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Posts tagged “killers

Gunmen (1994)

GunmenThis is one of those movies I haven’t watched since the 1990’s, but I remember liking it a lot.  In watching it again, it’s amazing just how much of it I remember, which is a hell of a lot.  This might seem like an under the radar action movie, especially since it couldn’t even earn back half of its $8 million budget upon its theatrical release, but boasting a cast of Christopher Lambert, Mario Van Peebles, Denis Leary, and Patrick Stewart, it’s got respectable muscle.  That’s one thing that always struck me strongly about Gunmen in addition to Lambert and Van Peebles teaming up as buddies in this, and then, portraying enemies the following year in the third Highlander movie.  So, let’s see what Gunmen has to offer that I find so vastly entertaining.

A bounty hunter, Cole Parker (Mario Van Peebles), and a con man, Dani Servigo (Christopher Lambert), each have half the clues to the whereabouts of a $400 million treasure of stolen drug money.  Against their wills they are forced to team up to battle an elite squad of mafia assassins employed by the wheelchair bound Loomis (Patrick Stewart), and led by the ruthless Armor O’Malley (Denis Leary).  If Cole and Dani survive a relentless chase across a jungle and two continents, they will have to face each other because a half billion dollars is not enough to share.

Gunmen is a fun action film, but one with heart, character, and dramatic weight.  This all comes to us from Deran Sarafian, the director of Death Warrant, and screenwriter Stephen Sommers, who would go on to director Deep Rising, The Mummy, and various other fun big action movies.  This seems to be a really good pairing.  Sommers’ writing creates a fun concept with strong characters and his signature dashes of fun and humor.  Sarafian grounds the movie with a real grit which mixes serious consequence with a thrilling ride.  He makes it a harder edged action movie than Sommers typically would make, and that style perfectly works for this film.  Plus, I like that the film hits the ground running dropping us into events already in motion as everyone is already on the trail of Dani and the money.  That rhythm and tempo remains constant throughout the film propelling every event forward briskly.  There’s very little slowing down in Gunmen, and because of that, these filmmakers are able to tightly pack a lot of exciting content into the 90 minute runtime.

I also really like that this film is a bunch of criminals, mercenaries, thieves, and bounty hunters running amuck.  There’s not a law enforcement presence anywhere at all.  Lots of betrayals, distrust, and personal agendas twist the plot around making it fun and interesting.  This keeps every character on their toes, and allows for some spontaneous moments of drama and humor to occur that just add to the fun factor.  At its core, Gunmen is a buddy action film headed up by an incredibly perfectly pair of actors who give it vibrant life.

Frankly, any movie where Christopher Lambert is having a good time is a winner for me just on entertainment value alone.  His character of Dani Servigo is full of laughs all the way.  Where Mario Van Peebles is the straight arrow and dramatic anchor of the duo, Lambert is the comedy, but is not farcical.  These two have excellent chemistry together, and Van Peebles is able to get his fair share of humor into the mix.  Once they spark off that chemistry, the film becomes more and more fun.  The banter between them made me laugh so much.  It’s a real delight.  And Van Peebles really shows a lot of worth leading this film with a strong weight, charisma, and edge.  Cole Parker is a definite tough bounty hunter able to hold his own against anyone, and is portrayed as a very smart, sharp, and cunning professional.  Yet, while there’s a lot of fun, Gunmen still finds those quiet moments of character building and heart-to-heart scenes to maintain substance.  Cole and Dani solidly bond together, but they still have their fun adversarial moments such as Dani shooting Cole in the leg to keep him from running off with the money and Cole later returning the favor to sharp, clever comic effect.

I severely love Denis Leary.  He is a great comedian, but he has always impressed me with his dramatic work.  I especially love his turns in Judgment Night and Suicide Kings, and here, he plays vicious bastard immensely effectively.  Leary’s cynical humor is perfectly molded into an edgy, charismatic, sadistic, and bad ass villain.  Armor O’Malley is a perfect mercenary out for himself, and willing to double-cross anyone for his own betterment.  Leary’s sarcastic charisma fuels the performance and makes Armor an entertaining enemy all the way through.

Patrick Stewart’s role as Loomis is not expansive, but by no doubt, is solidly portrayed.  You see this feeble man in body and mind ordering around Armor and his hired guns, and you can perceive someone who once had a strength and authority to him.  However, age and circumstance have diminished him, and his sad double-cross departure in the film seems only inevitable.  With Stewart in this role, it certainly adds a special notoriety to the character which elevates Loomis’ importance in the plot.

Lambert, Van Peebles, and Leary, along with many of their supporting co-stars, prove to be very action capable actors.  As the title suggests, there is a very generous amount of intense gunplay and shootouts packed into the film, but there’s plenty of physicality and stunt work to behold.  There’s loads of excitement throughout especially when helicopters are involved.  That tight pace I mentioned before completely adds to the exciting momentum of the action.  It just keeps on coming allowing for very little time to slow down, but it does have it s well timed breaths between the blazing thrills.  The climax has everyone in a sort of cat-and-mouse game aboard a luxury motor boat, and it is very cleverly and sharply executed.  I love how this is all shot keeping this a little shadowy to give the sequence some visual edge.  Overall, the film is really damn well shot in the cinemascope anamorphic format from the director of photography of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  The quality of the cinematography really enhances every fun, thrilling moment of Gunmen.

I also really enjoyed the score by John Debney.  Since the film is set in South America, we get some Latin flavor in the music that blends in beautifully with Spanish guitars and percussion.  The action scenes have some very good and original driving beats which hold to that musical style.  It’s really a wonderful piece of work from the man who would later score Sudden Death, Sin City, Predators, and Iron Man 2.  This film also incorporates a lot of early-to-mid 90’s hip hop / rap music very well.  It’s surely not my genre of music, but they are all very good songs which aid the vibe the film is going for.  After all these years, the opening title track of “Bite The Bullet” by Kid Frost has stuck firmly in my mind, and I think that says quite a lot.

I honestly think I enjoyed Gunmen more now than I did years ago.  It really is a solid, fun, enjoyable action movie with a fully charismatic cast that doesn’t disappoint.  There’s near wall-to-wall action with a full helping of laughter between Lambert and Van Peebles’ superb chemistry.  There are only a few films that really exemplify my preferred style of 1990’s action films, and this is definitely one of them.  Really tight pacing with a grounded sensibility that still has its tone opened up for great fun.  The film doesn’t get cheesy or diminish the grit of its action by adding in those humorous elements.  It all works very cohesively for a well-rounded piece of entertainment.  This is just a movie of pure enjoyment right from the start and it only builds as it progresses.  While Gunmen got the shaft on DVD in the United States as a pan-and-scan edition, I was very pleased to find it on iTunes in its proper widescreen format for purchase or rental in standard or high definition.  If you’re looking for a really solidly made action film with intense excitement and a lot of laughs, you really cannot go wrong with Gunmen.  I give it a very strong recommendation.


Die Hard (1988)

Die HardI’ve made some mentions of the Die Hard clone in recent months in reviews of Sudden Death, Olympus Has Fallen, and more.  Now, just because you’re the first do something, or the one who sets the trend doesn’t always mean you did it best.  However, in the case of John McTiernan’s blockbuster action film Die Hard, there is simply no equal.  While I don’t list it as my number one favorite of all time, I cannot deny that this is likely the best action movie ever made, and there are a lot of qualities that go into making it that exceptionally awesome.

NYPD Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) has come to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company’s holiday party.  However, as he waits for the festivities to end, the entire building is taken over by a heavily armed team perceived as terrorists, but their sinister leader, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), reveals that his interest is purely in greed.  As the hostages are rounded up, McClane slips away with only his service revolver and his cunning wits at his disposal.  What begins as a perfectly planned crime quickly ignites into McClane waging a one man war to save everyone before they are all blown sky high.

There are many things that set Die Hard apart from everything else, but I think the biggest key of it are the characters.  Beyond just the performances, this film takes its time to introduce them to you, and allow for their dynamics and personalities to play out before any of the action begins.  This is mainly the development between John and Holly McClane.  Their turbulent marriage is fleshed out in smart, subtle beats that never feel like exposition, just natural conversation.  These are real, relatable people in a grounded reality with normal problems that are soon thrust into an extraordinary situation, and because we get to know these characters through levity and emotional conflict, we care greatly about them once peril befalls them.  Even the villains are given their due time to feel fleshed out and dimensional such as how Hans Gruber discusses men’s suits, art, and culture with Takagi before threatening him with a gun for the password to his vault.  These moments make Gruber an interesting and engaging villain who has a fairly equal amount of depth to John McClane.  This way, it is also a battle of wits and personalities as much as it is a pure action conflict.  This is so much due to the time director John McTiernan and his screenwriters took to slip those important character building moments into the film, and that makes it a greatly more substantive action film that you would regularly get in any decade.

Now, the 1980’s were filled with the larger than life, nigh indestructible action hero.  Then, comes along John McClane.  This guy who is as vulnerable as the rest of us that gets beaten up, his feet sliced up by glass, bleeds everywhere, feels fear, and gets progressively worse for wear as the film goes on.  All the while, under the intense stress of a violent life or death scenario, he’s cracking wise with everyone left and right just doing what he can to cope and survive.  Where a Rambo or John Matrix type would just burst in blazing a full arsenal to wipe out everyone, McClane has to be clever and cautious every step of the way against these extremely well-armed killers.  All he has is his wits, and Bruce Willis’ well established comedic talents blended perfectly into the quick witted quips of McClane.  I’m sure there was speculation abound leading up to this film’s release as to Willis’ ability to be an action hero because of doing so many comedies, but he was able to bring a completely unique identity to this role that is hard to match.  While it is the wisecracks that we remember so much, the purely human moments of drama really sell this character as one that stands apart from so many others.  Bruce Willis really shows that he could do the full spectrum of acting here as he leads this film with charisma, heart, and physical intensity.  He brings a fresh dimension and grounded realism to McClane that makes him the beloved, very human, bad ass icon that we so love.

Just how McClane is a distinct departure from the action heroes of the day, Hans Gruber distinguishes himself from many of the over the top, cheesy villains of the 80’s.  Alan Rickman is brilliant as Hans Gruber.  What truly makes this so is that he’s not obvious at all.  Gruber is a guy who is smart, charming, smooth, educated, and charismatic.  Yet, he’s a calculated, clever, ruthless villain.  You can see that Gruber had every single detail of this plan plotted out perfectly, and is able to outsmart and keep ahead of everyone except for the one wild card in his brilliant crime in John McClane.  As much of an sociopathic, murderous villain as Gruber is, you can be thoroughly entertained by the charisma and intelligence Alan Rickman injects into him, but you still rejoice when McClane finally does him in.

A little unexpected humor arises from the less than sharp minded LAPD and FBI.  Paul Gleason’s Chief Robinson is clearly in over his head exercising clear incompetence while thinking he’s got everything under control.  Then, FBI Agents Johnson and Johnson, a joke in and of itself, are too full of themselves with their gung ho testosterone to be perceptive enough to know when they’re being played.  Add in more competent, yet still funny characters like Argyle the limo driver and Theo, Hans’ charismatic safe cracker, you’ve got laughs for miles without damaging the serious integrity of the action and drama of the movie.  This is seriously one of the most quotable action movies ever.

Yet, amidst all the explosive thrills and well-timed humor, we get the tether of humanity with Sergeant Al Powell.  Reginald VelJohnson connects perfectly in this role bringing the tired, wounded, and alone McClane into contact with someone on the outside who can be a moral and emotional support.  An action film is great when the thrills are exciting and bombastic, but you get something exceptional when this thread of humanity is so strongly in place.  VelJohnson gives us the full spectrum from lovable and funny to heartfelt and compassionate to stern conviction.  Powell is ultimately given some depth and substance showing that this film wasn’t going to take a shortcut anywhere at all.  The very human moments between Powell and McClane are a special strength.

But indeed, the action is ultimately the driving force of this movie, and once that spark of excitement is lit, it runs on pure adrenalin with riveting intensity and masterful execution.  This is big action with a real sense of gravity and peril.  The scale makes it amazingly fun and exciting while the weight of the drama makes it suspenseful and electrifying.  I love the subplot with Karl’s vendetta against McClane for the murder of his brother, and when the two finally clash, it’s awesome.  After all of the heavy gunfire and explosions, the few minutes of visceral raw physicality are a breath of fresh air before the scale of the action escalates further with the roof exploding signaling the third act rocketing forward.  Die Hard does nothing but amaze you at every turn.  Every step of the way, we care about these characters in the thick of danger, and we gradually see it escalate as Gruber’s plan unfolds.  It’s also great seeing McClane figure things out a little at a time, such as wondering why Hans was on the roof, and then, realizing he plans to blow it sky high with all the hostages on it.

I tend to write these reviews while watching the movie so to pick up on all the nuances, but Die Hard is so consistently engaging, thrilling, and entertaining that I could hardly tear my attention away to type anything up.  Whether it is the absolutely wickedly awesome action, the touching character building moments, or the great laughs it elicits from an audience, Die Hard is the perfect example of executing an action film correctly.  There’s not a moment wasted, and the editing is dead-on sharp and perfect in its pacing and timing.  Moments are so excellently punctuated with the right cut, and even more so with Michael Kamen’s remarkably intense and spectacular score.  His is a masterwork of brilliant, sophisticated action film compositions.  Not to mention, this is an expertly shot movie using those beautiful anamorphic lenses and that cinemascope widescreen canvas to accentuate the scale of the action.  And where many action films today can barely keep the camera steady long enough to understand the geography of a single scene, McTiernan and cinematographer Jan de Bont do so many subtle things to layout the geography of this entire building.  Early on, they walk you through the entire central area of the Nokatomi Tower over the opening credits so you understand where the hallways, elevator, offices, and stairway are so we can navigate it as competently as the characters.  As the film goes on, we revisit the conference room, the elevator shafts, and the roof to maintain a familiar environment for the action.  As a film lover and a filmmaker myself, this movie just makes me gush from a technical standpoint as it is so perfectly executed in every moment.  This film is exquisitely made from a massively talented team of filmmakers, sonic geniuses, and brilliant visual artists.

This film was adapted from the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, and many of the mind blowing and clever moments in the film are taken directly from the novel.  McClane’s jump from the exploding roof with the fire hose wrapped around him, the C-4 bomb thrown down the elevator shaft, and more exist in Thorp’s novel.  Apparently, it was a novel written as a sequel to The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra, but he declined the role.  Years later, it was supposedly intended as a sequel to Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, before being re-fashioned into the action classic that we now know and love.  Indeed, everything has its right time to come to fruition, and Die Hard happened in the right way at the right time with the right talent.

Between this and Predator, John McTiernan established himself as one of the premiere action movie directors of the time, and of course, this launched Bruce Willis into blockbuster super stardom.  Despite how Willis now feels about doing action movies, saying he’s bored with them at this point, we will always have these pinnacles of the genre when Willis was in his prime and eager to do his absolute best.  Die Hard is probably the most perfect action movie I have ever seen as it hits all of the beats of excitement and character just right with a spot-on mix of drama and humor to make it an undeniably memorable experience.  For anyone who has only ever seen either the fourth or fifth film in this franchise, you are doing a horrible disservice to yourself in basing the quality of Die Hard on those films.  As I said from the start, there is simply no equal.


Into The Night (1985)

I have rarely done reviews on comedies because it’s difficult to analyze them very much.  It’s either funny or its not.  Of course, different things make different people laugh, and so, it’s far more subjective than a drama or action movie.  However, there is this 1985 movie from John Landis that sparked my interest in the past year.  The  plot sounded like just my kind of thing.  A wild, humorous adventure of people on the run from dangerous criminals through the night streets of Los Angeles.  Sort of evoking the idea of a comedic Michael Mann film.  Unfortunately, this movie shares a lot of problems with Mann’s underwhelming and momentum starved Miami Vice feature film, which I have previously reviewed here.  There are a few bright spots, but the execution and pacing of this film are its greatest flaws.

Upon discovering that his wife is having an affair, depressed insomniac Ed Okin (Jeff Goldblum) drives to the airport on the suggestion of his friend and co-worker Herb (Dan Aykroyd), where he is abruptly ensnared by a beautiful Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) into her escape from four armed Iranians.  Diana persuades Ed into driving her to various locations as he becomes entangled in her predicament.  As their adventure spirals further out of control, Ed leverages the truth from Diana who reveals she has smuggled priceless emeralds from the Shah of Iran’s treasury into the country, and is being pursued by numerous foreign criminal elements.  Ed and Diana cautiously navigate through this treacherous journey to where they become romantically connected.

Generally, I like the premise of this film.  It has the potential to be very entertaining, if put into the right hands.  However, this really wasn’t.  Comedy is really about timing, rhythm, and personality.  Into The Night has no momentum to carry the intended situational humor along at a necessary rhythm or pace.  For a film about people on the run from violent criminals, it is a fairly slow paced feature.  It is very unlike John Landis’ The Blues Brothers which had those high energy moments to keep the story exciting and funny.  There are a few exciting action sequences in this film, but they are very scarce.  The story also doesn’t have any quick witted personalities to reel a mass audience in.

I have enjoyed Jeff Goldblum’s talent since Jurassic Park playing some off-beat characters that add a different flavor to the story or cast.  I don’t find any flaw with him in this movie.  It plays to a more subdued version of his signature style.  Being a guy with insomnia who has gone an unknown number of days without proper sleep, he can’t be highly charismatic and energetic.  Ed has to be a more low key guy because of his fatigue and slowed wits.  Many of us have gone without a proper night’s rest, and that alone impairs your mental capabilities.  I, myself, have gone a full thirty-six hours without sleep, and even that is enough to muddle one’s synaptic sharpness.  There is nothing wrong with what Goldblum did in this movie.  Playing the straight man can make you the most hilarious person in the movie.  Tommy Lee Jones in the Men in Black movies comes to mind, but it only works in contrast to something else.

Instead, all the other characters are very one note playing up a shallow characterization, and adding little to what should have been a cast of lively, eclectic characters.  They are generally peculiar and diverse, but there are no strong or charismatic personalities to allow any humor to thrive through them.  It’s all too low key, and too many people playing the straight man offering no overt humor.  I feel it would’ve been better to have just Ed be the singular low key character surrounded by more verbose people to create a contrast.  His drab and mundane life would be interrupted by all these vibrant, off-kilter characters that carry him along on a very bizarre adventure.  I also find it hard to grasp is that none of the characters are even trying to be funny.  They yell and argue with one another with no punch line, no humorous twist to create a laugh, or they drift through the movie playing it straight with a dull thud.  Everything is far too underplayed to be funny.  The fact is, I found very little about this film to be funny except for the physical comedy.  A little of that comes from Goldblum, but mostly from the dialogue devoid group of Iranians (of which director John Landis is one of them).  However, there is one excellent exception to all of this.

In the entire movie, the only person I feel hit the personality and charisma of what it needed was David Bowie.  His British hitman character of Colin Morris really jumps in with the right subtle crazy tone and wit.  He’s very proper and polite, but is clearly a psychopath that is both scary and amusing.  Bowie has only two scenes, but he easily steals the show with a richly developed character that is a prime example of what this film should’ve offered in spades.  Colin is both smartly humorous and lethally dangerous.  That’s a dynamic rich with comedic potential.  It really is Bowie’s charisma and delicate sense of tone that makes Colin Morris work.  How he is able to shift from funny to fearsome creates it’s own comedy.  Bowie clearly had a lot of fun playing this role, which is not something I saw much of from anyone else.  A comedy should seem like everyone is enjoying themselves, getting into their characters and having a wonderfully amusing time at it.  None of the other actors seemed to be having a great time on screen playing up their characters and finding their chemistry with the cast.

Fortunately, the musical score by blues legend B.B King is the true shining point of the movie.  It surely gives the whole film a wonderful, unique feel that suits a mostly nighttime set story.  With the right pacing and wit from the film itself, B.B. King’s music could’ve enhanced the rhythm and personality of the movie, but as it is, the blues tracks are just a cool listen that occasionally boost the film’s atmosphere.

As with most comedies of this time period, the cinematography is not much to speak of.  It’s really just a point and shoot mentality, like a sitcom.  So, it’s nothing I will hold against it.  Comedy films today do a lot more with polishing up the visual flare and photography of the movie to enhance their production values, but in the bulk of the ‘80s, that approach did not often exist.  If Into The Night had a little more vision and ambition behind it maybe it would have a little more visual style.

Again, the premise had promise.  I surely believe a remake with modern pacing and filmmaking mentalities could potentially turn this around into a more effective comedy.  Frankly, Into The Night needed more momentum, a faster pace to bring out the humor in the story instead of dragging along from one underwhelming scenario to the next.  The villainous characters should’ve been larger than life and more over the top to bolster laughs.  Goldblum plays his role well reacting to the few outrageous moments with subtle genius.  Michelle Pfeifer was a nice female lead, but was not quite as endearing as I believe her character should’ve been.  There could’ve been more chemistry sparked between Goldblum and Pfeifer, but like with everything else here, it’s not motivated strongly enough to create something special.  I think the filmmakers believed this movie had wit, but they could never hit it on the mark.  Some reviews have said it tried too hard for laughs.  In a way, maybe that is correct.  This film goes to great lengths to have an elaborate storyline filled with a large cast of characters.  It tries hard to find a place and a moment for each of them, but it only comes off as overbloated.  Comedy should never be complicated.  It should be simple, or at least, streamlined.  You throw too many elements into the joke, and you lose the effect of the punchline.  I think that is a perfect way to sum up this movie.  While the storyline is not confusing, it is overworked and a little self-indulgent.  By evidence of the massive amount of filmmaker cameos, there is a self-indulgent mentality in the approach to this feature film.  John Landis had a short window of inspired cinematic comedy brilliance, but it was more than twenty years ago.  Into The Night was a definite misstep during that high point era, but movies like Beverly Hills Cop III  and Blues Brothers 2000 show just how far and hard his movie career has fallen.

There are films I enjoy because of their potential, and to some degree, this is one.  A story that could’ve been made into an excellently hilarious film, but just achieved nearly nothing of that potential.  The film has shown up regularly on HBO or Cinemax in the last several months.  So, you shouldn’t need to spend money to check it out.  Just program your DVR if you’re fortunate enough to get those premium channels.  If not, it’s not a real loss.  There are countless more successfully funny movies out there to give you a healthy laugh than this one.