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Posts tagged “criminal

Pitch Black (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.


Savage Streets (1984)

Savage StreetsI’ve been looking for this movie on DVD in stores for months now.  Today, I went out looking for one exploitation movie at the re-sale shop and came home with another.  Savage Streets is a cult rape-revenge exploitation film from the late director of Friday The 13th, Part V: A New Beginning, Danny Steinmann.  As previously documented, I have a low opinion of that sequel, but Savage Streets looked really good and promising via the trailer.  I’ve heard some good things about it, and was very dogged about finding a copy of it.  Sometimes, a good word of mouth is enough to convince you to take a impassionate chance on a movie.  But now that I’ve seen it, does it live up to what I had hoped for it?  Was it worth the months of anticipation and hunting I put into it?  Well, let me impart a synopsis on you before answering that question.

Brenda (Linda Blair) is bad, bold and brash, but she absolutely dotes on her deaf-mute kid sister Heather (Linnea Quigley).  After nearly being rundown by a gang known as the Scars, Brenda and her friends trash the car of their leader, Jake (Robert Dryer).  Shockingly, he chooses to exact his revenge by getting his cohorts to gang-rape Heather.  Caught up in her rivalry with the cheerleaders, Brenda is at first unaware of the Scar’s involvement, but is eventually shocked with the full truth.  She then vows deadly vengeance in a skintight black suit as she searches out the gang members one by one.

Doing a blind buy of this movie was certainly taking a chance because I’ve had blind buys bite me in the ass before.  However, that was not at all the case with Savage Streets.  I did indeed greatly enjoy what I saw here.  It is quite a low budget picture with only $1.2 million to its credit, but this was definitely a time where most filmmakers knew how to make an effective movie within their limited means.  They could create something genuinely entertaining and worthwhile without needing a major budget.  While his Friday The 13th movie came off like a cheap direct-to-video outing, director Danny Steinmann pulled off a really solid genre movie here that I’m glad he had been commended on long before his 2012 passing.

The main thing that I was impressed by on this film was Linda Blair’s performance.  She strikes that perfect balance of a tough, attitude rich, yet still vulnerable and compassionate young woman.  You see her make those subtle shifts early on as she defends her sister from an ill joke, but then, lightens the mood a moment later with some well place charm.  Brenda will not back down from a fight, and doesn’t take any crap from anybody.  She stands up to everyone from bitchy classmate Cindy to the sleazy school principal to, of course, this malevolent gang.  She’s genuinely tough with the courage and mouth to back it up.  Yet, these tragedies that befall her sister and friends have deep, emotional impact upon her.  She cries, mourns, and grieves in her own harsh way while never veering away from her determination to find those responsible.  Brenda is someone who has a surplus of strength to pull her through this violent series of events, and Linda Blair puts her all into this performance to make Brenda that great heroine.  She’s also quite sexy and beautiful in this film, and her hard edged attitude is very attractive and exciting.  Blair packs a lot of charisma and passion into what she does here, and she really makes Savage Streets the excellent piece of work it is.  There’s not enough I can say about what she does in this role.

In the role of Jake, Robert Dryer does an exceptional job.  This is the dead-on perfect villain for this film as Jake has zero redeeming qualities about him, and is a full fledged sleazy, violent, womanizing, severely intimidating thug.  Just the look of the character gives you a very edgy impression with his slick backed hair, leather jacket, intense physical presence, and especially that razor blade earring.  Dryer has some dark charisma which amps up the character to the utmost vilified levels.  He definitely looks like someone who could snap your neck right after stabbing and slashing you to bits.  Just as much as Linda Blair invests you in the story, Dryer invests you in the need to see Brenda exact her revenge.  After all you see Jake do, and without an ounce of regret or mercy, you crave that violent comeuppance, and that is so much earned from Dryer’s performance.

The rest of the cast is very good putting a lot of enthusiasm and dedication to their roles.  You’ll certainly find some over-the-top dialogue and line deliveries, but it wouldn’t be an exploitation film without them.  John Vernon is excellent with his deep, intimidating, dramatic voice as Principal Underwood.  He has this underlying sleaze factor that surely hits with a peculiar impact, but it’s all great.  Johnny Venocur does some good work as Vince, the one guy in the gang who has a semblance of a conscience.  You can progressively see the humanity taking a hold of him, and it adds a nice dash of remorse into this story.  Lisa Freeman brings her own strength and spirit to Francine which shows she’s no pushover either, but you also get the tender side of her bride-to-be aspects.  Genre star Linnea Quigley makes Heather very wholesome and sweet without ever saying a word.  Linda Blair plays very sweetly opposite her bringing out that touching sisterly warmth and heart.  On the darker side, Quigley achieves the moments of silent terror with visceral intensity.  The entire sexual assault scene is powerful and disturbing, as it should be.  The film does not glorify it at all as it is depicted as a traumatic, frightening experience, which is commendable.  This is the darkest point in the film, but we are thankfully treated to some very enjoyable, entertaining elements throughout the rest of the movie.

What makes Savage Streets distinctly 80s is the awesome pop soundtrack.  There are no big names that stick out for me, but the songs generally hit that excellent 80s vibe with strong vocals, vibrant keyboards, and a driving intensity.  It also kills me that this soundtrack is available only on the original vinyl or audio cassette releases, and are rare collectors’ items.  The only CD release was done independently in a very limited capacity.  So, if you want these songs, you’ll have to turn to YouTube.  The one notable track is “Nothing’s Gonna Stand in Our Way,” which is performed here by John Farnham, would later be covered by Canadian band Kick Axe (aka Spectre General) for Transformers: The Movie in 1986.  The soundtrack for this movie really enhances the vibe all around making it a very rockin’ experience, but the original score is also very effective especially during the film’s climax.

The cinematography of Stephen L. Posey is very good and solid.  It’s nothing amazing, but what he does entirely suits the gritty nature of this movie.  The editing is also very tight never allowing the film to lag anywhere at all.  The pace is kept consistent throughout, and has plenty of well put together sequences.  On a technical level, this is a well shot, well made movie that is competently executed by knowledgeable talents.  Furthermore, director Danny Steinmann does all around impress me with what he did here.  There are a few minor critiques still pending, but on the whole, Savage Streets is a well written, well directed film for this genre.  Steinmann really brought out a lot of strength and vibrancy from his cast, and crafted together an effective revenge movie that has emotional weight to it.  It’s surely not one dimensional in the least, and I commend Steinmann and his co-writer Norman Yonemoto for that.

Now, the one thing that threw me off about the movie is that the trailer would make you believe that Brenda would be hunting these guys down through most of the movie.  Instead, her armed quest for revenge begins in the final third of this 93 minute movie.  I do not state this as a criticism, just as an expectations adjustment.  The first hour of the movie is consistently and solidly paced as the Scars repeatedly terrorize Brenda’s friends and other unfortunate individuals.  The film takes the time to build these guys up as increasingly more sickening people, and that’s saying quite a lot since their first act against Heather would be more than enough already.  Yet, it layers the crimes and tragedies upon Brenda and the audience.  It develops her character and her friendships so that you understand the importance these people have on her life and the lives of others.  It also uses this escalation of violence to further drive a wedge between Vince and the other gang members, which is a smart idea.  Now, once Brenda moves into full-on revenge mode, decked out in a sleek back jumpsuit and crossbow, I absolutely loved it!  A great little montage ensues with a solid rock track behind it, and we’re into a pretty damn good final act.

The only criticism I have towards that final act is that while we do get blood and gore, it is not all at the right moments.  Some of the deaths don’t have the desired satisfying impact because we don’t witness them in graphic or explicit enough detail.  However, we do see the bodies displayed with their bloody wounds minutes later, but it wasn’t quite enough.  Considering how explicit the film had been already up to that point with violence, language, and nudity, I figured we would get some graphic gore where it counted the most.  Thankfully, this is not so for all the kills in the climax.  It’s about fifty/fifty, but I really wanted to see those despicable scum meet some gruesome ends.  Watching Brenda squaring off against Jake was thick with tension and emotion as that rage and pain within her really penetrates in this sequence.  She is being blatantly sadistic, and you are really reminded of why she wants him to suffer so badly through her dialogue.  Ultimately, we get a very tight climax with some great moments of suspense and dramatic pay-off.

Savage Streets is damn good!  It’s especially gritty with visceral violence and a strong core of emotion by way of some solid performances.  Linda Blair definitely stands out as an excellent lead giving us both the heartfelt compassion to be sympathetic and relatable as well as the brash attitude and confidence to be a convincing action heroine.  I love the dialogue she gets on both ends of the spectrum which really reinforce the strength of Brenda.  My favorite is the “double jointed” quip near the climax, which is also Linda Blair’s favorite.  It hits me as one of the best lines in an action film, ever.  Overall, Blair is just bad ass and awesome through and through.  She delivers on all demands of the role in a very satisfying and entertaining performance.  There’s a lot to enjoy in the tight 93 minute run time, and I really have to hand it to Danny Steinmann for the work he did here.  This is a kind of movie that just doesn’t get made anymore, and even if they are, I imagine they aren’t made as good as this.  I can entirely see here what brought Steinmann to doing a Friday The 13th movie.  It’s only too bad that film was not remotely as cool and good as Savage Streets.  This certainly may not be a film for everyone.  As I said, it is very explicit and casual with its profanity, female nudity, and violence, but if that fits your tastes, I highly and strongly recommend checking out Savage Streets.  While it was tough finding it in a store, it is easily obtainable on Amazon.com in a 2012 digitally remastered special edition DVD set.


Bullet to the Head (2013)

Bullet to the HeadI have no preface for this review except to tell you that Walter Hill and Sylvester Stallone are a blockbuster combination that have delivered an excellent, hard-as-hell and graphic action film that you MUST SEE!  Simply said, this has Walter Hill’s vintage style all over it, and I love it!  If Bullet to the Head signals a turning of the genre back to its best roots of hard edged bad assery, I’m all for it!

After the seasoned criminal Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) and his partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) carry out a hired hit, they are targeted by a mercenary named Keegan (Jason Momoa) who kills Blanchard, but fails in his attempt against Jimmy.  With the mark for the hit being a former corrupt Washington D.C. cop, it brings Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) to New Orleans to investigate who he was hooked up with, and why he was killed.  However, Kwon soon finds himself lethally targeted, and joins forces with Jimmy in order to weed out and bring down whoever wants them both dead.  The unlikely duo soon take on all who stand in their way, but where Kwon wants procedural justice, Jimmy is ready to exact brutal, unforgiving revenge.

I revisited both 48 HRS. movies within the last two months, and so, Walter Hill’s classic style is really fresh in my mind.  I am a longtime fan of The Warriors, but Bullet to the Head certainly follows more in line with that sort of buddy cop dynamic.  I could really feel that vibe coming off this movie right from the start, and it had me hooked in by the end of the opening credits.  I was loving this movie within the first five minutes, and it never disappointed me.  Aside from the modern technology aspects, this feels right at home with a solid 1980s hard-hitting action film, but Hill does throw in some modern style to update it a little.  Bullet to the Head has a neo noir edge to it, but it doesn’t go down the Michael Mann route.  This vibe is mainly due to large chunks of the film taking place at night, and we get some very appealing cinematography out of it.  There are some shaky cam tropes used every so often, but it’s far from being the worst I’ve seen.  There’s some restraint used to keep the action scenes really satisfying, and while I would’ve preferred more restraint or at least wider compositions, it did work quite well for this film.

Stallone is excellent through and through.  He shows that he’s still got what it takes to be a top tier action hero.  He is really in phenomenal shape showcasing a lean, ripped physique that presents a man that can clearly rip you to pieces.  Sly gets plenty of chances to show his physicality with some really bone crunching hand-to-hand combat in addition to all the brutal, graphic gun violence.  Yes, indeed, there are numerous people getting their own bullet to the head throughout the movie.  Acting wise, Stallone’s solid.  He really carries the dramatic weight of Jimmy well, much in part to his grizzled voice.  The film’s not dripping with emotional grief or anything, but you definitely feel Jimmy’s dead set determination in finding the people responsible for his partner’s murder.  The scenes Sly shares with Sarah Shahi, who portrays Jimmy’s tattoo artist daughter Lisa, are really well done.  There’s definitely a rocky relationship there, but not one of heavy friction.  They play well off of each other creating a mature and honest father-daughter relationship that has some weight and grit.

The humor in the film is really played out nicely between Stallone and Sung Kang.  The trailers did do it justice as it seemed a little low grade, but in the context of the film, it really had me laughing quite a bit.  I like how Kang’s Detective Kwon keeps poking fun at Jimmy’s age, and it’s handled in an almost bad ass way when Stallone retorts that still sells a laugh.  It’s nicely written and smartly performed.  Both actors really grasped the tone and chemistry the film was going for, and it kept the tone light and fun when needed in between the slam bang action scenes.  That is a perfect example of a 48 HRS. Walter Hill style and balance of tone.  The humor works with the hardened action tone of the film, and invests you in the characters in how they contrast and complement one another.  It’s certainly something not every director can do, but Hill proves he still has that skill.

I will admit that Sung Kang himself start out a little weak in the film.  He wasn’t really selling me for the first few scenes, but once he clicked into the chemistry opposite Stallone, he really fit in quite well.  Detective Kwon is a very by-the-book type of cop.  He’s using Jimmy only as a means to an end, and is quite set in his ways of adhering to the law all the way through.  So, there’s this tough, seasoned hitman paired with a rather mild mannered police detective who wants to keep what they do on the straight and narrow.  However, they regularly clash in stellar fashion creating both some of that humor, but also, a fine building of a relationship that keeps forcing them back together.  Still, despite Kwon being very conservative with his violence, he regularly impresses by having the skills to take down an adversary quite efficiently either by hand or by gun.  So, Stallone doesn’t get all the action glory.  Sung Kang has his fair chances to show us something unexpected and satisfying in that vein.  There might be some that feel he wasn’t the absolute best choice for this role, especially since Thomas Jane was originally cast in it, but I think he earns his merit before the end.  Beyond anything else, Kung and Stallone work very smoothly together making this a very entertaining film.

Now, I was extremely impressed by Jason Momoa.  His role of Keegan is a very stern faced killer, but one that is simply a massacring bad ass.  As his employers say in the film, he enjoys the work he does.  He takes pleasure in killing, and he gets a ton of chances to indulge himself.  He never just walks in to kill one person.  He’s there to kill everyone in sight, and Momoa delivers to us a genuinely sadistic villain that you’d love to hate.  He may only be a hired gun, a mercenary, but he fits right into that perfect role of like James Remar from 48 HRS or Andrew Divoff from Another 48 HRS.  He may not be the mastermind criminal, but he is the number one force to contend with and is the one that we really want to see taken down.  Momoa is really awesome in this role, and he seemed to have loved playing it.  He makes Keegan intimidating and heavily threatening, despite his impressive muscle bound size of 6’5”.

Christian Slater has a nice turn as the somewhat sleazy Marcus Baptiste, a rich lawyer who enjoys his women and narcotics quite a bit.  He only has a few scenes, but Slater does sell the antagonistic character with plenty of zeal.  Baptiste is working with the actual mastermind of Morel, an African gentleman portrayed with sophistication, arrogance, and amoral villainy by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbajeas.  It’s a very subdued performance, but one that works quite well for the character.  Both actors gives us some firm antagonists with realistic motives that solidly fit the film and story.

And indeed, this is a hard R rated action movie with plenty of bloody gunshots and some explicit female nudity.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an action film be so casual and open with showing nudity, and it was very much a pleasing sight to my eyes.  Baptiste has a masquerade party where many of the masked women are wearing little else but those masks.  It was very titillating, but it does not distract the film away from its plot.  It doesn’t indulge in anything gratuitous beyond that.  Conversely, this may not have as much graphic violence as Dredd, but it surely lives up to that standard I just recently discovered.  Just like in Dredd, and again, living up to its title, people get shot in the head continually.  The film even sets up the need for it early on when a guy doesn’t go down until he’s shot in the head.  So, Jimmy Bobo is dead-on-the-mark, accepting nothing but point blank kill shots to the cranium.  While some of the blood splatter is likely CGI, it at no point did it distract from the awesomeness of this movie.  We get some big explosions in this that kick ass, and tell you that this movie is taking no prisoners.  It’s going to deliver that hardcore bombast that has been missing in most action films these days, and it’s gonna to do like only Stallone and Hill can.  What I really loved was when Jimmy and Keegan duel with those axes.  That is not something I believe I’ve seen in an action film before, and it seriously made for one really intense and suspenseful fight.  On wrong move, and you could be missing a body part.  It was a tremendously climactic and amazing action scene that amped up the level of tension and brutality that I wasn’t expecting.  From the trailers, I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t expect it to be that damn good of a scene.  It was fuckin’ great!

I also really loved the score by Steve Mazzaro.  It’s very bluesy with some hard electric guitar and prominent and beautiful use of harmonica, giving this a real seasoned and down to Earth feel.  It sets a real down south vibe for this New Orleans set film that really just works amazingly well.  However, most of the action scenes are very minimal on music.  At most, you get a little underscore for a low end vibe, but mostly, you’re hearing the sound effects of guns firing, fists crunching bone, bodies slamming into hard surfaces, and axes clanging together.  I think that worked excellently with this very hard edged action as there is a lot of impact with those sound effects.  They really enhance the brutality of the movie, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Seeing both this and Dredd within the same month really energizes me into believing that hardcore R rated action movies are making a genuine, high quality comeback.  Talented filmmakers, both old and new, are delivering to us some really amazing movies lately that are giving the action genre that hard hitting adrenalin shot it needed.  Stallone is in top form and clearly enjoying himself in this movie, and he was in masterful hands with Walter Hill as the director.  I had a HELL of a great time watching this in the theatre, and if a friend of mine was going to see it later, I’d tag along for a second viewing.  Bullet to the Head is a fun, exciting, ass kicking 90 minute thrill ride that is worth taking more than once.  It keeps itself simple by not trying to complicate the plot with any big twisting narrative.  It’s very straight forward and right to the point.  This is one awesome movie that satisfied me from the very beginning to the very end.  And this is literally a movie that starts with a bang!  I give Bullet to the Head a definite SLAM BANG recommendation!  This year now has a lot to live up to in terms of action movies for me, and I damn well hope it delivers.  So, 2013 – you have been put on notice!


Dredd (2012)

DreddMy summer movie season last year mostly sucked, and by the end of August, I just didn’t want to step foot inside another theatre for a long while.  That was unfortunate for when Dredd was released in late September.  I couldn’t get enthused for anything despite all the rave reviews this film got.  Fortunately, I don’t seem to be alone in discovering this on the home video format as its sales and rentals have been on fire in the last two weeks.  Thus, in the frigid icy winter weather, I dashed over to the Redbox outside of the CVS Pharmacy and rented it.  So, what’s the simplest statement I can give to this film?  It’s that I have no criticisms to levy against it. Dredd is AWESOME!

The future America is an irradiated waste land.  On its East Coast, running from Boston to Washington DC, lies Mega City One – a vast, violent metropolis where criminals rule the chaotic streets.  The only force of order lies with the urban cops called “Judges” who possess the combined powers of judge, jury and instant executioner.  Known and feared throughout the city, Dredd (Karl Urban) is the ultimate Judge, challenged with ridding the city of its latest scourge – a dangerous drug epidemic that has users of “Slo-Mo” experiencing reality at a fraction of its normal speed.  During a routine day on the job, Dredd is assigned to train and evaluate Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie with powerful psychic abilities thanks to a genetic mutation.  A heinous crime calls them to a neighborhood where fellow Judges rarely dare to venture – a 200 storey vertical slum controlled by prostitute turned drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her ruthless clan.  When they capture one of the clan’s inner circle, Ma-Ma overtakes the compound’s control center and wages a dirty, vicious war against the Judges that proves she will stop at nothing to protect her empire.  With the body count climbing and no way out, Dredd and Anderson must confront the odds and engage in the relentless battle for their survival.

Dredd is just full-on hard R-rated action that is brutal and relentless.  Yet, it is not dumb by any means.  Alex Garland wrote a very smart screenplay that keeps things rather simple, but has its own dramatic depth and character strengths.  We don’t get long sit-downs with the characters to pine over their emotions and back stories.  Instead, we get insights into them in solid, succinct moments that work towards the momentum of the film.  Dredd himself remains hardened throughout never allowing anything to crack his weathered, tough exterior.  However, the depth we get from him is in what he does, not so much what he exudes.  He is a strict enforcer and abider of the law.  He follows it to the letter, and doesn’t just kill someone because this is a graphic action film.  His intentions are clearly stated making us aware of who is suited to be executed and who isn’t, and Dredd’s threats carry grave weight.  He’s also calm, collected, and confident.  He never lashes out.  He’s calculated in everything he does.  This guy is a bonafide bad ass who has been very weathered by this post-apocalyptic world that needs order more than anything else, and he’s deadest dedicated to that ideal.  The situation that he’s in here, it’s just like every other day to him.  For instance, when told to put Anderson in the deep end of the job, he says, “It’s all deep end.”  This guy’s been through the worst this world has to offer, and he’s not afraid of any level of danger.

Karl Urban was a perfect fit for Judge Dredd.  I’ve enjoyed him in every role I’ve seen him in from The Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Riddick to The Bourne Supremacy.  He always seems to dedicate himself fully to all his roles, and he has some impressive talent that will carry him far.  It also takes a special actor, dedicated to the character, to have his face almost entirely covered for the entire film.  Dredd never removes his helmet, and we never see his face.  Just that mouth and chin area is all we get, and some actors simply wouldn’t allow their face to never be seen on camera either by ego or principle.  Urban doesn’t have that problem, and that quality of Dredd works to his advantage.  It’s reflective of his attitude.  He’s not the type to open up about himself, or allow any glimmer of weakness to show through.  That aggressive visage of that helmet and visor create his ill-tempered demeanor, and Urban entirely absorbs himself into that mindset.  Putting on that harder, gruffer voice mixed with a little bit of beard stubble and his grim expression creates a great heavy, gritty presence.  He gives us the kind of bad ass, hardened character that I’ve not seen in a long time.  It follows in the tradition of Snake Plissken and the Punisher, but it is that vehement dedication to law and justice which separates him from those sorts of anti-heroes.  Urban sells this role with everything he’s got, and delivers on every level.  This is a role that could easily become cliché in the wrong hands, but with Urban, Dredd is a serious force to be reckoned with that never fails to be interesting.

The character of Anderson is really handled greatly.  She’s a fine counterpoint to Dredd in that she does have anxieties, apprehensions, and an emotional core to struggle with throughout the film.  Carrying out an execution is not easy for her, but she does her job, regardless.  The little details about her past are dropped in very comfortably, and work into the story seamlessly.  Her psychic abilities make for an excellent cog in the plot, and even makes for some appropriately humorous moments.  I think the best action films know how to drop in a little bit of humor and levity without it betraying the tone of the overall film.  Dredd is no exception.  Her psychic abilities even give us one very whacked out sequence where she goes into the head of Kay.  It’s sexy, graphic, and frenetic in the most schizophrenic way.  The beautiful Olivia Thirlby is truly excellent as Judge Anderson.  She inhabits that very green rookie sensibility without falling onto clichés.  There’s a genuine weight to what she brings to this role showing that Anderson is highly capable, but does not yet have the experience to hone her skills and emotions properly.  Anderson has an excellent arc that has some fine pay-off in the end from Dredd himself.  It’s a big learning experience for her that really fleshes the character out.  She doesn’t get lost in Dredd’s shadow at all, and I think the filmmakers did an excellent job at that.

Also, Lena Headey portrays one deranged, depraved villain.  She’s not “off the walls” crazy as the performance is rather subdued, but Ma-Ma does some crazy random violence that would require an R rating just to mention it.  She’s a total sociopath, and really enjoys her torture to a grisly degree.  She isn’t just going to kill you.  That’s not enough.  She’s going to send a message with your body, and make it loud and clear with a giant splat on the concrete!  She’s sick and twisted complete with a scarred face, and it’s a glorious villain for a gloriously graphic action movie!  The rest of the cast is rock solid with no one giving anything less than a top notch, full force performance.

The cinematography on this movie is really amazing.  What stands out the most is the design of the “Slo-Mo” sequences.  The high speed photography makes everything appear to be running in ultra slow motion, creating a gorgeous spectacle, aided by some CGI enhancements, that is simply stunning.  It makes for a very enveloping experience along with the very aural, ethereal score to mimic the sensation this narcotic stimulates in its users.  Conversely, everything beyond that is very gritty and textured.  The sprawling landscape of Mega City One is very epic, and a desaturated color palette is used to set the grim tone right from the start.  Dredd avoids making this some Blade Runner clone, and adopts its own realistic style for this industrialized and economically crumbling metropolis.  The cinematography gives this film weight, scope, and depth that elevates its above your expectations.  The action is all shot superbly showing full competence in how to stage and photograph even the most blisteringly intense sequences.  Anthony Dod Mantle deserves an exceptional level of credit for the work he did shooting this picture, and giving such a solid and powerful visual style.

The action itself is bloody and brutal with people regularly getting shot in the face!  If Dredd’s going to pass a sentence of death upon you, he’s going to wipe you out in the most explicit way possible.  Maybe he’ll burn your skull from the inside out, set you ablaze, or maybe he’ll just pound some bullets into you.  He does not hesitate, and he never wavers in his job.  And of course, the villains dish out their own heavy duty warfare as well.  Their biggest attempt at taking out Dredd and Anderson is when they unleash not one but two hardcore Gatling guns that rip through concrete destroying an entire level of the complex.  It’s wicked awesome!  There are numerous diverse sequences here that keep the action always interesting and immensely intense, and they are all handled superbly.  One of the coolest sequences is when Dredd and Anderson bust in on some guys who are doing Slo-Mo, and thus, nearly all the action unfolds in that ultra slow motion style.  Bullets rip through flesh in the most stunning way possible to where it’s practically gruesome artistry.  I am just amazed at the depth of vision injected into this movie with sequences like that.

Dredd features an excellent, hard edged score by Paul Leonard-Morgan.  He makes excellent use of driving, pulsating synth beats and some stellar distorted rock guitar.  This is essentially a heavy metal synth score that actually works insanely well because of the hard hitting, gritty style of the movie, but also, it never bombards you.  It flows along with the action and momentum of the film.  The synthesizers really give the film more of an ominous, foreboding, relentless tone that build up the tension and anticipation while the guitars are there to kick ass.  It’s almost 1980s like in its musicianship, and it’s always able to bring itself down to a more subtle place, when appropriate.  Overall, this is one masterful, edgy, exhilarating action film score that entirely suits the futuristic, post-apocalyptic grit of Dredd.

What I think is most amazing about this movie is that it had only a $45 million budget, but looks like a far higher grade feature than those numbers would suggest.  This demonstrates a team of filmmakers who knew about to get the most out of every dollar, and not waste their resources.  There is not a single thing that looks cheap anywhere in this film.  The sets, costumes, action set pieces, and visual effects are all high caliber quality showcasing amazing craftsmanship and artistry.  And for those who care, this was shot in digital 3D, and from what I hear, Dredd looks fantastic in 3D.  That is no surprise considering how stunning it looks in 2D.  Everyone who worked on this film clearly put everything ounce of effort and passion they had into it, and I believe it exceeded all expectations.  Still, I also like that the film doesn’t try to over stretch itself by becoming more than it needed to be.  The film is ultimately quite ambitious, but the filmmakers didn’t push the proverbial envelope any further than they needed to with this story.  All of the elements are smart and fit together beautifully.  There’s a lot of subtle context and ideas within the film between the characters and ideas of justice, but all of it works towards the action centric plot.  It’s very focused without being narrow, but never becomes broad.

Flat out, Dredd is an ass kicking, hard hitting bombastic action film that never hesitates to go all out, but never degrades itself with camp value or cheesy set pieces.  It’s totally hardcore all the way, and should satisfy the hunger for any true action movie fan that’s desired a return to classic hard R rated films.  I’m very impressed by Karl Urban’s performance, and if this were to become a franchise, I believe he could carry it to very exciting, riveting, and intriguing places.  Director Pete Travis doesn’t really have much of a track record to speak of, but I hope that Dredd is the beginning of a very successful and notable one for him.  This is really a visually magnificent film that brings all of its dynamic elements together into an intense cohesive whole.  He has shown me something awesome and amazing with Dredd, and he’s not the only one to credit for it all.  A whole team of excellently talent filmmakers came together to really nail this adaptation of the British comic strip.  It is creatively successful without a blemish, in my view, and I hope that time will prove Dredd to be commercially successful as well.


Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Punisher War ZonePoor Frank Castle.  He can’t get a film franchise started to save his life.  It’s just reboot after reboot.  However, out of the three that have been made, I believe this is the one that gets the most right in the right places.  I did see this theatrically, twice in fact, and I was really blown away by it.  Regardless, it did poorly at the box office due to a lackluster marketing campaign by Lionsgate and an untimely December release date.  Conversely, this was the same year that gave us Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight.  So, there was high caliber benchmarks set in 2008, and I would say that Punisher: War Zone did not disappoint, in most part.  To me, Ray Stevenson is the best Frank Castle to date, but there are some glaring problems with the villain of Jigsaw that impact the quality of the overall movie.

Ex-Special Forces officer Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) wages a one-man war on two fronts.  While targeting the vicious mob boss, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), Castle horribly disfigures the gangster in a firefight that also claims the life of undercover FBI Agent Nicky Donatelli.  Seeking terrible vengeance, Russoti takes the name “Jigsaw” and begins recruiting the underworld’s most notorious criminals while Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) joins with the sole member of the NYPD’s Punisher Task Force, Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok), in order to avenge his partner’s murder.  However, Frank’s lethal mistake weighs on his conscience, and he is nearly ready to pack it in until he realizes the danger Angela Donatelli (Julie Benz) and her daughter are in.  Now, The Punisher must find a way to elude the law and decimate a deadly crime army before more innocent lives are tragically ended.

First off, I really like that the filmmakers didn’t make this film another retread of the Punisher’s origin story.  They instead chose for the Punisher to have already been operating for five years at the time of this story.  Although, they surely weren’t going to gloss over that origin considering this was another reboot.  We get tragic flashbacks to the aftermath of the Castle family’s slaying, and the story is briefly, yet poignantly told by Detective Soap to Agent Budiansky.  We get the details on what happened, and even more impactful is noting the Punisher’s track record and body count.  The entire basement of the police station is filled with files on every case, every murder involving the Punisher.  There are literally thousands of them.  This was a brilliant direction to go in to join Frank further down the road, and allow some perspective and reflection to enter into the equation of his character.  This is no longer a man in the heat of his passionate revenge.  This is a grim, weathered individual who is driven by his disdain for injustice, and has buried his soul deep down underneath all that pain and grief.  That’s a fascinating route to go, and it works directly and purposefully into the story.

Fan reaction was that this film was very faithful to the Punisher MAX and Marvel Knights comic series with its gritty, yet over-the-top violence and vibrant color scheme.  While I cannot comment on the accuracy of that sentiment, what I can say is that this is really what I’ve always felt a Punisher film should be.  It is unrelentingly brutal with a generous helping of blood, gore, and violence, but with proper depth to its characters.  The action sequences are slam bang amazing, even if they can tend to defy the laws of physics, at times.  However, Punisher: War Zone is clearly geared towards a very comic book style, just based on the gorgeous cinematography.  It is so vibrant, moody, gritty, and saturated with all the right colors that it often looks like it came straight off the pages of a comic book, and the action is indeed jacked up with that mentality.  Just in the opening sequence, we’ve got a good dozen mobsters getting shot, slashed, and just laid to waste in graphic fashion.  It sets an awesome, aggressive, relentless vibe for the whole movie which never disappoints or eases up.  It puts you in the world of Frank Castle, and delves you right into his bleak, graphic state of mind.  This is an action film that pulls no punches, and goes straight for the hard R rating all the way.

I also love how Castle moves and operates in the action scenes.  It’s all very militaristic, but exceptionally nasty.  No mercy, no prisoners – everyone dies.  While the previous Punisher films had plenty of action and unique use of weaponry, this film employs tactics and strategy that feel very authentic.  This is even more appropriate since this Frank Castle is actually revealed to have been a Marine.  Dolph Lundgren’s was a former police officer, and Thomas Jane’s was a federal agent.  I don’t know why it took a group of filmmakers so long to actually get Castle’s background correct, aside from the Vietnam aspect, but thankfully, it is well realized here in very subtle and clear details.  It is very much ingrained in Frank’s mentalities and disciplines.  Even his body armor reflects a man of vast wartime experience as it covers his torso up over his neck, and appears to be very heavy duty.  Frank looks like a man waging a war as he’s always prepared with another weapon at hand, and has precise, razor sharp reflexes.  This is a guy you’re going to have to massacre in order to stop, and he is not going to make that the least bit easy to do.  I love the moment early on when he uses a pencil to reset his broken nose.  That’s hardcore right there.  Frank himself is immensely intimidating just by the sight of him.  The slicked back black hair, beard stubble, and the obvious wear and age on Ray Stevenson’s face create a grim visage that says more than words ever could.  And the signature white skull on the body armor is the final glorious touch to put the fear of death into any criminal.

Of course, I stand very firm in that Ray Stevenson was a brilliant casting choice for this character.  I know Lundgren’s version had some sense of self-reflection, but I’m not familiar enough with Jane’s Punisher to know what he brought to it, depth wise.  I just know that the film he starred in is one I cannot sit through.  Here, Stevenson gives us every dimensional quality that could exist for Frank Castle.  Yes, he is a hardcore bad ass that is unwaveringly lethal.  Unlike most superheroes, The Punisher has no lines he won’t cross.  If you’re a criminal, you will be punished.  There is no gray area.  It doesn’t matter if the cops are right there to arrest the criminal, he exacts his own brand of justice every time.  The level of violence and carnage is absolutely appropriate for The Punisher.  It is necessary to have in order to understand the emotional and psychological mindset of Frank Castle.  The graphic violence he dishes out is the same which claimed the lives of his family.  It explains why he is such a grim figure, what the definition of a vigilante truly is, why the cops and criminals fear him, and why neither want him on the streets.  He is a man alone, and no one can truly understand him without seeing and feeling what it is he has gone through.  Still, you see that he does feel things, and that he has a morality and a soul.  Frank’s been emotionally shattered by the violent murder of his family, and that has resulted in a grim man with a lot of deep seeded pain, torment, and disdain.  Ray Stevenson brings those powerful, realistic qualities to the surface, and it creates the real solid core of this film.  The action, violence, and brutality are givens for a Punisher film, but it’s that serious depth of character which sets this film apart from its predecessors.  You see the fractured remnants of the caring family man Frank once was, and it really penetrates for me.  The story aspect of Frank accidentally killing an undercover cop instigates that deep exploration of his soul and heart, and creates an emotionally moving arc by the end with Julie Benz’s Angela Donatelli.  Stevenson is absolutely everything that you’d want from your Frank Castle thespian.  He handles the role with serious weight giving it credibility and humanity.  It is the most three dimensional Punisher I have yet to be exposed to, and shows that the character is more than just a vigilante with a bad attitude.  He has depth to spare, when put into the right creative hands.

Julie Benz is truly excellent as the grieving widow as she is not a wholly trembling mess.  Angela is a cop’s wife, and has strength and conviction within her to survive through all she endures.  There is a deep well of pain and emotion that pulsates through her performance.  While she is strong, she is vulnerable nonetheless, and it’s a great mixture she puts together that can really be felt by an audience.  I know Benz from her work as Darla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel, and so, her range of talent is not a surprise to me but is a great pleasure to witness.  She shares some substantive scenes with Stevenson, and they both work beautifully together.  The same goes for Stephanie Janusauskas who endearingly portrays the young and innocent Grace Donatelli.  Stevenson’s scenes with her bring out Frank’s adoration he had for his own daughter, and is the most tender insights into Frank.  Stephanie is wholly sweet showcasing some genuine talent that really forges an audience’s empathy for Grace.

Now, this film is easily divided up into two separate sections of quality.  Everything that does not involve Jigsaw is tremendously bad ass and awesome.  Unfortunately, almost everything that does involve Jigsaw is really ridiculous and silly.  Now, Dominic West did a superb job with Billy Russoti.  He was charismatic, threatening, a little intimidating, and a perfect fit for an Italian Mafioso.  He had all the elements just right for this slick, underhanded villain.  If he had remained as this character throughout the film, I think the tone would have been much more consistent and balanced.  However, after he’s disfigured at the hands of the Punisher, that’s when we’re subjected to a very comical villain that poorly contrasts with the dark, heavy, serious tone of the film.  Jigsaw becomes almost cartoonish in his behavior, attitude, and look through most of his screentime.  He’s clearly overacting through those facial prosthetics, and it’s nothing but detrimental.  There are better moments here and there, but in general, it’s the one major element that brings the film down for me.  It’s not even like a Jack Nicholson Joker where he’s at least morbidly comical in his homicidal tendencies.  Jigsaw is very much plucked out of a twisted cartoon concept where it’s difficult to take him seriously after a while.  His criminal recruitment montage sequence is almost enough to force a face palm reaction.  It’s not a purely bad performance, but there’s far more bad than there is good from Dominic West once he adopts the Jigsaw persona.

There is one semi-saving grace amongst the villains, and that’s Doug Hutchison as Looney Bin Jim.  It’s a character strictly created for the movie, but his psychotic qualities really do help boost the threat level.  He’s immensely agile and brutal, and thus, is able to take the fight right to Frank Castle near the film’s climax.  In the least, the character gave Jigsaw someone to bounce off of, someone who feels like a trusted and capable right hand man, and that’s commendable for the filmmakers to have done.  Hutchison is surely over-the-top in his own right, but for the character, it does work immensely better than for Jigsaw.  It would have worked better had Jigsaw been a much more serious character and threat to create that contrast of Jim appearing far crazier.

The remainder of the cast is solid starting with Wayne Knight as Frank’s arsenal securing friend Micro.  Knight does a fine job keeping the character enjoyable, but still dramatically poignant and sympathetic.  He and Stevenson work very well together creating an honest, open relationship between Micro and Frank that feels genuine.  Dash Mihok also does an exemplary job as the enthusiastic, innocent minded Detective Martin Soap.  I liked the twist with the character about midway through the film.  It’s very comical but terribly appropriate as it makes a fun kind of sense, and makes Soap appear more capable than he tends to appear.  I really enjoyed the character, and Mihok made him endearing.  On the more bad ass side, Colin Salmon is excellent as Agent Paul Budiansky.  He’s a very take charge type of guy who doesn’t shy away from danger, and is deadest determined to haul in the Punisher no matter what.    Salmon brings a lot of heart to the role, and the script gives him depth to work with as he owes Nicky Donatelli his life and career after Budiansky got hooked on narcotics.  There’s a debt to repay, and he’s not going to take a backseat to anyone.  Budiansky throws down with Frank, and with a guy of Salmon’s size at 6’4”, he absolutely looks like a guy who could hold his own against real bad dudes.  Overall, this is a film with some mostly solid and dimensional performances that not enough comic book films strive for, but should.  It’s easy for a lesser grade screenwriter or filmmaker to gloss over character depth in favor of spectacle or action, but that’s exactly when they’ve already failed.  This film succeeds, and in many different ways.

I mentioned the cinematography a bit already, but I’d like to elaborate on it.  While the film does have a very vibrant color palette, it is soaked in dark, shadowy environments.  It has plenty of moodiness and atmosphere to spare.  Even the daytime scenes are a little washed out to enhance that bleakness.  The richest visual feast occurs in the church scene where Frank meets with Budiansky before the climax.  This location is filled with brilliant colors, but has the added beauty of numerous lit candles.  The scene has some exquisite depth of field and artistry to it that, while it fits solidly with the rest of the picture, gives this scene a special aura all its own.  The action cinematography is excellent.  There is absolutely zero shaky cam quick cut editing.  The camera work is wholly competent going regularly for fluidity instead of chaotic motion.  That shows there were some smart filmmakers behind this.  They were able to give this film a unique style that is very comic book in nature while never becoming cliché or showy.  It’s clever, sharp, and beautiful all around.  Cinematographer Steve Gainer deserves a load of credit for making this film look so stunning, and director Lexi Alexander deserves credit for pushing for many of the stylistic composition choices.  It all works to amazing effect.

And while this movie was shot in Québec, Canada, the filmmakers had enough perspective on the material to seamlessly integrate some excellent stock footage of New York.  My favorite bit of this is when Frank’s standing on the rooftop and the Chrysler Building is over his shoulder in the distance.  It was surely some sort of green screen shot, but when I saw this theatrically, I couldn’t tell that this movie wasn’t shot on location in Manhattan, New York.  So far, this is the only Punisher film to actually have the film blatantly set in New York, and actually go to the extra effort to sell that illusion.  That is something I cannot commend them enough.  Nearly every Marvel superhero is based out of New York, but if there’s any one character from Marvel Comics that is a tonally perfect fit for the urban grit of New York, it is the Punisher.

Now, the music of the film is a bit divided for me.  While I am a big heavy metal fan, I admit that it rarely has an appropriate place in a film.  Most times, like in this film, it tends to be intrusive and a bit overblown.  Maybe if these were songs from bands I actually liked, perhaps I’d be more welcoming of them.  However, there is some great score performed by Michael Wandmacher.  It brings out the dark, dangerous tone of the film, but also, highlights and enhances the moments of emotional depth and turmoil.  It’s a very well rounded piece of work that perfectly complements this stellar film.

Aside from the comical elements of Jigsaw, I think Punisher: War Zone has a very solidly put together story and script.  Every Punisher film that ever has and ever will be made is always going to have Frank unleashing an all-out assault on organized crime, but it’s what’s beyond that which makes such a film standout.  Beyond the action and violence, this has some very strong emotional plot threads and character arcs.  There are elements of guilt, grief, forgiveness, responsibility, revenge, and trust running through Frank, Angela, and Budiansky.  These arcs are handled exceptionally well, and really flesh these characters out in a great way.  Even Soap and Micro have their say in Frank’s struggle with his murder of Agent Donatelli.  These aspects are treated with great care and are executed wonderfully.  It’s also great seeing everyone’s different viewpoint on the Punisher.  Some see him as a menace to be thwarted and condemned.  Others consider what he does a service.  The NYPD put together the “Punisher Task Force” as merely a public image joke as they mostly couldn’t care less about what trash the Punisher executes on the streets.  This is evident by the fact that Detective Soap is the sole member of the task force, and the NYPD dumps Budiansky there just to brush him aside.  How all these elements and characters converge and end up relying on the Punisher is smartly done, and really develop organically from the plotlines and character motivations.

The entire climax is just a magnificent onslaught.  It’s the Punisher set loose massacring probably half the street criminals in New York, working his way through the Bradstreet Hotel to rescue Angela and Grace from Jigsaw’s clutches.  The stunts are spectacular, and the sound design of all the different styles of gunfire and explosions as well as the crunching of bones and the splat of blood is just absolutely brutal.  This is hardcore action all the way through.  It is as unforgiving and merciless as the Punisher himself.  Still, this climax has some emotional turmoil for Frank, but I won’t spoil a thing for you.  Simply said, it has resonance and weight to it that add to the dramatic realism that the film is so rich with.

All in all, this is definitely the Punisher movie that strived to do the most with its characters and concepts, and it succeed in nearly every regard.  I do love the movie very much, but the fact that Jigsaw is a ridiculously comical villain you can almost never take seriously does negatively impact the film.  It doesn’t kill Punisher: War Zone, however, because everything outside of Jigsaw is so amazingly good that it’s near impossible to topple it with one bad performance.  Ray Stevenson is hugely blockbuster in his portrayal of Frank Castle.  He brings so much depth and pure bad assery that it would be a steep mountain to climb to top or rival him.  He makes the Punisher a character that could thrive on the big screen, and that is also largely due to director Lexi Alexander.  She showed a massive wealth of talent here as well as the ability for a vibrant, hard-hitting, and compelling vision.  So many action films today come off as lackluster carbon copies of the last big theatrical hit that it’s invigorating to see someone inject some fresh style and depth into the genre.  We’ve been treated to many great comic book movies over the last several years, and so, the standards have gotten pretty high.  In my mind, I truly believe that Punisher: War Zone just about reaches that standard.  The only major element that a Punisher movie needs at this point is a rock solid villain that’s worthy of squaring off against the Punisher.  So far, I don’t feel we’ve gotten that, and it is the only real failing of this movie.  For my parting words, let me just say that the last moments of the film are just flat out bad ass!  The very final shot is perfectly iconic and foreboding.  Ray Stevenson is my quintessential Punisher, and there is just not enough I can say about his detailed and awesome performance to do it justice.  Punisher: War Zone gets a damn strong recommendation from me.


Deception (2008)

DeceptionI’ve really liked this film ever since its theatrical release.  It didn’t get good reviews, and was a bomb taking in only $17 million out of its $25 million budget.  It continues to show me that while I may love erotic thrillers, they are rarely marketable to a mass audience.  However, the sexual aspects of this film are a backdrop for what I view as a fairly solid twisting thriller.  What engages me about Deception are the performances of its leads in Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor, and Michelle Williams, and the rich, stunning neo noir cinematography by Danté Spinotti.  The latter is no surprise as he has shot many Michael Mann films including Manhunter and Heat.  I find Deception to be an intriguing thriller that is heavily aided by that striking visual atmosphere, and some smart directing from Marcel Langenegger.

Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is an auditor in Manhattan, moving from office to office checking the books of various companies.  While working late, a smooth, well-dressed lawyer named Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) chats Jonathan up, offers him a joint, and soon they’re pals.  Jonathan is a very lowly, modest man, but Wyatt soon opens him up to a world of pleasurable desires and sexual confidence.  When their cell phones are accidentally swapped, Jonathan answers Wyatt’s phone to a series of women asking if he’s free tonight.  He soon discovers it’s a sex club where busy, powerful people meet each other anonymously in hotels for discrete encounters.  However, he fully breaks all the rules when he falls for one of the club members, whom he knows only as “S” (Michelle Williams), whom he’s also seen on a subway.  Yet, during an intimate night out, she goes missing, patterns emerge, and Jonathan faces demands involving violence, murder, treachery, and a large sum of money.

An excellent neo noir tone of mystery and isolation is struck right from the beginning with the quiet and moody opening title sequence.  It’s just Jonathan sitting in a conference room, alone, late at night, but the vibe just sinks in very deeply to establish his isolated nature.  He’s isolated from the world around him, always removed from the activity of the offices he’s working at, and has no real social life to speak of.  The film is very regularly set in at nighttime inside clubs, hotels, offices, taxicabs, and elsewhere allowing for that dark, subversive tone to seep in.  However, even the daytime scenes have a certain drained quality that maintain that atmosphere.  The visual tone eases up just enough in those moments allowing you to not get bogged down by the visual darkness.  What we get, overall, is a multi-toned film that moves from that lonely isolation to a lively and exciting world that is full of mysterious passion, but then, segues into a very heartfelt romantic connection that becomes the emotionally motivating element of the story.  From there, it delves fully into the tense and threatening first, main twist of the film where our villain reveals his true colors.

Within only fifteen minutes, the film establishes a strong relationship between Jonathan and Wyatt.  It hits all the right beats fleshing out their personalities with quick, substantive exchanges, and showing us how Wyatt just pushes Jonathan out far enough to take some chances.  He opens Jonathan’s mind to being outgoing and perceiving the pleasures that one can indulge in, when the opportunities arise.  This then sets Jonathan off on his own seductive, sexually charged encounters that really liven up his life.  The sex and nudity are never raunchy.  Everything has a beauty, vigor, and sensual quality that is very elegant and classy.  We are given context for this anonymous sex club as it is something for the excessively busy successful person to gain “intimacy without intricacy,” as Charlotte Ramplings’ Wall Street Belle states to Jonathan.  Still, for someone like Maggie Q’s Tina, there’s a compulsion to the danger of being with someone mysterious and anonymous.  It has an attraction and outlet for almost anyone, and for Jonathan, it builds a more confident man.  However, as I said, the erotic elements are merely a backdrop, a facilitating plot element that surrounds the film, but never dominates it.  They tie directly back into the plot regularly, and the sex scenes are never gratuitous.  They all serve a purpose towards the development of the story or characters.  Most erotic thrillers use sex scenes as frivolously as many lower grade action films use action sequences.  When they have relevance to the story, they work, but when they are just there to fill the skin quota, that’s when you’ve got a late night Skinemax flick.  Deception surely and thankfully fits into the former category.

Furthermore, there is nothing wasted in the run time of this film.  The pace is tight with an even rhythm and stellar editing.  The plot develops very organically, and progresses without a hitch.  It’s never too brisk to sacrifice character, but never lags at the cost of the story.  Every aspect of the characters and plot fit in snugly, and propel the narrative forward in every scene.  The filmmakers knew how far to weave their plot threads, and never stretched them out or rushed through anything.  It’s all evenly balanced to achieve the right pace.  The story is rather lean, and maybe some would prefer a little more proverbial meat on the bone of the script.  However, it really didn’t require or demand more.  What we are given works very well giving us enough substance to make this a full narrative, and avoiding any over complicated indulgences or dragged out sections of the film.  We are given a few well placed twists that are well earned, and more importantly, are setup with care and intelligence.  The little seeds of knowledge are laid out here and there to make the deceptions solid and convincing.  All the qualities of the narrative flow together very smoothly and smartly.  The second half of the film shows Jonathan’s development as he has the confidence to take action against Wyatt, and become a more capable protagonist when under pressure.  I also think the development of the romantic relationship between Jonathan and S is done beautifully, and brings a warm levity to the right parts of the film.  This really sets the film apart from other seductive thrillers as they rarely feature a genuinely decent and charming romantic storyline.  Ultimately, it is this element that the film is most concerned with, and does continue to make it a point of importance for the characters.

Ewan McGregor is an actor that I have a true fondness for.  While I haven’t seen many of his movies, I do find him an exceptional talent who always shows dedication and enthusiasm for his work.  As Jonathan McQuarry, he demonstrates a very modest quality.  He’s clearly a man of humble upbringings that’s never been adventurous or daring.  His new sexual experiences do energize him, but don’t taint the man he is underneath.  He matures into a fuller person not held back by his old timid hesitations, but never loses the decency and heart that define him.  When he meets and gets to know S, he is genuinely enamored by her in a touching, heartfelt way.  McGregor embodies these endearing qualities authentically and with all the kind-hearted charm possible.  There’s nothing disingenuous about his performance.  It all comes straight from the heart, and when Jonathan’s forced into the more adversarial aspects of the film, the tension and fearful weight of the plot are carried wonderfully by him.  He makes for an engaging and sympathetic protagonist.

I am also highly impressed by Hugh Jackman here, as I usually am.  He’s also an actor I believe has incredible talent, and he really sinks his teeth into this role.  He starts out as a somewhat charming individual who enjoys indulging in all the lustful pleasures of life.  He’s charismatic and quite the arrogant jackass, but he’s able to ensnare Jonathan out of his shell with temptations of new, daring experiences.  Despite Wyatt’s abrasive ego, you are able to accept him as an intriguing instigator of excitement in Jonathan’s life.  Now, I don’t believe I’ve seen Jackman portray a full-on villain before, but he is intensely intimidating as one here.  His manipulative turn later in the film is dark and devilish.  There’s enough mystery about his character to make him threatening, but when you find out what he is capable of, that only backs up and enhances the severe, frightening qualities of Jackman’s character and performance.  Overall, I think he relished playing every facet of this character, and it really shows through while never betraying the grounded weight of the film.  Being a producer on the movie I’m sure only benefitted the quality of his on-screen work.

Michelle Williams puts on a beautiful performance, reflecting her own gorgeous physical beauty.  She brings out a warm, soulful depth of heart to S.  She just glows on screen with her bright smile and sweet presence.  She also presents a sexually confident woman who is sensual and seductive, but not aggressive.  Williams has a sparkling, heartfelt chemistry with Ewan McGregor that is the shining quality of this film.  They play off each other with such genuine loving emotion that you truly feel how special this is for both characters.  She is able to convey a rich array of emotions that really forge a connection with the audience in relation to Jonathan.  She is a vibrant ray of light that gives this film an endearing emotional weight that we are regularly reminded of, and really has resonance in the end.

The score was done by Ramin Djawadi, who also later scored the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House, and he is amazingly consistent in his style and quality.  As I mentioned in my Safe House review, his compositions are very evocative of the scores heard in many Michael Mann films such as Collateral.  Meshed with Spinotti’s cinematography, that couldn’t have created a more desirable result for me.  Djawadi does an impeccable job layering in tension, suspense, and an alluring, elegant mystique to the film.  It’s just a work of excellence, in my view, and I’m glad to experience his work regularly on the TV series Person of Interest.  He puts so much depth and lush sensuality into the Deception score, and I highly recommend checking out the soundtrack release.

Deception was partially shot on digital video giving a bold, clear visual quality to all these dark environments, and this film pushes the visual darkness to a new, deep level.  The strip club scene early on has rich, pristine colors.  Yet, other scenes are more muted mostly utilizing soft greens and ambers to evoke a very inviting visual mood.  Danté Spinotti’s cinematography just makes such gorgeous use of color, as he’s been doing since Manhunter, and his camera work and compositions are stunningly beautiful.  This man makes art out of every frame using light, shadow, movement, and depth of field to masterful extent and detail.  The Chinatown sequence is a special favorite of mine that motivated me to visit Chicago’s Chinatown shortly after the film’s release.  The Chinese architecture and visual culture really creates a romantic mystique for Jonathan and S’s most engaging encounter.  Deception has a visual style that really is a feast and a pleasure for my eyes.  It sets my artistic filmmaking imagination on fire.  Now, I will admit that the first few times I saw the movie, the scenes in Spain at the end left me wanting from a visual standpoint.  The rest of the movie was so rich with seductive atmosphere and shadowy moodiness that the soft, muted quality of the daytime scenes in Spain didn’t do much for me.

The ending in general, story wise, left me a bit unsatisfied for a while as well.  I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that the film deserved a stronger, more intense pay-off.  It could’ve used a more personal and emotionally charged comeuppance in light of everything that Jackman’s character had done.  On early viewings, it did lack an especially impactful punctuation to that aspect of the story.  Ultimately, it’s focused on the relationship between Jonathan and S, and I can surely accept that as a vital part of the story.  I just felt that the ending we got just didn’t have as much resonance as I would have wanted between McGregor and Jackman.  I’m not sure what that resolution would be, but it seemed like it needed a little more build up and pay-off.  Of course, on repeated viewings, I have been able to easily accept it by way of familiarity.  I still would prefer a stronger resolution to the adversarial conflict of the film, but I can enjoy the film quite well as it is today.

Regardless of this, I still feel that screenwriter Mark Bomback, along with creative input by director Marcel Langenegger, put together a very well crafted and sharply written script.  The characters are fully developed and vibrantly inhabit this world and the story, and the plot is tightly wrapped around them.  I think the character of Jonathan McQuarry has a wonderful arc that allows him to fully break free of his meek shell, and into a bright world of possibilities.  Yet, he has to trudge through a dangerous and seductive world to get there, but it’s an evolution that he earns.  The deceptions that weave into the story are very cleverly threaded, and culminate in some chilling, intimidating moments that sell the danger Jonathan becomes trapped in.  It’s surely not the greatest mystery of all time, but for someone that just cannot write a mystery to save his life, I have to commend someone when they achieve a rather intelligently written manipulative tale.

So, the big critics didn’t like it, and many didn’t care to give it a chance.  I’m not saying it’s some unsung gem of cinema, but Deception is a fine film handled with care by a lot of exceptional filmmaking talents.  I really like the narrative it tells, and the qualities of emotion and heart it focuses on in our loving leads.  Unlike many dark, edgy, and dangerous thrillers, it doesn’t delve you into the gritty violence or erotic sleaze.  It’s an elegantly made film enveloped in a very shadowy, sultry world of treachery and passion.  If you have an appreciation for neo noir, I highly recommend this film for the gorgeous, brilliant cinematography alone.  Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and find beauty in, and being a major fan of crime thrillers, I’m very pleased to see this film go into some different directions and find something other than fractured souls and tragic crimes.  Of course, that clearly means I’m going to have to review some more Michael Mann movies shortly.


The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

Based on the book by Andrew Neiderman, The Devil’s Advocate is an amazing supernatural horror film with a depth of strong thematic material.  The screenplay, adapted by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, is executed with extraordinary artistic skill by director Taylor Hackford.

Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is a ruthless young Florida attorney that never lost a case that is recruited by the most powerful law firm in the world.  In spite of his mother’s disagreement, which compares New York City to Babylon, he and his beautiful wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) accept the offer and the money that comes along with it.  The firm’s senior partner, John Milton (Al Pacino), sees something very special in Kevin, and showers him with wealth and feeds his vanity.  However, Mary Ann just wants to have a baby, and becomes distressed by Kevin always being on a case and never at home.  A multiple murder case for reviled businessman Alex Cullen (Craig T. Nelson) tears them further apart as Kevin won’t leave the case for fear of hating Mary Ann for doing so.  Feeling homesick, she witnesses horrifying apparitions, and starts to lose her grip on reality – or so it seems.  As Kevin is lured deeper into a treacherous well of unholy evil and seduction, he will come to learn a startling truth that could claim his very soul.

Director Taylor Hackford delivers a very fascinating film where there is always something more subversive occurring beneath the surface.  The courtroom and law scenes are never just proceedings, but a test of morality and conscience in a bigger picture.  There is a strong sense that there is something larger at stake with everything that is going on.  The audience can always feel a supernatural, sullen presence presiding over nearly everything in the film.  This is achieved in many ways from the atmospheric lighting in key scenes to the shady religious themes to John Milton’s skillful seduction.  The film does use a generous amount of religious context to massively profound effect.  People are consumed by their own sins, and are given the means to embrace them without consequence, as long as they have no consciences to worry about.  This is where tying this story directly into the world of defense attorneys and a shady law firm is brilliant.  They are people dedicated to clearing offenders of guilt, regardless of whether or not they are guilty.  For these characters, that requires a certain absence of conscience, and a dedication to deception, which are strongly prevalent themes in this film.

The moral corruption in the film is magnificently showcased through Mary Ann.  She is a very wholesome woman who is thrust into a world of amoral people.  They are pretentious, arrogant people that severely test Mary Ann’s psychological and moral resolve.  She clearly is not comfortable around them, which is best displayed during and after the party scene, and just being around them begins to decay her mental stability.  As she and Kevin are further driven apart, she gets worse and worse where the nightmares and isolation psychologically break her down, but that is ultimately not the worst of it.  Kevin is corrupted differently as John Milton gives him the opportunities to feed his competitive edge and then some.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I really do like Keanu Reeves.  He’s a better quality actor than many give him credit for.  This performance is a fine example.  I like the dichotomy that Kevin is a very confident and in control person when he’s being a lawyer, but he sacrifices the stability and health of his marriage for it.  He is so deeply ensnared into Milton’s charismatic web of temptation and power that he cannot perceive the moral destruction of his life.  Reeves takes Kevin from those humble roots of a defense attorney who still has some conscience left to one who abandons it all for greater pleasure and glory.  He loved his wife dearly, but ultimately, he is turned against her as they both deteriorate in this “Babylon.”  Reeves shows early on that there is a humanity within Kevin, despite the unsavory things he does to secure a win, and that carries with an audience throughout the picture.  As he’s corrupted further in New York, he never becomes a bad guy to the audience.  We can see what’s happening to Kevin while he does indulge in the thrill of victory and hedonism alongside Milton.  This is also partially due to being intrigued by John Milton’s mystique, the same as Kevin.  We’re both following Milton down this dark path of temptation, and we cannot turn away from it.  Emotionally, Reeves can be intense with one scene showing a horrifying outpour of grief and horror.  Going into the climax, he delivers chilling conviction that ramps up the dramatic power of the film.  Beyond anything else, Keanu Reeves also solidly and consistently pulls off that southern accent.

Al Pacino is absolutely amazing in this film.  He indulges full boar into the hedonism and charisma of this role.  It’s great seeing him cut loose, but he plays it very smartly, only letting the full measure out at the right times.  Milton is definitely a tempter, a guy who opens the door, but never closes it behind you.  He allows you to dig your own grave.  He never seals your fate for you.  Milton gives Kevin plenty of chances to back out, to walk away from the Cullen case to take care of Mary Ann, but he never takes it.  He manipulates no one into doing anything they don’t want to do.  He seduces your desires to the surface.  The film smartly and slowly las the seeds of knowledge that Milton is more than he appears to be.  There’s an unspoken power he has that gradually manifests in more and more dramatic ways as the film goes on.  At a certain point, who and what he is becomes undeniable.  Pacino’s performance is brilliant and vibrant.  The scenes between him and Reeves are the real meat of the film, and they are a powerful pairing that do make this film excell in many ways.

Charlize Theron takes a powerfully emotional journey from that sweet, wholesome, and spirited small town woman to a horribly traumatized and vulnerable one.  Mary Ann might’ve been a young lady to contend with in her small Florida town, but in New York, she is entirely overwhelmed by everything.  She is incredible, and very brave for embracing the challenging demands of this role.  She takes her performance into frighteningly dark places that she should be commended for.  This is definitely an early breakout role for her, and it shows the incredible talent she possesses.  Theron and Reeves have great chemistry, and are so deeply convincing from the passionate, happy couple to the terribly turbulent and fractured one.

The supporting cast has some solid performances from Jeffrey Jones as the gluttonous, arrogant, and abrasive firm partner Eddie Barzoon, Connie Nielsen as the intriguing and somewhat exotic Christabella, Craig T. Nelson putting in a heavyweight performance as the ruthless real estate developer Alex Cullen, and even a small role by Delroy Lindo as the goat sacrificing Phillipe Moyez, who has a dark mystique and implied supernatural power.  This is a fantastically assembled cast in every single aspect, from even the smallest role all the way to the leads.

It should be no surprise that the stirring, ominous, and moody score is the work of James Newton Howard.  It certainly has some gothic and choral elements giving the film a darkly cathedral sound.  It is plenty haunting, especially going into the third act when everything becomes very wicked and surreal.  It’s overall a striking and potent work that regularly maintains that unsettling and foreboding supernatural tone I mentioned before.

The film is also so damn well shot.  The cinematography gives the film such scope and foreboding atmosphere.  It brings profound grandeur and artistry to the thematic weight of the story.  While Andrzej Bartkowiak hasn’t shot much worth noting, he does a remarkable job on this film teamed with director Taylor Hackford.  That cinematography shows off the cultured and artistically modern, for the time, production designs.  John Milton’s office and especially penthouse home are designed with gorgeous vision by Bruno Rubeo.  The location shooting shows off the deep character of the city of New York.  The filmmakers even secured the golden apartment of Donald Trump for that of Alex Cullen.  This authenticity adds so much depth of detail to the film.

The Devil’s Advocate is definitely filled with an array of chilling images and grisly moments.  These are all handled with immense weight and artistry.  Digital effects are used greatly morphing one person’s face, subtly, into a demonic visage, or haunting Mary Ann with other surreal sights.  The climax has some ambitious CGI between the morphing piece of artwork and the explosive fiery effects.  However, the best moments of horror are more practical and psychologically based.  They tap into the unholy evil that looms over everyone twisting peoples’ lives into a tangled web of destruction, and it creates thick tension and taut suspense.  Something fearful has befallen their lives, and it is corrupting in ways they cannot comprehend.  This is all masterfully and intelligently crafted with a strong atmosphere that is like the rumbling of thunder on the horizon.  A dark storm is coming that none of them are prepared for, let alone can see.

The Devil’s Advocate has an amazing and stunning finale punctuated gloriously over the end credits by the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.”  This really is a magnificently conceived and executed film.  Backed by an immensely talented cast, this delivers strongly with strong thematic material and brilliantly realized imagery that chills and frightens.  Aside from some CGI that might not measure up to modern standards, there is nothing negative I can say about this film.  While the 90s where not the best decade for horror, this is certainly one of smartest and most dimensional horror films of that decade which brought us The Exorcist III, New Nightmare, Lord of Illusions, In The Mouth of Madness, and Scream.


Drive (2011)

I have a tendency to miss out on great films in the theatre due to an uncertainty about them.  I can get so used to how mainstream films are marketed that when I see something distinctly different, it’s hard to be sold on it.  Thankfully, better late than never, some trusted word of mouth finally got me to check out Drive.  To my sensibilities, this is an astonishing, flat out amazing film.  This feels like if Michael Mann made a movie between Thief and Manhunter, and was scored by Tangerine Dream.  This is fully evocative of a 1980s neo noir crime thriller with its sense of tone and atmosphere and using a magnificent soundtrack to envelop an audience into its emotion.  Beyond that, I feel Drive is also brilliant.

Ryan Gosling stars as a Hollywood stunt driver by day that moonlights as a wheelman for criminals by night.  He’s employed and aided by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a former stuntman who is propositioning the shady Bernard Rose (Albert Brooks) to invest in a race car venture with this “Driver” as their star.  Though a loner by nature, the Driver can’t help falling in love with his beautiful neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother dragged into a dangerous underworld by the return of her ex-convict husband.  After a heist goes wrong, Driver finds himself driving defense for the girl he loves, tailgated by a syndicate of deadly serious criminals including Rose himself and the bull-headed Nino (Ron Perlman).  Soon he realizes the gangsters are after more than the bag of cash, and is forced to shift gears into a brutal, unrelenting head-on collision.

I will grant that the film is not heavy on plot.  It’s fairly simple and straight forward keeping itself contained to a small collection of characters.  Some might find that a letdown.  However, the substance of this film is in the presentation.  Ryan Gosling’s character is very minimal on dialogue allowing his presence and the atmosphere of the film to carry the Driver’s weight.  The performance alone is very understated and low key, but not skimping on intensity or humanity.  His carefully chosen words hold purpose, and Gosling’s soft spoken delivery forces an audience to focus their attention closely.  Sometimes, a lack of dialogue can bring a mystique and an intriguing quality to a character, and Gosling sparks that magic.  His performance allows you to read more into the man instead of him telling you about who he is, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off.  The scenes where the Driver and Irene are together bring a subtle charm and heart to the surface.  You see the brightness in the soul of this character that contrasts, and later, compliments his grittier, darker side.  When he has to become that more intimidating, brutal person later on, Gosling has no problem being convincing.  You can feel his visceral intensity permeating the screen.  I was impacted hard by those razor sharp moments, and this all comes together in a rock solid piece of work by Ryan Gosling.  This is my first exposure to his talent, and I couldn’t be more blown away.  Also, wrapping him in that Scorpion jacket is just wickedly cool.

Carey Mulligan puts in a gracefully beautiful performance.  She and Gosling have a fine chemistry that gives the film its warmth and purpose.  Their performances reflect nicely off of one another with heart and subtlety.  She never has to say a word to reflect Irene’s emotional conflict over her feelings between her husband and the Driver.  Mulligan touchingly shows that in her eyes and expressions, and how she gravitates to this new charming, under spoken man in her life.  It’s an engaging and inviting piece of work.

Albert Brooks is a shocking powerhouse heavy here.  He’s intimidating as all hell while still having his light hearted, humorous moments.  Still, I never stopped getting that shady feeling from him that he was a mob boss that could slash your wrist or stab you in the eye with a fork without batting an eyelash.  There’s such a fine line the character treads that Brooks walks with ease.  Even when he’s being friendly, there’s still that sense of unease behind everything he says, and even before you know he’s a mob boss, you get the feeling that there’s something not entirely straight about Bernie Rose.  For me, he ranks amongst the best like Christopher Walken in True Romance or Robert Prosky in Thief.  He can turn from being your best friend to your absolute worst enemy in half a heartbeat without even seeing a shift in the character’s manner.  It’s all rather matter of fact with him, and Brooks carries the appropriate weight to achieve these character traits throughout the picture.  I love Albert Brooks’ performance supremely.

The supporting cast is also finely textured.  Bryan Cranston has a broken down heartfelt sympathy as Shannon, the mechanic and former stuntman that aids and endorses Gosling’s character.  He’s a good natured person who gets in too heavy with the wrong people, and you can’t help but feel for him when things turn worse.  Ron Perlman’s gangster character of Nino is interesting.  He’s a Jewish man trying to make himself out to be an Italian mobster.  It’s not an overt part of his performance, but it ties into Nino’s motivations for being a “belligerent asshole,” as Bernie Rose puts it.  Nino has plenty of bravado and ego, but not a lot of good sense.  Perlman nicely inhabits those qualities with plenty of enthusiasm.  Oscar Isaac does well as Irene’s husband Standard.  The character clearly stands out as a person stuck in a number of unwanted situations.  These criminals are violently pressuring him to do this job for him to pay back his debt, and it’s subtlety obvious that his wife does not want to be with him, anymore.  Isaac shows the character’s regret well, and comes off more of a sorry man than a sympathetic one.  He’s a guy that’s made a mess of things, and knows nothing will ever be okay ever again.  The damage is done, and he’s just trying to sweep it under the rug as neatly as possible.  However, he’s endangered the lives of his wife and son, and the Driver has no sympathy for the man.  He only helps him out for the benefit of Irene and Benicio.  These actors all add a strong array of emotion to the film which heightens the tone and atmosphere.

Now, speaking of atmosphere, the score constantly hit me as something very akin to Tangerine Dream’s score for Risky Business.  It has that very light, dreamy quality to it most times, but does delve into very dark, heavy territories.  There are foreboding, tense moments in this score that are just mesmerizing.  Cliff Martinez crafts a deeply enveloping auditory experience which soaks into nearly every fiber of the film, but the filmmakers pick key moments where silence holds more weight than a soundtrack.  The collection of songs in this film retain that 1980s ambient synth-pop quality, but have a modern quality that is beyond my ability to articulate.  From my own independent filmmaking experiences, I know how insanely difficult it is to find modern original music that sounds like it came from the 1980s.  So, the fact that music supervisors Eric Craig and Brian McNeils discovered and assembled music of this amazing style and quality impresses me to no end.  I purchased the CD soundtrack, and it now ranks as one of my absolute favorites of all time.

The chase scenes of Drive are masterful.  The first one is exceptionally smart being tactical in evading the police instead of going for outright action.  That aspect come later after the botched robbery.  It’s short and to the point being very slam bang intense, and not over indulging in itself.  The opening sequence is exceptionally refreshing by being intelligent.  On top of being realistic and smart, it is an excellent introduction to our main character showing his precision as a getaway driver.  These scenes are expertly shot accentuating the distinct tones and tensions of both sequences.

When this film gets brutal, it holds nothing back, and hardly goes in predictable directions.  The Driver never relies on a gun, and instead, goes with blunt force trauma to inflict violence upon people.  The scene where he goes into the strip club wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he just brandished a gun the guy’s face.  When you see the Driver pull out a hammer, you know this is going to be dead serious business, and it’s not going to be pretty.  It’s a startling, powerful sequence which further propels the character’s threat level.  He’s not just some cool headed amazing driver, he’s a dangerous man not worth crossing.  The violence overall is graphic and gory, and shockingly unsettling.  Emotion just pours through these scenes.

I am further floored by the cinematography talents of Newton Thomas Sigel.  I’ve previously reviewed his work on The Usual Suspects and Fallen – both gorgeous films with their own identities.  Drive is no different.  No shot is ever wasted, and every composition is chosen with purpose.  How the film is shot reflects the artistic vision realized with the music, acting, and editing.  The film has inspired moments of absolute cinematic beauty due to Sigel’s artistic brilliance.  The elevator scene late in the film is a magnificent example of this.  The lighting and color tones used throughout create rich visuals which enhance the film’s atmosphere further.

This is a film where every element is cohesively used to create a powerfully enveloping experience.  The conservative editing style of Matthew Newman allows Sigel’s shots to hold their weight, and establish a somber or rich tone that draws an audience into every moment.  The music enhances those moments to create a wonderfully vibrant sonic quality for even the most still or fluid sequences.  I haven’t seen a film like this since Manhunter.  The music plays such a prominent role in creating a rich atmosphere that is as in the forefront of the picture as the actors.  Each aspect is integral towards what is a wonderfully engrossing motion picture.

Drive is something which shows what independent film can do.  It takes chances.  It goes for a filmmaking style that has not really been around in more than twenty years.  It takes an immensely effective way of crafting and presenting a film that a major studio would likely not embrace.  It’s an intelligent, fresh, and creative film that feeds the senses.  It gives you white knuckle action, a heartfelt romantic storyline, strong character drama, graphic brutality, gorgeous cinematic moments, intelligent writing, amazing performances, and a beautiful, exciting soundtrack.  It’s hard to imagine all of these phenomenal visual and auditory elements coming across in a screenplay, but Hossein Amini clearly wrote something truly inspiring on those script pages to inspire the amazing film we ultimately got.  I know nothing of the James Sallis novel this was based on, but clearly, the written word captured the vibrant imagination of these filmmakers.  I will admit that Drive is not a mass audience movie as it requires an appreciation for a certain filmmaking style, but for those that love a slick 1980s style crime thriller that utilizes strong atmosphere and a prominent synth-pop soundtrack to wrap you up in its story and characters, this is absolutely for you.  In my view, Drive is a meticulously crafted masterpiece of cinema born out of a bold vision from director Nicolas Winding Refn.  I love this film thoroughly, and I cannot give it a higher recommendation than that.


Seven (1995)

Back in my favorite year in film, 1995, David Fincher brought us a terribly disturbing and gripping crime film in Seven that changed the genre dramatically, and set Fincher forth on a very successful, high profile directorial career.  His previous film was Alien 3, and that was plagued with production difficulties and creative clashes.  It was not a success, but Seven showed what an unencumbered David Fincher was capable of.  Supported by a powerful cast and a brilliant screenplay, this didn’t just spark his career, it ignited it.

Lieutenant Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a seasoned investigator who is on his final days before retirement.  Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young, impulsive cop looking to make a difference, and maybe even a name for himself, here on the grimy, ugly side of this nameless city.  They are put together on a series of murders that Somerset soon determines is the work of a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Each crime is more ghastly than the last as this sociopath “John Doe” uses them as a garish method of preaching.  While Mills is quickly convinced that this killer is a certified whack job, Somerset sees the calculating, educated rationale behind these crimes.  Both men slowly descend into this frightening and disturbing world that culminates in an unforgettable climax that tests the resolve of both men.

While there had been serial killer films before this, Seven really applied an original concept and environment to the subgenre.  Having the killer, John Doe, be motivated by the seven deadly sins opened up the film to social commentary, and that is handled exceptionally well.  Somerset is someone who you would like to know what kind of person he was before he was damaged by the apathy and amorality of the world.  He’s someone that appears to have once strongly believed in certain admirable principals, but has since lost his zeal for them.  He’s perhaps looked far too deep for too long into the grimy darkness of humanity, and Mills is someone who, likely, hasn’t looked deep enough.  He judges everything on surface appearances, and doesn’t entertain the possibilities of a deeper psychological analysis of their adversary.  Somerset slowly tries to educate Mills to be a more insightful and knowledgeable investigator, and while it brings them more into alignment with one another, it can’t wholly change who Mills is at his core.  The scenes of both Detectives discussing philosophies on Doe’s motives and how they reflect upon society are amazingly well written and perfectly acted by Freeman and Pitt.

With the film never stating what city this takes place in, it creates an enveloping environment in which one can never get quite comfortable, and you’re not supposed to.  The world of Seven is dangerous, seedy, disturbing, and filthy.  This feels like a city where decency of any kind is in the extreme minority.  The production design creates a world that is probably even more weathered than Somerset is.  There is deep texture put into every aspect of every setting to give it a worn down history.  There’s nothing new and shiny here.  It’s all old and deteriorated by time.  The grime seeps through in every frame of film, and the color timing adds to that further with a slightly de-saturated quality.  The near constant rain just adds to the miserable conditions that these characters have trudge through every day.  It was an excellent choice to have the entire climax take place outside of the bleak urban environment and put it into a sun-baked desolate open field.  The visuals in that sequence depict a dead landscape.

The cinematography of Darius Khondji enhances the production design further with a modern noir quality to it.  This is much different than a Michael Mann type of neo noir where things are glossy and colorful, but still offering a depth of darkness.  This is a style of noir that emphasizes the dreadful and macabre aspects of this world.  It’s meant to show off a gritty, unsettling realism that will horrify.  Khondji composes shots with a lot of dramatic weight, and makes use of dolly tracks very well in specific moments.  I love the tracking shot after the duel interrogation scene after the “lust” killing.  It’s just Somerset and Mills sitting in separate interrogation rooms quiet and still.  They are taking a long moment to recover from everything they’ve just witnessed and experienced.  The shot smoothly tracks from the one-way window of Somerset’s room to Mills’ room.  It’s a quiet downbeat moment for both the characters and the audience to soak it all in.  The main action sequence of the Detectives chasing after John Doe is exceptionally well shot maintaining a solid sense of geography with each character, and letting each shot count as the sequence moves from one location to another.  The scene constantly evolves adding in new obstacles and dangers along the way.  Every aspect of its execution is excellent.  Overall, the cinematography of Seven is superb and masterful.  It is definitely a result of a cohesive artistic vision.

Rob Bottin was a special make-up effects master starting with his amazing achievements in John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982.  In Seven, his signature grotesque and stunningly detailed work is highly evident.  He knows how to bring out the garish realistic horror in his creations.  It fits Fincher’s visual style dead-on presenting the smallest details with great clarity to make you believe that everything your seeing is frighteningly real.  Bottin worked with great filmmakers like Joe Danté and Paul Verhoeven before joining with Fincher, and I could praise Bottin’s body of work to endless extent.  It has always had a particularly off-beat and strange approach which reflects Bottin’s personality very well.  While Seven went grossly under-appreciated at the Academy Awards with only a well deserved nomination for Best Editing, Rob Bottin won a Saturn Award for his work here, and it was also very well deserved.

It is a very taut and suspenseful story that Andrew Kevin Walker wrote and Fincher executed.  No time is really wasted getting our characters into the plot.  We learn about them along the way through the investigation instead of introducing them in a standard first act structure of seeing them go through their daily lives before something adverse occurs.  How they each approach the case tells us all we need to know about Mills and Somerset, as I stated earlier.  The case and plot unfold with a strong sense of mystery and intrigue as both Detectives uncover the chilling theme behind these murders.  Each homicide becomes increasingly more graphic and horrific, thus, heightening the twisted psychological state of the killer.  Meanwhile, there is Somerset getting to know David and his wife Tracy, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, who tries to adjust to their new home, which she is not very fond of.  She confides in her husband’s new partner after getting to know his sensible and compassionate manner.  These scenes and character beats are nicely interwoven to continue developing these characters and their relationships.  This maintains an audience’s invested interest in how they deal with everything that’s going on, and the repercussions of what they encounter.

The film presents a definitely interesting psychological state of its killer.  How he gets into police custody is quite unexpected, and sets up a very compelling final act where John Doe is in control.  He might be in handcuffs, but he’s the one leading the Detectives towards a chilling conclusion.  A friend of mine believes that Brad Pitt over acts drastically in this climax.  I’ve never had a problem with it.  In that moment, David Mills is severely torn in an agonizing emotional state where he wants to lash out, but repeatedly tries to restrain the urge.  He’s already established as an impulsive and brash person, and attempting to not lash out in anger would be extremely difficult for a man like David Mills to do.  He’s fighting raw, instinctual emotion, and that would likely result in the reaction Pitt presents here.

Brad Pitt’s performance all around is rich with depth and emotion.  Mills is a guy who cares about what he does, and wants to make a difference.  He could easily become an ignorant jerk of a character with his brash attitude and closed mindedness, but Pitt gives him enough heart and humanity to make him likeable.  He takes the hard headedness, the intensity, the loving husband, the optimistic outlook on humanity, and the naivety and mixes them into a cohesive whole.  As do all the characters in this film, David Mills has his complexities, and Pitt makes it all work and make sense.  Pitt also visually inhabits the role well giving Mills a dirtier, more gritty look than Pitt had ever adopted before, and truly makes the character seamless with the world he inhabits.

The synergy between Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman is solid.  They counterbalance one another beautifully with their characters existing with polar opposite mentalities.  They hardly ever agree on anything, but are both motivated to see this investigation through to the end.  When they occasionally do get on the same page, it’s a great spark that quickly motivates the story forward.

Freeman, as always, is exceptional.  He embodies the dour philosophical mindset of William Somerset wholly.  Again, he’s a man worn out from the moral decay of society, and only reluctantly gets pulled towards this case.  At first, he wants to avoid it, but Somerset’s intuitive and educated mind drives him towards it.  Freeman greatly captures that reluctant attraction, and conveys the character’s psychological investigative approach with a great deal of skill and weight.  Somerset is very meticulous, never jumping to conclusions, and Freeman has the right seasoned quality and grasp on tone to sell those qualities well.  So much of the film’s tone is sold through him.  Prior to the appearance of John Doe, all of the religious ideology and deconstruction of motive is carried by Morgan Freeman, and I don’t think anyone else could’ve done it as well as he did.  While the screenplay explains it all very well, if handed over to the wrong actor, it might not sell remotely as well or as coherently.  Again, it’s all in the tone, which is pitch perfect through Morgan Freeman’s deeply talented abilities.

In the same year that Kevin Spacey gave us his exceptional performance in The Usual Suspects, he also gave us this fascinating surprise performance as John Doe.  It’s a greatly subdued and conservative piece of work that makes Doe so much more unsettling.  Throughout his screentime, there’s that knowledge that Doe is not done, yet.  There is something more chilling and frightening still to come, and Spacey’s performance is very foreboding in the most subtle way possible.  He’s in control, and he is reveling in the impending completion of his masterpiece.  It’s all amazingly compelling.  Spacey won an Academy Award for his turn as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, and this role is equally deserving of that accolade.

The supporting cast is very solid.  R. Lee Ermy is the tough Police Captain, but never falls into that Full Metal Jacket stereotype people like to shoehorn him into.  While he doesn’t have a great amount of screentime, his character is given enough character beats to make him feel fleshed out and genuine.  Gwyneth Paltrow is perfectly cast as Mills’ wife Tracy.  She’s a very compassionate and loving woman who is not pleased with their current situation moving into the city, but has no desire to cause David any stress or turbulence by voicing her worries.  She is an exceptionally decent young woman that definitely is out of place in this decaying urban setting, and Paltrow plays these emotional beats with depth and heart.  Everyone else filling out the cast holds their own strongly, and help to create a very full and dimensional world for this film.

Lastly, Howard Shore composed a strong score by bringing weight to the grim, horrifying atmosphere.  It truly emphasizes the drama, urgency, and intensity of the film.  It’s not a score that jumps out at you, and nor should it be.  It maintains and enhances dramatic tone throughout.  Shore has proven to be a widely diverse film composer, and he is able to complement David Fincher’s darker cinematic style so very well here.

Andrew Kevin Walker put together a deeply impressive and stunning screenplay here, and Fincher was the absolute perfect choice to realize it.  Much of what I write in these reviews is more than just saying if the film is good or bad.  In a case such as this, it’s about spotlighting the brilliant achievements in filmmaking, and analyzing what made it such an instant, powerful classic.  Seven is a landmark film for the genre, and especially for New Line Cinema.  It was really their first A-list type of film attracting high profile movie stars like Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, and securing an amazing director with incredible vision in David Fincher.  It’s entirely shot as a major studio film, and strongly moved New Line Cinema into contention as a serious, big budget studio.  Only six years later would they release The Lord of the Rings trilogy to massive commercial and critical success.  This was a pivotal film for both the studio and David Fincher.  It is an all around shocking and amazing piece of work that delivers an intelligent story with thematic and dimensional elements along with startling images of graphic horror.


Kiss the Girls (1997)

Admittedly, I am not a book reader.  Whatever my issue, I find it difficult to sit down and read a full novel.  So, while I have a good amount of say regarding this film, I have no frame of reference on the James Patterson novel it was based on.  I like the Alex Cross character very much in what Morgan Freeman has given us, but with all of two films from more than a decade ago, it’s never been much of a film franchise.  Both this and its follow-up Along Came A Spider (whose novel is actually a prequel to this) have similar problems, but Kiss the Girls is definitely the better of the two.  Still, it doesn’t live up to the potential it could’ve had.

Washington, D.C. forensic psychologist Dr. Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) travels to North Carolina to investigate the apparent kidnapping of his niece Naomi.  The local police have the evidence, but not the investigative intuitiveness to put the pieces together.  Meanwhile, the strong willed, yet compassionate surgeon Dr. Kate McTiernan (Ashley Judd) is abducted and later escapes from this collector and killer of exceptional woman who calls himself “Casanova.”  Now, aided by the sole escapee, Cross begins an investigation that takes him from one coast to the other and back trying to identify and capture the disillusioned “great lover.”

The actors in the film’s central focus, Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, are both very good.  Judd makes Kate a very empowering character from the start, and she is easily presented as someone you can care about and feel strength from throughout.  She’s physically tough, is confident, determined, but also, shows that she has vulnerability and compassion.  It’s great that the film introduces her prior to her abduction in order for the audience to see the woman as she is naturally.  From there, we are emotionally connected with her through her trauma and recovery.   She was a strong person before, and this experience merely solidifies those qualities within her.  Judd has plenty of gravitas and vibrancy.  She keeps Kate McTiernan a forefront character that continues to stand tall throughout the narrative.  It easily demonstrates the strong core of Ashley Judd’s acting ability, and why she has become such a revered talent over these many years.

Freeman is masterful as Alex Cross.  He’s always been a very intellectual actor allowing the audience to see the gears turning in his head, and establishing a very particular manner for his roles.  He inhabits them all well, and makes them subtly distinct.  In this role, he shows us one of the best investigative minds in fiction.  Cross is able to see the lines of connection that others can’t because he’s so detail oriented in his work, the same as Freeman is with his acting.  When he walks into the squad room with all the abduction victims on the board, it doesn’t take him long to put it all together to understand why they were picked, and what Casanova’s agenda is.  Just how Freeman’s eyes operate in a scene say so much of what Alex Cross is thinking and deducing.  Cross is also tempered.  He is calm and calculating in his investigative process.  While the local cops are all a little smarmy and egotistical, Cross maintains a cool perspective on everything bringing a serious psychology to the case.  He rarely allows his emotions to dictate his behavior, but even if he doesn’t show it, they can influence it.  There’s no denying his personal stakes in this investigation, and that alters how he handles everything.  In an interrogation scene, he can’t help but become enraged as a sleazy suspect talks sexually ill of his niece, and that shows that Cross is just as human as anyone.  While he can remain focused and professional, maintaining his cool in dangerous situations, he has his limits.  Still, he is able to rebound, admit his errors, and ultimately tie things up.  Alex Cross, as portrayed by Morgan Freeman, is truly a fascinating characters full of potential.  However, despite the strength of the character and the actor, that is not enough to lift the film into exceptional territory.

The unfortunate side of things is that the story and how it unfolds lacks compelling development.  The bi-coastal killer plotline with the Gentleman Caller essentially has no pertinent relevance to hunting down Casanova.  It comes off as a divergence ultimately added just to throw in some gunfire and stakeout scenes.  While it does connect with the main story, it’s ancillary.  You could cut it out, and it wouldn’t make a real difference towards the capture of Casanova.  It only amounts to a gunshot echoing through the woods that leads Cross to finding the lair, and in time, they likely would’ve found it, regardless.  This subplot is there so the characters have somewhere to go and something to do until the final act with its weak twist ending.

This is a negative mark against both Alex Cross films.  They both have these twist endings that come out of nowhere which have no organic flow from the story or characters.  By how Kiss the Girls is presented, Casanova could’ve turned out to be anyone or no one.  Casanova ends up being a character that’s been there in the film all along, but no one knew it.  The problem is that there is zero evidence presented throughout the movie towards that end.  You take Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects for an example here.  When you watch that movie for the first time, you see his performance in one way.  However, on repeat viewings you see an entirely different performance because of what you discover at the film’s ending.  Spacey himself hasn’t changed, but your perception of the character has.  You see a subtle thing here or there that does seem peculiar, and does add up to something more substantive and telling later on.  Unfortunately, none of that is here in Kiss the Girls.  You can’t re-watch this movie and pick up on something you didn’t notice before in the performance of the actor who turns out to be Casanova.  It’s played straight in every scene as if the character is exactly who he appears to be, but then, the performance changes entirely once the twist ending begins.  That is very shallow and generic work from script to direction and beyond.  A movie with a twist ending like this needs those little clues you can pick up on throughout, but not be able to fully assemble them until our protagonist has.  However, when you look back, you see how all the pieces of the puzzle come together seamlessly.  None of that exists in this screenplay or film.  The ultimate reveal of who Casanova is turns out to be unsatisfying because of this issue.

This is not to say that the actor in question handles this turn poorly.  It’s quite an exceptional  performance that has substance and an unsettling quality.  He sells it well, and doesn’t need a mask or shadows to make him appear intimidating and chilling.  It’s simply the execution and lack of pre-existing evidence to that effect which is the failure here.  Not to mention, the film ends kind of flat.  It’s more about structure than anything.  Casanova is dispatched with, and the film ends.  All of the character resolution happens before this to make way for the surprise twist after the audience has let their guard down.

I feel like Alex Cross is an extraordinary character inserted into a mediocre film.  The story structure is not tight enough to remain thoroughly satisfying, and the mystery of Casanova is not complex enough to really take advantage of Cross’ compelling intellect.  There is more mystery about finding Casanova than actually exploring him.  In another similar film like Manhunter, it’s all about putting every little piece of forensic and psychological evidence of the killer together to drive the protagonist of Will Graham towards confronting and stopping Francis Dollarhyde.  Finding him is as important as discovering who he is from the inside out because they are symbiotic.  It’s a chain reaction of one revelation begetting another.  Within Alex Cross’ first moments on the case, he’s already figured out Casanova from the inside out, and it just becomes about finding and identifying him.  However, this happens so early on in the storyline that actually finding Casanova requires the film to tangle up in a lot of unnecessary plot developments.  It’s a great aspect of the character of Cross that he can do that, but it’s also a complication in the plot progression.  Every new plot development is a red herring.  It misdirects the characters towards something that ends up at a dead end, and only serves to pad out the run time.  Also, the Gentleman Caller subplot almost immediately can be perceived as a bust to the audience because his behavior is such a stark opposite to what we experienced with Casanova earlier.  Casanova is not a violent, impulsive person.  He’s more subdued and even tempered.  It’s not a good swerve in the plot, and results in no furthering of the plot or characters.

On the positive side, the cinematography of Aaron Schneider envelopes this film with excellent visual atmosphere.  There is definitely some neo noir edge present with strong blacks, a little haze, and solid blue tones throughout.  There’s enough light and shadow at play with a restrained color scheme to create a consistently tense visual style.  It never gets too heavy, but it surely sets the tone of the world we’re delving into.  Despite the shortcomings in the screenplay and story, Schneider’s work makes Kiss the Girls look especially good.  The camera work itself might not be of particular note, but its subtle touches punctuate the right dramatic beats.  One can take or leave the heavy use of Dutch angles in the final scene, but it’s probably more of sign of the times in the late 90s.

Adding upon that is the very good production design which gives life and personality to various environments.  The police squad room looks authentic looking to have many years of use behind it.  Casanova’s lair has its peculiar warmth in stark contrast to Dr. Rudolph’s cold, modern home.  I like how Kate notes that it doesn’t feel like Casanova, and that design element alone fuel hers and Cross’ inquisitive minds.  The environments reflect the characters that primarily inhabit them, and the cinematography captures them perfectly.

The supporting cast is good, some better than others, but none of them have much importance to the story being told.  They serve their purposes and roles well, but in most cases, they are easily forgettable.  Plus, I find it surprising that the always astounding Brian Cox is wasted in a minor role as Chief Hatfield.  He puts in a strong performance, but why use such a powerful, diverse actor in what is essentially a nothing role?  This film just seems to have a bad habit of wasting its potential.

I don’t have much exposure to director Gary Fleder’s other work.  I recall seeing Runaway Jury several years ago, but it was more the performances from the heavyweight cast that made the impression more than anything.  Here, it’s obvious he has a good handle on how to present the genre, and get some stellar performances out of his main actors.  However, the loose storyline and pointless plot developments show that he’s not so much interested in presenting a tightly wrapped, riveting, or smart thriller as just going by the numbers.  He tries to pass this off as a mystery when there’s only enough genuine storyline to fit into a 30-45 minute film.  Everything else is pointless filler that amounts to nothing.  Again, I do not know if these issues exist in James Patterson’s novel, but in this film, that’s what I perceive.

Kiss the Girls had the right base elements for a hell of a good thriller with an amazing lead character backed by an equally great actor. Ashley Judd anchors the film well giving Freeman someone to carry the weight with him.  The film is boosted further with some nicely atmospheric noir cinematography. The premise is good but underdeveloped.  There’s no real chase involved between Cross and Casanova.  Nothing where one has to be more cunning than the other to stay ahead.  That takes away the urgency, or at least, the relevant immediacy of the plot.  You never get the feeling that there’s a connection between the hunter and the hunted, and the best films of this genre establish that in one way or another.  Casanova never reacts to Cross as genuine threat, and Cross is too busy chasing down false leads to truly be in sync with his prey.  Kiss the Girls is a decent thriller that is generally enjoyable, but lacks enough relevant plot developments to make it anything more than average.  Again, Alex Cross feels like a potentially iconic character waiting for a film that is as intelligent and intriguing as he is.  Whether we will eventually get that remains to be seen.


The Usual Suspects (1995)

The year of 1995 was a great one for the crime genre, and one of my favorite years in movies.  This year saw the release of Michael Mann’s Heat, David Fincher’s Se7en, and this, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects.  In my opinion, all three films are exceptional, unique, and standard bearers of their subgenres of crime.  The Usual Suspects falls very much into that film noir category.  It is a great film, but some say it has no re-watchability due to the twist ending.  I happen to disagree.  This is a film that has more than just story to satisfy, and I hope my insights here will help you see that.

San Pedro, California is the stage for the aftermath of a fiery mystery on a ship in the bay.  Law enforcement discovers 27 bodies and $91 million worth of drug money, and has attracted the interest of the FBI and U.S. Customs.  The only survivors are a severely burned Hungarian and the crippled con man Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey).  Verbal tells the story of how he and four other felons were rounded up and put into a line-up six weeks ago in New York for a trumped up charge about heisted gun parts.  They are the wisecracking hijacker Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack), the short tempered and egotistical professional thief Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), his accent-heavy partner Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), and the real prize for the NYPD is Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a corrupt former cop who has supposedly given up a life of crime.  However, U.S. Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), who has a deep, invested interest in determining the fate of Dean Keaton, is not willing to let Verbal go without digging deeper into his story.  He learns that the five men forge a loose accord to engage in a series of daring, highly profitable heists that lead them out to Los Angeles into an unforeseen, threatening situation.  As Kujan probes Verbal for the truth, FBI Special Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) discovers that the Hungarian says he saw the devil, he saw Keyser Soze.  He is the most feared and mythic of crime figures, and no one has been able to identify him, until now.  Verbal’s story unfolds as Kujan and his colleagues slowly assemble the fragmented pieces of this puzzle which may lead directly to the identity of Keyser Soze.

I’m starting with the cinematography and music here because they are where the atmosphere of the film thrives.  Newton Thomas Siegel was the director of photography, same as the later made Denzel Washington film Fallen.  I previously reviewed that here, and highly praised the look, feel, and cinematography of that film.  This film further solidifies Siegel’s rich talent in my view.  He does absolutely brilliant work in evoking such strong and mysterious moods throughout the film with both his camera work and the lighting.  It is a gorgeous example of film noir visuals in the color medium.  Light and shadow are indeed key, but the subtle color temperatures give the right tinge of atmosphere and tone in key scenes.  The compositions are very well plotted out to have, sometimes, double meanings upon first and second viewings.  The staging and angles of the scenes between Spacey and Palminteri are amazingly well handled to never make it feel like the same old thing every time.  There’s a new angle, a new composition, a new way the scene is played out in that limited physical space every time the film cuts back to it, and it all feels natural from the development of emotions and storytelling.  Much of this is indeed a well planned out idea from the filmmaking team as a whole, but Siegel executes it with amazing skill and artistry.

John Ottman, who was also the editor, created a fantastic score that lives and breathes on its own.  Listening to the soundtrack is a brilliant, vibrant pleasure.  It has character and personality while maintaining the subtle style of the storytelling.  The theme itself is great and is instantly recognizable when it hits, and it really drives the story forward in certain parts.  There’s a nice flourish in the opening arrest montage where some steel drums chime in once Fenster is introduced.  Just that little bit of Caribbean flavor conveys something to the audience about the character before he ever says a single word.  That’s such a smart piece of work.  Overall, Ottman’s score brings all the mysterious, suspicious, suspenseful, and dramatic elements of the film together in a powerful and vibrant way.  As with the cinematography, it evokes a strong film noir style while still feeling contemporary.

Furthermore, Ottman’s editing is some of the best I’ve ever seen.  Not just in how each scene itself is cut together, but how everything flows together.  How the film transitions from present time to flashback and back again.  I don’t know how much of it was in the script, but the execution is what truly matters.  Things are well punctuated in these transitions allowing for the dramatic narrative to hit the right beats in the right context.  Ottman knows when to pull us into and out of a flashback, and exactly how to do it.  That also feeds much into the sound editing and design.  It all feels organic and entirely in sync to create a cohesive flow and objective in pinpointing these moments.  There is so much one can learn of good structural flow of a narrative by watching this film.  I also love how there are many moments where Ottman and Singer just let the camera roll on the actor.  They don’t cut away or mess with anything.  They just let the actor work the moment, and that is so important in a film with this kind of cast and enveloping dramatic story.

And this film does have an immensely powerful and amazing cast!  Everyone is great, but I think Chazz Palminteri is my favorite.  As Dave Kujan, he’s smart, sharp minded, and subtly charismatic.  The range he shows here is impressive.  Kujan can be laid back talking friendly with Sergeant Rabin or Agent Baer, but then, he can shift into the probing investigative mind trying to deconstruct Verbal’s story and psyche.  Yet, he can turn it up further getting right into Verbal’s face, and trying shake him up with his intense, confrontational words.  Kujan is a driven law enforcement agent, but he never lets his invested interest in Dean Keaton get the better of him.  He keeps it all in check, and works the case to the very best of his ability.  He just wants the full truth so he can lay that interest to rest.  Chazz balances all these elements of Kujan perfectly.  He shows wonderful chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with further solidifying his role as main protagonist.  He really commands the screen, but Spacey owns it just as much with a more subtle performance.

Kevin Spacey truly deserved the numerous awards he received for this performance.  It is very intelligent, but underplayed.  Verbal is a little quirky and socially awkward.  He rambles on, but Spacey works all these elements into every moment of the performance.  It’s never an abrupt shift in focus for the character.  It’s a cohesive whole of Verbal’s personality.  It all has purpose, even more so on repeat viewings.  The body language of Verbal is also greatly realized as Spacey did extensive research for the character’s cerebral palsy to get all of it right.  It adds further to Verbal’s perceived weakness.  His physical weakness begets his weakness of will.  The splashes of emotion with fear, self-pity, and pain are very powerful making Verbal appear to be a very sympathetic character.  Still, the moments of sharp intellect slip through Verbal’s more cowering exterior, and really help sell that he’s not as foolish or naive as he sometimes appears to be.

Gabriel Byrne is excellent as well.  He greatly reflects Keaton’s struggle between the ex-convict and the man trying to be legitimate.  How the system won’t let him be that better man now, and how it drives him back into being the man they expect him to be.  While he tries to deny that he is not the man Dave Kujan claims he is anymore, he quickly falls back into being that man.  It is who he is, and Byrne is able to show how Keaton is unable to contently balance those two parts of his being.  It’s a man fighting his nature who seems more comfortable and confident as the man he doesn’t want to be.  It’s a fascinating dynamic that Gabriel Byrne pulls off with great ease and a dark, mysterious, and foreboding depth.  He’s electric on the screen, and is entirely compelling.  You can never quite get a handle on what his objective or intentions are, and that makes Dean Keaton terribly intriguing.  As Bryan Singer says on the commentary, “Gabriel is the most easily complex actor.”

The supporting cast adds further flavor to the film.  Stephen Baldwin’s McManus is an arrogant, hard-up man with attitude and ego to spare.  As he himself says, he believes that “there is nothing that can’t be done.”  He truly believes that the reward is worth the risk, every time.  He plays off of Benicio del Toro’s Fenster beautifully.  Benicio takes a character that was, admittedly, nothing special on the page, and gave him a memorable, standout quality.  He created a whole character out of next to nothing, and the performance really put him on the map.  Kevin Pollack adds plenty of levity, but not without his own bolstering attitude as Todd Hockney.  How he and McManus clash constantly gives the team dynamic some needed conflict and turbulence.  These are guys who joined up out of happenstance, not because they’re friends.  Even Keaton and McManus have conflicts like when meeting Peter Greene’s wonderful character of Redfoot.  He’s a fence, a guy who can move and sell stolen goods to discrete buyers.  Greene gives him a fine Los Angeles quality with his slightly flashly entourage and charismatic style.  Still, he’s a tough guy who doesn’t take any crap when McManus starts chewing him out after a job goes awry.  For whatever reason, Greene didn’t take a screen credit for this film.  Regardless, I really love the vibe he brings with him.  He adds a shady element into the story as he can appear friendly, but under the surface, he’s all about his own agenda.  He doesn’t mind manipulating anyone or putting other people in danger as long as he gets what he needs in the end.  John Ottman even throws in a distinct musical cue for his two appearances that I also love.

The late Pete Postlethwaite always delivered fantastic performances giving them his all.  As Kobayashi, he is a great conduit for the mythic Keyser Soze.  He conveys authority without force or confrontation.  His words and tone carry all the weight that is needed.  Kobayashi knows that what he has to say is enough to rattle these men, and doesn’t have to dress it up at all.  He’s very straight forward and matter of fact, but still with a questionable quality.  He seems legit enough, but he leaves enough suspicion and truth with these men to keep them on edge.  Enough to scare them, but not enough to for them to leverage their way out.  Postlethwaite underplays the role just enough making him threatening and foreboding enough without betraying the professional manner of the character.  He is exceptionally effective.

Another great addition to the supporting cast is Giancarlo Esposito as FBI Agent Jack Baer.  He has a very fine charisma and upbeat attitude along with a nice feel for old style film noir sensibilities.  He fits in here smoothly.  Dan Hedaya is entertaining and enjoyable as Sergeant Rabin.  He’s a bit strung out, but that just adds a more hectic element to the character dynamics in that police station.  He adds to the texture of a film already rich with great characters.

Keyser Soze is one of the most brilliant cinematic creations of all time.  A crime lord that purports his own myth through the fears and exaggerated stories of others.  He just lays the seeds for it, and allows it to grow to service his own advantage.  He works from the shadows, never allowing anyone but an extreme few to ever see his face.  Anyone else who works for him almost never knows that they are doing so, and anyone who thinks they are can never be certain that they are.  As Kobayashi says, “One cannot be betrayed if one does not have any people.”  A spook story for criminals is perfectly film noir.  Soze is an urban legend.  Something that is so hard to grasp the truth about that you doubt it, but you dare not dismiss it in case any of it might be true.  I also love that the subject of Keyser Soze doesn’t even appear until nearly an hour into the film, but the mystery of him exists from the start.  This allows the story, characters, and the world they inhabit to be firmly established and grounded in reality before this mythic figure is truly introduced.  With the introduction of him, it elevates the tension and danger for everyone.

The story structure is also quite fascinating.  You have both a mystery happening in the present time while the supposed back story of the mystery is being told by one character.  However, the one character, Verbal Kint, is constantly challenged on information he held back from the District Attorney.  Verbal is shown to be not entirely forthcoming, and abridging his tale to protect his own self.  So, Kujan has to keep probing to get the full disclosure.  Thus, while you are getting engrossed in Verbal’s story, every once in a while, the audience has to question just how authentic his storytelling is.  However, as the pieces of the puzzle are slowly put together by Kujan, Baer, and Rabin, you can see there is some truth in what Kint is saying.  A lie is most convincing when it’s wrapped in some truth, and that is the screenwriting brilliance of this film.  Lies and truth get so intermixed that it is nearly impossible to separate them.  I also love that the film opens with that docks scene which is objectively presented.  It’s not part of Verbal’s narrative to Kujan, and so, you know that this did happen as you see it.  It’s just a matter of how they got there.

For me, the re-watch value of The Usual Suspects comes, primarily, from the fantastic performances, but also, the strong film noir tone.  This is an excellent example of film noir in a contemporary movie.  The mystery elements are still compelling upon repeat viewings due to how well constructed and presented they are.  It’s a film that allows to see new things and put new pieces together every time you watch it.  They are subtle things, but if you’re watching it with a probing mind like Dave Kujan, you can weed out a little more of what is truth and what is not.  Even the seemingly most throwaway expression or action can turnaround with a new meaning.  However, it is a film I wish I could watch again for the first time.  Partly because I don’t recall what my reaction to the film was originally watching it on VHS in 1996, but because it is so effectively structured and executed that I’d love to have that feeling of tension and apprehension which comes from a fresh first viewing.  Plus, I believe I fell asleep in the middle of watching it the first time.  So, that sort of spoils the experience.

The chemistry amongst the cast is just electrifying.  Everyone slips nicely into their characters, and the dynamics between them are rich and vibrant.  Everyone makes a firm impression that is quite memorable.  That is not an easy feat with an ensemble cast, but Bryan Singer handled these heavyweights extremely well.  When one has the talent for being an exceptional director, it will always shine through, and this could not have been a better first major impression for Singer to make.  He had done some smaller films before this, but they were not truly in the public eye.  This was his first major motion picture with serious, high profile acting talents.  While he had only a $6 million budget, the talents involved elevate the overall technical and artistic quality of the picture.  Looking back, while it doesn’t have quite as much scale as some are accustomed to, it’s not really a film that requires much.  The action is conservative because it services the plot, but it is nicely handled.  The entire sequence on the boat is expertly shot, choreographed, edited, and paced.  Nothing gets lost in the process of bullets and explosions.  Again, the plot and characters maintain control of the film’s focus throughout.

The Usual Suspects is just an excellent crime thriller that is atmospheric, exciting, and enthralling.  There are very distinct and dimensional characters everywhere you look that make it an entertaining and intriguing narrative.  Everyone behind the camera came together to create one amazing film that flowed beautifully and coherently allowing the pieces of the puzzle to slowly slip into place, but not give you a full picture.  It leaves you thinking and wondering, and that is an excellent accomplishment for any mystery.  You need not answer all questions for the story to be satisfying.  It merely has to keep you hooked in with a cleverly written plot, and that is the foundation for what made this a great film.  I give much respect to Christopher McQuarrie for writing such an intelligent script, and to Bryan Singer for crafting a film that remains entertaining and interesting no matter how many times I watch it.


Double Team (1997)

Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman.  Far too strange of a pairing to ignore.  You throw Mickey Rourke into the mix as the villain, and how can you really say no?  Okay, so this wasn’t a blockbuster, and even plans for a sequel never materialized.  I was not allowed to see the film in theatres at the time, punishment for getting poor progress reports in high school that week.  So, I discovered it on VHS, and now, re-discovered it on a decent widescreen DVD.  I can understand why this got negative reviews, but the fact is, Double Team wasn’t trying to be anything more than what it was – a fun, exciting, and highly entertaining action film.

Van Damme portrays CIA counter-terrorist operative Jack Quinn who runs one final mission before retirement to start a family with his lovely wife Kathryn.  Years later, with his pregnant wife in the South of France, Quinn is paid a visit by an old colleague to rope him back into action to help bring down his old nemesis Stavros (Mickey Rourke).  A man who once worked for the good guys when they needed someone with the stomach for dirtier work to be done, but has long since worked for the other side supplying arms and other contraband.  In prepping this operation in Antwerp, Jack taps eccentric arms dealer Yaz (Dennis Rodman) who himself “doesn’t play with the bad boys anymore, just the good guys.”  They strike a fun chord with one another, making a memorable impression.  However, Quinn misses the target, and the mission is a failure.  Stavros loses both his son and girlfriend in this violent encounter.  In the aftermath, Quinn is sent to an island called “The Colony” where former intelligence agents and assassins work together to counteract terrorist plots around the world.  Jack is ushered through this new environment by former operative Goldsmyth (Paul Freeman).  However, Jack seeks escape from the seemingly inescapable island after he receives a message from Stavros stating the he has abducted his pregnant wife who is about to give birth to their son.  A daring and dangerous escape brings Jack back to Antwerp seeking Yaz’s arsenal and savvy.  What ensues beyond this is an unlikely partnership that evolves, through adrenalin fueled danger, into a trusted friendship as Quinn attempts to save his wife and child while trying to burn down Stavros once and for all.

What would make or break this film was clearly going to be how Van Damme and Rodman meshed.  The eccentric NBA star was hot news at the time easily coined a bad boy for his antics on and off the court.  Here, he is surprisingly funny and likeable without being crass.  I found him nicely charming generating a lot of the film’s clean sense of fun and humor.  Van Damme holds down the more serious end of things nicely.  It’s not anything exceptional, but he inhabits Jack Quinn very well.  You can feel his determination and love for his wife and child throughout the film.  JCVD has a lot of heart to offer in these roles which I think gets overlooked by the sensational aspects of his movies.  As Quinn, it really shows through.  And while Rodman handles the bulk of the humor, Jean-Claude dishes out a few quips here and there as banter with Yaz.  As a team, they may not be 100% pitch perfect, but their performances balance out the film well.  Van Damme and Rodman seem to be enjoying themselves, and their chemistry works out to surprising success to make them a fine, if unlikely team.  Of course, there are numerous basketball jokes throughout the movie, but they are handled with a bit of charm.  And frankly, would you expect otherwise?  A film of this sort with many plot, humor, and character throwbacks to the cliché 1980s action film couldn’t possibly deny those ripe opportunities.  Don’t take that as a knock at all.  Double Team takes that style and formula, and gives it a nice splash of fresh paint with a late 90s style.  A sharper, sleeker design that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Mickey Rourke could play a heavy without even trying, but as we’ve seen in recent years, he has a wide range of acting talents.  Here, he doesn’t need to stretch far, but Stavros is a solid villain with a fine array of henchmen and assassins.  He has a clear plan of revenge that he handles calmly and confidently.  He keeps his cool throughout because he’s got the game nicely strategized for Quinn to follow his lead.  Mickey has a smooth coolness wrapped up with a tough bad ass edge which suits Stavros perfectly, and gives Quinn a hell of an enemy to combat.

Rounding out the meat of the cast is Paul Freeman as Goldsmyth.  The role has some nice British charm mixed with a touch of humor and shadiness.  He’s both ally and adversary to Quinn, and he shifts from one to the other with a bit of grace without losing his likeability.  Goldsmyth would rather not have to be an adversary, but circumstances deem it necessary for him to be as such.  In the end, Goldsmyth is given an upbeat final note to go out on.  Freeman handles the role smoothly.

The action, of course, is very well handled.  Competently shot with a dash of style, and nicely edited to maintain energy and pace without sacrificing the clarity of the visual storytelling.  I have not seen even most of Van Damme’s movies, but this has a nice mix of action sequences that should satisfy his fans.  He does plenty of hard hitting martial arts fights mixed with shootouts and explosions to keep the film exciting and varied.  The climactic action sequence is flat out AMAZING with a tiger set loose on Quinn in the Roman Coliseum with a field of hidden landmines, and some daring motorcycle antics by Yaz.  It’s an explosive, rather original double edged ending that also gives Rourke the chance to show off his impressive physique.  Mickey Rourke trained rigorously to be up to Van Damme’s level for their fight scenes, and certainly holds up his end providing a formidable adversary.  This being a film from the late 1990s, there’s some splashes of John Woo style action, but in general, it’s solid work.  The European setting is a very nice touch giving a different style to the film in many ways.  It helps the movie to stand out a bit more with a fresh flavor.

Other elements of fun definitely come from Rodman’s character.  He handles some brief, but enjoyable and entertaining action sequences.  Being an athlete already, I’m sure it was an easy fit for him, and the role is written in such a way to maintain a sense of sly humor.  It all fits for his character’s style, and supplements the more hard hitting action that Van Damme offers.  Another fun bit are Yaz’s “cyber monks.”  A group of monks in Rome that Yaz has befriended with the gift of modern technology.  They are an endearing bunch which provide some additional smiles and chuckles for a brief period late in the film.  The humor present in the film really does help balance out the heavier dramatic and action aspects, and gives Double Team its endearing charm.  There’s some cheesy dialogue, but it’s all handled in good fun.

Again, the cinematography offers up some style that is very telling of the time it was made.  Dutched angles here and there are used more to add a stylistic composition to a few shots than create an artistic off-kilter perception.  Unlike in Thor when it was used to no purposeful effect, here, it just feels like a sign of the times.  Dutch angles in action films were used as a stamp of “cool.”  You would shoot a subject with an awkward angle, and they take on a more skewed “cool” look in combination with the sleek, shadowy lighting.  It’s nothing I take issue with, but it is indeed a trademark of late 90s action films that a modern audience wouldn’t be so used to.

The plot is pretty standard fare that was practically a decade old by this time.  That was brightly highlighted in the Nostalgia Critic’s review of the movie, which is what sparked me to check it out, again.  However, as I’ve said, I think the storyline is handled well with doses of humor, Van Damme’s unique action stylings, and the European setting.  While the film does have its humor, it’s never used at the expense of the drama.  It’s very nicely balanced for both to co-exist without clashing. The movie is well cast with actors who bring distinctive personality to their characters, and make the ride one worth taking.  There are certainly gaps in logic with the screenplay, and some things on-screen are a bit ridiculous.  Still, like I said, this was meant to be a fun thrill ride.  It never takes these elements are serious, and are usually brief gaps.

I watch Double Team again now, and I just wish they made a sequel.  It’s so much fun with enjoyable, colorful characters, and nicely energetic and slightly over the top action sequences.  Plans were considered for a sequel, and while its box office take did exceed its production budget, it wasn’t a huge success.  Every film, generally, should be judged on its own merits, and based on the genre and style of film this is, I think it’s definitely worthwhile.  Plenty of big action to be had along with some solid laughs.