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Posts tagged “action

True Lies (1994)

True LiesIt sounds odd that I had never seen True Lies until just a few months ago.  I always had a little tinge of interest in it, but until recently, I just never capitalized upon it.  I do think James Cameron has done some marvelous work over the years, and it’s nice to see that he did take the chance to do something more fun-filled after a lot of films of thematic heaviness.  While I didn’t love True Lies, it does have its great strengths and unfortunate weaknesses wrapped up in a very entertaining spy thriller.

Special agent Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a top spy in the ultra-secret Omega Sector – although to his wife Helen (Jaime Lee Curtis), he’s just a boring computer salesman.  When Harry’s two lives unexpectedly collide, both he and Helen find themselves in the clutches of international terrorists, fighting to save not only their marriage, but their lives.

In what I believe is a rare occurrence, I actually agree with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert about this film, in most part.  The opening and ending are great, exciting, engaging action excellence, but the middle section is drawn out and throws the film off the rails a little.  This is in relation to the entire Bill Paxton segment where Harry Tasker learns that Helen has been seeing another man on the side who feeds her false stories of him being a secret agent.  Paxton’s character turns out to be a sleazy used car salesman conning women with his tales of international espionage and intrigue, and Harry proceeds to use his resources to pull one over on the guy while attempting to inject some excitement into his marriage via subterfuge.  This segment is not a bad idea, but the fact is that it is dragged out for over thirty minutes and runs through some overly long comedic bits.  There is so much that could have been done to chop this down considerably and make it far more snappy and to the point.

I hate to keep being proven right about my reservations about James Cameron’s lax storytelling post-The Terminator, but the evidence keeps surfacing with every film of his I see.  When he had a tight, restrictive budget forcing him to be innovative in a constrained run time, he put together a film of tight rhythm and energy.  Once he was given larger and larger budgets, and was allowed to indulge himself on screen, he began to slow down the pace of his films with extended second acts that could have definitely been tightened up for a more punchy experience.  The other problem with this divergence in focus is that the actual plot with our villains vanishes for the entire time the film is concerned with this marital infidelity plot.  With such a thrilling action chase scene to build up the film’s villain, the movie wholly shifts focus away from that plot, and a lot like the T-1000 in Terminator 2, the actual villain is completely absent for most of the second act of the movie.  He only reappears when the movie realizes it needs another action sequence.  If Cameron could have found a way to keep both the action centric terrorist / secret agent and married life plots going by interweaving them, I believe that would have been great, but it’s ultimately much more compartmentalized until the third act arrives.

Regardless, Cameron is still able to direct some of the best action sequences to date.  The opening escape sequence is explosive and smart with the right amount of wit and sly humor.  Indeed, I was vastly impressed with the chase sequence that starts off with a public bathroom fight and shootout, and then, sees the film’s villain, Aziz, take off on a motorcycle and Harry pursues him on horseback.  They gallop and zoom through Washington, D.C. streets, stores, a shopping mall, elevators, and a high rise balcony.  Cameron pushes this sequence to the absolute most fun hilt, and it proves to be very original and imaginative.  The climax of the film with the helicopter rescue from the out of control limousine, and then, the fighter jet explosive awesomeness really makes this one of the biggest Schwarzenegger action spectacles ever.  These are some of the most incredible action sequences that either James Cameron or Arnold Schwarzenegger have ever been involved in, and they deserve to been seen by any serious action movie fan.

And Arnold Schwarzenegger really does seem to do some of his best, most dynamic work with James Cameron.  The two clearly work so perfectly together based on a very trusted friendship and collaboration.  This time out, Arnold gets to be more light hearted and fun.  Harry Tasker is a clever character who thinks on his feet, and improvises some tight scenarios with suave charisma.  By no doubt, there are some James Bond comparisons you could make, but that can be done with nearly any secret agent action movie.  Harry’s a light-hearted, caring family man who is not nearly as adept at his home life as he is in espionage.

Jamie Lee Curtis is really fun and solid as Harry’s wife.  We get to see her go from this simple, wholesome, innocent woman to a more empowered, assertive character.  Yeah, Helen has to liberate herself with a sexy striptease, but it’s really just done in good fun in the film’s context.  Helen is attracted to Bill Paxton’s character because he tells her exciting stories of peril and danger, and so, Harry chooses to give her an adventure of her own.  Curtis really embraces the role in all its facets giving us a sweet character that is able to rise to the task of danger and peril.

Now, it does seem to take the right director to craft Tom Arnold’s humor down the correct path.  Surely, many have found him annoying or obnoxious elsewhere, but he really hits all the comedy beats just right.  He never pushes it over the edge, and doesn’t come off like a buffoon, which would have been extremely easy to fall into.  Him and Schwarzenegger have very good chemistry playing off of one another lightly and naturally.

On the far more serious side, Art Malik has a great threatening look of intensity to him that perfectly aids him as the film’s villain, Salim Abu Aziz.  He’s an excellent fit for this ruthless, violent radical terrorist who consistently proves to be a major adversary to contend with.  He truly added the serious counterweight the film required to the light hearted tone it employs throughout.  His partner in crime is Tia Carrere’s Juno Skinner, a slight femme fatale that catches Harry’s attention early on.  Surely, Carrere has never been a great actress, but she does quite good work under Cameron’s direction being charming and alluring when necessary as well as cutthroat and vile when the facades are dropped.

In some smaller roles, you’ve got Charlton Heston in a solid, brief appearance as the head of Omega Sector baring a nasty scar and eye patch.  This sort of shows that True Lies is not taking itself too seriously.  It’s allowing a little satire and jokiness to seep into the flavor of the picture.  Also, Eliza Dushku appears in an early role as Dana Tasker, Harry and Helen’s daughter, and she does a great job showcasing a lot of tough attitude and dimension she would come to be known for.  Everyone in this cast really does a fine, respectable job with Cameron’s material.  It’s both a fact of good casting and solid directing.

This was James Cameron’s follow-up to Terminator 2 after he took a few years off, and in that time, visual effects continued to evolve a little.  Largely, the digital effects work is very subtle not requiring anything so innovative as a liquid metal cyborg assassin.  Yet, it’s interesting to see that today, you’d like see those Harrier fighter jets done mostly as CGI in most shots, but here, we get the real thing on film and it looks exponentially superior to any digital effect.   The green screen shots are about as good as they get, and Cameron uses as many practical elements to give the action set pieces a very realistic weight.  This is just how digital effects should be used – to aid and enhance the practicals in addition to achieving what little practicals cannot achieve.  The use of practical effects adds more realistic weight to everything that I immensely appreciate.

True Lies is a very entertaining film with a fun mixture of concepts that is much lighter than your typical James Cameron fare.  I think every idea he had here is solid and when it clicks, it excels beyond expectations.  That is essentially the action-centric plot aspects, and while the humor is greatly well done, it dragged down the middle of the film.  I honestly feel that humor works best when it’s snappy, sharp, and punctuated correctly.  The comedy segments of True Lies are drawn out too long, and diverge the film away from its more exciting aspects.  I believe the script could have been tightened up in that second act by shortening some of these sequences, and resulting in a sharper and more to the point second act.  I do like the idea of showing the light-hearted suburban home life of this international secret agent, and the fun marital twists and turns that Harry and Helen take.  However, I feel the film eventually forgets to meld its ideas together for a long period, and diverges away from the action film aspects for too long.  Just when the secret agent plot was getting interesting and truly exciting, it ditches it for a good half an hour.

Regardless, I would still recommend True Lies.  As I said, the action sequences are spectacular on every level showcasing the best of what Arnold can do, and demonstrating that James Cameron is one of the best directors of action out there.  His dynamic visual style is wonderfully realized by Russell Carpenter’s exceptional cinematography.  He didn’t work with Cameron on any other picture, but that would be hard to tell because the film has all of Cameron’s visual signatures.  The blue, moody tones and great camera work with excellent close-up shots and push-ins all punctuate what you expect from James Cameron, and Carpenter truly hits it all dead on the mark.  There is plenty of entertainment value to gain from True Lies, but even despite the R rating, it’s fairly light on graphic violence.  So, in a way it appears more tame than previous Cameron or Schwarzenegger action films, but for the lighter tone used here, it seems more appropriate.  As I said, I feel the film could benefit greatly from a tightening up of its humor, or at least, allow the secret agent action plot and the family life comedy to interweave in that second act.  As it stands, the film veers off track for a good thirty minutes in the middle, and doesn’t get back on track until the terrorists burst back into the film in a rather unexplained fashion.  It’s all good stuff from start to finish, but I just feel it would have worked better in a tighter package.


Escape Plan (2013)

Escape PlanStallone and Schwarzenegger finally teaming up in a big action movie should be a major event, and Escape Plan seemed like it had that potential from the trailer and the general premise.  In the right hands, this could have been forged into a highly entertaining and exciting film.  Unfortunately, at no fault of Stallone or Schwarzenegger, Escape Plan falters in a lot of ways stemming from the fact that it’s backed by a director, screenwriters, editor, and cinematographer that really have nothing of good, special note to their credits, and that really shows.

Ray Breslin (Sulvester Stallone) is the world’s foremost authority on structural security. After analyzing every high security prison and learning a vast array of survival skills so he can design escape-proof prisons, his skills are put to the test. A new, shady job to test out a CIA prison facility goes awry when he is abducted and incarcerated in a master prison designed based on his analytical work.  Once inside, he finds an ally in fellow inmate Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who agrees to help him find a way out.  Now, Breslin needs to escape and find the person who put him behind bars.

This is not a bad movie, but it has a number of obvious flaws that prevent it from really capitalizing on its assets.  Escape Plan’s problems really begin with the screenplay.  I don’t think this movie is very well written, let alone well executed.  Firstly, the film becomes so pre-occupied over and over again with showcasing Ray Breslin’s long-winded analyses and exposition of his elaborate escape plan scenarios that it sucks up valuable, extensive screentime for it.  Screentime that could have been used to actually establish and develop some characters and personalities in this movie.  A good screenwriter could have deconstructed these moments far better and streamlined them for a much snappier, more succinct narrative.  Instead, screenwriters Miles Chapman and Jason Keller decide to overcomplicate matters to the detriment of the film.  For a while it seemed like Schwarzenegger’s character was merely there to give Stallone someone to dump exposition upon because it was so bluntly handled, and it doesn’t progress too far beyond that.  Anyone who has read my reviews before knows how in-depth I go into performances and characters, but there is really next to nothing to comment on about these performances.  It’s not a fault of the actors, but the material they are given.

I own a good thirty movies starring Stallone and/or Schwarzenegger with Rocky III and Predator being my respective favorites of theirs.  I’ve seen them in great movies and bad movies, but they’ve always delivered on their exceptional charismatic screen presences.  Here, there’s just extremely little material for them to inject any charisma into because it is so entrenched in exposition.  There are one or two sparks of fun chemistry between them, but it’s very fleeting when that’s exactly what should have been here in abundance.  What depth of character we get is merely a few lines of dialogue talking about a single aspect of their back stories, which is just more exposition and doesn’t give us much of a personality to grasp onto.  There’s more gained from Breslin than Rottmayer, but it’s very marginal.  The fact of the matter is that the script is very flat and unimaginative.  If Stallone and Schwarzenegger were not cast in this movie, I don’t think I’d care to maintain any attention on Breslin or Rottmayer at all because the screenwriters do nothing to actually create any characters to care about.

However, even if the characters aren’t all that interesting or dimensional like Marion Cobretti or John Matrix, if the film they are placed into is exciting and entertaining enough with clever, sharp dialogue, it can still work and bring out the better qualities of the actor.  Unfortunately, while Escape Plan maintains a solid pacing that doesn’t make it feel like a nearly two hour long movie, the action is very minimal.  There are some prison riots, a few beat downs, and an attempted prison break or two, but in terms of straight up action like shootouts and fights with the villains, there’s very little until the climax.  The film was a decent, easy watch, but never did anything ever come out and blow me away.  There are even points in time where it seemed like it was edging towards something purely awesome, but then, it comes up quite short.  So many things factor into that including some poorly structured and executed sequences.

To that point, the editing in many cases is very incoherent.  The prime examples are that there are montages of sorts showing Breslin getting tortured, or simply showing his plans going into motion.  These sequences are so sloppily edited that I couldn’t understand the narrative or linear flow through them at all.  They’re a real mess of chronology that was quite confusing.  Tying into that is the flat, bland direction that really never gives life to the proceedings of the plot.  Intercutting between The Tomb and Breslin’s team throughout the second act just felt clunky and uneven.  There’s little coherency or urgency put into what Breslin’s team is doing to give a crap about them.  They ultimately don’t do crap until the last three minutes of the movie, anyway.  And those characters are poorly conceived and flatly written to be either very obvious or simply not worth devoting your attention or interest in.  Again, the actors aren’t bad, they just have crap to work with.  Scenes are just strung together very haphazardly giving you a lack of context, narrative flow, or natural segues.  While I’m certain that a better editor couldn’t have radically improved this movie, it at least would have made it far more coherent and smoother.

Now, the only real shining quality of this movie, which is also the one person who seems to be having a delightfully fun time, is Jim Caviezel.  His villain of Warden Hobbs is very charismatic, smarmy, and particularly sadistic, but Caviezel avoids going over the top.  He keeps it low key and fairly subtle while still delivering an especially enjoyable adversary.  He definitely was putting his full commitment into this role, and he embraces it with plenty of imagination and zeal.  I love the little nuances he adds to Hobbs such as being very meticulous in his appearance and manner.  Caviezel is an actor I really like I lot from The Count of Monté Cristo to Outlander to Person of Interest, and seeing him as a villain here is wonderfully entertaining.  He made the movie particularly enjoyable, and Vinnie Jones does quite a charismatic job as Hobbs’ right hand man Drake.  There’s also an unexpected appearance by Sam Neill as the prison doctor.  He also does a fine job with what little he is given to do.  It’s clearly another case of having an actor I really like making the role any bit enjoyable or interesting for me.

Escape Plan attempts to have some semblances of plot twists or turns, but some are so obviously telegraphed or simply amount to nothing that you wonder what the point was.  I believe to have a good movie you really have to start with a good script, and this movie didn’t have one.  Even then, this film needed a far better, more talented director to maximize its potential.  If you handed this project over to a highly experienced action director like Renny Harlin, John McTiernan, Walter Hill, or, if he were still alive, George P. Cosmatos, I think this could have had some potential for success.  They would have molded and refined the story and given it the competency and life it needed.  They also would have tailored the script to the strengths of it leads so that charisma and personality could have lived and thrived on screen.  Alas, we are left with the movie we have, which is probably good for a rental, but not much better.  There’s no need to see Escape Plan on the big screen, unfortunately.


Get Carter (2000)

Get CarterIn the early 2000s, Sylvester Stallone was struggling to rebuild himself from some of his cheesy action movies of the 90s, and these efforts didn’t all meet with much success.  Get Carter is a remake of a 1971 film of the same name starring Michael Caine in the title role, and this remake was received with negative criticism and a poor box office take.  However, I saw this film on opening weekend, and I have very much liked it ever since.  Having still not seen the original movie, I imagine I have the ability to view it much more objectively.  Still, almost any movie promising Sylvester Stallone in a fist fight with Mickey Rourke and a hilarious John C. McGinley is pretty cool to begin with, but I honestly feel the film has a lot of worthwhile merit in many regards.

His name is Jack Carter, and you don’t want to know him.  When it’s your time to settle your debts, you pay what you owe, or Carter will make you pay.  While working for the mob in Las Vegas, Carter (Sylvester Stallone) learns that his brother has died, and returns home to Seattle in order to learns the how’s and why’s.  His brother left behind a wife, Gloria (Miranda Richardson), and a teenage daughter, Doreen (Rachel Leigh Cook), which Jack feels he must now take care of since he was not around when it mattered most.  Though, when digging into the death of his brother, Jack comes to suspect that is was no accident, and that someone has to pay up.

Now, what even some of the middle of the road reviews gave credit to was that Stallone is solid as Jack Carter, and I enthusiastically agree.  I really like that Jack is a guy who carries a weight of regret with him to where he has this post-facto sense of responsibility.  He might be a guy who beats people up for a crime syndicate, but there’s a certain moral compass to Jack which Stallone grasps onto perfectly.  There’s a lot of subtlety to his performance showing the superb reversal on the over-the-top action hero roles of Judge Dredd or Demolition Man.  He brings with him a low key presence of intimidation, but still finds those moments of clever signature Stallone charm and wit.  Jack Carter has a warm heart and compassion for those he cares about, and this comes so very naturally to Stallone.  There’s such a great depth of dimension to what he does here.  Sly gives us a complex character who intensifies the emotional drive of the film.  It’s also amazing seeing how bulked up Stallone got for this movie.  He’s larger than ever, and it really works for Jack’s tough, bad ass presence.  Yet, it is that softer side of Jack Carter that really impresses as he shows a lot of pain after a certain point really hitting you deep in the heart, and that translates into a venomous vengeful determination in the film’s third act.  It’s an awesome, compelling performance by Sylvester Stallone that amazingly reminds you that he can be a stunning, complex actor.  I think it’s one of his best performances since First Blood.

A lot of the depth of heart and substance is carried on through Miranda Richardson and Rachel Leigh Cook.  Richardson is great as Gloria who is in this constant uncertainty about Jack.  At times she can confide in him about her problems with Doreen, but at other times, can condemn Jack for bringing further trouble upon them and being absent from their lives until Richie died.  Richardson has pitch perfect chemistry with Stallone standing strong on her own while showing the emotional turmoil inside.  Meanwhile, Cook very easily endears herself to Jack and an audience with some sad sweetness and sympathetic charm.  As certain things are revealed, and far more tragic layers are peeled back from Doreen, Cook is really able to demonstrate the soul of her heartbreaking talent.  It really ends up being the pulsating emotional core of this film.

I really like the scenes between Stallone and Mickey Rourke.  These are two actors who genuinely seem like they enjoyed working off each other.  They’ve got the right rhythm and chemistry that these two characters should have being old acquaintances and all.  Rourke has the right charisma and air of sleaze as Cyrus Paice which makes him very entertaining to watch, but also, a real piece of scum that you want to see get busted up by the end.  Rourke and Stallone are two buffed up bulls ready to lock horns regularly, and when they do finally trade punches, it’s a straight up bad ass brawl.

Anyone who loves John C. McGinley’s comedy work would also love him here.  He plays Con McCarty, an associate of Jack’s in the Las Vegas syndicate, and I swear he ad-libbed the majority of his dialogue.  It is just so brilliantly quick witted, off the cuff, and hilarious that he’s an utter, endless joy.  It’s a performance like this which shows that this is a film that is interested in balancing the heavyweight drama with sharp beats of levity.  And Alan Cumming is quite good as the geeky wet rag dot-com millionaire of Jeremy Kinnear who has gotten in way too damn deep with seedy individuals.  He is a pleasure to watch in this role as Stallone looms over him with his brute intimidation.  Of course, Michael Caine does a fine job in a somewhat small role as Richie’s now former employer, and Caine and Stallone have some solid scenes together.  Apparently, even Caine endorsed Stallone as a respectable successor to his original role, and including him in this cast was a really nice touch.

I really adore the look of this film from director of photography Mauro Fiore.  It’s soaked in this somber tone of overcast gloom of blues and greens that really absorb you into the tone of the movie.  Director Stephen Kay really pushed hard to have this filmed in Seattle, and the beauty of the rain soaked city makes the film feel a little more unique.  There’s also some unconventional style to Get Carter that might not work for many films, but all of the artistic flourishes really meld together beautifully, in my opinion.  The strategic slow motion beats add a sense of grace to the photography, and Fiore moves the camera extremely competently with plenty of steadicam.  I like that when Jack’s whole world turns upside down so does the camera accentuating a particularly unique filmmaking style that I really like here.  There is some stylish editing with a few jumpy cuts, flash frames, and speed changes.  I could see how some would find that irritating, but I really got absorbed into the mindset of this movie.  Stephen Kay uses these stylistic choices to slip you into a character’s perception such as Jack’s world fracturing.  Get Carter was edited by Academy Award winner Jerry Greenberg who also edited The French Connection, Apocalypse Now, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Scarface.  Here, he superbly executes Stephen Kay’s vision right from the opening credits sequence onward.

There is a great, moody collection of music here in addition to Tyler Bates’ unique and stylish score.  The original theme for the 1971 film by Roy Budd is utilized and remixed for this remake, and it is a beautiful composition that just tingles my senses.  There are some techno tracks infusing some dance club style vibes into the movie.  I particularly love the ethereal Moby track during the funeral scene.  All of this music creates a very soulful or energized originality to this film that melds well with its visual stylings.

There is some really well put together action including a couple of very smart, tense car chases.  Action directors who love their shaky cam could learn something from this film.  Stephen Kay does make use of some unsteady photography and tight framing, but the editing is properly paced so to not confuse an audience.  There are quick cuts, but because the lighting is clear, the compositions are just right using good angles, it all works.  The latter car chase is really great, and it has a really cool stunt crash at the end.  Yet, while there is exciting action, this film maintains that emotional and character based focus as Jack Carter delves further into the seedy underbelly of Seattle.

When Jack goes into full-on revenge mode, this movie gets dead-on bad ass.  The grit really surfaces in the visual style and Stallone’s performance.  Everything gets pretty dark and intense as Jack deals out his sense of personal justice in violent, sometimes lethal ways.  This is a revenge movie driven by a lot of emotional depth and substance.  Jack is going to clean out the trash, but the mending of emotional wounds is just as important to him, if not more so.  It’s all wrapped up in his personal sense of obligation to the extended family he’s neglected, and a need to prove to himself and others that he can be a better man than his history has shown.  There’s also a subplot where Jack Carter is involved with the syndicate boss’ woman back in Vegas, and this runs through the film a little.  It’s another emotional tether that puts stress upon Jack especially when Con is sent to “take care of business” with much intended finality.  Most revenge movies are just about the violent retribution, but this movie really delves you deeply into the hearts and souls of its sympathetic characters.

Get Carter is damn good, in my opinion, because it does take the time to develop its character and give you a dimensionality to connect with.  You feel Jack’s pain and his need to put things right, and your sympathy easily flows for Doreen as the film progresses.  Stephen Kay did do a really exceptional job with making these characters feel poignant, and have the consequences of everyone’s actions feel like they carry the weight of the world.  This is really the kind of revenge thriller that truly captivates me because it’s not just gunning people down for ninety minutes, which does have its satisfying qualities.  The substance of everything here saturates the film, and Stallone carries it all so amazingly well.  The ending might have used a little more weight and veracity, but the payoff  is satisfying regardless.  I highly recommend this remake of Get Carter.  If you’re a Stallone fan, like me, you should definitely give this a watch.


Heat (1995)

Heat The year of 1995 is my favorite year in film giving us so many beloved favorites of mine such as Lord of Illusions, The Usual Suspects, Seven, In The Mouth of Madness, GoldenEye, The Prophecy, Strange Days, and more.  This year also gave us a brilliant union of powerhouse talents when Michael Mann brought together screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat.  While I consider Manhunter my favorite, and The Insider to be Mann’s best film, I cannot deny that Heat is a crime saga masterpiece.  It is finally Michael Mann refined and matured to a breath-taking level developing his signature concepts to perfection.  I can think of no more appropriate film to hold the honor of the 200th review on Forever Cinematic than Heat.

Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a master thief who lives by the simple discipline of “have nothing in your life you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the “heat” around the corner.”  His crew of career criminals is a high-tech outfit pulling off professional jobs that impress even the likes of Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino).  But Hanna, a man driven through life only by his work, becomes obsessed, at the expense of his private life, with bringing McCauley down.  As McCauley’s crew prepare for the score of a lifetime, and Hanna’s team tries to bring him in, the two find that they are similar in many ways, including their troubled personal lives.  Ultimately, they find themselves challenged by the greatest minds on the opposite side of the law that either one has ever encountered.  With this much heat, the streets of Los Angeles are ready to sizzle and explode!

Heat is filled with excellent performances from everyone involved that it’s hard not to touch upon most of them.  Firstly, I am engrossed by the dynamic between Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley.  Hanna is a man whose life is wholly dedicated to his job, and thus, his home life is a disaster with multiple divorces to show for it.  Meanwhile, McCauley has his life in control as he takes precision high line scores, but lives a disparate life of bare necessities allowing himself no attachments he cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if circumstances require it.  Thus, despite these men being on opposite sides of the law, they find themselves in a near symbiotic relationship which fuels the compulsions of their lives.  They are both driven by their jobs being out there on the streets in the middle of danger, and everything else in their lives is sacrificed for that.  All they are is what they’re going after.  That’s what fuels their existences, and Heat is all about that electrifying synergy.

Al Pacino has always been known as a passionate, charismatic actor, and Vincent Hanna surely has that energetic, sharp edge which makes him immensely entertaining here.  However, it is the more subtle aspects of the performance that are where the real juice is.  You see the razor sharp mind of Hanna when he arrives on the armored car robbery scene.  He sees it, absorbs it, and hits all the marks deconstructing every detail of the crime.  He doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t overlook or dismiss anything.  You see the proficiency of Neil McCauley and how his crew operates, and then, you see Hanna and his team operate on that same exact level only on the opposite side of that coin.  Yet, the depth of Hanna comes to the surface when Vincent converses with his wife, Justine.  The weariness and ugliness of his job forces an emotional rift between them, and Pacino’s performance reflects the inner angst and emotional toll that it wreaks on Hanna.  These things do affect him, but he never becomes a jaded, pessimistic, desensitized person.  Al Pacino absorbs all of that into a subtle and complex performance that energizes the screen.

And delivering a performance on an equal level of weight and intelligence is Robert De Niro.  He’s entirely formidable making Neil McCauley a very serious and definitive threat to everyone who opposes him.  De Niro has a serious, hard edged presence that dominates the screen, and every move, every word, every course of action he makes is efficient.  There’s a full immersion into the character in all his nuances and textures.  Sometimes, a great performance is seen in raw emotion, but other times, it’s all in the subtle complexities.  That is what De Niro give us here showing the versatile diversity of this character from cold, hard criminal to the loyal, caring friend and lover.  Despite being the antagonist in the story, we see a real heart when Neil becomes involved with Eady.  It’s takes a masterful actor and filmmaker to take a character like McCauley who will sanction and be entirely sociopathic about the murder of innocent people, and do something so human with him to where you genuinely feel his depth of heart.  Surely, that’s nothing you would want translated into reality, but in a fictional narrative, it provides a captivating dimensionality that Robert De Niro captures with pitch perfect substance.

Val Kilmer was really in his peak at this time after his stunning turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone.  Thus, he was filming Heat concurrently with Batman Forever, really capitalizing on two excellent opportunities.  Here, his role might be overlooked by the presence of Pacino and De Niro, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t top notch.  Chris Shiherlis proves to be a really intense character with his gambling addiction and marital strives, and Kilmer really absorbs the weary heart of Chris deeply into his performance.  Despite infidelities on the part of Chris and his wife Charlene, portrayed tremendously by Ashley Judd, their final shared moment strikes deep within the heart to show just how much they both truly loved one another, but their marriage was never built to last.  Kilmer hits all the marks to make this character standout solidly alongside De Niro, and to a lesser extent, Tom Sizemore does the same as the more action junkie sociopath Michael Cheritto.  There’s a real strong brotherhood between Neil and Chris that shows through shiningly, and that relationship brings a lot of dimension to both characters.

I’m fascinated by the chain reaction of events here which create numerous exciting plot turns.  Essentially, Waingro is the key cog who sets everything in motion.  Without him going off the handle and facilitating the triple homicide, Vincent Hanna likely would not have been as dogged to track down McCauley and his crew.  He’d be intrigued by the precision professionals, but it would just be another robbery.  Then, Waingro betrays McCauley to his enemies, forcing the bank heist to turn into a violent, deadly shootout and propelling McCauley to make the irrational decision to go after him instead of escaping free and clear.  Waingro turns the tide of the story at pivotal moments because he is a wild card with no loyalty to anyone but his own base, primal impulses.  Furthermore, Kevin Gage is perfect in this role making for a wholly convincing hardened ex-convict sociopath who is dreadfully frightening and intimidating.  It’s sadly poetic that less than a decade later he would become a federal convict for cultivating medicinal marijuana.

The other intriguing quality of Heat are the women.  Michael Mann always makes the affectionate, strong women of his films vitally important to the arcs and stories of the male leads, and never objectifies them.  The significant others of Hanna, McCauley, and Shiherlis are all passionate, loving women who desire a stable life.  Justine Hanna grapples with Vincent’s internalized angst from the horrors he sees out on those streets, and just wants a husband who opens up to her instead of being distant, closed off, and vacant in their marriage.  She wants a marriage with love not ragged leftovers of a man who drifts through their lives empty.  Eady, portrayed by Amy Brenneman, is the most innocent of them all existing entirely outside the world of cops and criminals.  She’s a simple, honest, warm person that unexpectedly opens up Neil’s world and gives him something to be affectionate about.  For a man who lives with no attachments of any kind, it’s finally someone in his life that makes him care to have a life.  Charlene, however, is the real gold for me as Ashley Judd is confident, heartbreaking and truly empathic as Chris’ wife.  As I said, there is a deep down, genuine love between Chris and Charlene, but there’s so much addictive and combative garbage in the way that it was destined to crumble.  For me, the Shiherlis dynamic is the most complex and substantive one of the film because of that real quality of conflict and adoration between them.

Without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is a remarkable cinematographer, and he does an excellent, stunning job with Heat.  He composes so many carefully selected shots which tell a very visual story that holds weight.  Just as Mann had fully refined and developed his artistic sensibilities so had Spinotti making this a very sophisticated looking and composed picture.  There are pure moments of inspired artistry creating a masterful canvas that this story is told upon.  This is also a film that feels very engrained and engrossed in the fiber of Los Angeles because of the visual vibe.  Shots of the skyline in hazy daylight or glowing nighttime neo noir create that great backdrop that has substance and life.

Upon this watch of the movie, I picked up far more on Elliott Goldenthal’s amazingly original and pulsating score.  A lot of what he does are subtle textures and melodies that nicely underscore various scenes.  His score doesn’t fight for dominance in the audio mix.  It complements everything that Mann is doing with the emotion, characters, and story.  At times, Goldenthal’s score can be very powerful and striking such as the moment where Chris and Charlene are forced to abandon each other because of the police stakeout.  The emotional pain swells into the score in a haunting swirl.  Then, there’s the parting phone call between Neil and Nate that reflects the sorrowful feeling of two people, best of friends, saying goodbye for the final time, and Goldenthal’s score hits that mark so beautifully.  Every single moment is so perfectly punctuated, and should be considered amongst his best work.  Additionally, the two tracks by Moby are beautiful, superb, innovative tracks that saturate the power of their respective scenes, most notably being the ending with “God Moving Over The Face of The Waters.”

Of course, the big, electrifying selling point of this film was having two of America’s most celebrated actors, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, collide in all their glory.  That would not be complete without the excellent diner scene where Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley have a very probing conversation.  The very interesting quality of that scene is that this is the only point in time where these two men are able to be entirely open, honest, and reveal their inner workings.  They are more intimately connected with each other than with anyone else in their lives.  Again, the subtle performances of depth and honesty make this the absolute nexus of this entire film.  Heat was previously made as a TV movie called L.A. Takedown by Michael Mann, and when you watch this scene performed by very second rate, stiff or hollow actors with almost identical dialogue, you realize the gold standard quality of Pacino and De Niro.  In their hands, Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley are brilliantly fleshed out and fascinating characters, and this is the scene that shows them stripped down.  They show what haunts them and what drives them.  There is no pretense between these men, and they realize that they are very similar despite being the flip side of each other.  These are the only two people alike in this world of Michael Mann’s film that truly, undeniably understand one another.  Furthermore, this scene is entirely integral to how the film’s climax unfolds.

Firstly, that shootout in the streets of downtown Los Angeles is one of the most ear-blistering sonic experiences ever, and that’s coming from a heavy metal fan.  Michael Mann had considered using post-production sound effects for this, but realized that the realistic production audio created the true power and impact he wanted.  It conveys the violent magnitude of real life gunfire and enhanced the danger of this sequence exponentially.  The precision of every tactic is true to how Michael Mann approached his films.  He made sure that every detail was accurate to life, and that mentality makes his films far more interesting to witness than the more over-the-top action sequences we get in the big, fun blockbusters.

The climax of Heat narrows everything down to what the whole film has been about at its core – Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley.  These two men, who exist in a world separated from the mainstream of society and defined by its own rules, are now pitted against one another in an electrifying, tense, and suspenseful cat and mouse sequence that is absolutely pitch perfect, and showcases the unequivocal skill of Michael Mann.  The moment where McCauley sees Hanna just as he is to ride off with Eady is beautiful, painful, and eloquent.  Neil invokes his “thirty seconds flat” rule turning away from Eady for his own survival, and the ensuing chase towards LAX is wonderfully and smartly plotted.  The climactic moment is excellent and poetic.  Then, after it’s all over, these two men are bonded together in a strikingly profound moment that ends the film on an astonishing stroke of pure brilliance.

I had always taken Heat for granted as that great crime saga pinnacle for Michael Mann, but until now, I never peered deeply enough into it to see the subtle brilliance of it.  Many of his films are easier to see the inspired breadth and depth, but Heat has so many fine brush strokes of detail, interwoven threads, and subtext that only a real immersion into it made me absorb it all.  This is truly a brilliantly written, directed, and acted film that did not get the recognition it deserved during awards season.  Michael Mann himself received no nominations for his screenplay or directing, and Pacino, De Niro, or Kilmer received no acting award nominations either.  It’s amazing to me that so many incredible, mold breaking, and standard setting films were released this year, and those I hold in highest regard barely got any recognition from any major awards organizations.  This is why I find it hard to put much weight into these organizations because they’d rather nominate a movie about a talking animatronic pig over brilliant masterpieces like Heat, Strange Days, The Usual Suspects, or Seven for Best Picture or Best Director.  Today, nobody talks about Babe, but people still endlessly praise those others films because they launched careers, took stunning risks, set new standards, and blew peoples’ minds.  And when Michael Mann finally got his just nominations, he didn’t win a single one for what no one will ever be able to tell me wasn’t the best movie released in the year 1999 – The Insider.  However, for the next review, I go back to the beginning of Michael Mann’s feature film career with Thief.


Strange Days (1995)

Strange DaysMany know Kathryn Bigelow from her Academy Award winning and nominated films of recent years.  However, her earlier work features some stunning films that showcase a brilliant visionary style, and no other movie reflects that better than Strange Days.  Released in my favorite year in film, 1995, it bombed at the box office, but gained quite a lot of praise.  Roger Ebert even gave it a four out of four stars, and it was nominated for several Saturn Awards including Best Science Fiction Film with Bigelow winning for Best Director.  Time has since allowed for this film to gain a wider appreciation from genre fans, and I’ve wanted to share mine with you for quite a while now.  Strange Days is essentially the Blade Runner of the 1990’s, but even Blade Runner doesn’t do to me what Strange Days does.

It’s the eve of the millennium in Los Angeles, December 31, 1999.  Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop turned street hustler who preys on human nature by dealing the drug of the future.  A new technology, called “wire tripping,” allows for anyone to re-live actual life experiences tapping directly into the cerebral cortex for the ultimate escapist high.  However, Lenny is soon tangled up in a deadly plot, alongside limousine driver and security specialist Mace (Angela Bassett), when a set of murderous and controversial wire trip recordings end up in his possession that could have radical implications upon the entire city.  It’s an environment that will lead him deep into the danger zone when he falls into a maze filled with intrigue and betrayal, murder and conspiracy.

Kathryn Bigelow was married to James Cameron for a time, and even after their marriage ended, they remained regular collaborators.  Cameron was a producer on this film, co-screenwriter, and an uncredited editor.  I can definitely see his creative influence at work.  It’s that real depth of humanity on display with all of these colorful characters, real penetrating emotion, exciting science fiction ideas, and the exciting energy of storytelling which harkens back to The Terminator.  His creative fingerprints are clearly here, and they are wrapped up in Bigelow’s razor sharp pacing, incredible direction, and mind blowing visuals.

The look of the movie definitely has that dystopian vibe with a lot of grit, smoke, neon, and seedy locales.  Yet, it doesn’t look depressing, but instead, it’s exciting and intense.  The cinematography is just simply stunning, and it will escape me to no end how Batman Forever got nominated at the Oscars for Best Cinematography this year while Strange Days was entirely snubbed as well as The Usual Suspects, Seven, and Twelve Monkeys.  All of those are vastly superior looking and shot films on every level, and Strange Days is really in a league all its own from the signature James Cameron blue tinge style to Bigelow’s really dynamic visual edge that absorbs us fully into this dark, vibrant, mind-twisting reality.  The camera work is amazingly dynamic, intriguing, and inspired.  It’s a visual feast that really embraces a kinetic energy without ever sacrificing artistic integrity.  If you took Blade Runner and hyper-charged it with adrenalin and a riveting edge of flash, you would get Strange Days.

The movie jacks you into a wire trip from the start to clearly convey the language of the experience.  People are buying these recordings to experience the forbidden pleasures in life like armed robbery or sexual desires.  It’s an extremely tempting thing that gives you all the rush and excitement without consequence, but it’s entirely illegal forcing Lenny to be the king of this underground business.  Thus, he comes into the center of two related criminal plots.  The first involves a pair of corrupt cops, portrayed by William Fichtner and Vincent D’Onofrio, tracking down a damning wire trip recording that could erupt the entire city in violence and outrage.  The second is someone who stalked, raped, and murdered a friend of Lenny’s, and now is focusing his sick and disturbing torment on Lenny himself.  All of this melds together into a larger conspiracy that engulfs these characters into a powerful dramatic story that rips and tears at emotions with severe risks and consequences.

Now, I absolutely love Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero.  He’s the real crux of this whole film energizing it with his slick charm and charisma.  He’s a mesmerizing salesman selling fantasies with the sensation of pure, raw reality.  Yet, he never comes across as sleazy.  Fiennes makes Lenny very genuine in everything he does, and thus, he is the perfect unlikely hero with a yearning broken heart, a life of down and out black market seediness, and a real vulnerable quality to him.  Ralph Fiennes is an incredible actor, and he makes this a very deeply human and emotionally vulnerable character that draws you completely into the film.  Lenny Nero is not a man who views himself as a hero, but the frightening descent that he is caught up in forces him to take action, especially with his former love Faith, portrayed greatly by Juliette Lewis, at the center of it.  Faith has fully fallen into the deep end of the sleaze as a rock singer hooked up with Michael Wincott’s wire trip addicted record label owner Philo Gant.  Lenny desperately wants to win her back, or at least, pull her out of that deep end.  As a side note, I really love the wardrobe of Lenny Nero.  It’s very stylish and flashy with plenty of unique personality, much like Lenny himself.

Angela Bassett is absolutely bad ass here in a very gritty, powerful way.  Mace is exceptionally tough not taking any crap from Lenny, who hustles and leeches favors off her when he’s down and out, and as a security specialist, she can back up every ounce of that attitude.  Bassett exudes energy and strength in every frame, and intensifies every moment.  I’ve always been impressed by Bassett’s mixture of tough exterior with a tender interior.  She definitely brings that out in Mace with all the raw emotional power possible.

Now, you talk about Academy Award quality work, I honestly believe that both Bassett and Fiennes achieved that in this film.  Had Strange Days not fallen under the radar, I believe it would have been heralded with that kind of reverence at the time.  Both Bassett and Fiennes deliver stunning, deeply powerful performances, and the script fuses Lenny and Mace together in a very personal way born out of tragedy and heartbreak.  Furthermore, the chemistry between Bassett and Fiennes is spectacular.  They spark off amazingly whether it’s sharp wit and humor, vehement conviction, or deep emotional drama.  They are an electrifying pair which forge a riveting gravitas around them, but also make it a fun ride with their great rhythm and heart.

This film is just filled with an array of exceptional acting talents putting forth their best.  From Tom Sizemore to Juliette Lewis to William Fichtner to Vincent D’Onofrio to Michael Wincott, the supporting cast is bursting with charisma, awesomeness, and solidarity.  Everyone is equally as compelling and vibrant creating a very electrifying ensemble.  Under Kathryn Bigelow’s direction, everyone delivers a powerful and intensely memorable performance.  Bigelow seems to very much favor Sizemore as he appeared in Blue Steel and Point Break with much smaller roles, but here, he’s given a very prominent role as Max, a friend of Lenny’s who is still on the police force that weaves himself tightly into this plot.

On top of having that mind-blowing, amazing cast, Bigelow delivers an exciting, riveting thriller.  The mysteries are wonderfully interwoven with all the character dynamics, volatile social climate, and science fiction tech elements.  There’s wickedly tight tension and heart-pounding excitement at every turn.  The powder keg of Los Angeles is building towards an explosion, and the lethality of the situation only builds as forces converge.  This is a movie that constantly pushes further and further along the razor’s edge of madness, suspense, and danger.  Surely, there is action here handled with the riveting intensity that Bigelow demonstrated with Point Break, but saturated with larger doses of style and exhilaration, if that’s even imaginable.  The two corrupt cops dousing Mace’s limo with gasoline and lighting it on fire forcing her to drive it into in the bay, and then, make a shotgun glass shattering escape to avoid drowning is superbly executed, as is everything here.  This film is soaked in emotion and thrilling, edge of your seat suspense, but still finds those moments of pure entertainment to make it a greatly fun experience.

Surely, the odd aspect of the film is that it was released in 1995 and takes place in the year of 1999 featuring a very radical decline in society.  It’s a very narrow jump into the future.  However, I really do like that it uses that “end of the millennium” sort of craziness and chaos to enhance every aspect of the film.  Strange Days also reflects a lot of early 90’s Los Angeles culture with the earthquakes, riots, and police brutality incidents, and so, it feels very encapsulating of what one could pessimistically feel the future of that Los Angeles could have been.  People are packing assault rifles, cops are wearing tactical riot gear, and the entire city looks like it’s on the edge of all our war.  This is the vibe and energy that Bigelow injects into the fiber of the film, and it really erupts in the film’s climax.  Strange Days is more than just a cyberpunk thriller, it has real social commentary on the darkest parts of society with shocking consequences.  The climax leaves me speechless.  I really don’t have the words reserved to describe it.  There is no easy road taken in this story, and nothing is handled lightly.  This is a hard hitting, gritty, visceral film that holds nothing back on any level.

Fueling all of that is a stellar score by Graeme Revell and a very aggressive soundtrack of mid-1990s electronic, heavy metal, and edgy music.  Every creative element of this movie is jacked into that kinetic, cyberpunk style that soars to magnificent heights.  It’s a pure encapsulation of a stunning vision by Bigelow built on the foundation of a rock solid, stunningly intelligent screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks.

Strange Days is a brilliant, incredible movie with a lot of strong thematic material, wickedly amazing performances, and a spectacular visual style.  This is one of the best and most original movies I have ever seen.  My mind was blown all over again watching it for this review.  Kathryn Bigelow would not be nominated for an Academy Award until 2010, but the evidence of her shockingly amazing talent was evident in 1995 with Strange Days.  This is a film that deserves vastly more exposure, credit, and accolades than it has received.  Surely, Point Break fulfills every action film adrenalin rush satisfaction for me, but this is the remarkable, awe-inspiring film experience.  This is surely, without a doubt, the far superior film of the two, but both deliver on every promise and exceed expectations every step of the way.  My recommendation is that you must see this movie no matter what!


Point Break (1991)

Point BreakThere are so many action movie classics that people call the best, but for me, Point Break is a special, unique film that is, without a doubt, my favorite action movie of all time.  What compels me about this movie that beyond all others is the intense relationship between the protagonist and antagonist.  It creates this amazingly unique dynamic that forges the entire electric, kamikaze adrenalin rush of this film.  So, let’s delve into Kathryn Bigelow’s action classic.

Rookie FBI Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) goes undercover to infiltrate a cache of Southern California surfers suspected of robbing banks.  Utah, a former football player, is assigned to Los Angeles.  There, four bank robbers, who wear rubber masks and call themselves “The Ex-Presidents,” have executed a series of successful robberies which embarrassingly have the FBI stumped.  Utah, and his partner Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) suspect that the robbers are surfers and hatch a plan for catching them, but the deeper Utah gets connected to the charismatic adrenalin driven Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and the beautiful Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty) the harder it is for him to jump off this tidal wave of danger and excitement.

Point Break absolutely lives up to its premise as being 100% pure adrenalin.  The surfing aspect is just the entryway into this, but it remains at the core of the whole film.  That elevated experience shared by Bodhi and Johnny, specifically, is what fuses those two characters together, and is treated with great respect by the filmmakers.  The skydiving sequences escalate that to another level with breathtaking cinematography that envelopes you in the experience, and make for a radically insane sequence where Johnny jumps out of the plane, without a parachute, to capture the escaping Bodhi.  The earlier chase sequence is visceral and intense that really utilizes a rougher style of camera exceptionally well.  And of course, the bank robberies are slam banged into a high gear that shows just how proficient and threatening the Ex-Presidents are.  It is no wonder why the FBI has not been able to catch them after twenty-seven banks over three years.  Wrap all of this up, and you’ve got a film that goes for the physical thrill of the moment over special effects spectacle.  It’s really all about the character dynamics and these scenarios of extreme rushes that provide the high octane exhilaration of Point Break.

Beyond just the action, the core of this film’s compelling energy are the excellent arcs for both Johnny and Bodhi.  You see Special Agent Utah at the start being this fresh from the academy FBI rookie all straight laced and green, but you can see the eagerness underneath that later fuels that adrenalin junkie urge.  Johnny and Bodhi become genuinely intertwined in a naturally evolving way that inches Utah further towards that kamikaze impulse.  Bodhi’s charisma and aura sucks Johnny right in, but it’s never manipulative.  Everything Bodhi conveys is honest straight to his core, and every word of it energizes Johnny.  Most action films have a clear delineation between the protagonist and the antagonist, but here, things are not so clean cut.  Once Johnny is caught up in Bodhi’s tsunami of pure adrenalin, there’s no way out, and he has to ride it out all the way to its heart pounding, violent end.  Bodhi will push everything to its absolute breaking point while risking everything and everyone in the process, and there is a price to pay for it.

Quite frankly, this would have to be the movie that made me a serious Keanu Reeves fan.  A lot of people give him crap, but I give him a lot of credit.  There’s a great deal of subtle development of Johnny Utah between Reeves’ performance and Bigelow’s direction.  This all occurs as he further embraces the philosophy of Bodhi and his love for Tyler.  Keanu Reeves and Lori Petty have very pure, heartwarming chemistry.  Tyler is vibrant and full of brightness that adds glowing life to Johnny.  Meanwhile, as the connection between Johnny and Bodhi intensifies, so does the performance of Reeves.  Johnny becomes more confident, more determined, and less bound by rules as he is propelled out of control through Bodhi’s deadly thrill ride.  I feel Reeves becomes more compelling as the third act shifts into high gear, and Johnny has to has to jump right off the deep end after Bodhi.

Kathryn Bigelow’s direction really envelopes you into Johnny’s mindset whether he’s mesmerized, haunted, elated, or burning with conviction.  Through all of this Reeves is genuine and sincere in his emotions.  You are kept very closely in tuned with Johnny’s mindset through successes, failures, and conflicts.  Point Break is a film that drives everything right to the edge.  Every danger, every extreme, every adrenalin rush is pushed to its insane limits at whatever cost imaginable.  Bodhi embraces this without hesitation or a moral compass.  He’s essentially a barreling freight train unwilling to put on the brakes regardless of what it will cost him.

Patrick Swayze is wickedly good as Bodhi.  He envelopes the character entirely in philosophy, conviction, physicality, and spirituality.  I love how Bodhi has this ethereal link to the sea, and gains a serenity from surfing while being an extreme adrenalin junkie.  Yet, it’s not merely about the thrill with the bank robberies.  He has a greater purpose by showing the shackled masses living their mundane, slave to the grind lives that the human spirit is thriving within his crew.  Swayze is so electrifying with his natural charisma and intense commitment to the character.  When I watch this film, I don’t perceive Patrick Swayze playing a role.  I see Bodhi through and through.  Swayze is stunningly excellent here, and I’m still a little sad that he is no longer with us.  He was an amazingly talented actor, and this should stand as one of his best, most compelling performances.

Rounding out the main cast is Gary Busey in a great, entertaining role as Angelo Pappas.  He can be hilariously funny and quirky, but solidly dramatic in the right moments.  It’s a really well rounded character portrayed by an actor with the smart talent to balance those elements out perfectly.  Plus, there’s John C. McGinley as FBI Director Ben Harp.  Surely, he might seem like the stereotypical loud mouthed boss slinging insults around to his subordinates, but McGinley’s such a strongly talented actor that it never comes off as shallow or tired.  Add in a touch of smug arrogance, and the character of Harp works dead-on-the-mark in McGinley’s hands.

The musical score by Mark Isham is really fantastic.  For one, I love how he captures the enveloping spiritual sense of the sea with smooth, flowing compositions.  It’s very beautiful work that reflects the philosophies of Bodhi long before he enters the film officially.  There is another gorgeous cue that reflects the mystique of Bodhi that’s only a few chords, but it’s repeated a few times to very magical effect.  The action cues are good, yet subtle.  Isham never bombards you with pounding percussion.

The soundtrack is energized with songs that capture that Southern California feel from bands such as L.A. Guns, Concrete Blonde, Jimi Hendrix, Public Image Ltd., and capped off with my beloved “Nobody Rides For Free” by Ratt.  That song perfectly concludes the film, and reflects the constant energy and excitement that runs through it.

The film really escalates to another level when Johnny realizes who the Ex-Presidents actually are, and that super charges every scene from there on out.  The emotions hang on the razor’s edge.  For Bodhi, it ups the stakes making the adrenalin rush and peril even more appetizing for him.  For Johnny, it creates conflict as he has forged a very close bond and kinship with Bodhi, but is soon forced to do whatever is necessary as Tyler is put into imminent peril.  Unlike most action movies such as Die Hard where it’s very straight forward that this is the bad guy and he’s going to die without question, Point Break makes it all far less certain because all of these emotions, some are unexplainable, cloud and complicate the issue.  What all of this builds to is possibly my favorite movie ending of all time that entirely departs from all action film expectations.

The relationship between Johnny Utah and Bodhi reaches its apex on a storm soaked beach.  Their connection remains electrifying as these two clash, but it’s not the fist fight that makes this as great as it is.  Johnny finally has Bodhi in handcuffs ready to put him in a cage for life, but it’s that spiritual kinship between the two that sparks off something unique.  All the groundwork for this ending is laid early on in the film in one scene over a bonfire, and the pay-off is amazing to me.  Point Break is my favorite action film not because it has the best action sequences, or because of its pleasantly memorable dialogue.  It’s because of the culmination of this ending.  Everything that these two characters have developed between each other throughout the movie is so smartly interwoven, setup, and punctuated here.  It concludes an amazing arc for Johnny Utah who begins as this clean cut rookie FBI Agent who changes into someone driven by impulse, emotion, and that inexplicable sensation he gets out on those waves.  He pursues Bodhi down around the world for months on end, but in those final moments with an honest plea from Bodhi that only Johnny can understand fully, you get an ending that breaks a lot of rules in all the right ways.  This ending captivates me to no end that I have attempted to homage and replicate in many of my own scripts.

Karthryn Bigelow did not have any real box office success prior to this film, despite turning out some quite good films such as Near Dark and Blue Steel.  With Point Break, she really came into fruition with a greatly exciting, fresh, and original summer action picture that really delivered.  She shows a great visual style here that pinpoints emotion greatly and really envelopes you into every fiber of this film.  Possibly less than half of Bigelow’s movies in her thirty year career have actually been box office successes, and that’s a horrible shame.  I think she is an incredible director who showed a great deal of potential here, which she would capitalize upon in with stunning results in Strange Days.  Her collaboration on both pictures with now ex-husband James Cameron really shows through in all the best ways.  Point Break shares some common ground with Cameron’s work, and even he draws some parallels between the endings of this movie and Terminator 2.  Regardless, I will take no credit away from Bigelow who gave us this excellent pure adrenalin rush of a movie which has not been replicated since.  I think it goes without saying that I recommend this movie with great passion.


Riddick (2013)

RiddickReviews for this sequel have been pretty lukewarm, and while I don’t blame anyone for feeling as such, there are some high and not-so-high points.  This is not a blanket mediocre film, but the averaging out of the varied content can leave one feeling that way.  As documented recently here, I feel Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick are really strong films in their respective, specific genres, with my preference being for the latter movie.  Riddick does fall between the scale and premises of those films, but doesn’t live up to either one quite as well as it could have.

Betrayed by the Necromongers and left for dead on a desolate planet, Riddick (Vin Diesel) fights for survival against alien predators and becomes more powerful and dangerous than ever before.  Soon, bounty hunters from throughout the galaxy descend on Riddick only to find themselves pawns in his greater scheme for revenge.  With his enemies right where he wants them, Riddick unleashes a vicious attack of vengeance before returning to his home planet of Furya to save it from destruction.

There are three sections of this movie for me to critique which all have their distinct qualities.  The first act of the film feels very sparse as it is just Riddick fending for himself on this desolate planet.  There’s a few bits of narration from him and a flashback with the Necromongers that fill in some plot gaps from the aftermath of The Chronicles of Riddick.  It also contains the only and very brief appearance of Karl Urban as Vaako.  I had hoped for more from him here, but I figured it would be no more than a cameo.  Anyway, this first act didn’t do much for me.  It was kind of cool seeing Riddick wounded, vulnerable, and out in the wild getting back in touch with his animal side.  However, it is quite sparse not giving you much beyond the survival action set pieces to get involved with.  The film was starting to feel like an adventure that would play out in some prequel comic book – a very small scale transition piece story that is a stepping stone to something larger.

Thankfully, as I anticipated, once we get some bounty hunter characters injected into the mix, the film really started to entertain and engage me.  Sure, the premise is quite stripped down and basic feeling more in line with Pitch Black, but if you’ve got a couple of vibrant, enjoyable characters to fill out that premise, you’ve got enough to make it worthwhile.  It does take a few minutes to get them warmed up, but it’s the clashing dynamics between everyone that sparks it all off.  Essentially, there are two teams of bounty hunters, or mercs as they are called.  The first is lead by Santana, who is an enjoyably sleazy, down and dirty type with a very gritty, testosterone jacked team.  The other is a more clean cut operation lead by actor Matt Nable’s character who has personal ties to Riddick and the events of Pitch Black.  These two teams clash immediately causing a lot of conflict, and striking some very humorous, entertaining interactions.

Santana is portrayed very well by Jordi Mollà.  I found him the most lively and charismatic character of the film.  Mollà paints Santana as a very salacious individual with little respect for anyone else outside his team, and especially doesn’t like being ordered around by any of them when they’re forced to team up.  Santana has definite smarts, but his attitude surely digs his own grave with many characters, especially Riddick.  Also, former wrestler Dave Bautista is part of Santana’s team, and he does his part well, especially since Diaz doesn’t require much beyond being tough, formidible, and a little charismatic.

And color me majorly impressed by Katee Sackhoff.  She portrays the exceedingly tough Dahl, part of the opposing team of mercs.  She more than imposes her physicality upon Santana and others who try testing her, and has the attitude to go with that.  This isn’t some stereotypical tough chick routine.  Sackhoff kick ass as a bonafide hard edged, sharply skilled mercenary who has an extra distinctive flourish to her character.  I’m sold on the actress and the character completely.

Now, Matt Nable’s character, of Boss who does have a bit of a reveal that I’ll not spoil for you here, is fairly okay.  As I said, he adds a tether back to Pitch Black, but he’s really little more than that.  The character is confident, authoratative, and intelligent, but compared to the colorful Santana, the tough as nails Dahl, or the nicely fun muscle bound hired guns of Santana’s gang, this is a rather mild character.  He also sits on the fence never becoming an outright, reviled villain, and the ending reflects the reason why.  There’s some intended depth with this character, but because he is so much on the fence, you don’t know if you’re supposed to sympathize with him or view him as a vengeful enemy.  The film never galvanizes him into what kind of adversary he should be, and thus, comes off as quite forgettable and mild.

It is clear that Vin Diesel has a love for Riddick, and so do I.  I think he is very fascinating type of anti-hero that has so many avenues of expansion, but this film really takes no ambition with Richard B. Riddick.  The character is still written well by David Twohy, but that signature aura of mystique isn’t quite there.  That ambiguity of what kind of hero he might choose to be, or the cunning way he manipulates events and perceives deeper into others isn’t really utilized here.  Because the is a straight forward survival story with only bad guys and no potential good guys, you generally know how Riddick is going to deal with everyone.  There’s no one of morality or sympathy like Imam, Carolyn Fry, or Jack / Kyra here to sway or alter Riddick’s actions.  He’s out for himself, and will bargain however he can to escape this planet alive without being held captive.  So, there’s no place for a lot of those more complex elements of Riddick to exist in this story, and that’s unfortunate.  Diesel still does a really good job in the role, making him a fun, smart, highly capable, and entertaining protagonist.  It just doesn’t feel like we’re getting every element of the character that I love.  I kept perceiving something being missing from the performance or portrayal all throughout the movie, but couldn’t really put my finger on it.  There is more to this character that we have seen in both previous movies, but this movie is just a little too stripped down to allow him to develop or be fleshed out.  It also seemed like Vin Diesel didn’t wear contact lenses this time out, and instead, had Riddick’s “shine job” eyes digitally done.

I loved Graeme Revell’s score for both previous movies, but I wasn’t impressed with his work in this film.  The familiar main theme does make some subtle appearances, but we never get a full fledged crescendo of it.  Many of the action beats are scored appropriately well.  Yet, the rest of the score feels very different in many places from Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick.  There were a number of cues which just didn’t strike the right chord with me, same as some of the humorous bits of Riddick and the silly tricks with his dog-like pet.  Those were certainly there to forge an emotional bond with this animal, which seems to have a massive unexplaned growth spurt during the first act, but because it was such a poorly done CGI creation I just couldn’t care that much about it.

The digital visual effects are about on-par with those in The Chronicles of Riddick, but like with Pitch Black, it’s good that a large chunk of these effects appear during dark environments.  The creatures that strike at nightfall are considerably better rendered than Riddick’s pet, which is the only CGI that I cringed at.  Of course, there’s only so much you can do on a $38 million budget where entire landscapes are enhanced with digital effects, and thus, you’re stretching your dollars to their limit.  Thankfully, the CGI is pretty good in large part, and added to the film a whole lot more than it detracted.

I do like that David Twohy put forth the effort to build in connections to both of the previous movies.  Again, you’ve got some flashbacks with the Necromongers showing what happened after Riddick killed the Lord Marshal, and how it led to him being left for dead on this nearly barren planet.  Yet, I know this was not the film Twohy nor Diesel intended to make when they laid out their plans for The Chronicles of Riddick, and so, this is a smaller scale story intended to be a springboard towards a larger scale adventure.  As much as I absolutely want to see this franchise take off and allow these fimmakers to tell the Riddick stories that they want, I’m not sure this is the movie to get them there.  Like I said, this story is probably stripped down too much in terms of character and conceptual development, and focuses more on the entertainment value of action sequences.  While all of the action is very well executed making for a bloody, violent, and fairly exciting movie, it has one more major failing.

As I said, there are three sections of this film to critique, and the last one, clearly, is the ending.  Riddick is an action / horror survival story putting this character into increasingly treacherous and deadly scenarios where he must fend for himself.  People are going to betray him and attempt to kill him, possibly even stranding him on this planet to ensure their own survival.  I won’t detail the ending of this movie, but frankly, it is a terribly weak ending that is a copout to the entire premise.  There’s no dramatic punch to this ending, no rationale for the actions of the other characters involved with it, and leaves you hanging with an empty feeling.  The film builds to a tense, riveting crescendo, and then, fizzles out.  This film absoultely should have ended with a strong, impactful, emphatic statement for the character and franchise.  I even sat there through the end credits hoping for an extra scene to appear, but once those credits roll, that’s all there is.  Up until this point, I was enjoying myself, and was engaged in the excitement of the action.  I was interested to see how the machinations of these deceitful characters would manipulate the fate of Riddick.  It was a fun adventure with plenty of graphic violence pulling no punches, and just having a good, gritty time with itself.  It’s just those last few minutes of the movie where you just don’t know how Riddick is going to get out of this at all, and the entire movie cheats you out of even a decent pay-off.  I just felt letdown, and it’s worse yet because I know David Twohy can write something better than this.  He wrote Warlock, co-wrote The Fugitive, and co-wrote both previous Riddick movies.  It’s a whimper of a conclusion when it should have been amazingly awesome to re-energize audiences about the character of Riddick, and leave them wanting to see more bad assery from him.

I had been waiting for this movie for a long time, and I really wanted this franchise to be very successful.  So, it really, honestly pains me to give any amount of negativity to jeopardize that success, but this really feels more like a movie many would rent instead of rushing out to the theatre to see.  Even removing the ending from the equation, it is a fairly average sci-fi / action movie without the same stylized visuals or scope of Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick.  However, it has some extra punch in the graphic violence and some pleasing female nudity, and has some entertaining and well portrayed characters to liven up the uninspired story.  You can potentially have a good time with this movie, but I don’t feel it’s a strong enough outing to give Riddick the new injection of box office life that he needs for David Twohy and Vin Diesel to do what they desire with him, unfortunately.


“Star Trek” Classic Movie Retrospective


RavensFilm Productions presents the Forever Cinematic Star Trek Classic Movie Retrospective.  Covered are the first six films of the franchise featuring the full original cast and crew of the Starship Enterprise.  Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, and Nichelle Nichols.  Also starring Stephen Collins, Persis Khambatta, Ricardo Montalban, Kirstie Ally, Robin Curtis, Christopher Lloyd, Laurence Luckinbill, David Warner, and Christopher Plummer.  Reviews by Nick Michalak.

Written Reviews:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)


The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

The Chronicles of RiddickYou don’t know how excited I was to watch this movie again, and then, wonder to myself why in the HELL haven’t I watched this frequently over the years.  Of course, I speak of the director’s cut which I feel is a vastly superior and richer story.  From every fan I’ve heard from, they are hardcore about Pitch Black, but not so much about this one.  I am really more the reverse.  The more expansive science fiction epic traveling to various unique worlds, and facing multiple dangers with colorful characters is right in my cinematic sweet spot.

After years of outrunning ruthless bounty hunters, escaped convict Riddick (Vin Diesel) suddenly finds himself caught between opposing forces in a fight for the future of all races.  An army of fearsome world ravagers known as Necromongers are “cleansing” and forcibly converting other species in their goal of universal conquest, but Imam (Keith David) and the Elemental Ambassador Aereon (Judi Dench) believe Riddick holds the key to a prophecy that could bring down Necromonger Lord Marshal (Colm Feore).  Now, waging incredible battles on fantastic and deadly worlds, this lone, reluctant hero will emerge as a champion, and the last hope for a universe on the edge of annihilation.

Vin Diesel and David Twohy really develop the character of Riddick further and in more depth.  There’s more emotional texture on the surface now, especially when conversing with Imam.  I absolutely love how this film expands this character without ever betraying what made him fascinating to begin with.  He’s placed into a larger story and a larger world which delves further into who he is, where he came from, and that’s exactly what a sequel should do.  Every bad ass, intriguing quality of him is intact, but circumstances force him to make choices he never thought he’d be faced with.  Diesel does an excellent job stretching Riddick out into this wider universe.  He still carries the air of mystique with him, but there’s more emotional weight and tethers to the character.  The connection with Imam is quite cool, if only for having two of the deepest, smoothest voices in Hollywood trading dialogue, but honestly, these are especially good scenes.  Diesel also gets more dynamic action sequences to shine in, and galvanizes Riddick into a bigger, smarter, more clever bad ass than before.  I also love the light touches of wit and humor that we are given.  Riddick has some clever, fun dialogue making him just as funny as he is threatening and dangerous.

Building upon his character is the relationship with Jack, who now goes by Kyra and portrayed by Alexa Davalos.  She’s grown into a jaded version of Riddick because she feels he abandoned her.  She’s a convicted criminal willing to kill for pleasure or to survive.  Davalos does a very good job in this role making a solid emotional connection with the audience, and shows her physicality is in prime shape.  Some might know her from her three guest appearances on Angel as the electricity powered Gwen Raiden, where she also showed she could throw down.  Davalos is a great successor to this role, and the film pulls no punches in tearing these characters away from Riddick, forcing him to stand more and more on his own.  I like that Kyra and Imam become involved in the Necromonger storyline, albeit in different ways, and so, all threads tie tightly back into the main plot.

The director’s cut absolutely makes this an excellent film.  The theatrical version cuts out the real meat of the Furyan subplot including the character of Shirah who comes to Riddick in visions and unlocks his power as a Furyan.  All of that is rather critical to the entire driving factors of the movie.  It gives motivation and purpose to Riddick and Lord Marshal, and propels them forward with more weight and depth.  Without all of that, the story becomes thinner and more basic.  I remember seeing moments in the trailer from this subplot, and being upset when they didn’t appear when I saw the film theatrically.  This aspect of The Chronicles of Riddick gives depth, purpose, and poignancy to Riddick, and simply makes it a more substantive story that I really, strongly endorse.

There’s also amazing action everywhere in The Chronicles of Riddick.  From the mercs chasing Riddick on the frigid ice world to the race against the scorching, lethal sunrise on the prison planet Crematoria, we get wickedly conceived and executed set pieces.  There’s plenty of violence, especially in the unrated director’s cut, as Riddick really cuts deep into his adversaries, and we get plenty of bang for our buck.  The stunt work is amazing, and the imagination on display is rich and refreshing.  David Twohy creates some very dynamic acrobatic moments that do strain physics, but it fits just fine into the hyper stylized intensity.  He absolutely goes for an expansive scope that stunningly sucked me into the film.  The entire look of the movie is just awesome with excellent cinematography and a brilliant, epic vision from Twohy himself.

The Chronicles of Riddick has a very lavish production design that I could compare to a big Dino De Laurentiis 1980’s science fiction / fantasy epic like Flash Gordon or David Lynch’s Dune.  This really goes all out in detailed costume designs, big sprawling landscapes, and simply elegant sets filled with depth and nuance.  Twohy really went for broke making this an exquisitely high grade production, and I think it immensely pays off at every turn.  Some of the visual effects are exceptional, but there are a number of moments that are quite noticeably less than excellent.  Regardless, the vast, stunning vision of David Twohy is realized impressively, and with stronger resources than what he had on Pitch Black.  The visual effects are a MAJOR upgrade from that movie allowing for Twohy’s vision to thrive on screen.  There might be a green screen effect here or there that could be a notch or two better, and the animals set loose in the Crematoria prison are the most obvious undercooked CGI elements, but the visual effects spectacle is very strong creating a fully realized and enveloping universe.  I thoroughly love every aspect of the look of this film.  It’s what hooked me from the trailers, and it’s what continues to excite me.  And yes, Graeme Revell does return to reprise his themes from the first movie, and does a remarkable job capturing the feel of this more action / adventure-centric sequel.

What I absolutely, deeply love in this film is Nick Chinlund as the bounty hunter Toombs.  He is a massive upgrade in entertainment value over Johns in Pitch Black.  Toombs is a rugged, sleazy, charismatic joy to be had all through his screentime.  He’s an excellent, fun adversary for Riddick.  Chinlund and Diesel have great adversarial chemistry to the point that I had always wanted Toombs to return for a sequel, but you can’t always get what you want.  This role made me an enthusiastic Nick Chinlund fan.

And damn, does Karl Urban not do his best in everything he does?  He’s a hardened, menacing threat as Vaako who schemes against the Lord Marshal to succeed him as leader of the Necromongers.  This might seem like a subplot that is a bit extraneous, but it has strategic impact on the main plot.  And Urban’s strong presence and dramatic weight really helps enhance Vaako and his role in this film.  As I always say, Karl Urban is an actor with a rich depth of talent who never gives anything but his absolute best every time he takes on a role.  He does rock solid, consistent, high quality work, and that has made him a wholehearted favorite of mine since The Lord of the Rings and The Bourne Supremacy.

And it’s odd to speak of the film’s main villain after all of these supporting characters, but Colm Feore is great as the Lord Marshal.  He adds the right balance of militaristic conqueror and haunting specter.  He is a man of supposed ultimate power seeking universal domination, and is fully consumed by his radical faith.  His unwavering mindset makes him immensely dangerous like a barreling down freight train, and Feore has the right eerie quality to sell all of this.  He fills the role just right making him a seemingly insurmountable enemy fueled by these fantastical powers of the Underverse.  He doesn’t have the entertainment value of Toombs, or the fierce intensity of Vaako.  However, he is the dominant presence that none can contend with, but you do get the subtle feeling that, whether it’s Riddick or Vaako, someone is going to take him down by the end.  The climax entirely plays upon that expectation, and executes it in a very clever way.

Pitch Black was the one-off adventure that introduced us to Riddick, and just allowed us a small glimpse into the potential of this character.  The Chronicles of Riddick was clearly the start of a larger, epic story that I have been excited to see continued for nine years.  David Twohy establishes a great, exciting, and vast universe for endless possibilities with this movie.  I love taking a character like Riddick and injecting him into a different kind of film.  So many sequels aren’t a tenth as ambitious as this film strives and succeeds to be.  Many would do the same old thing, playing it safe with audience expectations, but Twohy engages us with Riddick and develops him further in a story that forces that to happen.  It puts Riddick into the bigger picture of the universe, and sets the stage for something even more fascinating and expansive to occur.

With the third film, Riddick, hitting theatres this weekend, it’s great to see another chance being taken here with a franchise of ripe potential.  The Chronicles of Riddick was not profitable upon its theatrical release, and that was a terrible shame.  Twohy and Diesel had well plotted plans for two more films, but would need that larger budget to realize them.  So, I don’t expect Riddick to expand as wondrously and amazingly upon the concepts of this film, but more a fusion of the styles of Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick.  Finding a middle ground between them seems like it could generate success and appeal to fans of both films.  Again, my preference is towards the second film as it just breaks open the universe in a stunning realization of imagination, and is fueled by some great action sequences that have always stuck with me through the years.  The Chronicles of Riddick is greatly exciting, immensely enjoyable, and simply fascinating to see unfold with its fantastical ideas and purposeful spectacle.  If you haven’t been exposed to these films, I strongly encourage you to do so, and I hope that Riddick lives up to the years of anticipation.  Even if it’s smaller scale, I’m greatly pleased to see a solid, imaginative franchise get another chance at success.


Pitch Black (2000)

Pitch BlackDavid Twohy is one of those talents who deserves better success than what he has achieved.  He’s done some stellar screenwriting work with hits like The Fugitive and G.I. Jane, and many of his directorial efforts have received critical praise from genre fans.  With Pitch Black, he struck a cult following chord that still, hopefully, resonates to this day.  I’ve heard many say that Pitch Black is essentially a reworking of David Twohy’s rejected script for Alien 3, but my research does not confirm any correlation between the two projects especially since he co-wrote Pitch Black with two other writers in Jim & Ken Wheat.  However, it is very easy to see how this could have been part of that franchise, but thankfully, this was its own thing that launched its own franchise that I am glad to say that I am a fan of.  And yes, the director’s cut is the way to go for me.

When their ship crash-lands on a remote planet, the marooned passengers soon learn that escaped convict Riddick (Vin Diesel) isn’t the only thing they have to fear.  Deadly creatures lurk in the shadows, waiting to attack in the dark, and the planet is rapidly plunging into the utter blackness of a total eclipse.  With the body count rising, the doomed survivors are forced to turn to Riddick with his eerie eyes to guide them through the darkness to safety.  With time running out there is only one rule: Stay in the light.

It’s interesting the structure that David Twohy goes for here.  Once the crash occurs, most films would take on a gradual pace to establish many of these characters, and walk through the process of a slow burn build up to the lurking threats waiting for everyone.  Instead, Twohy does a lot to jump forward beyond those gradual beats and goes for the tight, faster rhythm.  He knows that the necessary focus is on Riddick, Fry, and Johns, primarily, and there are points that need to be hit with them before jumping headlong into the meat of the plot.  We then learn more about these individuals as the conflicts and tensions escalate, which really works.  Twohy keeps the pace very well balanced because of this approach.  It starts out exciting, and continues to hold to that rhythm throughout.  Danger is encroaching upon these characters, and that faster tempo is very essential to the effectiveness of the scenario.

The film has some very well crafted sequences that surely deliver on the suspense using silence, subtlety, and the darkness in very effective ways.  While it doesn’t send chills up my spine to tingle me with terror, it is thrilling nonetheless.  For me, I would veer this more towards an action vibe.  The intention is survival horror, but there is enough intense action here to cater to anyone who isn’t so easily scared.  Several characters are put into peril early on, some die, and that serves the tension later on knowing that anyone is expendable in this story.  Anyone can fall prey to these quickly striking nocturnal creatures, and when they are charging through hordes of them with only minimal light to clear their way, it puts an audience on edge.  Yet, little of this would mean anything if there weren’t well portrayed and written characters to involve yourself with.

I really like everything that David Twohy and Radha Mitchell do with Carolyn Fry, the now defacto commanding officer after the captain died during a hull breech.  We know throughout the movie that she is not an altruistic hero as she tries to jettison the passengers to save her own life during the impending crash landing.  So, there’s that condemnable quality that she works to redeem herself for through the film.  She struggles to lead these people to safety as she constantly pushes that responsibility away, but she has to ultimately accept that leadership role in order to survive.  Mitchell really stands strong in this role delivering a dimensional character that an audience can latch onto, emotionally, and invest themselves in as she grows and solidifies through this terrifying ordeal.  Fry is vulnerable, but shows her strength by the end.

Cole Hauser makes the bounty hunter Johns a very good, subtly unstable foil here.  He’s supposed to be a good guy considering he caught Riddick, but he’s a tough mercenary challenging everyone’s authority while feeding his drug habit.  He’s a hostile wild card that could motivate people to safety, or more likely, jeopardize lives, including his own.  He and Riddick are definitely set at odds, but the scenes between them are very interesting in the psychological aspect.  Riddick is a guy who likes to play on peoples’ perceptions of him, and give them a certain amount of unpredictability to what he’ll do next.  Johns knows plenty of Riddick’s tricks, and it’s interesting to see them subtly square off psychologically and physically.

Of course, the real star of the movie is Vin Diesel.  The character of Richard B. Riddick is very much an anti-hero.  He’s a convicted criminal who makes no excuses for himself, but knows how to use everyone’s fears and perceptions about him to his benefit.  Diesel is very subtle in these moments speaking softly with a smirk showing that Riddick has people wrapped around his finger.  Riddick knows just how far to push, and when to twist things back around.  First and foremost, he is a survivor, and he knows that you can’t always do it alone.  Vin Diesel injects confidence, intelligence, and cunning into the character, but also a very compelling mystique.  Just like a Snake Plissken type, the less he says, the more interesting he becomes.  His actions make him intriguing while what words he does speak weave a complex tapestry that simply sucks you in.  You can gradually see this character becoming an iconic role as the film progresses, and even his opening narration sets the focus intriguingly upon Riddick right from the start.

There are a couple of notable supporting roles here including Keith David as the Muslim passenger Imam.  He offers up a very solid character with strong beliefs and morality that add to the diverse personalities and attitudes of these characters.  David is always a charismatic actor who can do tough everyman like in They Live or The Thing, but turn around and give you a substantive, cultured character such as Imam.  Add to that is Jack, portrayed by Rhianna Griffith who comes to idolize Riddick, and forms some kind of attachment to him.  There’s an odd twist to the character that seems fairly unnecessary, but it’s another trait to make Jack a slight bit more memorable.  These are both well established, well portrayed characters which aid the film in very grounded, human ways.

Now, Pitch Black has a certain stylized look at times that never entirely sat right with me.  I do like some of the over exposed daylight shots driving home the triple sun environment, but the rather monochromatic color washes don’t quite appeal to me.  I just feel there must have been a better, more subtle way to color time these scenes to allow a slightly more varied color palette to shine through.  Also, the inverted colors used in one false scare moment and a few cinematography and editing choices feel more akin to a flashy, stylized music video.  These artistic choices just seemed more akin to stuff I had seen in the direct-to-video market than a theatrically released motion picture.  That is sad for me to admit because beyond these off-beat moments, there is a lot of excellent cinematography to be had here.  There’s a definite effort put towards production value with the cinematic camera moves and angles chosen.  When the film gets into the darker and darker environments, it really takes on a very moody, atmospheric, and dangerous visual intensity.  The whole planet eventually feels like a black, empty void perfectly reflecting the tense situation at hand.  I also like that, in contrast to the overly exposed daytime scenes, the full-on night time scenes seem straining a little for exposure.  You feel how dim the light is that these people have to work with and ward off these creatures, and that extra grain on the film stock just adds more gritty edge to the movie.  Those issues I had are present only in the early part of the film.  The remainder of it is shot, edited, and executed especially well.

Considering this was made on a $23 million budget in the early 2000s, I will say that the visual effects are fairly good based on those factors.  In the grand scheme of CGI, Pitch Black has a LOT of room for improvement.  These filmmakers were very ambitious with what they wanted to achieve on such a limited budget, and I can’t fault them for that.  There are some better looking moments than others, and it is likely best, by design, that so many of these effects are played out in dark environments.  In a brightly lit one, these creatures and digital effects would look really bad.  While Riddick’s “shine job” vision allowing him to see in the dark is pretty damn cool, the creature vision is quite primitive like some cheap Photoshop radial blur effect.  I hate to talk poorly about all of this because I see the ambition and visionary talent at work, but the budget could only be stretched so far to accommodate that, which is very unfortunate.  If you doubled this film’s budget, the visual effects would be approaching excellent, I’m sure.  As it is, if the characters and scenario pull you in, I think any shortcomings in the CGI will be forgivable in an audience’s eyes.

Another really exceptional quality here is Graeme Revell’s rich score.  The main theme is excellent, thrilling, and rather triumphant.  In an age of films that rarely attempt to forge a recognizable main theme of any kind, it’s refreshing to see especially a genre film crafting one that strikes a strong chord.  Even though it had been several, several years since I had seen either this or The Chronicles of Riddick, I still recalled the theme fondly.  Revell has done some stunning work when he really applies himself, such as on The Crow, Strange Days, and The Craft, and his effort really shows through here.

Surely, the basic concept of Pitch Black is not very original as I’m sure you can draw comparisons to the Alien franchise and various other science fiction / horror classics.  However, like I said, even if this film does tingle you with terror, it has action and excitement to engage you.  I definitely like the Riddick character.  He’s very intriguing, and a solid anti-hero in cinema is always a fun concept.  Vin Diesel was the right man for this role, and I love that he has had such a devotion to it alongside David Twohy.  Pitch Black is definitely a cult classic which has plenty of merit and entertainment value.  It’s a straight up type of film with certain plot conveniences to allow for this story to happen, but if it hooks you and you have fun watching it, none of it is gonna matter.


Gunmen (1994)

GunmenThis is one of those movies I haven’t watched since the 1990’s, but I remember liking it a lot.  In watching it again, it’s amazing just how much of it I remember, which is a hell of a lot.  This might seem like an under the radar action movie, especially since it couldn’t even earn back half of its $8 million budget upon its theatrical release, but boasting a cast of Christopher Lambert, Mario Van Peebles, Denis Leary, and Patrick Stewart, it’s got respectable muscle.  That’s one thing that always struck me strongly about Gunmen in addition to Lambert and Van Peebles teaming up as buddies in this, and then, portraying enemies the following year in the third Highlander movie.  So, let’s see what Gunmen has to offer that I find so vastly entertaining.

A bounty hunter, Cole Parker (Mario Van Peebles), and a con man, Dani Servigo (Christopher Lambert), each have half the clues to the whereabouts of a $400 million treasure of stolen drug money.  Against their wills they are forced to team up to battle an elite squad of mafia assassins employed by the wheelchair bound Loomis (Patrick Stewart), and led by the ruthless Armor O’Malley (Denis Leary).  If Cole and Dani survive a relentless chase across a jungle and two continents, they will have to face each other because a half billion dollars is not enough to share.

Gunmen is a fun action film, but one with heart, character, and dramatic weight.  This all comes to us from Deran Sarafian, the director of Death Warrant, and screenwriter Stephen Sommers, who would go on to director Deep Rising, The Mummy, and various other fun big action movies.  This seems to be a really good pairing.  Sommers’ writing creates a fun concept with strong characters and his signature dashes of fun and humor.  Sarafian grounds the movie with a real grit which mixes serious consequence with a thrilling ride.  He makes it a harder edged action movie than Sommers typically would make, and that style perfectly works for this film.  Plus, I like that the film hits the ground running dropping us into events already in motion as everyone is already on the trail of Dani and the money.  That rhythm and tempo remains constant throughout the film propelling every event forward briskly.  There’s very little slowing down in Gunmen, and because of that, these filmmakers are able to tightly pack a lot of exciting content into the 90 minute runtime.

I also really like that this film is a bunch of criminals, mercenaries, thieves, and bounty hunters running amuck.  There’s not a law enforcement presence anywhere at all.  Lots of betrayals, distrust, and personal agendas twist the plot around making it fun and interesting.  This keeps every character on their toes, and allows for some spontaneous moments of drama and humor to occur that just add to the fun factor.  At its core, Gunmen is a buddy action film headed up by an incredibly perfectly pair of actors who give it vibrant life.

Frankly, any movie where Christopher Lambert is having a good time is a winner for me just on entertainment value alone.  His character of Dani Servigo is full of laughs all the way.  Where Mario Van Peebles is the straight arrow and dramatic anchor of the duo, Lambert is the comedy, but is not farcical.  These two have excellent chemistry together, and Van Peebles is able to get his fair share of humor into the mix.  Once they spark off that chemistry, the film becomes more and more fun.  The banter between them made me laugh so much.  It’s a real delight.  And Van Peebles really shows a lot of worth leading this film with a strong weight, charisma, and edge.  Cole Parker is a definite tough bounty hunter able to hold his own against anyone, and is portrayed as a very smart, sharp, and cunning professional.  Yet, while there’s a lot of fun, Gunmen still finds those quiet moments of character building and heart-to-heart scenes to maintain substance.  Cole and Dani solidly bond together, but they still have their fun adversarial moments such as Dani shooting Cole in the leg to keep him from running off with the money and Cole later returning the favor to sharp, clever comic effect.

I severely love Denis Leary.  He is a great comedian, but he has always impressed me with his dramatic work.  I especially love his turns in Judgment Night and Suicide Kings, and here, he plays vicious bastard immensely effectively.  Leary’s cynical humor is perfectly molded into an edgy, charismatic, sadistic, and bad ass villain.  Armor O’Malley is a perfect mercenary out for himself, and willing to double-cross anyone for his own betterment.  Leary’s sarcastic charisma fuels the performance and makes Armor an entertaining enemy all the way through.

Patrick Stewart’s role as Loomis is not expansive, but by no doubt, is solidly portrayed.  You see this feeble man in body and mind ordering around Armor and his hired guns, and you can perceive someone who once had a strength and authority to him.  However, age and circumstance have diminished him, and his sad double-cross departure in the film seems only inevitable.  With Stewart in this role, it certainly adds a special notoriety to the character which elevates Loomis’ importance in the plot.

Lambert, Van Peebles, and Leary, along with many of their supporting co-stars, prove to be very action capable actors.  As the title suggests, there is a very generous amount of intense gunplay and shootouts packed into the film, but there’s plenty of physicality and stunt work to behold.  There’s loads of excitement throughout especially when helicopters are involved.  That tight pace I mentioned before completely adds to the exciting momentum of the action.  It just keeps on coming allowing for very little time to slow down, but it does have it s well timed breaths between the blazing thrills.  The climax has everyone in a sort of cat-and-mouse game aboard a luxury motor boat, and it is very cleverly and sharply executed.  I love how this is all shot keeping this a little shadowy to give the sequence some visual edge.  Overall, the film is really damn well shot in the cinemascope anamorphic format from the director of photography of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  The quality of the cinematography really enhances every fun, thrilling moment of Gunmen.

I also really enjoyed the score by John Debney.  Since the film is set in South America, we get some Latin flavor in the music that blends in beautifully with Spanish guitars and percussion.  The action scenes have some very good and original driving beats which hold to that musical style.  It’s really a wonderful piece of work from the man who would later score Sudden Death, Sin City, Predators, and Iron Man 2.  This film also incorporates a lot of early-to-mid 90’s hip hop / rap music very well.  It’s surely not my genre of music, but they are all very good songs which aid the vibe the film is going for.  After all these years, the opening title track of “Bite The Bullet” by Kid Frost has stuck firmly in my mind, and I think that says quite a lot.

I honestly think I enjoyed Gunmen more now than I did years ago.  It really is a solid, fun, enjoyable action movie with a fully charismatic cast that doesn’t disappoint.  There’s near wall-to-wall action with a full helping of laughter between Lambert and Van Peebles’ superb chemistry.  There are only a few films that really exemplify my preferred style of 1990’s action films, and this is definitely one of them.  Really tight pacing with a grounded sensibility that still has its tone opened up for great fun.  The film doesn’t get cheesy or diminish the grit of its action by adding in those humorous elements.  It all works very cohesively for a well-rounded piece of entertainment.  This is just a movie of pure enjoyment right from the start and it only builds as it progresses.  While Gunmen got the shaft on DVD in the United States as a pan-and-scan edition, I was very pleased to find it on iTunes in its proper widescreen format for purchase or rental in standard or high definition.  If you’re looking for a really solidly made action film with intense excitement and a lot of laughs, you really cannot go wrong with Gunmen.  I give it a very strong recommendation.


Die Hard (1988)

Die HardI’ve made some mentions of the Die Hard clone in recent months in reviews of Sudden Death, Olympus Has Fallen, and more.  Now, just because you’re the first do something, or the one who sets the trend doesn’t always mean you did it best.  However, in the case of John McTiernan’s blockbuster action film Die Hard, there is simply no equal.  While I don’t list it as my number one favorite of all time, I cannot deny that this is likely the best action movie ever made, and there are a lot of qualities that go into making it that exceptionally awesome.

NYPD Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) has come to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company’s holiday party.  However, as he waits for the festivities to end, the entire building is taken over by a heavily armed team perceived as terrorists, but their sinister leader, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), reveals that his interest is purely in greed.  As the hostages are rounded up, McClane slips away with only his service revolver and his cunning wits at his disposal.  What begins as a perfectly planned crime quickly ignites into McClane waging a one man war to save everyone before they are all blown sky high.

There are many things that set Die Hard apart from everything else, but I think the biggest key of it are the characters.  Beyond just the performances, this film takes its time to introduce them to you, and allow for their dynamics and personalities to play out before any of the action begins.  This is mainly the development between John and Holly McClane.  Their turbulent marriage is fleshed out in smart, subtle beats that never feel like exposition, just natural conversation.  These are real, relatable people in a grounded reality with normal problems that are soon thrust into an extraordinary situation, and because we get to know these characters through levity and emotional conflict, we care greatly about them once peril befalls them.  Even the villains are given their due time to feel fleshed out and dimensional such as how Hans Gruber discusses men’s suits, art, and culture with Takagi before threatening him with a gun for the password to his vault.  These moments make Gruber an interesting and engaging villain who has a fairly equal amount of depth to John McClane.  This way, it is also a battle of wits and personalities as much as it is a pure action conflict.  This is so much due to the time director John McTiernan and his screenwriters took to slip those important character building moments into the film, and that makes it a greatly more substantive action film that you would regularly get in any decade.

Now, the 1980’s were filled with the larger than life, nigh indestructible action hero.  Then, comes along John McClane.  This guy who is as vulnerable as the rest of us that gets beaten up, his feet sliced up by glass, bleeds everywhere, feels fear, and gets progressively worse for wear as the film goes on.  All the while, under the intense stress of a violent life or death scenario, he’s cracking wise with everyone left and right just doing what he can to cope and survive.  Where a Rambo or John Matrix type would just burst in blazing a full arsenal to wipe out everyone, McClane has to be clever and cautious every step of the way against these extremely well-armed killers.  All he has is his wits, and Bruce Willis’ well established comedic talents blended perfectly into the quick witted quips of McClane.  I’m sure there was speculation abound leading up to this film’s release as to Willis’ ability to be an action hero because of doing so many comedies, but he was able to bring a completely unique identity to this role that is hard to match.  While it is the wisecracks that we remember so much, the purely human moments of drama really sell this character as one that stands apart from so many others.  Bruce Willis really shows that he could do the full spectrum of acting here as he leads this film with charisma, heart, and physical intensity.  He brings a fresh dimension and grounded realism to McClane that makes him the beloved, very human, bad ass icon that we so love.

Just how McClane is a distinct departure from the action heroes of the day, Hans Gruber distinguishes himself from many of the over the top, cheesy villains of the 80’s.  Alan Rickman is brilliant as Hans Gruber.  What truly makes this so is that he’s not obvious at all.  Gruber is a guy who is smart, charming, smooth, educated, and charismatic.  Yet, he’s a calculated, clever, ruthless villain.  You can see that Gruber had every single detail of this plan plotted out perfectly, and is able to outsmart and keep ahead of everyone except for the one wild card in his brilliant crime in John McClane.  As much of an sociopathic, murderous villain as Gruber is, you can be thoroughly entertained by the charisma and intelligence Alan Rickman injects into him, but you still rejoice when McClane finally does him in.

A little unexpected humor arises from the less than sharp minded LAPD and FBI.  Paul Gleason’s Chief Robinson is clearly in over his head exercising clear incompetence while thinking he’s got everything under control.  Then, FBI Agents Johnson and Johnson, a joke in and of itself, are too full of themselves with their gung ho testosterone to be perceptive enough to know when they’re being played.  Add in more competent, yet still funny characters like Argyle the limo driver and Theo, Hans’ charismatic safe cracker, you’ve got laughs for miles without damaging the serious integrity of the action and drama of the movie.  This is seriously one of the most quotable action movies ever.

Yet, amidst all the explosive thrills and well-timed humor, we get the tether of humanity with Sergeant Al Powell.  Reginald VelJohnson connects perfectly in this role bringing the tired, wounded, and alone McClane into contact with someone on the outside who can be a moral and emotional support.  An action film is great when the thrills are exciting and bombastic, but you get something exceptional when this thread of humanity is so strongly in place.  VelJohnson gives us the full spectrum from lovable and funny to heartfelt and compassionate to stern conviction.  Powell is ultimately given some depth and substance showing that this film wasn’t going to take a shortcut anywhere at all.  The very human moments between Powell and McClane are a special strength.

But indeed, the action is ultimately the driving force of this movie, and once that spark of excitement is lit, it runs on pure adrenalin with riveting intensity and masterful execution.  This is big action with a real sense of gravity and peril.  The scale makes it amazingly fun and exciting while the weight of the drama makes it suspenseful and electrifying.  I love the subplot with Karl’s vendetta against McClane for the murder of his brother, and when the two finally clash, it’s awesome.  After all of the heavy gunfire and explosions, the few minutes of visceral raw physicality are a breath of fresh air before the scale of the action escalates further with the roof exploding signaling the third act rocketing forward.  Die Hard does nothing but amaze you at every turn.  Every step of the way, we care about these characters in the thick of danger, and we gradually see it escalate as Gruber’s plan unfolds.  It’s also great seeing McClane figure things out a little at a time, such as wondering why Hans was on the roof, and then, realizing he plans to blow it sky high with all the hostages on it.

I tend to write these reviews while watching the movie so to pick up on all the nuances, but Die Hard is so consistently engaging, thrilling, and entertaining that I could hardly tear my attention away to type anything up.  Whether it is the absolutely wickedly awesome action, the touching character building moments, or the great laughs it elicits from an audience, Die Hard is the perfect example of executing an action film correctly.  There’s not a moment wasted, and the editing is dead-on sharp and perfect in its pacing and timing.  Moments are so excellently punctuated with the right cut, and even more so with Michael Kamen’s remarkably intense and spectacular score.  His is a masterwork of brilliant, sophisticated action film compositions.  Not to mention, this is an expertly shot movie using those beautiful anamorphic lenses and that cinemascope widescreen canvas to accentuate the scale of the action.  And where many action films today can barely keep the camera steady long enough to understand the geography of a single scene, McTiernan and cinematographer Jan de Bont do so many subtle things to layout the geography of this entire building.  Early on, they walk you through the entire central area of the Nokatomi Tower over the opening credits so you understand where the hallways, elevator, offices, and stairway are so we can navigate it as competently as the characters.  As the film goes on, we revisit the conference room, the elevator shafts, and the roof to maintain a familiar environment for the action.  As a film lover and a filmmaker myself, this movie just makes me gush from a technical standpoint as it is so perfectly executed in every moment.  This film is exquisitely made from a massively talented team of filmmakers, sonic geniuses, and brilliant visual artists.

This film was adapted from the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, and many of the mind blowing and clever moments in the film are taken directly from the novel.  McClane’s jump from the exploding roof with the fire hose wrapped around him, the C-4 bomb thrown down the elevator shaft, and more exist in Thorp’s novel.  Apparently, it was a novel written as a sequel to The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra, but he declined the role.  Years later, it was supposedly intended as a sequel to Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, before being re-fashioned into the action classic that we now know and love.  Indeed, everything has its right time to come to fruition, and Die Hard happened in the right way at the right time with the right talent.

Between this and Predator, John McTiernan established himself as one of the premiere action movie directors of the time, and of course, this launched Bruce Willis into blockbuster super stardom.  Despite how Willis now feels about doing action movies, saying he’s bored with them at this point, we will always have these pinnacles of the genre when Willis was in his prime and eager to do his absolute best.  Die Hard is probably the most perfect action movie I have ever seen as it hits all of the beats of excitement and character just right with a spot-on mix of drama and humor to make it an undeniably memorable experience.  For anyone who has only ever seen either the fourth or fifth film in this franchise, you are doing a horrible disservice to yourself in basing the quality of Die Hard on those films.  As I said from the start, there is simply no equal.


Hollow Point (1996)

Hollow PointSo, this is the last film in my Thomas Ian Griffith triple feature, and it’s odd that in each successive movie his hair gets shorter and shorter.  Also, each of these films have some very impressive names attached to the cast.  This time, we’ve got John Lithgow and Donald Sutherland, so, there’s certainly talent on screen worth watching.  Hollow Point sees Griffith going pretty crazy with a full charge of charisma in a film I wasn’t expecting to be what it was.  Let’s see what it is that it happened to be.

FBI Agent Diane Norwood (Tia Carrere) is ready to do almost anything, even to spoil her own wedding, in order to bring down Livingston (John Lithgow), a major money launderer.  In the course of her dogged investigation she runs into the audacious DEA Agent Max Parish (Thomas Ian Griffith) who also wants Livingston.  After the two of them reluctantly join forces, they track down Garret Lawton (Donald Sutherland), one of Livingston’s disgruntled hitmen, to help bring him down.

After the conspiracy cop thriller and the Die Hard clone from Griffith, we now get something that tonally veers off in a wild direction.  I went into this expecting a fairly serious action movie, but right in the first fifteen minutes, you’ve both Griffith and Sutherland being all kinds of off-the-wall crazy.  A Russian Mafioso is smuggled around town, after slipping back into the country, in a casket, and the Max Parish character hijacks his hearse in an effort to interrogate him.  In a chase down a stairwell after this, Sutherland’s assassin character Lawton practically cackles and prances around like a nutjob chased by Agent Norwood while Parish rides a window washer’s harness down spouting out jokes.  I was laughing my ass off.  This is all just plain nuts based solely on Griffith and Sutherland, and this is them just getting warmed up.  This is a movie that just knows how to have fun with itself, and I was happy to indulge in it.

Hollow Point ultimately is a buddy cop movie where, absolutely, neither Parish nor Norwood like each other in the least.  They are adversarial to the point of sabotaging one another until they reluctantly agree to work together, but even then, they continually butt heads for many reasons.  Parish is practically certifiably nuts doing nothing but unorthodox stunts every step of the way, and Norwood feels very dedicated and straight arrow, up to a point.  So, it is the classic personality clash dynamic which stirs up friction and entertainment value.  Hollow Point is, by very far, no Lethal Weapon, but it’s certainly a whole lot of fun.

As I already touched upon, Thomas Ian Griffith really cuts loose with all of his charisma.  Max Parish is ultimately a guy working outside the bounds of the law to his own ends, and so, he’s going for broke at every turn.  Thus, he’s greatly unpredictable and spontaneous which facilitates Griffith to throw everything into this performance to make it endlessly fun and exciting.  There’s very little opportunity for drama to seep into the Max Parish character as the film really drives for the fun and laughs, but there are a few light, fleeting moments of seriousness that he slips in and out of smoothly.

Yet, as crazy as Griffith is here, Donald Sutherland is full blown whacky.  There is not a scene where he isn’t grinning like he’s gotten a snout full of Nitrous Oxide, and just being the nuttiest hitman you’ve ever seen.  Sutherland was clearly having an incredibly fun time playing this role with all the eccentricities and flare possible.  The flipside of that is John Lithgow doing a fairy straight villain performance, but it’s rather middle of the road.  He has lightly humorous moments along with grounded serious ones.  After seeing him in both Cliffhanger and Ricochet, I know he can do bad ass bad guy wickedly, but this outing here is nothing special, yet I was glad to have him there.  He made the character more interesting and entertaining just by him being in it, and goes the extra mile in the climax.

As you might expect, Tia Carrere is not the most convincing tough federal agent.  She certainly plays the role to the best of her ability, and is competent in all the action scenes.  However, despite her best efforts, I couldn’t be fully sold on the casting choice.  The Diane Norwood role was better suited for someone with more inherent toughness, charisma, and savvy.  Sandwiched in between Griffith and Sutherland chewing up scenery with full-tilt vibrancy, Carrere doesn’t really standout at all.  She has some decent moments that gain her some credibility, though.  Plus, she and Griffith have pretty good chemistry, and she handles the humorous moments sufficiently.  I just think there was a stronger casting choice available somewhere for this character, but Carrere’s sex appeal is mildly on display, answering some of the questions of why she was chosen.

The story here is almost unimportant as most of the screentime is really devoted to the buddy cop style antics of Parish, Norwood, and Lawton.  Lots of banter, silly moments, and mild scheming to plot against Livingston is all that’s really at play here.  Some people want his money for their own gain, and someone else just wants to see him locked up in a jail cell.  The movie does not intend to engage you with its story, and rightfully so.  Hollow Point is all about its crazy personalities, fun action, and humorous tone.

Even the editing of this movie, with all of its cheesy wipes, goes for the comedy aesthetic, and ultimately, that’s the way you need to take this movie.  It doesn’t really push for dramatic storytelling or really intense thrills.  It is designed to just have fun with it, and that’s not a surprise from the director of The Taking of Beverly Hills, another B-movie Die Hard clone.  However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t good action and plenty of explosions.  Griffith doesn’t get more than two brief moments of martial arts action as it’s all gunplay and car chases, but the action has some very good production values.  The climax really gives you a solid bang for your buck with a lot of fun scenarios, action-packed sequences, and a slightly quirky four-persona standoff.  Of the Thomas Ian Griffith movies I’ve now reviewed here with Excessive Force and Crackerjack, this one is the most lively fun, but also, the stupidest of the lot in all the best ways.

Hollow Point just ends up being purely dumb fun that you might enjoy on cable some night.  It’s good to have some laughs with and just enjoy the light-hearted action.  By no means would this have been a box office success, but it’s perfect direct-to-video entertainment.  Since this tightly focused look at Thomas Ian Griffith’s has been about assessing his action star potential, I think the only thing that kept him below the radar and mostly in the direct-to-video world was the quality of the scripts.  It would seem like, even with the screenplay he did for Excessive Force, there wasn’t anything strong enough to jump out and grab attention.  He also didn’t work with especially talented directors.  Van Damme worked with Peter Hyams and John Woo, Steven Seagal worked with Andrew Davis and Dwight Little, Bruce Willis had John McTiernan, Renny Harlin, and Tony Scott, and the list goes on.  Griffith got the director of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and Iron Eagle I, II, & IV.  He undoubtedly had every talent needed to be that breakout action movie star with the great martial arts skills, the acting ability to do straight, dimensional drama, charismatic wit, and really light-hearted humor.  He had it all, but no one ever paired him up with the right filmmakers to encapsulate all of his potential in one explosive hit.  As for Hollow Point, it’s certainly not a good movie, but it entertained me greatly with plenty of laughs.  However, I’m eager to get back to reviewing some theatrically released action films.


Crackerjack (1994)

CrackerjackYep, I could make a whole month out of reviewing Die Hard clones before even getting around to reviewing Die Hard.  Seagal, Van Damme, Snipes, Ford, and every other action star under the sun got their turn to grapple with this formula.  So, Thomas Ian Griffith got his chance as Detective Jack Wild in this film that spawned two sequels, neither of which starred Griffith, but let’s see how Crackerjack stacks up to the competition.

Chicago cop Jack Wild (Thomas Ian Griffith) reluctantly aggress to join his brother’s family for a vacation at the exclusive Panorama Springs Hotel, high in the glacier-capped Rocky Mountains.  But when a team of mercenaries determined to hijack over $50 million in diamonds descend on the resort, Jack strikes back.  Now, together with beautiful hotel guide K.C. (Nastassja Kinski), Jack must race against the clock to stop their calculating leader Ivan Getz (Christopher Plummer) from getting away and exploding the glacier above the hotel to cover his tracks.

The burnt out cop is a very familiar trope in action movies, but if you get an actor who can really flesh out the character, it all works nicely.  Thomas Ian Griffith again proves his quality as an actor showing Detective Wild to be relatable and interesting.  Being a bit unhinged, he charges headlong into danger as if he does have nothing to lose, and that’s how he feels after his wife and kids were killed.  When he’s dragged up to the ski resort, he’s restless and still potentially volatile, but after making a connection with Katia, you see him soften and begin to turn a corner.  Griffith and Nastassja Kinski have some good, touching chemistry that translates really well on screen.  The charisma he naturally brings into the film really enhances the clichéd material in the script, and makes Wild a dimensional and enjoyable character to follow.

The film really does a lot to build up the emotional investment in Jack Wild’s fractured situation.  The flashbacks to the last moments of his family’s life are touching, and director Michael Mazo really takes the time for those emotions to sink in.  The reveal of who actually killed his family is a rather unneeded additional motivation for Wild, but I’m hardly going to hold that against the movie.  It’s not striving for fresh, original ideas as there is much lifted directly from Die Hard from the basic premise to very similar bits of dialogue, Getz’ right hand mercenary looking like a carbon copy of Karl, Getz threatening to kill an innocent man to motivate Wild to return the diamonds, and him planning to wipe out all the witnesses with a cataclysmic explosion.  However, the filmmakers still manage to make this a very fun and entertaining ride despite how by-the-numbers and uninspired this script is.  Much of this is due to some impressive action scenes, and the villain that we are given here.

I love Christopher Plummer.  He’s an absolutely tremendous actor in so many compelling roles, but you know what?  I think every serious, respectable actor deserves to take on a nicely cheesy villain role at least once.  As Ivan Getz, I think he just eats up the fun quality of the role, and does make for an intimidating adversary even if so much is clearly lifted from Alan Richman’s Hans Gruber.  The rather stereotypical German accent is the most obvious evidence, but it adds to the film’s B-movie charm.  Getz separates himself from Gruber, though, by being a bit of a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur akin to the Third Reich.  It allows Plummer to have some intriguing monologues that kind of gives you flashbacks to him as General Chang in Star Trek VI, and that’s generally not a bad thing.  Plummer and Griffith have some solid exchanges that build up the personal adversarial connection, mostly done over a two-way radio, and it’s enough fuel to keep the movie going at its consistent, good pace.

Crackerjack is indeed action packed, but features far more gunplay than Griffith’s martial arts skills, much like Van Damme in Sudden Death.  However, this is still plenty exciting with big, explosive moments and fun thrills up and down this high altitude adventure.  Despite being a direct-to-video feature, the action set pieces are quite impressive, especially when the helicopters blow up, and the finale has some really good miniature effects.  For its time, this was a quite admirable action picture, but I would expect modern audiences to be left wanting more spectacle.

Now, if there’s one thing that makes Crackerjack feel distinctly direct-to-video it’s the synthesizer score.  Absolutely, a completely synth based score can be excellent.  I’m a Jan Hammer Miami Vice fan after all, but there’s a difference when you have a score that is primarily composed for an orchestral arrangement but is performed on a keyboard.  After a while, it got to be almost distracting because I kept feeling like I was watching something from Full Moon Features like Subspecies.  The score just sounds cheap in this context, and really detracts from the otherwise high production values here.  If this score had been given an orchestral treatment, it would have been perfectly fine.  There are times when the score works very well, but the obvious limitations do regularly show through.

You could maybe say the same for the cinematography as it is fairly point and shoot with very little in the way of special cinematic visuals.  There’s nothing along the lines of crane shots, intriguing angles, or steadicam work, but compared to a lot of shaky cam action films today, I can find that more minimalist approach to be enjoyable.  The action scenes are very competently shot, and you’re never confused as to what’s happening.  The editing is conservative allowing the action to drive the cuts, and not forcing kinetic excitement by cutting to another shot every split second.  Fast tempo editing definitely has its gold standards, but I do enjoy seeing a time when filmmakers did take their time to just allow the action to play out with more comfortable framing and stable camera work.

Crackerjack certainly doesn’t have the budgetary muscle to compete on the scale of its theatrical brethren, but I would say it’s good action B-movie indulgence.  Griffith does a very good job in this role making him both an emotionally damaged man, but also a sleek, sharp, and savvy action hero.  He brings his natural charisma into the mix to make Jack Wild a really enjoyable protagonist to follow through this perilous adventure.  Again, if I’m examining this small window into his career, I can’t say that this could’ve been a breakout film even if it did have a theatrical release budget.  The script is very derivative of possibly the best action movie ever made, aiming entirely for the low budget fare, and doesn’t inject anything fresh into the formula.  You can definitely get entertainment value out of the film’s fairly well used clichés and the fun performances.  If you need any further convincing, you can check out the very funny video that introduced me to this movie courtesy of TheCinemaSnob.com.


Excessive Force (1993)

Excessive ForceIn the 1990’s, there were a lot of action movie stars popping up, but most didn’t have what it took to break out of the direct-to-video market.  However, I think Thomas Ian Griffith really had the talents to make it, but never really did.  This might be a simple fact of not having a breakout film or role like Steven Seagal or Van Damme had early on.  Regardless, Griffith had two vital qualities of a successful action hero in the 90’s.  First off, he was trained in Kenpo Karate and Tae Kwon Do, so, he could do far more than just shoot things up.  Secondly, he had charisma to spare making for some fun, lively performances.  All of this could be seen as the villain in The Karate Kid, Part III, of which he was the best thing about that movie.  So, I want to explore some of Griffith’s action films and find out exactly what he had to offer.  With Excessive Force, Griffith is supported by such solid actors as Lance Henriksen, James Earl Jones, Tony Todd, and Burt Young for something that looks very solid, but let’s see if it really holds up to that appearance.

When $3 million disappears during a drug bust, undercover Chicago cop Terry McCain (Griffith) is pitted against Sal DiMarco (Burt Young), a sadistic mob boss who will do anything to get his money back, and a conspiracy of corruption from within the police department.  After McCain’s partner is brutally murdered and his ex-wife is threatened, he strikes back the only way he knows how – with force!  Framed for a murder he didn’t commit and hunted by his own friends on the force, McCain finds refuge with his old pal Jake (James Earl Jones) and his ex-wife Anna (Charlotte Lewis) as he’s lead into a desperate showdown with dangerous forces.

This movie has a fairly straight forward plot with only a few clever turns, but it’s not intended to be a wickedly twisting and turning crime thriller.  It starts out as a revenge movie, but then, shifts into a web of deceit as McCain goes on the run once people start gunning for him.  The script by Thomas Ian Griffith really makes good use of Chicago to this effect.  He really incorporates the crooked politics and mobbed up history of it in a couple of smart ways.  There are corrupt cops and deceptive allegiances at play in this story, and it really feels like authentic Chicago organized crime.  The story twists around enough to where Terry doesn’t know who he can trust, and thus, he feels betrayed by every friend he has left living.  It’s never a very taut sort of plot thread that forces McCain into heavy paranoia, but its place in the story is dealt with quite well and where it’s most effective.  It also has some good pay-off and turnarounds at the end.

Thomas Ian Griffith leads this film very solidly.  Having wrote the script himself, the more personal depth of his performance is apparent.  Early on, we see the driven, charismatic, and lively cop who can kick ass with the best of them.  He sets the energy for the film from the start, and continues to keep it exciting and interesting.  As events progress, we see the drama and emotion sink into Terry McCain with plenty of weight that propels him forward through the film.  Griffith has great chemistry with everyone especially Charlotte Lewis, Tony Todd as a fellow cop Frankie Hawkins, and Lance Henriksen as the soon-to-be Police Chief Devlin.  Terry and Anna gradually reconnect and spark off some steam later on, but it’s very brief.  Surely, a hot, erotic sex scene would be gratuitous, but I would not have complained if they injected some of that.

And of course, Griffith delivers on the action.  I was really impressed with the martial arts moves he employed, mainly the number of high and roundhouse kicks he dished out.  He really kicks some guys silly, and bashes up a lot of heads on a regular basis.  While its not as intense as what Seagal was doing at the time, Griffith has his moments of bone breaking bad assery.  If there’s any one shortcoming is that there’s no adversary that’s a real physical challenge for him, and so, there’s not a great single fight that stands out.  Regardless, the action scenes are all very competently shot, choreographed, edited, and solidly executed overall.

Burt Young is pretty impressive as a ruthless Mafioso.  He’s bluntly violent killing someone with a pencil through the ear, and having peoples’ legs bashed in with a baseball bat.  He’s quite convincing with the balancing of the supposed sophisticated businessman and the merciless big crime boss.  However, his screentime is shorter than you’d expect, but it leads to more interesting plotlines.

Also, the role of the police commander can often fall into clichéd territory, but thankfully, Lance Henriksen does a very subtle, understated job with Devlin.  While he and McCain aren’t the best of friends, they can have respect despite their friction, and it’s really that relationship which gives Henriksen something fresh to work with.  I also especially like the turn he has about halfway through as he becomes a bit more sleazy and brazen.  As he gets deeper into this character, Henriksen gets more and more awesome.

I dearly love Tony Todd.  Many know him as the horror icon Candyman, but he has such a wide range of talent that he also excellently displays here.  He has one great scene in this film of emotional depth and strain which really sets him apart as a special, standout actor.  A lot of other actors wouldn’t have put as much real heart and passions into such a small supporting role, but Todd does nothing less than superb work in everything he does.

These characters are interwoven into this decently forged conspiracy effectively.  There’s a surprise or two to be had, and the characters themselves are fleshed out by the performances even if the dimension isn’t written on the page.  A really good actor can always add and enhance what’s written in the script into something special or at least entertaining.  I’ve seen enough standard fare action movies where lackluster performances make the film nothing but mediocre.  Yet, vibrant and solid ones can make all the difference, and that’s certainly the case here.  Like I said, when I saw the cast list I was impressed and intrigued if that acting quality would show through, and I think it really, really did.

The score of this movie was surprisingly done by Charles Bernstein, who I’ve only known from A Nightmare On Elm Street.  His work here is distinctly early 90’s action, but he mixes in enough dramatic cues and moments of tension in certain scenes to give it some personality.  James Earl Jones’ character of Jake runs a jazz club, and so, we get some smooth, lively sounds out of that early on.  Bernstein’s score surely isn’t going to stun and amaze you, but it does its job very, very well.  I would suppose that’s a good summation of the whole movie.

Excessive Force is not a great action movie, but it’s a really good effort that I did like.  The script is well written, and very well directed by Jon Hess, but it’s really the exceptional acting talents of its admirable cast that allows this movie to be as good as it is.  If filled with lesser grade talents, this would really falter, but putting guys like Griffith, Henriksen, Todd, Jones, and more into it gives it some extra substance.  Each of them really put a real dedicated effort into their roles, and it made the film enjoyable outside of the nicely put together action scenes, of which Excessive Force does have a nice even helping of.  Something exciting does happen about every ten to fifteen minutes, but the pace overall is quite consistent and well balanced to make it feel natural.  There’s never action just for the sake of action.  It all flows from the slightly twisting story, and Griffith’s athletic talents really make it all work.  He certainly shows a lot of potential here in all aspects, and he’s a really fun, exciting lead.  While Excessive Force doesn’t have the makings of a blockbuster success, I think it deserved better than grossing less than half its $3 million budget at the box office.  It’s not a big explosive thrill ride, but it’s quite an enjoyable piece of low budget action fare.


Mortal Kombat (1995)

Mortal KombatTo this very day, I am still a Street Fighter II gamer fan, but I have never seen either of the live action movies based on that video game property.  Instead, Mortal Kombat is the one that I have always greatly enjoyed.  I was subscribed to a few video game magazines back in the day when I owned my Super Nintendo, and I remember all the hype and articles that were published on the making of this film.  With how poorly received the Street Fighter movie was, fans were clamoring for Mortal Kombat to succeed and dominate at the box office, which it did.  Although, I’m glad my tastes matured to realize how bad this film’s sequel was, but this rather impressive first film by, of all people, Paul W.S. Anderson still holds up rather well today.

Summoned to the mysterious land of Outworld by the sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), three martial arts warriors engage in the ultimate battle of good against evil – the supernatural tournament of Mortal Kombat.  The honorable Liu Kang (Robin Shou) seeks to avenge his brother’s death, action film star Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) desires a validation of his skills, and the dogged law enforcement agent Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) hunts a murderous underworld criminal.  They are all brought together under the guidance of Lord Raiden (Christopher Lambert), God of Lighting, to put them on the path to victory, or else Earth will fall to the forces of darkness forever.

Movies adapted from video games have been a notoriously bad film genre.  So many filmmakers find it difficult to adapt the material into a recognizable product, but Mortal Kombat had a very well fleshed out story built into it.  Still, Hollywood seems to make a habit out of screwing up the easiest of adaptations, but here, it is a stunningly near faithful job.  Sure, Kano is changed from Chinese to Australian, and maybe a few details are messed with here and there.  However, this film is executed exceptionally well from a fairly good screenplay with a lot of fun to be had.

The only real shortcoming this movie has, which does date the film, is the quality of the digital effects.  The filmmakers really kept the budget down under $20 million, which was very smart on all levels, but especially in 1995, that really limited what CGI could do for them.  Even the bad CGI of today is better than what we get here.  However, if the film is good enough in story, characters, and entertainment value, I can forgive substandard effects.  The most impressive effect, which is done entirely practically, is the towering Prince Goro.  Surely, if made today, he’d be 100% CGI, but these filmmakers made the smart and economic choice of creating an animatronic character.  He can be a little stiff at times, but frankly, I’d take a well implemented practical creature over a cheap CGI one, which we do get in the form of Reptile.

What really makes this film work, in my opinion, is that it does take the property fairly seriously, but keeps the tone comfortably open for humor and light fun.  There are bright, cartoonish characters like Kano, Sub-Zero, and Scorpion, but there’s a firm enough sense of danger and gravity attached to them to make them formidable, not funny.  There is an emotional story for Liu Kang to traverse dealing with fate, destiny, grief, guilt, and his own inner strength.  That gives the film its weight of drama and heart, but it’s never bogged down by heavier subject matter.  Anderson hits that right balance to give the film some substance, but maintain a tone completely conducive to fun.  It’s sad to say that many of his subsequent films couldn’t achieve that respectable balance.

They say a hero is only as good as his villain, and in this case, we have a great villain in Shang Tsung perfectly cast with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.  He is a rock solid serious threat enveloping himself in a dark, haunting mystique.  You can tell he was enjoying playing this meaty role.  He has an authoritative presence, but wisely maintains a low key, confident manner showing that Shang Tsung is truly in control every step of the way.  However, Tagawa can unleash a vicious mean streak when the moment calls for it.  He just portrays a great, smart, subtly charismatic, and cunning villain that I have always thoroughly enjoyed.  Better yet, he gets to speak all of the game’s signature lines such as “flawless victory” and “finish him!”

While Johnny, Sonya, and Liu are treated fairly equally through most of the film, it is indeed Liu Kang that is the intended lead hero.  Robin Shou does a very admirable job taking Liu on a progression from the skeptical, slightly arrogant young man to a wiser, stronger fighter.  Shou shows he can handle the lightly introspective and soul searching qualities of the role very well, and is a very capable martial artist.  I really like the journey he takes Liu Kang on, but the film, almost wisely, doesn’t dwell on these character development aspects.  I have no doubt that Shou could have done more with it had the script called for it, but the film maintains a tight and consistent pace of excitement.  So, there’s hardly a lull in the action or momentum, and Paul W.S. Anderson fits everything comfortably into a 101 minute runtime.

Johnny Cage is charismatically portrayed by Linden Ashby.  He really is a well-rounded fit into this group of characters adding in the needed arrogant wiseass comments, but being charming and likable all the way through.  It’s interesting to note that the role had been previously offered, supposedly, to both Jean-Claude Van Damme and Brandon Lee.  Van Damme chose to do Street Fighter while Lee had tragically died before production began.  It’s interesting to think how the film would have been different with either of them as Cage.  Regardless, Ashby proved way more than capable, and really shined flawlessly in this role.

Of course, Christopher Lambert is just delightful.  I could probably watch a movie of any quality as long as Lambert is having fun in it, which says a lot for why I own the first three Highlander sequels.  As Raiden, he brings both a weight of wisdom and levity of charm into the mix.  His slightly raspy voice really lends towards the ancient mystique of the God of Lightning.  Lambert, overall, just delivers the dramatic, thematic weight of these warriors with Raiden’s perceptive words of wisdom, and just makes things a little more fun and charming at times.

Many of these actors really deliver on the physical and martial arts demands, and the film throws some regular action scenes their way.  While none of it is the best martial arts fight choreography you’ll ever see, it serves its purpose towards an exciting and thrilling movie.  The only weak link is probably Bridgette Wilson as she doesn’t come off as a very skilled fighter using very basic kicks and punches.  Even taken as just law enforcement training, it’s still nothing special.  Shou and Ashby show off much more diverse and dynamic skills, and are much more interesting and fun to watch in their fights.  Thankfully, they are the ones given the most opportunity to show off those skills.

Of course, the possible biggest point of contention is that the video game was famous for being a very graphic and bloody video game, but this is almost an entirely bloodless PG-13 film.  However, this movie does its job quite well enough that the absence of blood and gore has never bothered me.  Certainly, many fans likely still wanted to satiate their cinematic bloodlust when the end credits rolled, but this Mortal Kombat movie is still primed to please, regardless.

While I wouldn’t say there’s anything special to say about the cinematography as a whole, Anderson does have everything shot very smartly.  A lot of sets are utilized to create the exotic feeling of Outworld, and enough is done with lighting, camera angles and framing, and a little bit of haze to make these sets work solidly.  There are some very visually sharp moments utilizing some light, shadow, and fog to build up mystique, which is really the film’s strong suit.  There’s a respectable amount of atmosphere in this film which creates the sense of unease and danger for our heroes.  Everything is being fought on Shang Tsung’s world and his terms, and that world is indeed very intriguing with some very smart production designs, borrowing from some Asian cultures for a little added exotic flare.

Mortal Kombat really does succeed in putting the concepts and characters of the video game into a respectable feature film package.  Unlike the live action Street Fighter, this movie is able to retain its tournament format as it is entirely connected with the larger plot.  Fight and lose, Earth falls to Outworld.  Fight and win, and we are free from their impending tyranny.  Every character motivation and arc is intertwined with that very logically, and the film smartly contains its cast of characters to avoid spreading itself thin.  Everyone has the right amount of screentime to flesh out their roles and progress the plot forward in just the right ways.  While the script is nothing spectacular, it hit all the right marks and kept everything very manageable in story structure and characters for its director to make the most of the concept under fairly tight constraints.

Mortal Kombat might not be a flawless victory, but it was a very solid first step forward to one that never happened.  Believe it or not, I actually gave this film’s sequel a positive review upon its theatrical release.  An avid video game friend of mine made me realize the error of my ways a few years later, and I retracted and rewrote that review in a much more negative, yet honest light.  Anyway, what we’ve got with Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 live action film is a surprisingly damn good movie filled with a consistent current of energy flowing through it, which is electrifyingly reflected by its intense electronic techno dance remix soundtrack.  Overall, it’s just a fun martial arts action fantasy film that is definitely one of the best video game-to-film adaptations ever done.  I really, seriously love this movie completely.  It’s a great piece of exciting entertainment that will get you jonesing to play one of these games all over again!


The Wolverine (2013)

wolverine_ver4I grew up in the 90’s watching the X-Men animated series, and that’s what my main knowledge and fandom of the property stems from.  It’s been sorry to say that the live action movies have, to me, failed to be remotely as faithful.  Simply said, I have had a number of issues with all of the previous films of this franchise, and I was skeptical about The Wolverine going into it.  Color me pleasantly surprised – I REALLY liked this movie.  I have barely a major issue to levy against this film, directed excellently by James Mangold.  While Wolverine has been a very central character in all the previous films, save for First Class, this film actually puts forth the honest effort to make him more than just an action bad ass.  Some might find the film less than exciting, but for me, this steers this character into the right direction.

After the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has become a vagrant lost and detached from society until he is sought out by Ichiro Yashida, the man whose life Logan saved at Nagasaki in 1945.  This now powerful businessman seeks to repay this debt to Logan by absolving him of an unending life via his mutant healing factor.  Regardless of consent, Wolverine is left physically vulnerable by secretive forces as he attempts to protect Mariko, Yashida’s granddaughter and heir to his empire, from the Yakuza and a band of deadly ninjas.  Wolverine is now pushed to his physical and emotional limits as he confronts not only lethal samurai steel but also his inner struggle against his own immortality to emerge more powerful than ever before.

This is one of those reviews where I’ll address my minor issues with the movie first before delving into what I very much enjoyed.  The Wolverine has a rather good tone keeping things mainly dramatically based, but it does inject some humor and levity.  However, it possibly could have pulled back in a few places.  Stuff like Logan and Mariko hiding out in a hotel which ends up being a “love hotel” where couples go to get it on.  Some humor comes out of this which is rather gratuitous.  The first half of the movie has these moments where there’s already been a fine balance of levity and drama, but adds in just a little more humor that makes it feel a tad extraneous.  It throws that balance off just enough to slightly detract from the dramatic progression of the film, but by the halfway point, these issues evaporated.

Also, I wouldn’t begrudge this movie if it intentionally disavowed X-Men Origins: Wolverine from its continuity.  I say this because in that film we clearly see that Wolverine’s memories were robbed from him via an adamantium bullet to the head.  However, in this film, Wolverine easily remembers events from Nagasaki, 1945, more than thirty years before his memory loss.  While the previous X-Men films have shown him recovering memories, particularly from the Weapon X program, it’s a bit of a shady area as to how he is able to so clearly remember these events.  Even then, if you went by the continuity of Origins, he was still going by the name James Howlett at that point in time, but Yashida knows him only as Logan, which he doesn’t adopt until the 1970’s.  This franchise’s continuity is extremely shoddy, and it’s that reason why I both eager and skeptical about how next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past will possibly resolve these continuity issues.

However, a more significant issue is very valid.  Wolverine’s healing factor is repressed for the bulk of this film where his wounds heal at the rate of a normal human being.  Yet, he is constantly extending and retracting his claws with not a drop of blood or sight of a wound on his knuckles.  I did buy many X-Men comics in the 90’s including X-Men #25 where Magneto ripped the adamantium from Wolverine’s body, and his healing factor is overloaded to where to stops working.  Thus, his knuckles continually bleed out every time he unsheathes his bone claws, and he keeps them wrapped in bandages.  I can understand that the PG-13 rating would never allow Wolverine going around bleeding profusely in graphic fashion through most of the runtime, but it is a serious oversight.  It didn’t take me out of the film at all, but it’s a definite flaw in the film’s logic that I felt should be addressed.

Now, onto the good stuff.  Undoubtedly, this is Hugh Jackman’s most dimensional performance as Wolverine.  The film takes him on a journey from this man living in the wilderness, cut off from everything after Jean Grey’s death, and vowing never to hurt another person.  We get an arc for Logan where he rediscovers his purpose, and finds a reason for living.  He reinvests himself in a reason to fight for someone else, and become that honorable, yet animalistic warrior that he once was.  Jackman does an excellent job showing the rugged anger early on, but he contrasts that with the vulnerable, physically weakened Wolverine.  There’s a great balance in his performance that really shines through, likely due to James Mangold’s smart direction.  I also like that despite having no healing factor, Wolverine still proves to be one of the toughest bad asses on the planet.  He gets shot up, slashed, and beaten, but does he ever push forward with everything he’s got.  And of course, Jackman is in the best shape of his life here as he finally achieved the lean, muscular physique he always wanted for Wolverine.  He is totally ripped, and that creates a real raw, intimidating presence.  The fight scenes are some of the best he’s ever done as this character.

Tapping into the vulnerability of Logan are two women.  The first is Yukio who seeks him out, and seems to have a great deal in common with him.  They are both warriors who have lost loved ones in their pasts, and are brought together by Yashida as wayward souls.  Yukio is able to keep Logan on his toes as she is as smart as she is deadly, but has formed a bond of trust and respect with him.  Rila Fukushima does a very, very good job in this role handling all the physical demands amazingly well, and making this a character who is enjoyable as well as dimensional.

Mariko is the one who peels back the vulnerability of Logan’s heart.  While there is never an overt romantic connection between them, the film builds an intimacy with these two.  They get very deeply involved with each other learning the pain and love that have affected them.  Logan is driven to protect her at every cost, and the emotional bond is built up with a lot of subtlety and grace.  I really found this to be the main cog towards exploring Logan.  Through Mariko, we see the change in him from the lost, fractured man to the fiercely determined warrior.  The chemistry between Jackman and Tao Okamoto is really sweet and endearing as the two characters grow closer.

I feel this film is filled with a strong set of characters that are well cast.  Will Yun Lee impressed me thoroughly as Harada, a ninja and archer who has dubious allegiances, and demonstrates some amazing physical feats early on.  When the Yakuza are chasing Logan and Mariko through the Tokyo streets, he’s jumping and flipping from one rooftop to another and picking guys off with his bow and arrow.  To me, he essentially put Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye to shame with just that one sequence.  Beyond that, Lee simply grabbed me right from the start with his edge and presence.  Plus, Harada has a really enjoyable arc as his loyalties and honor are certainly in question as he is associated with certain underhanded individuals, but has the best of intentions.

There are many characters that have their own personal sense of honor, however misguided it might be, and it creates this very strong gravity to each character.  Shingen Yashia, Mariko’s crime boss father, is really damn good exercising authority and conviction with a really imposing presence.  Ichiro Yashida is also solidly portrayed with a more honest breadth of honor, but he still has some turns to show for himself later on.  These characters all have depth and dimension making them intriguing and engaging.

However, the femme fatale villain of Viper was possibly the least captivating character.  The character is very well portrayed by Svetlana Khodchenkova giving her plenty of juicy material to wrap this venomous character up in, but ultimately, she’s just a hired villain with little purpose or motivation of her own.  So, she’s not nearly as interesting as all these characters who are enveloped in honor, tradition, culture, greed, and betrayal.  Their stories are much more strongly interconnected because there is family involved, and it is all tangled up in a treacherous web of deceit.  Regardless, there’s not a single weak link in this cast, and they all put forth great efforts that truly impressed me.  I cared about so many of these characters due to the strong performances behind them, and a solid writing by Scott Frank, Mark Bomback, and the uncredited Christopher McQuarrie.

What I really found refreshing in The Wolverine is that is doesn’t feel the need to have to throw action sequences down your throat to engage you.  I believe some may disagree and find the film lacking, but it really hit the spot for me.  Like I said, these characters are compelling enough all on their own for me, and it is quite a while before we get a real action sequence here.  The film invests you in following Logan, and seeing what kind of man he is now.  It peers you into his mind and pained heart as its central focus, and introduces action where the story requires it.  Especially with superhero films, we tend to see action thrown at us right from the beginning telling you that action is the central focus of this movie.  Director James Mangold tells you otherwise with how this film begins and progresses.  It has important substance to introduce you to so that when the action occurs, you can be invested in the danger faced by these characters, and that is highly admirable in my view.

And the action here is rather stellar.  From the trailers, I thought the bullet train sequence would not be very good, but I was so proven wrong.  I found it exceptionally well constructed especially with how Logan and his combatants have to keep dodging the overhead structures that keep flying over their heads.  Sometimes they duck, sometimes they jump over top, and sometimes, an unfortunate adversary goes on a very rough flight goodbye.  There’s more to it than that, and every clever element just made it work very well for me.  While it is all clearly CGI settings and backgrounds, there was still a sense of danger involved considering this is a train rocketing along at hundreds of miles per hour.

There are also some excellent fight scenes.  I have to love me some samurai sword fights mixed in with perilous acrobatic martial arts maneuvers.  When Wolverine faces off with Shingen, claws versus sword, it’s really the moment where the bad ass hero that we know re-emerges, and it’s a great moment and pay-off.  There is plenty of slashing and impaling of Yakuza upon Wolverine’s claws early on.  Now, I didn’t think of it at the time, but really, Wolverine never gets a full-on bezerker battle with ninjas.  I know that’s appalling because that’s practically the signature moment every die hard fan would want to see.  There is a confrontation leading into the third act, but there’s very little close range combat in it for Wolverine to start ripping at ninjas.  Also, the use of blood on his claws is rather inconsistent.  Sometimes, we’ll see blood on them after he impales a guy, but most times, we either don’t get a good look at them or there’s simply nothing shown.  James Mangold did do an interview this past week hinting at a bloodier, more violent unrated cut of the film on Blu Ray, but we’ll have to wait and see.  He supposedly did remove a more elaborate fight between Wolverine and the ninjas.  Why, I couldn’t tell you.

I honestly think this is the best score I’ve ever heard from Marco Beltrami.  Up until now, I don’t think he’s ever done anything this diverse or exceptional.  He really captures the flavor and feel of Japan in subtle ways throughout his score.  He never seemed to go for anything easy or expected in that realm.  It’s a very fine piece of work that also highlights some great moments with due weight.

The cinematography is indeed damn good.  I had desired a Wolverine film that was dark, gritty, and raw from when Darren Aronofsky was attached, but Mangold and his cinematographer did a lot to make this more polished look work.  The Wolverine gives us a strong, vibrant color palette, and the nighttime scenes have a pleasing neo noir quality.  It gives the film some mood where needed.  I especially found some beauty in the Wolverine / Shingen fight with his dim blue backlight, and the ninjas converging upon Wolverine in the snowy landscape.  The action sequences are essentially filmed very well keeping things steady and competent.

I can definitely say that the digital effects of The Wolverine are superior to those of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Surely, there are places where it’s not superb, but it’s fairly on par with your general effects-heavy summer film.  Believe me, I saw worse CGI in the trailers before this film, but there were areas for improvement at times.  Frankly, I can forgive some undercooked CGI if the film surrounding it is damn good enough.  That very much applies here because this is exponentially superior to its Gavin Hood-directed predecessor on every level.

The Wolverine might not reach the level of greatness, but I feel it is an almost perfectly solid piece of work.  The film takes its time to explore its characters, and give us a sense of depth and emotion with its title character.  Even the dream sequences with him and Jean Grey are very poignantly handled starting out as something that haunts Logan, but slowly reflecting his ability to absolve himself of the burden he has at the film’s beginning.  As you can likely tell, I very much respect and like this film’s focus on character instead of action.  It also doesn’t overload us with more and more mutants, trying to cram every last cameo it can into the runtime.  It takes the characters it needs, and builds the story around them tightly.  I can only imagine how insane X-Men: Days of Future Past is going to be with somewhere in the range fifteen to twenty characters populating the story.  Speaking of such things, stick around for a few minutes after the end credits begin.  There is a special scene that you will certainly not want to miss that sets up next year’s big sequel.


Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman Mask of the PhantasmI am so glad that I did see this animated feature in theatres twenty years ago.  Being a major fan of the animated series, there was no way I couldn’t be excited for it, and it has become a very respected high mark in the DC Animated Universe.  Batman: Mask of the Phantasm does tend to get lost in the mix when discussing the best Batman or even best superhero movies because it was an animated feature.  The film didn’t perform well in theatres, likely do to a less than aggressive marketing campaign.  Even professional film critics Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert did not see it in its theatrical run, but when they did eventually watch it, they indeed loved it.  So, with this preface, I think it’s easy to deduce that this is a definite favorite of mine.

When Gotham City’s most feared gangsters are systematically eliminated, the Cape Crusader is blamed, but prowling the night is a shadowy new villain, the Phantasm, a sinister figure with a vengeful agenda.  Meanwhile, Andrea Beaumont, the one time love of Bruce Wayne’s life, returns to Gotham City stirring up memories including those of how he almost didn’t become Batman.  As all of this unfolds, and the Phantasm becomes a more imminent, lethal threat, the Joker is brought into the fold as a major wild card.  Now, can the Dark Knight elude the police, capture the Phantasm and clear his name?

If you’re unfamiliar with the 1990’s animated series, you need not worry.  This film works entirely as a standalone feature, but for those who were serious fans, there’s a great sense of expansion and increased depth that this film offers.  This is a great story interweaving all threads into an excellent Batman origin, romance, and superhero action movie.  The heart of it is the romantic and heartbreaking story between Bruce and Andrea.  It starts with so much hope and passion, but as with many of Bruce’s loves, it ends in despair and some tragedy.  It’s a beautifully crafted tale that does touch an audience’s heart, and truly shows the emotional depth and humanity of Bruce before and after he becomes Batman.

This film shows us the events leading directly up to Bruce Wayne actually becoming Batman.  I love seeing his first outing as a crime-fighter.  It’s just him in black street attire and a ski mask.  He has the skills, but not the persona, yet.  Batman hasn’t been born, and thus, the key essentially elements of intimidation and mystique aren’t in play.  He’s not the haunting creature of the night that will frighten the criminal element, and afterwards, Bruce realizes that is what he’s missing.  It’s a thrilling action scene as Bruce takes down a group of thieves, and then, hangs off the back of an open van during a police chase.  Yet, the very moment where Bruce Wayne dons the cowl and becomes Batman for the first time is a quintessential moment in my Batman fandom.  No other film has ever matched this moment for me.  Done wholly in shadows, it is a purely simple scene, but perfectly effective and iconic in my eyes.  When he turns to reveal himself to Alfred, the reaction from Bruce’s loyal and lifelong butler is pure shock and fear.  That still sends chills all over my body.

Now, I absolutely love how the stories of Bruce and Andrea intertwine.  The flashbacks to their hot and fast romance are beautiful and classy.  You can see that Bruce is ready to give up the vigilante nightlife to be happy with Andrea forever, but the shady elements of her father, Carl Beaumont’s business dealings forge an inevitable wedge between Bruce and Andrea.  Smartly, these elements are the core of the present day story between Batman and the Phantasm.  It’s also a great turn that the Phantasm’s murders are framed on Batman simply by misidentification.  This forces the Gotham Police to begin a manhunt against Batman, but strongly true to his character, Commissioner Gordon refuses to be apart of it.  He knows that Batman doesn’t kill, and that little moment shows the bond of trust between Gordon and the Dark Knight.  It’s only a shame that that is Gordon’s only scene in the film.  Every aspect of this story flows organically and tightly.  With a 76 minute runtime, it could move at no other or better pace.

By no doubt, Kevin Conroy has been the definitive voice of Batman for over two decades now for legions of fans.  Whenever I read a Batman comic book, it is his voice that I hear as Bruce Wayne and Batman.  Conroy reflects all the best qualities of the character from the upbeat playboy, the serious businessman, the dark, brooding man in the shadows, and the powerfully imposing Dark Knight.  The most important thing is he brings life, depth, and intelligence to Batman.  Producer Bruce Timm and co-writer Paul Dini perfectly understood the character, and throughout this DCAU from Batman: The Animated Series to Batman Beyond to Justice League Unlimited, they stayed true to the core of Batman.  The ideals of justice, humanity, and undying determination have always thrived in this animated interpretation.  Beyond anything else, we see the world’s greatest detective at work, which is something none of the live action films have ever fully embraced.  Batman unravels the mystery of the Phantasm and these crime bosses with cunning and perceptive intelligence.  Conroy embodies all of these subtle, inspiring, and engaging qualities of Batman with a lot of heart and care.  It might only be voice work, but this still stands as the best adaptation of the character to date.

And I couldn’t discount Mark Hamill’s Joker.  Much like with Conroy, he has been a definitive voice for the character to many fans for so long, but has had real competition from great actors in this role.  I am a fan of all versions from Ceasar Romero to Jack Nicholson and beyond.  With the Joker, there’s almost no wrong way to go with him because he is such a radically unpredictable character that he could be very Romero one day and very Ledger the next.  What Hamill does is make the Joker this insane clown who will do whatever hits the biggest punchline in his own twisted mind.  He will still likely kill you, but he’s going to laugh his ass off doing it.  Hamill brings the jovial zaniness meshed with a lethal intimidation that forges a colorful maniac that is endlessly fun and entertaining while still being a major threat.

Beyond the fact that I do really adore Dana Delany, I believe she was a perfect choice to voice Andrea.  She brings a touching beauty of heart and soul to the character.  As the younger Andrea, she’s very optimistic and vibrant.  She’s a young woman with everything to love and embrace in life.  In the present day, she’s a little more heartbroken and tender.  There’s a great emotional complexity to her by the end which is very sad and sympathetic.  Delaney is a wonderful, charming actress, and she does a remarkable job voicing Andrea Beaumont.

The animation style of this feature film is definitely a solid step upwards from the series with more dramatic shading, and a bit more dynamic action sequences.  The opening title sequence even features a beautiful CGI fly through of the Gotham City skyline.  The entire series was heavily inspired by the classic Max Fleisher Superman cartoons, and that is very evident, especially with the great art deco designs.  Adapting this style to Batman pushed everything into a great film noir realm that works stunningly for him.

The main theme from Danny Elfman for Tim Burton’s Batman movies lived on in this DC Animated Universe.  They were reworked by the great, and now late, Shirley Walker.  For this feature, she makes it even more gothic and haunting with a beautiful chorus.  Yet, that’s only just the start of her stunning work.  It’s a fantastic score that rouses an audience, and nails all over the wonderful emotional beats.

And there is plenty of thrilling action throughout this movie.  The Phantasm’s stalking of mob bosses are dark, shadowy, and even a little scary.  They have a looming, ominous presence.  The film unfolds some rousing and even explosive moments at a regular interval, but they entirely flow from the progression of the plot.  Nothing’s extraneous, and it really wastes no time crashing you headlong into the action and story.  The climax with Batman and the Joker at the abandoned World’s Fair is pretty fun.  It shows the Joker’s dangerous playfulness, and creates an escalating sense of peril as he has rigged the whole place to explode.  Yet, the movie ends on the appropriate emotional beats remembering that the story is paramount, and it treats its character with due respect.

Unlike many live action movies, this animated feature was given a lot of creative freedom to its production team, and they were able to deliver a very well fleshed out, wonderfully balanced story.  This is entirely reflective of the quality that was consistently on display with the animated series and its spin-offs and follow-ups.  If you’ve never seen Batman: The Animated Series, this is a great introduction to it, and if you’ve watched and loved it, this is a gem that will satisfy your fandom.  Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a delightful and amazing animated Batman adventure that is well worth your time.


Predators (2010)

PredatorsFor whatever reason, the Predator film franchise lied dormant after the release of Predator 2 in 1990.  It wasn’t until 2004 that we got the highly anticipated Alien vs. Predator films.  The first one I hated, and I still consider it the worst overall movie I’ve ever seen theatrically.  The second film I did a rather positive review of as one of the last Forever Horror website reviews and one of the first Forever Cinematic reviews.  However, the general consensus of both movies was decidedly negative, and thus, someone thought it was time to bring the Predator franchise back into its own.  Such a person was producer Robert Rodriguez known best for making big scale action on tight budgets.  Thus, twenty years after Predator 2, we are given another proper sequel.  The question is, was it good enough to breathe life into a damaged franchise?

Awakening in freefall, a collection of strangers find themselves dropped into an unfamiliar land with danger awaiting them.  Royce (Adrien Brody) is a mercenary who reluctantly leads this group of elite warriors in a mysterious mission on an alien planet.  Except for a disgraced physician, they are all cold-blooded killers – mercenaries, mobsters, convicts and death squad members – human “predators.”  But when they begin to be systematically hunted and eliminated by a new Predator breed, it becomes clear that suddenly, they are the prey!

I will admit that I wasn’t sold on this film pre-release.  I thought the premise of Predators abducting humans from Earth and dropping them on another planet to be hunted was against the idea of what a big game hunter would do.  You don’t take a lion out of his natural environment and throw him in your backyard to hunt him.  However, a positive reaction from a strongly opinionated friend of mine motivated me to see it theatrically.  Indeed, I really liked Predators.  I would still rank it third in my list of favorites, but all three films are ranked very tightly together.  They are all extremely well made with their own unique ideas, visual styles, and approaches which all work superbly.

Much like with Predator 2, you must find it peculiar to cast Adrien Brody as the lead in an action movie.  This film will entirely change your perspective on that.  He delivers incredibly in this role.  Brody can play tough bad ass with the best of them.  He brings the charisma of a leader, but clearly shows Royce is a man of sketchy origins and doesn’t mind being a loner.  Royce is also very smart and perceptive.  He would be fine going at it solo, but he sees that even his own survival holds better odds sticking with them than without.  You also see that he’s not a cold-blooded man, but he can be a savage, hardened killer when he needs to be.  The film’s climax sells every awesome thing about Royce, and solidifies that I want to see more of him.

Brody has very touching and honest chemistry with Alice Braga, portraying the Israeli sniper Isabelle.  They surely butt heads in certain circumstances, but they connect on an emotional level that does resonate.  They build a mutual trust and respect as the film progresses.  The rest of these trained killers, including the Rodriguez obligatory Danny Trejo, certainly don’t measure up to Dutch’s elite team from the first film, but they are a mismatched group that are weary to trust one another.  My favorite, who has extremely little dialogue, is the Yakuza member Hanzo.  He creates a very intriguing mystique around him through some interesting actions, and demonstrates a unique sense of honor.  Topher Grace portrays the aforementioned disgraced physician Edwin, and surely, the film didn’t require the presence of this character.  He just adds an extra wild card element late in the game which may or may not be easy to spot early on.  I think I had this reveal spoiled for me before I initially saw the movie.  The concept behind Edwin is a clever one, but probably not executed nearly as smartly as it could have been.

Laurence Fishburne makes a wickedly cool appearance as Noland, a soldier whose been trapped and has survived this planet for several years.  The result of that is hat Noland’s gone quite crazy in a delusional, psychotic type of way.  He’s more than skillfully dangerous, he’s psychologically dangerous.  Fishburne is entertaining and awesome in this fairly brief, very off-kilter role.  More than anything, this character is designed to sell the futility of an escape from the planet, and the idea of two rival tribes of Predators hunting out there, making it all the more difficult to survive.

The film’s first act of sorts might seem a little drawn out to some.  I believe I felt that way upon first viewing.  The characters are exploring this world, trying to understand where they are, and even the first action sequence is not until more than twenty-five minutes in.  Strange alien animals are throw at these characters as a test first, and so, there is a prolonged wait before the first Predator is actually revealed.  However, once that occurs, the film settles into a very familiar feel and tone.  Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal studied the first Predator in great detail to nail the vibe perfectly, and I think they got it just about dead-on while still adding to it.  Antal focuses on building the atmosphere and tension so that there is a pay-off with the action.

The overall feel is great with some rich color schemes which still evoke a dark, ominous feeling.  The cinematography gives this film scale and scope while still maintaining the isolated feeling.  The night scenes look great with a more subdued color palette, but with an excellent use of light and shadow for a beautiful moody vibe.  This really is a remarkably well shot movie with an abundance of artistic merit and dramatic visual weight.

The way the action plays out is very intelligent focusing on tension and imminent danger.  There’s plenty of intense gunplay, but it’s definitely used in conjunction with smart tactics and strategies by these characters.  The ominous feeling of being stalked and hunted is executed with great skill.  It’s a whole package of the visual style, stellar editing, and a music score that stays true to Alan Silvestri’s work.  This film definitely takes the filmmaking style and techniques from John McTiernan’s movie, and gives it a little more polish.  Nimrod Antal definitely puts his own stamp on the film, but was able to make this feel cohesive with the rest of the main Predator franchise.  The action scenes definitely reflect this as there’s really none of that modern shaky cam mayhem.  It’s well plotted, shot, and cut together for an extremely coherent and effective experience.  Beyond anything else, this film enhances the ferocity and frightening quality of the Predators.  They feel even more merciless and relentless than before, if you could even imagine such a thing.

I can’t help but love two fight scenes in Predators.  The first has Hanzo squaring off with his katana against the Predator.  This is beautifully setup, and is shot so gorgeously with a lot of wide angles and a wonderful overhead shot showing the wind blowing through the high grass.  It’s a graceful work of art.  What trumps it on the bad assery scale is when the New Predator battles the Classic Predator, which is portrayed by Derek Mears.  While I didn’t care for the remake of Friday The 13th, Mears was an awesome Jason Voorhees, and he makes for an awesome Predator.  Two Predators ripping and tearing at one another is pure gold, and the scene doesn’t disappoint at all.  This is savage, gory, and everything you’d hope it to be.

And indeed, the creature effects are excellent.  Oddly, neither Stan Winston Studios or Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. – who were responsible for all of the previous Predator effects – returned to work on this film.  Instead, the impeccable talents of KNB EFX were tapped, and they delivered on an amazing level.  There are some familiar designs with the Classic Predator, but the newer, larger Predators are even more impressive.  They do feel like a different breed, but are given a much better approach than what we saw in Alien vs. Predator.  And of course, the gore returns in abundance, and no one better to also fill that task than KNB EFX.  They’ve been the standard bearers for physical effects, especially those in the horror genre, for the last twenty years, and that quality is vastly on display here.

Predators does a great job of taking cues from the first movie, and adding its own flavor and ideas to them.  The climax is a great example as Royce uses some of the same tactics as Dutch with the mud, but uses it in a different context.  Instead of giving the Predator nothing to lock on to, he overloads the senses, and takes him on full boar while retreading some of Arnold’s quotable dialogue.  It all really works greatly while delivering the graphic violence quota that fans crave from this franchise.  The film ends on an excellent note that left me wanting to see where yet another sequel could go.

And thus, I do believe that Predators was indeed good enough to potentially breathe life back into this franchise.  Everyone involved steered it back in the right direction where exciting new stories could be told, and even on its own, this is a very solid and satisfying science fiction action movie.  However, with the same budget as Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, it pulled in just about the same amount at the box office, but the reviews and reactions to this film were substantially higher.  Predators set a good foundation for the franchise to build upon, but three years later, no news of a sequel has surfaced from Twentieth Century Fox.  That is quite unfortunate, but I think there is a great deal of potential to tap with this series which is evident here.  Nimrod Antal and Robert Rodriguez did an excellent job bringing everything back to its roots, and while they chose not to acknowledge Predator 2, they did nothing to contradict it either.  Again, I’d love to see more of Adrien Brody as Royce.  He’s flat out awesome.  While I’m sure some will view the film as leaning a little too heavily on the first movie, I really believe that what it takes from that movie was largely to its benefit, and the filmmakers still injected their own ideas and creativity to allow the franchise to move forward.  They expanded the universe and possibilities in a lot of very good and intriguing ways.  I do really like Predators, and I give it a strong recommendation.  If this film has slipped under your radar for the last three years, definitely give it your attention.  This is a franchise that deserves to live and thrive again under the watch of some really sharp and talented creative individuals.


Predator 2 (1990)

Predator 2There seems to be an idea out there somewhere, I don’t know where it came from, that Predator 2 is a markedly inferior sequel.  This is wholly unjustified.  Surely, everyone has their own opinions on how this measures up to the original classic, but to me, this is a great follow-up which expands on the ideas and premise in exciting new ways.  Predator 2 contains numerous admirable qualities, and is helmed by a director with a great eye for sleek visuals.  Anything it doesn’t recreate from the original it replaces with a higher energy and larger scale action.

In the urban jungles of Los Angeles, Detective Lieutenant Mike Harrigan’s (Danny Glover) police force is at war with drug lords and gangs. But just as Harrigan admits he’s losing the fight, one by one, gang lords are killed by a mysterious, fierce adversary with almost supernatural powers – the Predator.  Before long, the vicious creature begins to hunt the hunters – Harrigan’s men.  Now, Harrigan doesn’t just want to bring the creature in – he wants to bring it down.  However, he is hindered along the way by government Special Agent Peter Keyes (Gary Busey) who has a shady motive to his secretive investigation who knows more about this ultimate hunter than Harrigan even suspects.

Surely, you would think going from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Danny Glover would be a strange swerve.  I always imagined that if this was made a few years later that it would be Wesley Snipes as Mike Harrigan, but I’ll be damned if Glover doesn’t deliver here.  The character is designed as a seasoned cop who’s been fighting this unrelenting war on the Los Angeles streets for a long time.  He’s dogged, inventive, and is a cop who plays by his own rules, taking a backseat to no one.  Glover portrays this with the rugged determination of a consummate street cop.  He doesn’t like the politics that get rammed down his throat, and he slickly, yet passionately sticks it back in their faces.  However, he is wholly loyal to his team, and treats them with respect as comrades in arms because they are fighting a war.  Glover also demonstrates the emotional depth of Harrigan when his closest friend, Danny Archuleta portrayed by Rubén Blades, is gruesomely killed by the Predator.  The flashes of enraged vengeance, and the heartfelt moment at the gravesite show Glover had the talent and skill for this role, which also demanded a lot from him physically.  He greatly delivers on that end, too.  I think making him a distinctly different protagonist than Dutch was the right way to go.

Many will indeed enjoy Bill Paxton’s performance as the jokey Jerry Lambert.  He’s the newest member of Harrigan’s team known as “The Lone Ranger.”  He’s a guy that’s gotten a lot of ego stroking and glory, but he quickly becomes an enthusiastic team player.  This is Paxton at his full charismatic and comedic richness.  He adds the levity to break up the grisly heaviness of the film.  The rest of the supporting cast is filled out by Rubén Blades and Maria Conchita Alonso as the seasoned members of Harrigan’s team.  Both bring their top level enthusiasm and talent adding to the cast’s vibrancy.  Then, we get the late, great original king of trash television Morton Downey, Jr. as the appropriately cast tabloid sleaze-miester Tony Pope.  He’s puts in a fantastically entertaining performance.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger was approached to return for this film, but he turned it down to do Terminator 2.  Thus, his role was rewritten as Peter Keyes and re-cast with Gary Busey.  I think this was an equally beneficial turn of events.  The story works supremely better not knowing what Keyes’ agenda is, and allowing for him to be an adversary and foil for Harrigan.  Busey does an excellent job bringing forth his signature energy and leaning Keyes towards the smarmy, shady side.  He’s smart and cunning, but still a self-serving government agent who cares more about his findings for the military than Harrigan’s war on violent gang crime.

Also, I love the Jamaican gang here.  They are totally savage and chilling with King Willie being fantastically awesome.  He brings the mysticism into the fold with a wickedly cool scene opposite Harrigan, but also, a greatly visualized confrontation with the Predator.  Calvin Lockhart is so awesome in this role.  The theatricality, mystique, and powerful presence he brings entirely does justice to his Royal Shakespeare Company roots.  He delivers my favorite performance of the movie.  Knowing that director Stephen Hopkins was born in Jamaica, it doesn’t surprise me how rich and memorable these characters are here.

The visual effects are distinctly improved from the first movie.  The Predator vision is the most obvious example as the infrared and other modes have more distinct color separation and possibly are of a higher resolution.  The optical effects of the Predator’s cloak are used more dynamically and are integrated into more complex environments.  We see it in more motion and detail.  My favorite effects shots in the whole movie are when the Predator squares off with King Willie.  First off, the tracking shot of the cloaked feet walking through the water is brilliant work, and then, the reveal of the Predator in the rippling puddle is awesome.  Seeing how these are done in the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD are astounding and what I’ve always loved about movie magic.  These striking, innovative images are largely due to do director Stephen Hopkins’ great visual style.

Teamed with regular director of photography Peter Levy, Hopkins gives Predator 2 its own unique visual sleekness.  It has a great use of dynamic, intriguing angles.  The action is captured remarkably well, and we even get a few scenes of atmospheric, moody lighting.  Two of the best shot scenes are, first, inside the slaughterhouse bathed in blue light where the Predators assaults Keyes’ team, and then, the entire climax inside the Predator spacecraft.  Counterbalancing that blue with a largely orange color scheme there is another sign of Hopkins’ great visual sensibilities.  Beyond just the color schemes, these sequences have great use of sweeping cranes and steadicams shots enhancing the production and artistic value of the film.

This new Predator is recognizable, but has a bit different look and feel to him.  He feels more brazen.  He’s taking bigger chances, and taking on greater numbers.  Hunting in a major metropolitan area means he’s attracting more attention to his work.  So, he’s not as calculated, in general, but when he finds a prey he really likes, such as Harrigan, he takes his time to study him.  He also taunts Harrigan as if he’s issuing an honorable challenge.  I very much like that the filmmakers did this to show, even subtly, that this is another unique individual with his own personality, but with the same objective.  It’s also great seeing the arsenal expand with the telescoping spear, the projectile net, and the flying disc.  It gives the impression of a larger safari at hand where he’s equipped for bigger game.  Kevin Peter Hall, yet again, does an awesome, exceptional job overall.  He defined this role so perfectly, and it is a terrible shame that his life ended only a few years later.  However, what he did laid the template for others to succeed him in this franchise.

The strengths of Predator 2 is that it is much more energetic and diversely entertaining than the original.  The pace is faster as there is more going on here between the gang wars, Peter Keyes’ shady dealings, and Harrigan’s own dogged investigation.  The action sequences are bigger and more dynamic allowing for a higher body count, but not as much gore.  The film originally gained an NC-17 rating, but likely, Fox panicked and did more aggressive editing to secure an R rating.  There is still blood abound and plenty of violence, but far less cadavers begin ripped apart.  What we do see in that regard is obscured or done in heavy shadow.  So, it ups the energy and action, but reduces the graphic content a little.

I would agree that these characters are not quite as captivating as those in the original.  Neither film delves deeply into their characters, but it’s just the nature of battle hardened soldiers in a ominous jungle versus tough, seasoned cops on the streets of Los Angeles.  One if inherently more intriguing than the other.  There’s a little more levity in this film akin to a wisecracking John McClane in areas as Harrigan’s fear manifests in a few humorous quips.  Since the film focuses more on an energetic pace with a more divided focus, there’s little mystique about the Predator himself.  Again, he’s much more blunt and brazen, but you do lose that intensely dramatic build up to the third act.  The Peter Keyes subplot sort of veers the emotional drive of Harrigan off-track, and the climax just becomes about having to stop this alien one way or another.  There’s no more survival aspect, just hero versus villain.  There is some peril throughout the third act, but none of it rivals the dire lethality and immediacy of the first film.

Still, the little teases we get at the end with both the Alien skull in the trophy room, the reveal of the half dozen other Predators onboard the spacecraft, and the flintlock pistol with the engraving of the year 1715 on it lay big seeds for a follow-up.  However one might have felt about this movie, it surely left you intrigued to see how the next film could expand on these concepts further, but a proper third movie would not see fruition for another twenty years.

Predator 2 may not hit all the great qualities of the film first, but has entertaining trade-offs making it a more lively, faster paced action film.  It again has a solid cast filling their roles with vibrancy.  The violence and intense action are enhanced by stylish, sleek visuals and excellent editing.  The optical visual effects are stunningly impressive pushing the ambition further, and with more time to plan, Stan Winston Studios developed the Predator further with great new weaponry and a fresh look.  Alan Silvestri also returns adding some new flavors to his original themes, and adapting some of the feel to this film’s style and content.   I would like to pay tribute to Kevin Peter Hall, Calvin Lockhart, and Stan Winston who have all passed on since this film’s release.  All three did stunning work here that deserves notable credit and praise.  This franchise, outside of the AVP films, has maintained a fairly steady stream of quality.  The screenwriters of the first movie returned to expand on their own concepts, and it was executed very well by a competent and capable director.  Predator 2 s definitely worth your while.  It’s not as slam bang amazing as the first, but it’s a largely worthy sequel.


Predator (1987)

PredatorI think it goes without me saying that Predator is one of the best action films, ever.  More importantly, this is my favorite Schwarzenegger movie.  Smartly directed by John McTiernan, who would helm Die Hard the following year, this is an excellently plotted and cleverly devised concept utilizing a stellar cast to great effect.  With an alien hunter designed by the masterful Stan Winston, and backed by some of the best visual effects of the time, Predator was an instant classic that truly solidified Schwarzenegger’s career as a blockbuster action star.

Recruited by the CIA to rescue hostages held by guerrilla fighters in a Central American country, Major Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his elite team encounter an enemy unimaginably more deadly than any on Earth – because the Predator is not of this Earth.

The film starts out wasting no time by keeping the exposition succinct, and allowing for this team to progress to their objective quickly while still relating these characters to us.  No one’s explored in depth, but you get a clear, personality rich snapshot of each man.  Blain’s a hard ass, Hawkins is kind of a joker, Billy’s the stoic warrior, and so on.  The entire first act sets up who these guys are, and what they are capable of.  We see this is an expertly efficient team able to wipe out a legion of about thirty Central American soldiers within a few minutes.  They are tactically sound striking hard and fast using the element of surprise.  When Dutch’s team is referred to as “the best” early on in the briefing scene, we see that is not at all an exaggerated statement.  They prove they are the elite, but even then, you can see these guys are spooked by this jungle.  “Makes Cambodia look like Kansas,” sets the tone for how unnerved they are by its terrain and ominous feeling.  Encountering the previous team’s skinned corpses surely rattles them a bit, but they never lose their wits.  In fact, it practically heightens them for the more lethal danger that is stalking them.

Schwarzenegger shines here as Dutch.  In addition to everyone else, this is possibly his most quotable movie.  Arnold’s got that charisma going here with energy and authority.  I love that Dutch is a soldier with a code of ethics for his men.  He states straight out that his men are not assassins, merely an elite rescue team, and we see that conviction arise when he learns of Dillion’s deception.  Schwarzenegger shows Dutch to be an honorable and sharply intelligent soldier commanding his men with precision.  He proves himself to be a cunning warrior gradually picking up on the Predator’s methods, and adapting to them in order to survive.  He’s perceptive and level headed, which is undoubtedly the sign of a great soldier.  I think this definitely one of Schwarzenegger’s finest performances demonstrating the ability to realize a very authentic, dimensional, and smart character.  Not to mention, I don’t think he’s looked so awesome on-screen without delving into a cheesy or campy tone.

Bill Duke especially does a touchingly effective job.  Early on, he is a hardened soldier, but after Blain is lost, you see the grief and turmoil wash over him.  Carl Weathers is great here as well portraying a man who was once a trusted friend of Dutch’s that has been corrupted by the “everyone’s expendable” mentality of a pencil pushing desk jockey.  He’s lost sight of the qualities of a soldier and the value of life.  However, we see him turning the corner as he rushes into his final battle, and I really like seeing that small character arc.  Overall, this is a rock solid cast flexing both their acting muscles and their real ones in pure 80’s action movie bad assery.  They all exhibit distinct personality that are vibrant, memorable, and straight up killer.

What it is that we lose with CGI monsters as opposed to a real life performer is exquisitely evident here.  Kevin Peter Hall inhabited that beautifully textured and crafted Stan Winston suit, and created a character to live and breathe through it.  Compare it to the personality deprived CGI creatures from Cowboys & Aliens.  They were, as I said in that review, “just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.”  They had no distinct characteristics that made them any better than the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars.  The Predator has nuanced qualities that reflect an intelligence and cunning behavior.  He’s a unique individual amongst a unique race.  How he moves, reacts, and assesses a situation bring a subtle and intriguing depth created by Kevin Peter Hall’s amazing performance.  It has all the traits of a talented performer crafting a character, and I am so tremendously glad that this franchise has never abandoned the performer in the suit approach.

As I’ve said in many previous reviews, the work of Stan Winston is legendary, and stands the test of time.  He clearly revolutionized the creature effects industry with his artistic craftsmanship and captivating imagination.  The Predator is an astonishing creation in all facets.  The original creature the filmmakers put together for this film was ridiculous and was quickly jettisoned after only a few days of filming.  Winston was called in, and with a little input about mandibles from James Cameron, this iconic, ferocious, and frightening creature was born.  Beyond that, this is a very graphic and brutal film showing you skinned human bodies, spinal cords ripped from carcasses, and a disemboweled Jesse Ventura.  Everything feels so grisly and textured for a greatly realistic feeling.  This is some of the best gore effects I’ve ever seen.

And these visual effects essentially still hold up to this day.  Certainly, the sequels have shown how digital effects can be used to improve and enhance them, but this is impressive work that hardly feels dated.  This is mainly between the Predator’s cloaking technology where he appears as transparent ripples, and the laser sighting and discharges from his plasma cannon.  There are some especially impressive shots featuring the cloak with more dynamic camera angles and motion where you get the real three dimensional quality of it.  You see it’s not some animated effect, but a real optical composite of a real performer.  These are all excellent visual effects.

This all blends perfectly with the gritty, sometimes smoky atmosphere of the film’s look.  I think John McTiernan’s great eye for composition, interesting angles, and well constructed action shines through.  In this jungle, we get the feel of the dangerous terrain and mysterious qualities of the dense foliage.  The grit grounds this science fiction premise in a visceral reality where consequences are severely violent and lethal.  Great camera movements and stylish, dramatic imagery highlight the artist merit of the cinematography, and it is all expertly edited together for a tight film which propels itself forward from the get go. .

Alan Silvestri put together one amazing score for Predator that has endured for the whole franchise.  He incredibly blends a militaristic march and drive with a primal tribal, jungle beat.  He builds a sense of ominous foreboding reflecting the reality that there is something out there stalking these men.  For the majority of the climax, there is next to no dialogue of any sort.  It is carried along by the action, the visuals, and the exhilarating score which enhances all of the tension, apprehension, and danger that is unfolding.  It is perfect, superb work.

The action hits you at a regular clip, and the first main sequence is majorly explosive.  It sets the bar high for the remaining runtime, and McTiernan is able to meet that challenge.  It’s the mix of tension, the unknown, and the sheer scale of this rapid fire, big gun toting, grenade launching explosiveness that makes that possible.  Yet, McTiernan knows how to build it up, and work the subtle strings of an audience’s anticipation.  The danger escalates, and the peril becomes more immediate as the Predator moves in closer and closer to its prey.  He starts out attacking from a distance, but gradually engages his ultimate trophy – Dutch – in close combat because the Predator views him as a highly worthy adversary

And that entire third act where it’s just down to Dutch and the Predator is a masterpiece.  The strategy and makeshift tactics that Dutch puts together play out brilliantly.  He uses the Predator’s own method of invisibility and striking from a distance to his advantage.  However, it all elevates when the two finally meet face-to-face in a straight physical confrontation.  Everyone knows that Arnold is a BIG guy, but next to this hulking seven foot tall alien beast, he looks small and nearly ineffectual.  It’s only by his smarts and wits is he able to survive.

Predator is filled with chest pounding action and excitement wrapped in a smart concept and script.  Backed up by an excellent action director, and a vibrant, colorful cast lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was a surefire formula for success.  This is why I love Predator.  It never lags anywhere as the pacing is tight and the rhythm is consistent throughout right from the start.  It’s really a near brilliant structure which constantly keeps you invested and intrigued by what’s developing here.  You also can’t not quote the living hell out of this movie.  It’s sharp, witty, but never betraying the serious tone of danger and lethality it sets from the beginning.  It’s an absolute success that holds up incredibly well over time.  I entirely intend to give you reviews on both Predator 2 and Predators sooner than later.  Until then, revisit this classic.


Marked For Death (1990)

Marked For DeathThe late 1980’s was the debut of a new action star – Steven Seagal.  By the dawn of the 90’s, he had already done Above the Law and Hard to Kill, but he was still finding his footing.  However, Marked For Death finds him successfully planting his feet and launching forward with a gritty, hard edged action blockbuster.  Helmed by Dwight H. Little, who I’ve found to be a very solid director starting with Halloween 4, this delivers qualities that I find severely lacking in modern action cinema.  Here, Dwight Little demonstrates his merit alongside Seagal in excellent fashion.  This is my best friend’s favorite Steven Seagal film.  So, I hope I do it justice for him.

Burned-out after losing his partner on the job, Drug Enforcement Agent John Hatcher (Steven Seagal) hopes to find some calm and serenity by returning to his hometown.  But things at home have changed and not for the better.  Jamaican drug lords, led by a black-magic high priest named Screwface (Basil Wallace), have completely infiltrated the small town.  But this gang soon learns that they’ve met their match in John Hatcher, and all the mystical voodoo in the world won’t be enough to stop Hatcher’s wrath!

I think this would be a great double feature with Predator 2 due to the Jamaican drug gangs in both.  The spooky ritualistic and mystical atmosphere around them is very compelling.  Screwface, a hell of a weird name if I’ve ever heard one, is a scary, psychotic bad guy.  He’s right off the deep end, and like something from your darkest, twisted nightmare.  His piercing eyes are haunting, and the fact that he almost never blinks when that fiery intensity is burning inside him enhances that quality.  He masterfully builds this aura of mystique around him with a very effective and authentic Jamaican accent.  This is a wickedly awesome villain that adds so much horrific danger to this film.

I will admit that Seagal has never been a very dynamic actor, but he carries the dramatic weight and emotional drive of this film well.  Along with Dwight Little’s direction, you see the subtle emotion surface when he sits at the hospital bedside of Hatcher’s niece portrayed by Danielle Harris.  Seagal can bring some charm and light charisma to the screen in the right moments.  Then, when he gets into the heat of the action you see that ass kicking wisecracking bad ass that made Seagal the action star that he was.  He’s entirely confident and sharp in this outing showing that this is his signature style, and it couldn’t have been showcased in a better, smarter action picture.

Teaming him up with Keith David just makes everything more bad ass.  He brings a wealth of charisma and weight to Max, Hatcher’s old army friend.  He’s a tough guy who is ready to take back his community because he cares for the children he teaches every day.  So, there’s the light-hearted friend, but also, the skilled soldier ready to unleash a maelstrom on these gangs that are decaying his neighborhood.  David’s wide range of talent from the tough bad ass to the heartfelt humanity makes Max a strong complement to Seagal’s more cool, calm, reserved, yet dead-set, bone breaking violent style.

If you want to see Seagal in his most violent, hard edged prime, this is it.  These Jamaicans are ruthlessly and graphically violent, and so, John Hatcher has to be a man who is equally as severe.  The action highlights are many, but I really enjoy the shootout and fight in the high end department store.  It starts as a car chase that crashes into an awesome assault with guns and martial arts violence.  And this film keeps upping the action, peril, and explosive caliber.  As Screwface becomes more dangerous, so does Hatcher.  This is sharp, sleek action with tons of punch that will leave thoroughly satisfied and then some.  It’s all evenly paced allowing the story’s momentum to build up tightly while delivering something fresh, dynamic, and exciting at a regular interval.  It’s really damn good stuff.

I also find it admirable that this film makes a point to show that they’re not making a stereotype out of Jamaicans.  There’s a Jamaican police assistant who is an honest guy that aids Hatcher later on.  The film even takes us into Jamaica where we see the people in their vibrancy and hardships.  While it was not necessary for the filmmakers to do this, I find it the mark of a well developed and fairly balanced crafting of ideas.  If they are going to delve so much into the culture for these abhorrent criminals and killers, it adds more depth and richness to show it in context to the reality of the Jamaican people.  The score by the incredible James Newton Howard blends those Jamaican sounds and beat into the film appropriately.  His music highlights and drives a fair amount of the action, and brings the flavor of the narrative to just as much life as the visuals.

It’s oddly appropriate that the director of photography on Marked For Death also shot the last film I reviewed, Cobra.  Here, Ric Waite gets the chance to work with the wider scope format, and he does a remarkable, rock solid job.  He crafts a great atmosphere when Screwface is in his element through smoke, candles, and just excellent moody lighting.  The action is perfectly framed with some occasionally intriguing angles, and all around, it’s a greatly lit and photographed film.

And this film has an amazing twist at the end with Screwface’s perceived magic.  Not at all would I spoil this for anyone because it’s stunning moment of awe when it happens.  Just when you think Hatcher has all things vanquished, it turns around on everyone, and results in another fantastically executed action sequence.  I mean, who doesn’t love a good swordfight?  It’s one bad ass ending the trumps even what came ten minutes before, and solidifies the hard hitting, take-no-prisoners action intensity of this picture.

Pack all of this in tightly to a 90 minute runtime, and you’ve got an action film that strikes out with killer excitement.  This is undoubtedly one of Seagal’s absolute best films, if not the best.  He pulls no punches, takes no prisoners, and delivers a performance that adds some sly wit in between the emotional fire underneath and the up front bone-cracking bad assery.  Adding further to that bad ass quota, the opening sequence features a small role by Machete himself Danny Trejo.  Backed by a director who I’ve always thought deserved a more high profile career because he is that damn good, Marked For Death delivers it all.  Today, you got a lot of ridiculously over-the-top action films that devolve into cheesy and even campy indulgences.  In this film, you get a lean, hard hitting movie that never softens the blow with those silly distractions.  They can have their place in the genre, but we do not get action films like this anymore.  Not this well made, and not going straight on for the throat leaving no blood un-spilled.  Just go watch it, now!


Cobra (1986)

CobraIf you love Stallone’s bonafide action films, then Cobra is absolutely one of his signature outings.  It also has an interesting origin.  It originally started out when Stallone was cast as the lead in Beverly Hills Cop, but instead of the action comedy we got with Eddie Murphy, Sly did rewrites to essentially change Axel Foley to Marion Cobretti.  When he and Paramount couldn’t agree on this, they parted ways, and Cobra was born.  This is also an adaptation of the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling, which was the basis for a William Baldwin film in 1995 of the same name.  I’ve never seen that film, but this one, it is a really damn good one.

Lt. Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone) is a one-man assault force whose laser-mount submachine gun and pearl handled Colt 9mm spit pure crime-stopping venom.  Cobretti finds himself pitted against a merciless serial killer called the Night Slasher (Brian Thompson).  The trail leads to not one murderer but to an army of psychos bent on slashing their way to a “New Order”- and killing the inadvertent witness Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) to their latest blood spree.  Fortunately, Cobra is her protector intent on bringing down these brutal maniacs.

Very notably, Cobra was helmed by director George P. Cosmatos who also did Rambo: First Blood, Part II and the absolutely amazing Tombstone.  Under his skills, this is an excellent action movie!  Primarily, the quality of the cinematography and editing is amazingly superb.  I see a lot of good quality films of this sort on the filmographies of the editors and cinematographer that prove to me that this was not a one-off shining moment.  This film does have a gritty style with a strong sense of mood and atmosphere for the urban environment.  I took special note of just how well visualized this film was, which would have turned out very generic in much lesser hands.  With Cosmatos, Cobra has real bite and punch.  He also executes the high tension and suspense sequences with remarkable ability.  The parking garage scene where the Night Slasher is stalking Ingrid is a gorgeous example of this.

The Cobretti character is surprisingly understated in most cases.  Sure, when he’s in the heat of action, he’s bad ass and intense, but outside of that, Stallone plays it cool.  He’s calm and collected handling urgent scenarios with confidence and sharp action.  Stallone also brings his usual heart and charm, adding a little charisma and levity to Cobra, but overall, he’s a hard edged cop that’s ready to kick ass at a moment’s notice.  The entire look of Cobra with the five o’clock shadow, black overcoat, mirror aviator glasses, and the wicked cool 9mm just certifies the character as awesome.  Its not a character that jumps off the screen, but with that great look and a couple of cool one-liners, Marion Cobretti drives forward an entertaining film.

Brigitte Nielsen might be regarded very poorly today, but early in her career, she was particularly good.  Her performance as Ingrid is soft and gentle in the most part, but she also handles the terrified moments in the film exceptionally well.  Not surprisingly, she and Stallone have real good chemistry.  They would later marry and divorce within a few years.  Here, you can see their real life affectionate for one another shine through on the screen making for a heartfelt connection that adds more depth to both characters.

The use of Brian Thompson as the Night Slasher, our main villain, is just right.  I honestly have never felt he was a particularly good actor outside of his powerful physical presence.  However, the script and Cosmatos wisely utilize his imposing figure and psychotic killer look instead.  He has extremely little dialogue until the climax where he monologs his creed about his New Order, and he does an exceptional job with this dialogue letting his deep voice carry its weight.

And I love Andrew Robinson in everything I’ve seen him in.  He beautifully plays the smarmy Detective Monte who likes to throw his weight around, and dig his ego into Cobretti like a thorn in your side.  You can’t wait to see this guy get what’s coming to him by the end.

By no doubt, there is a lot of excellent action here.  Stallone gets plenty of chances to get physical with some hard edged fight scenes.  Then, there’s an adrenalin pumping car chase with some great car stunts and rapid gunfire.  Add in some tense, scary moments of Ingrid fighting for her life from the Night Slasher, and you’ve got a very intense, exciting action movie from a director who just knew how to film it with masterful vision.  The editing on these action sequences is so perfectly tight.  This is especially exemplified in the amazingly dynamic shootout and chase sequences that kick start the climax.  The rhythm, pacing, and impressive choice of angles are just excellence on display.  Cosmatos was a brilliant action sequence visionary, and everything in that climax is bad ass and awesome.  It starts out hard and fast, and then, gets tough and brutal inside the industrial factory.  The final confrontation between Cobra and the Night Slasher is really damn good.  This is a great, tense, climactic moment that Stallone and Thompson play dead-on-the-mark in this fiery, industrial setting aided by the excellent cinematography and Cosmatos’ razor sharp direction.  It’s wicked cool.

Further showcasing that this is an 80’s movie is the rock soundtrack.  It starts with a sweet montage sequence fueled by “Angel of the City” by Robert Tepper, who also contributed “No Easy Way Out” for Rocky IV.  We then get a couple of other tracks that are catchy, upbeat, and energizing to the vibe of the movie.  This helps keep the film lively and little more memorable.  The actual score by Sylvester Levay here serves its purpose right fine, but doesn’t standout as anything exceptional.

Cobra is a fun, entertaining, exciting film packed with action.  It has a moody, serious tone with the door comfortably open for levity, but it never gets especially cheesy.  This is a really good action movie that will satisfy even today.  The standard fare script by Stallone is entirely elevated by George Cosmatos’ stylish directing talents.  Cobretti himself is not all that fascinating as it’s the attitude and look that sets him apart including the cobra emblem Colt 9mm and the custom 1950 Mercury.  It’s not a character that puts a challenge on Stallone, but he likely enjoyed the experience.  I certainly would have enjoyed seeing a sequel, but this was also a time where Sylvester Stallone’s ego started swelling a lot.  So, I can imagine there could have been some behind the scenes conflicts.  Regardless, check out Cobra!  It’s a solid piece of action cinema!


Man of Steel (2013)

Man of SteelMan of Steel was my most anticipated film of the year.  Not for an instant did I doubt it from any piece of marketing that came out.  Each trailer and TV spot just got increasingly better raising my excitement for this more and more.  Everything kept giving me hope for an amazing film experience.  I know there’s a full spectrum of opinions out there right now, but take it from someone who grew up on Christopher Reeve as Superman, whose main inspiration in life has been Christopher Reeve, from some who loved Smallville, and feels Superman is the most epic and emotionally powerful superhero of all time – I really liked this movie A LOT!  There’s plenty to get into here, and you can count on zero spoilers.

On the planet Krypton, renowned scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) discovers the hope for his seemingly doomed society in his newborn son Kal-El, but it is nearly thwarted by an attempted insurrection by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is later sentenced to the Phantom Zone before the planet’s demise.  Years later, on Earth, a young boy learns that he has extraordinary powers and is not of this Earth.  As a young man, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) journeys to discover where he came from and what he was sent here to do.  But the hero in him must emerge if he is to save the world from annihilation by the now freed Zod and become the symbol of hope for all mankind.

Okay, I really, really enjoyed this movie, but I just want to get my one big critique out of the way right up front.  It’s nothing damaging, just a structural issue.  The film does follow a linear storytelling structure except for all of the scenes of Clark growing up, and everything with Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, who does a fine, heartfelt job here.  These scenes are all very good, but I really think the film needed for us to go on that journey with Clark instead of flashbacking to isolated moments in his upbringing.  I didn’t feel as much build up as I wanted to with Clark discovering his origins and donning the costume.  We don’t get to see the linear development of Clark struggling through the pain, the adversity, the fear, and the doubt in his youth to see how he really overcomes and grows stronger through that.  If there’s any one major flaw with this film, it’s simply that.  It worked wonderfully in Batman Begins because we still saw Bruce Wayne develop and find his way in the world as an adult before dedicating himself to becoming Batman.  Here, it feels a little short on that emotional journey and impact, and the film would feel a little stronger if that played out linearly instead of through flashbacks.  Clark dons the Superman costume within the first, probably, thirty-five minutes of the movie.

Of course, I suppose the main question for everyone is with Henry Cavill.  By no doubt, the film lives or dies by his performance.  For me, he does a great job.  He gives us a grounded portrayal that feels real and genuine.  The somewhat familiar Clark Kent secret identity is not fleshed out until the end, and so, it is a story of Clark deciding what kind of man he wants to be.  Cavill does embody an honest sense of hope, and has a strong physical presence.  He trained extremely hard to achieve this physique, and it makes all the difference when you see him walking down the street in that suit.  He just exudes power.  When he is not being Superman, he feels very grounded and honest.  He stays true to Clark’s Kansas farm boy roots being a man of morality and admirable strength of character.  Clark is developing throughout the film, and continues to push his limits of what he can do, not just in terms of powers but in terms of determination.  Superman is a hero who never gives up regardless of the odds, and here, the odds are tremendously against him.  Yet, through hell and back, Cavill’s Superman shows us an icon of power that can inspire others to greater heights than ever imagined.  While he doesn’t usurp Christopher Reeve’s inspiring magic, this feels like a Superman for a modern era that still has potential for further development in the already greenlit sequel.  I feel Henry Cavill is a great successor to the mantle of the Last Son of Krypton, and he gives us plenty of humanity that shines through on the screen.

And this film is going to challenge many people on their long held preconceptions of the traditional Superman mythos.  I’m sure there will be some that are resistant to this approach, but it ultimately laid my apprehensions to rest.  The relationship with Lois Lane is built up very differently as she is closely associated with Clark / Superman throughout the film, and they develop a great, emotionally intimate connection.  Amy Adams does a wonderful job as Lois Lane, and what she and Cavill have together is purely stunning.  There’s an honest depth of emotion and understanding between them that shines through beautifully.  Lois is not a damsel in distress either.  Yes, she gets into perilous situations, but she is an active part of this story and plot.  She’s very integral to stopping Zod’s genocide of humanity.  Because she becomes so closely tied to Superman, she remains relevant to everything that’s happening.  Of course, most pertinent of all, we see her as a dogged yet relatable journalist.  Adams swirls a lot of different qualities into Lois from her determination as a reporter to her compassion and strength.  She was a pleasure to witness here, and I think she also brings this character into a grounded, modern age that still remains true to the core, classic aspects of Lois Lane.

Having no easy shoes to fill himself, Michael Shannon takes General Zod and runs with him in his own way.  There’s absolutely no catering to fan service here.  He’s built up as his own character through Shannon’s awesome portrayal.  He’s a bonafide bad ass villain bred as a warrior to protect Krypton at any cost, and he’s given solid depth.  You understand what he’s doing, and why he’s doing it.  Everything Zod does is for the sake of the people of Krypton, but he is a megalomaniacal, genocidal madman willing to eradicate our planet to fulfill his inherent purpose.  This is no weak or generic adversary.  Shannon has great presence that really commands your undivided attention, and he delivers a chilling General Zod that can be frightening by his sheer mercilessness.  This is a Zod who’s going to kill everyone in his path without a moment’s hesitation, and that’s just awesome.

There’s a great supporting cast here, but in short, here are the heavy hitters.  Laurence Fishburne is a damn solid Perry White.  I know there are people bothered by the classic character’s change in race, but Fishburne is a tremendously awesome actor who delivers the goods with strength, nuance, and passion.  Diane Lane is a lovely Martha Kent bringing a subtle, tender touch at the right moments in Clark’s story.  Antje Traue portrays Zod’s second-in-command Faora-Ul fantastically.  She’s extremely imposing and lethal.  Anyone who thought this was just Ursa revamped, don’t do that.  She’s not given as much development as Zod, but she’s a hardcore ass kicking machine.  Beyond that, there’s just a lot of really quality performances throughout this film that does what a supporting cast is meant to do – build a solid foundation for the leads to springboard off of and launch the film into the stratosphere.

And indeed, lest I forget, we get Russell Crowe portraying the great Jor-El.  I found his performance quite admirable with a unique sophistication, compassion, and depth.  The real Jor-El is seen only on Krypton at the start, and it’s great seeing Crowe doing some action oriented work alongside some inspiring emotional beats.  Later on, we see Jor-El as merely a projection through Kryptonian technology, and there is indeed still that strength and emotion present when meeting with Kal-El or confronting Zod.  Yet, since he also works as sort of a computer program, there’s a more clinical portrayal of him in those instances where analytical guidance is needed.  While I don’t wish to draw comparisons for my own sake, I know people are interested in the comparison to Marlon Brando.  I do feel Brando wins in this situation.  I think Crowe is an amazing actor demonstrating his best performance in what I consider Michael Mann’s best film, The Insider.  However, Brando will always stand as one of the finest, most powerful actors of all time when he was in his prime.  Crowe’s Jor-El is more fallible and vulnerable, by design, where Brando’s was inspirational and infallible through and through.  For this Jor-El, Crowe hits it right on the mark, and I wouldn’t ask for him to change a thing.

Man of Steel also features plenty of action, and the more we get, the bigger and badder it gets.  It just builds and builds to flat out epic proportions!  We get moments where Superman has to push himself so hard to destroy Zod’s terra-forming machine that it becomes pure epic Superman awesomeness.  Earlier on, there are some brutal knock down, drag out fights between the Kryptonian soldiers and Superman.  While it almost seems futile for beings of seemingly equal strength and invulnerability to just keep pummeling one another, it generally works very satisfactorily.  What’s more impressive is when Faora is using her super strength and speed to just blitz through a dozen soldiers at a time.  This is all the kind of stuff Superman II couldn’t do because of the limitations of effects at the time, but this delivers in full throttle mode.

And I’m sorry, but The Avengers be damned with this climax.  Superman versus Zod is the epic throwdown of the decade!  They beat the living hell out of one another, smashing up Metropolis from top to bottom with full on ferocity.  While some of the CGI can get to appearing somewhat obvious at some times, you knew this was going to be a CGI-heavy affair from the start to achieve extremely fantastical feats.  So, aside from those small moments, this is some stunning and awesome digital effects work!  It integrates so beautifully and realistically with the grounded, slightly gritty feel of the film in my eyes.  The design of Krypton is very alien and somewhat bleak, but still stunning and enveloping.

And Zack Snyder has well proved he is a brilliant visual director.  I’m a big fan of the Watchmen movie he made, and it’s amazing how much his visual style shifted for the material here.  Indeed, I think the Christopher Nolan touch as a producer influenced that, but this is indeed Snyder’s film.  Director of photography Amir Mokri has clearly not done anything that would suggest a film of this visual depth and emotion, but he does a remarkable job realizing Snyder’s vision.  And again, that translates fully into the visual effects on every level.  Every moment reflects a film of epic scope in terms of size and emotion.

By no doubt, the score by master composer Hans Zimmer is perfect for this movie.  Yet again, separating this film from that iconic John Williams theme wasn’t easy for even Zimmer, but he honed his talent and found the sound for Man of Steel.  His main theme has weight and emotion creating a driving rhythm from twelve of the world’s best drummers.  When the scene is rousing and building towards something big and drama, the score is just powerful.  Still, he has a touching piano version of that theme which really plucks the heartstrings in the more tender, lower key moments.  It’s a stunning piece of work he crafted here, and this is a score that I will treasure to own right alongside that original John Williams score from the 1978 film.  Both work on the right epic and inspirational levels for the types of the films they accompanied, and I love them both!

Man of Steel does feature a certain amount of depth that I felt was very good.  Clark finding his purpose and learning who he wants to be has very apt and meaningful.  Although, I do feel there was one missed moment for a little more character development and reflection.  After learning his origins and having a discussion with Lois about Jonathan Kent, Clark returns home, and shortly thereafter, Zod’s message is transmitted around the world forcing that plot forward.  I feel a scene or two of reflection and development right before that plot is introduced would have been perfect.  It would’ve allowed Clark’s journey of discovery to settle in more, and understand where his mindset is at this point in time before being propelled into the public eye.  We do get a number of very good introspective scenes following this in regards to Zod’s ultimatum for Kal-El to reveal himself, but a short lull would’ve felt right to me.  But that’s just me.

Of course, once Zod arrives in Earth’s orbit, the film just propels forward at a very consistent pace.  It’s not break neck, but it certainly doesn’t slow down much for character building.  We do get moments of emotion, passion, and insight into Clark, Lois, and Zod at certain points.  Still, I feel that there is room for further development in a Man of Steel sequel.  I think there’s still much to explore about this Superman, and an even further distance for him to mature and grow.  The foundation is strongly and solidly laid out here, and director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer can launch everything into a even vaster and deeper place next time.

This is the best film of the year for me by a long shot!  Man of Steel might show some room for improvement, but it delivers on so many epic and powerful levels that I give this a wholehearted recommendation.  If you are a Superman fan willing to embrace a fresh approach that still carries on the spirit of everything that encapsulates the greatest superhero of all time, this is your film to see.  I have no problem with the redesigned suit now that I see it in full bombastic action, and this film has plenty of inspiring imagery.  While we came to believe a long time ago that a man could fly, today, we can believe that Superman can once again live and thrive on the big screen once again.  My hope is restored in full.