It 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.
There 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.
Reviews 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.
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.
You 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.
This 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.
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.
I had thought I had reviewed all of the past Star Trek films I was going to review, but I figured, “Why the hell not?” I’m not going to run through all the back story of the production of this movie because it’s been documented in great detail already elsewhere. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is definitely very far from being the best of the franchise, and is rightfully ranked low on the scale. However, there are some elements of it that I have always liked, and have never heard anyone else give credit to. So, here I am to provide you my perspective on this misstep in taking this 1960’s television series into a feature film franchise.
When a destructive space entity is spotted approaching Earth, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) returns to the newly retrofitted U.S.S. Enterprise to take command away from the young and driven Will Decker (Stephen Collins). Kirk’s entire trusted crew is reunited with the addition of the alien navigator Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), and the surprise return of Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who seeks deep, soul searching answers from the mysterious intruder. Now, the crew of the Enterprise must intercept and find a way to stop this alien intelligence before it destroys every human life on Earth.
Okay, let’s get the obvious critiques out of the way. This movie is especially dated in so many ways. Even though this was made because Star Wars was a big success, this is distinctly a science fiction film more akin to those made before Star Wars existed. The grindingly slow pace and the very cerebral focus fall more into a 2001: A Space Odyssey or Logan’s Run mentality. The costuming and general look of the film are quite 1970’s like Battlestar Galactica. The one piece jumpsuits with their muted color palettes don’t have much of a progressive feel from the vibrant, yet simple uniforms of the television series. There’s a definite reason why these uniforms never reappeared anywhere in Star Trek – they’re instantly dated, impractical, and unappealing. The cast utterly hated wearing them. There’s so much in this film that feels like a step backwards for its time. Amidst films like Star Wars, Alien, and even Superman: The Movie, which all made large leaps forward with the science fiction and fantasy genres with special effects, exciting storytelling, and progressive filmmaking innovations, Star Trek: The Motion Picture feels like it was lagging behind the times on all fronts.
The more immediate problem here is how little resemblance this bares to the television series. Star Trek was an exciting piece of episodic science fiction. It was usually quite intelligently written, and it had action, peril, consequence, and danger making for thrilling entertainment. This film has almost none of that. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has been called The Slow Motion Picture and The Motionless Picture by many people. I do enjoy a slow burn, methodically paced film, but this is slow pacing simply for indulgence sake. For example, this film takes almost an hour before the crew of the Enterprise actually encounters V’Ger at all, and every plot element is almost agonizingly drawn out with next to no impact. Instead, this film concerns itself with a drawn out briefing scene, a malfunctioning transporter, a malfunctioning warp drive, and many graceful, yet frivolously time sucking visual effects sequences. So much of this content could be chopped out entirely for an exceedingly tighter story structure, and leave room for building more substance and momentum into its intended story.
While there are character dynamics at play, the film takes no real time to develop a particular story to be engrossed in. While Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta put in good performances as Decker and Ilia, respectively, not enough effort is put into developing them to the point where an audience is invested in their plight. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, just self-contained within this film alone, are infinitely more fascinating than Decker and Ilia. This is firstly a script problem, and secondly, a directorial issue. Robert Wise had a very highly acclaimed career, but nothing in his filmography says he was the right man to direct a feature film version of Star Trek. This is the director who did several musicals like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and methodically paced thrillers like Run Silent, Run Deep. He could do critically acclaimed science fiction such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain, but none of his work aligns with the exciting, innovative style that was Star Trek. Apparently, Wise really only directed this film because his wife was a fan of the television series.
Circa 1983, George Lucas did a very intelligent interview that coincidentally details the problem of this film, and unfortunately, makes you wonder where that George Lucas disappeared to. He said, and I quote, “One of the fatal mistakes that almost every science fiction film makes is that they spend so much time on the settings, creating the environment, that they spend film time on it. And you don’t have to spend too much film time creating an environment. What they are doing is showing off the amount of work that they generated, and it slows the pace of the film down. The story is not the settings. The story is the story, the plot.” Star Trek: The Motion Picture spends so much film time gushing over the exquisite detail of its models and visual effects that it forgets to actually tell an engaging, thrilling story. I will admit that the models are excellent, but due to a rushed production schedule to meet an unrealistic release date, many of the film’s visual effects were less than what they were supposed to be. The director’s cut released in 2001 went a long way to rectify that, but the fact still remains that this film is better suited as a dazzling visual effects reel than a well constructed and smartly conceived narrative movie. However, while the script is terribly misguided, and the choice of director was way off the mark, there is one great element that flows through both the good and the bad first six Star Trek films – the core cast.
The one actual strength of this film are the character interactions. The foundation of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is retained as solidly as ever. When Bones first beams on board the Enterprise, I really love the exchange between him and Kirk. How McCoy is still as fiery and cranky as ever is great, and how Kirk pleads with his friend because of how desperately he needs him on this mission has always been a favorite moment of mine. It shows that the characters that we know are intact and the actors know exactly who they are inside and out. Jim Kirk knows he can’t do it alone. He’s already without Spock at this point, and so, he has to draft Dr. McCoy back into service. Spock and McCoy balance out Kirk’s ego, passions, humanity, rationale, and decisiveness. You can see this in the first minute that McCoy steps foot on the bridge, and once Spock joins them, the equation is complete. DeForest Kelley did get all the best dialogue, and constantly proved to be an excellent talent in this role. He doesn’t have a great deal to do in this movie, but the moments he does have are pitch perfectly filled with passion, depth, emotion, and wit. Kelley is actually one of the few to inject a humorous, smart quip every now and then, which this film greatly needed to break up its monotonous tone. It’s amazing that the entire original series cast did not miss a single beat slipping back into these classic characters after so many years, and that comfortable, sharp chemistry is part of what always made them work so greatly in any medium.
What I really like about James T. Kirk is that he is a man with an ego, but he’s not so consumed with it to not be aware of it. He’s able to correct himself when he realizes he’s in the wrong, and that becomes clear when dealing with Decker. When Kirk learns that his objection to Decker countermanding his phaser order was justified, he retracts his stance and acknowledges his error. Later on, he catches himself quicker when Decker offers an alternative course of action in defending the ship, and it shows that he’s tempering his actions. William Shatner really does a lot to enhance Kirk in this story as a man who is a little older and a little out of touch with his own ship. He stumbles here and there, but is able to stay on his feet, on his toes. The sort of ticking clock of V’Ger coming closer and closer to Earth forces him to make brash, impulsive decisions. They may not be the wisest ones, but they are the chances he has to take as a Starfleet Captain.
The finest performance in this film, by far, is from Leonard Nimoy. While other characters lack a through line arc, Spock is given one that is prominently at play throughout the movie. In the midst of a Vulcan ritual that would purge all emotion from him, Spock telepathically connects with V’Ger, and begins to question if logic is enough. He then abandons the Kolinahr ritual to seek out V’Ger in hopes of finding answers to his questions. Early on, you can see Spock is troubled and distant. Nimoy utilizes such subtlety in these moments, and it is very compelling seeing that unfold behind his masterful facial expressions. Yet, we gradually see the more comfortable and familiar Spock take stage on the bridge. The intelligent insight and perceptiveness of Spock is hit perfectly on the mark showing us exactly what value this character brings to this crew. Spock progresses and develops as he explores V’Ger in depth, and he once again becomes whole through a introspective, soul searching journey. What story there is in this film is really Spock’s in relation to V’Ger, but it certainly feels like a subplot that is almost drowned out by the constantly dull banality of the weak main plot.
What you have to give credit to is that despite all the blatantly obvious flaws of this movie, it does treat its characters with respect, and features some good character development. At the beginning, Kirk is restless as an Admiral pushing the proverbial paper work around, and Spock is empty, incomplete, and searching. By the end, Kirk has found his home and his purpose again as the commander of a starship, and Spock has embraced more than just logic. And it is clear to me that there was supposed to be more going on with Decker. He starts out ambitious and driven, a man who wanted this command, but had it robbed form him by the very man who endorsed him for the position. In the end, he finds another purpose and path for himself. While the film doesn’t convincingly drive him down that road at all, you can see there was an intention there for it. The fact of the matter is, even if the movie is bad and ill-conceived, as long as the characters are treated with respect and the actors are solid in their portrayals, I can find some enjoyment and a little admiration for any Star Trek film with the original cast.
Now, I firmly believe that Jerry Goldsmith was the quintessential feature film composer for Star Trek. I only find it unfortunate that he just happened to end up scoring some of the worst regarded films in the franchise. While this film has its excessively long, drawn out sequences, they translate into some very inspired and wonderful compositions by Goldsmith. Beyond the new main title theme, I have always loved his Klingon theme as it just encapsulates the feel of them perfectly. Overall, Goldsmith sets the right tone with his score adding in cues that evoke danger, mystery, and the unknown. Even if you can’t bare to sit through this film, listening to Goldsmith’s score is a pleasure. I own the 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition CD, and it is one of the late maestro’s finest epic scores.
While the film has visual spectacle, is fairly well directed, and is technically sound, it was a severely misguided attempt plagued with problems. Nobody was happy with this movie during production or upon release. There were constant creative disputes amongst Gene Roddenberry, the screenwriter, Nimoy and Shatner, and the studio to where rewrites happened daily with the ending being conceived essentially on the spot. Today, a movie like this would kill any chance for a franchise, but Paramount was willing to revamp the creative team and it resulted in what is widely regarded as the absolute best of this film franchise – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. With this first movie, I suppose if, by some slim chance, this film does engage your interest and attention, it could be fairly thought provoking about your place in the universe, but there’s a long way it could go to improve upon that material by simply adding more substance into its proceedings. Star Trek: The Motion Picture simply does not have enough meat on the bone to satisfy, and instead, fills itself out with a lot of pointless fat in the form of mind numbingly long visual effects sequences. There are certainly fan edits out there which trim this movie down to under ninety minutes, and it’s likely a little better off for it. I think it is important to say that this is not so much a bad movie as it is a mostly unexciting and dull one. I can’t really urge anyone to go see it if you haven’t already, but if you have seen it, I hope that what I’ve had to say here at least opens you up to seeing that it does have some merits, even if they are lost in a vast sea of stillness.
I wouldn’t have thought of myself ever really checking out this movie out of self-ambition. However, I came across a video review of it from a usually trusted source. So, I gave it an honest chance, and to my pleasant surprise, I did indeed enjoy this movie a great deal. There are two main reasons why I write reviews. The first is because I love film in many of its forms, and I enjoy sharing my passions for it. The second is to open up others to films that I feel are worth discovering, and in turn, I enjoy other people opening up my horizons to new, good films. So, it’s great when others do the same for me. With Snow White & The Huntsman, there’s a really solid fantasy picture here worth giving a chance to.
Years ago, the noble King Magnus fell prey to the enchantment of the evil Ravenna (Charlize Theron) who killed him and took reign over his kingdom. Sustained by draining the life from others, Queen Ravenna remains forever young and beautiful, but the King’s daughter, left alive and imprisoned, has now come of age as the fairest of all in the land to threaten this darkness. Snow White (Kristen Stewart) soon escapes the castle, and the Queen sends a rugged Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track her down. However, the Huntsman soon joins with Snow White on a journey to see her father’s kingdom reclaimed through a land of treacherous enemies.
While watching this, I was really pleased that it kept selling me on it all the way through. I liked the narration by the Huntsman who gracefully sets up the details of this story taking us through Snow White’s youth and the kingdom’s fall. The movie is tightly paced, propelling its story forward in a lean matter, but still with plenty of meat to the characters and their stories. In fact, despite watching the extended edition while writing this review, the film seemed to move along even faster than on my first viewing of the theatrical cut. The extended version has a few good, new scenes that add a little extra depth and detail here and there. There is a scene between the Huntsman and William, Snow White’s childhood friend and archer, in the extended cut that better sets up and pays off another scene with the obligatory poison apple. Of course, we also get some very good action sequences, which are also tight and to the point. They exist long enough to serve their purpose, and are solidly satisfying and exciting. It all feels real and consequential. The battles are never taken lightly, and there are casualties beyond just the obligatory background soldiers.
Now, really looking at this, I feel this is a fantasy film that could’ve hit in the 1980’s next to Highlander or Excalibur. This movie has some stunning imagery and inspired cinematography. Early on, I love how bold the blood reds are. They standout as really symbolic. Overall, this film has grit, murkiness, and dramatic weight. Many scenes are smoky and moody. It creates a tangible, grounded world that still allows for the fantastical to live and breathe. It’s a dark world reflecting the grim bleakness the Queen has cast over it, and that just creates a very engaging look for me. It has a lot of that same texture found in The Lord of the Rings movies, but with more of its own gritty mystical atmosphere and mood. Snow White and the Huntsman is a really beautifully shot film helmed by a director who clearly has vision.
Surely, for some, Kristen Stewart would be an obstacle for them due to her work in the Twilight movies. I have not subjected myself to those films for many reasons, but I believe this film shows that sometimes it’s not the actor but the material that should be questioned. I am very pleased to state that Kristen Stewart does a very wonderful job here. It did not take me long to see that she was a young woman of admirable talent. There is a lot of depth to this character, and there is a strong arc for her that Kristen Stewart conveys remarkably well. The fear is something she sells very realistically early on, but there is a hope and strength that grows out of that fear. As Snow White progresses through this adventure, you see her mature into a stronger, more active character. There is subtlety and beauty to what Stewart accomplishes here. She really shows a lot of heart, warmth, but also a tinge of sorrow along the way. And indeed, she has touching chemistry with Chris Hemsworth which also really drives this film forward on many great levels.
I am really a believer that Chris Hemsworth is on the verge of having an amazing career. While my exposure to him has been very minimal outside of Thor, he continues to demonstrate a powerful presence and great depth of talent in everything he does. Clearly, he handles the physicality here greatly. The Huntsman surely has his humor stemming from his attitude and Hemsworth’s rich charisma. Yet, there is a heartbreak to him stemming from being a widower, and Hemsworth really digs deep inside to evoke those potentially tear-jerking emotions. It’s a very dimensional character backed by a performance that quickly and easily endears himself to an audience. The only off thing comes from his accent, which I couldn’t place, but turns out it was supposed to be Scottish. In the least, he puts forth more effort into his accent than Sean Connery has with any other accent in his entire career.
Charlize Theron is perfectly cast as the evil Queen Ravenna. She plays it as someone on the frayed ends of manic obsession. Ravenna is insanely consumed with her outward beauty, but surely, inside, she is a horrible monster. Theron has more than proven her talent over the years, and this is an absolutely excellent performances. There is a tragic quality to this twisted character, and you see that soaked into every fiber of Theron’s performance. There’s complexity and depth to her that runs very deep. However, what sells it all the most is simply her eyes. The glaring, crazed, unflinching stare is downright scary. You can see just how far off the deep end she is between that and her explosive rants. Theron even tore a stomach muscle because she was screaming so intensely, and I can believe it.
And there are still dwarves in this tale. These roles are filled by great actors such as Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, and Ray Winstone, among others. The same sort of techniques used for similar smaller statured characters in The Lord of the Rings films were used here, and done so with seamless results. Hoskins is essentially their leader, and has the most dialogue. However, while his line deliveries are quite good, I found it odd that he was practically stone-faced throughout. I don’t think he registered a single actual facial expression in his screentime. Regardless, the dwarves tend to add the needed levity to the heavier, dramatic story being told. They never make things silly, just a little fun and light-hearted at times in the latter half of the movie.
I would say that the only segment of the film that didn’t wholly appeal to me was the latter half of the Fairy Sanctuary. This is the land that has been untouched by Ravenna’s darkness, and it is flourishing with a lush landscape and fantastical wonders. However, there’s just a lot of peculiar CGI woodland creatures that simply weren’t to my liking. With so much gritty realism in the film, this just felt pushed too deeply into the vibrant, slightly cartoonish fantastical realm, but it’s not long before it shifts back into the dark, grittiness.
This does bring up the issue of the digital effects. Most are really good, especially in the Dark Forest with all the almost pitch black creatures that slither and crawl out of the darkness, but in the Fairy Sanctuary, it is very obvious CGI that feels like it came out of another film. That’s another reason why that sequence didn’t work too well for me. Also, the withering age make-up on Charlize Theron is especially good, but some of the more elaborate morphing effects shots on her have room for improvement. Generally, the digital effects are fairly good with some really good stuff, but there is some more prominently on display work that doesn’t come off all that well. Thankfully, this film has very practical stunt work, and the realistic locations like the castles were actually built for the film. The filmmakers didn’t rely on digital matte paintings.
This film, while taking a new approach to the material, still hits all the classic beats of the Snow White story, but uses them to propel this story into larger territory. The poison apple from Ravenna to Snow White gives Hemsworth his best scene pouring out his heart over the dead Snow White. When she returns from death, it inspires and motivates herself and everyone else to take up arms and charge into battle. Kristen Stewart delivers a strong, inspirational, rallying speech to these people The fire and passion she projects is great. It is the moment where the character comes into her own, and becomes a leader to take back the kingdom that was stolen from her father. Snow White and The Huntsman still has that fairy tale simplicity, but adds in significant depth to mature the content, which is what makes it work so well. Every character has their sense of realism and dimensionality, and they serve both the gritty realism and the fantastical elements of the movie.
This film’s exciting, entertaining, it has a good, solid story, fine substance, satisfying character arcs, and overall, just has a great look to it. Also, from the opening logos to the end credits, the score is just enveloping and moody. That comes as no surprise from James Newton Howard, one of the best film score composers around today. Directed Rupert Sanders simply does a very solid job with this material, and hones his actors into bringing this darker fantasy take to life. I would say this is a hell of a good feature film directorial debut, and I hope he continues to deliver this kind of tight, cohesive quality. I know a sequel has already been planned, and while there’s not much precedent for further Snow White adventures, I will be eagerly interested to see what story these filmmakers conceive for it. There’s a great set of characters here that were well developed and filled by strong, rich talents. So, there is potential there, but until then, I will be happy to revisit this adventure quite a few times. I highly recommend it!
I 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.
Man 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.
The preface to this review and this version of Superman II in general is that this is more of a rough draft reconstruction of Richard Donner’s original vision of the film. As much of Donner’s footage was culled together and assembled for this edition, but there’s even a screen test used for one scene and a lot of special effects that are not comparable to what would have been done in 1980. This version also follows the intended original ending for Superman: The Movie where it would’ve ended on a cliffhanger of Luthor’s missiles being hurled into space and its explosion freeing Zod and his cohorts from the Phantom Zone. So, even then, this is not the film we would’ve gotten had Donner finished filming this sequel. So, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get deep into this special and unique version of Superman II.
Freed from the Phantom Zone by an exploding missile in space, General Zod (Terence Stamp) leads his fellow Kryptonian criminals on the path to super-powered tyranny over the planet Earth. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon. As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) forces a series of events for Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) to reveal himself as Superman. This leads to a romance between Lois and Clark, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.
The highlights of this version are the inclusion of Marlon Brando’s scenes as Jor-El. We get a truncated version of Zod’s trial from the first film, conducted by Jor-El, with a few different angles thrown in. This better establishes Zod’s personal contempt for Jor-El. However, the best Brando content is in the Fortress of Solitude. Clark’s interactions with Jor-El as he professes his love for Lois is strongly substantive and nearly heartbreaking. Jor-El pleading with his son to think about his actions and re-consider his choices is a powerful scene, and is further enhanced when Clark learns of Zod’s tyranny on Earth and seeks to regain his powers. This is the single biggest and best improvement from the Lester to the Donner cut. We see how he gets his powers back, and while Reeves’ acting is deeper and more powerful in the Lester version, the overall scene has more impact and meaning with this interaction. Brando’s presence simply enhances the emotional and consequential scope of the story. This is due to Jor-El’s overall importance, and the quality of Brando’s legendary talent.
This version also excises nearly all of the silly humor that Richard Lester put into the film. This makes for a leaner, more serious movie, and that’s exactly what Superman II required. It has plenty of substance and thematic weight that shines through more clearly with that consistency of tone. However, there are some structural problems that arise from this. While I find this to be a faster paced version of the film, I don’t especially see it as a more streamlined or as well plotted of a version.
This version does have good ideas and intentions, but I think the editing is too aggressive to excise more and more Lester footage. Beyond just having this match Donner’s version, a certain percentage of his directed footage has to be present for him to take credit as the film’s director by DGA rules. This, along with the new timeline of events, affects the pacing and structure of the film in some negative ways. For instance, Zod and company are freed from the Phantom Zone, and then, don’t reappear for another twenty minutes. Then, after the moon scene, they don’t appear on Earth for another fifteen minutes. Then, once there, the film jumps ahead so abruptly that within a one minute cutaway scene to Lois and Superman having dinner in the Fortress, it goes from their abbreviated encounter with the two cops on the outskirts of the town to them reaching international television coverage on their reign of terror. Scenes are strung together in choppy ways to excise Lester’s comedy and to remove entire sequences that might be a little funny but also establish informative plot progression and gradual build-up. The structure has some good intentions by tightening up the pace in a more modern way, and getting straight to the point, but ultimately, it doesn’t feel well balanced or evenly paced.
And it might be a nit-picky thing, but if these events happen within a day or two after the first film, how in the world is Lex able to build both a holographic projector and his alpha waves detector within that time? I was realizing how much more sense some of Luthor’s dialogue with Otis was with these events happening immediately after those of the first movie, and then, that idea sprung to mind. Some stuff works in that context, but other stuff, not so much.
Some of what I don’t feel works as well in that compressed timeframe is Lois’ suspicions about Clark being Superman. First off, I think it’s rather abrupt as she begins suspecting right from the film’s start. It’s not something built up in the first movie, and is introduced here at full throttle. Lois also does some insanely radical things to prove it such as jumping out the window of the Daily Planet. Furthermore, Lois and Clark have only known each other now for a few weeks, and Clark’s now willing to give up everything for her. The dialogue between him and Jor-El alludes to him serving mankind for a long time. He says things like, “After all I’ve done for them….will there ever be a time where I’ve served enough?” In this version of the film, he’s only been Superman, again, for a few weeks, at most. It simply doesn’t fit. In Lester’s cut, you get the feeling that he has been around for quite a while, possibly a few years, but here, that is not the case at all. This film picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of the first movie allowing for no such leeway.
The screen test scene is where Lois forces Clark to reveal himself as Superman. Of course, this scene is jarring as Christopher Reeve looks quite different, even from shot to shot, as his hairstyle and glasses are different from the rest of the movie, and two screen tests were combined for one scene. He’s also particularly thinner. However, I especially don’t approve of Lois’ drastic measures, yet again. Even though she loads the gun with blanks, the connotation is abhorrent. Blanks or no, Superman or not, it’s not something you do to someone you love. Not to mention, I’m sure even Clark could tell that no bullet impacted his man of steel body. However, the real downside of this scene is that it’s not remotely effective or has nearly as much build up as the scene in the Lester version. There’s more subtlety and underlining character and emotion in the Lester version where Clark feigns burning his hand in the honeymoon suite fireplace. It’s also better acted as, again, Donner’s version is probably the first time Reeve and Kidder ever worked with one another. Even if it were a properly produced scene, I just don’t like Lois pulling a gun on Clark.
The new digital effects for this version are divided in quality. The one exceptional area is in the Fortress of Solitude with Jor-El’s projections. You can sometimes tell they are digital composites, but overall, they are the best CGI this film has to offer. They have a near dead-on look and feel to what we saw in the first movie. Sadly, there are some really atrocious digital effects and composites on display here, especially the ones in space. Those outer space background plates look like terribly cartoonish and laughable. You would NEVER release a film with these cheap looking digital effects into a movie theatre. Even for a low budget direct-to-video feature they are horrible. Some of the effects in the Earth based scenes are more easily blended, but still leave a lot of room for improvement. It is sad that you see other films of that era like Blade Runner or Star Trek: The Motion Picture that have been given similar director’s cuts and digital touch-up jobs with immensely superior results. The former being a cult classic that did poorly upon release, and the latter still being one of the more maligned entries in the franchise. Superman II has always been a widely revered film since release, and fans had demanded a Donner version for years. It’s a terrible shame that Warner Brothers didn’t allocate a larger effects budget to this project because it severely needed it. History shows you cannot do good visual effects on the cheap, whether in the optical or digital eras.
Another arguable issue is that Richard Donner chose to downgrade the use of Ken Thorne’s original score for Lester’s version in favor of cutting and pasting various pieces of John Williams’ score from the first movie. This reportedly includes some previously unreleased tracks. For certain sequences, especially with Zod, Ursa, and Non on the moon, the original Thorne score is more effective highlighting more subtle flourishes and moments. One can never deny the value of a John Williams score, but his tracks are compositions created for certain other scenes from another movie. They aren’t going to flow or fit as well as Thorne’s music. Not to mention, there are times where you can hear obvious chopped up cues that are simply manufacturing moments to fit the scene. Again, this sort of stems from a low budget for this project. If this project had enough money, they could have gotten it scored the way it was supposed to be instead of pasting random cues together.
On the upside, there are a number of other improved scenes. I like the extended assault on the White House. There’s a peculiar moment where Zod, bored at the lack of a challenge, picks up an assault rifle and starts just shooting the soldiers with it. All the while he’s got this smirk of amusement on his face like a man playing with a child’s toy. To him, that’s exactly what it is. While the scene of Zod being bored after having ceased control of the world is present in both versions, I’d just like to comment on this exemplifying a thought of mine. What exactly does an all powerful villain and tyrant do once they’ve conquered the world? For Zod, he sits around being bored out of his skull all day long. I find that rather funny.
The battle through Metropolis is extended with a few more fun and exciting moments, but the Lester version does feel a little tighter in places. Yet, Donner’s cut removes so much of the humor that previously undercut the drama of the scene, which is very welcomed. I also wholeheartedly feel that the climax in the Fortress of Solitude is vastly superior here. It’s simply better written dialogue and interactions. Zod and Superman have a more confrontational exchange of words that build upon elements from the Metropolis battle and Zod’s history with Jor-El. It’s better staged and shot in a more interesting way. It just has a better, more cumulative feel to it, and is not hampered by a battle of bizarre powers. It’s very character based, and Donner knows how to pay-off characters amazingly well.
There is a problem with the ending of this version. While the time reversal usage in the first film, which was transplanted from this film, was strange but nothing really objectionable, how it’s used here negates the events of the entire movie. Superman reverses time back to the beginning of this movie so that none of it actually happened. All of the maturing and development of his character is washed away because he no longer has to face the consequences of his actions. Him destroying the Fortress of Solitude showing that he is now moving beyond that and standing on his own is negated because turning back time restores it. I also don’t know how reversing time actually prevents the missile from not exploding and releasing Zod, Ursa, and Non from the Phantom Zone all over again. That’s not addressed in the least. Plus, Superman did nothing to prevent Luthor from escaping prison, and then, traveling to the Fortress to learn all his secrets all over again. It’s an extremely sloppy ending, and far too much of a copout power for Superman to utilize. Any mistake he ever makes can be immediately undone by reversing time. This applies to the ending of the first film, too, but at least, it was used in a rage of emotion for an isolated incident. This might as well have had Superman suddenly waking up at the end revealing that it was all a dream. Furthermore, the jerk at the diner that beat up Clark when he didn’t have his powers, he’s still given a beat down by Clark in this version AFTER he’s already turned back time. So, Clark is now beating up a guy for something he actually now hasn’t even done. It’s just sloppy, incoherent structure. Donner seemed to want everything poured into this without really rationalizing out what made sense to belong or not.
I think somewhere between the Richard Lester and Richard Donner cuts lies the ultimate version of Superman II. Something that features the best quality performances, including Brando as Jor-El, with a main focus on serious drama, but with a more even pacing that does not favor one director’s footage over another’s. Warner Brothers should put the right money into it to enhance the new effects, clean up the original optical effects, and get a composer to create a full score with a solid mix. Not to mention, a semblance of a truly satisfying and smart ending that doesn’t rely on either a memory wiping kiss or a time reversal concept, if possible. Again, I like the intention and creative direction of Donner’s version, but because it is only a rough draft approximation of the film he would have made, it doesn’t feel like a complete film. If Donner had been able to shoot his complete film the way he intended to, I truly believe this cut would be so supremely better. Instead, his ideas have to cut around and chop up footage he didn’t shoot and doesn’t care for. It’s like trying to fix someone else’s mistake on a sculpture by chipping your way around the undesirable parts. It’s going to look awkward and clunky. I more or less believe Donner did the best he could with the footage he had in approximating his vision while adhering to the rules of the DGA to receive a director’s credit on this. I really hate to speak so negatively about this version because it should be the better version of the two on principal, but on a structural level, it doesn’t really work the way it’s supposed to. If this was a script, I would say it would need rewrites. I really enjoy Donner’s extended cut of the first film, and I only own his director’s cuts of the first three Lethal Weapon movies. So, he does make some great choices in the editing room, but this is too peculiar of a situation for him to forge the best, unbiased edition of Superman II. This feels more like a workprint than a final product, and I would hope that a better revision on this film could someday exist in an official capacity.
This is one of those rare sequels which does measure up to the original. Superman II does have some peculiar history, though. In short, the producers didn’t care to continue working with director Richard Donner very much, and sought to replace him after he had shot part of this film. Thus, Richard Lester was hired to complete the film, and to gain proper directing credit, he had to re-shoot several sequences himself. What was released to theatres was Lester’s version, and that is what I am reviewing here. I do intend on doing a review of the 2006 Richard Donner cut of the film, but one thing at a time. Let’s delve into what many consider the best film of this franchise, so far.
When a group of terrorists threaten to eradicate Paris with a nuclear bomb, Superman (Christopher Reeve) races to the rescue. However, after he hurls the bomb into space, the explosion unexpectedly and unknowingly releases the Kryptonian criminals – led by General Zod (Terence Stamp) – from the Phantom Zone who begin to forge a path of destruction towards Earth. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon. As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) begins to piece together Superman’s secret identity which leads to a romance between Lois and Clark Kent, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.
The film has a nice montage recap of the first film over the opening credits. Back when this was released there was no home video market for people to re-watch these films whenever they liked, and so, adding this at the start helped audiences get the first Superman adventure freshly back into their minds. Even for me as a child it was rather important since we had Superman II recorded on VHS well before the first film. However, one obvious omission is the absence of Jor-El during the trial of Zod, Ursa, and Non. This was because the producers did not want to pay Marlon Brando his salary again for using his footage in a second film. So, the scene was reworked and re-cut to eliminate Jor-El completely, and much was the same with the Fortress of Solitude scenes later on. Moving past that, I really like the opening to this film with the Paris terrorist action sequence. It gives the film its action packed jump start, and shows that Superman as established himself as a global superhero. Overall, it’s an excellently well done sequence that launches the narrative forward.
This sequel gives us more depth into Superman as he has to deal with a number of emotional choices. He clearly loves Lois, but having to maintain the disguise of the bumbling Clark Kent becomes increasingly difficult. When the truth is undeniably revealed, the romantic fire is fully lit between them, and it creates some wonderful moments that bring warmth and heart into the movie. This is excellently juxtaposed with Zod’s reign of terror that gradually begins to loom over all of humanity starting from the moon to a rural town to Washington, D.C. As Clark’s world is getting brighter with dramatic changes being made, the world is facing a terrible threat that only he can combat, yet is entirely aware of. This is an excellent piece of storytelling dynamics. When the two stories finally cross paths, it creates a crushing reality check for Clark that I think is one of the best scenes of the film that shows us the character at his most vulnerable state.
Christopher Reeve puts in an amazing performance here giving us great depth in this far more vulnerable and emotional story. The romance with Lois is touchingly played out with charm, heart, and genuine tenderness with both Reeve and Kidder. They have a heartwarming chemistry that resonates through the screen. What Clark is willing to give up to be with Lois is powerful, but it’s the little bit that happens afterwards that I love. Unlike many super-powered heroes, Superman is one who doesn’t just give up when he’s lost his powers. When he sees that the world direly needs him, he will go to any length, brave any danger, and face even the slimmest odds to set things right once again. This film perfectly portrays that inspiring strength, and Reeve does a magnificent job reflecting the emotional turmoil over Clark’s decisions. Yet, when Clark becomes Superman once again, he stands tall ready to live up to his responsibilities to the world in grand fashion.
Terence Stamp, of course, has become iconic as General Zod. His Zod can be cool, calm, and confident when things are going his way. He knows that his destructive powers make all the emphatic statements necessary for him, and so, when confronting the army or even the President, Stamp allows for Zod’s ominous presence to settle in and take over. However, when circumstances turn against him, when the control begins to slip away, he becomes heated and commanding. He speaks in a louder, more authoritative voice such as when Superman confronts him, and he yells the classic line of, “Kneel before ZOD!” Overall, Zod is intelligent and cunning, but it’s his ego that works against him in those excitable situations. Stamp is a stellar, powerhouse actor who knows when intensity is needed, but is able to excel in the quieter moments of villainy where Zod’s confidence shows through.
Sarah Douglas puts in a graceful performance as Ursa that maintains her as feminine, but also, sadistic and venomous. It’s perfectly femme fatale without showing a sliver of weakness. She has a great presence that really complements Terence Stamp as Zod. She’s also sexy without having to flaunt anything. It’s all about Ursa’s attitude and how she carries herself that makes her alluring. One can easily see why Zod would want her at his side as she enjoys destruction and violence as well as being a beautiful, dangerous woman.
I also love how Gene Hackman’s Luthor is used in this film. They expand his character and show more of his intellectual savvy. Sure, he can still come off as comical here and there as he boasts his ego, but he’s just a bit smarter than anyone else around him. How he discovers the Fortress of Solitude and learns about the history of Superman is great stuff. Hackman has great chemistry with everyone, and I’m glad Otis and Miss Teschmacher are ultimately left behind after the first act. This allows Lex to be unhindered by their foolishness when he confronts the Kryptonian villains. Zod becomes so desperate for a challenge he’s ready to charge headlong into it. However, Luthor uses his cunning and leverage to manipulate them so that he can benefit from their conquests. I really like Hackman’s work here, and working opposite Terence Stamp’s more militaristic presence allows him to shine more. It’s a nice balance of a serious, powerful threat and an intellectual one with a sense of levity to him.
Now, the major detriment that Richard Lester brought to this film is its sense of silly humor. We see this mostly in Non who is given many quirky high pitched grunts, and moments where he seems like an overgrown child. This was entirely unnecessary as Non being a dumb brute would be far more intimidating and remain consistent with the tone of these villains. Still, there are moments peppered throughout the movie where little gags appear that were simply not needed, and they work against the dramatic integrity of the movie. Those comedic grunts from Non were entirely done in post. Jack O’Holloran has an imposing, sort of scary presence as Non, and in general, what he does in his performance is very effective, aside from the overgrown child ideas which were obviously not of his creation. At the time, I imagine much of the camp humor was fine with audiences, and for years, it wasn’t a bother to me. However, time allows you to crave a more consistently dramatic tone. That’s the film’s strength, but Richard Lester apparently wanted more laughs for whatever reason.
Now, what has most come to bother me about the reign of terror from Zod and company is that they tear apart some remote rural town. I would have preferred seeing them tear apart a major city. Something that makes a grander sized statement to the world, and lays waste on a larger scale. The small rural town, to me, just feels like something that would be done a cheap budget. I get the feeling that those scenes were directed by Richard Lester as much of the comedic qualities seen within them were excised in the Richard Donner version. While the Kryptonian villains eventually battle Superman throughout Metropolis, I feel setting their initial assault on humanity in a place of larger importance would have been more effective. In the least, the rural town has no scope and is shot rather blandly. It would have been great to see a return to the sweeping cinematic visuals in Smallville of the first film to amp-up this section of the movie.
The score by Ken Thorne, a regular collaborator of Richard Lester, does reuse John Williams’ themes and cues, but in the film itself, the score sounds kind of thin. However, there was apparently a remastered soundtrack release done in recent years that reflected a much richer and more lush mixing job. Thorne doesn’t do a bad job, but it is really all built on the strength of Williams’ compositions, which have always been exceptional. It really comes down to a weaker sound mix this time out, but regardless, the score does add a lot of life to the emotional qualities of the film.
The other strange quality of the movie is all the additional new powers that are given to Superman, Zod, and the rest. This is most prominently on display in the climax at the Fortress of Solitude with the energy beams shot out from their fingers, and all the teleportation and illusionary powers shown. Yet, earlier on, Zod and company demonstrate telekinetic type powers. These are also detriments to the film that are more apparent in Lester’s cut, and possibly sprung from his involvement. It shows an unfamiliarity with the source material. There was indeed a time where Superman gained all kinds of crazy powers in the comics, but his core, classic set of powers have long been easily defined in many forms of media. Anyone with a decent knowledge of the character would know that none of these powers are Superman’s.
Regardless, the vast majority of the effects here are great. As with the first movie, there are a few lesser grade moments of visual effects work, but on the whole, we are treated to some exciting and visually satisfying stuff. The entire battle in Metropolis is quite ambitious with a number of large set pieces involved. The transition from location shooting in New York to soundstages is quite good. The lighting is consistent with some very good backdrops, and some rear screen projection work done in the more dynamic flying moments. Surely, it’s not as impressive by today’s standards, but for 1980, the year I was born, this was some exciting action and movie magic. It gave us Superman actually battling a super-powered adversary, and three of them nonetheless. Yet, what I really like is that Superman ultimately puts the safety of the civilians foremost, and chooses to end this confrontation with smarts and cunning back at the Fortress of Solitude. While some might see it as anti-climactic after such an action packed throw down, I think this sequence has some great pay-offs.
The film ends on some good notes, but also some odd ones. The memory wiping kiss that Clark uses on Lois is another bizarre inclusion by Richard Lester. Of course, having grown up with it, this is one of those things you take for granted until someone else starts criticizing it, as I have heard. However, this is a beautifully heartbreaking scene as Lois sheds tears over her crushing emotional conflicts. She understands that Superman can’t belong to one person, he has to belong to the whole world, but she loves him so dearly that she can’t just detach herself from her feelings. Clark can’t bare to see her in such pain, and so, he relieves her of that knowledge. This segues into the very good moment where Superman comes to the White House, and promises the President that he’ll never let him down again. It shows that he’s gone through an arc, and now fully understands his role in the world. He’s committed himself to the protection of humanity, and he has to be selfless in order to live up to his promise to the world. Superman does face problems on a larger scale than we can relate to, but we understand his story and what being Superman requires from him. Superman is a hero who will never shy away from his responsibilities to the world because of the burden that comes with being the greatest superhero of all time.
Superman II does have many great qualities of depth, drama, and action. It is very worthy of its reputation of being a fantastic sequel. It builds upon the characters and ideas in the first film, and breaks it open in a film with thematic material and purposeful arcs that have good pay-offs. It also far and beyond surpasses the first film in terms of action, and the effects work is a little more improved. Christopher Reeve has more room to breathe and expand, and he really shows a powerful depth and range. We get some great villains that have become iconic which transcended through pop culture. Still, the film could have done without the slapstick humor, the child-like qualities of Non, the out-of-nowhere new powers everyone has, and the visual gags that Lester slipped in here and there. The change from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El to the mother Lara in the Fortress advising Kal-El is not horrible, but those scenes don’t resonate as deeply as they could have with Brando. Regardless, this film delivers a wonderfully enjoyable, entertaining, and nicely dramatic experience with plenty of romantic warmth and emotional depth. It is unfortunate that the following two sequels sharply declined in quality, but the pleasure is in enjoying what it is you have to cherish. Superman II is definitely a fine piece of superhero cinema that deserves to be treasured despite any shortcomings it might have.
My childhood fandom of the Ninja Turtles has not stayed with me into adulthood, except for this excellent live action film. When people talk about comic book adaptations I don’t think many trigger this film in their heads due to the property’s larger visibility as a cartoon. The cartoon was very goofy fun while the comic was very violent and dark. This movie met them somewhere in the middle giving us something that was gritty and violent with strong substance, but also maintaining a great sense of fun. Even more impressive is how these filmmakers brought the Turtles into live action in convincing fashion.
A mysterious, severe crime wave is gripping New York as thieves slip in and out even in broad daylight sight unseen. Television journalistic April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) believes it to be the work of a Japanese outfit called the Foot Clan, and she is soon targeted by them in order to silence her. However, from the sewers of the city come four mutated crime-fighting and fun-loving turtles – Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael – and their rat sensei Splinter who fight at her side. Joining them in their battle is Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), a vigilante that utilizes sports gear as weapons. At the head of the Foot Clan is the merciless Shredder who has revealing links to the origins of the Turtles and Splinter.
Now, I don’t care how evolved CGI will become, I cannot imagine anything outdoing the brilliant craftsmanship of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop team here. Henson, for those that don’t know, was the premiere innovator of puppetry and animatronics in the 1970s and 1980s. This film was indeed a pinnacle achievement for him and his company. Nothing at all is sacrificed with the use of these elaborate suits of foam rubber and animatronic mechanisms. They have a full, wide range of abilities in expression and movement creating Turtles that can perform all of the dynamic, agile action, and convey deep emotion and character. Even adjusted for inflation, no film today could achieve with CGI what this film did on $13.5 million. Each Turtle is given a distinct look, design, and feel with extraordinary detail. They have a very realistic texture that feels natural to the environment around them and of the film as a whole. Splinter is undoubtedly the most impressive accomplishment in all his articulation as there was no one in a suit portraying him. He’s purely from the result of expert animatronics operators, and he still has the value of humanity to him.
Leonardo is the strong leader of the group trusting and enveloping himself in Splinter’s spiritual teachings. He forges the soul of the team. Donatello is more laid back, less like his scientist cartoon counterpart, but still works very enjoyably in this dynamic. His voice is even provided by Corey Feldman. Michelangelo is the fun loving party dude, and a bit of the mischievous one of them all. However, my favorite is definitely Raphael with his more tough guy attitude. He’s the most strong willed, but also stubborn one of them all. He shows the most passion and frustration of the Turtles, and I really like his first encounter with Casey Jones. It’s very funny to both of their credits. It would be easy to drive this premise into silly territory, but this film takes these characters seriously. The filmmakers do make them fun, but they are dimensional characters with interesting family dynamics and deep, real emotions that are beautifully conveyed. It’s a masterful mixture of the live action performances, and incredible dubbing work by highly talented voice actors. It all feels totally seamless and cohesive for an ultimate Turtle Power experience!
Judith Hoag does a stellar job as April O’Neil. She’s a spirited, serious journalistic that is determined to crack open this crime spree, and even suspects the police of not doing their all to combat it. Hoag injects a lot of spunky personality into the character, and as the film progresses, we see her heart and humor in touching fashion. Hoag makes April a very energetic and fun character. It’s a terrible shame that she declined to reprise her role in the sequels due to substantial cuts to some of her scenes here. She does a wonderful job in this role through and through. I also believe Hoag has some endearing natural beauty that entirely fits the tone of the film, and more important than looks is that she’s a pitch perfect casting choice. She has wonderful chemistry with everyone she shares the screen with, and carries her own in every single scene.
The one person that I’ve always dearly loved in this movie is Elias Koteas as the hockey mask wearing Casey Jones. For one, Koteas is one of the best, most consistently awesome actors I’ve seen. As Jones, he’s greatly entertaining with a real hard edged but not-too-bright attitude. Koteas is more of a street fighter, but shows off some good moves against the Foot Clan. Casey is charming in a dunderheaded kind of way. He’s surely street smart, but not all that smooth socially. He means real well with his heart in the right place, but often his mouth and machismo screws him over. Koteas and Hoag have this great endearing friction that Donatello perfectly relates to Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd on Moonlighting, which had that classic argumentative romantic tension. By the end, however, you see Koteas has great comedic charisma, and has Casey show his heart to really win everyone over.
And of course, the portrayal of the Shredder is chilling and perfect. The filmmakers set the right tone keeping him shrouded in shadows at first, and giving him grand reveals that elevate his mystique. The role was the work of two performers. James Saito was the on-screen performer giving the character all of his theatrical and frightening presence, and showcasing some stellar martial arts abilities. However, his low, ominous voice was provided by David McCharen, and that’s a major cog in the Shredder’s overall power. The theatrical trailer actually features a different dubbed voice which isn’t as effective, and so, all the right choices were clearly made with the execution and presentation of this arch-nemesis for our heroes in a half-shell. And surely, I have to mention the really tough right hand man in Tatsu that leads the Foot into battle, and is a very solid complement to Shredder’s presence and character.
The action sequences are done remarkably well. All of the martial arts action is superb with the Turtle suits impairing none of the stunt players’ ability with the fight choreography. The violence holds nothing back, short of bloodshed, as weapons are used regularly, and the fights show plenty of inventive ideas to keep it fun and original. The Turtles’ shells are often employed in quirky, smart ways. It’s a great showcase of fun, dynamic, but also, gritty martial arts action. When the Turtles finally square off against the Shredder, it’s a great sequence which intensifies the villain’s indomitable skill and cold blooded viciousness. Yet, the climax still has some surprises and humorous beats to make it both a dramatic, perilous sequence, and something to elicit some chuckles and laughs from the audience. It’s stellar and memorable all around. It’s greatly satisfying.
It is immensely admirable how genuine this film is. Director Steve Barron pays honest respect to this material, and never treats these six foot tall ninja fighting mutant turtles are jokes. Of course it’s an absurd concept, but it’s only as convincing as how you present it. If you can make the audience connect with the characters on a genuine, emotional level, a serious tone with the film will work, and it does so amazingly here. Leo, Don, Mikey, Raph, and Splinter are given as much weight and poignancy as any other character you might find. It is their film and they carry it. And they carry it with tremendous success. These are the characters you absolutely must fall in love with, and all of the work that went into them from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to the performers to the voice talents and beyond made that possible.
And this is one seriously catchy score by John Du Prez. These themes have been engrained my mind for over twenty years. He uses a strong urban flavor with electric guitars for most things, but there’s plenty of variation. For instance, the main theme is light-hearted and melodically catchy. Du Prez also gives us beautiful compositions in the more spiritual scenes with Splinter, and the tender moments out at the farmhouse where the Turtles, Casey, and April recover from their defeats. And even more so, his score accentuates moments of tension and danger for our heroes. It’s an awesome score that is filled with so much life and depth, but as with the rest of the movie, it never forgets the fun factor.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has excellent energy with spot-on rhythm and pacing. While it has lower key moments with lulls in the action to further develop the characters, it never drags. These filmmakers fill that 90 minute runtime tightly creating a film that is all kinds of fun while not skimping on the substance. This is due to the great action and charismatic humor that populates it. Every character is realized vibrantly and portrayed superbly. The balancing of tone between the serious drama and fun levity is greatly handled by director Steve Barron backed by a really solid screenplay It’s a shame this was at the end of the careers of both screenwriters. They seemed to have a real great knack for entertaining diversity, well developed characters, and cohesive storytelling.
Altogether, this is seriously one great movie! I really love it, and I think it holds up beautifully over the last twenty-three years. The gritty look of it really grabs me, and sets the Turtles in a unique world where it feels very real but their mere existence opens up the doors to far more fantastical possibilities. I think the spiritual qualities offered up are powerful as they add a further depth to these characters and concepts. I find it a real disservice that the sequels took a much more family friendly and lighter direction due to objections from parents about this film’s violent content. Neither sequel was received as well as this one resulting in declining box office returns for New Line Cinema. This first film was produced independently, and at that time, it became the highest grossing independent film of all time bringing in $200 million. That comes are no surprise to me because this is an excellent made film in every aspect striving to be more than just a fun flick. It gives you a weight of substance that is essential, in my view, to any successful comic book adaptation. Heroes will always battle villains, but it’s what you put into those heroes and villains that make it special. And to me, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a very special film to me. I give it a HUGE recommendation!
This is a film that I didn’t love, but also, I didn’t hate. It is a very entertaining, exciting movie, but has a number of downfalls mainly stemming from the rehashing of old ideas and characters while doing nothing to make them fresh or new. For a franchise that was just rebooted with the last movie, this seems like filmmakers with a dry well of ideas when they should be going warp speed ahead into bold, new directions.
When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has brought the fear of war and destruction to the Federation. With a personal score to settle and sanctioned by the resilient Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). As our heroes are propelled into an epic chess game of life and death, love will be challenged, friendships will be torn apart, and sacrifices must be made for the only family Kirk has left: his crew.
Now, I did not like the 2009 reboot movie. I thought it was shoddily written with a lot of plot holes, big holes in logic, a weak villain with narrow-minded motivations, a style over substance approach, and a tone that did more to poke fun at these classic characters than show serious, due respect to them. If the marketing campaign for this film wasn’t so good, I likely would not have been ensnared into seeing it. However, despite my best resolve, I was compelled to check out spoilers after a spoiler-free review hinted strongly enough at a certain aspect of this film that I was not agreeable to in rumors. There will be a spoiler section later to address that, but simply said, if I went into this film clean, without spoilers, I’m sure I would have at least been angry with the movie. Instead, having foreknowledge of many pertinent aspects of the film allowed me to enjoy it more, and go into it with an open mind instead of a resistant one. I was willing to let the movie change my mind, and to an extent, it did in how well the general plot is written. However, there are several problems with story, characters, and concepts that I will address shortly.
On the upside of things, firstly, Star Trek Into Darkness has some stellar and exciting action sequences. While the physical action with chase scenes and fights is not very traditional Trek, it is still very enjoyable stuff done with remarkable talent evident in all aspects. It is a little hard to accept Spock running around in an action centric role during the climax since that’s always been Kirk’s role, but Quinto is at least more than capable of the task. I did especially like the encounter with the Klingons where Harrison unleashes a one man barrage. We see only one unmasked Klingon, but he does resemble the forehead ridged versions with a slightly different sleekness. The starship battles are few, but feature excellent visual effects and rousing, perilous action. The whole sequence with the Enterprise spiraling out of control, and Kirk and Scotty are running through the corridors as the gravity is spinning them all around is also fantastic. J.J. Abrams, beyond anything else, knows how to create an exciting, action-filled movie aimed to entertain.
Now, the hardest part of assessing Chris Pine’s portrayal of James Kirk is that his version has so many changes to his back story that he’s ultimately not Shatner’s Kirk. You don’t get that wit, cunning, and confidence that defined Shatner’s performance early on. Instead, we have a young, brash, impulsive Kirk who does let his emotions get the better of him. I do like that the film addresses one thing I didn’t like about the first movie. Fresh from Starfleet Academy, off of one successful mission saving Earth, Kirk is given the Captain’s chair without having earned it through years of exemplary service and hard earned experience. At one point here, his command is taken away from him due to his lack of respect for the Captain’s chair and Starfleet regulations. He had the Enterprise given to him without having earned it, and now, he’s sort of put into the position where he has to make tough decisions and earn his command. He has to challenge authority instead of dismissing it, and I think this element is handled rather well. On the whole, I think Pine is a good actor, but I don’t think the writing and development of Kirk has yet to match his strengths. His fiery emotions don’t resonate as strongly as Cumberbatch’s chilling, menacing presence. Once again, Kirk does feel a little weak to me in this Abrams universe. It’s that essential element of maturity and confidence of Kirk that’s missing which always made him interesting, and I hope that’s where these filmmakers are pushing him towards. His arc in this film seems to suggest that, but I do feel it doesn’t get the forefront time it deserved to be properly poignant.
Zachary Quinto is given a rather meaty chunk of material in developing his Spock. There’s a good weight of emotional insight we are given into him as he explores the ideas and fears of death. Quinto reflects that depth immensely well, and the building of the Kirk-Spock relationship towards something more familiar is excellent in my view. However, I do feel the whole Uhura relationship is still unappealing to me. I’m glad they gave her more to do than operating the communications station, but I don’t see any major potential for that relationship. In general, all of the regular crew members are given a stronger role here. Sulu is given a taste of command, which I really loved as a subtle hint at him becoming Captain of the Excelsior in the original continuity. Even Chekov, who I’m still unsold on the portrayal of, is given the run of engineering having to keep the ship intact in the absence of Mr. Scott.
This time out, I feel Simon Pegg did a far more faithful and solid Montgomery Scott. In nearly every instance, he felt genuine from James Doohan’s original series portrayal. He had more dramatic weight to carry, and had a bit of a subplot of his own to deal with. He has justifiable conflicts with Kirk’s mission, and smartly weaves his way back into the thick of the plot by the third act. I was far more satisfied with everything Pegg did here which still had moments of humor, but felt respectable overall. With this character, it thrived from smart writing and a really good acting job by Pegg.
And continuing to prove my insistence that he’s one of the most solid and reliable actors around today, Karl Urban beautifully channels DeForest Kelly as Dr. McCoy. He feels so authentic to the character while still feeling natural and passionate in his own right. As with Kelley, Urban gets some of the best lines in the movie to the point where I’d love to just see a Dr. McCoy movie. I really, wholeheartedly believe that Karl Urban is just on the verge of a major career breakthrough. I’ve yet to see him do anything less than excellence in every role he’s taken on. Urban just needs that one high profile leading role, and I cannot wait for that day. He is the perfect successor to Leonard “Bones” McCoy.
Even Peter Weller does an excellent job as Admiral Marcus, who sanctions Kirk’s mission to take out Harrison, but the plot methodically reveals a lot of subversive dealings in Starfleet. There’s even a great Deep Space Nine reference in regards to that. What Weller delivers when those revelations occur is damn good, and fills a very solid part in this plot. Also, Alice Eve does a nice job as Carol Marcus, the Admiral’s daughter, and strikes a small spark of chemistry with Chris Pine. However, it doesn’t amount to much at all. Also, I was rather confused as to why Carol Marcus now has a British accent when her Wrath of Khan counterpart did not, and nor does her father. It was a distracting arbitrary choice that doesn’t really enhance the character in anyway. It’s just peculiar.
Now, what really compelled me the most leading up to this film was indeed Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. That chilling deep voice with his intimidating, foreboding presence is so captivating. His villainous character is intriguing with an air of mystique. He has his secrets to keep and strategically reveal as his own agendas and plots unfold. He’s written very intelligently, and we even get moments of emotional depth and pain in one scene. His John Harrison character is certainly more than what he seems to be at first, and has many surprises in store for the crew of the Enterprise and Starfleet. I really think, on a performance level, he’s one of the best villains this franchise has ever had. He’s certainly the best movie villain since General Chang in Star Trek VI. Cumberbatch is clearly an immensely talented actor, and he really owns this movie with a complex and rich portrayal. However, there is a very important aspect of this character that I have to take issue with that can only be done in the spoiler section of this review. Many loyal Star Trek fans may indeed find this to be intensely objectionable.
However, before we get to that, the problems of this movie are that it feels like a modern day remake of a vastly superior film. How it rehashes old ideas that come off as second rate carbon copies that do more to remind you of how they were done better thirty or forty-five years ago are exactly reminiscent of creatively devoid remakes from unoriginal filmmakers. Star Trek Into Darkness attempts to have original ideas such as Kirk dealing with failure and humility, but they are rapidly overshadowed by the plots involving Harrison and Admiral Marcus. This theme with Chris Pine’s Kirk is never given enough time to flourish and take a solid foothold in the film when put in opposition to all of these retreaded characters, dialogues, and concepts. These were likely intended as homages, but they come off as lazy, unoriginal writing. The screenwriters couldn’t put together a wholly original screenplay with unique concepts, or at least, utilize smart enough writing to take solid ownership of what it does with these revisited elements. Considering the majority critical opinions of them, I’m not sure what most should expect from the co-writers of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the screenwriter of Cowboys & Aliens and Prometheus. Frankly, I thought the purpose of rebooting the franchise with an altered timeline was to take these classic characters into bold, new directions with fresh ideas. Instead, they just do the same old thing only not done remotely as well. They are free and open to do whatever they choose, and they choose to do next to nothing new at all. This makes it seem like they’ve already hit a dry well of ideas, and that doesn’t bode well for the future of this franchise.
Now we come to the SPOILER paragraphs. So, if you don’t want to get a full disclosure of plot turns and revelations, please, jump beyond the next two paragraphs to remain free of such knowledge. You have been given fair warning to avert your eyes. Your temptation is your own, and I know the temptation of spoilers is indeed intense. So, here we go.
What has been rumored over the last several months that I ultimately took issue with is this. The villain of this film, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, is actually revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh. Now, the screenwriters integrate him well into the story, weaving all the motivations around him very soundly, and the explanation of his presence absolutely makes sense. It all ties into the themes of war and Admiral Marcus’ motivations in regards to that by having Khan help Starfleet develop new weapons of war including the Dreadnaught class warship that nearly kills the Enterprise and her crew. However, we have already had our definitive Khan story with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the original series episode Space Seed is still a stellar piece of work. I don’t discount the possibility that another great Khan story could be made, but this one falls behind both of those previous outings. Furthermore, making Cumberbatch be Khan actually diminishes the quality and potential of what Cumberbatch does here. Instead of being viewed as a strong, amazing performance of a brand new, fresh villain, he is going to be eternally compared back to Ricardo Montalban, which is a gross disservice to Cumberbatch. Also, the fact is that his performance bares no resemblance to the Khan we knew. Khan was a man of passion and regal self-image. He viewed himself as a Prince bringing order to humanity. This new Khan comes off like an ice cold, menacing shark of a murderer, a man almost devoid of passion. The original Khan was a conqueror, a ruler and leader of men. This Khan is more of the terrorist persuasion acting alone, and really succumbing to the will of others to strike out from underneath their oppression. Straight up, Khan would never bow to another person’s will, no matter the level of force that opposed him. In Space Seed, Khan frees his people almost single-handedly, and takes over the Enterprise nearly killing the entire crew in the process. I could never see Khan acting the way he does in this film. He was never a lone wolf seeking to terrorize. He was a proud, cultured man seeking power and stature. Surely, he wasn’t hesitant to bloody his hands, but him becoming a terrorist against Starfleet doesn’t fit for Khan. He wanted more to be respected than simply feared. He was also a man quick to exercise his superiority over others, especially Kirk. The story works, and the motivation is sound, but the personality is simply not Khan. Not to mention, Cumberbatch bares no physical resemblance to Khan with his Caucasian complexion and English accent. I cannot see the character that Montalban originated in Space Seed fitting into the context, personality, and methods of the Khan we see in this film, regardless of how differently events unfolded in this new future timeline. Everything that Khan was before his resuscitation from cryo-sleep remains the same as it was in the original continuity, and so, he wakes up as the same man in this continuity as in Space Seed. Thus, I don’t feel there’s enough leeway to allow for Khan’s personality and methods to change so drastically.
Also, the film quotes lines verbatim from The Wrath of Khan, and in the climax, there is a reversal on Spock’s death scene where it is Kirk who rushes into the radiation chamber to restart the engines to save the ship and her crew. It becomes distracting when Pine and Quinto speak practically the same dialogue that Shatner and Nimoy did back in 1982 only with the roles reversed. The scene is well acted, but you lose every bit of emotional investment and poignancy of the scene because it is such a blatant carbon copy with no fresh life of its own. Again, you can’t help but remember how brilliant and powerful it was in The Wrath of Khan when you see this lazy, plagiarist writing realized on screen. And of course, in poor, unearned fashion, the scene is punctuated with Zachary Quinto’s Spock yelling the infamous line of “KHAN!!!” to very weak effect. It was done perfectly once, but since then, any other use has always been done in comedic context. Here, it feels borderline lame because it’s not an original idea for a genuine reaction. Ultimately, Kirk is revived because Khan’s blood now has some entirely unexplained regenerative properties. It is setup twice in the film, but it could still be a contentious issue for many. And literally, it is never explained at all. It’s just there as a plot convenience, and factors into nothing purposeful enough but to bring Kirk back from death.
Veering towards the technical side of the film, the cinematography of Dan Mindel is very, very good. He really knows how to use that wide frame to give you a strong cinematic visual with the use of great color schemes, and the action sequences are competently done. There might be a couple shots that I wasn’t all that keen about due to the more rugged camera work during the space battles or the like, but they were fleeting. The lens flares are toned down a hell of a lot from the previous movie, possibly due to the intended post-conversion 3D effect. From a few sources, they say the post-conversion is very good. And the score by Michael Giacchino is also quite good, but I really would’ve liked to have heard that Alexander Courage theme before the last minute of the film. Just a hint of it somewhere would have gone a long way.
Overall, I did feel like the story here was a little less than what it could have been despite being well conceived and executed. It felt like a setup of ideas and scenarios for another film, which would likely deal with a Federation-Klingon war. It’s setting up this climate of inevitable war from the Klingons encroaching through space and perceived heightening tensions. Everything is built on that fear of war, and while it is a very good idea which builds upon the events of the previous movie, it didn’t feel like an idea that was used to boost the strength and foundation of this film. It all felt like the setup for something larger, and in doing so, it partly dismisses this story as a stepping stone. If the focus was on this story, and doing everything possible with it, including injecting original ideas and dialogue into it fully, this would be a stronger movie.
In short, I think Star Trek Into Darkness will please general audiences, but the loyal Trek fan might have more than a few negative things to say about it. My apprehension about J.J. Abrams helming the next Star Wars movie is evident here in that he does favor style over substance, and even what substance he has is fairly minimal and not well conceived. Maybe working with a new screenwriter will resolve these issues, but the last thing that franchise needs, as well as Star Trek, is more creatively disjointed outings that favor flashy visuals over a good, solid story. Neither franchise will have vibrant, flourishing futures based on work like this. Again, I did enjoy this movie, especially more than the 2009 film, but I was a long way from loving it. I was really hoping for fresh, new ideas and an original villain that could stand on his own, but unfortunately, I really didn’t get either. I do recommend seeing it if you are not apprehensive about some contentious issues with revisited characters and ideas from far superior Trek stories.
I must give you fair warning. A careless Facebook commenter ruined a major plot twist of this film for me before I saw the film. I was very upset by that, and it did indeed affect my experience with the film. This is why I write spoiler-free reviews of newly released movies. Regardless of that, while I did find Iron Man 3 entertaining and mostly enjoyable, I have some strong stinging points to raise against it. I do not feel it is the best of them all. In all actuality, I still prefer both of the previous films over this one. That is sad because this had the potential to be really great, but it has at least one major failing, among others, that I will avoid spoiling for you.
Brash-but-brilliant industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) goes against an enemy whose reach knows no bounds. When Stark finds his personal world destroyed at his enemy’s hands, he embarks on a harrowing quest to find those responsible. This journey, at every turn, will test his mettle. With his back against the wall, Stark is left to survive by his own devices, relying on his ingenuity and instincts to protect those closest to him. As he fights his way back, Stark discovers the answer to the question that has secretly haunted him: does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man?
Let’s start out with what I liked about the movie. It does a lot of fresh, inventive things with the suits. Tony being able to call upon the Mark 42 at will with some injected sensors was excellent, and many of the suiting up sequences stemming from that were fantastic. There’s even one action scene where Tony is fighting to escape captivity, and he only has one gauntlet and one leg of the suit to work with. He has to be more clever and dynamic with just these two parts to combat his enemies. I really liked that, and there’s even more awesomeness in the climax, which I’ll get to later. For most of the film, he’s stuck with this not entirely functional prototype that continually gets beaten up, requiring Tony to cobble together various resources to survive and battle his foes.
Of course, Downey still does a great job with the character. He’s lost nothing after his previous three outings, including The Avengers. There’s very good material here for him to work with that shades Tony’s story a little darker than before. He has some demons to resolve, and Downey does a fine job working with that. However, as good as Downey is, the script has its shortcomings with that material. There is the fact that Tony is struggling with these anxiety attacks, this sort of post-traumatic stress, but as the same as my gripe with Skyfall, we never see the character actually resolve this problem. It’s there and then it’s not there. This paralyzing fear that keeps striking Tony simply evaporates from his being with no resolution at all. In Iron Man 2, Tony went through an arc where he dealt with his issues, made a mends, and rediscovered his purpose and ambition. None of that effort exists within this movie. Downey handles Shane Black’s comedic writing greatly, but this is a film that could have benefitted greatly from less humor and a lot more dramatic turmoil and peril.
It is pleasing that we get a little more Don Cheadle here as Colonel Rhodes, but I still feel the character should be a lot more fleshed out by this point. Granted, this film puts him more into the thick of the action, both in and out of the suit, but I want to feel like Rhodey is more than just a supporting character. You’ve got an excellent actor here, and I don’t think he’s been used to a tenth of his potential, yet. The one thing I do like is how Tony kind of speaks for the audience in that rebranding War Machine into Iron Patriot doesn’t sound like a good idea. War Machine is who Rhodey has been in the comics, not Iron Patriot, and besides that, War Machine sounds like a guy you just do not want to mess with at all. That’s a bad ass name. Iron Patriot, not so much.
Now, Ty Simpkins portrays a young boy named Harley that Tony crosses paths with while trying to untangle the mystery of the Mandarin and the bombings he’s been behind. Simpkins does a stellar job trading sharp, witty dialogue beautifully with Downey. The two work wonderfully together, and I really did like and enjoy Harley. He was a great companion for Tony to have for a while that helped him along the way, and remained endearing and smart. He also gets a great pay-off at the end that was charming.
I am a big believer in the talent of Guy Pearce. I think he is an immensely talented actor that should have broken into the big time a good decade ago. His Aldrich Killian is the controller of this Extremis technology which creates nearly indestructible human weapons allowing them to regenerate body parts and repair fatal injuries almost instantly. Yet, the tech is not entirely stable resulting in some volatile reactions. Pearce makes Killian rather compelling with his charisma, air of sophistication and culture, and definitely with his underlying merciless villainy. I did find him to be an effective villain, but not a great one. Pearce certainly sells every bit of the character’s ruthless savvy and sociopathic relentlessness with just the right degree of arrogance and intelligence. In the climax, he definitely becomes a wicked bad ass that is not easy to take down. So while he’s not a villain that jumped out and stuck in my mind greatly, Killian is still a damn good one in the hands of Guy Pearce.
Now, the first thing I didn’t really care for was the Tony Stark narration at the beginning. Some months ago, I tried to watch Shane Black’s other directorial effort with Robert Downey, Jr. – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It was the incessant narration that turned me off to that film as well. It made the film too self-aware in a bad way, and I just couldn’t even get twenty minutes into it. The narration is not incessant here, but it just didn’t establish an inviting tone for me. It just felt like Tony was breaking the fourth wall on me, and I didn’t like that feeling. Ultimately, it really only ties into the comedic post-end credits scene, which was funny but really frivolous. That was yet another thing that was spoiled to me going into it. This is sort of a movie experience that makes me realize there’s just too much information, preview clips, trailers, and TV spots spoiling important aspects of movies today. That’s why I’m glad for the marketing of Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel – they have given us fantastic glimpses of the films while spoiling nothing crucial. I’m excited for both films while still going into them knowing very little about the plot and layout of the films. Iron Man 3 just spewed out every little piece of footage and information people could get their hands on, and it terribly impacted my experience seeing this film. I’d expect a big, marketing savvy studio like Disney or Marvel to be more strategic in what they release, but apparently, that was a false perception on my part. It felt like I had watched this movie in sections on television, and was only now watching it in full for the first time. Of course, careless commenters on Facebook are beyond their control.
Now, while Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian is an excellent character and villain here, showcasing much of Pearce’s wonderful talent and charisma, the issue I have is hotly focused on the handling of the Mandarin. Again, I will spoil nothing about the plot twist that goes into either of these characters, but simply said, the Mandarin is horribly, insultingly wasted. In the comics, he is Iron Man’s archenemy, and this film had such a powerful, masterful setup for this revamp of this villain. Instead, they chose to piss all over that potential and flush it down the toilet. If I didn’t have this essentially spoiled for me in advance, I think I would have been pissed sitting in that theatre. Almost as pissed off as I was at the end of The Dark Knight Rises because it is just stupidity at its finest handled in the most asinine way. I have no passionate connection to the Iron Man mythos, but I do know a bad idea on screen when I see it. You have this amazing actor in Ben Kingsley portraying this menacing, threatening, foreboding, and brutal character, and you make a complete and utter insulting waste of his talent with this horrendous plot twist. Frankly, the Mandarin could have elevated this film to an astonishing height with his reign of terror, but instead, it came crashing down because of what Shane Black did with him. In the comics, the Mandarin is a genius scientist and martial artist utilizing ten power rings adapted from alien technology as his primary source of power. Shifting that to a more grounded straight up terrorist with advanced technological bio-weaponry was working immensely well in the film until it was all dashed. The fact that Tony Stark was abducted by the Ten Rings in the first film created a closed loop of storytelling here that could have worked beautifully, but we are denied any ingenuity or brilliance here. The Mandarin is reduced to a punchline that I found no humor in at all. It is the biggest black mark on this film because it presented to us with amazing, potentially stunning potential, and turned it into a bad joke.
The other thing I really didn’t like was how much this film forced itself into feeling like the final act of a trilogy. I am so sick and tired of everyone’s obsession with trilogies these days. What happened to just telling a solid, independent story? Why MUST everything be conceived as a trilogy? Shane Black drops in so much stuff, especially at the end, making it feel like Marvel is closing the book on Iron Man. That’s surely not the case, but does this film ever feel like the final act of a movie trilogy. I really don’t get what the problem is with just making another sequel that allows for an ongoing series. There’s no reason this film had to be written as if it’s some final chapter for Tony Stark when Marvel is likely, in no way, considering that. I almost guarantee you we will see Tony Stark as Iron Man in The Avengers 2, but the way this film ends, you’d think otherwise. It’s such a blatant message that really annoys the crap out of me. The Mandarin issue is indeed worse, but this further burned me as the film came to an end.
And lastly, I felt the film indulged in too much humor. I really miss the sharp, punchy comedic timing that came with Jon Favreau’s direction. He rarely ever lingered on a joke or gag. He kept it tight and to the point. Shane Black drags too many bits out for too long. The joke plays itself out, but the film keeps running with it. There’s also frivolous gags like how Happy Hogan is dressed up like Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction in the flashback to 1999 (five years after that movie came out). There’s no reason for that. It’s just there as a gag that no one in my theatre even picked up on to laugh at. Probably because you could barely tell it was supposed to be Jon Favreau in that ridiculous getup. Most importantly, I feel the humor outweighs the drama of the story. There’s an over abundance of it with the dramatic turmoil going on is brushed aside. Almost no scene goes by without some kind of witty, funny banter between characters, and that really weakens the dramatic weight that Black attempted to inject into this film. The previous two Iron Man films knew when you shift tones and focus on the emotional or dramatic poignancy of the story. This film barely does that at all.
There is also the inevitable thought that’s going to come into the minds of a lot of people. With this terrorist threat imposing itself upon America, where are the other heroes? I mean, you’d at least expect Captain America to be called upon to combat an enemy to the American people. Even Iron Patriot doesn’t get called in until almost the last minute. At least with Thor, he’s off traveling to different worlds and realms, and the Hulk is too potentially unstable to call in on a whim. Yet, Stark shouldn’t have much hesitation in doing so considering the Hulk saved his life, and he and Banner are now close buddies. Still, even S.H.I.E.L.D. is apparently not even involved. At least in the comics, you have dozens of storylines running concurrently with all of these books being published showing what’s occupying these heroes at all times. You don’t have that luxury here. Marvel Studios is going to have to craft these films extremely carefully to explain away these issues. You can’t have a shared universe with stories that take place in a vacuum.
Now, Iron Man 3 does contain the best climax of the series, so far. The all-out assault on Killian and his Extremis soldiers was killer! The entire army of Iron Man suits greatly ties into Tony having had too much time on his hands from all his sleepless nights. Him jumping in and out of various suits throughout this sequence to escape various scenarios was an exciting, brilliant idea. It has a lot of peril and awesome action that blends together in masterful fashion. It all taking place at this shipyard with cranes and scaffolding really allowed for great dynamics to have the Jarvis-automated suits flying around attacking and being attacked. How Tony tries to jump into certain suits, only to have them blown away, or only get part of a suit added to the unpredictability and danger of it all. The battle between Tony and Killian was fantastic and bad ass. I really loved it all the way through. And while I loved the quirkiness of what Tony does after the fight with the suits, the connotation it left me with was not to my liking. Again, it’s part of that forced trilogy style close-endedness which seemed ridiculous and stupidly unnecessary.
The main problem here is that Shane Black seemed intent on making this an entertaining, humorous film with a backdrop of drama and consequence, but ultimately, did not give most of those dramatic aspects their just due. The only time he does allow any dramatic resolution is in trying to tie off all character threads at the end like it was a conclusion to a trilogy. Black also sacrifices coherent, intelligent, and solid storytelling for a few extended gags. I mean, if you’re not going to do the Mandarin justice, don’t bother putting him in the film at all. Also, don’t bother having that PTSD aspect part of Tony’s character if you’re not actually going to have him go through the process of dealing with and overcoming it. While Iron Man 2 was an over-bloated film with too many plot threads and a story that veered off track, I can still enjoy it because it at least did nothing to raise my ire. It’s a lightly enjoyable mess. This film has enough abrasive stinging points for me to say I don’t really like it. There are things in it I do like and found a lot of enjoyment from, but as a whole, those miscues and bad ideas sour me to it. After I found The Avengers to be a largely entertaining, yet hollow movie with a paper thin plot and stock villains, I had hopes that the individual sequels would be better developed and more substantive, like what had come before. While Iron Man 3 has substance, this was not at all the right script to sign off on. I’ve loved a lot of Shane Black’s work from Lethal Weapon to The Monster Squad to The Last Boy Scout, but this is clearly where Marvel Studios should have exercised more creative control, in my opinion. Maybe you won’t find these issues so objectionable upon your viewing of the film, but for me, they really drive me away from wanting to see it again. There is a lot of entertainment value to be had, but this film, for me, features more than just a few stumbling blocks. It has some rocky pot holes in its road.
I do like this sequel. I’ve never vocalized any criticism of it because it is fun and enjoyable, but yeah, it does have some problems that should be pointed out. Probably its biggest is a few too many plot threads running through it. They never make the film incomprehensible, just a little bloated, but there is the fact that the film constantly veers off track by following the wrong story after not too long. It had promise at the start, but let’s see how exactly they dash that.
Now that Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has revealed to the world that he is Iron Man, the entire world is now eager to get their hands on his hot technology – whether it’s the United States government, weapons contractors, or an unknown enemy. That enemy happens to be Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) – the son of now deceased Anton Vanko, Howard Stark’s former partner. Stark had Vanko banished to Russia for conspiring to commit treason against the US, and now Ivan wants revenge against Tony – and he’s willing to get it at any cost. But after being humiliated in front of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, rival weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) sees Ivan as the key to upping his status against Stark Industries after an attack on the Monaco 500. All the while, an ailing Tony has to figure out a way to save himself, stop Vanko, and get Hammer before the government shows up and takes his beloved suits away.
Simply said, I think Iron Man 2 could have been a better movie if it didn’t overload itself with so many plots. The story we get with Tony dealing with a self-destructive mentality has some great stuff in it. Instead of dealing with alcoholism, which has been a major issue for Stark in the comics, it deals with his failing health due to issues with his arc reactor. What’s saving his life is also killing him is a fine idea. I do like that this ties into Ivan Vanko and Howard Stark, creating something that appears cohesive in concept. Yet, adding in all the unneeded machinations of Justin Hammer and the S.H.I.E.L.D. plot elements convolutes things, taking away the focus and poignancy of the core story.
I feel that everything directly involving Tony dealing with his father’s legacy, and rebuilding himself is excellent. It creates the weight and gravity of the film, and it is what I love about Iron Man 2. While it does seem like the filmmakers kind of took Tony back a step from the more altruistic and compassionate guy he became in the last film, I can see how Tony’s deteriorating health could alter his personality and disposition. Once Tony’s health is on the upswing, and he becomes inspired by his father’s legacy, he rises back up to being that hero we knew. Still, that kicks in for the third act, and so, for the majority of the picture, we have the more self-absorbed, self-destructive Tony Stark. Downey continues to do a fantastic job in the role bringing his charm and charisma into the fold to maintain Tony as likeable even if he’s being a belligerent ass. You know there’s a better guy underneath and he just needs a kick in the back side to open his eyes and mind again.
Obviously, I really liked Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but after a disagreement over money, Marvel replaced him with the equally talented Don Cheadle. He does a fine job following up on what Howard did, but admittedly, I can’t help but constantly think how Howard might’ve played things a little differently. That’s not a knock on Cheadle, who I love, just the unfortunate fact of having to re-cast a role. Regardless, Don Cheadle is a strong fit for this role focusing more on a character of serious candor and conviction with a few touches of humor. We still get moments of compassion from Rhodey, but he’s forced into a more conflicted role of trying to help Tony, even went it turns adversarial, while maintaining loyalty to the U.S. military. Cheadle takes the role and runs with it adding his own vibe and depth to it while not betraying what was done previously.
Scarlet Johansen is amazingly sexy and killer as Black Widow. She’s got some sharp, alluring chemistry with Downey. Natasha Romanov is able to lead Stark on while also never giving into his advances, making her a very smart and assertive character. When it comes time to kick ass, she is immensely impressive handling all the agile fighting skills beautifully. She’s a wonderful and vibrant fit for this role.
On initial viewings, I found Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer to be nearly insufferable and obnoxious. He came off like the lame guy at the party trying to act like the coolest guy at the party and failing. I understand that this is sort of the intention with the character. Make him seem like a second rate Tony Stark who is more lame by trying to be cool, but annoying is sort of what I got out of the performance. The film sets him up as this inferior and incompetent competitor to Stark, and he never becomes anything but incompetent and egotistical. No one in the film is really buying any of the bull he’s selling, especially Vanko, and you can see that even he views Hammer as a foolish, abrasive joke. Rockwell is a highly talented actor with many various talents, but I think this character is too much. He eats up so much scenery and screentime while being one of the least consequential characters in the movie. At times, I can enjoy him more now, finding some humor in what Hammer is doing, especially during his weapons presentation to Rhodey, but the film really would have been far better off without this character.
It’s almost sad that Hammer has so much screentime compared to Mickey Rourke. While Ivan Vanko’s story is simply revenge, it has more potential substance than Hammer’s purely ego-driven scheme. It would’ve pushed the more internal conflicts with Tony into the foreground, and have Vanko represent everything wrong and twisted with his family’s legacy. Rourke can be a fantastic actor, or in the least, a very entertaining one. There are scenes here where Rourke does very solid dramatic work, especially when Vanko and Stark meet after the Monaco incident. Rourke makes this a great, intimidating, and menacing villain that should have been the main threat throughout the movie. Yet, he quickly becomes relegated to be a minor character after he joins up with Hammer, and even the conclusion to his part of the film is very dismissive as a generic “villain in a suit” throwaway action sequence. With so many plot threads weaving through this film, it seems the filmmakers lost sight partway through of what was pertinent to the core story and what was just entertaining fluff.
The scene between Vanko and Stark after the race track incident is the best scene of the film, and it is terribly wasted. The thematic material Vanko brings up in it and the questions about the Stark family legacy are barely followed through on in the remainder of the film. This scene establishes a serious, dramatic tone that is not really revisited. Even in the trailers, this was the dramatic hook for me. If this set the tone for the remainder of the film, it would have been a tremendously solid film, but alas, that was not to be.
Again, the film is a little over bloated and a bit indulgent. Stuff about Vanko obsessing over his bird is entirely frivolous, but thankfully, doesn’t take up more than a few minutes of screentime. Yet, the film has little moments like this where it indulges in extraneous junk, such as in the Senate Committee meeting. The film gets cluttered with too much junk that it can’t see the track to stay on it. The main plot of this film deals with Tony Stark falling apart and having to rebuild himself by rediscovering his father’s legacy. That’s apparent right from the beginning, and it would have flowed very well if the film dealt mainly with Ivan Vanko’s intentions of revenge. It would all thematically tie in solidly, but again, it is the Justin Hammer aspect that disrupts that plotline of the film. The first part of the film through Vanko’s incarceration is great to me. It felt like the film was on-track, for the most part, towards a meaty story filled with emotional resonance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t maintain that because the filmmakers felt it was necessary to add a second, frivolous villain who overshadows the more superior and relevant villain. This really is my main gripe with the movie, and it is why I keep harping on it. Vanko has strong motivations based in bitter emotions that make him a formidable adversary. Hammer just has ego going for him, and that is just not very interesting. Beyond that, he’s just a lame character good merely for small jokes, not a forefront storyline.
Now, people say that this film being a setup for The Avengers is its biggest problem. Frankly, that is barely part of the movie. Yes, there are ways you could have written Nick Fury and Black Widow out of this for a tighter, less crowded movie, but let’s look at what they contribute to the film. They provide Tony with an injection that curbs the symptoms of his ailment, provide him with further knowledge into his father which leads to Tony discovering the new element to power his Arc reactor, and Black Widow helps to stop Vanko’s assault with the Hammer Drones. They don’t actually impede upon the plot, or wedge their own plot into the film, they are part of the on-going plot of the movie. They assist Stark with various aspects of it, and while they are there in order for there to be a segue into The Avengers and more concretely establish S.H.I.E.L.D., they don’t hijack the movie from Iron Man. It’s still his movie, and they just happen to be in it.
On the upside, Iron Man 2 does feature some excellent action sequences. They are all different and exciting from Vanko’s attack on the race track, which creates a sense of grave peril, to the fast-paced finale teaming Iron Man and War Machine together against the Hammer Drones. It does have less action than the first film, but what Jon Favreau and his creative team of filmmakers achieved with these sequences is still excellent. There’s enough plot going on to maintain a rhythm and pace in the film for it to survive and mostly thrive without the aid of additional action sequences. I do feel that the Hammer Drone attack is far more satisfying than when Vanko shows up in his Whiplash suit. This is mainly because the Hammer Drone segment is just an action scene with the sole intent of delivering excitement in a smart and slick fashion. Vanko’s conclusion, again, feels flat and secondary, at best.
Regardless of its problems, I still do find Iron Man 2 quite an enjoyable film with plenty of excitement, charisma, mostly great performances, and some very smart ideas for evolving Tony’s character. I do think that Marvel Studios had all the right talent and elements, but weren’t able to either trim them down for a leaner story or arrange them in the most effective order. You could have Justin Hammer be in the film without him dominating so much of the plot. He could easily be a more minor character enabling Vanko, who remains in the forefront enhancing the thematic elements of the story. In any case, many do see this film as a stumbling block in just the Iron Man franchise, but I’m far from thinking it’s terrible. I know others disagree. It’s a film that still had substance and evident talent behind it which still manages to be entertaining, in my view.
Sometimes, when you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. That’s how I feel about the Marvel films. Until Iron Man, I don’t think anyone entirely handled the Marvel Comics properties correctly on a consistent basis, and so, it took until Marvel Studios was launched for a cohesive and high quality franchise of films to be created. This was the groundwork, and on every level, it was a stunning success.
Billionaire industrialist and genius inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the CEO of the leader in military weaponry, Stark Industries. After Stark conducts a demonstration of the company’s state of the art Jericho Missile, his convoy is attacked and he is taken captive by a group of insurgents who want Stark to build him their own missile. Instead, using his intelligence and ingenuity, Tony builds a high-tech suit of armor and a means to prevent his death from the shrapnel left in his chest by the attack. Stark soon escapes captivity, and when he returns to the United States, he changes his outlook on life, and begins to dedicate himself to peace instead of war. He finds opposition and criticism from his closest confidants in business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), his best friend Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Terence Howard), and his smart and affectionate secretary Peppers Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Yet, when he uncovers a nefarious plot with global implications, Tony Stark dons his powerful armor and vows to protect the world as Iron Man.
This is absolutely one of the best superhero origin stories ever realized on film. I had not been thoroughly impressed with any Marvel Comics movies before this since Blade. Whether it was unfaithfulness to the source material, the wrong talent involved, or the wrong tone being implemented, nothing from X-Men to Daredevil to Spider-Man ever really got it completely right in my view. Iron Man is a perfect example of handling it right. This set an excellent tone for the full Marvel Cinematic Universe, and also reflects the tone of Marvel Comics, in general. It can have good drama, but usually, Marvel Comics are meant to be largely fun and colorful. Director Jon Favreau does an exemplary job meshing those ideas together in a very cohesive and entertaining film.
It’s beautiful how Favreau sets up and establishes Tony Stark here. We get a dash of the charisma and personality followed by the awards ceremony video package detailing his history in short. It gives you all the basics right up front in an entertaining and succinct fashion. This style permeates the film being sharp, smart, and stylish. It also reflects Stark’s personality. He’s a man of sharp wit, arrogant intellect, but is irrefutably charming and fun. I can hardly imagine anyone but Robert Downey, Jr. pulling off this diverse and engaging role. The charming yet arrogant egotist is a major challenge, but it seems to come easy to Downey. It’s that sense of heart and lovability he adds in there, especially opposite Paltrow, which allows Tony Stark to come off as a charismatic joy instead of a self-important jerk. Downey is simply a vibrant, solid leading man who handles the dramatic, soul searching aspects of Tony Stark as strongly as the fun, humorous bits. He’s compelling and electric on screen. He makes that subtle, yet profound evolution from the self-important genius to the selfless, righteous hero masterfully. He doesn’t just embody Tony Stark, he launches him into excellence.
Jeff Bridges does an excellent job as Obadiah Stane. He’s an immensely diverse actor able to do the full spectrum from kind hearted hero to tough, gritty guy, and here, he gives us some taste of that whole range. We get the upbeat, friendly guy who is very close to Tony, and can work an awards ceremony audience or a press conference with charisma and spin. Then, we get the gradual transition to the intimidating, menacing villain. It’s a masterful turn towards the corrupt businessman willing to sell out his company, best friend, and country for profit. Bridges embraces all of these fascinating aspects with great zeal making Stane a very solid and smart enemy for Stark to combat. In general, he just plays an awesome heavy. And apparently, Bridges always wanted to shave his head for a role, and I think maybe that propelled his enjoyment of the character.
I also really love Terrence Howard. He’s an amazing actor that I hold in high value. As Lt. Colonel James Rhodes, he’s really a joy. The strongest qualities are his vibrant chemistry with Downey, and the sense of compassion and honor he has. Rhodey’s clearly a great character with a lot of depth and dynamics to offer, and I think Howard was wonderful in this part. It’s a performance that gives us a character of potential, and while it’s unfortunate that Howard could not negotiate a return for the sequel, the character has yet to go to waste in any actor’s hands. And of course, I’ve always loved the little tease of War Machine we get going into the third act. It’s a great moment thrown out for fans, but also works smartly for non-comic fans.
And of course, Gwyneth Paltrow is wonderful as the sweet and smart Pepper Potts. It’s great how Pepper brings out the heartfelt honesty in Tony, and Paltrow does that with some great subtlety and charm. She makes Pepper this interesting person who can be very assertive and a sharp business personality, but then, get very sweet and flustered when trying to keep up with Tony’s rapid fire wit. The chemistry between her and Downey is beautiful, and really allows for the humanity of Tony Stark to show through.
What we get here is a very strong and smart origin story that never bogs us down. So many origin stories seem to suck up a lot of time just establishing every little element methodically before we get to see the hero come into being. With Iron Man, the film unfolds at a tight rhythm always pushing the story and character forward to where you are fully invested in Tony Stark, and what he’s going through. We see the man himself evolve and change his sensibilities in order to make Iron Man what he needs to be. It is a story of redemption. Stark is reforming his ways and becoming accountable for what his company does, and how his negligent behavior has facilitated Stane’s corruption of Stark Industries. It’s qualities like this which make Stark one of the more fascinating Marvel superheroes. He has a lot of bad behavior and decisions to make up for while trying to build a better, safer future for everyone. The relationship with Pepper Potts beautifully reinforces the depth of humanity that is motivating Tony. He wants to be a better person that saves lives instead of enabling war.
I love the motivating scene where Tony is watching the newscast of the Ten Rings having ravaged Yinsen’s hometown while he is working on the Iron Man gauntlet. It’s that moment which triggers Stark into action as a protector doing what no one else can. That is the moment where his purpose and path is clear. He’s been betrayed by one of his closest friends, and sees that betrayal has lead to this level of tragedy and injustice. He will not stand for it, and that is the scene where Iron Man is solidified.
We also get those great phases as Tony goes through the Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III armors gradually refining Iron Man. Each one is excellently adapted from the pages of the comic book making them convincing as functional pieces of machinery. The visual effects married with practical elements create a cohesive and seamless result. These are top grade visual effects featured throughout this movie giving us dynamic, cinematic images that serve the story superbly.
This film has plenty of sharp, smart humor. These moments really create the fun factor of Iron Man, and maintain the entertainment value in between the scenes of action and engaging drama. They hit in just the right moments to highlight the well written and developed qualities of these characters. And the dramatic qualities of Iron Man are executed with equally great skill and care. The emotional weight and drive of this story is powerfully accentuated throughout. Excellently directed by Jon Favreau, all of this results in a movie of great thrills.
This is just filled with wonderfully done action sequences. They are never frivolous. They drive the story and characters forward each time. Stark has something to fight for each time whether it’s freedom, destruction of his back market sold weaponry, or protecting those he cares for, it all has a purpose to exist. The action climax is beautifully done. It has bombastic intensity and emotional stakes while all the while being fun and thrilling. It is exceptionally satisfying.
Needless to say, Iron Man is one of the best comic book movies ever made. The casting of Robert Downey, Jr. was brilliant and pitch perfect. There are possibly other actors that could have done a fine job with the role, but what Downey brings is that sharp wit and charisma that instantly and endlessly entertains an audience while hitting all the dramatic beats beautifully. Favreau was also ultimately a fantastic choice for a director bringing in a lot of those same elements from behind the camera. This was an exciting, successful launch to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that little tease after the end credits of Tony getting a visit from Nick Fury drove fans crazy at the time. What Marvel Studios has since done with this universe and franchise is an amazing achievement that is not ready to slow down anytime soon.
As it has been announced since the Disney acquisition of LucasFilm Ltd, this will, apparently, will not be the chronological end of the Star Wars movie saga after all. A sequel trilogy following the exploits of the original cast is on track for a 2015 release helmed by J.J. Abrams. What will come of a new trilogy remains to be seen, but for the original trilogy, it ended on a very good note even if it lacked a little something. I think this is the one movie of the original trilogy that has declined over time for me. There is so much depth and peril in The Empire Strikes Back that this movie feels a little starved for that, on the whole. Yet, it is still a highly entertaining, rousing, and powerful film where it truly counts. And no, I’ve never had a negative disposition towards the Ewoks. I certainly understand the issue people have with their part in the film, but it’s never really bothered me. So, let us journey back to a galaxy far, far away one more time.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) must travel to Tatooine to free Han Solo (Harrison Ford) by infiltrating the wretched stronghold of Jabba the Hutt, the galaxy’s most loathsome gangster. Once reunited, the Rebels team up with tribes of Ewoks to combat the Imperial forces on the forest moon of Endor. Meanwhile the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Vader conspire to turn Luke to the dark side, and young Skywalker is determined to rekindle the spirit of the Jedi within his father. The Galactic Civil War culminates in the ultimate showdown, as the Rebel forces gather to attack the seemingly defenseless and incomplete second Death Star in the battle that will determine the fate of the galaxy.
This was actually the first Star Wars movie I saw theatrically, and I was all of three years old at the time. All I remember from the experience was getting scared by the loud noises and the scared visage of Anakin Skywalker. At that age, you can hardly blame me. This film does follow up rather nicely on the cliffhanger plot threads of The Empire Strikes Back. Scenes of Luke visiting Yoda and Obi-Wan are given substantial weight and the comfort of time to play out with importance. Many were in disbelief at Darth Vader’s revelation in the previous film, and they required reliable confirmation. There were no two better characters for that than these Jedi Masters. This is the main crux of Luke’s storyline as he struggles with trying to pull his father back from the Dark Side, and it provides the weight of emotion throughout the picture. It is a little unfortunate that some scenes were cut from the beginning of the film that would have made this a far more constant and overarching element of the film. As it is, none of this is addressed until forty minutes into the movie in favor of the action set pieces of Han’s rescue from Jabba’s Palace.
Never get me wrong. The Jabba’s Palace scenes are expertly done featuring some of the highest grade puppetry in live action films. CGI has never done Jabba the Hutt justice over the original tangible puppet by Phil Tippett of ILM’s Creature Shop. The palace scenes subject audiences to an eclectic menagerie of fantastical aliens that demonstrate a fertile imagination and talented ambition. While everyone holds the Cantina scene from the first film as the groundbreaker, George Lucas truly made this the new gold standard, and achieved something amazing with his dedicated team at Industrial Light & Magic. The atmosphere of the sets is almost classic noir with the smoke all around in this den of seediness and crime. The Rancor scene, matte lines or no, is still an impressive piece of work that has always been an action highlight for me. This is a great example of 1980s fantasy film visual effects where more organic, large scale creatures were integrated into live action. And yes, indeed, I do vastly prefer the original musical numbers by the Max Reebo Band. I am reviewing the original theatrical versions for a distinct reason here beyond just the fact that those are the ones I grew up with and fell in love with. Overall, this entire section of the movie is amazingly well done in every aspect, but unlike the previous movies, it takes quite a while for the story, action, and drama to pick up. Even with Empire, while it didn’t have a rousing opening, it still had danger and peril to create dramatic momentum. Return of the Jedi feels like it lacks an element of excitement and momentum from its outset.
The one thing that I really have come to notice lately about the structure of the film is a marked lack of intercutting storylines. The previous two films used this story structure technique to maintain a tight rhythm and up tempo pace. This made it feel like plots were progressing, and characters were converging. With Return of the Jedi, there’s barely any such regular intercutting until the final third of the film. Anything we do get before then is slowly plotted. The entire Tatoonie sequence, which runs thirty minutes long, is presented without a single cutaway or linking element to anything else in the film. It runs along as its own isolated adventure. While it is smartly written, beautifully executed, and tightly edited, it is this structural issue that makes the film feel too compartmentalized. There are a lot of long sequences in this film that tend to drag the pace of it down, but in the least, they have character building and storyline progressing purposes. Still, maybe it’s just the familiarity of time, but that more deliberate pace seems to work towards the more somber tone for the end of a trilogy where character and story reach their ultimate juncture. They take on a far more important role than action, which is commendable. I’ve felt that the film has lacked something poignant or substantive for the longest time, but maybe it’s not so much an issue of what’s not there but how what is there is presented in terms of structure and rhythm. Just about everything that needs to be there is there, but maybe it could’ve used some greater peril to give it more punch.
I think I have to agree with Harrison Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan in that the film really needed a genuine low point. Both of them firmly believed that Han Solo should have died to give the film that grave sense of peril and consequence. This is probably the film where Solo has the least substantive things to do with no arc to traverse, and he does seem like he’s more just along for the ride instead of having much poignancy to the plot turns. I’m certainly not saying that I would have wanted to see Han die, but I understand where Ford and Kasdan were both coming from. In A New Hope, there were the deaths of Aunt Beru, Uncle Owen, and Ben Kenobi to give the film peril and gravity, and in The Empire Strikes Back, there were low points abound creating an emotional contrast and sense of real danger for the characters. Luke surely has his dark moments in his confrontation with Vader and the Emperor, but they only resonate for about a moment. The triumph of the heroes would hold more weight if we had felt some strong sacrifice or loss from them.
Now, there is a question of who really directed the bulk of this film. While Richard Marquand is the credited director, many claim George Lucas was far more hands-on throughout production as many of the actors did not respond well to Marquand. To me, there doesn’t appear to be any noticeable evidence to this effect. This is a well-directed movie. The Empire Strikes Back is a brilliant movie in all aspects for many reasons. With Jedi, any problems it does have are really not a fault of direction, just a slower pace that may not have given quite as much prominent screentime to the Vader-Luke plot. What we get of it is substantive and right-on-the-mark, but there’s not much thematic material in the film beyond this. Rescuing Han from Jabba, or running through the forest with Ewoks is just fun adventure stuff. The crux of this saga at this point is what is transpiring both internally and externally amongst Luke and Vader, and with so much meaty depth built-up between them in The Empire Strikes Back, I would’ve liked to have more of that spread throughout this movie. I would’ve liked to see more of that internal conflict show through and be dealt with. Ultimately, the film feels a little too light too often for what dramatic weight it is building up to in order to conclude the trilogy.
Regardless, this film features some of the best action scenes in the whole saga. The rescue from Jabba’s sail barge is a rousing, fun, swashbuckling adventure piece where everyone gets their moment of heroism and excitement. It’s great to see the full team of heroes together fighting against a large force, and faring better than they ever have before. This triumph is a great counterbalance to how we left them at the end of the previous movie. It also builds up Luke as we know he was the architect of this plan, and the carefully crafted quality of it all demonstrates his maturing role as a leader and Jedi Knight beautifully. The speeder bike chase is still fantastic making fine use of blue screen effects and optical composites to create this dangerous, high speed sequence. And I hold the entire space battle sequence as the best I’ve ever seen. What impresses me is the depth of elements piled into this energetic and dynamic battle above the moon of Endor. Yet, they never clutter the frame, only add to the scope and visual storytelling of this climax. The technical achievement of this sequence is amazing in the age of optical composites, and it still holds up solidly to any CGI creation made today. This is further reinforced by this film’s Academy Award win for special achievement in visual effects. Beyond just that, it has great tension, danger, and stellar dog fighting. The entire three-way intercut climax gives everyone something purposeful to do, and no one ever gets lost in the mix. Nor does it bog it down with any extraneous story elements. It’s all evenly balanced and clearly conveyed to an audience. It’s the most hair-raising, exhilarating, and epic climax in the saga, to date.
Now, again, I’ve never had an issue with the Ewoks. I just always accepted them. If I have any qualm about Endor is that it never feels sufficiently alien. At least Tatoonie had alien creatures and felt like a full barren world, much the same for Hoth. Meanwhile, Dagobah was lush with its own vibrant, otherworldly life. Endor just feels too terrestrial with no unique personality. There are times when it has a nice, moody feel, but that occurs in scenes that were surely shot on a soundstage. There’s good production design with the Ewok village and a few nice matte paintings, but overall, Endor is a bit of a visual letdown.
The final confrontation with Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor is fantastically crafted and executed. I like that the lightsaber battle is almost ancillary to the emotional and psychological struggle playing out between these three characters. As I’ve mentioned in a previous Star Wars movie review, the lightsaber battles are really a plot device to motivate characters and events forward. The action is not really the focus, it’s the character interactions and dynamics. The temptation from the Emperor is masterful and devilish, and Ian McDiarmid plays it so damn good. He never treads the line of over the top acting. He keeps the Emperor a very real and frightening threat. He has all this power over so many, and he barely has to raise a finger to exercise his will. His power is in McDiarmid’s dark mystique and subtle, brilliant villainy. What we see in this climax is a seduction to the Dark Side done correctly. A little push here and there, edging Luke towards the unleashing of his emotions shows the cunning psychological manipulation that the Emperor possesses. The symbolism we get when Luke finally lashes out and severs Vader’s hand is just brilliant. The strength of Luke’s character and belief in his father shines through with inspiring honor as he throws down his arms and refuses to give in to the Dark Side. He’s able to resist the temptation because he is not a selfish person. There are good people that he believes in, and those that believe in him. I like that even Obi-Wan tells Luke that his emotions do him credit. Coupled with his maturity, Luke’s loyalty and emotional connections can lead him to the right decisions where we later saw that Anakin’s more intense, selfish emotions were his downfall. I also like the motif of Luke’s attire. In the first movie, it’s all white, in the next, it’s gray, and in Return of the Jedi, he’s all in black. It shows a certain spectral progression for him, but ultimately, his journey is not towards darkness but bringing his father out of it.
The maturing of Luke Skywalker is one of the beauties of this trilogy for me. Mark Hamill matures with the character from an eager young man desiring adventure to a far wiser, confident, and intelligent adult. Luke’s learned a lot from his first encounter with Vader. He’s no longer impatience and impulsive. He makes calm, calculated, and selfless decisions towards ends he believes in with his heart and mind. He’s more than just a respectable leader at this point, he’s a true Jedi that has taken the best qualities of those that came before and of himself. Each film evolved Luke Skywalker another step forward which resulted in this wonderful, noble, and honorable hero. Mark Hamill brings a fresh strength and air of subtle mystique to the role in this film. He taps a little into what Alec Guiness had in the original Star Wars, but with the added aspect of optimism and hope. He has not been weathered by defeat, but instead, made stronger and more decisive by it. I think very highly of Mark Hamill’s acting talents, and I am excited to see what he will be able to achieve in this new sequel trilogy.
The ultimate pay-off in this movie is the beautiful way that Vader redeems himself. I’m not going to analyze this in relation to the prequels. I’m going to say that this has always been one of my favorite moments of the saga. The silent contemplation, the internal struggle you can read so deeply into Vader’s scuffed up mask while Luke is on the verge of death from the Emperor’s Force lighting is just brilliant and gorgeous. Vader doesn’t have to say a word, his actions speak emphatically for him. The unmasking of Anakin Skywalker is beautifully touching, and the funeral pyre has always been a beloved moment for me. John Williams’ score is amazingly heartfelt and wonderful here. I also love the chorus-backed score in the climax. His work is fantastic throughout this film, as always. This saga would lose something immensely profound if John Williams had not been involved, and I hope that the sequel trilogy will maintain the integrity of his musical brilliance.
There is a great deal of good content in Return of the Jedi, but I wish the film had a stronger opening to pull me in more. That’s what usually turns me off, initially, to the movie. It takes a while for it to get exciting, much longer than most of the Star Wars films, but once it gets there, it’s great stuff! This film has all the elements it needed, and delivers spectacularly on the plot threads and conflicts established in The Empire Strikes Back. In the end, I do wish there was a little more meat on the bone to bring those aspects of character depth and conflict more into the forefront of the film instead of lingering in the background for most of the runtime. Regardless, this is a fine conclusion to the trilogy that does satisfy on many levels, especially on fresh action scenes and emotional pay-offs. Despite any shortcomings, this is still a pure, fun, and exciting Star Wars adventure that you cannot go without experiencing!
I so wanted to start this review with the emphatic words, “THEY GOT IT RIGHT!” Now, this is not to say this movie doesn’t move G.I. Joe into the right direction, but it left me lacking for many reasons. One of them being that this movie had too many trailers that spoil too much. If you’ve seen all three trailers for G.I. Joe: Retaliation, there are not many surprises left for you here. But frankly, the big problem with this film is that the villains and far more entertaining and memorable than the heroes. Simply said, I wanted Cobra to win because I didn’t care about the Joes.
Mercenary and master of disguise Zartan, who is still impersonating the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce), frames the G.I. Joes as traitors, and has them terminated. However, three survive in Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) who must go it alone in order to fight back against those who conspired to kill them and their fellow Joes. Meanwhile, Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) and Firefly (Ray Stevenson) initiate a prison break to free Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey, voiced by Robert Baker) to set the next stage of their plans forward. Cobra Commander’s plan is to eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons so that Cobra can take over the world by threatening to use its massively destructive Zeus space-based weapon. Roadblock, Lady Jaye, Flint, Snake Eyes, and Jinx team up with General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis), the “original” G.I. Joe, to stop Cobra Commander from implementing his plan and expose their treachery to the world.
What this sequel gets right that the first didn’t was the tone and style. There are high tech gadgets and such peppered throughout the movie, but on the whole, this sequel features more visceral weaponry and warfare. No more energy weapons, no more holograms. This has a more grounded feel while still giving use a technological boost to make the story and scenarios work. Also, the CGI is vastly superior in every way. There wasn’t a single moment where my eyes caught a badly rendered shot, or witnessed anything that looked discernibly CGI. Another thing that is gotten right are the iconic characters themselves. Cobra Commander looks like Cobra Commander, and feels like a serious take on the character being a ruthless leader of a terrorist organization hell bent on dominating the world. Although, with the now slightly garbled and digitally processed voice for him, at times, it can be difficult to understand what he is saying. However, all in all, I was far more pleased with this representation of the character which never does anything to blatantly contradict who he was in the previous film. At most, it’s barely acknowledged in order to simply move forward without dragging undo baggage along.
The action sequences are greatly done giving us that tougher, more hard edged style. It feels like more straight forward military combat using recognizable tactics and weaponry. It’s all generally well shot, but the camera can get a tad too unstable with some editing that is slightly quicker than necessary. It’s a very tame shaky cam / quick cut mentality that really shouldn’t detract from your experience. This is mostly seen in the close quarters combat, or when Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow fight. That is another great confrontation that is again treated like a special attraction, but like before, we don’t get nearly enough of it. Probably the best action scene is with Snake Eyes and Jinx fighting the ninjas on the mountain side swing back and forth taking shots and slashes at each other. It’s dynamic, fun, and dangerous with plenty of smart turns. I like the touches the filmmakers threw in where some of the ninjas either miss the zip line or hit a rock formation, causing them to plummet to their deaths. It’s a very nice, smart touch that simply sells the precarious peril of the situation. I also loved the clever setup and execution of the jailbreak sequence. It had a lot of great touches that made it intriguing to watch unfold. However, the problem of this film is that there is so much action but so little plot to justify it.
And even then, the plot itself doesn’t always flow smoothly or coherently. At times, some plot elements feel disjointed and rushed. This happens in one section of the movie early on in two segments. First, we are introduced to Jinx as she trains with Snake Eyes while Blind Master, portrayed poorly by RZA, imparts some abrupt exposition in voice over that is just dropped on us without context. There’s no setup to anything he’s saying about Snake Eyes having to locate Storm Shadow and bring back to face justice for what he did to their clan. It’s just, “Where did this subplot come from? What does this have to do with the main plot of this film?” It just drops into the movie as if you missed a string of scenes somewhere. Jinx has essentially no real introduction here. She just happens to be there, and we’re just supposed to happen to know who she is. Also, once Storm Shadow is there facing judgment, a whole bunch of new exposition gets breezed through in a flash about who really killed their master and why. It’s very jarring and poorly handled as if they thought up this subplot on the fly and just crammed it into a tight corner of the movie just to have it there. Even then, how Storm Shadow and everyone else jumps around from one conclusion to the next follows no stream of consciousness. It’s implausible how they make these rapid fire connections and revelations. It’s awful screenwriting and direction. And again, RZA can’t act worth a damn. Every line he delivers just sounds terrible. So, I have no idea why they cast him in this role of a wise martial arts sensei. He puts in the worst performance of the entire movie. Yes, he is an exponentially worse actor in this movie than Channing Tatum, who actually does a better job in this film than the last.
There is also a scene where Roadblock, Lady Jaye, and Flint setup a plan to get close to the imposter President in order to confirm their suspicions and expose him. However, the scene is laid out without really understanding what their plan is. Roadblock is setup outside ready to take a shot at President Zartan after he’s lured out of the banquet hall, but it’s never understood what they plan to accomplish by doing this. This sequence came off as confusing and disjointed because there’s no setup to understand what their ultimate goal is or what everyone’s purpose is in the scene. It seems it served two purposes. One, just to clue the Joes in on who was impersonating the President, and two, to setup another action scene where Roadblock and Firefly throw down. It’s a damn good action sequence, but it was a lot of clunky screentime used up with little purpose.
The film has so much action and little plot that once we were actually in the third act, I couldn’t be sure it was the third act. The movie doesn’t ramp up to another level of tension or urgency to signal that these action scenes are any different than the half dozen we’ve already gotten in the movie. And the other problem is that I was more engaged by the villains than the heroes. I didn’t want to see Cobra get defeated. I liked those characters because they made the movie fun and entertaining. I kept waiting to get back to seeing Cobra Commander, Firefly, and Zartan conspiring about evil schemes, and having loads of fun doing it.
Now, the most I will confirm to you about Channing Tatum is that he doesn’t have a lot of screentime. I know I’m going to deserve a kick in the head for saying so, but I think the movie would have been better if he was in it more. Tatum and Dwayne Johnson do have excellent comedic chemistry that really entertained me, and made their characters really fun and exciting. This made Duke and Roadblock lively, relatable characters that I wanted to spend time with. If we had this chemistry flowing through the whole film with them teamed up and trading sharp quips, taking on Cobra with a smile on their faces, I think I would have been more engaged by the heroes. Instead, they fall kind of flat.
While Dwayne Johnson puts in a good performance, it just doesn’t seem like he was portraying a character. It just seems like Johnson being himself, more or less. There’s nothing distinct about Roadblock apart from Dwayne Johnson. I didn’t really see a character in there that had his own distinguishing characteristics or attitude. Maybe this is also a script problem, but you can watch an interview of Dwayne Johnson and he doesn’t seem any different from how he is in this role in this film or any other film he’s been in. As the heroic lead of the movie, I felt letdown. He doesn’t inject enough weight or action hero mentalities to really support this film the way it needed to be. Once he no longer had Tatum to bounce that charismatic, funny personality off of, I found myself no longer invested in Roadblock at all.
Even Bruce Willis seems like he’s just being lazy Bruce Willis here. There’s almost nothing more he does in this film than what you saw in the trailers. General Joe Colton is a bland character with no depth, no interesting qualities, and no real back story given that links him with the G.I. Joes. He’s mostly there just so they could have Bruce Willis in the movie for name recognition. I’ve never seen him do so little in a role before as he does here. What this movie needed was strong leads as strong characters with a real vibrant, passionate, gung-ho attitude, but no one here has that at all.
The rest of the Joes, aside from the always cool Snake Eyes, are throwaways. By the time the film bothers to give us any insight into who they are, I had already stopped caring about who they were. Jinx isn’t even given that much. These are characters put into the film to fill out the plot and nothing more. The script barely does anything with most of them, and the actors in many of these roles aren’t engaging, charming, particularly charismatic, or especially memorable. They were just there, and I didn’t connect with any of them.
Conversely, same as with the first movie, we get great villains that make the movie as enjoyable as it is. As I said, Cobra Commander gets the perfect makeover finally giving us the iconic chrome mask and militaristic garb. He’s given a great presence, and an intimidating driving purpose in the story. Destro is mentioned and technically seen, but Cobra Commander chooses to abandon him during the jailbreak sequence (which features a wonderfully funny and sharp performance by Walton Goggins as the warden). Cobra Commander is a great villain being very single-minded but also intelligent and cunning. He’s not the excitable, egotistical fool from the 1980’s cartoon. He is very much like a cobra – sharp, deadly, and fierce. I want to see more of him!
Although, I have to say my favorite villain here is Firefly, portrayed by Ray Stevenson. Frankly, Stevenson is a born bad ass. I have yet to see this man do wrong in anything he’s done, and he is an absolute pleasure to experience as this rugged, smart mouthed villain. Being a major fan of what he did as the Punisher, I bought into every second of his action scene abilities here. He clearly had a lot of fun digging into this character which is full of evil charisma and wit. He probably has the most action scenes to his credit in this movie amongst all the villains, and I couldn’t have been happier to see him kick some ass.
And color me impressed by Jonathan Pryce sinking his acting talents into President Zartan. Arnold Vosloo has not even a minute’s worth of screentime in this movie, and so, the portrayal of Zartan as the President falls entirely on Pryce. Like Stevenson, he was having loads of fun being this charismatic, playful villain. He is so much fun to watch, and not for an instant did I doubt he was fully into being Zartan in disguise. Pryce usually portrays rather sophisticated, cultured characters, but this gave him the chance to just chew a little scenery and be a total bad guy that was loving every minute of it. Cobra Commander, Firefly, and Zartan just make an excellently entertaining trio of bad ass bad guys.
And Byung-hun Lee does put in another excellent performance as Storm Shadow, but the story takes him in another direction than we saw before. However, it is entirely in line with the character’s history as he has switched loyalties before, but I just wish his motivations had a better build up and pay-off. This is in relation to the rushed and disjointed exposition scenes I mentioned previously. It didn’t sell his turn in the story at all to me, and I kept waiting for him to pull a double-cross to make at least one satisfying plot turn for Storm Shadow.
In terms of creative direction, tone, and style, this is absolutely the better G.I. Joe movie. It never outright contradicts the first movie, but instead, strips away what wasn’t palatable and make it a leaner, tougher action franchise. However, the plot is kind of clunky never really finding its footing, and never adequately conveying the stakes or objectives to the audience. It’s clear the characters know what they’re doing, but not often enough does the audience understand where things are going, what characters are planning, or what the scope of the threat truly is. Frankly, I think the filmmakers weren’t that concerned with that. The movie is generally fun, exciting, and technically well made, but the plot seems to exist for no more than to string a series of action scenes together. There is a main plot here that is very good, does work, and could work amazingly well if handled with more care. Unfortunately, the filmmakers just seemingly didn’t know how to utilize solid, fleshed out, and well flowing storytelling skills to make this plot fill up the movie. You could take out maybe two extraneous, if not well done, action scenes, and use that screentime to smooth out the jagged edges in the story. Use it to bridge the gaps and convey characters’ intentions as they move forward in the plot. I just never got that feeling that the plot was developing towards an apex, or that even the heroes themselves knew what the stakes were going forward. It seems the most the filmmakers felt we needed to know is that these are the good guys and they need to stop the bad guys. If Paramount Pictures really did postpone the release of this movie at nearly the last minute to do a good chunk of re-shoots, I’m not sure what they were for except for maybe a single scene with Johnson and Tatum trading witty banter over some target practice. It was a fun scene, but could’ve easily been cut. I don’t think they shot anything to flesh out or smooth out the story more because, obviously, it could still use some work. While this movie might have gotten squashed if released last summer, I’m not sure how much better it will fair in this early Spring release.
While I would recommend seeing G.I. Joe: Retaliation to an extent, I still wouldn’t recommend it above Olympus Has Fallen. That was a much better put together action movie on every level than this with an action lead that an audience could really get behind. I’ll be interested to see if this G.I. Joe sequel gets an extended cut on Blu Ray because it could benefit from some added scenes of plot and character. Ultimately, the entertainment factor for me entirely came from Cobra. When the film was focusing on the heroes, I couldn’t wait until we cut back to the villains. They were just all kinds of enjoyable because the actors were charismatic and vibrant where the heroes where one dimensional and rather bland. I mean, in a film where all of their friends and fellow soldiers are violently blown to hell, you’d think these heroes would have a fiery passion lit underneath them. You’d think they’d be ready to throwdown an all-out assault, and wage a take-no-prisoners type of war against Cobra. Unfortunately, there is no such fierce emotional drive to these heroes, and that’s what made them fall flat for me. If you just want a slew of really good action scenes, this film will deliver that for you, but director Jon M. Chu is not the most competent storyteller. Maybe there was studio interference that resulted in making changes here and there due to supposed poor test screening response. But if there’s one thing you don’t sacrifice is good storytelling. There was a really good story here, but not the right storytellers to make it good enough.
It was an enormous task to make a second Star Wars movie. To follow up that explosion of a success, that immense phenomenon must have been terribly challenging on so many levels. What these filmmakers did with The Empire Strikes Back was a masterstroke of genius. Instead of retreading the same tone, pace, action, and style of Star Wars, George Lucas and Irvin Kershner, along with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, chose to make this a film about character development and darker consequences as a second act in a trilogy. Characters would mature, the dangers they faced were more dire, there would be heavy losses, and some major revelations would surface. Whether it was the general consensus or not, I would still state that this is the best Star Wars film to date.
Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance still flees from the might of the Galactic Empire to the remote, barren ice planet of Hoth. There, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) receives a vision from a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to seek out Jedi Master Yoda on the planet Dagobah. When the Empire finally locates the rebel’s base, an imperial assault drives them to evacuate in a crippling loss. Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) escapes with Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) aboard the Millennium Falcon, but with their hyperdrive damaged, they are forced to evade the Imperial fleet in an asteroid field. Later, they seek sanctuary at the beautiful Cloud City from Han’s old gambling and smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Meanwhile, Luke begins his training with the wise and unexpected teacher in Yoda. However, with the evil Lord Darth Vader vehemently intent on finding young Skywalker, Luke races to save his friends from a painful vision, against Yoda and Kenobi’s warnings of temptations of the Dark Side of The Force. What awaits the Jedi-in-training is a startling revelation and great peril for him and his heroic friends.
I really like the reversal of structure on this film. It starts out with the bigger adventure aspects, and the major battle between the Rebellion and the Empire. Then, it descends into the more character driven aspects building towards very deep personal conflicts and resolutions. It satisfies your expectations up front with some peril and fun, and proceeds to exceed them with a much more emotionally powerful storyline. Where the first film had our heroes all gradually coming together for an adventure against a large scale threat, this one has them separate so to further explore their own personal journeys. Ultimately, they come out of it wounded and changed.
The film really wastes no time in establishing the darker, more dangerous tone as Luke is attacked by a Wampa Ice Creature while on patrol. It adds some well crafted fear and tension into the film. This perilous sequence further builds the bonds of friendship between Han and Luke as Captain Solo risks his life to save his friend’s. Luke’s ultimate escape from the creature’s cave gave us our first look at what The Force can do. Before, it was mind tricks and a sort of second sight. It was all very abstract and mystical, but when Luke uses The Force to pull his lightsaber to his hand to free himself, we see what that power can physically and practically do. It’s a wondrous moment that sparks the magic of Star Wars. Yet, the film shows us the true depth and nature of The Force when Luke seeks out Yoda, and brilliantly expands upon the vague ideas we got in the previous movie. Yoda teaches him to change his perceptions in that the physical has no bearing on the potential of The Force, merely your will and clarity of mind are relevant. Yoda shows Luke that it’s his own self-imposed perceptions and limitations that are the instruments of his own failures. The tests Yoda puts him through are difficult ones that are meant to confront him with frightening truths of where his path may take him if he follows his impulses and passions. Luke may have matured somewhat, but he still has an impatience and impulsive quality that puts him into danger. He’s allowing his emotions to guide him without the wisdom or experience to temper those emotions. It’s a fascinating journey that Luke takes in this film as he does begin to understand the philosophy of a Jedi, but the dire peril of his friends is something he cannot shake from his mind. He knows it’s likely a trap, and is unprepared for what Lord Vader has in store for him.
The Battle of Hoth is excellently done giving us a land battle to contrast the space battles of the original Star Wars. We see the rebels utilize some strategy in attempting to topple those awesome Imperial Walkers to buy time for the evacuation of Echo Base. It’s a big, impressive, and exciting opening to this film that has Star Wars again showing us something that had never been seen before. This sequence showcases the evolution in effects work by Industrial Light & Magic. They really achieved something exceptional here, and continued to do so throughout the film. They truly exceeded their own standards of excellence here. The first Star Wars was groundbreaking in the realm of visual effects, and ILM was motivated to keep pushing the boundaries of what was possible. The asteroid sequence is spectacular, as is so much from top to bottom here. The Go-Motion effects with the Tauntauns remain excellent, and the model effects are still some of the most impressive in cinema history. It is no wonder that this won a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the Academy Awards. They, without a doubt, earned it with every new fantastic sequence of thrilling imagery. And furthermore, the matte paintings are stunningly gorgeous, and are beautifully integrated into the rich visuals of the film.
The Empire is presented perfectly here. The reveal of the fleet and the Super Star Destroyer creates a sense of scale and power to their presence. To me, they feel like an even more formidable military force than they were in the previous film. We have more troops, more ships, more personnel, and more resources, and their early victory over the Rebellion sets a tone of desperation and danger for our heroes. Darth Vader himself is clearly unleashed in this film. He’s not held back by Tarkin or the Emperor. He’s assuming complete command over everything, and stops at nothing in attempting to crush the Rebellion and obtain what he wants. There’s no one stopping him from Force choking Admirals, and promoting people to take their place, putting the fear of death into them to motivate their success. Once the Emperor does endorse his quest to capture Luke Skywalker, Vader uses every resource at his disposal, such as the bounty hunters, and becomes an even more frightening threat. This is a major part of why I think this is the best film of the franchise. The villains are out in full force, not hiding behind protocol or deception, and showing their near ever-present might. Nowhere else in the saga do the antagonists feel so hell-bent on crushing our heroes, and they’re nearly winning for most of the film. It’s said that a hero is only as great as the enemy he faces, and this film shows us the vast scale and threat of the Empire like no other. Our heroes are left with a steep failure to rise back up against for the next film.
I do like that, for all the darker tone and subject matter, the film never forgets to inject fun and humor at appropriate moments. We still get the overly excited panic of C-3PO, the cute moments with R2-D2, and the humorous quips and sharp banter between the other heroes. Even Yoda is given a nearly hilarious introduction into the film as he plays with Luke’s misconceptions, and has a playful time with him and his droid friend. It’s all handled wonderfully to keep the film lively while never intruding upon the more dramatic and dire aspects of the film. It’s a perfect balance, and it wouldn’t feel like Star Wars without it.
Speaking of Yoda, he proves to be an inspirational achievement. I can definitely understand the apprehensions of the filmmakers in putting what was essentially a Muppet on film, and hoping it will come off as life-like. However, with the amazing work of designer Stuart Freeborn and performer Frank Oz, this magical character came to stunning life. Every word spoken had the weight and gravity of the most talented and credible actor behind it. There are many subtle expressions worked into Yoda that further created a believable character that an audience never questioned the realism of. This was all vitally important due to Yoda’s poignant role in the film in training Luke in the ways of the Jedi, and bestowing upon us the deeper ideals, wisdom, and philosophies of The Force. Because of the brilliant work of all these fantastically talented effects masters and performers, he were treated to one of the most fascinating, insightful, and endearing characters of this saga. We were previously intrigued by The Force, but I feel that Yoda truly made us believe in its power beyond all imagination. He opened up our minds to its possibilities, and the potential it had within Luke. Through Yoda, The Force was wondrously mystical and magical, and taught us the weight of commitment and responsibility to becoming a Jedi. Everything that needed to be known about The Force was revealed to us in this film by a rubber puppet, and we never doubted it for an instant. That is the magic of cinema.
The Empire Strikes Back is filled with some tight pacing and urgency. The signature intercutting between storylines creates that great rhythm which keeps the film engaging without drawing any one scene out too much. There’s almost always something interesting developing even if it’s not a rousing action sequence. This is greatly helped by the expert, tight editing by Paul Hirsch. He and director Irvin Kershner knew when to cut to the right angle, and when to let a shot play out. And the film is shot so dramatically perfect with solid compositions and superb camera movements pushing in at the right moments and giving the film scope and scale with sweeping and subtle camera work. Lighting is always excellent giving personality and mood where needed to the appropriate scenes. Irvin Kershner really helped up the visual storytelling in The Empire Strikes Back, and the refined, polished quality enhances the overall picture immensely. George Lucas was the executive producer and did have creative input, but he allowed Kershner to make the movie his own. So, while it is generally Lucas’ story, this is Kershner’s film through and through.
This truly is an emotionally powerful film hitting us with a vast array of pain, fear, sorrow, heartbreak, and disturbing revelations and insights. Our heroes are put through a maelstrom of hell in their journeys. Luke learns the most from it on the most personal of levels which challenge him right down to his core. I love seeing the maturity take form in Return of the Jedi showing that he has learned a great deal from these events, but he had to experience some terribly hard learned lessons. Sometimes, we can only learn to commit ourselves to change when faced with the absolute worst of consequences, and that’s Luke’s journey here.
Even Han and Leia are faced with their own pain and heartache. Their love for one another is apparent almost from the start. They wouldn’t be so mad with one another if they didn’t care so much, but it takes a series of worsening pitfalls and dangers for them to begin to genuinely show that affection. This is punctuated like a dagger through the heart in the Carbon Freezing Chamber scene where they have the most heartbreaking of parting words. It is undoubtedly this moment, where we see the severe anguish on Leia’s face, that motivates Lando into taking action. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have amazingly sharp chemistry in all their scenes together selling every nuance of Han and Leia’s relationship. It’s a very emotionally natural progression of two characters who really did not like each other at first trying to hide their feelings through conflict, but their true emotions break further and further into the surface. It is glorious work on both actors’ parts as well as Irvin Kershner’s detailed and masterful direction.
The returning cast shows a lot of growth. Primarily, Mark Hamill matures with the character of Luke Skywalker. He carries the heaviest weight in this film with a great deal of subtle emotions and deep rooted fears. You feel the honest depth of Luke in Hamill’s performance as he struggles with his training, and the thread of fear that is ever present as he battles Darth Vader. He tries to mask and control his fear, but he slowly realizes how outmatched he is as Vader gains the upper hand. Hamill delves deep into a real well of pain and desperation by the end which really penetrates powerfully into an audience. Mark Hamill was required to stretch his acting abilities much further than the first Star Wars film demanded, and he rose to the task admirably and successfully. The wonder of Yoda is also sold through Hamill’s performance, and the urgency of the latter half of the film is driven by his remarkable acting.
We also get Harrison Ford maturing Han Solo as well. He shows a lot more responsibility to himself and his friends, conveying respect to his fellow rebels, and leaving behind that “out for himself” arrogant attitude. The more juvenile aspects only really show up in the heated moments when rash action is necessary, or when he’s arguing with Leia or 3PO. However, when circumstances become more grim, Han shows that he is a far more matured character handling the situations with a lot of earnestness. Ford probably puts in his best performance as Han Solo in this film because it has the most for him to work with between the romantic arc with Leia, the comic timing with Chewbacca and C-3PO, and dealing with the betrayal of Lando. It was a strong and diverse spectrum for Ford to work with, and by no surprise, he achieved it with ease.
I truly love the addition of Lando Calrissian. Where Han Solo was a very roguish outlaw, Lando’s a gambler. He can come off as a legitimate businessman, but is able to manipulate people and events to his liking. With Vader, he succumbs to the might of the Empire only until the stakes are too high where not acting is too costly of a choice to make. Even with appearing in less than half the film, Lando has a strong character arc to traverse. He tries to bargain everyone’s way out of a worse scenario while betraying his friends to the Empire, but as I said, when he sees the price of bowing to their demands, he shows who he is deep down inside by trying to save Han’s friends from a potentially terrible fate. Billy Dee Williams puts in an excellent performance showing off Calrissian’s smooth charisma, but also reflecting the frustration and dire weight of Lando’s situation. He walks the line of friend and adversary very masterfully. Lando’s struggling with the effort to do right by everyone, and you can see that painful internal conflict play out in Billy Dee’s performance.
And of course, many fans would be remised if I did not make mention of Boba Fett. The fascination with this bounty hunter really stems from something like Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name character. A gritty, mysterious man who doesn’t speak much, but when he does, it carries a great deal of weight. Fett is someone who only speaks when he has something important to say. That creates intrigue. It makes him standout because it creates a certain looming presence. Also, the original voice for Fett provided by Jason Wingreen was absolutely perfect with its right amount of grit and vile attitude. A voice can tell you a lot about a character’s personality, and get that with Wingreen’s voice work. Additionally, Vader tells Boba Fett, specifically, “No disintegrations.” That lays an air of ruthlessness on Fett, and smartly spotlights him amongst the other eclectic bounty hunters in that scene. Plus, where everyone else has failed to capture Captain Solo and the Millennium Falcon, Fett succeeds using some subversive cunning of his own, which demonstrates the character’s intelligence. He’s a subtly developed character that quickly builds that air of mystique around himself. Furthermore, all of this is done without Fett ever having to fire a blaster. He physically does very little in the movie, but it’s the results of his actions which count. It surely helps that he, like Darth Vader, is hidden under a mask and armor. It makes you wonder more about who he is.
I honestly believe this film features John Williams’ best work of the Star Wars saga. With the more character driven story, he is given a broader canvas to work with, and to create a more diverse and powerful score. The beautiful compositions pull at the heartstrings making one feel the immense weight of emotion throughout the film. Every moment of magical wonder, ominous threat, romantic richness, and rousing excitement is lushly and gorgeously on display in every note he commits to this score. “The Imperial March” is the most notable debut here creating a militaristic musical presence for the oppressive Galactic Empire, and is one of my absolute favorites. However, Leia’s theme gets a sweeping enhancement accentuating the film’s romantic feelings. I own the scores for all six films on CD, but this is the one I listen to most often because of its wider breadth of artistry and cinematic beauty.
The Empire Strikes Back also showcases a lot of great imagination in its production design. It’s great seeing the scope of the Echo Base hangar with the full size X-Wings and Millennium Falcon there along with various other Rebel Alliance vehicles. The integration of the ice caverns into the technology of the base is done with a lot of attention to detail for an interesting visual aesthetic. However, the most notable environments are the swamps of Dagobah and the immaculate Cloud City of Bespin. Yoda’s adopted home gives us a location full of lush life where one would imagine that The Force is very strong here, as life is what creates it and allows it to grow. This was all created on a soundstage, and that is just a fantastic accomplishment. This makes me think why the same effect of depth and all encompassing realism couldn’t have been achieved for the Genesis Planet sequences in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. In that film, similar environments were created on a soundstage, and are blatantly obvious as being set on a soundstage. Here, Dagobah looks and feels like a wholly authentic environment. Never does it feel like a fabricated set. That’s the immense care and hard work that were put into these films by exhaustive crews and talented artists.
Still, it is Cloud City that is my favorite Star Wars environment. I’ve never seen another design in science fiction quite like it. The rounded buildings and corridors with their subtly textured stark white walls give us a very picturesque locale. It also feels like something elegant and futuristic that would come out of the era of 1980. It feels like a peaceful city, and is surely a new, unique, and welcoming world to visit. However, once things turn ill for our heroes, we are plunged deeper into the more industrial bowels of the city where it just gets darker and darker both literally and figuratively. I think the overall design is beautifully inspired, and I am so glad to own the book The Art of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I fond memories of reading through this gorgeous large format book, and being inspired by the designs and matte paintings. It made me want to run home and watch the movie that night.
While there is not as much action here as there was in the first Star Wars, there is no shortage of imagination. I absolutely love the asteroid chase sequence as the Millennium Falcon weaves its way through this near certain death trap to evade the forces of the Empire. John Williams’ score in this sequence is another one of my favorites which reflects both the rousing adventure aspect and the high tension and danger of it. What Han does after escaping the asteroid field to further elude the Empire is ingenious, and perfectly on-the-mark for Solo’s craftiness. It shows his intelligence and sharp thinking that define the cunningness of his character.
The entire climax is just brilliant all the way through. Lando, Leia, Chewie, and the droids escaping Cloud City is wholly exciting giving us some fun and dramatic beats along the way, but ultimately, a sense of elation as they fly away on the Millennium Falcon. However, it is the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that is the centerpiece of the film. The dark tone reaches its pinnacle in the shadowy, smoky Carbon Freezing Chamber where their duel begins with a chilling line from Vader, “The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi, yet.” That dark environment, with its moody orange and blue lighting, establishes an ominous, foreboding atmosphere that is only heightened in the latter two parts of their escalating duel. While it was never clear in the context of the film, after seeing a schematic of Cloud City, I could see that Luke actually does descend further and further into the depths of the city until he literally falls out the underside of it. That descent is such a perfect metaphor for what is actually happening to Luke in this battle with Vader. For the first two sections, it’s Vader testing Luke, seeing how proficient and resourceful he is. He wants to be able to inform the Emperor of how advanced Skywalker is in his training, and how susceptible he is to the Dark Side. However, the final part on the gantry is Vader letting loose entirely, and we see how truly outmatched Luke is against the dangerously aggressive Dark Lord. Here is where Luke pays the price for rushing headlong into this confrontation without the proper training. Yet, the action is not the ultimate pay-off. The legendary and climactic revelation in this scene is shocking, and I’m sure, back in 1980, this left audiences stunned and in disbelief. Mark Hamill’s acting in this scene is intense, and couldn’t be more perfect. It’s a culmination of all the emotional trials he has battled through this entire film, and it hits him with all the dread in the universe. It creates that final emotional stinger which carries the momentum of dire peril through to the film’s end, and leaves an audience in suspense for the resolution of everything in Return of the Jedi.
The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute masterpiece of cinema, in my honest opinion. I would not change a single frame from the original theatrical release, period. The late director Irvin Kershner did a marvelous job focusing this film so tightly and strongly on the characters, making their development the core of the story without losing what makes Star Wars entertaining and rich. All that was crafted for this film from the screenwriters to Kershner’s input, made this not a sequel, but a second act in a trilogy. That opened up the possibilities far wider allowing for growth to occur, and consequences to be faced that would require a final chapter to resolve fully. The characters are hurt physically and emotionally, but also, they learn a great deal from their defeats. The film may have a down ending, but that final scene where everyone is gathered back together, mending their wounds and setting plans to rescue Han, leaves an audience with hope that they will return for further heroics and redeem their losses. As time has gone on, my choice for favorite film of the saga has shifted from the original Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back due to the depth of character, emotion, and consequence in the story. Even more so now, I can vastly appreciate the level of filmmaking artistry and talent on display here from all involved, and it should be always heralded as one of the finest works of cinema.
Outside of Star Wars, this is the film I grew up on, and loved with a severe passion. I never owned the VHS as a child. It was only by renting it incessantly over many, many years that I ever got to see it after the theatres. My dad actually took me to see this in 1986 at the discount theatre that actually closed down about a decade ago, much to my dismay. There were countless wonderful memories at that theatre in addition to the video arcade across the way in that mall. In the late 90s, I found a Canadian website selling new VHS tapes of the movie featuring the American version, and with the help of a friend, I was able to purchase it. I prized this tape, and you couldn’t imagine how excited I was when I happened upon a DVD release of it years later. So, what is it about this movie that has kept it a beloved favorite of mine for more than a quarter of a century? Read on and find out!
It is the year 2005, and the battle between the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron, has escalated all the way to their home planet of Cybertron, which the Decepticons have reclaimed. The Autobots secretly plan to retake the planet from secret outposts, but the Decepticons move to thwart their efforts by waging a full-on assault against Autobot City on Earth. Here, a new generation of heroic Autobots stand ready to fight including the young, impulsive Hot Rod, the consummate soldier Ultra Magnus, the elderly war veteran Kup, the compassionate Arcee, the triple changing Springer, and many more. However, a greater threat to them all looms closer in the form of the evil entity known as Unicron, who’s ready to consume anything that stands in its way, but the only thing that he fears is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership. Along the way, lives are lost, battles are fought, an old enemy is re-forged by Unicron, and a new Autobot leader is born as another dies.
This movie really was the pinnacle of any six year’s old life at the time. You had a big, epic story with huge consequences, and the most climactic final confrontation between the heroic Optimus Prime and the vile Megatron. To me, this was bigger than Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, bigger than anything else on the planet! Prime was the ultimate John Wayne style hero, always sticking to his principles and morality, but able to throw down with the best of them. Megatron was the most deceitful, ruthless villain around, and after two seasons of the television series, you finally got to see them collide like never before. The movie was even marketed as showcasing their final battle, and it did not disappoint. It starts with Prime proclaiming that, “Megatron must be stopped. No matter the cost,” and then, proceeds to plow down and blast away a whole slew of Decepticons. It firmly establishes that Optimus is a real bad ass worth rooting for. This is the big hero of the Autobots, and anyone who gets in his way has got a real problem. The fight between Megatron and Prime is them putting it all out on the line, and it couldn’t be more climactic. It’s also an awesome looking sequence with great dramatic angles, and an awesome Stan Bush song backing it up. Then, it ends on a wholly unexpected note. The filmmakers really hit you for a big one in more ways than one. Optimus Prime dies. However, it happens within the first third of the film creating a sense of ultimate peril for everyone. If Optimus Prime can perish in this movie, then, nobody at all is safe, and even before this, the Deceptions slaughter an entire ship of Autobots in fairly graphic fashion. This film tells you just about from the start that it’s taking no prisoners, and the danger is real and imminent. This creates huge odds for the surviving Autobots to overcome, especially in the face of Unicron.
With so many of the classic characters dying, the movie introduces us to a group of new Autobots which hooked me in immediately. I loved Hot Rod, and was really behind him all the way through the story. Judd Nelson did a great job voicing him giving the young, brash Autobot a lot of charm, charisma, energy, and humor. Yet, where it counted, Hot Rod was heroic, and did show some depth to really rise up and come into his own. The weathered and seasoned warrior Kup is given great texture by Lionel Stander making him a fun character with his incessant war stories, but also striking a good chemistry with Nelson’s Hot Rod. The older mentor and the young hero is nothing new, but here, it feels like these two were friends more than teacher and student, which makes for a fun pairing.
Springer feels like a solid lieutenant in the Autobot ranks as the reliable, capable soldier, and has strong characterization with dashes of levity. And you can say what you will about Ultra Magnus. He’s certainly not the inspiring leader that Optimus was, but he was voiced by the late, great Robert Stack. Being an old school Unsolved Mysteries fan, I could never slight Mr. Stack’s performance. He does give Ultra Magnus some humanity and a steady confidence, but I think, by design, the filmmakers didn’t want Magnus living up to Optimus’ stature. This becomes apparent by the film’s end.
The villains are given some new life with two impressive names added to the cast. First, there is Leonard Nimoy voicing Galvatron in amazing fashion giving the new Deception leader an even more vicious streak than he had as Megatron. After his brutal fight with Optimus Prime, Megatron is recreated as this far more powerful Galvatron, and that injects a far more menacing and cutthroat villain into the story. Nimoy pushed his voice into a deeper, more guttural place for this performance, and it really served the character beautifully. Galvatron is Megatron pushed to the next level, and I really love that idea. However, the real major name involved here is Orson Welles as Unicron. This was actually the legendary filmmaker’s final performance. His heart attack death occurred five days after finishing this voice work. Reportedly, Welles was pleased do the job stating an admiration for animated films. While Welles could be an intimidating man, I’ve seen interviews of him being very friendly, humble, and enjoyable. Still, that voice was gold, and there were not many actors who could’ve naturally given such a booming, massive presence to Unicron’s voice as Welles did.
With all these great characters, old and new, we are given endlessly quotable dialogue. Nary a scene goes by without a great line being said which became a classic amongst fans. These range from the dramatic to the comedic, and are all executed perfectly by this great voice cast. They really deserve a vast amount of credit for inhabiting the personalities of their characters, and meshing so well together. It sounds like every single one of them gave it their all, and likely had a real fun time working on this animated movie. The regular cast of voice actors maintain their usual high standards, especially Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, among others. The Dinobots are especially funny while still remaining formidable. This is some very exceptional casting and voice directing in my opinion.
What really strikes me about the movie today is how briskly paced it is. There is nary a slow point in the whole thing, and at 84 minutes long, one could hardly expect one. Surely, these days, I would’ve loved to have seen it reach a full 90 minutes because that third act really hits you before you know it. Regardless, the steady pace and rhythm of the movie creates so much excitement and fun. There is no shortage of action, and any scenes of exposition are very succinct. The regular progression of the story taking our heroes to new worlds and environments keeps it interesting. Both the planet of Junk and of the Quintessons are dangerous in their own unique ways with great visual designs. They give the film scope that was rarely offered on the television series. Everything about this movie is amped up substantially from the episodic cartoon, and the action is no exception. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie, animated or live action, jam pack this much stellar and original action into such a compact run time while still maintaining such a rich sense of character and competency in its plot. There’s so much energy pulsating through this movie it’s almost unreal, and it never becomes a mess. Screenwriter Ron Friedman did a rather admirable job on this script, and it was put into the right hands to make it a reality.
Now, granted, there’s hardly a major through-line plot for our heroes. In the most part, the Autobots are just trying to survive every new threat that surfaces in their path while Unicron sort of looms over everything in the background. The action really just pushes them along from one dire scenario to the next until they must confront Unicron. These are adventures which have the heroes proving their merit to the audience more than to each other. It’s about us learning about the characters, and coming to care about them instead of developing them at length. Transformers: The Movie doesn’t have the character growth or thematic exploration of something like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, but for what it is meant to be, a fun and exciting animated movie for kids, I think it is rather exceptional. It doesn’t go much into heavy subject matter, save for the deaths early on, but it doesn’t treat its young audience as stupid. It’s a smartly written story that keeps it simple enough to follow, but exciting enough to keep it interesting. This is definitely a film that can be entertaining from the age of six all the way through to thirty-two.
One thing that strongly helps in that aspect is that the animation style is still amazing to my eyes today. At the time of the film’s release, it was a style and quality not previously seen by mainstream American audiences. The detail, shading, and dramatic, epic imagery created a vast cinematic visual impact. The film remained vibrant and colorful despite having some very dark moments, and could have real moments of beauty. While there are occasional animation gaffes and shots of lower grade artwork, on the whole, the artistry on display is really stunning adding a sense of edge and texture to everything never before given to the cartoon series. This feels like a major motion picture event, and in comparison to the series, you can clearly see the vast amount of time and hard work put into the visual quality of this movie.
Probably the biggest thing that kept the film alive in my mind and heart between rentals was the amazing rock soundtrack! I cherished that audio cassette for over a decade. I made the vow to myself that when the tape eventually broke, I would buy the CD immediately, and that’s exactly what happened. Most of these acts were generally unknowns like Lion, N.R.G., and Kick Axe (who were credited as Spectre General by decree of the record company), but contributed very solid songs that gave a lot of hard and heavy excitement to the film. Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic was quite well known at the time. He contributed his quirky track “Dare to be Stupid,” which fit the catch-phrase referencing Junkions perfectly. Stan Bush’s tracks have probably become the biggest hits amongst fans with the driving rock rhythm of “Dare,” and the inspirational “The Touch.” The latter is a song that has come to really be able to pull me through into a stronger, more determined mindset when I’m feeling down. It pushes me back up on my feet, and it does much the same within the context of the movie highlighting the biggest standing tall moment for our main heroes. This is one of my favorite soundtracks ever, and it is only enhanced further by Vince DiCola’s very dynamic, electronic style score.
The climax of Transformers: The Movie is just flat out amazing! I like the intercutting between the battle outside of Unicron as he fends off the attacks from Cybertron, and the multiple stories going on inside of him. However, it hits its great crescendo in glorious fashion when the Autobot Matrix of Leadership comes into the right hands, and signals a new era for the Autobots. The movie is filled with great, iconic moments such as this, but few as great as this. In retrospect, it’s only a shame that the movie ends so quickly after this, but I suppose, in that regard, it’s a film that leaves you wanting more. That’s rarely a bad thing, and it’s far better than overstaying its welcome or leaving itself open for any letdowns after such a great climax.
Despite the efforts of Michael Bay, this still remains the absolute best Transformers movie in existence. It features a tight, exciting, and heroic story centered on the Autobots and Decepticons themselves that is vibrant as well as genuinely funny and entertaining for the whole family. Of course, most versions contain a swear word or two that are surprising they made it into the PG rated film in 1986, but for fans, they wouldn’t want the movie any other way. This 1986 movie treats its characters with respect and integrity, and gives many of them poignant weight at their most pivotal moments. The new characters are just as exciting and colorful as the classic ones, and they give the film a real boost of energy and sense of discovery. You’re going along for the ride with them as they rise to the epic task before them. As I said, I was hooked in with Hot Rod from the start, and unlike many who saw the film as a kid, I actually didn’t cry during Optimus Prime’s death scene. It’s unheard of, I know, but I was just enjoying the living hell of this movie. At one time, I definitely would have listed this as my favorite movie of all time, and it is still among my favorites, as this review has undoubtedly shown. While the film bombed at the box office, it has gained immense popularity throughout the fan base, and remains a major high point in the franchise. All around, this is just a wildly fun movie that I will never get tired of. While the television series doesn’t hold up nearly as well, this movie feels damn near timeless to me, and I don’t believe I am alone in that feeling.
I have heard a few extensive reviews of Star Trek VI in recent times, all of which praising it glowingly with nary a blemish. This is definitely one of the better films of the franchise, and the first Star Trek movie I ever saw, on cable no less. It used to be my favorite, but over time I’ve come to feel as if this film lacks a certain something to get it all the way to greatness. I certainly know what that is, but let’s give you a plot first before I share that with you.
On their way home from their first assignment, the U.S.S. Excelsior, now at the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), monitors a massive explosion on the Klingon moon Praxis, the Empire’s key energy production facility. This incident signals an eventual crippling of the Klingon Empire within fifty years, and thus, motivates a push towards peace between the Federation and the Klingons, championed by Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner). Starfleet orders the U.S.S. Enterprise to escort the Klingon Chancellor to a peace conference on Earth. This does not sit well for Captain Kirk (William Shatner) who is vocally opposed to the idea of peace for many personal reasons, not the least of which being the murder of his son by the Klingons. However, despite his efforts to support the peace initiative, the hope for it is soon crushed when the Chancellor’s ship is fired upon and Gorkon himself is assassinated. A malicious conspiracy becomes evident as all evidence supports that the photon torpedoes and assassins originated from the Enterprise. Meanwhile, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are arrested and convicted for the crime, and banished to the frozen penal asteroid of Rura Penthe. Now, the crew of the Enterprise must expose this plot, and rescue their comrades before all hope for peace in the galaxy is destroyed.
Before I actually point out the shortcomings of the film, I think it’s fair to detail a few behind-the-scenes points first. Mainly, this film was rushed, to an extent. Paramount Pictures wanted this out to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Star Trek, and it just made it with a late December, 1991 release. So, the filmmakers didn’t have an abundant freedom of time to really develop this film fully, but this is not some train wreck where you can tell things were slap dashed together. This is quite a well-made and conceived movie. I merely say that if they had the luxury of no forced deadline, perhaps a few of my concerns with the script could have been resolved. They are not glaring issues, but ones that I feel take away from the potential of the movie which require some in-depth analysis.
Let me also say that there is plenty of greatness in this film. The ideas of prejudice and the struggles of overcoming those feelings for the cause of peace are very relevant. This film was made at the time of the fall of Soviet Russia and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. So, our world was going through a change of perspective and socio-political ideals. The Klingons here were essentially Soviet Russia, and Praxis was an obvious allegory for Chernobyl. This was a necessary story to be told considering that the Federation and the Klingon Empire became allies by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I feel this story was handled very well, in general. For both sides, who had gotten used to hating one another, to finally have to reach an accord of peace and allegiance would not be easy at all. Kirk is portrayed excellently in this story with him having to overcome his prejudice from the murder of his son David by Klingon hands and a life full of distrust towards them. He truly goes through an arc that re-instills the outlook of hope and humanity that Star Trek has always strived for.
This film also rebounds amazingly well from the poorly executed and conceived Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The serious tone is brought back with very solid and respectable performances by the entire cast. Every regular cast member is given some forefront time, and I love the exchanges between Spock and McCoy in the climax. Spock asks if McCoy would assist him with surgery on a torpedo, and McCoy responds with, “Fascinating.” It’s a nice sly piece of dialogue that shows the respect and camaraderie between two characters that have not always seen eye-to-eye. It’s also a treat to have seen Sulu be promoted to Captain, and given command of the U.S.S. Excelsior. I like that Scotty gives praise to the ship now because of its captain when he was ragging on it back in The Search For Spock. It’s another subtle show of growth for these characters, and the cast embodies those moments beautifully.
Now, there have been extended cuts of the film released on home video, and each cut of the film has their advantages. The original theatrical version is quickly paced punctuating some dramatic beats a little better, but the extended versions make the film feel a little fuller. The extra scenes don’t amount to too much with characters or plot, but sometimes, it helps to draw sections of a film out for more prolonged build up, such as going into Kirk & McCoy’s trial. The pacing of the film in any incarnation is quite consistent, even if it is rather gradual. What the film really lacks is a sustained sense of urgency. I believe this stems from the fact that no one knows who the villains are until the final thirty minutes or so of the movie. If the villains either don’t have a sustained presence in the film to maintain a threat level, or you don’t have them actually doing anything in opposition to the protagonists, you lose urgency in the plot. The mystery plot isn’t enough without the dramatic pressure of active villainy going on around it.
Since Nicholas Meyer also directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I feel it’s appropriate to draw a comparison to that film. In Star Trek II, the film was able to establish its villain in Khan and build him up as a substantial threat, and continually cut back to him to keep tension and suspense present throughout most of the movie. As long as Khan was out there plotting his next move, there was a near constant sense of unease and immediacy throughout the film. In Star Trek VI, the villains are completely hidden from us during the vast majority of the runtime. There is surely an adversarial quality to General Chang, but all the way up to and through the trial, he’s never seen acting outside the bounds and expectations of his military position. He’s not an overt villain until he’s revealed to be one until the end of the second act. And while this film has the same general runtime as Wrath of Khan, it feels much slower and thinner. There’s not all that much developing in the plot to build up momentum or create dramatic tension.
Since there is no urgency, there’s also an extreme lack of action and excitement in the film. It would’ve helped to put more dramatic pressure on the crew of the Enterprise to uncover the evidence in their investigation either by way of a time constraint or consequence. While Starfleet keeps demanding they return to Space Dock, it’s really a hollow plot device since there are no consequences or conflict involved with them constantly making up excuses to not return home. It would’ve added a sense of urgency if there was more risk put upon them for disobeying orders, such as in The Search For Spock. Even when the Enterprise infiltrates Klingon space to rescue Kirk and McCoy, there’s no real threat to contend with. Throughout Star Trek, we’ve always seen Klingon ships patrolling the Neutral Zone border, protecting their Empire, but the Enterprise whisks in and only needs to fool some lowly Klingon at a patrol station with clearly the most primitive sensors around since they cannot even identify what ship it is detecting. It doesn’t help that the entire scene is done humorously. If it was handled as a tense and serious situation where they had to evade and strategically slip passed Klingon ships during their rescue mission, it would have, again, created urgency.
Tying into this is the lack of impact with the conspiracy and mystery. Aside from one character who was briefly featured in The Voyage Home, none of the conspirators are anyone of note or poignancy to an audience. They are just one-off characters that either don’t matter or are of no surprise that they are villainous. The mystery of discovering who the assassins are has a strong setup, but eventually falls flat due a lack of tension. The crew knows that treasonous murderers are on board, but no one ever feels a sense of unease aboard the Enterprise. No one worries that two assassins are lurking on their ship capable of further ill-doings. The assassins themselves are also throwaway, nobody characters. Aside from Chang, there’s no real time spent with most of these characters to build them up one way or another to give their role in this conspiracy any weight. In most part, they could have been just about anyone and it wouldn’t have made any difference. It’s surely an aspect of this script that could’ve used a lot more work to integrate some character development and substance into this revelation. I could’ve seen a plot like this working nicely during a season long arc on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where the writers could take their time to build up numerous characters in twisting arcs, and have a startling reveal later on. In a 110 minute movie where relatively very little time is spent with anyone but the regular cast, it’s not likely to work out very well.
My other main bother with the film is the portrayal of the Klingons. While the very honorable Next Generation Klingons could get tiresome and stereotypical after several years of overly treaded concepts, this film was made right at the strong suit of that portrayal. While it had room for flexibility and expansion, these Klingons, in general, appear to have little substance or texture to invest any interest in. Firstly, their uniforms had long been set in place as very hard and metallic, but here, most of the Klingons are wearing very soft, padded outfits which take away a lot of their visual edge. It’s the only appearance of these outfits that I know of, and it doesn’t suit this aggressive alien race that has always been very vocally opposed to softness and comfort. They are a harsh race never indulging in luxuries, but that ideal is not supported by this costume design. Their attitudes are also watered down somewhat. We already had the cunning and verbose Commander Kruge, the outspoken and aggressive Klingon Ambassador from The Voyage Home, and the rather brash and hard-headed Captain Klaa generally establishing the attitude and personalities of Klingons in this time period. However, The Undiscovered Country simply tones them down far too much for my taste. The bold and intimidating qualities which have made them such a great fan favorite are generally evaporated. The fierce, proud warrior isn’t there. While they are mostly political officers, I would expect more conviction and assertiveness in these portrayals. Furthermore, the Klingon make-up is scaled back severely. At this time, the great Michael Westmore was heading up all of the special make-up effects work and designs on The Next Generation, and the special make-up results here would’ve been far better if the filmmakers had employed his talents. The vast majority of the alien prosthetics lack a sense of fine detail or organic feel to give them a sense of life and texture. The Klingon forehead ridges are all too smooth and toned down. They mostly appear rather obviously fake and rubbery. It further adds to the out of place feel of these Klingons. They simply do not fit into what had come before or after in the chronology of the franchise. At times, they seem like a cheap imitation of a Klingon. Gene Roddenberry himself was displeased that the Klingons came off as generic villains with no exploration of their society or cultural viewpoints, and Leonard Nimoy later agreed with him after the film’s release. I agree with him as well. Time has shown the vast potential of exploration for the Klingon culture, and I think not caring to acknowledge that here results in a very flat and uninteresting presentation of the Klingons, in general.
Now, I do very much like what Christopher Plummer did as General Chang, who is a distinct exception to my Klingon gripes in this film. Right from his first moments, you can tell that he is someone to contend with. He’s a definite skilled warrior with an intimidating quality. He doesn’t give into hostility, instead he projects a patient and cunning demeanor. Plummer works excellently in the trial sequence prosecuting Kirk and McCoy with great zeal. He brings a fine theatrical sensibility to the character which allows him to command many scenes, and truly is the one that makes that trial compelling. However, at no fault of his, but of the screenwriters, is Chang’s painfully excessive quoting of Shakespeare. The bit was good for a little while, but it wears thin very quickly. Eventually, the vast majority of his dialogue is directly quoting lines from Shakespeare plays. I agree with Ira Steven Behr, who recorded a commentary track for the theatrical cut, that it’s simply lazy screenwriting. The screenwriters couldn’t come up with anything original or freshly poignant for the character to say, and so, they just flippantly copy lines verbatim from another literary work. When Khan was quoting literary works in Star Trek II, it did have a thematic purpose. His obsession for vengeance or pain of exile were parallels to Ahab in Moby Dick or Lucifer in Paradise Lost, respectively, and these quotes were used at generally the most purposeful moments. They had weight and meaning behind them for Khan. With Chang, he just spouts these lines out randomly. They hold no thematic weight or meaning at all because he has no thematic purpose in the film. He might as well be quoting anything, or saying nothing at all, because it really makes no difference what he’s saying. This lazy screenwriting becomes very irritating during the film’s climax. Even Dr. McCoy says, “I’d give real money if he’d shut up.”
The film also makes blatant references to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Sherlock Holmes, and the only one I really thought was worthwhile, Peter Pan. It eventually feels like too much referencing of other material instead of the screenwriters strengthening their own original material. Whether they are appropriate references or not, it just feels as if almost every poignant piece of dialogue is lifted from another source, and that reflects a major weakness in the dialogue of the script. Nicholas Meyer can be a great screenwriter and filmmaker, but at times, I feel he doesn’t view Star Trek to be good enough to stand on its own. He has to prop it up by injecting ideas from other sources to make it great. It worked brilliantly in The Wrath of Khan, but it simply does feel like lazy, uninspired writing in The Undiscovered Country.
The great and always respectable David Warner does a fine job as Chancellor Gorkon. Nick Meyer envisioned the character as a meshing of Abraham Lincoln and Mikhail Gorbachev. The Lincoln aspects definitely show through with both the make-up design, and Warner’s regal, wise performance. However, I do believe Gorkon was grossly underused in the film. His goal of peace is the crux of this story, and we are barely given any substantive time with him to grasp his ideals and values. Essentially, all we know is that he wants peace, period. This feels like another mark of an underdeveloped script. Surely, the script had a good, solid foundation, but given some more time to refine and flesh it out, it could’ve had so much more dramatic impact, exciting tension, and a far wider scope. This film feels like it needed a tighter pace and an extra half hour of runtime to fully flesh out and setup all of its ideas, characters, and conflicts for maximum effectiveness.
I certainly don’t want to be misunderstood with my critiques. This is a mostly well-conceived and nicely executed film. Production values are great as is the cinematography. This truly looks and feels like a high grade film with a very polished cinematic style. The acting overall is exceptionally good across the board with the entire regular cast giving it their all. Even Kim Cattrall is very impressive as Valeris utilizing subtly in her performance, and striking a fine chemistry with Nimoy especially. Not to mention, there’s plenty of fun dialogue and moments throughout. The film lightly pokes fun at Kirk with the scenes opposite the shape-shifting Martia on Rura Penthe who continually seduces Kirk’s trust, and the brute of an alien that Kirk fights in the prison. Even Kirk fighting Martia after she takes Kirk’s form harkens back to the original series episode The Enemy Within. There, Kirk was split in two by a transporter accident, and he does battle with himself. These bits pay tribute to classic Trek moments and Kirk traits for this, the twenty-fifth anniversary, without betraying the film’s tone in anyway. Star Trek VI has plenty of character building moments for James T. Kirk as he comes to terms with his prejudice and resistance to peace. Spock gets a few moments of depth and growth, primarily with Valeris and Kirk. The Undiscovered Country has a wealth of great qualities which both vastly succeeded in their potential, but also some that didn’t quite get developed as deeply as they could have been.
The visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic are some of the best of the film franchise. Granted, the floating CGI blood in the zero gravity sequence leaves a little to be desired, but it’s certainly up to the standards of 1991’s other big special effects in Terminator 2. Of course, I believe phaser fire should cauterize a wound, and not allow blood to go gushing out like this is a slasher film. All other effects are superb. The model work on all the ships is amazingly detailed holding up to great scrutiny, and being photographed beautifully. The Praxis shockwave is a stunning feast for the eyes that starts the film off on a powerful note. All the way through, you can see the remarkable quality that ILM was worth, and what Star Trek V was lacking without their talents.
With previous franchise composers James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith both turning down this project for their own vehement reasons, Meyer had to seek out someone new to provide a musical landscape for this darker toned film. Cliff Eidelman delivered something right on the money. It’s certainly not the rousing fanfares of old, but surely appropriate for the heavier subject matter and dangerous implications of the story. He nicely throws in the right lighter cues at the perfect moments. When Kirk and Spock have a discussion just before the third act, Eidelman brings out a poignant, warm feeling in his score. His work complements the film’s various dramatic facets beautifully, and the film concludes with a gorgeous composition that sends the original crew out with class and style.
I find it difficult to express a counter-balance to my criticisms to support my opinion in that this is still a good movie. I will never deny that is, but I think it succeeds only well enough instead of exceeding where it could have. Simply put, what I’m saying about Star Trek VI is that it is a good film that still had plenty of room for improvement. It’s themes are smart and topical for the time, and still have some resonance today. Peace is a difficult thing to strive for, and some people are more comfortable with continuing to be at war with a lifelong enemy than try to learn to co-exist with them in peace. These are ideals that primarily Kirk has to deal with and overcome, and that is the best handled thing about this entire movie. While there has been a lot of criticism in this review, it’s simply to point out that many of the good aspects of this movie could have been great, if given more time to fully develop them at the script level. As I said, I have felt as if there was something lacking in this movie, and in short, that something was a lack of tension and urgency in the plot as well as a need for more substance added into many of the newly introduced characters. It has great, strong subject matter which felt like a necessary story to be told in the annals of Star Trek, but for as much as you can read into them, there’s just as much that didn’t end up on the page or the screen to flesh out those details. This is a movie I still like very much, and I think it is a respectable send-off for the original cast of Star Trek. I give it a very strong recommendation. Again, being that it was the first Trek film I ever saw, I think this is one that could draw you into the franchise, and show you it does have substance and relevance to offer.