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Predator 2 (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marked For Death (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bad Boys (1995)

Bad BoysPeople like to rag on Michael Bay a lot, but most forget he has a few gems amongst the over bloated messes in his filmography.  Quite frankly, I believe his first movie was his best, and that is indeed Bad Boys.  Burdened with a really bad script written for a Dana Carvey / Jon Lovitz comedy vehicle, Bay relied heavily on the comedic smarts and chemistry of Martin Lawrence and Will Smith to salvage it with extensive improvisation.  What he got was an exceptionally well made, tightly paced, and sharply stylized charismatic action hit.

One hundred million dollars worth of confiscated heroin has just been jacked from police custody.  Once the career bust of Detectives Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence), the missing drugs now threaten to shut down the narcotics division of the Miami Police Department.  The thieves turn deadly when they murder one of their own, a once crooked cop, and Maxine, a beautiful call girl who was a close friend of Mike’s.  Now, the only witness to this double murder and the link to recovering the dope is Maxine’s friend Julie (Téa Leoni), who must come under the protective custody of Lowery and Burnett before these criminals eliminate her permanently.

What really grabs me about Bad Boys is how sharp and funny Lawrence and Smith are.  These two have excellent chemistry that would be hard to constrain, but I think Bay had himself in sync with these two.  He directed their banter down the right line which wholly fits their characters, and never allows it to go on a wild tangent.  I like the quick scenes early on that just have them trading comedic blows, but it serves a purpose to build the characters and establish their relationship.  The opening scene is a big favorite of mine.  This is Michael Bay focused and driven to deliver something impressive.  He had something to prove in his directorial debut, and the script he had was so horrible even he called it a “piece of shit.”  I only wish he still had those standards today.  So, it was a lot of pressure making Bad Boys, but he surrounded himself in extremely talented individuals like Smith and Lawrence along with two blockbuster producers to make this a success.

This has all the hallmarks of a Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer production.  It’s slick, stylish, fresh, and exciting.  I miss the time where producers like them or even Joel Silver alone influenced the quality and style of the movies.  They were as big of a mark of quality as the right director.  Bay’s style is also evident here with a lot of dynamic camera angles, beautiful dramatic lighting, and some gorgeous sweeping camera movements.  Bay creates a very visually stunning work that energizes the movie, raising it up to a very high quality cinematic level.  It absolutely has that 1990’s music video visual scope and beauty which was essentially originated and refined by Bay.  There’s some elegant and artistic production designs throughout that just give it an extra flare of style that does feel very Miami.  The film also has very tight editing keeping the story moving forward at a great clip.  Unlike many later Michael Bay films, it doesn’t languish on indulgences in comedy and frivolousness.  Yes, there are almost straight comedy bits in there, but they just add to the fun of the movie.

The dramatic aspects of the film are handled as amazingly as the comedy.  There are several moments in the film where the impact of Maxine’s death reverberates and resonates.  Bay gives it epic weight to propel the motivations forward for Julie and Mike.  In many of Bay’s later films, those qualities are often drowned out by too much bad comedy or just poor characterizations.  Here, he shows he knew how to do it right.

I know there are many who find Martin Lawrence irritating, to say the least.  I can see that, but I just feel he does his best in this movie, especially when he has someone like Will Smith to work off of.  Marcus Burnett is a guy with a lot of stresses on him from not getting his “quality time” at home, and the constant danger everyone keeps getting him into.  The biggest being having to impersonate Mike for the sake of securing Julie, who trusts Lowery solely, and being forced to lie to his own wife about the arrangement.  So, the wiseass quips and abrasive attitude are dead-on-the-mark.  It also creates the classic buddy cop dynamic of conflicting personalities.  Mike is smooth and competent while Marcus is more excitable and apprehensive.

Of course, Will Smith is charming and charismatic, but injects a lot of toughness and conviction into Mike Lowery.  He’s not just a smooth player.  He’s a dedicated, determined, wicked good cop that works situations with savvy and sharp aggression.  Mike might be a rich kid with a comfortable lifestyle, but as he says he “pushes it to the max every day.”  It’s a great dynamic between Burnett and Lowery, and this performance showed Will Smith to be a vastly marketable leading man and action capable actor.  Proving that statement is the fact that his very next film was Independence Day.

Téa Leoni is really great.  The panicked, emotionally unsettled part of her performance has a lot of weight and depth.  Yet, she makes the transition to the lighter tone smoothly with really good chemistry with Lawrence.  She becomes even more enjoyable when Julie figures out that Marcus is really Marcus, and not Mike.  She plays around with him, and that just adds a little more intelligence to her.  Most of all, Leoni creates a very sympathetic and likeable character.

While Joe Pantoliano portrays almost the stereotypical angry police Captain, he’s great at it.  As always, he’s smart and funny.  Captain Howard barks orders with the best of them, but you understand the stress he’s under.  The biggest bust his department’s ever achieved is lost, and all of their jobs are on the line under a very tight timetable.  He has to motivate his detectives to work fast and smart before all their time and luck has run out.  So, Pantoliano has that relatable quality where his yelling never overshadows the consummate cop underneath.

Tchéky Karyo gives us a fairly good villain.  If there’s any weak area of the film it’s not his performance, but Fouchet is not well developed.  It’s rather generic, but Karyo elevates it to a higher level through his very good presence and subtle touches he puts into it.  He can evoke a calm tension when he speaks softly, but can really punctuate greatly when the aggression is unleashed.  If Fouchet was a stronger villain on the page, I think the film would feel like it has a beefier pay-off.

I absolutely adore Mark Mancina’s score.  The main theme is beautiful and perfect with its slight Latin flavor, hip hop rhythm, rock electric guitar, and epic scale strings.  It’s an inspired meshing of musical styles that feel just perfect.  His overall work on this movie was big, heart pounding, and dramatic flowing perfectly with Michael Bay’s directorial style.  The entire soundtrack just hits the right 90’s intensity and style all the way through.

If there’s one thing that I’ve never seen disputed about Michael Bay is that he knows how to do action sequences amazingly well.  He really is a master of epic action using score and weighty slow motion shots to intensify every dangerous scenario.  The entire climax is excellently done with plenty of explosive moments and greatly satisfying action.  The final car chase is insanely intense with its great use of tight close-ups, tense, pounding music, and extremely tight editing.  The violent, dramatic quality of it all is just masterful.  This really does follow in the tradition of Tony Scott, but pushed to the next level.  That is probably much due to the Simpson / Bruckheimer backing.

While the story is rather simple and straight forward, it is populated with a lot of fun.  Bay keeps the mix of dramatic momentum and comedic wit appropriately balanced.  The comedy might be in abundance here, but it never dilutes or dwarfs the dramatic urgency of the storyline.  Both the comedy and action stick strongly in your mind after the film’s over.  It all just blends together smoothly and smartly for a wildly entertaining and fun ride.

Bad Boys really set the tone for late 90’s action.  Very polished and stylized cinematography, largely dramatic slow motion action, and just an epic feel all around.  It launched the careers of Bay and Smith into the stratosphere as two the biggest blockbuster names around, and for good reason.  While Bad Boys isn’t as big of an action movie as either of them or Simpson / Bruckheimer were involved with, it’s greatly fun, exciting, and spectacularly made.  Sharp, smart, and beautifully shot, this vibrantly showed that there was talent here to harness.  These days, I think Michael Bay could use some restraints and more focused vision like he had here.  Even Bad Boys II came off a bit over bloated and self-indulgent by taking what was great in this first movie and amplifying it beyond what it needed to be.  Still, if a third movie ever does eventually get made, I’m sure I’ll be game to give it a fair chance as you should definitely do for this movie, if you haven’t already.


Collateral (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shakedown (1988)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Midnight Heat (2007)

Midnight HeatFor whatever reason, I just felt the need to review something of a different style, a different whatever from everything I’ve been doing lately.  I’ve come to find that what I most enjoy spotlighting here are films that are hidden gems.  Stuff that’s not too widely known, but is of a certain admirable quality.  I really like allowing others to discover movies through my reviews, and that’s not going to happen reviewing Star Wars or Terminator movies.  Showcasing something that also inspires me as a filmmaker on a more personal level is the other thing I gravitated towards with this review.  I’ve previously reviewed the film Paranoia from internet comedic personality and independent filmmaker Brad Jones.  Midnight Heat is a 2007 feature length effort from him that was made with a lower grade production value, but for me, the quality of the writing, most of the acting, and the direction really shines through the very rough digital video camcorder, micro-budget quality of the movie.  This is the type of movie that really inspires me and drives me to be a creative and ambitious filmmaker.  Seeing someone else achieve this with even less resources than I have today is further inspiration, but let’s breakdown the plot of this sleazy 1980’s exploitation film homage first.

Midnight Heat is a story of cops, hookers, killers, and pimps; all centered around one sleazy night in the late 1980’s.  A cocaine addicted homicide detective (Jake Norvell) is brought out of suspension in order to trail local prostitute Donna Diggs (Bianca Queen) who may become the next victim of The Scalper (Nick Foster), a serial killer who preys on the city’s hookers.  Meanwhile, her mentally unstable pimp Martin (Brad Jones) attempts to get out of the business while finding it harder to protect his girls from both the killer and from an abusive rival pimp (Buford Stowers).

I will make one preface about the technical quality of Midnight Heat and the relative standards of quality I judge this by.  I’ve both been an independent filmmaker for several years, and have watched these types of movies since the late 90’s.  In this realm, you make the best story you can make with the equipment and resources you have at your disposal.  Not every independent filmmaker has the cash to buy boom mics, pro lighting gear, or a high quality camcorder.   If all you have is a Digital Hi8 camcorder and a solid screenplay, you go for it.  It may indeed be difficult for some to acclimate themselves into the experience, but if you can get beyond the digital grain from the low lighting and less than perfect audio, there is a very entertaining and well written sleazy crime thriller waiting for you.  The film is only available, completely free, through Brad Jones’ website.  So, all it costs you is time to give it a chance.

This film is Brad’s tribute to 1980s sleaze flicks like Vice Squad, Savage Streets, and The Exterminator while taking strong vibes from Miami Vice.  This really translates from both the story being soaked in the nighttime world of sex, drugs, and murder, and the choice of soundtrack.  The reason the movie is only available for online viewing is because it features tons of unlicensed 1980s pop songs.  I greatly used these sorts of songs as temp music for my feature film The Fixer, and I wish I could commercially release it with those tracks because they perfectly capture the vibe I was going for.  Brad Jones was just interested in putting the film out there without a mind towards commercial release.  With it being specifically set in 1987, I couldn’t imagine Midnight Heat working without these era-specific tracks.  Songs from Glenn Frey, Phil Collins, The Cars, Scandal, Loverboy, Kim Carnes, Animotion, and many more pulsate throughout this movie.  They are the entire score, and it instills the film with energy and a very familiar emotional feeling for me.  At times, it would be preferable if the songs were lower in the mix so they don’t compete too strongly against the dialogue, but the music never drowns it out.  Brad Jones did the best he could with the actual production sound, as is stated in his intro video to the movie on his website.  Still, if there’s one thing that could’ve been improved, it is just the mixing of music and sound effects around the dialogue.  Often gunshots and other dramatic sound effects don’t have the sonic impact they should have, but I am able to forgive and move beyond that to understand the intentions on display.  If this was a multi-million dollar budgeted film with professional sound engineers, you could rightfully attack that with great zeal, but not in this case, not at all.

While most of the cast are not professional actors, we are treated to some very strong and substantive performances.  Jake Norvell’s Detective Rick Wilson is the perfect sleazy 1980s corrupt cop.  A cocaine snorting, prostitute indulging, foul mouthed burn out that is distrusted by the police department, and is stuck with an assignment no one else cares about.  Norvell appropriately portrays him in an over the top fashion in a performance that really dominates a lot of the movie.  This is a character of ego and abrasiveness, but also has that tinge of emotional value.  Norvell intensely portrays the erratic, substance abusing behavior of Wilson making him an unpredictable wild card.  This repeatedly complicates matters with Donna, but there’s always that sordid emotional connection between them that really pulls them together.  Norvell’s performance grows and solidifies in the third act, and becomes damn near powerhouse in a very fun, indulgent way.  He’s really feeling the energy of this character throughout, but it is punched up in that last twenty-five minutes.

Bianca Queen is quite good as the female lead.  She brings a lot toughness and grit to Donna, but is not at all afraid to delve into the required sleaze of the role.  She holds her ground very solidly opposite Norvell, and the relationship they strike is combative, yet complicated.  She wonderfully conveys the sordid, argumentative history between Donna and Rick without ever backing down.  She also slinks very enthusiastically into the sexy, seductive aspects of the character.  Ultimately, by the end, we see even more depth from Queen that makes her standout beautifully next to her male co-stars of Jones and Norvell.

Obviously, I am a major fan of Brad Jones’ work, and for very good reason.  The man is exceptionally talented as both a writer and actor.  In the role of Martin, he is channeling something complex and intriguing.  He’s this pimp that tries to run a good operation, but just wants to find a clean way out of this life.  Yet, this is the night that everything is deconstructing around him.  The stress pulls at him too agonizingly, and he can’t help but crack over and over again.  Jones portrays this character with a strong wealth of sympathy that transcends all the irredeemable violence Martin inflicts, but also brings plenty of weight in a role that gradually slips into being an antagonistic force.  The trippy dream sequence Martin has really pushes the idea of the fracturing psyche even further.  Jones is entirely convincing as an intimidating presence, but that complex nature regularly comes back into play where Martin is not just on a violent rampage.  He can be a relatable character when baring his soul, but Jones’ performance is never too far removed from that psychologically messed up behavior.  By the end, both sides of the character mesh together greatly with some smartly written dialogue and ideas.  Overall, Jones’ performance is a major highlight of the movie.

Buford Stowers is a great heavy as the ruthless pimp Phil.  He carries himself with a weighty presence and a good measure of sleaze-laden charisma.  Every scene he has is punctuated with an aggressive authority.  Stowers throws his all into the role, but keeps it grounded and intimidating.  He feels like a serious threat that no one would risk crossing.  Stowers and Jones have excellent chemistry as rival pimps, and have some solid scenes together.

The remainder of the cast has some good performances including Kim West as Nikki, Phil’s premiere working girl.  Sarah Lewis always impresses me in Jones’ films with her best performance coming as the lead in The Hooker With A Heart of Gold.  Here, she has only a few scenes as Donna’s friend Mindy, but it is very well acted on all levels.  Alex Shyrock is very good as Detective Mike Nero who is a cop who doesn’t seem like he gives much of a damn anymore, and doesn’t enjoy having to screw around with Wilson throughout the night.  Shyrock has that right stressed out, frayed quality showing that Nero is sick and tired of this Scalper case, and just wants it done with however possible.

The most substantive scene is when Martin and Rick cross paths and have a lengthy conversation together.  Both men lay out their troubles, how they got to where they are now, and talking frankly about what has damaged them.  Jones and Norvell put in excellent performances here.  The two are great, close friends in real life, and that chemistry shows through.  It’s a fairly brief pair of scenes between them, but it is a solid turning point that motivates the characters into the third act..  Their confrontation at the film’s end is equally as good.

Handheld camera work is the standard here, as is Jones’ style.  He has said that he relies on this so much due to the fact of having only the built-in microphone on his camcorder to record audio.  So, he regularly needs to have the camera close-in on the actors to get consistent audio.  Still, while the framing can regularly be a little too tight when trying to pan between two actors, and the handheld being a little rough, there are many scenes with quite good camera angles and editing.  For the most part, the flow of the movie is very good with only a few rough transitions here and there.  I can entirely see that if Jones had the right equipment and the ability to refine his technical quality, this would be a greatly polished movie on all levels.

I really like movies with intercutting stories.  They inherently create an energy that propels the narrative forward with great rhythm.  Midnight Heat regularly cuts between Martin’s descent into self-destruction and Rick and Donna’s turbulent night together.  Both stories parallel one another until they eventually intersect and collide.  This structure works beautifully, and maintains a streamlined flow throughout.  Jones writes very vibrant and interesting characters with some excellent dialogue.  Midnight Heat is an exploitation film through and through, but the quality of the writing is comparable to that of a Michael Mann film like Thief or Collateral.  Characters are dimensional and feel quite real and textured.  This is the real strength of the movie, and it is what immensely impresses me about it.  As I said, beyond the rough, low grade technical qualities there is a wealth of talent on display fueled by Jones’ amazingly written script.  There is substance in this story.  It never falls back on letting the sleaze weigh down the film for a fun, cheap thrill.  Jones absolutely was putting his best dramatic effort forward, and it shows through.  That’s what I think makes for a great independent filmmaker – to have the quality of your talent and vision shine through even the most rugged of technical shortcomings.

While I believe Brad has stated that directing isn’t his favorite part of the process, I do believe he put together a cohesive and well directed movie here.  While everyone cast in the movie is part of his wide circle of friends, he is able to make the best use of them in key roles, and they gave him their best.  The compressed time frame of the film also creates an energy and momentum not too unlike Michael Mann’s Collateral.  Everything occurs over a single night, and that creates a compact, compounded intensity that builds as the film progresses.  I used to have many extremely late nights out to where I didn’t know late night from early morning anymore, and Midnight Heat gradually captures that feeling in its third act.  The film narrows out its cast of characters, and focuses in on its leads of Rick, Donna, and Martin enhancing the sense of isolation and loneliness of those hours of the night.  The climax is not action based, but character based.  It brings everything to a head in a very solid and satisfying way.

I strongly believe Midnight Heat to be one of Brad Jones’ best films.  The writing is excellent and the full cast really puts their all into it.  I love the neo noir style of it all taking place at night.  It soaks you deep into this grimy, dark world, and that’s just perfectly my style.  There’s very little action in the movie as it is built and driven by its characters, which are excellently developed and realized.  At nearly an hour and forty minutes, I think this is a well put together independent film that was made with a lot of passion and enthusiasm.  At the time he posted this on his website in July of 2011, Brad stated this to be his favorite film out of all the ones he had made up to that point.  Knowing him as well as I do through his website, this really is where his love of film is the strongest, and I’m intrigued to know that a sequel is planned, likely for this year.  It was a combination of seeing this movie and Brad’s v-log movie review of Drive that got me to see that brilliant movie which is now one of my favorites of all time.  Coincidentally, the opening credits to Drive are nearly identical to those of Midnight Heat, same font and all.

As I said, you can exclusively watch Midnight Heat on Brad’s website for free.  Clearly, I give the movie a very strong recommendation for anyone that enjoys neo noir crime thrillers or the sleazier side of 1980s cinema.  You can watch the rather low quality trailer here.  Give it a few minutes of your time, and see if it appeals to your interests.


Savage Streets (1984)

Savage StreetsI’ve been looking for this movie on DVD in stores for months now.  Today, I went out looking for one exploitation movie at the re-sale shop and came home with another.  Savage Streets is a cult rape-revenge exploitation film from the late director of Friday The 13th, Part V: A New Beginning, Danny Steinmann.  As previously documented, I have a low opinion of that sequel, but Savage Streets looked really good and promising via the trailer.  I’ve heard some good things about it, and was very dogged about finding a copy of it.  Sometimes, a good word of mouth is enough to convince you to take a impassionate chance on a movie.  But now that I’ve seen it, does it live up to what I had hoped for it?  Was it worth the months of anticipation and hunting I put into it?  Well, let me impart a synopsis on you before answering that question.

Brenda (Linda Blair) is bad, bold and brash, but she absolutely dotes on her deaf-mute kid sister Heather (Linnea Quigley).  After nearly being rundown by a gang known as the Scars, Brenda and her friends trash the car of their leader, Jake (Robert Dryer).  Shockingly, he chooses to exact his revenge by getting his cohorts to gang-rape Heather.  Caught up in her rivalry with the cheerleaders, Brenda is at first unaware of the Scar’s involvement, but is eventually shocked with the full truth.  She then vows deadly vengeance in a skintight black suit as she searches out the gang members one by one.

Doing a blind buy of this movie was certainly taking a chance because I’ve had blind buys bite me in the ass before.  However, that was not at all the case with Savage Streets.  I did indeed greatly enjoy what I saw here.  It is quite a low budget picture with only $1.2 million to its credit, but this was definitely a time where most filmmakers knew how to make an effective movie within their limited means.  They could create something genuinely entertaining and worthwhile without needing a major budget.  While his Friday The 13th movie came off like a cheap direct-to-video outing, director Danny Steinmann pulled off a really solid genre movie here that I’m glad he had been commended on long before his 2012 passing.

The main thing that I was impressed by on this film was Linda Blair’s performance.  She strikes that perfect balance of a tough, attitude rich, yet still vulnerable and compassionate young woman.  You see her make those subtle shifts early on as she defends her sister from an ill joke, but then, lightens the mood a moment later with some well place charm.  Brenda will not back down from a fight, and doesn’t take any crap from anybody.  She stands up to everyone from bitchy classmate Cindy to the sleazy school principal to, of course, this malevolent gang.  She’s genuinely tough with the courage and mouth to back it up.  Yet, these tragedies that befall her sister and friends have deep, emotional impact upon her.  She cries, mourns, and grieves in her own harsh way while never veering away from her determination to find those responsible.  Brenda is someone who has a surplus of strength to pull her through this violent series of events, and Linda Blair puts her all into this performance to make Brenda that great heroine.  She’s also quite sexy and beautiful in this film, and her hard edged attitude is very attractive and exciting.  Blair packs a lot of charisma and passion into what she does here, and she really makes Savage Streets the excellent piece of work it is.  There’s not enough I can say about what she does in this role.

In the role of Jake, Robert Dryer does an exceptional job.  This is the dead-on perfect villain for this film as Jake has zero redeeming qualities about him, and is a full fledged sleazy, violent, womanizing, severely intimidating thug.  Just the look of the character gives you a very edgy impression with his slick backed hair, leather jacket, intense physical presence, and especially that razor blade earring.  Dryer has some dark charisma which amps up the character to the utmost vilified levels.  He definitely looks like someone who could snap your neck right after stabbing and slashing you to bits.  Just as much as Linda Blair invests you in the story, Dryer invests you in the need to see Brenda exact her revenge.  After all you see Jake do, and without an ounce of regret or mercy, you crave that violent comeuppance, and that is so much earned from Dryer’s performance.

The rest of the cast is very good putting a lot of enthusiasm and dedication to their roles.  You’ll certainly find some over-the-top dialogue and line deliveries, but it wouldn’t be an exploitation film without them.  John Vernon is excellent with his deep, intimidating, dramatic voice as Principal Underwood.  He has this underlying sleaze factor that surely hits with a peculiar impact, but it’s all great.  Johnny Venocur does some good work as Vince, the one guy in the gang who has a semblance of a conscience.  You can progressively see the humanity taking a hold of him, and it adds a nice dash of remorse into this story.  Lisa Freeman brings her own strength and spirit to Francine which shows she’s no pushover either, but you also get the tender side of her bride-to-be aspects.  Genre star Linnea Quigley makes Heather very wholesome and sweet without ever saying a word.  Linda Blair plays very sweetly opposite her bringing out that touching sisterly warmth and heart.  On the darker side, Quigley achieves the moments of silent terror with visceral intensity.  The entire sexual assault scene is powerful and disturbing, as it should be.  The film does not glorify it at all as it is depicted as a traumatic, frightening experience, which is commendable.  This is the darkest point in the film, but we are thankfully treated to some very enjoyable, entertaining elements throughout the rest of the movie.

What makes Savage Streets distinctly 80s is the awesome pop soundtrack.  There are no big names that stick out for me, but the songs generally hit that excellent 80s vibe with strong vocals, vibrant keyboards, and a driving intensity.  It also kills me that this soundtrack is available only on the original vinyl or audio cassette releases, and are rare collectors’ items.  The only CD release was done independently in a very limited capacity.  So, if you want these songs, you’ll have to turn to YouTube.  The one notable track is “Nothing’s Gonna Stand in Our Way,” which is performed here by John Farnham, would later be covered by Canadian band Kick Axe (aka Spectre General) for Transformers: The Movie in 1986.  The soundtrack for this movie really enhances the vibe all around making it a very rockin’ experience, but the original score is also very effective especially during the film’s climax.

The cinematography of Stephen L. Posey is very good and solid.  It’s nothing amazing, but what he does entirely suits the gritty nature of this movie.  The editing is also very tight never allowing the film to lag anywhere at all.  The pace is kept consistent throughout, and has plenty of well put together sequences.  On a technical level, this is a well shot, well made movie that is competently executed by knowledgeable talents.  Furthermore, director Danny Steinmann does all around impress me with what he did here.  There are a few minor critiques still pending, but on the whole, Savage Streets is a well written, well directed film for this genre.  Steinmann really brought out a lot of strength and vibrancy from his cast, and crafted together an effective revenge movie that has emotional weight to it.  It’s surely not one dimensional in the least, and I commend Steinmann and his co-writer Norman Yonemoto for that.

Now, the one thing that threw me off about the movie is that the trailer would make you believe that Brenda would be hunting these guys down through most of the movie.  Instead, her armed quest for revenge begins in the final third of this 93 minute movie.  I do not state this as a criticism, just as an expectations adjustment.  The first hour of the movie is consistently and solidly paced as the Scars repeatedly terrorize Brenda’s friends and other unfortunate individuals.  The film takes the time to build these guys up as increasingly more sickening people, and that’s saying quite a lot since their first act against Heather would be more than enough already.  Yet, it layers the crimes and tragedies upon Brenda and the audience.  It develops her character and her friendships so that you understand the importance these people have on her life and the lives of others.  It also uses this escalation of violence to further drive a wedge between Vince and the other gang members, which is a smart idea.  Now, once Brenda moves into full-on revenge mode, decked out in a sleek back jumpsuit and crossbow, I absolutely loved it!  A great little montage ensues with a solid rock track behind it, and we’re into a pretty damn good final act.

The only criticism I have towards that final act is that while we do get blood and gore, it is not all at the right moments.  Some of the deaths don’t have the desired satisfying impact because we don’t witness them in graphic or explicit enough detail.  However, we do see the bodies displayed with their bloody wounds minutes later, but it wasn’t quite enough.  Considering how explicit the film had been already up to that point with violence, language, and nudity, I figured we would get some graphic gore where it counted the most.  Thankfully, this is not so for all the kills in the climax.  It’s about fifty/fifty, but I really wanted to see those despicable scum meet some gruesome ends.  Watching Brenda squaring off against Jake was thick with tension and emotion as that rage and pain within her really penetrates in this sequence.  She is being blatantly sadistic, and you are really reminded of why she wants him to suffer so badly through her dialogue.  Ultimately, we get a very tight climax with some great moments of suspense and dramatic pay-off.

Savage Streets is damn good!  It’s especially gritty with visceral violence and a strong core of emotion by way of some solid performances.  Linda Blair definitely stands out as an excellent lead giving us both the heartfelt compassion to be sympathetic and relatable as well as the brash attitude and confidence to be a convincing action heroine.  I love the dialogue she gets on both ends of the spectrum which really reinforce the strength of Brenda.  My favorite is the “double jointed” quip near the climax, which is also Linda Blair’s favorite.  It hits me as one of the best lines in an action film, ever.  Overall, Blair is just bad ass and awesome through and through.  She delivers on all demands of the role in a very satisfying and entertaining performance.  There’s a lot to enjoy in the tight 93 minute run time, and I really have to hand it to Danny Steinmann for the work he did here.  This is a kind of movie that just doesn’t get made anymore, and even if they are, I imagine they aren’t made as good as this.  I can entirely see here what brought Steinmann to doing a Friday The 13th movie.  It’s only too bad that film was not remotely as cool and good as Savage Streets.  This certainly may not be a film for everyone.  As I said, it is very explicit and casual with its profanity, female nudity, and violence, but if that fits your tastes, I highly and strongly recommend checking out Savage Streets.  While it was tough finding it in a store, it is easily obtainable on Amazon.com in a 2012 digitally remastered special edition DVD set.


Dredd (2012)

DreddMy summer movie season last year mostly sucked, and by the end of August, I just didn’t want to step foot inside another theatre for a long while.  That was unfortunate for when Dredd was released in late September.  I couldn’t get enthused for anything despite all the rave reviews this film got.  Fortunately, I don’t seem to be alone in discovering this on the home video format as its sales and rentals have been on fire in the last two weeks.  Thus, in the frigid icy winter weather, I dashed over to the Redbox outside of the CVS Pharmacy and rented it.  So, what’s the simplest statement I can give to this film?  It’s that I have no criticisms to levy against it. Dredd is AWESOME!

The future America is an irradiated waste land.  On its East Coast, running from Boston to Washington DC, lies Mega City One – a vast, violent metropolis where criminals rule the chaotic streets.  The only force of order lies with the urban cops called “Judges” who possess the combined powers of judge, jury and instant executioner.  Known and feared throughout the city, Dredd (Karl Urban) is the ultimate Judge, challenged with ridding the city of its latest scourge – a dangerous drug epidemic that has users of “Slo-Mo” experiencing reality at a fraction of its normal speed.  During a routine day on the job, Dredd is assigned to train and evaluate Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie with powerful psychic abilities thanks to a genetic mutation.  A heinous crime calls them to a neighborhood where fellow Judges rarely dare to venture – a 200 storey vertical slum controlled by prostitute turned drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her ruthless clan.  When they capture one of the clan’s inner circle, Ma-Ma overtakes the compound’s control center and wages a dirty, vicious war against the Judges that proves she will stop at nothing to protect her empire.  With the body count climbing and no way out, Dredd and Anderson must confront the odds and engage in the relentless battle for their survival.

Dredd is just full-on hard R-rated action that is brutal and relentless.  Yet, it is not dumb by any means.  Alex Garland wrote a very smart screenplay that keeps things rather simple, but has its own dramatic depth and character strengths.  We don’t get long sit-downs with the characters to pine over their emotions and back stories.  Instead, we get insights into them in solid, succinct moments that work towards the momentum of the film.  Dredd himself remains hardened throughout never allowing anything to crack his weathered, tough exterior.  However, the depth we get from him is in what he does, not so much what he exudes.  He is a strict enforcer and abider of the law.  He follows it to the letter, and doesn’t just kill someone because this is a graphic action film.  His intentions are clearly stated making us aware of who is suited to be executed and who isn’t, and Dredd’s threats carry grave weight.  He’s also calm, collected, and confident.  He never lashes out.  He’s calculated in everything he does.  This guy is a bonafide bad ass who has been very weathered by this post-apocalyptic world that needs order more than anything else, and he’s deadest dedicated to that ideal.  The situation that he’s in here, it’s just like every other day to him.  For instance, when told to put Anderson in the deep end of the job, he says, “It’s all deep end.”  This guy’s been through the worst this world has to offer, and he’s not afraid of any level of danger.

Karl Urban was a perfect fit for Judge Dredd.  I’ve enjoyed him in every role I’ve seen him in from The Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Riddick to The Bourne Supremacy.  He always seems to dedicate himself fully to all his roles, and he has some impressive talent that will carry him far.  It also takes a special actor, dedicated to the character, to have his face almost entirely covered for the entire film.  Dredd never removes his helmet, and we never see his face.  Just that mouth and chin area is all we get, and some actors simply wouldn’t allow their face to never be seen on camera either by ego or principle.  Urban doesn’t have that problem, and that quality of Dredd works to his advantage.  It’s reflective of his attitude.  He’s not the type to open up about himself, or allow any glimmer of weakness to show through.  That aggressive visage of that helmet and visor create his ill-tempered demeanor, and Urban entirely absorbs himself into that mindset.  Putting on that harder, gruffer voice mixed with a little bit of beard stubble and his grim expression creates a great heavy, gritty presence.  He gives us the kind of bad ass, hardened character that I’ve not seen in a long time.  It follows in the tradition of Snake Plissken and the Punisher, but it is that vehement dedication to law and justice which separates him from those sorts of anti-heroes.  Urban sells this role with everything he’s got, and delivers on every level.  This is a role that could easily become cliché in the wrong hands, but with Urban, Dredd is a serious force to be reckoned with that never fails to be interesting.

The character of Anderson is really handled greatly.  She’s a fine counterpoint to Dredd in that she does have anxieties, apprehensions, and an emotional core to struggle with throughout the film.  Carrying out an execution is not easy for her, but she does her job, regardless.  The little details about her past are dropped in very comfortably, and work into the story seamlessly.  Her psychic abilities make for an excellent cog in the plot, and even makes for some appropriately humorous moments.  I think the best action films know how to drop in a little bit of humor and levity without it betraying the tone of the overall film.  Dredd is no exception.  Her psychic abilities even give us one very whacked out sequence where she goes into the head of Kay.  It’s sexy, graphic, and frenetic in the most schizophrenic way.  The beautiful Olivia Thirlby is truly excellent as Judge Anderson.  She inhabits that very green rookie sensibility without falling onto clichés.  There’s a genuine weight to what she brings to this role showing that Anderson is highly capable, but does not yet have the experience to hone her skills and emotions properly.  Anderson has an excellent arc that has some fine pay-off in the end from Dredd himself.  It’s a big learning experience for her that really fleshes the character out.  She doesn’t get lost in Dredd’s shadow at all, and I think the filmmakers did an excellent job at that.

Also, Lena Headey portrays one deranged, depraved villain.  She’s not “off the walls” crazy as the performance is rather subdued, but Ma-Ma does some crazy random violence that would require an R rating just to mention it.  She’s a total sociopath, and really enjoys her torture to a grisly degree.  She isn’t just going to kill you.  That’s not enough.  She’s going to send a message with your body, and make it loud and clear with a giant splat on the concrete!  She’s sick and twisted complete with a scarred face, and it’s a glorious villain for a gloriously graphic action movie!  The rest of the cast is rock solid with no one giving anything less than a top notch, full force performance.

The cinematography on this movie is really amazing.  What stands out the most is the design of the “Slo-Mo” sequences.  The high speed photography makes everything appear to be running in ultra slow motion, creating a gorgeous spectacle, aided by some CGI enhancements, that is simply stunning.  It makes for a very enveloping experience along with the very aural, ethereal score to mimic the sensation this narcotic stimulates in its users.  Conversely, everything beyond that is very gritty and textured.  The sprawling landscape of Mega City One is very epic, and a desaturated color palette is used to set the grim tone right from the start.  Dredd avoids making this some Blade Runner clone, and adopts its own realistic style for this industrialized and economically crumbling metropolis.  The cinematography gives this film weight, scope, and depth that elevates its above your expectations.  The action is all shot superbly showing full competence in how to stage and photograph even the most blisteringly intense sequences.  Anthony Dod Mantle deserves an exceptional level of credit for the work he did shooting this picture, and giving such a solid and powerful visual style.

The action itself is bloody and brutal with people regularly getting shot in the face!  If Dredd’s going to pass a sentence of death upon you, he’s going to wipe you out in the most explicit way possible.  Maybe he’ll burn your skull from the inside out, set you ablaze, or maybe he’ll just pound some bullets into you.  He does not hesitate, and he never wavers in his job.  And of course, the villains dish out their own heavy duty warfare as well.  Their biggest attempt at taking out Dredd and Anderson is when they unleash not one but two hardcore Gatling guns that rip through concrete destroying an entire level of the complex.  It’s wicked awesome!  There are numerous diverse sequences here that keep the action always interesting and immensely intense, and they are all handled superbly.  One of the coolest sequences is when Dredd and Anderson bust in on some guys who are doing Slo-Mo, and thus, nearly all the action unfolds in that ultra slow motion style.  Bullets rip through flesh in the most stunning way possible to where it’s practically gruesome artistry.  I am just amazed at the depth of vision injected into this movie with sequences like that.

Dredd features an excellent, hard edged score by Paul Leonard-Morgan.  He makes excellent use of driving, pulsating synth beats and some stellar distorted rock guitar.  This is essentially a heavy metal synth score that actually works insanely well because of the hard hitting, gritty style of the movie, but also, it never bombards you.  It flows along with the action and momentum of the film.  The synthesizers really give the film more of an ominous, foreboding, relentless tone that build up the tension and anticipation while the guitars are there to kick ass.  It’s almost 1980s like in its musicianship, and it’s always able to bring itself down to a more subtle place, when appropriate.  Overall, this is one masterful, edgy, exhilarating action film score that entirely suits the futuristic, post-apocalyptic grit of Dredd.

What I think is most amazing about this movie is that it had only a $45 million budget, but looks like a far higher grade feature than those numbers would suggest.  This demonstrates a team of filmmakers who knew about to get the most out of every dollar, and not waste their resources.  There is not a single thing that looks cheap anywhere in this film.  The sets, costumes, action set pieces, and visual effects are all high caliber quality showcasing amazing craftsmanship and artistry.  And for those who care, this was shot in digital 3D, and from what I hear, Dredd looks fantastic in 3D.  That is no surprise considering how stunning it looks in 2D.  Everyone who worked on this film clearly put everything ounce of effort and passion they had into it, and I believe it exceeded all expectations.  Still, I also like that the film doesn’t try to over stretch itself by becoming more than it needed to be.  The film is ultimately quite ambitious, but the filmmakers didn’t push the proverbial envelope any further than they needed to with this story.  All of the elements are smart and fit together beautifully.  There’s a lot of subtle context and ideas within the film between the characters and ideas of justice, but all of it works towards the action centric plot.  It’s very focused without being narrow, but never becomes broad.

Flat out, Dredd is an ass kicking, hard hitting bombastic action film that never hesitates to go all out, but never degrades itself with camp value or cheesy set pieces.  It’s totally hardcore all the way, and should satisfy the hunger for any true action movie fan that’s desired a return to classic hard R rated films.  I’m very impressed by Karl Urban’s performance, and if this were to become a franchise, I believe he could carry it to very exciting, riveting, and intriguing places.  Director Pete Travis doesn’t really have much of a track record to speak of, but I hope that Dredd is the beginning of a very successful and notable one for him.  This is really a visually magnificent film that brings all of its dynamic elements together into an intense cohesive whole.  He has shown me something awesome and amazing with Dredd, and he’s not the only one to credit for it all.  A whole team of excellently talent filmmakers came together to really nail this adaptation of the British comic strip.  It is creatively successful without a blemish, in my view, and I hope that time will prove Dredd to be commercially successful as well.


Miami Vice (2006)

This film was not what I had hoped it to be.  At the time of release, I couldn’t have been more disappointed.  However, over time, I have gained some appreciation for it, at least, for what it had the potential to be.  I had not watched the television series during the 1980s.  I grew up on cartoons, sitcoms, the WWF, and Knight Rider.  However, I blind bought the first season of Miami Vice on DVD in 2005, and was immediately hooked.  It seemed like good timing with news of the feature film hitting at that time, and the trailer coming a few months later.

What I love about the television show was its way of using popular music as a dramatic storytelling device, and the strong chemistry amongst the cast.  The five seasons of Miami Vice redefined what could be achieved on television.  Its use of cinematic visuals, gritty crime themes, and action packed, violent stories changed the medium forever.  It was slick, colorful, exciting, dramatic, and compelling.  Unfortunately, this 2006 feature film lacks all of that.

In this new Miami Vice, roles of James “Sonny” Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs are portrayed by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, replacing Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas from the original series.  Crockett & Tubbs get pulled away from a local undercover operation to deal with the deterioration of a interagency task force. As Tubbs says, “Your ‘op sec’ (operational security) is blown.”  How it links to them is by way of an old informant who got in over his head, and now, pays a dire price.  So, to bring down this Colombian crime kingpin, Jesus Montoya, Crockett & Tubbs go deep undercover where they have no back-up, and Crockett gets in close with Isabella (Gong Li), Montoya’s woman.

The real problem of this film is that it lacks chemistry and momentum.  The plot moves along very straight forward allowing for no unexpected twists or turns to create exciting plot developments.  The first 15-20 minutes of the film (theatrical cut) are wrought with potential for a very exciting, fast-paced feature.  Things develop quickly creating urgency for everyone to act quickly, and for a dangerous premise to be setup with agents being gunned down.  Action ensues, things blow up while maintaining a hard edged, realistic Michael Mann style.  However, it soon slows to a dull pace.  The plot moves from one thing to another just establishing elements and relationships and characters, but none of it really means anything.  Nothing develops beyond the surface.  It’s procedural to a fault.  It’s more like watching a documentary of undercover vice cops than an engaging narrative with relatable characters.

In the television series, the clashing personalities of the slick, smooth New Yorker of Ricardo Tubbs and the weathered, cynical Miami Vice cop of Sonny Crockett created a classic chemistry.  They didn’t always mesh well, but the chemistry Johnson & Thomas struck was what made the show work.  They connected on an emotional level.  You saw how these two went from reluctant partners to trusted brothers in arms.  You felt it between them, and they played it well.  Here, the script keeps the characters in an ‘all business’ mode for so long that you don’t get a moment where it’s just Crockett & Tubbs being themselves. There are little touches that are reflective of the original characters as I know them such as Crockett charming a female bartender at the start, or Tubbs offering his compassionate condolences to interagency commander Fujima, “Sorry about your men.”  Regardless of that, you don’t get to know the men personally.  It’s all on the surface because that’s what the script demands of them.  There is only one such personal scene, but it comes so extremely late in the film, it does nothing to enhance the characters for the audience’s benefit.  Also, Lieutenant Martin Castillo, who was one of the most fascinating and textured characters of the original series, portrayed amazingly well by the always fantastic Edward James Olmos, is now just another random character.  Simply said, if you changed the names of all these characters, and slapped a different title on the film, you’d never know it was supposed to be Miami Vice.

The attempted romance between Sonny and Isabella just fell flat for me.  Part of it is that Gong Li doesn’t speak English very well, and so, she has to spend more time just trying to pronounce the words instead of putting character and emotion behind them.  You can see this relationship is having a conflicted effect on Sonny since he’s playing the undercover role of Sonny Burnett, a criminal and smuggler, and has to be close to her without actually being Sonny Crockett.  He loves this woman, but as I said, the chemistry isn’t there.  I felt no spark between them.  No heat.  Like so many things in this movie, it just doesn’t click.

The music is also dark and brooding.  Aside from a few dance club scenes, the music is not lively.  The music itself is not bad at all, I own the soundtrack, but it just further drags down the emotional weight of the film.  I know the pop music of today is not like that of the 1980s, but this 2006 movie seems to make every effort to be in stark contrast to everything that defined the name Miami Vice.  Thus, why I was so disappointed at the time of release.  Michael Mann approached this film with the intention of realism.  Make everything feel real, and do nothing that is not comparable to the true operations and people of this world.  However, making it too realistic drains out the entertainment value, and the depth to the story being told.  Because of this, as I said, the movie comes off more like a documentary.

On a positive note, the cinematography is mostly gorgeous.  The shots over the open water as Sonny & Isabella speedboat to Havana are wondrous and sprawling.  I live near Chicago, and so, the only large body of water I can enjoy is Lake Michigan.  Still, staring out into that endless horizon, to the edge of the world is so perfectly tranquil, and that sense is captured here, exponentially.  The film has a large amount of handheld work.  A lot of it is handled well, but it can get to be too much.  However, it’s nowhere near as bad as Mann’s next film Public Enemies.  That was the perfect example of a badly shot movie.  Collateral was amazing in every aspect to me, and I embraced the HD digital video look of it.  It was shot fantastically.  Miami Vice is the downward step between Collateral and Public Enemies in many ways, not just in camera work.

Characters in Michael Mann films went from deep, textured, and complex people to far more stoic people who Mann does not allow to show their depth.  While Manhunter is my favorite Mann film, it is The Insider that I feel remains his best film to date.  That was the clear definition of character depth, and a well written dramatic film.  And Mann did it all without a single action sequence or gunshot.  People conflicting with other people on an emotional, psychological, and ideological level.  While based on true events, it shows that Mann can bring those qualities out in his films.  Where it has gone in the last few years is beyond me.

Miami Vice was marketed as a slick, dangerous, edgy, sexy, and exciting summer action film.  That is not the film Michael Mann made, and the film I got was not the one I expected to see on an August midnight showing in 2006.  However, after listening to his director’s commentary, and allowing the passage of time, I at least have appreciation for the film it could have been.  I understand what Mann was going for, and I love the ideas behind it.  I just don’t feel it all successfully came together in this movie.  The worst part of the film was the ending.  As the movie progressed, I felt there hadn’t yet been a climax.  There was a big shootout, but it felt like a precursor to the real climax.  Nothing had yet been resolved on a plot development or emotional level.  Jesus Montoya was still out there, at large, and I felt like the film would lead into Crockett & Tubbs going after him to shut him down.  This was because the same thing happened in the episode “Calderone’s Return.”  The villain from the pilot episode escaped, and now, Sonny & Rico had the chance to get him for good.  They speedboat to the Bahamas for a final confrontation.  None of that happened here.  There’s a montage sequence, Crockett walks into the hospital, and the movie cuts to black.  Roll credits.  There was no resolution to any plot or character elements in the film.  The bad guy gets away, he will rebuild his empire, and life goes on.  All the Miami Vice squad achieved was killing a bunch of thugs with guns.  Expendable, replaceable people in Montoya’s employ.  You can pull that off on a television series because there’s always next week, sometimes next season to revisit the storyline, and tie it off at a later time (just like “Calderone’s Return”).  In a feature film, you have only 90-120 minutes to establish, develop, and resolve a story.  There was no satisfying resolution to Miami Vice 2006.  Had there been, maybe I could forgive a lot of the negative marks by there being an exciting ending that actually resolved something that the audience decided to invest their time in.

The worst thing to do going into this movie is to anticipate anything resembling the 1980s television series.  Going into it expecting a Michael Mann film might be more suitable, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be pleased.  It’s been five years since this film was released, and while I have an appreciation for the ideas behind it, and enjoy much of the cinematography, I don’t view it as that good of a film.  The lack of chemistry amongst the cast, momentum within the story, and the grim overall sense just doesn’t allow for much to invest in, unfortunately.