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Posts tagged “mercenary

Riddick (2013)

RiddickReviews for this sequel have been pretty lukewarm, and while I don’t blame anyone for feeling as such, there are some high and not-so-high points.  This is not a blanket mediocre film, but the averaging out of the varied content can leave one feeling that way.  As documented recently here, I feel Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick are really strong films in their respective, specific genres, with my preference being for the latter movie.  Riddick does fall between the scale and premises of those films, but doesn’t live up to either one quite as well as it could have.

Betrayed by the Necromongers and left for dead on a desolate planet, Riddick (Vin Diesel) fights for survival against alien predators and becomes more powerful and dangerous than ever before.  Soon, bounty hunters from throughout the galaxy descend on Riddick only to find themselves pawns in his greater scheme for revenge.  With his enemies right where he wants them, Riddick unleashes a vicious attack of vengeance before returning to his home planet of Furya to save it from destruction.

There are three sections of this movie for me to critique which all have their distinct qualities.  The first act of the film feels very sparse as it is just Riddick fending for himself on this desolate planet.  There’s a few bits of narration from him and a flashback with the Necromongers that fill in some plot gaps from the aftermath of The Chronicles of Riddick.  It also contains the only and very brief appearance of Karl Urban as Vaako.  I had hoped for more from him here, but I figured it would be no more than a cameo.  Anyway, this first act didn’t do much for me.  It was kind of cool seeing Riddick wounded, vulnerable, and out in the wild getting back in touch with his animal side.  However, it is quite sparse not giving you much beyond the survival action set pieces to get involved with.  The film was starting to feel like an adventure that would play out in some prequel comic book – a very small scale transition piece story that is a stepping stone to something larger.

Thankfully, as I anticipated, once we get some bounty hunter characters injected into the mix, the film really started to entertain and engage me.  Sure, the premise is quite stripped down and basic feeling more in line with Pitch Black, but if you’ve got a couple of vibrant, enjoyable characters to fill out that premise, you’ve got enough to make it worthwhile.  It does take a few minutes to get them warmed up, but it’s the clashing dynamics between everyone that sparks it all off.  Essentially, there are two teams of bounty hunters, or mercs as they are called.  The first is lead by Santana, who is an enjoyably sleazy, down and dirty type with a very gritty, testosterone jacked team.  The other is a more clean cut operation lead by actor Matt Nable’s character who has personal ties to Riddick and the events of Pitch Black.  These two teams clash immediately causing a lot of conflict, and striking some very humorous, entertaining interactions.

Santana is portrayed very well by Jordi Mollà.  I found him the most lively and charismatic character of the film.  Mollà paints Santana as a very salacious individual with little respect for anyone else outside his team, and especially doesn’t like being ordered around by any of them when they’re forced to team up.  Santana has definite smarts, but his attitude surely digs his own grave with many characters, especially Riddick.  Also, former wrestler Dave Bautista is part of Santana’s team, and he does his part well, especially since Diaz doesn’t require much beyond being tough, formidible, and a little charismatic.

And color me majorly impressed by Katee Sackhoff.  She portrays the exceedingly tough Dahl, part of the opposing team of mercs.  She more than imposes her physicality upon Santana and others who try testing her, and has the attitude to go with that.  This isn’t some stereotypical tough chick routine.  Sackhoff kick ass as a bonafide hard edged, sharply skilled mercenary who has an extra distinctive flourish to her character.  I’m sold on the actress and the character completely.

Now, Matt Nable’s character, of Boss who does have a bit of a reveal that I’ll not spoil for you here, is fairly okay.  As I said, he adds a tether back to Pitch Black, but he’s really little more than that.  The character is confident, authoratative, and intelligent, but compared to the colorful Santana, the tough as nails Dahl, or the nicely fun muscle bound hired guns of Santana’s gang, this is a rather mild character.  He also sits on the fence never becoming an outright, reviled villain, and the ending reflects the reason why.  There’s some intended depth with this character, but because he is so much on the fence, you don’t know if you’re supposed to sympathize with him or view him as a vengeful enemy.  The film never galvanizes him into what kind of adversary he should be, and thus, comes off as quite forgettable and mild.

It is clear that Vin Diesel has a love for Riddick, and so do I.  I think he is very fascinating type of anti-hero that has so many avenues of expansion, but this film really takes no ambition with Richard B. Riddick.  The character is still written well by David Twohy, but that signature aura of mystique isn’t quite there.  That ambiguity of what kind of hero he might choose to be, or the cunning way he manipulates events and perceives deeper into others isn’t really utilized here.  Because the is a straight forward survival story with only bad guys and no potential good guys, you generally know how Riddick is going to deal with everyone.  There’s no one of morality or sympathy like Imam, Carolyn Fry, or Jack / Kyra here to sway or alter Riddick’s actions.  He’s out for himself, and will bargain however he can to escape this planet alive without being held captive.  So, there’s no place for a lot of those more complex elements of Riddick to exist in this story, and that’s unfortunate.  Diesel still does a really good job in the role, making him a fun, smart, highly capable, and entertaining protagonist.  It just doesn’t feel like we’re getting every element of the character that I love.  I kept perceiving something being missing from the performance or portrayal all throughout the movie, but couldn’t really put my finger on it.  There is more to this character that we have seen in both previous movies, but this movie is just a little too stripped down to allow him to develop or be fleshed out.  It also seemed like Vin Diesel didn’t wear contact lenses this time out, and instead, had Riddick’s “shine job” eyes digitally done.

I loved Graeme Revell’s score for both previous movies, but I wasn’t impressed with his work in this film.  The familiar main theme does make some subtle appearances, but we never get a full fledged crescendo of it.  Many of the action beats are scored appropriately well.  Yet, the rest of the score feels very different in many places from Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick.  There were a number of cues which just didn’t strike the right chord with me, same as some of the humorous bits of Riddick and the silly tricks with his dog-like pet.  Those were certainly there to forge an emotional bond with this animal, which seems to have a massive unexplaned growth spurt during the first act, but because it was such a poorly done CGI creation I just couldn’t care that much about it.

The digital visual effects are about on-par with those in The Chronicles of Riddick, but like with Pitch Black, it’s good that a large chunk of these effects appear during dark environments.  The creatures that strike at nightfall are considerably better rendered than Riddick’s pet, which is the only CGI that I cringed at.  Of course, there’s only so much you can do on a $38 million budget where entire landscapes are enhanced with digital effects, and thus, you’re stretching your dollars to their limit.  Thankfully, the CGI is pretty good in large part, and added to the film a whole lot more than it detracted.

I do like that David Twohy put forth the effort to build in connections to both of the previous movies.  Again, you’ve got some flashbacks with the Necromongers showing what happened after Riddick killed the Lord Marshal, and how it led to him being left for dead on this nearly barren planet.  Yet, I know this was not the film Twohy nor Diesel intended to make when they laid out their plans for The Chronicles of Riddick, and so, this is a smaller scale story intended to be a springboard towards a larger scale adventure.  As much as I absolutely want to see this franchise take off and allow these fimmakers to tell the Riddick stories that they want, I’m not sure this is the movie to get them there.  Like I said, this story is probably stripped down too much in terms of character and conceptual development, and focuses more on the entertainment value of action sequences.  While all of the action is very well executed making for a bloody, violent, and fairly exciting movie, it has one more major failing.

As I said, there are three sections of this film to critique, and the last one, clearly, is the ending.  Riddick is an action / horror survival story putting this character into increasingly treacherous and deadly scenarios where he must fend for himself.  People are going to betray him and attempt to kill him, possibly even stranding him on this planet to ensure their own survival.  I won’t detail the ending of this movie, but frankly, it is a terribly weak ending that is a copout to the entire premise.  There’s no dramatic punch to this ending, no rationale for the actions of the other characters involved with it, and leaves you hanging with an empty feeling.  The film builds to a tense, riveting crescendo, and then, fizzles out.  This film absoultely should have ended with a strong, impactful, emphatic statement for the character and franchise.  I even sat there through the end credits hoping for an extra scene to appear, but once those credits roll, that’s all there is.  Up until this point, I was enjoying myself, and was engaged in the excitement of the action.  I was interested to see how the machinations of these deceitful characters would manipulate the fate of Riddick.  It was a fun adventure with plenty of graphic violence pulling no punches, and just having a good, gritty time with itself.  It’s just those last few minutes of the movie where you just don’t know how Riddick is going to get out of this at all, and the entire movie cheats you out of even a decent pay-off.  I just felt letdown, and it’s worse yet because I know David Twohy can write something better than this.  He wrote Warlock, co-wrote The Fugitive, and co-wrote both previous Riddick movies.  It’s a whimper of a conclusion when it should have been amazingly awesome to re-energize audiences about the character of Riddick, and leave them wanting to see more bad assery from him.

I had been waiting for this movie for a long time, and I really wanted this franchise to be very successful.  So, it really, honestly pains me to give any amount of negativity to jeopardize that success, but this really feels more like a movie many would rent instead of rushing out to the theatre to see.  Even removing the ending from the equation, it is a fairly average sci-fi / action movie without the same stylized visuals or scope of Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick.  However, it has some extra punch in the graphic violence and some pleasing female nudity, and has some entertaining and well portrayed characters to liven up the uninspired story.  You can potentially have a good time with this movie, but I don’t feel it’s a strong enough outing to give Riddick the new injection of box office life that he needs for David Twohy and Vin Diesel to do what they desire with him, unfortunately.


Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

Olympus Has FallenIt was mere coincidence that I reviewed the Die Hard clone movie of Sudden Death this past day.  It was on my TiVo for months, and I just needed an action movie to occupy my attention.  Olympus Has Fallen does indeed follow that Die Hard formula very closely, but also executes it extremely well.  This is surely one of the better action movies I’ve seen in recent years, and it is a rock solid R rated outing with the violence never holding back for an instant.  So, while Sudden Death was Die Hard in a hockey arena with the Vice President taken hostage, this movie is Die Hard in the White House with the President taken hostage.  Believe me, this is a gigantic step up that should please audiences.

When the White House (Secret Service Code: “Olympus”) is captured by a terrorist mastermind (Rick Yune) and the President (Aaron Eckhart) is kidnapped, disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) finds himself trapped within the building.  As our national security team scrambles to respond, they are forced to rely on Banning’s inside knowledge to help retake the White House, save the President and avert an even bigger disaster.

This is a very well directed effort by Antoine Fuqua.  I love that he keeps the film very grounded in the severe drama and peril of the situation, and never feels the urge to indulge in cheesiness.  He avoids having anyone spout out one-liners, or do anything to diminish the imminent danger at hand.  The film’s first act really sets up the characters well by establishing close relationships around Banning with the President himself and his son Connor.  The film begins with a tragic car accident that claims the First Lady’s life, and Banning feels responsible for that.  While I did know full well from the trailer that this would happen, the sequence still had an emotional impact on me.  The film then flashes ahead eighteen months where Banning is working at the U.S. Treasury, no longer feeling fit for or at ease in the White House.  These are all excellently done sequences establishing emotional weight on Mike Banning, and setting him up in a very fleshed out and relatable way.  Then, of course, all hell breaks loose upon Washington.

There was a point during this long incursion by the invading forces that I felt it was going on too long, but then, I caught myself.  I realized that, one, such a siege would be a lengthy operation and unraveling in multiple parts.  Secondly, it was when Banning got into the thick of things that it all picked up for me.  It made the violent, frightening sequence less broad, and focused it more on someone that I already identified with.  This is where the film has it’s real juice.  Focusing in on the character of Banning combating these forces as an extremely capable one man assault made me excited.  Getting behind him as the hero energized the movie for me, and got me invested in what was happening.  Another reviewer I follow stated that if you replaced Gerard Butler as a Secret Service Agent with Bruce Willis as a New York cop, this would’ve been the perfect Die Hard 5.  I entirely get that statement, but Mike Banning is a distinctly different person than John McClane.  Banning is a sharply trained tactical force who knows how to handle a situation like this, and how to manipulate his way through the White House, messing with security cameras, moving through hidden passageways, accessing secret vaults with a satellite phone, weapons, and so on.  This is an expertly trained agent that systematically and efficiently takes down these terrorists.  This is what really sold me on every bit of action.

Gerard Butler is a solid action lead.  He puts in a very well-rounded and awesome performance.  He certainly has some fun, yet lethal moments with the character, but never goes down the path of witty quips.  Even when that humorous bad attitude surfaces, his words hold the weight of a vehement threat.  He’s not mouthing off, he’s making strong, direct statements to people.  Still, we do get that humor through extreme circumstances that still felt distinct to the character.  The filmmakers nor Butler were trying to have Banning be an imitation of anyone else.  He’s his own great character.  Butler handles himself exceptionally well in every aspect of action here from the tactical gunplay to the hand-to-hand combat.  There are some very impressive moves he showcases when he’s squaring off against a deadly opponent.  Banning’s definitely a tough guy, but what further makes the role great is the sentimental value we see from him.  This mainly comes out with both protecting Connor, and when Mike finally gets on the phone with his wife, who is a doctor in the midst of triage.  We get to see the humanity of Banning from early on, before the action, and later on during the action to maintain that balance and dimension with the character.  Overall, it’s a very solid character in both conception and execution through Gerard Butler’s talents.  He kicks ass in all kinds of ways.

The film’s villain is Kang, portrayed by Rick Yune, and he is one immensely merciless, vile piece of filth.  Yune is just awesome as this man who seeks to unleash a horrible fate upon all of America, and unite Korea through military force with very powerful motives behind him.  This is absolutely a villain who is despicable and shockingly violent, but maintains a cool head about him.  He’s in control of everything, and is willing to demonstrate that control and dominance on a whim.  He’s very calculating and intelligent while being disturbingly violent.  Rarely have I seen an action movie villain of this serious caliber.  Again, the film does not degrade anything by delving into cheesy qualities or eccentricities.  Kang is as serious as they come, and his ultimate plans are horrific.  Yune gravitates a lot of weight around him, and sells every ounce of this role.  He’s definitely the villain this film deserved.

The rest of the cast is filled out with heavyweight talents.  Aaron Eckhart is stellar as President Benjamin Asher.  The charm and warmth of him is seen early on, but when the hostage crisis befalls him, we see his strength and conviction show through.  He won’t allow anyone to be a martyr to him in that bunker, and he never backs down from Kang and his people.  Eckhart’s an amazingly strong actor for a role of this sort, and he fills it admirably.  And Finley Jacobsen is top notch as the President’s son Connor.  He’s a very sweet and enjoyable kid that has a strong bond with Mike Banning.  I could definitely feel for him early on when his mother, portrayed by the excellent Ashley Judd, perishes in that plunge off the icy bridge.

We also have Morgan Freeman living up to his high standards as the Speaker of the House Alan Trumbull, who must assume the roe of Acting President in this crisis.  Freeman carries Trumbull’s burden with realistic weight as he grapples with these massive decisions of life and death.  How he asserts authority over Robert Forster’s General Clegg was a real solid moment that I liked a lot.  Angela Bassett, who I think is an amazingly talented screen presence, is here as Banning’s Secret Service Supervisor.  She’s all around superb, as is everyone in this picture.  We’ve got all these people assembled at the Pentagon, and they come into regular contact with Banning along the way as they try to coordinate their efforts.  These scenes carry so much poignancy and immense weight on a global scale, and no one could have asked for a better collection of actors to carry these scenes.  And it is a testament to Antoine Fuqua that he was able to utilize these talents so fully and powerfully.  Still, that should come as no surprise from the director of Training Day where he directed the excellent Denzel Washington.

And the action sequences Fuqua gives us are exemplary.  While the CGI is definitely undercooked more than usual, I could mostly move beyond that to embrace the quality of the action.  The digital effects mainly come into play during the air strike scenes with planes, fighter jets, and helicopters being digitally rendered as there was no way they were going to be actually crashing things into the real White House.  Aside from that, we get some visceral, pull no punches violence.  People, both good and bad, get ripped apart like Swiss cheese by automatic gunfire and are blatantly executed.  This is an action film that is selling the realistic intensity of both of these lethally trained forces who will not leave their adversaries alive.  There’s a generous helping of blood all over the movie, and it seemed mostly realistic and not digitally created.  I think a lot of squibs were used on this, and only a few enhancements were done in select places.  If that is indeed the case, I applaud Fuqua for going that route.  Far too many action movies these days go the lazy route, and use next to no practical blood effects.

Getting back on track, though, we are treated to some very good action through this runtime.  Banning is given plenty of intense scenarios to fight out of, and it is all shot very well.  There’s a little shaky cam in there, but it’s fairly mild and the editing is quite good to maintain coherence throughout.  It’s just hard hitting stuff that results in the biggest body count I can recall seeing in an action movie, but due to the nature of the plot, one must expect that a shocking volume of bodies fall protecting the White House.  The brutality that we get is necessary to selling the tremendous tragic weight of this event, but putting that aside, it’s the veracity in which Banning goes after these infiltrators is where the entertainment value truly lies.  The only time he leaves anyone alive for questioning ends up in an awesome, quick scene of extremely persuasive interrogation.  He’s not ready to dish out mercy, and has no hesitation in ramming a knife through someone’s skull.  It’s scenes like this that really make Banning an entertaining and bad ass hero.  We’ve seen him be a nice guy and a solid professional, but in this scenario, he’s not holding back on the bloodletting.  He knows the stakes, and has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to rescue the President and take Kang and his people down in decisive, graphic fashion.

It didn’t take me long sitting there in the theatre to take special note of how good the score was.  This is a big action movie score the way it’s meant to be done.  Composer Trevor Morris has not done anything really worth noting before this movie, but I damn well hope that this is the start of a very noteworthy career.  As with the rest of the movie, Olympus Has Fallen does feel like something birthed out of the 1980’s or 90’s in all the right ways.  This score is right up there in that vein of Under Siege, Con Air, or Die Hard.  It has a sprawling, tightly dramatic style that paints on a large musical canvas for a film of big stakes and large action sequences.  It’s very impressive stuff.

Olympus Has Fallen is also greatly written by a pair of apparent first-time writers.  This is their only credit on the Internet Movie Database.  So, if this is your break into Hollywood, I say it’s a hell of a great first effort.  Yes, it is a Die Hard clone, but it takes all the hallmarks of that formula and builds upon it with a story of huge consequences and well written characters.  The movie doesn’t put all its cards on the table at the same time.  Kang’s ultimate intentions are not fully discovered until the final act of the film, but I will not spoil that here.  The script cleverly just lays one piece of the puzzle into place at a time allowing you to be concerned with one major thing at a time.  It shows the intelligence of Kang very well, and creates a very solidly plotted film with plenty of anticipation and suspense as realized by Fuqua.

I just say go to the theatre and see this right now!  For one, hard R rated action films have been taking a nose dive at the box office, and while most of it has been justified, when something of this damn good quality comes along, it really needs to be supported.  Overall, this is simply a fun, exciting ride with the weight of serious stakes and big action.  It really beefs up the old formula with a cast of amazing talent, and helmed by a damn good director who knows how to sell something of this scale.  This is proof positive that any well-treaded formula can still be executed with impressive results.  All it takes is filmmakers with ambition and a solid script to make it a creative success.  I surely hope that it will prove to be a financial success because it really does deserve it.  Olympus Has Fallen is a solid, hard R action movie that you should absolutely see!


Bullet to the Head (2013)

Bullet to the HeadI have no preface for this review except to tell you that Walter Hill and Sylvester Stallone are a blockbuster combination that have delivered an excellent, hard-as-hell and graphic action film that you MUST SEE!  Simply said, this has Walter Hill’s vintage style all over it, and I love it!  If Bullet to the Head signals a turning of the genre back to its best roots of hard edged bad assery, I’m all for it!

After the seasoned criminal Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone) and his partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) carry out a hired hit, they are targeted by a mercenary named Keegan (Jason Momoa) who kills Blanchard, but fails in his attempt against Jimmy.  With the mark for the hit being a former corrupt Washington D.C. cop, it brings Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) to New Orleans to investigate who he was hooked up with, and why he was killed.  However, Kwon soon finds himself lethally targeted, and joins forces with Jimmy in order to weed out and bring down whoever wants them both dead.  The unlikely duo soon take on all who stand in their way, but where Kwon wants procedural justice, Jimmy is ready to exact brutal, unforgiving revenge.

I revisited both 48 HRS. movies within the last two months, and so, Walter Hill’s classic style is really fresh in my mind.  I am a longtime fan of The Warriors, but Bullet to the Head certainly follows more in line with that sort of buddy cop dynamic.  I could really feel that vibe coming off this movie right from the start, and it had me hooked in by the end of the opening credits.  I was loving this movie within the first five minutes, and it never disappointed me.  Aside from the modern technology aspects, this feels right at home with a solid 1980s hard-hitting action film, but Hill does throw in some modern style to update it a little.  Bullet to the Head has a neo noir edge to it, but it doesn’t go down the Michael Mann route.  This vibe is mainly due to large chunks of the film taking place at night, and we get some very appealing cinematography out of it.  There are some shaky cam tropes used every so often, but it’s far from being the worst I’ve seen.  There’s some restraint used to keep the action scenes really satisfying, and while I would’ve preferred more restraint or at least wider compositions, it did work quite well for this film.

Stallone is excellent through and through.  He shows that he’s still got what it takes to be a top tier action hero.  He is really in phenomenal shape showcasing a lean, ripped physique that presents a man that can clearly rip you to pieces.  Sly gets plenty of chances to show his physicality with some really bone crunching hand-to-hand combat in addition to all the brutal, graphic gun violence.  Yes, indeed, there are numerous people getting their own bullet to the head throughout the movie.  Acting wise, Stallone’s solid.  He really carries the dramatic weight of Jimmy well, much in part to his grizzled voice.  The film’s not dripping with emotional grief or anything, but you definitely feel Jimmy’s dead set determination in finding the people responsible for his partner’s murder.  The scenes Sly shares with Sarah Shahi, who portrays Jimmy’s tattoo artist daughter Lisa, are really well done.  There’s definitely a rocky relationship there, but not one of heavy friction.  They play well off of each other creating a mature and honest father-daughter relationship that has some weight and grit.

The humor in the film is really played out nicely between Stallone and Sung Kang.  The trailers did do it justice as it seemed a little low grade, but in the context of the film, it really had me laughing quite a bit.  I like how Kang’s Detective Kwon keeps poking fun at Jimmy’s age, and it’s handled in an almost bad ass way when Stallone retorts that still sells a laugh.  It’s nicely written and smartly performed.  Both actors really grasped the tone and chemistry the film was going for, and it kept the tone light and fun when needed in between the slam bang action scenes.  That is a perfect example of a 48 HRS. Walter Hill style and balance of tone.  The humor works with the hardened action tone of the film, and invests you in the characters in how they contrast and complement one another.  It’s certainly something not every director can do, but Hill proves he still has that skill.

I will admit that Sung Kang himself start out a little weak in the film.  He wasn’t really selling me for the first few scenes, but once he clicked into the chemistry opposite Stallone, he really fit in quite well.  Detective Kwon is a very by-the-book type of cop.  He’s using Jimmy only as a means to an end, and is quite set in his ways of adhering to the law all the way through.  So, there’s this tough, seasoned hitman paired with a rather mild mannered police detective who wants to keep what they do on the straight and narrow.  However, they regularly clash in stellar fashion creating both some of that humor, but also, a fine building of a relationship that keeps forcing them back together.  Still, despite Kwon being very conservative with his violence, he regularly impresses by having the skills to take down an adversary quite efficiently either by hand or by gun.  So, Stallone doesn’t get all the action glory.  Sung Kang has his fair chances to show us something unexpected and satisfying in that vein.  There might be some that feel he wasn’t the absolute best choice for this role, especially since Thomas Jane was originally cast in it, but I think he earns his merit before the end.  Beyond anything else, Kung and Stallone work very smoothly together making this a very entertaining film.

Now, I was extremely impressed by Jason Momoa.  His role of Keegan is a very stern faced killer, but one that is simply a massacring bad ass.  As his employers say in the film, he enjoys the work he does.  He takes pleasure in killing, and he gets a ton of chances to indulge himself.  He never just walks in to kill one person.  He’s there to kill everyone in sight, and Momoa delivers to us a genuinely sadistic villain that you’d love to hate.  He may only be a hired gun, a mercenary, but he fits right into that perfect role of like James Remar from 48 HRS or Andrew Divoff from Another 48 HRS.  He may not be the mastermind criminal, but he is the number one force to contend with and is the one that we really want to see taken down.  Momoa is really awesome in this role, and he seemed to have loved playing it.  He makes Keegan intimidating and heavily threatening, despite his impressive muscle bound size of 6’5”.

Christian Slater has a nice turn as the somewhat sleazy Marcus Baptiste, a rich lawyer who enjoys his women and narcotics quite a bit.  He only has a few scenes, but Slater does sell the antagonistic character with plenty of zeal.  Baptiste is working with the actual mastermind of Morel, an African gentleman portrayed with sophistication, arrogance, and amoral villainy by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbajeas.  It’s a very subdued performance, but one that works quite well for the character.  Both actors gives us some firm antagonists with realistic motives that solidly fit the film and story.

And indeed, this is a hard R rated action movie with plenty of bloody gunshots and some explicit female nudity.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an action film be so casual and open with showing nudity, and it was very much a pleasing sight to my eyes.  Baptiste has a masquerade party where many of the masked women are wearing little else but those masks.  It was very titillating, but it does not distract the film away from its plot.  It doesn’t indulge in anything gratuitous beyond that.  Conversely, this may not have as much graphic violence as Dredd, but it surely lives up to that standard I just recently discovered.  Just like in Dredd, and again, living up to its title, people get shot in the head continually.  The film even sets up the need for it early on when a guy doesn’t go down until he’s shot in the head.  So, Jimmy Bobo is dead-on-the-mark, accepting nothing but point blank kill shots to the cranium.  While some of the blood splatter is likely CGI, it at no point did it distract from the awesomeness of this movie.  We get some big explosions in this that kick ass, and tell you that this movie is taking no prisoners.  It’s going to deliver that hardcore bombast that has been missing in most action films these days, and it’s gonna to do like only Stallone and Hill can.  What I really loved was when Jimmy and Keegan duel with those axes.  That is not something I believe I’ve seen in an action film before, and it seriously made for one really intense and suspenseful fight.  On wrong move, and you could be missing a body part.  It was a tremendously climactic and amazing action scene that amped up the level of tension and brutality that I wasn’t expecting.  From the trailers, I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t expect it to be that damn good of a scene.  It was fuckin’ great!

I also really loved the score by Steve Mazzaro.  It’s very bluesy with some hard electric guitar and prominent and beautiful use of harmonica, giving this a real seasoned and down to Earth feel.  It sets a real down south vibe for this New Orleans set film that really just works amazingly well.  However, most of the action scenes are very minimal on music.  At most, you get a little underscore for a low end vibe, but mostly, you’re hearing the sound effects of guns firing, fists crunching bone, bodies slamming into hard surfaces, and axes clanging together.  I think that worked excellently with this very hard edged action as there is a lot of impact with those sound effects.  They really enhance the brutality of the movie, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Seeing both this and Dredd within the same month really energizes me into believing that hardcore R rated action movies are making a genuine, high quality comeback.  Talented filmmakers, both old and new, are delivering to us some really amazing movies lately that are giving the action genre that hard hitting adrenalin shot it needed.  Stallone is in top form and clearly enjoying himself in this movie, and he was in masterful hands with Walter Hill as the director.  I had a HELL of a great time watching this in the theatre, and if a friend of mine was going to see it later, I’d tag along for a second viewing.  Bullet to the Head is a fun, exciting, ass kicking 90 minute thrill ride that is worth taking more than once.  It keeps itself simple by not trying to complicate the plot with any big twisting narrative.  It’s very straight forward and right to the point.  This is one awesome movie that satisfied me from the very beginning to the very end.  And this is literally a movie that starts with a bang!  I give Bullet to the Head a definite SLAM BANG recommendation!  This year now has a lot to live up to in terms of action movies for me, and I damn well hope it delivers.  So, 2013 – you have been put on notice!


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.


Unknown (2011)

Unknown was a lot more drama than actual action, despite what the marketing campaign tried to sell us.  Obviously, the studio was attempting to capitalize on the success of Liam Neeson’s action thriller hit Taken by marketing this movie as such, but this is hardly in the same league.

Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris who was come to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit.  However, attempting to return to the airport for a piece of luggage, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for multiple days.  When he awakens, his wife suddenly doesn’t recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity.  Ignored by disbelieving authorities and hunted by mysterious assassins, he finds himself alone, tired and on the run. Aided by an unlikely ally in the taxicab driver who saved his life (Diane Kruger), Harris delves into a dangerous mystery forcing him to question his sanity, his identity and just how far he’s willing to go to uncover the truth.  Pieces gradually interlock to reveal more than Martin ever could’ve imagined about himself, and what is truly at work that he is now compelled to combat.

I’ve seen both positive and negative reviews praise the premise of the movie and its originality.  I do not know what movies these critics have been watching because my thoughts are to the contrary.  My main gripe is that the plot is a near carbon copy of The Bourne Identity with a few varying elements, but at its core, its the same basic plotline only not executed nearly as well.  Both Unknown and The Bourne Identity were based on novels, but the novel that Unknown was based on, Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert, was published twenty-four years after Robert Ludlum’s well known novel.  So, there’s nothing really new to see here, and no one even attempts to disguise it.  Many films have similar plots, but the really good, even great filmmakers find ways to make it appear fresh, exciting, and interesting.  Unknown did not achieve that for me.  It’s not terrible, not at all, but it just comes off as not trying hard enough.  There are very good actors in this, but none of them seem to really put their full heart into it.  The film comes off as passable, not exceptional.

Neeson turns in a fine performance that carries the film nicely, possibly making it better than anyone attempted to make it, and of course, the action requirements are not a difficulty for him.  Nothing here is a challenge for him, which may be a shortcoming of the movie, but he doesn’t slack off at all.  It just doesn’t give him anything new to wrap his talent around.  Of course, that’s not something I really have any issue with.  What did bother me was how underused Frank Langella was in this movie.  His appearance as a sort of an old government “spook” is painfully underplayed to the point that any actor could’ve filled the role and done it just as well.  That’s a terrible remark to couple with Langella because he is an immensely powerful, enveloping actor with a wide range of talents.  He has inhabited so many diverse roles throughout his career that it’s sad to see him take on a role that seems like a quick, phoned in paycheck.  I can’t imagine he’s hard pressed for quality acting roles.  However, this does work as an example of the movie.  Whatever talent is involved is not motivated to push for anything better than mediocre.  It’s all standard fare, average offerings.

The action is very good when it happens, but there’s hardly enough to sustain momentum or interest for the plot.  I didn’t remain intently invested in the characters, or was as convinced of their motivations as better films have been able to do.  Circumstances and plot twists just don’t impact deeply enough to create believable reasons for the characters to push forward with their intentions.  Again, this is due to no one giving an extra effort to engage an audience’s invested interest.

The cinematography was entirely standard fare for the genre these days.  More handheld, shaky cam, fast editing stuff.  I’m beyond tired of that, and I wish filmmakers would get more inventive and clever when filming action sequences.  There are so many untapped ideas in that realm, it’s aggravating how many films just do the exact same thing every single time.  There was a time when action film directors had more self-identity and originality in the look and style of their own movies.  That time seems almost entirely behind us, now.  Why that is, I do not know, but this method of action cinematography and editing wore out its welcome a very long time ago.  Director of photography Flavio Labiano and editor Timothy Alverson really have nothing notable on their filmographies, and if they keep up this unoriginal, uninspired work, they won’t get any.  The same goes for the screenwriters and the director Jaume Collet-Serra.  Seriously, the director of the House of Wax remake?  I think that explains enough.

As I said at the start, this doesn’t have enough action to be really classified as a action film.  It’s closer to a dramatic mystery thriller.  It’s a lot of Martin Harris running around Berlin trying to piece together information and struggle with his sanity and perceptions.  Action sequences are not all that frequent, and again, when they do occur, they are poorly presented.  The quiet dramatic moments are nicely handled, mostly due to Neeson’s talent.  However, films ultimately fail when they market themselves as something they are not, and that occurred with Unknown.

I’ve seen review quotes stating this film’s superiority over Neeson’s previous action thriller Taken.  Personally, Taken was a far better crafted, more tightly executed, more emotionally investing, and more exciting action thriller.  This doesn’t have the pace, energy, or momentum to rival that film, and the studio would’ve been wiser to avoid such comparisons.  However, if they hadn’t they might have lost some box office revenue.  Even on its own merits, this is still a mediocre movie.  I can’t really recommend it because there are so many superior films in the genre, and other films that have done this premise with more success.  It’s not outright bad, but it’s not particularly good, either.