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Get Carter (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Heat (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Strange Days (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Point Break (1991)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gunmen (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hollow Point (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Crackerjack (1994)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sneakers (1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Predators (2010)

PredatorsFor whatever reason, the Predator film franchise lied dormant after the release of Predator 2 in 1990.  It wasn’t until 2004 that we got the highly anticipated Alien vs. Predator films.  The first one I hated, and I still consider it the worst overall movie I’ve ever seen theatrically.  The second film I did a rather positive review of as one of the last Forever Horror website reviews and one of the first Forever Cinematic reviews.  However, the general consensus of both movies was decidedly negative, and thus, someone thought it was time to bring the Predator franchise back into its own.  Such a person was producer Robert Rodriguez known best for making big scale action on tight budgets.  Thus, twenty years after Predator 2, we are given another proper sequel.  The question is, was it good enough to breathe life into a damaged franchise?

Awakening in freefall, a collection of strangers find themselves dropped into an unfamiliar land with danger awaiting them.  Royce (Adrien Brody) is a mercenary who reluctantly leads this group of elite warriors in a mysterious mission on an alien planet.  Except for a disgraced physician, they are all cold-blooded killers – mercenaries, mobsters, convicts and death squad members – human “predators.”  But when they begin to be systematically hunted and eliminated by a new Predator breed, it becomes clear that suddenly, they are the prey!

I will admit that I wasn’t sold on this film pre-release.  I thought the premise of Predators abducting humans from Earth and dropping them on another planet to be hunted was against the idea of what a big game hunter would do.  You don’t take a lion out of his natural environment and throw him in your backyard to hunt him.  However, a positive reaction from a strongly opinionated friend of mine motivated me to see it theatrically.  Indeed, I really liked Predators.  I would still rank it third in my list of favorites, but all three films are ranked very tightly together.  They are all extremely well made with their own unique ideas, visual styles, and approaches which all work superbly.

Much like with Predator 2, you must find it peculiar to cast Adrien Brody as the lead in an action movie.  This film will entirely change your perspective on that.  He delivers incredibly in this role.  Brody can play tough bad ass with the best of them.  He brings the charisma of a leader, but clearly shows Royce is a man of sketchy origins and doesn’t mind being a loner.  Royce is also very smart and perceptive.  He would be fine going at it solo, but he sees that even his own survival holds better odds sticking with them than without.  You also see that he’s not a cold-blooded man, but he can be a savage, hardened killer when he needs to be.  The film’s climax sells every awesome thing about Royce, and solidifies that I want to see more of him.

Brody has very touching and honest chemistry with Alice Braga, portraying the Israeli sniper Isabelle.  They surely butt heads in certain circumstances, but they connect on an emotional level that does resonate.  They build a mutual trust and respect as the film progresses.  The rest of these trained killers, including the Rodriguez obligatory Danny Trejo, certainly don’t measure up to Dutch’s elite team from the first film, but they are a mismatched group that are weary to trust one another.  My favorite, who has extremely little dialogue, is the Yakuza member Hanzo.  He creates a very intriguing mystique around him through some interesting actions, and demonstrates a unique sense of honor.  Topher Grace portrays the aforementioned disgraced physician Edwin, and surely, the film didn’t require the presence of this character.  He just adds an extra wild card element late in the game which may or may not be easy to spot early on.  I think I had this reveal spoiled for me before I initially saw the movie.  The concept behind Edwin is a clever one, but probably not executed nearly as smartly as it could have been.

Laurence Fishburne makes a wickedly cool appearance as Noland, a soldier whose been trapped and has survived this planet for several years.  The result of that is hat Noland’s gone quite crazy in a delusional, psychotic type of way.  He’s more than skillfully dangerous, he’s psychologically dangerous.  Fishburne is entertaining and awesome in this fairly brief, very off-kilter role.  More than anything, this character is designed to sell the futility of an escape from the planet, and the idea of two rival tribes of Predators hunting out there, making it all the more difficult to survive.

The film’s first act of sorts might seem a little drawn out to some.  I believe I felt that way upon first viewing.  The characters are exploring this world, trying to understand where they are, and even the first action sequence is not until more than twenty-five minutes in.  Strange alien animals are throw at these characters as a test first, and so, there is a prolonged wait before the first Predator is actually revealed.  However, once that occurs, the film settles into a very familiar feel and tone.  Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal studied the first Predator in great detail to nail the vibe perfectly, and I think they got it just about dead-on while still adding to it.  Antal focuses on building the atmosphere and tension so that there is a pay-off with the action.

The overall feel is great with some rich color schemes which still evoke a dark, ominous feeling.  The cinematography gives this film scale and scope while still maintaining the isolated feeling.  The night scenes look great with a more subdued color palette, but with an excellent use of light and shadow for a beautiful moody vibe.  This really is a remarkably well shot movie with an abundance of artistic merit and dramatic visual weight.

The way the action plays out is very intelligent focusing on tension and imminent danger.  There’s plenty of intense gunplay, but it’s definitely used in conjunction with smart tactics and strategies by these characters.  The ominous feeling of being stalked and hunted is executed with great skill.  It’s a whole package of the visual style, stellar editing, and a music score that stays true to Alan Silvestri’s work.  This film definitely takes the filmmaking style and techniques from John McTiernan’s movie, and gives it a little more polish.  Nimrod Antal definitely puts his own stamp on the film, but was able to make this feel cohesive with the rest of the main Predator franchise.  The action scenes definitely reflect this as there’s really none of that modern shaky cam mayhem.  It’s well plotted, shot, and cut together for an extremely coherent and effective experience.  Beyond anything else, this film enhances the ferocity and frightening quality of the Predators.  They feel even more merciless and relentless than before, if you could even imagine such a thing.

I can’t help but love two fight scenes in Predators.  The first has Hanzo squaring off with his katana against the Predator.  This is beautifully setup, and is shot so gorgeously with a lot of wide angles and a wonderful overhead shot showing the wind blowing through the high grass.  It’s a graceful work of art.  What trumps it on the bad assery scale is when the New Predator battles the Classic Predator, which is portrayed by Derek Mears.  While I didn’t care for the remake of Friday The 13th, Mears was an awesome Jason Voorhees, and he makes for an awesome Predator.  Two Predators ripping and tearing at one another is pure gold, and the scene doesn’t disappoint at all.  This is savage, gory, and everything you’d hope it to be.

And indeed, the creature effects are excellent.  Oddly, neither Stan Winston Studios or Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. – who were responsible for all of the previous Predator effects – returned to work on this film.  Instead, the impeccable talents of KNB EFX were tapped, and they delivered on an amazing level.  There are some familiar designs with the Classic Predator, but the newer, larger Predators are even more impressive.  They do feel like a different breed, but are given a much better approach than what we saw in Alien vs. Predator.  And of course, the gore returns in abundance, and no one better to also fill that task than KNB EFX.  They’ve been the standard bearers for physical effects, especially those in the horror genre, for the last twenty years, and that quality is vastly on display here.

Predators does a great job of taking cues from the first movie, and adding its own flavor and ideas to them.  The climax is a great example as Royce uses some of the same tactics as Dutch with the mud, but uses it in a different context.  Instead of giving the Predator nothing to lock on to, he overloads the senses, and takes him on full boar while retreading some of Arnold’s quotable dialogue.  It all really works greatly while delivering the graphic violence quota that fans crave from this franchise.  The film ends on an excellent note that left me wanting to see where yet another sequel could go.

And thus, I do believe that Predators was indeed good enough to potentially breathe life back into this franchise.  Everyone involved steered it back in the right direction where exciting new stories could be told, and even on its own, this is a very solid and satisfying science fiction action movie.  However, with the same budget as Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, it pulled in just about the same amount at the box office, but the reviews and reactions to this film were substantially higher.  Predators set a good foundation for the franchise to build upon, but three years later, no news of a sequel has surfaced from Twentieth Century Fox.  That is quite unfortunate, but I think there is a great deal of potential to tap with this series which is evident here.  Nimrod Antal and Robert Rodriguez did an excellent job bringing everything back to its roots, and while they chose not to acknowledge Predator 2, they did nothing to contradict it either.  Again, I’d love to see more of Adrien Brody as Royce.  He’s flat out awesome.  While I’m sure some will view the film as leaning a little too heavily on the first movie, I really believe that what it takes from that movie was largely to its benefit, and the filmmakers still injected their own ideas and creativity to allow the franchise to move forward.  They expanded the universe and possibilities in a lot of very good and intriguing ways.  I do really like Predators, and I give it a strong recommendation.  If this film has slipped under your radar for the last three years, definitely give it your attention.  This is a franchise that deserves to live and thrive again under the watch of some really sharp and talented creative individuals.


Marked For Death (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesMy childhood fandom of the Ninja Turtles has not stayed with me into adulthood, except for this excellent live action film.  When people talk about comic book adaptations I don’t think many trigger this film in their heads due to the property’s larger visibility as a cartoon.  The cartoon was very goofy fun while the comic was very violent and dark.  This movie met them somewhere in the middle giving us something that was gritty and violent with strong substance, but also maintaining a great sense of fun.  Even more impressive is how these filmmakers brought the Turtles into live action in convincing fashion.

A mysterious, severe crime wave is gripping New York as thieves slip in and out even in broad daylight sight unseen.  Television journalistic April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) believes it to be the work of a Japanese outfit called the Foot Clan, and she is soon targeted by them in order to silence her.  However, from the sewers of the city come four mutated crime-fighting and fun-loving turtles – Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael – and their rat sensei Splinter who fight at her side.  Joining them in their battle is Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), a vigilante that utilizes sports gear as weapons.  At the head of the Foot Clan is the merciless Shredder who has revealing links to the origins of the Turtles and Splinter.

Now, I don’t care how evolved CGI will become, I cannot imagine anything outdoing the brilliant craftsmanship of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop team here.  Henson, for those that don’t know, was the premiere innovator of puppetry and animatronics in the 1970s and 1980s.  This film was indeed a pinnacle achievement for him and his company.  Nothing at all is sacrificed with the use of these elaborate suits of foam rubber and animatronic mechanisms.  They have a full, wide range of abilities in expression and movement creating Turtles that can perform all of the dynamic, agile action, and convey deep emotion and character.  Even adjusted for inflation, no film today could achieve with CGI what this film did on $13.5 million.  Each Turtle is given a distinct look, design, and feel with extraordinary detail.  They have a very realistic texture that feels natural to the environment around them and of the film as a whole.  Splinter is undoubtedly the most impressive accomplishment in all his articulation as there was no one in a suit portraying him.  He’s purely from the result of expert animatronics operators, and he still has the value of humanity to him.

Leonardo is the strong leader of the group trusting and enveloping himself in Splinter’s spiritual teachings.  He forges the soul of the team.  Donatello is more laid back, less like his scientist cartoon counterpart, but still works very enjoyably in this dynamic.  His voice is even provided by Corey Feldman.  Michelangelo is the fun loving party dude, and a bit of the mischievous one of them all.  However, my favorite is definitely Raphael with his more tough guy attitude.  He’s the most strong willed, but also stubborn one of them all.  He shows the most passion and frustration of the Turtles, and I really like his first encounter with Casey Jones.  It’s very funny to both of their credits.  It would be easy to drive this premise into silly territory, but this film takes these characters seriously.  The filmmakers do make them fun, but they are dimensional characters with interesting family dynamics and deep, real emotions that are beautifully conveyed.  It’s a masterful mixture of the live action performances, and incredible dubbing work by highly talented voice actors.  It all feels totally seamless and cohesive for an ultimate Turtle Power experience!

Judith Hoag does a stellar job as April O’Neil.  She’s a spirited, serious journalistic that is determined to crack open this crime spree, and even suspects the police of not doing their all to combat it.  Hoag injects a lot of spunky personality into the character, and as the film progresses, we see her heart and humor in touching fashion.  Hoag makes April a very energetic and fun character.  It’s a terrible shame that she declined to reprise her role in the sequels due to substantial cuts to some of her scenes here.  She does a wonderful job in this role through and through.  I also believe Hoag has some endearing natural beauty that entirely fits the tone of the film, and more important than looks is that she’s a pitch perfect casting choice.  She has wonderful chemistry with everyone she shares the screen with, and carries her own in every single scene.

The one person that I’ve always dearly loved in this movie is Elias Koteas as the hockey mask wearing Casey Jones.  For one, Koteas is one of the best, most consistently awesome actors I’ve seen.  As Jones, he’s greatly entertaining with a real hard edged but not-too-bright attitude.  Koteas is more of a street fighter, but shows off some good moves against the Foot Clan.  Casey is charming in a dunderheaded kind of way.  He’s surely street smart, but not all that smooth socially.  He means real well with his heart in the right place, but often his mouth and machismo screws him over.  Koteas and Hoag have this great endearing friction that Donatello perfectly relates to Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd on Moonlighting, which had that classic argumentative romantic tension.  By the end, however, you see Koteas has great comedic charisma, and has Casey show his heart to really win everyone over.

And of course, the portrayal of the Shredder is chilling and perfect.  The filmmakers set the right tone keeping him shrouded in shadows at first, and giving him grand reveals that elevate his mystique.  The role was the work of two performers.  James Saito was the on-screen performer giving the character all of his theatrical and frightening presence, and showcasing some stellar martial arts abilities.  However, his low, ominous voice was provided by David McCharen, and that’s a major cog in the Shredder’s overall power.  The theatrical trailer actually features a different dubbed voice which isn’t as effective, and so, all the right choices were clearly made with the execution and presentation of this arch-nemesis for our heroes in a half-shell.  And surely, I have to mention the really tough right hand man in Tatsu that leads the Foot into battle, and is a very solid complement to Shredder’s presence and character.

The action sequences are done remarkably well.  All of the martial arts action is superb with the Turtle suits impairing none of the stunt players’ ability with the fight choreography.  The violence holds nothing back, short of bloodshed, as weapons are used regularly, and the fights show plenty of inventive ideas to keep it fun and original.  The Turtles’ shells are often employed in quirky, smart ways.  It’s a great showcase of fun, dynamic, but also, gritty martial arts action.  When the Turtles finally square off against the Shredder, it’s a great sequence which intensifies the villain’s indomitable skill and cold blooded viciousness.  Yet, the climax still has some surprises and humorous beats to make it both a dramatic, perilous sequence, and something to elicit some chuckles and laughs from the audience.  It’s stellar and memorable all around.  It’s greatly satisfying.

It is immensely admirable how genuine this film is.  Director Steve Barron pays honest respect to this material, and never treats these six foot tall ninja fighting mutant turtles are jokes.  Of course it’s an absurd concept, but it’s only as convincing as how you present it.  If you can make the audience connect with the characters on a genuine, emotional level, a serious tone with the film will work, and it does so amazingly here.  Leo, Don, Mikey, Raph, and Splinter are given as much weight and poignancy as any other character you might find.  It is their film and they carry it.  And they carry it with tremendous success.  These are the characters you absolutely must fall in love with, and all of the work that went into them from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to the performers to the voice talents and beyond made that possible.

And this is one seriously catchy score by John Du Prez.  These themes have been engrained my mind for over twenty years.  He uses a strong urban flavor with electric guitars for most things, but there’s plenty of variation.  For instance, the main theme is light-hearted and melodically catchy.  Du Prez also gives us beautiful compositions in the more spiritual scenes with Splinter, and the tender moments out at the farmhouse where the Turtles, Casey, and April recover from their defeats.  And even more so, his score accentuates moments of tension and danger for our heroes.  It’s an awesome score that is filled with so much life and depth, but as with the rest of the movie, it never forgets the fun factor.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has excellent energy with spot-on rhythm and pacing.  While it has lower key moments with lulls in the action to further develop the characters, it never drags.  These filmmakers fill that 90 minute runtime tightly creating a film that is all kinds of fun while not skimping on the substance.  This is due to the great action and charismatic humor that populates it.  Every character is realized vibrantly and portrayed superbly.  The balancing of tone between the serious drama and fun levity is greatly handled by director Steve Barron backed by a really solid screenplay   It’s a shame this was at the end of the careers of both screenwriters.  They seemed to have a real great knack for entertaining diversity, well developed characters, and cohesive storytelling.

Altogether, this is seriously one great movie!  I really love it, and I think it holds up beautifully over the last twenty-three years.  The gritty look of it really grabs me, and sets the Turtles in a unique world where it feels very real but their mere existence opens up the doors to far more fantastical possibilities.  I think the spiritual qualities offered up are powerful as they add a further depth to these characters and concepts.  I find it a real disservice that the sequels took a much more family friendly and lighter direction due to objections from parents about this film’s violent content.  Neither sequel was received as well as this one resulting in declining box office returns for New Line Cinema.  This first film was produced independently, and at that time, it became the highest grossing independent film of all time bringing in $200 million.  That comes are no surprise to me because this is an excellent made film in every aspect striving to be more than just a fun flick.  It gives you a weight of substance that is essential, in my view, to any successful comic book adaptation.  Heroes will always battle villains, but it’s what you put into those heroes and villains that make it special.  And to me, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a very special film to me.  I give it a HUGE recommendation!


Now You See Me (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Raw Deal (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bad Boys (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Collateral (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Batman Returns (1992)

This is the first Batman movie I saw theatrically, and at twelve years old, I loved it.  I think it’s a much more polished movie than Tim Burton’s 1989 film with a number of charismatic, excellent performances.  I’ve never perceived the film as weird or strange like many do.  I just see it as a damn good movie that I highly enjoy.  I think Batman Returns is far more of a Tim Burton style movie than the first, but in my opinion, that doesn’t make it a lesser Batman movie.

Gotham City calls upon its greatest hero, Batman, to combat its newest threats.  From the sewers, the deformed and hideous Penguin (Danny DeVito), head of the criminal Red Triangle Circus Gang, forges a fiendish alliance with the corrupt business mogul Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).  Penguin is discovered to be Oswald Cobblepot, the outcast son of a wealthy Gotham couple, and Shreck looks to set him up as the city’s Mayor to force his deceptive power plant upon the city.  However, the Penguin has his own schemes to wreak havoc upon Gotham.  Meanwhile, Max Shreck attempts to murder his frumpy secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) after poking around too deeply into his shady business plans, but she is resurrected as the dangerous and sexy Catwoman who seeks revenge on him.  Batman races into action to combat these villains, but as the caped crusader begins to put a dent in their plans, Penguin and Catwoman plot to discredit Batman, making him a criminal in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens.  While the Bat and Cat are at odds, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle quickly become romantically involved which further strains Selina’s already fractured psyche.  Batman must battle to stave off the treacherous, twisted plans of these eccentric villains before rampant destruction is inflicted upon Gotham City.

This is truly one of the very few superhero films that is able to balance out having multiple villains.  The plotlines are all interconnected smartly through the Max Shreck character.  The Penguin is the main villain while Catwoman is more of a subversive wild card, as she should be.  Her motives are more passionate while his are particularly methodical, but do later delve into the maniacal.  This film seems more character driven than the first, and has some stronger emotional context.  Selina has a wild ride that takes her through a slew of emotional states.  She is very conflicted between her vengeful psychotic side, and the one that is gradually falling in love with Bruce Wayne.  Michelle Pfeiffer just does a stunning job in this role ultimately making Selina grossly sympathetic.  The Penguin is fueled by spite for society for being rejected by it all his life, and goes through a character arc himself.  First, wanting to be accepted as man instead of a monster, but later, embraces the monster he has become to wreak havoc upon Gotham City.

I also love the plot of the villains launching an elaborate smear campaign against Batman.  They frame him for murder and more to position Cobblepot as the new face of hope for the city.  It makes for a more dire and interesting circumstance for Batman to deal with, but Bruce decides turnabout is fair play.  It’s all an excellently crafted story progression.  Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm really conjured up a great story that takes plenty of twists and turns that maintain excitement and interest in the characters.  It’s not just some colorful madman terrorizing the city, it’s more complex and involved than that.  There are numerous motivations at play with the main characters that create a more personal set of conflicts.  The Penguin does provide the larger scale threat near the end, but it’s still perfectly in line with his agenda.  He reaches a boiling point, and decides to let loose upon this city that has turned on him.  Everything builds up to him becoming that monster, and I believe it’s all greatly executed.  In general, the film is amazingly well paced always keeping a consistent energetic rhythm going.  At no point does the film feel like it drags.  There’s always something developing because of the multiple main characters and interwoven plots.  It never gets confusing either.  It’s all competently and tightly strung together.

I love the subtle detective aspects in Michael Keaton’s Batman.  While everyone else is very much buying the altruistic façade of the Penguin, he sees something that just doesn’t fit right.  Something nags at that inquisitive mind of his, and that is extremely faithful to the psychology of Batman.  He hardly needs to vocalize his intellect.  What is said is conveyed very succinctly as Keaton did a lot of trimming down of dialogue to keep Batman’s words sharp and telling.  The film also shows a little technical prowess with Bruce both having the forethought to record the Penguin’s rantings to cleverly use against him later, and showing Bruce attempting to repair the damaged Batmobile.  They are just subtle things which show that Bruce has these diverse skills.

This time out, Michael Keaton was given a wider canvas to stretch his talent across.  He still executes Batman amazingly well.  He is able to convey so much just through those intense eyes, and that sells the demeanor and intimidation of Batman so powerfully.  Of course, with the Catwoman dynamic, Keaton has more chemistry to strike up under the mask, and a few appropriate humorous exchanges while fighting with her.  Keaton has rich chemistry with the whole cast, and is able to offer up more as Bruce Wayne as well as Batman.  His relationship with Michael Gough’s Alfred is a little more light hearted and open.  One has to love the little jab about Alfred letting Vicky Vale into the Batcave.  Opposite Christopher Walken, Keaton holds up quite well, but Walken never makes it easy for anyone to stand up to his charisma.  Still, there’s a nice contrast in Keaton’s more grounded, respectable businessman to Walken’s wheeler and dealer type who definitely has skeletons in his closet.  What really shines, though, is that Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer have electric chemistry both in costume and out.  The romantic relationship is perfectly complicated as Batman and Catwoman are supposed to be.  There’s always some ethical or moral divide between them that cuts the pinnacle of their love short.  You can feel the affection Keaton puts into the performance to have the emotions strike deep within Bruce’s soul, and create the powerful connection Bruce and Selina are meant to have.  Even as Batman, Keaton shows that sparkle of fascination and intrigue for this seductive and dangerous Catwoman.  She, figuratively, hits him very close to the heart, and he sees someone possibly cut from the same jagged mold that he was.  There is much less of a sense of the brooding lone man in Batman Returns, but with the stronger love interest aspect and the story ties with Max Shreck, it naturally pushes Bruce Wayne out of the shadows and into a more active situation.  He no longer feels like the recluse he seemed to be in the first film.  He feels both like a real executive businessman and a human being here.  Bruce Wayne does have that dark shadow on his soul, but he has loved many woman in the comics and has been a responsible and quite public businessman.  So, it’s all perfectly in line with the source material, and Keaton, nor anyone else, could have done it better.

Danny DeVito is fantastic in this grotesque version of the Penguin.  In the comics, he’s just a short, stout crime boss dressed in a tuxedo and top hat with an affinity for birds.  Here, he’s made into a freakish man in both appearance and psychology.  DeVito just throws all of himself into this role making Penguin a disgusting, crude villain full of gross rage and despicable deceitfulness.  It seems like he purely enveloped himself in the character, and had the time of his life with it.  He puts on a sinister performance of a man who revels in his own vile intentions, and it couldn’t be better.  DeVito is immensely entertaining and charismatic.  The make-up design of the character is equally excellent creating a look that can be effectively unsettling.  Still, DeVito is easily able to show the wide range of subtle and verbose emotions of the character through the prosthetics.  It’s a masterful execution all around.

However, the absolutely stunning standout in this cast is definitely Michelle Pfeiffer.  She passionately embodies all phases and mental states of Selina Kyle.  From the meek and mousy secretary that awkwardly blends into the background to the bolder, more aggressive and seductive woman to the playful, sultry Catwoman to the ultimately fractured person whose emotions are strained between the love she has found with Bruce and the bloodthirsty vengeance she is driven towards with Shreck.  When she is that more lowly woman at the start, there is such a timid, oppressed quality about the character that you can’t help but feel bad for her.  Nothing seems to go right for Selina, and she couldn’t be more undeserving of Max Shreck’s intimidating and belittling treatment of her.  Then, when that nervous breakdown occurs, Pfeiffer turns on a truly manic performance that shows the traumatic transformation Selina has now gone through.  It’s the character violently breaking free of the restraints she’s had all this time, and out the other end of it comes this confident, aggressive woman.  This is a Catwoman that excites.  Beyond just the sizzling hot sexual aspects, she is electrifyingly dangerous between her ferocious fighting skills, the razor sharp claws, and the leather whip.  Pfeiffer slinks very smoothly into being Catwoman lusciously embodying her feline grace.  As Selina herself, she shows an amazing ability to subtly shift tone from humorous or casual to just plain dark and unsettling.  That venomous dark side seeps through beautifully.  Michelle Pfeiffer brings out such intense emotional pain and conflict which forges together an immensely fascinating and sympathetic character.  There’s so much subtle texture and emotional range in her performance that one could go on all day detailing it all.  Simply said, she put in a remarkably diverse and emotionally intense performance here, and greatly enhances the depth of the film.  From what she did in this role, you can definitely see why Selina Kyle had such a strong emotional impact on Bruce Wayne by the film’s end.  Pfeiffer absolutely left me wanting more in absolutely every good way imaginable.

Of course, you can never go wrong with casting Christopher Walken, and in Batman Returns, he’s definitely at his best.  He has fierce charisma that forces the character of Max Shreck vibrantly into the meat of the film.  He never gets lost or brushed aside in favor for the more fantastical villains.  There’s just too much weight and excitement in what Walken brings to the role for an audience not to welcome his presence.  Walken is massively intimidating when threatening Selina just before attempting to kill her.  You feel like Max Shreck is a powerhouse heavy.  He’s masterfully manipulative with a mesmerizing skill of twisting people’s minds with his words.  Walken just has such a fascinating delivery of lines that is a signature for him, but I think he adds something specially dynamic to this role.  He could carry this whole movie as the main villain if it had called for it.  Shreck is not damaged goods like Batman, Catwoman, or the Penguin, and that probably makes him the most condemnable villain of the film.  He’s a corrupt, deceitful, murderous human being wrapped up in the guise of a respectable businessman.  He’s an unethical vacuum of morality that will go to any crooked lengths to further his agendas and strengthen his legacy in Gotham.  He’s cutthroat to no end, and Walken embraces the unsettling, shrewd nature of the character powerfully.

Again, the look of Batman Returns is much more polished than the 1989 movie.  There is not as much grit in the visuals, and instead, has a stronger contrast.  Blacks are thick and rich.  They maintain a striking appearance as the shadows are nicely balanced with the light.  Burton and his Edward Scissorhands director of photography Stefan Czapsky give this movie its own visual identity.  I very much like the blue tones seen throughout which offer up a very complementary tone.  Batman Returns certainly doesn’t have quite as much iconic imagery as its predecessor, but it surely has its dramatic moments that are beautifully captured.  The snowy appearance of the film was a gorgeous choice as it further adds to the visual contrast and beauty.  It’s strange that while the subject matter is definitely darker than the first, Batman Returns actually doesn’t look nearly as dark as the 1989 movie.  It appears to be generally brighter and more inviting.  It has plenty of moody visuals, but moves away from the muted color schemes and grim aesthetics.  It’s definitely a pleasant experience for the eyes.

The production design is much sleeker, and that is reflected in the redesigned Bat suit.  It has a cleaner, more art deco armored design which makes sense.  Batman would likely evolve his suit into something generally more durable.  From a production standpoint, it just looks more refined and streamlined.  Gotham City looks more updated with a generally more modern feeling, but still showcasing an gothic industrial look as well as some 1930s or 1940s artistic mentalities.  It’s a beautiful city no longer tainted by grime and trash, but still has its darker qualities.  Even the Batcave gets a fine upgrade with more up-to-date technology and refined lighting schemes.  Plus, the Bat-Ski boat is a sleek addition which gives the film a little extra something near the climax.  The wardrobe is just wonderful all around.  The gorgeous pinstriped suits of Max Shreck have an excellent 1900s turn of the century class to them.  They make him feel like an iconic captain of industry, and the full grey head of hair was a nice touch to his look.  The Catwoman outfit could not be sleeker or more sexually charged.  It’s absolutely perfect for a character of this slinky nature, but also, reflects her fractured psyche with the stitched together look.  Even Penguin’s more upscale outfits, somewhat reflective of Shreck’s style, still have a grungy feel to them.  It creates a nice texture and contrast for the character.  Penguin’s lair is exceptionally moody, decrepit, and dank perfectly reflecting the striking image of the character.

Danny Elfman really broadens the musical landscape of the franchise with this film.  With more main characters come some very distinctive and marvelous themes that richly reflect the complicated natures of these characters.  Catwoman’s theme is so wonderfully complex representing the chaotic and unbalanced nature of the character, and throwing in a dash of sorrow and sympathy here and there.  Elfman adds a chorus into the score to enhance the operatic sense of everything, and the slight rearrangement of the main title march is very pleasing.  It is a heavily and finely textured score that is vibrant and epic.  The Christmas season setting of the film truly weaves its way into the score every so often, and makes for a very colorful and haunting listen.  While I’ve never seen A Nightmare Before Christmas, I have to imagine there’s some correlation between those musical styles from Elfman.

There is also a vast improvement in visual effects work here.  Before watching the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD, I never knew that the opening title sequence was entirely done with miniatures and effects work.  It always looked entirely natural to me.  Matte paintings are still great, but have a little more life to them with some extra color and integrated motion.  Since digital effects had progressed into the forefront, we definitely get the benefit of that higher end work here.  Being released in 1992, it was sandwiched right between 1991’s Terminator 2 and 1993’s Jurassic Park.  While the digital effects are not used on a massive scale, they are very seamless with both something like the armored shields on the Batmobile, and more so with the digital replication of the penguin soldiers late in the film.  Overall, it’s a very fine accomplishment from the visual effects department.  Stan Winston also provided his studio’s talent with creating numerous animatronic penguins that seamlessly blend in with the real life ones.

Tim Burton continues to show a great sense of action in this sequel.  Every single action sequence is choreographed and shot amazingly well.  They are smartly scripted making sure each one is organically different without forcing it.  With the eccentric nature of the Red Triangle Circus Gang, Batman has plenty of gimmickry to combat from the sword swallower to the fire breather and many more.  He handles each one with originality packed with some ironic entertainment value.  Igniting the Batmobile’s flaming turbine engine upon the fire breather is just too priceless.  Then, things get more interesting when Batman combats Catwoman.  She’s immensely skilled and agile making for a dynamically dangerous adversary that gets some stinging shots in.  Mixing that in with the sensuous aspects of their peculiar relationship, it creates a great twisting psychological unpredictability to their confrontations.  The climax of the film just blows me away.  There’s so much slam bang awesomeness packed into it which Burton handles with so much competency and balance.  The race to halt the Penguin’s missile attack on the city creates the fast paced excitement with the Bat Ski boat rocketing to its desination.  The explosive and poignant conclusions to the Penguin’s storyline are nicely balanced on either side of Selina Kyle’s own emotionally charged climax.  This entire sequence is tightly paced, and hits all the plot and character beats perfectly on the mark.  Everything is powerfully wrapped up to a highly satisfying degree.  Many superhero films with so many villains usually end up in a mess, but Batman Returns handles all of them exceptionally well all the way through to the end.

The film certainly has more impact upon Bruce Wayne than Batman, but it all ties in very nicely.   The parallels of Batman and Catwoman versus Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle was an excellent idea.  How both are tied into one is exceptionally strong.  Just a simple unassuming line of dialogue is what triggers the revelation to them both, and injects a much stronger emotional element into the climax.  It also does create a fine arc for Bruce Wayne / Batman.  Seeing him connect with this woman that is very much like him, and how he ultimately wants to be able to save her from the vengeance that’s eating her alive is wonderfully done.  The Batman / Catwoman relationship has always been one of the most fascinating and complex ones in comics, and I believe Tim Burton and his screenwriters did an excellent job bringing that to the screen while Keaton and Pfeiffer made it exceed any expectations.

After watching Batman Returns again, I think this might be my new favorite Batman movie.  While it’s not really faithful to all the characters as, in the comics, Catwoman is just a cat burglar with no mystical type powers or psychological unbalances, and Penguin is just a sort of quirky, non-freakish crime boss, I really like what was done with these characters, and all the concepts were executed with depth and intelligence.  If it was all done poorly or just fell short of its potential, I would surely have some gripes with it all, but everyone involved just couldn’t have done a better job.  The tight pace is really what excites me about the movie.  It’s constantly moving somewhere with one character or another, and they are all logically and organically tied in together instead of some slap dashed plot to force multiple villains into the same movie.  It’s this tightly wrapped sordid web of interconnected characters and plotlines that are smartly interwoven.  I will say that there was a slight missed opportunity by Batman not having to really deal with being framed for murder by Penguin and Catwoman.  It is an unresolved plot point that is brushed aside rather effortlessly, and it’s a shame too.  It’s a storyline that could be very fascinating to explore, but the film just didn’t have room to resolve it.  Any such resolution can only be implied, likely through Batman’s rescue of the children from the Red Triangle Circus Gang.  However, for the trade off we get for it, I can generally overlook this issue.  I enjoy Batman Returns thoroughly now, and I think it’s gotten some bad press over the years.  People seem to act like 1989’s Batman was this bright, happy, fun adventure film for the whole family in comparison, but like I said in that review, at nine years old, my parents did not let me see it in the theatre.  It was a dark movie that could be unsettling to a young audience.  Batman Returns at least has a bit more levity via light, appropriate humor and great chemistry to balance out the dark characters and subject matter.  I would venture to say that this sequel is more fun and more exciting than the first movie.  I just find this more satisfying on numerous levels.  It has a stronger, more layered story with more rousing action, and a tighter rhythm and pace held together by an incredible cast.  I believe Batman Returns is an amazing movie, and a great sequel.  I won’t say it’s perfect, or that it will give you everything you want from a Batman movie, but it’s a damn good one, regardless.  I know it almost certainly will never happen, but I would be very interested in seeing Tim Burton and Michael Keaton return to the franchise with a proper sequel to their Batman movies.  I think they could still do a great job if collaborating with the right creative talents, and Burton could likely use a change of talents these days.


Into The Night (1985)

I have rarely done reviews on comedies because it’s difficult to analyze them very much.  It’s either funny or its not.  Of course, different things make different people laugh, and so, it’s far more subjective than a drama or action movie.  However, there is this 1985 movie from John Landis that sparked my interest in the past year.  The  plot sounded like just my kind of thing.  A wild, humorous adventure of people on the run from dangerous criminals through the night streets of Los Angeles.  Sort of evoking the idea of a comedic Michael Mann film.  Unfortunately, this movie shares a lot of problems with Mann’s underwhelming and momentum starved Miami Vice feature film, which I have previously reviewed here.  There are a few bright spots, but the execution and pacing of this film are its greatest flaws.

Upon discovering that his wife is having an affair, depressed insomniac Ed Okin (Jeff Goldblum) drives to the airport on the suggestion of his friend and co-worker Herb (Dan Aykroyd), where he is abruptly ensnared by a beautiful Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) into her escape from four armed Iranians.  Diana persuades Ed into driving her to various locations as he becomes entangled in her predicament.  As their adventure spirals further out of control, Ed leverages the truth from Diana who reveals she has smuggled priceless emeralds from the Shah of Iran’s treasury into the country, and is being pursued by numerous foreign criminal elements.  Ed and Diana cautiously navigate through this treacherous journey to where they become romantically connected.

Generally, I like the premise of this film.  It has the potential to be very entertaining, if put into the right hands.  However, this really wasn’t.  Comedy is really about timing, rhythm, and personality.  Into The Night has no momentum to carry the intended situational humor along at a necessary rhythm or pace.  For a film about people on the run from violent criminals, it is a fairly slow paced feature.  It is very unlike John Landis’ The Blues Brothers which had those high energy moments to keep the story exciting and funny.  There are a few exciting action sequences in this film, but they are very scarce.  The story also doesn’t have any quick witted personalities to reel a mass audience in.

I have enjoyed Jeff Goldblum’s talent since Jurassic Park playing some off-beat characters that add a different flavor to the story or cast.  I don’t find any flaw with him in this movie.  It plays to a more subdued version of his signature style.  Being a guy with insomnia who has gone an unknown number of days without proper sleep, he can’t be highly charismatic and energetic.  Ed has to be a more low key guy because of his fatigue and slowed wits.  Many of us have gone without a proper night’s rest, and that alone impairs your mental capabilities.  I, myself, have gone a full thirty-six hours without sleep, and even that is enough to muddle one’s synaptic sharpness.  There is nothing wrong with what Goldblum did in this movie.  Playing the straight man can make you the most hilarious person in the movie.  Tommy Lee Jones in the Men in Black movies comes to mind, but it only works in contrast to something else.

Instead, all the other characters are very one note playing up a shallow characterization, and adding little to what should have been a cast of lively, eclectic characters.  They are generally peculiar and diverse, but there are no strong or charismatic personalities to allow any humor to thrive through them.  It’s all too low key, and too many people playing the straight man offering no overt humor.  I feel it would’ve been better to have just Ed be the singular low key character surrounded by more verbose people to create a contrast.  His drab and mundane life would be interrupted by all these vibrant, off-kilter characters that carry him along on a very bizarre adventure.  I also find it hard to grasp is that none of the characters are even trying to be funny.  They yell and argue with one another with no punch line, no humorous twist to create a laugh, or they drift through the movie playing it straight with a dull thud.  Everything is far too underplayed to be funny.  The fact is, I found very little about this film to be funny except for the physical comedy.  A little of that comes from Goldblum, but mostly from the dialogue devoid group of Iranians (of which director John Landis is one of them).  However, there is one excellent exception to all of this.

In the entire movie, the only person I feel hit the personality and charisma of what it needed was David Bowie.  His British hitman character of Colin Morris really jumps in with the right subtle crazy tone and wit.  He’s very proper and polite, but is clearly a psychopath that is both scary and amusing.  Bowie has only two scenes, but he easily steals the show with a richly developed character that is a prime example of what this film should’ve offered in spades.  Colin is both smartly humorous and lethally dangerous.  That’s a dynamic rich with comedic potential.  It really is Bowie’s charisma and delicate sense of tone that makes Colin Morris work.  How he is able to shift from funny to fearsome creates it’s own comedy.  Bowie clearly had a lot of fun playing this role, which is not something I saw much of from anyone else.  A comedy should seem like everyone is enjoying themselves, getting into their characters and having a wonderfully amusing time at it.  None of the other actors seemed to be having a great time on screen playing up their characters and finding their chemistry with the cast.

Fortunately, the musical score by blues legend B.B King is the true shining point of the movie.  It surely gives the whole film a wonderful, unique feel that suits a mostly nighttime set story.  With the right pacing and wit from the film itself, B.B. King’s music could’ve enhanced the rhythm and personality of the movie, but as it is, the blues tracks are just a cool listen that occasionally boost the film’s atmosphere.

As with most comedies of this time period, the cinematography is not much to speak of.  It’s really just a point and shoot mentality, like a sitcom.  So, it’s nothing I will hold against it.  Comedy films today do a lot more with polishing up the visual flare and photography of the movie to enhance their production values, but in the bulk of the ‘80s, that approach did not often exist.  If Into The Night had a little more vision and ambition behind it maybe it would have a little more visual style.

Again, the premise had promise.  I surely believe a remake with modern pacing and filmmaking mentalities could potentially turn this around into a more effective comedy.  Frankly, Into The Night needed more momentum, a faster pace to bring out the humor in the story instead of dragging along from one underwhelming scenario to the next.  The villainous characters should’ve been larger than life and more over the top to bolster laughs.  Goldblum plays his role well reacting to the few outrageous moments with subtle genius.  Michelle Pfeifer was a nice female lead, but was not quite as endearing as I believe her character should’ve been.  There could’ve been more chemistry sparked between Goldblum and Pfeifer, but like with everything else here, it’s not motivated strongly enough to create something special.  I think the filmmakers believed this movie had wit, but they could never hit it on the mark.  Some reviews have said it tried too hard for laughs.  In a way, maybe that is correct.  This film goes to great lengths to have an elaborate storyline filled with a large cast of characters.  It tries hard to find a place and a moment for each of them, but it only comes off as overbloated.  Comedy should never be complicated.  It should be simple, or at least, streamlined.  You throw too many elements into the joke, and you lose the effect of the punchline.  I think that is a perfect way to sum up this movie.  While the storyline is not confusing, it is overworked and a little self-indulgent.  By evidence of the massive amount of filmmaker cameos, there is a self-indulgent mentality in the approach to this feature film.  John Landis had a short window of inspired cinematic comedy brilliance, but it was more than twenty years ago.  Into The Night was a definite misstep during that high point era, but movies like Beverly Hills Cop III  and Blues Brothers 2000 show just how far and hard his movie career has fallen.

There are films I enjoy because of their potential, and to some degree, this is one.  A story that could’ve been made into an excellently hilarious film, but just achieved nearly nothing of that potential.  The film has shown up regularly on HBO or Cinemax in the last several months.  So, you shouldn’t need to spend money to check it out.  Just program your DVR if you’re fortunate enough to get those premium channels.  If not, it’s not a real loss.  There are countless more successfully funny movies out there to give you a healthy laugh than this one.


The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

The Bourne Supremacy is one of the hardest hitting action films I have ever witnessed, and it has far more to offer than just action set pieces.  There is no fat here like most action films have.  All of its lean meat and muscle is reserved for its visceral action and dramatic emotional story.  Supremacy was loosely based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, and whenever you’re basing a motion picture off of an international best-selling novel, chances are, you’re gonna have the potential for a very meaty story.  This is definitely the truth here.  This movie is very tight, very taut, deeply dramatic, and firmly rooted in reality.  It takes everything that was built in The Bourne Identity and capitalizes on it.

It’s two years after the events of The Bourne Identity, and ex-CIA assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still suffering from a broken mind.  His memories are fractured, and is awakened in the middle of the night more frequently than not.  Jason & Marie (Franka Potente) are now living in Goa, India, but meanwhile, Jason Bourne is about to be framed for two murders in Berlin, Germany.  A CIA team, headed by Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), is attempting to purchase classified Russian documents, but a Russian assassin named Kirill (Karl Urban) killed both men and stole the documents.  A planted fingerprint implicates Jason Bourne for all this.  Then, Kirill shows up in Goa, India to kill Bourne himself in order to erase any evidence to the contrary in framing Bourne.  Kirill believes he has completed his mission, but unknowingly, Bourne still lives.  However, Bourne believes that it is the CIA who sent a man to kill him, and this sends Jason on a dead set mission to find and take out those who he told to leave him alone.  The trail of planted evidence leads Pamela Landy to Operation: Treadstone, the elite team of assassins lead by the late Alex Conklin (Chris Cooper) of which Jason Bourne was the top operative.  Landy brings Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), Conklin’s boss, into the mix as she attempts to unravel the mystery of Jason Bourne, and why he has come out of hiding.  Now, Jason Bourne is coming down hard and fast on the CIA while the Agency is attempting to hunt down Bourne.

To their dismay, Bourne has been trained too damn good, and when Landy and the CIA believe they are completely on top of the situation, Bourne shows them that they are MILES behind him.  Bourne is like a mechanism – once you set it into motion, it cannot be stopped.  He lives up to his threat from the first film that there would be no measure to just how hard and how fast he would come down on these people if he even felt someone coming down on him.  Everything builds to explosive, intense levels to where the wrong move could get anybody killed.

All the action sequences top any of those in the first film.  Although, I have to say that director Paul Greengrass has far too much favoritism towards the notorious “shaky-cam” style of shooting.  I’ve never seen any of Greengrass’ previous work, and so, I can’t make any comparisons in that vein.  I don’t believe any blame is to be set on director of photography Oliver Wood as he handled the cinematography on The Bourne Identity in a very different fashion.  I’ve also seen numerous films he has shot including Die Hard 2, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Face/Off, and TV’s Miami Vice.  So, I have to say that it was mainly Greengrass’ creative direction to use so much of this style of shooting and editing.  In some action sequences, between the shaky-cam photography and the fast-paced editing, it can become very difficult to discern what is happening.  You can literally get confused what is happening to whom.  You don’t know if that was Jason Bourne who’s getting smashed into walls or the other ex-Treadstone assassin.  Bad lighting is also to blame as some sequence take place in backlit locales making the actors bleed together.  This is my only gripe with the film, and despite its abundance, this film is just too intense and powerful to knock it down because of that.

This film’s car chase sequence is, at least, twice the sequence of the first film’s.  Mainly because it is the climactic action sequence of the film as Jason Bourne & Kirill turn the streets of Moscow into a demolition derby the likes of which you have never seen!  The car crashes are violent and visceral, and anyone who has ever been in a car crash – like myself – will be able to seriously feel it.  This car chase is beyond any I have ever seen put to film.  What makes the action in the Bourne films so impactful is just how grounded in gritty reality they are unlike how extravagant and fantastical the James Bond franchise had once become.  These films are very adult in manner and context.

Jason Bourne still struggles with the remnants of his past life, and must deal with who he once was.  He must come to terms with the pain and death he has inflicted upon others in order to move on with his new life, and to absolve those he has pained of the lies that have damaged their lives.  It is powerful and dramatic.  It’s the bigger, needed step towards the further evolution of the character of Jason Bourne.  He can never live in peace with himself until he is able to come to terms with the blood he has shed.  There’s just so much to say about this film that it’s difficult to find the right words to do so.  When you see it and are able to absorb it all, you will surely understand.  It’s a dramatic and painful journey of discovery for Jason Bourne.  Whether redemption will ever come is unknown, but I believe Bourne certainly takes the hardest first step towards that end by the film’s conclusion.  However, the film ends on a sly, upbeat note, and that is a sign of very fine and consistent storytelling.  I also like the consistency and continuity here from the first film with the reuse of the same passports and identification photos of Jason Bourne to the reuse of Moby’s very catchy tune “Extreme Ways” for the end credits.

John Powell delivers another fantastic score here that tops everything he did in The Bourne Identity.  That’s just about the decree with everything here (except for the aforementioned shaky-cam / editing gripes).  Matt Damon really delivers like you’ve never seen.  Until you see Damon in the role of Jason Bourne, you might have grossly underestimated his worth, ability, and quality as an actor.  Until this point, I had only seen Damon in mostly comedic roles in films like Ocean’s Eleven and Dogma before watching The Bourne Identity shortly before the release of this sequel.  In this film, however, Damon demonstrates just how powerful of a dramatic actor he can be.  You can see emotion in his face, in his eyes, and in his body language.  Simply put, his performance is deeply human, and will hit you deep within.  As Bourne’s true nemesis, Karl Urban was very impressive.  After seeing him in the latter two Lord of the Rings films and The Chronicles of Riddick, it was refreshing to see him in a more gritty, grounded film instead of a setting of fantasy.  The character of Kirill does not have much dialogue, but Urban has a strong, intense presence that just leaves you hungering for more.  The native New Zealander does nearly all of his dialogue in Russian, and even through a foreign language and subtitles, you still get a grim tone from him that is very potent.  Both Bourne & Kirill are like ciphers when they’re in their element, but when the action gets intense, Bourne becomes more focused while Kirill becomes even more enraged.  Regardless, they are both determined to burn the other into the ground.

I also have to say that I cannot get enough of Brian Cox.  I have loved his wide range of roles in Manhunter, The Ring, Super Troopers, X-Men 2, The Bourne Identity, and now, The Bourne Supremacy.  He’s a great actor with an abundance of natural charisma and always, at least, a hint of humor.  Words just cannot explain how enthralled I am with him.  He is tough to keep up with, and if you’re going to be sharing a scene with him, you’d best be on the very top of your game.  Considering how great and engaging of an actor he is, I find it surprising that he’s said to not view any of his own work.  Whatever the case, Brian Cox is absolute pure gold in my honest opinion.

Playing opposite Cox is Joan Allen, and she is strong and stern here.  As Pamela Landy, she doesn’t allow Abbott (Brian Cox) to shovel any bull her way.  She cuts through all the crap, and gets to the truth and the core of the matter.  She takes firm control of this entire situation and handles it with confidence.  Where others in her situation have faltered and fell, she holds strong.  Even when things start to go awry, she still holds onto a degree of solidarity.  You can write a character that way, but it takes a strong female talent to bring that sort of role up to its utmost potential.  Joan Allen is that talent.  Everyone else, up and down the line, puts in everything they’ve got here, and I could not find even one moment of weak acting.  A very admirable job to everyone including those involved with the casting of the film.

The only dent in the chiseled armor of this film is the shaky-cam, fast editing style.  I believe the same level of kinetic energy could have been sustained in these action sequences using more stable photography.  If that’s how it had been shot, then I would have no problems with the editing, but when you can’t discern what’s happening in these shots, cutting quickly from one to another does not help you to comprehend the visual storytelling any better.  Of course, with just how slam-bang amazing this movie is, I just can’t allow that to be much of a hindrance to my critique of it.  Dramatically, on levels of storytelling and acting, I don’t see how anything can be topped here, but I highly encourage future filmmakers of the franchise to give it every effort.

If you loved or even just liked The Bourne Identity, I believe The Bourne Supremacy will easily exceed all of your expectations.  In the context of the currently existing three films – Identity, Supremacy, & Ultimatum – this entry is the best!  It entirely launches itself far above the potential of Doug Limon’s first film, which was an excellent film in its own right.  While The Bourne Ultimatum was not a real down slope, Supremacy was such a massive step forward that the third film couldn’t achieve the same.  Plus, Supremacy seemed more dogged and relentless in all its aspects to create a far more hard hitting film that never let up.  Also, the ending of The Bourne Supremacy with Bourne and Landy had a lot of its meaning and character building strength diluted when it was revisited in The Bourne Ultimatum.  To say it simply, this is one of the best action thrillers of the last decade, and it helped launch the genre into a grittier direction that was timely and very welcome.


The Punisher (1989)

Marvel Comics had a long history of trying to get their popular superhero properties onto the big screen.  Of course, it wasn’t until 1998’s Blade that they finally achieved some success, and it opened the door to the boom we’ve had since then with X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, and so on.  However, in the late 80s, they were truly going about it all the wrong way.  Where DC had Warner Bros. backing their prospects (since they had an ownership of DC Comics), Marvel was going to low budget B movie production companies to adapt their heroes into feature films.  Many were planned, but very few got a final product.  None of them were successes, and for rather good reasons.  The Punisher might seem like an unusual choice when they had such family friendly characters to choose from, but in the era of the action heroes in Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis, this does make sense.  In the right hands with the right budget, it could have been a contender.  But for those unaware of who the Punisher is, how about a brief synopsis?

Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) was once a cop with a wife and children until that family was murdered in a mob hit.  Faced with this horrific tragedy, and believe dead himself, he became the unrelenting, homicidal vigilante known as the Punisher.  His mission is to punish the criminals and the corrupt without mercy or hesitation, but he remains the most wanted target of the police.  Over a five year period, he has racked up a triple digit body count, and has weakened the city’s organized crime outfits.  However, this has prompted Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé), one of their most powerful bosses, to come into town to take control, and bring them back to prominence.  Unexpectedly, this move has gained the attention of the Yakuza, the most dangerous and powerful criminal organization in Asia.  They decide to take brash actions to force the mafia’s allegiance to them.  Many innocent lives are soon put into jeopardy from this, and the Punisher is coxed into taking action by his sole ally and street informant, Shake (Barry Otto).  Meanwhile, Frank Castle’s former partner, Detective Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr), remains vigilant on finding the Punisher, and bringing an end to his blood soaked crusade against injustice.

I feel Lundgren makes for a fine Frank Castle.  He’s not the best of the lot, but he easily holds the film strongly on his shoulders.  He hones in nicely on the fractured soul of Frank, and adds some sense of self-reflection as a man seeking a reason for the injustice that has shattered his life.  He’s not just a raging vigilante, he has an emotional core that is clouded with contempt.  He’s a man with vulnerabilities, but chooses to bury them deep down beneath the hardened exterior.  On the action side, Dolph handles that with ease, and does essentially all his own stunt work.  He makes the Punisher a very practical threat as both a physically intimidating individual, and as a one man arsenal.  Visually, after dying his naturally blonde hair jet black and throwing in some five o’clock shadow, he fits the role dead-on, aside from the absent white skull T-shirt or body armor.  The motorcycle is a nice fit as well.  It re-enforces the gruff loner aspect of the Punisher, and allows him to move quickly when action needs to be taken.

The supporting cast is decent enough.  Everyone plays their roles with competent talent, but no one jumps out at an audience to make a memorable mark.  Both allies and enemies of the Punisher make the story dynamics work, and the story itself moves along with a consistent pace and balance.  Louis Gossett, Jr. probably has the most to work with as Frank’s former partner who happens to be tracking the Punisher.  He has some emotional conflicts to deal with that Gossett does a fine job with, but the focus of the film’s emotional context really is with Frank Castle.  So, the supporting cast doesn’t get nearly as much meat to sink their teeth into as Lundgren.

Jeroen Krabbé had previously played a Bond villain in the Timothy Dalton 007 film The Living Daylights, and this role as Franco is not much different.  He plays it fairly well, but he never entirely sells Franco’s stature as a high ranking Mafioso.  He’s too laid back.  I would’ve preferred a stronger character or actor that could offer a more authoritative presence.  I’ve seen some awesome crime bosses on film before that could likely leave Gianni Franco creaming his pants.  There are a lot of enemies for the Punisher to combat in this film, but no one ever stands out as a major threat for him to conquer.  No one ever appears to be more than he can handle.  It’s only ever a numbers game that tends to ever overwhelm him.

In general, the action sequences are nicely conceived and executed.  Numerous shootouts, chase sequences, hand-to-hand combat, and a few explosions make for a decently satisfying string of thrills.  At times, Frank is given the image of a stealthy, covert soldier who can get into a location with ease, and attack with swift efficiency.  That is another key for the character to pin down, and it was done well here in both concept and execution.

The story itself is sort of generic in terms that it doesn’t really adapt anything directly from the comics, and features no villains from the Punisher’s classic rogues gallery.  Partially using the Yakuza was nice, but I’ve seen the Japanese criminal outfit used to better effect elsewhere.  From what I’ve been exposed to of the Punisher, it seems that his stories work best when there’s a non-violent emotional motivation that propels him through the narrative.  What some writers don’t seem to get is that the Punisher is not just some angry guy with a bad attitude and a nasty mean streak.  There’s a deeper emotional turbulence to him stemming from the tragic, violent slaying of his family.  He has a lot of deep down pain which he cannot overcome.  Everything that he loved in life was violently robbed from him, and he can never get that back.  Since society has failed to punish these people who victimize the innocent with due severity, the Punisher will do it for us.  Frank Castle is indeed the very definition of a vigilante.  He has no consideration or respect for the laws of society.  He’s here to do what no one else can or will do, and our laws be damned.  That’s not from a jaded or cynical sensibility, but an attitude from a man whose soul has been irreparably broken by gruesome tragedy.  The best comic book adaptations are the ones that understand the core concept of the character.  The ones that understand what makes them who they are, and what aspects have made them timeless, beloved icons of pop culture.  They are built on ideals and themes that resonate with their audiences.

So, does this film hit that mark?  Decently so.  I’m sure it’s not the Punisher movie that hardcore fans were waiting for, but it hardly does anything to betray the core of the character.  Various aspects of his history are changed like being a former cop instead of a Vietnam veteran, but he’s still entirely recognizable as Frank Castle.  What we see is quite true to his more popular interpretations in comics.

Ultimately, what hampers this film is indeed the low budget.  Sets that would otherwise be big and impressive are small, dark, and limited.  Cinematography has nothing all that special going for it, especially the lighting.  Every scene is lit about the same with full, flat lighting lending nothing to atmosphere or mood.  This basically looks like a low rent television series pilot.  And while this is vaguely meant to be New York, no effort is given to even purchasing stock footage, as was later done with Punisher: War Zone, to sell that idea.  The film itself was shot in Australia.  Surely, the Punisher is the one Marvel Comics character who benefits the most from the urban environment of Manhattan, New York.  So, I feel getting the location aesthetics right is very pivotal.  Yes, that is also a knock on the Thomas Jane Punisher film.  Seriously, a black leather trench coat in Southern Florida?  I don’t think so.  Here, at least we do get gritty, grimy city streets at night to offer some contrast to the uninspired lighting throughout the rest of the feature.  The screenplay seems like it works, but the budget limits how fleshed out the concepts, tone, action, and visuals could have been.  Even then, a stronger villain would’ve elevated the quality of the movie like Frank Langella had done in another Dolph Lundgren movie, Masters of the Universe.

Simply said, it was a good try that stuck to the basics, but it didn’t have the financial muscle to make it everything that it could have been.  Nor did it have a quality director behind it.  This was the last film Mark Goldblatt ever directed, and only his second ever.  It is a good watch, worthy of killing 90 minutes with, but it’s far from being a success.  This was released the same year as Tim Burton’s Batman.  That shows the huge contrast in handing a property to a major studio with a generous budget and a visionary director, and handing it to a low budget production company about to go bankrupt helmed by an editor-turned-second time director.  Frank Castle would get another two runs at a fresh start on a film franchise, but neither would achieve what the studios needed them to.  Hopefully, the future can have better fortunes for the Punisher.