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Die Hard (1988)

Die HardI’ve made some mentions of the Die Hard clone in recent months in reviews of Sudden Death, Olympus Has Fallen, and more.  Now, just because you’re the first do something, or the one who sets the trend doesn’t always mean you did it best.  However, in the case of John McTiernan’s blockbuster action film Die Hard, there is simply no equal.  While I don’t list it as my number one favorite of all time, I cannot deny that this is likely the best action movie ever made, and there are a lot of qualities that go into making it that exceptionally awesome.

NYPD Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) has come to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company’s holiday party.  However, as he waits for the festivities to end, the entire building is taken over by a heavily armed team perceived as terrorists, but their sinister leader, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), reveals that his interest is purely in greed.  As the hostages are rounded up, McClane slips away with only his service revolver and his cunning wits at his disposal.  What begins as a perfectly planned crime quickly ignites into McClane waging a one man war to save everyone before they are all blown sky high.

There are many things that set Die Hard apart from everything else, but I think the biggest key of it are the characters.  Beyond just the performances, this film takes its time to introduce them to you, and allow for their dynamics and personalities to play out before any of the action begins.  This is mainly the development between John and Holly McClane.  Their turbulent marriage is fleshed out in smart, subtle beats that never feel like exposition, just natural conversation.  These are real, relatable people in a grounded reality with normal problems that are soon thrust into an extraordinary situation, and because we get to know these characters through levity and emotional conflict, we care greatly about them once peril befalls them.  Even the villains are given their due time to feel fleshed out and dimensional such as how Hans Gruber discusses men’s suits, art, and culture with Takagi before threatening him with a gun for the password to his vault.  These moments make Gruber an interesting and engaging villain who has a fairly equal amount of depth to John McClane.  This way, it is also a battle of wits and personalities as much as it is a pure action conflict.  This is so much due to the time director John McTiernan and his screenwriters took to slip those important character building moments into the film, and that makes it a greatly more substantive action film that you would regularly get in any decade.

Now, the 1980’s were filled with the larger than life, nigh indestructible action hero.  Then, comes along John McClane.  This guy who is as vulnerable as the rest of us that gets beaten up, his feet sliced up by glass, bleeds everywhere, feels fear, and gets progressively worse for wear as the film goes on.  All the while, under the intense stress of a violent life or death scenario, he’s cracking wise with everyone left and right just doing what he can to cope and survive.  Where a Rambo or John Matrix type would just burst in blazing a full arsenal to wipe out everyone, McClane has to be clever and cautious every step of the way against these extremely well-armed killers.  All he has is his wits, and Bruce Willis’ well established comedic talents blended perfectly into the quick witted quips of McClane.  I’m sure there was speculation abound leading up to this film’s release as to Willis’ ability to be an action hero because of doing so many comedies, but he was able to bring a completely unique identity to this role that is hard to match.  While it is the wisecracks that we remember so much, the purely human moments of drama really sell this character as one that stands apart from so many others.  Bruce Willis really shows that he could do the full spectrum of acting here as he leads this film with charisma, heart, and physical intensity.  He brings a fresh dimension and grounded realism to McClane that makes him the beloved, very human, bad ass icon that we so love.

Just how McClane is a distinct departure from the action heroes of the day, Hans Gruber distinguishes himself from many of the over the top, cheesy villains of the 80’s.  Alan Rickman is brilliant as Hans Gruber.  What truly makes this so is that he’s not obvious at all.  Gruber is a guy who is smart, charming, smooth, educated, and charismatic.  Yet, he’s a calculated, clever, ruthless villain.  You can see that Gruber had every single detail of this plan plotted out perfectly, and is able to outsmart and keep ahead of everyone except for the one wild card in his brilliant crime in John McClane.  As much of an sociopathic, murderous villain as Gruber is, you can be thoroughly entertained by the charisma and intelligence Alan Rickman injects into him, but you still rejoice when McClane finally does him in.

A little unexpected humor arises from the less than sharp minded LAPD and FBI.  Paul Gleason’s Chief Robinson is clearly in over his head exercising clear incompetence while thinking he’s got everything under control.  Then, FBI Agents Johnson and Johnson, a joke in and of itself, are too full of themselves with their gung ho testosterone to be perceptive enough to know when they’re being played.  Add in more competent, yet still funny characters like Argyle the limo driver and Theo, Hans’ charismatic safe cracker, you’ve got laughs for miles without damaging the serious integrity of the action and drama of the movie.  This is seriously one of the most quotable action movies ever.

Yet, amidst all the explosive thrills and well-timed humor, we get the tether of humanity with Sergeant Al Powell.  Reginald VelJohnson connects perfectly in this role bringing the tired, wounded, and alone McClane into contact with someone on the outside who can be a moral and emotional support.  An action film is great when the thrills are exciting and bombastic, but you get something exceptional when this thread of humanity is so strongly in place.  VelJohnson gives us the full spectrum from lovable and funny to heartfelt and compassionate to stern conviction.  Powell is ultimately given some depth and substance showing that this film wasn’t going to take a shortcut anywhere at all.  The very human moments between Powell and McClane are a special strength.

But indeed, the action is ultimately the driving force of this movie, and once that spark of excitement is lit, it runs on pure adrenalin with riveting intensity and masterful execution.  This is big action with a real sense of gravity and peril.  The scale makes it amazingly fun and exciting while the weight of the drama makes it suspenseful and electrifying.  I love the subplot with Karl’s vendetta against McClane for the murder of his brother, and when the two finally clash, it’s awesome.  After all of the heavy gunfire and explosions, the few minutes of visceral raw physicality are a breath of fresh air before the scale of the action escalates further with the roof exploding signaling the third act rocketing forward.  Die Hard does nothing but amaze you at every turn.  Every step of the way, we care about these characters in the thick of danger, and we gradually see it escalate as Gruber’s plan unfolds.  It’s also great seeing McClane figure things out a little at a time, such as wondering why Hans was on the roof, and then, realizing he plans to blow it sky high with all the hostages on it.

I tend to write these reviews while watching the movie so to pick up on all the nuances, but Die Hard is so consistently engaging, thrilling, and entertaining that I could hardly tear my attention away to type anything up.  Whether it is the absolutely wickedly awesome action, the touching character building moments, or the great laughs it elicits from an audience, Die Hard is the perfect example of executing an action film correctly.  There’s not a moment wasted, and the editing is dead-on sharp and perfect in its pacing and timing.  Moments are so excellently punctuated with the right cut, and even more so with Michael Kamen’s remarkably intense and spectacular score.  His is a masterwork of brilliant, sophisticated action film compositions.  Not to mention, this is an expertly shot movie using those beautiful anamorphic lenses and that cinemascope widescreen canvas to accentuate the scale of the action.  And where many action films today can barely keep the camera steady long enough to understand the geography of a single scene, McTiernan and cinematographer Jan de Bont do so many subtle things to layout the geography of this entire building.  Early on, they walk you through the entire central area of the Nokatomi Tower over the opening credits so you understand where the hallways, elevator, offices, and stairway are so we can navigate it as competently as the characters.  As the film goes on, we revisit the conference room, the elevator shafts, and the roof to maintain a familiar environment for the action.  As a film lover and a filmmaker myself, this movie just makes me gush from a technical standpoint as it is so perfectly executed in every moment.  This film is exquisitely made from a massively talented team of filmmakers, sonic geniuses, and brilliant visual artists.

This film was adapted from the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, and many of the mind blowing and clever moments in the film are taken directly from the novel.  McClane’s jump from the exploding roof with the fire hose wrapped around him, the C-4 bomb thrown down the elevator shaft, and more exist in Thorp’s novel.  Apparently, it was a novel written as a sequel to The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra, but he declined the role.  Years later, it was supposedly intended as a sequel to Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, before being re-fashioned into the action classic that we now know and love.  Indeed, everything has its right time to come to fruition, and Die Hard happened in the right way at the right time with the right talent.

Between this and Predator, John McTiernan established himself as one of the premiere action movie directors of the time, and of course, this launched Bruce Willis into blockbuster super stardom.  Despite how Willis now feels about doing action movies, saying he’s bored with them at this point, we will always have these pinnacles of the genre when Willis was in his prime and eager to do his absolute best.  Die Hard is probably the most perfect action movie I have ever seen as it hits all of the beats of excitement and character just right with a spot-on mix of drama and humor to make it an undeniably memorable experience.  For anyone who has only ever seen either the fourth or fifth film in this franchise, you are doing a horrible disservice to yourself in basing the quality of Die Hard on those films.  As I said from the start, there is simply no equal.

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Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)

Someone to Watch Over MeMost of the films in Ridley Scott’s filmography are fairly well known, but there are a few that are glossed over for whatever reason.  For this film, the fact that it didn’t even make its money back at the box office is the likely reason, but it still garnered very positive reviews from critics.  This is indeed a film of special, exceptional quality.  Someone to Watch Over Me is not your typical Ridley Scott film, in most part.  It’s story is definitely a cop thriller with a great urban atmosphere, but primarily, this is a romantic film done with great, beautiful artistic flare.

A stunning New York socialite and a down-to-earth city cop are caught in a deadly web of illicit passion and heart-stopping suspense.  Newly-appointed detective Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) finds his life turned upside down when he’s assigned to protect Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers), the beautiful eyewitness to a brutal murder.  Lured into danger and the dizzying heights of Gregory’s glamorous lifestyle, Keegan struggles to walk the line between protection and obsession – while trying to stay one step ahead of the psychotic killer Joey Venza (Andreas Katsulas), and not allow his happy marriage to fall apart over his affair with Claire.

I really like the vibe of this movie.  It does have a very romanticized artistry to it, but with the moody subtlety that Scott is a master at.  Oddly, while watching this, I got a very similar feeling as I got watching the John Badham romanticized version of Dracula, starring Frank Langella.  It’s that foggy, subtle romantic visual quality with its greens and ambers which really struck me that same way.  Someone to Watch Over Me is a finely crafted and gradually paced work of art that smartly blends the seductive beauty with the dangerous crime elements.  By the trailer, you’d likely expect something a little more thrilling and exciting, but even then, this film easily roped me in.  This is surely due to the great casting and excellent acting.

Michael Keegan is not the usual kind of movie cop.  He’s surely streetwise, but he feels a little green and out of his element.  Having just been promoted to Detective, he doesn’t have the consummate manner of those around him, and coming from Queens, he’s not accustomed to the high life sophistication of Claire’s world.  So, he’s a bit of a blue collar style easy going guy, and Tom Berenger does a stellar job in this role.  He’s extremely likable and fun loving early on, and progresses into a more serious, emotionally complex character as events unfold.  You can see that Mike is very happy with his family, but as he gets deeper involved with Claire, everything begins to be torn apart within him.  Berenger has great and distinctly different chemistries with Mimi Rogers and Lorraine Bracco, who portrays Michael’s wife Ellie Keegan.  Both relationships have their own touching qualities, and work equally as beautifully.  Ellie perfectly reflects the man he is, but Claire gives him something fresh and seductive.  It’s an odd dynamic that you can feel so much for Mike and Claire, knowing they have something unique together, but also, view Mike as the bad guy opposite Ellie.  That’s really a testament to Berenger’s talent.  He makes Mike a very down to Earth guy with flaws, but never comes off as a reprehensible adulterer, just a man of sympathetic conflicts of the heart.

I was very pleased with what Mimi Rogers accomplishes in this role.  The few moments where Claire is confronted by Venza are intensely fearful, and Rogers is greatly convincing.  However, the majority of the film is focused on Mike and Claire becoming closer and more intimate.  She proves to be a gorgeously romantic woman who is not a seductress.  There’s nothing lurid about these two becoming involved.  There is a genuine endearing attraction there that is quite touching, and the building of a chemistry and attraction with Claire is done quite subtly.  She is charming, elegant, and vulnerable, but still exerts confidence.  There’s a fine line between where she feels safe and self-assured and feeling very frightened that Rogers handles with delicate balance.

Through all this, you honestly feel for Ellie a great deal because she’s done nothing wrong to deserve this betrayal of her love.  Lorraine Bracco is wonderful showing the agonizing pain of Ellie.  She loves Mike so dearly, and that pours out so richly once she is scorned.  This is really an exceptional performance as we see a full spectrum of emotion from Bracco from the loving and down to Earth woman to the deeply hurt wife and even beyond that in the film’s climax to utterly frightened to death.  While the film is heavy on the Mike-Claire relationship, Bracco does such a strong job to keep Ellie’s end of the film relevant and emotionally impactful.  By the end, that is the crux of the film’s resolution.

And I really adore Andreas Katsulas.  He was taken from us far too soon.  Many would know him as the one-armed man in The Fugitive, but my heart with him lies with the science fiction series Babylon 5.  Here, his role is full-on in intimidating heavy mode.  His screentime is fairly restrained, but his presence is almost always felt.  That presence is very effective right from his first few minutes of screentime all the way through to the taut, thrilling climax.  Katsulas takes that great talent of his and compounds it into a lethally threatening performance.  Like with everything else here, the key word is definitely “subtlety.”  Ridley Scott has such a great handle on tone with his visuals and actors that it is no surprise that everything is just pitch perfect throughout this cast.  Of course, I couldn’t forget to mention the late and charming Jerry Orbach as the solid Lieutenant Garber.  Orbach is always a bright pleasure to see in anything he ever appeared in.

It also put a smile on my face when Michael Kamen’s credit came on screen as the composer.  I really, dearly love his work.  There was always a real elegance and sophistication he brought to his scores, and Someone to Watch Over Me definitely gave him the opportunity to flesh out some lush, romantic cues.  There’s the obligatory saxophone parts, but it’s done so very beautifully.  It really is a lovely tapestry of romanticism that he weaves throughout this film while never remotely approaching over the top melodrama.  He’s aided a little by a smooth jazz style arrangement of the title song by Sting, and some fine music tracks from Steve Winwood and Fine Young Cannibals early on.  The work Kamen does with the tenser, more thrilling scenes is very effective and taut.  This is the perfect score for this movie accentuating every subtlety with careful craftsmanship.

Also, it seems that no matter what cinematographer Ridley Scott works with, his visual style always comes through brilliantly.  You could turn this movie on, not knowing anything about it, and know it is a Ridley Scott movie just by the rich atmospheric noir look of it.  Someone to Watch Over Me is absolutely gorgeous re-crafting the looks of Alien or Blade Runner into a romantically effective package.  The scenes early on in the night club and art gallery are brilliant, perfect examples of Scott’s signature style.  Later on, inside Claire’s upscale apartment, the overall look is very seductive with soft, dim amber lighting.  As usual, Scott uses very deep blacks and smoky, shadowy visuals to create a mysterious atmosphere, and even on the streets of New York, that works so stunningly well.  If for nothing else, Scott is one of my favorite directors based on his gorgeous visual neo noir style.

Beyond all of the stunning aesthetics, the story played out in both the seductive romanticism and the dangerous crime thriller are perfectly interwoven.  I found the balance just right for the film’s intended emotional direction.  I would definitely imagine a film like this today being forced to be packed with a lot more action and excitement instead of developing the romance and subtle suspense.  Thankfully, this was made in a time when someone like Ridley Scott, whose last couple of films had not done well at the box office, was able to make the movie he wanted to make.  He does a fantastic job with Howard Franklin’s screenplay just enveloping it entirely in his articulate, detail oriented sensibilities and wonderfully inspired visual style.  Yet, the visual awe is not used to mask any lack of substance, but to enhance the strengths of it all.

I really did enjoy Someone to Watch Over Me.  If you enjoy a classic thriller with a twist of romance, which the film’s tagline boasts, you will certainly find some satisfaction here.  Ridley Scott directs this film with class and a focus on the smooth moody atmosphere and gradual development of its characters.  The cast is absolutely top notch featuring substantive and respectable work from everyone involved.  This film is actually a very clear precursor to Scott’s next film, Black Rain, which was an excellent full-on thriller, but still with a lot of that romanticized atmosphere of danger.  If you’re looking for the exciting flipside to this seductive film, Black Rain is absolutely that film.  Just forego watching the trailer.  It’s a little on the spoilery side.  Anyway, Someone to Watch Over Me is a very beautifully crafted and executed film that I really do highly endorse.


Nighthawks (1981)

NighthawksThis is one of those Sylvester Stallone gems that both seems like it’s gained a respected following, but has never become a high profile hit.  It doesn’t fall into the light hearted fare like Tango & Cash or Demolition Man or the substantive drama of Rocky or First Blood.  Instead, this is a very good gritty cop thriller with a definite 1970’s aesthetic boasting a great performance by Rutger Hauer that foreshadows his acclaimed work in Blade Runner and The HitcherNighthawks has its definite merits, but surely demonstrates why it’s a lesser noted film for Stallone.

When Europe’s most feared terrorist known as Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) explosively announces his presence in Manhattan, two elite undercover NYPD cops (Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams) are assigned to stop him before he strikes again.  However, the ruthless terrorist has other plans for the city – and the detectives – as he begins to hold its citizens in the grip of fear.

In the wake of big blockbuster successes like the Rocky and Rambo movies, and films with more flash and crowd pleasing excitement, you can understand how Nighthawks kind of flies under the radar.  It’s very grounded and much more low key.  It is also a slow building film with a focus on the psychological aspects of its main adversaries, and capturing that gritty, urban New York street cop vibe.  Still, within that context, you’ve got a very admirable crime thriller here lead by some strong casting choices across the board.

I really believe Stallone leads this film quite well.  Detective Sergeant Deke DaSilva is a solid cop who doesn’t back down easily.  He takes on crime with intensity and fierce dedication, even if it costs him his marriage or his well being.  Stallone makes DaSilva a tough cop, but one with a morality and heart.  Despite the fallout with his wife, Deke still desires that loving connection, and he won’t become the cold blooded assassin that the British counter-terrorism specialist wants him to become.  Stallone does a solid job keeping DaSilva true to who he is sticking to his principals as a seasoned cop, doing his duty, but doing it his own way.  We see him as a perceptive, smart cop that is dogged in his pursuit of Wulfgar.

As DaSilva’s partner, Detective Sergeant Matthew Fox, Billy Dee Williams entirely carries his own.  Fox can be more even tempered and flexible than DaSilva, allowing for him to keep his more passionate partner grounded and focused.  Billy Dee also has some playful moments adding a few minor moments of levity as, again, a counterbalance to Stallone’s harder edge intensity.  Still, when the situation gets serious, Fox is as solid of a cop as anyone.

Rutger Hauer has shown his talent for brilliance, and Wulfgar is no exception.  He brings a cold, calculating sophistication that forges his gravitas.  When Hauer is on in a film, he captivates your attention with a electrifying presence, and he does that here.  As Wulfgar, he can be frightening because as dedicated as DaSilva is, Wulfgar is equally so to his cause.  You know he’s a sociopathic killer who is a vehement believer in these radical causes.  He’s more than just a hired gun, and that makes him immensely more dangerous.  It’s not about money for him.  He inflicts this death and terror for a political purpose that he believes in, and he is not going to stop.  As the British counter-terrorism specialist says, “He’s only beginning.”

I also have to give some praise to Joe Spinell who portrays Lieutenant Munafo.  While his role is minimal, he’s damn good carrying a commanding weight and authority.  He mainly works opposite Stallone, and keeps the somewhat hot headed DaSilva in line very convincingly.  Of course, Persis Khambatta complements Hauer extremely well as the dangerous, cold-hearted Shakka.  It’s a polar opposite turn from her role in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and that is largely welcomed along with her rich, beautiful black hair.

Like I said, this feels entirely like a 1970’s cop film with the gritty style, Earth toned fashions, Stallone’s beard, and sort of a streetwise funky vibe of the score.  It might be an early 80’s film, but you can find plenty of bleed over from the previous decade through to about 1983.  Considering this started out as a second sequel to The French Connection, it’s easy to see why this works so well in that context.  The pacing is methodical lending more towards the dramatic development than excitement.  The film could probably use a little more excitement to ramp up the danger and stakes in the second act, but especially for its time, this was quite good.

Now, Nighthawks surely has a few action set pieces including a great foot chase through the New York streets and into the subway.  However, it is very much a thriller built on suspense and tension.  Stallone and Hauer create this electrifying connection which drives the entire film.  The sequence on the Roosevelt Island tram is a great example of those personalities at conflict enhancing the peril of Wulfgar’s game.  His terrorism is no longer just about a cause, but a game of wits between both men.  Wulfgar toys with DaSilva, bringing him in so close, forcing the Sergeant to look him in the eye time and again, but denying him at choice to fight back.  This results in a nicely solid and taut piece of work.  The ending is superb focusing on a great deal of suspense and imminent peril, but I would think a modern audience might feel it’s not as climactic as it could be.  This ending has become the most memorable aspect of Nighthawks, and it is executed with great care and a few inspired visuals.

As I said, this is a film build as a slow boil thriller than an exciting action ride, and I feel it succeeds at that.  Surely, more could have been done to intensify the narrative and build more momentum going into its climax.  Regardless, I’ve always appreciated and enjoyed Nighthawks.  Stallone does a really solid job complemented well by Billy Dee’s supporting role, and greatly counterbalanced by Rutger Hauer’s chilling brilliance.  If you enjoy the work of either Stallone or Hauer, I definitely believe this is one you should not overlook.  Bruce Malmuth did a fine directing job here, but in a fourteen year career, he never had a breakout hit.  His only other high point was the decently effective Steven Seagal action vehicle Hard to Kill.  With Nighthawks, it’s a nicely solid film that likely won’t blow you away, but may indeed intrigue you through the high quality performances it offers.


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.


The Exterminator (1980)

The ExterminatorIn 1980, writer / director James Glickenhaus brought us a gritty exploitation vigilante film known as The Exterminator.  I have some mixed statements to make about this film.  It has some great elements, but also some qualities that felt less than great.  A bad film it is not, but it has a few lackluster areas where some more refined filmmaking techniques would have sold me stronger on it.

Vietnam vet John Eastland (Ginty) launches a bloody vendetta against the New York underworld when his best friend Michael Jefferson (Steve James) is brutally beaten and paralyzed by a vicious street gang. Eastland becomes a vigilante hero to the public, but to police The Exterminator is a psychopath capable of dangerously undermining an entire government administration.

What’s of the most special note here is that Robert Ginty is a surprisingly solid fit for this role.  He looks like an average guy, clean cut, regular slender build.  He doesn’t look like the muscle bound bad ass the poster infers the Exterminator to be.  If made in the latter half of this decade with studio backing, you would’ve seen a Stallone or Schwarzenegger type actor mandated by a studio.  Ginty is unassuming, but delivers on the grim mentalities of the role.  He has his moments of compassion, showing that humanity is his motivating factor, but when he shifts into that vigilante mode, he’s a merciless, graphically violent force to contend with.  Overall, Ginty does a very, very good job in this role.  His performance compelled my interest in the movie.

The action and vigilante violence sequences are all excellently executed.  This is the film’s energy and weight.  Whenever Eastland goes out into that night to exact his own brand of justice on the criminal element, the film becomes alive and riveting.  These are expertly done sequences portraying the violence in a very gritty, realistic fashion, and having the visceral reaction desired.  The violence he inflicts includes a lot of bullets, burning a guy alive, and dropping someone into a meat grinder.  It’s all done in a very cold, decisive fashion.  Eastland is calculating and intelligent.  He’s not being controlled by passions.  He remains focused and level headed all the way through the film, and it creates a solid, intimidating screen presence that I really liked.  This is clearly an exploitation film showcasing the violence in unrelenting fashion, but with enough restraint to not try to shock you at every turn.  You get enough to sell the violence and gruesome victimization at hand, but it never drowns you in graphic visuals.  When I talk about gory horror films, I say it takes no skill to splatter gore all over the camera lens, but to know how to use the violence effectively against the audience does show skill.

The rest of the cast is okay, but with no standouts.  Christopher George is quite good as Detective James Dalton, and especially early on he seemed like a perfect fit for a tough cop.  His performance never goes down in quality, but the character is softened through the Dr. Megan Stewart romantic storyline to where he loses some weight and edge that was demonstrated from the outset.  He handles all the aspects of the role well, but he never really jumped out and gripped my attention.  I was more intrigued by Ginty’s screentime, frankly.

In the least, everyone in the film feels authentic to the time of that late 70’s New York grit.  There are the seedy, sleazy characters that are entirely credible, and are presented quite matter-of-factly.  Their sadistic, salacious acts are unsettling to a viewer, but it’s presented as being an honest look into the darker side of this urban criminal underworld.  This is reality in this era, and this film is not going to make any apologies for it.  This is the despicable activity going on in the shadows of this city, and Eastland is not going to allow it to continue.  I really like that idea, but I do think the film could have done a stronger job building up the character and his emotional motivations.

The Exterminator does feel very indicative of the time it was made.  Beyond just the violent, dark, cynical film that the late 1970’s would produce, the style of filmmaking is not uncommon for something of this ilk.  I would hold Walter Hill’s The Warriors to be the finest example of a 1970’s style hard edged, urban action movie.  The Exterminator is a much more methodically paced film, and tries to focus on mood more than a fast-paced intensity.  Still, there are aspects of pacing, structure, and atmosphere that I feel could’ve been improved to enhance that intention.  These are relatively minor things, but elements that make a marked difference.

For instance, the film feels like it cuts out a huge chunk of character building scenes early on.  Scenes of emotional motivation and a build up of dramatic momentum between where Jefferson gets attacked by the gang and Eastland goes after those responsible.  There’s not even a scene of Eastland reacting to the news of Jefferson’s paralyzing attack.  The attacks happens, and the next scene has him telling the news to someone else.  Then, he’s interrogating a street thug with a flame thrower.  Then, he exacts his revenge.  The character building scenes do occur after this, but they would have added more weight and dramatic drive to the film if they instead bridged the gap between the attack itself and Eastland becoming the Exterminator.  Those sorts of scenes would help delve more into John Eastland, and more sharply focus the narrative on him.  Up to this point, Jefferson seems like the protagonist of the film because he’s the one saving Eastland from danger and we see him with his family.  Little time is spent with Eastland to know much about who he is.  It’s a matter of dramatic structure, and while all the elements are there in the 104 minute director’s cut runtime, I don’t think they were arranged in the most effective way.

Something else that I thought was not done consistently well were scene transitions.  This is not wide spread, but there are a few instances where Glickenhaus just didn’t film any sort of artistic or dramatic segue from one scene to another.  So, instead, it just fades out from one random shot and fades into another.  This creates a bit of a disjointed flow in the narrative, and also, robs us of certain impactful moments.  Certain scenes could’ve ended half a minute earlier on a stronger note than allowing them to linger on monotonous activities.  Some scenes just don’t end with enough dramatic punctuation for the intent of the scene to resonate into the next.  For instance, Eastland kidnaps an Italian mobster, goes to his house to steal money, and gets mauled by the attack dog.  The scene ends with the attack dog, and leaves the issue of stealing the money unresolved.  Not every plot element really connects or is followed through on.   Even the romantic subplot between Detective Dalton and Dr. Stewart seems like a diversion from the vigilante plot, and honestly, has little to do with anything else in the story except to allow Dalton and Eastland to cross paths in the hospital.  It’s a nicely done subplot, but it just didn’t do anything for me.  Even Dalton’s own hunt for the Exterminator is not exactly dogged.  He’s enthusiastic about the investigation, but it never feels like an urgent manhunt or a personal determination on his part.  I would’ve preferred spending more time delving into Eastland, and creating more of an overall storyline for him besides just killing criminals at random.

The film is generally competently shot.  The cinematography is nothing to get excited about, but it’s also nothing to speak negatively on.  Although, the scene where Eastland interrogates the street thug with the flame thrower has horribly inconsistent lighting.  As the scene cuts from one angle to the next, the light source flips around 180 degrees.  First, it’s behind Eastland, then it’s behind the thug, then it goes back behind Eastland.  It was horribly distracting and blatantly obvious to me.  It’s just a bad piece of work, in only one scene, from whoever shot and lit this scene.  The rest of the film has no such problems.

However, on the editing front, I think the movie could have benefitted from some tightening up.  It unnecessarily takes its sweet time in too many instances where some smart editing and the right shots could’ve given the pacing and rhythm much more punch.  There’s extraneous footage all over this movie.  One great example is that there’s a scene where Eastland is drilling holes into bullets and filling them with mercury, then sealing them back up again.  I’m sure someone with firearms knowledge understands the idea behind this, but it is never given context or explanation to the audience what the purpose of that methodical scene was.  Doing some quick research, apparently, filling a bullet with just regular mercury, in actuality, would soften the lead of the bullet to the point where it would likely fly apart when fired.  In movie myth, it creates a grenade-like exploding bullet, but in truth, that is only potentially possible if using mercury fulminate.  This is strongly NOT recommended as you would probably die or be horribly maimed attempting to fire such a bullet.  Regardless, this idea felt like extraneous content that was part of a scene that ran on longer than it needed to.  Basically, it’s an arming up scene for Eastland that goes on for five solid minutes with the mercury bullet segment taking up three of those minutes.  If you’re not going to explain its supposed importance, or show us what doing that to the bullet is meant to accomplish, don’t bother wasting the audience’s time with it.

My biggest point of contention with this film is its ending.  The climax itself is quite good.  There’s a nice amount of suspense and tension as Dalton traverses through this docked ship at night searching for Eastland.  There’s some good action beats and explosive moments at the end.  It’s very well plotted.  The problem is, the film has no resolution to its plot, its characters, or anything else.  It sacrifices anything like that to appease some extremely unnecessary political subplot where some political figures think the Exterminator is some kind of plot by their enemies to ruin their re-election campaigns.  None of which is true, and the film could’ve existed entirely without that subplot.  It’s not too far off from my reaction to 2006’s Miami Vice.  There’s action and some nice dramatic beats in the final few minutes, but ultimately, it leaves me empty and wondering what the point of the movie was.

Ultimately, I feel The Exterminator had the good building blocks for a solid vigilante exploitation film, but it didn’t have the tight cohesion or driving narrative to really feel like it had all its stuff together.  Robert Ginty is really good in this, and makes this unexpected turn as a cold, calculating vigilante who still has his humanity intact.  He’s a good man that wants to take out the trash in this city, and has the training and means to do so.  The main problem here is that this film doesn’t have a narrative direction.  In most revenge films, the protagonist spends the majority of the movie tracking down and killing off those that have incited his needed for vengeance.  Instead, we have this self-proclaimed Exterminator dealing with that right away, and spending the rest of the movie mostly just exacting justice for others without a story of his own to follow.  Thus, it’s not surprising the ending has no resolution because there’s very little plot to resolve.  This is one of those films where I say, if you like what you read here, go ahead and give it a chance.  I don’t say avoid it, but I don’t feel it’s worth going out of your way to see it.  The film is available in a remastered director’s cut DVD / Blu-Ray combo pack release, if you’re interested.


Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Punisher War ZonePoor Frank Castle.  He can’t get a film franchise started to save his life.  It’s just reboot after reboot.  However, out of the three that have been made, I believe this is the one that gets the most right in the right places.  I did see this theatrically, twice in fact, and I was really blown away by it.  Regardless, it did poorly at the box office due to a lackluster marketing campaign by Lionsgate and an untimely December release date.  Conversely, this was the same year that gave us Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight.  So, there was high caliber benchmarks set in 2008, and I would say that Punisher: War Zone did not disappoint, in most part.  To me, Ray Stevenson is the best Frank Castle to date, but there are some glaring problems with the villain of Jigsaw that impact the quality of the overall movie.

Ex-Special Forces officer Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) wages a one-man war on two fronts.  While targeting the vicious mob boss, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), Castle horribly disfigures the gangster in a firefight that also claims the life of undercover FBI Agent Nicky Donatelli.  Seeking terrible vengeance, Russoti takes the name “Jigsaw” and begins recruiting the underworld’s most notorious criminals while Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) joins with the sole member of the NYPD’s Punisher Task Force, Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok), in order to avenge his partner’s murder.  However, Frank’s lethal mistake weighs on his conscience, and he is nearly ready to pack it in until he realizes the danger Angela Donatelli (Julie Benz) and her daughter are in.  Now, The Punisher must find a way to elude the law and decimate a deadly crime army before more innocent lives are tragically ended.

First off, I really like that the filmmakers didn’t make this film another retread of the Punisher’s origin story.  They instead chose for the Punisher to have already been operating for five years at the time of this story.  Although, they surely weren’t going to gloss over that origin considering this was another reboot.  We get tragic flashbacks to the aftermath of the Castle family’s slaying, and the story is briefly, yet poignantly told by Detective Soap to Agent Budiansky.  We get the details on what happened, and even more impactful is noting the Punisher’s track record and body count.  The entire basement of the police station is filled with files on every case, every murder involving the Punisher.  There are literally thousands of them.  This was a brilliant direction to go in to join Frank further down the road, and allow some perspective and reflection to enter into the equation of his character.  This is no longer a man in the heat of his passionate revenge.  This is a grim, weathered individual who is driven by his disdain for injustice, and has buried his soul deep down underneath all that pain and grief.  That’s a fascinating route to go, and it works directly and purposefully into the story.

Fan reaction was that this film was very faithful to the Punisher MAX and Marvel Knights comic series with its gritty, yet over-the-top violence and vibrant color scheme.  While I cannot comment on the accuracy of that sentiment, what I can say is that this is really what I’ve always felt a Punisher film should be.  It is unrelentingly brutal with a generous helping of blood, gore, and violence, but with proper depth to its characters.  The action sequences are slam bang amazing, even if they can tend to defy the laws of physics, at times.  However, Punisher: War Zone is clearly geared towards a very comic book style, just based on the gorgeous cinematography.  It is so vibrant, moody, gritty, and saturated with all the right colors that it often looks like it came straight off the pages of a comic book, and the action is indeed jacked up with that mentality.  Just in the opening sequence, we’ve got a good dozen mobsters getting shot, slashed, and just laid to waste in graphic fashion.  It sets an awesome, aggressive, relentless vibe for the whole movie which never disappoints or eases up.  It puts you in the world of Frank Castle, and delves you right into his bleak, graphic state of mind.  This is an action film that pulls no punches, and goes straight for the hard R rating all the way.

I also love how Castle moves and operates in the action scenes.  It’s all very militaristic, but exceptionally nasty.  No mercy, no prisoners – everyone dies.  While the previous Punisher films had plenty of action and unique use of weaponry, this film employs tactics and strategy that feel very authentic.  This is even more appropriate since this Frank Castle is actually revealed to have been a Marine.  Dolph Lundgren’s was a former police officer, and Thomas Jane’s was a federal agent.  I don’t know why it took a group of filmmakers so long to actually get Castle’s background correct, aside from the Vietnam aspect, but thankfully, it is well realized here in very subtle and clear details.  It is very much ingrained in Frank’s mentalities and disciplines.  Even his body armor reflects a man of vast wartime experience as it covers his torso up over his neck, and appears to be very heavy duty.  Frank looks like a man waging a war as he’s always prepared with another weapon at hand, and has precise, razor sharp reflexes.  This is a guy you’re going to have to massacre in order to stop, and he is not going to make that the least bit easy to do.  I love the moment early on when he uses a pencil to reset his broken nose.  That’s hardcore right there.  Frank himself is immensely intimidating just by the sight of him.  The slicked back black hair, beard stubble, and the obvious wear and age on Ray Stevenson’s face create a grim visage that says more than words ever could.  And the signature white skull on the body armor is the final glorious touch to put the fear of death into any criminal.

Of course, I stand very firm in that Ray Stevenson was a brilliant casting choice for this character.  I know Lundgren’s version had some sense of self-reflection, but I’m not familiar enough with Jane’s Punisher to know what he brought to it, depth wise.  I just know that the film he starred in is one I cannot sit through.  Here, Stevenson gives us every dimensional quality that could exist for Frank Castle.  Yes, he is a hardcore bad ass that is unwaveringly lethal.  Unlike most superheroes, The Punisher has no lines he won’t cross.  If you’re a criminal, you will be punished.  There is no gray area.  It doesn’t matter if the cops are right there to arrest the criminal, he exacts his own brand of justice every time.  The level of violence and carnage is absolutely appropriate for The Punisher.  It is necessary to have in order to understand the emotional and psychological mindset of Frank Castle.  The graphic violence he dishes out is the same which claimed the lives of his family.  It explains why he is such a grim figure, what the definition of a vigilante truly is, why the cops and criminals fear him, and why neither want him on the streets.  He is a man alone, and no one can truly understand him without seeing and feeling what it is he has gone through.  Still, you see that he does feel things, and that he has a morality and a soul.  Frank’s been emotionally shattered by the violent murder of his family, and that has resulted in a grim man with a lot of deep seeded pain, torment, and disdain.  Ray Stevenson brings those powerful, realistic qualities to the surface, and it creates the real solid core of this film.  The action, violence, and brutality are givens for a Punisher film, but it’s that serious depth of character which sets this film apart from its predecessors.  You see the fractured remnants of the caring family man Frank once was, and it really penetrates for me.  The story aspect of Frank accidentally killing an undercover cop instigates that deep exploration of his soul and heart, and creates an emotionally moving arc by the end with Julie Benz’s Angela Donatelli.  Stevenson is absolutely everything that you’d want from your Frank Castle thespian.  He handles the role with serious weight giving it credibility and humanity.  It is the most three dimensional Punisher I have yet to be exposed to, and shows that the character is more than just a vigilante with a bad attitude.  He has depth to spare, when put into the right creative hands.

Julie Benz is truly excellent as the grieving widow as she is not a wholly trembling mess.  Angela is a cop’s wife, and has strength and conviction within her to survive through all she endures.  There is a deep well of pain and emotion that pulsates through her performance.  While she is strong, she is vulnerable nonetheless, and it’s a great mixture she puts together that can really be felt by an audience.  I know Benz from her work as Darla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel, and so, her range of talent is not a surprise to me but is a great pleasure to witness.  She shares some substantive scenes with Stevenson, and they both work beautifully together.  The same goes for Stephanie Janusauskas who endearingly portrays the young and innocent Grace Donatelli.  Stevenson’s scenes with her bring out Frank’s adoration he had for his own daughter, and is the most tender insights into Frank.  Stephanie is wholly sweet showcasing some genuine talent that really forges an audience’s empathy for Grace.

Now, this film is easily divided up into two separate sections of quality.  Everything that does not involve Jigsaw is tremendously bad ass and awesome.  Unfortunately, almost everything that does involve Jigsaw is really ridiculous and silly.  Now, Dominic West did a superb job with Billy Russoti.  He was charismatic, threatening, a little intimidating, and a perfect fit for an Italian Mafioso.  He had all the elements just right for this slick, underhanded villain.  If he had remained as this character throughout the film, I think the tone would have been much more consistent and balanced.  However, after he’s disfigured at the hands of the Punisher, that’s when we’re subjected to a very comical villain that poorly contrasts with the dark, heavy, serious tone of the film.  Jigsaw becomes almost cartoonish in his behavior, attitude, and look through most of his screentime.  He’s clearly overacting through those facial prosthetics, and it’s nothing but detrimental.  There are better moments here and there, but in general, it’s the one major element that brings the film down for me.  It’s not even like a Jack Nicholson Joker where he’s at least morbidly comical in his homicidal tendencies.  Jigsaw is very much plucked out of a twisted cartoon concept where it’s difficult to take him seriously after a while.  His criminal recruitment montage sequence is almost enough to force a face palm reaction.  It’s not a purely bad performance, but there’s far more bad than there is good from Dominic West once he adopts the Jigsaw persona.

There is one semi-saving grace amongst the villains, and that’s Doug Hutchison as Looney Bin Jim.  It’s a character strictly created for the movie, but his psychotic qualities really do help boost the threat level.  He’s immensely agile and brutal, and thus, is able to take the fight right to Frank Castle near the film’s climax.  In the least, the character gave Jigsaw someone to bounce off of, someone who feels like a trusted and capable right hand man, and that’s commendable for the filmmakers to have done.  Hutchison is surely over-the-top in his own right, but for the character, it does work immensely better than for Jigsaw.  It would have worked better had Jigsaw been a much more serious character and threat to create that contrast of Jim appearing far crazier.

The remainder of the cast is solid starting with Wayne Knight as Frank’s arsenal securing friend Micro.  Knight does a fine job keeping the character enjoyable, but still dramatically poignant and sympathetic.  He and Stevenson work very well together creating an honest, open relationship between Micro and Frank that feels genuine.  Dash Mihok also does an exemplary job as the enthusiastic, innocent minded Detective Martin Soap.  I liked the twist with the character about midway through the film.  It’s very comical but terribly appropriate as it makes a fun kind of sense, and makes Soap appear more capable than he tends to appear.  I really enjoyed the character, and Mihok made him endearing.  On the more bad ass side, Colin Salmon is excellent as Agent Paul Budiansky.  He’s a very take charge type of guy who doesn’t shy away from danger, and is deadest determined to haul in the Punisher no matter what.    Salmon brings a lot of heart to the role, and the script gives him depth to work with as he owes Nicky Donatelli his life and career after Budiansky got hooked on narcotics.  There’s a debt to repay, and he’s not going to take a backseat to anyone.  Budiansky throws down with Frank, and with a guy of Salmon’s size at 6’4”, he absolutely looks like a guy who could hold his own against real bad dudes.  Overall, this is a film with some mostly solid and dimensional performances that not enough comic book films strive for, but should.  It’s easy for a lesser grade screenwriter or filmmaker to gloss over character depth in favor of spectacle or action, but that’s exactly when they’ve already failed.  This film succeeds, and in many different ways.

I mentioned the cinematography a bit already, but I’d like to elaborate on it.  While the film does have a very vibrant color palette, it is soaked in dark, shadowy environments.  It has plenty of moodiness and atmosphere to spare.  Even the daytime scenes are a little washed out to enhance that bleakness.  The richest visual feast occurs in the church scene where Frank meets with Budiansky before the climax.  This location is filled with brilliant colors, but has the added beauty of numerous lit candles.  The scene has some exquisite depth of field and artistry to it that, while it fits solidly with the rest of the picture, gives this scene a special aura all its own.  The action cinematography is excellent.  There is absolutely zero shaky cam quick cut editing.  The camera work is wholly competent going regularly for fluidity instead of chaotic motion.  That shows there were some smart filmmakers behind this.  They were able to give this film a unique style that is very comic book in nature while never becoming cliché or showy.  It’s clever, sharp, and beautiful all around.  Cinematographer Steve Gainer deserves a load of credit for making this film look so stunning, and director Lexi Alexander deserves credit for pushing for many of the stylistic composition choices.  It all works to amazing effect.

And while this movie was shot in Québec, Canada, the filmmakers had enough perspective on the material to seamlessly integrate some excellent stock footage of New York.  My favorite bit of this is when Frank’s standing on the rooftop and the Chrysler Building is over his shoulder in the distance.  It was surely some sort of green screen shot, but when I saw this theatrically, I couldn’t tell that this movie wasn’t shot on location in Manhattan, New York.  So far, this is the only Punisher film to actually have the film blatantly set in New York, and actually go to the extra effort to sell that illusion.  That is something I cannot commend them enough.  Nearly every Marvel superhero is based out of New York, but if there’s any one character from Marvel Comics that is a tonally perfect fit for the urban grit of New York, it is the Punisher.

Now, the music of the film is a bit divided for me.  While I am a big heavy metal fan, I admit that it rarely has an appropriate place in a film.  Most times, like in this film, it tends to be intrusive and a bit overblown.  Maybe if these were songs from bands I actually liked, perhaps I’d be more welcoming of them.  However, there is some great score performed by Michael Wandmacher.  It brings out the dark, dangerous tone of the film, but also, highlights and enhances the moments of emotional depth and turmoil.  It’s a very well rounded piece of work that perfectly complements this stellar film.

Aside from the comical elements of Jigsaw, I think Punisher: War Zone has a very solidly put together story and script.  Every Punisher film that ever has and ever will be made is always going to have Frank unleashing an all-out assault on organized crime, but it’s what’s beyond that which makes such a film standout.  Beyond the action and violence, this has some very strong emotional plot threads and character arcs.  There are elements of guilt, grief, forgiveness, responsibility, revenge, and trust running through Frank, Angela, and Budiansky.  These arcs are handled exceptionally well, and really flesh these characters out in a great way.  Even Soap and Micro have their say in Frank’s struggle with his murder of Agent Donatelli.  These aspects are treated with great care and are executed wonderfully.  It’s also great seeing everyone’s different viewpoint on the Punisher.  Some see him as a menace to be thwarted and condemned.  Others consider what he does a service.  The NYPD put together the “Punisher Task Force” as merely a public image joke as they mostly couldn’t care less about what trash the Punisher executes on the streets.  This is evident by the fact that Detective Soap is the sole member of the task force, and the NYPD dumps Budiansky there just to brush him aside.  How all these elements and characters converge and end up relying on the Punisher is smartly done, and really develop organically from the plotlines and character motivations.

The entire climax is just a magnificent onslaught.  It’s the Punisher set loose massacring probably half the street criminals in New York, working his way through the Bradstreet Hotel to rescue Angela and Grace from Jigsaw’s clutches.  The stunts are spectacular, and the sound design of all the different styles of gunfire and explosions as well as the crunching of bones and the splat of blood is just absolutely brutal.  This is hardcore action all the way through.  It is as unforgiving and merciless as the Punisher himself.  Still, this climax has some emotional turmoil for Frank, but I won’t spoil a thing for you.  Simply said, it has resonance and weight to it that add to the dramatic realism that the film is so rich with.

All in all, this is definitely the Punisher movie that strived to do the most with its characters and concepts, and it succeed in nearly every regard.  I do love the movie very much, but the fact that Jigsaw is a ridiculously comical villain you can almost never take seriously does negatively impact the film.  It doesn’t kill Punisher: War Zone, however, because everything outside of Jigsaw is so amazingly good that it’s near impossible to topple it with one bad performance.  Ray Stevenson is hugely blockbuster in his portrayal of Frank Castle.  He brings so much depth and pure bad assery that it would be a steep mountain to climb to top or rival him.  He makes the Punisher a character that could thrive on the big screen, and that is also largely due to director Lexi Alexander.  She showed a massive wealth of talent here as well as the ability for a vibrant, hard-hitting, and compelling vision.  So many action films today come off as lackluster carbon copies of the last big theatrical hit that it’s invigorating to see someone inject some fresh style and depth into the genre.  We’ve been treated to many great comic book movies over the last several years, and so, the standards have gotten pretty high.  In my mind, I truly believe that Punisher: War Zone just about reaches that standard.  The only major element that a Punisher movie needs at this point is a rock solid villain that’s worthy of squaring off against the Punisher.  So far, I don’t feel we’ve gotten that, and it is the only real failing of this movie.  For my parting words, let me just say that the last moments of the film are just flat out bad ass!  The very final shot is perfectly iconic and foreboding.  Ray Stevenson is my quintessential Punisher, and there is just not enough I can say about his detailed and awesome performance to do it justice.  Punisher: War Zone gets a damn strong recommendation from me.