In the 1990’s, there were a lot of action movie stars popping up, but most didn’t have what it took to break out of the direct-to-video market. However, I think Thomas Ian Griffith really had the talents to make it, but never really did. This might be a simple fact of not having a breakout film or role like Steven Seagal or Van Damme had early on. Regardless, Griffith had two vital qualities of a successful action hero in the 90’s. First off, he was trained in Kenpo Karate and Tae Kwon Do, so, he could do far more than just shoot things up. Secondly, he had charisma to spare making for some fun, lively performances. All of this could be seen as the villain in The Karate Kid, Part III, of which he was the best thing about that movie. So, I want to explore some of Griffith’s action films and find out exactly what he had to offer. With Excessive Force, Griffith is supported by such solid actors as Lance Henriksen, James Earl Jones, Tony Todd, and Burt Young for something that looks very solid, but let’s see if it really holds up to that appearance.
When $3 million disappears during a drug bust, undercover Chicago cop Terry McCain (Griffith) is pitted against Sal DiMarco (Burt Young), a sadistic mob boss who will do anything to get his money back, and a conspiracy of corruption from within the police department. After McCain’s partner is brutally murdered and his ex-wife is threatened, he strikes back the only way he knows how – with force! Framed for a murder he didn’t commit and hunted by his own friends on the force, McCain finds refuge with his old pal Jake (James Earl Jones) and his ex-wife Anna (Charlotte Lewis) as he’s lead into a desperate showdown with dangerous forces.
This movie has a fairly straight forward plot with only a few clever turns, but it’s not intended to be a wickedly twisting and turning crime thriller. It starts out as a revenge movie, but then, shifts into a web of deceit as McCain goes on the run once people start gunning for him. The script by Thomas Ian Griffith really makes good use of Chicago to this effect. He really incorporates the crooked politics and mobbed up history of it in a couple of smart ways. There are corrupt cops and deceptive allegiances at play in this story, and it really feels like authentic Chicago organized crime. The story twists around enough to where Terry doesn’t know who he can trust, and thus, he feels betrayed by every friend he has left living. It’s never a very taut sort of plot thread that forces McCain into heavy paranoia, but its place in the story is dealt with quite well and where it’s most effective. It also has some good pay-off and turnarounds at the end.
Thomas Ian Griffith leads this film very solidly. Having wrote the script himself, the more personal depth of his performance is apparent. Early on, we see the driven, charismatic, and lively cop who can kick ass with the best of them. He sets the energy for the film from the start, and continues to keep it exciting and interesting. As events progress, we see the drama and emotion sink into Terry McCain with plenty of weight that propels him forward through the film. Griffith has great chemistry with everyone especially Charlotte Lewis, Tony Todd as a fellow cop Frankie Hawkins, and Lance Henriksen as the soon-to-be Police Chief Devlin. Terry and Anna gradually reconnect and spark off some steam later on, but it’s very brief. Surely, a hot, erotic sex scene would be gratuitous, but I would not have complained if they injected some of that.
And of course, Griffith delivers on the action. I was really impressed with the martial arts moves he employed, mainly the number of high and roundhouse kicks he dished out. He really kicks some guys silly, and bashes up a lot of heads on a regular basis. While its not as intense as what Seagal was doing at the time, Griffith has his moments of bone breaking bad assery. If there’s any one shortcoming is that there’s no adversary that’s a real physical challenge for him, and so, there’s not a great single fight that stands out. Regardless, the action scenes are all very competently shot, choreographed, edited, and solidly executed overall.
Burt Young is pretty impressive as a ruthless Mafioso. He’s bluntly violent killing someone with a pencil through the ear, and having peoples’ legs bashed in with a baseball bat. He’s quite convincing with the balancing of the supposed sophisticated businessman and the merciless big crime boss. However, his screentime is shorter than you’d expect, but it leads to more interesting plotlines.
Also, the role of the police commander can often fall into clichéd territory, but thankfully, Lance Henriksen does a very subtle, understated job with Devlin. While he and McCain aren’t the best of friends, they can have respect despite their friction, and it’s really that relationship which gives Henriksen something fresh to work with. I also especially like the turn he has about halfway through as he becomes a bit more sleazy and brazen. As he gets deeper into this character, Henriksen gets more and more awesome.
I dearly love Tony Todd. Many know him as the horror icon Candyman, but he has such a wide range of talent that he also excellently displays here. He has one great scene in this film of emotional depth and strain which really sets him apart as a special, standout actor. A lot of other actors wouldn’t have put as much real heart and passions into such a small supporting role, but Todd does nothing less than superb work in everything he does.
These characters are interwoven into this decently forged conspiracy effectively. There’s a surprise or two to be had, and the characters themselves are fleshed out by the performances even if the dimension isn’t written on the page. A really good actor can always add and enhance what’s written in the script into something special or at least entertaining. I’ve seen enough standard fare action movies where lackluster performances make the film nothing but mediocre. Yet, vibrant and solid ones can make all the difference, and that’s certainly the case here. Like I said, when I saw the cast list I was impressed and intrigued if that acting quality would show through, and I think it really, really did.
The score of this movie was surprisingly done by Charles Bernstein, who I’ve only known from A Nightmare On Elm Street. His work here is distinctly early 90’s action, but he mixes in enough dramatic cues and moments of tension in certain scenes to give it some personality. James Earl Jones’ character of Jake runs a jazz club, and so, we get some smooth, lively sounds out of that early on. Bernstein’s score surely isn’t going to stun and amaze you, but it does its job very, very well. I would suppose that’s a good summation of the whole movie.
Excessive Force is not a great action movie, but it’s a really good effort that I did like. The script is well written, and very well directed by Jon Hess, but it’s really the exceptional acting talents of its admirable cast that allows this movie to be as good as it is. If filled with lesser grade talents, this would really falter, but putting guys like Griffith, Henriksen, Todd, Jones, and more into it gives it some extra substance. Each of them really put a real dedicated effort into their roles, and it made the film enjoyable outside of the nicely put together action scenes, of which Excessive Force does have a nice even helping of. Something exciting does happen about every ten to fifteen minutes, but the pace overall is quite consistent and well balanced to make it feel natural. There’s never action just for the sake of action. It all flows from the slightly twisting story, and Griffith’s athletic talents really make it all work. He certainly shows a lot of potential here in all aspects, and he’s a really fun, exciting lead. While Excessive Force doesn’t have the makings of a blockbuster success, I think it deserved better than grossing less than half its $3 million budget at the box office. It’s not a big explosive thrill ride, but it’s quite an enjoyable piece of low budget action fare.
I joined the party a little late with Final Destination. I didn’t see the first film in theatres as I was more interested in the then-ending of the Scream trilogy, but once I did see it, I became a fan of the franchise. However, while I thoroughly enjoyed the first two films, the following sequels signaled an ill decline in quality and tone. The third film felt like a direct carbon copy of the first, and the fourth was a big failure, in my eyes. I even saw it in 3D, and that was the last 3D movie I will ever see. So, that comes to the latest entry in this modern horror franchise. I believe I was skeptical at first, but reviews for FD5 were quite positive. A friend of mine even highly enjoyed it, but time was not my ally as I could not get to seeing it theatrically. So, I had to wait a few months for the home video release. An iTunes rental it was, and now, the DVD is part of my ever expanding collection. So, what did Final Destination 5 do right that the last few sequels got wrong? There are many answers to that inquiry.
Death is unleashed after Sam Lawton (Nicholas D’Agosto) has a premonition that saves himself and several of his coworkers from a disastrous suspension bridge collapse. Now, they are marked by death to correct this wrinkle in its plan. Federal Agent Jim Block (Courtney B. Vance) comes in to investigate this incident, and to probe into how and why these few survived. The survivors are chilled by the haunting, foreboding words of coroner William Bludworth (Tony Todd) about how death doesn’t like to be cheated, and all he has to say comes to shape everyone’s fates in how they attempt to cheat it further. Sam is joined by his uncertain girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell), his self-assured but soon grieving friend Peter (Miles Fisher) and his gymnast girlfriend Candice (Ellen Wroe), the attitude-heavy office assistant Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), the not-so-slick Isaac (P.J. Byrnes), the young factory foreman Nathan (Arlen Escarpeta), and their boss Dennis (David Koechner). They are all on the top of Death’s list, and time is not on their side as they frantically attempt to find a way to escape its sinister agenda.
Firstly, everything starts with the tone. The last two movies delved into dark humor, or more appropriately, bad humor. The more serious, suspenseful tone of the first film had been forgotten. FD5 revitalizes that approach to the franchise, and not just in direction or acting. Cinematographer Brian Pearson filmed this movie with a lot of dramatic character. The lighting alone has a great deal of weight and beauty. Just because it’s a horror movie doesn’t mean it can’t have artistic integrity, and I feel Pearson gave the film plenty of that. The visual style strongly compliments the direction of the movie. While none of the actors will really win any awards here, they generally hold up well. Those who need to be sympathized with are nicely cast. Those that are meant to be reviled or disliked seemed to work right for me, but it’s hard to tell if P.J. Byrne’s Isaac was supposed to be a misogynistic ass to like or dislike. I chose the former. Nicholas D’Agosto is a decent lead handling the more vulnerable side of Sam well, but he doesn’t have quite as much to work with as previous leads in the series. I feel Miles Fisher had the most to carry as the film went on with his grief morphing into something unforeseen. Coincidentally, Fisher bares a resemblance to Tom Cruise, and I certainly read a lot into that facial similarity. However, seeing beyond that, he confidently shoulders a lot of emotional weight by the film’s end, and he handles himself very well in both dramatic and action oriented scenes. Courtney B. Vance certainly shows his worth handling Agent Block with the right amount of uncertainty and inquisitive sense about him. He doesn’t buy into the supernatural explanations at first, but as things develop, he becomes willing to believe there is something more at work here than he can deduce. It’s quite original from the other law enforcement figures the series has offered us before.
So, okay – the acting is good, the thing is shot well. How good of a horror flick is it? Very good! As the end credits song from AC/DC says, “If you want blood, you’ve got it!” Final Destination 5 has a hefty helping of blood and gore that will satisfy any fan’s splatter craving. The deaths remain original and inventive. They become more elaborate with misdirection by laying out elements that take a little longer to pay off. While that is usual for the series, I feel this entry pushes it further towards more unique results. Every little element that Death sets into place is simply part of a chain reaction of events that don’t lead you to the death you are anticipating. This helps to enhance the suspense and tension throughout certain sequences by leaving you wondering how that loose screw the gymnast didn’t step on will factor into the scene later. You think she avoided the imminent danger, but the actual danger has yet to fully show itself. These scenarios slowly develop hooking your attention in more and more until the pay-off hits you like a punch in the teeth. This also shows that the screenplay is smartly written. That’s a good upswing from the screenwriter of the atrociously dim-witted A Nightmare on Elm Street remake. The brilliance of this franchise has been using a force of nature as the killer itself. There’s no personality to tap into, and no way to just turn around to see the maniac with the machete, butcher knife, chainsaw, or claws coming up behind you. It forces the characters to be more intelligent and aware for them to survive, and it also forces the screenwriters to become more inventive in how to setup each death. No longer can they rely on an off-screen kill or someone just getting stabbed in the blink of an eye. So, I am glad that Eric Heisserer has stepped up his game with FD5. Now, I won’t spoil anything for anyone, but I very much loved the turn in the film’s climax. The story elements laid out by the returning Tony Todd’s William Bludworth are tied up into a very original and enjoyable departure for the franchise. The climax twists things around a little bit creating a more physical confrontation than we’ve had before, but it doesn’t all end there. As with all the Final Destination films, there’s an extra added punctuation after the climax just when the characters feel everything is fine. For those not in the know, it is a hell of a turn that the film only lays extremely subtle clues at throughout the picture.
Now, director Steven Quale appears rather interesting. He’s only had a sparse list of credits stemming back to 1988, and I seriously mean sparse. This is the fourth film he’s directed in 23 years. I don’t know why that is, but I would hope that success with Final Destination 5 would open doors to push his career forward with more velocity. I say this because he displays a lot of great talent here in handling and balancing horror, drama, and action into a highly entertaining film. Apparently, Quale has worked with James Cameron on The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic, & Avatar. So, it is no surprise that the apparent 3D effects shots look great even in 2D. They still have visual and visceral impact without the three-dimensional effect. Begrudgingly, if I had the choice to now see this in 3D, I’d take the opportunity. In the past, the tech has not worked for me. I have no optical impairments. It’s mainly due to the fact that when images jumped out at me they became misaligned, like seeing double, and thus, ruined the illusion. I saw My Bloody Valentine 3D as well earlier in 2009, and that offered no better results than The Final Destination. So, I swore it off vowing I would never see another 3D film, but when things look this good in 2D, I’d have to concede that the proper three dimensional presentation would likely be quite impressive, to say the very least.
In regards to the visual effects, right from the opening title sequence, in both visuals and music, this movie made me feel like I was in for something ready to kick my ass. The credits sequence is awesome and original giving an audience some eye candy right up front to prepare them for the visual intensity of Final Destination 5. Again, since the only time I saw the previous two films were in their original theatrical runs several years ago, I cannot compare improvements in CGI, but from many accounts, it is superior here. The entire opening bridge collapse is massively successful, and CGI never entered into my thoughts while watching it. All effects were seamless and convincing meshed with some amazing cinematography. Quale clearly took a lot of time to construct this sequence to give it the visual scope and unnerving urgency it needed in every aspect. Each film in the series does try to top the opening disaster sequence of the previous, and I would be very intrigued to see if a sixth film can keep up that trend because this is a very intricately plotted out sequence. Much attention to detail was given. Now, the CGI in the rest of the film is as perfectly seamless, but it is very good. There is never any visual effects shot that takes you out of the motion picture. The quality is quite consistent and nicely integrated into the live action surroundings. It’s just how in your face they are that bring out any less than perfectly realistic qualities about them.
The make-up effects can sometimes be overlooked because of the CGI gore, but when I take a minute to think of them, they are immensely important to the strength of this film. Most of the gore in the film appears as a combination of special make-up and visual effects elements, but scenes like the acupuncture mishap perfectly display the quality of the practical effects. Of all types of films, it is the horror genre where I thoroughly enjoy seeing the behind the scenes look at how these things are done. Being able to marry the computer generated and practical effects work impresses me, and a film like this makes me appreciate the hard work that goes into it all because the use of the effects is never subtle.
While the characters may try to cheat death, fans are certainly not cheated with this movie! This is a winner! Final Destination 5 hits all the right marks, and delivers some bloody good horror. It’s possibly the best shot film of the franchise with a lot of high quality given to it in both large and quiet moments. Steven Quale deserves a lot of credit for delivering something so solid, impressive, and entertaining. I enjoyed this on many levels, and it gives fans what they basically desire as well. The entire series comes full circle with a smartly written screenplay that brings the right story elements together and wraps them up and around the characters very nicely. Everything flows easily without complicating the story. I am very impressed by this entry in the franchise, and I would hope that another Final Destination movie could come along to maintain this level of quality. Horror has taken many turns in the last decade that I haven’t cared for, and that has diminished my interest in the genre. However, that could change if this movie is a sign of things to come, if only for the franchise. Final Destination 5 receives a strong, positive recommendation from me! It is a reassuring return to form for the franchise that gives you more than you ever expected. Thoroughly satisfying is what this is!