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Masters of the Universe (1987)

There are many things from my childhood that haven’t stuck with me in my adult years.  Various cartoons don’t hold up to those youthful memories, but what has remained an indomitable favorite of mine has been He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.  I own the entire original series on DVD, and I still enjoy those episodes as much today as I did as a kid in the 1980s.  It still rekindles that inspiring morality and heroic admiration in me.  The show had a lot of heart and genuine care put into it, and it did have some smart thematic writing amongst its silliness.  Beyond that, it was a fun cartoon that entertained me.  Obviously, with the success the show had a full scale motion picture was inevitable, but it came at the tail end of the franchise’s 1980s popularity.  It bombed at the box office for more reasons than just the franchise’s loss of popularity.  I grew up watching this movie repeatedly, and while it has its undeniable problems, I still find something entertaining and worthwhile in 1987’s Masters of the Universe.  Beyond anything else, it features one of the absolute best villainous performances in the history of cinema from one incredible actor.

For ages, the Sorceress of Grayskull (Christina Pickles) has kept the universe in harmony, but now, Skeletor (Frank Langella) – the evil lord of Snake Mountain – has taken absolute rule over the Planet Eternia, and Castle Grayskull is under siege from his sinister forces.  Now, the mighty hero He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and his fellow Eternian warriors are the only hope for freedom, but these courageous heroes are soon transported to Earth via the Cosmic Key – the latest creation from the peaceful inventor Gwildor (Billy Barty).  Stranded on Earth, He-Man comes to the aid of a pair of youths (Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill), and their two journeys quickly become one as they battle through Skeletor’s mercenaries in the attempt to free the Sorceress and save the universe from the tyrannical domination of Skeletor.

What easily polarizes the faithful He-Man fans are the distinct departures or obvious omissions from the established property.  The Prince Adam alter ego is never addressed.  Dolph Lundgren is He-Man throughout the entire movie, and no mention is ever made of his secret identity.  No one questions where the Prince of Eternia is, and we do not get treated to the bombastic transformation sequence from Prince Adam into He-Man.  Thus, there is no Cringer / Battle Cat.  Orko, the comical sorcerer who floats around in the cartoon, is essentially replaced by Gwildor.  Most likely, that was due to the excessive cost of having an optical composite of a single character appearing regularly throughout the movie.  The only regular cohorts of Skeletor’s that appear are Beast Man and Evil-Lynn.  Blade, Saurod, and Karg are brand new characters that were exclusively created for this movie.  There are other minor things here and there, but those are the meaty chunks.  Obviously, new characters meant new action figures to market and make money from.  So, I doubt Mattel had many qualms about swapping out established favorites for fresh creations.  Of course, for those anticipating a big live action motion picture adaptation of these characters, Masters of the Universe certainly didn’t reach those base expectations.

However, there is still definite quality here that deserves some respect and credit.  Apart from the Earth-based sequences, where there’s not much to show off, the production design is highly impressive.  A great amount of thought and detail went into the matte paintings, sets, costumes, and props.  While budget constraints hindered the story, what we get presented to us shows a lot of hard work and care in what these professional filmmakers did do.  These were people who were trying to give us the best film they could, and I think it shows through the shortcomings.

Skeletor himself and his mercenaries look incredible and frightening due to the masterful work of Michael Westmore.  He is most acclaimed for his work on numerous Star Trek television series and movies.  I constantly find it amazing how exceptional practical creature effects were done on budgets like this film’s $22 million.  Today, even with hundreds of millions of dollars, we continually see digital creature effects fall so far short that it’s sad.  When you have the talent on board to create these physical masterworks, they cannot be beat.  Skeletor is an amazing achievement creating a powerful and textured look that has both a bony and fleshy appearance.  The filmmakers made it a point to allow the make-up and prosthetics the ability to have Frank Langella’s performance show through in detail, and that was absolutely the right approach.  Beast Man can be ferociously terrifying just at the sight of him, not mentioning the violent things he’s capable of doing.  Saurod is just a brilliant creation with a great reptilian style that actor Pons Maar really accentuates with his performance.  The addition of the expanding gills just brings so much realistic life to the character.  Karg is probably the least fascinating on a character level.  He’s written as just a regular team leader, and doesn’t strike nearly as much fear as his cohorts do.  Still, the design of him is exceptionally realized.  However, my favorite character of the bunch, which features no make-up effects, but has a very sharp and dangerous outfit, is Anthony De Longis as Blade.  The character has plenty of vile charisma, and it’s nice to see a character designed to be a challenge for He-Man in a sword fight.  De Longis is an exceptionally accomplished swordsman and a master handler of the bullwhip.  He later appeared in two episodes of Highlander: The Series in some marvelous sword battles.  He was also Frank Langella’s stunt double for the film’s climactic clash.  As far as the bullwhip goes?  He was the trainer for both Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns and Harrison Ford in the fourth Indiana Jones movie.  Anthony De Longis is an amazing talent, and the filmmakers of Masters of the Universe were very fortunate to have him involved.

The visual effects produced by Richard Edlund hold up quite well.  Edlund had already worked on the special visual effects for all three of the original Star Wars movies as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, and Big Trouble in Little China.  His body of work speaks for itself, and this film showed no fall off from his standards of excellence.  The portal opened by the Cosmic Key looks magical and beautiful with its vibrant, swirling colors.  It’s amazing effects work that I don’t think even digital technology could improve upon.  It’s work done by the masters of visual effects, and that quality is richly evident.  The matte paintings are absolutely gorgeous.  I really love a beautifully done matte painting, and this film has a few with Castle Grayskull being the biggest standout.  Its design is a distinct departure from previous depictions, but it looks no less imposing or mysterious in this film.  The optical composites integrating flying objects and vehicles into the live action footage are generally alright.  The process always left a little something to be desired.  In this film, it’s quite good with probably the most strained quality coming in the hovercraft chase between He-Man and the Centurion.  The chase itself is well conceived and flows into the action of the overall sequence well.  The compositing itself is just about as good as it got, but the shots of them flying through the city streets and around buildings definitely lack a sense of real gravity or weight.  However, I can’t confidently say whether or not it could have been done any better than these filmmakers did it at the time.

I’ve heard people criticize the score done by Bill Conti as being a John Williams rip-off of Star Wars or Superman.  Conti did the scores for five of the six Rocky movies and all of the original films in The Karate Kid franchise.  The man has more than proven his worth as a composer to me.  While I clearly hear what it is those critics have pointed out, frankly, there is no other type of score one should expect from a 1980s science fiction / fantasy adventure film.  It entirely suits the tone and style of the film.  It’s very rich, colorful, dramatic, and epic.  It captures that rousing spirit that should come with a He-Man adventure.  There is nothing bad or wrong with the score Conti did for Masters of the Universe.

I do believe that Dolph Lundgren did a fine job as He-Man.  Between the script and his performance, the moral heroic nature of the character is maintained.  Lundgren projects a good depth of heart and compassion for his friends and the innocent.  He’s a hero that will sacrifice himself to protect others, which is purely He-Man.  There were plenty of times on the cartoon where He-Man would risk himself to even save an enemy because he believed all life was worth protecting, and much of that is respected here.  Lundgren did all his own stunts, and it clearly shows.  He handles the demanding and nicely dynamic action of the film very well.  Lundgren made He-Man a solid hero to get behind and believe in.  I know he had a difficult time shooting the film, but in the eyes of a devoted He-Man fan, I strongly feel he did the character great justice and respect.  I also love the quality put into his costuming.  Adding the elegant red cape was a very good choice for a live action version of He-Man.  It gives him a stronger visual aesthetic mixed in with the other finely detailed elements of the outfit.

However, what truly brings a bold sense of excellence to this movie is Frank Langella’s masterful performance as Skeletor.  Langella is a brilliant actor that regularly brings a great theatrical style to his performances, as I’ve also seen in his turn as Dracula, and in this role, he dominates the screen with a presence that enthralls and captivates an audience’s attention.  You can feel Skeletor’s lust for supreme power absorbing into every fiber of his being, and how his conquest of Eternia has fueled his ambition.  Langella brings an immense depth and power to a character that had always been cackling and comical before.  Skeletor is finally the frightening figure of villainy and sorcery that he deserved to be.  Vaporizing one of his own mercenaries due to their failure, inflicting vile wounds upon the innocent, and making the heroes suffer under his tyrannical rule are richly evil aspects which build towards a great character.  Under Langella’s talent, Skeletor is intelligent and calculating with a confidence that borders on arrogance.  The overall design further enhances his performance.  The deep contrast between the gorgeous black flowing attire and the stark white skull-like facial prosthetics created a bold, striking appearance that inevitably helped fuel the performance.  In my eyes, Frank Langella portrays one of the absolute best villains in all of cinema.  Between his performance and the depth of pure, unforgiving evil that Skeletor embodies here, I would even elevate it above Darth Vader.  It’s only a shame that it wasn’t in a more critically and commercially successful movie for Langella to get the wide spread recognition he deserved.  Thankfully, in interviews, Frank Langella has stated that Skeletor was one of his favorite roles, and that elevates my respect for the man higher than you can imagine.

Of course, Meg Foster turns in a magnificent Evil-Lynn.  Her naturally haunting, mesmerizing eyes were a perfect fit for this elegantly evil and darkly bewitching character.  She definitely brings a comparable amount of theatrical depth and presence to that of Langella.  She has a great intelligent authority about her which immediately puts someone like Karg back in his lowly place.  Evil-Lynn clearly has a deep desire and admiration for Skeletor that she hungers to have reciprocated, and she goes through a subtle arc in relation to this which is beautifully done.

John Cypher brings a solid seasoned quality to the weather soldier of Duncan, aka Man-At-Arms, and handles the lighter moments just as great as the heavier drama.  Teela is brought to spirited and credible life by Chelsea Field who holds her firmly.  Christina Pickles does a fine, convincing job as the Sorceress with what little she can do while held captive, standing still inside of Skeletor’s energy field.  Even James Tolkan does an immensely entertaining job as the tough, hardened Detective Lubic who is not afraid to jump into action.  The performance is pretty standard for him from similar roles in Top Gun and Back to the Future, but he puts his all into it playing very well off of everyone.  He was definitely having fun on this film.  Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill have a very genuine and realistic chemistry as Julie and Kevin.  Cox showcases the emotional depth she is well known for today, and McNeill offers up a lot of strength and heart opposite her.

However, I do have to agree with many that Gwildor is not a particularly good addition.  He’s essentially just irritating comic relief boosting the silliness of the Earth based scenes.  Yes, he is a replacement for Orko, but the difference between the characters is simple: charm.  Orko was an unintentional trouble-maker and surely not the wisest of the regular heroes, but he was endearing with a wealth of charm and good intentions.  He was a little guy with a big heart who could be valuable in the right situations, and always was lovable.  Gwildor is just quirky and lacks any endearing qualities in the long run.  Billy Barty does add some value to the character with his performance, but ultimately, it’s not a character that leaves a lasting impression.  In fact, he’s a conduit for a lot of the cringe inducing bad comedy of the film, which I will get into shortly.  To say the least, no one’s ever clamored for Gwildor to be integrated into any other He-Man continuity, and that’s for very good reasons.

Now, the sole major problem with this film is the fact that the bulk of it takes place on Earth.  This is where the budgetary constraints impacted the story that could be told.  Shooting in practical locations and city streets cut down on costs for sets, more matte paintings, and other convincing fantasy elements in the film.  Even elements on Eternia were constantly being cutout due to the tight budget including scenes set at Skeletor’s Snake Mountain.  This isn’t so much like Highlander II: The Quickening where the awfulness of the film stemmed from a poorly conceived script.  Those filmmakers had the money and talent to make something really good, but just didn’t have the sensible creativity to do so.  I believe, if Cannon Films had the lucrative finances to put more money behind this, which was their most expensive movie ever produced, we would’ve gotten a richer and more faithful adaptation of this property.  When you’re shackled by a budget to do less than what the property deserves, one can hardly blame the film’s failure on creative ambition.  The filmmakers wanted to do more, but were entirely unable to do so.  Conceptual artists created numerous excellent drawings for things that were jettisoned including a revamped look for He-Man’s sister She-Ra, and several scripted Eternia-based scenes were never filmed due to the budget.  Simply put, their ambition exceeded their resources, but that didn’t stop the filmmakers from doing the best they could with what they had.

The characters of Julie and Kevin are fine, and their story is just fine on its own.  Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeil put in very good acting jobs with this material making their characters quite likable and relatable.  The fact that they are part of a science fiction / fantasy adventure film is what doesn’t work so well.  Everyone intending to see this didn’t go into it wanting to see some teenage drama about a high school rock band keyboardist and his girlfriend who mourns the tragic death of her parents.  In its own appropriately themed movie, these would be well done character elements for a decent story, but it’s a lot of unnecessary baggage here to force Julie and Kevin more into the forefront.  It gets tied into the main story in a minor illusionary way which was actually done to great comedic effect in Spaceballs, released the same year.  Their roles in the film are very well written, and are purposefully integrated into the overall story.  Admittedly, I’ve never had a particular problem with the characters or their part in the movie, but I’m approaching it from a standpoint of, “Is this what the film really needed?”  The answer is no.  It’s one thing to take the story where they did due to budgetary shortcomings, but another to give Kevin and Julie equal screentime to He-Man and clearly more than Skeletor.  This is not a film that’s supposed to be about these two teenagers.  It’s a film about the heroes and villains of this scientifically advanced and wondrously magical world of Eternia battling for the power of the universe.  That’s what He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is meant to be about, and there’s just a little too much diverted away from that epic concept in this movie.  There is this fascinating array of vibrant characters to explore and spotlight, but the film gives a large portion of its attention to its two least fascinating characters.  It is thankful that good actors were cast in those roles, and they were well conceived and well written characters.  It’s just that they don’t belong in a Masters of the Universe motion picture.  It would be easier for me to gripe about this if the characters were stupid and badly portrayed, but they’re not.  It’s all very well done, but objectively speaking, it’s just not what this movie needed to have to be successful.

Again, the quality of what we get in performance and direction is something I have zero gripes with.  Gary Goddard did a very coherent and solid job balancing out these unconventional elements.  However, it does get quite silly, and it goes a little over the edge at times due to Gwildor’s comedic antics.  Granted, it is nearly impossible to avoid some of this silliness considering there is this stark contrast in juxtaposing a highly fantastical world with one that’s very much grounded in our own reality.  Characters are inevitably going to have peculiar, humorous reactions.  At this time, there seemed to be a running trend of fantasy movies which transposed sword and sorcery characters into a modern day Earth setting.  Beastmaster 2: Through The Portal of Time is probably the next most notable (or notorious) film that did this.  It’s a very strange trend that is difficult to understand how or why it repeatedly occurred.  This usually resulted in rather ridiculous movies that can’t be taken seriously.  Masters of the Universe does fare better because, on the whole, it’s keeping its serious characters on track with the urgent, dramatic storyline, and maintains the integrity of those characters.  The humor is just a by-product of that obvious juxtaposition, but Gwildor doesn’t help to reinforce the drama of the film.  The comedy interplay with the cow, the stealing of the bucket of chicken with a grappling hook, and the horrendous pink Cadillac introduced by him really push the film into stupid territory.  The film could’ve desperately done without those cringable gags.  Gwildor alone could’ve threatened to derail the film into farcical territory if the script had gone off the deep end.  Thankfully, enough restraint was shown, and we are spared that sort of horrendously bad cinema.

Veering back towards the positive is the excellent cinematography.  Listening to Gary Goddard’s audio commentary on the film’s DVD reveals that he had to fight to get the Cinematographer to use more colorful or “hyper-reality” color schemes.  So, it is Goddard to credit with the richer neon lighting and slight haze that gives the film a visual vibrancy or atmosphere in many scenes.  However, the camera work is very solid.  There are plenty of great long shots which sweep around and move in on Skeletor’s face to punctuate a scene, or just one take scenes which smartly keep the actors moving with different shot sizes and compositions.  Camera movement is used very effectively.  The sets and locations are really well displayed with strong lighting, and we get a good amount of scope where it counts.  The film has plenty of artistic visual merit.

There is just some good, solid action in this movie.  He-Man is definitely given some steep odds to combat to sell his greatness as a powerful warrior and hero.  He’s built up nicely as having nary an equal.  He is a valiant champion who fights with all his heart and might.  This makes the build up to the climax even better when Skeletor finally has him as his prisoner, and He-Man must battle back after being beaten down and almost defeated.  This leads to a very good final duel between him and Skeletor.  Surely, something more elaborate was originally intended for this climactic clash, but director Gary Goddard had to plead to get some extra money from Cannon Films, who was in financial trouble at this time, just to shoot this more stylized and limited climax.  It’s certainly not as excellent as say Optimus Prime versus Megatron in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie, but it’s a fine duel that caps off the film nicely.

I didn’t realize how long this review was going to be.  So many people have panned this film outright that I thought I had another Highlander II: The Quickening to more or less talk about, but once I actually started thinking about it, Masters of the Universe is not remotely that bad of a movie.  This is most certainly due to the amazing high caliber talents employed on this picture.  You have an Academy Award winning visual effects producer, an Academy & Emmy Award winning special make-up effects artist, an Academy Award winning film composer, and the Academy Award winning film editor of Lawrence of Arabia that all worked on Masters of the Universe!  There was conceptual artwork done by the amazing artist Moebius, who also did designs for Alien and TRON before this, and later, Willow and The Abyss.  This might have been a Cannon Film produced by Golan-Globus, which were bonafide marks of B-grade 80s action-ploitation cinema, but with that depth of artistic merit behind it, it now does not surprise me that this film turned out as good as it did.  This review started out with the thought of pointing out a few positive marks in an otherwise bad movie that I have always enjoyed, and while this film still had far to go to be the exemplary adaptation it should have been, this is a very well made movie.  While the concept is undeniably flawed, it is generally well written and executed, save for the sillier bits.  Most of the things that are bad in Masters of the Universe are really just bad in concept as the execution is largely very good, even great at times.  I know there are people out there that aren’t going to believe that this movie is not as bad as its reputation suggests.  Expectations definitely feed a lot into one’s overall reaction to a movie, and maybe I have the luxury of growing up on this from age seven onwards to give it this expectation-free point of view.  I still really love the original cartoon to this day, and I might happen to enjoy this movie just a little more now after this in-depth review.

As I’ve just learned, the film will be released on Blu Ray Disc from Warner Bros. on October 2nd, 2012.  It is touted as a “25th Anniversary Edition,” but aside from a high-definition transfer and comparable surround sound audio tracks, it features nothing different than what was on the 2001 DVD release.


The Expendables 2 (2012)

It has been not the best summer of movies for me.  Aside from two nice surprises, most of what I’ve seen has ranged from average popcorn fare to crap I want to avoid like the plague.  So, after the last few films I saw being well within that low end of the spectrum,  I am so glad that many of the world’s greatest action heroes have come along to salvage the end of my summer movie season!  While The Expendables 2 has some factors that keep it from matching the original, overall this is just a big, fun action flick that is what summer movies are supposed to be about.

After taking a seemingly simple job for Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), the Expendables find their plans going awry after encountering sadistic rival mercenary Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme).  The Expendables set out – with help from Maggie (Yu Nan) – to seek revenge in hostile territory, where the odds are stacked against them.  Hell-bent on payback, the crew cuts a swath of destruction through opposing forces, wreaking havoc in an attempt to shut down an unexpected threat – five tons of weapons-grade plutonium which is more than enough to change the balance of power in the world.  However, that’s nothing compared to the justice they intend to serve against the villainous adversary they seek revenge from.

Now, the only thing I felt held this film back was just it’s 102 minute run time.  If this had been a solid two hour film, I think it would’ve had the time to beef up a few aspects.  Jean-Claude Van Damme makes for one massively awesome villain.  He easily and deeply sinks his teeth into the role, and his vicious physicality sells so much of the character’s vile ferocity.  Van Damme plays the material with a lot of zeal and charisma.  You can clearly see there’s a lot of potential substance to Vilain, but the film doesn’t give the character much screentime or material to develop the richness Van Damme puts into the role.  We get just enough to sell his status as a villain, but not enough to really build up his threat level.  Partly because of this, the climax seems to come a little too quickly.  I had hoped for some more momentum to build up in the film before the full-on firestorm rained down.  In the first film, the villains were given ample screentime to develop fully, and they were tied deeper into the plot.  Both films have generally the same runtime, but the first film just seemed to make more of the time it had.

On the upswing, the entire cast seems like they were having a wonderful time shooting this movie.  Stallone has plenty of great chemistry with everyone, but I think the best material is between him and Statham.  Barney Ross and Lee Christmas just feel like such good, long time friends who can constantly take light-hearted jabs at one another, and are totally in sync when it’s time to throw down.  It’s a great, inspired pairing that brings so much levity to the film.  It really makes it a fun ride.  Action-wise, Jason Statham continues to shine with several knife fight scenes which are brilliantly executed and choreographed.  Nice touches are maintained with his character as they keep alive the relationship between Lee and Lacy, portrayed by the lively Charisma Carpenter.  Unfortunately, Jet Li departs the film after the opening action sequence, but he’s still given his moment to shine.  Chuck Norris’ role of Booker is full of fun humor that plays up the exaggerated internet humor of Norris’ superhuman feats.  It’s very well done.  The only negative mark with Norris is that he only ever fires a gun.  There is no martial arts action from his limited appearance in the film.  He doesn’t have anything more than an ancillary action role.  He shows up in two action sequences, and has a nice departure at the film’s end.  Sure, the script didn’t require his character to be there, but he does add to the fun of the movie.

While Stallone stepped down from the director’s seat, he remained as co-screenwriter, and you can still see his talent there.  The first film had its fine touches of emotional depth, and we are treated to some of the same here.  We get a fine amount of substance from Billy that Liam Hemsworth does a perfect job with, and really makes an impact upon the film.  He seemed like a very solid addition to the team, and proves his worth opposite some heavyweight talents here.  Barney Ross has more forefront time in this movie as he develops a solid relationship with Yu Nan’s Maggie Chen.  He has his soul bearing moments with Maggie that bring a lot of dramatic and emotional strength to this very testosterone pumping movie.  Yu Nan does an excellent, charming job showing both a compassionate, insightful side and being a more than capable fighter.  She has plenty of physicality to offer in the action sequences beyond just gunplay that is very impressive.  I think it was a very excellent idea introducing her character into the mix.  Surely, it offers up something a little more for the women in the audience to connect with, but in general, it’s good storytelling and screenwriting.  Barney is able to open up about certain things that can only be inquired of by an outsider, a character that is learning more about him along with us.  I liked Maggie right from the start.  She’s smart, cunning, humorous, and clearly doesn’t shy away from danger.  She’s exactly on the same level as the rest of the team, and more than proves her worth to them time and again.  I would love seeing more of her in The Expendables 3.

Lundgren, Crews, and Couture continue to be entertaining and ass kicking.  Dolph definitely has been given a great, amusing character that everyone plays well off of.  Bruce Willis is absolutely great as Mr. Church.  He’s another actor who could play one hell of a magnificent villain when given the chance, but he eventually fights side-by-side with the good guys giving him the opportunity for some funny quips.  Him and Schwarzenegger exchange their signature catch phrases late in the film, and it’s a total riot hearing them throw each other’s own lines back at one another.  Arnold has never had a problem embracing the self-referential humor of his iconic characters, as evident by Last Action Hero.  He’s having the time of his life here playing off of Bruce, Sly, and even Dolph.  It’s pure fun watching Arnold in this movie.  He kicks a lot of major ass, and gives us plenty of that classic charming Arnold humor we’ve all loved for decades now.  It really comes down to the fact that these are all guys who love action cinema, and are making these movies as a real, honest love letter to the genre’s fans.  The Expendables showed us exactly what we had been missing in the action genre for so long, and this sequel continues on that great, vibrant, explosive trend of entertainment!  Everybody gives it their all in these movies!

And OH YEAH!  You will get your fill of amazing action here!  Director Simon West shows he’s still got the chops he put on display back with Con Air.  However, this cranks up the volume and brutality further than he’s ever done before, and you’re damn right there’s blood!  This is a hard R rated action movie that doesn’t hold back.  Right from the start, we get slam bang, smart, innovative action that delivers on every level.  It’s fiery, loud, adrenalin fueled, and just flat out fun!  You see these guys at the start charging in to storm of the stronghold, and you know you’re in for a bad ass thrill ride!  They pull out the big guns, the large caliber ammunition here all the way through!  Stallone, Statham, Li, and Van Damme show off their physical abilities greatly in various action sequences.  However, nothing beats out the climax of Stallone and Van Damme throwing down.  You’ve got the brute force of Barney Ross combating the vicious martial arts expertise of Vilain, and they are true hardcore heavyweights.  Stuff that would take down the average person in an action movie doesn’t even take these guys off their feet.  Getting busted up with a chain, hurled across the room into a metal gate, and just plain visceral brutality is something both men are able to take and more.  This is one of hell of an awesome climax that is worth the price of admission alone.  The build up to it by Van Damme is wicked.  He thrives so much in this role in this scene that it punctuates wanting to have seen a lot more of Vilain throughout the movie.  Jean-Claude is clearly loving this character so much, and he puts every charismatic ounce of enthusiasm on display.  I think it’s a brilliant and amazing villainous performance.

The cinematography of Shelly Johnson is rock solid.  He also lensed Captain America: The First Avenger, and shows just as sharp of an eye for action here.  Every shot maintains a sense of action geography to know who is doing what, where they’re doing, and who they’re doing it to.  It fully puts the fiery, explosive, bloody action on excellent display for an audience to indulge in completely.  The editing of Todd E. Miller never embraces rapid fire cutting.  He lets the action play out competently and smartly.  There’s great action choreography to behold throughout the film, and both Miller and Johnson want you to see all of it.  These are some smart and highly capable filmmaking talents here that know the mechanics of a great action film.

The story is your straight forward revenge plot, but it is handled well.  Again, it would’ve been nice to have more develop between the heroes and villains.  Maybe have Vilain just slip through their fingers at some point, and thus, further fueling their hunger for revenge.  They get so close, but he gains the upper hand, almost laughing at them as he escapes.  I think something like that could’ve increased the film’s momentum towards the climax.  Between the time they first encounter Vilain and corner him at the airport for the film’s climax, they don’t come close to encountering one another, and that’s roughly an hour apart.  So, we never really get much of that adversarial conflict boiling up between Barney and Vilain, but Stallone and Van Damme surely hold none of that back when they do finally clash.  The film might indulge itself too much with its start studded cast at the expense of a meatier plot, but it never sacrifices entertainment value at any point whatsoever.

Ultimately, what you expect is exactly what you get with The Expendables 2.  There is no film this summer that has had action anywhere near as huge as what this film offers.  Plain and simple, this is pure bonafide FUN!  With a collection of some of the greatest action heroes alive today, you really cannot go wrong here.  With the names that are being thrown around for a third film, I’m very intrigued at what more these filmmakers are looking to pull off.  A return of Mickey Rourke would be awesome as well.  This franchise is all about rekindling the best aspects of the classic big summer action movie, and as long as Stallone is creatively involved I think we’ll continue to get our money’s worth.  I don’t think this film lost anything with Simon West in the director’s chair, and I would easily welcome him back if he’s invited.  If your summer movie experience has let you down at all, do yourself a real favor, and indulge in the action-packed fun of this movie.  While I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first film, it’s exponentially better than the vast majority of action films released today.


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.