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.


Midnight Heat (2007)

Midnight HeatFor whatever reason, I just felt the need to review something of a different style, a different whatever from everything I’ve been doing lately.  I’ve come to find that what I most enjoy spotlighting here are films that are hidden gems.  Stuff that’s not too widely known, but is of a certain admirable quality.  I really like allowing others to discover movies through my reviews, and that’s not going to happen reviewing Star Wars or Terminator movies.  Showcasing something that also inspires me as a filmmaker on a more personal level is the other thing I gravitated towards with this review.  I’ve previously reviewed the film Paranoia from internet comedic personality and independent filmmaker Brad Jones.  Midnight Heat is a 2007 feature length effort from him that was made with a lower grade production value, but for me, the quality of the writing, most of the acting, and the direction really shines through the very rough digital video camcorder, micro-budget quality of the movie.  This is the type of movie that really inspires me and drives me to be a creative and ambitious filmmaker.  Seeing someone else achieve this with even less resources than I have today is further inspiration, but let’s breakdown the plot of this sleazy 1980’s exploitation film homage first.

Midnight Heat is a story of cops, hookers, killers, and pimps; all centered around one sleazy night in the late 1980’s.  A cocaine addicted homicide detective (Jake Norvell) is brought out of suspension in order to trail local prostitute Donna Diggs (Bianca Queen) who may become the next victim of The Scalper (Nick Foster), a serial killer who preys on the city’s hookers.  Meanwhile, her mentally unstable pimp Martin (Brad Jones) attempts to get out of the business while finding it harder to protect his girls from both the killer and from an abusive rival pimp (Buford Stowers).

I will make one preface about the technical quality of Midnight Heat and the relative standards of quality I judge this by.  I’ve both been an independent filmmaker for several years, and have watched these types of movies since the late 90’s.  In this realm, you make the best story you can make with the equipment and resources you have at your disposal.  Not every independent filmmaker has the cash to buy boom mics, pro lighting gear, or a high quality camcorder.   If all you have is a Digital Hi8 camcorder and a solid screenplay, you go for it.  It may indeed be difficult for some to acclimate themselves into the experience, but if you can get beyond the digital grain from the low lighting and less than perfect audio, there is a very entertaining and well written sleazy crime thriller waiting for you.  The film is only available, completely free, through Brad Jones’ website.  So, all it costs you is time to give it a chance.

This film is Brad’s tribute to 1980s sleaze flicks like Vice Squad, Savage Streets, and The Exterminator while taking strong vibes from Miami Vice.  This really translates from both the story being soaked in the nighttime world of sex, drugs, and murder, and the choice of soundtrack.  The reason the movie is only available for online viewing is because it features tons of unlicensed 1980s pop songs.  I greatly used these sorts of songs as temp music for my feature film The Fixer, and I wish I could commercially release it with those tracks because they perfectly capture the vibe I was going for.  Brad Jones was just interested in putting the film out there without a mind towards commercial release.  With it being specifically set in 1987, I couldn’t imagine Midnight Heat working without these era-specific tracks.  Songs from Glenn Frey, Phil Collins, The Cars, Scandal, Loverboy, Kim Carnes, Animotion, and many more pulsate throughout this movie.  They are the entire score, and it instills the film with energy and a very familiar emotional feeling for me.  At times, it would be preferable if the songs were lower in the mix so they don’t compete too strongly against the dialogue, but the music never drowns it out.  Brad Jones did the best he could with the actual production sound, as is stated in his intro video to the movie on his website.  Still, if there’s one thing that could’ve been improved, it is just the mixing of music and sound effects around the dialogue.  Often gunshots and other dramatic sound effects don’t have the sonic impact they should have, but I am able to forgive and move beyond that to understand the intentions on display.  If this was a multi-million dollar budgeted film with professional sound engineers, you could rightfully attack that with great zeal, but not in this case, not at all.

While most of the cast are not professional actors, we are treated to some very strong and substantive performances.  Jake Norvell’s Detective Rick Wilson is the perfect sleazy 1980s corrupt cop.  A cocaine snorting, prostitute indulging, foul mouthed burn out that is distrusted by the police department, and is stuck with an assignment no one else cares about.  Norvell appropriately portrays him in an over the top fashion in a performance that really dominates a lot of the movie.  This is a character of ego and abrasiveness, but also has that tinge of emotional value.  Norvell intensely portrays the erratic, substance abusing behavior of Wilson making him an unpredictable wild card.  This repeatedly complicates matters with Donna, but there’s always that sordid emotional connection between them that really pulls them together.  Norvell’s performance grows and solidifies in the third act, and becomes damn near powerhouse in a very fun, indulgent way.  He’s really feeling the energy of this character throughout, but it is punched up in that last twenty-five minutes.

Bianca Queen is quite good as the female lead.  She brings a lot toughness and grit to Donna, but is not at all afraid to delve into the required sleaze of the role.  She holds her ground very solidly opposite Norvell, and the relationship they strike is combative, yet complicated.  She wonderfully conveys the sordid, argumentative history between Donna and Rick without ever backing down.  She also slinks very enthusiastically into the sexy, seductive aspects of the character.  Ultimately, by the end, we see even more depth from Queen that makes her standout beautifully next to her male co-stars of Jones and Norvell.

Obviously, I am a major fan of Brad Jones’ work, and for very good reason.  The man is exceptionally talented as both a writer and actor.  In the role of Martin, he is channeling something complex and intriguing.  He’s this pimp that tries to run a good operation, but just wants to find a clean way out of this life.  Yet, this is the night that everything is deconstructing around him.  The stress pulls at him too agonizingly, and he can’t help but crack over and over again.  Jones portrays this character with a strong wealth of sympathy that transcends all the irredeemable violence Martin inflicts, but also brings plenty of weight in a role that gradually slips into being an antagonistic force.  The trippy dream sequence Martin has really pushes the idea of the fracturing psyche even further.  Jones is entirely convincing as an intimidating presence, but that complex nature regularly comes back into play where Martin is not just on a violent rampage.  He can be a relatable character when baring his soul, but Jones’ performance is never too far removed from that psychologically messed up behavior.  By the end, both sides of the character mesh together greatly with some smartly written dialogue and ideas.  Overall, Jones’ performance is a major highlight of the movie.

Buford Stowers is a great heavy as the ruthless pimp Phil.  He carries himself with a weighty presence and a good measure of sleaze-laden charisma.  Every scene he has is punctuated with an aggressive authority.  Stowers throws his all into the role, but keeps it grounded and intimidating.  He feels like a serious threat that no one would risk crossing.  Stowers and Jones have excellent chemistry as rival pimps, and have some solid scenes together.

The remainder of the cast has some good performances including Kim West as Nikki, Phil’s premiere working girl.  Sarah Lewis always impresses me in Jones’ films with her best performance coming as the lead in The Hooker With A Heart of Gold.  Here, she has only a few scenes as Donna’s friend Mindy, but it is very well acted on all levels.  Alex Shyrock is very good as Detective Mike Nero who is a cop who doesn’t seem like he gives much of a damn anymore, and doesn’t enjoy having to screw around with Wilson throughout the night.  Shyrock has that right stressed out, frayed quality showing that Nero is sick and tired of this Scalper case, and just wants it done with however possible.

The most substantive scene is when Martin and Rick cross paths and have a lengthy conversation together.  Both men lay out their troubles, how they got to where they are now, and talking frankly about what has damaged them.  Jones and Norvell put in excellent performances here.  The two are great, close friends in real life, and that chemistry shows through.  It’s a fairly brief pair of scenes between them, but it is a solid turning point that motivates the characters into the third act..  Their confrontation at the film’s end is equally as good.

Handheld camera work is the standard here, as is Jones’ style.  He has said that he relies on this so much due to the fact of having only the built-in microphone on his camcorder to record audio.  So, he regularly needs to have the camera close-in on the actors to get consistent audio.  Still, while the framing can regularly be a little too tight when trying to pan between two actors, and the handheld being a little rough, there are many scenes with quite good camera angles and editing.  For the most part, the flow of the movie is very good with only a few rough transitions here and there.  I can entirely see that if Jones had the right equipment and the ability to refine his technical quality, this would be a greatly polished movie on all levels.

I really like movies with intercutting stories.  They inherently create an energy that propels the narrative forward with great rhythm.  Midnight Heat regularly cuts between Martin’s descent into self-destruction and Rick and Donna’s turbulent night together.  Both stories parallel one another until they eventually intersect and collide.  This structure works beautifully, and maintains a streamlined flow throughout.  Jones writes very vibrant and interesting characters with some excellent dialogue.  Midnight Heat is an exploitation film through and through, but the quality of the writing is comparable to that of a Michael Mann film like Thief or Collateral.  Characters are dimensional and feel quite real and textured.  This is the real strength of the movie, and it is what immensely impresses me about it.  As I said, beyond the rough, low grade technical qualities there is a wealth of talent on display fueled by Jones’ amazingly written script.  There is substance in this story.  It never falls back on letting the sleaze weigh down the film for a fun, cheap thrill.  Jones absolutely was putting his best dramatic effort forward, and it shows through.  That’s what I think makes for a great independent filmmaker – to have the quality of your talent and vision shine through even the most rugged of technical shortcomings.

While I believe Brad has stated that directing isn’t his favorite part of the process, I do believe he put together a cohesive and well directed movie here.  While everyone cast in the movie is part of his wide circle of friends, he is able to make the best use of them in key roles, and they gave him their best.  The compressed time frame of the film also creates an energy and momentum not too unlike Michael Mann’s Collateral.  Everything occurs over a single night, and that creates a compact, compounded intensity that builds as the film progresses.  I used to have many extremely late nights out to where I didn’t know late night from early morning anymore, and Midnight Heat gradually captures that feeling in its third act.  The film narrows out its cast of characters, and focuses in on its leads of Rick, Donna, and Martin enhancing the sense of isolation and loneliness of those hours of the night.  The climax is not action based, but character based.  It brings everything to a head in a very solid and satisfying way.

I strongly believe Midnight Heat to be one of Brad Jones’ best films.  The writing is excellent and the full cast really puts their all into it.  I love the neo noir style of it all taking place at night.  It soaks you deep into this grimy, dark world, and that’s just perfectly my style.  There’s very little action in the movie as it is built and driven by its characters, which are excellently developed and realized.  At nearly an hour and forty minutes, I think this is a well put together independent film that was made with a lot of passion and enthusiasm.  At the time he posted this on his website in July of 2011, Brad stated this to be his favorite film out of all the ones he had made up to that point.  Knowing him as well as I do through his website, this really is where his love of film is the strongest, and I’m intrigued to know that a sequel is planned, likely for this year.  It was a combination of seeing this movie and Brad’s v-log movie review of Drive that got me to see that brilliant movie which is now one of my favorites of all time.  Coincidentally, the opening credits to Drive are nearly identical to those of Midnight Heat, same font and all.

As I said, you can exclusively watch Midnight Heat on Brad’s website for free.  Clearly, I give the movie a very strong recommendation for anyone that enjoys neo noir crime thrillers or the sleazier side of 1980s cinema.  You can watch the rather low quality trailer here.  Give it a few minutes of your time, and see if it appeals to your interests.


Dead Man Down (2013)

Dead Man DownI only got turned onto the existence of this movie last week, and the trailer did blow me away.  It seemed like a very visually captivating piece of art in the violent crime genre.  I certainly do not feel the trailer was wholly misleading, as it does capture some of what the film has to offer, but it did give me a somewhat exaggerated expectation.  Dead Man Down is indeed a very good film from the director of the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev, with a slow building substance and good performances.  It felt like it was giving me a different approach to the revenge film archetype focusing more on the emotional depth of those affected by these tragedies instead of delving into the clichéd Death Wish type of scenario.  I do have some critiques to levy against the movie, partly due to expectations, but in general, I did find some enjoyment with Dead Man Down.

Victor (Colin Farrell), a rising gangland player, has infiltrated the crime empire run by ruthless kingpin Alphonse (Terrence Howard), with the single purpose of making Alphonse pay for destroying his once happy life.  As he meticulously orchestrates his vengeance from his high-rise home, Victor watches and is watched by Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a mysterious young woman who lives in the apartment across from his. On the surface a fragile woman-child, Beatrice seethes with a rage of her own.  When she uncovers Victor’s dark secrets, she threatens to expose him unless he helps her carry out her own campaign of retribution.  Each fixated on avenging the past, they devise a violent and cathartic plan that could change their worlds forever.

As I said, this film focuses on its emotionally and physically scarred victims of injustice instead of shoot ‘em up action.  That’s what really captivated me about the film as it went on.  It does take a while for the film to get into the depth of our protagonists, but that ultimately fits with the film’s style.  It slowly builds the relationship between Victor and Beatrice from a fractured need for violent retribution to something far more of the heart and soul.  This slow development might not be for everyone, but I did enjoy those moments when the film arrived at them.  The gradual progression paid off well, and that’s mainly due to the very good performances and the quality of the direction.

While I’ve rarely seen the potential of Colin Farrell fully realized on film, I’ve had a lot of faith in his talent, and I like seeing him in films.  There are a few I do need to see where he is very charismatic and potentially wildly entertaining.  In this film, we get subtlety and depth.  We, firstly, see the glimpses into his character’s pain.  The tragic loss he has endured is shown through in very touching moments of him watching a home movie of his family.  Where the standard action revenge film has the lead essentially turning into the Punisher, this film highlights the pain within and deals with the substantive choices of the heart and mind that these actions have.  What we see grow out of the relationship with Beatrice is indeed a rediscovery of humanity for him.  Colin Farrell really made me feel the anguish of the love Victor forges with Beatrice.  It’s genuine and touching, and it’s what makes the film worthwhile.

Noomi Rapace is equally excellent.  I felt for Beatrice possibly even more than Victor.  Her life has also been shattered, but she is left with the physical scars to always remind her of what she’s lost.  The injustice she has faced is internally and externally crippling.  The neighborhood kids assault her, insult her by calling her “monster.”  Her pain evokes sympathy at every turn, and her screaming at Victor to give her revenge is something we cannot fault her for.  Rapace puts in a beautiful performance of heartbreaking depth, but also, we see that heart mend along the way.  She and Farrell do work very well together striking a substantive emotional chord that resonates.  I was emotionally effected several times during their most painful and poignant scenes together.  With the direction of Niels Arden Oplev, these scenes are given weight and prominence through fine cinematography and effective use of music.

Now, I also really like Terrence Howard as an actor.  I’ve seen him in enough to really enjoy his charisma and intelligence.  As Alphonse, he does carry some very good weight.  It’s not a powerhouse performance, but he does get his scenes to shine in.  He can be ruthless and cunning as well as a little bit intimidating.  I did like what he did in this role, but I do feel there could’ve been more added to him.  While we know what he has done to deserve this methodical campaign of torment and revenge, we never really see him doing anything on-screen to further that perception of a vile, cold blooded crime lord.  Alphonse does still have people he answers to in the hierarchy of organized crime, but we certainly get the impression he is substantially formidable.  I feel Howard’s best scene is when he meets with Victor to have him weed out the one responsible for this torment.  It’s an excellently staged, shot, and acted scene that I wish went on a little longer.  I felt it ended a little abruptly, but nonetheless, it is a stellar scene that I really liked.

The film also has some nice small performances by Armand Assante as Alphonse’s boss, and F. Murray Abraham as Victor’s Hungarian father-in-law.  Both actors bring their best quality forward to really give some strong support to these minor but no less pertinent characters.  Abraham certainly has more screentime to work with, and more emotional content to convey.  All the rest of the supporting cast does a really fine job.  No weak links here at all.

What action scenes there are in Dead Man Down are well done.  I particularly liked the chase / escape scene after Victor’s sniper attack.  It’s very well conceived and executed with stellar results.  While there is handheld camera work here, the editing is relatively conservative allowing for the geography of the action to be maintained.  I was never lost in these sequences.  The visual grammar was very solid and flowed nicely.  As always, that’s partly due to a very good editor that knows the right way to let the action play out in a coherent fashion.  The rest of it is an intelligent director and a damn good director of photography in the form of Paul Cameron.  He has previously worked with Michael Mann on Collateral and Tony Scott on Man on Fire.  Both films had very different styles, but were both helmed by filmmakers who knew how to competently and intelligently shoot action and hefty drama.  Dead Man Down is no different as it is very well shot with its own grounded style, but with special artistic touches that I found very intriguing and visually enjoyable.

The score by Jacob Groth, a regular collaborator with Oplev, is very well done accentuating the emotional strengths of the film.  Generally speaking, his work here is very effective and sets the right tones at the right times.  Not much really stood out, but his score was very pivotal in enhancing the moments of the film that hit my strongly on an emotional level.  I think that says plenty.  In the context of the movie, there’s only a single rap song, and that’s from the outset shootout sequence.  Admittedly, I am not a fan of that genre of music, but it was used quite well and I enjoyed its momentary inclusion.

The story we have here is presented and executed quite well.  While it did take a while to get me to a point where I connected with it, emotionally, it’s great once it does get there.  We finally get into the meat of the story that’s unfolding here, and I do believe Niels Arden Oplev does quite a good job at telling that story.  He never really rushes through anything.  He takes the time for the weight of the characters and their actions to be absorbed by the audience.  We get to understand what’s happening beneath the surface of these characters.  While I was never wholly energized by the film, I was engaged by it.  I do wish that the film delivered more on the artistic visual awe that I was ensnared by in the trailer, but as it is, I did generally enjoy what I experienced.

However, the main critique I have against the film is that the film really felt like it was building towards something more substantive and emotionally powerful than the climax it gave us.  Simply put, without delving into spoilers, we essentially get a straight up action sequence that more than borders on your standard action revenge film climax.  It’s not a badly done sequence, but it wasn’t mind blowing either.  That’s the one thing the trailer really drove me towards expecting – action scenes presented in an artistic, mind blowing fashion.  Something that would be visually beautiful while maintaining a graceful substance of emotion.  Thus, the climax left me underwhelmed.  It gives us a moment or two of substance, but aside from the initial fiery slow motion explosion, it’s generally your standard action film climax with gunfire everywhere and splashy stunts to jump start it all.  It felt a little shallow for a film that had so much depth, and a tad cliché for something that seemed to give us a fresher perspective on the revenge thriller idea.  I also felt that what happens to Alphonse was a little too much out of a B-grade action movie because it allowed for no emotional poignancy for the characters or story.  I think the film demanded something with more dramatic weight and emotional satisfaction.  Again, the climactic action sequence is well made, but from the artistic point of view, it left me wanting something more substantive.

I would buy Dead Man Down when it hits DVD.  I think it has enough admirable and valuable qualities that I could enjoy watching it again.  The performances are quite solid all around delving us into a realistic well of emotion.  The development of the love between Victor and Beatrice is beautifully done with two excellent actors really digging down deep to pull at my heartstrings a few times.  The film only has about three action scenes in it, and they are all well done.  Still, it is not something to expect a lot of excitement or high charisma for.  If there’s anything that does deter anyone from it, I believe it is that fact.  The film deals with subtle, grounded performances with a gradual pace that does pay off, but might leave some audiences cold.  You’re either going to become invested in these characters or you are not, and if not, then there’s really little else to engage your attention.  Now, you may notice a peculiar WWE Studios logo attached to this film, as in the professional wrestling company.  I really believe that’s only there because one of their wrestlers, Wade Barrett, has a very minor role as a mafia henchman.  He has maybe three or four lines in the whole movie, and is mostly background muscle in a suit.  WWE Studios likely had next to no creative input on this film as it’s certainly far above their low grade, cheap schlock standards.  Don’t let that peculiar logo at the start of the film throw you off.  Dead Man Down is mostly very good, but overall, it’s just pretty good.  Regardless of my trailer induced expectations, it does have a few shortcomings with the climax and the lack of a particular emotional veracity, but if any of what I’ve conveyed to you is to your tastes, I feel the movie is worth checking out in one form or another with the right set of expectations.


Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2 Judgment DayTerminator 2: Judgment Day is still one of the best action blockbusters ever made.  There was no equal in 1991.  I hadn’t even seen the film until a few years later, and I knew all the catch phrases and iconography from it.  This movie almost instantly came into the pop culture vernacular.  Many films today are huge blockbuster successes, but they don’t make the impact that T2 did.  While I consider The Terminator to be the best of the franchise and of Cameron’s career, this is one amazing second best to have that is massively better than most peoples’ number ones.  A few years ago I even had the pleasure of seeing Terminator 2 on the big screen thanks to a regular retro summer film series as my local Marcus Theatre, and it still felt like an event to me.

Over ten years after a killer cyborg was sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), her son John (Eddie Furlong), the future leader of the human resistance, is targeted by a more advanced Terminator – the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a liquid metal based machine able to take on nearly any form.  John’s only hope for survival is a re-programmed Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent by his future self to protect him.  Meanwhile, Sarah has become a quintessential survivor who has been institutionalized for her warning of the nuclear holocaust she knows is inevitable.  When these heroes converge while eluding the T-1000, the idea is sparked that Judgment Day could be averted by wiping out SkyNet’s entire existence.

Terminator 2 is one of those blockbuster movies that you really can’t call yourself an action fan if you haven’t seen it.  It is a masterfully crafted and executed piece of sci-fi action cinema that melds together the key signatures of James Cameron’s style.  It has heart, humanity, emotion, depth, character, thematic weight, and bombast all in plentiful amounts.  While I love the first movie for its killer pace, storytelling innovations, and intensity, this really is the big budget James Cameron style refined and smoothed out.  Aliens was his first foray into that style, but I think that film did drag in too many places killing the pace and momentum of the narrative frequently.  This film is a vast improvement over that.  While we don’t get that same innovation of storytelling like imparting exposition during a frenetic chase sequence, considering the complex nature of the T-1000, I think having a calmer scene to convey those “harder to wrap your head around” ideas is the better way to go.  The film has more important things to deal with overall than the frenetic action sequences, mostly.

Now, I may have had the Special Edition in my mind too prominently when thinking about the overall pacing of the film when writing my review of The Terminator.  While that cut does have many great additional scenes that build character and story beautifully, it loses some tighter editing and storytelling cohesion that the theatrical cut possesses.  For these reasons, Jim Cameron considers the theatrical version to be the better cut of the film.  Where the Special Edition lags a lot in the second act, giving us a lot more slow scenes of character building and such, the theatrical version is much tighter.  It moves along in a more streamlined fashion allowing a few bits and pieces to be logically filled in by the audience, and to direct the focus of the story more consistently on John, Sarah, and the T-800.  All of these additional scenes are well conceived and well executed, and I surely endorse watching the Special Edition for a more expanded view of this amazing story.  Still, it is the theatrical cut I am focusing on for this review because it is Cameron’s preferred version, just like with the Special Edition of Aliens.

It’s great that the movie begins very similarly to the first.  We get the future war sequence showing us more than before, but instead of a paragraph of text on screen, we get the Sarah Connor narration that sets the epic, emotional mood greatly.  Then, we see the T-800 appear and assault some people while seeking some suitable attire, just like in the original.  While many know going into the movie that Arnold plays the good Terminator in this film, Cameron sets it up as if you do not have that knowledge.  It treats both Terminators as potential lethal threats.  Yet, while the T-800 gets a shot of levity with the George Thorogood track “Bad to the Bone,” the T-1000 is given a far more threatening vibe throughout.  Still, Kyle Reese was initially presented in a dangerous, threatening capacity as well.  So, someone watching this cold could not wholly be certain when paralleling this sequel to the original movie.

The film plays on your misconceptions of being uncertain which time traveler is the threat, and it’s an even greater scene when Sarah herself encounters the T-800 during her attempted escape from the mental hospital.  Giving Arnold the line of, “Come with me if you want to live,” is excellent creating a surreal moment for Sarah, but one that resonates with her and the audience.  We already know this Terminator is here to protect, but making even the slightest connection of trust between Sarah and the Terminator is immensely important.  The scene is also excellent in that all of our main characters have converged, and finally sets the story along on its ultimate path in exciting fashion.

Everything I praise this film for goes along with praising James Cameron’s directing abilities, but also, I think this is probably his best screenplay.  It’s very smart taking the ideas of a formulaic sequel and making tweaks and twists here and there to keep the ideas fresh.  Cameron then builds upon every idea from the first film and expands upon it for a much larger story that digs even deeper into the humanity of these characters and ideas.  I do have one critique to get to much later on that affects the climax, but with the substance of the characters, themes, and story, I don’t think anyone could’ve done a better job developing and fleshing out these ideas.  Cameron really wrote a fantastic screenplay alongside co-writer William Wisher.  On the Cameron-Wisher audio commentary the Extreme Edition DVD, Wisher states that he has never worked on a film before or since that so precisely realized on screen what he envisioned in his head while writing it.  That’s a testament to Cameron’s filmmaking abilities, and the excellent quality of this motion picture.  He knew how to hit it directly on the head, and translate his vision to film in a near flawless fashion.

It is amazing how the film is able to humanize Arnold’s Terminator.  He eventually becomes our full-fledged hero, and the one we are wholly rooting for.  This is accomplished through so many elements.  From early on, John is instilling little pieces of morality and humanity into the T-800 that slowly pay-off.  The shift in the character is entirely seamless.  In almost every scene there is a subtle evolution that molds him from that cold, stoic cyborg into a character of personality and humanity.  You feel for this machine like you would for any noble, honorable, compassionate hero.  The relationship built between John and the Terminator becomes powerful and heartbreakingly emotional by the end.  The final moments between Sarah Connor and the Terminator are powerful, and her final words of narration are amazing.  It seems like something you’re not even aware of happening during the course of the movie, but once you’re there in those moments, you do feel something poignant for this character who was just a one dimensional bad ass who is now complex and dimensional.  It is surely one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finest, most subtle, and nuanced performances.  He is exceptional throughout this movie.

Linda Hamilton is scary here.  She goes from that wholesome, tender, but tough woman we saw with Kyle Reese to this near psychotic, militaristic, violent woman, and she makes it work stunningly.  If you knew the exact date that the world would suffer a nuclear holocaust, you would go a little insane and violent as well.  Especially if everyone you told didn’t believe you.  Hamilton got into such intense physical shape she even scared Arnold a bit.  She handles the physical demands of this film with shocking ability and precision.  The training she went through in every aspect honed the character into the hardened, effective weapon we see.  Performance wise, Linda Hamilton is amazing all the way through showing the profound inner turmoil and despair that has enveloped Sarah, but also the psychological mess that she has become living with this imminent apocalyptic knowledge.  Everyone around her is a walking corpse to her.  They’re ghosts who don’t know that they’re dead, yet.  That’s a scary mindset to live in, and Linda Hamilton goes full boar into the depths of Sarah’s corrupted psyche.  She has lost hope for herself and humanity, but she goes on a journey here to regain that hope.  Even when she attempts to kill Miles Dyson, despite trying to be as cold as the Terminator herself, when forced to look Dyson in the eye face-to-face, her humanity will not allow her to take an innocent life.  Hamilton is just a whole different animal in this movie, and it is a complex and powerful character that she brings to life.

Eddie Furlong is quite impressive in this, his first acting role.  He had a lot of help along the way to bring out his talent and mold it for this performance.  His John Connor has a fine arc going from this rebellious punk kid who respects no form of authority, and has little emotional attachment to anyone, to forging some massively strong bonds with both his mother and the T-800.  We see a vibrant emotional range from Furlong, and he meshes perfectly with Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.  He never gets lost amongst them as the film has so much pertinence for his character, and he holds the weight of that role strongly and profoundly.  I also highly endorse Cameron’s idea of never having John Connor fire a gun in the film.  He handles them, reloads ammo, but never discharges a weapon.  Cameron wanted John to be perceived as an intellectual leader instead of a brute force one.  Of this trio, he is the one with the most level headed mind and clear perception of morality.  He stabilizes the cold, amorality of the Terminator and Sarah’s erratic, psychologically fracture mentalities.  He might seem like a supporting character because of his age, but John Connor is a central, pivotal character in this story that anchors the humanity of all.  Furlong is tremendous all the way through this performance.

The performance of Robert Patrick as the T-1000 is just uncanny.  I like Cameron going back to the idea of the Terminator being far more average looking so it can be a cipher amongst humans.  Patrick has the right slender, average build, but is able to conjure up so much menace in a different way than Arnold did in the first movie.  He feels like a shark relentlessly hunting his prey where he can be silent and subversive, but ultimately, be efficiently lethal.  Even when Patrick is portraying the T-1000 as the kindly police officer, there’s something so subtle about what he does that puts his portrayal just slightly off-center.  You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s an odd quality to his manner that still evokes the menace and cold machine underneath.  His physical ability is incredible.  When he’s rapid firing a gun, he doesn’t blink once.  He runs with stunning speed, and maintains that fluidity of motion throughout.  He creates a complete character with brilliant nuances that are subtly and directly effective to an audience.  It also love that Robert Patrick’s career didn’t get pigeonholed into this unique sort of role.  He scored some meaty dramatic work after this movie, and has continued to have a very successful and diverse career to this day.  His dedication to a role is clearly evident here, and shows how much of a physical actor he can be when tested.

And on a final casting note, I believe Joe Morton was a remarkable choice for Miles Dyson.  This was the first thing I ever saw him in, and it set a standard of excellence with Morton that he has never failed to live up to.  He’s an actor that is able to channel a deep well of emotion and sympathy in such honest, human ways.  When you see Dyson, he is a man that is enthusiastic about his work, and in a scene from the Special Edition, he talks about all the good this technology could do for humanity.  He’s not a malevolent man.  He’s a wonderful family man with all the best intentions in the world, but when he learns the truth about his future history, it takes him about the length of a heartbeat to realize what must be done.  Joe Morton instills such passion and empathy into this character that even though he is a supporting character, he adds such poignant emotional impact and weight to the film.  Sarah realizes that the solution to SkyNet is not to destroy the people that created it, but to destroy the building blocks of it and allow humanity to survive.  And of course, Dyson’s final moments on screen are powerful due to Morton’s amazing acting talents.

At the time, this was probably the most bombastic action movie to date with the biggest special effects ever seen.  I remember news broadcasts covering the Cyberdyne building explosion, and shows going behind the scenes to show us how all these mind-blowing effects sequences were done.  It was massively fascinating.  This was the dawn of the digital age of visual effects, and we were able to be awed by it all.  The opening future war sequence blows away what we saw in the first film by miles.  It shows us a legion of T-800 endoskeletons stomping through the landscape, and large scale shots that really sell the scope of this movie.  The T-1000 CGI effects were amazing at the time, and still hold up pretty damn well today.  They brought to life something we had never seen before, nor something we ever could have seen before.  I believe, as the film goes on, the digital effects become better and more impressive due to how they interact with the physical reality around them.  It was a tremendous feat that revolutionized the visual effects industry.  Of course, you can never take anything away from the masterful practical effects created by Stan Winston Studios.  There was no equal in this field, and rarely a man better to embrace these new technologies and imaginations than Stan himself.  This film was a big part of the legacy he left behind, and he even directed the original teaser trailer which showed the construction of Arnold’s T-800 Terminator.  Pure awesomeness!

A great marriage of miniatures, practical effects, and visual effects were showcased in the Judgment Day scenes.  The nuclear explosion scenes are horrifying and have the deep penetrating impact upon an audience that they needed.  The film opens with a tease of it, showing us the world moments before, and shortly thereafter with the playground engulfed in an inferno.  It shows us what is at stake in Sarah Connor’s mind, the nightmare that she knows is coming.  Then, eventually, we see that dark reality that haunts her every moment of every day, and it is shocking beyond imagination.  Judgment Day is no longer an abstract concept to the audience, we see the near annihilation of humanity in a thermo-nuclear holocaust.  It is terrifyingly dark, but it motivates everything forward and sells the necessity of our heroes’ actions.  Overall, this is one of those great films that uses stunning and innovative special effects to tell a substantive story.  It doesn’t make itself all about the spectacle, it gives you something meaningful to invest yourself in, and then, blows you away with everything it achieves in every facet of filmmaking.

Terminator 2 is filled with some excellent action sequences that really drove the bar higher right near the outset of the 1990s, but kept it grounded with dramatic weight and peril.  There were plenty of big, over the top action movies, but this film gave you big, explosive action while maintaining the integrity of danger and drama.  The initial chase sequence down the storm drain has some awesome stunts and great tension.  The Cyberdyne building sequences are excellent as well with the Terminator unleashing the mini-gun and grenade launcher on the LAPD, or the showdown with the SWAT team.  All of the action in the film is exceptionally well done with some highly impressive stunt work and practical explosions.  Today, so much is done digitally that we don’t tend to see a lot of practical pyrotechnics or a real stuntman doing things not against a green screen.  Seeing all that done here just gives that extra sense of weight and realism to this film.

Brad Fiedel immensely improves on his score from the original giving it a wider, more epic orchestral style.  Watching the film this time, I swear I picked up on more cues that I hadn’t noticed before, and I didn’t even have the surround sound on.  I have owned this score on CD for longer than I can remember, and I clearly haven’t listened to it a long time.  This is terrific, gorgeous work all around.  The main theme is given its best rendition here over the opening credits, but Fiedel adds in many great themes and cues throughout.  The T-800 has a very metallic clanging theme while the T-1000 is given a more subversive, fluid sounding one highlighting the difference in styles of both Terminators.  Yet, the score soars during the most emotional parts of the film giving us the depth of humanity that is signature Cameron.

Terminator 2 is a beautifully shot, large scale film.  When I watch this, I constantly get the feeling of this is what an action blockbuster is meant to look like.  There’s just great camera work all over this film giving it a dramatic and cinematic visual beauty.  The strong blue tones really came to define a widely seen look in the early-to-mid 1990s, and it started here with some gorgeous cinematography by Adam Greenberg.  There are so many stunningly lit scenes that create beautiful mood and dramatic quality throughout.  Every single shot is composed masterfully and they each have a storytelling purpose.  Where the first film was a little rough edged and had an intense, raw energy to it, T2 is an epic scale film producing big, high quality shots while still pinpointing and highlighting the emotional depth of the story.  The action scenes are shot so amazingly well giving us strong dramatic moments, and maintaining a solid sense of geography amongst how it is shot and edited.  The most visually stunning sequence is indeed the steel mill climax with the beautiful use of vibrant blue and orange lighting.  It’s just great seeing that many of the same vital artists and filmmakers who worked on the first film were brought back for this sequel, and they had all evolved and improved upon their craft to such a marvelous degree.

I do very much like how James Cameron, again, takes a lot of the content from the first film, but presents it to us in a different context.  The role reversals of giving a lot of Kyle Reese’s dialogue to Arnold’s Terminator was a great idea that plays on the preconceptions of the audience, and to twist around the characters’ perceptions.  Even the T-1000 takes on some of the T-800’s dialogue from the first film in particular moments.  I think that gives everything a very intriguing quality of the presentation of the characters and the storytelling.  While the “I’ll be back” line doesn’t have quite as much dramatic impact in this film, it’s still used in a very telling way.  In most cases, these moments are cleverly done so to form a resonance with the audience.  They hit a familiar chord in the hearts or minds of the viewer, and they work really well.

However, if I have one major complaint, it’s that at a certain point it seems Cameron goes from paralleling events from the first film to almost outright remaking them.  There’s no need for the climax to mirror that of the first film with a car chase leading into a cat-and-mouse game in an industrial complex.  These are not poorly made sequences, but for me, they leave something to be desired, creatively speaking.  For this, and another reason, I feel the climax is a little less than it should be.  It feels like a retread of what we got the first time.  I really like the helicopter chase, but it is the tanker truck chase that feels like a lazy rehash.  I would have preferred a little more originality so we got something distinctly different instead of three successive chase sequences.  All of the necessary elements of the liquid nitrogen and the steel mill could still work with a little more innovative thinking to keep the ideas fresh.  The other reason that I feel the climax is lacking is that, after the first hour, the T-1000 almost becomes an ancillary part of the film’s plot.  The film becomes strongly and rightfully involved in the attempt to change the future by destroying Dyson’s research and any trace of the original Terminator’s technology.  It abandons the T-1000 for a lengthy period of time because he no longer is pertinent to where the plot is going, now.  The T-1000 has no thematic purpose in the story.  He’s just there to kill and nothing more.  The climax feels lacking to me because the movie has already dealt with its big plot points and thematic material, and now, it just needs to resolve the hanging thread of the other Terminator.  The film is about something thematic and poignant, but then, it just becomes about more action sequences until it has eliminated the T-1000 altogether.  Then, it gets back to the substance of the story.

This is not to say the climax is not good.  The fight between the two Terminators in the steel mill is really great.  Seeing the T-1000 using its morphing abilities to adapt and re-mold itself around the T-800’s attacks is awesome.  It creates a situation that the lower grade model is unable to sufficiently combat.  In terms of physical power, they are about matched, but the T-1000 can take more punishment because of its nature.  The T-800 cannot find anyway to physically damage this liquid metal advanced prototype, and this battle is great because of this dynamic.  Even though the T-1000 shows signs of malfunctions, he still proves to be a superior adversary that none of our heroes seem to stand a chance against.  If it weren’t for his malfunctions, he might very well have succeeded in his mission due to his cunning and mimetic abilities.  He never stops being a lethal threat, but is not indestructible.

The emotional conclusion to this film is powerful and unforgettable.  Never mind the obligatory action, what matters most is the journey these characters go on together which evolve them in ways they never could have imagined.  It’s also a tragic and sad end, but one that instills hope that no subsequent sequel was ever able to honor or live up to.  I am uncertain if I will get around to reviewing the other two sequels, but for the record, I thought Terminator 3 was a bad movie.  I wrote a review of it ten years ago, but I would prefer doing a fresh review.  However, I have no desire to actually watch that movie ever again.  Terminator: Salvation I did like quite a bit, and I do wish to revisit it.  So, you might see me jump straight to that one at some future point in time.  I will also say that the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles television series was excellent, even if it was unceremoniously canceled by Fox, and on the mother of all cliffhangers, no less.  This is why I no longer watch shows on Fox.

Anyway, do I really need a summation for this review?  I think I’ve hammered in all that is so great about Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Unlike modern day summer blockbusters, like from Michael Bay, that deliver on huge visual effects action, but lack even a halfway decent screenplay or even just a semblance of substance, T2 gives you all of that.  It delivers on every level giving you shots of adrenalin alongside a compelling, emotional, and epic story that is all about the characters.  This is the biggest grossing film of the franchise and in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career at over half a billion dollars.  Sometimes, the box office does reflect quality in a film, and that is surely the case with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Thank you for enduring this very lengthy review, but for a film of this exceptional quality, there was no way I could boil it down any simpler.