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Posts tagged “mercenaries

The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

The Chronicles of RiddickYou don’t know how excited I was to watch this movie again, and then, wonder to myself why in the HELL haven’t I watched this frequently over the years.  Of course, I speak of the director’s cut which I feel is a vastly superior and richer story.  From every fan I’ve heard from, they are hardcore about Pitch Black, but not so much about this one.  I am really more the reverse.  The more expansive science fiction epic traveling to various unique worlds, and facing multiple dangers with colorful characters is right in my cinematic sweet spot.

After years of outrunning ruthless bounty hunters, escaped convict Riddick (Vin Diesel) suddenly finds himself caught between opposing forces in a fight for the future of all races.  An army of fearsome world ravagers known as Necromongers are “cleansing” and forcibly converting other species in their goal of universal conquest, but Imam (Keith David) and the Elemental Ambassador Aereon (Judi Dench) believe Riddick holds the key to a prophecy that could bring down Necromonger Lord Marshal (Colm Feore).  Now, waging incredible battles on fantastic and deadly worlds, this lone, reluctant hero will emerge as a champion, and the last hope for a universe on the edge of annihilation.

Vin Diesel and David Twohy really develop the character of Riddick further and in more depth.  There’s more emotional texture on the surface now, especially when conversing with Imam.  I absolutely love how this film expands this character without ever betraying what made him fascinating to begin with.  He’s placed into a larger story and a larger world which delves further into who he is, where he came from, and that’s exactly what a sequel should do.  Every bad ass, intriguing quality of him is intact, but circumstances force him to make choices he never thought he’d be faced with.  Diesel does an excellent job stretching Riddick out into this wider universe.  He still carries the air of mystique with him, but there’s more emotional weight and tethers to the character.  The connection with Imam is quite cool, if only for having two of the deepest, smoothest voices in Hollywood trading dialogue, but honestly, these are especially good scenes.  Diesel also gets more dynamic action sequences to shine in, and galvanizes Riddick into a bigger, smarter, more clever bad ass than before.  I also love the light touches of wit and humor that we are given.  Riddick has some clever, fun dialogue making him just as funny as he is threatening and dangerous.

Building upon his character is the relationship with Jack, who now goes by Kyra and portrayed by Alexa Davalos.  She’s grown into a jaded version of Riddick because she feels he abandoned her.  She’s a convicted criminal willing to kill for pleasure or to survive.  Davalos does a very good job in this role making a solid emotional connection with the audience, and shows her physicality is in prime shape.  Some might know her from her three guest appearances on Angel as the electricity powered Gwen Raiden, where she also showed she could throw down.  Davalos is a great successor to this role, and the film pulls no punches in tearing these characters away from Riddick, forcing him to stand more and more on his own.  I like that Kyra and Imam become involved in the Necromonger storyline, albeit in different ways, and so, all threads tie tightly back into the main plot.

The director’s cut absolutely makes this an excellent film.  The theatrical version cuts out the real meat of the Furyan subplot including the character of Shirah who comes to Riddick in visions and unlocks his power as a Furyan.  All of that is rather critical to the entire driving factors of the movie.  It gives motivation and purpose to Riddick and Lord Marshal, and propels them forward with more weight and depth.  Without all of that, the story becomes thinner and more basic.  I remember seeing moments in the trailer from this subplot, and being upset when they didn’t appear when I saw the film theatrically.  This aspect of The Chronicles of Riddick gives depth, purpose, and poignancy to Riddick, and simply makes it a more substantive story that I really, strongly endorse.

There’s also amazing action everywhere in The Chronicles of Riddick.  From the mercs chasing Riddick on the frigid ice world to the race against the scorching, lethal sunrise on the prison planet Crematoria, we get wickedly conceived and executed set pieces.  There’s plenty of violence, especially in the unrated director’s cut, as Riddick really cuts deep into his adversaries, and we get plenty of bang for our buck.  The stunt work is amazing, and the imagination on display is rich and refreshing.  David Twohy creates some very dynamic acrobatic moments that do strain physics, but it fits just fine into the hyper stylized intensity.  He absolutely goes for an expansive scope that stunningly sucked me into the film.  The entire look of the movie is just awesome with excellent cinematography and a brilliant, epic vision from Twohy himself.

The Chronicles of Riddick has a very lavish production design that I could compare to a big Dino De Laurentiis 1980’s science fiction / fantasy epic like Flash Gordon or David Lynch’s Dune.  This really goes all out in detailed costume designs, big sprawling landscapes, and simply elegant sets filled with depth and nuance.  Twohy really went for broke making this an exquisitely high grade production, and I think it immensely pays off at every turn.  Some of the visual effects are exceptional, but there are a number of moments that are quite noticeably less than excellent.  Regardless, the vast, stunning vision of David Twohy is realized impressively, and with stronger resources than what he had on Pitch Black.  The visual effects are a MAJOR upgrade from that movie allowing for Twohy’s vision to thrive on screen.  There might be a green screen effect here or there that could be a notch or two better, and the animals set loose in the Crematoria prison are the most obvious undercooked CGI elements, but the visual effects spectacle is very strong creating a fully realized and enveloping universe.  I thoroughly love every aspect of the look of this film.  It’s what hooked me from the trailers, and it’s what continues to excite me.  And yes, Graeme Revell does return to reprise his themes from the first movie, and does a remarkable job capturing the feel of this more action / adventure-centric sequel.

What I absolutely, deeply love in this film is Nick Chinlund as the bounty hunter Toombs.  He is a massive upgrade in entertainment value over Johns in Pitch Black.  Toombs is a rugged, sleazy, charismatic joy to be had all through his screentime.  He’s an excellent, fun adversary for Riddick.  Chinlund and Diesel have great adversarial chemistry to the point that I had always wanted Toombs to return for a sequel, but you can’t always get what you want.  This role made me an enthusiastic Nick Chinlund fan.

And damn, does Karl Urban not do his best in everything he does?  He’s a hardened, menacing threat as Vaako who schemes against the Lord Marshal to succeed him as leader of the Necromongers.  This might seem like a subplot that is a bit extraneous, but it has strategic impact on the main plot.  And Urban’s strong presence and dramatic weight really helps enhance Vaako and his role in this film.  As I always say, Karl Urban is an actor with a rich depth of talent who never gives anything but his absolute best every time he takes on a role.  He does rock solid, consistent, high quality work, and that has made him a wholehearted favorite of mine since The Lord of the Rings and The Bourne Supremacy.

And it’s odd to speak of the film’s main villain after all of these supporting characters, but Colm Feore is great as the Lord Marshal.  He adds the right balance of militaristic conqueror and haunting specter.  He is a man of supposed ultimate power seeking universal domination, and is fully consumed by his radical faith.  His unwavering mindset makes him immensely dangerous like a barreling down freight train, and Feore has the right eerie quality to sell all of this.  He fills the role just right making him a seemingly insurmountable enemy fueled by these fantastical powers of the Underverse.  He doesn’t have the entertainment value of Toombs, or the fierce intensity of Vaako.  However, he is the dominant presence that none can contend with, but you do get the subtle feeling that, whether it’s Riddick or Vaako, someone is going to take him down by the end.  The climax entirely plays upon that expectation, and executes it in a very clever way.

Pitch Black was the one-off adventure that introduced us to Riddick, and just allowed us a small glimpse into the potential of this character.  The Chronicles of Riddick was clearly the start of a larger, epic story that I have been excited to see continued for nine years.  David Twohy establishes a great, exciting, and vast universe for endless possibilities with this movie.  I love taking a character like Riddick and injecting him into a different kind of film.  So many sequels aren’t a tenth as ambitious as this film strives and succeeds to be.  Many would do the same old thing, playing it safe with audience expectations, but Twohy engages us with Riddick and develops him further in a story that forces that to happen.  It puts Riddick into the bigger picture of the universe, and sets the stage for something even more fascinating and expansive to occur.

With the third film, Riddick, hitting theatres this weekend, it’s great to see another chance being taken here with a franchise of ripe potential.  The Chronicles of Riddick was not profitable upon its theatrical release, and that was a terrible shame.  Twohy and Diesel had well plotted plans for two more films, but would need that larger budget to realize them.  So, I don’t expect Riddick to expand as wondrously and amazingly upon the concepts of this film, but more a fusion of the styles of Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick.  Finding a middle ground between them seems like it could generate success and appeal to fans of both films.  Again, my preference is towards the second film as it just breaks open the universe in a stunning realization of imagination, and is fueled by some great action sequences that have always stuck with me through the years.  The Chronicles of Riddick is greatly exciting, immensely enjoyable, and simply fascinating to see unfold with its fantastical ideas and purposeful spectacle.  If you haven’t been exposed to these films, I strongly encourage you to do so, and I hope that Riddick lives up to the years of anticipation.  Even if it’s smaller scale, I’m greatly pleased to see a solid, imaginative franchise get another chance at success.

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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.


Crackerjack (1994)

CrackerjackYep, I could make a whole month out of reviewing Die Hard clones before even getting around to reviewing Die Hard.  Seagal, Van Damme, Snipes, Ford, and every other action star under the sun got their turn to grapple with this formula.  So, Thomas Ian Griffith got his chance as Detective Jack Wild in this film that spawned two sequels, neither of which starred Griffith, but let’s see how Crackerjack stacks up to the competition.

Chicago cop Jack Wild (Thomas Ian Griffith) reluctantly aggress to join his brother’s family for a vacation at the exclusive Panorama Springs Hotel, high in the glacier-capped Rocky Mountains.  But when a team of mercenaries determined to hijack over $50 million in diamonds descend on the resort, Jack strikes back.  Now, together with beautiful hotel guide K.C. (Nastassja Kinski), Jack must race against the clock to stop their calculating leader Ivan Getz (Christopher Plummer) from getting away and exploding the glacier above the hotel to cover his tracks.

The burnt out cop is a very familiar trope in action movies, but if you get an actor who can really flesh out the character, it all works nicely.  Thomas Ian Griffith again proves his quality as an actor showing Detective Wild to be relatable and interesting.  Being a bit unhinged, he charges headlong into danger as if he does have nothing to lose, and that’s how he feels after his wife and kids were killed.  When he’s dragged up to the ski resort, he’s restless and still potentially volatile, but after making a connection with Katia, you see him soften and begin to turn a corner.  Griffith and Nastassja Kinski have some good, touching chemistry that translates really well on screen.  The charisma he naturally brings into the film really enhances the clichéd material in the script, and makes Wild a dimensional and enjoyable character to follow.

The film really does a lot to build up the emotional investment in Jack Wild’s fractured situation.  The flashbacks to the last moments of his family’s life are touching, and director Michael Mazo really takes the time for those emotions to sink in.  The reveal of who actually killed his family is a rather unneeded additional motivation for Wild, but I’m hardly going to hold that against the movie.  It’s not striving for fresh, original ideas as there is much lifted directly from Die Hard from the basic premise to very similar bits of dialogue, Getz’ right hand mercenary looking like a carbon copy of Karl, Getz threatening to kill an innocent man to motivate Wild to return the diamonds, and him planning to wipe out all the witnesses with a cataclysmic explosion.  However, the filmmakers still manage to make this a very fun and entertaining ride despite how by-the-numbers and uninspired this script is.  Much of this is due to some impressive action scenes, and the villain that we are given here.

I love Christopher Plummer.  He’s an absolutely tremendous actor in so many compelling roles, but you know what?  I think every serious, respectable actor deserves to take on a nicely cheesy villain role at least once.  As Ivan Getz, I think he just eats up the fun quality of the role, and does make for an intimidating adversary even if so much is clearly lifted from Alan Richman’s Hans Gruber.  The rather stereotypical German accent is the most obvious evidence, but it adds to the film’s B-movie charm.  Getz separates himself from Gruber, though, by being a bit of a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur akin to the Third Reich.  It allows Plummer to have some intriguing monologues that kind of gives you flashbacks to him as General Chang in Star Trek VI, and that’s generally not a bad thing.  Plummer and Griffith have some solid exchanges that build up the personal adversarial connection, mostly done over a two-way radio, and it’s enough fuel to keep the movie going at its consistent, good pace.

Crackerjack is indeed action packed, but features far more gunplay than Griffith’s martial arts skills, much like Van Damme in Sudden Death.  However, this is still plenty exciting with big, explosive moments and fun thrills up and down this high altitude adventure.  Despite being a direct-to-video feature, the action set pieces are quite impressive, especially when the helicopters blow up, and the finale has some really good miniature effects.  For its time, this was a quite admirable action picture, but I would expect modern audiences to be left wanting more spectacle.

Now, if there’s one thing that makes Crackerjack feel distinctly direct-to-video it’s the synthesizer score.  Absolutely, a completely synth based score can be excellent.  I’m a Jan Hammer Miami Vice fan after all, but there’s a difference when you have a score that is primarily composed for an orchestral arrangement but is performed on a keyboard.  After a while, it got to be almost distracting because I kept feeling like I was watching something from Full Moon Features like Subspecies.  The score just sounds cheap in this context, and really detracts from the otherwise high production values here.  If this score had been given an orchestral treatment, it would have been perfectly fine.  There are times when the score works very well, but the obvious limitations do regularly show through.

You could maybe say the same for the cinematography as it is fairly point and shoot with very little in the way of special cinematic visuals.  There’s nothing along the lines of crane shots, intriguing angles, or steadicam work, but compared to a lot of shaky cam action films today, I can find that more minimalist approach to be enjoyable.  The action scenes are very competently shot, and you’re never confused as to what’s happening.  The editing is conservative allowing the action to drive the cuts, and not forcing kinetic excitement by cutting to another shot every split second.  Fast tempo editing definitely has its gold standards, but I do enjoy seeing a time when filmmakers did take their time to just allow the action to play out with more comfortable framing and stable camera work.

Crackerjack certainly doesn’t have the budgetary muscle to compete on the scale of its theatrical brethren, but I would say it’s good action B-movie indulgence.  Griffith does a very good job in this role making him both an emotionally damaged man, but also a sleek, sharp, and savvy action hero.  He brings his natural charisma into the mix to make Jack Wild a really enjoyable protagonist to follow through this perilous adventure.  Again, if I’m examining this small window into his career, I can’t say that this could’ve been a breakout film even if it did have a theatrical release budget.  The script is very derivative of possibly the best action movie ever made, aiming entirely for the low budget fare, and doesn’t inject anything fresh into the formula.  You can definitely get entertainment value out of the film’s fairly well used clichés and the fun performances.  If you need any further convincing, you can check out the very funny video that introduced me to this movie courtesy of TheCinemaSnob.com.


Predators (2010)

PredatorsFor whatever reason, the Predator film franchise lied dormant after the release of Predator 2 in 1990.  It wasn’t until 2004 that we got the highly anticipated Alien vs. Predator films.  The first one I hated, and I still consider it the worst overall movie I’ve ever seen theatrically.  The second film I did a rather positive review of as one of the last Forever Horror website reviews and one of the first Forever Cinematic reviews.  However, the general consensus of both movies was decidedly negative, and thus, someone thought it was time to bring the Predator franchise back into its own.  Such a person was producer Robert Rodriguez known best for making big scale action on tight budgets.  Thus, twenty years after Predator 2, we are given another proper sequel.  The question is, was it good enough to breathe life into a damaged franchise?

Awakening in freefall, a collection of strangers find themselves dropped into an unfamiliar land with danger awaiting them.  Royce (Adrien Brody) is a mercenary who reluctantly leads this group of elite warriors in a mysterious mission on an alien planet.  Except for a disgraced physician, they are all cold-blooded killers – mercenaries, mobsters, convicts and death squad members – human “predators.”  But when they begin to be systematically hunted and eliminated by a new Predator breed, it becomes clear that suddenly, they are the prey!

I will admit that I wasn’t sold on this film pre-release.  I thought the premise of Predators abducting humans from Earth and dropping them on another planet to be hunted was against the idea of what a big game hunter would do.  You don’t take a lion out of his natural environment and throw him in your backyard to hunt him.  However, a positive reaction from a strongly opinionated friend of mine motivated me to see it theatrically.  Indeed, I really liked Predators.  I would still rank it third in my list of favorites, but all three films are ranked very tightly together.  They are all extremely well made with their own unique ideas, visual styles, and approaches which all work superbly.

Much like with Predator 2, you must find it peculiar to cast Adrien Brody as the lead in an action movie.  This film will entirely change your perspective on that.  He delivers incredibly in this role.  Brody can play tough bad ass with the best of them.  He brings the charisma of a leader, but clearly shows Royce is a man of sketchy origins and doesn’t mind being a loner.  Royce is also very smart and perceptive.  He would be fine going at it solo, but he sees that even his own survival holds better odds sticking with them than without.  You also see that he’s not a cold-blooded man, but he can be a savage, hardened killer when he needs to be.  The film’s climax sells every awesome thing about Royce, and solidifies that I want to see more of him.

Brody has very touching and honest chemistry with Alice Braga, portraying the Israeli sniper Isabelle.  They surely butt heads in certain circumstances, but they connect on an emotional level that does resonate.  They build a mutual trust and respect as the film progresses.  The rest of these trained killers, including the Rodriguez obligatory Danny Trejo, certainly don’t measure up to Dutch’s elite team from the first film, but they are a mismatched group that are weary to trust one another.  My favorite, who has extremely little dialogue, is the Yakuza member Hanzo.  He creates a very intriguing mystique around him through some interesting actions, and demonstrates a unique sense of honor.  Topher Grace portrays the aforementioned disgraced physician Edwin, and surely, the film didn’t require the presence of this character.  He just adds an extra wild card element late in the game which may or may not be easy to spot early on.  I think I had this reveal spoiled for me before I initially saw the movie.  The concept behind Edwin is a clever one, but probably not executed nearly as smartly as it could have been.

Laurence Fishburne makes a wickedly cool appearance as Noland, a soldier whose been trapped and has survived this planet for several years.  The result of that is hat Noland’s gone quite crazy in a delusional, psychotic type of way.  He’s more than skillfully dangerous, he’s psychologically dangerous.  Fishburne is entertaining and awesome in this fairly brief, very off-kilter role.  More than anything, this character is designed to sell the futility of an escape from the planet, and the idea of two rival tribes of Predators hunting out there, making it all the more difficult to survive.

The film’s first act of sorts might seem a little drawn out to some.  I believe I felt that way upon first viewing.  The characters are exploring this world, trying to understand where they are, and even the first action sequence is not until more than twenty-five minutes in.  Strange alien animals are throw at these characters as a test first, and so, there is a prolonged wait before the first Predator is actually revealed.  However, once that occurs, the film settles into a very familiar feel and tone.  Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal studied the first Predator in great detail to nail the vibe perfectly, and I think they got it just about dead-on while still adding to it.  Antal focuses on building the atmosphere and tension so that there is a pay-off with the action.

The overall feel is great with some rich color schemes which still evoke a dark, ominous feeling.  The cinematography gives this film scale and scope while still maintaining the isolated feeling.  The night scenes look great with a more subdued color palette, but with an excellent use of light and shadow for a beautiful moody vibe.  This really is a remarkably well shot movie with an abundance of artistic merit and dramatic visual weight.

The way the action plays out is very intelligent focusing on tension and imminent danger.  There’s plenty of intense gunplay, but it’s definitely used in conjunction with smart tactics and strategies by these characters.  The ominous feeling of being stalked and hunted is executed with great skill.  It’s a whole package of the visual style, stellar editing, and a music score that stays true to Alan Silvestri’s work.  This film definitely takes the filmmaking style and techniques from John McTiernan’s movie, and gives it a little more polish.  Nimrod Antal definitely puts his own stamp on the film, but was able to make this feel cohesive with the rest of the main Predator franchise.  The action scenes definitely reflect this as there’s really none of that modern shaky cam mayhem.  It’s well plotted, shot, and cut together for an extremely coherent and effective experience.  Beyond anything else, this film enhances the ferocity and frightening quality of the Predators.  They feel even more merciless and relentless than before, if you could even imagine such a thing.

I can’t help but love two fight scenes in Predators.  The first has Hanzo squaring off with his katana against the Predator.  This is beautifully setup, and is shot so gorgeously with a lot of wide angles and a wonderful overhead shot showing the wind blowing through the high grass.  It’s a graceful work of art.  What trumps it on the bad assery scale is when the New Predator battles the Classic Predator, which is portrayed by Derek Mears.  While I didn’t care for the remake of Friday The 13th, Mears was an awesome Jason Voorhees, and he makes for an awesome Predator.  Two Predators ripping and tearing at one another is pure gold, and the scene doesn’t disappoint at all.  This is savage, gory, and everything you’d hope it to be.

And indeed, the creature effects are excellent.  Oddly, neither Stan Winston Studios or Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. – who were responsible for all of the previous Predator effects – returned to work on this film.  Instead, the impeccable talents of KNB EFX were tapped, and they delivered on an amazing level.  There are some familiar designs with the Classic Predator, but the newer, larger Predators are even more impressive.  They do feel like a different breed, but are given a much better approach than what we saw in Alien vs. Predator.  And of course, the gore returns in abundance, and no one better to also fill that task than KNB EFX.  They’ve been the standard bearers for physical effects, especially those in the horror genre, for the last twenty years, and that quality is vastly on display here.

Predators does a great job of taking cues from the first movie, and adding its own flavor and ideas to them.  The climax is a great example as Royce uses some of the same tactics as Dutch with the mud, but uses it in a different context.  Instead of giving the Predator nothing to lock on to, he overloads the senses, and takes him on full boar while retreading some of Arnold’s quotable dialogue.  It all really works greatly while delivering the graphic violence quota that fans crave from this franchise.  The film ends on an excellent note that left me wanting to see where yet another sequel could go.

And thus, I do believe that Predators was indeed good enough to potentially breathe life back into this franchise.  Everyone involved steered it back in the right direction where exciting new stories could be told, and even on its own, this is a very solid and satisfying science fiction action movie.  However, with the same budget as Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, it pulled in just about the same amount at the box office, but the reviews and reactions to this film were substantially higher.  Predators set a good foundation for the franchise to build upon, but three years later, no news of a sequel has surfaced from Twentieth Century Fox.  That is quite unfortunate, but I think there is a great deal of potential to tap with this series which is evident here.  Nimrod Antal and Robert Rodriguez did an excellent job bringing everything back to its roots, and while they chose not to acknowledge Predator 2, they did nothing to contradict it either.  Again, I’d love to see more of Adrien Brody as Royce.  He’s flat out awesome.  While I’m sure some will view the film as leaning a little too heavily on the first movie, I really believe that what it takes from that movie was largely to its benefit, and the filmmakers still injected their own ideas and creativity to allow the franchise to move forward.  They expanded the universe and possibilities in a lot of very good and intriguing ways.  I do really like Predators, and I give it a strong recommendation.  If this film has slipped under your radar for the last three years, definitely give it your attention.  This is a franchise that deserves to live and thrive again under the watch of some really sharp and talented creative individuals.


Deep Rising (1998)

Deep RisingThe recommendation to see this film came from an odd source.  An internet radio show discussion about the biggest box office bombs of all time.  Deep Rising did just over $11 million on a $45 million budget in 1998 with a cruddy January release date.  This was undoubtedly a major failure on behalf of the marketing campaign because, for me, this is a fun, exciting, scary, and action-packed film that is designed as a crowd pleaser.  This comes to us from Stephen Sommers whose follow-up would be the massively successful and entertaining The Mummy, and if you enjoyed that film I really believe Deep Rising should work just as well for you.

The most luxurious cruise liner in the world, owned by Simon Canton (Anthony Heald), is on her maiden voyage when it is damaged and attacked from beneath the sea.  Meanwhile, John Finnegan (Treat Williams) and his crew, who have a policy of “if the cash is there, we don’t care,” transport what turn out to be a band of ruthless hijackers who intend to seize and rob the cruise.  However, when they all arrive, they discover the passengers have mysteriously disappeared, but they are not alone.  Something is lurking behind every deck and passageway, snatching the intruders one by one, and they all now must fight together to escape with their lives.

What pleasantly hooked me first is the good cast.  It’s not a stunning set of acting jobs, but these are actors who were having fun with the material and strike a solid chemistry.  I’ve been seeing Treat Williams lately in television guest spots, but as a fatherly figure.  Him as more of an action centric lead was really good.  He demonstrates a fun, lively charisma that keeps you invested in how this plot unfolds.  He felt very capable and comfortable in this role, which was originally intended for Harrison Ford.  If you can think of Air Force One Harrison Ford, I’m sure the idea fits fine in your head, but Williams really does a superb job in this lead role.  One might expect having him and Famke Janssen billed as leads would add up to a particular romantic subplot.  There is a relationship built up between them, but the film doesn’t slow down for them to develop it in a traditional way.  It’s more of a bond built out of the intensity of the situation, but there’s some nice pay-off with them at the end.  They work well together equally carrying the weight of the action nicely.

Famke Janssen’s character, Trillian St. James, is a thief who tries to use slight of hand to slip into Canton’s vault early on, and really only survives due to being locked in the brig.  However, the character doesn’t have much to her after the thief plot has evaporated, and is certainly doesn’t show off Janssen’s incredible talent.  So, it’s not a film that’s going to go deep into characters like Die Hard, but the action moves fast enough that you don’t really notice it.  I also enjoyed the humor from Kevin J. O’Connor’s character of Joey, Finnegan’s fun and quirky mechanic.  Stephen Sommers would use him very regularly in his films from here on out, and I think O’Connor is a very good actor showing a range from serious roles like in Lord of Illusions to outright comedy in The Mummy.  It’s possible that not everyone would enjoy him as the comic relief, but for me, he’s a little charming and surely funny.  I never found him obtrusive as he definitely works well with Treat Williams, but also has some good adversarial dynamics with the mercenary characters.

Wes Studi portrays the mercenary leader Hanover to great effect.  The actor should be known to Michael Mann fans as he had a supporting LAPD role in Heat and a prominent role in The Last of the Mohicans.  Here, the work as Hanover is not as demanding, but he portrays a solid adversary who holds a tenuous allegiance through this harrowing scenario with Finnegan.  At anytime, he can be strictly in command, but he can be, usually, smart enough to know when to work side-by-side in order to survive.  The actors portraying his mercenaries are very good especially Trevor Goddard who was Kano in the live action Mortal Kombat movie.  I enjoyed him being in the movie so much that I wish he was in more of it.

I’m actually a big fan of Anthony Heald.  I’ve seen him on screen a few times on Law & Order and Miami Vice, but my fandom is more from his great voice work on various Star Wars audio books.  He’s got a lot of sly, ingenious talent, and he portrays Simon Canton very entertainingly.  As the film progresses, you learn some unsavory, underhanded things he’s done, and Heald plays up that aspect more and more.  He takes what appeared to be a very refined yet charismatic and cowardly character and deteriorate him into a despicable, enjoyably sleazy adversary.  He was fun to watch, and the film deals with its less desirable characters with a lot of satisfaction.  Overall, I think all of the actors do a good job as they seemed to all put their best foot forward for this fun thrill ride.

The pacing right out the gate is really solid.  It keeps moving forward at a tight rhythm and pace to rarely ever linger on any one scene.  This is aided by some signature Sommers humor that is sharp and succinct.  The actors all have really good chemistry to make this work, and Sommers maintains the right balance to not sacrifice good tension and terror for laughs.  Still, I was thinking about halfway through the runtime how the film was going to keep up this survival / escape plan plot for another fifty minutes, but it throws in a number of smart turns, dangerous obstacles, and thrilling sequences to achieve that.  Sommers keeps the film rolling forward with a lot of momentum, and of course, people get picked off one-by-one escalate the peril.  Sommers gives us a fine melding of horror and action with enough to satisfy whatever you primarily desire more.  Plenty of people get killed and eaten in bloody fashion, and there’s more than enough gunplay and fiery explosions to amp up the excitement.  Yet, overall, it’s just fun without taking itself too seriously.

By no doubt, this is a fairly simple plot.  Deep Rising starts out as a covert heist mission on the sea, but intriguingly twists into a sea monster movie that requires everyone to fight to survive.  Why they don’t just haul ass out of there is handled well as Finnegan’s boat needs hull and engine repairs.  Yet, it’s not a simple task getting out of the luxury cruise liner as danger awaits at every turn and in every flooded deck.  Even then, not everyone between Finnegan’s crew and these mercenaries can trust one another, and that plays nicely into keeping the adventure treacherous.  This felt like a nice mix of The Poseidon Adventure and Aliens with a little dash of Die Hard for the thieves / mercenaries plot.  I just really liked the close quarters feel of the ship which also reminded me of Friday The 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, but achieved with better results.  There really is so much potential for a suspenseful movie set in that environment, and this film really delivered that to my satisfaction.

Still, as I was watching this I was waiting for something to pop up on screen to justify this film’s box office reputation.  Just something stupid or low grade.  I was enjoying it so much that I was expecting the CGI to be really bad, but quite frankly, in general, this is particularly good for the late 90’s.  It’s rather on par with the digital effects in The Mummy for the most part, and the sea creature itself is impressively designed.  That design is courtesy of Rob Bottin who was responsible for the groundbreaking and timeless creature effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing.  There’s some traces of that in here, but Bottin is able to make it its own distinct creation.  Tentacles are everywhere, and the long jagged teeth springing out from it are frightening.  The tentacles frequently slither out from nowhere, or bust out from the hull or metal corridors.  Sommers does a great job building up tension and suspense by gradually unveiling the creature.  We get small glimpses of it, and even when you think you’ve seen it in all of its slimy, ferocious glory, the climax gives you the Coup de grâce.  There are plenty of fun scares and thrills in how these dangerous scenarios unfold from well crafted tension to straight out intense action beats.

The action all around is just great with a really great, slick, high octane finale, and all of those thrills, tension, and intensity are well fleshed out with Jerry Goldsmith’s score.  It just has a great driving rhythm and rousing, dramatic momentum to it, clearly reflecting the movie right on the mark.  I didn’t expect Goldsmith’s name to be attached to this movie, but he really did deliver something solid that played up the strengths of it.  It’s never going to amongst his revered legacy of work, but he did his job perfectly with this score by giving it just what it required.

Held together by some solid cinematography that always keeps the geography of these close quarters very coherent, and editing that maintains that consistent rhythm and tempo, I really have to say Stephen Sommers did an excellent job here.  No one tried to make Deep Rising out to be more than what it was designed to be – a big, fun, suspenseful, action-packed ride.  The film does have this sequel tease at the end, and while that was probably a fun final moment back in 1998, it’s not so much fifteen years later.  Knowing the film bombed and no sequel was ever made, it just leaves you desiring a more proper conclusion to this adventure.  Regardless, Deep Rising showed a lot of potential to be a hit.  However, its failure was not the fault of the movie, but of a really underwhelming marketing campaign.  The trailer feels like a slapped together direct-to-video trailer which conveys none of the film’s suspense or wider plot elements, and instead, relies a lot on CGI shots of the monster.  That trailer sells this as a forgettable, cheaply executed movie.  The poster campaign had some good teaser style ideas but lacked a big eye catching poster to encapsulate the film’s overall excitement and scare factor.  It even resorts to promoting it as being “from the special effects team who made Total Recall and Star Wars.”  How is that supposed to sell the quality of the movie?  Beyond all that, a late January release was not a target for big box office success.  Stephen Sommers made a really solid crowd pleaser of a movie, but was marketed lazily.  That’s a real shame because this is a film I would’ve loved to have even seen back in 1998.  It would’ve been a long time action favorite of mine.  Still, I really like the tagline of “Full Scream Ahead.”  Anyway, you can tell that I give Deep Rising a really solid recommendation.  I thoroughly enjoyed everything it had to offer, and I think a lot of other people will, too.


The Expendables 2 (2012)

It has been not the best summer of movies for me.  Aside from two nice surprises, most of what I’ve seen has ranged from average popcorn fare to crap I want to avoid like the plague.  So, after the last few films I saw being well within that low end of the spectrum,  I am so glad that many of the world’s greatest action heroes have come along to salvage the end of my summer movie season!  While The Expendables 2 has some factors that keep it from matching the original, overall this is just a big, fun action flick that is what summer movies are supposed to be about.

After taking a seemingly simple job for Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), the Expendables find their plans going awry after encountering sadistic rival mercenary Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme).  The Expendables set out – with help from Maggie (Yu Nan) – to seek revenge in hostile territory, where the odds are stacked against them.  Hell-bent on payback, the crew cuts a swath of destruction through opposing forces, wreaking havoc in an attempt to shut down an unexpected threat – five tons of weapons-grade plutonium which is more than enough to change the balance of power in the world.  However, that’s nothing compared to the justice they intend to serve against the villainous adversary they seek revenge from.

Now, the only thing I felt held this film back was just it’s 102 minute run time.  If this had been a solid two hour film, I think it would’ve had the time to beef up a few aspects.  Jean-Claude Van Damme makes for one massively awesome villain.  He easily and deeply sinks his teeth into the role, and his vicious physicality sells so much of the character’s vile ferocity.  Van Damme plays the material with a lot of zeal and charisma.  You can clearly see there’s a lot of potential substance to Vilain, but the film doesn’t give the character much screentime or material to develop the richness Van Damme puts into the role.  We get just enough to sell his status as a villain, but not enough to really build up his threat level.  Partly because of this, the climax seems to come a little too quickly.  I had hoped for some more momentum to build up in the film before the full-on firestorm rained down.  In the first film, the villains were given ample screentime to develop fully, and they were tied deeper into the plot.  Both films have generally the same runtime, but the first film just seemed to make more of the time it had.

On the upswing, the entire cast seems like they were having a wonderful time shooting this movie.  Stallone has plenty of great chemistry with everyone, but I think the best material is between him and Statham.  Barney Ross and Lee Christmas just feel like such good, long time friends who can constantly take light-hearted jabs at one another, and are totally in sync when it’s time to throw down.  It’s a great, inspired pairing that brings so much levity to the film.  It really makes it a fun ride.  Action-wise, Jason Statham continues to shine with several knife fight scenes which are brilliantly executed and choreographed.  Nice touches are maintained with his character as they keep alive the relationship between Lee and Lacy, portrayed by the lively Charisma Carpenter.  Unfortunately, Jet Li departs the film after the opening action sequence, but he’s still given his moment to shine.  Chuck Norris’ role of Booker is full of fun humor that plays up the exaggerated internet humor of Norris’ superhuman feats.  It’s very well done.  The only negative mark with Norris is that he only ever fires a gun.  There is no martial arts action from his limited appearance in the film.  He doesn’t have anything more than an ancillary action role.  He shows up in two action sequences, and has a nice departure at the film’s end.  Sure, the script didn’t require his character to be there, but he does add to the fun of the movie.

While Stallone stepped down from the director’s seat, he remained as co-screenwriter, and you can still see his talent there.  The first film had its fine touches of emotional depth, and we are treated to some of the same here.  We get a fine amount of substance from Billy that Liam Hemsworth does a perfect job with, and really makes an impact upon the film.  He seemed like a very solid addition to the team, and proves his worth opposite some heavyweight talents here.  Barney Ross has more forefront time in this movie as he develops a solid relationship with Yu Nan’s Maggie Chen.  He has his soul bearing moments with Maggie that bring a lot of dramatic and emotional strength to this very testosterone pumping movie.  Yu Nan does an excellent, charming job showing both a compassionate, insightful side and being a more than capable fighter.  She has plenty of physicality to offer in the action sequences beyond just gunplay that is very impressive.  I think it was a very excellent idea introducing her character into the mix.  Surely, it offers up something a little more for the women in the audience to connect with, but in general, it’s good storytelling and screenwriting.  Barney is able to open up about certain things that can only be inquired of by an outsider, a character that is learning more about him along with us.  I liked Maggie right from the start.  She’s smart, cunning, humorous, and clearly doesn’t shy away from danger.  She’s exactly on the same level as the rest of the team, and more than proves her worth to them time and again.  I would love seeing more of her in The Expendables 3.

Lundgren, Crews, and Couture continue to be entertaining and ass kicking.  Dolph definitely has been given a great, amusing character that everyone plays well off of.  Bruce Willis is absolutely great as Mr. Church.  He’s another actor who could play one hell of a magnificent villain when given the chance, but he eventually fights side-by-side with the good guys giving him the opportunity for some funny quips.  Him and Schwarzenegger exchange their signature catch phrases late in the film, and it’s a total riot hearing them throw each other’s own lines back at one another.  Arnold has never had a problem embracing the self-referential humor of his iconic characters, as evident by Last Action Hero.  He’s having the time of his life here playing off of Bruce, Sly, and even Dolph.  It’s pure fun watching Arnold in this movie.  He kicks a lot of major ass, and gives us plenty of that classic charming Arnold humor we’ve all loved for decades now.  It really comes down to the fact that these are all guys who love action cinema, and are making these movies as a real, honest love letter to the genre’s fans.  The Expendables showed us exactly what we had been missing in the action genre for so long, and this sequel continues on that great, vibrant, explosive trend of entertainment!  Everybody gives it their all in these movies!

And OH YEAH!  You will get your fill of amazing action here!  Director Simon West shows he’s still got the chops he put on display back with Con Air.  However, this cranks up the volume and brutality further than he’s ever done before, and you’re damn right there’s blood!  This is a hard R rated action movie that doesn’t hold back.  Right from the start, we get slam bang, smart, innovative action that delivers on every level.  It’s fiery, loud, adrenalin fueled, and just flat out fun!  You see these guys at the start charging in to storm of the stronghold, and you know you’re in for a bad ass thrill ride!  They pull out the big guns, the large caliber ammunition here all the way through!  Stallone, Statham, Li, and Van Damme show off their physical abilities greatly in various action sequences.  However, nothing beats out the climax of Stallone and Van Damme throwing down.  You’ve got the brute force of Barney Ross combating the vicious martial arts expertise of Vilain, and they are true hardcore heavyweights.  Stuff that would take down the average person in an action movie doesn’t even take these guys off their feet.  Getting busted up with a chain, hurled across the room into a metal gate, and just plain visceral brutality is something both men are able to take and more.  This is one of hell of an awesome climax that is worth the price of admission alone.  The build up to it by Van Damme is wicked.  He thrives so much in this role in this scene that it punctuates wanting to have seen a lot more of Vilain throughout the movie.  Jean-Claude is clearly loving this character so much, and he puts every charismatic ounce of enthusiasm on display.  I think it’s a brilliant and amazing villainous performance.

The cinematography of Shelly Johnson is rock solid.  He also lensed Captain America: The First Avenger, and shows just as sharp of an eye for action here.  Every shot maintains a sense of action geography to know who is doing what, where they’re doing, and who they’re doing it to.  It fully puts the fiery, explosive, bloody action on excellent display for an audience to indulge in completely.  The editing of Todd E. Miller never embraces rapid fire cutting.  He lets the action play out competently and smartly.  There’s great action choreography to behold throughout the film, and both Miller and Johnson want you to see all of it.  These are some smart and highly capable filmmaking talents here that know the mechanics of a great action film.

The story is your straight forward revenge plot, but it is handled well.  Again, it would’ve been nice to have more develop between the heroes and villains.  Maybe have Vilain just slip through their fingers at some point, and thus, further fueling their hunger for revenge.  They get so close, but he gains the upper hand, almost laughing at them as he escapes.  I think something like that could’ve increased the film’s momentum towards the climax.  Between the time they first encounter Vilain and corner him at the airport for the film’s climax, they don’t come close to encountering one another, and that’s roughly an hour apart.  So, we never really get much of that adversarial conflict boiling up between Barney and Vilain, but Stallone and Van Damme surely hold none of that back when they do finally clash.  The film might indulge itself too much with its start studded cast at the expense of a meatier plot, but it never sacrifices entertainment value at any point whatsoever.

Ultimately, what you expect is exactly what you get with The Expendables 2.  There is no film this summer that has had action anywhere near as huge as what this film offers.  Plain and simple, this is pure bonafide FUN!  With a collection of some of the greatest action heroes alive today, you really cannot go wrong here.  With the names that are being thrown around for a third film, I’m very intrigued at what more these filmmakers are looking to pull off.  A return of Mickey Rourke would be awesome as well.  This franchise is all about rekindling the best aspects of the classic big summer action movie, and as long as Stallone is creatively involved I think we’ll continue to get our money’s worth.  I don’t think this film lost anything with Simon West in the director’s chair, and I would easily welcome him back if he’s invited.  If your summer movie experience has let you down at all, do yourself a real favor, and indulge in the action-packed fun of this movie.  While I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first film, it’s exponentially better than the vast majority of action films released today.


Safe House (2012)

This is me writing this straight after getting home from the theatre.  I saw this a few weeks after release just because of not getting my time in order.  Regardless, what I have to say about Safe House is that it is amazing on many different levels.  There are some cinematography shortcomings, but where it counts, this is a movie that delivers on more than just action.  Safe House is one of the best thrillers I have seen in many, many long years, and this is a genre I am very passionate about.

Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a low level CIA agent who has been stuck as a “housekeeper” for their safe house in Capetown, South Africa for the past twelve months.  Believing he has the potential to become a full fledged case officer, Weston becomes frustrated by the complacency of his career.  Meanwhile, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), an ex-CIA agent turned international criminal, obtains a digital file from an MI6 contact which contains incriminating evidence of several worldwide intelligence agencies.  However, he is targeted by a team of mercenaries, and the MI6 agent is killed in the process.  Seeing no alternative, Frost evades them by walking into an American consulate and turns himself over to the authorities.  This lands Frost in Matt Weston’s safe house where a harsh interrogation by a special ops team begins, but is cut short when the mercenaries attack the safe house.  Weston is forced to escape, taking Frost captive to keep him safe until brought back into CIA hands.  However, Tobin Frost is a master manipulator, and he begins to get into the head of the young operative who finds his morality tested and idealism shaken.  Circumstances soon push Matt Weston into going against orders and to figure out who he can trust before he and the world’s most skillful assassin are both eliminated.

Simply said, this is a very powerful, effective film fronted by two incredible actors.  This film entirely backs up my statements from my Green Lantern review of the wide range and quality of Ryan Reynolds’ acting ability.  Playing opposite Denzel Washington inevitably requires an actor who can carry a lot of weight, and in my mind, Reynolds never slacks off.  Matt Weston starts off the film as a very frustrated, yet untested agent.  He has the ambition to move up in the ranks, but hasn’t the experience to temper his confidence.  The film forces him into a dangerous journey that forges him into a sharp minded, confident, and capable man.  All the while, Reynolds holds up his end of the film with amazing talent.  This is him upping his game and allowing himself to shine through next to Denzel.  That is not an easy feat to accomplish, and the screenplay throws a lot at the character to make it an achievement to be hard earned.  Reynolds’ performance crafts a great and compelling arc for Matt to work through.  The character has many highly relatable aspects, and is a very human character.  He has a loving girlfriend named Ana, portrayed by Nora Arnezeder, who he wants to devote so much of himself to, but he cannot due to the secretive necessity of his job.  And being stuck on this assignment will soon force him to be parted from her as she takes a job opportunity in Paris.  All of these lies and frustrations ultimately create a conflict for Matt as the story forces him into a more perilous position, but never does he let go of his emotional core.

Now, Washington and Reynolds work off each other fantastically creating an evolving character dynamic which is constantly compelling and intriguing.  Throughout the film, Frost is imparting his experience and cunning skill set upon Matt, and this is the basis for their relationship.  At times, it’s survival based, but ultimately, it’s about trust.  As if it needed to be said, Denzel is stunning as Tobin Frost.  He is one of the finest, most talented actors around.  While Denzel usually has roles that allow his natural charm and charisma to work to his advantage, here, he curtails it entirely.  Frost is a far more psychologically driven character who is dark, dangerous, and ruthless.  Morality doesn’t factor into anything, it’s about strategy and survival.  However, he connects with Weston because Frost sees what he once was and wants to help this young man not become the same thing he became.  He’s never straight forward in saying that.  Instead, he works as an observer of Weston’s life, and bestows his experiences upon him.  This ultimately affects Matt’s decisions and actions.  Again, it tempers him, and allows him to survive to make better choices than Frost made.  Denzel is also quite unsettling in how he inhabits the merciless nature of Frost’s violence.  He doesn’t need to shoot a prone man five times, but he does out of cold rage or a vindictive point.  He shows his enemies how more deliberately violent he is by doing such things.  For him, it is only shoot to kill.  Denzel conjures up a brilliant performance of an intelligent, analytical character who brings immense gravitas to the story.  The emotion he shows is subtle and veiled in Frost’s inquisitive and foreboding nature.

The strength of the film is maintained by a solid and impressive supporting cast.  Everyone nails the dramatic weight and tone of the film, and their characters feel fleshed out and realistic.  Brendan Gleeson is the most prominent as Weston’s direct superior, David Barlow.  He plays the subtle turns of the character very nice, and holds an audience’s attention quite well.  The film plays some misdirection here and there, but these moments only continue to fuel Weston’s growing weariness.  Sam Shepard also appears as CIA Director Harland Whitford creating an all around interesting performance that motivates many of the thematic elements through to the end.  An appearance by the always solid and enjoyable Ruben Blades as a document forger adds an extra dimension to Frost.  Even if he happens to be a criminal, it shows that Tobin does have people he trusts and can call a “friend.”

What few scenes we do get of Nora Arnezeder as Ana Moreau are great.  From tender and affectionate to quietly concerned to distraught and upset, she inhabits all emotional aspects of Matt’s beloved superbly.  While she is never in peril or is a direct motivation for Matt to do what he does, she is always in the back of his mind.  He has something worthwhile in his life that he does not want to lose, but there are bigger ramifications at hand which he cannot turn a blind eye to.  If for nothing else, he wants her kept safe, and makes some difficult choices because of that desire.

This truly is a thriller on the level of Michael Mann.  Even a few moments in the musical score felt evocative of Collateral here for me.  Composer Ramin Djawadi has done some work I am familiar with including Iron Man, the Hugh Jackman-Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and the current CBS crime thriller series Person of Interest – and so, I can truly see why he has tapped for this film.  The score is entirely awesome bringing out some stellar emotional resonance in key moments, and serving the intense action sequences excellently.  This is another powerhouse element that raises the film up to another level.

Now, I have good and bad things to say about the cinematography.  First off, STOP IT!!!  Stop with the blasted shaky cam!  Break out a tripod, a steadicam, or dolly track for one scene!  Safe House was shot by Oliver Wood, who also photographed the first three Jason Bourne films.  Now, while Paul Greengrass has nothing to do with this movie, you would think otherwise in how it was shot.  Still, it is a little better than Greengrass’ Bourne films as the framing can be wider at times, and the lighting is far superior.  You can actually maintain a sense of geography in most action sequences, especially the car chases because the action is given a wider composition.  Still, this trend has worn on me so much over the years, I can only plead filmmakers to stop at this point.  There is one scene between Matt and Ana where it’s supposed to be a quiet emotional scene, but the camera just keeps wobbling all over the place.  From experience, shooting a simple dialogue scene with a handheld camera usually only results in a subtle instability, but here, it is so deliberately shaky like the camera operator was about to stagger and fall over.  The good half of the cinematography is that it does add a necessary gritty, hardened reality to the film.  There is nothing glossy about it, and that’s how it should be.  The lighting reflects this with perfect execution using many color schemes to breathe some vibrancy into select scenes.  There is moodiness and atmosphere, but that gritty texture is always present to maintain a consistent visual style.

And despite the shaky cam crap, the action sequences are massively effective.  This truly has some hardcore action going for it by never pulling any punches.  It’s full-on, straight ahead realism maintaining intense momentum and adrenalin.  The hand-to-hand combat scenes are definitely impressive showing Denzel and Ryan handle themselves like dead-on professionals.  They both deliver hard edged physicality which further drove my respect for both actors, especially Reynolds.  It really is a pleasure seeing him in a role that showcases his wide range of abilities, and seeing him handle the physical demands of this film pleases me a great deal.  I also enjoy that the action sequences aren’t there for self-indulgence, they push the plot and character arcs forward.  Seeing Weston beat down on one of the gunman, interrogating him while Frost looks on from afar was an impactful scene.  It starts to beg the question of just what path is Matt Weston starting down.

The screenplay by David Guggenheim is a masterful piece of work.  Every character is written with such strength and depth that they must have jumped right off the page.  The story itself is wonderfully crafted establishing Tobin Frost quickly as a dangerous and cunning man through not just actions but words.  The tone of the scenes are built into how they are written through character interactions and situations.  While everyone else is panicking in the safe house when it is hit, Frost sits there, handcuffed and calm as can be.  He talks Matt through the situation, and tries to keep him calm and focused.  This is a man in control, a man who can see the next step forward.  He always sets up the situation where he has the leverage, where he dictates how it goes down.  This is established right from the beginning of the film, and continues on throughout.  The psychological aspects of the story are brilliant.  Whether or not Matt Weston trusts what Tobin Frost says, he cannot ignore his words when circumstances turnaround on him.  He becomes more and more aware of the truth closing in around him, and Matt must act in his own best interests as a direct result of what he learns from Frost.  The screenplay continually weaves a finely textured fabric of truth and deception around Weston with only Frost as the key to unravel it all.

This is all amazingly executed by director Daniel Espinosa.  You can be certain that his name is one I will take notice of from here on out.  Again, me comparing this to the best of Michael Mann’s work is a huge piece of praise as Mann is my favorite filmmaker (excluding Miami Vice & Public Enemies).  This truly has all the hallmarks of the finest this genre has to offer.  Every emotion, every conflict, every action sequence, and every character is handled with immense care, detail, and weight.  Nothing is cheated or unearned.  Great respect is given to all aspects of this story to craft it into a deeply satisfying and rich film.  I honestly can’t recall seeing another film as dramatically impactful an visceral as this one, theatrically, in a terribly long time.

For me, 2011 was not a great year at the theatre for me.  There were some enjoyable flicks, but nothing remotely as riveting as Safe House came into my view.   Whatever the rest of 2012 holds for me, I always enjoy starting out a new year of cinema with a strong film, and this is one of the most rock solid films around.  With an incredible cast of talent in front of the camera coupled with an intelligently written screenplay populated by powerful characters, Safe House was an absolute pleasure for me to experience.  I am glad I made the time to give it my attention.  I highly and deeply recommend this film for anyone who is excited by a psychologically rich dramatic thriller with visceral action sequences.


Alien: Resurrection (1997)

With Alien: Resurrection, it became painfully obvious that Twentieth Century Fox was now less interested in making credible sequels and more so in just bleeding this franchise dry.  Let’s try to put this into perspective.  Joss Whedon, as many know, is the creator of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Angel, & Firefly.  He’s a proven great screenwriter and director.  He is the screenwriter for this film as well, but by his own admission, the filmmakers executed every aspect of his script wrong.  Everything imaginable was done wrong from Joss’ written vision.  Various other aspects were introduced by the film’s shitty French director Jean-Pierre Juenet.  This, mainly, includes all the bad, stupid humor.  The worst part of it is the fact that he’s very proud of all the stupid comedic bits, thinking it makes the film more entertaining and fantastic.  This is the sort of thing that flushes the film down the toilet.  Watching the DVD Special Edition cut, other things become obvious.  His originally intended main title sequence is stupid, irrelevant, and directly setups a terrible tone for the film.  It comes off as total, stupid B-movie cheese, and the cheap CGI effects drag it down to even lower levels.  The theatrical cut sets a much better tone, but it hardly sets you up for how abhorrent this film really is.  So, by that train of thought, the Special Edition introduction fits the quality of this motion picture much better.

After killing herself to prevent the government from taking the monstrous Alien to Earth, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) awakens 200 years later to find she has been cloned in order for scientists to withdraw the Alien DNA living inside her.  As the world around her begins to fall apart and the terror begins again, Ripley realises that the scientists who cloned her may not have fully removed the Alien from her, at the same time that she is, once again, perhaps the only one who can stop the horrific infestation from reaching Earth.

Alien had Ridley Scott, Aliens had James Cameron, and Alien 3 had David Fincher – filmmakers who have all gone onto very high profile, blockbuster, and critically acclaimed careers.  Jean-Pierre Juenet is about third class next to them.  Where the previous three films gave the franchise a real weight and emotional depth, this film becomes a badly done and clichéd comic book adventure.  It shows nothing of subtlety or intelligent originality.  It’s all BIG camera moves, BIG action, BIG (yet shallow) characters.  It also features over-the-top and cheesy performances by all but two cast members.

Ron Perlman and Michael Wincott are exceptional actors who are always reliable for bringing the goods.  Wincott tends to bring a mysterious and engaging quality to his performances.  Top Dollar in The Crow is probably his most high profile role.  Here, it’s more low key, but that just makes him more intriguing.  I think he could shine well in a classic film noir feature.  Unfortunately, he has very few scenes, and gets killed relatively early.  Ron is a bad ass, plain and simple.  There’s a definite reason why he got such a role in Blade II, and more importantly, as Hellboy.  He’s good at ass-kicking, gung-ho roles.  This outing is no exception.  Although, most casting choices are uninspired.  One might be used to Dan Hedaya in more comedic roles, but he has fit into a dramatic feature well, such as The Usual Suspects.  Here, you might think that his character would be made to hold more dramatic weight, but it’s 99% bad humor.  General Perez does not come off, remotely, as a serious military officer.  He comes off as a mentally stunted fool.  Compared with Apone or Hicks from Aliens, he’s a buffoon.  I’d sooner be led by Bill Paxton’s Hudson.  If Perez is representative of humanity’s military, then it’s a sad state of affairs for the human race.  Winona Ryder is no Carrie Henn, in terms of a vulnerable female role, and is no Lance Henriksen or Ian Holm, in terms of a peculiar android (or ‘artificial person’).  Simply said, she fails to provide Annalee Call with any true depth or fascinating quality.  There’s no reason for her to be here, let alone anything for her to do in this role.  Brad Dourif provides nothing but over-the-top goofiness.  You can’t take him seriously for a second.  Good over-the-top Dourif is The Exorcist III, this is Dourif on the opposite end of the quality spectrum.  Doing it with all the weight of a feather, and being god awful in a role you want to forget in short order.  So many of these roles are cliché, paper thin characters meant to fit a cardboard cutout archetype to service the poor plot.  You need the evil military guys, the mad scientists, the gruff mercenaries – all check.  So, there is a need to scrutinize Joss Whedon’s script.  I know he’s capable of far more diverse, complex, and interesting characters than this.  I just don’t understand how he was responsible for such a lightweight, flat, and uninspired script.  I can understand the filmmakers botching up the execution of the script, but I can’t believe they drained depth and character from it to where Joss would still accept a screen credit.  Much of it would have to be Mr. Whedon’s fault, unfortunately.

Now, you have to ask where does Sigourney Weaver fit into all of this?  She’s not playing Ellen Ripley.  Not the Ripley we came to know and evolve with through the first three films.  This is a hollow shell of a character with the memories of Ripley, and slight emotional traces thereof.  But she’s not the weary, battle hardened, desperate character that Alien 3 left her as.  Nor is she the strong, assertive, and haunted woman of Jim Cameron’s film.  Sigourney does give us a rather creepy character, but it’s nothing recognizable to the franchise’s fans.  Her character is truly alien.  The emotional state of this Ripley Clone is sporadic and erratic.  It’s all over the map, not allowing an audience to connect with the franchise’s heart and soul.  It also plants Weaver, firmly, in the mud.  She has no place to expand or grow with this dead role.  Ellen Ripley’s character arc concluded with Alien 3.  Closure was had, even if it was bleak.  She went through all kinds of hell, saw so many die, and the pain and loss was absorbed into every fiber of her being.  She was as human as any character you will find, and her end came with pathos and poetry.  You might not have liked it, but within the context of that story, her death was appropriate and purposeful.  It should not have ended any other way.  Then, they go ahead and piss all over that with this cold, hollow “resurrection.”  It is D.O.A.  Sigourney Weaver’s role is one you cannot emotionally invest yourself in because she has very little emotion to offer.  It’s about the stark opposite of the real Ellen Ripley we saw in the first three films.  Suffice it to say, this film easily could’ve been scripted and shot without Sigourney Weaver or anything including Ripley since this really isn’t Ripley, not in spirit.  She’s a stranger amongst strangers, and a stranger to her fans.

Moving on, and as I said, the film is filled with BIG everything.  Every shot in the film is something complex and highly involved.  There’s always movement, and extremely little, if any, subtlety in its cinematography.  This forces the film to be less grounded and more overly dramatic.  Dutched angles are seen throughout.  Some scenes have one after another after another after another, for no effective reason.  Juenet and cinematographer Darius Khondji were painting with broad strokes to show off their budget and gimmickry.  Just them trying to make the film look artistic and interesting while achieving neither.  Furthermore, every action sequence is over shot.  Push-ins, sweeping crane shots, steadicam madness, low angles, high angles, dolly tracks.  Khondji just throws all the tricks into every sequence, turning them into a massively over worked mish-mash, and not trying to differentiate one from another.  Once the action begins, it’s shifted into hyperactive mode.  It’s like Michael Bay on steroids – everything done to maximum capacity and minimum reality.  At least with Michael Bay, he does it to give his films an epic feeling, this all falls flat for me.  Also, the film is saturated with this sickly green tinge that is simply too much, and makes the film exceptionally unattractive to watch.  When it’s not green, it’s this deep brown which is equally unattractive.  Just adds to the excessively stylized comic book visuals that only further flushes the film down the crapper.  There’s no beauty or inspired photography in the look of this film, ever.

Like I stated before, there are stupid concepts in this film, some minor, some major.  A minor one also shows the lack of thought put into the futuristic setting.  In several hundred years, why would we still be using paper currency?  Even today, in the early 21st century, we’re mostly relying on debit and credit cards.  Most people don’t handle tangible currency, it’s mostly computer based funds.  Bills are paid online, plastic cards are swiped to make purchases.  Three or four hundred years from now, paper currency will be an ancient concept.  Also, a pinhole crack in a space ship’s hull (or window) would not cause the effect seen in the film’s climax.  It is simply against the laws of physics and intelligence.  But it fits in with the complete stupidity of the film.

Far larger dumbass ideas culminate in the abomination called ‘The Newborn.’  I won’t even bother commenting on its design as I think ‘abomination’ says enough.  It’s just pathetic that one of the most merciless, relentless, and fearsome creatures in the history  of science fiction cinema is dwindled down to this lame ass, mutated, embarrassing mess.  Twisting the knife further, it actually says, “Mommy.”  A further slap in the face is how helpless the Alien Queen is depicted as, and the fact that this regurgitated beast bitch slaps her to death.  James Cameron and Stan Winston have been insulted.  As bad as all that is, the French hack makes it even worse – Ripley makes love to the damn Alien!  You may vomit now.  It’s nothing graphic in detail, but the implication alone is enough to make you sick.  And the complete hack director of Catwoman, Pitof, is the film’s special effects supervisor.  Seems French hack director socialize with other French hack directors, both destined for bankrupt American filmmaking careers.

The film’s effects are a divided issue.  The CGI is obvious and substandard.  I keep wondering how, in 1993, at the dawn of digital filmmaking, we got realistic, flawless, seamless computer generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but over fifteen years later, we continue to get cheap, crappy CGI effects in countless films (even for high profile, big budget films).  This film was all of five years later, and the computer generated Aliens and effects are hardly seamless.  There is no effort involved in picking them out from their live action surroundings.  The physical effects, on the other hand, are definitely up to standards.  This is due to Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated – mainly Allec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.  They worked with Stan Winston on Aliens, and took over with their own company, ADI, on Alien 3.  I’m not keen on the brown, veiny Aliens, but the quality of the physical and practical effects, across the board, are of a high standard.

You can talk about the film’s score, but it’s nothing exceptional.  Standard fare, forgettable horror-action cues.  Which rather sums up the film.  The entire problem with this film is that it takes a fairly serious franchise constructed by three serious filmmakers who injected it with strong layers of suspense, terror, and character depth, and then, deteriorates it into one-dimensional, one note characters and over worked action sequences.  Suspense and terror barely fit into the mix.  It’s all replaced by poorly conceived ideas, and a badly interpreted and executed script.  It is one bad turn after another that beats the credibility of a once great franchise further into the dirt until it’s six feet under, and then, spits on the grave for good measure.  If this was some terribly troubled production with all kinds of creative differences (i.e. Alien 3), some of this might be forgivable, or at least, understandable.  But it absolutely was not.  Director Jean-Pierre Juenet loves this film with all his heart, and thinks everything he did was wonderful and fantastic.  Perhaps, even brilliant.  The reality is that he made an abomination of a film that drove the final, hot, sharp nails into the coffin of the franchise.  It could’ve ended with Alien 3 without much argument, at least, in light of Alien: Resurrection, but alas, the Hollywood money machine kept on milking it.  Paul W.S. Anderson went on to beat the dead horse further with AVP, and unfortunately, put a bullet through the heart of the Predator franchise as well (which hardly had been run into the ground).  AVP-R, in my opinion, helped to turn the tide a bit, but it all remains to be seen.

This film, on its own, is pathetic and badly done.  When compared to its predecessors, it’s a terrible piece of cinema that never should’ve been.  A fourth Alien film, if it needed to be done (which it didn’t), could’ve been put into the hands of any number of far more credible, talented, and higher quality filmmakers.  How it landed in the hands of a Frenchman who had never made an American film before, let alone anything in the realm of straight horror, is beyond me.  It failed on every level.  There are very brief bits of goodness here, but they are crumbs that will not satisfy your hunger for another well-made Alien film.  This is a straight shoot ’em up splatter fest devoid of the suspense and character depth each previous entry had instilled in the franchise.  Nothing is improved upon in the Alien Quadrilogy DVD Special Edition cut.  It just prolongs the agony, and there’s not enough of a distinct difference to offer a separate review of it.  This one review covers enough, and you can feel free to send it down the refuse, again.  This could rival Highlander II, Freddy’s Dead, & Jason X as the worst genre sequel of all-time.  It really was and is a letdown in light of where the film series began and evolved to.  This sequel is a poor afterthought for a franchise that still had a decent measure of credibility remaining.  Thankfully, you can still watch the first three films as a complete trilogy, and easily ignore Alien: Resurrection in its entirety.