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The Expendables (2010)
Sly's time machine. Lets go back to the 80's!!
Ever since the film was first announced, way back in November 2008, Stallone's action ensemble spectacular, The Expendables, has been in the forefront of every genre fans mind since. Starting with the triple casting of Stallone, Statham and Li, it was awesome enough. Then add Lundgren, Rourke, Austin, Couture, Gary Daniels and Eric Roberts, and it sent fans into delirium. Then throw in a dash of Bruce Willis and Ahnuld Schwarzenegger, and bed sheets in explosive action movie poster adorned bedrooms around the world, were soiled! So after a year and a half plus, of waiting, does it deliver? Yes! The plot is kept very simple. There's no real surprise in the film, but fans aren't here for storyline. Better too simple, than to make things too bogged down in convoluted sub-plot. Sly leads his team of good guys, against Eric Roberts team of bad guys. The mission goes wrong at first, leading to the capture of the beautiful Sandra, a native who acts as contact for Sly's band of mercs at the mission locale. Sly decides it's in his best interests to go back on perhaps a suicide mission, to try and save the girl. His team join him for the last harruh.
The film is short and loaded with characters. As such there's not too much development on any of them, especially peripheral roles. Stallone is the glue that holds the film together. Sly has great chemistry with everyone here. There's a sense of vulnerability about Barney Ross, and a sense of personal struggle here. Stallone's hound dog eyes bringing the soul of the character through, despite little in the writing, or the mumbled dialogue that suggests it. Statham as Lee Christmas is also solid. His arc comes from a somewhat needless subplot with his on-off girl friend. That extends to little more than him coming back one day to find she has a new boyfriend, and then coming back later to find new boyfriend, has smacked her around. It's Frank Martin again in truth, with the deep raspy drawl and erratic Brit-American accent shift again in evidence. But I don't care, because Statham is badass and that's what counts. He's got presence. Jet Li seems utterly redundant in the film though. Serving little purpose and given no dimension.
The characters, with limited arcs devoted to each, mean that the more theatrical roles stand out. Mickey Rourkes brief appearance is excellent as Tool, a former Expendable. Mickey gets to swoop in and steal all his scenes, and none more so than his monologue, that in part provides Ross a catalyst to risk it all to save Sandra, and his soul. Rourke nails it, giving Tool's character a sense of tragedy and poignancy. He's a ghost of a man now. By the same token, Dolph Lundgren manages to upstage his co-stars when he gets screen time. Gunnar Jensen is unpredictable, uncontrollable and difficult to read. In one hand he likes to play the joker, but there's darkness and intensity behind the façade. Years of too many drugs and too many kills have taken their toll, and Lundgren embodies the character brilliantly. Like Rourke, you just wish there was more, especially as Li, Crews and Couture (they do well with what little they have though) have even less depth and impact. Retrospectively, two or three could have been trimmed from the cast, to devote more time to Stallone and Statham's characters, and especially Rourke and Lundgren. Elsewhere Eric Roberts delivers a vintage Roberts bad guy. It's easy, yet perfect casting and he revels in chewing his scenery. Stone Cold adds menace, while B-movie veteran Gary Daniels delivers his best performance ever, with the benefit of having real direction for the first time. It's a small role but his performance reaches competence for the first time, while his fight with Li and Statham is memorable.
The big selling point of this film of course, is action. There's plenty of it. The opening is all too brief, seemingly trimmed down, so an extended DVD release may deliver even more carnage. Still, it packs a punch and sets the violent tone of the film. Then there's an array of vehicular set pieces and fights, before the finale. The finale is what will really have 80's action fans cart-wheeling with joy. It's nearly half an hour of unrelenting, old school, carnage! Like a combination of Commando, Invasion USA, Red Scorpion and Rambo 2 and 3's end action scenes, it's insane, and brilliant. It's a total antithesis to most modern action films too. We've all the classics here, brutal fights, gung-ho attitude, explosions (and jumping away from) and although grounded, with a sense of unreal, Reagan era glee.
In all, The Expendables delivers what fans will want. Unashamed, 80's style carnage. It's not one for the critics, who'll continue to judge on plot and character, and dismiss a need for a movie 20 years outdated, but it's for the fans and on the whole, will delight. There is a sense that dramatic moments are forced in, but that was also a trait of the 80's action film in any case, and the now completely unsurprising scene with Willis, Stallone and Arnold has lost any enigma for first time viewers, which is a shame. The scene is still a geeks delight though, and brimming with star power. Despite some faults, the film has plenty of star power and charm to ride on. In a strange way, the faults just seem to make it feel a little more 80's and add more to the charm. It's just great to watch an old school action film again, and to see a collection of tough guys doing their thing. The Expendables does what it says on the tin, and for that, Stallone deserves thanks and praise. Roll on the Extended cut on DVD!
The Keeper (2009)
Solid effort from Seagal.
The Keeper: Seagal's delivers another film. The regularity of his releases brings a sense of excitement (well, to Seagal's fans anyway) but also trepidation. Will it have dubbing? Will it have doubling? Will it just plain old suck? On the most part, Seagal's DTV release normally tick a yes to all those questions. In recent years, Pistol Whipped and Renegade Justice were watchable exceptions. Pistol Whipped in particular was almost worthy of Seagal films of old. His last two have been pretty poor. Kill Switch was abysmal, while Driven To Kill was mediocre, suffering from lacklustre direction, poor cast, an all too whispery Seagal, and terrible editing. So does the Keeper deliver? On the whole yes! Okay, this film isn't great by any stretch. But it's serviceable, and it kicks ass as well. Seagal actually has a bit of character in this, and shows off a bit more of the charisma that made him a star. As well as that, the co-stars are better than in his last few films, while the previous company he worked with, for Kill Switch, and Driven To Kill, has a reputation for half-assing. At least for The Keeper, there's a greater sense of effort to make something that delivers for the fans.
The Keeper opens with a worrying start. Dubbing! Oh dear lord! Not dubbing. However it's just in the beginning few lines, and in truth it's a couple of lines that are really needlessly added in. There was only one other moment later in the film I noticed any, but again, it was pointlessly added in. Mr Stand in still gets some screen time of course, but not that much. I'm also pretty sure, Seagal's double was given a supporting role in the film as another character, because one of the cast looks like he could double for Seagal for behind shots.
But anyway, The Keeper is a Seagal film, and first and foremost, it needs to kick ass. And it does. The action has a bit of punch to it. The gun fights are quick and punchy, while the fights are bone-breaking and violent. Sometimes in Seagal films, they stretch the action scenes out, and make them dull, when short and snappy would be better, particularly in hiding the budget. Generally here, the action is short and to the point. The only problem is, that the film could have done with more action, as the pace drags at times. There aren't many fights, but they are tightly edited, and Seagal beats the hell out of the bad guys. There's not quite some of the ingenuity to the fights that we saw in Pistol Whipped, which is a shame.
Keoni Waxman does a service-able job in direction. He's got more of an eye for direction than Seagal's previous director, Jeff King (who's first name is actually Wan). Truthfully he never does anything beyond okay, but in DTV land, that can be a blessing. And in fairness to him, he never does anything that's too lame. Seagal himself seems more interested in what he's doing here. He's back to his badass self, and showing some charisma again too. He won't be winning any Oscars, but at least there is some sort of character for him, and the film manages to throw in some moments of humour too. His last couple of films were slightly wretched to be honest. Elsewhere, the music is not too bad, and the film is his best looking one for a while (the main disappointment on Pistol Whipped was that it was shot on Super 16).
Overall though, this is a decent DTV film. It delivers what you'd expect. Some action, and some badassedness. The plot is simple, and again, for Seagal, that is better. No CIA intrigue sub plots to drag the film down. It also avoids the usual Seagal, revenge line, that's become a little tiresome for him. Early on in the film there's a few moments in the plotting that are just really, really (and I mean really) dumb, but they don't really drag the film down too much. At least The Keeper delivers the minimum you'd want and expect from Seagal. As for Seagals next two DTV specials, he'll be back with director, Keoni Waxman, which is a good sign. On The Run looks more action packed, so hopefully won't suffer the pacing issues of this film. It might lack some of the character of this one though. ***
Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
Since Nosferatu first reared his ugly head in 1922, Vampires have made innumerable appearances on celluloid. We've seen an evolution in the films from the early silent movies, through to Hammer, to the MTV/punk stylings of The Lost Boys. There's also been the Vampire ass-kickers of late with Blade and Underworld. It's a monster with a mythology, that can transcend genre, and tone. Be it intense horror, action, or spoof. As a whole though, Vampire films don't often strike an almost all encompassing positive chord with critics. Whilst in truth, the Vampire films of recent times have been growing stale, lifeless, and unimaginative.
With Let The Right One In, director Tomas Alfredson, gave the ailing Vamps a few gallons of free-range man blood, and breathed new life into Count D. The film stands head and shoulders above almost an entire sub-genre. Let The Right One In is a work of sheer brilliance. Both in concept and delivery. This Swedish film breezes in with subtlety and depth, to completely overshadow the somewhat shallow, and marketing comes first, Hollywood flicks, such as Twilight.
The story centres on a young Swedish boy, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) who's scrawny physique, woeful haircut, and nerdy intelligence, paint a bully's bullseye across his back. He lives in an apartment block with his mother, who of course seems blissfully unaware of anything that's happening with Oskar. Into the apartment next door, moves a young girl Eli (Lina Leandersson, who looks like a young Amy Winehouse, but with slightly better night time habits) and her father. Eli is different, and behaves strangely, which fascinates young Oskar, who himself is an outsider. Both find in the other a kindred spirit. Eli as it transpires happens to be a Vampire. Writer John Ajvide Lindqvist has crafted a beautiful tale of adolescent infatuation, whilst simultaneously keeping up plenty of Vampire mythology too.
The film is beautifully shot. Between Alfredson and his cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytemer (yes that is his name), every frame is wonderfully precise. The setting of a stark and cold Sweden in 1982, comes to life. The lighting is evocative, while the framing gorgeous, from every camera move, to focus pull. Such thought, attention to detail, care and love has gone into the film, where-by an American equivalent to this film would be heavy handed and crude in comparison, like a Gorilla decorating a cake.
The cast are all excellent. Scenes are beautifully played out. There's no back minded worry about getting to a "point" quickly in case audience attention wanes. It allows the actors to dictate the pace of a scene, instead of relying too much on editing to bring the emotion. The young actors especially though impress. Hedebrant and Leandersson have to carry the movie on their shoulders for most of the running time. It's a big ask for young thesps, but these two pull it off with aplomb.
Overall Let The Right One In is a remarkable film. It's touching, haunting, and beautiful. There are gruesome moments of sheer brilliance and power. They don't rely on cheap editing tricks, or scares. But every time someone dies in this film, Alfredson times it and shoots it, almost pitch perfect, and often without resorting to the most obvious way to show it. You'll have to see for yourself, but I can tell you, I'll always flinch opening blinds from now on, and I'll approach swimming pools with trepidation. *****
Command Performance (2009)
Dolph's Commanding Performance! (tee-hee).
Command Performance delivers! It's a well made, well paced action flick. Like Mechanik, it's better than a lot of the theatrically released rubbish of it's year. I've seen too many horrendous action flicks at the cinemas this year, that rely purely on big budgets, but have nothing else, no effort, no integrity. Like Fast and Furious, Wolverine, Terminator 4. There's a concerted effort here to do something good, that's not only fun, tense, but has a bit of drama thrown in as well. CP is an action fans film. It's 80's style action gold. It kicks ass!
Dolph stars as Joe, former bad ass biker, with a shady past, who's since turned drummer. The film opens on a rock concert in which Joe is playing in the band backing up star turn Venus (Melissa Smith), who's pretty much a Britney clone. The Russian president and American ambassador are in attendance, meaning that naturally, terrorists will come and start shooting, and hold Presi, hostage. Joe is the reluctant hero, who teams up with an FSB agent to try and bring Kasov (Dave Legano) down. We know from then on what'll happen. Dolph is gonna open a big old can of whoop-ass, and make the terrorists drink it down. Much like the Defender, D's first directing gig, once the terrorists show up, the pace never really lets up. And the film has scatterings of action until the finale. Joe himself is a different character to what Dolph normally plays. He's not straight laced. He's not driven by revenge, and he's not always been on the right side of the law.
The action itself is good. It's simple put it punches. It's tightly edited, giving it a good pace, and when someone gets shot or killed in close combat, there's a good delivery of blood to show that they ain't gonna be getting back up. The surroundings are tight, claustrophobic, making the action quick, rough, frantic. When Dolph takes someone on in a fight, he goes in fast and hard, using any weapons he can at hands. Dolph's gone for pretty grounded action. Everything needs a base in reality. Joe's tough, he can kick ass, but he kicks ass like a biker, so D doesn't whip out the martial arts moves. And his showdown with Dave Legano, is very much like the end fight in Men Of War. It's down and dirty. The only thing that lets this down, is the budget. After all, this is a Die Hard formula, and it lacks the one big set piece, or a good money shot stunt. Think Bruce jumping off the Nakatomi plaza, or Seagal jumping off a boat in Under Siege.
The film looks great. Dolph and his DP Marc Windon, have gone for a Bourne/docu kind of vibe. Once the action kicks in, the pace of cutting picks up as well. It gives everything a sense of kinetic energy, without resorting to mindless shaky cam. But more-so, the energy helps hide the small budget. Windon's lighting is naturalistically stylised I supposed you could say. He was going for part Bay, part music vid, part Bourne, and it works. It certainly enhances the production value of the film. As for Dolph, his direction gets better every film. The opening of the film really establishes the style of it brilliantly. It's well shot, and very well edited by veteran cutsman, Peter Hollywood (Adventures of Baron Von Munchhausen, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Most importantly, he's got a good sense of cutting action.
Dolph gives a good performance as Joe. He's laid back, cool, and a bit of a kid at heart. But he's got a bad streak in him, and he has to bring his dark side out when it comes to kicking some A-holes. I worry sometimes about Dolph directing himself, because he's not got the outside perspective on his performance. As Dolph's FSB tag along Mikhail, Zahary Baharov is good. It's an important role that demands not sucking, and Baharov is far from sucking. Melissa Smith does okay. She's not got much of a role at all. As is typical of action flicks, she's got a pretty wafer thin female role. There's little chemistry between Dolph and Smith, if only because the coupling looks pretty funny on screen, more than anything else. Lundgren the 2nd, Dolph's daughter Ida, also stars, and for her screen debut, at 12 years old, does pretty well. The biggest worry was also the bad guy. Die Hard formula flicks live or die by the bad guy. I worried that Legano could bring down the film single handed, but he's actually pretty good. In fact he's one of the best DL villains in a long time. He gives his role plenty of intensity. He's a different villain to Gruber (Die Hard), or Stranix (Under Siege), driven by a different goal. He doesn't wallow in smug, he just gets on with it.
Overall though, this does not disappoint. It delivers what you want in an action film. It's well made too. The film probably needs a bit more humour in it, though there are plenty of one-liners and sight gags, but could do with a bit more. All the scenes are well done, bar one, which features the three young women of the film. It briefly halts the film, and the dialogue is terrible. But it's the only scene in the film that isn't at least competently done. Mercifully it's short, and then returns back to the D-man. Still, CP is the best DTV actioner of the year by far, and one of the better action films in general. It's just about on a par with The Mechanik. ****
Direct Contact (2009)
Dolph gotta eat! Just a stepping stone of a film.
There's a smell-a-brewin'. It's the sweet, sweet, smell of a brand spanking new, Dolph Lundgren kickathon. "Booyah bitch" I hear you cry. The coming year marks a real mouth watering feast of Dolphage. There's Command Performance, then Icarus. Two Dolph helmed picks that promise plenty of action. Then there's Universal Soldier 3 and most exciting of all, The Expendables, a compendium of action man badasses, all under the direction of Sly Stallone. Following that, there's the possibility of the interestingly titled, The Throwaways, again directed by Dolph. The somewhat forgotten pre-cursor to all those, is Direct Contact. That hellish, long, drawn out wait to see these awesome flicks, is somewhat eased with the arrival of Direct Contact. It's your typical spec-delivered DTV star vehicle. A paycheque special, which may just be, Dolph's very last spec film. He now seems more intent on directing his own films, and with two big budget films on his plate, he may garner enough clout to be able direct his own films, without having to do one of these suckers in return. Direct Contact is in existence, so that Command Performance could get made. Simple as that. A scratch my back, I'll scratch yours scenario with Nu Image. As such Dolph's involvement begins and ends with the acting and ass-kicking in this.
Direct Contact is sadly one of Dolph's worst films overall. It's pretty bad. First big problem? The direction. Flatter than Holland, more text-book than a text-book factory, and with as much flair as Stephen Hawkins doing the Tango. Dialogue scenes are given the daytime soap treatment. It's all mid-close, close-up shots, cutting between the two actors. There's no two shots, no energy, no reactivity. You get no sense of the actors working off each other. This is particularly annoying when Dolph and Michael Pare share the screen. They could easily have filmed their parts on different days for how the film has been shot, and cut. No chemistry, no cohesion, no energy, and that's no just because Pare and Lundgren are both going through the motions. The other main problem is the narrative. The story is thin, but the narrative is incredibly lazy. Nothing gets set-up, then plot elements just get glossed over. Everything outside the action seems like an inconvenience to the film-makers. It's just rushed through, with no respect for story telling, interest, energy.
As for the cast, it's pretty bad. Dolph seems un-interested. I'd guess he spent most of his time between takes, in his trailer, planning Command Performance. I'll forgive him that, because CP looks like it'll deliver. It better do, because people will pay good money to watch DC, and it's his name on the front, above his picture. Pare, likewise seems bored. In Pare's case, he's become a support player in recent years. He's done a lot of un-inspiring garbage. Once again he's here with very little to do, and very little to engage him. What could have been a great pairing on-screen, falls flat. Any geeky hopes of something cool in this film, will be dashed. Beyond that, Gina Marie May is atrocious and Dolph's pal, James Chalke gives quite possibly the worst performance in the history of film, theatre, anything. He's abysmal. He's clearly no actor, but he was not too bad in Missionary Man. Again, the diabolical acting must rest on Lerner's shoulders. Okay it's not the greatest calibre of cast, but all of them are well below par.
In terms of the action, it's positive and negative. On the positive, this film is loaded with action. It's packed solid with car chases, gun-fights and fist fights, and has tons of explosions. Seriously there's a lot of action, on quite a scale and of good length. There's a fair bit of help from the stock footage vault though, it must be said, which also leads to continuity problems. The vehicle chases are pretty long. The best parts, are the fights, which are tightly filmed and pack a punch. Though disappointingly, Dolph's face-off with Pare is limp. The concepts for the action are good though. The delivery not so good. The action is poorly filmed, and the editing is terrible. The car chases completely lack energy too. As well as that they've been sped up, because of lacklustre stunt work. It's all a bit Benny Hill to be honest. Truly for the amount of action, the scale, and the concepts, this film criminally wastes nearly all of it. It does give hope though for Command Performance. If it's as action packed as this film, it will doubtless be far better delivered. It could be pretty kickass.
Overall Direct Contact is simply a new Dolph film. It'll calm those cravings for a little while before the potentially cool films on the horizon. Aside from an intermittently decent score from Steve Edwards, and some decent, but wasted photography, from Ross Clarkson, this film is almost entirely technically mediocre. It's got enough violence, enough action and enough badness to satisfy lovers of watching bad movies while intoxicated, but otherwise, I think action fans will be a little let down. However it's short and also action packed enough not to get too boring. **
Wow! One of the most original, dazzling films of the year!
Cinema rarely punches you in the face with originality these days. Be it re-makes or sequels, or the same films with different titles, it's often stagnated, boring and uninspiring, bar the exceptional re-inventions of genres, such as The Dark Knight. However one of the most unique and dumbfounding films of the year, stars, shockingly, the Muscles from Brussels, Jean Claude Van Damme! As a long time fan of JC's high kicking shenanigans, I've embraced the joy of some switch off the brain, simple carnage. A 360 spinning kick here, a roundhouse there. All good fun, but in truth, with all the depth of a toddlers paddling pool. I like Jean Claude, he's always had expressive eyes, and a kind of hidden promise of a proper actor behind the biceps. He's improved over the years, and in recent years has elevated a few of his straight to video flicks (Wake Of Death and Until Death in particular). Of course these roles weren't exactly brimming with depth, and if anything you get the sense Van Damme moulded the characters far beyond what no doubt was very minimal in the screenplay. Again, these were roles that could only go so far, only offer so much diversity and dimension. In JCVD however, Jean Claude breaks out of the constraints of DTV action spec, in his most challenging role himself.
This is JC, as himself. A somewhat exaggerated version of himself, that on paper borrows well publicised events from JC's life, has fun with some aspects, but with a real sense of integrity. This isn't strictly auto-biographical, but JC gives such a heartfelt performance. Not only does he create a great movie character but also pours his heart out on screen. The story sees JC at his lowest ebb. He's losing custody of his daughter, struggling for money, suffering from a crisis of identity, and worst of all losing parts for films he doesn't really want to do, but needs the money, to Steven Seagal! A simple trip to the post office, results in Jean Claude being caught up in a robbery, one which he gets blamed for. Hostages expect him to save the day like his movie persona, but in reality JC has the same fears as anyone else, and simply wants to get out alive.
Van Damme's performance, is astonishing. He jumps off the screen and finally manages to be unhindered in what is his first fully formed character. Be it his emotiveness, comedic timing, or poignant delivery of the already famous, and utterly sensational monologue, Van Damme is just right on the money. He doesn't put a foot wrong. Added to this, JC is well supported by a very good cast. This is probably the best cast Van Damme has had to work with. Just good actors, who play off the main man well, and lend him fine support.
Director Mabrouck El Mechri is also a revelation! What a way to announce yourself to the film world. Far and away this is the best direction of any Jean Claude movie. Inventive, coherent, visually arresting, Mechri knows what he wants, knows what he's doing, and delivers. From the magnificent opening long take of Van Damme getting down to the business of making an action film, to the monologue, and everything in between and there-after, Mechri has a sure hand, loaded with imagination and style, without going overboard. He's well aided by a Bastard! That's the unfortunately named Pierre-Yves Bastard, the cinematographer. Elsewhere, the sound design is superb, the film is well edited, and the soundtrack, and score are excellent. In pretty much every department, this is the best I've seen throughout Van Damme's career. It's a cracking film, with clever touches, a witty script, top performances, and brilliant on a technical level. Mechri's obvious admiration for Scorsese, Lumet, Tarantino, amongst others, is clear, but all wrapped up in something very auteur and personal. The film doesn't play out chronologically, but the structure makes sense. Every time there's a time shift, it has a logic to it. It's very well constructed.
Overall, JCVD is an immensely satisfying and entertaining film. Funny, charming, poignant, and for Jean Claude, something very special. He could have a very good career re-birth as a character actor. I really hope he doesn't waste himself in action movies again. As far as the action stars go, this is probably the best performance of anyone since Stallone in Rocky, or Willis in Pulp Fiction. The script by Mechri, Benudis, and Turpin, has allowed an unbiased outside viewpoint to shape the character, while Van Damme's own experience and acting ability, add the extra layers to the fascinating construct. Sensibly Mechri doesn't allow the film to focus too much on the Dog Day Afternoon scenario. It's all about Van Damme, and what a character! *****
Missionary Man (2007)
Dolph hits the high notes again with one of his best!
Dolph's latest film, and his third foray into directing, is once again one of his career best. Like The Mechanik, Dolph puts to bed some of the murkier days of his back catalogue, and proves, that the best man to help bring Dolph Lundgren back into the limelight, is Dolph Lundgren! Delving once more into a film with a theme of revenge, as in The Mechanik, there might have been a niggling worry, that re-treading that ground could breed familiarity. But what Dolph delivers is an action film in style, tone, and look, that is not only far removed from what he's previously done, but a film that just looks and feels fresh. There aren't many action films out there like Missionary Man, on a visual, tonal level.
In Missionary Man, Dolph stars as Ryder, a mysterious stranger who rides into town for a friends funeral. Pretty soon he's rubbing local oppressor John Reno up the wrong way. As the film progresses we start to see Ryder has other motives for being in town. It's a modern western and has some great western trademarks, including a fantastic climax. However though on paper the story has similar arcs as Dolph's previous directing effort, Missionary Man is such a contrast. It's a whole different style of flick, and with Dolph's increased level or creative control since his last directing gig, it's a more complete vision.
As director, Dolph really has a great visual eye here. What's great about the film, is that beyond the choice of super-16, it feels as if Dolph is in complete control. He's constrained by a tight budget certainly, but he spends it brilliantly, and really creates a great atmosphere. Dolph, his DP Bing Rao, and steadicam operator, George R Niedson combine to create a visual delight. There's some great shots in this film, and it has a feeling of being a graphic novel brought to life, particularly with some almost picturesque still shots. Dolph has gone all out here. At times it feels quite arty, and considering this is a DTV film, and a Dolph Lundgren film, that's quite something! The choice of super-16 is one that can be fraught with peril. There's a graininess to it, and the way it picks up light and colour can sometimes make a film look bad if not in the hands of a capable or inspired DP. Of course not only is the film well shot, but given it was shot on super- 16, there was the advantage of it being mastered directly onto HD. This also allowed for easier digital grading, as well as ensuring the film looked crisp. I mean this sucker has a great transfer. Dolph makes full use of the grading tool, and gives the film an almost monochrome look. The de-saturated picture adds to the foreboding atmosphere, and is also ably helped along by the low key and effective score by Elia Cmiral (Ronin, The Mechanik). Elsewhere Dolph knows action, having worked with the likes of John Woo, and he delivers here. There's short punctuations of violence throughout the film, before the inevitable, and just downright badass showdown. Dolph just goes Terminator on some biker dudes and it rocks the action Kasbah! As actor, Dolph does well here too. He's no Olivier, he knows it himself, but he plays to his strength, playing the Eastwood style man of few words, but immense badassedness (not a real word, but should be!). Parallels with Clint will be made of course, both being movie tough guys who made the jump from actor to writer and director. Dolph will not likely have the success of Clint, but he's the straight to video equivalent I guess, and there's no great shame in that anymore. Dolph's got that tough guy charisma. Nowadays what we lack in cinema is action stars, with the sheer hardness and tough as nails presence that Clint, Bronson, Arnie, Sly, and the likes of Seagal and Lundgren, used to deliver. We've not had any new action men come along who had the same presence, merely pretenders like Vin Diesel and The Rock. There's also been thesp's like Matt Damon, who while magnificent as Bourne isn't gonna settle down into the handing people their asses genre. You do have to, with the odd exception, have to look in the direct to video market for a good old school hardass action flick, and visit the old guard like Dolph and Jean Claude.
The remainder of the cast are mixed. Given the films budget, the support cast isn't great. The incidental characters, probably including locals given a place on screen, aren't great. Thankfully though the important roles are well filled. As Reno, Matthew Tompkins makes for a good bad guy. Also starring is August Schellenberg a very good actor who fans of Free Willy will likely remember, and he adds a bit of gravitas to proceedings. Young actress Chelsea Ricketts is superb, and surely has a bright future ahead of her (the kid who plays her older brother isn't great to be honest- but his role is insignificant). John Enos III stars as the lead biker and Ryder's main foe, and though he only comes in toward the end of the movie, he does a great job.
Overall, while the film won't win originality prizes, it feels fresh because of the style. It's just a good old fashioned R rated action film, proving big set pieces and oodles of CGI do not make a good action film (*cough* Transformers!! *cough*). Dolph is getting more assured behind the camera with every film, while also showing a versatility to switch style and tone. All three of his films have been markedly different, but Missionary Man stands out as something that is perhaps his most unique work. Action fans will not be disappointed. I'd love to see Dolph given a bit more money to play around with. ****
Urban Justice (2007)
Seagal is almost back.
Steven Seagal's career post Under Siege has been one in constant need of resurgence. On Deadly Ground was greeted with acid tongued derision from critics, thus followed up by Under Siege 2, an upturn, though still unfavourable in comparison to the first. Exit Wounds followed another string of poorly received outings. Then the downward spiral hit high gear with the odd (and only slight) upturn in films like Belly Of The Beast and Into The Sun. In 2007 it's seemingly a crunch moment. Seagal needs an upturn. His fan base is in danger of decimating, perhaps jumping ship to Jean Claude, Wesley or Dolph, heck maybe even Don Wilson when you consider how bad Attack Force was. Urban Justice needed to be decent, needed to hit the high notes. But did it? Well overall it kinda did. Not to say it's a great film by any means, but it's an upturn in fortune for Seagal, and most importantly, the man himself really comes out of his corner throwing some big shots again. He's not been out for the count quite yet, and with a few rounds left in him, maybe he can still turn this fight in his favour (nice analogy huh?).
Urban Justice firstly steers clear of the trend of Seagal's post Exit Wounds flicks, and that is CIA/FBI conspiracy subplots that eat away at the pacing and clarity of his recent flicks. This plot line is simple, straight and laid out. Seagal's son gets killed, and he wants the killer, nothing more. There's nothing too much on the side that gets in the way of Seagal getting from A to B. Secondly the film features Seagal as prominently as a leading man actually should feature, both in screen time (some of his recent flicks have him disappear for sometimes 15 minutes at a time!) and ADR participation (no dubbing this time folks). Above all Seagal manages to bring back some of his charisma that had seemingly been left behind in the early 90's somewhere along with Kelly Le Brocks hotness. Seagal's cool again, he's badass! Sure a little chunky and sweaty still, but he kicks ass! The action in this film is pretty good too. There's a plethora of hand to hand fights, which believe it or not, actually feature Seagal himself! Yes amazing given recent history. His stand in, stunt double and ADR double sat around twiddling there thumbs in this picture, and that's good. Seagal fans don't want those guys too busy. The fights are pretty decent though and Seagal unleashes some pretty savage beat-downs. We get vintage moves here. He breaks every conceivable bone in the human body during this flick, a femur on one guy, and a couple of ribs on another and so on. Best and coolest of all is the fact that Seagal once again looks like he could kick most guys assess! He's quick in this film I'm telling you. It's that old school Seagal who can virtually stand on the spot, but a few lightening moves of the arms and hands, and big ol' size 16 boots from no where, and the bad guys are floored. The fights are well edited and though tightly shot, they pack a punch, and the sound design is top notch. As for the rest of the action, we have disappointingly lame car chase. Not so much down to budget, but down to a complete lack of any kinetic energy and imaginative stunt work. The shoot outs are almost Hard Target insane! Meaning entire clips are unloaded on each individual bad guy, and blood shoots out all over the damn place! In fact the blood impacts in this film are the most insane I've ever seen and totally illogical, but I love it. It's the kind of super-violence Seagal used to produce. Seagal also gives his best performance in a few years. He seems interested, engaged and as I said shows off his charisma here.
The director Don E Fauntleroy was previously responsible for two of Seagal's shoddiest works. His inclusion in this was a worry, but while those first two collaborations with Big Pappa lacked any real autuership of any kind, here it's different. Fauntleroy manages to project some vision here, some style. We're not talking Scorsese, but for these sorts of flicks he's serviceable. Elsewhere the co-stars are not too bad. In particular there's a decent cameo from Danny Trejo, while Eddie Griffin makes for a somewhat cartoony but well suited villain.
On the negative side, though the plot is very simple, it's simplicity should have lent itself to a quicker pace of movie. The mid section suffers some lag, with too many gangster based dialogue scenes. That might not have been so bad if anything important was being said, and also the script is problematic in that the hip hop dialogue isn't very realistic. It's as if the writer knew only a couple of hood words and decided to repeat them endlessly. "Aaaaaaariiiiggghhht", "Mother-f**ker" and in particular "n***er" are words that are overused to levels of almost annoyance. The relationship between Seagal and his snitch and also landlady could have been developed but instead feel needless and pasted in. Above all it would have been a few more scenes with Seagal. Elsewhere the score is pretty bad. It's a rush job without question and one that jars against the competent direction, editing, and an in form Seagal.
Overall this isn't exactly a great film, but in Seagal's recent canon, it's top notch. Importantly, the man himself is back to his old self again. If a better film can be put around him, he'll surely be able to deliver a film to rival his best ones. As it is, Urban Justice is a welcome filler and good solid Saturday night home entertainment. Coming from one of Seagal's harshest (though I maintain, realist) fans, that's saying something. **1/2
The Contractor (2007)
Snipes was awake!! Yay! Thank Eliza Bennett for that.
Thus far, Wesley Snipes output of DTV flicks has been somewhat poor in quality. That would be the polite way to describe dreck like The Detonator and The Marksman anyway. However, his last flick, Hard Luck, re-teaming with his New Jack City director, Mario Van Peebles, was at least watchable. It was a bit all over the place sure, but Snipes gave a performance of some interest. The Contractor is most certainly, Wes's finest DTV action flick so far. That's not to say it's particularly great, but on an overall scale, it's about on a par with Van Damme's, The Hard Corps.
The plot is in part similar to Mark Wahlberg's recent flick, The Shooter, and also Leon. It's the Leon part of the story that works best in this film, while the usual hokey espionage and agency double crossing is the main ingredient on the Shooter side of this film. Snipes is an ex-sniper called in to do a job and ends up being left to take the fall for his employers, who also want to dispose of Snipes now. Following his assignment and initial run in with the law, Wesley holes up in a safe house, where he meets Emily, a tenacious and troubled young girl, who is neighbours with the safe houses owner. She helps James Dial (Snipes) recuperate from a gunshot, while also helping him avoid capture. The relationship between Dial and Emily could have wrecked the movie with inconceivability, however it works.
This is where the film's main strength lies, the cast. Wesley for a start puts in the effort. He's not dialling this one in, like previous roles. He gives the role extra dimension. The cast, for a DTV film, is also blessed with recognisable names. Lena Headey is good, and hot, and Charles Dance and Ralph Brown also appear to add class. The real star here though is young actress Eliza Bennett, who plays Emily. It's so rare that young actors can really immerse themselves in a role, and be totally natural on screen. We've seen it countless times in even the biggest flicks, that young actors given important roles just cannot act. I give you Jake Lloyd as an example, or the Harry Potter kids (from the first two flicks at least, while even now they only border on competent). But Bennett is a real star in the making, oozing potential and an amazing amount of gravitas for someone so young. She is her character, and we never have to make account for her being a young actor playing a role out of her range. She has a good role that she not only does extremely well, but I imagine, created much of herself. We're talking on the same playing field as Haley Joel Osment, Dakota Fanning, Freddie Highmore. She'll be huge I predict. Indeed I think Wesley would have appreciated having someone with real, genuine talent to work off. It's a role that requires maturity and immersion, and because Bennett becomes her character so effectively, she and Snipes can work off each other so well. To think a DTV could have pulled a gem out the hat like this is quite something. By past occurrence, Snipes should have been acting opposite a lump of infantile, irksome, wood.
One failing of the film lies at the feet of director Josef Rusnak. His aping of Tony Scott is problematic. The constant hand-cranking of the camera and blitzkrieg editing, just gets painful, and the action is a mixture of competent, neat scenes, and real misfires, such as a strobe lighting shootout. As for hand to hand fisticuffs, Snipes has one brief fight, which is really well done. A bit more of that would have been better than the somewhat underfinanced gunfights. Still there's a few good foot and car chases here, while the UK locales make a change from the DTV norm of Eastern Europe (Though there's still some fairly blatant Bulgaria moments here). The score isn't too bad either. It's neither memorable, exciting, nor is it irritating or grating. Overall a decent DTV effort. Worth a watch if only to marvel at a shockingly decent cast for such a film. Look out for Bennett in the future too. **1/2
Until Death (2007)
Van Damme's renaissance!!
Van Damme hits form again, big time! Until Death is a dark, dirty, damn nasty and repugnant film, but in a good way. In a Get Carter, Death Wish, Marathon Man kinda way. It's a 70's style thriller with all the grimy darkness, pessimism and degeneracy of so many great flicks of that time. Sure Wake Of Death had that feel, but somewhere along the way with director Phillipe Martinez's unsure hand, it attempted artiness, and relied far too heavily on the editing room, while also playing and drawing out needless scenes. Until Death is honed, grounded and above all consistent. All those who doubted Simon Fellow's because of his previous two films, should note that both were filmed in Romania and that the notoriously iffy company Castel were responsible. Here however, under the guidance of Moshe Diamont, Fellows is given more freedom to express himself, and he keeps things simple, grounded, allowing scenes to play out. He's far more sure of what he wants here, and delivers. He adds in a few touches that feel experimental, and a bit dangerous, and that only adds to the 70's vibe. A 70's vibe does not a good movie make, but it's a welcome part of an overall good movie.
Now in my honest opinion, I found this to be Van Damme's best film overall, period! At the same time it's hard to even call this a Van Damme movie. It's like a lost movie from Bronson or Eastwood, circa 70's. It's like Siegal and Peckinpah joined forces and took on the reckless abandon and excessiveness of Michael Winner. Those who want the new Bloodsport will not take this to their hearts as Van Damme's pinnacle, but still, they should enjoy Van Damme in a film with genuine atmosphere, in a role he stamps real authority on. Van Damme, minus the flashy kicks, plays a walking turd! He's a degenerate drug addled morally abstruse cop, and a borderline maniac. Van Damme has a role split into two halves if you like, pre-coma, post-coma. Pre coma is the dirty cop Stowe who's lost all regard for the people close to him, and his co-workers. He lives only for himself, and only to bring down ex-partner Callaghan (Rea). He'd sell his own mother to get the collar. Van Damme gives his best performance. He's really playing an unlikeable character whose judgement has become clouded. He thinks he's doing right, trying to do right, but loses track of the right and wrong ways to get what he wants. Van Damme is just a mean, badass machine in the first half of the film, not a man to be crossed at all. When Stowe wakes from his coma, having been left for dead by Callaghan, he wants to turn his life around, while he has to fully recover from his injuries. Here Van Damme is equally good. The film is a real departure for him. He really immerses himself in the role and vanity is so far from his mind here. Van Damme looks outta shape (and should do), and early on is really made to look dishevelled. Elsewhere Stephen Rea kind of flitters in and out in an extended cameo, but he gets to really chew scenery in a great scene at the end, when he and Stowe come face to face for the first time since Stowe's resurrection. Rea is simply picking up his paycheque, but he gets the one scene to let loose and deliver, and he leaves a lasting impression. Selina Giles as Stowe's wife enters the film with a bang! It's not a good one either, cause she's not delivering a good performance. However no sooner than Van Damme gets shot in the head, she begins delivering a fine performance. It's quite strange in that respect. There's also decent support from Adam Leese and Gary Beadle.
The action is short and swift. It's supposed to hit hard, and hit fast. They're simple scenes but they pack a punch, in a way that The Hard Corps and Second In Command were lacking. Ditto Wake Of Death, while supremely violent was a letdown in the action. Here though it's all about the violence. It's efficiently choreographed and edited and it has impact. When people die, you know they're dead. Those eagerly awaiting plenty of hand-to hand will be disappointed it, there's only a few quick little flourishes, but for this film Van Damme is far better armed with a shotgun than unleashing his kicks. The action isn't meant to be over the top, drawn out and excessive. It's about the forceful violence dished out. To see what I mean simply check the end action sequence in Straw Dogs.
Simon Fellows does well here as I mentioned, and he keeps the film ticking over nicely. Doug Milsome's cinematography is the best in a Van Damme movie for a while now. It looks great, and really keeps that dank 70's vibe going. There's also great sound design and Matthew Booth does a good job piecing everything together in the editing suite. A real standout though is the score from Mark Sayfritz, a blend of orchestra and synth effortlessly combining. Occasionally there's a real Massive Attack vibe in the music. It's arguably the best score in a Van Damme film, and Sayfritz will be a welcome returnee for Van Damme's next film, The Shepard. All in all, those who like a good gritty action thriller with some vicious violence, need look no further than Until Death. Those who saw Wake Of Death as a turning point were seeing a false dawn, cause this is Van Damme's career defining moment. It proves he's now an actor, and that WOD wasn't a flash in the pan. This is the best DTV film I've seen, and as those who know my love of Lundgren's Mechanik, will realise that means a lot. ****