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Get Carter (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thief (1981)

ThiefMichael Mann is indeed one of my favorite filmmakers of all time.  Without him, I would not be the independent filmmaker that I am today dabbling in the neo noir world of crime thrillers.  For Mann, his theatrical career began here with this sleek and stylish picture headed up by an incredible performance from James Caan.  The cinematic visuals of Miami Vice were forged here, and the foundations of the thematic material that would be refined in Heat and Collateral were laid with Thief.  While Mann had directed and co-written the television movie The Jericho Mile before this, featuring some very familiar traits, Thief was the start of every signature quality that Mann is best known for, and it is a film that should be given its proper due respect and recognition.

James Caan plays Frank, a professional jewel thief who wants to marry Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and settle down into a normal life.  In order to achieve his dream of a family, Frank–who is used to working solo–has to align himself with a crime boss named Leo (Robert Prosky), who will help him gain the money he needs to begin his domestic life.  Frank plans to retire after the heist, yet he finds himself indebted to Leo and he struggles to break free.

I was captivated all over again by Thief just from the beginning as it enveloped me in the sheen of its rain soaked Chicago nighttime world, and the sleek, stylish score by Tangerine Dream.  This was the first film of Mann’s I ever saw, and I was blown away by it well over a decade ago.  One of the most lasting impressions is indeed Mann’s neo noir cinematic style.  Everything he does here really defined so much of the 80’s with the synthesizer score and the masterful visual storytelling.  When you see the sleek and rock solid camera work in Thief, it’s sad to see how horribly Mann has embraced the incessant handheld camera work as seen in Public Enemies.  The compositions here are dead-on-the-mark, and shots like pushing in through the drilled hole in the safe early on just show the enveloping visual brilliance of Mann.  He knew how to suck you into this world, and keep you hooked in for the long haul.  Thief was shot by first time cinematographer Donald Thorin who would go on to lens Purple Rain, The Golden Child, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman, to name a few.  There was clearly no one better for him to be under the direction of than Michael Mann, and Thorin did a stunning job shooting Thief.

This is undeniably James Caan’s movie through and through.  It is no mystery why this is Caan’s personal favorite performance of his.  He is simply excellent, intense, and touchingly dimensional here.  Frank is a man who’s had a lot of bad turns in his life spending a good chunk of it in prison, and is now struggling to reach a blissful goal of a happy home and family.  He is a definite tough guy able to be a threatening presence, and has the charismatic bravado to back it all up.  Frank’s not much of a subtle individual, but he’s a man who feels he has no time to dance around the subject.  Every word he speaks is carefully selected and clearly conveyed which makes him appear well-spoken even if he’s not the best educated man.  Caan injects the right amount of confidence into the role to mask Frank’s occasional naivety.  Caan’s favorite scene is the highway oasis diner scene where Frank details his life, hardships, and dreams to Jessie.  This scene shows the subtle emotional qualities of Frank to see the better man underneath all the bullheaded machismo, and this scene strips him down to bear his heart to her.  Frank shows that he is charming, sweet, and very human.  Despite the hardened criminal life he has had, all he wants is a simple, happy life, and that desire is much of what endears him to an audience.  However, in the end, he must return to his base, primal convict mindset to survive.

Tuesday Weld holds up very strongly opposite Caan with both an enduring spirit and a gentle tenderness.  Like Frank, Jessie is also a tough person who really now reveals in an ordinary life, and what begins as a very combative relationship soon warms up to very heartfelt levels.  There’s a solidly genuine chemistry between Weld and Caan that brings a lot of heart and depth into this very gritty, hard edged crime thriller.  Their final parting scene is powerful on so many heartbreaking levels, and shows, definitively, that Tuesday Weld was no lightweight acting talent.

There is a startling turn that Robert Prosky achieves as Leo that solidifies him as one of the best mob figures in cinema for me.  For so much of the film, he’s a fatherly figure giving Frank every means to achieve his goals, and being nothing but an agreeable, upbeat, friendly facilitator.  He gives Frank high line scores, an adopted child, a home, and much more.  The problem is that once Frank tries to sever ties with Leo, he’s given a very sobering reality check – everything Frank now has is essentially owned through Leo, and he can rip it all away.  This scene is where Prosky transforms into a cold, heartless, ruthless man who will have Frank’s friends killed, prostitute his wife on the street, and put Frank completely into indefinite servitude.  Prosky becomes flat out chilling in this scene as a man you utterly do not want to cross, but the price for having this comfortable life comes at too high a cost for Frank.  So, he has no choice but to retaliate by burning it all down.

Michael Mann did a very clever thing in casting the supporting cops and criminals, and thus, made it very authentic to Chicago.  All of the cops were cast with ex-convicts including John Santucci who was the basis for Frank, and all of the criminals were cast with actual Chicago police officers such as Dennis Farina in his first on-screen role.  This way, we got very open and honest portrayals of the not-so-straight-and-narrow Chicago police of the time.  This sort of close knit connection to the authenticity of these sides of the law carry over into the intricacies of the heists.  None of the heists here are sensationalized or simplified.  We see the complex and highly involved process that Frank and his crew have to go through to take a single score, and this is achieved with great skill.  The depth of detail that Mann shows us allows for the audience to appreciate the triumph of the score.  Furthermore, all of the equipment featured was accurate to how they were used in the film, and considering the film is based on a novel by a convicted thief, none of this should be too surprising.  However, it demonstrates the intense attention to detail that Michael Mann consistently put into every project he took on, and that has always impressed me and has really set Mann’s work apart from all others.  Lesser filmmakers would gloss over the details and sensationalize the story, but the grit is in the details.

There is also a good but small performance by Willie Nelson who portrays a mentor of Frank’s that is dying behind prison bars.  Caan and Nelson have only one real scene together, but it really brings a lot of the life and philosophy of these criminal characters to the forefront.  And Thief really is built so much on personal philosophies such as lie to no one, be the boss of your body, or live your life on your own terms.  This all feeds into how Frank navigates this film.  He divulges everything to Jessie because his previous marriage fell apart due to his lies.  He is hesitant with going into business with Leo because he enjoys answering to no one and calling his own shots, and is ultimately why he makes the radical decisions he makes at the end of the film’s second act.

Frank’s actions in the third act might seem like those of a young man of heated passion, as they are somewhat impulsive and absolute, but they fit Frank’s “the boss of my own body” attitude.  He will not allow the terms of his existence to be dictated by another, and if that is the cost of having all the things he desires, then he’d sooner see it all turned to ashes.  Frank returns to that prison attitude of “nothing means nothing,” and it frees him to destroy it all and go after Leo without any attachments.  This is clearly a precursor to the philosophy of Neil McCauley in Heat that, “Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.”  All of this makes for one awesome, amazing finale that just certifies James Caan as a bad ass.  How Frank’s stalking through Leo’s house unfolds, with almost dead silence, is perfectly executed.  The quiet tension just unnerves you, and builds up that tingling anticipation until all hell breaks loose.  From there, it’s all scored with this excellent track from Tangerine Dream that I love.  And overall, their score is innovative and captivating.  It all reflects Michael Mann’s signature vibe perfectly with sleekness and edge.

Thief is an intensely exciting movie with a very grounded feeling.  Seeing Mann’s visual style unfold here is amazing, and James Caan puts on an excellent, versatile performance that enhances every compelling element of the movie.  It’s stunning to see how quickly Mann evolved in his career where so many of the ideas and visual storytelling here would be refined and matured within three years for the launch of Miami Vice, and the major leap forward taken in 1986 with Manhunter.  Whether you are a Mann or Caan fan, this is a film you cannot afford to overlook.  No one makes crime thrillers quite like Mann did as he made sure every quality and acting talent was superb and pitch perfect while always delving into the humanity of the story.  With Mann it’s always about the characters, and you see the depth of that care put into this movie.  If you want an even further in-depth look at the films of Michael Mann, I immensely endorse the video essay Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann.  It is remarkably insightful that really inspires me.


The Exterminator (1980)

The ExterminatorIn 1980, writer / director James Glickenhaus brought us a gritty exploitation vigilante film known as The Exterminator.  I have some mixed statements to make about this film.  It has some great elements, but also some qualities that felt less than great.  A bad film it is not, but it has a few lackluster areas where some more refined filmmaking techniques would have sold me stronger on it.

Vietnam vet John Eastland (Ginty) launches a bloody vendetta against the New York underworld when his best friend Michael Jefferson (Steve James) is brutally beaten and paralyzed by a vicious street gang. Eastland becomes a vigilante hero to the public, but to police The Exterminator is a psychopath capable of dangerously undermining an entire government administration.

What’s of the most special note here is that Robert Ginty is a surprisingly solid fit for this role.  He looks like an average guy, clean cut, regular slender build.  He doesn’t look like the muscle bound bad ass the poster infers the Exterminator to be.  If made in the latter half of this decade with studio backing, you would’ve seen a Stallone or Schwarzenegger type actor mandated by a studio.  Ginty is unassuming, but delivers on the grim mentalities of the role.  He has his moments of compassion, showing that humanity is his motivating factor, but when he shifts into that vigilante mode, he’s a merciless, graphically violent force to contend with.  Overall, Ginty does a very, very good job in this role.  His performance compelled my interest in the movie.

The action and vigilante violence sequences are all excellently executed.  This is the film’s energy and weight.  Whenever Eastland goes out into that night to exact his own brand of justice on the criminal element, the film becomes alive and riveting.  These are expertly done sequences portraying the violence in a very gritty, realistic fashion, and having the visceral reaction desired.  The violence he inflicts includes a lot of bullets, burning a guy alive, and dropping someone into a meat grinder.  It’s all done in a very cold, decisive fashion.  Eastland is calculating and intelligent.  He’s not being controlled by passions.  He remains focused and level headed all the way through the film, and it creates a solid, intimidating screen presence that I really liked.  This is clearly an exploitation film showcasing the violence in unrelenting fashion, but with enough restraint to not try to shock you at every turn.  You get enough to sell the violence and gruesome victimization at hand, but it never drowns you in graphic visuals.  When I talk about gory horror films, I say it takes no skill to splatter gore all over the camera lens, but to know how to use the violence effectively against the audience does show skill.

The rest of the cast is okay, but with no standouts.  Christopher George is quite good as Detective James Dalton, and especially early on he seemed like a perfect fit for a tough cop.  His performance never goes down in quality, but the character is softened through the Dr. Megan Stewart romantic storyline to where he loses some weight and edge that was demonstrated from the outset.  He handles all the aspects of the role well, but he never really jumped out and gripped my attention.  I was more intrigued by Ginty’s screentime, frankly.

In the least, everyone in the film feels authentic to the time of that late 70’s New York grit.  There are the seedy, sleazy characters that are entirely credible, and are presented quite matter-of-factly.  Their sadistic, salacious acts are unsettling to a viewer, but it’s presented as being an honest look into the darker side of this urban criminal underworld.  This is reality in this era, and this film is not going to make any apologies for it.  This is the despicable activity going on in the shadows of this city, and Eastland is not going to allow it to continue.  I really like that idea, but I do think the film could have done a stronger job building up the character and his emotional motivations.

The Exterminator does feel very indicative of the time it was made.  Beyond just the violent, dark, cynical film that the late 1970’s would produce, the style of filmmaking is not uncommon for something of this ilk.  I would hold Walter Hill’s The Warriors to be the finest example of a 1970’s style hard edged, urban action movie.  The Exterminator is a much more methodically paced film, and tries to focus on mood more than a fast-paced intensity.  Still, there are aspects of pacing, structure, and atmosphere that I feel could’ve been improved to enhance that intention.  These are relatively minor things, but elements that make a marked difference.

For instance, the film feels like it cuts out a huge chunk of character building scenes early on.  Scenes of emotional motivation and a build up of dramatic momentum between where Jefferson gets attacked by the gang and Eastland goes after those responsible.  There’s not even a scene of Eastland reacting to the news of Jefferson’s paralyzing attack.  The attacks happens, and the next scene has him telling the news to someone else.  Then, he’s interrogating a street thug with a flame thrower.  Then, he exacts his revenge.  The character building scenes do occur after this, but they would have added more weight and dramatic drive to the film if they instead bridged the gap between the attack itself and Eastland becoming the Exterminator.  Those sorts of scenes would help delve more into John Eastland, and more sharply focus the narrative on him.  Up to this point, Jefferson seems like the protagonist of the film because he’s the one saving Eastland from danger and we see him with his family.  Little time is spent with Eastland to know much about who he is.  It’s a matter of dramatic structure, and while all the elements are there in the 104 minute director’s cut runtime, I don’t think they were arranged in the most effective way.

Something else that I thought was not done consistently well were scene transitions.  This is not wide spread, but there are a few instances where Glickenhaus just didn’t film any sort of artistic or dramatic segue from one scene to another.  So, instead, it just fades out from one random shot and fades into another.  This creates a bit of a disjointed flow in the narrative, and also, robs us of certain impactful moments.  Certain scenes could’ve ended half a minute earlier on a stronger note than allowing them to linger on monotonous activities.  Some scenes just don’t end with enough dramatic punctuation for the intent of the scene to resonate into the next.  For instance, Eastland kidnaps an Italian mobster, goes to his house to steal money, and gets mauled by the attack dog.  The scene ends with the attack dog, and leaves the issue of stealing the money unresolved.  Not every plot element really connects or is followed through on.   Even the romantic subplot between Detective Dalton and Dr. Stewart seems like a diversion from the vigilante plot, and honestly, has little to do with anything else in the story except to allow Dalton and Eastland to cross paths in the hospital.  It’s a nicely done subplot, but it just didn’t do anything for me.  Even Dalton’s own hunt for the Exterminator is not exactly dogged.  He’s enthusiastic about the investigation, but it never feels like an urgent manhunt or a personal determination on his part.  I would’ve preferred spending more time delving into Eastland, and creating more of an overall storyline for him besides just killing criminals at random.

The film is generally competently shot.  The cinematography is nothing to get excited about, but it’s also nothing to speak negatively on.  Although, the scene where Eastland interrogates the street thug with the flame thrower has horribly inconsistent lighting.  As the scene cuts from one angle to the next, the light source flips around 180 degrees.  First, it’s behind Eastland, then it’s behind the thug, then it goes back behind Eastland.  It was horribly distracting and blatantly obvious to me.  It’s just a bad piece of work, in only one scene, from whoever shot and lit this scene.  The rest of the film has no such problems.

However, on the editing front, I think the movie could have benefitted from some tightening up.  It unnecessarily takes its sweet time in too many instances where some smart editing and the right shots could’ve given the pacing and rhythm much more punch.  There’s extraneous footage all over this movie.  One great example is that there’s a scene where Eastland is drilling holes into bullets and filling them with mercury, then sealing them back up again.  I’m sure someone with firearms knowledge understands the idea behind this, but it is never given context or explanation to the audience what the purpose of that methodical scene was.  Doing some quick research, apparently, filling a bullet with just regular mercury, in actuality, would soften the lead of the bullet to the point where it would likely fly apart when fired.  In movie myth, it creates a grenade-like exploding bullet, but in truth, that is only potentially possible if using mercury fulminate.  This is strongly NOT recommended as you would probably die or be horribly maimed attempting to fire such a bullet.  Regardless, this idea felt like extraneous content that was part of a scene that ran on longer than it needed to.  Basically, it’s an arming up scene for Eastland that goes on for five solid minutes with the mercury bullet segment taking up three of those minutes.  If you’re not going to explain its supposed importance, or show us what doing that to the bullet is meant to accomplish, don’t bother wasting the audience’s time with it.

My biggest point of contention with this film is its ending.  The climax itself is quite good.  There’s a nice amount of suspense and tension as Dalton traverses through this docked ship at night searching for Eastland.  There’s some good action beats and explosive moments at the end.  It’s very well plotted.  The problem is, the film has no resolution to its plot, its characters, or anything else.  It sacrifices anything like that to appease some extremely unnecessary political subplot where some political figures think the Exterminator is some kind of plot by their enemies to ruin their re-election campaigns.  None of which is true, and the film could’ve existed entirely without that subplot.  It’s not too far off from my reaction to 2006’s Miami Vice.  There’s action and some nice dramatic beats in the final few minutes, but ultimately, it leaves me empty and wondering what the point of the movie was.

Ultimately, I feel The Exterminator had the good building blocks for a solid vigilante exploitation film, but it didn’t have the tight cohesion or driving narrative to really feel like it had all its stuff together.  Robert Ginty is really good in this, and makes this unexpected turn as a cold, calculating vigilante who still has his humanity intact.  He’s a good man that wants to take out the trash in this city, and has the training and means to do so.  The main problem here is that this film doesn’t have a narrative direction.  In most revenge films, the protagonist spends the majority of the movie tracking down and killing off those that have incited his needed for vengeance.  Instead, we have this self-proclaimed Exterminator dealing with that right away, and spending the rest of the movie mostly just exacting justice for others without a story of his own to follow.  Thus, it’s not surprising the ending has no resolution because there’s very little plot to resolve.  This is one of those films where I say, if you like what you read here, go ahead and give it a chance.  I don’t say avoid it, but I don’t feel it’s worth going out of your way to see it.  The film is available in a remastered director’s cut DVD / Blu-Ray combo pack release, if you’re interested.


To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

To Live And Die In LAI don’t know what it is about William Friedkin’s movies that I keep missing what everyone else sees in them.  I do keep meaning to watch The French Connection, but for the few films of his I have seen, they have eventually fallen short of expectations.  I’ve heard a few people call To Live and Die in L.A. a great movie.  One even called it a masterpiece.  I have to strongly, heavily disagree with that.  This is the second time I’ve seen the movie, and my opinion of it hasn’t changed.  Friedkin seemed to be trying to channel a Miami Vice vibe with this movie, but the quality of this would be a rather mediocre episode of that largely excellent series.  I will surely give credit that there is good content here and a solid lead performance by William Petersen, but the film left a lot to be desired, especially with its finale.

Federal Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) has a score to settle, and he’s through playing by the rules.  Whether that means blackmailing a beautiful parolee, disobeying direct orders, or hurtling the wrong way down a crowded freeway, he vows to take down murderous counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) by any means necessary.  Saddled with a very by-the-book partner in Agent Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance struggles to catch Masters in the act with a risky undercover operation, but as the stakes grow higher, will Chance’s obsession with vengeance ultimately destroy him?

The film’s first major scene has Chance and his longtime partner, Jim Hart, thwart a suicide bomber at a hotel where the President of the United States is giving a speech.  This scene is effective in establishing our characters, but surely comes off a little cheesy.  It’s slightly reflective of the whole movie.  It has good ideas and good talent in it, but never really hits the style and tone just right.  Something like this opening scene was done with better results in two scenes from the director’s cut of Lethal Weapon – the sniper incident at the school and the suicide jumper, both of which involving Martin Riggs in a tense, potentially fatal situation.  This suicide bomber scene lacks tension and weight to make it feel like a really solid, taut opening scene.  It’s far from a bad scene, but it lacked that certain realistic weight to make it feel like anything but a throwaway moment.  I did gain a measure of enjoyment from this movie up until the climax, but overall, I do feel that it lacked a hard hitting emotional quality to make the characters and events truly resonate.

I don’t know if this film started the cliché of the cop getting killed two days before retirement, but in retrospect, it seems extremely clichéd.  Chance’s partner, portrayed by Michael Greene, goes out to investigate a lead on Masters alone, and gets gunned down while doing so.  It does seem stupid that he’d go at it alone because it comes off like a cheap plot convenience.  The only hypothesis I could offer is that perhaps he was possibly trying to avoid more of Chance’s dangerous habits, but even still, rarely does a federal agent work a case alone, let alone go poke around the possible hideout of a known violent criminal without back-up.  This isn’t the smartest or most creative script, but for a standard action thriller, it is decent enough.  Of course, I don’t think that’s the film William Friedkin believed he was making, but I digress, for now.

William Petersen is really what makes the movie particularly good or entertaining.  He brings charisma to Richard Chance that has him command scenes, and easily gravitates an audience towards him.  He fits the role wonderfully injecting strong doses of excitement and danger into him.  You get that edgy, risk taker quality coming out in how Petersen works certain scenes.  He’s a tough federal agent both physically and personality wise.  When dealing with Ruth, he might use her for sex, but he’s not warm with her.  She’s a tool to be used, and he won’t hesitate to have her parole revoked if she doesn’t cooperate.  He’s also a man of action that takes matters firmly into his own hands, and runs with them regardless of risk or consequence.  He pushes hard for what he believes in, even if it’s a vendetta against Masters.  In Petersen’s hands, Richard Chance is a strong, fascinating character that has energy, conviction, and danger engrained into him.  It’s a solid, well-rounded performance that enhances what was on the page, and gives it further dimension.  There’s nothing I don’t like about this character or performance.  It’s excellent.

There are good performances here from the rest of the cast, but the problem is that there is no insight into who they are.  We know the surface level stuff, but there’s no perception into the depth of these characters.  Willem Dafoe puts in some good work as Rick Masters with a few scenes of solid weight and villainous charisma.  There is some attempt at delving into the psychology of the character with him being an artist, and more so, him burning his own paintings.  However, the film is too preoccupied with the procedural crime elements to take the time to expand on those ideas to where they have any relevance.  I know that Willem Dafoe is capable of such awesome, high quality performances that this one looks very mild by comparison.  John Pankow plays his part without flaw, but also without showing anything worth noting.  It’s a standard, flat character who has little to offer until the final twenty minutes of the film where he becomes a guilt ridden mess.  Everyone does do a good job with the material given, but the material doesn’t have much substance for them to sink their talent into.

I will certainly give credit to that the film is well shot.  It’s not stunning, but it is shot competently in all aspects.  The occasional use of neon or vibrant color washes is effective and shows a dash of visual style.  Aside from one five second shot of some of the worst shaky cam I’ve ever seen, the action is also committed to film solidly.  Now, To Live And Die in L.A. does feature an odd style in terms of coverage.  This becomes apparent in the latter half of the movie where dialogue scenes hold on a single character for an extended length of time.  Usually, such scenes would have a regular rhythm of alternating cuts over the shoulder of each actor, but you’ll come to notice that even when the other actor is speaking, there is no cut to his or her face.  It’s not even covered in a in-profile two shot.  It stays on that one over-the-shoulder shot of the person who is not regularly talking, and stays there for probably half the scene.  I cannot say if this is a good or bad idea without understanding the intention behind it.  Oddly, this being pointed out to me is why I gave this film another look.  As a filmmaker, I’m always open to new ways of doing things, and adopting new styles if they are compatible with my mentalities.  In the end, it’s an interesting way of shooting or at least editing a scene, but I don’t think the film is particularly better or worse for doing this.  It’s intriguing is all.

There is also some mixed reaction to offer on the action scenes.  The chase through the airport where Chance runs down an accomplice of Masters, portrayed by John Turturro, is great and nicely succinct.  It entirely works as a solid jolt of excitement, and I enjoy it thoroughly.  No issues there.  However, it is the big car chase scene that is the mixed bag.  It is surely intense, well shot, and well edited.  As the film’s major action sequence, it is quite well executed, to a degree.  The entire rest of the film is filled with pop music and an energetic score, but this, its biggest action set piece, features no score of any kind at all.  The difference a score makes in this situation is taking the sequence from being just “Oh, that’s dangerous,” to “Damn, that’s exciting!”  A score builds up the adrenalin and enhances the imminent peril of the action.  It can create that fever pitch of exhilaration that can make or break a scene.  The absence of a score here doesn’t kill this scene, but it could have added so much more.  Also, you might happen to notice that ALL of the traffic on the highway is going the opposite direction of what it should be.  Everyone is driving on the left hand side of the road.  Cars in the northbound lanes are travelling southbound and vice versa.  I honestly don’t understand why this sequence was staged this way.  Like with what I will get into with the film’s final act, it doesn’t make any sense and is ass-backwards.

Since I mentioned the score, I should elaborate on its quality.  It’s better in some scenes than others, but generally, it’s just okay.  I can’t quite wrap my head around hiring pop band Wang Chung to do the score for this entire film.  The band had never done such a thing before, and were really only a mildly popular band.  Sometimes these things work amazingly well such as with Tangerine Dream, and I think their scores for Thief and Risky Business are masterful works that capture a unique and brilliant atmosphere.  Wang Chung’s score is fairly average with no real ambition or uniqueness to be of special note.  Some of the songs in the film even fall on the low end of my quality spectrum.  There was such better music of this genre in 1985 that it’s a bit disappointing that this was the best collection of music that could be assembled for this movie.  The music just wasn’t memorable in the least to me.

Now, if you do not want spoilers about the film’s ending, skip this entire paragraph and the next.  I cannot critique it without being explicit about what happens.  I can respect throwing a swerve at the audience in killing your main character unexpectedly, but it has to be earned.  There needs to be a thematic storyline running through this that builds up to such an abrupt, anti-climactic moment.  Chance is unceremoniously shot in the face as soon as he and Vukovich move to arrest Masters, and it comes off like the most inane idea ever.  I believe I can understand part of what Friedkin was attempting to achieve with this event which was entirely improvised on set.  Chance is a guy that takes greater and greater risks, pushing things too far for his own obsessive ends.  Maybe having him die in a poetic fashion where he does push it one step too far, and pays the price for it would potentially work.  Instead, he goes out like a punk, a worthless nobody.  The film doesn’t have that dramatic build up to make this work.  Yes, he crossed a huge line with his heist from what were actual undercover FBI agents to come up with the front money for Masters, but the film lacks any form of thematic material to have all the reckless behavior culminate in anything.  If we saw the obsession eat at him, tear his senses away, and push him beyond the limits to where he invites consequence upon himself, that would potentially make this ending work.  The problem is that Chance honestly doesn’t seem much different from any other movie cop that bends the rules and crosses lines where he sees fit.  He is a charismatic character, but in the scale of anti-heroes, he’s just above mild.  A real great example of what I’m talking about would be in Point Break where the antagonist is an adrenalin junkie who pushes things so far that his friends pay the fatal price for it, and it comes down to one of my favorite endings in movie history that has poetic qualities to it.  There’s a price to be paid for what he’s done, but the film handles it in such a perfect way that was setup early on.  To Live and Die in L.A. has no setup for the abrupt, shallow murder of Richard Chance.

And it only gets worse from there.  What is done with the John Vukovich character is ridiculous, and has no build up, either.  After clearly deteriorating into this mess of a man whose conscience is haunting him over the death of the undercover FBI agent they stole from, the ending of the film throws us another swerve.  They have Vukovich essentially become Chance.  He dresses like him, acts like him, and plans to start using and abusing Ruth just like Chance did.  None of this correlates with anything this character was going through at anytime during the rest of the film.  It’s thrown in there to be “cool,” but it comes off as near laughable.  This is a character that was against everything Chance was doing every step of the way, but kept getting ensnared into it, regardless.  This isn’t someone who was going to abandon his by-the-book mentality and troubled conscience.  He was more likely to psychologically fall apart and turn in his badge out of guilt.  It makes no sense for Vukovich to willingly adopt the mentality of Chance when he was so strongly opposed to it, and after seeing where Chance’s reckless behavior lead him to.

If it wasn’t for this one-two punch of really bad ideas for an ending, I could give this movie a mild recommendation.  Something that you could gain some decent enjoyment out of, but nothing to place big expectations for.  I honestly feel that if To Live and Die in L.A. was a Michael Mann film, it would have been a thousand times better.  If for nothing else, Mann would never in a million years employ the shallow swerves of an ending we got.  Considering the following year he made Manhunter starring William Petersen, I think that statement carries a lot of weight.  There are episodes of Miami Vice that are masterful works that are better than many feature film crime thrillers, and this film is no exception.  As I said, Friedkin tries to channel that vibe and style, but it feels like a second rate imitation that doesn’t capture that emotional substance or sleek cinematic brilliance.  He wanted it to be stylish, exciting, and smart, but it’s too lacking on all those fronts to succeed.  The main issue with To Live and Die in L.A. is that it thinks it’s a smarter, sharper, edgier film than it really is when it is more or less an average action thriller.  There’s barely any depth to the characters, the visuals aren’t anything special, the music is mediocre at best, and the screenplay is more focused on the procedural aspects than the character based ideas it thinks its ending pays off.  It’s not a film I hate, aside from the ending, as I had a decent time watching it again, mainly due to Petersen’s performance, but I don’t see the masterpiece of crime cinema that others perceive in it.  I’ve seen so much better from Heat to The Usual Suspects to Drive that you really need to work a lot harder to reach such standards.


Deception (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Skyfall (2012)

Usually, these introductions are the first thing I write in these reviews, but this time, I had to write the whole thing before collecting my thoughts for this.  I will say that Casino Royale is my favorite James Bond movie to date, and this film did not change that.  The previous Bond film, Quantum of Solace, has been admitted by the handlers of the franchise to be a real misstep that they intended to rectify with this film.  Unfortunately, I do have some points of criticism to levy against Skyfall from a first act that did not grab me to some tonal issues to a prominent character plot point that oddly disappears.  However, overall, the film is masterfully executed with a very strong and deeply personal story with one of the best Bond villains I’ve ever seen.  So, get ready for one of my infamously long in-depth reviews.  There’s a lot to talk about on both the positive and critical side of things.

007 (Daniel Craig) becomes M’s only ally as MI6 comes under attack, and a mysterious new villain emerges with a diabolical plan.  James Bond’s latest mission has gone horribly awry, resulting in the exposure of several undercover agents, and an all-out attack on M16.  Meanwhile, as M (Judi Dench) plans to relocate the agency, emerging Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) raises concerns about her competence while attempting to usurp her position, and Q (Ben Whishaw) becomes a crucial ally.  Now, the only person who can restore M’s reputation is 007.  Operating in the dark with only field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to guide him, the world’s top secret agent works to root out an enigmatic criminal mastermind and cyber-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem) as a major storm brews on the horizon.

Okay, I do have to start out with how the film had me doubting it first before I get into how it grabbed me.  While the pre-credits sequence has some nice bits, it ultimately left me unsatisfied as it featured next to nothing innovative or rousing that wasn’t spoiled in the trailers.  It has plenty of action, but it just didn’t have a high level of tension or dire circumstances for it to really do much for me.  Of course, things could have turned around if the film had a very inspiring theme song or amazing title sequence.  I have to admit that I just cannot stand the music of Adele.  It bores me and grates on my nerves.  The only reason I’ve heard her music is because it’s part of the mind searing music that plays incessantly at my place of employment.  Her title song for Skyfall could’ve put me to sleep.  It’s a dull thud of a song that offers no vibrancy, beauty, or diversity.  To my ears, it was monotone droning like she didn’t care, and neither did I.  The title sequence itself did nothing for me.  It seemed like an over thought menagerie of random images that had little to no coherence or context.  The digital animation wasn’t very good either.  After you’ve seen the whole film, some of the visuals make sense, but I think the visual tone was drastically off with no clear, direct focus.  I’d sooner take a generic or bland opening title sequence like The Living Daylights or Licence to Kill than one that just gets it all wrong.

From there, the film took a while to energize its plot.  MI6 gets blown up, M is facing bureaucratic pressure from her failures, and Bond comes back worse for wear.  These are surely steps the film needed to take, but it didn’t build momentum.  What finally jump started the film for me was the Shanghai sequence.  Personally, this is the most gorgeous part of the whole film.  Bond stalks Patrice, the man he was chasing at the start of the film, and it is inside a skyscraper which is all lit, at night, by brilliant neon glows reflected in an environment of pure glass.  It’s the most neo noir sequence I’ve seen since Blade Runner, and that is exactly the sort of visual style that excites me.  These visuals set a very captivating, dark, and subversive atmosphere.  The ensuing fight between Bond and the assassin Patrice is excellent.  Glass cracking and shattering all around them created a fantastic visual feast that ends on a very precarious, intriguing, and deadly note.  This beautiful cinematography carries over when Bond travels to Macau to further his investigation with a more Asian aesthetic and golden light saturating every frame.

This beauty and so much more is due to the work of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Alongside director Sam Mendes, he creates a picture with amazing visuals and a very strong, personal scope.  The film does look absolutely stunning with beautiful and powerful compositions, highlighting the dramatic weight and action perfectly.  This is a strong turnaround from the bad shaky cam and quick editing incompetence of Quantum of Solace.  Here, the action is handled with more than competence.  It is handled intelligently never resorting to cheap tricks to make them intense or dangerous.  While some of the desaturated visuals aren’t really stimulating for me, they are dead-on reflections of the bleak and dire tone for this story.  Shots displaying the wide open, cold terrain of Scotland are gorgeous and display plenty of depth.  For me, the visuals really do excel in the darker settings where light and shadow are used to gloriously beautiful effect.  Overall, Deakins continues to solidify his artistic reputation with the immaculate quality of this picture.  What’s most startling is that not one frame of film was used to shoot this movie.  Deakins shot is all digitally, and I challenge anyone to tell the difference between this and a high quality film presentation.  Not once did this strike me as a digitally shot movie, but in retrospect, the bold clarity, especially in those dark environments, could only be produced via a digital format.

Skyfall does go darker and more grim with its story and tone.  While the previous two Daniel Craig outings were gritty, visceral, and personal in nature, this digs so much deeper.  While there is definitely a deeply penetrating personal quality for Bond here, this film takes great advantage of Judi Dench’s M.  Silva is a villain directed at her, specifically.  He challenges everything that she is, decisions she has made which parallel those she has made with Bond, and forces her to confront the consequences of her actions.  However, these are not decisions she regrets or ever thought twice about, but are ones that Silva holds against her for turning him into what he is now.  He feels there’s some penance to be done for them both, but she concretely does not share that sentiment.  Adding in a personal vendetta for the villain makes him immensely more dangerous as he will stop at nothing, will short no extent to see her dead and disgraced.

Javier Bardem creates for us one of the most fascinating and brilliantly conceived villains of the franchise.  The first thing I have to note is Silva’s very obvious homoeroticism.  This is blatantly on display in his first meeting with Bond, and it’s almost like, “I can’t believe they went there.”  It’s just the fact that the filmmakers allowed him to go so far as to where innuendo would not be an appropriate term for his behavior.  Even then, Bond plays along with him for a moment.  It’s a very surprising interaction between them.  Yet, this aspect seems to work for the character giving him a very effeminate and uncomfortable manner reflecting that he is an enemy who knows our heroes intimately.  He knows their secrets, and knows how to exploit every bit of knowledge he has on them.  He wants to get in under their skin and twist them around as badly as he has been.  The sort of A View To A Kill Max Zorin blonde hair on the Spanish Bardem also creates a unique, off-beat style for him.  It further pushes his enigmatic, unpredictable personality which is based in how thoroughly he has planned things out ahead of anyone’s anticipation.  It strikes me now what other people have been talking about with this film’s parallels to The Dark Knight.  That’s exactly the sort of villain the Joker was – unpredictable, intelligent, and a man who thoroughly planned out a complex series of events to get himself exactly where he wanted to be, unexpectedly turning the heroes’ victories into grave failures.  Director Sam Mendes did state that Christopher Nolan’s film did have definite influence on Skyfall, and however you want to take it, I think it was an effective and beneficial influence.  It certainly had impact on the tone and visual quality of the film.

Once again, Daniel Craig gives us a Bond that has depth, and is once again a wounded man.  He portrays these detailed, emotional qualities very well while mixing in some traditional Bond wit and suaveness.  He seems to be very comfortable with this more fleshed out and developed Bond.  Craig excellently balances the fun and charismatic aspects of the character with the more grounded, hardened qualities.  He still projects confidence for the future of the franchise under his tenure.

Although, the wounded man aspect of Bond having clearly lost a step is completely abandoned as soon as Silva is captured less than halfway through the film.  He’s apparently worked through it without showing us, and is more of an aspect by the filmmakers used to subvert Silva once Bond is in his lair.  This is surely not a fault of Craig’s performance, but the fact that the film can only focus on so much for so long.  During the time it is part of the plot, it is very good, and explored with plenty of nuance and emotional depth by Craig.  It’s only a shame that it wasn’t a constant element of the story to give Bond something more to deal with and overcome while battling an enemy that is several steps ahead of everyone while Bond has actually lost a few.  It’s certainly teased with, but it evaporates a few minutes later when Bond single handedly guns down about a half dozen henchman in a matter of seconds.  He’s suddenly back to one hundred percent, and I think that was a missed opportunity that is never properly resolved, just glossed over.

I do like that the filmmakers have increasingly given Judi Dench more to do as M, and made her a more integral part of Bond’s development.  They have a very real and honest relationship that has built up a strong foundation for 007.  Judi Dench is unsurprisingly excellent here.  Skyfall gives her more than ever to work with, for very good reasons, and she handles everything perfectly.  Her scenes opposite Bardem as intriguing and compelling.  It’s great seeing the reverse side of her M who is usually a very confident and tough woman be faced with real fear.  It’s a situation that she’s not capable of dealing with hands-on, but it’s surely not for a lack of trying.  Dench gives a memorable performance that leaves an indelible impact on the franchise.

While Skyfall does have Bond girls, they don’t play a prominent role in the film for very long.  The most forefront of the two is Naomie Harris as Eve.  She develops a seductive relationship with Bond that results in a few very sensual moments.  Harris and Craig have good chemistry, and that is quite important when you reach the film’s ending.  She will be a recurring character, and Harris is quite capable of the role she was given, maybe even overqualified depending on what they do with her.  She does a fine job, but there’s not much for me to comment on without revealing major spoilers.

On the more dangerous side, I really liked what Bérénice Lim Marlohe did with Sévérine, the provocative lady Bond meets in Shanghai and Macau.  Firstly, she is very seductive, a true femme fatale with a wonderful edge and elegance.  That accent is so enrapturing as well, and she really slinks her way through that casino and into Bond’s attention.  Then, Bond digs deeper into her to reveal how truly terrified she is of Silva.  Marlohe sells this petrifying fear so concretely and realistically.  While her role is ultimately rather small in the overall movie, she does an exceptionally stunning job.  And yes, this film has its marvelously sexy moments that are pure Bond bravado and sensuality.  The only thing that wasn’t well put across with this character, which is a definite spoiler, is the certainty of whether or not Silva actually did kill her.  It was far too implied as the moment is handled too artistically, and that we never see her up-close after the gunshot.  I kept thinking she was a loose thread in the film that I was waiting to see tied up at some point.  It’s not like Bond to just stand there to watch someone innocent get murdered when he demonstrates a minute later how entirely capable he is of gunning down and disarming everyone there.  He could’ve save her life and captured Silva at the same time.  Of course, earlier on, Bond stands by as he watches Patrice use a sniper rifle to kill a random somebody.  So, that confused me too.  Thankfully, the internet cleared this issue up for me, and confirmed that Silva did shoot and skill Sévérine.

Moving on, I have zero problems with the casting of Ralph Fiennes.  While my only exposure to his work is Strange Days, that’s more than enough to get me excited for his inclusion here.  His character of Gareth Mallory might seem like a hard ass, a potential bureaucratic adversary, but through the film, he gradually shows that he is more ally than adversary.  He really takes a massive leap forward in the likability factor while protecting M in a firefight.  As always, Fiennes does a remarkable job, and I think the franchise would be well off to keep him around.

Skyfall finally revives the role of Q with a much younger and more soft spoken portrayal by Ben Whishaw.  He feels very authentic showcasing someone that is very highly proficient with modern computers and technology.  He only gives Bond two gadgets – a radio transmitter homing beacon, and a Walther PPK with a sensor that is fitted to 007’s handprint so that only he can use it.  Yet, Q becomes more vital later on when tracking the escaped Silva via security cameras, and then, laying an electronic trail for Silva to follow out to Scotland for the final confrontation.  Whishaw gives us a character that is very modern and highly relatable as a technologically savvy hipster.  While he is more low key than Desmond Llewellyn or John Cleese, he still has plenty of witty exchanges with Bond that are quite enjoyable.  I won’t spoil anything.  However, Skyfall does gives us back all of those Bond regulars at MI6 that have been absent in the Daniel Craig films, and it does it in a very clever and refreshed way.

Now, aside from that pre-credits sequence, which left me a little flat, the action scenes of Skyfall are ultimately very impressive.  Director Sam Mendes had not done anything action oriented before, but he shows a great skill for it here.  Tension and suspense surround them due to the plot driven implications, and that enhances the danger immensely.  Bond gets into plenty of tight situations, but is able to use his confident ingenuity to slip out of them.  Surely, the Shanghai sequence is my favorite of the movie because of its visual style.  However, there is not a sequence with Silva that is not exciting and riveting.  Because he has planned things out so thoroughly and so far in advance, there is an unpredictability to everything he does.  He’s never truly cornered until the very end of the film, and that sells his intelligence and threat level enormously.  There is one massively tense sequence after Silva has escaped that is masterfully done.  Silva springs a surprise on Bond, and gets a long head start towards his goal of killing M.  The tension and emotional peril is at a sharp peak.  What we get is an amazing firefight that manages to a solidly further develop a few characters, and throw all things out of whack for Silva.  This is a brilliantly executed section of the film where anything could happen, and you know it.

The climax is very unconventional for a Bond film where our heroes are holed up in the old Bond family estate named Skyfall.  Setting up traps and secret explosives does both have a classic Bond idea behind it, but with a more gritty, low tech approach.  This is a very long and full sequence that continually ups the scale with larger explosions, more dire situations, and higher tension as Silva closes in on his target.  It really is one of the best action scenes I’ve witnessed this year, and really holds to the visceral style of Daniel Craig’s James Bond.  I found the ending to be very original and effective on many levels.  I didn’t expect this ending, but it was indeed great, regardless.  It has emotional power and resonance for the character of James Bond.  It also sets up new possibilities for Daniel Craig’s run with the character, and does so with a very sly, signature Bond style.

Skyfall is eventually an expertly crafted film that goes deep beneath the surface of its main characters, and takes us to some especially personal places, literally, than I ever expected from a Bond film.  Rarely has much been delved into about James Bond’s family and heritage, but this takes us to where James grew up and tells us many insights into the young man he was before and after his parents tragically died.  It’s great to see the relationship between Bond and M become more personally intertwined, and pay off a lot of what Craig and Dench have done over these three films.

Thus, we have a Bond film that is very different from all others with its more grim, dark tone that focuses on the personal, character driven drama primarily.  All the talent on display is superb in the acting, artistic, and technical departments.  Aside from those first twenty to thirty minutes where the film is unable to gain traction with its plot, it’s a solid piece of filmmaking that will undoubtedly be heralded as a success by most.

Perhaps you can anticipate that there is a catch I’m getting to here, and here it is.  For as exquisitely executed as this film is, the element of fun entertainment is not very high.  While I left the theatre very satisfied with what I just saw, on a dramatic and action level, I don’t see myself gravitating towards watching it over and over again like Casino Royale.  Again, while the film has some amazing action, there’s not that thrilling adrenalin rush high that I got with The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill, GoldenEye, or Casino Royale.  What allowed for that in those movies, at least, was levity and charm.  It’s all about tone allowing an audience to be invested in the suspense, but being able to rejoice in the elation of triumph.  While Skyfall certainly has its good, fun moments, they are just a few moments.  Because of the grim tone, it’s hard for the film to break free into something that feels enjoyably exciting instead of urgently dire.  It can’t have much fun with itself, and when it tries, it feels distinctly out of place.  Case in point is that whenever the film delves into a moment of quirkiness to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, it really disrupts the film’s generally serious tone.  It takes a self-indulgent step outside of itself to poke fun at the conventions of the franchise.  Some moments are more smoothly handled than others, and it is done immensely better than the fortieth anniversary campiness of Die Another Day.  Yet, while on the run from Silva, Bond takes his vintage Connery era Aston Martin out of storage, and comically threatens to use the ejector seat button on M if she insists on complaining throughout the ride.  It is an entirely extraneous silly bit that would’ve been more in place in Die Another Day, and this film would’ve been just that much more consistently credible without it.  Also, when Bond fights off a trio of bodyguards in the Macau casino, he falls into a pit featuring a CGI komodo dragon.  While it plays only a small part in the scene, a film of its grim, dark tone didn’t need a computer generated lizard in a cheeky humorous bit of dragging a bodyguard off to his death.  This is more self-indulgent behavior to poke fun at the franchise when a real tribute would be the make the best, most consistent film you could.  Don’t dilute the tonal integrity of the film by throwing in these nostalgic gags, please.  It would be like The Dark Knight taking inappropriate moments to pay tribute to the Adam West 1960s Batman television series.  They don’t mesh at all.  Skyfall does slightly self-sabotage itself with its heavy tone in making it very difficult to get enjoyable fun of it.  It is highly thrilling and dramatically powerful, but it cannot ease up on the tone to make things fun without making those moments seem out of place.

For as much as I went on about those last bits, they are not a large part of the film, but they were sore thumbs to me.  Most any Bond film I’ve seen, good or bad, has usually been a fun ride, but as I said, this is a very different style of film for the franchise.  I believe Skyfall is a really damn good movie, but I won’t be saying it’s the best Bond of them all.  Casino Royale still ranks as my favorite for many reasons, which I hope to get to in its own review.  That film meshed the fun and gritty aspects perfectly with enough charisma to make it a rousing adventure with personal and emotional depth to spare.  Skyfall goes fully for the darker tone, and director Sam Mendes executes that tone amazingly well.  The villain we are given is greatly memorable who is fantastically written and brilliantly realized by Javier Bardem.  He’s a far more fascinating enemy than most because of his eccentricities coupled with his very personal and deadly nature.  It’s a villain that makes the film exciting and spontaneous.  You cannot predict what the next turn in the story will be because of him.  There is ultimately even more that could be said and discussed about Skyfall.  However, to boil it down simply, it might not be entirely perfect due to that “worse for wear” Bond storyline vanishing part way through, and the lack of ability to be genuinely fun, but it is a vastly successful film in delivering a bold new direction and tone for the franchise.  While Casino Royale brought James Bond back to a more grounded sensibility, Skyfall simply strips more away for a grittier and bleaker storyline.  It is a vast improvement from Quantum of Solace, but I would hope that the next Bond film eases up on the tone a little to allow for more rousing action and more appropriately fun character dynamics.  I do give Skyfall a very strong endorsement, but I don’t think it is the best of the 007 franchise.


GoldenEye (1995)

GoldenEye is the first Bond film I ever saw.  My sister has been a big Pierce Brosnan fan since Remington Steele.  So, us and some friends saw this on opening weekend, and even if there wasn’t that sentimental value, I would still call this one of the finest James Bond films I’ve ever seen.  While it’s not perfect, it excels far beyond so many others that I’ve already reviewed here, and even Brosnan’s follow-ups.

Nine years ago, British Secret Agent James Bond 007 (Pierce Brosnan) infiltrated a chemical weapons facility in Russia with friend and fellow MI-6 Agent Alec Trevelyan 006 (Sean Bean), but the mission went awry when corrupt Russian military officer General Ourumov (Gottfried John) murdered 006.  Today, Bond is assigned by his new boss, a female ‘M’ (Judi Dench) to recover GoldenEye, an orbiting Russian radiation pulse weapon that can destroy any electronic device within its blast radius.  The GoldenEye has been stolen from the Severnya research station by General Ourumov and the lethal and deadly Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), where they also slaughtered the entire staff.  However, there was a lone survivor in computer programmer Natalya Siminova (Izabella Scorupco) who Bonds seeks out in addition to the criminal figure named Janus who Ourumov and Xenia are working for.  Yet, after navigating through the Russian criminal underworld, 007 soon comes face-to-face with the man himself, revealed to be a scarred but living Alec Trevelyan who now seeks to wipe out London with GoldenEye.  With Natalya’s help, Bond races to save London from destruction as well as combat a man that knows him better than he knows himself.

GoldenEye features a great pre-credits sequence that is smart, suspenseful, and lays a strong emotional groundwork for the film, introducing two of its lead villains and our new Bond in Pierce Brosnan.  It also gives the sense of unfinished business amongst these characters which is greatly punctuated by the mysterious title song sung by Tina Turner and written by Bono and The Edge of U2.  The song feels like classic Bond with a gorgeous sound which fits Ms. Turner beautifully.  The title sequence is equally breathtaking with its fall of communism theme.  Making great use of digital effects, this is a title sequence that is able to be very ambitious with its ideas and make them pure reality.  It makes a fantastic splash to an audience that had been without new Bond for six years.

Pierce Brosnan’s Bond both embodies a serious sense of action and dramatic weight as well as a sly, suave, and fun mentality.  He’s a man that enjoys indulging himself in the finer things, and sharing some witty repartee with his friends or adversaries.  Brosnan gracefully balances the slightly immature or playful aspects of the character with the straight seriousness Bond must demonstrate as an agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  He’s sophisticated, charming, classy, and elegant.  Brosnan certainly had the charisma and sex appeal to make his portrayal exciting and fresh.  Beyond all else, Brosnan is clearly taking a lot of pleasure in his performance.

The screenwriters and especially director Martin Campbell do an excellent job of building up suspense in this story.  Plot elements are strategically and methodically laid out setting the stage for a very strong story and masterfully executed film.  It has plenty of atmosphere and dramatic tension as 007 weaves his way through the Russian criminal underworld.  What starts out seeming like a subversive plot by a man Bond harbors feelings of revenge against develops into something far more startling for 007.  Revenge is abandoned for betrayal, and the plot becomes a more dimensionally personal one for James Bond.  We get many strong moments of emotional depth from various characters.  Natalya especially shows sorrow, grief, and anger, but is able to connect with James on a very honest and passionate level.  She is able to give him perspective on his feelings of betrayal, and he is able to focus them into a very sharp and clear intent.  The script gives every featured character dimension and purpose with their own relationships.  Natalya has some payback to deliver to Boris, the Severnaya computer programmer who also works for Alec and Ourumov, and James has plenty of sordid business with Ourumov, Xenia, and certainly Alec.  It’s all woven together into a very smartly structured and interconnected plot.  No issues are left unresolved, and everyone has their moments of prominence and purpose.  Simply said, this is a great work of screenwriting with a fresh approach that brought Bond strongly and smartly into a post-Cold War world.

The filmmakers use a combination of digital, practical, and miniature effects work to create some absolutely stunning sequences.  The destruction of the Severnaya facility alone is spectacular.  While the mixture of effects are noticeable to my well trained eyes, they are still damn great.  They create a high quality look for Bond’s first foray into the 90s, and deliver on the standards that you’ve come to except from this series.

The cinematography is also excellent creating some strong atmosphere that gives the film some edge, but never gets especially heavy.  It greatly holds the dramatic weight and urgency of the story with gorgeous lighting and an expert use of angles and composition.  All of the action is shot superbly giving us a great sense of fast paced movement while never sacrificing a clear sense of geography.  This is a golden example of how to competently and thrillingly shoot an action movie.  Enhancing that is some tight, solid editing.  Further credit goes to director Martin Campbell for knowing how to assemble all of these stunning elements into an amazing, rock solid, and exciting film.

My favorite action sequence is indeed the tank chase through St. Petersburg in Russia.  Bond commandeering a Russian tank to chase after Ourumov, who has captured Natalya, is just pure Bond excess and indulgence which has its equal shares of thrills and humor.  It comes off as light-hearted and fun, but never truly silly.  Other sequences are immensely excellent defining the tone of Brosnan’s Bond, and building up a very rousing action film with plenty of consequences.  The climax is absolutely awesome with plenty of big action and fiery thrills to result in an excellent pay-off.  James and Alec battle on the satellite dish in Cuba at a very precarious height.  Both Brosnan and Bean show their immense physical condition and ability to create a very intense and dynamic fight.

GoldenEye features three very good and enjoyable villains.  I think my personal favorite is General Ourumov.  He’s perfectly underhanded and slimy.  Actor Gottfried John put a little bit of wit and humorous charisma into the role making him a lot of fun to watch.  He’s very entertaining during the tank chase where he’s drinking from a flask, obviously a little stressed out, but John maintains him as a cunning and threatening villain.  It’s only a little too bad he doesn’t make it through to the final act of the film, and gets a rather unceremonious departure.

Of course, there’s the incredible Famke Janssen as the very lustful Xenia Onatopp.  She is a very wild woman who gains sensual ecstasy, not from sexual pleasure, but from violence and murder.  Janssen puts so much vile, dangerous passion into this role that she is instantly memorable.  The fact that Xenia likes to kill men by squeezing the life out of them with her legs wrapped around them is only found in a Bond film, and enhances the sexual drive of the character.  This is the role that easily broke her career wide open, and she has enjoyed the subsequent success ever since.

This film also introduced me to Sean Bean and his fine acting talents.  I think it was a great idea to have a villain with a personal connection to James Bond, someone that was once his friend, and could be viewed as his equal in many ways.  Instead of it being a revenge motivation like in Licence to Kill, we get a story of betrayal.  Bean’s performance is almost a dark reflection of Bond, but with a more malicious, malevolent vibe instead of a sly arrogance.  The best part of Alec and James’ exchanges are how deep their words penetrate past their facades or personas.  Still, it seems Alec has the upper hand in bruising James’ soul, probably because he still has one to bruise.  Sean Bean gives us a solid Bond villain who doesn’t fall into the clichéd tropes of old.  He’s more modern and personal of a character that was a fresh, solid fit for this film.

Alan Cumming also chimes in as the very funny and charismatic Boris Grishenko.  Cumming is a marvelously diverse actor who can do practically anything, and he does it amazingly well.  As Boris, he delivers a particularly salacious character who is so entertaining that it’s hard to entirely hate him.  While he is a traitor that left Natalya to die, Cumming’s too much of a vibrant source of laughs to condemn Boris fully, but you still enjoy it when he gets his comeuppance.

On the heroic Bond girl side, Izabella Scorupco proves to be a remarkable talent who shows a wide range of emotion as Natalya.  She can be fun and endearing as well as dig down deep with the pain and grief, such as in the ruins of the Severnaya facility.  What Scorupco puts forth in those scenes is very powerful and a bit heartbreaking.  The emotion really penetrates through the screen as it flows out of every fiber of her being.  She also has plenty of strength and fire as well as compassion and vulnerability to make Natalya a very well rounded and realistic person to invest our sympathies with.  Unlike some other Bond girls, she’s not just along for the ride.  She has a strong, personal stake in everything, and is willing to fight right alongside James at every step.  Her and Brosnan have great chemistry and rhythm between them sharing in the funny, dramatic, and heartfelt moments.  They were a beautiful fit that really gives this film even more strength and weight.

Also, we get a far more satisfying performance from Joe Don Baker here as CIA contact Jack Wade than with his Bond villain turn in The Living Daylights.  He uses his charisma and comic timing to great effect making Wade a genuinely funny personality that became a welcomed returning character in Tomorrow Never Dies.  Considering Felix Leiter got his leg chomped off by a shark in the previous Bond film, the filmmakers decided to change things up with a new CIA contact for Bond, and I think they created a very fresh and entertaining character that contrasted Bond while still complementing him.

Last, but not least, Judi Dench was a brilliant choice for this role, and the idea behind the character was brilliant as well.  Making the head of MI-6 now a woman made the old Bond concepts fresh with new perspectives applied to them.  Her “M” only has two scenes early on, but she really sets a tone that challenges James Bond’s misogynistic and cavalier attitudes.  Yet, for as much as she creates friction with Bond, she also shows her compassion by wishing Bond to come back in one piece.  Dench’s character is appropriately hard when she needs to be, but soft when it counts.  Through both Brosnan and Daniel Craig, she has really developed an excellent character who has become a welcomed highlight of every Bond film for the last seventeen years.

If there’s one thing to levy against GoldenEye is the lack of the classic Bond style scope.  The bulk of the film takes place inside Russia with the final half hour in Cuba.  There are not many exotic locales, or a wide spread canvas for Bond to traverse.  Because of this, the film feels a little narrow in scope.  This was definitely rectified in Pierce Brosnan’s subsequent Bond films, but I feel those films lost the edge this film had.  While Brosnan’s performances never went down in quality, the scripts or filmmakers could never quite hit the personal or passionate nerve that GoldenEye hit for the character.  While not all Bond films need to have plots of a strongly personal nature, I think that element helps to keep the films grounded.  Die Another Day certainly tried to walk the line of personal revenge and over the top indulgence, but the latter tended to dilute the former.  So, while the scopes of the following three films were certainly broadened, the stories didn’t quite have the personal drive of GoldenEye.  While it’s not the perfect or quintessential Bond film that Brosnan could’ve made, I do feel it’s his strongest, most consistent outing.  Although, this is just my personal taste.

After such a long absence from cinemas, many questioned whether or not James Bond was still relevant after the end of the Cold War.  GoldenEye dealt with that blatantly, and answered it with a resounding “yes.”  Director Martin Campbell brought together just the right elements to make this a refreshing, revitalizing success.  It’s no wonder that he was brought back about a decade later to reboot the franchise with yet another fresh approach and tone.  With this film, Pierce Brosnan made a big impact with a James Bond that instantly won over audiences.  It returned us to the suave and sophisticated sensibilities of the character while losing none of the intense action oriented excitement that we all desire from 007.  With a great cast inhabiting some solid and entertaining characters, and a solid foundation of talent behind the camera in all departments, GoldenEye still proves to be an excellent and highly satisfying entry in this franchise.  And yes, James Bond will return, again.


Licence to Kill (1989)

Bond gets revenge.  Licence to Kill is likely the darkest, most gritty Bond film to date.  This stems from the fact that this is a revenge film, and that requires some nasty stuff to happen to James’ friends and his sworn enemies.  This is the film that earned Timothy Dalton his maligned criticism.  Many felt it deviated too far from the familiar Bond style and formula, but the truth is, this was likely the most true to Ian Fleming’s character, as he was originally written.  However, I have always liked this film.

CIA turned DEA Agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is aided by friend and British spy James Bond (Timothy Dalton) in apprehending sadistic drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) on Felix’s wedding day.  However, when Sanchez is broken out of custody, he murders Felix’s new bride, and leaves him for dead after being mauled by a shark.  This drives Commander Bond to seek revenge, but M (Robert Brown), his superior in the British Secret Service, denies him this and revokes his licence to kill.  This forces Bond to go rogue to exact his revenge on this merciless criminal.  He is aided by one of Leiter’s contacts in the capable Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) as they attempt to crush Sanchez’s entire drug empire.

This film is definitely more violent than The Living Daylights, border lining on graphic.  Bond holds nothing back, subjecting his enemies to gruesome fates.  One man gets exactly what Leiter got as Bond maliciously throws him into the shark tank, but doesn’t survive.  Others get quite severe deaths demonstrating that you don’t want to be on the bad side of Timothy Dalton’s 007.  Bond goes after everyone hard and fast, but never sacrifices intelligence or savvy.  He remains cunning but also deadly.  Timothy Dalton slips into this harder edged 007 very comfortably and easily.  He takes what he did in The Living Daylights, and just darkens it a few shades.  He’s a little more intimidating and dramatically intense showing Bond’s passionate motivations in this personal story.  Dalton might not have the opportunity to be very witty or suave, but he delivers on the dramatic weight and conviction that the story demanded.  He also has small moments of pain and grief that do penetrate through the screen as he reflects on his maimed friend.  The physical demands on Dalton are greater this time out, and he was more than up for the task.  You can clearly see his face as he is lowered in a harness from a helicopter early on, or doing any number of daring stunts or fights.  I can certainly understand why many never took well to this portrayal of the character.  Definitely in this film, he is a fierce animal on a dead-set mission who doesn’t delve into light-hearted indulgences.  He stays sharply focused on the matter at hand, and doesn’t allow anything to diverge him from that mission.  In both of Dalton’s films, I find what he did with the character of James Bond to be very compelling and exceptionally intelligent.

Now, I am dead serious when I say that Franz Sanchez is one of the best Bond villains I’ve ever seen.  Robert Davi is cutthroat and ruthless in this role, taking it also into a very dark and violent place.  He’s a very realistic and threatening villain who is a fresh departure for the franchise being that he is a South American drug lord.  That is a very identifiable villain for the 1980s in the era of Miami Vice.  Davi makes a powerful impression right from his first scene proving Sanchez to be a very formidable villain.  That solidifies him as a seriously dangerous adversary for James Bond.  The fact that he’s not hesitant over getting his hands dirty makes him even more of an unnerving threat.  Of course, having a young and sleazy Benicio del Toro as his main henchman Dario, and nicely villainous Anthony Zerbe as cohort Milton Keyes doesn’t hurt matters, either.  Of course, I don’t know what the idea was behind his pet iguana, but chalk it up to Bond villain eccentricities.

The Bond girls of this film are fairly decent.  Most would know Carey Lowell as Assistant D.A. Jamie Ross from Law & Order in the 90s.  Here, she’s a nicely assertive and sexy female lead pulling enough of her own weight, but her performance doesn’t have that harder edge or strong spirit to measure up to Dalton’s Bond.  It’s a good performance, but not a standout one.  Talisa Soto is about the same, but with considerably less to do as Sanchez’s reluctant and intimidated woman Lupé Lamora.

It’s interesting to note that the character of Felix Leiter appeared in The Living Daylights portrayed by 36 year old actor John Terry.  In this film, he is portrayed by 61 year old David Hedison.  He had previously played the role in Live and Let Die, and considering the need for an audience to care strongly about Leiter, the filmmakers decided to bring back a better established, more memorable actor in the role.  It goes to show the loose continuity the franchise once had where the same character can be played by two different actors with a quarter century difference in age in back-to-back films.  I always found that rather amusing, if not confusing.  Regardless of that, Hedison does a fine, admirable job in this outing definitely making Leiter an enjoyable and sympathetic character.

Unfortunately, there’s not much to say about the opening credits sequence of Licence to Kill.  It’s even more generic than that of The Living Daylights with various female figures dancing around, and the image of a roulette wheel spinning behind them.  The title song by Gladys Knight is fairly good.  It has a bit of a sweeping romantic quality with a lot of soul in her vocals.  It’s a nice change of pace from the previous two films, but probably not quite as memorable.

On the far better side of things, I really have to hand it to the action scenes of this film.  The filmmakers really pushed them to a whole new level with amazing mid-air stunts, exhilarating water skiing getaways, and the spectacular finale with the Kensington trucks.  The pre-credits sequence is excellent with Bond being lowered down from a Coast Guard helicopter to tether in Sanchez’s plane, and then, James and Felix parachute down to the front of the chapel for the wedding.  Bond is put into plenty of lethal peril in some nicely imaginative ways.  He even gets to tangle with some ninjas.  The climax is full of fire and explosions during a tanker truck chase down a desert highway.  It’s an awesome sequence giving us plenty of original and memorable moments.  Bond and Sanchez fight on the moving tanker truck until there is one final dramatic moment which has a beautiful and brilliant personal touch of revenge.

There is a James Bond style maintained in this action-revenge storyline.  He uses his skills of espionage to infiltrate Sanchez’s organization, getting in close to him to both discover in the inner workings of it, and to destroy it from the inside out.  He turns Sanchez against his own men by laying the seeds of distrust and betrayal in him.  It’s quite a skillful revenge with Bond using his intellect instead of pure brutality, but always knowing he’s at the edge of danger at every turn.  James is well aware of this being a personal vendetta, and he consciously tries to keep his friends and allies out of the crossfire.  Regardless, they choose to help him anyway because the danger is so high that he needs all the help he can get, and it’s great seeing that loyalty, especially from Q.  Miss Moneypenny is even so worried about James that she cannot even do her job properly.  All of these character elements and emotional attachments are nicely woven into the story, and gives the audience a chance to see James’ concern for them and vice versa.  Despite his unwavering determination for revenge, Bond keeps enough of his senses about him to not seek it at the expense of others.  This is his own mission, and no else need risk their lives for his own gratification.  So, despite how dark this Bond appears to be, he hasn’t lost sight of his humanity.

Scoring duties for Licence to Kill were taken over by Michael Kamen, who was a brilliant composer through to his passing in 2003.  I immensely enjoyed what he did on this film.  His score has its own distinct style and sound while still adhering to the classic Bond themes and feel.  He brought something more rousing and dangerous, matching the film’s tone exquisitely.  I love his arrangement of the James Bond theme as it is used quite a bit in various action scenes.  Again, it has a unique flavor without making a drastic change.  The sprinkles of Latin musical flair for some of Sanchez’s best moments was a fine touch.  Overall, it’s an excellent score.

Topped off with some excellent and solid cinematography by Alec Mills, who also shot The Living Daylights, this really is a solid, hard edged Bond action picture.  Surely, it might not be palatable to all fans of 007, but I think it definitely has its audience.  In light of the success of Daniel Craig’s run with the character, going back to a more grounded and realistic style and tone, I think many should give Licence to Kill a fair watch.  Timothy Dalton really delivers a very dangerous and action-packed performance that impresses me.  It’s only unfortunate that the franchise got stalled out after this due to legal and financial issues, and by the time they were resolved, Dalton chose to bow out of reprising the role.  While both of his outings are particularly good, I don’t think he got the chance to do his quintessential Bond film.  Licence to Kill was not well received, and in the hotly competitive summer of 1989 with Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Back to the Future, Part II, and Ghostbusters II, it was difficult to be financially successful as well.  Still, I continue to give Timothy Dalton credit for taking the franchise in a more serious and respectable direction which did set a good stage for Pierce Brosnan’s run.  Thus, James Bond will return in GoldenEye.


Paranoia (2011)

As I have mentioned in several of my reviews here, I am an independent filmmaker.  From before I even was one, I was watching ultra low or even no budget filmmakers develop their talent aspiring for the day I would become one of them.  Now, as one, I truly enjoy supporting and promoting other independent filmmakers.  One I have become a great fan of in recent times is Brad Jones.  Some may know him as a comedic internet personality with characters like The Cinema Snob, 80’s Dan, or Kung Tai Ted, but he’s been an exploitation independent filmmaker for far longer.  Being a filmmaker who has grabbed inspirations from Michael Mann works like Thief, Manhunter, Miami Vice, Heat, and Collateral, I have really enjoyed the sleazy, sordid crime stories Brad Jones has told in feature films like Midnight Heat and The Hooker With A Heart of Gold.  However, in 2011 came a haunting thriller written by Brad Jones and directed by Ryan Mitchelle titled Paranoia.  It’s a definite shift in tone from what Brad Jones has given his fans in the past, but in my view, it’s still just as solid and satisfying only now, with Mitchelle’s help, has the technical quality to give his work a more professional polish and sheen.  The results are great!

A serial killer is terrorizing a small town.  Mark Bishop (Brad Jones) has just killed an intruder (Brian Irving) that attacked him in his home.  Mark’s not sure if this was the real serial killer, but on the night where his wife has finally left him, he is certain he doesn’t want the attention.  Mark needs to get rid of the body and avoid the authorities, but Mark can’t shake the feeling that the real killer is still out there.  As his peculiar, tiresome night unfolds, further unusual and violent circumstances impact him and the people he encounters towards unexpected ends.

As I have watched more and more of Brad’s films, I have become increasingly impressed with not only his screenwriting talents, but the strength of his acting.  While most likely know him from his comedy work on his website, most of his films put him in very dramatic roles.  Paranoia is probably the most straightly dramatic, yet.  Mark Bishop is a very down and out man who I could feel for right from the start.  His life is starting to spiral out of control, and all he wants is for one thing to go right.  The film continually allows the audience to feel empathy for him as he bares his soul every so often.  He’s already a rather sad guy to begin with that just falls into one bad situation after another, and one can’t help but feel sorry for Mark Bishop.  Brad Jones shows a wide range of realistic emotions and inner turmoil in this role.  From the fearful urgency to the contemptuous conviction to the somber and cynical to the embittered, lonely man, he gives the character a strong, sympathetic depth.  He carries the film with a weight and ease.

The supporting cast is generally quite good.  Brian Lewis has a very genuine, endearing charm as Officer Randy who encounters Mark Bishop early on, and later, is shown to have an affection for the waitress Claire.  In that role, Jillian Zurawski gives a heartfelt and vulnerable performance.  Claire is sweet, but is clearly a little on edge being all alone in this restaurant late at night with a killer on the loose.  You can definitely feel for this isolated young woman who starts out trying to cheer up the tired and jaded Mark Bishop, but is subjected to more of Mark’s ill fortunes through an armed robbery gone awry.  Sarah Lewis has been increasingly excellent in all of Brad Jones’ movies, and she has a solid outing here as Marissa Bishop, Mark’s wife.  There’s that tired sadness and heartbreak in her performance conveying just how strained the Bishop marriage has become, and that really carries through with Mark’s emotional state after her departure.  Brian Irving is fairly alright.  He plays the intimidating aspects of Carl Stowers effectively, but the more humanistic scenes in the climax feel rather monotone.  A little more heart and soul in the delivery of lines could’ve added a lot weight to his words.  It’s not remotely a bad performance, but I feel it could’ve been pushed towards a place of more emotional depth.  Considering Irving took on the role about an hour before they shot those scenes, it’s forgivable that the performance lacks some of those qualities.

I absolutely love the tone of Paranoia.  It definitely feels like a late 1990s independent thriller.  Considering that’s when the script was originally conceived and written that is no surprise.  The first comparison that comes to mind, in terms of tone, would be David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Paranoia carries a very somber and mysterious vibe allowing every dark, isolated, and imposing element to soak deep within an audience.  The high definition cinematography is handled with great competence.  This looks like a very high grade feature film shot by people with the talent and tools to realize their vision.  Handheld camera work is smartly and realistically done.  Many big budget filmmakers like to add excessive shakiness to their handheld work, but from the independent filmmakers I’ve seen, they take a far more subtle, natural approach.  That’s what we get here, but there are plenty of instances where the camera is locked down for more rock solid compositions and still moments.  While no director of photography is listed in the credits, I believe director Ryan Mitchelle is to credit for all the camera work.  He and gaffer Jerrid Foiles created a very solid and consistent lighting scheme for this film.  Strong shadows are used throughout to great atmospheric effect.  A minor thought of mine was that some of the dialogue scenes could’ve used a few master shots to get more than a single actor in frame.  However, the coverage they have is quite good with different angles and focal lengths, and Mitchelle does a very fine job as the film’s editor.  He keeps an even, consistent pace that allows the tone to flourish amongst the tension and suspense of the story.  Some of the sound effects editing could’ve benefited from a little more volume or some reverb filters to integrate them more realistically into their environments.  As an independent filmmaker myself, sound editing is probably the hardest art to craft if you don’t have professional grade tools and skills at your disposal.  As the DVD commentary makes clear, Mitchelle made sure that the production audio was as top notch as possible, and the quality of it is very highly admirable and consistent.  The only piece of ADR that he mentions, a scream from Claire, is exceptionally and seamlessly done.

The score for the film captures the absolute perfect mood.  Michael “Skitch” Schiciano uses a very somber and mysterious mix of piano chords and synthesizers in his score.  At most times, it reflects the dark, lonely, isolated feeling of the film in a man alone roaming the streets not knowing what to make of the next moment.  The music is very in sync with what Mark Bishop is going through and feeling every step of the way.  At times, it has an ominous, pulsating relentlessness that is very unnerving, and perfectly complements the chilling and fearful aspects of the film.  You could definitely get an early John Carpenter vibe from the synthesizer part of the score, a la They Live, Prince of Darkness, or Assault on Precinct 13.  Schiciano does one hell of a remarkable job, and I’m glad to know that Jones and Mitchelle continue to retain his services for their subsequent films.

Paranoia has a superb twisting and turning surrealism to it.  It gradually eases you into it the same as it does Mark Bishop.  It’s a slow descent into a psychologically twisted reality.  To a point, you can buy into this all being in Mark’s physically and emotionally exhausted mind, but eventually, things deconstruct to where you know there’s something more at work.  Both the screenplay and the film itself nicely craft these subtle elements, and allow them to discretely pile up until the flood gates break wide open.  Some might call the ending a twist, but it has far more substance than most twist endings.  This is essentially the whole third act of the film, and deals with the meanings and repercussions of what is truly going on.  I still fully felt for Mark Bishop through to the film’s end due to the character I came to know for over ninety minutes.  Again, this a testament to Brad Jones’ very realistic and emotional performance, and the quality of the script written.

Paranoia really is a style of movie that I would’ve loved to have made.  It’s a very smartly written and executed film with a great atmosphere and tone that I find fascinating.  Ryan Mitchelle did an excellent job with Brad Jones’ material.  He is a very intelligent filmmaker who brings a high grade, respectable style to Paranoia.  The films Brad Jones directs always have a gritty visual quality to them reflecting his exploitation film influences, but for this film, the sleeker style is definitely to its benefit.  However, I do agree with Brad Jones that the film does play even better in black & white.  The stronger noir aesthetic just seems to add to the isolated and dark atmosphere of the film, and the contrast lighting directly supports a film noir style.  Brad has released an alternate “Writer’s Cut” of Paranoia for free viewing on his website which presents the film in black & white with some purposeful edits that adhere the film closer to the script he wrote.  It also adds in some pop songs from the 60s and 80s which enhance the ambient, sadly emotional musical atmosphere.  However, since he doesn’t own the rights or licenses to any of those songs, he cannot commercially release that cut of the film.  Both versions of Paranoia are great, and have their own distinctive and excellent qualities.  This is a very impressive and haunting thriller that strengthens my fandom of Brad’s filmmaking, and showcases the great talents he has surrounded himself with.  I had the pleasure of meeting Brad Jones at Wizard World Chicago Comic Con 2012, and he was as interested in hearing about me as I was about him.  He was the coolest, friendliest, most approachable person I’ve ever met, and it was truly a great experience hanging out with him.  His light-hearted enthusiasm showed through regardless of fatigue, and I was glad to have been able to share my admiration for his work in person.  I would highly recommend checking out the Writer’s Cut of Paranoia to help influence your decision whether or not to purchase the features-packed DVD from Walkaway Entertainment, as I did.


The Usual Suspects (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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