Dracula. The name is legendary in the world of horror. There have been countless portrayals of the infamous Count throughout the decades. In the late 1970s, a stage play was produced with a unique take on the original novel focusing more on a seductive Dracula than the gory, fearsome one. In both the stage production and this film adaptation, the iconic role was portrayed by the excellent Frank Langella. Directed by John Badham, this is a very interesting presentation of this story that I feel is very successful, even if the horror factor does not rival its brethren.
When a ship is wrecked off Whitby, the only survivor, Count Dracula (Frank Langella), is discovered lying on the beach by the sickly young Mina (Jan Francis), who is visiting her dear friend Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan). Lucy, her fiancé Johnathan Harker (Trevor Eve), and her father Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance), who runs the local asylum, try to make the Count feel welcome to England. The Count quickly takes the life of Mina, and proceeds to romance Lucy, with the intention of making her his greatest bride. Soon after the death of Mina, the Sewards call her father, Dr. Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) to come to their home. As Lucy falls deeper under the spell of the Count, Dr. Van Helsing almost immediately comes to understand that his daughter fell prey to a vampire and discovers the culprit to be none other than the Count himself. Dr. Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, and Johnathan Harker work together to foil the Count’s plans to take Lucy away to his native Transylvania.
I feel this really is more of a performance-driven film as the plot doesn’t captivate very much. It’s quite standard for a adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. Thankfully, the cast is especially exceptional. Frank Langella is undoubtedly the most seductive and sensual Count Dracula ever committed to film. With every glance of his eyes, every graceful movement, every soothing, hypnotic word he speaks, it fully enraptures an audience into the Count’s spell. Langella has been told by many fans how their wives were so greatly turned on by his performance, and the husband’s benefitted nicely from it. The wardrobe was meticulously assembled to give him the right flowing and iconic quality, and Langella envelopes that ideal beautifully. He has such a striking presence from his first entrance to the end. He truly commands a scene bringing a shadowy majesty to all he does. The performance is captivating reflecting the centuries old wisdom and power Dracula has gained, making him a dangerous and fearsome evil to combat. The character himself is depicted as a more lonely individual who feels a sadness being isolated from the world. Words spoken with great zeal by Bela Lugosi about the creatures of the night are turned around with a sorrowful tone by Langella. It makes Dracula a more sympathetic figure who yearns for an eternal love to end his pain of loneliness. He doesn’t wish to damn Lucy, he wants to be with her for all time, to love her in the darkness.
Sir Laurence Olivier is also a sympathetic figure as Abraham Van Helsing. He inhabits the intellect of the Professor well, but since the story makes it that Mina is his daughter, there is an added depth of emotion here. As anyone should expect from this magnificent actor, Olivier brings great theatricality and soulful breadth to this portrayal. Despite his grief for Mina, Van Helsing has a solid strength and conviction which makes him a formidable adversary for the Count. Olivier puts on a peculiar accent as Van Helsing which is further unique since all other actors in the role have just used their native English accent. It’s just one more thing that helps him make this role his own.
Lucy Seward is wonderfully portrayed by Kate Nelligan. She has an elegant, soft beauty about her that is perfect. She brings forth a great depth of love and pain just in her eyes alone. How Lucy is mesmerized and caught up in Dracula’s power is realized with a dynamic expression of soul and heartache. You can feel the connection between Lucy and Dracula so deeply throughout the film, and is never anything but powerful and beautiful.
The rest of the cast is remarkably solid. Donald Pleasance is great as Dr. Jack Seward smartly keeping up with Olivier, and never faltering in anything he does. Trevor Eve is quite distinct as Jonathan Harker, but spends most of the film in contempt of Dracula to really breakout into showing his love for Lucy. There are a few moments where he has the opportunity, but they don’t last long enough to be fleshed out. While all other roles are rather small, the actors in those roles maintain the level of quality and commitment as the leads.
Now, there are moments of fearsome horror, but it’s more suspenseful than frightening. There’s enough dramatic conflict and ghastly encounters to maintain this in the realm of horror. When Van Helsing enters the underground cave, and is confronted by his now undead daughter, the make-up upon her is very ghoulish. While its not played for startling scares, the suspense and emotion of the scene is strong. It’s clear that John Badham wanted to make an elegant horror film instead of a shocking one, and I can respect that. The atmosphere created around Dracula in certain scenes make him both enrapturing and chilling. Ultimately, this is tragic vampire love story that has sophistication and grace in addition to its fair share of creepy imagery. I think the ambiguous ending is rightly appropriate to the mysterious qualities of the Count.
The visual effects are very impressive, and handled by the legendary Albert Whitlock. He’s done amazing work on numerous productions over his sixty year career, and this is no exception. Dracula’s transformations into bats and wolves are done very artistically using some beautiful techniques which add to the elegance of the film. It’s rarely anything noticeably elaborate, but these effects are no less impressive because of that.
The masterful John Williams did the score for Dracula, and it is grandiose and sweeping. The main theme is both haunting and romantic, a perfect encapsulation for this story. As always, Williams did a marvelous job creating something unique and operatic for a film that deserved a rich musical experience.
The film is brilliantly shot by veteran cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. In his more than fifty year career, he most notably shot Dr. Strangelove, Frenzy, The Omen, and Star Wars. Dracula is simply a gorgeous film through and through with mystifying atmosphere, alluring lighting, and artistic and competent compositions. It masterfully showcases the amazing production designs in great breadth and detail. Said production designs are exquisite with elaborate, theatrical scope to them, especially in Carfax Abbey. While some are divided on the expressionistic love scene with the red laser light and all, it really didn’t elicit a generally strong emotion from me either way. I surely advocate that it is outside of the style of the film, but one could make the case for Dracula and Lucy’s sexual encounter needing to be a heightened sensual experience. Of course, there are other ways to do that which don’t date the film in the late 1970s. The filmmakers actually borrowed the laser lights from the rock band The Who on a day off from their concert tour. That aside, there’s really not a single technical that fails to impress in this film. It truly is gorgeous.
However, I have to take issue with director John Badham’s alterations to the color timing of the film. He originally wanted to make this as a black & white film, but Universal Pictures vetoed that idea. Thus, when the film was given the widescreen laserdisc treatment in 1991, Badham de-saturated much of the color from the film leaving it with a flat color palette. This mostly affects the darker or exterior scenes giving the picture a rather bleek, muggy look. Knowing that he had done this, I did boost the color setting on my television to partially compensate, but much was still left to be desired. It’s simply the fact that a film needs to be shot and lit as a black & white film for it to work in that sort of presentation. Dracula was not shot in that way. Regardless of this fact, the 2004 DVD does look quite good with good picture quality, if it is a tad dim, but I can see the potentially vibrant film that this once was.
Regardless of this, there is still an excellent motion picture to be had here. Again, granted, there’s not much in the way of true horror that will affect a modern audience, but if you’re looking for a romantic vampire film done right, you would be hard pressed to find one better than this. It is interesting to note that, as a stipulation, Frank Langella did not don any fangs at any point during the movie, and specifically did not want blood on his face. He wanted to maintain a certain level of integrity, and avoid the clichés that other Draculas had indulged in. I think it generally works for a film of this style and tone. It helps maintain a level of humanity in Count Dracula which enhances the heart and soul of his tragic character. This iteration of Dracula might not be for everyone, but I truly like the change of approach here. I can watch a gory Dracula film at anytime in a dozen or more different versions, but this gave me something different with the talent and artistic quality to make it very successful.
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.
Unknown was a lot more drama than actual action, despite what the marketing campaign tried to sell us. Obviously, the studio was attempting to capitalize on the success of Liam Neeson’s action thriller hit Taken by marketing this movie as such, but this is hardly in the same league.
Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris who was come to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit. However, attempting to return to the airport for a piece of luggage, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for multiple days. When he awakens, his wife suddenly doesn’t recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity. Ignored by disbelieving authorities and hunted by mysterious assassins, he finds himself alone, tired and on the run. Aided by an unlikely ally in the taxicab driver who saved his life (Diane Kruger), Harris delves into a dangerous mystery forcing him to question his sanity, his identity and just how far he’s willing to go to uncover the truth. Pieces gradually interlock to reveal more than Martin ever could’ve imagined about himself, and what is truly at work that he is now compelled to combat.
I’ve seen both positive and negative reviews praise the premise of the movie and its originality. I do not know what movies these critics have been watching because my thoughts are to the contrary. My main gripe is that the plot is a near carbon copy of The Bourne Identity with a few varying elements, but at its core, its the same basic plotline only not executed nearly as well. Both Unknown and The Bourne Identity were based on novels, but the novel that Unknown was based on, Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert, was published twenty-four years after Robert Ludlum’s well known novel. So, there’s nothing really new to see here, and no one even attempts to disguise it. Many films have similar plots, but the really good, even great filmmakers find ways to make it appear fresh, exciting, and interesting. Unknown did not achieve that for me. It’s not terrible, not at all, but it just comes off as not trying hard enough. There are very good actors in this, but none of them seem to really put their full heart into it. The film comes off as passable, not exceptional.
Neeson turns in a fine performance that carries the film nicely, possibly making it better than anyone attempted to make it, and of course, the action requirements are not a difficulty for him. Nothing here is a challenge for him, which may be a shortcoming of the movie, but he doesn’t slack off at all. It just doesn’t give him anything new to wrap his talent around. Of course, that’s not something I really have any issue with. What did bother me was how underused Frank Langella was in this movie. His appearance as a sort of an old government “spook” is painfully underplayed to the point that any actor could’ve filled the role and done it just as well. That’s a terrible remark to couple with Langella because he is an immensely powerful, enveloping actor with a wide range of talents. He has inhabited so many diverse roles throughout his career that it’s sad to see him take on a role that seems like a quick, phoned in paycheck. I can’t imagine he’s hard pressed for quality acting roles. However, this does work as an example of the movie. Whatever talent is involved is not motivated to push for anything better than mediocre. It’s all standard fare, average offerings.
The action is very good when it happens, but there’s hardly enough to sustain momentum or interest for the plot. I didn’t remain intently invested in the characters, or was as convinced of their motivations as better films have been able to do. Circumstances and plot twists just don’t impact deeply enough to create believable reasons for the characters to push forward with their intentions. Again, this is due to no one giving an extra effort to engage an audience’s invested interest.
The cinematography was entirely standard fare for the genre these days. More handheld, shaky cam, fast editing stuff. I’m beyond tired of that, and I wish filmmakers would get more inventive and clever when filming action sequences. There are so many untapped ideas in that realm, it’s aggravating how many films just do the exact same thing every single time. There was a time when action film directors had more self-identity and originality in the look and style of their own movies. That time seems almost entirely behind us, now. Why that is, I do not know, but this method of action cinematography and editing wore out its welcome a very long time ago. Director of photography Flavio Labiano and editor Timothy Alverson really have nothing notable on their filmographies, and if they keep up this unoriginal, uninspired work, they won’t get any. The same goes for the screenwriters and the director Jaume Collet-Serra. Seriously, the director of the House of Wax remake? I think that explains enough.
As I said at the start, this doesn’t have enough action to be really classified as a action film. It’s closer to a dramatic mystery thriller. It’s a lot of Martin Harris running around Berlin trying to piece together information and struggle with his sanity and perceptions. Action sequences are not all that frequent, and again, when they do occur, they are poorly presented. The quiet dramatic moments are nicely handled, mostly due to Neeson’s talent. However, films ultimately fail when they market themselves as something they are not, and that occurred with Unknown.
I’ve seen review quotes stating this film’s superiority over Neeson’s previous action thriller Taken. Personally, Taken was a far better crafted, more tightly executed, more emotionally investing, and more exciting action thriller. This doesn’t have the pace, energy, or momentum to rival that film, and the studio would’ve been wiser to avoid such comparisons. However, if they hadn’t they might have lost some box office revenue. Even on its own merits, this is still a mediocre movie. I can’t really recommend it because there are so many superior films in the genre, and other films that have done this premise with more success. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not particularly good, either.