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Posts tagged “espionage

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.”


The Bourne Legacy (2012)

I have never been so bored out of my skull in a theatre as I was watching this movie.  I’ve never walked out on a theatrical screening, but this tempted me to.  Not because it’s some atrocious motion picture, but just by how boring it is.  If I was watching this anywhere other than in a theatre, I would’ve stopped watching within the first half hour.  I have thoroughly enjoyed all three previous entries in the Jason Bourne franchise, and while on paper this might seem to have a lot of potential to be a decent Bourne-less sequel, it entirely fails.  There are so many factors that feed into the dull, lifeless quality of this film.  Not the least of which are a flatly conceived new lead character and a mess of exposition trying to impart three movies of back story which ultimately have no consequence on this story.  There is nothing exceptional or engaging in the least about The Bourne Legacy.  Why must my summer movie experience be filled with so much disappointment?  Oh well, here we go, again.

In the wake of Jason Bourne’s dismemberment of Operation Blackbriar, the CIA discretely enlists the expertise of retired USAF Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) to investigate and purge all incriminating evidence between the agency and Blackbriar.  The CIA then decides to dispose of their other black ops programs, which includes the termination of their field agents.  However, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an agent from Operation Outcome, escapes from being executed in the Alaskan wilderness and, with the help of Outcome scientist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), sets out to find a permanent solution to the Outcome physiological enhancement medication he has become dependent upon while fighting to survive those who would try to terminate him.

This is a very peculiar film.  One would think that this would be a sort of fresh new beginning for the franchise without the Bourne character, but it’s weighed down to suffocating depths with back story which could easily have been excised for a far leaner and more streamlined story.  If you haven’t seen the previous three films, you’re going to be so lost and clueless about what’s going on as characters bombard the audience with events that overlap with and fallout from The Bourne Ultimatum.  However, after a while, the film ultimately has nothing to do with anything that happened in the previous three movies.  Having seen The Bourne Identity, Supremacy, & Ultimatum multiple times, I was still lost within this maze of excessive and pointless exposition.  There is such a massive volume of explanations of things that just don’t amount to anything.  It’s not confusing, per se, but the prolonged complex dialogue scenes eventually blur into mind numbing ramblings very quickly.  For example, Edward Norton’s character is meeting with so many people early on giving them a breakdown of what the ramifications are of everything that’s happening, but it’s so painfully convoluted and overbloated that the point of it all gets lost in the mix.  I’m sure a far more focused and sharp screenwriter could’ve condensed fifteen minutes of exposition amongst numerous one-off characters into a straight-to-the-point two minute conversation.  The film also gets so wrapped up in its own severe grounded realism that it forgets to clearly or efficiently relate information to an audience.  Nothing is explained in laymen’s terms.  Dr. Shearing fully explains what these chemicals do to Aaron’s physiology, but it’s explained in such pure clinical science terms that I would doubt that Cross himself would understand much of what she’s saying, let alone a general audience.

Some scenes are so drawn out to the point where they are counteractive to their own point.  For a spoiler example, a team of undercover operatives try to off Marta by staging her suicide.  They go under the guise of investigators or psychiatric counselors, and that psychiatric conversation is dragged on and on for several long, pointless minutes before they actually get around to attempting to stage the suicide.  The act is only broken up when Aaron Cross shows up out of nowhere at her home, to which it’s never explained how he knows where she lives.  It’s a terrible plot contrivance and a hole in logic that the filmmakers just expect us to not question.  For all the mind numbing time they spend explaining everything else in this film, you’d think they could take half a minute to explain that.

This film has several great and highly capable acting talents in Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, and Stacy Keach, but there is just nothing here for any of them to work with.  There are barely any proper introductions for any of these characters for an audience to even learn many of their names.  If the film can’t clearly convey that simple aspect of the characters, it’s no surprise that the film never develops any substance into these characters.  I barely knew anything more about these people at the end of the film than I did at the start.  There is no depth and barely any diversity of emotion shown to build up an empathy with anyone.  Every actor does as good of a job as they could do with what they were given, but this is such a lifeless, soulless movie with purely one dimensional characters.  I was indifferent towards every single character, and that partially contributes to a lack of tension or suspense in the film.  What also adds to that is the fact that Aaron Cross never sustains so much as a scratch jumping off cliffs and rooftops, fighting wolves with his bare hands, dodging gunfire, beating people up, and running for his life.  Every adversary seems all too easy for him to take down, and thus, there’s no one that poses a real threat to him in any of the extremely few action scenes this film has.

The action sequences are very few and very far between.  Where my review of the Total Recall remake suggested there was probably too much action and not enough character development in that film, The Bourne Legacy has an extreme lack of action in addition to an extreme lack of character development.  The action sequences probably add up to ten, maybe fifteen minutes of the more than two hour long runtime.  Ultimately, these are all terribly forgettable and tired action sequences.  There’s nothing fresh or particularly exciting about them.  Director Tony Gilroy had said that the film would not employ the use of Paul Greengrass’ notorious shaky-cam, quick cut action style.  Well, he lied.  While it’s not consistently as bad as what Greengrass does, it does eventually get to being that bad in the lackluster climax of the movie.  As with the previous three movies, Legacy gives us another motor vehicle chase sequence.  This time, it’s mostly on motorbikes, but like how some dialogue scenes drag on and on without a point, so does this climax.  It seriously goes on for the better part of ten minutes where there’s barely anything at stake in it.  The villain that’s chasing them is just some random hired gun who has no investment in the plot.  The exposition about who he was got so jumbled up in all the other procedural dialogue that I never understood exactly who he was.  I just kept waiting for this chase sequence to finally end, but it just kept picking itself back up off the pavement for more.  And this ending has no pay-off.  With no emotional depth to the story, there’s ultimately nothing anyone is actually fighting for, and thus, nothing to triumph over.  There are no passionate principles or struggle for a new self-identity for Aaron Cross to dedicate himself to.  There is no change to who he is at any point during the movie, and we barely know anything about him.

There is some back story given about Aaron Cross, but none of it mattered to me.  His story isn’t tragic, it’s not conflicted, and it certainly has nothing sympathetic about it.  The film takes well over an hour to actually tell us why he keeps jonesing for these meds, the same amount of time it takes for an actual semblance of a plot to develop, and the reason isn’t convincing.  One of the pills he takes enhances intelligence and brain function, and his recruitment officer had to falsify his IQ by 12 points so he could qualify for service.  He goes off the meds, he becomes dumb, again.  So, his whole motivation in the film is to obtain more medication so he doesn’t lose his fabricated intelligence.  That just doesn’t sell as a credible, relatable motivation.  It lacks any self-less quality or humanity for an audience to connect with.  I also find it peculiar that he has been physically enhanced to be stronger, faster, and more resistant to pain.  However, Jason Bourne had none of those drug induced enhancements, and was still able to do every impressive physical feat that Aaron Cross could do in this movie and more.  Not to mention, he could still do many of them while injured and beaten up.

As Jeremy Renner has demonstrated with both Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Avengers, he can capably handle a role of this nature.  He can give us a strong action oriented performance fueled by a relatable and charismatic character.  However, that character is not Aaron Cross.  He’s a guy fighting only for himself, and is only aided by Marta because she’s being hunted by these same people.  After he initially saves her, he doesn’t start inquiring about her well being after nearly being killed.  He straight up, aggressively asks if she has any of the medication on hand so he can get his fix.  Cross has no charm, no heart, no depth.  I don’t know if there was an intention to spark a romantic connection between Aaron and Marta, but Renner and Weisz certainly have no spark.  I surely wouldn’t want Aaron Cross to be a carbon copy of Jason Bourne, but it’s hard to replace such a powerfully dimensional character in Bourne.  Jeremy Renner handles all the physical demands of the role very convincingly, but the character just has nothing interesting to offer.  It’s certainly not Renner’s fault that the script was so overbloated and shallow.  The dialogue and story give him no room to breathe life into the role, to give it charisma, levy, or emotional depth.

The one word I keep going back to in my mind to describe this movie is “pointless.”  The story it tells has no point, the characters have nothing purposeful to say, and the action serves little purpose to exist.  This is a film that doesn’t showcase any potential at all to be good.  It’s not a steaming pile of garbage, but it just lacks passion and motivation.  The script seems like something that should’ve gone through a few more drafts to chop out all that tiresome, go-nowhere dialogue, and build some strong characters and a thrilling story.  Doug Limon directed The Bourne Identity, and had a great sense of gritty, coherent action and a vibrant, character driven story.  Despite the cinematography drawbacks of Paul Greengrass’ style, he is an amazing director who can craft a powerful, deeply emotional story with some hard hitting drama and action.  Tony Gilroy falters greatly with The Bourne Legacy.  He can write and direct some great stuff.  Michael Clayton was an excellent dramatic film that he wrote and directed amazingly well, and has been a co-writer on every film in this franchise.  So, I don’t know what happened here.  Beyond just how he made such a terribly boring, lifeless, hollow movie, I don’t know how Universal Pictures backed this script.  Usually franchise cash grabs are train wrecks or just reek of second rate indulgence.  This is just not trying at all, and that just hurts.  I wish there was more to analyze about this movie to deconstruct it further, but there really isn’t.  It has no substance or ambition to be anything worthwhile.  I found nothing interesting, exciting, or redeeming in the fabric of this film.  Again, it’s not a horrendous film that will make you curse its existence, but it simply had no reason to exist.  I do not recommend seeing The Bourne Legacy.  I found it to be a waste of time.  You’ll be far more pleased re-watching The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, or The Bourne Ultimatum instead.


Total Recall (2012)

I never cared for the original Total Recall from director Paul Verhoeven.  It has always come off as a little too low grade and too strange for my aesthetic tastes.  So, I had no qualms about this remake or re-adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”  Plus, trading the corny camp fun of Verhoeven’s movie for a more serious action thriller tone does more consistently appeal to my tastes.  Although, I also did not have high expectations for this movie.  The film seemed mildly worth checking out, and it turns out to be just exactly that.  It’s surely not a bad film by any stretch, just an underdeveloped one that fails to truly grab hold of an audience tightly.

In the late twenty-first century, global chemical warfare has made the vast majority of the world uninhabitable, and Earth is divided into two superpowers, the United Federation of Britain and The Colony, who are locked in a battle for supremacy to unify the world.  Citizens of The Colony and the UFB travel between the two nations via a super massive underground gravity elevator, called “The Fall”, which takes them directly through the core of the Earth, emerging on the opposite side of the planet in under 20 minutes.  Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a factory worker who, despite having a beautiful, loving wife in Lori (Kate Beckinsale), is plagued by violent nightmares and has grown tired of his monotonous life in The Colony.  Welcome to Rekall, the company that can turn your dreams into real memories.  For  Quaid, the mind-trip sounds like the perfect vacation from his frustrating life – real memories of life as a super-spy might be just what he needs.  However, when the procedure goes horribly wrong, Quaid becomes a hunted man.  His wife tries to kill him revealing herself to be a highly trained undercover UFB agent.  Finding himself on the run from the police – controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the leader of the free world – Quaid teams up with rebel fighter Melina (Jessica Biel) to find Matthias, the head of the underground resistance (Bill Nighy), and stop Cohaagen.  The line between fantasy and reality gets blurred and the fate of his world hangs in the balance as Quaid discovers his true identity, his true love, and his true fate.

This film showcased some potential.  I think it had some very good talents behind it, and a solid, fresh direction on where to go with itself.  As I said, there is nothing outright bad about this Total Recall.  The action is sensational most times.  There are very inventive action sequences all over this film backed up by some mostly excellent cinematography and editing.  There are few hectic moments where it gets close to that shaky-cam quick cut mentality, but backs off it enough to avoid raising my ire.  The more physically demanding action set pieces are greatly conceived and executed.  Director Len Wiseman has always believed in doing stunts and effects as much practically as possible, and that always adds more punch to his action.  Everything looked like real people doing real stunts, and that is immensely admirable.  More effects heavy sequences are also nicely done with no CGI ever looking cheap.  The visual effects teams did a remarkable job creating a very realistic, seamless futuristic world.  Even the robotic soldiers appeared entirely photorealistic and interacted with the actual actors naturally.  However, despite this, I couldn’t really get into the film like a normal action movie.  Despite seeing it on opening night, the very large theatre I was in was barely one quarter full, if that much, and no one else ever seemed to have any rousing reaction to what was happening in the movie.  It’s not the action that’s the issue, it’s the underdeveloped characters.

I don’t necessarily feel anyone was miscast in the film.  I do feel that the screenplay did very little to develop Colin Farrell’s Douglas Quaid or any of the other protagonists.  The beginning of the film is nicely setup as most anyone can relate to Quaid’s situation.  He’s an everyman that’s a slave to the grind who just has the need for something more in his life, some kind of release.  You can really sympathize with him through this part of the film as every element of it is wonderfully executed with the right emotional touches.  However, once the plot kicks in, and he is thrust into this intense situation where he doesn’t know what’s happening or why, his character becomes terribly lacking in development or depth.  The film has little moments here and there that try to have the audience connect with Quaid, but it’s just never enough.  These moments just fall a little too flat because there’s no real substance behind them.  Colin Farrell can be charismatic and very fun in the right roles.  He does have the ability to give a very strong, dimensional, and entertaining performance.  However, the script just doesn’t give his character enough depth for Farrell to sink his talent into.  I never got all the way invested in Quaid to feel the peril or excitement of the situations he was in.  I truly tried because I wanted to enjoy this movie, but these characters are not exciting.  You never get into the soul of this character to feel his struggle, or wrap yourself up in his potential mind-bending confusion.  While the action sequences are excellent, I just couldn’t get emotionally invested to care all that much of what happened in them.

The exact same goes for Jessica Biel as Melina.  She’s supposed to be the love interest to Quaid’s alter ego, but there’s no spark present.  The screenplay almost never gives the characters a moment to connect for the audience’s sake.  I never felt a single strand of emotional bond between the characters, and that’s such a sorely missed opportunity to give the film some emotional substance.  It’s so hard to even say whether or not Farrell and Biel have any chemistry together because the love interest angle is barely played up at all to know that.  It’s really just 98% action sequences between them, and 2% character development.  Even beyond that, the Melina character just doesn’t bring anything substantive to the table.  Again, there is no emotional depth or scripted material to offer up an exciting performance.  I was left with a rather blank impression of the character.  Again, I don’t think the fault falls on Jessica Biel, it’s a failing of the script.

I also strongly believe that Bill Nighy was criminally underused in this film.  His character of Matthias is meant to be an integral figure in this world, but he has essentially one scene which is not written the best it could have been.  Matthias talks some philosophy about self-identity, but it’s very abrupt and clunky how the conversation starts.  There’s no natural flow to it.  It’s clear that his words are meant to have some meaning, but ultimately, become terribly hollow as the film explores none of the ideas he brings up.  It feels very shoehorned in as a quick attempt to make him an insightful character, but it just came off as rushed and purposeless.  I anticipated a more poignant and climactic meeting between Quaid and Matthias.  I anticipated it being a scene where we learn more in depth about the man that Quaid was to gain perspective on the dichotomy between who he is now and who he was before.  It would be a pivotal moment where Quaid has to make a real decision on who he wants to be, and what path he wants to take from here on out.  No such moment exists in this film.  The screenwriters seemed to give the minimal effort towards the conflict of identity in Douglas Quaid.  There’s more confusion from him over the grand scheme plot than his own internal conflict, which is a gross missed opportunity in a film that seemed to have a lot of potential on the surface.  It was also distracting that Bill Nighy put on an American accent for this role, which seems to have had no true purpose.  He is also greatly low key.  One would think that the leader of a resistance movement would be a naturally charismatic or inspiring individual, but Nighy plays Matthias with none of those qualities.  I will say that it’s a nice change of pace to see the usually more intense and theatrical Nighy put forth a more reserved performance, but it just didn’t seem to fit here.

Conversely, the villains of this film are greatly charismatic, energetic, and very enjoyable.  Kate Beckinsale is easily the best thing about the movie.  Her scenes at the beginning as Doug’s wife are very heartfelt and genuine.  There is no question about the authenticity of their relationship and love.  However, once everything turns around on itself, she becomes an amazing villain.  She drops her American accent and plunges full into her natural British one with a wealth of devilish charisma and dogged motivation.  Lori loves the violent requirements of her job, and takes great, ruthless pleasure in hunting down her prey.  Beckinsale can kick ass with the best of them as she is involved in some fantastic and stunningly impressive fight scenes which are very physically demanding.  It’s amazing what she does in this vicious and entertaining role.  She just eats up every ounce of villainy, and clearly has a wealth of fun in the process.  I consistently loved what the film did with her right from the start all the way through to the end.  I can’t say enough about Beckinsale’s performance here.

Also, Bryan Cranston just storms into the film with authority and charisma.  He portrays a great bad guy in Cohaagen.  He throws a lot of power into the character making him a force to contend with.  You don’t need much convincing that Cohaagen is a cutthroat, menacing bad guy.  He unquestionably feels like a man in power, a man in control that has some very sordid and diabolical plans setup.  This is a role that could have easily gone over the top, but Cranston keeps the character grounded and realistic, as do all the actors.  No one ever indulges in cheesy or corny contrivances.  Tonally, it’s a far more serious and straight forward movie than the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger version.  That’s a refreshing take, and all the actors really grasp onto that cohesively.  It is great that the villains are very formidable and enjoyable, but when the heroes are downplayed so much, it really takes the overall entertainment value out of the movie.  Had the heroes been as exciting and entertaining as the villains, this would be an immensely fun movie.

I noticed this next thing from the trailer, and it started to hit me more as the film got going.  Total Recall seems almost like a science fiction version of The Bourne Identity.  How Quaid just instinctually takes down all the armored police is dead-on to how Jason Bourne assaults the two police officers in the snowy park early on in The Bourne Identity.  There’s even a secretly hidden safety deposit box number where Quaid goes to obtain passports and other spy trade gear, just like in The Bourne Identity.  There are more vague connections here and there, but this issue dissolves quickly after the safety deposit box scene.  It’s not something that really bothers me much now, but more something that snagged my scrutiny in the moment.

Again, the film mainly takes place in two different locations.  The early part of the film is largely contained within the Colony, and I love the production design of it.  It was nice to see Len Wiseman break out of his monotone funk, and give us a more varied, yet still restrained color palette.  The Colony is almost always seen at night with shadowy lighting schemes which give the film a dark richness.  Colors are not vibrant, but they have a strong atmospheric presence.  Blues, greens, reds, and ambers accented by moody lighting really were a pleasure for my eyes.  Everything had a seedy, almost noir quality to it.  Considering this is all based on a work by Philip K. Dick, it’s no surprise that there is some Blade Runner feel to the design of this world, but it has plenty of fresh ideas to offer as well.  The design of the city’s housing comes off as very utilitarian and modular that is continually built upwards.  It looks very logical as a world that could practically exist in our own possible future.  It also certainly makes for a great design element for the film’s early chase sequences as Doug Quaid is constantly falling downwards to street level as it progresses.  However, it did seem odd that while the Colony actually used to be Australia, everything about the culture seemed more like Tokyo, Bangkok, or Singapore.  I think it’s an amazing world that was created, but nothing is ever explained why Australia now has a predominantly Asian cultural aesthetic.

The United Federation of Britain has a far cleaner, but also sterile and bland design.  While the film starts off with a very moody and dark visual style, it now loses a great deal of visual pop when moving into the UFB.  Those scenes are almost entirely during the daytime, and I do very much understand and endorse showing the visual differences between the low class Colony and the more prosperous UFB.  I just think a little more color could’ve gone a long way to improve the visual flare of this portion of the film.  Everything is very white, very clinical making a lot of locales very indistinct.  There’s no character or personality to anything in this environment.  Much of this is meant to be London of the future, and that is definitely a city with a lot of cultural personality today.  So, it would’ve helped to reflect some of that in these designs since the bulk of the movie takes place there.  As it is, after a while, it all just blends into forgettable backgrounds.

Regardless of these production design choices, director of photography Paul Cameron does an amazing job shooting this film.  It looks very slick and smart all the way through.  His cinematography showcases a great sense of geography and composition in the hectic action sequences, and brings fine visual credibility to the dramatic scenes.  It’s very beautifully shot and lit all the way around giving us a film that shows us where the money went.  I truly got a wonderful cinematic visual sense from this movie.

Everything in these worlds is smartly designed.  The robotic soldiers, the hover cars, the weaponry, and computer interfaces all appear to be part of a cohesive world.  With this futuristic Earth being what it is, there are likely very few corporations or manufacturers, and so, much of this technology would likely be produced and designed by the same organizations.  Everything has a practical and logic design to it.  Nothing’s overcomplicated or ridiculous, which some future-based movies can lose sight of sometimes.

However, ultimately, it all has to come back to the script.  I think Total Recall could’ve done with a little less action and little more time spent focusing on the plot.  The action seems to just whisk an audience away to another part of the plot instead of the plot developing itself.  We get explanations and motivations, but the details of this world are never fleshed out.  We never get the true sense of division between the Colony and the UFB.  We don’t get to know how both worlds live, and what the true cultural divisions are between them.  We never learn if there’s a deep seeded resentment between the two, and “The Fall” is not given any poignancy by the characters.  They never comment on it being a “symbol of oppression.”  That’s only ever stated by news people in the film, and the film shows how the media is easily manipulated.  While the Colony does feel like a lower class lifestyle, I never got the sense from the characters that it was an oppressive society let alone why a resistance movement was necessary.  The story also never gives us a sense of breadth or impact on a larger scale.  I didn’t really fear for the residents of the Colony later on when there’s a invasion force on its way.  The film doesn’t take the time to build up the threat level to a fever pitch, or give us a foreboding sense of dread.  The focus is too narrow and too shallow to make the stakes feel big enough.  Total Recall had the tools and talent in most areas to develop these issues with some purpose and depth, but really didn’t push for it.  Screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback have done work on films that I have very highly enjoyed.  Wimmer co-wrote The Thomas Crown Affair remake and Street Kings while Mark Bomback wrote the Hugh Jackman / Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and did re-writes on Constantine.  So, I know they have potential for producing more well rounded and satisfying scripts, but Total Recall feels too focused on action and not enough on substance. That would likely make for a thrilling video game with elaborate action sequences, one different than the last with a lot of unique obstacles, but only moderately developed story strung between them.  It’s certainly not that bad in this film, but you could probably take this exact script and hand it over to a video game developer without changing much.

There is a plot hole that puzzled me in how Cohaagen and his forces were able to locate Matthias.  No reason is ever given on if they tracked Quaid and Melina, or even how they might’ve done it since the two of them traveled to meet Matthias via subway and Cohaagen’s forces all flew in.  They just happen to be there, somehow, and storm in out of nowhere with no explanations.  This is definitely a plot hole that none of the characters attempt to plug up at all.  Total Recall doesn’t feel like a film with multiple plot holes, just a film that doesn’t develop it’s plot details or characters as well as it could have.

I’m sure there are those who will find some excitement and fun with this film.  The action is marvelously well done and inventive.  Len Wiseman has evolved into an excellent director of action.  He knows the mechanics of creating solid and thrilling action sequences with competent, coherent editing and cinematography.  There are absolutely no flaws at all with those aspects of this film.  Leading up to the climax, there’s actually a zero gravity shootout in “The Fall” that was smartly done, but still lacks a sense of wit or rousing action to really rile me up.  There’s plenty here to potentially enjoy, but I just never got enough substance from the film’s heroes to feel gung ho about them kicking some ass.  Had the script given more time to the characters and developing the details of the world of Total Recall, opening it up for more depth, texture, charm, and emotional dynamics, I likely would’ve highly enjoyed myself.  I would not be opposed to a second viewing of the film, but I wouldn’t expect too much of an improvement on my opinion.  I would never classify 2012’s Total Recall as a bad movie, just fairly okay one.  Its potential really shows on screen, but on the page, it just didn’t deliver.


Safe House (2012)

This is me writing this straight after getting home from the theatre.  I saw this a few weeks after release just because of not getting my time in order.  Regardless, what I have to say about Safe House is that it is amazing on many different levels.  There are some cinematography shortcomings, but where it counts, this is a movie that delivers on more than just action.  Safe House is one of the best thrillers I have seen in many, many long years, and this is a genre I am very passionate about.

Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a low level CIA agent who has been stuck as a “housekeeper” for their safe house in Capetown, South Africa for the past twelve months.  Believing he has the potential to become a full fledged case officer, Weston becomes frustrated by the complacency of his career.  Meanwhile, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), an ex-CIA agent turned international criminal, obtains a digital file from an MI6 contact which contains incriminating evidence of several worldwide intelligence agencies.  However, he is targeted by a team of mercenaries, and the MI6 agent is killed in the process.  Seeing no alternative, Frost evades them by walking into an American consulate and turns himself over to the authorities.  This lands Frost in Matt Weston’s safe house where a harsh interrogation by a special ops team begins, but is cut short when the mercenaries attack the safe house.  Weston is forced to escape, taking Frost captive to keep him safe until brought back into CIA hands.  However, Tobin Frost is a master manipulator, and he begins to get into the head of the young operative who finds his morality tested and idealism shaken.  Circumstances soon push Matt Weston into going against orders and to figure out who he can trust before he and the world’s most skillful assassin are both eliminated.

Simply said, this is a very powerful, effective film fronted by two incredible actors.  This film entirely backs up my statements from my Green Lantern review of the wide range and quality of Ryan Reynolds’ acting ability.  Playing opposite Denzel Washington inevitably requires an actor who can carry a lot of weight, and in my mind, Reynolds never slacks off.  Matt Weston starts off the film as a very frustrated, yet untested agent.  He has the ambition to move up in the ranks, but hasn’t the experience to temper his confidence.  The film forces him into a dangerous journey that forges him into a sharp minded, confident, and capable man.  All the while, Reynolds holds up his end of the film with amazing talent.  This is him upping his game and allowing himself to shine through next to Denzel.  That is not an easy feat to accomplish, and the screenplay throws a lot at the character to make it an achievement to be hard earned.  Reynolds’ performance crafts a great and compelling arc for Matt to work through.  The character has many highly relatable aspects, and is a very human character.  He has a loving girlfriend named Ana, portrayed by Nora Arnezeder, who he wants to devote so much of himself to, but he cannot due to the secretive necessity of his job.  And being stuck on this assignment will soon force him to be parted from her as she takes a job opportunity in Paris.  All of these lies and frustrations ultimately create a conflict for Matt as the story forces him into a more perilous position, but never does he let go of his emotional core.

Now, Washington and Reynolds work off each other fantastically creating an evolving character dynamic which is constantly compelling and intriguing.  Throughout the film, Frost is imparting his experience and cunning skill set upon Matt, and this is the basis for their relationship.  At times, it’s survival based, but ultimately, it’s about trust.  As if it needed to be said, Denzel is stunning as Tobin Frost.  He is one of the finest, most talented actors around.  While Denzel usually has roles that allow his natural charm and charisma to work to his advantage, here, he curtails it entirely.  Frost is a far more psychologically driven character who is dark, dangerous, and ruthless.  Morality doesn’t factor into anything, it’s about strategy and survival.  However, he connects with Weston because Frost sees what he once was and wants to help this young man not become the same thing he became.  He’s never straight forward in saying that.  Instead, he works as an observer of Weston’s life, and bestows his experiences upon him.  This ultimately affects Matt’s decisions and actions.  Again, it tempers him, and allows him to survive to make better choices than Frost made.  Denzel is also quite unsettling in how he inhabits the merciless nature of Frost’s violence.  He doesn’t need to shoot a prone man five times, but he does out of cold rage or a vindictive point.  He shows his enemies how more deliberately violent he is by doing such things.  For him, it is only shoot to kill.  Denzel conjures up a brilliant performance of an intelligent, analytical character who brings immense gravitas to the story.  The emotion he shows is subtle and veiled in Frost’s inquisitive and foreboding nature.

The strength of the film is maintained by a solid and impressive supporting cast.  Everyone nails the dramatic weight and tone of the film, and their characters feel fleshed out and realistic.  Brendan Gleeson is the most prominent as Weston’s direct superior, David Barlow.  He plays the subtle turns of the character very nice, and holds an audience’s attention quite well.  The film plays some misdirection here and there, but these moments only continue to fuel Weston’s growing weariness.  Sam Shepard also appears as CIA Director Harland Whitford creating an all around interesting performance that motivates many of the thematic elements through to the end.  An appearance by the always solid and enjoyable Ruben Blades as a document forger adds an extra dimension to Frost.  Even if he happens to be a criminal, it shows that Tobin does have people he trusts and can call a “friend.”

What few scenes we do get of Nora Arnezeder as Ana Moreau are great.  From tender and affectionate to quietly concerned to distraught and upset, she inhabits all emotional aspects of Matt’s beloved superbly.  While she is never in peril or is a direct motivation for Matt to do what he does, she is always in the back of his mind.  He has something worthwhile in his life that he does not want to lose, but there are bigger ramifications at hand which he cannot turn a blind eye to.  If for nothing else, he wants her kept safe, and makes some difficult choices because of that desire.

This truly is a thriller on the level of Michael Mann.  Even a few moments in the musical score felt evocative of Collateral here for me.  Composer Ramin Djawadi has done some work I am familiar with including Iron Man, the Hugh Jackman-Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and the current CBS crime thriller series Person of Interest – and so, I can truly see why he has tapped for this film.  The score is entirely awesome bringing out some stellar emotional resonance in key moments, and serving the intense action sequences excellently.  This is another powerhouse element that raises the film up to another level.

Now, I have good and bad things to say about the cinematography.  First off, STOP IT!!!  Stop with the blasted shaky cam!  Break out a tripod, a steadicam, or dolly track for one scene!  Safe House was shot by Oliver Wood, who also photographed the first three Jason Bourne films.  Now, while Paul Greengrass has nothing to do with this movie, you would think otherwise in how it was shot.  Still, it is a little better than Greengrass’ Bourne films as the framing can be wider at times, and the lighting is far superior.  You can actually maintain a sense of geography in most action sequences, especially the car chases because the action is given a wider composition.  Still, this trend has worn on me so much over the years, I can only plead filmmakers to stop at this point.  There is one scene between Matt and Ana where it’s supposed to be a quiet emotional scene, but the camera just keeps wobbling all over the place.  From experience, shooting a simple dialogue scene with a handheld camera usually only results in a subtle instability, but here, it is so deliberately shaky like the camera operator was about to stagger and fall over.  The good half of the cinematography is that it does add a necessary gritty, hardened reality to the film.  There is nothing glossy about it, and that’s how it should be.  The lighting reflects this with perfect execution using many color schemes to breathe some vibrancy into select scenes.  There is moodiness and atmosphere, but that gritty texture is always present to maintain a consistent visual style.

And despite the shaky cam crap, the action sequences are massively effective.  This truly has some hardcore action going for it by never pulling any punches.  It’s full-on, straight ahead realism maintaining intense momentum and adrenalin.  The hand-to-hand combat scenes are definitely impressive showing Denzel and Ryan handle themselves like dead-on professionals.  They both deliver hard edged physicality which further drove my respect for both actors, especially Reynolds.  It really is a pleasure seeing him in a role that showcases his wide range of abilities, and seeing him handle the physical demands of this film pleases me a great deal.  I also enjoy that the action sequences aren’t there for self-indulgence, they push the plot and character arcs forward.  Seeing Weston beat down on one of the gunman, interrogating him while Frost looks on from afar was an impactful scene.  It starts to beg the question of just what path is Matt Weston starting down.

The screenplay by David Guggenheim is a masterful piece of work.  Every character is written with such strength and depth that they must have jumped right off the page.  The story itself is wonderfully crafted establishing Tobin Frost quickly as a dangerous and cunning man through not just actions but words.  The tone of the scenes are built into how they are written through character interactions and situations.  While everyone else is panicking in the safe house when it is hit, Frost sits there, handcuffed and calm as can be.  He talks Matt through the situation, and tries to keep him calm and focused.  This is a man in control, a man who can see the next step forward.  He always sets up the situation where he has the leverage, where he dictates how it goes down.  This is established right from the beginning of the film, and continues on throughout.  The psychological aspects of the story are brilliant.  Whether or not Matt Weston trusts what Tobin Frost says, he cannot ignore his words when circumstances turnaround on him.  He becomes more and more aware of the truth closing in around him, and Matt must act in his own best interests as a direct result of what he learns from Frost.  The screenplay continually weaves a finely textured fabric of truth and deception around Weston with only Frost as the key to unravel it all.

This is all amazingly executed by director Daniel Espinosa.  You can be certain that his name is one I will take notice of from here on out.  Again, me comparing this to the best of Michael Mann’s work is a huge piece of praise as Mann is my favorite filmmaker (excluding Miami Vice & Public Enemies).  This truly has all the hallmarks of the finest this genre has to offer.  Every emotion, every conflict, every action sequence, and every character is handled with immense care, detail, and weight.  Nothing is cheated or unearned.  Great respect is given to all aspects of this story to craft it into a deeply satisfying and rich film.  I honestly can’t recall seeing another film as dramatically impactful an visceral as this one, theatrically, in a terribly long time.

For me, 2011 was not a great year at the theatre for me.  There were some enjoyable flicks, but nothing remotely as riveting as Safe House came into my view.   Whatever the rest of 2012 holds for me, I always enjoy starting out a new year of cinema with a strong film, and this is one of the most rock solid films around.  With an incredible cast of talent in front of the camera coupled with an intelligently written screenplay populated by powerful characters, Safe House was an absolute pleasure for me to experience.  I am glad I made the time to give it my attention.  I highly and deeply recommend this film for anyone who is excited by a psychologically rich dramatic thriller with visceral action sequences.


Double Team (1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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