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A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Nightmare on Elm Street 2010When I see the name Platinum Dunes attached to a horror remake, I hang my head in a wholly disheartened state.  While I did enjoy their remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on its own merits, everything after that has been stuck in the mud sinking further and further into uninspired junk.  I’ve given them fair chances, but they have failed in such colossal ways.  The final nail in the coffin was this remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street.  A cluttered, drab, plodding mess is what this film turned out to be, and even not comparing it to Wes Craven’s original classic, it’s still a poorly executed film.

Five teenage friends living on one street all dream of a sinister man with a disfigured face, a frightening voice and a gardener’s glove with knives for fingers.  One by one, he terrorizes them within their dreams – where the rules are his and the only way out is to wake up.  But when one among them dies, they soon realize that what happens in their dreams happens for real and the only way to stay alive is to stay awake.  Buried in their past is a secret that has just begun to be revealed.  To save themselves, they must plunge into the mind of the most twisted nightmare of all: Freddy Krueger

Okay, remaking A Nightmare On Elm Street is not an outright terrible idea.  There are certainly ways to expand upon the original idea, enhance the effects, and execute it with a new, yet still effective style.  Surely, a sequel could just as easily do the same, but for whatever reason, despite the massive success that was Freddy vs. Jason and the fact that Robert Englund could easily reprise his iconic role, New Line Cinema chose to just remake the original.  However, no one involved in this film did anything to make this a film worth making.  I think it’s easier for a franchise to recover from a bad sequel than a bad remake.  With a bad sequel, you still have better moments in continuity and filmmaking efforts to build upon, and if the sequel is bad enough, like Highlander II bad, you can disassociate it from continuity.  A bad remake stops progress dead in its tracks because the beginning of this new continuity is not well received, fans don’t like the direction the property was rebooted into, and the general fan base doesn’t want to see more of it.  There’s next to nowhere to go, and that’s why you rarely see sequels to remakes.

Jackie Earle Haley is an excellent actor, and I have very much enjoyed him in a couple of roles.  There was a potential for him to deliver something impressive and unique here.  There are a few things he does that were new and original in terms of mannerisms.  However, by no fault of his own, neither the script nor director gave him anything worthwhile to sink his talent into.  Krueger is poorly developed as the filmmakers try to take him in a different direction, but the entire premise backfires in such a sloppy, brain dead way.  Trying to suggest that Krueger was wrongfully accused and unjustly murdered could work under more talented screenwriters and filmmakers, but it’s just handled stupidly and with no forethought.  However, the biggest issue, for me, was that Haley was too recognizable even under that very good make-up job.  When I saw this theatrically, I had just seen Haley regularly on the Fox television series Human Target, and so, his face was very familiar to me.  Even the voice he uses is essentially that of Rorschach from Watchmen with a slur.  It feels like a half thought out package, at best, which is an accurate blanket statement for this entire movie.

A problem arises with the performances by its young leads.  This film does quite a good job accurately portraying sleep deprivation with people being frayed, exhausted, drowsy, and essentially very drained of energy.  Unfortunately, that also creates a set of performances that are drab, lifeless, and generally disinteresting.  The thing is, in none of the previous Elm Street movies did I ever have a problem with the actors actually putting energy into their performances when they were meant to be sleep deprived.  For one, the make-up department did their jobs in weathering the young actors to look the part, much the same is done here, but secondly, energy and conviction are exactly what are needed to make these performances not just good but engaging.

Honestly, I don’t even think the lackluster acting is the fault of the cast.  There are some very strong talents here such as Rooney Mara as the film’s lead Nancy Holbrook and Thomas Dekker, who I know well from the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series.  I think the blame is entirely in the hands of director Samuel Bayer.  My point of proof here is Clancy Brown.  Let’s put The Kurgan aside.  Go watch Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel, and you will see a charismatic, lively, and excellent performance by Brown in a very grounded role.  The main difference is that’s Kathryn Bigelow, an Academy Award winning director who has done increasingly incredible work over the years.  Samuel Bayer is making his feature film directorial debut here after almost two decades of directing nothing but music videos.  This movie does look fantastic, but beyond the great visuals, there is nothing here that impresses at all.  That’s what I keep seeing from all of these Platinum Dunes directors – movies that have excellent visuals and polished cinematography, but are very hollow, uninspired, and unimaginative.  Music video directors know how to make a good looking product, but have next to no experience working with actors to craft anything more than superficial performances.  Surely, sometimes you get a Russell Mulcahy or David Fincher, but there are far more directors like Samuel Bayer and Jonathan Liebesman that come around who just have little to no talent working with actors and drawing out a strong performance from them.  They are good visual storytellers, to a degree, but lack the multi-facetted skills required to be a full-fledged filmmaker.

I think the biggest shortfall of this film is the lack of genuine suspense and tension.  I was only afraid of another jump scare coming out of nowhere, and frankly, it kept me too on guard.  I kept bracing myself for another cheap scare.  This film just throws jump scare after jump scare after jump scare at you.  It takes no talent or skill to have someone jump out of the shadows with a loud musical stinger behind it.  It’s cheap and worthless.  And some of the gags are so blatantly setup that I called them before they even happened.  The result of all this is the fact that Freddy doesn’t feel built up enough.   He’s not a looming figure screwing around with you making you squirm.   He’s the boogeyman jumping out at the shadows every chance he gets like a kid on Halloween, and that’s simply a hollow, go-nowhere idea that shows the difference between a blunt, shallow filmmaker and someone like Wes Craven or James Wan who knows how to build up atmosphere, tension, suspense, and manipulate the nuanced aspects of a film to truly scare you.

Aside from the respectable, moody cinematography, I will give credit to the film in that the tone is kept serious.  There is no camp humor or jokey qualities to it.  The filmmakers try to keep it very solid, focused, and dramatic.  Sadly, the skill of the filmmakers is too thin to hold the weight that the film should have.  The entire film does feel like a product designed to grab dollars and be forgotten.  There is no artistic passion behind any of it, and the quality of the story suffers for it.

As I said in a previous Elm Street movie review, I do applaud that the various filmmakers always tried to introduce new, fresh ideas into the franchise, and never just laid back on carbon copy sequels.  The downside is that the new ideas haven’t always worked, and the entire plot of misdirection regarding Krueger’s possible wrongfully accused back story is poorly handled.  The way Krueger acts throughout the picture doesn’t lend credence to a man who was dealt a grave injustice, but an evil, sadistic man who enjoys torturing and slaughtering people.  All the while, our lead characters are running around trying to unravel a mystery that ends up being a red herring, and thus, it was all just a giant waste of the audience’s time and attention.  The idea is not executed well to misdirect an audience, and there is ultimately no pay-off for it, regardless.  Not to mention, it’s an extreme plot contrivance that every single one of these kids blocked out the memory of Fred Krueger and their time at that school.  So, it was a potentially interesting idea, but with how short-sighted every idea is in this film, it had no hope of actually developing into anything close to its potential.  That is another easy, blanket statement to apply to everything in this film.

The visual effects of this remake are really not very good.  For one, there’s no excuse whatsoever for CGI blood in an A Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  NONE!  It looks cheap and unconvincing.  There are a number of effects here that are passable, but the bad stuff really just jumps out at you.  Also, this movie proves that a simple practical effect and some artistic vision trumps digital effects.  The scene of Krueger pushing through the wall, which was achieved in the original with Robert Englund literally pushing himself against a latex wall above Heather Langenkamp, looks like flat, uninspired garbage in this film as a digital effect that seems like a leftover from The Frighteners.  And on a similar level is Platinum Dunes’ regular composer Steve Jablonski’s score.  Where Charles Bernstein’s score for the original was fresh and inspired with a perfect nursery rhyme style theme, Jablonski’s score is forgettable and entirely typical.  The original Elm Street theme appears only once, and that is when the film’s title card slams onto the screen.  It’s never heard again, and once again shows how little reverence these filmmakers had for the property they were dealing with.

And while the supporting cast is decently well acted, no one stands out.  No one really takes the stage and defines themselves apart from anyone else.  I do think it was a poor decision to not have a John Saxon style character here.  A mature adult character with compassion and a level head who could carry substantial weight with him.  Yes, there are actors here with that capability, but the writing and directing take no advantage of the talents that it does have to make these characters anything but mediocre, drab, and shallow.  The whole film does feel like it’s playing it a little too safe, including the acting.  If they pushed the boundaries further, maybe it would be more engaging and potentially scary.  Craven’s original film did things that were original, new, and innovative.  This remake just comes off as a tired, passionless piece of merchandise.

Quite frankly, there was no one trying on this film.  They followed the script like a blueprint and just created a film as flat as the paper that script was printed on.  One of Platinum Dunes’ big problems is that they keep getting music video directors who have no experience with a script, actors, or crafting scenes, only in creating a three minute long marketable image for a band.  They really need to get a real director who knows how to create an engaging ninety minute story with dimensional characters and coherent plotting.  Not to mention, a filmmaker who can actually make a suspenseful, scary horror film.


Black Christmas (1974)

Black ChristmasMany attribute the birth of the slasher genre to John Carpenter’s Halloween.  However, a small Canadian film from 1974 laid the groundwork for the genre and especially Carpenter’s seminal classic.  Black Christmas is likely known to younger horror fans by way of the remake that I never saw.  You do yourself a serious disservice if you have never seen the original because it is still a greatly effective piece of horror filmmaking with a collection of surprisingly notable talents involved.  Who would have ever thought that the director of the beloved family film classic A Christmas Story would have once done a Christmas-themed slasher movie?

The college town of Bedford is receiving an unwelcome guest this Christmas.  As the residents of sorority house Pi Kappa Sig prepare for the festive season, a demonic stranger begins to stalk the house.  A series of grisly obscene phone calls start to plague the residents of the sorority and soon they will each meet their fate at the hands of the psychotic intruder.  As the Police try to trace the phone calls, they discover that nothing is as it seems.

Watching this film you will see right from the start its influence.  The killer, Billy, as he refers to himself, is hidden almost entirely throughout the film through the use of a point of view camera.  Clearly, this trick would be re-used in both Halloween and Friday The 13th, but neither achieves it quite as well as Black Christmas.  That’s because of what more is added to it in terms of the killer’s psychotic behavior.  Director Bob Clark creates an amazing sense of unease with the point of view camera work.  The wide angle lens coupled with the slightly unsteady camera movement reflects the psychosis of this killer.  The completely deranged phone calls are still frighteningly disturbing.  They got right under my skin from the start, and continue to escalate as the film progresses.  The radically unhinged psyche of this deranged killer is manically on display throughout the film, and Clark wastes no time establishing the nerve-racking suspense and horror.  The fact that we know there is a crazed killer hiding out in the attic, unknown to everyone in the film, immediately injects suspense and terror into nearly every scene in that house.  I will admit, it’s been a very long time since I’ve watched this film, and damn is it still insanely creepy and effective.

Black Christmas was an especially low budget film, and so, it has a rough, grainy quality.  However, it is photographed very solidly showing the talent involved, and even then, the rugged quality of the film stock adds to the dark, unsettling tone.  The pacing might feel slow to a certain audience, but this is not a film that drags along.  Every methodically paced moment is used to great suspenseful effect, and Bob Clark knows so immensely well how to elicit these spine tingling feelings.  Each scene builds story, character, or towards the terror of the picture.  Yet, the film still features a few fine moments of levity to give it a needed contrast on a rare occasion.  It also has a collection of stunningly solid talents in front of the camera.

Olivia Hussey is a wonderful lead portraying Jess with a lot of compassion and vulnerability.  Hussey has a sophistication and warmth to hear in addition to maturity and intelligence.  This builds Jess into a relatable character to worry about on multiple levels, and she plays terrified exquisitely well.  She also does feel like a woman coming into her own as Jess deals with her boyfriend Peter.  He wants to have a baby with her, but she’s against the idea creating a troubling friction between them.  You might think this is a frivolous subplot, but it directly ties into the mystery and paranoia about the film’s killer moving forward.  Keir Dullea, most well known from 2001: A Space Odyssey, is quite superb in this very conflicted and emotionally aggressive and unstable role.  He’s very intriguing to watch as the relationship between Peter and Jess is torn apart, and begins to become a perceived menacing threat.  Dullea and Hussey work exceptionally well with one another laying out the drama between them smartly and poignantly.

And yes, this film has John Saxon.  That automatically increases its coolness factor.  I just love the authority and weight he brings with him in anything I see from him.  As Lieutenant Fuller, he’s everything you’d expect – confident, level headed, and concise.  He really echoes this performance in A Nightmare On Elm Street, but surely builds upon that.  As Fuller, he’s rock solid, just the way I want my John Saxon, but still has a moment of two of levity that is very much welcomed.

Margot Kidder puts in a surprising performance.  Sorority sister Barb is meant to be rather crass and heartless, and Kidder hits that right on the mark.  Add in the constant smoking and drinking, and you’ve got a character that is not endearing.  Yet, she makes a definite impression.  The rest of the cast is not particularly notable, but everyone does a very solid job with their distinct characters.  They make this a horror film with likable characters who you can easily fear for as lethal danger stalks them from the shadows.

Black Christmas definitely feels like a 1970’s horror film.  Beyond the aforementioned dark, grainy look and the obvious fashion and hairstyles, this film has almost a similar style as The Exorcist.  There’s very little score except in exceptionally key moments as Bob Clark uses the silent unease of the house to great effect.  The phone calls are jarring enough without overcompensating with a score.  The use of the Christmas music sets the tone wonderfully using the serene sound in an unexpectedly haunting way.  Scenes like when our killer is stalking through the house while Christmas carolers sing outside is simply brilliant.  Juxtaposing these angelic voices with a moment of suspense and violence is truly inspired, and is filmed gorgeously.

There are terribly creepy moments all throughout such as seeing just a shadow creeping into the background while Jess is on the phone with the police, or simply anytime the POV shot has our killer spying on these young ladies from upstairs.  And the shot of the eye through the door jam has become iconic and chilling as it sets off the film’s final act.  And the climax is brilliantly crafted with a great use of shadow, misdirection, and taut tension.  Just when you believe all is laid to rest, this ending gives you one final ominous moment of terror.  Wrapping it all up together, you see the brilliant touches that Clark and screenwriter Roy Moore put into this film.  In later years, it likely would’ve been a film of high body count, gratuitous sex, and little character.  However, in the same year that brought us The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you get a film that is very well written that connects you with these characters, gives you something to care about with them, and then, set them against a very deranged and unseen killer.  It is a film of great suspense and ratcheted up tension that will leave prone audiences choked up in their seats, and wanting to turn all the lights on in the house while checking every room and locking every door when its all over.

From Black Christmas, you can definitely see evocative elements for Halloween and When A Stranger Calls.  This is absolutely one of the most influential slasher films without many people knowing it.  Maybe the influence was a time or two removed, but this was the genesis of that genre in a clearly defined form.  This is a classic that doesn’t get the recognition it so very much deserves.  This was director Bob Clark’s final foray into the horror genre, and it’s odd to see his career veer into comedy in the 1980’s, then very silly and wretchedly received kid’s films in the final years of his life.  Regardless, we will always have this amazingly effective horror and suspense film to scare us on a dark, quiet evening.  As this film’s tagline says, “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl… It’s on too tight!”


Marked For Death (1990)

Marked For DeathThe late 1980’s was the debut of a new action star – Steven Seagal.  By the dawn of the 90’s, he had already done Above the Law and Hard to Kill, but he was still finding his footing.  However, Marked For Death finds him successfully planting his feet and launching forward with a gritty, hard edged action blockbuster.  Helmed by Dwight H. Little, who I’ve found to be a very solid director starting with Halloween 4, this delivers qualities that I find severely lacking in modern action cinema.  Here, Dwight Little demonstrates his merit alongside Seagal in excellent fashion.  This is my best friend’s favorite Steven Seagal film.  So, I hope I do it justice for him.

Burned-out after losing his partner on the job, Drug Enforcement Agent John Hatcher (Steven Seagal) hopes to find some calm and serenity by returning to his hometown.  But things at home have changed and not for the better.  Jamaican drug lords, led by a black-magic high priest named Screwface (Basil Wallace), have completely infiltrated the small town.  But this gang soon learns that they’ve met their match in John Hatcher, and all the mystical voodoo in the world won’t be enough to stop Hatcher’s wrath!

I think this would be a great double feature with Predator 2 due to the Jamaican drug gangs in both.  The spooky ritualistic and mystical atmosphere around them is very compelling.  Screwface, a hell of a weird name if I’ve ever heard one, is a scary, psychotic bad guy.  He’s right off the deep end, and like something from your darkest, twisted nightmare.  His piercing eyes are haunting, and the fact that he almost never blinks when that fiery intensity is burning inside him enhances that quality.  He masterfully builds this aura of mystique around him with a very effective and authentic Jamaican accent.  This is a wickedly awesome villain that adds so much horrific danger to this film.

I will admit that Seagal has never been a very dynamic actor, but he carries the dramatic weight and emotional drive of this film well.  Along with Dwight Little’s direction, you see the subtle emotion surface when he sits at the hospital bedside of Hatcher’s niece portrayed by Danielle Harris.  Seagal can bring some charm and light charisma to the screen in the right moments.  Then, when he gets into the heat of the action you see that ass kicking wisecracking bad ass that made Seagal the action star that he was.  He’s entirely confident and sharp in this outing showing that this is his signature style, and it couldn’t have been showcased in a better, smarter action picture.

Teaming him up with Keith David just makes everything more bad ass.  He brings a wealth of charisma and weight to Max, Hatcher’s old army friend.  He’s a tough guy who is ready to take back his community because he cares for the children he teaches every day.  So, there’s the light-hearted friend, but also, the skilled soldier ready to unleash a maelstrom on these gangs that are decaying his neighborhood.  David’s wide range of talent from the tough bad ass to the heartfelt humanity makes Max a strong complement to Seagal’s more cool, calm, reserved, yet dead-set, bone breaking violent style.

If you want to see Seagal in his most violent, hard edged prime, this is it.  These Jamaicans are ruthlessly and graphically violent, and so, John Hatcher has to be a man who is equally as severe.  The action highlights are many, but I really enjoy the shootout and fight in the high end department store.  It starts as a car chase that crashes into an awesome assault with guns and martial arts violence.  And this film keeps upping the action, peril, and explosive caliber.  As Screwface becomes more dangerous, so does Hatcher.  This is sharp, sleek action with tons of punch that will leave thoroughly satisfied and then some.  It’s all evenly paced allowing the story’s momentum to build up tightly while delivering something fresh, dynamic, and exciting at a regular interval.  It’s really damn good stuff.

I also find it admirable that this film makes a point to show that they’re not making a stereotype out of Jamaicans.  There’s a Jamaican police assistant who is an honest guy that aids Hatcher later on.  The film even takes us into Jamaica where we see the people in their vibrancy and hardships.  While it was not necessary for the filmmakers to do this, I find it the mark of a well developed and fairly balanced crafting of ideas.  If they are going to delve so much into the culture for these abhorrent criminals and killers, it adds more depth and richness to show it in context to the reality of the Jamaican people.  The score by the incredible James Newton Howard blends those Jamaican sounds and beat into the film appropriately.  His music highlights and drives a fair amount of the action, and brings the flavor of the narrative to just as much life as the visuals.

It’s oddly appropriate that the director of photography on Marked For Death also shot the last film I reviewed, Cobra.  Here, Ric Waite gets the chance to work with the wider scope format, and he does a remarkable, rock solid job.  He crafts a great atmosphere when Screwface is in his element through smoke, candles, and just excellent moody lighting.  The action is perfectly framed with some occasionally intriguing angles, and all around, it’s a greatly lit and photographed film.

And this film has an amazing twist at the end with Screwface’s perceived magic.  Not at all would I spoil this for anyone because it’s stunning moment of awe when it happens.  Just when you think Hatcher has all things vanquished, it turns around on everyone, and results in another fantastically executed action sequence.  I mean, who doesn’t love a good swordfight?  It’s one bad ass ending the trumps even what came ten minutes before, and solidifies the hard hitting, take-no-prisoners action intensity of this picture.

Pack all of this in tightly to a 90 minute runtime, and you’ve got an action film that strikes out with killer excitement.  This is undoubtedly one of Seagal’s absolute best films, if not the best.  He pulls no punches, takes no prisoners, and delivers a performance that adds some sly wit in between the emotional fire underneath and the up front bone-cracking bad assery.  Adding further to that bad ass quota, the opening sequence features a small role by Machete himself Danny Trejo.  Backed by a director who I’ve always thought deserved a more high profile career because he is that damn good, Marked For Death delivers it all.  Today, you got a lot of ridiculously over-the-top action films that devolve into cheesy and even campy indulgences.  In this film, you get a lean, hard hitting movie that never softens the blow with those silly distractions.  They can have their place in the genre, but we do not get action films like this anymore.  Not this well made, and not going straight on for the throat leaving no blood un-spilled.  Just go watch it, now!


Cobra (1986)

CobraIf you love Stallone’s bonafide action films, then Cobra is absolutely one of his signature outings.  It also has an interesting origin.  It originally started out when Stallone was cast as the lead in Beverly Hills Cop, but instead of the action comedy we got with Eddie Murphy, Sly did rewrites to essentially change Axel Foley to Marion Cobretti.  When he and Paramount couldn’t agree on this, they parted ways, and Cobra was born.  This is also an adaptation of the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling, which was the basis for a William Baldwin film in 1995 of the same name.  I’ve never seen that film, but this one, it is a really damn good one.

Lt. Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone) is a one-man assault force whose laser-mount submachine gun and pearl handled Colt 9mm spit pure crime-stopping venom.  Cobretti finds himself pitted against a merciless serial killer called the Night Slasher (Brian Thompson).  The trail leads to not one murderer but to an army of psychos bent on slashing their way to a “New Order”- and killing the inadvertent witness Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) to their latest blood spree.  Fortunately, Cobra is her protector intent on bringing down these brutal maniacs.

Very notably, Cobra was helmed by director George P. Cosmatos who also did Rambo: First Blood, Part II and the absolutely amazing Tombstone.  Under his skills, this is an excellent action movie!  Primarily, the quality of the cinematography and editing is amazingly superb.  I see a lot of good quality films of this sort on the filmographies of the editors and cinematographer that prove to me that this was not a one-off shining moment.  This film does have a gritty style with a strong sense of mood and atmosphere for the urban environment.  I took special note of just how well visualized this film was, which would have turned out very generic in much lesser hands.  With Cosmatos, Cobra has real bite and punch.  He also executes the high tension and suspense sequences with remarkable ability.  The parking garage scene where the Night Slasher is stalking Ingrid is a gorgeous example of this.

The Cobretti character is surprisingly understated in most cases.  Sure, when he’s in the heat of action, he’s bad ass and intense, but outside of that, Stallone plays it cool.  He’s calm and collected handling urgent scenarios with confidence and sharp action.  Stallone also brings his usual heart and charm, adding a little charisma and levity to Cobra, but overall, he’s a hard edged cop that’s ready to kick ass at a moment’s notice.  The entire look of Cobra with the five o’clock shadow, black overcoat, mirror aviator glasses, and the wicked cool 9mm just certifies the character as awesome.  Its not a character that jumps off the screen, but with that great look and a couple of cool one-liners, Marion Cobretti drives forward an entertaining film.

Brigitte Nielsen might be regarded very poorly today, but early in her career, she was particularly good.  Her performance as Ingrid is soft and gentle in the most part, but she also handles the terrified moments in the film exceptionally well.  Not surprisingly, she and Stallone have real good chemistry.  They would later marry and divorce within a few years.  Here, you can see their real life affectionate for one another shine through on the screen making for a heartfelt connection that adds more depth to both characters.

The use of Brian Thompson as the Night Slasher, our main villain, is just right.  I honestly have never felt he was a particularly good actor outside of his powerful physical presence.  However, the script and Cosmatos wisely utilize his imposing figure and psychotic killer look instead.  He has extremely little dialogue until the climax where he monologs his creed about his New Order, and he does an exceptional job with this dialogue letting his deep voice carry its weight.

And I love Andrew Robinson in everything I’ve seen him in.  He beautifully plays the smarmy Detective Monte who likes to throw his weight around, and dig his ego into Cobretti like a thorn in your side.  You can’t wait to see this guy get what’s coming to him by the end.

By no doubt, there is a lot of excellent action here.  Stallone gets plenty of chances to get physical with some hard edged fight scenes.  Then, there’s an adrenalin pumping car chase with some great car stunts and rapid gunfire.  Add in some tense, scary moments of Ingrid fighting for her life from the Night Slasher, and you’ve got a very intense, exciting action movie from a director who just knew how to film it with masterful vision.  The editing on these action sequences is so perfectly tight.  This is especially exemplified in the amazingly dynamic shootout and chase sequences that kick start the climax.  The rhythm, pacing, and impressive choice of angles are just excellence on display.  Cosmatos was a brilliant action sequence visionary, and everything in that climax is bad ass and awesome.  It starts out hard and fast, and then, gets tough and brutal inside the industrial factory.  The final confrontation between Cobra and the Night Slasher is really damn good.  This is a great, tense, climactic moment that Stallone and Thompson play dead-on-the-mark in this fiery, industrial setting aided by the excellent cinematography and Cosmatos’ razor sharp direction.  It’s wicked cool.

Further showcasing that this is an 80’s movie is the rock soundtrack.  It starts with a sweet montage sequence fueled by “Angel of the City” by Robert Tepper, who also contributed “No Easy Way Out” for Rocky IV.  We then get a couple of other tracks that are catchy, upbeat, and energizing to the vibe of the movie.  This helps keep the film lively and little more memorable.  The actual score by Sylvester Levay here serves its purpose right fine, but doesn’t standout as anything exceptional.

Cobra is a fun, entertaining, exciting film packed with action.  It has a moody, serious tone with the door comfortably open for levity, but it never gets especially cheesy.  This is a really good action movie that will satisfy even today.  The standard fare script by Stallone is entirely elevated by George Cosmatos’ stylish directing talents.  Cobretti himself is not all that fascinating as it’s the attitude and look that sets him apart including the cobra emblem Colt 9mm and the custom 1950 Mercury.  It’s not a character that puts a challenge on Stallone, but he likely enjoyed the experience.  I certainly would have enjoyed seeing a sequel, but this was also a time where Sylvester Stallone’s ego started swelling a lot.  So, I can imagine there could have been some behind the scenes conflicts.  Regardless, check out Cobra!  It’s a solid piece of action cinema!


Nighthawks (1981)

NighthawksThis is one of those Sylvester Stallone gems that both seems like it’s gained a respected following, but has never become a high profile hit.  It doesn’t fall into the light hearted fare like Tango & Cash or Demolition Man or the substantive drama of Rocky or First Blood.  Instead, this is a very good gritty cop thriller with a definite 1970’s aesthetic boasting a great performance by Rutger Hauer that foreshadows his acclaimed work in Blade Runner and The HitcherNighthawks has its definite merits, but surely demonstrates why it’s a lesser noted film for Stallone.

When Europe’s most feared terrorist known as Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) explosively announces his presence in Manhattan, two elite undercover NYPD cops (Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams) are assigned to stop him before he strikes again.  However, the ruthless terrorist has other plans for the city – and the detectives – as he begins to hold its citizens in the grip of fear.

In the wake of big blockbuster successes like the Rocky and Rambo movies, and films with more flash and crowd pleasing excitement, you can understand how Nighthawks kind of flies under the radar.  It’s very grounded and much more low key.  It is also a slow building film with a focus on the psychological aspects of its main adversaries, and capturing that gritty, urban New York street cop vibe.  Still, within that context, you’ve got a very admirable crime thriller here lead by some strong casting choices across the board.

I really believe Stallone leads this film quite well.  Detective Sergeant Deke DaSilva is a solid cop who doesn’t back down easily.  He takes on crime with intensity and fierce dedication, even if it costs him his marriage or his well being.  Stallone makes DaSilva a tough cop, but one with a morality and heart.  Despite the fallout with his wife, Deke still desires that loving connection, and he won’t become the cold blooded assassin that the British counter-terrorism specialist wants him to become.  Stallone does a solid job keeping DaSilva true to who he is sticking to his principals as a seasoned cop, doing his duty, but doing it his own way.  We see him as a perceptive, smart cop that is dogged in his pursuit of Wulfgar.

As DaSilva’s partner, Detective Sergeant Matthew Fox, Billy Dee Williams entirely carries his own.  Fox can be more even tempered and flexible than DaSilva, allowing for him to keep his more passionate partner grounded and focused.  Billy Dee also has some playful moments adding a few minor moments of levity as, again, a counterbalance to Stallone’s harder edge intensity.  Still, when the situation gets serious, Fox is as solid of a cop as anyone.

Rutger Hauer has shown his talent for brilliance, and Wulfgar is no exception.  He brings a cold, calculating sophistication that forges his gravitas.  When Hauer is on in a film, he captivates your attention with a electrifying presence, and he does that here.  As Wulfgar, he can be frightening because as dedicated as DaSilva is, Wulfgar is equally so to his cause.  You know he’s a sociopathic killer who is a vehement believer in these radical causes.  He’s more than just a hired gun, and that makes him immensely more dangerous.  It’s not about money for him.  He inflicts this death and terror for a political purpose that he believes in, and he is not going to stop.  As the British counter-terrorism specialist says, “He’s only beginning.”

I also have to give some praise to Joe Spinell who portrays Lieutenant Munafo.  While his role is minimal, he’s damn good carrying a commanding weight and authority.  He mainly works opposite Stallone, and keeps the somewhat hot headed DaSilva in line very convincingly.  Of course, Persis Khambatta complements Hauer extremely well as the dangerous, cold-hearted Shakka.  It’s a polar opposite turn from her role in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and that is largely welcomed along with her rich, beautiful black hair.

Like I said, this feels entirely like a 1970’s cop film with the gritty style, Earth toned fashions, Stallone’s beard, and sort of a streetwise funky vibe of the score.  It might be an early 80’s film, but you can find plenty of bleed over from the previous decade through to about 1983.  Considering this started out as a second sequel to The French Connection, it’s easy to see why this works so well in that context.  The pacing is methodical lending more towards the dramatic development than excitement.  The film could probably use a little more excitement to ramp up the danger and stakes in the second act, but especially for its time, this was quite good.

Now, Nighthawks surely has a few action set pieces including a great foot chase through the New York streets and into the subway.  However, it is very much a thriller built on suspense and tension.  Stallone and Hauer create this electrifying connection which drives the entire film.  The sequence on the Roosevelt Island tram is a great example of those personalities at conflict enhancing the peril of Wulfgar’s game.  His terrorism is no longer just about a cause, but a game of wits between both men.  Wulfgar toys with DaSilva, bringing him in so close, forcing the Sergeant to look him in the eye time and again, but denying him at choice to fight back.  This results in a nicely solid and taut piece of work.  The ending is superb focusing on a great deal of suspense and imminent peril, but I would think a modern audience might feel it’s not as climactic as it could be.  This ending has become the most memorable aspect of Nighthawks, and it is executed with great care and a few inspired visuals.

As I said, this is a film build as a slow boil thriller than an exciting action ride, and I feel it succeeds at that.  Surely, more could have been done to intensify the narrative and build more momentum going into its climax.  Regardless, I’ve always appreciated and enjoyed Nighthawks.  Stallone does a really solid job complemented well by Billy Dee’s supporting role, and greatly counterbalanced by Rutger Hauer’s chilling brilliance.  If you enjoy the work of either Stallone or Hauer, I definitely believe this is one you should not overlook.  Bruce Malmuth did a fine directing job here, but in a fourteen year career, he never had a breakout hit.  His only other high point was the decently effective Steven Seagal action vehicle Hard to Kill.  With Nighthawks, it’s a nicely solid film that likely won’t blow you away, but may indeed intrigue you through the high quality performances it offers.


Jack Reacher (2012)

Jack ReacherI did see this movie in theatres, but it was a week after release and I didn’t have much ambition to write up a review.  Now that it’s out on home video, I can put my thoughts together on this very well made thriller that, yet, still lacks a certain memorable quality.  Jack Reacher is based on One Shot by Lee Child, and while the movie does some significant departures from the 6’5″ towering blonde character with the casting of Tom Cruise, on its own merits, there is an enjoyable film to be had here from a very capable director with a fresh style.

In an innocent heartland city, five are shot dead by an expert sniper.  The police quickly identify and arrest the culprit, former U.S. Army officer James Barr (Joseph Sikora), and build a dead bang guilty case.  Regardless, Barr claims he’s innocent and delivers only one message to the police, “Get Jack Reacher.”  A former Army Criminal Investigator, Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) sees the news report and turns up in the city, but comes only to condemn Barr based on past history.  However, Barr’s attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), pulls Reacher into her investigation in order to get to the truth, but he will only do so if she looks into the lives of victims so to gain an objective, moral view of Barr’s alleged crime.  Reacher sets out to confirm for himself the absolute certainty of the man’s guilt, but comes up with more than he bargained for as he uncovers a seedy conspiracy of corruption.

This film is directed by Christopher McQuarrie who also wrote the screenplay.  He is most well known as the screenwriter of The Usual Suspects, but this is a distinctly different style and tone of film that I do feel he handles competently and sharply.  The film starts with a strong weight of drama as we see the cold, calculating, and brutal sniper killings resulting in a traumatic, jarring impact.  How Reacher is pulled into the story reflects perfectly on the character himself – smart, sly, quick-witted, and unpredictable.  McQuarrie is able to firmly ground the drama of this story while still offering sharp dialogue with dashes of levity and personality.  We do get these clever moments of humor that are somewhat unexpected, but for whatever reason, they are very entertaining and just work surprisingly well.  The balance between the serious and humorous are in the right balance.  He uses the humor to add levity and entertainment value to the movie while the drama creates the narrative’s momentum.  McQuarrie also knows how to solidly plot out a mystery, as The Usual Suspects demonstrated.  He lays out all the facts, perceptions, and details in very intelligent ways.  It never feels like a dry procedural, but a compelling web that Reacher is intricately and confidently pulling apart one strand at a time.

And it is the Jack Reacher character that makes the investigation so intriguing.  How he approaches the evidence, what nags at his mind, how he perceives motive and reasoning create a fascinating deconstruction of this mystery.  Tom Cruise embodies these qualities exceptionally well.  I also love how he slyly bulldozes his way through a situation.   He’s not a guy who suffers anyone, and is determined to get to the truth no matter who’s standing in the way.  Yet, he’s not a battering ram.  He uses smarts, wit, and bravado more than force which makes him intriguing to watch.  Cruise harnesses a hard edged confidence and presence that creates an intense electricity in his performance.  Despite his average size and build, Cruise feels formidable from how he carries himself.  While the Reacher of the books is meant to be this physically large man sort in the vein of a Dolph Lundgren, I feel that Cruise’s smaller stature works to excellent effect.  He’s more unassuming, more average looking.  You don’t expect a brutal ass kicking from him, but that’s just what you get.  In Cruise’s hands, Reacher is a skilled and intelligent man with a sort of dry yet sharp sense of humor who can assault any enemy with tactical efficiency.  This has long been within Cruise’s physical capabilities between his work on Collateral and the Mission: Impossible films, and he has always been an immensely dedicated physical actor.  Altogether, I feel Tom Cruise is a stellar, wicked cool fit for this role as written here, and he puts in a solid performance.

Another great performance comes from Rosamund Pike.  The script gives Helen Rodin a smart set of conflicts that are both internal and external.  Reacher has her get personal with the victims of this sniper attack, and it forces her to realize the impossible nature of her position as the defense attorney.  It gets pushed further as the truth is unraveled by Reacher, and it becomes more and more difficult for her to trudge forward with any course of action, yet she still does.  Externally, she has her own father as the District Attorney opposing her from continuing on with this case, and there are conflicts with Reacher as they battle back and forth on their ideals and viewpoints on the case.  Pike gives us a character that does question herself, and struggles with these moral quandaries that Reacher puts her into.  Yet, she is her own person, making her own choices, and showing her strength while still being a vulnerable, compassionate person.  Rosamund Pike is purely excellent in this role giving us emotional dimension and assertive strength, and it surely doesn’t hurt that she is exceptionally beautiful to my eyes.

The film’s villain comes from a surprising source – German filmmaker Werner Herzog.  He portrays The Zec, a former prisoner of a Russian gulag, now the leader of this gang perpetrating corruption in this city.  He’s both a chilling, threatening presence and a darkly enjoyable villain.  He’s got this pretty extreme back story of having gnawed his own fingers off to survive his incarceration, and tries to force this average street thug into doing the same to prove his worth to him.  It’s a crazy moment in The Zec’s introductory scene that really sets the tone for how tough and ruthless this villain is, and I really liked it.  It surely feels a little over the top, but the dead serious weight given to it sells it in entertaining fashion.  Herzog certainly has done acting in the past, but it’s certainly a surprise turn in this film that succeeds in spades.  And even Jai Courtney is thoroughly impressive as the more action centric villain Charlie who causes trouble for Reacher throughout the movie, and battles with him at the end.  He’s got a solid presence that sells a lot of his character without him having to say much.  He showcases charisma with just a sly smirk, and just feels like a sharp talent with a lot of potential in him.

And lastly, we get a fun, quirky performance from Robert Duvall as this ex-Marine that runs a gun range and ultimately aids Reacher during the climax.  His chemistry with Cruise creates some great levity during the very dark and heavy final act.

On all technical levels, this is a rock solid feature.  It is excellently shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.  The fantastic use of smart angles and purposeful compositions really enhance the intrigue and calculating aspects of the story and characters.  In conjunction with the great, conservative editing by Kevin Stitt, we get a very effective thriller with solid scenes of suspense and poignant character moments.  With McQuarrie’s very competent and solid talent at the helm, it really forged something that highly impresses in both technical skill and storytelling ability.

While the film has an intricately woven mystery at hand, it never overshadows the worth of the characters because without them the story doesn’t mean as much.  I do love that the film does take the time to flesh out who those victims were, what their lives were like, and allows us to connect with them on a brief but strong emotional level.  Christopher McQuarrie does the same thing with us that Reacher does with Rodin in this instance – have us connect with those people on a personal level.  These are not just faceless victims.  These were people with lives and loved ones, and they are not trivialized in this film, which is immensely commendable and really a breath of fresh air.  It emotionally motivates both Reacher and Rodin to move forward in their efforts to unravel this plot and expose the truth, and it has purpose in unraveling the mystery.

And indeed, this film features one of the best car chases in recent memory.  It has a very tense stare down between Reacher and David Oyelowo’s Detective Emerson after Reacher has just been framed for a murder.  That stare down then explodes into this visceral 1970’s throwback car chase.  It’s fantastically shot never tightening the frame too much, or shaking it all around with incompetence.  We have beautiful compositions all around with an intense visceral quality fueled by the mere rumbling sounds of a muscle car engine, and solidly paced editing.  That’s a page taken right out of Bullitt, and I think this chase does follow strongly in that tradition.  It was a great happenstance that the Chevy Chevelle actually wouldn’t start during filming creating this great, real moment of it stalling out in the middle of the chase.  This is an awesomely hard edged chase that does not overstay its welcome.  It’s right to the point delivering a dose of adrenalin in the middle of the film, and the sly, clever ending to that car chase is so right for this character.  The film does have very good action scenes, but it’s not proper to call this an action movie.  It’s definitely a mystery thriller with solid shots of action.  There are some entertaining fight scenes, and a very hard edged, very violent climax.

McQuarrie does choose an interesting tone and approach to the action scenes in that there’s hardly any score that plays through any of them.  I saw this approach taken during the anti-climactic shootout in 2006’s Miami Vice, and I didn’t feel it was especially successful.  Here, while I was undecided about it after my theatrical viewing, I do now feel it is rather effective for Jack Reacher.  The tactical shootout in the quarry starts out with just the sounds of gunfire and some stellar cinematography and editing to make it work.  However, when it moves further along, we get some suspenseful music cues, but the action itself remains raw and visceral without any music accompaniment.  When Reacher and Charlie finally throw down, it’s just the harsh sounds of bones cracking and rain pouring to sell the hardened violence.  The conclusion to this is very telling of the character in regards to his code of justice.  It’s not really what you’d expect from an procedural crime thriller, but it is fitting overall.  Now, I do feel like the ending lacked maybe a definitive sense of closure or consequence.  There aren’t any actual hanging plot threads that I picked up on, but a more solid, stronger ending might have given it that extra added punch to please audiences.  Reacher simply departs after all the action is done leaving others to clean up his mess which creates a feeling of an unresolved something.  The ending has some poignancy and sly qualities in two separate scenes, and this ending is far from being poor in any aspect.  I just think it could’ve used a stronger punctuation for the story and characters.

Ultimately, Jack Reacher is a very well directed, well acted, and overall very solidly made movie.  The screenplay is very smart with a unique balance of dramatic weight and humorous levity that oddly works very well.  The Reacher character is a very interesting one well embodied by Tom Cruise.  He’s not explored in a lot of depth, but we get insights into who he is, what he values, and what his convictions are.  How he operates, how he thinks, and what actions he takes tell us all we need to know in this story about Jack Reacher.  It’s great seeing that despite Reacher having a predisposition towards Barr’s guilt, he’s able to maintain an objective point of view in his investigation.  His own personal feelings against Barr never cloud his judgment.  He wants the truth, no matter what that might be.  These are sure signs of a very smartly written film and well developed character that is thoroughly understood by both McQuarrie and Cruise, thanks to the novels of Lee Child.  Yet, despite of all this, I do feel the film lacks that extra spark that would catch on with audiences.  It probably stems from the fact that this is not especially an action film, despite the marketing, and more of an intelligent thriller that doesn’t lend to a rousing, exciting experience.  For everything that these filmmakers were striving to achieve, they did so with great success, but I don’t feel there’s a great demand for a franchise based on this outing alone.  If the filmmakers can put together a film with more action and excitement, I think it could take off fairly well, but as it is, this film didn’t set audiences on fire with anticipation for another installment.  While it’s not impossible, Cruise surely has plenty of other projects he’s quickly developing, including a fifth Mission: Impossible film, that he’s not in a major need to launch another franchise.


Shakedown (1988)

ShakedownSo, after watching The Exterminator this morning, I chose to follow that up with a 1988 entry into James Glickenhaus’ filmography starring Peter Weller and Sam Elliott.  Backed by Universal Pictures, this film is a warp speed jump ahead in polished filmmaking, tight storytelling, and an entertaining picture with lots of energizing action.  Yet, it has plenty of substance and strong characters realized by great actors.  Shakedown was a fun ride that I would like to share with you now.

When a local drug dealer shoots a dishonest cop in self-defense, lawyer Roland Dalton (Peter Weller) and renegade undercover cop Richie Marks (Sam Elliott) join forces to clear him.  But when their investigation leads them into a maze of greed and corruption, they learn that in a town where everything is for sale, anything can happen.  Amidst this, Dalton realizes the prosecutor in this, his last case, is a former love interest, the smart and sexy Susan Cantrell (Patricia Charbonneau).  Throughout the trial Roland rekindles this former affair with Susan unbeknown to his fiancée Gail (Blanche Baker).  All of this twists and turns around Dalton and Marks as they battle through the web of corrupt cops who’d sooner see them dead at every turn.

This is a top notch movie all the way through.  We’re given a story that is sharply put together that always holds your attention, and keeps something moving forward at a tight rhythm at all times.  There are enough interconnected threads to allow the film to do that, but not remotely so many as to complicate things.  The trial of the drug dealer ties into the corrupt dealings of these New York cops, and with Dalton being the central focus of this plot, his own personal relationships branch out from that.  So, there’s always something unfolding and weaving its way into the momentum of the story to keep that energy and pace up.  Yet, even though the film has a polished style, it still delves into that seedy underbelly of New York that James Glickenhaus enjoyed spotlighting in his films.  So, we get something sharp, sleek, and immensely entertaining while still having that underlining presence of the sleazier side of things.  Glickenhaus hits the mainstream with great success fueled by a very well written script, and a spectacular cast of talent at his disposal.

Peter Weller is just amazing in this movie.  As Roland Dalton, he’s a very charismatic and lively guy who loves his Jimi Hendrix and has plenty of enjoyable flare.  He’s a very relatable and intelligent character portrayed by an actor who exemplifies those qualities.  Weller works the courtroom scenes with compelling energy and sharp wit.  He also carries strong emotional and dramatic weight throughout the film.  The building romantic relationship with Susan is touchingly handled with beautiful chemistry.  It help creates a full, well-rounded character that has various aspects to his life that all tie into the threads of the plot.  Weller really does have the meat of screentime, and thus, properly gets top billing.  Weller’s character never shies away from action or danger in his pursuit of truth.  He regularly gets himself into dangerous scenarios, but is able to handle himself competently.  Weller takes all of this in stride melding together a very fascinating, dimensional, and entertaining character.  I loved watching him every minute he was on screen.

Of course, this takes nothing away from Sam Elliott who fits comfortably into this rugged loner.  Richie Marks is very grounded, soaked into the thick of the grit of the city.  We first meet him waking up in a 42nd Street grindhouse movie theatre with crack vials littering the floor, and brushing his teeth in the graffiti laden restroom.  This is a guy whose luck is just about dried up, but he’s still a solid cop that can rundown the worst the New York streets have to offer.  Sam Elliott was only 43 years old when he made this film, and so, his shaggy gray hair and beard make him look older and gruffer than he truly was.  Thus, he was still able to throw himself into some physically demanding action scenes, which are great.  Elliott has a sly personality and fine charisma that make Richie charming in contrast to the filthy environment he surrounds himself with.  He’s a straight arrow cop that knows the crooked dealings in the department, but until now, hasn’t had much motivation or back-up to do anything about it.

Elliott and Weller simply work excellently together.  It’s not the typical buddy cop formula where two conflicting personalities clash with a single purpose to bond them.  Dalton and Marks might be distinctly different in how they lead their lives, how they present each other, but they are similar-minded men of law and justice that don’t need convincing to join forces.  They’re friends from the outset, and we see they are more alike than superficial appearances would suggest.  The two actors are tight fits, and have a sharp chemistry and wit that keeps the film energetic and entertaining.

Every other actor in this film does a tremendous, expert job.  I’ve loved Larry Joshua in everything I’ve seen him in, and he portrays the main corrupt cop Rydell.  He’s got that streetwise, slimy quality mixed in with Joshua’s usual charismatic edge and energy.  Rydell is enjoyably corrupt with just the right amount of despicableness to make a villain you love to hate.  You really want to see him taken down well before the end  Patricia Charbonneau is excellent as Susan Cantrell.  She brings a lively vibe with her, but balances that with a solid, assertive dramatic presence in the courtroom scenes.  It’s a full, well-rounded performance that holds up strongly opposite Peter Weller.  Richard Brooks, who portrayed Paul Robinette on the first few seasons of Law & Order, portrays the drug dealing Michael Jones, and he is a really, strong fit for this role.  It’s also a very well written role that works very much to Brooks’ strengths, and he couldn’t be better.  And for those that love him, John C. McGinley has a brief energetic and funny role as a lawyer and friend of Dalton’s.  There are no weak links in this cast anywhere at all.

Shakedown also has some first rate action sequences.  Glickenhaus seems very proficient in this realm as he always finds a way to amp up the scene at some point beyond your expectations.  He never settles for the standard chase scene.  He adds something especially exciting on top of what already was a damn good sequence, and gives you that memorable punctuation.  I was genuinely blown away at the intensity and impact of many of these scenes.  They really deliver in full force on every bit of adrenalin and pay-off you’d expect from a solid action film.  And I love that the film easily balances the action with the drama of the story.  The struggle for justice in the courtroom is given as much poignancy as the crime on the street.  They go hand-in-hand with this story, and it’s great to see that both sides are executed equally as well making for a very satisfying narrative.

As I mentioned, there’s more to the film than just action.  With Roland, you can see that the relationship with his fiancée does have its turbulence, but doesn’t come off as something that’s falling apart.  He starts out as a man on the verge of changing his life with a new career and a wedding on the horizon.  However, the man that he is becomes anchored by Susan coming passionately back into his life both professional and intimately.  It strikes a sentimental and deep chord with Roland, and I love where the film takes him by the end.  It’s a very satisfying character arc, and it never feels clichéd or contrived.  It’s smartly written with touches of levity, tenderness, and honesty.  All of the dialogue in the film is smartly written highlighting personality throughout, and keeping things fresh, sharp, and entertaining.

Shakedown is also really damn well shot.  I liked the use of wide angle lenses which highlighted either the excellent scenery of New York, or simply enhanced some big, dramatic action shots.  The film has a slick, polished quality that still delves into the seedier areas of 42nd Street with the grindhouse theatre and a sleazy sex club.  We get some nice uses of light and shadow mixed with neon colors that create a solid atmosphere.  There is nothing here that is not shot superbly.  I find it amazing what good filmmakers could do with $6 million back in the 80s.  This film is high quality all the way with great authentic on-location shoots in New York, crane shots, steadicams, and just a big budget polish to everything while never losing an edginess or personality for the film.  The editing is also excellent.  Editor Paul Fried had a short career that ended the following year, and it’s a shame because I can’t levy a single critique against what he did here.  It’s an exemplary editing job from start to finish.  It’s tight and sharp hitting all the marks and beats dead-on-the-mark.

The music of Shakedown is also really good.  It’s a solid action score using more of a rock driven style that really complements the energetic quality of the film.  Jonathan Elias doesn’t have many notable credits to his name, but the fact that he worked alongside John Barry, the regular composer of the James Bond films through to The Living Daylights, is a big mark of quality in my eyes.  If this film is any example, he learned quite a lot from Barry, and applied to with his own style that couldn’t have been better for this film.  Add in a little Jimi Hendrix “Purple Haze” and a solid upbeat rock/pop tune to close out the film, and you’ve got something that is greatly appealing and fun.  It’s a shame no soundtrack was ever released for Shakedown, and that aforementioned end credits song “Lookin’ For Love” by Nikki Ryder is really nowhere to be found.

As if I need to say it, I really, really liked this movie!  It was a lot of fun, and it gave me entertaining, dimensional leads with a lot of fresh chemistry and charisma to offer.  I cannot reiterate it strongly enough that Peter Weller is stellar in every second of screentime here.  I loved the character and his performance.  Meanwhile, Sam Elliott delivered beautifully on his end of things.  Shakedown was decently successful on its theatrical release grossing $10 million from a $6 million budget, and I think it deserves exposure to a wider audience.  I rented this off of iTunes, which has the film available for purchase or rental in high-definition widescreen.  I was thoroughly satisfied with this movie, which was released in international markets as Blue Jean Cop, and this gets my full fledged recommendation.  I will be glad to add this to my DVD collection, and I hope you will give this 112 minutes of your time.  It’s an exciting, fun ride that has a lot to offer the action movie fan.


Dead Man Down (2013)

Dead Man DownI only got turned onto the existence of this movie last week, and the trailer did blow me away.  It seemed like a very visually captivating piece of art in the violent crime genre.  I certainly do not feel the trailer was wholly misleading, as it does capture some of what the film has to offer, but it did give me a somewhat exaggerated expectation.  Dead Man Down is indeed a very good film from the director of the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev, with a slow building substance and good performances.  It felt like it was giving me a different approach to the revenge film archetype focusing more on the emotional depth of those affected by these tragedies instead of delving into the clichéd Death Wish type of scenario.  I do have some critiques to levy against the movie, partly due to expectations, but in general, I did find some enjoyment with Dead Man Down.

Victor (Colin Farrell), a rising gangland player, has infiltrated the crime empire run by ruthless kingpin Alphonse (Terrence Howard), with the single purpose of making Alphonse pay for destroying his once happy life.  As he meticulously orchestrates his vengeance from his high-rise home, Victor watches and is watched by Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a mysterious young woman who lives in the apartment across from his. On the surface a fragile woman-child, Beatrice seethes with a rage of her own.  When she uncovers Victor’s dark secrets, she threatens to expose him unless he helps her carry out her own campaign of retribution.  Each fixated on avenging the past, they devise a violent and cathartic plan that could change their worlds forever.

As I said, this film focuses on its emotionally and physically scarred victims of injustice instead of shoot ‘em up action.  That’s what really captivated me about the film as it went on.  It does take a while for the film to get into the depth of our protagonists, but that ultimately fits with the film’s style.  It slowly builds the relationship between Victor and Beatrice from a fractured need for violent retribution to something far more of the heart and soul.  This slow development might not be for everyone, but I did enjoy those moments when the film arrived at them.  The gradual progression paid off well, and that’s mainly due to the very good performances and the quality of the direction.

While I’ve rarely seen the potential of Colin Farrell fully realized on film, I’ve had a lot of faith in his talent, and I like seeing him in films.  There are a few I do need to see where he is very charismatic and potentially wildly entertaining.  In this film, we get subtlety and depth.  We, firstly, see the glimpses into his character’s pain.  The tragic loss he has endured is shown through in very touching moments of him watching a home movie of his family.  Where the standard action revenge film has the lead essentially turning into the Punisher, this film highlights the pain within and deals with the substantive choices of the heart and mind that these actions have.  What we see grow out of the relationship with Beatrice is indeed a rediscovery of humanity for him.  Colin Farrell really made me feel the anguish of the love Victor forges with Beatrice.  It’s genuine and touching, and it’s what makes the film worthwhile.

Noomi Rapace is equally excellent.  I felt for Beatrice possibly even more than Victor.  Her life has also been shattered, but she is left with the physical scars to always remind her of what she’s lost.  The injustice she has faced is internally and externally crippling.  The neighborhood kids assault her, insult her by calling her “monster.”  Her pain evokes sympathy at every turn, and her screaming at Victor to give her revenge is something we cannot fault her for.  Rapace puts in a beautiful performance of heartbreaking depth, but also, we see that heart mend along the way.  She and Farrell do work very well together striking a substantive emotional chord that resonates.  I was emotionally effected several times during their most painful and poignant scenes together.  With the direction of Niels Arden Oplev, these scenes are given weight and prominence through fine cinematography and effective use of music.

Now, I also really like Terrence Howard as an actor.  I’ve seen him in enough to really enjoy his charisma and intelligence.  As Alphonse, he does carry some very good weight.  It’s not a powerhouse performance, but he does get his scenes to shine in.  He can be ruthless and cunning as well as a little bit intimidating.  I did like what he did in this role, but I do feel there could’ve been more added to him.  While we know what he has done to deserve this methodical campaign of torment and revenge, we never really see him doing anything on-screen to further that perception of a vile, cold blooded crime lord.  Alphonse does still have people he answers to in the hierarchy of organized crime, but we certainly get the impression he is substantially formidable.  I feel Howard’s best scene is when he meets with Victor to have him weed out the one responsible for this torment.  It’s an excellently staged, shot, and acted scene that I wish went on a little longer.  I felt it ended a little abruptly, but nonetheless, it is a stellar scene that I really liked.

The film also has some nice small performances by Armand Assante as Alphonse’s boss, and F. Murray Abraham as Victor’s Hungarian father-in-law.  Both actors bring their best quality forward to really give some strong support to these minor but no less pertinent characters.  Abraham certainly has more screentime to work with, and more emotional content to convey.  All the rest of the supporting cast does a really fine job.  No weak links here at all.

What action scenes there are in Dead Man Down are well done.  I particularly liked the chase / escape scene after Victor’s sniper attack.  It’s very well conceived and executed with stellar results.  While there is handheld camera work here, the editing is relatively conservative allowing for the geography of the action to be maintained.  I was never lost in these sequences.  The visual grammar was very solid and flowed nicely.  As always, that’s partly due to a very good editor that knows the right way to let the action play out in a coherent fashion.  The rest of it is an intelligent director and a damn good director of photography in the form of Paul Cameron.  He has previously worked with Michael Mann on Collateral and Tony Scott on Man on Fire.  Both films had very different styles, but were both helmed by filmmakers who knew how to competently and intelligently shoot action and hefty drama.  Dead Man Down is no different as it is very well shot with its own grounded style, but with special artistic touches that I found very intriguing and visually enjoyable.

The score by Jacob Groth, a regular collaborator with Oplev, is very well done accentuating the emotional strengths of the film.  Generally speaking, his work here is very effective and sets the right tones at the right times.  Not much really stood out, but his score was very pivotal in enhancing the moments of the film that hit my strongly on an emotional level.  I think that says plenty.  In the context of the movie, there’s only a single rap song, and that’s from the outset shootout sequence.  Admittedly, I am not a fan of that genre of music, but it was used quite well and I enjoyed its momentary inclusion.

The story we have here is presented and executed quite well.  While it did take a while to get me to a point where I connected with it, emotionally, it’s great once it does get there.  We finally get into the meat of the story that’s unfolding here, and I do believe Niels Arden Oplev does quite a good job at telling that story.  He never really rushes through anything.  He takes the time for the weight of the characters and their actions to be absorbed by the audience.  We get to understand what’s happening beneath the surface of these characters.  While I was never wholly energized by the film, I was engaged by it.  I do wish that the film delivered more on the artistic visual awe that I was ensnared by in the trailer, but as it is, I did generally enjoy what I experienced.

However, the main critique I have against the film is that the film really felt like it was building towards something more substantive and emotionally powerful than the climax it gave us.  Simply put, without delving into spoilers, we essentially get a straight up action sequence that more than borders on your standard action revenge film climax.  It’s not a badly done sequence, but it wasn’t mind blowing either.  That’s the one thing the trailer really drove me towards expecting – action scenes presented in an artistic, mind blowing fashion.  Something that would be visually beautiful while maintaining a graceful substance of emotion.  Thus, the climax left me underwhelmed.  It gives us a moment or two of substance, but aside from the initial fiery slow motion explosion, it’s generally your standard action film climax with gunfire everywhere and splashy stunts to jump start it all.  It felt a little shallow for a film that had so much depth, and a tad cliché for something that seemed to give us a fresher perspective on the revenge thriller idea.  I also felt that what happens to Alphonse was a little too much out of a B-grade action movie because it allowed for no emotional poignancy for the characters or story.  I think the film demanded something with more dramatic weight and emotional satisfaction.  Again, the climactic action sequence is well made, but from the artistic point of view, it left me wanting something more substantive.

I would buy Dead Man Down when it hits DVD.  I think it has enough admirable and valuable qualities that I could enjoy watching it again.  The performances are quite solid all around delving us into a realistic well of emotion.  The development of the love between Victor and Beatrice is beautifully done with two excellent actors really digging down deep to pull at my heartstrings a few times.  The film only has about three action scenes in it, and they are all well done.  Still, it is not something to expect a lot of excitement or high charisma for.  If there’s anything that does deter anyone from it, I believe it is that fact.  The film deals with subtle, grounded performances with a gradual pace that does pay off, but might leave some audiences cold.  You’re either going to become invested in these characters or you are not, and if not, then there’s really little else to engage your attention.  Now, you may notice a peculiar WWE Studios logo attached to this film, as in the professional wrestling company.  I really believe that’s only there because one of their wrestlers, Wade Barrett, has a very minor role as a mafia henchman.  He has maybe three or four lines in the whole movie, and is mostly background muscle in a suit.  WWE Studios likely had next to no creative input on this film as it’s certainly far above their low grade, cheap schlock standards.  Don’t let that peculiar logo at the start of the film throw you off.  Dead Man Down is mostly very good, but overall, it’s just pretty good.  Regardless of my trailer induced expectations, it does have a few shortcomings with the climax and the lack of a particular emotional veracity, but if any of what I’ve conveyed to you is to your tastes, I feel the movie is worth checking out in one form or another with the right set of expectations.


The Terminator (1984)

The TerminatorI have had a rather unusual view on The Terminator for the longest time.  I do consider it James Cameron’s best movie, and the best of this franchise.  These are for reasons of pacing and innovative filmmaking.  Yet, what I mainly consider this film as is not so much a science fiction movie, but essentially a techno-slasher film.  You’ve got a hulking, invincible juggernaut of a killer stalking and hunting down an innocent young woman.  That’s a bare bones plot description for both The Terminator and a Friday The 13th sequel.  The vibe of the movie is very relentless and evokes a very techno-horror hybrid ideology.  Beyond that quirk of perception, I do have many things to praise this film for that I feel James Cameron severely abandoned afterwards.

In the post-apocalyptic future of 2029, SkyNet, a super computer defense system wages a losing war against a human resistance which it is intent on exterminating.  In their desperation, the machines send an indestructible cyborg known as The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman whose unborn son will become mankind’s only hope.  In hopes of preserving humanity’s future, the human resistance sends soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time as well to protect Sarah.  But does he even stand a chance against the most unstoppable killing machine ever created?

Obviously, The Terminator has been widely praised since its release, and so, there’s not much I have to tell you that hasn’t already been said.  Regardless, most of these reviews are about what these films mean to me and the nature of cinema, in general.  James Cameron previously worked in the special effects world working on numerous lower budgeted pictures, but after a great deal of hard work and determination he scored his first major directorial job with this film.  The budget was tight, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s growing star power from the Conan films, there was a lot of credibility and weight put behind this.  Still, it wasn’t an easy task getting it made.  The restrictions of budget and resources really did work towards the film’s benefit.  It forced Cameron to be innovative and a bit of a guerilla filmmaker.  It’s a perfect example of better creativity through adversity.  As I mentioned in my Aliens review, I think once Cameron got a big budget and a lot of freedom as a filmmaker, he lost that edge and began to indulge in overly long films with far laxer pacing and storytelling techniques.  He was still innovative in the technical realm, but not so much in the creative one where tight storytelling was concerned.

What I find to be so intelligent and original with what Cameron did with The Terminator is how he maintained tension and a tight cohesion of the plot.  The main exposition in the film is dealt with in the midst of a car chase.  The excitement and danger are high, keeping the audience intently invested in every second, and Cameron uses that time for Kyle Reese to impart a great deal of exposition about himself, the T-800, and the future war.  In the vast majority of films, the exposition scene is a slow paced, quiet scene that is regularly the most derided scene in the film from the director’s perspective.  Cameron changes that all up, and makes it one of the most captivating scenes by melding it with an intense chase sequence.  From there, even the slower, character building scenes maintain some degree of urgency or dramatic electricity to never allow the film to lose your interest or attention.  If not in the hands of James Cameron’s innovative and visionary filmmaking talent, I could surely see this movie slipping down into a B-grade sci-fi film that you’d see premiere on late night Cinemax.  Believe me, those films do exist, and were heavily inspired by this far superior film.  Having the right director at the helm can make a severe difference in whether a movie is brilliance or cheap exploitation fare.

This film is expertly shot with strong, sharp focus on every detail and bit of action.  The night scenes are definitely gritty creating a dangerous edge and energy that wholly serves the tone and vibe of the picture.  It brilliantly reflects the “tech noir” theme of the movie, showing us the dark side of technology.  Cameron and his director of photography Adam Greenberg do a marvelous job all around.  All of the action is shot with skill, dramatic weight, and great storytelling ability.  Just in the way it is shot, The Terminator looks and feels like a 1984 film, and in all the best ways.  It might have its rough edges here and there, but they work so excellently towards the energy of the picture.  Overall, you can see the great, deliberate insert and close-up shots that establish and enhance the mood and tension of the film.  The slow motion sequences are beautifully and masterfully done creating so much tension and dramatic anticipation.  The editing of Mark Goldblatt is some of the tightest, most dead-on-the-mark work I’ve ever seen.  There’s not an extraneous frame anywhere in the runtime of this movie.  Every shot has purpose and cohesion to the kinetic and emotional beats of the story.  Action directors of today should go back and watch this movie to see how you competently direct, shoot, and edit an action sequence.   The car chases are great, but the entire police station massacre is insanely tense and masterfully shot and edited.  It’s a major action set piece of the film, and it could not have been executed any better than it was.  Yet, the climax is able to top that with a long series of action sequences from a car chase to the explosions to the final industrial plant confrontations.  It continues to hammer home the seemingly indestructible nature of the Terminator as it continues to come back from one fiery explosion after another.  It’s a frightening action climax where the monster simply will not die while our heroes continue to suffer more and more injuries hindering their ability to continue running away.

Michael Biehn is absolutely amazing as Kyle Reese.  What strikes me first is the weathered, war torn quality of his performance.  Reese does seem like a guy who has been through the darkest parts of hell on earth with both the psychological and physical scars to show for it.  Biehn also has great physical intensity such as during the initial car chase where Reese is imparting the exposition to Sarah.  There’s a depth of urgency, fear, and heart with every word he delivers.  It creates someone that’s not just an action centric soldier, but a man with a solid core of humanity.  The pain of Kyle Reese is deep seeded, and the trauma and pain that he has endured comes through in the texture of Biehn’s performance.  This is a guy who does initially seem like an intimidating threat, almost serial killer like, but that intensity and frayed exterior are molded into a fascinating, sympathetic character that an audience deeply cares for before too long.  Biehn’s romantic chemistry with Linda Hamilton is wonderful, and the tenderness that forms between them makes this so much more than just a testosterone fueled action picture.  It has a lot of depth that has always been a strength of James Cameron’s films.  He always seems to create very dimensional lead characters which enhance the nature of the films they populate.  Why Michael Biehn’s acting career didn’t soar to greater heights after this movie is a mystery to me.  It certainly did for Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.

It goes without saying that this was one of Arnold’s defining roles.  While Conan the Barbarian was a big success, this propelled him into a whole new level of stardom.  What he does at The Terminator was instantly iconic with only eighteen lines of dialogue.  The deliberate movement and restrained mannerisms he devised for this Terminator create a cold, threatening, dominating screen presence.  I have seen other lower grade actors attempt to approximate this sort of robotic performance, but Arnold just had something special.  It’s the whole package from his size and build to the choice of punk or leather attire to the calculating way he surveys a scene.  You can view a methodical yet relentless intelligence behind everything the Terminator does, and Schwarzenegger just hit it perfectly on the mark.  There’s not a moment where you don’t take him as a serious, menacing threat, and after that is all solidly established by him, it carries over seamlessly when the flesh is burnt off and it’s just Stan Winston’s animatronic endoskeleton.  While almost everyone seems to love when Arnold does the cheesy action films, I feel his best work is in the more serious roles because it creates a challenge for him.  He has to dedicate himself to a far stronger character, and create something that stands out in a dramatic fashion.  There are a lot of cheesy action heroes out there, but not many who can pull off the really serious, iconic roles such as Conan, the Terminator, or Dutch in Predator.  Arnold can do both equally well, and that’s much of why he’s the action movie legend that he is today.

This film was especially pivotal to Linda Hamilton’s career, and the reasons why are vibrantly evident.  While, as Sarah Connor, we see a great deal of panic and fear, it is all mixed in with a genuine sense of humanity.  Sarah’s an average woman thrust into an extraordinarily intense and dangerous scenario, but ultimately, we see her inner strength shine through.  When you first see her as a lowly waitress, you could never imagine she could come to survive and fight through this frightening, lethal experience with as much resilience as she ultimately displays.  Hamilton gives us the full spectrum of emotion in an impressive dimensional performance that also adds in a layer of romanticism.  The build up to the love scene between Sarah and Kyle is beautifully touching, and would be able to squeeze tears out of the more emotional audience members.  That tenderness and depth of love and passion triggers the greater strength of the film that I mentioned before.  It is a love scene that is not there for the sake of skin and titillation, but for the sake of love itself.  At the film’s end, you can see the subtle seeds of what we will see Sarah become in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  In this film, Linda Hamilton is absolutely excellent giving us a sympathetic and strong character that stands the test of time.

And I have to mention the excellent performances of Lance Henriksen and the late Paul Winfield.  Henriksen has some great humorous dialogue that is just enough off-kilter to be memorable.  We’re so used to seeing Henriksen playing rather dark, disturbed characters, and so, it is a wonderful treat seeing him enjoy this upbeat, charismatic character.  Winfield was always a stellar, sophisticated acting talent, and while Lieutenant Traxler has his streetwise qualities, he is a compassionate and intelligent commanding officer.  He strikes the perfect balance between entertaining, charming character and capable, seasoned cop.  Many films like this would paint all the cops as unlikeable fools, somewhat like Dr. Silberman is (appropriately enough), but instead, Cameron maintains his sense of humanity in these characters along with casting superb actors to realistically embody those qualities.

While the animatronics, stop motion, and optical effects work largely appears dated next to today’s sleeker digital effects, especially with the work done in the sequels, I think that gritty, rough edged effects work here benefits the overall style and feel of this movie.  The stop motion animation in the climax evokes more of that techno-horror feeling taking the scary skeleton of the haunted house and meshing it with a dark science fiction menace.  Stan Winston did an amazing job with all the physical effects further cementing his stature as an effects wizard and master of creature designs.  Having clocked in stunning work with the Terminator, Predator, and Alien franchises, his quickly earned legendary status is no surprise.  The visual effects were handled by Fantasy II, and for a mid-80s low budget science fiction picture, they did an excellent job.  Combined with Cameron’s vibrant vision, they achieved something that really grabbed audiences’ attention at that time, and truly captivated their imagination.  The brief future war sequences are stellar.  The only thing I ever mark as a negative is the use of rear screen projection, which Cameron would use again in Aliens.  It just never looks convincing, especially when compared to good quality blue screen composites.  Regardless of that, these were very eye-opening effects in 1984, and they entirely serve the film’s dark, gritty tone.

The synthesizer based score done by Brad Fiedel encapsulates that tense, dark atmosphere of The Terminator.  The compositions alone are excellent, and the main theme has become iconic.  The use of the metallic percussion reflects the cold, mechanical heart of the Terminator, and gives us a rather chilling, ominous feeling whenever it appears.  So many other cues are done with great feel for the intensity of their respective sequences maintaining the weight of the drama and action.  Many instances again evoke a high tension horror atmosphere such as whenever the Terminator is seconds away from killing Sarah.  The synthesizer sound perfectly fits for a 1984 tech-noir action film as it simply enhances that oppressive technological theme, and is an obvious sign of the times.  However, it can get elegant and beautiful during the aforementioned love scene.  Fiedel takes that heavy, almost claustrophobic type main theme, and rearranges it into a piano love theme that is sad, touching, and wonderfully gorgeous.  While Fiedel would blow it out of the water with his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, what he does here is a solid, excellent fit for the kinetic energy and tense danger that is so tightly wrapped in this film while highlighting the depth that the film has to offer.

The Terminator is really amazingly well written.  As I said, Cameron is able to raise the concept above the standard action movie fare by injecting dimension and emotional depth into his story and characters.  They live and breathe as realistic people that an audience can attach themselves to, and that makes the rather fantastical story gritty, believable, and gripping.  The dialogue is honest and real showcasing distinct personalities that leave a lasting impression, and with the stellar casting, it couldn’t be any more pitch perfect.  It’s not just those iconic one-liners from Schwarzenegger or Biehn that make it great.  It’s every nuanced quality of the characters and depth of the story being told that have made The Terminator a classic.  Arnold Schwarzenegger has done movies with far more quotable dialogue, but they do not match the filmmaking quality and intelligence of this one.  That is all due to the innovative creativity and artistic talent of James Cameron.

James Cameron had a vibrant vision for this movie, and was intensely driven to realize it on film.  While he hasn’t lost vision, I do think he’s lost a number of exciting qualities that made The Terminator so exceptional.  He used to be able to tell amazing and captivating stories in innovative and exciting ways.  Even if the storytelling rhythm and cohesion became more lax in his subsequent films, we were still treated to things we hadn’t seen before, and were given stories that ignited our imaginations while still touching us deep in our hearts.  The Terminator is an excellent example of what made Cameron a fascinating and awesome filmmaker for many years.  However, as his budgets got bigger and his ego became overinflated, I just think he stopped caring about the story and characters, and was just more enamored with the evolution of visual effects and filmmaking technology.  I would really wonder if someone gave James Cameron a $6.4 million budget today, could he still make a film as well made as this one.

This if my favorite film of the entire Terminator franchise, and I consider it the best film James Cameron has made.  This is for the reasons of the tightness of the storytelling where not a scene, moment, or frame is wasted.  While even Terminator 2 took the time it needed to tell the story it had to tell, I just love the relentless momentum of this movie.  It has its character building scenes wrapped up nicely between and within the action sequences.  No part of the film ever drags on.  Coupled with all the amazing talents from the actors to the special effects mastery to the cinematography and editing, The Terminator is a lightning strike of stardom and awesomeness.  I take nothing away from its 1991 blockbuster sequel, but there is just something so riveting about the lean and smart storytelling in this film that sets it apart for me.  It’s that guerilla filmmaker mentality of better creative through adversity and budgetary restraints that sparks my love for The Terminator.  Cameron showed the talent he had despite the restrictions of the production, and made a big impact when this hit theatres.  Everyone who worked on the film believed strongly in it and Cameron’s ability to make it happen.  It’s that ambition and hard working dedication which can set the exceptional filmmakers apart from all the others.  This is a film that should be on every action and science fiction film fan’s must-see list.  And while it’s not my favorite Schwarzenegger movie, it is one of his best.


Urban Legend (1998)

Urban LegendUrban legends in general are quite fascinating to me.  I’ve spent many late night hours reading through whole websites dedicated to these modern day myths, and they are a fertile ground for an imaginative horror movie.  Of course, this movie came out in the wake of Scream and does a lot to follow in that style.  Unfortunately, it was an extreme rarity that any of those types of trend cash-ins were any good.  I clearly remember seeing this on opening weekend and regarding it as not scary at all.  In no way do I expect that sentiment to change after fifteen years.  I’m reviewing this because it was high time I got back to some very critical reviewing, and nothing’s better than a disappointing post-modern slasher film for that task!

When New England college student Natalie (Alicia Witt) finds herself at the center of a series of sadistic murders seemingly inspired by urban legends.  Natalie and her friends are all involved in the Folklore class being taught by Professor Wexler (Robert Englund).  Wexler regales his class with urban legends, which include Pendleton’s own urban legend about a Psych professor who murdered six students at Stanley Hall 25 years ago.  As the fraternities prepare to celebrate the macabre anniversary, and Natalie’s friends fall victim to this axe wielding murderer, she discovers that she is the focus of the crazed killer’s intentions in the ultimate urban legend – the story of her own horrific murder.

This is not a badly made movie.  It has respectable, polished production values and top notch gore effects.  Cinematography is wholly competent with solid compositions and smart camera moves punctuating the dramatic moments.  The editing is mostly great, side from the gimmicky flash cuts.  So, I think the problem with the effectiveness of this movie is that these urban legends are so terribly familiar to us that the movie becomes damn predictable.  There’s little tension or suspense when you know how the kills are supposed to be plotted out.  While playing them out verbatim perfectly fits in with the killer’s ultimate motives, creatively, it would have been more effective to put a fresh twist on them.  Have them play out not exactly as you would expect them to, but still be evocative of the classic tales.  Of course, the various false jump scares don’t help matters either.

The red herrings we get as to the identity of the killer are also quite underwhelming.  They are dashed about as quickly as they are brought up.  This sort of thing worked better in Scream where no one was ever entirely absolved of potential guilt in the eyes of the audience.  Everyone was an equally viable suspect, but here, the suspects are not very credible nor are they main characters.  They show up for two or three scenes total.  The main characters are not implicated as the potential killer, and that evaporates a lot of heightened tension and paranoia that could have existed in the movie.  As it is, there’s not much focus put on who the killer is, but more the methods that this killer uses.

And one last negative critique would be that the look of the killer is not all that intimidating.  A relatively small statured person in a hooded parka leaves a lot to be desired in the realm of chilling imagery.  All the great, iconic slashers have not only a instantly recognizable, unmistakable look to them, but they also have a distinct personality in how they move and act.  This slasher, which doesn’t even have a name to its credit, comes off entirely generic with no distinct personality in its movements.  This takes away a lot of the menace this killer could have had, and thus, further adds to the lack of effective horror in this movie.  While Ghostface was a different person in each Scream movie, the image of Ghostface was iconic and carried a strong weight of horror with him.  The Urban Legend slasher is just terribly forgettable.  If this killer wasn’t wielding an axe, you wouldn’t feel any serious imposing threat from him/her at all.  I think my critiques hold weight with the makers of the sequel Urban Legends: Final Cut since they entirely revamped the look of their killer.

Still, the film has a few exciting sequences such as when the killer is chasing Tara Reid’s Sasha.  It’s fairly intense and suspenseful as Sasha tries to evade this axe wielding maniac.  Shortly thereafter, the climactic chase sequence in the storming rain is pretty good with some good tension and strenuous physicality for Alicia Witt.  Proving my point, this is when the killer turns away from urban legend themed kills, and just starts going after people full boar.  These are the scenes that work because they’re not so predictable.  They keep an audience more on edge in the midst of random peril.  They’re surely not wholly original inventions in the slasher genre, but they are staples of it because they are effective.  So, it is that final 20-30 minutes which actually become intense and suspenseful, but for a 100 minute horror movie, that’s not very adequate.

On the acting end of things, Alicia Witt delivers a solid leading performance making Natalie sweet, vulnerable, smart, and tough.  I like when she punches Joshua Jackson’s Damon Brooks right in the face after a bad come-on in a parked car showing there’s some assertiveness in her.  Witt is a strong actress with a lot of talent to her credit.  Plus, she’s a beautiful redhead, and I absolutely adore redheads.  Jared Leto has a decent performance here as college newspaper reporter Paul Gardner, but his character just doesn’t have much personality on the page to speak of.  Paul’s constantly trying to pry information out of everyone for his news story, but he doesn’t come off as the least bit imposing or ethically objectionable as that statement would suggest.  Rebecca Gayheart is a fine talent working well as Natalie’s best friend Brenda, but offering little more, initially, than the qualities of the supportive friend.  The latter end of the film gives her a lot more juicy material to work with that she really sinks her teeth into, and does an excellent job with.

Now. Michael Rosenbaum is plain awesome.  After seeing him for so many years as Lex Luthor on Smallville it’s great seeing his comedic charisma in full swing here as the fun loving Parker.  He’s charged up with energy and personality to spare, but Rosenbaum has enough charm to shy it away from becoming obnoxious.  Tara Reid has a great promiscuous role as the saucy, sexually charged radio talk show host Sasha.  Halloween franchise alumnus Danielle Harris clocks in as Natalie’s Goth roommate Tosh.  It’s a good minor performance, and she looks quite hot in all that black garb.

Urban Legend features some notable horror legends in Robert Englund and Brad Dourif.  Both of which put in solid performances.  Dourif portrays a stuttering gas station attendant at the film’s start, and he’s sufficiently creepy.  Englund gives Professor Wexler plenty of dignity and a little bit of theatrical edge for a strong, respectable performance.  Both actors put a good measure of enthusiasm and quality into their roles here, and are small highlights that gave this film particular notoriety upon release.

The film’s score is provided by Christopher Young, who also did the music for the first two Hellraiser movies and last year’s highly effective horror film Sinister.  Here, he does a far more understated but still admirable job.  It has plenty of strong, tense cues throughout, and is probably a notch above the standard slasher film fare.

Now, I do really like the dark, shameful secret that Natalie has in her past, and how it ties into the motivation of the killer.  It is all smartly and realistically put together.  It makes for a nice twist in the climax that does get setup from Natalie’s story earlier on.  The climax itself is pretty decent and typical for a slasher movie, but it’s surely far from terrible.  It delivers some satisfaction, but it’s nothing that will stick with you like the endings of Halloween or Friday The 13th.  The somewhat quirky coda fits for the movie, but also, doesn’t make a lot of sense.  It could’ve used a better resolution that was more pertinent to the actual characters and story.  It kind of goes with the half-baked feeling of the movie.  It had good ideas, but just didn’t do anything worthwhile with them.

Ultimately, this is a real disappointment of a slasher film that just isn’t scary at all.  They had a very talented cast to work with, and a premise that could’ve worked very well if it injected some original thinking into it.  Instead, it just comes off as generic and predictable.  The killer is entirely forgettable, and offers no menace or threatening presence.  Director Jamie Blanks does a respectable job with Urban Legend, but the script is just devoid of ambition.  He handles his cast exceptionally well, knows how to shoot a film very cinematically, and shows some talent for suspense.  Yet, the film fails because the script uses a gimmick purely at face value without trying to add anything fresh or innovative to it.  A killer offing people using urban legends is a clever idea, but screenwriter Silvio Horta progressed it no further than that.  I know Jamie Blanks can make a good slasher movie because he did it with his next film Valentine, which I think is quite underappreciated.  Given a stronger script, he can certainly deliver a much more effective product.  It certainly won’t hurt you to watch Urban Legend, but it’s nothing special you’re missing out on.  It did spawn two sequels that really were rather horrible that I would strongly advise avoiding.  I saw them each once, and that was more than enough for me.  This film is decent enough if you just need a mild way to kill 100 minutes.  It likely won’t make you cringe, depending on your slasher film tastes, but it likely won’t excite you either.