Every so often a movie comes around that just looks interesting, but you are not prepared for just how stunning it truly is. It just seems like another good thriller that might be nicely satisfying, but this movie is far and beyond such meager expectations. Prisoners attracted me because I really love Hugh Jackman. He has such a genuine depth of humanity and intense screen presence in so much of what he does, but even then, I didn’t expect a performance and a film on this level of masterful brilliance.
How far would you go to protect your family? Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is facing every parent’s worst nightmare. His six-year-old daughter, Anna, is missing, together with her young friend, Joy, and as minutes turn to hours, panic sets in. The only lead is a dilapidated RV that had earlier been parked on their street. Heading the investigation, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but a lack of evidence forces his release. As the police pursue multiple leads and pressure mounts, knowing his child’s life is at stake the frantic Dover decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands. But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?
Brought to us by director Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners is undoubtedly the best film I have seen all year. A tight, taut, suspenseful and engrossing thriller that hits powerful emotional chords everywhere. If you thought the trailers gave too much away, you are very mistaken. There is so much more substance and plot nuances that a trailer could never accurately convey. Surely, I will not spoil anything for you, but the mystery of this film is cunningly devised with intelligent turns and a remarkable progression. There are many fine layers of character, emotion, and story here that interweave perfectly and beautifully. We are treated to so many well fleshed out characters inhabiting a story of very intense emotions and radical, unsettling violent actions with nerve racking consequences. You feel every ounce of emotion from these characters, and Villeneuve’s direction shines gloriously in every detail. I also love that nothing in this film is a red herring. Every lead, every piece of evidence, every detail adds to the puzzle which is brilliantly plotted out from a stunningly well written screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski. Prisoners is meticulously mapped out every step of the way, and Villeneuve utilizes all of that emotion and strategic, deliberate pacing to absorb you into the movie.
The cinematographer for this film was Roger Deakins, who also shot Skyfall which was immaculate work, and he does not falter here at all. I was constantly struck by the quality of the compositions as they all hold so much weight. Villeneuve has this shot and edited in a very conservative manner so that the substance of every frame soaks into the viewer so deeply. Early on, I love how fairly brief scenes are played out in wide masters to give you a dramatic and stoic impact on the story. The inspired cinematography constantly envelopes the screen translating the dramatic power of Villeneuve’s cinematic narrative in such exquisite detail and poignancy. The quality of the visuals, how the film is shot, and the style of editing constantly made me feel like this was a very 1970’s thriller with a modern polish. Even the Earth toned color palette reflects that, and the autumn / winter setting adds to the grim, somber atmosphere. Every technical quality of this movie is used to suck you into the depth of what transpires. Even the score is immensely effective, yet subtle. Everything just works with such precision to excellent effect.
I honestly believe that Hugh Jackman could possibly earn himself some accolades come awards season time. My faith in his talent has been paid off time and again, and I love seeing him in these gritty, hard hitting dramatic films. Keller Dover is a man who believes in preparing for the worst while praying for the best, and so, he is used to doing everything possible to protect his family from all dangers. When he feels he must take matters into his own hands, the emotional intensity of the film escalates drastically. Jackman is intensely powerful in this role pushing himself to that extra level that separates great from extraordinary. Pure, raw emotion pours out of him as Keller Dover struggles with doing the right thing for his daughter even though it is the worst, most unimaginable thing he’s ever done. The absolute conviction of what he believes he must do penetrates right through the screen right into your soul. This film constantly pushes this character into further emotionally and morally strained situations that challenge Jackman to deliver on higher and higher levels which he exceeds over and over again. This is why I love Hugh Jackman and why I was drawn to seeing this movie. He’s an incredibly relatable and engaging acting talent who pulls you in based on his depth of humanity, and that is gorgeously on display here in a masterfully crafted film.
Now, I haven’t seen Jake Gyllenhaal in anything since Donnie Darko, and it’s great seeing him in a mature, hard edge role. He is really solid as this vehemently dedicated cop who maintains a level head while remaining fully committed to this case. I love seeing how Detective Loki handles the strained, heated emotions of the Dovers and Birches, and how he manages everything with meticulous perceptiveness and a dogged mentality. It’s a wonderfully written character that empathizes with these hurting people and conveys his confidence with sincerity. Gyllenhaal is intensely compelling and intriguing to watch as the film progresses. From the moment he’s introduced, eating alone at a Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving, he is complex and unique. I like the nuances added into his character such as the various small tattoos on his hands and neck. They give him a darker, grittier edge along with Gyllenhaal’s sort of dark aura. Yet, he is not a dark character, but is a riveting one that adds his own intensity to the narrative. This is also a marvelous performance that only becomes more fascinating and gripping at the film progresses.
The rest of the cast is equally as powerful. Mario Bello’s character of Grace Dover deals with this frightening tragedy of her abducted daughter by falling apart, relying on medication, and just becoming a mess. It’s a pure visceral deterioration of a person torn apart by fear and pain for a loved one. Terrence Howard is another actor I just love, and he delivers such vulnerability. The struggle Franklin Birch faces when Keller pulls him into the abduction and torture of Alex Jones is a perfectly human conflict. He wants his daughter back so badly, but almost can’t reconcile the morality of what he and Keller are doing to this man with the IQ of a ten year old. The dynamics between all of these characters and their passionate, pained emotions is magnificent to behold. Even Paul Dano makes you empathize so deeply for Alex. You are never certain whether he is responsible for anything at all, or that Keller is torturing a completely innocent man. The story twists around so beautifully wrapping everyone up in this complex tapestry that any truth is possible. Even more so, nothing is all that clean cut for any suspect, and no one is completely innocent. Everyone has something shameful, shady, or tragic which shows that these are real, textured, flawed people. Every character is written and performed with such substance and rawness that you can never take anything for granted or predict where this story will lead you.
I was constantly pleased with the sophistication of storytelling here. There were times I was a tad apprehensive that the pay-off of the mystery, or that the identity of the abductor would be spoiled too soon. Instead, it was another element of the puzzle being laid out carefully with surprising, unexpected, yet entirely purposeful turns. As I said, nothing is a swerve. You’re not lead down a frivolous path to a false lead. Everything introduced in this story is there for a substantial reason. The ultimate reveal is great allowing for everything to really fall into place, and put certain characters into further, tenser jeopardy. I loved how the final act unfolds. There’s real danger at hand, and nothing proceeds remotely like a cliché. This is a fresh, smart thriller that will captivate your attention for its entire 146 minute runtime. One would think that a deliberately paced thriller with that kind of runtime would lag somewhere or feel drawn out, but Prisoners makes amazingly solid use of every minute of screentime to progress every element of story and character to its ultimate, immensely satisfying and brilliant conclusion.
Denis Villeneuve has just come out of nowhere for me, and now, he has my undivided attention. Prisoners is absolutely perfect. There is not a single aspect of it for me to criticize, only praise. This is an incredible cast delivering amazingly powerful and raw performances in a rattling and haunting thriller. I have never stated in a review of a newly released movie that it is the best one I have seen all year because you never know what else could surprise you in the remainder of that year. However, I cannot imagine what else is possibly going to steal away that title from Prisoners because it is that stunningly impressive without a flaw in sight. Do yourself a great favor and see this movie and support it. I hope you are as enthralled with it as I was.
I have no preface for this review except to tell you that Walter Hill and Sylvester Stallone are a blockbuster combination that have delivered an excellent, hard-as-hell and graphic action film that you MUST SEE! Simply said, this has Walter Hill’s vintage style all over it, and I love it! If Bullet to the Head signals a turning of the genre back to its best roots of hard edged bad assery, I’m all for it!
After the seasoned criminal Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) and his partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) carry out a hired hit, they are targeted by a mercenary named Keegan (Jason Momoa) who kills Blanchard, but fails in his attempt against Jimmy. With the mark for the hit being a former corrupt Washington D.C. cop, it brings Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) to New Orleans to investigate who he was hooked up with, and why he was killed. However, Kwon soon finds himself lethally targeted, and joins forces with Jimmy in order to weed out and bring down whoever wants them both dead. The unlikely duo soon take on all who stand in their way, but where Kwon wants procedural justice, Jimmy is ready to exact brutal, unforgiving revenge.
I revisited both 48 HRS. movies within the last two months, and so, Walter Hill’s classic style is really fresh in my mind. I am a longtime fan of The Warriors, but Bullet to the Head certainly follows more in line with that sort of buddy cop dynamic. I could really feel that vibe coming off this movie right from the start, and it had me hooked in by the end of the opening credits. I was loving this movie within the first five minutes, and it never disappointed me. Aside from the modern technology aspects, this feels right at home with a solid 1980s hard-hitting action film, but Hill does throw in some modern style to update it a little. Bullet to the Head has a neo noir edge to it, but it doesn’t go down the Michael Mann route. This vibe is mainly due to large chunks of the film taking place at night, and we get some very appealing cinematography out of it. There are some shaky cam tropes used every so often, but it’s far from being the worst I’ve seen. There’s some restraint used to keep the action scenes really satisfying, and while I would’ve preferred more restraint or at least wider compositions, it did work quite well for this film.
Stallone is excellent through and through. He shows that he’s still got what it takes to be a top tier action hero. He is really in phenomenal shape showcasing a lean, ripped physique that presents a man that can clearly rip you to pieces. Sly gets plenty of chances to show his physicality with some really bone crunching hand-to-hand combat in addition to all the brutal, graphic gun violence. Yes, indeed, there are numerous people getting their own bullet to the head throughout the movie. Acting wise, Stallone’s solid. He really carries the dramatic weight of Jimmy well, much in part to his grizzled voice. The film’s not dripping with emotional grief or anything, but you definitely feel Jimmy’s dead set determination in finding the people responsible for his partner’s murder. The scenes Sly shares with Sarah Shahi, who portrays Jimmy’s tattoo artist daughter Lisa, are really well done. There’s definitely a rocky relationship there, but not one of heavy friction. They play well off of each other creating a mature and honest father-daughter relationship that has some weight and grit.
The humor in the film is really played out nicely between Stallone and Sung Kang. The trailers did do it justice as it seemed a little low grade, but in the context of the film, it really had me laughing quite a bit. I like how Kang’s Detective Kwon keeps poking fun at Jimmy’s age, and it’s handled in an almost bad ass way when Stallone retorts that still sells a laugh. It’s nicely written and smartly performed. Both actors really grasped the tone and chemistry the film was going for, and it kept the tone light and fun when needed in between the slam bang action scenes. That is a perfect example of a 48 HRS. Walter Hill style and balance of tone. The humor works with the hardened action tone of the film, and invests you in the characters in how they contrast and complement one another. It’s certainly something not every director can do, but Hill proves he still has that skill.
I will admit that Sung Kang himself start out a little weak in the film. He wasn’t really selling me for the first few scenes, but once he clicked into the chemistry opposite Stallone, he really fit in quite well. Detective Kwon is a very by-the-book type of cop. He’s using Jimmy only as a means to an end, and is quite set in his ways of adhering to the law all the way through. So, there’s this tough, seasoned hitman paired with a rather mild mannered police detective who wants to keep what they do on the straight and narrow. However, they regularly clash in stellar fashion creating both some of that humor, but also, a fine building of a relationship that keeps forcing them back together. Still, despite Kwon being very conservative with his violence, he regularly impresses by having the skills to take down an adversary quite efficiently either by hand or by gun. So, Stallone doesn’t get all the action glory. Sung Kang has his fair chances to show us something unexpected and satisfying in that vein. There might be some that feel he wasn’t the absolute best choice for this role, especially since Thomas Jane was originally cast in it, but I think he earns his merit before the end. Beyond anything else, Kung and Stallone work very smoothly together making this a very entertaining film.
Now, I was extremely impressed by Jason Momoa. His role of Keegan is a very stern faced killer, but one that is simply a massacring bad ass. As his employers say in the film, he enjoys the work he does. He takes pleasure in killing, and he gets a ton of chances to indulge himself. He never just walks in to kill one person. He’s there to kill everyone in sight, and Momoa delivers to us a genuinely sadistic villain that you’d love to hate. He may only be a hired gun, a mercenary, but he fits right into that perfect role of like James Remar from 48 HRS or Andrew Divoff from Another 48 HRS. He may not be the mastermind criminal, but he is the number one force to contend with and is the one that we really want to see taken down. Momoa is really awesome in this role, and he seemed to have loved playing it. He makes Keegan intimidating and heavily threatening, despite his impressive muscle bound size of 6’5”.
Christian Slater has a nice turn as the somewhat sleazy Marcus Baptiste, a rich lawyer who enjoys his women and narcotics quite a bit. He only has a few scenes, but Slater does sell the antagonistic character with plenty of zeal. Baptiste is working with the actual mastermind of Morel, an African gentleman portrayed with sophistication, arrogance, and amoral villainy by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbajeas. It’s a very subdued performance, but one that works quite well for the character. Both actors gives us some firm antagonists with realistic motives that solidly fit the film and story.
And indeed, this is a hard R rated action movie with plenty of bloody gunshots and some explicit female nudity. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an action film be so casual and open with showing nudity, and it was very much a pleasing sight to my eyes. Baptiste has a masquerade party where many of the masked women are wearing little else but those masks. It was very titillating, but it does not distract the film away from its plot. It doesn’t indulge in anything gratuitous beyond that. Conversely, this may not have as much graphic violence as Dredd, but it surely lives up to that standard I just recently discovered. Just like in Dredd, and again, living up to its title, people get shot in the head continually. The film even sets up the need for it early on when a guy doesn’t go down until he’s shot in the head. So, Jimmy Bobo is dead-on-the-mark, accepting nothing but point blank kill shots to the cranium. While some of the blood splatter is likely CGI, it at no point did it distract from the awesomeness of this movie. We get some big explosions in this that kick ass, and tell you that this movie is taking no prisoners. It’s going to deliver that hardcore bombast that has been missing in most action films these days, and it’s gonna to do like only Stallone and Hill can. What I really loved was when Jimmy and Keegan duel with those axes. That is not something I believe I’ve seen in an action film before, and it seriously made for one really intense and suspenseful fight. On wrong move, and you could be missing a body part. It was a tremendously climactic and amazing action scene that amped up the level of tension and brutality that I wasn’t expecting. From the trailers, I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t expect it to be that damn good of a scene. It was fuckin’ great!
I also really loved the score by Steve Mazzaro. It’s very bluesy with some hard electric guitar and prominent and beautiful use of harmonica, giving this a real seasoned and down to Earth feel. It sets a real down south vibe for this New Orleans set film that really just works amazingly well. However, most of the action scenes are very minimal on music. At most, you get a little underscore for a low end vibe, but mostly, you’re hearing the sound effects of guns firing, fists crunching bone, bodies slamming into hard surfaces, and axes clanging together. I think that worked excellently with this very hard edged action as there is a lot of impact with those sound effects. They really enhance the brutality of the movie, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
Seeing both this and Dredd within the same month really energizes me into believing that hardcore R rated action movies are making a genuine, high quality comeback. Talented filmmakers, both old and new, are delivering to us some really amazing movies lately that are giving the action genre that hard hitting adrenalin shot it needed. Stallone is in top form and clearly enjoying himself in this movie, and he was in masterful hands with Walter Hill as the director. I had a HELL of a great time watching this in the theatre, and if a friend of mine was going to see it later, I’d tag along for a second viewing. Bullet to the Head is a fun, exciting, ass kicking 90 minute thrill ride that is worth taking more than once. It keeps itself simple by not trying to complicate the plot with any big twisting narrative. It’s very straight forward and right to the point. This is one awesome movie that satisfied me from the very beginning to the very end. And this is literally a movie that starts with a bang! I give Bullet to the Head a definite SLAM BANG recommendation! This year now has a lot to live up to in terms of action movies for me, and I damn well hope it delivers. So, 2013 – you have been put on notice!