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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
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. ****
Flight of Fury (2007)
Mediocrity, a step up for Seagal.
Following the appalling Attack Force, chances were that Seagal could only have a step up with Flight Of Fury. To out-stink Attack Force would take some doing. Flight Of Fury is a marked improvement overall, but still in the grand scheme of thinks, mediocre. Mediocrity is seemingly an achievement for Seagal these days, a sad insight into his movie career's decline. Where Attack Force was a hodge-podge of plot lines altered drastically from conception, to filming, to post production, Flight Of Fury keeps the plot line more simple. Someone steals a high-tech stealth fighter, planning to use it to fire chemical weapons (which we later, bizarrely discover, will destroy the whole world in 48 hrs). Seagal has to get the plane back. It's that simple, no annoying sub-plots, and conspiracies weighing the film down like far too many of his recent works. That's not to suddenly say the storytelling is good though, it's pretty poor. The introduction to side characters is badly done for example.
In filmic terms FOF is bad. It's badly acted by all involved, and Seagal looks bored to tears almost. He's just got the look of a toddler who's been forced to perform the school nativity against his will, and so performs with a constant grimace and air of half assedness. Can we blame Seagal though when the material is so un-ambitious and cruddy? Not really. This is the final film of his Castel Studio's, multi-picture deal. The producers can't be bothered to make anything remotely good, promising a 12 or so million dollar budget, and (after Seagal's obligatory 5 million) probably pocketing a nice hefty chunk of it themselves (If the film was made for the remaining 7 million, then I'm Elvis Pressley!). So in that respect why should Seagal put the effort into a film that's already got distribution sorted before it's made. Fan's though may argue, he at least owes them the effort. He's seriously looking jaded, and the continued use of stand ins and dub-overs is further indication of this. Michael Keusch directs with some efficiency, while the cinematography is quite good, but in all technical areas (and as usual with Castel, a bog standard stunt team) there's nothing more than mediocrity, and nothing to help the film rise above its material, and bored leading man. Again there's a few action scenes focusing on characters other than Seagal, which in all truth we don't want to see.
Overall the action isn't too bad. It's nice and violent, and on occasion we're treated to a few vintage nasty Seagal beatings, but overall nothing special. Partly due to a poor stunt crew, and the lack of time to film anything too complex or exciting. For me, Shadow Man was a more enjoyable film, because while ignoring the incoherent, jumbled, plot line, there were more vintage Seagal moments, and more of him in centre stage. He never disappeared for long periods during the film. Seagal disappears bizarrely during one action scene here, and re-appears after, with little explanation. There's far too much stock footage used. Using stock shots isn't an entirely horrendous thing, but using it as a crutch is. We're treated to countless establishing shots of naval ships, all the time, which get annoying. Plus the continuity of the stock footage is all over the place (just check the backdrops, chopping and changing).
The film is just middle of the road. It says it all that the films best scene is a completely needless, and gratuitous girl on girl scene, with two hot chicks. Seagal even perks up briefly then too! Overall this may be one of the better stock footage based actioners out there, but that's not saying much at all. This will please many fans, but they should bear in mind, Seagal himself would probably want to forget this one's existence. **
Children of Men (2006)
Visionary! A remarkable technical achievement.
This brilliant and understated sci-fi thriller, is a truly revolutionary movie. As a technical achievement this ranks as one of cinema's, important achievements. Technically yes, it's superb, but equally the film has meaning too, and challenges. The dystopic future sub-genre is one that often can be overdone, overblown and overwrought, but not so here. Under the guidance of most other directors doing this sort of film nowadays, this would have been laden with CGI, and without the meaning underneath the visual sheen. Here director Alfonso Cuaron puts the audience in a world that's believable and within possibility. This is not a future staring at oblivion to come in a flash, it's a future that has long been slowly crawling to the end of humanity.
The human race has been slowly dying out for 18 years, since women have become infertile. Clive Owen plays a man watching in quiet, dismal contemplation at the hopelessness around him, until he's contacted by his ex-wife, played by Julianne Moore. She's part of a group called the human project, part rebel, part terrorist, who oppose the fascist government that is running, and ruining what's left of Britain. Refugees, immigrants are illegal, no longer welcome, and the rest of the world isn't in much better shape. Julian (Moore) wants Theo (Owen) to transport a girl down south, from London. The importance of this girl becomes paramount when it's revealed she's pregnant. The first pregnancy in 18 years. Different factions would no doubt want to use this to their own ends, and Owen takes it upon himself to take her to hope, or to the human fund. Of course there are many obstacles in the way. The premise is dark, and similarly frightening. Amongst it all, Cuaron ensures the dialogue, the actors feel natural.
The film is of a genre done before, yet feels fresh, from the scripting, to the look of the film. Indeed Cuaron's earthy, un-showy look, using a dreary, almost dead colour palette and a lot of handled work, evoke a sense of reality. As does his tendency for lots of extended single shot takes. It would be interesting to count the amount of cuts in this film, but it would be a hell of a lot lower than the average Hollywood movie. Indeed this is a daring, and engrossing move from Cuaron. The extended takes, keep the audience right in the action, engaging, pulling you in. None more so than during the exhilarating action scenes with some of the most technically astounding sequences, all in one long take, one shot, and you can't help but be amazed. It's not some overly showy, hollow and cold CGI exhibition, it's down to meticulous planning, timing and execution. We've seen things such as Superman, Star Wars in the last couple of years thanks to the glory of CGI, but the action scenes in this are far more exciting and far superior in concept and execution. The simple fact that the actors are put in a situation whereby they must be in perfect sync with the stunt guys, the cameraman, and remember their cues, their positions etc, it's a miraculous technical and artistic achievement. The first action scene, as well as the finale (which is an insanely long single shot) are awe inspiring.
The cast too are brilliant. Clive Owen continues to fly the flag for Britain, and make a good name for himself. Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetal Ejiofor, and Pam Ferris are all superb in support, while the young Claire-Hope Ashitay is also impressive as Kee. All under the expert and visionary direction of Alfonso Cuaron, who surely is one of the next big names, and perhaps in the new wave of excellence in genre films, once taken up by the likes of Spielberg, Cameron, Scott. Children Of Men is surely a landmark in cinema, and will certainly gain in reputation as the years go by. This will be a revisionist film. *****
Attack Force (2006)
Attack Force has a horrendous title, and can almost certainly be judged by it's awful cover, because the film is horrible! A mish-mash of plot lines, a choppy mess, and a horribly stagnated pace, make the film hard to watch start to finish. I managed this and I'm proud. As a fan of Seagal's work (mostly of his old days), it's painful to see him star in such tripe. True Seagal's last half dozen movies or so, have sucked a lot, but some of them at least had some redeeming features. Attack Force is a mess. From conception to delivery this film has undergone many changes, from an alien plot line, to the current one about a highly addictive super drug, about to be unleashed on the Romanian (the film has several settings, none of which are Romanian, but all look like Romania because they are in Romania!) populace. The film is tacked together with little regard for whatever state the original shooting script was. Plot-holes and loose ends are abound in the film that's for sure. That's been a problem in Seagal's last few films as well, but never has the result been so boring. There's a whole plot line about the water supply being poisoned with CTX (that's the drugs cool name) that is never resolved!
Of course in recent years the plot's haven't been the main draw in the Seagal canon so there was a big onus on the other departments, especially the action. Before I regard the action though, all the other departments are poor. The direction is poor, or perhaps better put, made to look poor. Who knows how director Michael Keusch originally intended this film? Between him finishing his job, the re-shoots by stunt man Tom Delmar, and the editing, a coherent auteur vision is completely lost. The best way to describe the film is that it's just all over the shop! The cinematography is dull, nearly inducing sleep, while the droning score (sounding like it was produced on the cheapest of cheap synthesizers) does nothing to excite matters. The cast too are poor, unable to salvage anything here. Seagal looks bored beyond recognition, and is dubbed through much of the picture, clearly when plot-points are being changed. He looks tired and overweight, and lethargic, unlike he's looked in previous pictures too (remarkable as the aforementioned have been key complaints in Seagal's recent pictures). The only redeemable cast member is Adam Croasdell as one of the villains, doing a slimy Brit routine. He seems to be a throwback to the alien plot line, because he's playing it inhuman. He seems like a cross between a body snatcher and a vampire (ditto to the lead villain played by some hot chick who appears on occasion, seemingly waiting for her husband Dracula).
Finally the action. Well it's poor. Poorly conceived, poorly shot. There's not much either, and there's even less featuring Seagal. Stevo doesn't really bring out the stunt double here, because there's so little to do. There's even a lengthy (repetitive and boring) action scene on the hour mark that inter-cuts occasionally with little flashes of Seagal's stand in because clearly Seagal wasn't there while the scene was being shot, and they wanted to have him feature in the action scene. Seagal eventually appears in person to shoot two guys in the head. Seagal has a producers credit here and a script credit, but from what I understand the film has been altered behind his back to the current state it's in. Seagal will apparently not be working with these people again, or with Castel Studio's who continue to deliver horrifically sub-Nu-Image (that's saying something), material.
Overall this is one to avoid if you are not a Seagal fan. Seagal fans can also be safe in the knowledge that the big man probably won't want to do anything this bad again. Unfortunately his next film which has already been shot, with the same people, promises to be even worse than this. *
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter was probably the man to beat during the late 70's and early 80's in terms of horror flicks, and ranking as his greatest film, is most certainly the Thing. This is a creature horror, a genre that rarely hit's the mark, but most memorably perhaps with this film, and Ridley Scott's Alien, a few years previously (for the best recent example, check out The Descent). The Thing also ranks as Kurt Russell's greatest cinematical moment. This came shortly after Carpenter himself had helped Russell expunge himself from his longstanding Disney poster boy image (In Escape From New York). Indeed the collaborations of Carpenter and Russell always hit the mark, and established Russell as one of the coolest, cultest, action guys of the 80's.
Here the story centres around RJ MacReady (as cool a name as you'll get in cinema, perhaps seconded only to Snake Pliskin) and his workmates stationed out in a remote scientific research station in the Antarctic. When a chopper carrying Norwegian's from a nearby station fly's over their airspace, while shooting at a husky, something seems amiss. The Norwegians seem intent on destroying the seemingly innocent dog, and after inadvertently blowing up their own chopper and wounding one of the American men, the remaining Norwegian is shot down. When MacReady and Co take a look at the remains of the Norwegian camp they discover it all but destroyed with no survivors and only a hideously mutated carcass, and a huge crater. As the film progresses we soon discover that the camp was destroyed by an alien shape-shifter, that absorbs the bodies it contacts and takes over that form (the dog, and then down the line the crew members). The genius in The Thing is, from a certain point on, Carpenter builds up the tension between the American crew. No one trusts anyone, and sanity is pushed to the limit. One by one they all get killed by the Alien, or by each other. Above the amazing special FX in this film it's the human interaction that creates the most tension. Kudo's to JC for creating a really intelligent horror.
As mentioned the FX are amazing. All the creature FX are top class, and of course done long before CGI came and reared it's ugly head. The FX in this, by Rob Bottin, and also Stan Winston, outdo anything I've seen done in a computer with creature makeup etc. The film is pretty creepy and gruesome at times with some nightmarish imagery, and Carpenter pulls off some brilliant jump scares in the film, some of the most perfectly set up and timed scares ever committed to film.
The cast are excellent. There's a host of characters and in the support of Russell, Wilfred Brimley and Keith David are particularly good. Kurt Russell though is the man, playing his role superbly as an actor and as an action man. People seem too quick to remember Willis, Stallone and Schwarzengger as the 80's action gods, when Russell preceded them all. Russell is after all one of the few people to ever successfully pull off the mullet.
Carpenter has never exceeded his work here. It's brilliantly paced, shot and edited and Carpenter has a control over proceedings that exceeds all his other work. Aided also by a fantastically uncharacteristic score by Ennio Morricone, who does a very Capenteresque score, and something that is fully of eerie menace. This is without doubt one of the best of its genre. *****
Casino Royale (2006)
In the top 5 Bond movies!
Bond is finally back. Sure he's done 21 films now, but not since the heady days of Connery at his peak, have the Bond films excelled, and been beyond cartoony gadgets, outlandish set pieces, and cheesy double entendres. Now all those elements have always been part and parcel of the Bond series, but as the series has progressed through the Roger Moore period, it's been less about the stories and the character of JB himself. A few have been different to varying degree's of success, such as the not so popular Dalton entries, to the most recent decent Bond, Goldeneye. However CR succeeds in bringing Bond down to earth a bit more and inviting us to delve into his character a bit more.
Goldeneye helmer Martin Campbell returns once more, with success again. Not only does he have an edgier script to work with, he's allowed to put his stamp on some outstanding action scenes too. The action feels necessary and part of the story, not merely an excuse to do something outlandish for the sake of it, such as the hideously gimmicky Thames set action in The World Is Not Enough, or just about everything in the near Moonraker cheesefest, Die Another Day. Here the action fits into the story, and excels without feeling gimmicky. Indeed CR features some of the most jaw dropping set pieces put to film including a superb free-running chase, and a car chase on an airport runway. Aside from anything else, it's all captured with some flair, sadly lacking from the flat direction of the last two Bond films especially.
The main question of course, is about the validity of Daniel Craig as the latest 007. Many were sceptical, questioning the blonde hair, the height, the looks, amongst other things. Plus the worries that Bond would become too po-faced and serious like Dalton. In truth Daniel Craig is most like Timothy Dalton if comparing to the Bond actors canon. But he's got the material to make an edgier Bond work, which Dalton didn't have in the far too Americanised films he did. Craig is a far more serious Bond, playing him on his first proper assignment. However Craig is allowed to express some Conneryesque charm too. And when the action kicks in, he holds his own, performing most of his own stunts. Without doubt Craig is a worthy Bond. Similarly Eva Green represents one of the best Bond girl's in years. A near unknown, she works in her role where the previous three Bond girls (the rather pointlessly sassy Halle Berry in particular). Green is also extremely attractive and with the kind of European look that evokes the Bond girls of yesteryear. Bond villains too have become quite lame in recent times, yet Mads Mikkelsen is excellent and has a real intensity as Le Chiffre.
The film isn't merely a lazily and sloppily produced effort (or lack of) that the producers have been guilty of in previous years. This is brilliantly shot and cut, and the cinematography is eye-catching and atmospheric, not flat and DP 101 like the last film. Elsewhere David Arnold makes up for his overwrought last few Bond scores with a more low key and effective one here, although his and Chris Cornell's theme isn't great (then again anything beats Madges Die Another Day). The only negatives really are a somewhat segmented feeling in the plot, and the very lengthy running time, but these are minor quibbles in a top class Bond outing.
Overall this is a great action film that has taken a leaf from the Bourne books, and kept things grounded, and remembered the plot. It's every bit as good as those movies, and ranks in the top 5 Bond movies. ****1/2
King of New York (1990)
Walken is class, but where's his monologue?
Abel Ferrara is a director who's never been known for subtlety or substance in truth, and King Of New York, is a career defining example of his style. Alongside Bad Lieutenant, this ranks as one of cult cinema's most shocking, and schlockiest of crime thrillers. Ferrara doesn't do half measures when depicting primarily violence but also sex and drugs. King Of New York is in fact, while quite vulgar (enjoyably so, like Roy Chubby Brown) a fascinatingly pessimistic and bleak look at New York, often glitzed and glammed on the big screen. The film creates an unpleasant atmosphere, and makes New York looks about as appealing a tourist destination, as a rare steak looks to a vegetarian. The film is uber-low budget, and at times looks like it could be any bottom shelf straight to video crap-fest, but it's shot in such a way to make it visually striking. However it doesn't try to please the eye, more repulse it.
The film follows around Frank White (Christopher Walken), just released from prison. He sets out to wipe out all competition in the drugs business, and become the King of New York. Standing in his way are rival gangs and the police, but White is a man without fear. The plot is pretty thin, and as is typical with Ferrara, there's little substance or depth (aside from his fascinating pictorial of the big apple). The film however succeeds thanks primarily to its cast. Larry Fishburne is excellent as is David Caruso. Wesley Snipes appears in a supporting role, and does well, reminding us that before he started doing DTV action junk with titles like The Marksman, and The Detonator (superbly thought out titles!), he was actually a good actor). In the central role, and a role that could easily lack sympathy or likability of any kind, Christopher Walken excels. Walken is always watchable. He's an actor who can put his stamp on a role of any size, in any kind of film, and steal the movie (Pulp Fiction-True Romance-Catch Me If You Can- Deer Hunter). Here Walken makes the movie. In all fairness, Ferrara isn't one of the best directors, and the script isn't one of the most brilliantly written, but the movie has in its arsenal, Walken on top form. Without him, this is nothing more than mediocre. The only downside to Walken's role is that he doesn't get one of his trademark monologue moments that appear in virtually all his film (the best still being the watch in the ass monologue in Pulp Fiction).
Also in the films favour is the excessively violent action. The action scenes really pack a punch. Ferrara, inspired somewhat by John Woo, makes his shootouts highly volatile, usually resulting in gallons of blood spurting out as someone gets ripped to shreds by gunfire. The look of the film, as mentioned earlier, screams cheapness, but that's not to say the cinematography isn't good. There's a great atmosphere created by the DP. Sometime the film really catches the eye with it's dirty, dank, noir look. Everything is so over the top, and with such glee, it makes the film that bit more enjoyable. And while Ferrara is heavy handed he manages to have a moment of (I thought) brilliance at the end of the film. White is sat in contemplation, looking out a cab window at New York around him. It's a final picture capturing the dirty side, the unlovable side of New York. ****
The Departed (2006)
When this project was first announced as Scorsese's next film; there was undoubtedly a sense of trepidation from the movie goers. Perhaps a sense, from myself included, that Martin was selling out, and following the Hollywood bandwagon, in its pursuit to remake, or redo. We are rife with remakes and sequels, spin offs and the rest, with nary an original film in site these days. Rightly it was a concern that Mart was re-doing one of the best films to ever come out of Hong Kong. A concern that would be the same if he'd done the Killer over again, or any of the decidedly few master pieces from the land the brought us Jackie Chan. And what is the result? The result, thankfully, is a rare remake that betters the original, and is also one of Scorsese's best films. Certainly it's his best since Goodfella's and already is being talked about as a masterpiece, that will retain the same adoration that Fellas, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull still have to this day. It's certainly able to stand toe to toe with his previous best works, three of the finest movies ever made. Will it become a regular in the age old argument of what is Scorsese's best film? Ask me in ten years time! Anyway, the Departed is a fabulous film. In truth the film, for me, started off quite slow. As I initially sat and watched, I felt a sense that the film has been hyped, praised and placed on a pedestal, perhaps not its worth. It's an opening period while the story catches up to the here and now, and while we acclimatise ourselves to the Boston accents, that jar initially to how we recognise Nicholson et al, as speaking in real life. No sooner does the tale switch into the realm's of intrigue, and psychological study though, do we see it begin to become engrossed into a thoroughly brilliant piece of work, and in truth it's important to remember that even Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and to a less extent, Goodfella's, started the same. Arguably it's a great way to really suck the audience in, letting them ease themselves into the experience.
The story is full of twists and turns with essentially Di Caprio's undercover cop ingratiating himself into the world of Boston big boss gangster, Frank Costello (Nicholson). Simultaneously, there's Colin Sullivan, a state policeman, and almost an adopted son to Costello, who keeps Costello constantly informed of the polices investigations against him. As both characters get deeper into their roles, both lose their identity, and become darker, particularly the once do-gooder, Billy Costigan , played by Di Caprio. It's not long before Costello suspects a rat in his organisation, and the police too suspect a mole in theirs. The film is full of surprise and is paced exceptionally well, until the inevitable climax.
The cast are first rate. Di Caprio is outstanding, really shining again. Since starring in Titanic, he's moved away from mainstream as much as possible. He's also picked and chosen his roles carefully, and not in much regularity. Again Di Caprio firmly establishes himself as one of the finest actors to have emerged in the last ten years. He is currently Scorsese's go to man, and this generations De Niro, or Pacino. If there were any question marks over him being merely a poster boy, then this puts them to rest. Di Caprio, is an actor of the highest calibre. Jack Nicholson also delivers in a role that could so easily have been from his 1970's heydey. So dark in so Jack. He's tried to play his age a bit more in recent times, and also go quirky. But here, there's a dark side to Nicholson, and intensity that evokes many of his early masterpieces. Nicholson could be a good bet for an Oscar nomination (he's not the only one in this). Mark Wahlberg delivers his best performance too, while Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone and Alec Baldwin are all excellent. For me though Matt Damon stands out here. He delivers a superb performance, and again is a fine actor who oft gets question marks over his validity as a top HW performer. Perhaps his association with Ben Affleck holds him back but lest we not forget, Damon is already an Oscar nominated actor. With this role, and his role in the upcoming The Good Shepard, Damon could really put himself right up as one of the top talents around. He, as Leo, Nicholson and also Baldwin, should be receiving an Oscar nod for his work here.
Scorsese as per usual shoots this brilliantly. His sense of imagery, pacing, and direction is almost unsurpassable in the modern era. The film looks the part, as well as having gorgeous photography, a brilliant score and one hell of a soundtrack. All in all, The Departed is the first awe-inspiring, potential masterpieces, since Schindler's List. It's a film worthy of being in the HW golden period of the 70's when guys like Scorsese, Polanski, Forman, Coppolla, Lumet, reigned supreme. This will only continue to gain more and more status. *****
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Very rarely are we treated to a film so brilliantly scripted, directed and acted. It's a sad, sad fact nowadays. We can enjoy the odd Hollywood movie that makes the grade in some way, but inevitably it's some sequel, or remake of something that in the end, lacks any real sort of magic. In the last few years, Fox Searchlight have delivered three shining beacon's of simplistic, original, challenging, and insightful little comedy dramas. Those being Lost in Translation, The Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, and now of course, Little Miss Sunshine. Three great movies, devoid of any of that formulaic, saccharine, Hollywood taste, that in large doses soon becomes inedible. This film marks a great antithesis to the blockbuster, and the lazily produced.
Little Miss Sunshine follows a dysfunctional (that's the polite way to put it) family, as the go on a cross country road trip, to take younger member Olive to the Little Miss Sunshine convention to compete. The family is an eclectic and completely diverse mix, with polar opposites including a heroin addicted, highly opinionated grandfather, to a wannabe pilot son, whose taken a vow of silence, right over to the homosexual and recently outed uncle, a teacher, who failed in a suicide attempt following the spurned love of a male student. Relationships are at breaking point, and require repair, and a cross country road trip, may or may not be the medicine to heal the rifts.
This really is a sharp, satirical, poignant, and witty movie, that is aided by a superb cast. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette play mum and dad superbly, with Kinnear excellent as the self help guru, unable to help anyone because his nine steps programme is yet to be distributed to the masses, and Collette equally good as the work horse mother, trying to hold everything together in the face of manic depressive relatives, and a lack of income. Of great importance was the casting of Olive. She's the centrepiece of the film, as the sweet young Olive, un-hindered by the adult, or adolescent affliction's affecting her family. She is in fact the normality, and the one who stops everything falling apart, the one that all the family would do anything for. When a young person is so prevalent in a film, it is essential to cast a child who can handle the role, with roles this challenging very hard to cast. However Abigail Breslin (who impressed immensely in Signs, at only six years old) is fantastic. She's being hyped up now as the new Dakota Fanning (as if Fanning is now somehow on the scrapheap or past it!?) and in terms of talent rightly so. She's adorable here and gives a fantastically genuine performance. Paul Dano too is excellent as the Nietzsche inspired Dwayne, the troubled teen. Highly impressive as well is Steve Carell. Known thus far for his comical turns in more the Ferrell, Carrey, kind of mugging genre, Carell proves a great crossover actor (like Jim Carrey). Carell's performance is superb, and his choice of roles beyond this will suddenly expand from those that simply require him to gurn for the camera. And finally as the grandfather, is the always classy, Alan Arkin, who has been off the Academy radar for far too long. He is fantastic here, and must, simply must, be a shoe-in for a best supporting actor nomination. Arkin adds a 40+ years of experience and Gravitas to the role.
Directing duo Jonathon Dayton, and Valerie Farris, both do a brilliant job. Things are kept simple. It's all about capturing an atmosphere, a mood, and the performances. It's an 8 million dollar movie, that is infinitely more captivating than anything this year, or last year, that is simply about performance and material. There's no hindrance of CGI, of spectacle. It's crisply and simply shot, focusing on the actors. Hollywood I hope is learning that a price cannot be put on directing, acting and scriptwriting of the highest order, now that big hollow blockbusters are starting to disappoint with their box office return.
Little Miss Sunshine is quite simply a fantastic achievement in the aspects that really matter in film-making. It's at this current time, the film to beat this year. *****
The Descent (2005)
Completely out of the blue this film hit horror fans for six, and general movie fans too. The Descent is a movie very much in the tradition of Alien and The Thing and represents probably the best creature horror since The Thing. Director Neil Marshall sets the film up to play on the audiences fears of, the dark, being buried alive, confined spaces, and the unknown. It's a simple idea that Marshall has to put these women down into a cave with merely flashlights and flares to light their way, but as the history of this genre will show you, it's so, so easy to get wrong (The Cave, essentially the Hollywood, and as such less artistic and subtle, version of this). Marshall who did the highly rated comedy horror Dog Soldiers before this, steps up a gear for The Descent, delivering a genuinely creepy and unnerving horror film. The film is brilliantly shot and the use of locales is superb, particularly the antithesis of the wide open Scottish countryside at the films beginning, with the claustrophobic atmosphere of the caves.
The plot follows a group of women, always searching for the next natural high. This year it is caving. One of the women, Sarah, lost her husband and her daughter in a tragic accident the year before, on her way back home after some white water rafting. While the instigator of the ladies adventures, Juno, harbours guilty feelings because she had been having an affair with the husband. So we already know something will come to a head inside the cave between the two, once best friends. The caving starts off okay until a section collapses leaving the (attractive naturally) ladies having to find an alternate route out. As the film progresses it's not only the dangers of the caves terrain that the ladies overcome but also the horrible looking bat people dwelling inside, who naturally have a taste for human flesh.
What makes this film work is the fact that Marshall makes you care about the characters. He gives them all a personality. Similarly the film has no stars in it and there's a surprise factor as you try and guess who'll get picked off and in what order. Similarly it's very atmospheric and well shot, and the score from David Julyan (whose brilliant work in Christopher Nolan's first three movies, I loved) is ambient and suitably indicative of the horror to come. All the cast are excellent, particularly Natalie Mendoza and Shauna MacDonald. Marshall too directs with assurance, and flair, perfectly capturing the caves in much the same way Ridley Scott captured the confines of the ship and it's air ducts in Alien. Marshall is building himself a reputation for doing quality British genre movies, and doing them very well. Lets see if he can keep it up.
All in all the Descent isn't merely a decent movie of its type, it is in fact one of the best of its genre. A film that will continue to garner a cult following. It's a movie that American filmmakers of late have seemingly just viewed as impossible to do with subtlety, and skill and decent acting. Intent to go for cheap and therefore ineffectual scares. The Descent takes time to build up it's tension, and knows when to pull the audience in, only to give them a jolt of pants dampening fear when they least expect it. While the brilliant score from Julyan is anything but schlocky, overwrought and predictable. A brilliant film. ****1/2
DOA: Dead or Alive (2006)
Good fun if you're in the right mood!
Dead or Alive is a film that is so exploitative and atrociously bad, that somehow it ended up being a whole lot of fun. However to view this as a fun film, it must be viewed as intended: With brain switched off, and ol' Mr McDong taking control of your functions for 80 minutes. Yes, this may be a film with a predominantly female cast, but ladies need not turn up to watch this, cause they probably won't enjoy it, unless their sexual barometer is registering the opposite end from "hetero." This film is total gratuity in every regard, from the scantily clad, sexy ladies, to the barrage of testosterone pumping action. This is hot chicks doing high kicks! So with that, and having this the pre-conceived idea when I bought my ticket, I knew I'd enjoy it. Hell the film was marketed right. It's about a video game and has the subtlety of said game, which is in the button bashing, short attention span of the games spectrum. It's a simple movie for a simple movie going experience. IF anyone goes into this film and comes out having not enjoyed it, then they SHOULD have known better! I think only those who want to see this kind of film, who are in the mood, will watch, and they'll get a kick out of it like me. Critics will despise it cause it represents a film they have to watch, but probably don't want to.
So DOA is essentially a non-interactive video game, an FMV if you will. It's got an awful script, mediocre acting, and all the efforts of the filmmakers have gone into perfectly capturing, glistening, bouncing boobies amongst the martial arts mayhem. The plot essentially is nothing more than little set-ups to all the fights, taking place at a secret fighting tournament set up by Eric Roberts, in grade-A scenery chewing mode. Roberts to me is a tragic waste of talent, who in the early 80's looked a great prospect and to some, me included, has more talent than his over-rated sister Julia (who now of course takes all the plaudits). Roberts is consigned to doing DTV movies now, or TV movies and on the rare occasion he appears back in the multiplexes, it's in another B-movie that usually is awful. However at least Eric is enjoying himself here, relishing his return (somewhat) to the limelight. or to put it another way, to remind people Julia wasn't an only child! The rest of the main cast, who register any interest, are the hot ladies. There's the rather bizarre, yet strikingly attractive looking Devon Aoki and then there's also Holly Valance, Sarah Carter and Natassia Malthe too. However it's Jaime Pressley who steals the show, not only with her performance, that delivers the most laughs (intentional ones that is), but also she has a bod to die for and considering some stiff competition from Valances sculpted physique in particular, that's no mean feat.
Overall though this film will go down as a classic bad movie. The filmmakers never intended making anything beyond what they deliver. This is bad, it's cheesy and it's forgettable. But it's outrageously fun while it lasts and it most certainly requires the wearing of loose fitting underwear to allow for Sgt Schlong to stand to attention every now and again. I feel guilty having enjoyed it, but I had a good idea of the film that would be delivered and it was delivered as I imagined. ***
Mirror, Mirror on the wall: What is the greatest teen girl fantasy of all?
In what has been described as a kind of Labyrinth for the 21sr century, we have this wonderful little fantasy film, that looks and feels unlike anything you'll have seen before. The film is a technical delight, that while it may lack originality in terms of story, more than makes up for it with an awe-inspiring achievement in atmosphere, and total world immersion, much like Labyrinth itself did. It's not only the story where there are similarities with both films, because Mirrormask, is also from the Jim Henson company as well.
Anyway the story centres on a young girl, Helena. She works with her parents in a circus, yearning to live a "real" life away from the madness of travelling with jugglers, and giants, and bearded ladies (please note the film disappointingly does not contain a bearded lady!). Her mother reminds her constantly that her fathers circus, is barely getting by in terms of revenue, and that her help is needed. However Helena, a girl consumed in her own little fantasy world of expressionist, bizarre drawings, wants to live an ordinary life, and similarly doesn't want to feel such responsibility, baring on her near, adult shoulders. When her mother falls ill, Helena is plagued by worry and also guilt. One night she finds herself transported into a strange dream world, that is a strange amalgamation of her many bizarre sketches. She finds herself on a quest to find something, to stop the darkness spreading over this world. Helena's own fascination with light and dark, and her own widely erratic moods, are what mostly populate the look of the dream world. Essentially, like Labyrinth, while the fantasy storyline is a occasionally convoluted, and very fairytale in context, in the context of it being a dream, a Freudian fantasy of a girl struggling with certain mother/daughter, father/daughter conflicts, with the fear of growing up and losing her imagination in a battle with responsibility, this film works well. It's a film, that like Labyrinth can appeal to kids, while can also challenge adults with it's material beneath the fairytale exterior.
As Helena, the rather beautiful (not in the conventional way, but in a more interesting way) Stephanie Leonidas is superb. It's a hard role, with certain themes that a a lot darker than those raised in Labyrinth. It's a role that needed a certain amount of maturity, and the, at the time, 21 year old, Leonidas delivers that, while able to physically blend into the role of a teen. The real life part of this tale is a bit grungier than the world Sarah, in Labyrinth inhabits. It's a young teen, who's grown up quicker, than her 1980's American counterpart. Also Jason Barry is excellent as Valentine, Helena's companion throughout her quest. Gina Mckee and Rob Brydon also add great support as her parents.
The film creates this strange, vivid, and surrealistic world, mostly through CGI, yet it doesn't have that feeling. It really does feel as if Helena is trapped inside her sketches. The films look is so strange it almost defies explanation, yet it's so unique and eye popping. Director Dave Mckean too does a great job, and the film throughout, real world and fantasy world, is superbly shot. It was made on a no budget in Britain, but looks fantastic all the way through. Similarly while the film looks unique, the score, by Iain Bellamy, is completely and delightfully, out of left field. This film is a delight for fantasy fans, and fans of good movies in general. For me it won't quite hold the magic of Labyrinth, but that's only because I grew up with the brilliant fantasy classic, but Mirrormask is film that will certainly grace my DVD collection, and never grow thick with dust. ****
Brilliant fights, truly unique!
Bizarrely a sequel to a film no one saw, about boxing, only this time it's about kickboxing. Now surely there must be more to the plot? Well no, it is essentially an excuse to have some downright superb fight scenes. Michael Jai White stars as George "the Ice Man" Chambers, played in the original by Ving Rhames. He's not playing the Wesley Snipes character as we might have assumed, considering White has been rumoured to be replacement Blade for Snipes, and after all Snipes and White are both martial arts demon's.
Anyway director Isaac Florentine has always shown a knack for filming fight scenes, without ever really getting the rest particularly right. Similarly his films never really look too polished, unable to look beyond their clearly meagre budgets. Similarly Florentine's previous films tended have bizarre mixes of time periods, costumes etc, to create non descript worlds, which just came out as strange on film. Bridge Of Dragon's for example was a pretty bog standard kind of fairy tale action movie. Also his use of cartoony sound effects for every movement, no matter how small, become tiresome in previous flicks. For example someone would raise an eyebrow and it would be accompanied by a "whoosh!" Having said all that I enjoyed his previous films for the action and the cheesiness of them. But Florentine has reigned himself in here, and in what is probably his most high profile and lavish production, he has produced a kick ass action film. Previously too he never really got any particularly good performances form his cast, be manages to here. White doe okay, and has the build and a certain amount of charisma that makes you wonder why he's not competing in the DTV wars with the top dogs like Seagal, Snipes and Van Damme. Strangely he's not much of an action star despite the huge muscular frame and martial arts prowess. Ben Cross also appears and as he did in the Lundgren flick, the Mechanik, he adds class to proceedings, because he can act. He does well in making his supporting part memorable in a fairly tragic kind of role, and he gives it some humanity and some humour. Ken Lerner too makes a welcome appearance playing a role we've seen many times before from him, and he of course he'll always be remembered as the agent, Arnold stabs in the back with a pen, in Running Man. Eli Danker is also superb.
However the real star of this piece is Scott Adkins, the British born, Kickboxer/Gymnast, here playing a Russian prison tournament champ. Adkin's not only has a good screen presence but like White is built like a brick outhouse, and to add to that he's an amazing athlete for a guy so huge. If marketed right Adkins could be the next big action star, he's got the ability to be one of the best. Adkin's performs some amazing gymnastic feats here. He's not a bad actor either and I think people will actually assume he's Russian, so he does a good job here, despite playing a comically two dimensional villains worthy of Ivan Drago himself. The fights are really well done. They feel unique too, much down to Adkin's himself but also the great photography, dolly and steadi-cam work.
This may have a plot that could have been written on the back of a match box, probably reading something along the lines of "Michael Jai White is forced to fight Scott Adkin's, twice!" However the film looks polished thanks to Ross Clarkson's photography, while Florentine is allowed to show some auterism that many DTV directors for hire aren't allowed to. It's simply a few situations that are thrown in to lead into fights, but the fights come thick and fast, and as well as that they are original, and pretty awesome. Thankfully the cast are good enough to rise above the trite situations which is why it's important in these films to include guys like Ben Cross, who can act.
Overall this is a film that will no doubt gain cult status amongst martial arts fan's. It's the most Drive-ish film since Drive, something simple yet for what it is, brilliantly delivered. There's rumours of another sequel, which I'd hope to see, but truthfully if it didn't have Adkin's it would be sorely lacking a one man special effect. Adkin's is even better than Kong! ***
The Hard Corps (2006)
Should be Harder, but still not bad.
JC seems to be mellowing these days. His film roles are those which play up to his age, his experience, and have JC as more grounded individuals. In Wake Of Death he impressed with a performance that stretched him. In Second In Command, the film wasn't very good, but Van Damme gave a solid performance, albeit in a role without much depth. Now we all kind of realise that in the direct to video world, it's very unlikely you'll find a really decent film, so first and foremost a DTV viewer strives for competence. Wake Of Death had that, as had VD's previous film, In Hell. Second In Command came close, but the crap fairy waved his magic wand and terdinated the film slightly. The Hard Corps regains a level of competence again for Van Damme.
Here JC teams up with long time friend and collaborator, Sheldon Lettich. Together they have made Double Impact (great fun when you're in the right mood) and Lionheart as well. Lettich knows how to get the best from Van Damme, and on the most part does. He also gives the film an assured touch that was lacking in SIC. The plot centres on world heavyweight boxer, and entrepreneur, Wayne Barclay (Raz Adoti), and his sister Tamara (Vivica Fox). As it happens Barclay is far from popular with Rap mogul, and gangsta, Terrell Singleton, as Barclay had him sent to prison years earlier. Upon Terrell's release, the first order of business is to wipe out Barclay. Tamara insists that Wayne hires a security team and contacts a Vietnam Vet who also served in Iraq and Afghanistan, who in turn contacts his old, war scarred buddy, Van Damme. Van Damme is in a veterans psychiatric hospital, tormented by an incident in Iraq that left a school of children destroyed, with dozens of dead kid's inside. So Van Damme hops aboard the Barclay security. On the first night an attempt on Barclays life leaves Van Dammes pal dead, and from there he takes over and then he begins to develop a relationship with Tamara, much to Wayne's disgust. The plot outline seems simple enough, the trouble is the film seems segmented into three stories, and can't divide the screen time (a lengthy 110 minutes) right. As such the film lags in moments and there just ain't enough JC in it. His war torn character is not given enough depth. When we begin to delve into the character, the film takes us away to one of the subplots. In truth the film would have been better at 90 minutes, and with more focus on Van Damme. Still there's good support from Raz Adoti, and also the Foxxy, Vivica Fox.
Anyway, those who see this puppy at their local Blockbusters (probably on a lower to middle shelf, but at least not bottom) will not be too interested in how the plot is. It's the Van Damage they crave. The action here, is okay, with the biggest problem being that not enough time and money is spent on them. Gunfights for example lack impact because of a lack of practical effects. Also because the film isn't all that violent, despite it's R rating, people don't get shot, have their chest burst open with a gallon of blood and fall to the ground in a mangled bloodied heap. Being from the UK, this film is what I'd call standard 15 certificate, which equates to a soft R. Whereas for these movies I prefer a hard R, which over here means an 18 cert. What I mean is that when there's not that much punch in the action, when someone gets shot, there really needs to be a POW. We need to see the blood flying. As an example take Dolph Lundgren's The Mechanik (The Russian Specialist as it's also known). It's a low budget piece which actually did spend its money well on the action, but obviously can't compete with bigger movies that can double the explosion outlay. However the film was very violent, people got shot and you really knew it. Harry Knowles (AICN) himself in fact gave the film a brief mention in a Second In Command review, stating he dug the bloodletting that Dolph let loose upon us. I wouldn't imagine he'd say the same of this. Also the fight scenes although nice and rough, a too few and far between in all honesty. However Van Damme does get to deliver some trademark kicks, but he's still holding back the Helicopter kick for B-2 (a sequel to Bloodsport none the less).
Overall though THC, is a fair piece of entertainment, that surpasses anything Steven Seagal is doing at the moment. Really it's a film that won't blow your socks off, or stick its hand in your underwear and pleasure you, but it's a lot better than watching paint dry. As a point of interest though, Van Damme's next film, Til Death could be great. It's a dark film, that seems to be going for a 70's styled, Death Wish, Get Carter vibe, that sees Van Damme donning a leather jacket and sideburns. It promises to hit hard with the action and get a level of nastiness we saw in VD's Wake Of Death. And if that doesn't get you excited how bout this: Stephen Rea, the Oscar nominated actor recently seen in V for Vendetta, co-stars. AND if that isn't enough, it's also written by Dan Harris, one of the guys responsible for Superman Returns, and X Men 2. But who knows we may even see JC face off against Jackie Chan in Rush Hour 3! I hope so. **1/2
Yet another sequel! Capn' Jack returns for another adventure, and this time the scale is ginormous! If you thought Pirates 1 was action packed, and spectacular, this film goes far beyond with massive sets, brilliant effects, and a massive 2 and a half hour running time, that will have you leaving the theatre feeling like you've spent a year in the harshest prison, wearing a ballerina's outfit, with a bull's-eye painted on your rear. Now the scale is huge, and there's all the lavish extravagance that Bruckheimer loves to give his punters, but the story lacks some cohesion, and it's all a bit too much, without much in the way of character depth. That could be an unfair nitpicking for a film entitled Pirates of the Caribbean sure, but the film is little more than a rollicking and fun night out at the cinema. It's not going to adorn top 100 lists of film buffs around the world that's for sure.
However this is the second in a series of films that should be predominantly about fun, spectacle, and pure entertainment. In this regard Pirates 2 more than delivers, while maybe lacking the ingenuity and surprise factor of the first movie which, mainly thanks to Johnny Depp, took the public by storm. Depp once again is superb, despite giving one of his least interesting performances, as of course this is the first time ever, he's reprised a role, and Depp of course is renowned for doing startlingly different roles from one film to the next. It actually seems incredibly strange to see Depp treading old ground, still his creation of Jack Sparrow is superb. Orlando Bloom again is in the film for little more than to play the straight man to Depp, and to look good for the ladies. It's not a great role for Bloom, who as yet hasn't proved just whether he's going to be a top actor or not, or merely a pretty boy. To some extent the same is true of Keira Knightly, who come mud, sweat, grime, or rain, or dragged up as a boy, looks phenomenal. However while this role offers little for Keira she has already proved she's going to be a great actress (one Oscar nod to her name already!). On one regard though Bloom and Knightley at least have more to do in this film, and Depp is allowed to step back every now and again. This isn't merely the Depp show, which is arguably to the films detriment. The rest of the cast are good, but it's Bill Nighy who steals the show managing to convey an amazingly expressive performance from behind his squiddy CGI mask.
All in all Pirates 2 delivers all you could want in a fantasy adventure. The story gets muddle in amongst all the swordfights and giant sea creatures, but still for pure fun at the movies, you can't go far with this. I most certainly look forward to Pirates 3. ***1/2
Superman Returns (2006)
Donner's film is superior but this still hits the spot!
Bryan Singer moves from his Marvel franchise of the X-Men, to DC Comics very own Man of Steel. The fine work that Singer did with Wolverine and co, is clearly evident in this enjoyable summer blockbusters, although it never quite captures the heart and character shown in particular in X Men 2. Superman Returns still delivers what we'd expect from a Superman movie, and delivers it fully in the 21st century wizardry we all expect. When Superman fly's we believe he's flying.
The film no doubt will be consistently compared to the original Superman movie, by Richard Donner, and while Singer has been keen to do his own vision of the man of steel, he has made sure to keep much of what made the original film so successful, in what is a kind of unofficial sequel, or perhaps a follow on. This film takes place sometime after Superman 2, and also quite rightly dismisses the disastrous third and the diabolical fourth. However while Singer has no doubt crafted a top draw summer film, this movie will not have the timeless appeal of Donner's 1978 original. In my mind and many others, the first Superman film is one of the most underrated films of all time. Simply dismissed as a good comic book family film. But Donner's film actually has more character than it's given credit for by some, and also is one of the most witty and funny films ever made. It's a film of comical genius that keeps the audience laughing, and it's and impressive feat for a film that is not actually classified as a comedy. It's just a very funny film with some of the most superbly timed gags in moviedom. Singer captures some moments of comedy, but not to the same degree. However it's an attempt to create a more dark Superman movie, which he does quite well, without ever quite doing what Chris Nolan did for Batman.
Now the main comparison point will undoubtedly be Brandon Routh and Christopher Reeve's portrayals as Supes and of course his alter ego Clark Kent. Routh firstly is good. It's a debut that's impressive and he could have easily been out of his depth, or mismanaged as Hayden Christiansen was in Star Wars 2 and 3. Routh though captures both Supes and Kent very well, at times eerily reminiscent of Reeves. There's no doubt that Routh will be a big star now, probably in these kind of movies more than anything else, but while he's good, he is no Chris Reeve. Reeve delivered a fantastic performance that is one of the greatest ever in a "blockbuster" film. Sorely under appreciated for what it was, and that was performance of great charm, subtlety and depth, both in his emotive performance but also his physical performance. Reeve is and will probably always be the ultimate Superman, and would be even without his real life courage and heroism. This is in no way a disrespect to Routh, it's simply just how good Reeve was. Ditto to Kate Bosworth who is decent as Lois without ever capturing the verve and vivacity of Margot Kidder. Kevin Spacey was actually a bit of a disappointment in all truth. His Lex Luthor is more threatening than swaggering Gene Hackman (whose association with blithering imbeciles works in detriment to his criminal genius). Spacey has done far more chilling villainy in his career, while his Luthor is a little bit clichéd. Really the majority of the cast do well without capturing the magic that their 1978 counterparts did for Donner, but the exception here is Sam Huntington who creates the ultimate Jimmy yet.
Technically the film is great in all respects. It looks great, sounds great and the action is superb. John Ottman edits and scores the film brilliantly, of course taking many of the cues from John Williams classic creation from 1978. The film is perhaps a little long for it's own good but never drags too much and while this won't be wearing out DVD players quite like the Donner film, this will certainly stand up to repeat viewings. It's well worth watching following a thus far disappointing summer of sequels. ****