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Posts tagged “james earl jones

Excessive Force (1993)

Excessive ForceIn the 1990’s, there were a lot of action movie stars popping up, but most didn’t have what it took to break out of the direct-to-video market.  However, I think Thomas Ian Griffith really had the talents to make it, but never really did.  This might be a simple fact of not having a breakout film or role like Steven Seagal or Van Damme had early on.  Regardless, Griffith had two vital qualities of a successful action hero in the 90’s.  First off, he was trained in Kenpo Karate and Tae Kwon Do, so, he could do far more than just shoot things up.  Secondly, he had charisma to spare making for some fun, lively performances.  All of this could be seen as the villain in The Karate Kid, Part III, of which he was the best thing about that movie.  So, I want to explore some of Griffith’s action films and find out exactly what he had to offer.  With Excessive Force, Griffith is supported by such solid actors as Lance Henriksen, James Earl Jones, Tony Todd, and Burt Young for something that looks very solid, but let’s see if it really holds up to that appearance.

When $3 million disappears during a drug bust, undercover Chicago cop Terry McCain (Griffith) is pitted against Sal DiMarco (Burt Young), a sadistic mob boss who will do anything to get his money back, and a conspiracy of corruption from within the police department.  After McCain’s partner is brutally murdered and his ex-wife is threatened, he strikes back the only way he knows how – with force!  Framed for a murder he didn’t commit and hunted by his own friends on the force, McCain finds refuge with his old pal Jake (James Earl Jones) and his ex-wife Anna (Charlotte Lewis) as he’s lead into a desperate showdown with dangerous forces.

This movie has a fairly straight forward plot with only a few clever turns, but it’s not intended to be a wickedly twisting and turning crime thriller.  It starts out as a revenge movie, but then, shifts into a web of deceit as McCain goes on the run once people start gunning for him.  The script by Thomas Ian Griffith really makes good use of Chicago to this effect.  He really incorporates the crooked politics and mobbed up history of it in a couple of smart ways.  There are corrupt cops and deceptive allegiances at play in this story, and it really feels like authentic Chicago organized crime.  The story twists around enough to where Terry doesn’t know who he can trust, and thus, he feels betrayed by every friend he has left living.  It’s never a very taut sort of plot thread that forces McCain into heavy paranoia, but its place in the story is dealt with quite well and where it’s most effective.  It also has some good pay-off and turnarounds at the end.

Thomas Ian Griffith leads this film very solidly.  Having wrote the script himself, the more personal depth of his performance is apparent.  Early on, we see the driven, charismatic, and lively cop who can kick ass with the best of them.  He sets the energy for the film from the start, and continues to keep it exciting and interesting.  As events progress, we see the drama and emotion sink into Terry McCain with plenty of weight that propels him forward through the film.  Griffith has great chemistry with everyone especially Charlotte Lewis, Tony Todd as a fellow cop Frankie Hawkins, and Lance Henriksen as the soon-to-be Police Chief Devlin.  Terry and Anna gradually reconnect and spark off some steam later on, but it’s very brief.  Surely, a hot, erotic sex scene would be gratuitous, but I would not have complained if they injected some of that.

And of course, Griffith delivers on the action.  I was really impressed with the martial arts moves he employed, mainly the number of high and roundhouse kicks he dished out.  He really kicks some guys silly, and bashes up a lot of heads on a regular basis.  While its not as intense as what Seagal was doing at the time, Griffith has his moments of bone breaking bad assery.  If there’s any one shortcoming is that there’s no adversary that’s a real physical challenge for him, and so, there’s not a great single fight that stands out.  Regardless, the action scenes are all very competently shot, choreographed, edited, and solidly executed overall.

Burt Young is pretty impressive as a ruthless Mafioso.  He’s bluntly violent killing someone with a pencil through the ear, and having peoples’ legs bashed in with a baseball bat.  He’s quite convincing with the balancing of the supposed sophisticated businessman and the merciless big crime boss.  However, his screentime is shorter than you’d expect, but it leads to more interesting plotlines.

Also, the role of the police commander can often fall into clichéd territory, but thankfully, Lance Henriksen does a very subtle, understated job with Devlin.  While he and McCain aren’t the best of friends, they can have respect despite their friction, and it’s really that relationship which gives Henriksen something fresh to work with.  I also especially like the turn he has about halfway through as he becomes a bit more sleazy and brazen.  As he gets deeper into this character, Henriksen gets more and more awesome.

I dearly love Tony Todd.  Many know him as the horror icon Candyman, but he has such a wide range of talent that he also excellently displays here.  He has one great scene in this film of emotional depth and strain which really sets him apart as a special, standout actor.  A lot of other actors wouldn’t have put as much real heart and passions into such a small supporting role, but Todd does nothing less than superb work in everything he does.

These characters are interwoven into this decently forged conspiracy effectively.  There’s a surprise or two to be had, and the characters themselves are fleshed out by the performances even if the dimension isn’t written on the page.  A really good actor can always add and enhance what’s written in the script into something special or at least entertaining.  I’ve seen enough standard fare action movies where lackluster performances make the film nothing but mediocre.  Yet, vibrant and solid ones can make all the difference, and that’s certainly the case here.  Like I said, when I saw the cast list I was impressed and intrigued if that acting quality would show through, and I think it really, really did.

The score of this movie was surprisingly done by Charles Bernstein, who I’ve only known from A Nightmare On Elm Street.  His work here is distinctly early 90’s action, but he mixes in enough dramatic cues and moments of tension in certain scenes to give it some personality.  James Earl Jones’ character of Jake runs a jazz club, and so, we get some smooth, lively sounds out of that early on.  Bernstein’s score surely isn’t going to stun and amaze you, but it does its job very, very well.  I would suppose that’s a good summation of the whole movie.

Excessive Force is not a great action movie, but it’s a really good effort that I did like.  The script is well written, and very well directed by Jon Hess, but it’s really the exceptional acting talents of its admirable cast that allows this movie to be as good as it is.  If filled with lesser grade talents, this would really falter, but putting guys like Griffith, Henriksen, Todd, Jones, and more into it gives it some extra substance.  Each of them really put a real dedicated effort into their roles, and it made the film enjoyable outside of the nicely put together action scenes, of which Excessive Force does have a nice even helping of.  Something exciting does happen about every ten to fifteen minutes, but the pace overall is quite consistent and well balanced to make it feel natural.  There’s never action just for the sake of action.  It all flows from the slightly twisting story, and Griffith’s athletic talents really make it all work.  He certainly shows a lot of potential here in all aspects, and he’s a really fun, exciting lead.  While Excessive Force doesn’t have the makings of a blockbuster success, I think it deserved better than grossing less than half its $3 million budget at the box office.  It’s not a big explosive thrill ride, but it’s quite an enjoyable piece of low budget action fare.


Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Star Wars - The Empire Strikes BackIt was an enormous task to make a second Star Wars movie.  To follow up that explosion of a success, that immense phenomenon must have been terribly challenging on so many levels.  What these filmmakers did with The Empire Strikes Back was a masterstroke of genius.  Instead of retreading the same tone, pace, action, and style of Star Wars, George Lucas and Irvin Kershner, along with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, chose to make this a film about character development and darker consequences as a second act in a trilogy.  Characters would mature, the dangers they faced were more dire, there would be heavy losses, and some major revelations would surface.  Whether it was the general consensus or not, I would still state that this is the best Star Wars film to date.

Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance still flees from the might of the Galactic Empire to the remote, barren ice planet of Hoth.  There, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) receives a vision from a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to seek out Jedi Master Yoda on the planet Dagobah.  When the Empire finally locates the rebel’s base, an imperial assault drives them to evacuate in a crippling loss.  Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) escapes with Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) aboard the Millennium Falcon, but with their hyperdrive damaged, they are forced to evade the Imperial fleet in an asteroid field.  Later, they seek sanctuary at the beautiful Cloud City from Han’s old gambling and smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).  Meanwhile, Luke begins his training with the wise and unexpected teacher in Yoda.  However, with the evil Lord Darth Vader vehemently intent on finding young Skywalker, Luke races to save his friends from a painful vision, against Yoda and Kenobi’s warnings of temptations of the Dark Side of The Force.  What awaits the Jedi-in-training is a startling revelation and great peril for him and his heroic friends.

I really like the reversal of structure on this film.  It starts out with the bigger adventure aspects, and the major battle between the Rebellion and the Empire.  Then, it descends into the more character driven aspects building towards very deep personal conflicts and resolutions.  It satisfies your expectations up front with some peril and fun, and proceeds to exceed them with a much more emotionally powerful storyline.  Where the first film had our heroes all gradually coming together for an adventure against a large scale threat, this one has them separate so to further explore their own personal journeys.  Ultimately, they come out of it wounded and changed.

The film really wastes no time in establishing the darker, more dangerous tone as Luke is attacked by a Wampa Ice Creature while on patrol.  It adds some well crafted fear and tension into the film.  This perilous sequence further builds the bonds of friendship between Han and Luke as Captain Solo risks his life to save his friend’s.  Luke’s ultimate escape from the creature’s cave gave us our first look at what The Force can do.  Before, it was mind tricks and a sort of second sight.  It was all very abstract and mystical, but when Luke uses The Force to pull his lightsaber to his hand to free himself, we see what that power can physically and practically do.  It’s a wondrous moment that sparks the magic of Star Wars.  Yet, the film shows us the true depth and nature of The Force when Luke seeks out Yoda, and brilliantly expands upon the vague ideas we got in the previous movie.  Yoda teaches him to change his perceptions in that the physical has no bearing on the potential of The Force, merely your will and clarity of mind are relevant.   Yoda shows Luke that it’s his own self-imposed perceptions and limitations that are the instruments of his own failures.  The tests Yoda puts him through are difficult ones that are meant to confront him with frightening truths of where his path may take him if he follows his impulses and passions.  Luke may have matured somewhat, but he still has an impatience and impulsive quality that puts him into danger.  He’s allowing his emotions to guide him without the wisdom or experience to temper those emotions.  It’s a fascinating journey that Luke takes in this film as he does begin to understand the philosophy of a Jedi, but the dire peril of his friends is something he cannot shake from his mind.  He knows it’s likely a trap, and is unprepared for what Lord Vader has in store for him.

The Battle of Hoth is excellently done giving us a land battle to contrast the space battles of the original Star Wars.  We see the rebels utilize some strategy in attempting to topple those awesome Imperial Walkers to buy time for the evacuation of Echo Base.  It’s a big, impressive, and exciting opening to this film that has Star Wars again showing us something that had never been seen before.  This sequence showcases the evolution in effects work by Industrial Light & Magic.  They really achieved something exceptional here, and continued to do so throughout the film.  They truly exceeded their own standards of excellence here.  The first Star Wars was groundbreaking in the realm of visual effects, and ILM was motivated to keep pushing the boundaries of what was possible.  The asteroid sequence is spectacular, as is so much from top to bottom here.  The Go-Motion effects with the Tauntauns remain excellent, and the model effects are still some of the most impressive in cinema history.  It is no wonder that this won a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the Academy Awards.  They, without a doubt, earned it with every new fantastic sequence of thrilling imagery.  And furthermore, the matte paintings are stunningly gorgeous, and are beautifully integrated into the rich visuals of the film.

The Empire is presented perfectly here.  The reveal of the fleet and the Super Star Destroyer creates a sense of scale and power to their presence.  To me, they feel like an even more formidable military force than they were in the previous film.  We have more troops, more ships, more personnel, and more resources, and their early victory over the Rebellion sets a tone of desperation and danger for our heroes.  Darth Vader himself is clearly unleashed in this film.  He’s not held back by Tarkin or the Emperor.  He’s assuming complete command over everything, and stops at nothing in attempting to crush the Rebellion and obtain what he wants.  There’s no one stopping him from Force choking Admirals, and promoting people to take their place, putting the fear of death into them to motivate their success.  Once the Emperor does endorse his quest to capture Luke Skywalker, Vader uses every resource at his disposal, such as the bounty hunters, and becomes an even more frightening threat.  This is a major part of why I think this is the best film of the franchise.  The villains are out in full force, not hiding behind protocol or deception, and showing their near ever-present might.  Nowhere else in the saga do the antagonists feel so hell-bent on crushing our heroes, and they’re nearly winning for most of the film.  It’s said that a hero is only as great as the enemy he faces, and this film shows us the vast scale and threat of the Empire like no other.  Our heroes are left with a steep failure to rise back up against for the next film.

I do like that, for all the darker tone and subject matter, the film never forgets to inject fun and humor at appropriate moments.  We still get the overly excited panic of C-3PO, the cute moments with R2-D2, and the humorous quips and sharp banter between the other heroes.  Even Yoda is given a nearly hilarious introduction into the film as he plays with Luke’s misconceptions, and has a playful time with him and his droid friend.  It’s all handled wonderfully to keep the film lively while never intruding upon the more dramatic and dire aspects of the film.  It’s a perfect balance, and it wouldn’t feel like Star Wars without it.

Speaking of Yoda, he proves to be an inspirational achievement.  I can definitely understand the apprehensions of the filmmakers in putting what was essentially a Muppet on film, and hoping it will come off as life-like.  However, with the amazing work of designer Stuart Freeborn and performer Frank Oz, this magical character came to stunning life.  Every word spoken had the weight and gravity of the most talented and credible actor behind it.  There are many subtle expressions worked into Yoda that further created a believable character that an audience never questioned the realism of.  This was all vitally important due to Yoda’s poignant role in the film in training Luke in the ways of the Jedi, and bestowing upon us the deeper ideals, wisdom, and philosophies of The Force.  Because of the brilliant work of all these fantastically talented effects masters and performers, he were treated to one of the most fascinating, insightful, and endearing characters of this saga.  We were previously intrigued by The Force, but I feel that Yoda truly made us believe in its power beyond all imagination.  He opened up our minds to its possibilities, and the potential it had within Luke.  Through Yoda, The Force was wondrously mystical and magical, and taught us the weight of commitment and responsibility to becoming a Jedi.  Everything that needed to be known about The Force was revealed to us in this film by a rubber puppet, and we never doubted it for an instant.  That is the magic of cinema.

The Empire Strikes Back is filled with some tight pacing and urgency.  The signature intercutting between storylines creates that great rhythm which keeps the film engaging without drawing any one scene out too much.  There’s almost always something interesting developing even if it’s not a rousing action sequence.  This is greatly helped by the expert, tight editing by Paul Hirsch.  He and director Irvin Kershner knew when to cut to the right angle, and when to let a shot play out.  And the film is shot so dramatically perfect with solid compositions and superb camera movements pushing in at the right moments and giving the film scope and scale with sweeping and subtle camera work.  Lighting is always excellent giving personality and mood where needed to the appropriate scenes.  Irvin Kershner really helped up the visual storytelling in The Empire Strikes Back, and the refined, polished quality enhances the overall picture immensely.  George Lucas was the executive producer and did have creative input, but he allowed Kershner to make the movie his own.  So, while it is generally Lucas’ story, this is Kershner’s film through and through.

This truly is an emotionally powerful film hitting us with a vast array of pain, fear, sorrow, heartbreak, and disturbing revelations and insights.  Our heroes are put through a maelstrom of hell in their journeys.  Luke learns the most from it on the most personal of levels which challenge him right down to his core.  I love seeing the maturity take form in Return of the Jedi showing that he has learned a great deal from these events, but he had to experience some terribly hard learned lessons.  Sometimes, we can only learn to commit ourselves to change when faced with the absolute worst of consequences, and that’s Luke’s journey here.

Even Han and Leia are faced with their own pain and heartache.  Their love for one another is apparent almost from the start.  They wouldn’t be so mad with one another if they didn’t care so much, but it takes a series of worsening pitfalls and dangers for them to begin to genuinely show that affection.  This is punctuated like a dagger through the heart in the Carbon Freezing Chamber scene where they have the most heartbreaking of parting words.  It is undoubtedly this moment, where we see the severe anguish on Leia’s face, that motivates Lando into taking action.  Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have amazingly sharp chemistry in all their scenes together selling every nuance of Han and Leia’s relationship.  It’s a very emotionally natural progression of two characters who really did not like each other at first trying to hide their feelings through conflict, but their true emotions break further and further into the surface.  It is glorious work on both actors’ parts as well as Irvin Kershner’s detailed and masterful direction.

The returning cast shows a lot of growth.  Primarily, Mark Hamill matures with the character of Luke Skywalker.  He carries the heaviest weight in this film with a great deal of subtle emotions and deep rooted fears.  You feel the honest depth of Luke in Hamill’s performance as he struggles with his training, and the thread of fear that is ever present as he battles Darth Vader.  He tries to mask and control his fear, but he slowly realizes how outmatched he is as Vader gains the upper hand.  Hamill delves deep into a real well of pain and desperation by the end which really penetrates powerfully into an audience.  Mark Hamill was required to stretch his acting abilities much further than the first Star Wars film demanded, and he rose to the task admirably and successfully.  The wonder of Yoda is also sold through Hamill’s performance, and the urgency of the latter half of the film is driven by his remarkable acting.

We also get Harrison Ford maturing Han Solo as well.  He shows a lot more responsibility to himself and his friends, conveying respect to his fellow rebels, and leaving behind that “out for himself” arrogant attitude.  The more juvenile aspects only really show up in the heated moments when rash action is necessary, or when he’s arguing with Leia or 3PO.  However, when circumstances become more grim, Han shows that he is a far more matured character handling the situations with a lot of earnestness.  Ford probably puts in his best performance as Han Solo in this film because it has the most for him to work with between the romantic arc with Leia, the comic timing with Chewbacca and C-3PO, and dealing with the betrayal of Lando.  It was a strong and diverse spectrum for Ford to work with, and by no surprise, he achieved it with ease.

I truly love the addition of Lando Calrissian.  Where Han Solo was a very roguish outlaw, Lando’s a gambler.  He can come off as a legitimate businessman, but is able to manipulate people and events to his liking.  With Vader, he succumbs to the might of the Empire only until the stakes are too high where not acting is too costly of a choice to make.  Even with appearing in less than half the film, Lando has a strong character arc to traverse.  He tries to bargain everyone’s way out of a worse scenario while betraying his friends to the Empire, but as I said, when he sees the price of bowing to their demands, he shows who he is deep down inside by trying to save Han’s friends from a potentially terrible fate.  Billy Dee Williams puts in an excellent performance showing off Calrissian’s smooth charisma, but also reflecting the frustration and dire weight of Lando’s situation.  He walks the line of friend and adversary very masterfully.  Lando’s struggling with the effort to do right by everyone, and you can see that painful internal conflict play out in Billy Dee’s performance.

And of course, many fans would be remised if I did not make mention of Boba Fett.  The fascination with this bounty hunter really stems from something like Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name character.  A gritty, mysterious man who doesn’t speak much, but when he does, it carries a great deal of weight.  Fett is someone who only speaks when he has something important to say.  That creates intrigue.  It makes him standout because it creates a certain looming presence.  Also, the original voice for Fett provided by Jason Wingreen was absolutely perfect with its right amount of grit and vile attitude.  A voice can tell you a lot about a character’s personality, and get that with Wingreen’s voice work.  Additionally, Vader tells Boba Fett, specifically, “No disintegrations.”  That lays an air of ruthlessness on Fett, and smartly spotlights him amongst the other eclectic bounty hunters in that scene.  Plus, where everyone else has failed to capture Captain Solo and the Millennium Falcon, Fett succeeds using some subversive cunning of his own, which demonstrates the character’s intelligence.  He’s a subtly developed character that quickly builds that air of mystique around himself.  Furthermore, all of this is done without Fett ever having to fire a blaster.  He physically does very little in the movie, but it’s the results of his actions which count.  It surely helps that he, like Darth Vader, is hidden under a mask and armor.  It makes you wonder more about who he is.

I honestly believe this film features John Williams’ best work of the Star Wars saga.  With the more character driven story, he is given a broader canvas to work with, and to create a more diverse and powerful score.  The beautiful compositions pull at the heartstrings making one feel the immense weight of emotion throughout the film.  Every moment of magical wonder, ominous threat, romantic richness, and rousing excitement is lushly and gorgeously on display in every note he commits to this score.  “The Imperial March” is the most notable debut here creating a militaristic musical presence for the oppressive Galactic Empire, and is one of my absolute favorites.  However, Leia’s theme gets a sweeping enhancement accentuating the film’s romantic feelings.  I own the scores for all six films on CD, but this is the one I listen to most often because of its wider breadth of artistry and cinematic beauty.

The Empire Strikes Back also showcases a lot of great imagination in its production design.  It’s great seeing the scope of the Echo Base hangar with the full size X-Wings and Millennium Falcon there along with various other Rebel Alliance vehicles.  The integration of the ice caverns into the technology of the base is done with a lot of attention to detail for an interesting visual aesthetic.  However, the most notable environments are the swamps of Dagobah and the immaculate Cloud City of Bespin.  Yoda’s adopted home gives us a location full of lush life where one would imagine that The Force is very strong here, as life is what creates it and allows it to grow.  This was all created on a soundstage, and that is just a fantastic accomplishment.  This makes me think why the same effect of depth and all encompassing realism couldn’t have been achieved for the Genesis Planet sequences in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.  In that film, similar environments were created on a soundstage, and are blatantly obvious as being set on a soundstage.  Here, Dagobah looks and feels like a wholly authentic environment.  Never does it feel like a fabricated set.  That’s the immense care and hard work that were put into these films by exhaustive crews and talented artists.

Still, it is Cloud City that is my favorite Star Wars environment.  I’ve never seen another design in science fiction quite like it.  The rounded buildings and corridors with their subtly textured stark white walls give us a very picturesque locale.  It also feels like something elegant and futuristic that would come out of the era of 1980.  It feels like a peaceful city, and is surely a new, unique, and welcoming world to visit.  However, once things turn ill for our heroes, we are plunged deeper into the more industrial bowels of the city where it just gets darker and darker both literally and figuratively.  I think the overall design is beautifully inspired, and I am so glad to own the book The Art of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.  I fond memories of reading through this gorgeous large format book, and being inspired by the designs and matte paintings.  It made me want to run home and watch the movie that night.

While there is not as much action here as there was in the first Star Wars, there is no shortage of imagination.  I absolutely love the asteroid chase sequence as the Millennium Falcon weaves its way through this near certain death trap to evade the forces of the Empire.  John Williams’ score in this sequence is another one of my favorites which reflects both the rousing adventure aspect and the high tension and danger of it.  What Han does after escaping the asteroid field to further elude the Empire is ingenious, and perfectly on-the-mark for Solo’s craftiness.  It shows his intelligence and sharp thinking that define the cunningness of his character.

The entire climax is just brilliant all the way through.  Lando, Leia, Chewie, and the droids escaping Cloud City is wholly exciting giving us some fun and dramatic beats along the way, but ultimately, a sense of elation as they fly away on the Millennium Falcon.  However, it is the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that is the centerpiece of the film.  The dark tone reaches its pinnacle in the shadowy, smoky Carbon Freezing Chamber where their duel begins with a chilling line from Vader, “The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi, yet.”  That dark environment, with its moody orange and blue lighting, establishes an ominous, foreboding atmosphere that is only heightened in the latter two parts of their escalating duel.  While it was never clear in the context of the film, after seeing a schematic of Cloud City, I could see that Luke actually does descend further and further into the depths of the city until he literally falls out the underside of it.  That descent is such a perfect metaphor for what is actually happening to Luke in this battle with Vader.  For the first two sections, it’s Vader testing Luke, seeing how proficient and resourceful he is.  He wants to be able to inform the Emperor of how advanced Skywalker is in his training, and how susceptible he is to the Dark Side.  However, the final part on the gantry is Vader letting loose entirely, and we see how truly outmatched Luke is against the dangerously aggressive Dark Lord.  Here is where Luke pays the price for rushing headlong into this confrontation without the proper training.  Yet, the action is not the ultimate pay-off.  The legendary and climactic revelation in this scene is shocking, and I’m sure, back in 1980, this left audiences stunned and in disbelief.  Mark Hamill’s acting in this scene is intense, and couldn’t be more perfect.  It’s a culmination of all the emotional trials he has battled through this entire film, and it hits him with all the dread in the universe.  It creates that final emotional stinger which carries the momentum of dire peril through to the film’s end, and leaves an audience in suspense for the resolution of everything in Return of the Jedi.

The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute masterpiece of cinema, in my honest opinion.  I would not change a single frame from the original theatrical release, period.  The late director Irvin Kershner did a marvelous job focusing this film so tightly and strongly on the characters, making their development the core of the story without losing what makes Star Wars entertaining and rich.  All that was crafted for this film from the screenwriters to Kershner’s input, made this not a sequel, but a second act in a trilogy.  That opened up the possibilities far wider allowing for growth to occur, and consequences to be faced that would require a final chapter to resolve fully.  The characters are hurt physically and emotionally, but also, they learn a great deal from their defeats.  The film may have a down ending, but that final scene where everyone is gathered back together, mending their wounds and setting plans to rescue Han, leaves an audience with hope that they will return for further heroics and redeem their losses.  As time has gone on, my choice for favorite film of the saga has shifted from the original Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back due to the depth of character, emotion, and consequence in the story.  Even more so now, I can vastly appreciate the level of filmmaking artistry and talent on display here from all involved, and it should be always heralded as one of the finest works of cinema.


Star Wars (1977)

In 1977, an extraordinary motion picture was released that changed filmmaking forever.  It captured the imagination of millions across the world, and has remained a magical and beloved treasure of cinema for more than three decades.  That film was Star Wars, and I am going to share my love and admiration for this film as it was originally released.  Before a mess of mixed quality digital effects were inserted, and other arguable changes were incorporated into the context of this masterpiece, there was the film I grew up with in the age of VHS and cable television.  This film was a major part of my childhood, and I could not even estimate how many times I have watched it.  This was the first program recorded onto my family’s first VHS tape from when it aired on ShowTime.  So, is it any surprise that this is one of the most important films of my life?

In a galaxy far, far away, a brave rebellion fights against a tyrannical Galactic Empire.  When the ship of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is attacked and boarded by Imperials troops, she hides secret plans to the Empire’s planet destroying space station – the Death Star – into the memory banks of an Astrodroid – R2-D2.  Along with his fellow droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), the two escape to the barren desert planet of Tatoonie where they come under the ownership of Owen & Beru Lars and their farm boy nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  Luke yearns for a life away from this dead end planet, but soon, he finds adventure when R2-D2 seeks out Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guiness).  Princess Leia recorded a holographic message for the former Jedi Knight and General of the Old Republic to help her in delivering the Death Star plans safely into the hands of the rebellion.  After securing passage aboard the smuggling freighter the Millennium Falcon by way of the cavalier rogue Han Solo and his wooly alien co-pilot Chewbacca, Luke, Ben, and the droids must evade Imperial troops and starships to rescue the Princess before she is executed by the vile Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and the powerful Lord Darth Vader.  Along this journey, Kenobi begins to teach Luke the ways of The Force, a mystical energy field that surrounds all living things, binding the galaxy together, and may hold the power to defeating the Empire.

I believe what captured my young mind with this film is the level of wonder and fun.  Having being born in 1980, I only lived in the era following the innovations of Star Wars, but that doesn’t lessen the amazing cinematic visual brilliance of this film.  I didn’t see a widescreen version until the films started airing on the SciFi Channel in the mid-1990s.  So, that’s saying something special about Star Wars.  The quality of everything is so great with dramatic angles, dynamic special effects, and fascinating locations that even only having half the frame still brought massive impact to my eyes.  Just based on nostalgia alone, I can still watch those old grainy VHS tapes in pan-and-scan for that youthful feeling of watching these films on some quiet afternoon in the 1980s.  Of course, no presentation rivals that of the full widescreen aspect ratio.  The compositions are immensely intelligent and rock solid presenting a film that shows it has a solid foundation in the technical qualities of smart filmmaking.

Simply everything about this film inspired my creativity throughout the years.  George Lucas was an ambitious visionary who knew what he wanted to achieve, but had to do some building to make it happen.  Industrial Light & Magic was created with a slew of young and passionate people who wanted to create innovative special effects.  They had to build the equipment with some of the first computer controlled cameras to do the blue screen visual effects shots, and basically, they had to invent new ways of doing this type of work.  Watching documentary footage of them doing all of this is immensely historic, and it looks like the pioneers of the industry taking those first major steps forward into a grander future.  Every ounce of sweat, hard work, and long hours paid off.  This is one of the absolute finest special effects pictures ever made.  While there had been other films that had done amazing outer space-based visual effects prior to this, they had never done anything as exciting or dynamic as was done here.  The fast paced motion of ships flying by in dogfights had never been seen before, and made this an intense feast for the eyes.  The scope of these effects were awe-inspiring such as the opening shot of the Rebel Blockade Runner being pursued by the relatively massive Star Destroyer, or the Millennium Falcon’s approach to the gigantic Death Star.  These filmmakers knew how to convey size, weight, and scope with these shots to give them a believable reality.  The laser blasts throughout the film, accompanied by the amazing sound design, are vibrant and intense.  They always convey power and danger.  Of course, while the lightsaber rotoscope effects were still a little rough, one could not help but be fascinated and enthralled by their appearance.

In the late 1970s, films were rarely using traditional orchestral scores since disco and synthesizers were so popular.  However, George Lucas knew that something big, epic, and rich was needed to make this a timeless adventure film.  John Williams had already worked with George’s friend Steven Spielberg on the brilliant blockbuster Jaws, and it was Steven’s suggestion to employ Williams for this task.  In retrospect, there surely was no other way to go.  Star Wars is filled with iconic elements, but those gorgeous, masterful themes of John Williams go above and beyond anything else.  Williams has since defined what a rousing adventurous film score is, and that began here.  He captured every single emotion in this film from big and exciting to low and menacing to quiet and meaningful to magical and mysterious to deeply touching.  Star Wars itself does touch on a wide range of emotions and dramatic tones, and every single one is given such depth and soaring richness with this score.  The iconic scene of Luke peering out at the twin suns of Tatoonie yearning for something greater than himself is wonderfully punctuated with a powerful rendition of the main theme.  The flourishes Williams adds throughout just bring such beautiful life to every moment striking the perfect chords every time.  The musical brilliance of John Williams is lushly on display here, and he more than earned the Academy Award for Best Original Score here.  It’s one of the finest achievements of musical art ever committed to film, and he would still be able to build upon and surpass himself later on in this trilogy.

I believe the casting of Alec Guiness was an invaluable one.  He instilled such a wonderful depth of wisdom, warmth, wit, and world weariness to Ben Kenobi.  Guiness carries a sense of history about him that makes Kenobi fascinating and intriguing.  When Ben speaks of the Old Republic, there’s a heartbreaking weight behind it.  You feel the burden of history upon Kenobi’s heart and mind.  While Lucas had not yet concretely decided upon the back story of Star Wars as we’ve come to know it, you can surely read all that we do know into Guiness’ subtle, intelligent, and emotional performance.  His is one of the most powerful and textured performances of the entire saga.  He easily endears himself to an audience with his compassion and good nature.  It doesn’t take long for Ben’s wisdom and caring manner to influence Luke.  While the young Skywalker could still be a little brash, the trust is built right from the start, and it’s very much the tempered wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi that guides Luke down the right path.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Mark Hamill as an actor.  Seeing how he grew with the character of Luke Skywalker is a remarkable achievement that I don’t think enough people give him credit for.  Here, he starts out as an eager young man who is in awe of the wide, adventurous galaxy out there, and frustrated with being stuck on this barren world on the outer rim of that galaxy.  Through Luke, an audience is introduced to and experiences the excitement, danger, and wonder of this galaxy far, far away.  Mark Hamill brings that fresh faced youthful energy and desire to the role.  He feels natural and authentic in everything he puts into the role.  He embodies the wide-eyed and open minded innocence of Luke Skywalker perfectly.  Some have called Hamill whiny as Luke.  They’re not looking close enough at what he’s doing opposite such great talents as Alec Guiness and Harrison Ford.  I like the banter between Luke and Han.  The eager, young kid creating friction with the weathered ego of Solo results in some great funny moments that work very well.  Luke has no problem challenging Han’s ego, and eventually, I think Han comes to respect that spirit in him.

Of course, no one else could’ve portrayed Han Solo as well as Harrison Ford.  He brought a cool swagger and sex appeal which really popped off the screen.  The laid back confidence and charisma made the character feel seedy and dangerous.  He’s a guy who could casually fry an alien bounty hunter in a shady cantina without hesitation or breaking a sweat.  He doesn’t wait for Greedo to make a move.  He intends on shooting him right from the start, and only strings Greedo along until the moment is right.  He’s a definite rogue out for himself only, along with his loyal Wookie friend Chewbacca, but I love seeing how that loner attitude slowly softens as he starts to care for Luke.  Ford nicely shows that transition from rugged, egotistical outlaw to reliable, hopeful friend.  I find it sly and clever how Harrison Ford worked off of Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca.  How Ford leans up against his seven foot tall, lanky frame in certain scenes reinforces that casual swagger of Solo.  These two really felt like two old buddies who had seen it all and been through it all.  They’ll back one another up every step of the way, and aren’t afraid to rush into danger, whether it’s wise or not.

Princess Leia is a great change of pace.  She’s not a helpless damsel in distress.  She can easily handle herself in tough situations whether it’s trading stinging words with the icy Grand Moff Tarkin, or grabbing up a blaster and fending off Stormtroopers in a firefight.  She has solid, inspiring leadership qualities mixed with a sense of warmth and compassion that are strongly brought to life by Carrie Fisher.  It’s great seeing that this young woman can be a very diplomatic, even tempered person in addition to being sternly intelligent and aggressive.  She is not intimidated by Vader or Tarkin, but when others are threatened, you clearly see the humanity that is her core.  It’s also a great dynamic between Leia and Han Solo.  She’s not going to take any of his ego or machismo, and he clearly doesn’t want to suffer any of her insults.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing and chemistry that both Fisher and Ford play up well to comedic effect.  It’s a very nice building block for where the following film would take their characters.

The cast overall is great.  The characters are very distinct and diverse ranging all the way from Anthony Daniels’ sophisticated, yet cowardly droid C-3PO to the amazing Peter Cushing’s razor sharp, authoritative, cold-blooded Tarkin.  It’s interesting that Darth Vader is handled as a secondary villain under Tarkin’s command.  Vader has an undoubtedly powerful, imposing presence that makes him more mysterious and intriguing than Tarkin.  He’s truly a definite dark opposite to Ben Kenobi, but I take nothing away from Peter Cushing’s chillingly theatrical performance.  Having the voice of Vader being provided by the exceptional James Earl Jones was a stroke of genius.  Along with that brilliant respirator sound effect, Jones was integral in making the character as powerful and commanding as he has become.  While he looked immensely awesome and striking, with the wrong voice it never would have worked.

Now, there are people that regard the lightsaber duel between Vader and Kenobi here as the most boring.  I greatly disagree.  It’s actually one of my favorites.  It has a great sense of two old Samurai from a war long ago meeting again to close out unfinished business.  They are not the vigorous young men they once were, but there’s a matter of honor or revenge to settle that neither can deny.  There’s something to prove in one way or another for them both, and it is that aura which elevates the sequence for me.  Their words hold great weight on a very deep personal level, but for Kenobi, there’s something greater at stake than himself.

I believe the writing of humor here is very smart.  It’s always a natural product of the situation or contrasting personalities.  R2-D2 is kind of spunky, and C-3PO is certainly a little uppity.  So, there’s some magical comedic gold which extends from that, but never hijacks the tone of the film.  It adds to the fun and entertainment value.  It accentuates the personalities of the characters, and builds relationships.  The humor is used as an excellent tool to bond these characters together.  They might irritate one another, but eventually, they build a mutual respect through all the shared emotions in these intense life-or-death situations.

The film really does have a wonderful story structure.  We follow these two lowly droids firstly who constantly push the story towards introducing Luke, then Ben Kenobi.  Their actions initiate this slow assembling of an unlikely heroic team built through unexpected situations.  The story nicely transitions into Luke Skywalker being the audience’s guide through this world, allowing us to feel his plight, and incorporating his journey with that of the overall plot.  Ultimately, it comes down to an ensemble piece where each character has a purpose and opportunity to be heroic.  They all have their threads, either plot or character based, that carry them through this adventure, and that’s a clever achievement.  No one’s ever just tagging along without something to contribute or gain from this experience.

The Empire is firmly established right from the start as a dominant, oppressive entity in opposition of the smaller rebel forces.  It’s also a nice juxtaposition where the Imperial Stormtroopers are fully armored, masking their human features while the rebel troopers are clearly human.  It shows that the Empire is rather cold and lacking in humanity while the rebellion is very much about people.  This is a motif carried through the whole film.  Even the TIE Fighter pilots have full respirator gear on while the X-Wing pilots can clearly be seen to the audience.  It’s a very smart visual idea that is realized strongest in Darth Vader.

I also love the seedy parts of the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence.  Touching upon Han Solo’s shady world of smuggling, bounty hunters, and gangsters gives even more flavor and depth to this universe.  It adds an extra layer of danger and treachery to this greater galaxy that we are being introduced to.  The alien designs, while rough with limited rubber masks, still remain effective today.  I can see and understand what George Lucas’ frustrations were with this sequence as he hoped for much higher quality masks and such, it’s still an iconic scene that really captured the imagination of audiences.

While Star Wars is generally a fun, rousing adventure film, it doesn’t shy away from the darker dramatic beats.  The death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru is a very striking moment that penetrates deep inside Luke’s heart and soul, as it does for the audience.  It’s an unsettling, grim scene followed directly after by Darth Vader about to implement a very foreboding interrogation upon Princess Leia.  These setup the dangers our heroes have to face that will motivate them forward.  However, it’s great seeing that Luke never goes down the path of vengeance.  He remains true to who he is and to his friends.  He also knows there’s a greater good to fight for, and he is fully committed to that.  These heavier dramatic beats throughout the film create emotional obstacles for Luke.  The loss of family and friends test his strength of spirit, and pushes him further towards believing in The Force.

The idea of The Force is an excellent one that plays into the mystical, spiritual, and magical.  Luke must believe in something beyond himself to tap into this power.  He learns to trust in himself by way of The Force to accomplish great things.  We are gradually shown the extent of The Force with subtle feelings and tricks at first, but it all builds up to and pays off largely in the climax as Luke lets go of the cold technology to embrace The Force to defeat the cold, oppressive Galactic Empire.  Kenobi becoming “More powerful than you can possibly imagine” to guide Luke in this assault on the Death Star enhances the depth of The Force overall.  It’s something greater than any one person or thing, but if you trust in it fully, it can be yours to command to achieve the incredible.

Speaking of which, Star Wars is filled with incredible action that brings back that swashbuckling mentality of those old serials George Lucas grew up loving.  Backed by that thrilling John Williams score, these are sequence that satisfy in a big way.  In an era of film where things had gotten mostly dark, gritty, and explicitly violent, Star Wars made action fun again without sacrificing suspense, tension, or danger.  The heroes keep getting into increasingly more perilous scenarios where they have to be smart and innovative to escape and survive.  It’s one bad turn after another, which brings the film some humor and excitement, but these situations are never played lightly.  There’s always a real, imminent threat.  This maintains a tight, solid pace.  The film simply has exceptional editing along with superb cinematography.  George Lucas had a great approach to the editing in having the edits dictate the rhythm and pace of scenes instead of the performances.  This ultimately created a much sharper and snappier pace.

The entire climactic assault on the Death Star is one of the best space battle sequences ever.  The amazing, dynamic visual effects cinematography creates an exhilarating cinematic experience.  George Lucas has always been fascinated by speed, and he accentuates that with this sequence.  The fighters are always in motion with an environment that blurs by at a breakneck speed.  The dogfights are nothing short of amazing.  It all builds to a nerve racking apex, and how it ends must have had audiences on their feet cheering back in 1977.

Star Wars remains a triumphant motion picture that should stand and be preserved for all time.  It’s a massive part of cinematic history which revolutionized filmmaking in every aspect.  It was innovative and marvelous on a technical level.  Still, despite all these awe-inspiring visual effects and technical achievements, this is a story that is all about its characters.  It never loses sight of the human aspect, and that is what drives this film into excellence.  George Lucas once said that special effects are just a means of telling a story, and that without a story, they mean nothing.  At this point in time, he showed us exactly what that meant.  He crafted a wondrous, exciting, adventurous, and emotional story first, and then, incorporated those groundbreaking special effects to tell that story in the most original and powerful way possible.  For the last thirty-five years, this film has excited audiences like few other films can.  Lucas took classic archetypes of literature and the classic hero’s journey, and molded and melded them into one of the best adventure films of all time.  Audiences at the time had never seen anything like this before, and could never imagine that another Star Wars film could equal, let alone surpass this one.  It would not be an easy feat, but in the right hands, it would become possible.