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Lightweight but engaging actioner
Well paced, atmospheric thriller is basically a travelogue through a fantasy France of grimy bars and cobblestoned streets, where shifty-eyed hard cases in dark clothing concoct devious plots over cigarettes and espresso, race around rain-swept night streets in high-powered sedans, and exchange automatic weapons fire with minimal police interference.
The slender plot concerns a mysterious band of international hired guns brought together by a mysterious mastermind to steal a mysterious package from a collection of mysterious gangsters; as in all such stories, gunplay and double-crosses ensue as the bodies of various shady characters (and a few unfortunate members of the public) pile up. All too routine, and more than a tad silly, but the film is mostly saved from self-parody by the excellent cast (standouts include Robert de Niro, Natascha McElhone and the always-wonderful Jean Reno), beautiful, fluid location camerawork, and superb stunt sequences, all under the veteran direction of John Frankenheimer.
Like spiritual cousins "Bullitt" and "The French Connection", "Ronin" features gritty, realistic settings, handsome actors exuding an air of rumpled coolness, attention to procedural detail and the insertion of a cracking good car chase whenever the action threatens to flag. Of the latter, special mention should be made of the spectacular centerpiece chase, in which the streets of Paris end up littered with wreckage as competing parties in a BMW and Peugeot chase each other down sidewalks, through tunnels and finally, the wrong way down a traffic-choked highway. In the end, it's all just another Hollywood entertainment, but afficiandos of the crime thriller will find it a fun ride.
The Train (1964)
A personal favorite and semi-overlooked classic
A standout WWII drama, loosely based on a true story. In 1944, as the Allies spread across France from the Normandy landings, the Nazis looted Paris art museums and loaded the works onto a train, with the intention of carrying them back to the Fatherland and selling or bartering them for scarce war materials. A fairly hare-brained scheme, to be sure, and in reality the train never made it further than a siding just east of the city, but that shouldn't hinder one's enjoyment of what turns out to be a classic action film.
The centerpiece of the movie is a clash of wills between Von Waldheim, a cultured but iron-backed Nazi colonel (well-played by Paul Scofield) charged with getting the stolen artworks to Germany, and a taciturn railway troubleshooter named Labiche (Burt Lancaster). Von Waldheim first enlists Labiche as 'insurance' against any monkey business during the train's journey. Labiche, though, happens to have Resistance connections and, with serious reservations, is drawn into a desperate, improvised plot to stop the train, preferably without damaging the precious artifacts inside.
Although easily enjoyed as a straight action flick, what gives the film weight is the supporting story, in which Labiche at first argues against wasting precious lives on a few crates of paintings he's never seen, then gradually comes round as he begins to understand that the Nazis are effectively carrying off a large piece of the heart of France. Beautiful deep-focus black and white photography, and solid supporting performances by a mostly French cast (of which Jeanne Moreau may be the best-known), convincingly evoke the bleak misery of the Occupation. John Frankenheimer's economical direction manages to present highly-charged action scenes without glossing over the human cost, as Von Waldheim exacts savage reprisals against escalating efforts to hinder the train's passage.
Lancaster, who performed his own stunts, is excellent, furiously athletic as he slides down ladders, leaps onto moving locomotives, and charges over ridges and fields in pursuit of the train. At the same time, he manages to effectively bring a subtle authenticity to his portrayal of the weary, fatalistic railwayman.
Finally, the action set-pieces are nothing short of stunning, and include the train's mad dash through an Allied carpet-bombing attack, a strafing raid on a speeding locomotive, and several wrecks and derailments, all staged full-scale with period equipment donated by the French national railway. Well worth obtaining on DVD, the film may be hard to find on broadcast television these days.
Mad Max 2 (1981)
'Max' unleashes Hell on Wheels
***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** Emergency room doctor-turned-director George Miller, and a ravaged-looking Mel Gibson, first made significant marks in the US with this wildly inventive, unbelievably high-intensity chase thriller. The middle segment of a trilogy (between the shambolic but interesting 'Mad Max' and the pretentious, rambling mess 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome'), MM2 was hugely influential for its grungy, comic-book style and kinetic feel. It remains easily the best of its type and one of the finest action films ever made.
Note: description may contain spoilers--
The film opens on a world where civilization has collapsed and the Australian desert is peopled by nomadic scavengers fighting each other for increasingly scarce resources, particularly fuel for the few remaining motor vehicles. One of these lost souls is the loner Max Rocketansky (Gibson), a former cop who wanders this Wasteland in his battered V-8 Interceptor with only a mongrel dog for company.
After a run-in with a twitchy, half-crazed aviator, the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), who tries to rob Max of his gear, Max spares the Captain's life when he reveals the existence of a nearby encampment where fuel is abundant. With his reluctant prisoner in tow, Max heads for the compound, where he discovers that it is under siege by a horde of thugs under the direction of a fearsome, merciless warlord known as the Humungus (Kjell Nilsson). Talking his way in between attacks, Max learns that the relatively civilized (and unfortunately, rather colorless) inhabitants have a tankerload of fuel and are planning to use it in a breakout run to the coast. The problem: they have no truck that can haul the tanker. Max, however, knows where one can be found. A deal is struck, but first Max must get past the Humungus and his chief enforcer, the mohawk-wearing maniac Wez (Vernon Wells)...
As much a re-imagining as a sequel to Miller's low-budget Aussie hit 'Mad Max', the movie displays a bleak, unrelentingly violent vision of the future that will be off-putting to some, but packs a definite wallop. Highlights include Gibson's subtle, nearly wordless performance as a man who has withdrawn from life but, in aiding the trapped people of the compound, gradually regains his humanity; Wells' counterpoint as the barking mad, gleefully savage Wez; Miller's clever mixing of Western, Samurai, Horror and Sci-Fi story elements; superb widescreen photography and Brian May score; and of course the breathtaking action sequences, climaxing in a 45-minute chase involving dozens of vehicles and done entirely with practical stunts.
Although the plot is little more than a way to string the chases and battles together, and a good portion of the dialogue is embarrassingly banal, Miller packs the screen with so many bizarre characters and fascinating details that the movie remains entertaining throughout. An essential film.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Despite flaws, a brilliant technical and artistic achievment
"Bridge on the River Kwai" is many things, both good and less so: a powerful study of the way war drives men to madness; a false document that ignores some of the more unpleasant facts about the use of slave labor in the far east during WWII; a showcase for at least two of the finest performances ever set to film (Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa); a borderline racist tract that reduces whole cultures to caricature; a masterclass in cinematography and the use of ambient sound to convey mood, and for better or for worse, a blueprint for the modern tendency to emphasize dazzling style and epic scope in mainstream films.
Using the construction of the infamous WWII Burma railway as a backdrop, "Kwai" mainly concerns the clash of wills between two stubborn failures: Col. Saito (Hawakawa), a Japanese prison camp commander who is trying to get a crude wooden bridge built, without notable success; and Col. Nicholson (Guinness), a British officer who, we learn, was supposedly ordered to turn his troops over to the Japanese and now must watch as they are gradually worked and starved to death. Proceeding from a fundamental misunderstanding of each other's cultures, they immediately clash over the absurdly trivial issue of whether Nicholson's eight or so officers will work alongside the enlisted ranks. Each obviously has little to hold onto except their authority over the ragged prisoners, and each refuses to back down. "I could have you shot!" bawls Saito, and indeed, in real life he would probably have done so. Instead, he gradually becomes aware that the British officer actually is willing to help construct the bridge, as long as it is on his own terms. With with the deadline for completion fast approaching, Saito finds himself granting more and more authority to Nicholson, despite the almost unbearable loss of face this represents. Meanwhile, Nicholson becomes caught up in the chance to finally demonstrate just how competent an officer he really is, even though his efforts to complete (and even improve!) the bridge amount to collaboration with the enemy.
Observing from the sidelines is a sole American, the lazy, sardonic 'Commander' Shears (William Holden), one of the few survivors of an earlier group of prisoners. Not liking his future chances with two madmen in command, he makes his escape, not without difficulty, only to find himself dragged back into a harebrained commando raid (led by Jack Hawkins' gentleman/adventurer) to destroy the bridge before it can be used.
Despite the highly 'realistic' presentation, the film plays fast and loose with the facts of the period and location. Nevertheless, Lean's brilliant use of image and sound, and the mostly excellent performances, make this a truly essential film. Be sure to see it on DVD, or better yet, on a full-sized movie screen, where the wide-screen compositions can be appreciated.
Slap Shot (1977)
Hilarious, oddly influential dark sports comedy
Mostly hated by critics on its release, as much for its cynical viewpoint as its relentless profanity, "Slap Shot" has since become something of a cult classic.
Set in the low-rent world of minor-league hockey, the movie follows the efforts of player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) to turn around the Charlestown Chiefs' final, losing season in a dying Pennsylvania steel town. Reggie is not above using a dirty trick or two to manipulate his teammates or psych out opposing players, and cheerfully gets physical when he has to. Even Reggie recoils in disgust, however, when his tightwad manager (Strother Martin) brings in the Hanson Brothers, three thick-lensed, thicker-headed goons who are more interested in fighting than playing Reggie's brand of "old-time hockey".
When it becomes apparent that the hometown crowd loves the Hanson's rough and bloody style, Reggie decides to go with the flow, and to fire up his other players concocts the story that, if they can win the championship, the owner will be able to sell the franchise to a group of rich retirees in Florida. To do that, though, they will have to get past an opposing squad specially stocked with the league's most notorious goons...
A sometimes uneasy blend of slapstick and kitchen-sink realism , "Slap Shot" has some pertinent things to say about the American worship of success at all costs, and (long before the rise of the WWF) our fascination with violent sports. Echos of its gritty style can be seen not only in many later sporting films, such as "Bull Durham" and "Major League", but even in the wave of British movies in which characters fight to hold onto their lives after the collapse of hometown industry, such as "The Full Monty" and "Brassed Off".
The film really shines as a straight comedy, though, delivering some classic characters and set pieces: virtually every appearance of the Hansons; a clueless, toupee-wearing sportscaster (Andrew Duncan); the team's tiny Quebecker goalie (Yvon Barrette), and Newman himself, in one of his personal favorite roles. The females fare less well, although Jennifer Warren stands out as Dunlop's long-suffering, estranged wife.
Note: in the VHS version, the background music has been replaced by an inferior, generic soundtrack. The DVD version, with the original music, is preferable.
None But the Brave (1965)
Frankie say: War is bad...
Adequate but heavy-handed antiwar flick, perhaps most notable for being Frank Sinatra's one directorial credit. Plot has a planeload of US Marines, led by Clint Walker (in a performance of solid wood) and including Sinatra's cynical medic, crash-landing on a Japanese-held island late in WWII. At this late point in the war, the Japanese unit has become as isolated from their own supply lines as the Americans, and amid various misunderstandings and skirmishes an uneasy truce is formed. The Americans, however, are trying to establish radio contact to call in rescue, and eventually the business of war must be dealt with again...
While the story is somewhat schematic and cliched, Sinatra moves the action along competently. In the end, however, the film has little more to say than: "why can't we just get along?"
Kelly's Heroes (1970)
Crackerjack WWII heist flick
Released at the height of the Viet Nam conflict, "Kelly's Heroes" did not amuse critics, who found a light-hearted war film in extremely poor taste at a time when thousands of American boys were becoming casualties of a highly controversial military action. Thirty years on, however, it has become something of a popular classic.
More a caper film in a WWII setting than an actual war pic, "Kelly's Heroes" follows the exploits of a motley platoon of G.I.'s as they attempt to 'liberate' 14,000 gold bars from a bank 30 miles behind German lines. The script is a gem, focusing on the mechanics of organising "the perfect crime" without tipping off Army bureaucracy, or the enemy, and is chock-full of memorable lines and authentic touches that sell the unlikely premise (for example, a major plot point revolves around the well-documented inferiority of the US Sherman tank vs. the German Tiger I).
Nearly the entire cast turns in memorable performances: Telly Savalas as Big Joe (basically Sgt. Rock come to life), Carroll O'Conner as a clueless, blood 'n' guts General, Don Rickles as a mercenary quartermaster, Donald Sutherland as a hilarious proto-hippie tank commander, and numerous other recognisable faces in smaller roles. Clint Eastwood plays his usual tight-lipped tough guy, and wisely leaves the jokes to the rest of the cast.
Director Brian G. Hutton, hot off the success of "Where Eagles Dare", was given a big budget to play with, and puts the money to use blowing up whole companies of faceless Nazis in several spectacular battle sequences. Well-chosen Yugoslavian locations stand in for 1944 France.
The DVD version released in late 2000 is of excellent quality. Beware of the version often shown on television; numerous minor cuts have been made and the image cropped from the original widescreen format.
Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Burt, Sally, and a truckload of beer
One of the first films to tap into the anti-authoritarian aspects of the Citizen's Band (CB) radio craze, "Smokey" is basically a movie-length car chase and a pleasantly insipid slice of late-'70's Americana.
The tissue-thin plot has good ole boy pals The Bandit (Reynolds) and Cletus (a surprisingly good Jerry Reed) running a load of Coors cross-country on a tight deadline while trying to avoid an assortment of less-than-bright cops, led by pompous blowhard Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Sally Field, as a runaway bride who thumbs her way into Reynolds' car, brings charm and a welcome sense of irony to the macho proceedings.
Stunt coordinator-turned-director Hal Needham stages the action competently, and the actors, who supposedly improvised much of the dialogue, obviously enjoy themselves. A good choice for those who want to relive the glory days of CB rebels, long sideburns, plaid western shirts, and black Trans-Ams with "screaming chicken" decals on the hood. Avoid the two vastly inferior sequels.
Stroker Ace (1983)
Lazy, pointless NASCAR sendup
Burt Reynolds goes through the motions as an absurdly-named stock car driver in this dull, deeply unfunny 'comedy' directed by long-time buddy Hal Needham. Nonsensical plot concerns Reynold's efforts to get out of a sponsorship contract (what, he doesn't want to be on a competitive team?) while trying to woo Loni Anderson's PR flack/Sunday school teacher, over the course of a seemingly endless racing season.
Big hair, cornpone accents and superficial performances abound, with particularly annoying turns from Jim Nabors (as Reynolds' crew chief) and Ned Beatty (as a fried chicken magnate). Only potential points of interest are the period racing scenes (including some of the top NASCAR drivers), and the vast cleavage displayed in the few female roles: Anderson, Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson, Debbie Casperson and the legendary Linda Vaughn.