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Now You See Me (2013)

Now You See MeThis film of magical heists and mystery looked like just a fairly fun outing from the trailers, and I’m glad to say that is what I received.  Now You See Me has a great cast of talent that delivers, a script that is smart enough, and a premise that maintains your interest to see where the next twist will take you.  It’s not brilliant, but it is well designed to entertain.

An elite FBI squad, led by Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), is pitted in a game of cat and mouse against “The Four Horsemen,” (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, David Franco) a super-team of the world’s greatest illusionists who a year ago were mere street performers.  “The Four Horsemen” pull off a series of daring heists against corrupt business leaders during their performances, showering the stolen profits on their audiences while staying one step ahead of the law.  Their sensationalistic crimes also ensnare the attention of Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who now debunks and exposes the tricks of magicians for his own gain.  As the Horsemen’s grand game of misdirection and slight of hand escalates towards their grand finale, it’s a cunning game of wits for all to pull the curtain back to unveil the hidden truth behind it all.

Indeed, what sells this film in general is the excellent acting talents involved.  Morgan Freeman is surefire as this former magician who now seeks to debunk the best in the business for higher fortune.  He keeps the riddles twisting around the audience leading us on, but never fully revealing the next step.  How he deconstructs how the Four Horsemen executed their tricks and heists is smartly done.  Freeman does a wonderful job here bringing his usual intellectual savvy to this perceptive character.

The Horsemen themselves are vibrantly portrayed with Jesse Eisenberg being the strongest of them as J. Daniel Atlas.  He really projects some smart, quick witted savvy that demonstrates Daniel’s leadership, and his humorous banter with his co-stars is quick and sharp.  He definitely feels like the guy who could outsmart anyone in the room, and do it with style.  Isla Fisher plays nicely off of Eisenberg as Henley and Daniel have some romantic fallout between them, but it’s kept light and smart.  Woody Harrelson puts in a real good performance showing Merritt McKinley to be a very intuitive personality from his skills as a mentalist.  He can read people up and down, inside and out to pull little hints of information from them, and Harrelson uses that to solid comedic effect.  Dave Franco might seem like the weak link in the team, by design, but he eventually gets his moments to shine as street hustler Jack Wilder.  Altogether, this is a great foursome of sharp talents that never upstage one another, but instead, complement each other in a cohesive fashion.  They’re very fun to watch.

And of course, Mark Ruffalo is a charming treat as Dylan Rhodes.  Ruffalo brings charisma and a rough edge to Rhodes, but maintains him as an enjoyable, smart guy that you can connect with.  He is always portrayed as a competent and solid FBI Agent, but you see him trying to deconstruct all of these theatrics with regular investigative work.  So, it’s a fun ride to see him weave through it all dealing with Thaddeus Bradley as well as French Interpol Agent Dray, who you’re given reason to suspect as being not entirely as she seems.  Ruffalo has decent chemistry with Mélanie Laurent.  There are never sparks flying between them, but it’s an honest and sweet pairing that has its light humor and genuineness.  Basically, if you liked what Ruffalo did as Bruce Banner in The Avengers, I think you’ll enjoy the humor, heart, and charisma he brings forth here.

The visual effects throughout the film are very excellent.  They sell the flash and style of the Horsemen’s illusions with stellar results.  There might be one or two moments where the CGI isn’t as good as it is elsewhere, but in the vast majority, this is seamless and awesome work.  It gives the film its visual flare and style.  And it is an exceptionally well shot movie.  Director Louis Leterrier really knows how to put together a visually solid movie as I did very much enjoy The Incredible Hulk, and the integration of visual effects into live action is superbly done under his direction.  Leterrier beautifully utilizes all the rich talent he has at this disposal here, and executes this script with smart direction that kept me engaged and guessing.

And while I expected fun and flashiness, I was pleasantly surprised that the film had some nice action sequences.  There’s a decently well stage foot chase through the crowded streets of New Orleans with some clever beats.  Later on, when the FBI is closing in on the Horsemen, we get an extremely impressive and acrobatic fight scene with Franco and Ruffalo.  There’s some great, fast, and fluid moves in this that just stunned me from Dave Franco.  He’s combating people with swift actions like that of a ninja, and this sequence showcases smarts and sharpness in every second.  Following this, there’s a really good car chase through Manhattan, New York.  All of this action is very well done with only a few minor moments of shaky cam, but it ultimately came out to be very pleasing.  The film’s climax isn’t really action based, but focused on the story and motives behind this elaborate magic trick.  It unfolds nicely with fine dramatic beats, but surely, I won’t be spoiling any of these well written and executed reveals to you at all.

How the mystery all plays out is engaging and intriguing.  I kind of view the movie, going in, as The Prestige crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, and that’s generally how to look at it in concept.  It doesn’t match the brilliance of either of those films, but as I said, it’s a fun, entertaining experience.  It is the twisting and turning puzzle that the Horsemen are constructing that make it interesting.  You don’t know what the next trick will be, but it’s about even more than that.  It’s not just the magic that they perform and how they did it, but the motives behind it keep you guessing.  It’s cleverly designed through and through.  How it’s all setup with a mysterious benefactor bringing together and enabling this foursome, even the Horsemen don’t know the full truth, and so, there is a layered mystery at hand.  The FBI is just interested in catching these performers in the act of the crime, and Bradley is interested in burning them down for his own self-serving fame and fortune.  So, everyone has their motives, and they all nicely interweave into the reveals at the film’s end.  The ultimate twist is something I’m a little divided on.  I liked the moment of the reveal as it is dramatically and beautifully played, but it wasn’t quite setup in the film.  All of the other pieces are there to assemble the motives and interwoven storylines together.  As a magic trick played on a grand canvas, this film does a really excellent job of doing that.  The ultimate reveal just felt like it needed a little more punch.  Something like a Keyser Söze reveal where the clues were there the whole time, but you couldn’t pick up on them.  Something subtle, something between the lines that would strike you at just the right moment.  I could figure out the why, but not entirely who amongst this cast or beyond would be the Horsemen’s ultimate benefactor.  It’s far away from being a poor ending, but it could’ve benefitted from a little more setup.

Frankly, I think Now You See Me is just a fun time to have at the movie theatre.  I’m sure if you went into it with a critical mind you could nitpick it apart, and see how really unbelievable the plot is in all its little nuances.  Thankfully, I was enjoying myself consistently throughout this movie, and was able to sit back, relax, and just have a pleasant time with it.  Just like magic, you have to let your mind go and just allow yourself to be entertained by the cleverness and spectacle at hand.  The film is smartly written overall, in my opinion, and I found that there was plenty of subtle setup and pay-off for practically everything in here.  This film captures the spirit of magic very well, and it’s almost refreshing to see a film of so many vibrant characters without a real villain in the mix.  Everyone is enjoyable in their own ways, and next to no one is tinged with villainy.  It’s just a fun ride that I think essentially anyone can enjoy if they’re willing to just embrace it.


Bullet to the Head (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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