District 13: Ultimatum (Banlieue 13 – Ultimatum)


Hair or no hair? Which is more badass? I can't decide!

Hair or no hair? Which is more badass? I can’t decide!

(2009) Action (Magnet) David Belle, Cyril Rafaelli, Philippe Torreton, Daniel Duval, Elodie Yung, MC Jean Gab’1, James Deano, Laouni Mouhid (La Fouine), Febrice Feltzinger, Pierre-Marie Mosconi, Johnny Amaro, Pascal D’Amato, Guy Amram. Directed by Patrick Alessandrin

Justice doesn’t come easy. It isn’t just handed to you. It must be fought for, and everything put up in risk for. Sometimes it takes time; sometimes it doesn’t come at all. But it won’t come without a fight.

The slums of Paris have become a war zone with five different gangs vying for ultimate power after the fall of a powerful gang lord. An indifferent government has essentially pulled the police out of District 13 after the events of District B13 and promises to improve things in the embattled district have fallen by the wayside with a change of administration.

Leito (Belle), an agile traceur (which is literally a practitioner of parkour) has become disillusioned with the broken promises and seeks to be a one-man agent provocateur, blowing up walls and leading cops and gangs on a merry chase in the streets of the district.

Capt. Damien Tomaso (Rafaelli) has taken down a drug lord all by his lonesome, using his martial arts skills to save an invaluable Picasso painting in the process. He goes home to his girlfriend only to wake up to an arrest warrant. Puzzled, he allows the DISS officers to take him to prison but being Tomaso he puts in a call to his friend Leito first.

Leito in the meantime has gotten hold of some damming video that shows officers of the DISS gunning down French police officers and leaving their bullet-riddled cars in District 13 for the gangs to be blamed. Walter Gassman (Duval), head of the DISS, we discover is in bed with Harriburton, an American multinational that is looking to raze District 13 and building luxury condos.

The weak-willed French president (Torreton) is inclined to give the order to evacuate the district and send in the bombs, but Leito and Tomaso have other plans. They’ll fight their way through gangs, corrupt cops and an uncaring French bureaucracy to get the President’s ear – or they’ll die trying.

Okay, that all sounds a bit preposterous – and it is – but you don’t go see an action movie because of its intricate plot do you? Well, you should – a movie with a good story well-told is always better than one without – but a lot can be forgiven due to the amazing action sequences. Producer Luc Besson, the godfather of European action films, pulls out all the stops here. The thing to remember here is that these stunts are being pulled off as you see them – no wires, no CGI. It’s pretty amazing stuff.

While neither Rafaelli or Belle are particularly great actors, they do have plenty of screen presence, enough to fill out most action star requirements. Rafaelli, a shaven head martial artist is a cross between Vin Diesel’s brooding sexuality and Jet Li’s agile grace; he is from the Clint Eastwood school of acting where lines are sparingly spoken and when they are, growled.

Belle is one of the originators of Parkour and at 35 is in marvelous shape. In District B13 his stunts dominated; Rafaelli is featured more here but when Belle is onscreen your breath is automatically held. He moves with grace and assurance, king of the jungle in an urban landscape. Both Belle and Rafaelli have enough to be action stars in the States in a just world. For now, they’re essentially objects of cult affection by discerning action junkies who don’t mind plowing through a few subtitles (although the cut released here is dubbed) to get their share of action goodness.

The plot is pretty weak and the ending aptly described by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Amy Biancolli as a steaming pile of huh. There is some validity to the complaints about the somewhat haphazard plot points that kind of clunk up the movie but the frenetic action sequences more than make up for this. In a year where the action films have largely been lame, this gem sits in wait for discerning action fans to discover. If this sounds like you, you need to give this one a shot.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing martial arts and parkour stunts. Belle and Rafaelli are charismatic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls apart in the third reel. Political satire loses something in the translation.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some bad language and drug usage.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Belle didn’t practice most of the stunts so that he could give the action a sense of freshness and improvisation so most of what you see him doing he’s doing for the very first time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a production diary as well as a music video from French hip-hop artist Alonso.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: €13.1M on a €12M production budget; the movie probably lost money at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fast and the Furious

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Prince of Egypt

Premium Rush


Premium Rush

Just because there’s a cab behind you doesn’t mean you’re on the right road.

(2012) Action (Columbia) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, Jamie Chung, Sean Kennedy, Wole Parks, Aasif Mandvi, Kymberly Perfetto, Christopher Place, Brian Koppelman, Boyce Wong, Jimmy P. Wong, Darlene Violette. Directed by David Koepp

 

Some movies have a great deal of depth. They require thought, concentration and a bit of contemplation to truly appreciate properly. Then there are movies like this one; the cinematic equivalent of a double shot of espresso with a Red Bull chaser.

Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) – whose name is pronounced like the ACME-using coyote from the Looney Tunes cartoons – is a New York City bike courier who delivers packages all over Manhattan on a lightweight modified bike with no brakes. He’s cocky, fearless and lives for the adrenaline high that his job delivers. He’s smart too – he actually passed the bar exam but you won’t find him in a corporate cubicle. Oh no. Wilee is no mere office drone. He has a better life in mind for himself.

Which apparently includes a girlfriend named Vanessa (Ramirez) although she’s not so sure. In fact, Wilee’s rival courier Manny (Parks) thinks that she’d be better off with him. He apparently really has some sort of need to prove his superiority over Wilee, always up for a race with his rival. Wilee, being the free spirit that he is, has no time for this.

In fact, he’s too busy picking up a package from his alma mater from Nima (Chung) who also happens to be Vanessa’s roommate coincidentally – for a premium rush job, which the customer is paying extra dollars to get to its destination just a little bit quicker. However, there’s a creepy guy named Bobby Monday (Shannon) who wants the package and will do anything to get it. In fact, he needs to steal it in order to pay off a substantial gambling debt. The only reason Monday isn’t already dead is that he is a New York City cop. Monday takes off after Wilee in the streets of New York on a high-speed chase that both men are desperate to win.

And that’s all the plot you need to know. Anything else doesn’t really matter – in fact most of the plot I mentioned above doesn’t matter either, other than the last sentence starting with “Monday takes off.” This is all about adrenaline-fueled hard-charging bike stunts in the streets of New York. It’s like the X-Games urban war that you’ve always wanted to see. If they could have gotten Tony Hawk to do some tricks off of the parked cars they would have had it made.

The pacing is hyperkinetic with the story jumping back and forth through flashbacks. Graphics show the routes taken through the city by the couriers, and graphics and flash forwards show the choices available to Wilee at various intersections and the potentially lethal consequences of some of his options. Those are some of the most fun scenes in the movie.

Gordon-Levitt is an appealing actor who is moving up the ranks from indie darling into legitimate star. He has been busy in a wide variety of movies and looks to be making the movie into the top tier of Hollywood stardom. It doesn’t hurt that he’s pretty buff looking here which is sure to make him a few new fans among the ladies.

Shannon is a versatile character actor who often has a dark streak in his characters. Here he is darker than most of the roles I’ve seen him in, a quite impressive villain who is out of control, and believes his badge renders him invulnerable to justice. Monday is the worst kind of bad cop and Shannon keeps him from becoming too much of a cartoon.

This is almost all action and no exposition. New Yorkers will find this a little bit more fun because of the locations, and men are going to like the non-stop action. There isn’t a lot here for those looking for relationships, character development or romance. It’s mostly about bicyclists taking insane chances. The lead character is well-named – he’s fearless and maybe too clever for his own good. I might have rated this higher had an anvil been dropped on his head.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty action sequences and a clever use of graphics. Gordon-Levitt is engaging and Shannon makes a fine villain.

REASONS TO STAY: Very New York-centric. A little too much testosterone.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence and some disturbing imagery. There are plenty of foul words though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the scenes set at Columbia Law School were filmed at Lerner Hall, the student center for the University.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The movie got decent reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Next Day Air

FORREST J. ACKERMAN LOVERS: Detective Monday uses the name of the legendary science fiction fan/author/literary agent/historian as an alias.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Of Gods and Men

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life


Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life

Get your motor running?

(2003) Action (Paramount) Angelina Jolie, Gerard Butler, Ciaran Hinds, Til Schweiger, Djimon Hounsou, Noah Taylor, Christopher Barrie, Simon Yam, Terence Yin, Daniel Caltagirone, Fabiano Martell, Jonathan Coyne. Directed by Jan de Bont

 

Video games have had a terrible time translating into movies. Maybe because they lack that interactive factor that hooks gamers so thoroughly, or maybe it is because Hollywood doesn’t understand the gamer market. I think the most important factor is that most of the movies based on video games have been pretty bad.

The second installment of the video game franchise turned movie adaptation is pretty basic. An earthquake on Santorini, the remains of the legendary Thera volcano in Greece, unearths a temple that brings all sorts of treasure hunters eager to check it out, including Lara Croft (Jolie). After Lara discovers a mysterious golden orb in the ruin, it is immediately stolen by Chen Lo (Yam), a high-ranking Chinese triad leader who is working for bioterror merchant Jonathan Reiss (Hinds) who believes it to be a map to the location of the legendary Pandora’s Box.

Except that the Pandora’s Box is actually a terrible weapon, one capable of destroying all life on earth, yadda yadda yadda. Lara is approached by MI-6 to enlist her aid in getting back the trinket, and to do so, she needs the help of someone who has worked for the bad guy. Conveniently, Terry Sheridan (Butler), a former lover of hers who is rotting in a jail in Kazakhstan fits the bill. The two travel to Asia to retrieve the orb, which Croft cronies Bryce (Taylor) and Hillary (Barrie) discover is activated by musical notes.

Lara and Terry must infiltrate the rural hideout of Chen Lo and retrieve the Orb – but when they do, they discover it’s not there. They then have to head to Shanghai where they are too late to interrupt the exchange between Chen Lo’s flunkies and Reiss. Lara must steal it from the heart of the dragon, so to speak and this leads her to a break-up with Terry, whom she doesn’t fully trust. It also leads her to Africa, where her friend Kosa (Hounsou) will lead her to an ancient tribe of guardians. They warn of shadow guardians, creatures who live in the darkness that will pluck out of existence the unwary and those who would enter the Cradle of Life, where the Box rests. Unfortunately, it is there that Reiss will catch up with her and the fight for the future of the world will truly begin.

To this point, Angelina Jolie had always left me flat. While I would come to appreciate her in later films, when I saw this I not a member of her fan club. Re-watching the movie recently didn’t change my opinion – you don’t get a sense that she really cared much about this film or this character. I felt this was more of a paycheck than a performance and maybe it’s a good thing that the film franchise died here, although a reboot of it is currently in the works.

Of course there are the special effects, which are considerable. The Shadow Guardians scene is particularly well-executed, and the Cradle of Life environment is vertigo-inducing in a good way. And, the rest of the cast is pretty nifty. Hinds makes an outstanding bad guy, and Butler is a riveting romantic lead, a bad guy with a heart of slightly tarnished gold. Hounsou is fine as an African guide, and holdovers  Barrie and Taylor from the first film are woefully under-utilized as Lara’s violent butler and resident computer genius.

I want to like this movie more than I do. When I watched it I was suitably entertained, and will probably wind up purchasing it. There are flaws, but director Jan De Bont overcomes a lot of them by keeping the action non-stop, something the man who gave us Speed understands very well. Although I find Jolie not my personal cup of tea, I have to admit she looks the part and she handles her stunts rather well. However, there’s a difference between expressing self-confidence and smirking and the latter is very unattractive.

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty special effects and action sequences. Butler, in his first major role, is roguishly charming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jolie may look the part but lacks heart. The plot is a bit banal.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a goodly amount of violence, a few mildly bad words here and there and some fairly intense making out.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jolie is the only actor in the film who was American-born.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are a couple of music videos and Gerard Butler’s screen test.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $156.5M on a $95 production budget; the film lost money during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING:King Solomon’s Mines

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Brave

The Italian Job (2003)


The Italian Job

That Mini-Cooper could probably fit inside that helicopter with room to spare.

(2003) Action (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Mos Def, Seth Green, Donald Sutherland, Boris Lee Krutonog, Julie Costello, Gawtti, Franky G, Aaron Speiser, Olek Krupa, Thomas Alexander. Directed by F. Gary Gray

 

It started out as a perfect heist. The brazen pilfering of Venetian gold, misdirection to lead pursuit away, and the recovery of the ill-gotten gains. Better still, this wasn’t the work of mastermind John Bridger (Sutherland), who is looking to get out of the game for good, but of his protégé, Charlie Croker (Wahlberg), who is taking over the crew.

Unexpectedly, they are betrayed by Steve (Norton) one of their own, who wants all the gold for himself. Knowing that Bridger has an aversion to carrying guns, Steve brings a few of his own and uses them. Most of the crew gets away, but John Bridger does not.

Fast forward a few years. The crew has managed to track down the elusive Steve back to Los Angeles, and are just itching for a little payback – not to mention the gold they stole. Left Ear (Mos Def), computer expert Napster (Green) and driver Handsome Rob (Statham) have reunited with Charlie, but they need an expert safecracker to take John’s old role. It so happens that John’s daughter Stella (Theron) has become an excellent safecracker, after a fashion; she is a security consultant who tests the vulnerability of safes for large corporations. She’s not really interested in ill-gotten gains, but it turns out she is very interested in getting revenge on the man who killed her father.

As with most caper movies, there are twists, turns and suspense a-plenty. Some wonderful car chases, some terrific action sequences and a nice bit of poetic justice near the end, although I couldn’t really call it an unexpected twist. Director F. Gary Gray is a bit too heavy-handed for that. He also has too many extraneous characters in the movie. I’m not sure if he’s trying to do some misdirection of his own, but it doesn’t work.

We could have done without the Russian mobsters and the informant, Skinny Pete (Gawtti). Frankly, some of the gang could have used a little more screen time. Gray, however, cast this movie to near-perfection. Green is fast becoming the Steve Buscemi for a new generation; he is nervous, quirky and always entertaining when he is riffing on his own. Statham is perfectly cast as Handsome Rob, the driver. He is absolutely riveting when he is on screen, and while he hasn’t gotten the huge screen star career I thought he was going to when I first saw this, he has managed to carve out a pretty satisfying niche in the action genre and has made some fairly nice films, although there is a lot of b-movie drekk in there as well. Wahlberg is settling into an action-hero niche nicely, although I’ve found him to be one-dimensional at times here but he nicely fills the role of the resourceful mastermind for the purposes of this film.

It is Theron who really caught my notice. Up until this point I’d never been very fond of her – she’sd always seemed kind of prissy in most of the movies I’ve seen her in up until this film, but she really held her own, and quite frankly, she looks better than she ever has at least until Snow White and the Huntsman (I know, I know, I’m a shallow, shallow man). Edward Norton gets to be a smarmy bad guy, a role in which he excels and pretty much perfects here.

The psychology of the movie is a little predictable; father-figure gets gunned down in front of the impressionable eyes of the hero, who seeks justice and gets it without getting his hands dirty. You know that the trigger-happy Norton is going to get his at the end of the movie, but you can’t have the hero getting blood on his hands; Hollywood might be going retro, but the anti-hero is a bit too retro for the tastes of most studios. I think it’s a bit hypocritical to line up Wahlberg as a criminal, but then he’s not a murderer, so he’s not too bad a guy. Of course, I could just be getting too grumpy in my old age.

Some movies should never be remade. Others can benefit from an updating. The 1969 Michael Caine caper movie on which this one is based is not what you would call a classic, but it is a movie of its time. That said, The Italian Job does what another remake, 2001`s Oceans 11 set out to do; take a movie of its time and make it timeless. Oceans 11 succeeded in its attempt, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Italian Job doesn’t quite become timeless, but it is an entertaining movie, and as the years have passed it has remained that way. I guess it is timeless after all.

WHY RENT THIS: Great action sequences. Theron emerges as a major star. Fun summer entertainment. Great ensemble.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wahlberg lacks the charisma I would have liked to have seen here. A little bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence and a lot of action.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Lyle’s girlfriend at the end of the film is played by Kelly Brook, who was Jason Statham’s actual girlfriend at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on Mini-Coopers (which are used extensively in the chase sequence) and on the actors two weeks in drivers school (they did a lot of their own driving stunts).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $176.1M on a $60M production budget; the film was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oceans 11

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Beautiful Life

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol


Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Paula Patton and Tom Cruise flee Doc Brown's new car after an 88MPH chase through Mumbai.

(2011) Spy Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Josh Holloway, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov, Lea Seydoux, Anil Kapoor, Samuli Edelmann, Ivan Shvedoff, Tom Wilkinson, Ving Rhames, Michelle Monaghan. Directed by Brad Bird

 

The term “popcorn flick” usually refers to a movie which one brainlessly munches popcorn to, one in which the viewer is engrossed in the action and in a real sense leaves themselves behind and become enmeshed in the world the filmmaker has created. Strangely, the term is often used in a derogatory fashion. From where I sit, it should be a high honor to be a popcorn flick.

And here one is, the fourth entry in the long-standing Mission: Impossible franchise which Cruise began 15 years ago as a big screen adaptation of an old ’60s spy series that in turn was a response to the wild popularity of James Bond. In many ways, the film franchise has of late outdone the Bond series, taking it high-tech and over the top.

The movie begins with Ethan Hunt (Cruise) being broken out of a Russian prison by Benji Dunn (Pegg) and Jane Carter (Patton), two fellow IMF agents. Hunt then receives orders to break into the Kremlin and retrieve information about a nuclear terrorist code-named Cobalt, who intends to destroy the information so that his true identity can’t be discovered. Hunt arrives too late; the information is gone and Cobalt has planted a bomb in the Kremlin, blowing it to smithereens. Hunt – and by extension, the IMF – are blamed.

Hunt manages to escape the hospital where he has been treated for wounds suffered in the explosion – and the dogged Russian agent (Mashkov) who is pursuing him – and is picked up by the Secretary (Wilkinson) of the IMF and Brandt (Renner), an IMF analyst. The Secretary explains that the IMF has been disavowed as an agency by the President – a situation called the Ghost Protocol – and that Hunt must stop Cobalt from initiating a nuclear horror and simultaneously clear the IMF from wrongdoing in the Kremlin explosion. Unfortunately, the Secretary destructs shortly thereafter and Brandt and Hunt barely escape with their lives.

Thus begins a globe-trotting adventure that takes Hunt and his team-by-default to Dubai and Mumbai in India, following Cobalt (Nyqvist) and his lackey Wistrom (Edelmann) and put them squarely in the path of lethal assassin Sabine Moreau (Seydoux) who had earlier murdered Agent Hanaway (Holloway who was Sawyer in TV’s “Lost” as you might recall) who also had been Carter’s lover. Carter is a bit cheesed off at Moreau because of it.

This is Bird’s live-action debut, having directed The Incredibles and Ratatouille for Pixar. He is perfectly suited for this kind of movie, the M:I series being something of a live action cartoon in any case. There are stunt sequences here that are some of the best in the series, including one in which Ethan Hunt climbs the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building using a pair of electronic gloves that allow him to stick to the glass surface. There is also a climactic fight between Cobalt and Hunt in Mumbai in one of those garages where the cars are stacked as in a carrying case and brought out robotically. There’s also a chase in a sandstorm involving Hunt and Wistrom.

If it sounds like Tom Cruise gets to have all of the fun in this movie, he essentially does. He has the charisma and star power still to retain your attention whenever he’s on the screen. However there is also no doubt that the man is getting older (he’ll turn 50 in 2012) and that he is slowing down some. This is not the cocky self-confident Cruise who did the first Mission: Impossible film. He is not yet too old for the role but he’s certainly showing signs that he’s on his way there.

Renner gets to show off his acting chops a bit, surprisingly, as Brandt. In many ways his character is more interesting than Ethan Hunt, having been given a bit of a backstory and Brandt gets to pull off a bit of pathos which is unexpected in a movie like this. Then again, it has been widely rumored that he is the heir apparent to the franchise once Cruise decides to bow out and it seems likely that a passing of the torch will take place in the next film of the series or perhaps two films down the road.

Patton and Pegg have supporting roles, she as sex appeal and he as comedy relief and both perform ably. Patton in particular really isn’t given a lot to work with and that may leave some cold when it comes to her character, but she is sexy when she needs to be and an action heroine when she needs to be.

An action film doesn’t need to have intelligence (although that can be a pleasant plus) in order to be successful. For those looking for entertainment that doesn’t require a great deal of mental investment, this is definitely the way to go. It’s got great stunts and fights, high tech gadgets that would make Q Division green with envy, sexy women, hunky men and international intrigue – not to mention exotic locations. There may be no casinos here but the spirit of James Bond is alive and well with this franchise – and with the Bond franchise as well, thankfully. Spy movie fans are certainly living in the best of times.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular stunts and amazing pacing makes for an exciting, breathtaking and ultimately mindless action film.

REASONS TO STAY: Cruise is a little long in the tooth for his role. Nyqvist makes for a pretty bland villain.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence action-style.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cruise performed the scaling of the Burj Khalifa tower sequence himself without the aid of a stunt double. The insurance company is recovering nicely from their angina.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely in the theater – the big stunts and big vistas deserve a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Darkest Hour

Takers


Takers

You can tell these cats are cool because of the blue lighting. Really.

(2010) Action (Screen Gems) Matt Dillon, Idris Elba, Paul Walker, Zoe Saldana, Hayden Christensen, Chris Brown, Michael Ealy, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Jay Hernandez, Steve Harris, Jonathan Schaech, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Glynn Turman, Nicholas Turturro, Gideon Emery.  Directed by John Luessenhop

There are those who go through life wishing they could have things, and there are others who simply take what they want. There are those who admire such people and wish they had the brains and the cojones to do the same.

Detectives Jack Welles (Dillon) and Eddie Hatcher (Hernandez) are on the trail of a group of bank robbers who pull of daring heists that operate like clockwork. Welles knows that he’s after some smart, competent men who know how to plan down to the smallest detail.

The crew is led by Gordon Cozier (Elba), a smart, dapper sort who has a sister (Jean-Baptiste) who’s addicted to crack. He is anxious to get out of the business while he still can so he can take care of his sister. Also in the crew is Jesse Attica (Brown) and his brother Jake (Ealy), A.J. (Christensen) and John Rahway (Walker). Missing in action is Ghost (T.I.) who was one of the leaders in the crew before he got caught during a botched robbery and imprisoned. Now he’s out and even though his ex-girlfriend Lily (Saldana) is engaged to Jesse, he is letting bygones be bygones.

In fact, he has a plan for a heist that should bring enough money in so that they can all retire. It’s an armored car heist, a very daring and seemingly impossible one. However, with Ghost’s help, the crew manages to pull off the heist although not exactly as planned. However, taking the money is not the whole crime. Getting away with it is what counts and with the cops hot on their tails and double crosses awaiting within the crew, who is going to be left standing when all the money is taken?

This is meant to be a slick, modern heist thriller with an urban cast. It can’t be denied that the movie looks stylish. However, the script is incredibly derivative with elements of many other heist films coming into play, The Italian Job coming chiefly to mind.

There are also way too many characters who come and go throughout the movie. Even the crew seems terribly interchangeable and some members redundant. It’s difficult to keep track of who’s who without a scorecard, and at the end of the day the movie would have been better if some of the parts had been consolidated.

What’s worse is that none of the characters that are here really stand out. Elba comes close as Gordon; he has a natural charisma that shines through a part that is essentially a stock character. His relationship with his sister is one of the elements in the movie that actually works; the interrelationship with the gang is largely forced and seems to come straight out of a music video.

The palate here is in soft hues and neon bright; there is also an overreliance on the hand-held cam which sabotages the filmmakers’ attempt to look slick and cool. There are moments however when the film succeeds and that is mostly in the action sequences.

The armored car heist is spectacular and is the best part of the movie by far. The fact that it doesn’t go off like clockwork only adds to the thrill factor. There are several chase scenes and fight scenes that are also effectively staged, although a hotel shoot-out with slow motion tumbles and bullets flying looks way too 90s for my tastes.

This is one of those movies that is all concept. It could have been a decent movie if the filmmakers (and likely, the studio) had taken more chances and tried to be a little more of its own film but sadly, there seemed to be more attention made to attracting box office numbers than making a good movie. In that sense, you get what you pay for.

WHY RENT THIS: Some really impressive action sequences.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many characters who are too interchangeable; a smaller crew would have benefitted the film. Nobody really becomes the film’s center although Elba comes close. Too much style over substance.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence action-style, some nudity and sexuality and  a fair share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Stephen King called the armored car heist sequence the best action sequence of 2010.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: With a cast this heavy with rappers, you know there’s going to be a rap video on the extra menu.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $69.1M on a $32M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Bless the Child

300


300

Gerard Butler wonders why with the budget the film had they couldn't afford more than underwear and capes.

(2006) Swords and Sandals (Warner Brothers) Gerard Butler, David Wenham, Lena Headey, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, Rodrigo Santoro, Michael Fassbender, Stephen McHattie, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Giovani Antonio Cimmino, Kelly Craig.  Directed by Zack Snyder

This is not like anything you’ve ever seen or are likely to see ever again. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley that is a fanciful, highly stylized account of the legendary stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, the movie starts with a narrator (whose identity isn’t revealed until the very end of the movie) who explains the rigors of life in Sparta. Starting from birth, where babies that are considered weak, inferior or deformed are killed, the children are born to a life of cruel discipline, constant fighting, strength, honor and respect.

Leonidas (Butler) is born to this world and he takes to it like a politician to a photo-op. Now the King of Sparta, he is visited by an emissary from Persia demanding Sparta’s submission to their rule. Persia, a vast sprawling empire that encompasses hundreds of nations and a slave-driven army of more than a million, is ruled by Xerxes (Santoro from TV’s “Lost”), a decadent, corrupt ruler who believes himself to be a God. Leonidas, enraged by the implied threats, executes the Persian contingent.

Knowing that this will provoke Persia into attacking Greece, he seeks the blessing of the Ephors, grotesque inbred priests who select the most beautiful young women in Sparta to act as Oracles (Craig), which involves a lot of writhing around while semi-nude and speaking in tongues. Leonidas is aware that the Persians will arrive during one of the most sacred religious festivals on the Spartan calendar, and he wants to be able to make an exception to the law and march his army to a narrow chasm called the Hot Portals, or Thermopylae. There, the overwhelming numeric advantage of the Persians will be rendered useless. The word from On High is that the Gods will protect the Spartans as long as they honor their religious commitments. That’s not the answer that Leonidas wanted to hear.

Powerless to bring the entire Spartan army to defend his people, he must settle for his own personal guard, which includes his Captain (Regan), the Captain’s son Astinos (Wisdom), the affable Stelios (Fassbender) and the taciturn Dilios (Wenham). They march off to battle, while members of the council, led by the politically savvy Theron (West) debate whether to send aid at all which boils the blood of their fierce Queen (Headey).

The Spartans are met by a vast host of the multi-cultural Persian Army and the over-the-top King Xerxes himself. No matter what the Persians throw at them, the hard-edged Spartans repel every attempt to defeat them. They are doing the impossible – holding the pass against an overwhelming force. However, those who know the story of the 300 know that the status quo will change and the stuff of legends will be born.

This is a gritty, ultraviolent movie that director Snyder (the Dawn of the Dead remake) keeps remarkably faithful to Miller’s graphic novel vision. The movie is largely filmed with green screen, rendering epic vistas and impossible sights, while allowing them to mute the lighting so that the movie seems to be filmed entirely at dusk in a kind of sepia-toned veneer. He brings the grotesque creatures of the graphic novel to life in a way that makes them seem realistic while keeping with Miller’s vision, a very difficult line to walk (if you’ve seen any of Lynn Varley’s artwork, you’ll know what I mean). The visuals are spectacular throughout.

Butler, who had theretofore hinted at stardom with impressive turns in Phantom of the Opera and Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life here does a star turn. His dialogue is delivered at full volume, and his face much of the time is contorted into a primal snarl (and for the ladies, he spends most of the movie wearing a black leather speedo), but he carries himself with a presence that commands your attention every moment he’s onscreen. Leonidas is king, yes, but he is also a man and his interactions with his wife and son give the movie it’s very few quiet moments. This is a starmaking turn and propelled Butler into the upper echelon of the Hollywood star hierarchy.

Headey makes a great foil for Butler, as strong and charismatic as he himself is. Her Queen Gorgo takes on Dominic West’s Theron without blinking an eyelash and shows herself to be as admirable a Spartan as any man. Santoro’s Xerxes is decadent, corrupt and a little bit fey. Regan, Wisdom, Fassbinder and Wenham do fine jobs as Leonidas’ inner circle – they’re Spartans all through and through. They go full bore and hold nothing back. In fact there are very few things that are anything less than the very highest volume. There are a few moments that are about the three quarter mark, particularly early on.

Otherwise this is a movie that was filmed at 11, and is meant to be played back at 11 (to use a Spinal Tap analogy). It is an overwhelming sensory experience that will release a surge of testosterone in all but the most non-masculine sorts and give women their opportunity to access their inner man. This isn’t the most historically accurate epic you’ll ever see, but think of it as a surreal dream version of history and that might salve the conscience of sticklers a little bit. So go, see the movie, and then go out and beat somebody up, preferably with a sword. If you’re wearing a leather speedo, so much the better. 

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning, innovative visuals and a star-making performance by Butler. Takes a graphic novel and cranks it up to “11.”

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The amount of testosterone flowing through this movie might be off-putting to someone who doesn’t like their movies quite so over-bearing.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some really graphic battleground violence, a bit of nudity and a little sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The quote attributed to Stelios here “Then we shall fight in the shade” when warned that the rain of Persian arrows will blot out the sun was actually spoken historically by a Spartan soldier named Dionekes.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a feature examining the historical license taken by Miller and by the filmmakers, comparing the events of the movie to what actually happened at Thermopylae. There is also a featurette on Miller, his early years and the writing of the original graphic novel. On the Blu-Ray edition is the original test footage Snyder used to sell the Warners executives on the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $456M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Bridesmaids