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East Meets West Meets Hip-Hop in "Romeo Must Die", 4 July 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Romeo Must Die" is an action drama starring Jet Li, Aaliyah, and Delroy Lindo.

Hong Kong cinema standout Jet Li spent the 80s and 90s mostly known to Asian and select international audiences. His American introduction was as a heavy in "Lethal Weapon 4"-- for Li, a rare turn as a villain.

Apparently, "Lethal" producer Joel Silver promised a lead heroic role as a follow-up, and "Romeo Must Die" was the vehicle.

The film is a very loosely-updated take on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet-- but don't look for any allegories except in the broadest of strokes.

Li plays Han, a 30-ish Hong Kong police officer who took the fall for a crime he didn't commit, allowing his father (and younger brother) to escape the Chinese mainland to the United States.

Po's father Chu turns out to be a career racketeer, and as the story opens up in Oakland, California, he is in the midst of a violent "turf" conflict with a prominent black gang boss, Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo). Aggravating the conflict is the recent mysterious murder of Han's brother Po-- Chu blames O'Day's gang, but Isaak is firm in denying any involvement.

Meanwhile, Isaak is working on a mysterious real estate project, and his top lieutenant Mac (Isaiah Washington) may have his own secret plans.

Trish (Aaliyah) runs a small boutique in Oakland, possibly a vanity gift from her dad, and she catches the eye of Han, who comes to her store while following clues left behind by his brother.

The bodyguards who work for Isaak openly don't like the Chinese fellow getting too close to Trish, so problems ensue and the fists and feet start flying.

The mystery gradually unfolds about who killed Po and just what the big plans are of Isaak. This is explored alongside a very chaste romance between Han and Trish.

Character actors like Lindo, Washington, and Russell Wong help anchor the film which could have gone in a campy direction.

Aaliyah is very pleasing in her debut role, and comes across as very natural in portraying the college-aged Trish.

Jet Li is very capable in all the martial arts sequences, which, likely is the main reason for watching this film. Since English is not his native language, it's difficult to judge him for coming across as a little stiff. Still, at a fantasy level, it would have been interesting to see an Asian-American in the Han role and dispense with the conceit of being foreign born-and-raised.

Viewers should also recognize a younger Anthony Anderson ("Black-ish") in an early role here as a hapless henchman.

Rapper DMX has an important bit role here as well.

The director, Andres Bartowiak, is Eastern European in origin, making this movie very multicultural in its filmmaking pedigree.

This movie is very worth checking out, as it is basically taking a B-movie premise and giving it an extremely glossy look. In fact, it is not unlike a 90 minute music video, full of hip-hop music in the background for various scenes.

3 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Batman v Superman Action Packed but Overwrought, 1 April 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Batman v Superman: Action-Packed but Overwrought Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a sprawling, generally enjoyable mess. The film, directed by Zack Snyder (from a script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer), is the official follow-up to 2013's Man of Steel. It's also a setup for the soon-to-lense Justice League superhero team-up movie. The main plot of this feature is self-explanatory: It's a clash between DC Comics' biggest icons. The internal logic of the plot— much like many of the comics that inspired it— is kind of a moot point. Let's get ready to rumble.

The estimable Henry Cavill (2015's The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) returns as Superman, and here he's a much more polarizing figure in the world (and his home country) than in previous screen depictions. Forget the patriotic exemplar role models of George Reeves and Christopher Reeve. (Fans probably won't have much difficulty forgetting Brandon Routh.) An early sequence finds him intervening in an African warlord's regime; while some lives are immediately saved (read: Lois Lane), there is soon public testimony about how the regime's loyalists retaliated against locals. In drastic contrast to previous depictions of the Man of Steel, Superman's actions are seen as fraught with indirect human casualties. Cavill's Superman is ponderous, brooding, and increasingly concerned with the vigilantism of Batman in nearby Gotham City.

This Batman— here played by Academy Award-winner Ben Affleck— is middle-aged and bitter after apparently having waged a 20-year war on crime in Gotham by the time of Superman's first public outing in Man of Steel. In that film, the onslaught of criminals from Superman's home planet left much of Metropolis devastated (featuring plenty of thinly-veiled allegory to 9/11). Bruce Wayne owned an office building that was leveled during the chaos, and it is on Superman that Wayne places the blame. It's this angle that sets up Batman in a dual role— that of co-hero and as a secondary villain.

Lead villain Lex Luthor is portrayed by The Social Network's Jesse Eisenberg as a twitchy, candy-munching sociopath. That this Lex is also a Generation Y technology mogul means that he ditches Gene Hackman's tailored suit and ascot for casual jackets, cartoon-monkey T-shirts and sneakers. This Lex isn't content with being rich; he's an insecure xenophobe who sees Superman's presence, fairly or unfairly, as a living reminder of his comparative impotence. In true comic-book villain rationale, that means the alien has to go— and if it means manipulating Batman into doing the dirty work, then it's killing two birds with one kryptonite stone.

The leading women in this film offer mixed results. Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot (recently of The Fast & the Furious films), has little dialogue and less to do with the overall tale than viewers might assume. Still, she makes an impression in the film's climax. Meanwhile, Amy Adams' Lois Lane is more substantively interspersed in the story. Having long ago learned Clark Kent's secret identity, she now worries that his adventures as Superman— now facing serious scrutiny from the U.S. government— puts an untenable strain on their relationship. Adams continues to convincingly update the role of Superman's plucky girlfriend— but the filmmakers still can't resist putting her in traditional distressed-damsel scenarios.

Supporting characters get shortchanged in this narrative. Jeremy Irons as Batman's loyal butler Alfred gets to wax wise with his boss/surrogate son, while offering prescient warnings about the risk of obsessive vendettas. Meanwhile, Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) mostly gets to offer expository dialogue to reporters Clark and Lois about the woes of the newspaper industry. They're both kind of wasted here; hopefully there's more for them to do in the next installment.

The film suffers somewhat because of the need to foreshadow future events. A lengthy nightmare sequence (technically, one of two) will probably just confuse casual viewers unhip to Justice League lore. Presumed future members of said League also have cameos here. The writer seemed to notice at least two or three false endings by the time of the (really) last shot. A shocking development in the climax may confuse some viewers regarding sequel possibilities, but it's likely all part of a plan.

Batman v Superman is almost best viewed as "Justice League .5". The first-ever cinematic assembly of this superhero team (and the immediately pending Wonder Woman feature) is bound to continue the momentum of the recently inaugurated DC Entertainment slate of films from Warner Bros. Studios. Still, based on the themes of this film, it looks like Batman and company are inhabiting a distinctly depressing, catastrophe-prone, paranoia-driven world. It's going to take more than a team of adventurers to save it; it's going to need a team of counselors.

Rating: B

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Blood and Lore: Cabin is a Revisionist Take on Scary Films, 3 October 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In the 1985 film "Fright Night", Roddy MacDowall's hammy veteran of vampire films makes a self-aware observation that informs the proceedings of 2011's "Cabin in the Woods": "Nobody wants to see vampire killers... or vampires (anymore)... Apparently all they want to see are demented madmen running around in ski-masks, hacking up young virgins." If someone unexposed to horror films from the past 35 years or so were to watch a marathon of several of these films back to back--and let's say none of them were sequels--how many would it take before he or she began to predict what's going to happen next? For an American film audience that has by now endured the irony-heavy Scream franchise and the gloomily anti-ironic spate of "torture porn" from directors like Eli Roth and others, can there truly be any genuine shocks in horror anymore? "Cabin in the Woods" film attempts to answer that question with a wink and a nod.

"Cabin" features five college-aged protagonists, each fitting a certain stock cliché to be found in assorted horror films. There's the jock and de facto leader (Chris Hemsworth), the dumb blonde (Anna Hutchison), the nerd (Jesse Williams, who also serves as his group's token minority), the druggie (Fran Kranz) and the nice girl (Kristin Connolly). The slight twist is, not all of the characters inhabit these roles from the get-go, but are manipulated into them.

A creepy gas station attendant (is there any other kind in these films?) gives an oblique warning--to the students and the audience--as the quintet heads up to the titular cabin for a weekend of unsupervised fun. Before the film is over, threads from Deliverance, Friday the 13th, Ju-On/The Grudge and more are touched on in various depths. The Saw films, which are already on their seventh (or is that VIIth) installment, are also clipped for some thematic DNA.

The film was co-written by Joss Whedon ("Marvel's The Avengers") and directed by Drew Goddard--the latter of whom wrote and directed several episodes of Whedon's "Buffy" and "Angel" TV series as well as the conspiracy-heavy TV drama Lost. Both collaborators bring a satirical sensibility to this horror entry. Cabin reveals its core conceit in its opening scenes (though less-knowing viewers may be hard-pressed to connect the dots early on), and so perhaps the film has less bite (pun intended) than it would have were it to wait until later. Still, the twists, when they happen, are more intriguing than draining, especially by the climax, which manages to be nihilistic and liberating at the same time.

Cabin functions as a witty indictment and an apology of sorts for the clichés of contemporary horror cinema and the slasher subgenre in particular. Depending on how cynical the viewer is, the only way to really ruin this experience would be to have a sequel.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Not a Good Update of 60s/70sTV show, 26 July 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"The Mod Squad" is a motion picture update of the original TV series which originally aired in the late 60s/early 70s.

The original "Mod Squad" featured a trio of college aged friends circa 1970 who had unofficial detective status with the local Los Angeles police force and worked to solve crimes that were taking place among people their age. The story lines frequently dealt with then-timely topics of the counter culture, feminism, civil rights, racism, the war in Vietnam, the (Baby Boomer era) generation gap, and more. Without actually being cops, this was a precursor of sorts to the 1980s-era 21 Jump Street.

This film takes the basic, general concept of the Mod Squad, but doesn't execute the story very well. The lead characters (played by Omar Epps, Giovanni Ribisi, Claire Daines) all come across as sullen twits who have had previous scrapes with the law as teens, but somehow have come under the mentorship of a police Captain (played by a wasted Dennis Farina.) **Major Spoilers** the death of the Captain early on in the story prompts a revenge investigation by the Squad, but his death puts a cap on finding out just why this guy was so committed to mentoring these delinquents instead of just allowing the book to be thrown at them, years ago.

The main plot has the team investigating a drug ring that heavily uses young adults as mules/dealers. Of course, the main boss is anything but someone their age, hence the "don't trust anyone over 25" attitude among the trio.

Julie (Danes) has a cheating boyfriend, and in one sequence she sets his car and clothes on fire in revenge. This comes only a few years removed from a similar tactic seen in "Waiting to Exhale", so there's a bit of anticlimactic context to it.

The villain is a generic mobster, and a sequence where he wants to dance with one of the male Squad guys is played straight, but comes across as an awkward gay-panic joke.

The theater audience I saw this with got more of a hoot out of Eddie Griffin's cameo than they did out of Omar Epps' entire performance.

About the only role I envied in this film was Claire Danes' pants.

1 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Daredevil Delivers the Dark Side of Marvel, 7 May 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Marvel's Daredevil" is a Netflix original TV series based on the Marvel comic book superhero. Charlie Cox plays the main character: Matthew Murdock, a newly-minted attorney, who was blinded in a car accident when he was a child. In the present day, he gently spars opponents in the courtrooms of New York City (and even with his law partner "Foggy" Nelson (Elden Hensen) about what type of clients to seek out); by night, he violently spars with various criminal elements as "The Devil of Hell's Kitchen". As is eventually revealed, the accident that blinded Matt as a child also gradually enhanced his other senses to super-human levels. He also was taught martial arts by a mysterious mentor.

Compared to other superheroes, Daredevil seems quite vulnerable, despite his heroic pedigree. In fight scenes, the bad guys don't stay down with a single punch. Several of them are, in fact, able to fight back relatively competently. Frequently, Daredevil has to limp back home-- or to a nurse's apartment-- badly bruised and cut. This is occasionally juxtaposed with flashbacks to Murdock's childhood with his single father, a boxer who never left the lower rungs of the profession.

The main villain of the series is construction magnate Wilson Fisk, played by Vincent D'Onofrio. In the comics, Fisk is known as the Kingpin, a Mob boss with wide reach. In this series, Fisk's rise to the underworld's highest echelons has only recently begun. Both hero and villain are seen building their reputations and taking on new challenges in their own unique manners.

This is a much darker look at the "Marvel Universe" compared to the movies released since 2008 that have a shared narrative continuity. Technically, this is the same world where the Avengers characters all exist, but they're nowhere to be found in these stories at all, and that's probably for the best. This series is apparently deliberately crafted as a film noir crime-action drama, and less as a colorful showcase for flamboyant heroes and villains.

Look for solid supporting roles played by Deborah Ann Woll, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Ayelet Zurer. The series is able to tell its narrative effectively in 13 episodes. As of this writing, the series has been renewed for a second season. Hopefully the same creative parties will be involved.

1 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
"Age of Ultron" Smashes, Bashes and Thrills, 3 May 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"The Avengers: Age of Ultron" is officially the second "Marvel's The Avengers" movie, but nonetheless the 10th film in the ongoing Marvel Studios' "Marvel Cinematic Universe". All of the no less than six principal characters from the first team film are here, and screenwriter - director Joss Whedon does an admirable job of juggling them all for a mostly cohesive fantasy thriller.

The movie's plot opens with the team invading a terrorist stronghold, where renegade scientist Baron Strucker has been using an Asgardian artifact to conduct experiments on locals to turn them into superhuman agents of HYDRA. (This is the big-bad terror outfit that was officially felled in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", but inevitably, these sorts of bad-folk social clubs have any number of splinter cells.) Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) retrieves Scepter of Loki and figures out that it can jumpstart his team of robotic peacekeeping sentries. He works on the secret "Ultron" project with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) with the hope of creating a manageable robot army and allow their friends to retire from the superhero gig. (The particulars of what their health insurance and retirement plans might be are never dealt with, but would be intriguing for future filmmakers.) After several false starts, Ultron comes alive in secret, but apparently some bugs made his programming a little "off" and he wakes up angry. REALLY angry. "2001: A Space Odyssey" introduced HAL-9000 as an intelligent computer program that gradually becomes murderous over the course of months. Ultron leapfrogs the slow-burn angle and basically is homicidal from his first day of self-awareness. It's implied that mankind's history of war and oppression irrevocably convince Ultron that humans are the ultimate invasive species.

After "multiplying like Catholic rabbits" (quoth Samuel Jackson's patch-eyed Nick Fury), Ultron's legion of self-created robots starts invading world cities, looking for rare metals that can help him create a more advanced body as well as the super-weapon that will help him-- wait for it-- destroy humanity.

Naturally, the good guys can't have any of that. Soon, Captain America (Chris Evans) and the rest of the team are launching assaults to pull the plug on the rogue robot. At least for a while, they manage to be stymied by the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), two orphans of Eastern Europe's 1990s war conflicts. Olsen's character has psychic abilities that expose people's greatest fears, creating much of the angst that weighs heavily on the protagonists. In comparison, Taylor-Johnson's character is simply super-fast; a somewhat more mundane power in comparison, though he manages to make an emotional impact later in the film.

Surprisingly, romantic tension in the film comes from an unexpected coupling- Ruffalo's Banner and Johannson's Widow (aka Natasha Romanov). It's a Beauty and the Beast conceit that is thankfully given several lingering scenes of explanation in between the literally explosive goings on in the main narrative. Ruffalo's Banner has a tragic arc, desperate for an intimate relationship but relentlessly haunted by the threat of a Hulk rampage. Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye is revealed to have a wife and children living off-grid, and some downtime on his family's farm gives not only his character some needed spotlight (he spent most of the last film hypnotized) but also the other characters as well. Viewers would do well to pay attention to these scenes in particular, as they seem to sow seeds for developments in future adventures.

In keeping with Marvel's comics traditions, the heroes argue and fight among themselves until the moment of clarity comes for all of them who the real enemy is. This is facilitated by Paul Bettany as a new ally to the team, born from the efforts of several members. Other Avengers allies seen in some of the solo movies show up here as well, also hinting at future developments.

The climax is lengthy enough to be satisfying for its action scenes but also comes across as somewhat drawn-out in its execution. Look for the sacrifice of a key character at an unexpected moment, to the filmmakers' credit.

All of the actors manage to have sufficient spotlight- Downey's smart-aleck Tony Stark continues to be his defining modern role, Chris Evans' morally-centered Captain America has taken formal reins of leadership of the team, distrusts the notion of being at war with everyone and no one at the same time-- and is still mindful of bad language in mixed company. Chris Hemsworth's Thor has gotten more used to life among mortals.

Ultron is given a droll flair by "The Blacklist"'s James Spader. Spader as Ultron is enveloped in CGI animation (via motion-capture technology) just as Ruffalo is so enveloped for his stints as the Hulk. While the actor's real body is unseen, his personality makes intriguing what could have been a very generic role. On an interesting side note, pioneering motion-capture actor Andy Serkis ("Lord of the Rings", "Planet of the Apes") has a bit part here as an arms dealer, sans any CGI.

The film will make believers of this particular kind of action spectacle. Joss Whedon is given the herculean (Thor-ean?) task of making comic book stories like the Avengers look real enough to be appreciated by comics laypeople but fantastic enough for the fanboys and girls who are steeped in the lore. Here, he succeeds. It's not a perfect film, but like its protagonists, flaws are part of its appeal and the ending promises a bold new direction for the saga.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Inoffensive but Light Family Comedy, 18 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb" is the third installment in the NATM movie series starring Ben Stiller as Larry, the harried night watchman at the New York Museum of Natural History that has to play caretaker to a gaggle of museum exhibits that magically come to life every night.

This time around, the plot concerns the magical Egyptian artifact that allows the exhibits to come alive. For obtusely-described reasons, the magic tablet is losing its potency. Several of Larry's museum pals are now acting erratically (or rather, more erratically than what's been par for the course so far in the series). Apparently, the only way to find out exactly what's going on is for Larry and the gang to go to a British museum where an Egyptian Pharaoh and wife are embedded, to hopefully get some answers. (The overseas transport of several human-sized museum statues is treated with matter-of-fact aplomb; one of many such curiosities in the film that are best just accepted.) Along the way, the ragtag group (including stand-ins for Sacajawea and Genghis Khan) encounter a replica Sir Lancelot, who becomes a new companion on their quest. Among the exhibits returning for this affair are Owen Wilson as a miniature cowboy and the late Robin Williams as President Theodore Roosevelt.

A father - son bonding subplot is a little lukewarm: Larry's son Nicky (Skylar Gisondo) is presumed to have a strained relationship with his divorced father but the portrayal doesn't seem to revolve around much besides low-key arguments about future plans, in between ducking Triceratops skeletons and snake statues.

Also helping add to the fun in the film are cameos from an assortment of known Hollywood personalities. Recent "It Girl" Rebel Wilson ("Pitch Perfect") has an amusing turn as a guard at the British Museum - and it is vaguely hinted that the torch-- or rather, flashlight-- will be passed along to her for any possible future installments.

There is not much objectionable here, with the exception of a monkey relieving himself not once, but twice. "Secret of the Tomb" isn't as groundbreaking comically as the first installment, but it's solid enough for an evening of lighthearted fun.

Furious 7 (2015)
3 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Furious 7 Blasts Trhough One Last Ride, 5 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Furious 7" is the seventh entry in Universal Studios' enduring "The Fast & The Furious" movie franchise. The action film stars Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and the late Paul Walker in what is his final on-screen performance. This latest and possibly final sequel in the series finds the Diesel-led team of drag-racing avengers facing off against two terrorists in a contest of firepower and horsepower.

The globe-trotting adventure introduces Jason Statham as the film's primary antagonist, Deckard Shaw. Shaw, an ex-military assassin, vows revenge against Diesel's Dominic Toretto for putting Shaw's brother Owen in traction by the end of "Fast Six". (Or rather, at the beginning of this film; it was assumed Owen was vaporized by the end of the last movie. Luke Evans plays a near-corpse quite well, it must be said.) To telegraph Shaw's tough-guy bona fides to the audience, his introductory scene leaves the entire wing of a hospital in shambles. After the brutal sidelining of federal cop Hobbs (Johnson), Shaw's got his cross-hairs aimed at Toretto and his team, including Brian O'Connor (Walker), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris Bridges) and amnesiac Letti (Michelle Rodriguez), all gathered by mysterious CIA rep Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, seemingly in a nod to his own history as an action icon). Mr. Nobody wants Toretto's team to rescue a pretty computer hacker (Game of Thrones' Nathalie Emmanuel) from the clutches of yet another terrorist, Mose Jakande (played by Djimon Honsou); in exchange, a special computer-satellite chip she has access to will allow them to track down Shaw for a final showdown.

The particular MacGuffin of this film is somewhat of a moot point; Shaw manages to somehow abruptly show up like Jaws the shark at inopportune times to assert his revenge as the heroes are trying to rescue someone or steal something. Director James Wan-- heretofore known for lensing horror films like Insidious and Saw-- is a newcomer to the franchise and capably abets the over-the-top sensibilities of the film series. In comparison to the first film's Southern California setting, the latest entry casually adds Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi to its list of exotic locales visited. Before the credits roll, viewers will be also exposed to not one but two games of chicken, a fleet of cars parachuting to a mountain road, a marauding helicopter, a remote-controlled drone, and a sports car soaring between three skyscrapers. Subtlety isn't a virtue in the "Furious" universe.

The acting performances are all on-point for the characters featured. Diesel's Toretto is all stoicism and bottled fury, punctuated by the occasional smart-aleck quip; Statham's Shaw is a cocky bastard who isn't above bringing an automatic rifle to a street fight; Johnson's Hobbs is a macho cowboy prone to spout testosterone-laced punchlines that would only be credible coming from The Rock. Sadly, he isn't in the film as much as he could be. Most of the film's comic relief comes from Gibson's motormouth Roman with Bridges' Tej as his tech-savvy foil. Rodriguez arguably has the most demanding character arc with her lingering amnesia, but its resolution is rather abrupt. Lastly, Walker's Brian is the level-headed heart of the team, but torn in adjusting to being a new dad and husband to Toretto's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster).

Walker and a friend were tragically killed in a car accident before the film's primary photography was completed. Subsequently, his remaining segments were filmed using body doubles and computer-driven special effects. To the extent that the film series has already made heavy usage of stunt doubles and CGI enhancement, this is both par for the course and a curious commentary on the potential for posthumous acting performances in cinema. None but the most wizened (or cynical) of filmgoers can likely tell where the real Walker begins and ends. Still, occasional in-story comments about characters being "tired of funerals" and Brian's lingering angst about being retired from the craziness of dodging bullets and leaping from moving vehicles casts a bittersweet pall over the proceedings. Screenwriter Chris Morgan's script regularly brings up family ties as the film and franchise's prominent theme. It works, albeit nominally, though these films are more about muscle cars (and musclemen) than philosophy. Bring popcorn, fasten your seat belts and enjoy this (alleged) last joyride from Diesel and company.

Shaft (2000)
"Shaft" is a so-so remake of a Classic Action Film, 15 March 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Shaft" (2000), starring Samuel L. Jackson, is a John Singleton-directed film and an update of the Ernest Tidyman literary character.

This viewer was disappointed in the Singleton/Jackson film. Singleton is a valuable director and Jackson is deservedly a marquee actor, but this project wasn't especially enjoyable, especially based on the pedigree of the concept. The script just wasn't there. Maybe the paper script had more depth, but on-screen, there wasn't a compelling main villain in Christian Bale's bigoted trust-funder. Jeffrey Wright's Dominican drug dealer stole the show in comparison.

Jackson's Shaft is robbed of the relative independence that his predecessor enjoyed in the previous Shaft films. Mainly, Jackson's Shaft starts off the film as a New York City police detective, who quits the force halfway through the film to be a vigilante after being frustrated with how the court systems deals with Bale's criminal blue-blood.

Another aspect that can't be ignored here: The film has a literal throwaway non-dialogue credits scene where Shaft throws a candy bar at a woman he just slept with, and along with a provocative line said to a woman at a bar, that's pretty much it for the Bond-esque ladies' man quality that the first Shaft displayed.

This was another reason that Jackson's casting doesn't work, because it kind of assumes up-front that this character is not going to be portrayed as any kind of sex symbol, compared to a Wesley Snipes or Will Smith (or whoever else might have been in the running circa 1999-2000.) Jackson's Shaft has a chaste relationship with a fellow detective played by Vanessa L. Williams, but that's it.

About the only other part this viewer enjoyed was Richard Roundtree as the "real" Uncle Shaft showing up in key moments. (It is observed that because the age difference between Roundtree and Jackson isn't that dramatic, the character is "Uncle" Shaft rather that his dad.

John Shaft's original screen adventures (the first, directed by Gordon Parks) were imbued with the evolving social politics of urban American in the early 1970s. In the first film, Shaft was caught in between the criminal underworld of NY (Bumpy's Harlem operation and the white Mafia), the police, and the activist militants of the neighborhood. Shaft would navigate dealing with all of those elements, but refused to be co-opted by any of them.

This "Shaft" film is a competently shot, competently acted, by-the-books actioner, but it just doesn't have a satisfying narrative for repeat viewing. Stick with the originals.

Mr 3000 (2004)
Mac Pinch Hits for Solid Baseball Comedy-Drama, 7 March 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This was a fun, enjoyable, film. It's as much about accepting the maturity of middle-age as it is about the main plot of a retired pro baseball player literally getting back into the game to hopefully achieve a benchmark statistic: 3,000 base hits. Bernie Mac is player Stan Ross, and Mac's onstage standup persona informs much of the portrayal of Ross: Gruff, self-confident, chip on his shoulder, but also with a sensitive side beneath all the "onion" layers. Ross's presence on his old team is polarizing among the players, but he quickly becomes an unofficial assistant coach, offering salient observations about team player performance and the competition alike. This film was produced by Touchstone/Buena Vista, so look for cameos by Disney-owned ESPN personalities as well as other celebrity pundits and TV hosts.

Ross's behavior before his retirement pushes the edge of cartoon-like satire, but the ensuing plot progression is intriguing, including the relationship with Bassett's sports reporter "Mo". This aspect in particular bears mentioning. Here you have two middle-aged African American single adults (especially Bassett, who remains severely underused) who are allowed to be vulnerable, haughty, and nervous with one another. It's a demographic portrayal that is often bereft in mainstream American film releases.

The bullpen camaraderie is engaging, particularly the mutual ongoing hazing and the tensions between Ross and Pennebaker. Intriguingly, the asides between the two men have nothing to do with race, but the price of letting ego drive your career even if you're talented-- Ross being a Baby Boomer who came of age when African American player participation and fan attention was at a zenith, and Pennebaker being a Gen X guy in the era of astoundingly huge contracts, hip-hop-infused on-and-off-field flamboyance, yet dwindling black American players and fans alike. Ross's chase of hit 3000 is a worthy main plot, but the generation gap in modern pro baseball could have provided another intriguing alternative narrative.

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