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Thief (1981)

ThiefMichael Mann is indeed one of my favorite filmmakers of all time.  Without him, I would not be the independent filmmaker that I am today dabbling in the neo noir world of crime thrillers.  For Mann, his theatrical career began here with this sleek and stylish picture headed up by an incredible performance from James Caan.  The cinematic visuals of Miami Vice were forged here, and the foundations of the thematic material that would be refined in Heat and Collateral were laid with Thief.  While Mann had directed and co-written the television movie The Jericho Mile before this, featuring some very familiar traits, Thief was the start of every signature quality that Mann is best known for, and it is a film that should be given its proper due respect and recognition.

James Caan plays Frank, a professional jewel thief who wants to marry Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and settle down into a normal life.  In order to achieve his dream of a family, Frank–who is used to working solo–has to align himself with a crime boss named Leo (Robert Prosky), who will help him gain the money he needs to begin his domestic life.  Frank plans to retire after the heist, yet he finds himself indebted to Leo and he struggles to break free.

I was captivated all over again by Thief just from the beginning as it enveloped me in the sheen of its rain soaked Chicago nighttime world, and the sleek, stylish score by Tangerine Dream.  This was the first film of Mann’s I ever saw, and I was blown away by it well over a decade ago.  One of the most lasting impressions is indeed Mann’s neo noir cinematic style.  Everything he does here really defined so much of the 80’s with the synthesizer score and the masterful visual storytelling.  When you see the sleek and rock solid camera work in Thief, it’s sad to see how horribly Mann has embraced the incessant handheld camera work as seen in Public Enemies.  The compositions here are dead-on-the-mark, and shots like pushing in through the drilled hole in the safe early on just show the enveloping visual brilliance of Mann.  He knew how to suck you into this world, and keep you hooked in for the long haul.  Thief was shot by first time cinematographer Donald Thorin who would go on to lens Purple Rain, The Golden Child, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman, to name a few.  There was clearly no one better for him to be under the direction of than Michael Mann, and Thorin did a stunning job shooting Thief.

This is undeniably James Caan’s movie through and through.  It is no mystery why this is Caan’s personal favorite performance of his.  He is simply excellent, intense, and touchingly dimensional here.  Frank is a man who’s had a lot of bad turns in his life spending a good chunk of it in prison, and is now struggling to reach a blissful goal of a happy home and family.  He is a definite tough guy able to be a threatening presence, and has the charismatic bravado to back it all up.  Frank’s not much of a subtle individual, but he’s a man who feels he has no time to dance around the subject.  Every word he speaks is carefully selected and clearly conveyed which makes him appear well-spoken even if he’s not the best educated man.  Caan injects the right amount of confidence into the role to mask Frank’s occasional naivety.  Caan’s favorite scene is the highway oasis diner scene where Frank details his life, hardships, and dreams to Jessie.  This scene shows the subtle emotional qualities of Frank to see the better man underneath all the bullheaded machismo, and this scene strips him down to bear his heart to her.  Frank shows that he is charming, sweet, and very human.  Despite the hardened criminal life he has had, all he wants is a simple, happy life, and that desire is much of what endears him to an audience.  However, in the end, he must return to his base, primal convict mindset to survive.

Tuesday Weld holds up very strongly opposite Caan with both an enduring spirit and a gentle tenderness.  Like Frank, Jessie is also a tough person who really now reveals in an ordinary life, and what begins as a very combative relationship soon warms up to very heartfelt levels.  There’s a solidly genuine chemistry between Weld and Caan that brings a lot of heart and depth into this very gritty, hard edged crime thriller.  Their final parting scene is powerful on so many heartbreaking levels, and shows, definitively, that Tuesday Weld was no lightweight acting talent.

There is a startling turn that Robert Prosky achieves as Leo that solidifies him as one of the best mob figures in cinema for me.  For so much of the film, he’s a fatherly figure giving Frank every means to achieve his goals, and being nothing but an agreeable, upbeat, friendly facilitator.  He gives Frank high line scores, an adopted child, a home, and much more.  The problem is that once Frank tries to sever ties with Leo, he’s given a very sobering reality check – everything Frank now has is essentially owned through Leo, and he can rip it all away.  This scene is where Prosky transforms into a cold, heartless, ruthless man who will have Frank’s friends killed, prostitute his wife on the street, and put Frank completely into indefinite servitude.  Prosky becomes flat out chilling in this scene as a man you utterly do not want to cross, but the price for having this comfortable life comes at too high a cost for Frank.  So, he has no choice but to retaliate by burning it all down.

Michael Mann did a very clever thing in casting the supporting cops and criminals, and thus, made it very authentic to Chicago.  All of the cops were cast with ex-convicts including John Santucci who was the basis for Frank, and all of the criminals were cast with actual Chicago police officers such as Dennis Farina in his first on-screen role.  This way, we got very open and honest portrayals of the not-so-straight-and-narrow Chicago police of the time.  This sort of close knit connection to the authenticity of these sides of the law carry over into the intricacies of the heists.  None of the heists here are sensationalized or simplified.  We see the complex and highly involved process that Frank and his crew have to go through to take a single score, and this is achieved with great skill.  The depth of detail that Mann shows us allows for the audience to appreciate the triumph of the score.  Furthermore, all of the equipment featured was accurate to how they were used in the film, and considering the film is based on a novel by a convicted thief, none of this should be too surprising.  However, it demonstrates the intense attention to detail that Michael Mann consistently put into every project he took on, and that has always impressed me and has really set Mann’s work apart from all others.  Lesser filmmakers would gloss over the details and sensationalize the story, but the grit is in the details.

There is also a good but small performance by Willie Nelson who portrays a mentor of Frank’s that is dying behind prison bars.  Caan and Nelson have only one real scene together, but it really brings a lot of the life and philosophy of these criminal characters to the forefront.  And Thief really is built so much on personal philosophies such as lie to no one, be the boss of your body, or live your life on your own terms.  This all feeds into how Frank navigates this film.  He divulges everything to Jessie because his previous marriage fell apart due to his lies.  He is hesitant with going into business with Leo because he enjoys answering to no one and calling his own shots, and is ultimately why he makes the radical decisions he makes at the end of the film’s second act.

Frank’s actions in the third act might seem like those of a young man of heated passion, as they are somewhat impulsive and absolute, but they fit Frank’s “the boss of my own body” attitude.  He will not allow the terms of his existence to be dictated by another, and if that is the cost of having all the things he desires, then he’d sooner see it all turned to ashes.  Frank returns to that prison attitude of “nothing means nothing,” and it frees him to destroy it all and go after Leo without any attachments.  This is clearly a precursor to the philosophy of Neil McCauley in Heat that, “Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.”  All of this makes for one awesome, amazing finale that just certifies James Caan as a bad ass.  How Frank’s stalking through Leo’s house unfolds, with almost dead silence, is perfectly executed.  The quiet tension just unnerves you, and builds up that tingling anticipation until all hell breaks loose.  From there, it’s all scored with this excellent track from Tangerine Dream that I love.  And overall, their score is innovative and captivating.  It all reflects Michael Mann’s signature vibe perfectly with sleekness and edge.

Thief is an intensely exciting movie with a very grounded feeling.  Seeing Mann’s visual style unfold here is amazing, and James Caan puts on an excellent, versatile performance that enhances every compelling element of the movie.  It’s stunning to see how quickly Mann evolved in his career where so many of the ideas and visual storytelling here would be refined and matured within three years for the launch of Miami Vice, and the major leap forward taken in 1986 with Manhunter.  Whether you are a Mann or Caan fan, this is a film you cannot afford to overlook.  No one makes crime thrillers quite like Mann did as he made sure every quality and acting talent was superb and pitch perfect while always delving into the humanity of the story.  With Mann it’s always about the characters, and you see the depth of that care put into this movie.  If you want an even further in-depth look at the films of Michael Mann, I immensely endorse the video essay Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann.  It is remarkably insightful that really inspires me.


Crackerjack (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Excessive Force (1993)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Raw Deal (1986)

Raw DealThis is an overlooked gem in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s filmography, in my opinion.  It’s an action film that I’ve loved for many, many years back to when I bought the widescreen VHS in a nice clamshell case.  Today, I’ve got the bare bones DVD which still presents the film beautifully.  I had intended to devote January to being a Schwarzenegger month with a slew of reviews of his films, but let’s say I’ll be getting around to those throughout the year.  Today, it’s a fun look at Raw Deal!

A Chicago Mafia is violently doing away with witnesses who were to incriminate them in court, making it clear to the FBI that they have a leak of information in their ranks.  Mark Kaminsky (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is an ex-FBI Agent, a former FBI agent forced to resign from the Bureau due to excessive violence, is now a small town sheriff.  FBI Chief Harry Shannon (Darren McGavin), whose son has been killed by a mobster named Petrovita (Sam Wanamaker), enlists Kaminsky in a personal vendetta with a promise of reinstatement into the FBI if Patrovita is taken down.  Kaminsky eagerly accepts the challenge and is prepared to infiltrate and tear apart the Patrovita machine without the consent, knowledge, or protection of any law enforcement agency.  But once he’s in, he can’t get out and when a gorgeous mole is paid off to betray him, he becomes trapped in a deadly game where loyalty means nothing and there is only one person he can trust.  Using his own brand of justice, he begins an action-packed journey into the murderous world of the mob and will stop at nothing until he has successfully completed his mission.

This is definitely a bit of a different story than you would usually find Arnold in.  Something about corruption in law enforcement and mobsters warring on the streets of Chicago is a little different than secret agents, commandos, or ass kicking cops.  However, Arnold fits comfortably and sharply into this context.  We usually see him in more straight up action roles, but Raw Deal required Schwarzenegger to be more slick and smart in how his character operates.  That classic Arnold charm is what really propels him through most of it.  A confident, smooth manner is what takes care of the rest.  There’s enough wit and smarts in his performance to maintain that sly sensibility to keep Kaminsky likable and entertaining. Yet, Arnold is able to bring out the tough bad ass competently and effectively.  As is no surprise, he’s excellent in every action scene with plenty of physical combat to get his hands dirty.

There are a lot of great one-liners from Arnold that I’ve considered solid classics.  It’s smart, fun writing that makes Kaminsky an enjoyable hero while never damaging the dramatic qualities of the film.  It’s a nice balance handled by director John Irvin.  Without these moments, the film could get a little dry, but we get nice dashes of that charm and wit to liven it up where need be.

Schwarzenegger strikes up some great chemistry with Kathryn Harrold’s classy, yet assertive Monique.  What’s nice about this film is that while it does have multiple plot threads and character relationships going on, both friendly and adversarial, it never gets complicated.  This is well reflected between these two characters.  It has its sweetness as well as its conflicts.  They build an enjoyable relationship between affectionate charm and some heated disagreements, but ultimately, it’s a simple romantic storyline that allows Kaminsky to regularly show his humanity and compassion.

There’s also a fine performance by Darren McGavin who mixes the conviction of a man needing justice with that of a heartfelt friend and father.  He pops in and out of the film, but his scenes have substance that hold the underlying plot together.  Joe Regalbuto creates a nice counterbalance playing up the bureaucratic, slightly snide mentality of Special Prosecutor Baxter, the man who forced Kaminsky out of the FBI.  We soon see that he is justifiably despicable, but also, surely lacking in backbone when things got hot.

The supporting cast has plenty of solid talents.  Robert Davi is great as the somewhat blunt instrument of an enforcer in Patrovita’s organization.  Davi always does top notch work, and he adds a good rough, arrogant quality to Max playing opposite Schwarzenegger’s smoother undercover persona of Joseph Brenner.  Everyone from Sam Wanamaker to Steven Hill put in very authentic performances as Chicago mobsters.  They have that refined, high class, yet detestably corrupt quality which Chicago residents are all too familiar with.  Ed Lauter is damn good as Federal Agent Baker who showcases some wit, charisma, and levity to make him quite engaging and memorable.  Overall, Raw Deal doesn’t have a single weak link amongst its highly talented cast.

The score has some nice qualities to it.  The action scenes have a strong driving rock sound to them that really kicks some ass, and adds more punch to each sequence.  The dramatic scenes are more subtle keeping them generally low key but decently effective.  In one instance, where Kaminsky and Monique are indulging in some campaign, we are treated to a nicely elegant saxophone as it becomes a lightly sexy moment with a humorous beat at the end.

I also think Raw Deal is very well shot making fine use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  John Irvin and his cinematographer utilize very good camera movement and solid angles and compositions.  These are good, intelligent filmmaker who know how to dramatically stage a scene with smart camera work and very good lighting.  They show off some fine 1980’s elegant production design, and also give us some punch in a night club scene with vibrant colors.  For whatever reason, Chicago in the 1980s and early 90s looks quite different on film than it does today.  A good deal has changed since then with more development all over the place, and it’s kind of intriguing to look back on a film like this that shows off some good landmarks of the city.  There’s an entire car chase that runs through Navy Pier, which is essentially a big amusement park area with a Ferris wheel, concert venue, attractions, and a movie theatre today.  Here, it’s dead empty.

But yes, indeed, this film features some solid action scenes.  As I mentioned, Arnold is great getting hands-on in the fight scenes, and that car chase is really damn good with mobsters trading gunfire at high speeds.  There’s enough action to satisfy right from the beginning with a mobster raid on a safe house where a witness is executed.  I also love Arnold plowing a truck through the front business of Lamansky’s casino.  But for me, the absolute BEST action scene comes when Kaminsky assaults the quarry where he provides his own soundtrack by putting a cassette tape of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” on the convertible car’s stereo and blasting it as he drives around picking off bad guys.  There’s just putting a cool song added onto the soundtrack, and then, there’s the character himself providing his own action scene soundtrack.  That’s purely priceless and it is one of my favorite moments in a Schwarzenegger film.  It’s just awesome!  This scene even starts out with the standard “arming up” scene where Kaminsky unfurls his arsenal of high-powered firearms and dons a slick leather jacket.

Following this up is the real big climax where Kaminsky goes for broke and unleashes a barrage of gunfire upon his enemies.  There’s a great catalyst to all of this from the undercover operation to pure action revenge onslaught involving Harry.  While it essentially negates all the attempted undercover manipulation and deception, it’s ultimately what you are waiting for.  This is what makes it a Schwarzenegger action movie.  Him spraying automatic gunfire in a stellar action climax that is awesomely shot, edited, and executed.  Arnold goes into full bad ass mode taking something like the police station massacre in The Terminator and upping the action hero intensity with motivations of revenge and vindication.  And it still has great, clever moments.  It’s just an excellent climax to a rather fun film.

I will certainly say that Arnold has many greater movies than Raw Deal, but even then, it’s far from being a bad film.  There are solid performances all around with a good, well put together plot that keeps it simple and straight forward while delivering plenty of entertainment value.  It surely had enough plot potential to be a bigger, more complex and involved film than it was, but it sort of wisely avoids doing that knowing this is a Schwarzenegger vehicle.  It’ll give you a good plot, but it’s going to keep it nicely focused on his character and maintain a good dosage of action.  The film did fairly well upon release, but surely has been one of Arnold’s lesser regarded films.  I think it’s fun while still providing some good dramatic and romantic qualities.  Arnold himself does a fine job where he clearly was having a fun time.  Like I said, it’s not entirely typical of his films with it’s more slick, dramatic tone and some sentimental qualities near the end, but it’s an enjoyable 104 minute action flick.  It’s got enough entertainment value between everything Schwarzenegger is doing in this role and the solid action sequences delivered by director John Irvin.  As something from De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, I think this nicely meets those expectations.  I definitely recommend it for a fun time.


Stir of Echoes (1999)

This film was based on the novel A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson, and David Koepp, the screenwriter and director, made a hell of solid and smart thriller out of it.  Koepp has plenty of fine credits to his name ranging from generally good to great films.  While there are a few black marks on his filmography, he showcases a vast amount of solid talent with this nicely crafted supernatural thriller that is Stir of Echoes.

Tom Witzy (Kevin Bacon) lives with his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) and his son Jake (Zachary David Cope) in Chicago.  They live in a neighborhood with a good reputation, but at a party with a bunch of his neighbors, the narrow-minded Tom dares his open-minded sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), to hypnotize him.  She does, but when she implants a post-hypnotic suggestion for him to ‘open his mind’, he begins to see disturbing and confusing visions.  His son has an imaginary friend called Samantha (Jennifer Morrison), but Tom soon realizes that she is not imaginary.  She is the ghost of a young girl that is now terrifying and driving Tom towards strange ends.  As the horrific visions intensify, Tom realizes they are pieces of a puzzle, echoes of a crime calling out to be solved, but when his other-worldly nightmares begin coming true, Tom wants out.  He desperately tries to rid himself of his eerie, unwanted powers – only to be seized by an irresistible compulsion to dig deeper and deeper into the mystery that is consuming his life.

Kevin Bacon absolutely does an incredible job in this role.  He really absorbed himself into it adopting a subtle Chicago accent and a textured blue collar working man appearance.  His physicality is very raw, and it helps that he seemed to be in excellent, lean shape for this film.  He pushes the performance through every fiber of his body with a powerful nervous energy and charisma that is electrifying.  Bacon portrays the increasing obsession and near psychotic behavior amazingly well.  His manic intensity becomes scary like he is going off the deep end, which is quite the truth.  On the flip side, he shows the heart of Tom Witzy with a lot of genuine depth.  Beneath this crazed obsession, he is a deeply caring husband and father with a touching levity of heart.  It’s good to see the real man before this psychic awakening occurs, and thus, we get full context on how drastically he changes and what he’s jeopardizing with his crazed behavior.  There’s ultimately a lot of compassion and humanity in this man who starts out with a bit of an abrasive attitude.

Playing perfectly off of Kevin Bacon is Kathryn Erbe.  She also shows a strong range from loving, bright wife and mother to woman of fire and conviction when Tom goes further out of control.  Erbe and Bacon have very honest and heart-filled chemistry which is a main strength of the movie.  Zachary David Cope was a fine young actor here.  While he has an appropriate innocence and cuteness, he proves to have a mindful intelligence to portray the nuances of the role.  Acting opposite thin air to an unseen ghost is definitely a challenge, but Cope really showed a lot of promise here.  Sadly, it was only second and last film acting role.  The remainder of the cast does equally fine jobs building up a realistic community of dimension characters that ground the film very firmly.

Stir of Echoes is definitely a spooky and startling film with a tight pace.  It keeps a nice unsettling atmosphere going as Tom is very unnerved following his hypnotic awakening.  As the visions begin inflicting more graphic images upon Tom, the more freaked out he gets, and the more the tension of the film rises.  It’s an entertaining and fascinating descent into manic hysteria which just drives the film’s suspense and danger to a more chilling height.  When the film hits those peaks, it gets the heart pounding very strongly.  It winds itself up to a frightening full head of steam once the third act slams itself upon the audience.  While it’s not a rousing climax that is practically horror-based, it definitely resolves itself properly.  It builds upon the more underlying qualities of the film, namely the characters and the community they inhabit.

Thus, I really like the character driven strength of this supernatural thriller.  It’s a ghost story that doesn’t boil down to defeating an evil specter, but instead, helping find justice for an innocent soul.  Showing the quality of this seemingly tight knit Chicago neighborhood plays an important role in the story, and it’s nicely developed and demonstrated to ultimately explore the heart and soul of these people, no matter where they might lie.

Admirably, this film boasts some very good visual effects.  From the ghoulish effects to make Samantha a frightening apparition to the hypnosis sequence in the theatre, these are all consistently top notch effects.  The ghostly make-up effects work done on actress Jennifer Morrison are very haunting and unsettling.  She did a fine job in that aspect as well as the living Samantha in the flashbacks late in the film.  She was a very sweet, shy young woman that is a worthy of the sympathy and tragic value put on the character.  While the “shot in reverse” movement is a clichéd trick to give a creepy quality to her ghost, it is still very effective.

Now, I also have to admit I find a bit of pleasing notoriety from the theatre scenes when Lisa hypnotizes Tom.  They were shot at the Rialto Theatre in Joliet, Illinois where my high school graduation was held the year before this film’s release.  I really love that the filmmakers shot on location throughout the Chicago area bringing a real authentic feel to the neighborhood and other locations.  There’s one shot where Tom’s up on a telephone pole making a call to Lisa, and it pulls back to reveal the Chicago River and Metra trains rolling by.  It’s a location I am very familiar with, and it just creates an honest sensibility that I commend.  Chicago really is a diverse and beautiful city that deserves to be shown off more prominently in film and television, and this is a small gem that takes pleasant, if small advantage of that.

While David Koepp is the sole on-screen credit for the screenplay, there was some work on it done by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en).  So, I would like to share my praise for the quality of the script with them both.  I’ve never read Richard Matheson’s novel that this was based on, but Koepp and Walker clearly had an intelligent foundation to build upon.  The story never goes for cheap clichés of the genre, and instead, stays focused on its smart supernatural thriller path.  The film makes it a point that it is very focused on Tom Witzy from early on, and the script follows that path very steadily.  It keeps the audience in tune with what he’s experiencing, and we are able to relate to him even when he becomes more irrational and brazen.  He’s intensely driven to uncover whatever it is he needs to in order to shut these psychics visions down.  He himself becomes connected with Samantha, even if he doesn’t entirely know what his purpose in all this is.  So, we follow him on this haunting journey that is exceptionally well executed by David Koepp.  It surely helps this film that there was a highly effective score put together by the immensely talented James Newton Howard.

While this turned out to be a bit shorter review than I usually post, I think the quality of Stir of Echoes has been well conveyed.  It’s not a very complex story, but it lacks no depth of character or scares.  It won’t slam bang you with horror, but it has a solid atmosphere, some startling, graphic imagery, and air of compelling supernatural mystery that is very satisfying.  Seeing the film is worthwhile for Kevin Bacon’s exceptional and amazing performance alone.  He really showed a very wide breadth of talent and commitment here that I find incredible.  The only iffy aspect is that I’m sure the climax would feel stronger if there was an actual supernatural element added into it instead of a straight physical confrontation.  However, I’ll say again that it suits the more character based sensibility of the story, which is somewhat refreshing to see, and does support the idea of needing a living person to resolve things instead of a vengeful spirit stalking and killing people.  So, I certainly do not knock the climax one bit, but an audience could feel like a little extra punch was desired after all the spooky paranormal happenings throughout the film.  There’s just not much of a climactic pay-off for the scary elements in the film.  Overall, I do highly recommend Stir of Echoes as a smart and suspenseful film that has some refreshing turns on the old ghost stories premise.