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Heat (1995)

Heat The year of 1995 is my favorite year in film giving us so many beloved favorites of mine such as Lord of Illusions, The Usual Suspects, Seven, In The Mouth of Madness, GoldenEye, The Prophecy, Strange Days, and more.  This year also gave us a brilliant union of powerhouse talents when Michael Mann brought together screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat.  While I consider Manhunter my favorite, and The Insider to be Mann’s best film, I cannot deny that Heat is a crime saga masterpiece.  It is finally Michael Mann refined and matured to a breath-taking level developing his signature concepts to perfection.  I can think of no more appropriate film to hold the honor of the 200th review on Forever Cinematic than Heat.

Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a master thief who lives by the simple discipline of “have nothing in your life you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the “heat” around the corner.”  His crew of career criminals is a high-tech outfit pulling off professional jobs that impress even the likes of Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino).  But Hanna, a man driven through life only by his work, becomes obsessed, at the expense of his private life, with bringing McCauley down.  As McCauley’s crew prepare for the score of a lifetime, and Hanna’s team tries to bring him in, the two find that they are similar in many ways, including their troubled personal lives.  Ultimately, they find themselves challenged by the greatest minds on the opposite side of the law that either one has ever encountered.  With this much heat, the streets of Los Angeles are ready to sizzle and explode!

Heat is filled with excellent performances from everyone involved that it’s hard not to touch upon most of them.  Firstly, I am engrossed by the dynamic between Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley.  Hanna is a man whose life is wholly dedicated to his job, and thus, his home life is a disaster with multiple divorces to show for it.  Meanwhile, McCauley has his life in control as he takes precision high line scores, but lives a disparate life of bare necessities allowing himself no attachments he cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if circumstances require it.  Thus, despite these men being on opposite sides of the law, they find themselves in a near symbiotic relationship which fuels the compulsions of their lives.  They are both driven by their jobs being out there on the streets in the middle of danger, and everything else in their lives is sacrificed for that.  All they are is what they’re going after.  That’s what fuels their existences, and Heat is all about that electrifying synergy.

Al Pacino has always been known as a passionate, charismatic actor, and Vincent Hanna surely has that energetic, sharp edge which makes him immensely entertaining here.  However, it is the more subtle aspects of the performance that are where the real juice is.  You see the razor sharp mind of Hanna when he arrives on the armored car robbery scene.  He sees it, absorbs it, and hits all the marks deconstructing every detail of the crime.  He doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t overlook or dismiss anything.  You see the proficiency of Neil McCauley and how his crew operates, and then, you see Hanna and his team operate on that same exact level only on the opposite side of that coin.  Yet, the depth of Hanna comes to the surface when Vincent converses with his wife, Justine.  The weariness and ugliness of his job forces an emotional rift between them, and Pacino’s performance reflects the inner angst and emotional toll that it wreaks on Hanna.  These things do affect him, but he never becomes a jaded, pessimistic, desensitized person.  Al Pacino absorbs all of that into a subtle and complex performance that energizes the screen.

And delivering a performance on an equal level of weight and intelligence is Robert De Niro.  He’s entirely formidable making Neil McCauley a very serious and definitive threat to everyone who opposes him.  De Niro has a serious, hard edged presence that dominates the screen, and every move, every word, every course of action he makes is efficient.  There’s a full immersion into the character in all his nuances and textures.  Sometimes, a great performance is seen in raw emotion, but other times, it’s all in the subtle complexities.  That is what De Niro give us here showing the versatile diversity of this character from cold, hard criminal to the loyal, caring friend and lover.  Despite being the antagonist in the story, we see a real heart when Neil becomes involved with Eady.  It’s takes a masterful actor and filmmaker to take a character like McCauley who will sanction and be entirely sociopathic about the murder of innocent people, and do something so human with him to where you genuinely feel his depth of heart.  Surely, that’s nothing you would want translated into reality, but in a fictional narrative, it provides a captivating dimensionality that Robert De Niro captures with pitch perfect substance.

Val Kilmer was really in his peak at this time after his stunning turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone.  Thus, he was filming Heat concurrently with Batman Forever, really capitalizing on two excellent opportunities.  Here, his role might be overlooked by the presence of Pacino and De Niro, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t top notch.  Chris Shiherlis proves to be a really intense character with his gambling addiction and marital strives, and Kilmer really absorbs the weary heart of Chris deeply into his performance.  Despite infidelities on the part of Chris and his wife Charlene, portrayed tremendously by Ashley Judd, their final shared moment strikes deep within the heart to show just how much they both truly loved one another, but their marriage was never built to last.  Kilmer hits all the marks to make this character standout solidly alongside De Niro, and to a lesser extent, Tom Sizemore does the same as the more action junkie sociopath Michael Cheritto.  There’s a real strong brotherhood between Neil and Chris that shows through shiningly, and that relationship brings a lot of dimension to both characters.

I’m fascinated by the chain reaction of events here which create numerous exciting plot turns.  Essentially, Waingro is the key cog who sets everything in motion.  Without him going off the handle and facilitating the triple homicide, Vincent Hanna likely would not have been as dogged to track down McCauley and his crew.  He’d be intrigued by the precision professionals, but it would just be another robbery.  Then, Waingro betrays McCauley to his enemies, forcing the bank heist to turn into a violent, deadly shootout and propelling McCauley to make the irrational decision to go after him instead of escaping free and clear.  Waingro turns the tide of the story at pivotal moments because he is a wild card with no loyalty to anyone but his own base, primal impulses.  Furthermore, Kevin Gage is perfect in this role making for a wholly convincing hardened ex-convict sociopath who is dreadfully frightening and intimidating.  It’s sadly poetic that less than a decade later he would become a federal convict for cultivating medicinal marijuana.

The other intriguing quality of Heat are the women.  Michael Mann always makes the affectionate, strong women of his films vitally important to the arcs and stories of the male leads, and never objectifies them.  The significant others of Hanna, McCauley, and Shiherlis are all passionate, loving women who desire a stable life.  Justine Hanna grapples with Vincent’s internalized angst from the horrors he sees out on those streets, and just wants a husband who opens up to her instead of being distant, closed off, and vacant in their marriage.  She wants a marriage with love not ragged leftovers of a man who drifts through their lives empty.  Eady, portrayed by Amy Brenneman, is the most innocent of them all existing entirely outside the world of cops and criminals.  She’s a simple, honest, warm person that unexpectedly opens up Neil’s world and gives him something to be affectionate about.  For a man who lives with no attachments of any kind, it’s finally someone in his life that makes him care to have a life.  Charlene, however, is the real gold for me as Ashley Judd is confident, heartbreaking and truly empathic as Chris’ wife.  As I said, there is a deep down, genuine love between Chris and Charlene, but there’s so much addictive and combative garbage in the way that it was destined to crumble.  For me, the Shiherlis dynamic is the most complex and substantive one of the film because of that real quality of conflict and adoration between them.

Without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is a remarkable cinematographer, and he does an excellent, stunning job with Heat.  He composes so many carefully selected shots which tell a very visual story that holds weight.  Just as Mann had fully refined and developed his artistic sensibilities so had Spinotti making this a very sophisticated looking and composed picture.  There are pure moments of inspired artistry creating a masterful canvas that this story is told upon.  This is also a film that feels very engrained and engrossed in the fiber of Los Angeles because of the visual vibe.  Shots of the skyline in hazy daylight or glowing nighttime neo noir create that great backdrop that has substance and life.

Upon this watch of the movie, I picked up far more on Elliott Goldenthal’s amazingly original and pulsating score.  A lot of what he does are subtle textures and melodies that nicely underscore various scenes.  His score doesn’t fight for dominance in the audio mix.  It complements everything that Mann is doing with the emotion, characters, and story.  At times, Goldenthal’s score can be very powerful and striking such as the moment where Chris and Charlene are forced to abandon each other because of the police stakeout.  The emotional pain swells into the score in a haunting swirl.  Then, there’s the parting phone call between Neil and Nate that reflects the sorrowful feeling of two people, best of friends, saying goodbye for the final time, and Goldenthal’s score hits that mark so beautifully.  Every single moment is so perfectly punctuated, and should be considered amongst his best work.  Additionally, the two tracks by Moby are beautiful, superb, innovative tracks that saturate the power of their respective scenes, most notably being the ending with “God Moving Over The Face of The Waters.”

Of course, the big, electrifying selling point of this film was having two of America’s most celebrated actors, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, collide in all their glory.  That would not be complete without the excellent diner scene where Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley have a very probing conversation.  The very interesting quality of that scene is that this is the only point in time where these two men are able to be entirely open, honest, and reveal their inner workings.  They are more intimately connected with each other than with anyone else in their lives.  Again, the subtle performances of depth and honesty make this the absolute nexus of this entire film.  Heat was previously made as a TV movie called L.A. Takedown by Michael Mann, and when you watch this scene performed by very second rate, stiff or hollow actors with almost identical dialogue, you realize the gold standard quality of Pacino and De Niro.  In their hands, Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley are brilliantly fleshed out and fascinating characters, and this is the scene that shows them stripped down.  They show what haunts them and what drives them.  There is no pretense between these men, and they realize that they are very similar despite being the flip side of each other.  These are the only two people alike in this world of Michael Mann’s film that truly, undeniably understand one another.  Furthermore, this scene is entirely integral to how the film’s climax unfolds.

Firstly, that shootout in the streets of downtown Los Angeles is one of the most ear-blistering sonic experiences ever, and that’s coming from a heavy metal fan.  Michael Mann had considered using post-production sound effects for this, but realized that the realistic production audio created the true power and impact he wanted.  It conveys the violent magnitude of real life gunfire and enhanced the danger of this sequence exponentially.  The precision of every tactic is true to how Michael Mann approached his films.  He made sure that every detail was accurate to life, and that mentality makes his films far more interesting to witness than the more over-the-top action sequences we get in the big, fun blockbusters.

The climax of Heat narrows everything down to what the whole film has been about at its core – Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley.  These two men, who exist in a world separated from the mainstream of society and defined by its own rules, are now pitted against one another in an electrifying, tense, and suspenseful cat and mouse sequence that is absolutely pitch perfect, and showcases the unequivocal skill of Michael Mann.  The moment where McCauley sees Hanna just as he is to ride off with Eady is beautiful, painful, and eloquent.  Neil invokes his “thirty seconds flat” rule turning away from Eady for his own survival, and the ensuing chase towards LAX is wonderfully and smartly plotted.  The climactic moment is excellent and poetic.  Then, after it’s all over, these two men are bonded together in a strikingly profound moment that ends the film on an astonishing stroke of pure brilliance.

I had always taken Heat for granted as that great crime saga pinnacle for Michael Mann, but until now, I never peered deeply enough into it to see the subtle brilliance of it.  Many of his films are easier to see the inspired breadth and depth, but Heat has so many fine brush strokes of detail, interwoven threads, and subtext that only a real immersion into it made me absorb it all.  This is truly a brilliantly written, directed, and acted film that did not get the recognition it deserved during awards season.  Michael Mann himself received no nominations for his screenplay or directing, and Pacino, De Niro, or Kilmer received no acting award nominations either.  It’s amazing to me that so many incredible, mold breaking, and standard setting films were released this year, and those I hold in highest regard barely got any recognition from any major awards organizations.  This is why I find it hard to put much weight into these organizations because they’d rather nominate a movie about a talking animatronic pig over brilliant masterpieces like Heat, Strange Days, The Usual Suspects, or Seven for Best Picture or Best Director.  Today, nobody talks about Babe, but people still endlessly praise those others films because they launched careers, took stunning risks, set new standards, and blew peoples’ minds.  And when Michael Mann finally got his just nominations, he didn’t win a single one for what no one will ever be able to tell me wasn’t the best movie released in the year 1999 – The Insider.  However, for the next review, I go back to the beginning of Michael Mann’s feature film career with Thief.


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.


Predator 2 (1990)

Predator 2There seems to be an idea out there somewhere, I don’t know where it came from, that Predator 2 is a markedly inferior sequel.  This is wholly unjustified.  Surely, everyone has their own opinions on how this measures up to the original classic, but to me, this is a great follow-up which expands on the ideas and premise in exciting new ways.  Predator 2 contains numerous admirable qualities, and is helmed by a director with a great eye for sleek visuals.  Anything it doesn’t recreate from the original it replaces with a higher energy and larger scale action.

In the urban jungles of Los Angeles, Detective Lieutenant Mike Harrigan’s (Danny Glover) police force is at war with drug lords and gangs. But just as Harrigan admits he’s losing the fight, one by one, gang lords are killed by a mysterious, fierce adversary with almost supernatural powers – the Predator.  Before long, the vicious creature begins to hunt the hunters – Harrigan’s men.  Now, Harrigan doesn’t just want to bring the creature in – he wants to bring it down.  However, he is hindered along the way by government Special Agent Peter Keyes (Gary Busey) who has a shady motive to his secretive investigation who knows more about this ultimate hunter than Harrigan even suspects.

Surely, you would think going from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Danny Glover would be a strange swerve.  I always imagined that if this was made a few years later that it would be Wesley Snipes as Mike Harrigan, but I’ll be damned if Glover doesn’t deliver here.  The character is designed as a seasoned cop who’s been fighting this unrelenting war on the Los Angeles streets for a long time.  He’s dogged, inventive, and is a cop who plays by his own rules, taking a backseat to no one.  Glover portrays this with the rugged determination of a consummate street cop.  He doesn’t like the politics that get rammed down his throat, and he slickly, yet passionately sticks it back in their faces.  However, he is wholly loyal to his team, and treats them with respect as comrades in arms because they are fighting a war.  Glover also demonstrates the emotional depth of Harrigan when his closest friend, Danny Archuleta portrayed by Rubén Blades, is gruesomely killed by the Predator.  The flashes of enraged vengeance, and the heartfelt moment at the gravesite show Glover had the talent and skill for this role, which also demanded a lot from him physically.  He greatly delivers on that end, too.  I think making him a distinctly different protagonist than Dutch was the right way to go.

Many will indeed enjoy Bill Paxton’s performance as the jokey Jerry Lambert.  He’s the newest member of Harrigan’s team known as “The Lone Ranger.”  He’s a guy that’s gotten a lot of ego stroking and glory, but he quickly becomes an enthusiastic team player.  This is Paxton at his full charismatic and comedic richness.  He adds the levity to break up the grisly heaviness of the film.  The rest of the supporting cast is filled out by Rubén Blades and Maria Conchita Alonso as the seasoned members of Harrigan’s team.  Both bring their top level enthusiasm and talent adding to the cast’s vibrancy.  Then, we get the late, great original king of trash television Morton Downey, Jr. as the appropriately cast tabloid sleaze-miester Tony Pope.  He’s puts in a fantastically entertaining performance.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger was approached to return for this film, but he turned it down to do Terminator 2.  Thus, his role was rewritten as Peter Keyes and re-cast with Gary Busey.  I think this was an equally beneficial turn of events.  The story works supremely better not knowing what Keyes’ agenda is, and allowing for him to be an adversary and foil for Harrigan.  Busey does an excellent job bringing forth his signature energy and leaning Keyes towards the smarmy, shady side.  He’s smart and cunning, but still a self-serving government agent who cares more about his findings for the military than Harrigan’s war on violent gang crime.

Also, I love the Jamaican gang here.  They are totally savage and chilling with King Willie being fantastically awesome.  He brings the mysticism into the fold with a wickedly cool scene opposite Harrigan, but also, a greatly visualized confrontation with the Predator.  Calvin Lockhart is so awesome in this role.  The theatricality, mystique, and powerful presence he brings entirely does justice to his Royal Shakespeare Company roots.  He delivers my favorite performance of the movie.  Knowing that director Stephen Hopkins was born in Jamaica, it doesn’t surprise me how rich and memorable these characters are here.

The visual effects are distinctly improved from the first movie.  The Predator vision is the most obvious example as the infrared and other modes have more distinct color separation and possibly are of a higher resolution.  The optical effects of the Predator’s cloak are used more dynamically and are integrated into more complex environments.  We see it in more motion and detail.  My favorite effects shots in the whole movie are when the Predator squares off with King Willie.  First off, the tracking shot of the cloaked feet walking through the water is brilliant work, and then, the reveal of the Predator in the rippling puddle is awesome.  Seeing how these are done in the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD are astounding and what I’ve always loved about movie magic.  These striking, innovative images are largely due to do director Stephen Hopkins’ great visual style.

Teamed with regular director of photography Peter Levy, Hopkins gives Predator 2 its own unique visual sleekness.  It has a great use of dynamic, intriguing angles.  The action is captured remarkably well, and we even get a few scenes of atmospheric, moody lighting.  Two of the best shot scenes are, first, inside the slaughterhouse bathed in blue light where the Predators assaults Keyes’ team, and then, the entire climax inside the Predator spacecraft.  Counterbalancing that blue with a largely orange color scheme there is another sign of Hopkins’ great visual sensibilities.  Beyond just the color schemes, these sequences have great use of sweeping cranes and steadicams shots enhancing the production and artistic value of the film.

This new Predator is recognizable, but has a bit different look and feel to him.  He feels more brazen.  He’s taking bigger chances, and taking on greater numbers.  Hunting in a major metropolitan area means he’s attracting more attention to his work.  So, he’s not as calculated, in general, but when he finds a prey he really likes, such as Harrigan, he takes his time to study him.  He also taunts Harrigan as if he’s issuing an honorable challenge.  I very much like that the filmmakers did this to show, even subtly, that this is another unique individual with his own personality, but with the same objective.  It’s also great seeing the arsenal expand with the telescoping spear, the projectile net, and the flying disc.  It gives the impression of a larger safari at hand where he’s equipped for bigger game.  Kevin Peter Hall, yet again, does an awesome, exceptional job overall.  He defined this role so perfectly, and it is a terrible shame that his life ended only a few years later.  However, what he did laid the template for others to succeed him in this franchise.

The strengths of Predator 2 is that it is much more energetic and diversely entertaining than the original.  The pace is faster as there is more going on here between the gang wars, Peter Keyes’ shady dealings, and Harrigan’s own dogged investigation.  The action sequences are bigger and more dynamic allowing for a higher body count, but not as much gore.  The film originally gained an NC-17 rating, but likely, Fox panicked and did more aggressive editing to secure an R rating.  There is still blood abound and plenty of violence, but far less cadavers begin ripped apart.  What we do see in that regard is obscured or done in heavy shadow.  So, it ups the energy and action, but reduces the graphic content a little.

I would agree that these characters are not quite as captivating as those in the original.  Neither film delves deeply into their characters, but it’s just the nature of battle hardened soldiers in a ominous jungle versus tough, seasoned cops on the streets of Los Angeles.  One if inherently more intriguing than the other.  There’s a little more levity in this film akin to a wisecracking John McClane in areas as Harrigan’s fear manifests in a few humorous quips.  Since the film focuses more on an energetic pace with a more divided focus, there’s little mystique about the Predator himself.  Again, he’s much more blunt and brazen, but you do lose that intensely dramatic build up to the third act.  The Peter Keyes subplot sort of veers the emotional drive of Harrigan off-track, and the climax just becomes about having to stop this alien one way or another.  There’s no more survival aspect, just hero versus villain.  There is some peril throughout the third act, but none of it rivals the dire lethality and immediacy of the first film.

Still, the little teases we get at the end with both the Alien skull in the trophy room, the reveal of the half dozen other Predators onboard the spacecraft, and the flintlock pistol with the engraving of the year 1715 on it lay big seeds for a follow-up.  However one might have felt about this movie, it surely left you intrigued to see how the next film could expand on these concepts further, but a proper third movie would not see fruition for another twenty years.

Predator 2 may not hit all the great qualities of the film first, but has entertaining trade-offs making it a more lively, faster paced action film.  It again has a solid cast filling their roles with vibrancy.  The violence and intense action are enhanced by stylish, sleek visuals and excellent editing.  The optical visual effects are stunningly impressive pushing the ambition further, and with more time to plan, Stan Winston Studios developed the Predator further with great new weaponry and a fresh look.  Alan Silvestri also returns adding some new flavors to his original themes, and adapting some of the feel to this film’s style and content.   I would like to pay tribute to Kevin Peter Hall, Calvin Lockhart, and Stan Winston who have all passed on since this film’s release.  All three did stunning work here that deserves notable credit and praise.  This franchise, outside of the AVP films, has maintained a fairly steady stream of quality.  The screenwriters of the first movie returned to expand on their own concepts, and it was executed very well by a competent and capable director.  Predator 2 s definitely worth your while.  It’s not as slam bang amazing as the first, but it’s a largely worthy sequel.


Collateral (2004)

CollateralOn a midnight screening in August, 2004, my entire filmmaking aspirations changed with this film.  While I had seen Thief previously, Collateral struck a brilliant, fascinating chord in my creative mind.  While I consider The Insider to be Michael Mann’s best film to date, and Manhunter to be my favorite, there is a special unique quality to this movie that I love.  I believe it stems from the atmosphere of isolation and nature of introspection that Mann delves into.  Above all else, Tom Cruise puts in one of the best performances of his career under Mann’s direction.

Max (Jamie Foxx) has lived the mundane life of a cab driver for 12 years.  The faces have come and gone from his rearview mirror, people and places he’s long since forgotten – until tonight.  Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a contract killer.  When an offshore narco-trafficking cartel learns they are about to be indicted by a federal grand jury, they mount an operation to identify and kill the key witnesses, and the last stage is tonight.  Tonight, Vincent arrives in L.A., and five bodies are supposed to fall.  Circumstances cause Vincent to hijack Max’s taxicab, and Max becomes collateral – an expendable person in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Through the night, Vincent forces Max to drive him to each destination.  And as the LAPD and FBI race to intercept them, Max and Vincent’s survival becomes dependant on each other in ways neither would have imagined.

I love how the movie is soaked into this dark, isolated feeling of the night.  While the film has those first few minutes of transition from the late afternoon into nightfall, it feels right.  We are getting an easy, gradual introduction to Max along with a very brief and enigmatic one to Vincent.  At this point, the film is relaxed and getting you comfortable, but once night sets in, the mood begins to soak in.  Los Angeles descends into this sparse, disconnected landscape.  There’s a sense of vast emptiness which isolates our characters into a somber atmosphere.  There maybe pedestrians in the background, traffic on the roads, but Max and Vincent are in their own reclusive scenario apart from the awareness of anyone around them.  Michael Mann achieves that deeply penetrating mood throughout the movie with a brilliant use of cinematography, music, and environments.  The nighttime world of Los Angeles is alive with danger and lethal threats on an ever-accelerating ride into darkness.

In the beginning of the film, there’s some lovely, heartfelt chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett-Smith in a cab ride together.  It’s a beautiful, warm introduction to both characters who we need to greatly empathize with as the film progresses.  This is especially true for Pinkett-Smith’s character of Annie, a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney, who doesn’t return to the film until the final act, but she makes such a wonderful, adoring impression that we haven’t forgotten a thing about her by then.  Both actors make a rich use of those few minutes of screentime together, and Michael Mann really strikes a different chord than he has before.  In his other films, it’s usually two people that have already had some history together, or are already married with some kind of emotional or ideological strain upon them.  We hardly see the initial spark of a romantic relationship, and never has it been this sweet and charming.  Jada Pinkett-Smith does a spectacular job in this role throughout all the light-hearted, heart-warming, and emotionally and physically intense demands upon her.

Jamie Foxx surely deserved the supporting actor Oscar nomination he got here.  He absorbs himself fully into Max, grasping the details of the character with a lot of care.  Max is surely a flawed person, but that’s what makes him relatable and real.  Max is an entirely unlikely hero.  He’s just a cab driver opposing a trained professional killer, but it’s that intensely real fear and genuine humanity of Max that makes him work.  He’s not designed to battle Vincent on a physical level.  Instead, it’s slowly getting into Vincent’s head, unraveling who he is and how he works that allows Max to gain some measure of courage to fight back against him.  However, it’s that journey from the guy who can’t even muster up the courage to ask Annie for her phone number, let alone out on a date, to someone that does take a stand against this cold, vicious killing machine which makes Foxx’s performance amazing.  It’s Max’s experience with Vincent, especially when he’s forced to impersonate Vincent in a meeting with cartel lord Felix, that begins to bring out that self-confidence.  Vincent repeatedly criticizes Max for taking abuse from his boss, allowing his mother to believe in false truths about his line of work, and being a general pushover that inadvertently mold and motivate Max into being an adversary instead of a frightened hostage.  Your attention might gravitate to the stronger personality of Vincent as the standout, but Jamie Foxx delivers a very textured, emotionally realistic, and genuine performance that does have a lot of substance and standout qualities about it.

Tom Cruise starts out as his usual charming self as Vincent, who warms himself up to Max so to convince him to hang with him through the night, feeding him a story of being a real estate agent.  It’s then a beautiful turn when that cold, calculating sociopath emerges.  That intimidating edge shows through immediately, and I love that you can see the gears turning in Vincent’s head.  He checks his surroundings, seeing who might’ve witnessed the dead body crashing onto Max’s cab, and determines his next move.  This is the detail Michael Mann instills in his actors in order to portray these characters as realistic, intelligent people with a specific way of thinking and reacting with a depth of history that stretches beyond the context of this story.  Vincent is a fascinating character with a complexity and depth that is the brilliant result of Mann and Cruise’s collaboration mixed with Stuart Beattie’s excellent screenplay.  He is a stone cold sociopath that has a justification for everything he does, and he regularly tries to impart that onto Max.  Perceiving a few dead bodies as insignificant on a cosmic scale makes it no wonder that he is so disassociated from any semblance of humanity.  Most of us rarely think of the repercussions of our actions on even a global scale, and the closer, more immediate the consequences are, the greater they have impact on our choices.  Vincent is likely the epitome of Neil McCauley’s “thirty seconds flat” rule from Heat of abandoning everything at a moment’s notice in order to stay ahead of the law.  McCauley dictated that in order to do so, you must not have attachments to anyone or anything, or risk being caught.  However, Vincent is even more than that as there’s clearly a far deeper, more emotionally fractured explanation for being as he is, and it is not just from a matter of staying out of a prison cell.  Tom Cruise conveys that complexity with masterful skill and a dash of natural charisma that makes him compelling.  There is so much depth and nuance to what Tom Cruise delivers in this performance of a sociopathic hitman that finds himself slowing cracking throughout this night that I couldn’t possibly detail all of it without making this into an entire essay about him.  If you want that, I immensely suggest listening to Michael Mann’s commentary on the film.  It provides more detailed insight than I can do justice to here.  In short, Tom Cruise is riveting and brilliant as Vincent, and delivers a relentless performance unlike any you’ve seen from him.  He’s an entirely different, fully absorbed animal in this film, and Vincent is a testament to Mann’s extensive work of building a character from the ground up, from the inside out with a massively talented actor.

The scene that sells the lethal threat of Vincent is the incident with the gangbangers who steal his briefcase.  The razor sharp reflexes he demonstrates in taking both of them down is near unreal, and shows that this is a man of hard earned, professional skills that should not be tested.  If he wants you dead, you’ll be a corpse before you know it.  As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, Tom Cruise is an amazingly dedicated physical actor.  He will put himself through whatever rigorous training is necessary to make his performance everything it needs to be on every level.  These skills are not learned easily or quickly.  Cruise had handled firearms before in the Mission: Impossible films, but this was a whole different level of discipline and dedication.  And indeed, it shows through in how he carries himself, how he cases his surroundings, and operates like an efficient machine in every action sequence.  He creates a full, total package that gravitates energy around him.

Furthermore, I really like Mark Ruffalo as Detective Fanning.  His look is excellent as a narcotics cop who looks like a dealer, but seeing him in the thick of things, you can see this is an LAPD Detective that is intelligent, instinctive, and seasoned.  He’s a consummate professional, but is also very streetwise and perceptive.  Ruffalo strikes that perfect balance which makes both work cohesively.  Fanning follows through on his instincts and intellect despite anyone’s insistence to the contrary, making him a capable secondary protagonist an audience can get behind.  He’s hotly on the trail of what’s going on as more and more bodies go down, and that motivates the law enforcement end of the story forward as they try to secure what witnesses they have left before Vincent can eliminate them.

Collateral is filled with solid supporting actors like Peter Berg’s combative Detective Weidner or Bruce McGill’s hard edged FBI Agent Pedrosa.  However, the two best standouts are Barry Shabaka Henley and Javier Bardem.  Henley portrays Daniel, the owner of a jazz club, and he gives us two brilliant showings in his scene.  The first is Daniel’s passion for jazz music as he relates a story about meeting Miles Davis, and the stunning impression it made in his life.  Then, when the scene turns imminently lethal, we see the purely human fear and subtle tremble that courses through his body.  It’s an inspired performance, and Daniel is someone that has a noticeable resonance upon Vincent.  This is the first moment where we see his sociopathic exterior cracking, and it is a gorgeous moment of dramatic and emotional storytelling.

Javier Bardem is just excellent as the cartel lord Felix.  He’s strongly intimidating and intelligent, but one of conservative emotion.  You can see the fire underneath when he learns that Vincent has lost his hitlist, but he’s a confident man that knows how to deal with problems decisively but has a short tolerance for failure.  Bardem has only one scene, but he makes a strong, intriguing impression that resonates for a quite a while after his screentime has ended.  It’s stellar work by him all around.

I think Collateral is possibly the Michael Mann film that most deeply peers into its lead characters.  While Manhunter gets very deep into their psychology, Collateral is focused more on the emotional level.  It shows what makes Vincent and Max who they are from the heart and soul outwards.  These two starkly different men are inexplicably connected on this violent, dangerous ride, and they each peer deeper into one another’s souls.  Collateral simply broods with this fascinating level of deep, introspective drama making itself just as much about the complex nature of its characters as it is about its adrenalin pumping danger and occasional action.

One of the things that attracted Michael Mann to this project was the idea of a compressed timeline.  All events take place over a single night which creates an inherent energy and urgency to the story and the actions of the characters.  Everything’s going down now, and there’s no tomorrow to deal with it.  There’s also the great feeling like we’re in the third act of another story, that of Felix’s impending indictment.  All of these events have already taken place to move these people into these exact situations on this night, and we’re dropped into a story where everything is already in motion.  Everything’s moving forward at a brisk pace, and there’s no slowing down now.  The whole movie has this feeling of an impending deadline.  The feeling that we’ve long passed the point of no return well before this movie began, and it’s all full speed ahead from here.  It’s not a film of break neck pace, but Mann is able to maintain that sense of urgency very cleverly through the actions and behavior of these characters.  The pacing itself is great, tight, and dead-on.  There’s such a great punctuation of drama and emotion using everything Mann has at his disposal at exactly the right doses at exactly the right times.  It’s an amazingly well edited movie.

Collateral features an awesome collection of score and music from eclectic artists.  The primary score is provided by James Newton Howard who creates the most emotional and stirring cues of the film.  It has the most presence and creates the grim sense of isolation and somber reality.  Howard is also responsible for the long form, tense, suspenseful, and ultimately, driving percussion score in the film’s action climax.  Antonio Pinto also has some excellent pieces of score that really penetrate the soul of select moments.  The addition of Audioslave to the soundtrack was a stroke of genius as “Shadow On The Sun” perfectly fits the vibe and tone of this movie.  It’s only one track, but it is used in a very memorable sequence.  Appropriately, we get some jazz in there, and a few other contemporary music tracks that oddly don’t feel dated in the least.  It’s been nearly nine years since the film’s release, and it still feels fresh, original, and excitingly new to me.  I own this soundtrack, and it is still a wonderful, moody listen to this day.

The vast majority of Collateral was shot on high definition digital video, and for this movie, it works beautifully and brilliantly.  Mann knew he couldn’t get that depth of clarity to see into the nighttime landscape of L.A. if he shot on film.  So, he embraced this new technology to create a signature look for Collateral.  What makes it work for this movie where it didn’t as much for Miami Vice or especially Public Enemies is how well it is shot.  I believe the cinematography work of Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe should have been given far more recognition at the time than it did.  It got some nominations and wins from a few organizations, but it may have been the unique digital video look of the movie that might have deterred some.  I embraced this look, and it inspired me to no end.  It still does.  Collateral is a brilliantly shot movie with an amazing use of color temperatures that evoke certain moods throughout.  It’s much different than Manhunter in that its feels very urban and grounded with the sodium vapor and mercury vapor street lights creating diffused orange, green, and turquoise tones.  It just makes the night come alive in a new way that had never been achieved with such vibrant, dramatic results before.  It’s also remarkable how so much of the film takes place in that cab, and each scene gives us a new camera angle or composition that suits the context of that scene.  It never gets repetitive or dull.  These filmmakers had to get inventive, and they ultimately achieved something with get artistic value.  There is plenty of handheld work, but it’s done immensely well.  Public Enemies was a blatant example of doing it terribly, and Miami Vice simply employed it too much to where it almost became a crutch.  The cinematography of Collateral is very similar to that in The Insider, but progressed further and given more vibrancy than before.  And those overhead aerial shots of Los Angeles are simply striking and inspired.  I’ve since seen this replicated in many other films and television shows, and I immediately make the connection back to Collateral when I do.

We have very few action scenes here, but the large doses we get are riveting and awesome.  The biggest is the Korean night club sequence where Max, Vincent, the FBI, and more converge in a violent exchange of physicality and gunfire.  It’s an excellently done sequence with sharp editing and a pulsating remix of Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready Steady Go.”  Vincent weaves his way through the sea of club-goers, dispatching of bodyguards with merciless efficiency, but it ultimately all breaks down into chaos.  Yet, it is this turning point in the film where all the law enforcement and other elements surrounding Max and Vincent are stripped away, and we’re left with a lean, intense final act.  As Vincent hunts his final target through a dark office of reflective surfaces, we are treated to some taut suspense and edge-of-your-seat tension.  This is another instance where only digital video could’ve been used.  On film, this would’ve been an unintelligible blob of nothing, but the high definition video gives the low light detail that feels so atmospheric and visually amazing.  The climax is just excellently done on so many levels, and ends with poignant drama.  I know there was a time early on that I felt the ending left a little to be desired, but I’ve since gained the understanding of it all with full respect and appreciation.  This is a very introspective film that documents Vincent’s somber emotional deterioration over this one night, and it ends with a weight of purpose and ironic reflection.  The climax might be very adrenalin pumping, ramping up the imminent, lethal danger of Max and Annie, but the final moments resolve the character depth and emotional resonance we’ve seen build up throughout this film.  It is a brilliant work of screenwriting by Stuart Beattie forged and meticulously crafted by the masterful talent of Michael Mann.

This is an amazing film that has a different substance of depth than Mann had given us before, and wraps that up in a very riveting, tense crime thriller.  Cruise and Foxx have excellent chemistry together that even sparks one or two humorous beats.  It’s just a great, happy surprise sparked from two great talents that have that charismatic spark of brilliance.  Overall, it’s a film that still inspires and drives me to this day to be a creative filmmaker in the dark crime genre where characters like Vincent are immensely fascinating, complex, and violent individuals.  I reference Michael Mann’s work often enough in my reviews of crime thrillers that I definitely want to actually get more reviews of his films done.  I’ve already done Miami Vice and Manhunter, but those were a good year apart.  Collateral should be the start of me covering more of his filmography in a shorter span of time with Thief, Heat, and The Insider surely on my slate for this year.  Reviews like this are more than just telling you if the movie is good or bad, but instead, they are delving into the depth of it all to really discover what truly makes it great and why it has enthralled me so much.  However, look for some potentially shorter reviews soon for a few soon-to-be-released movies that I hope will be quite good, but we’ll see.


Constantine (2005)

I very much love this film, and count it as an all time favorite.  I saw it twice in the theatre in 2005 because I was very much enthralled by the concept of the film and the excellent execution of all its characters and ideas.  It has since remained a strong favorite of the genre for me, and has driven my fandom of John Constantine further.  I was not knowledgeable about him before seeing this adaptation, but in the years since then, I have become a fan.  In the Hellblazer comics from DC / Vertigo, he was a blonde Englishman created by the widely revered Alan Moore and visually based off of Sting, the front man for The Police.  Obviously, that does not fit the description of Keanu Reeves, who portrays the title character as a dark haired American in Los Angeles, and there are numerous other changes here that deviate from the source material.  That inevitably irritated numerous hardcore Hellblazer fans, but since this was my introduction to him, I can allow both versions to co-exist in my fandom.   There are many reasons why I highly love this film including its gorgeous visual style, the world it showcases, and the potential of the characters.

It is said that whoever possesses the Spear of Destiny holds the fate of the world in their hands, and the Spear of Destiny has just been found and put into the hands of evil influences.  In Los Angeles, exorcist and occult detective John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) begins to see foreboding signs of something big and unfriendly coming with demons forcing their way into our world, but at the same time, the anti-social chain smoker is diagnosed with lung cancer.  It’s not so much the diagnosis that troubles him as the knowledge of where he’s going.  John was born with a gift he didn’t want, the ability to clearly recognize the half-breed angels and demons that walk the earth in human skin, and Constantine was driven to take his own life to escape the tormenting clarity of his vision, but he failed.  Now, marked as an attempted suicide with a temporary lease on life, the bitter hard-drinking, hard-living Constantine seeks a reprieve from his Hellbound fate.  He patrols the earthly border between heaven and hell, hoping in vain to earn his way to salvation by sending the devil’s foot soldiers back to the depths.  Unfortunately, he gains no absolution from the half-breed angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), and no consolation from strenuous allies such as the ominous former witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou).  They all adhere to “The Balance” which keeps half-breeds from directly interfering in human affairs in order to settle a wager between God and the Devil for the souls of all mankind.  When desperate but skeptical LAPD Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) enlists his help in solving the mysterious death of her beloved psychic twin sister, their investigation pushes them deep into a subversive plot to use the Spear of Destiny to bring forth an evil that threatens to destroy humanity.  Caught in a catastrophic series of otherworldly events, the two become inextricably involved, and seek to find their own peace at whatever cost.

Director Francis Lawrence came from a music video background, and that can be hit or miss when moving to feature films.  However, Lawrence’s background was clearly a benefit as he injects a very powerful and epic visual style into this film.  Director of Photography Philippe Rousselot realizes that immersive vision brilliantly.  His composition is rock solid creating very engaging visuals that pull an audience into the story and characters.  There is depth to spare in his frames, and plenty of grace and integrity in how he shoots everything.  There’s never any handheld camera work.  It’s all fluid movement that contributes to the overall enveloping otherworldly tone of the picture.  The use of color temperatures is very key to the atmosphere as it accentuates the dramatic tones throughout with a vibrant palette.  This is a gracefully shot film with great attention to creating a unique atmosphere and tone in its visuals.

The overall quality of the visual effects are stunning.  They are exceptionally consistent and of an amazing high quality.  From subtle effects like the fiery glint in the eyes of demons to the enveloping landscape of the Hell version of Los Angeles, they create a complete, rich, textured, and full world for John Constantine to exist within that is truly convincing.  The fearsome demonic creatures seen throughout are designed with consistency and originality.  This feels like a world with its own weathered history, and attention is paid to every detail to present it as such.  The entire “into the light” effect in the climax is awesome as the shadows are literally pulled away to force the evil presence into view.  There is never just one effect used over and over again as a crutch.  The film is full of vibrant effects that give the film its fantastical flare.  Overall, every effect is just executed and presented with amazing artistry complementing Francis Lawrence’s vision beautifully.

I also very highly enjoy the score to Constantine.  It has a great atmospheric, haunting electronic style that further fleshes out the otherworldly quality of the film, but still incorporates plenty of traditional score elements that punctuate the rousing, dramatic sequences as well as the softer, more intimate emotions of the film.  Composers Klaus Badelt & Brian Tyler put together one hell of a unique musical accomplishment with this.  I’ve never heard a score quite like this before, and it works so amazingly well.  There is a great use of melody all throughout which enhances the emotional depth that this film is truly rich with.  This is definitely a film that takes a different approach to things to give an audience a very distinctive identity for an all encompassing experience.  The addition of the song “Passive” from A Perfect Circle is wicked cool in my opinion.  It truly set a great tone entering into Papa Midnite’s club.

These enveloping elements wrap together to create a very rich story with a tone full of integrity and gravity.  It can be a very haunting and scary film that uses horror elements at times, but is best categorized as a supernatural dark fantasy action film.  The action in the film are not big set pieces with spectacular stunts.  John’s not some bad ass action hero who can slug it out with a demon.  Instead, he uses his occult and demonic knowledge as well as his skills as a con artist to help him win battles.  He fights smart using the tools he has acquired which exploit the weaknesses of his enemies such as holy water, Moses’ shroud, a pair of Holy Cross brass knuckles, dragon’s breath, and various eclectic items provided to him by his allies.

This story is partially inspired by the Dangerous Habits comics storyline, which I have read.  There’s little directly adapted from that story, and is more just taking the premise of Constantine being diagnosed with lung cancer and having to cope with that.  How he deals with it and the resolutions of the comic and the film are very different, but both greatly show off John’s cunning skill as a con artist to varying degrees.

Constantine himself is very fascinating, and I think this version of him is well portrayed by Keanu Reeves.  I am quite a big fan of his work ranking Point Break as one of my absolute favorite films ever.  I find his work quite enjoyable, and he has some highly impressive acting ability.  I think his approach tends to be more subtle, and with Constantine, he really drives home a very diverse character.  Reeves showcases Constantine’s jaded personality with depth and purpose.  He brings out that worn down, weathered texture that makes the character so intriguing and surprising.  He can be an outright asshole because he’s been both plagued by the knowledge he has about the world around him, and that he’s destined to spend eternity in Hell, regardless of what he does.  He’s tired and frustrated by these rules that these so-called “higher beings” have imposed upon humanity for their own sport, and he knows there’s little he can do to combat that.  Keanu gives the character enough edge while still maintaining an underlying sense of humanity which evolves through the film.  As the story goes along, he becomes more and more invested in Angela as a person instead of just her being a cog in a larger plot.  You gradually see the bond form between the characters, and how that starts to drive John’s actions.  There’s a pivotal shift in there where he stops sulking in his own pain and starts seeing Angela’s.  He sees her regret and how far she’s willing to go to mend it.  John can still be an asshole, but ultimately, it’s just to those that deserve it.  Reeves portrays these subtle and strong emotional beats powerfully showing that there’s more to Constantine beyond that spiteful, embittered exterior.

Another subtle part of John that’s retained from the comics is how his friends constantly pay the price for his battles.  In the comics, John is haunted by the ghosts of his dead friends, and the screenwriters slipped a brief line in here about John not needing another ghost following him around.  So, it’s no wonder that he’s as cynical and jaded as he is, but it’s also these circumstances which drive him to fight.  He challenges everyone on their egotistical or hypocritical behavior, and allows no one to slide.

However, the arc for the character takes him from being a self-serving person who fights evil for his own sake to someone that does the right thing for the sake of others.  It takes nothing away from the hardened core of the character, it just makes him an actual hero by the end.  That is helped immensely by Rachel Weisz’s emotionally impactful performance.  Reeves and Weisz had previously worked together on the 1996 film Chain Reaction as love interests, and perhaps that added a stronger chemistry between them.  In this film, their chemistry is exceptionally solid and tight.  They have great back-and-forth dialogue with sharp timing and rich character dynamics.  Angela is also easily able to stand up to John’s abrasive attitude which is a welcomed quality.  Weisz strongly portrays the more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable counter-balance of the story.  This allows an audience to have a relatable conduit into the character of John Constantine and his supernatural world.  Rachel Weisz is an incredible actress showcasing a wide range of abilities here.  She is remarkably powerful bringing out the emotional pain that Angela has deep within.  However, while Angela is vulnerable, she is a police detective, and thus, Weisz never makes her appear helpless or incapable of defending herself.  She has a definite strong will and confidence about her mixed in with a grounded, engaging charm.  It’s simply that the character been impacted by tragic events, and is thrust into a potentially frightening scenario which brings out those fearful or unstable elements in her.  Weisz handles it all with dramatic weight and grace.

It is also immensely impressive how strong the supporting cast is in Constantine.  Djimon Hounsou has such an awesome presence as the witch doctor turned night club owner Papa Midnite.  His deep voice and subtle charisma give weight and gravity to his performance.  He can be greatly imposing and intimidating without even standing up in his initial scene.  Hounsou and Reeves spark a fascinating chemistry.  They play the characters with a sense of shared history which has its turbulent areas which causes friction and some antagonism between them.  The screenwriters had a good philosophy of the best way to convey exposition about a character is to show them working.  You get to know more about Midnite and Constantine through what they do and how they go about doing it than can really be conveyed through straight dialogue interactions.  This is showcased beautifully in the sequence with “The Chair” which allows John to see the path the Spear of Destiny has taken recently, and to find out where Angela has been taken.  It’s a manner of operating alluding to information that is necessary for them to know to do what they need to do, but is not necessary to be spelled out for the audience.  This further reflects the sense that this a world with a long, textured history between characters, and it is presented in a very smart way that never bogs down the film with extraneous exposition.  Midnite himself has a very pleasing arc in the story that ultimately shows Hounsou’s range and charm.  He makes the character very fascinating, imposing, but ultimately, highly pleasing.

Tilda Swinton is immaculately graceful and elegant as the half-breed angel Gabriel.  The filmmakers chose to go with an androgynous quality for the character, and absolutely wanted Swinton for the role.  They chose incredibly well.  Her performance has a gentle compassion that eventually turns into a subtle megalomaniacal mindset.  She also has an ethereal aura and presence about her that is pitch perfect.  It’s a nice dynamic when Constantine goes to see her with him ranting and calling out the hypocrisy at hand, but she offers up a very warm, motherly tone with him.  They are both trying to make each other see things from their perspective, and neither is entirely in the right.  There is a very aristocratic, snobbish mentality from Gabriel that John can’t stomach, and it works so exceptionally well for this character.  It’s such a remarkable performance that the words to describe it in depth escape me.

Now, this film was before Shia LeBouf started grating on peoples’ nerves, but here, there’s enough heart and charm with him as Chas to make his performance a pleasure.  Chas is spirited and driven to be given the chance to be of real assistance to Constantine instead of just his personal cab driver, but John just knows the danger of allowing him to do so.  Yet, Chas is eventually given the chance to show his worth.  As with everyone else, the chemistry is dead on the mark perfect.  Gavin Rossdale’s turn as the demon Balthazar is oozing with charisma.  He relishes being engulfed in evil, and that delicious smarmy arrogance just pours out over the screen.  The tension and spite between him and John is thick as can be.  You can’t help but love and hate him all at the same time.  All of the actors throughout the film really inhabited their characters with exceptional commitment and nuance, and came together as a cohesive whole to deliver something diverse and marvelous.

Of course, there is Peter Stormare’s magnificent performance as Lucifer himself.  There have been so many portrayals of the Devil over the years in cinema from some massively talented actors, and each portrayal has been unique.  Stormare takes unique to a whole new level here.  The physicality alone is unsettling as if he’s trying to uncomfortably fit back into a human form like it’s an old out of shape body suit, and it results in some peculiar and tense nervous energy.  The look is striking enough without devolving into shock.  The shaved eyebrows and shorn haircut along with the tattoos really present a standout visual that separates Lucifer from everyone else in the film.  Stormare takes all of this to forge a weirdly eccentric Devil that doesn’t need to flaunt an ego or boast of his power.  His creepy, chilling presence sells everything.  The addition of the pure white suit and bare feet was a nice touch, and it really fits the visual aesthetics of the film.

While I have nothing against a well done origin, it is very commendable that this is not an origin story spending a large percentage of the film showing how Constantine became the man he is today.  His back story is not even revealed until well into the second act as we get to know it alongside Angela, and allusions to other shared histories are sprinkled throughout.  The film treats its audience as intelligent by not having to explain every little thing.  It presents a world, gradually lays out the general parameters of how it works, and then, allows it to envelop the audience.  I like this approach for the character because there is a lot of John Constantine history that is very relevant to the character, but it would be nigh impossible to hit all the poignant marks to develop him fully in a two hour film.  Starting a film series here is very interesting because it takes John from the jaded, weathered depths to someone more purposeful and formidable.  It is a greatly executed arc wrapped up in a strong plotline backed by some excellent talents in front of and behind the camera.

It seems hard to judge where this movie stands in terms of general consensus.  It’s not one of those comic book movies everyone talks about, or includes on the list of the best or worst adaptations.  I seem to perceive this as a film that had good commercial success, but tends to get overlooked for no apparent reason.  Professional critics were divided on it, but the thing with critics is that they get paid to go see movies they are not always pre-disposed to enjoy.  This was a movie that appealed to my tastes via its marketing, and it did blow me away.  Again, the hardcore fans of Hellblazer likely had their passionate gripes with all the changes made to the established elements of the property, but it’s not a bad film at all.  It’s exceptionally well made from a filmmaker with great vision and artistry, and features an amazing cast that put their all into it.  From an objective point of view, it’s a greatly entertaining and satisfying film.  It has plenty of interesting action, an excellently crafted world, fantastic, stunning visual effects, a unique and fascinating score, and is just generally well written all the way around.  I really love this film, and I love what I’ve read in the Hellblazer trade paperbacks.  Both offer me something different but equally satisfying to my tastes for supernatural horror and dark fantasy.  If you’re unfamiliar with the property, this film can ease you into the heavier subject matter and grittier feel of the comics, but they are two unmistakably different presentations on the characters and the world they inhabit.  Taking the film on its own merits, it’s a highly imaginative, excellent piece of work that is worth investing your time and interest in.


Street Kings (2008)

This is one of those films I did not see in theatres.  It was a DVD rental discovery that I have been very pleased to have discovered.  The cast is really what drew me to Street Kings – Hugh Laurie, Forest Whitaker, and what might seem like a swerve in Keanu Reeves.  I am very much a Keanu fan from Bill & Ted to Point Break to Constantine and beyond.  Yeah, I get why people takes jabs at him, but I’ve always enjoyed his work.  Here, he turns in a very strong performance holding his own opposite some heavyweight acting talents.  This is a very well conceived and executed film from David Ayer that I feel is exceptionally worthy of your time and attention.

Keanu Reeves stars as Tom Ludlow, a veteran LAPD Vice Detective who has struggled to navigate through life after the death of his wife.  He’s a cop who chooses to cutout procedure on the street taking violent action against known criminals to close a case.  He is well protected by his Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whittaker) every step of the way.  However, when evidence implicates Tom in the execution of his former partner turned Internal Affairs informant (Terry Crews), he is forced to go up against the cop culture he’s been a part of his entire career, ultimately leading him to question the loyalties of everyone around him.  He is regularly confronted by Internal Affairs Captain Biggs (Hugh Laurie) who probes for the truth, but Ludlow views him as an enemy to be combated.  However, as he partners with the untainted Detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans) to weed through this shady, twisted maze towards his own answers, Ludlow comes to realize just how crooked this world is, and who his real enemies are.

I am a definite crime genre lover spawned from numerous Michael Mann films, and I also enjoy a solid cop drama.  This brings it all to the table in a very grounded, emotional, but also entertaining package.  It’s very smartly written to keep an audience on its toes as the secrets slowly rise to the surface.  Bits of action are peppered throughout to keep the energy flowing in support of the plot.  Ludlow goes on a shady journey trying to find out exactly where he stands in this crooked world of corruption and deception.  This tangled tapestry unfolds to reveal a wealth of dangerous, twisted people with dark agendas.

Keanu really does kick it up to a higher level as Tom Ludlow.  The character can be crass in certain moments, but also, show compassion when it matters most to him.  There are some fine dynamics to the character that Keanu balances out with ease.  There’s the ass kicking cop that throws down shots of vodka after wasting some criminals.  There’s the contemptuous man trying to shake loose the truth that everyone seems very quick to sweep under the rug.  There is also the slightly humorous side of Ludlow with a couple quips here and there which add to the crass attitude.  He’s been protected through everything, and thus, has developed an attitude where he doesn’t take anything from anyone.  He has an ego and a self-serving nature, but is able to direct it to his advantage on these unforgiving, violent streets.  Everything he does, he believes is for the best, even if it’s crooked, but he grows and changes when confronted with just how crooked and screwed up everything has become.  He’s the kind of character who is hardened by his fractured life and his harsh job, but when it comes down to it, he has a strong sense of humanity that he reserves for those who deserve it.  Those who don’t get the ill end of his personality which is full of contempt and the will to act it out.  Keanu Reeves handles this satisfyingly textured character with a lot of passion and charisma.  He is an excellent lead for this film.

Of course, Forest Whitaker is amazing!  The man has such a wealth of charisma and passion that it bleeds through in every scene.  He inhabits Captain Jack Wander with a strong ego and bravado that none can contend with or deflate.  He has pride in his men, but also conviction and authority over them.  He’s very much a king high atop his throne where he has garnered respect and fear from those around him.  He never comes off as a straight arrow, but supposedly does what he does because Ludlow is his creation.  He covers up and cleans up whatever he needs to so that his star cop can keep burning down the street trash.  Whitaker makes Wander an increasingly despicable person, but not one you can take your eyes off of.  He has a larger than life presence that commands a scene, and that’s what the character needed.  A man of power and guile that has the audacity to take on anyone that challenges him or his men.  A man with his own dirty secrets that holds all the cards to play people however he wants.  It is a brilliant performance that motivates his co-stars to push themselves further and harder.

Meanwhile, on a more reduced role, Hugh Laurie delivers an intelligent, subtle performance as Captain James Biggs of Internal Affairs.  He carefully probes Ludlow throughout the film just giving him a little nudge here and there.  As Laurie has proven in his many years portraying Dr. Gregory House, he can hold a scene smartly opposite anyone.  It’s only one scene, but Forest Whitaker gives him a challenge to contend with.  Laurie, as Biggs, stands his ground well.  However, the rest of his scenes are opposite Keanu, and they both play them with an electric dynamic.  They both portray strong characters offering up conflict fueled by Ludlow’s misconceptions.  He doesn’t know what Biggs is really after, and Biggs doesn’t show his cards.  He just let’s things play out with a little encouragement to make sure Ludlow takes the right critical steps.

The film is shot with some sharp style and edge.  The cinematography continually maintains the energy of the narrative, and providing numerous inspired camera moves to punctuate certain dramatic beats.  Thankfully, the style and edge never compromise the story being told, it merely services and enhances it.  Everything in this film is conceived and executed properly.  Every role is cast with a lot of thought and detail.  Strong actors are implanted throughout the movie from the leads to the supporting roles.

Chris Evans adds an extra, different dynamic as the slightly green Detective Diskant.  A cop interested in doing the right thing, and willing to push past his experience and limits to do so.  He might not have as much streetwise mileage as Ludlow, but has the conviction to maintain his sense of justice.  Evans strikes the right balance with him offering up enough inexperienced uncertainty mixed with confidence through trust.  Evans & Reeves have a fine chemistry that is born out of the characters’ contrasts, as with most great pairings.  That helps to maintain a lighter mood between them, and gives the film its balance of humorous moments.  I feel Diskant is definitely a conduit for the audience to better connect with the story.  Ludlow is clearly the lead, but Diskant is a little more relatable and helps to give Ludlow someone to connect with on the journey.  Someone he can trust, and through Diskant, you can come to relate more with Ludlow.

What I really like about this film is how smart it is written.  No character is conceived without a motivation for their actions, and nothing is dumbed down for the convenience of the plot.  Everything fits together amazingly well.  Screenwriters James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, & Jamie Moss delivered something very satisfying on multiple levels, and director David Ayer realized that with great balance and competence.  The entire plot is well constructed, and gradually develops on-screen in a very coherent and intelligent manner.  All the characters are written and played with a lot of personality and realistic depth.  They all work well opposite one another to create a very diverse and interesting landscape for this crooked world.  I literally have nothing negative at all to say about this film.  To me, it should be considered a classic in the genre.  I love the energy and momentum throughout the story to keep you hooked into where it is leading Tom Ludlow.  That doesn’t mean there’s action all the time, just that the plot continues to develop adding new elements that drive the characters forward.  Everything that develops motivates people and events towards more dangerous consequences until Ludlow is faced with the truth, but it’s not without it’s costs.

With Street Kings, there’s plenty of violent action, emotionally charged drama, serious danger, and fine dashes of humor to make it a very powerful, entertaining ride that’s worth taking.  This is one of my favorite films of the last few years, and I give it my full, wholehearted recommendation!  There is no fat in this film, just lean, strong talent that punctuates the story and characters.