I’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.
Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, and directed by David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is definitely one of the best films based on King’s work. It has always been heralded with acclaim for many excellent reasons. Not the least of which is an incredible lead performance from Christopher Walken.
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a young and charming school teacher with a bright future ahead of him with a woman he loves and intends to marry. Yet, after leaving her home one night, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for five years. Upon awakening, Johnny discovers he has gained the power of psychic visions where he see the past, present, and future with just the touch of a hand. This frightens Johnny, and he feels only more isolated from the world when he learns that Sarah (Brooke Adams), the love of his life, has married another man and had a child with him. After Johnny physically recovers from his coma, he becomes more and more reclusive until Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) enlists his help to find the vicious Castle Rock Killer. However, when Johnny later shakes the hand of young and upcoming political candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he is confronted with a frightening vision that shakes Johnny down to his core.
To say the least, Cronenberg has been a very original director with a unique perspective and style which comes out in science fiction or horror fare. Although, what he gives us with this film is a much more subtly clever and psychologically powerful over overt strangeness. Instead of going for the throat like he did with Scanners or Videodrome, he really hones in on the heart of this story, and he does it magnificently well. Every element he brought together truly merged with the heavy, somber tone he was going for. That was an excellent direction to envelope the film in as it puts us right into Johnny’s headspace. I think it was a stroke of genius that he made Johnny’s visions fully enveloping. He put Johnny inside the vision as if he was right there as it happened, but unable to affect change within the vision. It created a far more strained experienced for the character than if it just appeared as a dream state. With the first vision, he could probably feel the heat and flames just as if he was there in the burning house. During the vision of the Castle Rock Killer, Johnny is adamant how he was right there watching the murder, but unable to stop it. This forges Johnny into a darker, more reclusive state.
This is the earliest film I’ve seen of Christopher Walken’s career, and it shows that, no matter the age, Walken delivers his all. Johnny starts out as a kind, lively man fully in love, but the accident forces a turbulent change in him. He feels like a man out of sync with the world, and is now haunted by his new abilities. He’s angry that five years of his have been taken away, and that the woman he loved moved on with her life while he has none to return to. Walken is able to convey the deep emotional turmoil of Johnny with so much humanity that you can’t help but feel his pain. The tragic sense of the character really comes through in such strong, brilliant ways. Walken subtly mixes in the charm of the pre-accident Johnny underneath that somber, unstable exterior. The well of emotion in his face and eyes honestly becomes heartbreaking many times over. When the visions occur, Walken goes into an intense trance which is immensely riveting. Walken actually had Cronenberg fire off a gun, loaded with blanks, to elicit his startling reaction in those moments, and that was greatly effective. Walken can be very intense, at times, as the fear of his knowledge of the future boils over, but he’s always able to return to that heartfelt side. I could really go on and on about all the nuances and profound qualities of Christopher Walken’s performance, as he is always so rich with, but suffice it to say, he is absolutely stunning in this role.
Another great talent on display is Tom Skerritt who brings his strong presence of authority and sense of compassion to Sheriff Bannerman. He feels very authentic as the lead police officer of a small New England town. He really invests you in Bannerman’s plight where he has exhausted all avenues of investigation, and is willing to put his faith in the extraordinary to protect the people of his town. Herbert Lom does a very interesting and relatable performance as Dr. Sam Weizak with the genuine care of a physician. I really like the candor and humanity he brings to the role as Johnny’s doctor. He’s about the only one Johnny can confide in about his abilities, and that creates some very strong scenes which show Johnny’s pain and struggles. It’s very strong and intriguing work. Brooke Adams is very lovely and beautiful in the role of Sarah. She is very sweet and smart showing a simple, very caring woman that would endear herself to the younger Johnny who was bright and full of life. Adams does the same to an audience showing warmth and tenderness, and really striking up a genuine, heartfelt chemistry with Walken. The great Anthony Zerbe has an admirable turn as Roger Stuart, who hires Johnny to tutor his son, and also, bridges Smith with Stillson. Zerbe has a screen presence of respect, intelligence, and sophistication which serves the character excellently.
Martin Sheen is awesome as Greg Stillson. While he is perfectly stereotypical of a politician, and seemingly an exaggerated one, it entirely works for the role. Stillson is megalomaniacal, as is revealed to Johnny. He’s full-tilt insane, and Sheen revels in that madness. He has thinly veiled unhinged mentality which many voters would perceive as zeal, passion, and charisma, but Zerbe’s character perceives the danger he poses, which is a very nice touch to motivate Johnny’s and Stillson’s paths to cross.
While I have not read the novel, it seems like it had just a series of generally episodic events, which could have proven complicated to translate into a coherent screenplay, but I believe the filmmakers did an excellent job of weaving them together with Johnny’s plight being the through line. How he goes from feeling angry and cursed to slowly realizing the potential good he can do with his powers is a fascinating approach. Yet, he’s never really a man at peace. There’s always an emotional or psychological turmoil swirling inside him. Because of this, The Dead Zone is more a character-driven movie as there is no overarching main plot, aside from Johnny’s internal struggles. The film gives us a series of otherwise unrelated events that deeply affect and mold Johnny towards a powerful ending. While it could use a little more meat on the bone, in terms of a more rigorously involved plot in the Stillson centric segment, this really seems like the best approach to the material, and it is done exceptionally well.
The film’s score was done by the late, great Michael Kamen, who was a masterful composer and musician. Here, he produced a brilliant score that is powerful and haunting. It really has a strong presence which really digs deep into the emotions abound in the film, reflecting the sad, bittersweet feeling Cronenberg captured on screen. Even in the beautiful moment, he still manages to keep that heavy, foreboding tone present. It’s really a mesmerizing piece of music which is undeniably one of Kamen’s finest and distinct works.
The winter setting of The Dead Zone is marvelously brilliant. It reflects the cold, lonely, isolated sensibility that come to define Johnny Smith. It also perfectly Stephen King. Cinematographer Mark Irwin shot this film amazingly well. There are some sequences with wonderfully moody lighting such as the tunnel crime scene with the headlights reflecting off the ice, or the green tinge inside the Dodd residence. Johnny’s visions are all very visually strong, especially the ice break sequence. Overall, Irwin captures the power of this picture beautifully and compellingly.
The horror aspects in this film are very psychologically and visually based. Certainly the most graphic and startling is the Castle Rock Killer segment. We get violence and some disturbing imagery with this part which is very expertly executed. The rest of the film focuses on the fearful knowledge that haunts Johnny, and creates a troubling foreboding tone which leaves the audience unsettled. It’s a cerebral film built on a solid, somber atmosphere that can leave you saddened. I do think it’s a film that goes beyond the confines of horror, and pursues something much more fascinating and deeper. That was much of King’s intention. He wanted to write a story that didn’t delve into creatures or spirits or other things that come out to scare you in the dead of night. The Dead Zone was a sad, turbulent journey for a man that never asked for these extraordinary powers, but had to somehow cope with these experiencing jarring, haunting premonitions of death. They lead him down a chilling path that would be frightening for anyone.
As is obvious, I really like The Dead Zone. The only thing that pulls it away from a perfect rating is that I don’t think the build up to the climax is quite strong enough. A bit more time taken for Johnny to deep down struggle with his decision, or to really reflect upon himself would’ve given it a more dramatic swell. The ending is excellent, though. It really hits the right, powerful emotional beat. I wouldn’t change a frame of it. Christopher Walken puts in a rock solid performance that runs through a wide array of emotions that he brilliantly wraps into a single package. David Cronenberg had already proven he could go way far out with his concepts, and really deliver very bizarre, yet profound films. Here, he proves he get deep into the soul of a story and character, and deliver something equally profound on a much more intimate human level. I really, strongly recommend this film. It is expertly crafted by a great team of wonderfully talented film artists.
The benefit of doing Forever Horror Month is that it has forced me to watch films that have been collecting dust in my DVD collection for about a decade. I saw From Hell theatrically at the discount theatre with a number of my friends in 2001. I do recall general impressions and plot details from back then including a slight letdown of the film’s conclusion. Of course, my tastes have certainly matured since that time, and so, it will be interesting to see if my opinion of the film has altered any today.
Set in London of 1888, Jack the Ripper has been running amok in the Whitechapel district murdering and dissecting prostitutes. Scotland Yard Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), aided by his partner, Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), are on the case to figure out who this serial killer is and why he is killing these women in such a brutal manner. Abberline is an opium addict and when “chasing the dragon” he is able to have visions of the future, a certain psychic ability that allows him to solve cases. As Abberline and Godley investigate the crimes, they become acquainted with the prostitutes who were friends and colleagues of the victims. Abberline begins to fall in love with Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), one of the prostitutes, or as the nobles called them “unfortunates”, being hunted down by Jack the Ripper. Abberline digs deeper and deeper into the conspiracy and attempts to solve the case before Mary Kelly is the next victim.
This was adapted from the comic book series by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell by the Hughes Brothers – Albert & Allen. It’s not one I’ve ever read, but the comic book visual aesthetics occasionally show through. There are striking moments of heavy reds or sickly greens that are very stylized, and do work with the editing approach to those gruesome moments. The rest of the film is competently shot maintaining a natural look to the time period. The identity of Jack the Ripper is kept artistically hidden through shadows, shots from behind, and smart framing. It doesn’t get gimmicky. It plays scenes out with the Ripper with an imposing, mysterious quality that builds up the threat of him. It’s very solid work from a director of photography who started out shooting Evil Dead II and later occasionally working with surreal filmmaker David Lynch.
Now, this is a genre that kind of hits me in a pleasant place. Mixing crime drama with a suspenseful, bloody horror genre just feels like my kind of taste. The Jack the Ripper case is an iconic one in many peoples’ minds, and this film crafts the investigation and mystery very smartly. It incorporates some great forensic knowledge which further enhances the quality of Inspector Abberline’s abilities. This is very important as Jack the Ripper happens to surgically remove various organs from his victims, leaving behind a sickening and horrifying sight. While the film inevitably takes liberties with the known truth, and hypothesizes about the unknown truths, what we get is tightly and sharply crafted. It’s a very good script realized by some richly talented filmmakers.
The production design and wardrobe departments did an amazing job. They seem to have realized the late nineteenth century with beautiful detailed realism. The wardrobe is especially impressive with the distinct styles given to each character. This extends to hairstyles and the overall grooming of the actors. It’s elegant craftsmanship through and through which gives the film its grounded texture. The filmmakers took great care to reproduce the sights of the murders and the wounds inflicted upon the victims. While the film lays back on its graphicness for most of its runtime, it does have visceral impact through sharp editing styles and some impressive practical make-up effects. There is one very graphic throat cutting scene that would likely have many squirming in their seats. As the film chillingly drives towards its climax, the violence becomes immensely more graphic and disturbing.
Getting down to the performances, I believe Johnny Depp does a very fine piece of work here. I like the accent he adopts for the role. Very different from the one he used in Sleepy Hollow or as Captain Jack Sparrow. He clearly worked on the details very meticulously to bring this intelligent person to life. While, Frederick Abberline was a real life Inspector for Scotland Yard, the clairvoyance and drug use was reportedly not true about him. Regardless, the character that is Abberline here is given a good measure of charm and perceptive intelligence. Depp cautiously balances out Abberline’s assertiveness with the manner of a gentleman. While he is a man that indulges in less than respectable vices and beliefs, he is still a man that is respected in his profession. It is an impressively strong and dimensional performance. Depp leads this film excellently.
Depp also displays a subtle heart and passion opposite Heather Graham. She inhabits this particularly lower class woman with a lot of spirit and compassion. While the love between Mary and Frederick is not a major part of the story, it is developed through the building of trust and charm between them. The chemistry of Graham and Depp is solid and genuine.
Robbie Coltrane does very well as a Police Sergeant who takes his job with a lot of serious weight. Sergeant Godley is written well as both a consummate street level investigator, and a trusting confidant for Abberline. It’s a very well rounded performance that instills credibility and faith in Abberline’s unconventional methods for the audience.
The highly revered Ian Holm is also especially strong as the former surgeon Sir William Gull. He shares some solid scenes with Depp throughout the movie, and delivers a fine dramatic performance that also offers up an intimidating quality late in the film. He really portrays all facets of the role remarkably well. All around, this is just a stellar cast with a great depth of talent creating an array of fascinating and realistic characters. They all make a distinct impression upon an audience.
The affluent pretentiousness of Abberline’s superior, portrayed by Ian Richardson, strikes me funny. His assertion that no Englishman would be capable of such an act shows how much sensibilities have changed in law enforcement over the decades. Today, everyone’s a viable suspect, no matter who you are, but back in the 1880s, an educated or even sophisticated person would never be thought of as a violent criminal. It was preposterous. Furthermore, his arrogance impedes Abberline’s investigation to the point of obstructing justice. Unlike Sergeant Godley, he has little faith in Abberline’s deductive abilities. He cares only for the perception of the investigation, not the truth that it should uncover. It’s simply another fine detail which exemplifies the era this is set in, and what struggles Abberline has to surmount and combat to prove his theories correct. It sets a treacherous path that he must walk to expose this gruesome killer.
Ultimately, the Jack the Ripper plotline is resolved in a ghastly psychological manner that has a sort of fitting quality. Considering, in reality, he was never publicly, definitively identified, the ending to this has to have an air of secrecy. There’s really no way around that. So, it couldn’t have ended as a standard crime story with an arrest and conviction. Still, it lacks any sort of dramatic gratification of justice. Grisly, unspeakable murders are committed, and for an audience, it demands something equally harsh. It’s sort of a subjective feeling. If for nothing else, this conclusion just lacks a real punch.
Again, the romantic aspect is gracefully handled, but it can get a little lost amongst the main plotline. Abberline becomes deeply invested in Mary’s well being, but it’s more of an ancillary story. It comes and goes in the film never really dominating the characters’ actions too much, but it does surface every now and then when it has relevance. It possibly could’ve been developed into a fuller part of the film to have more substantive impact. The conclusion to this story is also a little downbeat. I’m not sure it was necessary for it to end as it did, but it’s definitely not a bad ending.
So, yes, I think my initial impressions about the film remain about the same. It has a very good story with plenty of suspense and intelligence, but the pay-off is quite lacking. Maybe there are those that can appreciate it more than I can, perhaps those that have read the comic book series. There was more than enough rich talent involved making this a very well made and slightly stylish horror crime mystery. The Hughes Brothers did a very high quality job with this material, and Johnny Depp puts in a very satisfying lead performance. While it’s not as quirky as some of his better known roles, this is a nice departure into more serious ground that I did enjoy. “Do I recommend From Hell?” is the pressing question. Sure. While it’s ultimately not as wholly satisfying as desired, it’s still a worthwhile watch for many reasons. If for nothing else, it’s a respectably well executed moody and chilling piece of horror cinema.
This film was based on the novel A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson, and David Koepp, the screenwriter and director, made a hell of solid and smart thriller out of it. Koepp has plenty of fine credits to his name ranging from generally good to great films. While there are a few black marks on his filmography, he showcases a vast amount of solid talent with this nicely crafted supernatural thriller that is Stir of Echoes.
Tom Witzy (Kevin Bacon) lives with his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) and his son Jake (Zachary David Cope) in Chicago. They live in a neighborhood with a good reputation, but at a party with a bunch of his neighbors, the narrow-minded Tom dares his open-minded sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), to hypnotize him. She does, but when she implants a post-hypnotic suggestion for him to ‘open his mind’, he begins to see disturbing and confusing visions. His son has an imaginary friend called Samantha (Jennifer Morrison), but Tom soon realizes that she is not imaginary. She is the ghost of a young girl that is now terrifying and driving Tom towards strange ends. As the horrific visions intensify, Tom realizes they are pieces of a puzzle, echoes of a crime calling out to be solved, but when his other-worldly nightmares begin coming true, Tom wants out. He desperately tries to rid himself of his eerie, unwanted powers – only to be seized by an irresistible compulsion to dig deeper and deeper into the mystery that is consuming his life.
Kevin Bacon absolutely does an incredible job in this role. He really absorbed himself into it adopting a subtle Chicago accent and a textured blue collar working man appearance. His physicality is very raw, and it helps that he seemed to be in excellent, lean shape for this film. He pushes the performance through every fiber of his body with a powerful nervous energy and charisma that is electrifying. Bacon portrays the increasing obsession and near psychotic behavior amazingly well. His manic intensity becomes scary like he is going off the deep end, which is quite the truth. On the flip side, he shows the heart of Tom Witzy with a lot of genuine depth. Beneath this crazed obsession, he is a deeply caring husband and father with a touching levity of heart. It’s good to see the real man before this psychic awakening occurs, and thus, we get full context on how drastically he changes and what he’s jeopardizing with his crazed behavior. There’s ultimately a lot of compassion and humanity in this man who starts out with a bit of an abrasive attitude.
Playing perfectly off of Kevin Bacon is Kathryn Erbe. She also shows a strong range from loving, bright wife and mother to woman of fire and conviction when Tom goes further out of control. Erbe and Bacon have very honest and heart-filled chemistry which is a main strength of the movie. Zachary David Cope was a fine young actor here. While he has an appropriate innocence and cuteness, he proves to have a mindful intelligence to portray the nuances of the role. Acting opposite thin air to an unseen ghost is definitely a challenge, but Cope really showed a lot of promise here. Sadly, it was only second and last film acting role. The remainder of the cast does equally fine jobs building up a realistic community of dimension characters that ground the film very firmly.
Stir of Echoes is definitely a spooky and startling film with a tight pace. It keeps a nice unsettling atmosphere going as Tom is very unnerved following his hypnotic awakening. As the visions begin inflicting more graphic images upon Tom, the more freaked out he gets, and the more the tension of the film rises. It’s an entertaining and fascinating descent into manic hysteria which just drives the film’s suspense and danger to a more chilling height. When the film hits those peaks, it gets the heart pounding very strongly. It winds itself up to a frightening full head of steam once the third act slams itself upon the audience. While it’s not a rousing climax that is practically horror-based, it definitely resolves itself properly. It builds upon the more underlying qualities of the film, namely the characters and the community they inhabit.
Thus, I really like the character driven strength of this supernatural thriller. It’s a ghost story that doesn’t boil down to defeating an evil specter, but instead, helping find justice for an innocent soul. Showing the quality of this seemingly tight knit Chicago neighborhood plays an important role in the story, and it’s nicely developed and demonstrated to ultimately explore the heart and soul of these people, no matter where they might lie.
Admirably, this film boasts some very good visual effects. From the ghoulish effects to make Samantha a frightening apparition to the hypnosis sequence in the theatre, these are all consistently top notch effects. The ghostly make-up effects work done on actress Jennifer Morrison are very haunting and unsettling. She did a fine job in that aspect as well as the living Samantha in the flashbacks late in the film. She was a very sweet, shy young woman that is a worthy of the sympathy and tragic value put on the character. While the “shot in reverse” movement is a clichéd trick to give a creepy quality to her ghost, it is still very effective.
Now, I also have to admit I find a bit of pleasing notoriety from the theatre scenes when Lisa hypnotizes Tom. They were shot at the Rialto Theatre in Joliet, Illinois where my high school graduation was held the year before this film’s release. I really love that the filmmakers shot on location throughout the Chicago area bringing a real authentic feel to the neighborhood and other locations. There’s one shot where Tom’s up on a telephone pole making a call to Lisa, and it pulls back to reveal the Chicago River and Metra trains rolling by. It’s a location I am very familiar with, and it just creates an honest sensibility that I commend. Chicago really is a diverse and beautiful city that deserves to be shown off more prominently in film and television, and this is a small gem that takes pleasant, if small advantage of that.
While David Koepp is the sole on-screen credit for the screenplay, there was some work on it done by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en). So, I would like to share my praise for the quality of the script with them both. I’ve never read Richard Matheson’s novel that this was based on, but Koepp and Walker clearly had an intelligent foundation to build upon. The story never goes for cheap clichés of the genre, and instead, stays focused on its smart supernatural thriller path. The film makes it a point that it is very focused on Tom Witzy from early on, and the script follows that path very steadily. It keeps the audience in tune with what he’s experiencing, and we are able to relate to him even when he becomes more irrational and brazen. He’s intensely driven to uncover whatever it is he needs to in order to shut these psychics visions down. He himself becomes connected with Samantha, even if he doesn’t entirely know what his purpose in all this is. So, we follow him on this haunting journey that is exceptionally well executed by David Koepp. It surely helps this film that there was a highly effective score put together by the immensely talented James Newton Howard.
While this turned out to be a bit shorter review than I usually post, I think the quality of Stir of Echoes has been well conveyed. It’s not a very complex story, but it lacks no depth of character or scares. It won’t slam bang you with horror, but it has a solid atmosphere, some startling, graphic imagery, and air of compelling supernatural mystery that is very satisfying. Seeing the film is worthwhile for Kevin Bacon’s exceptional and amazing performance alone. He really showed a very wide breadth of talent and commitment here that I find incredible. The only iffy aspect is that I’m sure the climax would feel stronger if there was an actual supernatural element added into it instead of a straight physical confrontation. However, I’ll say again that it suits the more character based sensibility of the story, which is somewhat refreshing to see, and does support the idea of needing a living person to resolve things instead of a vengeful spirit stalking and killing people. So, I certainly do not knock the climax one bit, but an audience could feel like a little extra punch was desired after all the spooky paranormal happenings throughout the film. There’s just not much of a climactic pay-off for the scary elements in the film. Overall, I do highly recommend Stir of Echoes as a smart and suspenseful film that has some refreshing turns on the old ghost stories premise.
I have a tendency to miss out on great films in the theatre due to an uncertainty about them. I can get so used to how mainstream films are marketed that when I see something distinctly different, it’s hard to be sold on it. Thankfully, better late than never, some trusted word of mouth finally got me to check out Drive. To my sensibilities, this is an astonishing, flat out amazing film. This feels like if Michael Mann made a movie between Thief and Manhunter, and was scored by Tangerine Dream. This is fully evocative of a 1980s neo noir crime thriller with its sense of tone and atmosphere and using a magnificent soundtrack to envelop an audience into its emotion. Beyond that, I feel Drive is also brilliant.
Ryan Gosling stars as a Hollywood stunt driver by day that moonlights as a wheelman for criminals by night. He’s employed and aided by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a former stuntman who is propositioning the shady Bernard Rose (Albert Brooks) to invest in a race car venture with this “Driver” as their star. Though a loner by nature, the Driver can’t help falling in love with his beautiful neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother dragged into a dangerous underworld by the return of her ex-convict husband. After a heist goes wrong, Driver finds himself driving defense for the girl he loves, tailgated by a syndicate of deadly serious criminals including Rose himself and the bull-headed Nino (Ron Perlman). Soon he realizes the gangsters are after more than the bag of cash, and is forced to shift gears into a brutal, unrelenting head-on collision.
I will grant that the film is not heavy on plot. It’s fairly simple and straight forward keeping itself contained to a small collection of characters. Some might find that a letdown. However, the substance of this film is in the presentation. Ryan Gosling’s character is very minimal on dialogue allowing his presence and the atmosphere of the film to carry the Driver’s weight. The performance alone is very understated and low key, but not skimping on intensity or humanity. His carefully chosen words hold purpose, and Gosling’s soft spoken delivery forces an audience to focus their attention closely. Sometimes, a lack of dialogue can bring a mystique and an intriguing quality to a character, and Gosling sparks that magic. His performance allows you to read more into the man instead of him telling you about who he is, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off. The scenes where the Driver and Irene are together bring a subtle charm and heart to the surface. You see the brightness in the soul of this character that contrasts, and later, compliments his grittier, darker side. When he has to become that more intimidating, brutal person later on, Gosling has no problem being convincing. You can feel his visceral intensity permeating the screen. I was impacted hard by those razor sharp moments, and this all comes together in a rock solid piece of work by Ryan Gosling. This is my first exposure to his talent, and I couldn’t be more blown away. Also, wrapping him in that Scorpion jacket is just wickedly cool.
Carey Mulligan puts in a gracefully beautiful performance. She and Gosling have a fine chemistry that gives the film its warmth and purpose. Their performances reflect nicely off of one another with heart and subtlety. She never has to say a word to reflect Irene’s emotional conflict over her feelings between her husband and the Driver. Mulligan touchingly shows that in her eyes and expressions, and how she gravitates to this new charming, under spoken man in her life. It’s an engaging and inviting piece of work.
Albert Brooks is a shocking powerhouse heavy here. He’s intimidating as all hell while still having his light hearted, humorous moments. Still, I never stopped getting that shady feeling from him that he was a mob boss that could slash your wrist or stab you in the eye with a fork without batting an eyelash. There’s such a fine line the character treads that Brooks walks with ease. Even when he’s being friendly, there’s still that sense of unease behind everything he says, and even before you know he’s a mob boss, you get the feeling that there’s something not entirely straight about Bernie Rose. For me, he ranks amongst the best like Christopher Walken in True Romance or Robert Prosky in Thief. He can turn from being your best friend to your absolute worst enemy in half a heartbeat without even seeing a shift in the character’s manner. It’s all rather matter of fact with him, and Brooks carries the appropriate weight to achieve these character traits throughout the picture. I love Albert Brooks’ performance supremely.
The supporting cast is also finely textured. Bryan Cranston has a broken down heartfelt sympathy as Shannon, the mechanic and former stuntman that aids and endorses Gosling’s character. He’s a good natured person who gets in too heavy with the wrong people, and you can’t help but feel for him when things turn worse. Ron Perlman’s gangster character of Nino is interesting. He’s a Jewish man trying to make himself out to be an Italian mobster. It’s not an overt part of his performance, but it ties into Nino’s motivations for being a “belligerent asshole,” as Bernie Rose puts it. Nino has plenty of bravado and ego, but not a lot of good sense. Perlman nicely inhabits those qualities with plenty of enthusiasm. Oscar Isaac does well as Irene’s husband Standard. The character clearly stands out as a person stuck in a number of unwanted situations. These criminals are violently pressuring him to do this job for him to pay back his debt, and it’s subtlety obvious that his wife does not want to be with him, anymore. Isaac shows the character’s regret well, and comes off more of a sorry man than a sympathetic one. He’s a guy that’s made a mess of things, and knows nothing will ever be okay ever again. The damage is done, and he’s just trying to sweep it under the rug as neatly as possible. However, he’s endangered the lives of his wife and son, and the Driver has no sympathy for the man. He only helps him out for the benefit of Irene and Benicio. These actors all add a strong array of emotion to the film which heightens the tone and atmosphere.
Now, speaking of atmosphere, the score constantly hit me as something very akin to Tangerine Dream’s score for Risky Business. It has that very light, dreamy quality to it most times, but does delve into very dark, heavy territories. There are foreboding, tense moments in this score that are just mesmerizing. Cliff Martinez crafts a deeply enveloping auditory experience which soaks into nearly every fiber of the film, but the filmmakers pick key moments where silence holds more weight than a soundtrack. The collection of songs in this film retain that 1980s ambient synth-pop quality, but have a modern quality that is beyond my ability to articulate. From my own independent filmmaking experiences, I know how insanely difficult it is to find modern original music that sounds like it came from the 1980s. So, the fact that music supervisors Eric Craig and Brian McNeils discovered and assembled music of this amazing style and quality impresses me to no end. I purchased the CD soundtrack, and it now ranks as one of my absolute favorites of all time.
The chase scenes of Drive are masterful. The first one is exceptionally smart being tactical in evading the police instead of going for outright action. That aspect come later after the botched robbery. It’s short and to the point being very slam bang intense, and not over indulging in itself. The opening sequence is exceptionally refreshing by being intelligent. On top of being realistic and smart, it is an excellent introduction to our main character showing his precision as a getaway driver. These scenes are expertly shot accentuating the distinct tones and tensions of both sequences.
When this film gets brutal, it holds nothing back, and hardly goes in predictable directions. The Driver never relies on a gun, and instead, goes with blunt force trauma to inflict violence upon people. The scene where he goes into the strip club wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he just brandished a gun the guy’s face. When you see the Driver pull out a hammer, you know this is going to be dead serious business, and it’s not going to be pretty. It’s a startling, powerful sequence which further propels the character’s threat level. He’s not just some cool headed amazing driver, he’s a dangerous man not worth crossing. The violence overall is graphic and gory, and shockingly unsettling. Emotion just pours through these scenes.
I am further floored by the cinematography talents of Newton Thomas Sigel. I’ve previously reviewed his work on The Usual Suspects and Fallen – both gorgeous films with their own identities. Drive is no different. No shot is ever wasted, and every composition is chosen with purpose. How the film is shot reflects the artistic vision realized with the music, acting, and editing. The film has inspired moments of absolute cinematic beauty due to Sigel’s artistic brilliance. The elevator scene late in the film is a magnificent example of this. The lighting and color tones used throughout create rich visuals which enhance the film’s atmosphere further.
This is a film where every element is cohesively used to create a powerfully enveloping experience. The conservative editing style of Matthew Newman allows Sigel’s shots to hold their weight, and establish a somber or rich tone that draws an audience into every moment. The music enhances those moments to create a wonderfully vibrant sonic quality for even the most still or fluid sequences. I haven’t seen a film like this since Manhunter. The music plays such a prominent role in creating a rich atmosphere that is as in the forefront of the picture as the actors. Each aspect is integral towards what is a wonderfully engrossing motion picture.
Drive is something which shows what independent film can do. It takes chances. It goes for a filmmaking style that has not really been around in more than twenty years. It takes an immensely effective way of crafting and presenting a film that a major studio would likely not embrace. It’s an intelligent, fresh, and creative film that feeds the senses. It gives you white knuckle action, a heartfelt romantic storyline, strong character drama, graphic brutality, gorgeous cinematic moments, intelligent writing, amazing performances, and a beautiful, exciting soundtrack. It’s hard to imagine all of these phenomenal visual and auditory elements coming across in a screenplay, but Hossein Amini clearly wrote something truly inspiring on those script pages to inspire the amazing film we ultimately got. I know nothing of the James Sallis novel this was based on, but clearly, the written word captured the vibrant imagination of these filmmakers. I will admit that Drive is not a mass audience movie as it requires an appreciation for a certain filmmaking style, but for those that love a slick 1980s style crime thriller that utilizes strong atmosphere and a prominent synth-pop soundtrack to wrap you up in its story and characters, this is absolutely for you. In my view, Drive is a meticulously crafted masterpiece of cinema born out of a bold vision from director Nicolas Winding Refn. I love this film thoroughly, and I cannot give it a higher recommendation than that.