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Posts tagged “crime

Get Carter (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Heat (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Prisoners (2013)

PrisonersEvery so often a movie comes around that just looks interesting, but you are not prepared for just how stunning it truly is.  It just seems like another good thriller that might be nicely satisfying, but this movie is far and beyond such meager expectations.  Prisoners attracted me because I really love Hugh Jackman.  He has such a genuine depth of humanity and intense screen presence in so much of what he does, but even then, I didn’t expect a performance and a film on this level of masterful brilliance.

How far would you go to protect your family?  Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is facing every parent’s worst nightmare.  His six-year-old daughter, Anna, is missing, together with her young friend, Joy, and as minutes turn to hours, panic sets in.  The only lead is a dilapidated RV that had earlier been parked on their street.  Heading the investigation, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but a lack of evidence forces his release.  As the police pursue multiple leads and pressure mounts, knowing his child’s life is at stake the frantic Dover decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands.  But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?

Brought to us by director Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners is undoubtedly the best film I have seen all year.  A tight, taut, suspenseful and engrossing thriller that hits powerful emotional chords everywhere.  If you thought the trailers gave too much away, you are very mistaken.  There is so much more substance and plot nuances that a trailer could never accurately convey.  Surely, I will not spoil anything for you, but the mystery of this film is cunningly devised with intelligent turns and a remarkable progression.  There are many fine layers of character, emotion, and story here that interweave perfectly and beautifully.  We are treated to so many well fleshed out characters inhabiting a story of very intense emotions and radical, unsettling violent actions with nerve racking consequences.  You feel every ounce of emotion from these characters, and Villeneuve’s direction shines gloriously in every detail.  I also love that nothing in this film is a red herring.  Every lead, every piece of evidence, every detail adds to the puzzle which is brilliantly plotted out from a stunningly well written screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski.  Prisoners is meticulously mapped out every step of the way, and Villeneuve utilizes all of that emotion and strategic, deliberate pacing to absorb you into the movie.

The cinematographer for this film was Roger Deakins, who also shot Skyfall which was immaculate work, and he does not falter here at all.  I was constantly struck by the quality of the compositions as they all hold so much weight.  Villeneuve has this shot and edited in a very conservative manner so that the substance of every frame soaks into the viewer so deeply.  Early on, I love how fairly brief scenes are played out in wide masters to give you a dramatic and stoic impact on the story.  The inspired cinematography constantly envelopes the screen translating the dramatic power of Villeneuve’s cinematic narrative in such exquisite detail and poignancy.  The quality of the visuals, how the film is shot, and the style of editing constantly made me feel like this was a very 1970’s thriller with a modern polish.  Even the Earth toned color palette reflects that, and the autumn / winter setting adds to the grim, somber atmosphere.  Every technical quality of this movie is used to suck you into the depth of what transpires.  Even the score is immensely effective, yet subtle.  Everything just works with such precision to excellent effect.

I honestly believe that Hugh Jackman could possibly earn himself some accolades come awards season time.  My faith in his talent has been paid off time and again, and I love seeing him in these gritty, hard hitting dramatic films.  Keller Dover is a man who believes in preparing for the worst while praying for the best, and so, he is used to doing everything possible to protect his family from all dangers.  When he feels he must take matters into his own hands, the emotional intensity of the film escalates drastically.  Jackman is intensely powerful in this role pushing himself to that extra level that separates great from extraordinary.  Pure, raw emotion pours out of him as Keller Dover struggles with doing the right thing for his daughter even though it is the worst, most unimaginable thing he’s ever done.  The absolute conviction of what he believes he must do penetrates right through the screen right into your soul.  This film constantly pushes this character into further emotionally and morally strained situations that challenge Jackman to deliver on higher and higher levels which he exceeds over and over again.  This is why I love Hugh Jackman and why I was drawn to seeing this movie.  He’s an incredibly relatable and engaging acting talent who pulls you in based on his depth of humanity, and that is gorgeously on display here in a masterfully crafted film.

Now, I haven’t seen Jake Gyllenhaal in anything since Donnie Darko, and it’s great seeing him in a mature, hard edge role.  He is really solid as this vehemently dedicated cop who maintains a level head while remaining fully committed to this case.  I love seeing how Detective Loki handles the strained, heated emotions of the Dovers and Birches, and how he manages everything with meticulous perceptiveness and a dogged mentality.  It’s a wonderfully written character that empathizes with these hurting people and conveys his confidence with sincerity.  Gyllenhaal is intensely compelling and intriguing to watch as the film progresses.  From the moment he’s introduced, eating alone at a Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving, he is complex and unique.  I like the nuances added into his character such as the various small tattoos on his hands and neck.  They give him a darker, grittier edge along with Gyllenhaal’s sort of dark aura.  Yet, he is not a dark character, but is a riveting one that adds his own intensity to the narrative.  This is also a marvelous performance that only becomes more fascinating and gripping at the film progresses.

The rest of the cast is equally as powerful.  Mario Bello’s character of Grace Dover deals with this frightening tragedy of her abducted daughter by falling apart, relying on medication, and just becoming a mess.  It’s a pure visceral deterioration of a person torn apart by fear and pain for a loved one.  Terrence Howard is another actor I just love, and he delivers such vulnerability.  The struggle Franklin Birch faces when Keller pulls him into the abduction and torture of Alex Jones is a perfectly human conflict.  He wants his daughter back so badly, but almost can’t reconcile the morality of what he and Keller are doing to this man with the IQ of a ten year old.  The dynamics between all of these characters and their passionate, pained emotions is magnificent to behold.  Even Paul Dano makes you empathize so deeply for Alex.  You are never certain whether he is responsible for anything at all, or that Keller is torturing a completely innocent man.  The story twists around so beautifully wrapping everyone up in this complex tapestry that any truth is possible.  Even more so, nothing is all that clean cut for any suspect, and no one is completely innocent.  Everyone has something shameful, shady, or tragic which shows that these are real, textured, flawed people.  Every character is written and performed with such substance and rawness that you can never take anything for granted or predict where this story will lead you.

I was constantly pleased with the sophistication of storytelling here.  There were times I was a tad apprehensive that the pay-off of the mystery, or that the identity of the abductor would be spoiled too soon.  Instead, it was another element of the puzzle being laid out carefully with surprising, unexpected, yet entirely purposeful turns.  As I said, nothing is a swerve.  You’re not lead down a frivolous path to a false lead.  Everything introduced in this story is there for a substantial reason.  The ultimate reveal is great allowing for everything to really fall into place, and put certain characters into further, tenser jeopardy.  I loved how the final act unfolds.  There’s real danger at hand, and nothing proceeds remotely like a cliché.  This is a fresh, smart thriller that will captivate your attention for its entire 146 minute runtime.  One would think that a deliberately paced thriller with that kind of runtime would lag somewhere or feel drawn out, but Prisoners makes amazingly solid use of every minute of screentime to progress every element of story and character to its ultimate, immensely satisfying and brilliant conclusion.

Denis Villeneuve has just come out of nowhere for me, and now, he has my undivided attention.  Prisoners is absolutely perfect.  There is not a single aspect of it for me to criticize, only praise.  This is an incredible cast delivering amazingly powerful and raw performances in a rattling and haunting thriller.  I have never stated in a review of a newly released movie that it is the best one I have seen all year because you never know what else could surprise you in the remainder of that year.  However, I cannot imagine what else is possibly going to steal away that title from Prisoners because it is that stunningly impressive without a flaw in sight.  Do yourself a great favor and see this movie and support it.  I hope you are as enthralled with it as I was.


Strange Days (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Point Break (1991)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gunmen (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hollow Point (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Crackerjack (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Excessive Force (1993)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)

Someone to Watch Over MeMost of the films in Ridley Scott’s filmography are fairly well known, but there are a few that are glossed over for whatever reason.  For this film, the fact that it didn’t even make its money back at the box office is the likely reason, but it still garnered very positive reviews from critics.  This is indeed a film of special, exceptional quality.  Someone to Watch Over Me is not your typical Ridley Scott film, in most part.  It’s story is definitely a cop thriller with a great urban atmosphere, but primarily, this is a romantic film done with great, beautiful artistic flare.

A stunning New York socialite and a down-to-earth city cop are caught in a deadly web of illicit passion and heart-stopping suspense.  Newly-appointed detective Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) finds his life turned upside down when he’s assigned to protect Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers), the beautiful eyewitness to a brutal murder.  Lured into danger and the dizzying heights of Gregory’s glamorous lifestyle, Keegan struggles to walk the line between protection and obsession – while trying to stay one step ahead of the psychotic killer Joey Venza (Andreas Katsulas), and not allow his happy marriage to fall apart over his affair with Claire.

I really like the vibe of this movie.  It does have a very romanticized artistry to it, but with the moody subtlety that Scott is a master at.  Oddly, while watching this, I got a very similar feeling as I got watching the John Badham romanticized version of Dracula, starring Frank Langella.  It’s that foggy, subtle romantic visual quality with its greens and ambers which really struck me that same way.  Someone to Watch Over Me is a finely crafted and gradually paced work of art that smartly blends the seductive beauty with the dangerous crime elements.  By the trailer, you’d likely expect something a little more thrilling and exciting, but even then, this film easily roped me in.  This is surely due to the great casting and excellent acting.

Michael Keegan is not the usual kind of movie cop.  He’s surely streetwise, but he feels a little green and out of his element.  Having just been promoted to Detective, he doesn’t have the consummate manner of those around him, and coming from Queens, he’s not accustomed to the high life sophistication of Claire’s world.  So, he’s a bit of a blue collar style easy going guy, and Tom Berenger does a stellar job in this role.  He’s extremely likable and fun loving early on, and progresses into a more serious, emotionally complex character as events unfold.  You can see that Mike is very happy with his family, but as he gets deeper involved with Claire, everything begins to be torn apart within him.  Berenger has great and distinctly different chemistries with Mimi Rogers and Lorraine Bracco, who portrays Michael’s wife Ellie Keegan.  Both relationships have their own touching qualities, and work equally as beautifully.  Ellie perfectly reflects the man he is, but Claire gives him something fresh and seductive.  It’s an odd dynamic that you can feel so much for Mike and Claire, knowing they have something unique together, but also, view Mike as the bad guy opposite Ellie.  That’s really a testament to Berenger’s talent.  He makes Mike a very down to Earth guy with flaws, but never comes off as a reprehensible adulterer, just a man of sympathetic conflicts of the heart.

I was very pleased with what Mimi Rogers accomplishes in this role.  The few moments where Claire is confronted by Venza are intensely fearful, and Rogers is greatly convincing.  However, the majority of the film is focused on Mike and Claire becoming closer and more intimate.  She proves to be a gorgeously romantic woman who is not a seductress.  There’s nothing lurid about these two becoming involved.  There is a genuine endearing attraction there that is quite touching, and the building of a chemistry and attraction with Claire is done quite subtly.  She is charming, elegant, and vulnerable, but still exerts confidence.  There’s a fine line between where she feels safe and self-assured and feeling very frightened that Rogers handles with delicate balance.

Through all this, you honestly feel for Ellie a great deal because she’s done nothing wrong to deserve this betrayal of her love.  Lorraine Bracco is wonderful showing the agonizing pain of Ellie.  She loves Mike so dearly, and that pours out so richly once she is scorned.  This is really an exceptional performance as we see a full spectrum of emotion from Bracco from the loving and down to Earth woman to the deeply hurt wife and even beyond that in the film’s climax to utterly frightened to death.  While the film is heavy on the Mike-Claire relationship, Bracco does such a strong job to keep Ellie’s end of the film relevant and emotionally impactful.  By the end, that is the crux of the film’s resolution.

And I really adore Andreas Katsulas.  He was taken from us far too soon.  Many would know him as the one-armed man in The Fugitive, but my heart with him lies with the science fiction series Babylon 5.  Here, his role is full-on in intimidating heavy mode.  His screentime is fairly restrained, but his presence is almost always felt.  That presence is very effective right from his first few minutes of screentime all the way through to the taut, thrilling climax.  Katsulas takes that great talent of his and compounds it into a lethally threatening performance.  Like with everything else here, the key word is definitely “subtlety.”  Ridley Scott has such a great handle on tone with his visuals and actors that it is no surprise that everything is just pitch perfect throughout this cast.  Of course, I couldn’t forget to mention the late and charming Jerry Orbach as the solid Lieutenant Garber.  Orbach is always a bright pleasure to see in anything he ever appeared in.

It also put a smile on my face when Michael Kamen’s credit came on screen as the composer.  I really, dearly love his work.  There was always a real elegance and sophistication he brought to his scores, and Someone to Watch Over Me definitely gave him the opportunity to flesh out some lush, romantic cues.  There’s the obligatory saxophone parts, but it’s done so very beautifully.  It really is a lovely tapestry of romanticism that he weaves throughout this film while never remotely approaching over the top melodrama.  He’s aided a little by a smooth jazz style arrangement of the title song by Sting, and some fine music tracks from Steve Winwood and Fine Young Cannibals early on.  The work Kamen does with the tenser, more thrilling scenes is very effective and taut.  This is the perfect score for this movie accentuating every subtlety with careful craftsmanship.

Also, it seems that no matter what cinematographer Ridley Scott works with, his visual style always comes through brilliantly.  You could turn this movie on, not knowing anything about it, and know it is a Ridley Scott movie just by the rich atmospheric noir look of it.  Someone to Watch Over Me is absolutely gorgeous re-crafting the looks of Alien or Blade Runner into a romantically effective package.  The scenes early on in the night club and art gallery are brilliant, perfect examples of Scott’s signature style.  Later on, inside Claire’s upscale apartment, the overall look is very seductive with soft, dim amber lighting.  As usual, Scott uses very deep blacks and smoky, shadowy visuals to create a mysterious atmosphere, and even on the streets of New York, that works so stunningly well.  If for nothing else, Scott is one of my favorite directors based on his gorgeous visual neo noir style.

Beyond all of the stunning aesthetics, the story played out in both the seductive romanticism and the dangerous crime thriller are perfectly interwoven.  I found the balance just right for the film’s intended emotional direction.  I would definitely imagine a film like this today being forced to be packed with a lot more action and excitement instead of developing the romance and subtle suspense.  Thankfully, this was made in a time when someone like Ridley Scott, whose last couple of films had not done well at the box office, was able to make the movie he wanted to make.  He does a fantastic job with Howard Franklin’s screenplay just enveloping it entirely in his articulate, detail oriented sensibilities and wonderfully inspired visual style.  Yet, the visual awe is not used to mask any lack of substance, but to enhance the strengths of it all.

I really did enjoy Someone to Watch Over Me.  If you enjoy a classic thriller with a twist of romance, which the film’s tagline boasts, you will certainly find some satisfaction here.  Ridley Scott directs this film with class and a focus on the smooth moody atmosphere and gradual development of its characters.  The cast is absolutely top notch featuring substantive and respectable work from everyone involved.  This film is actually a very clear precursor to Scott’s next film, Black Rain, which was an excellent full-on thriller, but still with a lot of that romanticized atmosphere of danger.  If you’re looking for the exciting flipside to this seductive film, Black Rain is absolutely that film.  Just forego watching the trailer.  It’s a little on the spoilery side.  Anyway, Someone to Watch Over Me is a very beautifully crafted and executed film that I really do highly endorse.


Sneakers (1992)

SneakersEnsemble casts are a sweet pleasure.  When you bring a wonderfully talented group of actors together that spark a unique chemistry, you’ve got cinematic gold piled to the ceiling.  Sneakers is one of those great films that blends and balances comedy, drama, and action successfully.  Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix, Sidney Poitier, and David Strathairn populate this highly entertaining film that is truly charming.

Computer expert Martin Bishop (Redford) heads a team of renegade hackers – including a former CIA employee (Sidney Poitier), a gadgets wizard (Dan Aykroyd), a young genius (River Phoenix) and a blind soundman (David Strathairn) – who are routinely hired to test security systems.  But Bishop’s past comes back to haunt him when government agents blackmail the “sneakers” into carrying out a covert operation: tracking down an elusive black box.  Along with his former girlfriend (Mary McDonnell), Bishop’s team retrieves the box and makes a stunning discovery – the device can break into any computer system in the world.  With factions from all sides willing to kill for the powerful box, Bishop and his team embark on their most dangerous assignment ever which will lead him to confronting a contentious specter from his past.

Sneakers truly is rich with talent, and is a hell of a lot of fun!  The comedy is handled with such sharp wit and smart savvy.  There’s a lot of charm and heart put into this film that maintains a nice light chemistry and upbeat pace.  Everyone surely seems like they had a fantastically enjoyable time making this movie.  Our heroes are like boys in a clubhouse.  They are a playful and slightly immature bunch with their childish disagreements, especially between Aykroyd’s conspiracy theorist character and Poitier’s ex-CIA Agent Crease.  Martin holds them together with his smart, level head, but it’s fun seeing them kind of stumble here and there through unexpected situations.  They have to think on their feet, and the results are usually hilarious.  These guys are clever and quick witted enough to slip on through some tight scenarios.  They’re not some Mission: Impossible style crack team, but they have the mismatched skills to really pull off some impressive, unorthodox feats.

No one amongst the cast embodies the delicate balance of light-hearted wit and solid drama better than Robert Redford, and that should come as no surprise.  It really all comes down to the natural heart and grounded sensibility he brings to a role.  It’s great seeing that he might be a man in his fifties here, but he’s able to bring that youthful, teenage energy at the right times.  This can be seen greatly between him and Mary McDonnell early on, who are beautifully sweet and genuine together.  Redford makes Martin a very endearing person with a touching depth.  There are a lot of subtle qualities he adds in that allow for the humor and drama to mesh seamlessly.  It’s surely not an easy thing to pull off, but he makes it appear effortless, which is a testament to his natural charisma and talent.

And Mary McDonnell really demonstrates confidence, grace, and smarts as Liz.  She’s really a vibrant, mature cog in this rather playful ensemble.  It’s nice to see that dynamic, which does rub off in places.  There is a real, genuine spark between her and Redford that builds as the film goes on, but never overtakes the tone or focus of the film.  Yet, she gets to partake in some of the fun, too, and it’s really enjoyable.  The best thing to see in an ensemble cast is when no one gets short changed.  In this film, everyone gets their fair share of screentime to shine brilliantly, and Mary McDonnell is only one of many getting that chance here.

The rock solid core of the group is indeed Sidney Poitier’s Donald Crease.  The moment he knows they’re all in danger, Crease exercises his CIA instincts, and shows he’s a tactically sound professional.  Poitier definitely shows he can be a solid bad ass in this role, but still delivers on the fun and humor.  Of course, for the role of Mother, there was no more perfect choice than Dan Aykroyd.  The rapid fire conspiracy theory dialogue, and the sharp wit completely fit his talent.  David Strathairn is wonderfully exuberant really doing a remarkably fun job as Whistler.  Watching this blind sound expert be the wheelman for their escape in the climax, driving the team’s van full speed through a parking lot, is just a brilliant, joyful moment.  And the late River Phoenix shows the charming innocence of Carl adding the authentic youthful naivety to this team.

Cosmo is really smartly handled by Ben Kingsley.  It’s an especially great idea having the film’s antagonist being an old friend of Martin’s, and to see how these two have diverged down different paths.  Cosmo became swallowed up by the criminal underworld, and held onto his youthful beliefs of radically altering the world through crooked computer activities.  Wiping out world economies and collapsing the system started out as youthful idealism, and grew into a rather disillusioned ruthless criminal.  However, Kingsley so wisely plays things down and subtly serious.  He has a lot of the same wide eyed wonder as the rest of the cast, but it’s tempered by this man who has felt abandoned and betrayed by his best friend.  By the end, there’s something sad about this character as Martin pretty much pities him.  Ultimately, the film is about Martin and Cosmo resolving their pasts, but it’s Martin who has been able to move beyond it into a brighter future.

The score by James Horner is really delightful.  The light melodies he sprinkles into the film to maintain the sense of fun and adventure are the true highlight.  However, the more dramatic scenes, especially when the film gets perilous or tightly suspenseful, are intensely excellent.  Horner’s execution of the score is directly in line with Phil Alden Robinson’s superb and intelligent direction.  He enhances what Robinson does on screen with great inspiration in all musical aspects of his work.

Beyond anything else, Sneakers is especially clever.  The sequence where the guys discover what the black box is, and Martin decodes “Setec Astronomy” with the help of a Scrabble board game is just so smart and a little whimsical.  And when Martin goes to the Russian delegate for answers, there’s a brilliant moment where he steps out of the light and into the shadows to say, “Trust me.”  It’s artistic flourishes like that which show Robinson just knew how to weave the dramatic weight of an espionage thriller into this light-hearted adventure.  This really is some of the smartest direction I have seen because both the lighter and heavier aspects of the film are executed with equally brilliant skill.

It’s quite striking that the ideas of the world being controlled by information presented here are even more relevant now than they were twenty years ago.  It’s surprising how much of what’s discussed and brought up in Sneakers rings true to what we hear in the news every day.  Now, more than ever, does information and knowledge equal power, and people wield information like a sword.  Cosmo believes in that with absolute certainty, and wants to be the one who can shut it all down with a keystroke.  Yet, you will absolutely walk away from Sneakers with a plentiful feeling of enjoyment because it is such a charming experience.

Still, I find it so difficult to accurately categorize this film in a predominant genre because all of the humor is wonderfully delightful, the drama is perfectly nailed, and the action is purely thrilling.  Most importantly, Sneakers just has a lot of heart in it through and through.  There’s plenty of fun to be had with it while still getting a substantive story, a touch of heartfelt emotion, and a set of great performances out of it.  The cast is a joyful delight with chemistry and charisma to spare.  There’s really so much to love and adore about this film.  If you enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven or even this year’s Now You See Me, I think you will fall totally in love with Sneakers.  It is so amazingly well executed that I wish Phil Alden Robinson, the director also behind Field of Dreams, would direct even more films of this superb quality.  There will always be a place in cinema for something that can deliver on the dramatic excellence while providing us a great breadth of clever humor.  If any one word does sum up Sneakers for me, it is “delightful.”


Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Marked For Death (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cobra (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nighthawks (1981)

NighthawksThis is one of those Sylvester Stallone gems that both seems like it’s gained a respected following, but has never become a high profile hit.  It doesn’t fall into the light hearted fare like Tango & Cash or Demolition Man or the substantive drama of Rocky or First Blood.  Instead, this is a very good gritty cop thriller with a definite 1970’s aesthetic boasting a great performance by Rutger Hauer that foreshadows his acclaimed work in Blade Runner and The HitcherNighthawks has its definite merits, but surely demonstrates why it’s a lesser noted film for Stallone.

When Europe’s most feared terrorist known as Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) explosively announces his presence in Manhattan, two elite undercover NYPD cops (Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams) are assigned to stop him before he strikes again.  However, the ruthless terrorist has other plans for the city – and the detectives – as he begins to hold its citizens in the grip of fear.

In the wake of big blockbuster successes like the Rocky and Rambo movies, and films with more flash and crowd pleasing excitement, you can understand how Nighthawks kind of flies under the radar.  It’s very grounded and much more low key.  It is also a slow building film with a focus on the psychological aspects of its main adversaries, and capturing that gritty, urban New York street cop vibe.  Still, within that context, you’ve got a very admirable crime thriller here lead by some strong casting choices across the board.

I really believe Stallone leads this film quite well.  Detective Sergeant Deke DaSilva is a solid cop who doesn’t back down easily.  He takes on crime with intensity and fierce dedication, even if it costs him his marriage or his well being.  Stallone makes DaSilva a tough cop, but one with a morality and heart.  Despite the fallout with his wife, Deke still desires that loving connection, and he won’t become the cold blooded assassin that the British counter-terrorism specialist wants him to become.  Stallone does a solid job keeping DaSilva true to who he is sticking to his principals as a seasoned cop, doing his duty, but doing it his own way.  We see him as a perceptive, smart cop that is dogged in his pursuit of Wulfgar.

As DaSilva’s partner, Detective Sergeant Matthew Fox, Billy Dee Williams entirely carries his own.  Fox can be more even tempered and flexible than DaSilva, allowing for him to keep his more passionate partner grounded and focused.  Billy Dee also has some playful moments adding a few minor moments of levity as, again, a counterbalance to Stallone’s harder edge intensity.  Still, when the situation gets serious, Fox is as solid of a cop as anyone.

Rutger Hauer has shown his talent for brilliance, and Wulfgar is no exception.  He brings a cold, calculating sophistication that forges his gravitas.  When Hauer is on in a film, he captivates your attention with a electrifying presence, and he does that here.  As Wulfgar, he can be frightening because as dedicated as DaSilva is, Wulfgar is equally so to his cause.  You know he’s a sociopathic killer who is a vehement believer in these radical causes.  He’s more than just a hired gun, and that makes him immensely more dangerous.  It’s not about money for him.  He inflicts this death and terror for a political purpose that he believes in, and he is not going to stop.  As the British counter-terrorism specialist says, “He’s only beginning.”

I also have to give some praise to Joe Spinell who portrays Lieutenant Munafo.  While his role is minimal, he’s damn good carrying a commanding weight and authority.  He mainly works opposite Stallone, and keeps the somewhat hot headed DaSilva in line very convincingly.  Of course, Persis Khambatta complements Hauer extremely well as the dangerous, cold-hearted Shakka.  It’s a polar opposite turn from her role in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and that is largely welcomed along with her rich, beautiful black hair.

Like I said, this feels entirely like a 1970’s cop film with the gritty style, Earth toned fashions, Stallone’s beard, and sort of a streetwise funky vibe of the score.  It might be an early 80’s film, but you can find plenty of bleed over from the previous decade through to about 1983.  Considering this started out as a second sequel to The French Connection, it’s easy to see why this works so well in that context.  The pacing is methodical lending more towards the dramatic development than excitement.  The film could probably use a little more excitement to ramp up the danger and stakes in the second act, but especially for its time, this was quite good.

Now, Nighthawks surely has a few action set pieces including a great foot chase through the New York streets and into the subway.  However, it is very much a thriller built on suspense and tension.  Stallone and Hauer create this electrifying connection which drives the entire film.  The sequence on the Roosevelt Island tram is a great example of those personalities at conflict enhancing the peril of Wulfgar’s game.  His terrorism is no longer just about a cause, but a game of wits between both men.  Wulfgar toys with DaSilva, bringing him in so close, forcing the Sergeant to look him in the eye time and again, but denying him at choice to fight back.  This results in a nicely solid and taut piece of work.  The ending is superb focusing on a great deal of suspense and imminent peril, but I would think a modern audience might feel it’s not as climactic as it could be.  This ending has become the most memorable aspect of Nighthawks, and it is executed with great care and a few inspired visuals.

As I said, this is a film build as a slow boil thriller than an exciting action ride, and I feel it succeeds at that.  Surely, more could have been done to intensify the narrative and build more momentum going into its climax.  Regardless, I’ve always appreciated and enjoyed Nighthawks.  Stallone does a really solid job complemented well by Billy Dee’s supporting role, and greatly counterbalanced by Rutger Hauer’s chilling brilliance.  If you enjoy the work of either Stallone or Hauer, I definitely believe this is one you should not overlook.  Bruce Malmuth did a fine directing job here, but in a fourteen year career, he never had a breakout hit.  His only other high point was the decently effective Steven Seagal action vehicle Hard to Kill.  With Nighthawks, it’s a nicely solid film that likely won’t blow you away, but may indeed intrigue you through the high quality performances it offers.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesMy 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!


Now You See Me (2013)

Now You See MeThis film of magical heists and mystery looked like just a fairly fun outing from the trailers, and I’m glad to say that is what I received.  Now You See Me has a great cast of talent that delivers, a script that is smart enough, and a premise that maintains your interest to see where the next twist will take you.  It’s not brilliant, but it is well designed to entertain.

An elite FBI squad, led by Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), is pitted in a game of cat and mouse against “The Four Horsemen,” (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, David Franco) a super-team of the world’s greatest illusionists who a year ago were mere street performers.  “The Four Horsemen” pull off a series of daring heists against corrupt business leaders during their performances, showering the stolen profits on their audiences while staying one step ahead of the law.  Their sensationalistic crimes also ensnare the attention of Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who now debunks and exposes the tricks of magicians for his own gain.  As the Horsemen’s grand game of misdirection and slight of hand escalates towards their grand finale, it’s a cunning game of wits for all to pull the curtain back to unveil the hidden truth behind it all.

Indeed, what sells this film in general is the excellent acting talents involved.  Morgan Freeman is surefire as this former magician who now seeks to debunk the best in the business for higher fortune.  He keeps the riddles twisting around the audience leading us on, but never fully revealing the next step.  How he deconstructs how the Four Horsemen executed their tricks and heists is smartly done.  Freeman does a wonderful job here bringing his usual intellectual savvy to this perceptive character.

The Horsemen themselves are vibrantly portrayed with Jesse Eisenberg being the strongest of them as J. Daniel Atlas.  He really projects some smart, quick witted savvy that demonstrates Daniel’s leadership, and his humorous banter with his co-stars is quick and sharp.  He definitely feels like the guy who could outsmart anyone in the room, and do it with style.  Isla Fisher plays nicely off of Eisenberg as Henley and Daniel have some romantic fallout between them, but it’s kept light and smart.  Woody Harrelson puts in a real good performance showing Merritt McKinley to be a very intuitive personality from his skills as a mentalist.  He can read people up and down, inside and out to pull little hints of information from them, and Harrelson uses that to solid comedic effect.  Dave Franco might seem like the weak link in the team, by design, but he eventually gets his moments to shine as street hustler Jack Wilder.  Altogether, this is a great foursome of sharp talents that never upstage one another, but instead, complement each other in a cohesive fashion.  They’re very fun to watch.

And of course, Mark Ruffalo is a charming treat as Dylan Rhodes.  Ruffalo brings charisma and a rough edge to Rhodes, but maintains him as an enjoyable, smart guy that you can connect with.  He is always portrayed as a competent and solid FBI Agent, but you see him trying to deconstruct all of these theatrics with regular investigative work.  So, it’s a fun ride to see him weave through it all dealing with Thaddeus Bradley as well as French Interpol Agent Dray, who you’re given reason to suspect as being not entirely as she seems.  Ruffalo has decent chemistry with Mélanie Laurent.  There are never sparks flying between them, but it’s an honest and sweet pairing that has its light humor and genuineness.  Basically, if you liked what Ruffalo did as Bruce Banner in The Avengers, I think you’ll enjoy the humor, heart, and charisma he brings forth here.

The visual effects throughout the film are very excellent.  They sell the flash and style of the Horsemen’s illusions with stellar results.  There might be one or two moments where the CGI isn’t as good as it is elsewhere, but in the vast majority, this is seamless and awesome work.  It gives the film its visual flare and style.  And it is an exceptionally well shot movie.  Director Louis Leterrier really knows how to put together a visually solid movie as I did very much enjoy The Incredible Hulk, and the integration of visual effects into live action is superbly done under his direction.  Leterrier beautifully utilizes all the rich talent he has at this disposal here, and executes this script with smart direction that kept me engaged and guessing.

And while I expected fun and flashiness, I was pleasantly surprised that the film had some nice action sequences.  There’s a decently well stage foot chase through the crowded streets of New Orleans with some clever beats.  Later on, when the FBI is closing in on the Horsemen, we get an extremely impressive and acrobatic fight scene with Franco and Ruffalo.  There’s some great, fast, and fluid moves in this that just stunned me from Dave Franco.  He’s combating people with swift actions like that of a ninja, and this sequence showcases smarts and sharpness in every second.  Following this, there’s a really good car chase through Manhattan, New York.  All of this action is very well done with only a few minor moments of shaky cam, but it ultimately came out to be very pleasing.  The film’s climax isn’t really action based, but focused on the story and motives behind this elaborate magic trick.  It unfolds nicely with fine dramatic beats, but surely, I won’t be spoiling any of these well written and executed reveals to you at all.

How the mystery all plays out is engaging and intriguing.  I kind of view the movie, going in, as The Prestige crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, and that’s generally how to look at it in concept.  It doesn’t match the brilliance of either of those films, but as I said, it’s a fun, entertaining experience.  It is the twisting and turning puzzle that the Horsemen are constructing that make it interesting.  You don’t know what the next trick will be, but it’s about even more than that.  It’s not just the magic that they perform and how they did it, but the motives behind it keep you guessing.  It’s cleverly designed through and through.  How it’s all setup with a mysterious benefactor bringing together and enabling this foursome, even the Horsemen don’t know the full truth, and so, there is a layered mystery at hand.  The FBI is just interested in catching these performers in the act of the crime, and Bradley is interested in burning them down for his own self-serving fame and fortune.  So, everyone has their motives, and they all nicely interweave into the reveals at the film’s end.  The ultimate twist is something I’m a little divided on.  I liked the moment of the reveal as it is dramatically and beautifully played, but it wasn’t quite setup in the film.  All of the other pieces are there to assemble the motives and interwoven storylines together.  As a magic trick played on a grand canvas, this film does a really excellent job of doing that.  The ultimate reveal just felt like it needed a little more punch.  Something like a Keyser Söze reveal where the clues were there the whole time, but you couldn’t pick up on them.  Something subtle, something between the lines that would strike you at just the right moment.  I could figure out the why, but not entirely who amongst this cast or beyond would be the Horsemen’s ultimate benefactor.  It’s far away from being a poor ending, but it could’ve benefitted from a little more setup.

Frankly, I think Now You See Me is just a fun time to have at the movie theatre.  I’m sure if you went into it with a critical mind you could nitpick it apart, and see how really unbelievable the plot is in all its little nuances.  Thankfully, I was enjoying myself consistently throughout this movie, and was able to sit back, relax, and just have a pleasant time with it.  Just like magic, you have to let your mind go and just allow yourself to be entertained by the cleverness and spectacle at hand.  The film is smartly written overall, in my opinion, and I found that there was plenty of subtle setup and pay-off for practically everything in here.  This film captures the spirit of magic very well, and it’s almost refreshing to see a film of so many vibrant characters without a real villain in the mix.  Everyone is enjoyable in their own ways, and next to no one is tinged with villainy.  It’s just a fun ride that I think essentially anyone can enjoy if they’re willing to just embrace it.


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.


Bad Boys (1995)

Bad BoysPeople like to rag on Michael Bay a lot, but most forget he has a few gems amongst the over bloated messes in his filmography.  Quite frankly, I believe his first movie was his best, and that is indeed Bad Boys.  Burdened with a really bad script written for a Dana Carvey / Jon Lovitz comedy vehicle, Bay relied heavily on the comedic smarts and chemistry of Martin Lawrence and Will Smith to salvage it with extensive improvisation.  What he got was an exceptionally well made, tightly paced, and sharply stylized charismatic action hit.

One hundred million dollars worth of confiscated heroin has just been jacked from police custody.  Once the career bust of Detectives Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence), the missing drugs now threaten to shut down the narcotics division of the Miami Police Department.  The thieves turn deadly when they murder one of their own, a once crooked cop, and Maxine, a beautiful call girl who was a close friend of Mike’s.  Now, the only witness to this double murder and the link to recovering the dope is Maxine’s friend Julie (Téa Leoni), who must come under the protective custody of Lowery and Burnett before these criminals eliminate her permanently.

What really grabs me about Bad Boys is how sharp and funny Lawrence and Smith are.  These two have excellent chemistry that would be hard to constrain, but I think Bay had himself in sync with these two.  He directed their banter down the right line which wholly fits their characters, and never allows it to go on a wild tangent.  I like the quick scenes early on that just have them trading comedic blows, but it serves a purpose to build the characters and establish their relationship.  The opening scene is a big favorite of mine.  This is Michael Bay focused and driven to deliver something impressive.  He had something to prove in his directorial debut, and the script he had was so horrible even he called it a “piece of shit.”  I only wish he still had those standards today.  So, it was a lot of pressure making Bad Boys, but he surrounded himself in extremely talented individuals like Smith and Lawrence along with two blockbuster producers to make this a success.

This has all the hallmarks of a Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer production.  It’s slick, stylish, fresh, and exciting.  I miss the time where producers like them or even Joel Silver alone influenced the quality and style of the movies.  They were as big of a mark of quality as the right director.  Bay’s style is also evident here with a lot of dynamic camera angles, beautiful dramatic lighting, and some gorgeous sweeping camera movements.  Bay creates a very visually stunning work that energizes the movie, raising it up to a very high quality cinematic level.  It absolutely has that 1990’s music video visual scope and beauty which was essentially originated and refined by Bay.  There’s some elegant and artistic production designs throughout that just give it an extra flare of style that does feel very Miami.  The film also has very tight editing keeping the story moving forward at a great clip.  Unlike many later Michael Bay films, it doesn’t languish on indulgences in comedy and frivolousness.  Yes, there are almost straight comedy bits in there, but they just add to the fun of the movie.

The dramatic aspects of the film are handled as amazingly as the comedy.  There are several moments in the film where the impact of Maxine’s death reverberates and resonates.  Bay gives it epic weight to propel the motivations forward for Julie and Mike.  In many of Bay’s later films, those qualities are often drowned out by too much bad comedy or just poor characterizations.  Here, he shows he knew how to do it right.

I know there are many who find Martin Lawrence irritating, to say the least.  I can see that, but I just feel he does his best in this movie, especially when he has someone like Will Smith to work off of.  Marcus Burnett is a guy with a lot of stresses on him from not getting his “quality time” at home, and the constant danger everyone keeps getting him into.  The biggest being having to impersonate Mike for the sake of securing Julie, who trusts Lowery solely, and being forced to lie to his own wife about the arrangement.  So, the wiseass quips and abrasive attitude are dead-on-the-mark.  It also creates the classic buddy cop dynamic of conflicting personalities.  Mike is smooth and competent while Marcus is more excitable and apprehensive.

Of course, Will Smith is charming and charismatic, but injects a lot of toughness and conviction into Mike Lowery.  He’s not just a smooth player.  He’s a dedicated, determined, wicked good cop that works situations with savvy and sharp aggression.  Mike might be a rich kid with a comfortable lifestyle, but as he says he “pushes it to the max every day.”  It’s a great dynamic between Burnett and Lowery, and this performance showed Will Smith to be a vastly marketable leading man and action capable actor.  Proving that statement is the fact that his very next film was Independence Day.

Téa Leoni is really great.  The panicked, emotionally unsettled part of her performance has a lot of weight and depth.  Yet, she makes the transition to the lighter tone smoothly with really good chemistry with Lawrence.  She becomes even more enjoyable when Julie figures out that Marcus is really Marcus, and not Mike.  She plays around with him, and that just adds a little more intelligence to her.  Most of all, Leoni creates a very sympathetic and likeable character.

While Joe Pantoliano portrays almost the stereotypical angry police Captain, he’s great at it.  As always, he’s smart and funny.  Captain Howard barks orders with the best of them, but you understand the stress he’s under.  The biggest bust his department’s ever achieved is lost, and all of their jobs are on the line under a very tight timetable.  He has to motivate his detectives to work fast and smart before all their time and luck has run out.  So, Pantoliano has that relatable quality where his yelling never overshadows the consummate cop underneath.

Tchéky Karyo gives us a fairly good villain.  If there’s any weak area of the film it’s not his performance, but Fouchet is not well developed.  It’s rather generic, but Karyo elevates it to a higher level through his very good presence and subtle touches he puts into it.  He can evoke a calm tension when he speaks softly, but can really punctuate greatly when the aggression is unleashed.  If Fouchet was a stronger villain on the page, I think the film would feel like it has a beefier pay-off.

I absolutely adore Mark Mancina’s score.  The main theme is beautiful and perfect with its slight Latin flavor, hip hop rhythm, rock electric guitar, and epic scale strings.  It’s an inspired meshing of musical styles that feel just perfect.  His overall work on this movie was big, heart pounding, and dramatic flowing perfectly with Michael Bay’s directorial style.  The entire soundtrack just hits the right 90’s intensity and style all the way through.

If there’s one thing that I’ve never seen disputed about Michael Bay is that he knows how to do action sequences amazingly well.  He really is a master of epic action using score and weighty slow motion shots to intensify every dangerous scenario.  The entire climax is excellently done with plenty of explosive moments and greatly satisfying action.  The final car chase is insanely intense with its great use of tight close-ups, tense, pounding music, and extremely tight editing.  The violent, dramatic quality of it all is just masterful.  This really does follow in the tradition of Tony Scott, but pushed to the next level.  That is probably much due to the Simpson / Bruckheimer backing.

While the story is rather simple and straight forward, it is populated with a lot of fun.  Bay keeps the mix of dramatic momentum and comedic wit appropriately balanced.  The comedy might be in abundance here, but it never dilutes or dwarfs the dramatic urgency of the storyline.  Both the comedy and action stick strongly in your mind after the film’s over.  It all just blends together smoothly and smartly for a wildly entertaining and fun ride.

Bad Boys really set the tone for late 90’s action.  Very polished and stylized cinematography, largely dramatic slow motion action, and just an epic feel all around.  It launched the careers of Bay and Smith into the stratosphere as two the biggest blockbuster names around, and for good reason.  While Bad Boys isn’t as big of an action movie as either of them or Simpson / Bruckheimer were involved with, it’s greatly fun, exciting, and spectacularly made.  Sharp, smart, and beautifully shot, this vibrantly showed that there was talent here to harness.  These days, I think Michael Bay could use some restraints and more focused vision like he had here.  Even Bad Boys II came off a bit over bloated and self-indulgent by taking what was great in this first movie and amplifying it beyond what it needed to be.  Still, if a third movie ever does eventually get made, I’m sure I’ll be game to give it a fair chance as you should definitely do for this movie, if you haven’t already.


Forever Cinematic Video Movie Reviews

Recently, in order to expand the exposure of Forever Cinematic, I have begun doing video movie reviews on YouTube.  Now armed with my new high-definition camcorder, I’m putting forth fast paced reviews that summarize my feelings and critiques on various films.  Mainly, I am reviewing newly released films alongside the written reviews, but in lulls between those reviews I am taking stuff from the archives to further publicize the back catalog of reviews I’ve done.  The video reviews are an extension of the written ones, and I will not be doing a video review of something I have not done a written review of first.  These video movie reviews only enhance the content, not replace it.

So far, listed below these are the video reviews I have done which are posted to the RavensFilm Productions YouTube Channel.  The first two were shot prior to obtaining my Sony HDR-CX580V camcorder, and so, they are in standard definition quality.  From Miami Vice forward, you get 720p HD in 24fps which is a massive upgrade on every technical level.  There will also be occasional Forever Cinematic “Specials” where I maybe do a Top 5 list, spotlight some bad movies I own, do a run through of my complete Star Wars home video collection, or whatever else strikes me as fun and entertaining.  I hope you will enjoy these videos, share them around, and subscribe to the RavensFilm Productions YouTube Channel to catch all the new videos as they are posted.  Thanks much!


Collateral (2004)

CollateralOn a midnight screening in August, 2004, my entire filmmaking aspirations changed with this film.  While I had seen Thief previously, Collateral struck a brilliant, fascinating chord in my creative mind.  While I consider The Insider to be Michael Mann’s best film to date, and Manhunter to be my favorite, there is a special unique quality to this movie that I love.  I believe it stems from the atmosphere of isolation and nature of introspection that Mann delves into.  Above all else, Tom Cruise puts in one of the best performances of his career under Mann’s direction.

Max (Jamie Foxx) has lived the mundane life of a cab driver for 12 years.  The faces have come and gone from his rearview mirror, people and places he’s long since forgotten – until tonight.  Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a contract killer.  When an offshore narco-trafficking cartel learns they are about to be indicted by a federal grand jury, they mount an operation to identify and kill the key witnesses, and the last stage is tonight.  Tonight, Vincent arrives in L.A., and five bodies are supposed to fall.  Circumstances cause Vincent to hijack Max’s taxicab, and Max becomes collateral – an expendable person in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Through the night, Vincent forces Max to drive him to each destination.  And as the LAPD and FBI race to intercept them, Max and Vincent’s survival becomes dependant on each other in ways neither would have imagined.

I love how the movie is soaked into this dark, isolated feeling of the night.  While the film has those first few minutes of transition from the late afternoon into nightfall, it feels right.  We are getting an easy, gradual introduction to Max along with a very brief and enigmatic one to Vincent.  At this point, the film is relaxed and getting you comfortable, but once night sets in, the mood begins to soak in.  Los Angeles descends into this sparse, disconnected landscape.  There’s a sense of vast emptiness which isolates our characters into a somber atmosphere.  There maybe pedestrians in the background, traffic on the roads, but Max and Vincent are in their own reclusive scenario apart from the awareness of anyone around them.  Michael Mann achieves that deeply penetrating mood throughout the movie with a brilliant use of cinematography, music, and environments.  The nighttime world of Los Angeles is alive with danger and lethal threats on an ever-accelerating ride into darkness.

In the beginning of the film, there’s some lovely, heartfelt chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett-Smith in a cab ride together.  It’s a beautiful, warm introduction to both characters who we need to greatly empathize with as the film progresses.  This is especially true for Pinkett-Smith’s character of Annie, a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney, who doesn’t return to the film until the final act, but she makes such a wonderful, adoring impression that we haven’t forgotten a thing about her by then.  Both actors make a rich use of those few minutes of screentime together, and Michael Mann really strikes a different chord than he has before.  In his other films, it’s usually two people that have already had some history together, or are already married with some kind of emotional or ideological strain upon them.  We hardly see the initial spark of a romantic relationship, and never has it been this sweet and charming.  Jada Pinkett-Smith does a spectacular job in this role throughout all the light-hearted, heart-warming, and emotionally and physically intense demands upon her.

Jamie Foxx surely deserved the supporting actor Oscar nomination he got here.  He absorbs himself fully into Max, grasping the details of the character with a lot of care.  Max is surely a flawed person, but that’s what makes him relatable and real.  Max is an entirely unlikely hero.  He’s just a cab driver opposing a trained professional killer, but it’s that intensely real fear and genuine humanity of Max that makes him work.  He’s not designed to battle Vincent on a physical level.  Instead, it’s slowly getting into Vincent’s head, unraveling who he is and how he works that allows Max to gain some measure of courage to fight back against him.  However, it’s that journey from the guy who can’t even muster up the courage to ask Annie for her phone number, let alone out on a date, to someone that does take a stand against this cold, vicious killing machine which makes Foxx’s performance amazing.  It’s Max’s experience with Vincent, especially when he’s forced to impersonate Vincent in a meeting with cartel lord Felix, that begins to bring out that self-confidence.  Vincent repeatedly criticizes Max for taking abuse from his boss, allowing his mother to believe in false truths about his line of work, and being a general pushover that inadvertently mold and motivate Max into being an adversary instead of a frightened hostage.  Your attention might gravitate to the stronger personality of Vincent as the standout, but Jamie Foxx delivers a very textured, emotionally realistic, and genuine performance that does have a lot of substance and standout qualities about it.

Tom Cruise starts out as his usual charming self as Vincent, who warms himself up to Max so to convince him to hang with him through the night, feeding him a story of being a real estate agent.  It’s then a beautiful turn when that cold, calculating sociopath emerges.  That intimidating edge shows through immediately, and I love that you can see the gears turning in Vincent’s head.  He checks his surroundings, seeing who might’ve witnessed the dead body crashing onto Max’s cab, and determines his next move.  This is the detail Michael Mann instills in his actors in order to portray these characters as realistic, intelligent people with a specific way of thinking and reacting with a depth of history that stretches beyond the context of this story.  Vincent is a fascinating character with a complexity and depth that is the brilliant result of Mann and Cruise’s collaboration mixed with Stuart Beattie’s excellent screenplay.  He is a stone cold sociopath that has a justification for everything he does, and he regularly tries to impart that onto Max.  Perceiving a few dead bodies as insignificant on a cosmic scale makes it no wonder that he is so disassociated from any semblance of humanity.  Most of us rarely think of the repercussions of our actions on even a global scale, and the closer, more immediate the consequences are, the greater they have impact on our choices.  Vincent is likely the epitome of Neil McCauley’s “thirty seconds flat” rule from Heat of abandoning everything at a moment’s notice in order to stay ahead of the law.  McCauley dictated that in order to do so, you must not have attachments to anyone or anything, or risk being caught.  However, Vincent is even more than that as there’s clearly a far deeper, more emotionally fractured explanation for being as he is, and it is not just from a matter of staying out of a prison cell.  Tom Cruise conveys that complexity with masterful skill and a dash of natural charisma that makes him compelling.  There is so much depth and nuance to what Tom Cruise delivers in this performance of a sociopathic hitman that finds himself slowing cracking throughout this night that I couldn’t possibly detail all of it without making this into an entire essay about him.  If you want that, I immensely suggest listening to Michael Mann’s commentary on the film.  It provides more detailed insight than I can do justice to here.  In short, Tom Cruise is riveting and brilliant as Vincent, and delivers a relentless performance unlike any you’ve seen from him.  He’s an entirely different, fully absorbed animal in this film, and Vincent is a testament to Mann’s extensive work of building a character from the ground up, from the inside out with a massively talented actor.

The scene that sells the lethal threat of Vincent is the incident with the gangbangers who steal his briefcase.  The razor sharp reflexes he demonstrates in taking both of them down is near unreal, and shows that this is a man of hard earned, professional skills that should not be tested.  If he wants you dead, you’ll be a corpse before you know it.  As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, Tom Cruise is an amazingly dedicated physical actor.  He will put himself through whatever rigorous training is necessary to make his performance everything it needs to be on every level.  These skills are not learned easily or quickly.  Cruise had handled firearms before in the Mission: Impossible films, but this was a whole different level of discipline and dedication.  And indeed, it shows through in how he carries himself, how he cases his surroundings, and operates like an efficient machine in every action sequence.  He creates a full, total package that gravitates energy around him.

Furthermore, I really like Mark Ruffalo as Detective Fanning.  His look is excellent as a narcotics cop who looks like a dealer, but seeing him in the thick of things, you can see this is an LAPD Detective that is intelligent, instinctive, and seasoned.  He’s a consummate professional, but is also very streetwise and perceptive.  Ruffalo strikes that perfect balance which makes both work cohesively.  Fanning follows through on his instincts and intellect despite anyone’s insistence to the contrary, making him a capable secondary protagonist an audience can get behind.  He’s hotly on the trail of what’s going on as more and more bodies go down, and that motivates the law enforcement end of the story forward as they try to secure what witnesses they have left before Vincent can eliminate them.

Collateral is filled with solid supporting actors like Peter Berg’s combative Detective Weidner or Bruce McGill’s hard edged FBI Agent Pedrosa.  However, the two best standouts are Barry Shabaka Henley and Javier Bardem.  Henley portrays Daniel, the owner of a jazz club, and he gives us two brilliant showings in his scene.  The first is Daniel’s passion for jazz music as he relates a story about meeting Miles Davis, and the stunning impression it made in his life.  Then, when the scene turns imminently lethal, we see the purely human fear and subtle tremble that courses through his body.  It’s an inspired performance, and Daniel is someone that has a noticeable resonance upon Vincent.  This is the first moment where we see his sociopathic exterior cracking, and it is a gorgeous moment of dramatic and emotional storytelling.

Javier Bardem is just excellent as the cartel lord Felix.  He’s strongly intimidating and intelligent, but one of conservative emotion.  You can see the fire underneath when he learns that Vincent has lost his hitlist, but he’s a confident man that knows how to deal with problems decisively but has a short tolerance for failure.  Bardem has only one scene, but he makes a strong, intriguing impression that resonates for a quite a while after his screentime has ended.  It’s stellar work by him all around.

I think Collateral is possibly the Michael Mann film that most deeply peers into its lead characters.  While Manhunter gets very deep into their psychology, Collateral is focused more on the emotional level.  It shows what makes Vincent and Max who they are from the heart and soul outwards.  These two starkly different men are inexplicably connected on this violent, dangerous ride, and they each peer deeper into one another’s souls.  Collateral simply broods with this fascinating level of deep, introspective drama making itself just as much about the complex nature of its characters as it is about its adrenalin pumping danger and occasional action.

One of the things that attracted Michael Mann to this project was the idea of a compressed timeline.  All events take place over a single night which creates an inherent energy and urgency to the story and the actions of the characters.  Everything’s going down now, and there’s no tomorrow to deal with it.  There’s also the great feeling like we’re in the third act of another story, that of Felix’s impending indictment.  All of these events have already taken place to move these people into these exact situations on this night, and we’re dropped into a story where everything is already in motion.  Everything’s moving forward at a brisk pace, and there’s no slowing down now.  The whole movie has this feeling of an impending deadline.  The feeling that we’ve long passed the point of no return well before this movie began, and it’s all full speed ahead from here.  It’s not a film of break neck pace, but Mann is able to maintain that sense of urgency very cleverly through the actions and behavior of these characters.  The pacing itself is great, tight, and dead-on.  There’s such a great punctuation of drama and emotion using everything Mann has at his disposal at exactly the right doses at exactly the right times.  It’s an amazingly well edited movie.

Collateral features an awesome collection of score and music from eclectic artists.  The primary score is provided by James Newton Howard who creates the most emotional and stirring cues of the film.  It has the most presence and creates the grim sense of isolation and somber reality.  Howard is also responsible for the long form, tense, suspenseful, and ultimately, driving percussion score in the film’s action climax.  Antonio Pinto also has some excellent pieces of score that really penetrate the soul of select moments.  The addition of Audioslave to the soundtrack was a stroke of genius as “Shadow On The Sun” perfectly fits the vibe and tone of this movie.  It’s only one track, but it is used in a very memorable sequence.  Appropriately, we get some jazz in there, and a few other contemporary music tracks that oddly don’t feel dated in the least.  It’s been nearly nine years since the film’s release, and it still feels fresh, original, and excitingly new to me.  I own this soundtrack, and it is still a wonderful, moody listen to this day.

The vast majority of Collateral was shot on high definition digital video, and for this movie, it works beautifully and brilliantly.  Mann knew he couldn’t get that depth of clarity to see into the nighttime landscape of L.A. if he shot on film.  So, he embraced this new technology to create a signature look for Collateral.  What makes it work for this movie where it didn’t as much for Miami Vice or especially Public Enemies is how well it is shot.  I believe the cinematography work of Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe should have been given far more recognition at the time than it did.  It got some nominations and wins from a few organizations, but it may have been the unique digital video look of the movie that might have deterred some.  I embraced this look, and it inspired me to no end.  It still does.  Collateral is a brilliantly shot movie with an amazing use of color temperatures that evoke certain moods throughout.  It’s much different than Manhunter in that its feels very urban and grounded with the sodium vapor and mercury vapor street lights creating diffused orange, green, and turquoise tones.  It just makes the night come alive in a new way that had never been achieved with such vibrant, dramatic results before.  It’s also remarkable how so much of the film takes place in that cab, and each scene gives us a new camera angle or composition that suits the context of that scene.  It never gets repetitive or dull.  These filmmakers had to get inventive, and they ultimately achieved something with get artistic value.  There is plenty of handheld work, but it’s done immensely well.  Public Enemies was a blatant example of doing it terribly, and Miami Vice simply employed it too much to where it almost became a crutch.  The cinematography of Collateral is very similar to that in The Insider, but progressed further and given more vibrancy than before.  And those overhead aerial shots of Los Angeles are simply striking and inspired.  I’ve since seen this replicated in many other films and television shows, and I immediately make the connection back to Collateral when I do.

We have very few action scenes here, but the large doses we get are riveting and awesome.  The biggest is the Korean night club sequence where Max, Vincent, the FBI, and more converge in a violent exchange of physicality and gunfire.  It’s an excellently done sequence with sharp editing and a pulsating remix of Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready Steady Go.”  Vincent weaves his way through the sea of club-goers, dispatching of bodyguards with merciless efficiency, but it ultimately all breaks down into chaos.  Yet, it is this turning point in the film where all the law enforcement and other elements surrounding Max and Vincent are stripped away, and we’re left with a lean, intense final act.  As Vincent hunts his final target through a dark office of reflective surfaces, we are treated to some taut suspense and edge-of-your-seat tension.  This is another instance where only digital video could’ve been used.  On film, this would’ve been an unintelligible blob of nothing, but the high definition video gives the low light detail that feels so atmospheric and visually amazing.  The climax is just excellently done on so many levels, and ends with poignant drama.  I know there was a time early on that I felt the ending left a little to be desired, but I’ve since gained the understanding of it all with full respect and appreciation.  This is a very introspective film that documents Vincent’s somber emotional deterioration over this one night, and it ends with a weight of purpose and ironic reflection.  The climax might be very adrenalin pumping, ramping up the imminent, lethal danger of Max and Annie, but the final moments resolve the character depth and emotional resonance we’ve seen build up throughout this film.  It is a brilliant work of screenwriting by Stuart Beattie forged and meticulously crafted by the masterful talent of Michael Mann.

This is an amazing film that has a different substance of depth than Mann had given us before, and wraps that up in a very riveting, tense crime thriller.  Cruise and Foxx have excellent chemistry together that even sparks one or two humorous beats.  It’s just a great, happy surprise sparked from two great talents that have that charismatic spark of brilliance.  Overall, it’s a film that still inspires and drives me to this day to be a creative filmmaker in the dark crime genre where characters like Vincent are immensely fascinating, complex, and violent individuals.  I reference Michael Mann’s work often enough in my reviews of crime thrillers that I definitely want to actually get more reviews of his films done.  I’ve already done Miami Vice and Manhunter, but those were a good year apart.  Collateral should be the start of me covering more of his filmography in a shorter span of time with Thief, Heat, and The Insider surely on my slate for this year.  Reviews like this are more than just telling you if the movie is good or bad, but instead, they are delving into the depth of it all to really discover what truly makes it great and why it has enthralled me so much.  However, look for some potentially shorter reviews soon for a few soon-to-be-released movies that I hope will be quite good, but we’ll see.


The Exterminator (1980)

The ExterminatorIn 1980, writer / director James Glickenhaus brought us a gritty exploitation vigilante film known as The Exterminator.  I have some mixed statements to make about this film.  It has some great elements, but also some qualities that felt less than great.  A bad film it is not, but it has a few lackluster areas where some more refined filmmaking techniques would have sold me stronger on it.

Vietnam vet John Eastland (Ginty) launches a bloody vendetta against the New York underworld when his best friend Michael Jefferson (Steve James) is brutally beaten and paralyzed by a vicious street gang. Eastland becomes a vigilante hero to the public, but to police The Exterminator is a psychopath capable of dangerously undermining an entire government administration.

What’s of the most special note here is that Robert Ginty is a surprisingly solid fit for this role.  He looks like an average guy, clean cut, regular slender build.  He doesn’t look like the muscle bound bad ass the poster infers the Exterminator to be.  If made in the latter half of this decade with studio backing, you would’ve seen a Stallone or Schwarzenegger type actor mandated by a studio.  Ginty is unassuming, but delivers on the grim mentalities of the role.  He has his moments of compassion, showing that humanity is his motivating factor, but when he shifts into that vigilante mode, he’s a merciless, graphically violent force to contend with.  Overall, Ginty does a very, very good job in this role.  His performance compelled my interest in the movie.

The action and vigilante violence sequences are all excellently executed.  This is the film’s energy and weight.  Whenever Eastland goes out into that night to exact his own brand of justice on the criminal element, the film becomes alive and riveting.  These are expertly done sequences portraying the violence in a very gritty, realistic fashion, and having the visceral reaction desired.  The violence he inflicts includes a lot of bullets, burning a guy alive, and dropping someone into a meat grinder.  It’s all done in a very cold, decisive fashion.  Eastland is calculating and intelligent.  He’s not being controlled by passions.  He remains focused and level headed all the way through the film, and it creates a solid, intimidating screen presence that I really liked.  This is clearly an exploitation film showcasing the violence in unrelenting fashion, but with enough restraint to not try to shock you at every turn.  You get enough to sell the violence and gruesome victimization at hand, but it never drowns you in graphic visuals.  When I talk about gory horror films, I say it takes no skill to splatter gore all over the camera lens, but to know how to use the violence effectively against the audience does show skill.

The rest of the cast is okay, but with no standouts.  Christopher George is quite good as Detective James Dalton, and especially early on he seemed like a perfect fit for a tough cop.  His performance never goes down in quality, but the character is softened through the Dr. Megan Stewart romantic storyline to where he loses some weight and edge that was demonstrated from the outset.  He handles all the aspects of the role well, but he never really jumped out and gripped my attention.  I was more intrigued by Ginty’s screentime, frankly.

In the least, everyone in the film feels authentic to the time of that late 70’s New York grit.  There are the seedy, sleazy characters that are entirely credible, and are presented quite matter-of-factly.  Their sadistic, salacious acts are unsettling to a viewer, but it’s presented as being an honest look into the darker side of this urban criminal underworld.  This is reality in this era, and this film is not going to make any apologies for it.  This is the despicable activity going on in the shadows of this city, and Eastland is not going to allow it to continue.  I really like that idea, but I do think the film could have done a stronger job building up the character and his emotional motivations.

The Exterminator does feel very indicative of the time it was made.  Beyond just the violent, dark, cynical film that the late 1970’s would produce, the style of filmmaking is not uncommon for something of this ilk.  I would hold Walter Hill’s The Warriors to be the finest example of a 1970’s style hard edged, urban action movie.  The Exterminator is a much more methodically paced film, and tries to focus on mood more than a fast-paced intensity.  Still, there are aspects of pacing, structure, and atmosphere that I feel could’ve been improved to enhance that intention.  These are relatively minor things, but elements that make a marked difference.

For instance, the film feels like it cuts out a huge chunk of character building scenes early on.  Scenes of emotional motivation and a build up of dramatic momentum between where Jefferson gets attacked by the gang and Eastland goes after those responsible.  There’s not even a scene of Eastland reacting to the news of Jefferson’s paralyzing attack.  The attacks happens, and the next scene has him telling the news to someone else.  Then, he’s interrogating a street thug with a flame thrower.  Then, he exacts his revenge.  The character building scenes do occur after this, but they would have added more weight and dramatic drive to the film if they instead bridged the gap between the attack itself and Eastland becoming the Exterminator.  Those sorts of scenes would help delve more into John Eastland, and more sharply focus the narrative on him.  Up to this point, Jefferson seems like the protagonist of the film because he’s the one saving Eastland from danger and we see him with his family.  Little time is spent with Eastland to know much about who he is.  It’s a matter of dramatic structure, and while all the elements are there in the 104 minute director’s cut runtime, I don’t think they were arranged in the most effective way.

Something else that I thought was not done consistently well were scene transitions.  This is not wide spread, but there are a few instances where Glickenhaus just didn’t film any sort of artistic or dramatic segue from one scene to another.  So, instead, it just fades out from one random shot and fades into another.  This creates a bit of a disjointed flow in the narrative, and also, robs us of certain impactful moments.  Certain scenes could’ve ended half a minute earlier on a stronger note than allowing them to linger on monotonous activities.  Some scenes just don’t end with enough dramatic punctuation for the intent of the scene to resonate into the next.  For instance, Eastland kidnaps an Italian mobster, goes to his house to steal money, and gets mauled by the attack dog.  The scene ends with the attack dog, and leaves the issue of stealing the money unresolved.  Not every plot element really connects or is followed through on.   Even the romantic subplot between Detective Dalton and Dr. Stewart seems like a diversion from the vigilante plot, and honestly, has little to do with anything else in the story except to allow Dalton and Eastland to cross paths in the hospital.  It’s a nicely done subplot, but it just didn’t do anything for me.  Even Dalton’s own hunt for the Exterminator is not exactly dogged.  He’s enthusiastic about the investigation, but it never feels like an urgent manhunt or a personal determination on his part.  I would’ve preferred spending more time delving into Eastland, and creating more of an overall storyline for him besides just killing criminals at random.

The film is generally competently shot.  The cinematography is nothing to get excited about, but it’s also nothing to speak negatively on.  Although, the scene where Eastland interrogates the street thug with the flame thrower has horribly inconsistent lighting.  As the scene cuts from one angle to the next, the light source flips around 180 degrees.  First, it’s behind Eastland, then it’s behind the thug, then it goes back behind Eastland.  It was horribly distracting and blatantly obvious to me.  It’s just a bad piece of work, in only one scene, from whoever shot and lit this scene.  The rest of the film has no such problems.

However, on the editing front, I think the movie could have benefitted from some tightening up.  It unnecessarily takes its sweet time in too many instances where some smart editing and the right shots could’ve given the pacing and rhythm much more punch.  There’s extraneous footage all over this movie.  One great example is that there’s a scene where Eastland is drilling holes into bullets and filling them with mercury, then sealing them back up again.  I’m sure someone with firearms knowledge understands the idea behind this, but it is never given context or explanation to the audience what the purpose of that methodical scene was.  Doing some quick research, apparently, filling a bullet with just regular mercury, in actuality, would soften the lead of the bullet to the point where it would likely fly apart when fired.  In movie myth, it creates a grenade-like exploding bullet, but in truth, that is only potentially possible if using mercury fulminate.  This is strongly NOT recommended as you would probably die or be horribly maimed attempting to fire such a bullet.  Regardless, this idea felt like extraneous content that was part of a scene that ran on longer than it needed to.  Basically, it’s an arming up scene for Eastland that goes on for five solid minutes with the mercury bullet segment taking up three of those minutes.  If you’re not going to explain its supposed importance, or show us what doing that to the bullet is meant to accomplish, don’t bother wasting the audience’s time with it.

My biggest point of contention with this film is its ending.  The climax itself is quite good.  There’s a nice amount of suspense and tension as Dalton traverses through this docked ship at night searching for Eastland.  There’s some good action beats and explosive moments at the end.  It’s very well plotted.  The problem is, the film has no resolution to its plot, its characters, or anything else.  It sacrifices anything like that to appease some extremely unnecessary political subplot where some political figures think the Exterminator is some kind of plot by their enemies to ruin their re-election campaigns.  None of which is true, and the film could’ve existed entirely without that subplot.  It’s not too far off from my reaction to 2006’s Miami Vice.  There’s action and some nice dramatic beats in the final few minutes, but ultimately, it leaves me empty and wondering what the point of the movie was.

Ultimately, I feel The Exterminator had the good building blocks for a solid vigilante exploitation film, but it didn’t have the tight cohesion or driving narrative to really feel like it had all its stuff together.  Robert Ginty is really good in this, and makes this unexpected turn as a cold, calculating vigilante who still has his humanity intact.  He’s a good man that wants to take out the trash in this city, and has the training and means to do so.  The main problem here is that this film doesn’t have a narrative direction.  In most revenge films, the protagonist spends the majority of the movie tracking down and killing off those that have incited his needed for vengeance.  Instead, we have this self-proclaimed Exterminator dealing with that right away, and spending the rest of the movie mostly just exacting justice for others without a story of his own to follow.  Thus, it’s not surprising the ending has no resolution because there’s very little plot to resolve.  This is one of those films where I say, if you like what you read here, go ahead and give it a chance.  I don’t say avoid it, but I don’t feel it’s worth going out of your way to see it.  The film is available in a remastered director’s cut DVD / Blu-Ray combo pack release, if you’re interested.


To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

To Live And Die In LAI don’t know what it is about William Friedkin’s movies that I keep missing what everyone else sees in them.  I do keep meaning to watch The French Connection, but for the few films of his I have seen, they have eventually fallen short of expectations.  I’ve heard a few people call To Live and Die in L.A. a great movie.  One even called it a masterpiece.  I have to strongly, heavily disagree with that.  This is the second time I’ve seen the movie, and my opinion of it hasn’t changed.  Friedkin seemed to be trying to channel a Miami Vice vibe with this movie, but the quality of this would be a rather mediocre episode of that largely excellent series.  I will surely give credit that there is good content here and a solid lead performance by William Petersen, but the film left a lot to be desired, especially with its finale.

Federal Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) has a score to settle, and he’s through playing by the rules.  Whether that means blackmailing a beautiful parolee, disobeying direct orders, or hurtling the wrong way down a crowded freeway, he vows to take down murderous counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) by any means necessary.  Saddled with a very by-the-book partner in Agent Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance struggles to catch Masters in the act with a risky undercover operation, but as the stakes grow higher, will Chance’s obsession with vengeance ultimately destroy him?

The film’s first major scene has Chance and his longtime partner, Jim Hart, thwart a suicide bomber at a hotel where the President of the United States is giving a speech.  This scene is effective in establishing our characters, but surely comes off a little cheesy.  It’s slightly reflective of the whole movie.  It has good ideas and good talent in it, but never really hits the style and tone just right.  Something like this opening scene was done with better results in two scenes from the director’s cut of Lethal Weapon – the sniper incident at the school and the suicide jumper, both of which involving Martin Riggs in a tense, potentially fatal situation.  This suicide bomber scene lacks tension and weight to make it feel like a really solid, taut opening scene.  It’s far from a bad scene, but it lacked that certain realistic weight to make it feel like anything but a throwaway moment.  I did gain a measure of enjoyment from this movie up until the climax, but overall, I do feel that it lacked a hard hitting emotional quality to make the characters and events truly resonate.

I don’t know if this film started the cliché of the cop getting killed two days before retirement, but in retrospect, it seems extremely clichéd.  Chance’s partner, portrayed by Michael Greene, goes out to investigate a lead on Masters alone, and gets gunned down while doing so.  It does seem stupid that he’d go at it alone because it comes off like a cheap plot convenience.  The only hypothesis I could offer is that perhaps he was possibly trying to avoid more of Chance’s dangerous habits, but even still, rarely does a federal agent work a case alone, let alone go poke around the possible hideout of a known violent criminal without back-up.  This isn’t the smartest or most creative script, but for a standard action thriller, it is decent enough.  Of course, I don’t think that’s the film William Friedkin believed he was making, but I digress, for now.

William Petersen is really what makes the movie particularly good or entertaining.  He brings charisma to Richard Chance that has him command scenes, and easily gravitates an audience towards him.  He fits the role wonderfully injecting strong doses of excitement and danger into him.  You get that edgy, risk taker quality coming out in how Petersen works certain scenes.  He’s a tough federal agent both physically and personality wise.  When dealing with Ruth, he might use her for sex, but he’s not warm with her.  She’s a tool to be used, and he won’t hesitate to have her parole revoked if she doesn’t cooperate.  He’s also a man of action that takes matters firmly into his own hands, and runs with them regardless of risk or consequence.  He pushes hard for what he believes in, even if it’s a vendetta against Masters.  In Petersen’s hands, Richard Chance is a strong, fascinating character that has energy, conviction, and danger engrained into him.  It’s a solid, well-rounded performance that enhances what was on the page, and gives it further dimension.  There’s nothing I don’t like about this character or performance.  It’s excellent.

There are good performances here from the rest of the cast, but the problem is that there is no insight into who they are.  We know the surface level stuff, but there’s no perception into the depth of these characters.  Willem Dafoe puts in some good work as Rick Masters with a few scenes of solid weight and villainous charisma.  There is some attempt at delving into the psychology of the character with him being an artist, and more so, him burning his own paintings.  However, the film is too preoccupied with the procedural crime elements to take the time to expand on those ideas to where they have any relevance.  I know that Willem Dafoe is capable of such awesome, high quality performances that this one looks very mild by comparison.  John Pankow plays his part without flaw, but also without showing anything worth noting.  It’s a standard, flat character who has little to offer until the final twenty minutes of the film where he becomes a guilt ridden mess.  Everyone does do a good job with the material given, but the material doesn’t have much substance for them to sink their talent into.

I will certainly give credit to that the film is well shot.  It’s not stunning, but it is shot competently in all aspects.  The occasional use of neon or vibrant color washes is effective and shows a dash of visual style.  Aside from one five second shot of some of the worst shaky cam I’ve ever seen, the action is also committed to film solidly.  Now, To Live And Die in L.A. does feature an odd style in terms of coverage.  This becomes apparent in the latter half of the movie where dialogue scenes hold on a single character for an extended length of time.  Usually, such scenes would have a regular rhythm of alternating cuts over the shoulder of each actor, but you’ll come to notice that even when the other actor is speaking, there is no cut to his or her face.  It’s not even covered in a in-profile two shot.  It stays on that one over-the-shoulder shot of the person who is not regularly talking, and stays there for probably half the scene.  I cannot say if this is a good or bad idea without understanding the intention behind it.  Oddly, this being pointed out to me is why I gave this film another look.  As a filmmaker, I’m always open to new ways of doing things, and adopting new styles if they are compatible with my mentalities.  In the end, it’s an interesting way of shooting or at least editing a scene, but I don’t think the film is particularly better or worse for doing this.  It’s intriguing is all.

There is also some mixed reaction to offer on the action scenes.  The chase through the airport where Chance runs down an accomplice of Masters, portrayed by John Turturro, is great and nicely succinct.  It entirely works as a solid jolt of excitement, and I enjoy it thoroughly.  No issues there.  However, it is the big car chase scene that is the mixed bag.  It is surely intense, well shot, and well edited.  As the film’s major action sequence, it is quite well executed, to a degree.  The entire rest of the film is filled with pop music and an energetic score, but this, its biggest action set piece, features no score of any kind at all.  The difference a score makes in this situation is taking the sequence from being just “Oh, that’s dangerous,” to “Damn, that’s exciting!”  A score builds up the adrenalin and enhances the imminent peril of the action.  It can create that fever pitch of exhilaration that can make or break a scene.  The absence of a score here doesn’t kill this scene, but it could have added so much more.  Also, you might happen to notice that ALL of the traffic on the highway is going the opposite direction of what it should be.  Everyone is driving on the left hand side of the road.  Cars in the northbound lanes are travelling southbound and vice versa.  I honestly don’t understand why this sequence was staged this way.  Like with what I will get into with the film’s final act, it doesn’t make any sense and is ass-backwards.

Since I mentioned the score, I should elaborate on its quality.  It’s better in some scenes than others, but generally, it’s just okay.  I can’t quite wrap my head around hiring pop band Wang Chung to do the score for this entire film.  The band had never done such a thing before, and were really only a mildly popular band.  Sometimes these things work amazingly well such as with Tangerine Dream, and I think their scores for Thief and Risky Business are masterful works that capture a unique and brilliant atmosphere.  Wang Chung’s score is fairly average with no real ambition or uniqueness to be of special note.  Some of the songs in the film even fall on the low end of my quality spectrum.  There was such better music of this genre in 1985 that it’s a bit disappointing that this was the best collection of music that could be assembled for this movie.  The music just wasn’t memorable in the least to me.

Now, if you do not want spoilers about the film’s ending, skip this entire paragraph and the next.  I cannot critique it without being explicit about what happens.  I can respect throwing a swerve at the audience in killing your main character unexpectedly, but it has to be earned.  There needs to be a thematic storyline running through this that builds up to such an abrupt, anti-climactic moment.  Chance is unceremoniously shot in the face as soon as he and Vukovich move to arrest Masters, and it comes off like the most inane idea ever.  I believe I can understand part of what Friedkin was attempting to achieve with this event which was entirely improvised on set.  Chance is a guy that takes greater and greater risks, pushing things too far for his own obsessive ends.  Maybe having him die in a poetic fashion where he does push it one step too far, and pays the price for it would potentially work.  Instead, he goes out like a punk, a worthless nobody.  The film doesn’t have that dramatic build up to make this work.  Yes, he crossed a huge line with his heist from what were actual undercover FBI agents to come up with the front money for Masters, but the film lacks any form of thematic material to have all the reckless behavior culminate in anything.  If we saw the obsession eat at him, tear his senses away, and push him beyond the limits to where he invites consequence upon himself, that would potentially make this ending work.  The problem is that Chance honestly doesn’t seem much different from any other movie cop that bends the rules and crosses lines where he sees fit.  He is a charismatic character, but in the scale of anti-heroes, he’s just above mild.  A real great example of what I’m talking about would be in Point Break where the antagonist is an adrenalin junkie who pushes things so far that his friends pay the fatal price for it, and it comes down to one of my favorite endings in movie history that has poetic qualities to it.  There’s a price to be paid for what he’s done, but the film handles it in such a perfect way that was setup early on.  To Live and Die in L.A. has no setup for the abrupt, shallow murder of Richard Chance.

And it only gets worse from there.  What is done with the John Vukovich character is ridiculous, and has no build up, either.  After clearly deteriorating into this mess of a man whose conscience is haunting him over the death of the undercover FBI agent they stole from, the ending of the film throws us another swerve.  They have Vukovich essentially become Chance.  He dresses like him, acts like him, and plans to start using and abusing Ruth just like Chance did.  None of this correlates with anything this character was going through at anytime during the rest of the film.  It’s thrown in there to be “cool,” but it comes off as near laughable.  This is a character that was against everything Chance was doing every step of the way, but kept getting ensnared into it, regardless.  This isn’t someone who was going to abandon his by-the-book mentality and troubled conscience.  He was more likely to psychologically fall apart and turn in his badge out of guilt.  It makes no sense for Vukovich to willingly adopt the mentality of Chance when he was so strongly opposed to it, and after seeing where Chance’s reckless behavior lead him to.

If it wasn’t for this one-two punch of really bad ideas for an ending, I could give this movie a mild recommendation.  Something that you could gain some decent enjoyment out of, but nothing to place big expectations for.  I honestly feel that if To Live and Die in L.A. was a Michael Mann film, it would have been a thousand times better.  If for nothing else, Mann would never in a million years employ the shallow swerves of an ending we got.  Considering the following year he made Manhunter starring William Petersen, I think that statement carries a lot of weight.  There are episodes of Miami Vice that are masterful works that are better than many feature film crime thrillers, and this film is no exception.  As I said, Friedkin tries to channel that vibe and style, but it feels like a second rate imitation that doesn’t capture that emotional substance or sleek cinematic brilliance.  He wanted it to be stylish, exciting, and smart, but it’s too lacking on all those fronts to succeed.  The main issue with To Live and Die in L.A. is that it thinks it’s a smarter, sharper, edgier film than it really is when it is more or less an average action thriller.  There’s barely any depth to the characters, the visuals aren’t anything special, the music is mediocre at best, and the screenplay is more focused on the procedural aspects than the character based ideas it thinks its ending pays off.  It’s not a film I hate, aside from the ending, as I had a decent time watching it again, mainly due to Petersen’s performance, but I don’t see the masterpiece of crime cinema that others perceive in it.  I’ve seen so much better from Heat to The Usual Suspects to Drive that you really need to work a lot harder to reach such standards.