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Posts tagged “war

Predator (1987)

PredatorI think it goes without me saying that Predator is one of the best action films, ever.  More importantly, this is my favorite Schwarzenegger movie.  Smartly directed by John McTiernan, who would helm Die Hard the following year, this is an excellently plotted and cleverly devised concept utilizing a stellar cast to great effect.  With an alien hunter designed by the masterful Stan Winston, and backed by some of the best visual effects of the time, Predator was an instant classic that truly solidified Schwarzenegger’s career as a blockbuster action star.

Recruited by the CIA to rescue hostages held by guerrilla fighters in a Central American country, Major Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his elite team encounter an enemy unimaginably more deadly than any on Earth – because the Predator is not of this Earth.

The film starts out wasting no time by keeping the exposition succinct, and allowing for this team to progress to their objective quickly while still relating these characters to us.  No one’s explored in depth, but you get a clear, personality rich snapshot of each man.  Blain’s a hard ass, Hawkins is kind of a joker, Billy’s the stoic warrior, and so on.  The entire first act sets up who these guys are, and what they are capable of.  We see this is an expertly efficient team able to wipe out a legion of about thirty Central American soldiers within a few minutes.  They are tactically sound striking hard and fast using the element of surprise.  When Dutch’s team is referred to as “the best” early on in the briefing scene, we see that is not at all an exaggerated statement.  They prove they are the elite, but even then, you can see these guys are spooked by this jungle.  “Makes Cambodia look like Kansas,” sets the tone for how unnerved they are by its terrain and ominous feeling.  Encountering the previous team’s skinned corpses surely rattles them a bit, but they never lose their wits.  In fact, it practically heightens them for the more lethal danger that is stalking them.

Schwarzenegger shines here as Dutch.  In addition to everyone else, this is possibly his most quotable movie.  Arnold’s got that charisma going here with energy and authority.  I love that Dutch is a soldier with a code of ethics for his men.  He states straight out that his men are not assassins, merely an elite rescue team, and we see that conviction arise when he learns of Dillion’s deception.  Schwarzenegger shows Dutch to be an honorable and sharply intelligent soldier commanding his men with precision.  He proves himself to be a cunning warrior gradually picking up on the Predator’s methods, and adapting to them in order to survive.  He’s perceptive and level headed, which is undoubtedly the sign of a great soldier.  I think this definitely one of Schwarzenegger’s finest performances demonstrating the ability to realize a very authentic, dimensional, and smart character.  Not to mention, I don’t think he’s looked so awesome on-screen without delving into a cheesy or campy tone.

Bill Duke especially does a touchingly effective job.  Early on, he is a hardened soldier, but after Blain is lost, you see the grief and turmoil wash over him.  Carl Weathers is great here as well portraying a man who was once a trusted friend of Dutch’s that has been corrupted by the “everyone’s expendable” mentality of a pencil pushing desk jockey.  He’s lost sight of the qualities of a soldier and the value of life.  However, we see him turning the corner as he rushes into his final battle, and I really like seeing that small character arc.  Overall, this is a rock solid cast flexing both their acting muscles and their real ones in pure 80’s action movie bad assery.  They all exhibit distinct personality that are vibrant, memorable, and straight up killer.

What it is that we lose with CGI monsters as opposed to a real life performer is exquisitely evident here.  Kevin Peter Hall inhabited that beautifully textured and crafted Stan Winston suit, and created a character to live and breathe through it.  Compare it to the personality deprived CGI creatures from Cowboys & Aliens.  They were, as I said in that review, “just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.”  They had no distinct characteristics that made them any better than the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars.  The Predator has nuanced qualities that reflect an intelligence and cunning behavior.  He’s a unique individual amongst a unique race.  How he moves, reacts, and assesses a situation bring a subtle and intriguing depth created by Kevin Peter Hall’s amazing performance.  It has all the traits of a talented performer crafting a character, and I am so tremendously glad that this franchise has never abandoned the performer in the suit approach.

As I’ve said in many previous reviews, the work of Stan Winston is legendary, and stands the test of time.  He clearly revolutionized the creature effects industry with his artistic craftsmanship and captivating imagination.  The Predator is an astonishing creation in all facets.  The original creature the filmmakers put together for this film was ridiculous and was quickly jettisoned after only a few days of filming.  Winston was called in, and with a little input about mandibles from James Cameron, this iconic, ferocious, and frightening creature was born.  Beyond that, this is a very graphic and brutal film showing you skinned human bodies, spinal cords ripped from carcasses, and a disemboweled Jesse Ventura.  Everything feels so grisly and textured for a greatly realistic feeling.  This is some of the best gore effects I’ve ever seen.

And these visual effects essentially still hold up to this day.  Certainly, the sequels have shown how digital effects can be used to improve and enhance them, but this is impressive work that hardly feels dated.  This is mainly between the Predator’s cloaking technology where he appears as transparent ripples, and the laser sighting and discharges from his plasma cannon.  There are some especially impressive shots featuring the cloak with more dynamic camera angles and motion where you get the real three dimensional quality of it.  You see it’s not some animated effect, but a real optical composite of a real performer.  These are all excellent visual effects.

This all blends perfectly with the gritty, sometimes smoky atmosphere of the film’s look.  I think John McTiernan’s great eye for composition, interesting angles, and well constructed action shines through.  In this jungle, we get the feel of the dangerous terrain and mysterious qualities of the dense foliage.  The grit grounds this science fiction premise in a visceral reality where consequences are severely violent and lethal.  Great camera movements and stylish, dramatic imagery highlight the artist merit of the cinematography, and it is all expertly edited together for a tight film which propels itself forward from the get go. .

Alan Silvestri put together one amazing score for Predator that has endured for the whole franchise.  He incredibly blends a militaristic march and drive with a primal tribal, jungle beat.  He builds a sense of ominous foreboding reflecting the reality that there is something out there stalking these men.  For the majority of the climax, there is next to no dialogue of any sort.  It is carried along by the action, the visuals, and the exhilarating score which enhances all of the tension, apprehension, and danger that is unfolding.  It is perfect, superb work.

The action hits you at a regular clip, and the first main sequence is majorly explosive.  It sets the bar high for the remaining runtime, and McTiernan is able to meet that challenge.  It’s the mix of tension, the unknown, and the sheer scale of this rapid fire, big gun toting, grenade launching explosiveness that makes that possible.  Yet, McTiernan knows how to build it up, and work the subtle strings of an audience’s anticipation.  The danger escalates, and the peril becomes more immediate as the Predator moves in closer and closer to its prey.  He starts out attacking from a distance, but gradually engages his ultimate trophy – Dutch – in close combat because the Predator views him as a highly worthy adversary

And that entire third act where it’s just down to Dutch and the Predator is a masterpiece.  The strategy and makeshift tactics that Dutch puts together play out brilliantly.  He uses the Predator’s own method of invisibility and striking from a distance to his advantage.  However, it all elevates when the two finally meet face-to-face in a straight physical confrontation.  Everyone knows that Arnold is a BIG guy, but next to this hulking seven foot tall alien beast, he looks small and nearly ineffectual.  It’s only by his smarts and wits is he able to survive.

Predator is filled with chest pounding action and excitement wrapped in a smart concept and script.  Backed up by an excellent action director, and a vibrant, colorful cast lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was a surefire formula for success.  This is why I love Predator.  It never lags anywhere as the pacing is tight and the rhythm is consistent throughout right from the start.  It’s really a near brilliant structure which constantly keeps you invested and intrigued by what’s developing here.  You also can’t not quote the living hell out of this movie.  It’s sharp, witty, but never betraying the serious tone of danger and lethality it sets from the beginning.  It’s an absolute success that holds up incredibly well over time.  I entirely intend to give you reviews on both Predator 2 and Predators sooner than later.  Until then, revisit this classic.


Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into DarknessThis is a film that I didn’t love, but also, I didn’t hate.  It is a very entertaining, exciting movie, but has a number of downfalls mainly stemming from the rehashing of old ideas and characters while doing nothing to make them fresh or new.  For a franchise that was just rebooted with the last movie, this seems like filmmakers with a dry well of ideas when they should be going warp speed ahead into bold, new directions.

When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has brought the fear of war and destruction to the Federation.  With a personal score to settle and sanctioned by the resilient Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).  As our heroes are propelled into an epic chess game of life and death, love will be challenged, friendships will be torn apart, and sacrifices must be made for the only family Kirk has left: his crew.

Now, I did not like the 2009 reboot movie.  I thought it was shoddily written with a lot of plot holes, big holes in logic, a weak villain with narrow-minded motivations, a style over substance approach, and a tone that did more to poke fun at these classic characters than show serious, due respect to them.  If the marketing campaign for this film wasn’t so good, I likely would not have been ensnared into seeing it.  However, despite my best resolve, I was compelled to check out spoilers after a spoiler-free review hinted strongly enough at a certain aspect of this film that I was not agreeable to in rumors.  There will be a spoiler section later to address that, but simply said, if I went into this film clean, without spoilers, I’m sure I would have at least been angry with the movie.  Instead, having foreknowledge of many pertinent aspects of the film allowed me to enjoy it more, and go into it with an open mind instead of a resistant one.  I was willing to let the movie change my mind, and to an extent, it did in how well the general plot is written.  However, there are several problems with story, characters, and concepts that I will address shortly.

On the upside of things, firstly, Star Trek Into Darkness has some stellar and exciting action sequences.  While the physical action with chase scenes and fights is not very traditional Trek, it is still very enjoyable stuff done with remarkable talent evident in all aspects.  It is a little hard to accept Spock running around in an action centric role during the climax since that’s always been Kirk’s role, but Quinto is at least more than capable of the task.  I did especially like the encounter with the Klingons where Harrison unleashes a one man barrage.  We see only one unmasked Klingon, but he does resemble the forehead ridged versions with a slightly different sleekness.  The starship battles are few, but feature excellent visual effects and rousing, perilous action.  The whole sequence with the Enterprise spiraling out of control, and Kirk and Scotty are running through the corridors as the gravity is spinning them all around is also fantastic.  J.J. Abrams, beyond anything else, knows how to create an exciting, action-filled movie aimed to entertain.

Now, the hardest part of assessing Chris Pine’s portrayal of James Kirk is that his version has so many changes to his back story that he’s ultimately not Shatner’s Kirk.  You don’t get that wit, cunning, and confidence that defined Shatner’s performance early on.  Instead, we have a young, brash, impulsive Kirk who does let his emotions get the better of him.  I do like that the film addresses one thing I didn’t like about the first movie.  Fresh from Starfleet Academy, off of one successful mission saving Earth, Kirk is given the Captain’s chair without having earned it through years of exemplary service and hard earned experience.  At one point here, his command is taken away from him due to his lack of respect for the Captain’s chair and Starfleet regulations.  He had the Enterprise given to him without having earned it, and now, he’s sort of put into the position where he has to make tough decisions and earn his command.  He has to challenge authority instead of dismissing it, and I think this element is handled rather well.  On the whole, I think Pine is a good actor, but I don’t think the writing and development of Kirk has yet to match his strengths.  His fiery emotions don’t resonate as strongly as Cumberbatch’s chilling, menacing presence.  Once again, Kirk does feel a little weak to me in this Abrams universe.  It’s that essential element of maturity and confidence of Kirk that’s missing which always made him interesting, and I hope that’s where these filmmakers are pushing him towards.  His arc in this film seems to suggest that, but I do feel it doesn’t get the forefront time it deserved to be properly poignant.

Zachary Quinto is given a rather meaty chunk of material in developing his Spock.  There’s a good weight of emotional insight we are given into him as he explores the ideas and fears of death.  Quinto reflects that depth immensely well, and the building of the Kirk-Spock relationship towards something more familiar is excellent in my view.  However, I do feel the whole Uhura relationship is still unappealing to me.  I’m glad they gave her more to do than operating the communications station, but I don’t see any major potential for that relationship.  In general, all of the regular crew members are given a stronger role here.  Sulu is given a taste of command, which I really loved as a subtle hint at him becoming Captain of the Excelsior in the original continuity.  Even Chekov, who I’m still unsold on the portrayal of, is given the run of engineering having to keep the ship intact in the absence of Mr. Scott.

This time out, I feel Simon Pegg did a far more faithful and solid Montgomery Scott.  In nearly every instance, he felt genuine from James Doohan’s original series portrayal.  He had more dramatic weight to carry, and had a bit of a subplot of his own to deal with.  He has justifiable conflicts with Kirk’s mission, and smartly weaves his way back into the thick of the plot by the third act.  I was far more satisfied with everything Pegg did here which still had moments of humor, but felt respectable overall.  With this character, it thrived from smart writing and a really good acting job by Pegg.

And continuing to prove my insistence that he’s one of the most solid and reliable actors around today, Karl Urban beautifully channels DeForest Kelly as Dr. McCoy.  He feels so authentic to the character while still feeling natural and passionate in his own right.  As with Kelley, Urban gets some of the best lines in the movie to the point where I’d love to just see a Dr. McCoy movie.  I really, wholeheartedly believe that Karl Urban is just on the verge of a major career breakthrough.  I’ve yet to see him do anything less than excellence in every role he’s taken on.  Urban just needs that one high profile leading role, and I cannot wait for that day.  He is the perfect successor to Leonard “Bones” McCoy.

Even Peter Weller does an excellent job as Admiral Marcus, who sanctions Kirk’s mission to take out Harrison, but the plot methodically reveals a lot of subversive dealings in Starfleet.  There’s even a great Deep Space Nine reference in regards to that.  What Weller delivers when those revelations occur is damn good, and fills a very solid part in this plot.  Also, Alice Eve does a nice job as Carol Marcus, the Admiral’s daughter, and strikes a small spark of chemistry with Chris Pine.  However, it doesn’t amount to much at all.  Also, I was rather confused as to why Carol Marcus now has a British accent when her Wrath of Khan counterpart did not, and nor does her father.  It was a distracting arbitrary choice that doesn’t really enhance the character in anyway.  It’s just peculiar.

Now, what really compelled me the most leading up to this film was indeed Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance.  That chilling deep voice with his intimidating, foreboding presence is so captivating.  His villainous character is intriguing with an air of mystique.  He has his secrets to keep and strategically reveal as his own agendas and plots unfold.  He’s written very intelligently, and we even get moments of emotional depth and pain in one scene.  His John Harrison character is certainly more than what he seems to be at first, and has many surprises in store for the crew of the Enterprise and Starfleet.  I really think, on a performance level, he’s one of the best villains this franchise has ever had.  He’s certainly the best movie villain since General Chang in Star Trek VI.  Cumberbatch is clearly an immensely talented actor, and he really owns this movie with a complex and rich portrayal.  However, there is a very important aspect of this character that I have to take issue with that can only be done in the spoiler section of this review.  Many loyal Star Trek fans may indeed find this to be intensely objectionable.

However, before we get to that, the problems of this movie are that it feels like a modern day remake of a vastly superior film.  How it rehashes old ideas that come off as second rate carbon copies that do more to remind you of how they were done better thirty or forty-five years ago are exactly reminiscent of creatively devoid remakes from unoriginal filmmakers.  Star Trek Into Darkness attempts to have original ideas such as Kirk dealing with failure and humility, but they are rapidly overshadowed by the plots involving Harrison and Admiral Marcus.  This theme with Chris Pine’s Kirk is never given enough time to flourish and take a solid foothold in the film when put in opposition to all of these retreaded characters, dialogues, and concepts.  These were likely intended as homages, but they come off as lazy, unoriginal writing.  The screenwriters couldn’t put together a wholly original screenplay with unique concepts, or at least, utilize smart enough writing to take solid ownership of what it does with these revisited elements.  Considering the majority critical opinions of them, I’m not sure what most should expect from the co-writers of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the screenwriter of Cowboys & Aliens and Prometheus.  Frankly, I thought the purpose of rebooting the franchise with an altered timeline was to take these classic characters into bold, new directions with fresh ideas.  Instead, they just do the same old thing only not done remotely as well.  They are free and open to do whatever they choose, and they choose to do next to nothing new at all.  This makes it seem like they’ve already hit a dry well of ideas, and that doesn’t bode well for the future of this franchise.

Now we come to the SPOILER paragraphs.  So, if you don’t want to get a full disclosure of plot turns and revelations, please, jump beyond the next two paragraphs to remain free of such knowledge.  You have been given fair warning to avert your eyes.  Your temptation is your own, and I know the temptation of spoilers is indeed intense.  So, here we go.

What has been rumored over the last several months that I ultimately took issue with is this.  The villain of this film, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, is actually revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh.  Now, the screenwriters integrate him well into the story, weaving all the motivations around him very soundly, and the explanation of his presence absolutely makes sense.  It all ties into the themes of war and Admiral Marcus’ motivations in regards to that by having Khan help Starfleet develop new weapons of war including the Dreadnaught class warship that nearly kills the Enterprise and her crew.  However, we have already had our definitive Khan story with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the original series episode Space Seed is still a stellar piece of work.  I don’t discount the possibility that another great Khan story could be made, but this one falls behind both of those previous outings.  Furthermore, making Cumberbatch be Khan actually diminishes the quality and potential of what Cumberbatch does here.  Instead of being viewed as a strong, amazing performance of a brand new, fresh villain, he is going to be eternally compared back to Ricardo Montalban, which is a gross disservice to Cumberbatch.  Also, the fact is that his performance bares no resemblance to the Khan we knew.  Khan was a man of passion and regal self-image.  He viewed himself as a Prince bringing order to humanity.  This new Khan comes off like an ice cold, menacing shark of a murderer, a man almost devoid of passion.  The original Khan was a conqueror, a ruler and leader of men.  This Khan is more of the terrorist persuasion acting alone, and really succumbing to the will of others to strike out from underneath their oppression.  Straight up, Khan would never bow to another person’s will, no matter the level of force that opposed him.  In Space Seed, Khan frees his people almost single-handedly, and takes over the Enterprise nearly killing the entire crew in the process.  I could never see Khan acting the way he does in this film.  He was never a lone wolf seeking to terrorize.  He was a proud, cultured man seeking power and stature.  Surely, he wasn’t hesitant to bloody his hands, but him becoming a terrorist against Starfleet doesn’t fit for Khan.  He wanted more to be respected than simply feared.  He was also a man quick to exercise his superiority over others, especially Kirk.  The story works, and the motivation is sound, but the personality is simply not Khan.  Not to mention, Cumberbatch bares no physical resemblance to Khan with his Caucasian complexion and English accent.  I cannot see the character that Montalban originated in Space Seed fitting into the context, personality, and methods of the Khan we see in this film, regardless of how differently events unfolded in this new future timeline.  Everything that Khan was before his resuscitation from cryo-sleep remains the same as it was in the original continuity, and so, he wakes up as the same man in this continuity as in Space Seed.  Thus, I don’t feel there’s enough leeway to allow for Khan’s personality and methods to change so drastically.

Also, the film quotes lines verbatim from The Wrath of Khan, and in the climax, there is a reversal on Spock’s death scene where it is Kirk who rushes into the radiation chamber to restart the engines to save the ship and her crew.  It becomes distracting when Pine and Quinto speak practically the same dialogue that Shatner and Nimoy did back in 1982 only with the roles reversed.  The scene is well acted, but you lose every bit of emotional investment and poignancy of the scene because it is such a blatant carbon copy with no fresh life of its own.  Again, you can’t help but remember how brilliant and powerful it was in The Wrath of Khan when you see this lazy, plagiarist writing realized on screen.  And of course, in poor, unearned fashion, the scene is punctuated with Zachary Quinto’s Spock yelling the infamous line of “KHAN!!!” to very weak effect.  It was done perfectly once, but since then, any other use has always been done in comedic context.  Here, it feels borderline lame because it’s not an original idea for a genuine reaction.  Ultimately, Kirk is revived because Khan’s blood now has some entirely unexplained regenerative properties.  It is setup twice in the film, but it could still be a contentious issue for many.  And literally, it is never explained at all.  It’s just there as a plot convenience, and factors into nothing purposeful enough but to bring Kirk back from death.

Veering towards the technical side of the film, the cinematography of Dan Mindel is very, very good.  He really knows how to use that wide frame to give you a strong cinematic visual with the use of great color schemes, and the action sequences are competently done.  There might be a couple shots that I wasn’t all that keen about due to the more rugged camera work during the space battles or the like, but they were fleeting.  The lens flares are toned down a hell of a lot from the previous movie, possibly due to the intended post-conversion 3D effect.  From a few sources, they say the post-conversion is very good.  And the score by Michael Giacchino is also quite good, but I really would’ve liked to have heard that Alexander Courage theme before the last minute of the film.  Just a hint of it somewhere would have gone a long way.

Overall, I did feel like the story here was a little less than what it could have been despite being well conceived and executed.  It felt like a setup of ideas and scenarios for another film, which would likely deal with a Federation-Klingon war.  It’s setting up this climate of inevitable war from the Klingons encroaching through space and perceived heightening tensions.  Everything is built on that fear of war, and while it is a very good idea which builds upon the events of the previous movie, it didn’t feel like an idea that was used to boost the strength and foundation of this film.  It all felt like the setup for something larger, and in doing so, it partly dismisses this story as a stepping stone.  If the focus was on this story, and doing everything possible with it, including injecting original ideas and dialogue into it fully, this would be a stronger movie.

In short, I think Star Trek Into Darkness will please general audiences, but the loyal Trek fan might have more than a few negative things to say about it.  My apprehension about J.J. Abrams helming the next Star Wars movie is evident here in that he does favor style over substance, and even what substance he has is fairly minimal and not well conceived.  Maybe working with a new screenwriter will resolve these issues, but the last thing that franchise needs, as well as Star Trek, is more creatively disjointed outings that favor flashy visuals over a good, solid story.  Neither franchise will have vibrant, flourishing futures based on work like this.  Again, I did enjoy this movie, especially more than the 2009 film, but I was a long way from loving it.  I was really hoping for fresh, new ideas and an original villain that could stand on his own, but unfortunately, I really didn’t get either.  I do recommend seeing it if you are not apprehensive about some contentious issues with revisited characters and ideas from far superior Trek stories.


Underworld: Awakening (2012)

For me, this was a “wait for it on cable” movie.  The premise for this fourth film in the series simply did not appeal to me.  Frankly, it seemed more like another Resident Evil sequel than an Underworld one.  I straight up didn’t like the more science fiction edge to everything.  It seemed to be trading off the wonderful depth of mythology and classy production design for hollow science and sleek, cold settings.  I could not get excited to see this, and from the way the trailers looked, I wasn’t going to spend money to see it.  Ultimately, I didn’t have to, and I’m glad for it.  Underworld: Awakening is not worth spending your hard earned money to see.

The vampire and lycan species have been discovered by humanity, and have waged a war of annihilation against both.  Twelve years later, vampire Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) awakens from a cryogenic sleep in an Antigen genetics laboratory, and manages to escape her human imprisonment.  On re-entering this world, she finds that the lycans are almost extinct, but somehow, have begun creating stronger, enhanced lycans.  She also discovers that she has a twelve year old daughter, Eve (India Eisley), who is a vampire/lycan hybrid that everyone either fears or fights to re-capture for their own vile purposes.  While on the run, Selene is aided by vampire David (Theo James) who brings her to a diminished coven hiding underground led by Thomas (Charles Dance), who does not welcome her presence knowing her past, but David stands with her in her fight.  However, soon, all are thrown into danger as those who would use Selene’s daughter for a mysterious antidote abduct her, forcing Selene to take the fight directly back to Antigen, and uncover an unsettling truth.

I will say that the film didn’t turnout to be as bad as I anticipated it to be, but it wasn’t all that worthwhile either.  This franchise feels about a half step away from going direct-to-video.  The only thing that saves this film from feeling as such are the action sequences.  They are still very high grade with big, slam bang stunts and good choreography.  However, there are moments that felt a little too preposterous for me.  Granted, Underworld: Evolution didn’t have the time to really show the potential of Selene’s newfound abilities, but some of them just seemed ridiculous and beyond the laws of physics in Awakening.  Selene might be exceptionally strong now, but I don’t think that someone of Kate Beckinsale’s slim size and weight could possibly ram into a van and barrel it over like a freight train.  Enhanced vampire strength or no, it’s just a little too much for me to buy.  There are other little moments throughout the film that delve into that well of exaggeration.  Some have a mild pay-off like Selene actually reaching into David’s chest and restarting his heart with her bare hand, but most are just there to amp up Selene beyond the suspension of my disbelief.  It’s one blatant sign that the filmmakers have ceased to care about creating an interesting story, and just want to go for ridiculous indulgences.

The CGI might be a little better than the previous film – Rise of the Lycans – but it’s still not all that good.  There are some sequences that are better than others, but on the whole, it’s still distinctly below the exemplary standards of the first two films.  This mainly affects the appearance of the lycans themselves.  Sometimes they look cartoonish and silly, other times they appear more real and believable.  This could be the difference of some practical lycans having been used in some sequences as opposed to others.  Still, it’s all a real lazy job done with them as a whole.  None of the transformations were particularly impressive as they lack the harsh, visceral quality that we saw in the series’ earlier installments.  It really is a mystery why, with more than triple the budget of the first movie and nine years of progress in digital effects, does the CGI here look inferior to that of the original 2003 Underworld.  Maybe too much of that budget went to the 3D aspects of the film, which have no impact on a viewer who doesn’t view films in 3D, such as myself.  The vast majority of the digital effects of this film are a substandard failure.

I will confirm to you that Scott Speedman does not reprise his role of Michael Corvin in this film, but the character does appear.  The filmmakers simply hired a not-so-convincing look alike and used some digital effects to mask that fact, but it’s pretty clear to my eyes what they did.  As a result, Michael is barely seen in the film, and I think that is a severe negative mark against this film.  Firstly, what they did comes off as cheap and obvious.  If they could have gotten Speedman, we could’ve at least had some substantive scenes with the character who was so pivotal to the start of this whole series.  To do what they have done just feels disrespectful to the foundations of this franchise.  Selene developed into the character we now know because of Michael, and everything erupted in this first film over Michael.  To now sweep him under the rug or hide him in the dark corner works against the story that they have here.  It feels like there’s this gaping hole in the film that is never plugged up due to his absence.  It forces Selene into a more isolated and coldly violent state of mind which is a huge step backwards for her.

In the least, this felt like the wrong direction to take the series’ storyline in.  The end of Underworld: Evolution left the possibilities wide open for something radically different and brave to be done.  Instead, what we get is very bland and narrow.  I also remember the filmmakers saying after Evolution that they weren’t going to go the route of Selene and Michael having a child together, but here it is.  Not to mention, it’s done with the least amount of effort possible.  It just feels like they took the creative low road, and it resulted in a cheap substitute for not having Michael present.  There are now very few places they could take another sequel because they have setup a very restrictive world for our characters.  They can’t simply exist in the world as it is.  Any new film has to deal with vampires and lycans being exposed to the world at large, and thus, no film can just be about vampires and lycans anymore.  This is what I do not like about this film’s premise.  It takes the war between vampire and lycan and shoves humans prominently into it.  This makes the human race the dominant aggressors due to manpower and resources.  While the story is able to twist it back around to being primarily between the vampires and lycans, the world is already set as both races being fully exposed and hunted by humanity.  That just drains all the interesting qualities from the base premise of this series.  Compared to how immensely textured and fascinating these vampire and lycan characters had been, making humans such a large and oppressive cog in this dynamic hits like a dull thud to me.  The history of both species are essentially meaningless now.  None of that will be explored any further because it’s about genetics, cloning, and humans trying to eradicate both species like a plague.  There’s no personal depth to humans being the enemy.  The first two films were interesting because they dealt with personal loyalties, deceptions, secrets, lies, and emotional motivations on both sides.  It was a very complex web that was intriguing to see unravel, but now, all of these fascinating characters are dead and none of the new ones have any textured history to explore.  It’s very hollow, and that essentially explains this film in general.  It’s a lot of flash and action with little substance.  The story it tells doesn’t even push the franchise forward.  It leaves it stalled out, dead in the water.  This film really doesn’t care much for developed plots or characters, unlike it’s predecessors.

The actual villains in the film are boring to no end.  There’s nothing on the page or in the performances to make an audience give a damn about what they’re doing or why.  Stephen Rea is certainly a better actor than this film demonstrates.  He’s entirely phoning this performance in.  There’s no passion in anything he does as Dr. Jacob Lane, and the plot twist with him still left me not caring.  No one else around him does anything worth caring about either.  These are pointless, empty, disposable villains.  I can feel the lack of giving a damn coming directly from the script.  Previously, you’ve had Viktor, Lucian, and Markus as powerful, vibrant, and intense foils for our protagonists.  They had a lush depth and emotional vigor that made them compelling to watch.  They were written greatly and portrayed brilliantly by some amazing actors.  They felt dimensional, real, and purposeful.  The supposed villains of this film couldn’t be a more stark opposite to all of that.  When the scripts start falling this far off in quality from where the franchise started, you know the direct-to-video market is not far away.

I will admit that Charles Dance does a rather good job as Thomas, the head of the diminished vampire coven.  Dance puts in the effort to make a poignant impression upon the audience for Thomas to have relevance.  I felt him channeling Bill Nighy a time or two with his line deliveries.  Of course, it would’ve been wiser for him to not keep trying to talk through the vampire teeth, or at least, have him re-record his dialogue in post-production.  It just seemed to impede his performance a little, but overall, Charles Dance did well here with a solid, dimensional performance.  Theo James does a fair job as David, but ultimately, it’s a take it or leave it character and performance.  There’s simply no depth or charisma coming from him.  If he had remained dead, it wouldn’t have mattered to me.  Much the same could be said for the rest of the supporting cast.  They are just there to serve a role in the story, but they’re just disposable and forgettable.  Whether they are given some substance or not, they just have no lasting impact.  Even India Eisley offers nothing to endear herself to an audience.  She should be someone we come to care about, but neither the script nor her performance give you anything to latch onto.  Even when the previous films failed to reach an emotional connection with the audience, it wasn’t for a lack of trying by the screenwriters to give depth to the characters.  Here, everyone just exists in the film for the sake of the plot, and they offer up nothing else beyond those narrow, shallow confines.  I’d almost welcome another prequel film just to have some characters I care about show up again.

The film at least has something somewhat worthwhile for Kate Beckinsale to do.  She’s given a decent emotional range to convey with some tears to shed, and some heartfelt concern to struggle with.  However, again, it feels like a step down from where she was in Evolution where there was the bond with Michael to flesh her out and open her up, emotionally.  Here, she’s even more cold blooded and vicious than ever before killing helpless humans left and right on a rampage to find the person she loves.  As always, Beckinsale looks great, and handles the physical demands of the role excellently.  Still, it is a film heavy on the action and lighter on substance.  In the hands of a screenwriter with some enthusiasm and ambition, a great deal more could’ve been done with Selene in this premise.  Themes could’ve been explored in depth about her uncertainty in this new world, and her finding a new purpose with or without Michael.  The ideas of rebuilding the vampires as a strong species could’ve been grappled with more intensely as well.  Instead, these are just background elements to the bland forefront storyline.  I believe Beckinsale has said she will not come back for another film, and I think that’s a wise decision.  She is a very good actress who should focus on expanding her career instead of shackling it to a franchise that is on a steep decline in creative quality.  Not to mention, the filmmakers and screenwriters seem to have no ambition to push the character to anywhere that challenges Beckinsale.  Rarely is any charisma ever is injected into the character, either.  Any expansion on the character’s range is marginal from film-to-film.  There are leaps and bounds they could take Selene with some powerful new stories, but there is just no place for that in this franchise, four films on.  Underworld has settled into a straight action film franchise with some thin emotional strands and increasingly weaker plots and characters.

I think the problem with the franchise is that the filmmakers have never been confronted with the problems of the films.  Therefore, they have never had critical pressure put on them to improve the aspects that have dragged along unchecked from movie to movie.  The odd thing is that they have all been different problems in each movie.  Whether it’s a lack of emotional vibrancy, thoroughly fleshed out stories, or a prequel that doesn’t just retread the same back story we’ve already been told about, the screenwriters and filmmakers just can’t balance out the vital aspects of these films.  There simply doesn’t seem to be a fire lit under the filmmakers of this franchise to push themselves to do more with it.  They settle for something adequate instead of striving for exceptional.  Underworld: Awakening is a blatant example of that slipping, lax attitude.

I honestly only took the time to watch this film in order to round out my reviews of the franchise.  There was nothing I saw of this marketing campaign that gave me any confidence in this sequel.  It is excessively mediocre in almost every aspect.  While I have never viewed any of the films in this series as great, there has been potential here and there that has just never been put together in the same film.  The best aspects of one film combined with those of another could be forged into just the right mix of story, action, and character to make a fully satisfying film.  Instead, we either get something too oppressive in tone and complex in story dragging the excitement of the film away, or something with a lot of good action and excitement with not enough substance to make it feel like a full film.  Underworld: Awakening is the latter done to an excessive degree in addition to populating itself with an array of forgettable characters and bland performances.  It’s never an outright bad film.  It’s just one I fail to care at all about, same as the filmmakers, evidently.  The creative forces behind this film put forth no effort to improve upon the franchise when there was ample opportunity to do so.  It’s disappointing when a franchise fails to reach its full potential when it has good ideas and good talent to start with.  It’s just plain sad when those in charge of it simply stop trying, and that summarizes my feeling on the Underworld series as a whole.  If another sequel is to come, I deeply hope the studio brings some talented writers and filmmakers on board with some original, ambitious ideas to revitalize this series.


The Expendables 2 (2012)

It has been not the best summer of movies for me.  Aside from two nice surprises, most of what I’ve seen has ranged from average popcorn fare to crap I want to avoid like the plague.  So, after the last few films I saw being well within that low end of the spectrum,  I am so glad that many of the world’s greatest action heroes have come along to salvage the end of my summer movie season!  While The Expendables 2 has some factors that keep it from matching the original, overall this is just a big, fun action flick that is what summer movies are supposed to be about.

After taking a seemingly simple job for Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), the Expendables find their plans going awry after encountering sadistic rival mercenary Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme).  The Expendables set out – with help from Maggie (Yu Nan) – to seek revenge in hostile territory, where the odds are stacked against them.  Hell-bent on payback, the crew cuts a swath of destruction through opposing forces, wreaking havoc in an attempt to shut down an unexpected threat – five tons of weapons-grade plutonium which is more than enough to change the balance of power in the world.  However, that’s nothing compared to the justice they intend to serve against the villainous adversary they seek revenge from.

Now, the only thing I felt held this film back was just it’s 102 minute run time.  If this had been a solid two hour film, I think it would’ve had the time to beef up a few aspects.  Jean-Claude Van Damme makes for one massively awesome villain.  He easily and deeply sinks his teeth into the role, and his vicious physicality sells so much of the character’s vile ferocity.  Van Damme plays the material with a lot of zeal and charisma.  You can clearly see there’s a lot of potential substance to Vilain, but the film doesn’t give the character much screentime or material to develop the richness Van Damme puts into the role.  We get just enough to sell his status as a villain, but not enough to really build up his threat level.  Partly because of this, the climax seems to come a little too quickly.  I had hoped for some more momentum to build up in the film before the full-on firestorm rained down.  In the first film, the villains were given ample screentime to develop fully, and they were tied deeper into the plot.  Both films have generally the same runtime, but the first film just seemed to make more of the time it had.

On the upswing, the entire cast seems like they were having a wonderful time shooting this movie.  Stallone has plenty of great chemistry with everyone, but I think the best material is between him and Statham.  Barney Ross and Lee Christmas just feel like such good, long time friends who can constantly take light-hearted jabs at one another, and are totally in sync when it’s time to throw down.  It’s a great, inspired pairing that brings so much levity to the film.  It really makes it a fun ride.  Action-wise, Jason Statham continues to shine with several knife fight scenes which are brilliantly executed and choreographed.  Nice touches are maintained with his character as they keep alive the relationship between Lee and Lacy, portrayed by the lively Charisma Carpenter.  Unfortunately, Jet Li departs the film after the opening action sequence, but he’s still given his moment to shine.  Chuck Norris’ role of Booker is full of fun humor that plays up the exaggerated internet humor of Norris’ superhuman feats.  It’s very well done.  The only negative mark with Norris is that he only ever fires a gun.  There is no martial arts action from his limited appearance in the film.  He doesn’t have anything more than an ancillary action role.  He shows up in two action sequences, and has a nice departure at the film’s end.  Sure, the script didn’t require his character to be there, but he does add to the fun of the movie.

While Stallone stepped down from the director’s seat, he remained as co-screenwriter, and you can still see his talent there.  The first film had its fine touches of emotional depth, and we are treated to some of the same here.  We get a fine amount of substance from Billy that Liam Hemsworth does a perfect job with, and really makes an impact upon the film.  He seemed like a very solid addition to the team, and proves his worth opposite some heavyweight talents here.  Barney Ross has more forefront time in this movie as he develops a solid relationship with Yu Nan’s Maggie Chen.  He has his soul bearing moments with Maggie that bring a lot of dramatic and emotional strength to this very testosterone pumping movie.  Yu Nan does an excellent, charming job showing both a compassionate, insightful side and being a more than capable fighter.  She has plenty of physicality to offer in the action sequences beyond just gunplay that is very impressive.  I think it was a very excellent idea introducing her character into the mix.  Surely, it offers up something a little more for the women in the audience to connect with, but in general, it’s good storytelling and screenwriting.  Barney is able to open up about certain things that can only be inquired of by an outsider, a character that is learning more about him along with us.  I liked Maggie right from the start.  She’s smart, cunning, humorous, and clearly doesn’t shy away from danger.  She’s exactly on the same level as the rest of the team, and more than proves her worth to them time and again.  I would love seeing more of her in The Expendables 3.

Lundgren, Crews, and Couture continue to be entertaining and ass kicking.  Dolph definitely has been given a great, amusing character that everyone plays well off of.  Bruce Willis is absolutely great as Mr. Church.  He’s another actor who could play one hell of a magnificent villain when given the chance, but he eventually fights side-by-side with the good guys giving him the opportunity for some funny quips.  Him and Schwarzenegger exchange their signature catch phrases late in the film, and it’s a total riot hearing them throw each other’s own lines back at one another.  Arnold has never had a problem embracing the self-referential humor of his iconic characters, as evident by Last Action Hero.  He’s having the time of his life here playing off of Bruce, Sly, and even Dolph.  It’s pure fun watching Arnold in this movie.  He kicks a lot of major ass, and gives us plenty of that classic charming Arnold humor we’ve all loved for decades now.  It really comes down to the fact that these are all guys who love action cinema, and are making these movies as a real, honest love letter to the genre’s fans.  The Expendables showed us exactly what we had been missing in the action genre for so long, and this sequel continues on that great, vibrant, explosive trend of entertainment!  Everybody gives it their all in these movies!

And OH YEAH!  You will get your fill of amazing action here!  Director Simon West shows he’s still got the chops he put on display back with Con Air.  However, this cranks up the volume and brutality further than he’s ever done before, and you’re damn right there’s blood!  This is a hard R rated action movie that doesn’t hold back.  Right from the start, we get slam bang, smart, innovative action that delivers on every level.  It’s fiery, loud, adrenalin fueled, and just flat out fun!  You see these guys at the start charging in to storm of the stronghold, and you know you’re in for a bad ass thrill ride!  They pull out the big guns, the large caliber ammunition here all the way through!  Stallone, Statham, Li, and Van Damme show off their physical abilities greatly in various action sequences.  However, nothing beats out the climax of Stallone and Van Damme throwing down.  You’ve got the brute force of Barney Ross combating the vicious martial arts expertise of Vilain, and they are true hardcore heavyweights.  Stuff that would take down the average person in an action movie doesn’t even take these guys off their feet.  Getting busted up with a chain, hurled across the room into a metal gate, and just plain visceral brutality is something both men are able to take and more.  This is one of hell of an awesome climax that is worth the price of admission alone.  The build up to it by Van Damme is wicked.  He thrives so much in this role in this scene that it punctuates wanting to have seen a lot more of Vilain throughout the movie.  Jean-Claude is clearly loving this character so much, and he puts every charismatic ounce of enthusiasm on display.  I think it’s a brilliant and amazing villainous performance.

The cinematography of Shelly Johnson is rock solid.  He also lensed Captain America: The First Avenger, and shows just as sharp of an eye for action here.  Every shot maintains a sense of action geography to know who is doing what, where they’re doing, and who they’re doing it to.  It fully puts the fiery, explosive, bloody action on excellent display for an audience to indulge in completely.  The editing of Todd E. Miller never embraces rapid fire cutting.  He lets the action play out competently and smartly.  There’s great action choreography to behold throughout the film, and both Miller and Johnson want you to see all of it.  These are some smart and highly capable filmmaking talents here that know the mechanics of a great action film.

The story is your straight forward revenge plot, but it is handled well.  Again, it would’ve been nice to have more develop between the heroes and villains.  Maybe have Vilain just slip through their fingers at some point, and thus, further fueling their hunger for revenge.  They get so close, but he gains the upper hand, almost laughing at them as he escapes.  I think something like that could’ve increased the film’s momentum towards the climax.  Between the time they first encounter Vilain and corner him at the airport for the film’s climax, they don’t come close to encountering one another, and that’s roughly an hour apart.  So, we never really get much of that adversarial conflict boiling up between Barney and Vilain, but Stallone and Van Damme surely hold none of that back when they do finally clash.  The film might indulge itself too much with its start studded cast at the expense of a meatier plot, but it never sacrifices entertainment value at any point whatsoever.

Ultimately, what you expect is exactly what you get with The Expendables 2.  There is no film this summer that has had action anywhere near as huge as what this film offers.  Plain and simple, this is pure bonafide FUN!  With a collection of some of the greatest action heroes alive today, you really cannot go wrong here.  With the names that are being thrown around for a third film, I’m very intrigued at what more these filmmakers are looking to pull off.  A return of Mickey Rourke would be awesome as well.  This franchise is all about rekindling the best aspects of the classic big summer action movie, and as long as Stallone is creatively involved I think we’ll continue to get our money’s worth.  I don’t think this film lost anything with Simon West in the director’s chair, and I would easily welcome him back if he’s invited.  If your summer movie experience has let you down at all, do yourself a real favor, and indulge in the action-packed fun of this movie.  While I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first film, it’s exponentially better than the vast majority of action films released today.


Total Recall (2012)

I never cared for the original Total Recall from director Paul Verhoeven.  It has always come off as a little too low grade and too strange for my aesthetic tastes.  So, I had no qualms about this remake or re-adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”  Plus, trading the corny camp fun of Verhoeven’s movie for a more serious action thriller tone does more consistently appeal to my tastes.  Although, I also did not have high expectations for this movie.  The film seemed mildly worth checking out, and it turns out to be just exactly that.  It’s surely not a bad film by any stretch, just an underdeveloped one that fails to truly grab hold of an audience tightly.

In the late twenty-first century, global chemical warfare has made the vast majority of the world uninhabitable, and Earth is divided into two superpowers, the United Federation of Britain and The Colony, who are locked in a battle for supremacy to unify the world.  Citizens of The Colony and the UFB travel between the two nations via a super massive underground gravity elevator, called “The Fall”, which takes them directly through the core of the Earth, emerging on the opposite side of the planet in under 20 minutes.  Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a factory worker who, despite having a beautiful, loving wife in Lori (Kate Beckinsale), is plagued by violent nightmares and has grown tired of his monotonous life in The Colony.  Welcome to Rekall, the company that can turn your dreams into real memories.  For  Quaid, the mind-trip sounds like the perfect vacation from his frustrating life – real memories of life as a super-spy might be just what he needs.  However, when the procedure goes horribly wrong, Quaid becomes a hunted man.  His wife tries to kill him revealing herself to be a highly trained undercover UFB agent.  Finding himself on the run from the police – controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the leader of the free world – Quaid teams up with rebel fighter Melina (Jessica Biel) to find Matthias, the head of the underground resistance (Bill Nighy), and stop Cohaagen.  The line between fantasy and reality gets blurred and the fate of his world hangs in the balance as Quaid discovers his true identity, his true love, and his true fate.

This film showcased some potential.  I think it had some very good talents behind it, and a solid, fresh direction on where to go with itself.  As I said, there is nothing outright bad about this Total Recall.  The action is sensational most times.  There are very inventive action sequences all over this film backed up by some mostly excellent cinematography and editing.  There are few hectic moments where it gets close to that shaky-cam quick cut mentality, but backs off it enough to avoid raising my ire.  The more physically demanding action set pieces are greatly conceived and executed.  Director Len Wiseman has always believed in doing stunts and effects as much practically as possible, and that always adds more punch to his action.  Everything looked like real people doing real stunts, and that is immensely admirable.  More effects heavy sequences are also nicely done with no CGI ever looking cheap.  The visual effects teams did a remarkable job creating a very realistic, seamless futuristic world.  Even the robotic soldiers appeared entirely photorealistic and interacted with the actual actors naturally.  However, despite this, I couldn’t really get into the film like a normal action movie.  Despite seeing it on opening night, the very large theatre I was in was barely one quarter full, if that much, and no one else ever seemed to have any rousing reaction to what was happening in the movie.  It’s not the action that’s the issue, it’s the underdeveloped characters.

I don’t necessarily feel anyone was miscast in the film.  I do feel that the screenplay did very little to develop Colin Farrell’s Douglas Quaid or any of the other protagonists.  The beginning of the film is nicely setup as most anyone can relate to Quaid’s situation.  He’s an everyman that’s a slave to the grind who just has the need for something more in his life, some kind of release.  You can really sympathize with him through this part of the film as every element of it is wonderfully executed with the right emotional touches.  However, once the plot kicks in, and he is thrust into this intense situation where he doesn’t know what’s happening or why, his character becomes terribly lacking in development or depth.  The film has little moments here and there that try to have the audience connect with Quaid, but it’s just never enough.  These moments just fall a little too flat because there’s no real substance behind them.  Colin Farrell can be charismatic and very fun in the right roles.  He does have the ability to give a very strong, dimensional, and entertaining performance.  However, the script just doesn’t give his character enough depth for Farrell to sink his talent into.  I never got all the way invested in Quaid to feel the peril or excitement of the situations he was in.  I truly tried because I wanted to enjoy this movie, but these characters are not exciting.  You never get into the soul of this character to feel his struggle, or wrap yourself up in his potential mind-bending confusion.  While the action sequences are excellent, I just couldn’t get emotionally invested to care all that much of what happened in them.

The exact same goes for Jessica Biel as Melina.  She’s supposed to be the love interest to Quaid’s alter ego, but there’s no spark present.  The screenplay almost never gives the characters a moment to connect for the audience’s sake.  I never felt a single strand of emotional bond between the characters, and that’s such a sorely missed opportunity to give the film some emotional substance.  It’s so hard to even say whether or not Farrell and Biel have any chemistry together because the love interest angle is barely played up at all to know that.  It’s really just 98% action sequences between them, and 2% character development.  Even beyond that, the Melina character just doesn’t bring anything substantive to the table.  Again, there is no emotional depth or scripted material to offer up an exciting performance.  I was left with a rather blank impression of the character.  Again, I don’t think the fault falls on Jessica Biel, it’s a failing of the script.

I also strongly believe that Bill Nighy was criminally underused in this film.  His character of Matthias is meant to be an integral figure in this world, but he has essentially one scene which is not written the best it could have been.  Matthias talks some philosophy about self-identity, but it’s very abrupt and clunky how the conversation starts.  There’s no natural flow to it.  It’s clear that his words are meant to have some meaning, but ultimately, become terribly hollow as the film explores none of the ideas he brings up.  It feels very shoehorned in as a quick attempt to make him an insightful character, but it just came off as rushed and purposeless.  I anticipated a more poignant and climactic meeting between Quaid and Matthias.  I anticipated it being a scene where we learn more in depth about the man that Quaid was to gain perspective on the dichotomy between who he is now and who he was before.  It would be a pivotal moment where Quaid has to make a real decision on who he wants to be, and what path he wants to take from here on out.  No such moment exists in this film.  The screenwriters seemed to give the minimal effort towards the conflict of identity in Douglas Quaid.  There’s more confusion from him over the grand scheme plot than his own internal conflict, which is a gross missed opportunity in a film that seemed to have a lot of potential on the surface.  It was also distracting that Bill Nighy put on an American accent for this role, which seems to have had no true purpose.  He is also greatly low key.  One would think that the leader of a resistance movement would be a naturally charismatic or inspiring individual, but Nighy plays Matthias with none of those qualities.  I will say that it’s a nice change of pace to see the usually more intense and theatrical Nighy put forth a more reserved performance, but it just didn’t seem to fit here.

Conversely, the villains of this film are greatly charismatic, energetic, and very enjoyable.  Kate Beckinsale is easily the best thing about the movie.  Her scenes at the beginning as Doug’s wife are very heartfelt and genuine.  There is no question about the authenticity of their relationship and love.  However, once everything turns around on itself, she becomes an amazing villain.  She drops her American accent and plunges full into her natural British one with a wealth of devilish charisma and dogged motivation.  Lori loves the violent requirements of her job, and takes great, ruthless pleasure in hunting down her prey.  Beckinsale can kick ass with the best of them as she is involved in some fantastic and stunningly impressive fight scenes which are very physically demanding.  It’s amazing what she does in this vicious and entertaining role.  She just eats up every ounce of villainy, and clearly has a wealth of fun in the process.  I consistently loved what the film did with her right from the start all the way through to the end.  I can’t say enough about Beckinsale’s performance here.

Also, Bryan Cranston just storms into the film with authority and charisma.  He portrays a great bad guy in Cohaagen.  He throws a lot of power into the character making him a force to contend with.  You don’t need much convincing that Cohaagen is a cutthroat, menacing bad guy.  He unquestionably feels like a man in power, a man in control that has some very sordid and diabolical plans setup.  This is a role that could have easily gone over the top, but Cranston keeps the character grounded and realistic, as do all the actors.  No one ever indulges in cheesy or corny contrivances.  Tonally, it’s a far more serious and straight forward movie than the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger version.  That’s a refreshing take, and all the actors really grasp onto that cohesively.  It is great that the villains are very formidable and enjoyable, but when the heroes are downplayed so much, it really takes the overall entertainment value out of the movie.  Had the heroes been as exciting and entertaining as the villains, this would be an immensely fun movie.

I noticed this next thing from the trailer, and it started to hit me more as the film got going.  Total Recall seems almost like a science fiction version of The Bourne Identity.  How Quaid just instinctually takes down all the armored police is dead-on to how Jason Bourne assaults the two police officers in the snowy park early on in The Bourne Identity.  There’s even a secretly hidden safety deposit box number where Quaid goes to obtain passports and other spy trade gear, just like in The Bourne Identity.  There are more vague connections here and there, but this issue dissolves quickly after the safety deposit box scene.  It’s not something that really bothers me much now, but more something that snagged my scrutiny in the moment.

Again, the film mainly takes place in two different locations.  The early part of the film is largely contained within the Colony, and I love the production design of it.  It was nice to see Len Wiseman break out of his monotone funk, and give us a more varied, yet still restrained color palette.  The Colony is almost always seen at night with shadowy lighting schemes which give the film a dark richness.  Colors are not vibrant, but they have a strong atmospheric presence.  Blues, greens, reds, and ambers accented by moody lighting really were a pleasure for my eyes.  Everything had a seedy, almost noir quality to it.  Considering this is all based on a work by Philip K. Dick, it’s no surprise that there is some Blade Runner feel to the design of this world, but it has plenty of fresh ideas to offer as well.  The design of the city’s housing comes off as very utilitarian and modular that is continually built upwards.  It looks very logical as a world that could practically exist in our own possible future.  It also certainly makes for a great design element for the film’s early chase sequences as Doug Quaid is constantly falling downwards to street level as it progresses.  However, it did seem odd that while the Colony actually used to be Australia, everything about the culture seemed more like Tokyo, Bangkok, or Singapore.  I think it’s an amazing world that was created, but nothing is ever explained why Australia now has a predominantly Asian cultural aesthetic.

The United Federation of Britain has a far cleaner, but also sterile and bland design.  While the film starts off with a very moody and dark visual style, it now loses a great deal of visual pop when moving into the UFB.  Those scenes are almost entirely during the daytime, and I do very much understand and endorse showing the visual differences between the low class Colony and the more prosperous UFB.  I just think a little more color could’ve gone a long way to improve the visual flare of this portion of the film.  Everything is very white, very clinical making a lot of locales very indistinct.  There’s no character or personality to anything in this environment.  Much of this is meant to be London of the future, and that is definitely a city with a lot of cultural personality today.  So, it would’ve helped to reflect some of that in these designs since the bulk of the movie takes place there.  As it is, after a while, it all just blends into forgettable backgrounds.

Regardless of these production design choices, director of photography Paul Cameron does an amazing job shooting this film.  It looks very slick and smart all the way through.  His cinematography showcases a great sense of geography and composition in the hectic action sequences, and brings fine visual credibility to the dramatic scenes.  It’s very beautifully shot and lit all the way around giving us a film that shows us where the money went.  I truly got a wonderful cinematic visual sense from this movie.

Everything in these worlds is smartly designed.  The robotic soldiers, the hover cars, the weaponry, and computer interfaces all appear to be part of a cohesive world.  With this futuristic Earth being what it is, there are likely very few corporations or manufacturers, and so, much of this technology would likely be produced and designed by the same organizations.  Everything has a practical and logic design to it.  Nothing’s overcomplicated or ridiculous, which some future-based movies can lose sight of sometimes.

However, ultimately, it all has to come back to the script.  I think Total Recall could’ve done with a little less action and little more time spent focusing on the plot.  The action seems to just whisk an audience away to another part of the plot instead of the plot developing itself.  We get explanations and motivations, but the details of this world are never fleshed out.  We never get the true sense of division between the Colony and the UFB.  We don’t get to know how both worlds live, and what the true cultural divisions are between them.  We never learn if there’s a deep seeded resentment between the two, and “The Fall” is not given any poignancy by the characters.  They never comment on it being a “symbol of oppression.”  That’s only ever stated by news people in the film, and the film shows how the media is easily manipulated.  While the Colony does feel like a lower class lifestyle, I never got the sense from the characters that it was an oppressive society let alone why a resistance movement was necessary.  The story also never gives us a sense of breadth or impact on a larger scale.  I didn’t really fear for the residents of the Colony later on when there’s a invasion force on its way.  The film doesn’t take the time to build up the threat level to a fever pitch, or give us a foreboding sense of dread.  The focus is too narrow and too shallow to make the stakes feel big enough.  Total Recall had the tools and talent in most areas to develop these issues with some purpose and depth, but really didn’t push for it.  Screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback have done work on films that I have very highly enjoyed.  Wimmer co-wrote The Thomas Crown Affair remake and Street Kings while Mark Bomback wrote the Hugh Jackman / Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and did re-writes on Constantine.  So, I know they have potential for producing more well rounded and satisfying scripts, but Total Recall feels too focused on action and not enough on substance. That would likely make for a thrilling video game with elaborate action sequences, one different than the last with a lot of unique obstacles, but only moderately developed story strung between them.  It’s certainly not that bad in this film, but you could probably take this exact script and hand it over to a video game developer without changing much.

There is a plot hole that puzzled me in how Cohaagen and his forces were able to locate Matthias.  No reason is ever given on if they tracked Quaid and Melina, or even how they might’ve done it since the two of them traveled to meet Matthias via subway and Cohaagen’s forces all flew in.  They just happen to be there, somehow, and storm in out of nowhere with no explanations.  This is definitely a plot hole that none of the characters attempt to plug up at all.  Total Recall doesn’t feel like a film with multiple plot holes, just a film that doesn’t develop it’s plot details or characters as well as it could have.

I’m sure there are those who will find some excitement and fun with this film.  The action is marvelously well done and inventive.  Len Wiseman has evolved into an excellent director of action.  He knows the mechanics of creating solid and thrilling action sequences with competent, coherent editing and cinematography.  There are absolutely no flaws at all with those aspects of this film.  Leading up to the climax, there’s actually a zero gravity shootout in “The Fall” that was smartly done, but still lacks a sense of wit or rousing action to really rile me up.  There’s plenty here to potentially enjoy, but I just never got enough substance from the film’s heroes to feel gung ho about them kicking some ass.  Had the script given more time to the characters and developing the details of the world of Total Recall, opening it up for more depth, texture, charm, and emotional dynamics, I likely would’ve highly enjoyed myself.  I would not be opposed to a second viewing of the film, but I wouldn’t expect too much of an improvement on my opinion.  I would never classify 2012’s Total Recall as a bad movie, just fairly okay one.  Its potential really shows on screen, but on the page, it just didn’t deliver.


Underworld: Evolution (2006)

For whatever reason, I chose to give this sequel a fair chance despite my very negative reaction to the first film.  It might’ve been my extreme absence from seeing new horror films in the last few years, or just that it may have seemed a bit more developed than the first (by way of trailers and such).  Whatever the case, on its opening theatrical weekend I caught a matinee showing of it, and yes, I actually garnered some enjoyment from it.  Before I get into the critique, let’s familiarize you with the premise of Underworld: Evolution.

Eight centuries ago
unknown to humanity, a blood feud raged
between a ruling class of vampires
and a rebellious legion of werewolves
known as lycans.

Legend tells that the war began with two brothers,
the immortal sons of Alexander Corvinus

Markus, bitten by bat,
became the blood leader of the vampires.

William, bitten by wolf,
became the first and most powerful lycan.

This sequel picks up just exactly where the first film ended.  The lies about the war between vampire and lycan have been uncovered, many former allies and enemies lie dead, and the vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and the first hybrid of the two immortal species, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), are now on the run.  Meanwhile, vampire elder Markus (Tony Curran) has been revived.  He is the very first and most powerful vampire, and he shows it from the very first minute on screen following his resurrection.  He absorbs the blood memories of the lycan doctor that was slain in the crypt, and comes up to speed on all the recent betrayals and treachery.  He goes hunting down Selene to learn all she knows, more than even she is aware of.  Markus knows that Viktor deserved the end he got, as the pre-title flashback sequence shows, but the intentions of Markus are much more frightening, volatile, and lethal than those in the previous film.  As Markus tries to move his plans forward, Michael & Selene hideout wherever possible, and eventually become more intimate with one another.  More secrets and hidden truths begin to unfold, and Markus’ ultimate plan is unveiled as he wants to create a new race forged by the purest of both vampire and lycan.  Unknowingly, Selene holds one major key to Markus’ plans, but there is much vengeance for him to reap along the way.  Ultimately, our heroes must evolve to battle this new enemy or perish in its wake.

One of the things that I first enjoyed about this sequel were the more exciting and unique action sequences.  No more are we treated to shootout after shootout, but we have much more physical combat on top of some nice chase sequences.  Every action sequence is different from the last, whether in context or geography.  It made this film much more lively and intense.  Secondly, Scott Speedman really comes more into his “evolved” character of the vamp-lycan hybrid Michael Corvin.  He’s involved in more smash mouth brawls and chase scenes.  He’s a more active member in the story despite having much less pivotal importance to it instead of riding the wild wave carrying him along to unknown destinations.  Selene still does much to protect and guide him as he becomes more familiar with what he is, but he’s not helpless by a long shot.  Also, the design of the hybrid is more evolved as well, and yes, I am using the subtitle of this film a lot.  However, it is justified because there’s a lot of evolution with this sequel.  Anyway, with a bigger budget, but not an over inflated one, this film has some upgraded effects that truly benefit the characters and story.  Corvin’s hybrid creature design is more satisfying to me as it takes on a few more werewolf characteristics, and the creature itself tends to be more animalistic.

There are fewer characters this time around, but the depth of them is much improved.  There’s more emotion here, especially with Selene.  She’s no longer some cold killing machine, trying to fight back against everything and everyone.  She becomes intimate with Michael, opening her emotions to him, and there’s no denying their love for one another.  With no other allies, Michael is all she has, and Selene is the only one that Michael can latch onto.  Without each other, I doubt they could survive emotionally or psychologically for too long.  One of the new characters is Tanis (Steven Mackintosh), a vampire historian that has been exiled for about three centuries, or so it was believed.  He’s a weasel, a real piece of scum that shouts back to the majority of the cast of characters in the previous film, but is easily more enjoyable than despicable.  Not surprisingly, Tanis has interesting ties to Lucian .  Another new character is portrayed by Sir Dereck Jacobi, a revered British actor of stage and screen.  His character is wholly pivotal to absolutely everything, and is greatly responsible for cleaning up after the messes of both the vampires and lycans.  He helps keep their underworld as hidden as possible – mainly because he’s partly responsible for its existence – but none have been aware of his existence until now.

And the new villain, Markus, proves to be quite an adversary for all, especially Selene & Michael.  He certainly has a swirl of emotions being manipulated and opposed by Viktor for centuries.  He seeks to free his brother William, the most ravenous and powerful lycan ever, and together, no one will be able to survive them.  Markus is truly frightening and indiscriminately lethal.  He knows what he wants, and will tear through whomever he must to achieve his god-like goals.  He’s not as intriguing a villain as Lucian was (who actually proved to not be the villain at all in the first film), but he still does not disappoint.  While Lucian was someone with more carefully laid plans (one part revenge, one part survival for his species) who had patience to carry them out subversively and work with a higher level of honor than those around him, Markus is purely about revenge, and has no use for being subversive.  He’s very upfront and direct with his approach to achieving his goals.  Being as powerful as he is, he has no fear, and thus, destroys whatever he wishes.  Tony Curran portrays him fantastically through and through.  I so enjoyed his performance – the strength, the confidence, the anger, the defiance – it was powerhouse.  He easily makes the movie, and he is definitely a marvelous actor I intend to pay close attention to.

The effects in this film are even more impressive than the first film.  There are a lot of effects here that you would swear are practical, but don’t seem logistically possible.  The visual effects department deserves major credit for their amazing work here!  There’s not a bad or cheesy piece of CGI here, if you can even decipher what is CGI to begin with.  In any case, this is a major visual effects achievement, and everyone knows that bad CGI can completely kill any movie (especially one with such a serious tone as this one).  Yes, the dead serious tone persists here, but there’s a couple of smirks to be had here and there.  Frankly, there’s enough depth and variation of emotion throughout the film to make it more lively and entertaining than the original Underworld.

The music of Underworld remains the same with the industrial rock remixes and such.  The score is also fantastic, and possibly a bit more dynamic than before (mainly due to the demands of the story and action).  We get a lot more action early on, and I would have to say that there is a higher degree of gore here.  It’s not a massive amount of gore, but more gruesome since Markus is a far more violent character than any we saw in the original Underworld.  There’s also less “technobabble” this time around because there’s nothing new to describe in relation to it.  Simply put, all the medical jargon and related exposition more or less applies here as well.  It’s already been established in the first film, and so, there’s no need to say it all again.  There’s ultimately less exposition overall, but there’s still plenty of back story to explore.

Basically, I found this movie enjoyable.  The action is far fresher than that in the first movie.  There’s easily much more emotional depth, allowing you to really feel more for these characters, and to become closer to them.  There’s not as much mystery this time around, and the scope of it all might seem smaller.  This is partly due having fewer characters than before, and this film takes place more outside in mountainous regions than inside the mansion where there was a lot of production designs to show off (as well as extras).  Although, I believe Underworld: Evolution makes up for it on many levels.  Also, after viewing the extended cut of the original Underworld, I believe both films are equal, but on different levels.  What one lacks, the other makes up for.  One film’s weakness is the other’s strength, and so, they even out in the end.  I believe if you melded both films together into one, capitalizing on both of their strengths, you’d have one bad ass movie, but instead we get two that are pretty damn good in their own ways.


Underworld: Extended Edition (2003)

After seeing and enjoying the sequel Underworld: Evolution on its theatrical opening weekend, I decided to give the original film a second chance with the extended edition.  It was clear then that I should’ve given Underworld a second viewing quite a while before then.  With that viewing, things became more enjoyable, and more importantly, coherent in a second viewing (even with two solid years between viewings).  Anyway, this version of the film has 12 minutes of additional footage with 11 minutes of replacement footage.  The audio commentary with director Len Wiseman and cast members Kate Beckinsale & Scott Speedman help to mark the new footage (quite important to me only seeing the theatrical version once).  More back story is revealed on our leads, and a few other tidbits are injected.  Now, there’s really no extra gore here, and so, don’t let the “unrated” moniker get you excited.  It’s just a marketing tool for horror fans, plain and simple.  Now, I will endeavor to make a far briefer synopsis this time out.

A war between vampires and lycans has raged for numerous centuries, but the reasons why there ever was a war is unknown to most everyone.  Digging into the past is forbidden amongst vampires, and that’s just the least of what’s forbidden.  There are many unknowns that none question, but the vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) soon raises all those questions.  After tracking a pair of lycans and subsequently engaging in a shootout in a subway station, she becomes convinced that they were after a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman).  She persists in unraveling this mystery, even more so when met with resistance from the decadent second-in-command Kraven (Shane Brolly).  He pushes so hard against her that she becomes even more suspicious, and goes to desperate measures.  She awakens elder vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy) a century ahead of schedule, and seeks his help.  With his power of command and physicality, he easily reaffirms control of things.  Meanwhile, the lycans’ plan slowly is revealed, but not fully until far later in the film.  In any case, this plan has everything to do with Michael’s bloodline, and with the survival of the lycan species.  Selene soon becomes Michael’s only ally when it seems all are gunning for him, and neither of them know why, not truly.  Ultimately, all the lies, deceit, deception, and secrets are made known, and the consequences of them all will change everything for both species.

When I first watched this film, it was very confusing and tiring on a mental level.  There were so many plot twists and turns that from one scene to the next I didn’t know who was a villain, an ally, or a hero.  I was completely lost on the geography of this plot, let alone where these characters stood within it.  By the end, nearly everyone you believed was a protagonist or an antagonist flipped sides, and it was all very confusing.  I felt like Michael Corvin wondering just, “what the fuck is going on?”  This time through, I was fully aware of where the plot was going, and everything made much more sense.  A second viewing allows you to be “in the know” about the intentions, schemes, and treachery of all.  It allows you to enjoy the film more since you are not trying to re-decipher the plot every few minutes.

Now, I still find the action sequences to be lacking.  A shootout is a shootout – practically every action flick has one.  Granted, it would be silly for the vampires and lycans to be doing battle with swords and battle axes since these are technologically evolved times, but after seeing the sequel, Underworld: Evolution, there are other ways to create multiple action sequences unique within one film and make them exciting and dynamic.  Since I had already seen this movie, I knew what to expect from the action sequences, and so, I was able to enjoy them more.  But still, they could have been much more impressive and unique.

I still give major praise for the effects in this film, both practical and computer generated.  They are exponentially better than the cheesy, third-rate CGI in Van Helsing, and nothing here comes off cheap.  It’s all wonderfully designed and executed.  After watching some of the featurettes on disc two of this set, I got to appreciating the development of this film even more than before.  I do retain the belief that this film could have benefited from a bit less dreary visuals.  The desaturated colors really bring down the potential beauty of this motion picture.  The Crow absolutely had an insane amount of darkness, and a heavily gothic look to it, but it is a beautiful film.  It didn’t use desaturated colors, but instead used the contrast of light and dark.  I believe the same could’ve been done here, and made the visuals much more compelling.  Still, the cinematography is fabulous, and the production design is deeply intricate.

The music as well as the costume design is directly in line with that of The Matrix – industrial rock remixes and tight black leather n’ latex.  Yes, it’s been done to death, but it certainly works fantastically well here.  Kate Beckinsale looks all the more beautiful and sexy the more you see her.  The lycans have a far more down n’ dirty look as they live a more low class lifestyle than the aristocratic vampires.  I guess leather attire will always be some indefinable symbol of coolness.  So, despite my previous negative attitude towards said choice in costume design, I really won’t knock it now.  It’s cool, and I’ll leave it at that.

The quality of the acting doesn’t change in this extended cut, we just get more of it.  I speak nothing negative about it, and knowing where things ultimately lead up to not only in this film, but the next, I truly understand the coldness of some characters.  Those that survive this film definitely show far more depth in the sequel.  Still, I still have to praise Michael Sheen for bringing such a great character like Lucian to life.  He does an incredibly intriguing job with him, and by far, proves Lucian to be the most in-depth and emotionally invested character here.  The rest of the cast has acting chops to spare, and while Speedman may seem miscast in this film, I think him coming into his own in the sequel really makes up for anything he may appear to lack in this film.

Again, what this extended cut gives us is more character moments.  These are nice extra elements, but don’t change the complexion of the story or characters much at all.  They just add some additional depth and back story.  The pace of the film was already pretty slow, and thus, this only elongates the existing pace.  There is a sex scene between Kraven and Erika, but there’s nothing gratuitous about it.  It’s sexy and lustful, but no real nudity  Beyond that, there are a few bits and pieces of scenes added back in that were likely just cut for time originally.

All in all, with two years later and a fresh perspective along with the knowledge of the sequel with me, I appreciate Underworld much more.  The story does drag in the middle (even more so in this extended cut), but it really picks up near the end.  I recommend that anyone who may have disliked or was disappointed with this film should give it a second viewing.  Being aware of the plot and its progression will allow you to appreciate the overall film much more.  Your mind is more free to enjoy it instead of trying to keep up with plot twists.  Simply put, you’ll spend much less time being confused, and more time enjoying yourself.  Checking out this extended cut should be an option for you, but it doesn’t offer anything greatly important regarding the plot, let alone the action, but does offer more on the characters themselves.  Theatrical or extended is perfectly fine for a second viewing.


Underworld (2003)

I have become a fan of this franchise based on its potential.  I don’t think any entry, so far, has really been great overall.  One entry excels in areas that others fall short in.  It’s hard to do a straight update on my old review of this film.  There are two reviews I did.  One from my initial viewing of the theatrical version, and one from the extended edition which serves as a more informed second viewing.  So, what follows is merely a polished up version of my original 2004 review of Underworld.  Bare in mind that this is a first reaction review, and does not reflect my current sentiments on the film after multiple viewings.  For that perspective, check out my review of Underworld: The Extended Edition.

When I first heard about the premise for this movie, I thought it was gonna be one to watch.  A must-see, even.  Simply put, that premise was the dynamic of Romeo & Juliet set in the world of vampires & werewolves.  I was so very excited to see this movie!  Through all the trailers and TV spots.  With all the months passing by, I only became more anticipatory of this film’s release.  But in the week of the theatrical release, I starting reading the reviews.  They were bad.  Even the horror sites were saying it was a dull, boring, unoriginal, unimaginative movie.  Bloody Disgusting, Diabolical Dominion, and Creature Corner all gave it BAD reviews.  After that, and numerous visits to RottenTomatoes.com, I chose against going to see this film that I had been so anxious to see all year long.  However, after its release on DVD, I finally decided to plunk down some bucks to rent it, and all I can say is that all the reviews were right.  But before I go any further, let’s TRY to lay down the plot for this quite dull and highly non-innovative film.

Kate Beckinsale plays the vampire Selene, a Death Dealer whose job it is to hunt down and kill off the Lycans (aka ‘Werewolves’).  At film’s start, she gives us a nice expositional voice over to help with the film’s general setup.  A war between the two species has raged for 600 years, and despite the fact that no one truly knows how it all began (digging into the past is forbidden amongst vampires), the war continues.  Though, the vampires believe that the war is soon to end, it would leave Selene’s kind, the Death Dealers, as an obsolete faction among the decadent lifestyle the vamps have adopted.  Meanwhile, two werewolves are shadowing the footsteps of a mortal man, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), but for what purpose, that is not revealed for another HOUR, maybe more!  A shoot-out goes down in a subway station between the vamps and the ‘wolves, amongst humans.  We get our first look at the werewolf transformation, and it’s not half bad.  Now, at this point I would like to rush the plot synopsis quickly along, but there is too much to simply sum in one paragraph, but I’ll try.

On the vampire side of things, it is only a short time before they are to reawake one of their elders from a centuries’ old sleep.  These elders are held in a tomb of sorts inside the Victorian-esque mansion all these vampires live in.  In the meantime, their acting leader is Kraven (Shane Brolly), a very self-minded bloodsucker who is Selene’s greatest obstacle.  This becomes even more evident when Selene’s interest is peaked as to why the Lycans were following Corvin, and she ultimately is forced to go against everyone’s orders to discover the truth.  While investigating Corvin at his apartment, a small pack of Lycans come looking for him, including their leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen).  During this encounter, Lucian takes a heap of a bite out of Michael’s shoulder, and damning him to become a werewolf, in time.  At the tail end of this encounter, an amazing stunt is performed where Sheen chases after Selene’s luxury import car, and just runs up atop of it.  How it’s performed, I’ll tell you later, but no wirework was involved.

Anyway, to find guidance and wisdom as to what plans the ‘wolves might be forging, Selene awakens the one who made her into a vampire: Viktor (Bill Nighy).  He is awakened in a manner not far off from Hellraiser.  He must be regenerated via the absorption of blood, but they throw a nice twist on it.  Now, even though Viktor has been awakened, Selene STILL is faced with adversity where she believed that she would have an ally.  It only forces her into an even more rebellious state to uncover what treachery has occurred amongst these immortal enemies.  There is, of course, more to this film, but I will not divulge such spoilers to you.

Yes, I know, that was more than one paragraph, but I tried.  I guess the first thing that I realized with this movie was that the action sequences are really nothing new.  How many shoot-outs have we seen in movies?!  Far too many to even consider counting, I’m sure.  And that’s basically the only way the vamps and the lycans fight.  They pull out guns and a few other weapons.  Both sides now have bullets designed specifically to kill their rival species.  The lycanthropes have irradiated ultraviolet bullets that burn vampires alive.  From that idea, the vampires invent a bullet that releases silver nitrate directly into the lycans’ blood stream.  Lycans themselves are allergic to silver.  Most have the ability to force a silver bullet from their body, but the liquid silver injected into their veins is a near instant death.  However, a lot of other rules are tossed completely out the window such as vampires now have reflections, don’t seem to have any bit of flying ability, and well, don’t really have much powers at all.  They are undead bloodsuckers that are incredibly agile, nothing more.  And any charm or veracity that have become characteristic staples of vampires are certainly drained from these vampires.  The filmmakers were going for a more biological, scientific angle, but in the process, eliminate much of the powers of the creatures.  Of course, the werewolves don’t seem to have much of a change, except for the fact that they can now switch between their two forms at will, but it takes a full moon to initially trigger their transformation after they’re first bitten.  Also, no one has ever survived a bite from both vampire and lycan.

Now, since the action sequences are tired and bland, the next question has to be, “is the movie fun at all?”  No.  Everything and everyone is taken very seriously here.  Not a singular joke is cracked, not one witty play, nothing humorous of the sort makes its way into this film.  Which makes for a very dull 121 minutes.  I don’t even think anyone in this movie even cracks a damn SMILE!  Also, the film never really delves much past the surface of these characters to give us any sort of emotional involvement with them.  And in fact, the only character I really, really liked was Lucian.  Michael Sheen has a lot of charisma and sharp theatrical sense to give the lycan leader a strong gravitas.  His is the only one with a heartfelt emotional motivation for his actions that are not wrapped up in lies and deception.  Lucian also has a great look which supplements the feral lycan quality.  Despite Sheen’s shorter stature, he really is a strong presence that commands respect, even next to his hefty second-in-command Raze.  Kate Beckinsale IS quite seriously sexy in her skin-tight PVC leather / rubber cat suit and corset, but it’s a hard thing for an attractive young woman to NOT be sexy in such an outfit.  Her character is the heroine, but despite the script’s best efforts, she’s rather mono-emotional (as practically all of the characters are).  It’s not an issue of acting quality, but the tone of the film and characters that creates such a heavy, dry movie.  Bill Nighy is fantastic as Viktor bringing his always intense emotional sense to the vampire elder.  He also commands his scenes with theatrical breadth and subtlety.  Shane Brolly as the snake-in-the-grass, short tempered vampire Kraven can feel a little over-the-top at times.  The character is wonderful as it becomes refreshing to know that, at the end, he is just as vile and self-centered as he first appeared to be.  Still, the rage and shouting could’ve been turned down a few notches to make him a little more intimidating.

Now, we hit the assessment of the plot (and yes, the film feels, at least, as long as this review).  The plot is very tiresome.  Not that it’s repetitive or anything like that, but because we keep getting more and more elements added to this plot without reason.  Well, without reason until the last 30 minutes of the motion picture.  And by that time, you really don’t know who to root for.  Those who you believed to be the villains aren’t really doing anything villainous, but some of the despised characters are despised for a reason.  Although, some of the protagonists become deserving of all that they have coming to them.  So, through the whole film you’re acting like Michael Corvin after being bit saying, “What the HELL is going on?!”  You get tired of waiting for the plot to progress to a point where you actually know WHAT the real plot is.  And once you get there, there’s not much left of the film to hold any bit of interest in you.  The fact is, the screenplay is structured in such a way that you have no clear understanding of the plot’s landscape, or where any of the characters stand in that landscape until the final act of the film.  Selene herself doesn’t know who to fight against either until that point.

And for the final bit of assessment, the special effects.  I am so very glad that director Len Wiseman chose to do as much of the effects practically as possible.  The werewolf designs are very impressive, and that certainly helps to inject much to the feel of the film, keeping it as grounded as possible.  Though, the werewolves don’t happen to showcase much movement or flexibility in this form, but when they’re crawling rabidly along the walls, they are very animated (not in the CG sense).  Also, remember that stunt I mentioned earlier involving Michael Sheen running up atop an accelerating automobile?  That was executed using a tarp of sorts attached to the back end of the car, and Michael Sheen simply ran up that tarp while the car was in motion, and thus, making him seem like he was actually running at 35 miles per hour.  Very cool, yet simple stunt.  You can catch that on the DVD.  Now, the vampires don’t have much makeup of effects work aside from their fangs and contact lenses, but Viktor is a whole ‘nother story.  As he goes through a regenerative process, a series of progressive effects were designed for him.  They were full body casts, no suits.  This is well documented on the DVD’s featurettes, and it is a make-up effects process that was well worth the time and effort.  However, what was very disappointing was the design of the vampire-lycan hybrid.  It seems highly underdeveloped as it does not work as a pay-off at all.  There is nothing special or intimidating about this design.  It showcases nothing of feral strength or creative ingenuity.  Basically, it is a vampire with a more pronounced rib cage with deep, dark blue skin.  His abilities are more impressive, but it’s still a grave disappointment on both counts, to me.  Nothing impressive at all, as is practically everything with this movie.

So, to sum it up.  Underworld is a mix of Blade and The Matrix (maybe a bit of The Crow woven in), but it lacks any of what made those such entertaining films.  There’s no fun, no excitement, or character depth to be had in Underworld.  A whole boat load of never ending plot developments that just weigh this film down far, far too much.  Add that to the fact that the characters’ emotions are practically as flat as a board.  Also, I agree with a few others that the role of Michael Corvin was miscast.  Scott Speedman just doesn’t play it with anything but weakness.  And when the finale comes, he is not one bit convincing as the bad ass that he should’ve been.  While the cast is full of talent, there’s very little to nothing for them to showcase that talent, aside from Sheen.  And as I’ve said many times, great creature and makeup effects do not a good film make.  And as strange as this may sound, I stick with a quote by George Lucas, circa 1983: “Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story. People have a tendency to confuse them as an ends unto themselves. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”  That is very true.  The makings of a good film start in the screenplay.  If you don’t have that solid foundation in place to build upon, it doesn’t matter if have the best special make-up, visual, or creature effects ever in the history of cinema.  The quality of your film will falter.

Now, wrap ALL of this together and add in the most obvious and cliché of sequel segue endings, and you’ve got Underworld.  A greatly disappointing film that could’ve been a great, fun ride with fabulous creature effects, stunts, and at least, somewhat interesting characters.  The script was done all wrong, and it never opens itself up for some fun.  Everything is played with such earnestness and grim drama that it’s hard to gain entertainment value out of it.  We get so much plot, a good deal of back story, but belated answers and no character depth.  Plus, the look of this film is tired as well.  All blue and gray filters that make the film’s look as grim as everything else in it.  The whole movie takes place at night, in shadows, indoors, or in subterranean environments.  It makes the film feel very visually dull and bland.  And I’m not even gonna BOTHER critiquing the leather-heavy costume department as this has been a BIG trend since The Crow, or even more so since The Matrix.  Can’t seem to outlive this trend, can we?  Simply put, this is a painfully derivative film that takes ideas, production designs, costumes, action set pieces, and pretty much anything else you can think of from other sources.  And other, better ideas that could’ve injected some life into this rather dead film are jettisoned for bland, tired ones.

So, you think this review has gone on long enough, huh?  Well, now you know how long this film feels.  In the very conclusion, Underworld – a disappointment?  Indeed.  Greatly.


The Prophecy (1995)

I have been a major fan of this film for fifteen years for many reasons, the foremost of which is the blockbuster performance of Christopher Walken as the Archangel Gabriel.  Performed with sadistic malice, a fine mix of humor, and overall electrifying delivery, Walken created a memorable, classic character that would help to bring fans back for two sequels.  The film is filled with great themes and a solid mix of acting talent that is surprising, but never disappointing.

The Prophecy begins with a somber monologue by Simon (Eric Stoltz), a redheaded angel.  He speaks of his fear and sorrow that a second war has broken out in Heaven.  Simon has come to Earth to head off the plans of ‘the other side’ who wish to claim the blackest human soul on Earth to fight for them in Heaven.  Our protagonist here is Thomas Daggett (Elias Koteas).  Once set to become an ordained priest in the Catholic church, but a violent and bloody vision of Heaven, complete with the sight of slain angels, tests his faith.  A test which he fails.  He is now a police detective that has long lost his faith, but has just met an angel.  Simon to be exact.  Simon tells Thomas that he was in the church that day when he got his brief glimpse of a war torn Heaven, and certainly leaves him with much to think about.  However, when Simon returns to his rented out apartment, he is attacked by another angel: Uziel (pronounced ‘Oo-cie’), but Simon dispatches of him, leaving quite a mess for the police to clean up with Daggett now on the case.  Unfortunately, for Simon, because Uziel is now dead, Gabriel (Christopher Walken) soon comes to succeed where his underling failed.

Meanwhile, Daggett and coroner Joseph (Steve Hytner) examine Uziel’s corpse.  Many bizarre revelations are discovered, but for Thomas, it’s the discovery of possibly the oldest Bible in existence which contains extra chapters that shouldn’t exist.  They speak of the aforementioned second war in Heaven, a war over us, humans.  As Gabriel arrives at the empty crime scene, Simon has already found the aforementioned soul within the recently deceased Colonel Hawthorne in a small southwestern town, and Gabriel is soon to follow.  In this small town, we meet school teacher Catherine (Virginia Madsen) and a little Native American girl named Mary (Moriah Shining Dove Snyder).  Simon encounters them both while he attempts to hide this black soul from Gabriel, but the Archangel is hot on his trail along with Thomas.  While Gabriel tracks down the soul and Simon himself, Thomas attempts to unravel this mystery before him, and ultimately, discover what is ‘faith’.

Gregory Widen once brought us the screenplay for the original Highlander showcasing a blend of adventure, romance, love, pain, and epic action.  Here, in 1995, he wrote and directed this film, and brings that same level of depth and quality to The Prophecy.  He created an engaging, compelling world filled with fascinating and entertaining characters that are brilliantly realized throughout the cast.  His directing skills are not at all in question as he obviously knows what he wants with crystal clarity.  He knows the world he created well, and handles the various elements of drama, fantasy, humor, and action with ease and grace.  Everything flows together exceptionally well making this a must-see film.

As I said, Christopher Walken delivers a performance unlike any before seen, and demonstrates many sides of his acting abilities throughout.  It’s mesmerizing watching him work each and every scene.  How he can go from quiet calm to vilely sadistic and evil, even heated and angered.  It’s an intense portrayal that will gravitate you towards watching this film many times over because you just can’t get enough of it.  It’s all there, and it’s juicy stuff.  Elias Koteas has always done fantastic work in the few roles I’ve seen him in from the guilty pleasure of Casey Jones in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to his psychotic role as Edgar Reese, opposite Denzel Washington, in Fallen.  Elias does solid work no matter the character, and becomes very much a chameleon as an actor.  He continues that here as a man who has his faith in God, broken and tested throughout the film.  He beautifully portrays the depth of Thomas Daggett on a journey, not only in hopes of restoring such faith, but understanding just what it means to have faith.  Eric Stoltz is an actor I really haven’t seen any other work from, but if this performance is any indication, he does some fine work.  He brings a simple warmth, heart, and charm to Simon.  You truly do care for him, and what he chooses to sacrifice in order to protect that which HE believes in.  Whether he’s sharing a scene with Koteas, Walken, or the little Moriah Snyder, his heart and warmth remain strong.  It’s a truly human performance, especially considering he’s portraying an angel.

Virginia Madsen (Candyman) brings us another strong, consistent performance here.  She holds her ground, even when Walken pulls out his truly dark side as Gabriel.  Also, her character is well connected to the Native Americans of the land, and conducts the church choir.  Her faith is intact, but as the true underlying theme here continues to be the testing of one’s faith, she confronts her own perceptions of it all.  Moriah Snyder is not one of those kids in a horror film that gets on your nerves every second they’re in a scene.  She is clearly a highly talent young lady, and I’m sure that talent has continued to develop over the years since this film.  Here, there’s much here for her to work with, more than I’ll elude to in this review, but trust in that she has a significant role in this film that she handles quite well.

And then, you have two smaller, yet significant, and certainly memorable roles.  The first is that portrayed by Steve Hytner (Kenny Bania from Seinfeld).  He portrays the coroner Joseph with a light-hearted charm, but with a professional manner.  It’s just the sort of character to slightly lighten the mood when Daggett is talking about wars in Heaven over human souls, and dead angels sitting in Joseph’s morgue.  It’s a quite needed and welcomed character that Hytner plays perfectly.  He doesn’t go remotely over-the-top with it, and keeps a nice balance between the mild humor and the professional mind of the character.  It was nice to see his character carried over into the following two sequels.  Of course, the real juice comes with the appearance of The Lord of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen as Lucifer.  Viggo portrays the Prince of Darkness himself with as much character as Walken does with Gabriel.  Mortensen brings a genuine disturbing and sadistic sense that just oozes from his being.  The role is small, but Viggo makes it no less significant than any other main character.  He brings to Lucifer a casual, evil manner.  He speaks of the most vile and sadistic acts with the casualness of us talking about the weather.  He needn’t be theatrical or overly dramatic to sell it.  His chilling presence is felt the instant he enters the scene, and remains even after he leaves.  When he and Walken do briefly meet, the two just eat it up.  It’s devilishly delicious (no pun intended).  The two with their hot breath and cold blood just makes such a scene so rich with character, and it’s only a shame Viggo didn’t return for The Prophecy II when Lucifer makes a brief, shadowy appearance near the beginning.  The role may have been expanded upon if he had.

I also really have to hand it to the cinematographer Richard Clabaugh.  This is one beautifully shot film between the lighting, angles, and the subtle camera movements.  He does all he can to give the picture a strong cinematic sense capturing both the epic and introspective qualities of its dramatic stories.  The 2.35:1 aspect ratio frame holds a lot of weight with much religious iconography, and captures some beautiful vistas in the American southwest.  A gorgeously shot film through and through.

All in all, this is one fantastic film that I strongly encourage everyone to see.  It’s a gem of a thriller that touches on many different levels with superb acting with a rock solid cast.  Gregory Widen, for his directorial debut, put together an array of fantastic talent in front of and behind the camera.  This is a beautiful and fantastically talented production.  The Prophecy brings you a great film on so many levels, and is a MUST for any Christopher Walken fan.  I strongly recommend this film.  It gets my highest praise with a solid 10 out of 10 rating.