audience what the purpose of that methodical scene was.  Doing some quick research, apparently, filling a bullet with just regular mercury, in actuality, would soften the lead of the bullet to the point where it would likely fly apart when fired.  In movie myth, it creates a grenade-like exploding bullet, but in truth, that is only potentially possible if using mercury fulminate.  This is strongly NOT recommended as you would probably die or be horribly maimed attempting to fire such a bullet.  Regardless, this idea felt like extraneous content that was part of a scene that ran on longer than it needed to.  Basically, it’s an arming up scene for Eastland that goes on for five solid minutes with the mercury bullet segment taking up three of those minutes.  If you’re not going to explain its supposed importance, or show us what doing that to the bullet is meant to accomplish, don’t bother wasting the audience’s time with it.

My biggest point of contention with this film is its ending.  The climax itself is quite good.  There’s a nice amount of suspense and tension as Dalton traverses through this docked ship at night searching for Eastland.  There’s some good action beats and explosive moments at the end.  It’s very well plotted.  The problem is, the film has no resolution to its plot, its characters, or anything else.  It sacrifices anything like that to appease some extremely unnecessary political subplot where some political figures think the Exterminator is some kind of plot by their enemies to ruin their re-election campaigns.  None of which is true, and the film could’ve existed entirely without that subplot.  It’s not too far off from my reaction to 2006’s Miami Vice.  There’s action and some nice dramatic beats in the final few minutes, but ultimately, it leaves me empty and wondering what the point of the movie was.

Ultimately, I feel The Exterminator had the good building blocks for a solid vigilante exploitation film, but it didn’t have the tight cohesion or driving narrative to really feel like it had all its stuff together.  Robert Ginty is really good in this, and makes this unexpected turn as a cold, calculating vigilante who still has his humanity intact.  He’s a good man that wants to take out the trash in this city, and has the training and means to do so.  The main problem here is that this film doesn’t have a narrative direction.  In most revenge films, the protagonist spends the majority of the movie tracking down and killing off those that have incited his needed for vengeance.  Instead, we have this self-proclaimed Exterminator dealing with that right away, and spending the rest of the movie mostly just exacting justice for others without a story of his own to follow.  Thus, it’s not surprising the ending has no resolution because there’s very little plot to resolve.  This is one of those films where I say, if you like what you read here, go ahead and give it a chance.  I don’t say avoid it, but I don’t feel it’s worth going out of your way to see it.  The film is available in a remastered director’s cut DVD / Blu-Ray combo pack release, if you’re interested.


To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

To Live And Die In LAI don’t know what it is about William Friedkin’s movies that I keep missing what everyone else sees in them.  I do keep meaning to watch The French Connection, but for the few films of his I have seen, they have eventually fallen short of expectations.  I’ve heard a few people call To Live and Die in L.A. a great movie.  One even called it a masterpiece.  I have to strongly, heavily disagree with that.  This is the second time I’ve seen the movie, and my opinion of it hasn’t changed.  Friedkin seemed to be trying to channel a Miami Vice vibe with this movie, but the quality of this would be a rather mediocre episode of that largely excellent series.  I will surely give credit that there is good content here and a solid lead performance by William Petersen, but the film left a lot to be desired, especially with its finale.

Federal Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) has a score to settle, and he’s through playing by the rules.  Whether that means blackmailing a beautiful parolee, disobeying direct orders, or hurtling the wrong way down a crowded freeway, he vows to take down murderous counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) by any means necessary.  Saddled with a very by-the-book partner in Agent Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance struggles to catch Masters in the act with a risky undercover operation, but as the stakes grow higher, will Chance’s obsession with vengeance ultimately destroy him?

The film’s first major scene has Chance and his longtime partner, Jim Hart, thwart a suicide bomber at a hotel where the President of the United States is giving a speech.  This scene is effective in establishing our characters, but surely comes off a little cheesy.  It’s slightly reflective of the whole movie.  It has good ideas and good talent in it, but never really hits the style and tone just right.  Something like this opening scene was done with better results in two scenes from the director’s cut of Lethal Weapon – the sniper incident at the school and the suicide jumper, both of which involving Martin Riggs in a tense, potentially fatal situation.  This suicide bomber scene lacks tension and weight to make it feel like a really solid, taut opening scene.  It’s far from a bad scene, but it lacked that certain realistic weight to make it feel like anything but a throwaway moment.  I did gain a measure of enjoyment from this movie up until the climax, but overall, I do feel that it lacked a hard hitting emotional quality to make the characters and events truly resonate.

I don’t know if this film started the cliché of the cop getting killed two days before retirement, but in retrospect, it seems extremely clichéd.  Chance’s partner, portrayed by Michael Greene, goes out to investigate a lead on Masters alone, and gets gunned down while doing so.  It does seem stupid that he’d go at it alone because it comes off like a cheap plot convenience.  The only hypothesis I could offer is that perhaps he was possibly trying to avoid more of Chance’s dangerous habits, but even still, rarely does a federal agent work a case alone, let alone go poke around the possible hideout of a known violent criminal without back-up.  This isn’t the smartest or most creative script, but for a standard action thriller, it is decent enough.  Of course, I don’t think that’s the film William Friedkin believed he was making, but I digress, for now.

William Petersen is really what makes the movie particularly good or entertaining.  He brings charisma to Richard Chance that has him command scenes, and easily gravitates an audience towards him.  He fits the role wonderfully injecting strong doses of excitement and danger into him.  You get that edgy, risk taker quality coming out in how Petersen works certain scenes.  He’s a tough federal agent both physically and personality wise.  When dealing with Ruth, he might use her for sex, but he’s not warm with her.  She’s a tool to be used, and he won’t hesitate to have her parole revoked if she doesn’t cooperate.  He’s also a man of action that takes matters firmly into his own hands, and runs with them regardless of risk or consequence.  He pushes hard for what he believes in, even if it’s a vendetta against Masters.  In Petersen’s hands, Richard Chance is a strong, fascinating character that has energy, conviction, and danger engrained into him.  It’s a solid, well-rounded performance that enhances what was on the page, and gives it further dimension.  There’s nothing I don’t like about this character or performance.  It’s excellent.

There are good performances here from the rest of the cast, but the problem is that there is no insight into who they are.  We know the surface level stuff, but there’s no perception into the depth of these characters.  Willem Dafoe puts in some good work as Rick Masters with a few scenes of solid weight and villainous charisma.  There is some attempt at delving into the psychology of the character with him being an artist, and more so, him burning his own paintings.  However, the film is too preoccupied with the procedural crime elements to take the time to expand on those ideas to where they have any relevance.  I know that Willem Dafoe is capable of such awesome, high quality performances that this one looks very mild by comparison.  John Pankow plays his part without flaw, but also without showing anything worth noting.  It’s a standard, flat character who has little to offer until the final twenty minutes of the film where he becomes a guilt ridden mess.  Everyone does do a good job with the material given, but the material doesn’t have much substance for them to sink their talent into.

I will certainly give credit to that the film is well shot.  It’s not stunning, but it is shot competently in all aspects.  The occasional use of neon or vibrant color washes is effective and shows a dash of visual style.  Aside from one five second shot of some of the worst shaky cam I’ve ever seen, the action is also committed to film solidly.  Now, To Live And Die in L.A. does feature an odd style in terms of coverage.  This becomes apparent in the latter half of the movie where dialogue scenes hold on a single character for an extended length of time.  Usually, such scenes would have a regular rhythm of alternating cuts over the shoulder of each actor, but you’ll come to notice that even when the other actor is speaking, there is no cut to his or her face.  It’s not even covered in a in-profile two shot.  It stays on that one over-the-shoulder shot of the person who is not regularly talking, and stays there for probably half the scene.  I cannot say if this is a good or bad idea without understanding the intention behind it.  Oddly, this being pointed out to me is why I gave this film another look.  As a filmmaker, I’m always open to new ways of doing things, and adopting new styles if they are compatible with my mentalities.  In the end, it’s an interesting way of shooting or at least editing a scene, but I don’t think the film is particularly better or worse for doing this.  It’s intriguing is all.

There is also some mixed reaction to offer on the action scenes.  The chase through the airport where Chance runs down an accomplice of Masters, portrayed by John Turturro, is great and nicely succinct.  It entirely works as a solid jolt of excitement, and I enjoy it thoroughly.  No issues there.  However, it is the big car chase scene that is the mixed bag.  It is surely intense, well shot, and well edited.  As the film’s major action sequence, it is quite well executed, to a degree.  The entire rest of the film is filled with pop music and an energetic score, but this, its biggest action set piece, features no score of any kind at all.  The difference a score makes in this situation is taking the sequence from being just “Oh, that’s dangerous,” to “Damn, that’s exciting!”  A score builds up the adrenalin and enhances the imminent peril of the action.  It can create that fever pitch of exhilaration that can make or break a scene.  The absence of a score here doesn’t kill this scene, but it could have added so much more.  Also, you might happen to notice that ALL of the traffic on the highway is going the opposite direction of what it should be.  Everyone is driving on the left hand side of the road.  Cars in the northbound lanes are travelling southbound and vice versa.  I honestly don’t understand why this sequence was staged this way.  Like with what I will get into with the film’s final act, it doesn’t make any sense and is ass-backwards.

Since I mentioned the score, I should elaborate on its quality.  It’s better in some scenes than others, but generally, it’s just okay.  I can’t quite wrap my head around hiring pop band Wang Chung to do the score for this entire film.  The band had never done such a thing before, and were really only a mildly popular band.  Sometimes these things work amazingly well such as with Tangerine Dream, and I think their scores for Thief and Risky Business are masterful works that capture a unique and brilliant atmosphere.  Wang Chung’s score is fairly average with no real ambition or uniqueness to be of special note.  Some of the songs in the film even fall on the low end of my quality spectrum.  There was such better music of this genre in 1985 that it’s a bit disappointing that this was the best collection of music that could be assembled for this movie.  The music just wasn’t memorable in the least to me.

Now, if you do not want spoilers about the film’s ending, skip this entire paragraph and the next.  I cannot critique it without being explicit about what happens.  I can respect throwing a swerve at the audience in killing your main character unexpectedly, but it has to be earned.  There needs to be a thematic storyline running through this that builds up to such an abrupt, anti-climactic moment.  Chance is unceremoniously shot in the face as soon as he and Vukovich move to arrest Masters, and it comes off like the most inane idea ever.  I believe I can understand part of what Friedkin was attempting to achieve with this event which was entirely improvised on set.  Chance is a guy that takes greater and greater risks, pushing things too far for his own obsessive ends.  Maybe having him die in a poetic fashion where he does push it one step too far, and pays the price for it would potentially work.  Instead, he goes out like a punk, a worthless nobody.  The film doesn’t have that dramatic build up to make this work.  Yes, he crossed a huge line with his heist from what were actual undercover FBI agents to come up with the front money for Masters, but the film lacks any form of thematic material to have all the reckless behavior culminate in anything.  If we saw the obsession eat at him, tear his senses away, and push him beyond the limits to where he invites consequence upon himself, that would potentially make this ending work.  The problem is that Chance honestly doesn’t seem much different from any other movie cop that bends the rules and crosses lines where he sees fit.  He is a charismatic character, but in the scale of anti-heroes, he’s just above mild.  A real great example of what I’m talking about would be in Point Break where the antagonist is an adrenalin junkie who pushes things so far that his friends pay the fatal price for it, and it comes down to one of my favorite endings in movie history that has poetic qualities to it.  There’s a price to be paid for what he’s done, but the film handles it in such a perfect way that was setup early on.  To Live and Die in L.A. has no setup for the abrupt, shallow murder of Richard Chance.

And it only gets worse from there.  What is done with the John Vukovich character is ridiculous, and has no build up, either.  After clearly deteriorating into this mess of a man whose conscience is haunting him over the death of the undercover FBI agent they stole from, the ending of the film throws us another swerve.  They have Vukovich essentially become Chance.  He dresses like him, acts like him, and plans to start using and abusing Ruth just like Chance did.  None of this correlates with anything this character was going through at anytime during the rest of the film.  It’s thrown in there to be “cool,” but it comes off as near laughable.  This is a character that was against everything Chance was doing every step of the way, but kept getting ensnared into it, regardless.  This isn’t someone who was going to abandon his by-the-book mentality and troubled conscience.  He was more likely to psychologically fall apart and turn in his badge out of guilt.  It makes no sense for Vukovich to willingly adopt the mentality of Chance when he was so strongly opposed to it, and after seeing where Chance’s reckless behavior lead him to.

If it wasn’t for this one-two punch of really bad ideas for an ending, I could give this movie a mild recommendation.  Something that you could gain some decent enjoyment out of, but nothing to place big expectations for.  I honestly feel that if To Live and Die in L.A. was a Michael Mann film, it would have been a thousand times better.  If for nothing else, Mann would never in a million years employ the shallow swerves of an ending we got.  Considering the following year he made Manhunter starring William Petersen, I think that statement carries a lot of weight.  There are episodes of Miami Vice that are masterful works that are better than many feature film crime thrillers, and this film is no exception.  As I said, Friedkin tries to channel that vibe and style, but it feels like a second rate imitation that doesn’t capture that emotional substance or sleek cinematic brilliance.  He wanted it to be stylish, exciting, and smart, but it’s too lacking on all those fronts to succeed.  The main issue with To Live and Die in L.A. is that it thinks it’s a smarter, sharper, edgier film than it really is when it is more or less an average action thriller.  There’s barely any depth to the characters, the visuals aren’t anything special, the music is mediocre at best, and the screenplay is more focused on the procedural aspects than the character based ideas it thinks its ending pays off.  It’s not a film I hate, aside from the ending, as I had a decent time watching it again, mainly due to Petersen’s performance, but I don’t see the masterpiece of crime cinema that others perceive in it.  I’ve seen so much better from Heat to The Usual Suspects to Drive that you really need to work a lot harder to reach such standards.