American Dresser


Give me life on the road.

(2018) Drama (Cinedigm) Tom Berenger, Keith David, Carmine Canglialosi, Gina Gershon, Penelope Ann Miller, Jeff Fahey, Bruce Dern, Kathrine Narducci, Andrew Bryniarski, Becky O’Donohue, Elle McLemore, Rob Moran, Jennifer Damiano, Wyatt Lozano, Scott Shilstone, Ryan R. Johnson, Josh Owens, Jim Ford, Michael Perri, Sophia Franzella. Directed by Carmine Canglialosi

 

There are few things more American than hopping on your motorcycle and going off in a cloud of dust to travel the highways and byways of our great nation. It’s been an idea that has captivated American cineastes at least as far back as Easy Rider and it is a motif that has shown up in movies over and over again ever since.

John Moore (Berenger) is dealing with the grief of his wife’s (Gershon) death from cancer and not at all dealing with it well. He has fallen into the bottle, much to the disgust of his two adult daughters who are further mortified when he shows up late to his wife’s funeral. Basically in an alcoholic stupor all day, he decides to assuage his grief by going through his wife’s things – doesn’t everybody? – which is when he finds a letter she had written to him but never sent. The contents aren’t revealed other than obliquely and even then not until late in the film but John is inspired to dust off his old bike and head off on a road trip to Oregon from whatever Eastern hamlet he lives in.

Joining him is Charlie (David), John’s comrade-in-arms in Vietnam. Charlie has been recovering from the effects of an auto accident and the surgeries haven’t gone well. Facing the loss of a leg, he wants one last adventure with his buddy before going under the knife. And, to paraphrase the great Paul Simon, they rode off to look for America.

America in this case being a land of sexy waitresses in honkytonks, barroom brawls with inbred rednecks, hooking up with a group of L.A.-based lady bikers, having the black member of the party accused of a murder he didn’t commit and beaten up by small town cops and for John, finding romance with the cousin of Charlie’s fiancée. They also pick up a stray in hunky Willie (writer-director Canglialosi) who helps them out in the previously mentioned barroom brawl and whom women seem drawn to like catnip. He’s also hiding a secret, on the run from the cops. There is a point to the journey for John but I won’t mention it here.

This is a movie I really wanted to like. Road films are some of my favorites and the strong cast promised at least decent acting but alas, that’s not what happened in either case, me liking the film and decent acting by the strong cast. Although Berenger is game, David is as always reliable and Miller is as pretty as ever, other than a cameo by Dern the acting is largely disappointing. The overall tone is kind of muted, like all the energy has been wrung out of the film before it unspools. Considering the level of talent in the film that’s pretty shameful.

The hero of the movie is not John Moore or the man that plays him so much but cinematographer Jesse Brunt who comes up with some iconic shots of the back roads of the Midwest and West, the somewhat forced shot of the bikers roaring past Mount Rushmore notwithstanding. While the movie seems meant for an older adult audience, there seems to be little here to drive them into theaters other than a blast from the past cast; the relationship between John and Charlie for example seems pretty sketchy with little filling in the blanks other than a few story references and the obvious band of brothers in Vietnam reality but other than some insulting boys banter, the bond between the two remains maddeningly unexplored. For my money Canglialosi the writer should have eliminated the part of Willie entirely; that would have at least forced him to develop the relationship between the two vets more thoroughly. Frankly, Willie adds almost nothing to the movie other than to be the brawn for the two older men.

To be fair, there is some fun in watching some of these veteran actors go about their business and the scenery along the road is wonderful but that’s really all the movie has going for it which is mighty sad. You get the sense that the writer didn’t really have anything to say other than that older people can still ride and anyone who has been to a gathering of bikers can tell you that anyway. Did the film make me want to get on a bike and ride off? To a degree yes, but definitely not with these people.

REASONS TO GO: There are some nice shots of the American road.
REASONS TO STAY: A little maudlin, a lot cliché, the tone of the film is tepid at best.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Berenger’s birth name was Moore, the same as his character’s last name.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wild Hogs
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Queen of the World

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Bright


Not your two ordinary cops.

(2017) Fantasy (Netflix) Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Edgar Ramirez, Lucy Fry, Veronica Ngo, Alex Meraz, Happy Anderson, Ike Barinholtz, Dawn Olivieri, Matt Gerald, Margaret Cho, Joseph Piccuirro, Brad William Henke, Jay Hernandez, Enrique Murciano, Scarlet Spencer, Andrea Navedo, Kenneth Cho, Bobby Naderi, Carlos Linares, Bunnie Rivera. Directed by David Ayer

 

This Netflix film, released last Christmas, is a perfect example of the dichotomy between critics and audiences. Film critics hammered the film, calling it confusing and preposterous. Audiences loved it, making it one of the most watched non-theatrical movies ever. Netflix called for a sequel which is likely to be on the streaming giant’s front page in two to three years.

Smith, one of the most appealing actors in Hollywood for the past two decades, stars as a bitter and curmudgeonly L.A. cop who has a new partner that he doesn’t want. That sounds like the plot to dozens of cop buddy movies but this one’s a little different – it turns out his partner, Nick (Edgerton) is not just a different ethnicity. He’s an Orc – a completely different species.

The two are on the trail of a magic wand so powerful that whoever wields it can essentially bend the world to their will. Fortunately, only a select few can actually wield the wand; these worthies are called “Brights” and they only appear once every generation or so. Also on the trail of the wand is a bunch of corrupt cops, a gang of Orcs (who are portrayed here essentially as low-riding gangbangers) and an evil elf named Leilah (Rapace). Assisting Nick and Daryl (the Smith character’s name) is a less corrupt elf named Tikka (Fry).

There are some pretty decent effects here and Smith has never been so badass as he is in this film. I’m not kidding when I say that this is his best performance in a decade. Daryl walks around in a perpetually foul mood, like there’s a rock in his shoe he can’t quite get rid of or he has a particularly painful case of hemorrhoids. Either way, he’s far from cheerful; he’s like the anti-Fresh Prince.

It should come as no surprise that Max Landis wrote this; one of the things he does extremely well as a writer is world-building. The world of Bright is believable despite the mash-up of high fantasy and urban crime drama. There is a lot of detail and one gets a lot more detail that didn’t make it into the script. This is the kind of thing that can turn a single picture into a franchise.

David Ayer is the perfect director for this. Not so much for the fantasy elements although he is just fine with those but there are few directors who intuitively understand the workings of an urban crime drama like Ayer, whose previous credits include Training Day (as a writer), End of Watch, Harsh Times and Street Kings.

I don’t understand all the critical hate; this is really a good movie but I suppose this kind of fantasy mash-up isn’t for everybody. Still, I found it not just solidly entertaining but actually absorbing. This is one I wouldn’t mind seeing regularly (I’ve already watched it several times since it debuted). As far as I’m concerned, I only wish that this movie had a more widespread theatrical run; I would have liked to have seen it on a big movie theater screen. Ah well, if wishes were horses…there would undoubtedly be a few of them trotting around in the world of Bright.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers do an excellent job of world-building. Will Smith is at his badass best in this one.
REASONS TO STAY: The final action sequence is a bit disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, fantasy violence and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a $90 million production budget, this is the most expensive Netflix movie to date. Also, it is the first Netflix film to generate a sequel which was signed shortly before the movie was released to the streaming service.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews: Metacritic: 29/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien Nation
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Three Identical Strangers

Trouble is My Business


A tough-as-nails gumshoe waits for the right dame to come along.

(2018) Mystery (Random Media/Lumen Actus) Tom Konkle, Brittney Powell, Vernon Wells, David Beeler, Mark Teich, Jordana Capra, Ben Pace, Benton Jennings, Steve Tom, Mollie Fitzgerald, Paul Hungerford, William Jackson, E. Sean Griffin, Laine Scandalis, Carl Bryan, Ksenia Delaveri, Pete Handelman, Steve Olson, Doug Spearman, Lauren Byrnes. Directed by Tom Konkle

 

Of all the art forms cinematic, one of the greatest – and hardest to do right – is film noir. Most of us when we think of noir think of classic films like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and Out of the Past and writers Dash Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. While the heyday of noir ran from the 1930s through the early 1950s, from time to time attempts have been made to resurrect or at least pay homage to the genre, sometimes effectively (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential), other times not so much.

In a world of corrupt cops and hard-bitten detectives, Roland Drake (Konkle) has seen it all. Once one of the best missing persons men in the business, his reputation has been tarnished by a botched job in which Natalia (Delaveri), a missing girl, ended up dead and the newspapers blamed Drake. Business has dried up, his partner Lew MacDonald (Beeler) has moved on to start his own agency and he’s about to be evicted from his shabby office.

Then in comes Katherine Montemar, a sexy brunette with a sob story; her father has disappeared, the police are dragging their flat feet and now it appears someone is targeting the Montemar family because her uncle has disappeared as well. One thing leads to another and she spends the night with Drake. When he wakes up in the morning, there’s an ominous pool of blood next to him and no brunette.

That might have been the end of it but Katherine’s sister Jennifer (Powell) shows up with incriminating photos of Drake’s roll in the hay with Katherine and a .38 special. Eventually Drake takes on the case and runs into a variety of characters; Jennifer’s overbearing mother (Capra), the cross-dressing and likely insane butler Rivers (Teich), Jennifer’s handsome but inept boyfriend (Pace) and most ominous as well, the corrupt and vicious cop Barry Tate (Wells). They all are revolving around a missing black book and a fabulous diamond that is priceless. Drake will have to think fast, talk faster and know how to use his gun if he’s going to get out of this one alive.

Konkle is a bit of a triple threat man here, directing, starring and co-writing (with co-star Powell) and probably sweeping the floors after shooting. He certainly has a good knowledge of noir tropes and uses them effectively for the most part. He creates a dark and dangerous atmosphere and I certainly won’t complain about the production design although sometimes it is a little obvious that green screen is being used.

The script could have used some polishing. The rapid-fire patter of typical noir dialogue is present but Konkle and Powell are no Raymond Chandler or even Elmore Leonard. The dialogue is generally okay but sometimes it sounds a little clunky and forced. Not every line needs to sound like it’s being uttered by Sam Spade. Also the score is like a Mikos Rosza score from back in the day, only played on synthesizers like a bad 80s thriller. It totally wrecks the mood; the score is also constantly playing. In this case, a little dead air wouldn’t have hurt.

Some critics have judged this a comedy although I don’t think that was the intent of the filmmakers, although there are some fairly funny lines throughout. I do think that this is occasionally over-earnest, sometimes star-struck but never anything but a genuine tribute to a style of film which has become truly a lost art. While I can quibble with the execution in places, I certainly can’t fault the intentions

Oh, and for those who like choices the DVD/Blu-Ray of this release (available on Amazon) comes with both full color and Black and White disks. For my money, the Black and White version is much better, much more authentic. Purists should go for that; those who dislike black and white can always go for the color edition, but I think you miss something that way.

REASONS TO GO: The aesthetics are done just right.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is a bit clunky and delivered stiffly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as more than a little bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lumen Actus is a production house that not only makes films but does all their special effects in-house. This film is the first of two productions they are working on.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulholland Falls
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Black Panther

The Commuter


What I love about train travel is that it’s so relaxing.

(2018) Action (Lionsgate) Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Killian Scott, Shazad Latif, Andy Nyman, Clara Lago, Roland Moller, Florence Pugh, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ella-Rae Smith, Nila Aalia, Colin McFarlane, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Adam Nagaitis, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Andy Lucas, Zaak Conway, Ben Caplan, Letitia Wright. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

 

A word to the wise: if you see Liam Neeson getting aboard any sort of conveyance – a plane, a train, a boat, a bus – get off immediately. There’s bound to be mayhem.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is a decent guy. He gets up every morning at 6am rain or shine at his home in Tarrytown, NY, makes sure his son Danny (Chapman) is up and getting ready for school, is driven to the train station by his loving wife Karen (McGovern), chit-chats with the regulars aboard the train and then gets off at Grand Central Station to head off and sell life insurance. His routine varies very little day after day. From all outward signs this is a happy, loving and prosperous family. In reality they’re pretty much two out of three; Danny is getting ready to attend Syracuse University in the fall and that’s a sizable chunk of change and the MacCauley family is just scraping by as it is.

The bad day starts when MacCauley is unexpectedly let go from his position. At 60 years of age, the job prospects for the ex-NYPD cop are pretty grim to say the least. He heads back home on the train, wondering how he’ll break the news to Karen. Wondering how he’ll get the mortgage paid. Wondering how he’ll send his son to college.

His wonderings are interrupted by a beautiful woman as wonderings often are. She sits down across from him and introduces herself as Joanna (Farmiga) and she has quite a proposition for Michael. All he has to do is find someone on the train who doesn’t belong there – someone known only as Prynne – and put an electronic device in his or her bag. That’s it. Do it and Michael will get $100,000 tax-free at a time where he desperately needs it.

The problem is Michael is a decent guy and an ex-cop to boot and the ex-cop smells a rat. Soon he gets shanghaied into the game because if he doesn’t play along his family will be murdered. He has no way of knowing how many eyes and ears Joanna has on the train, who he can trust or even the first idea of how to find Prynne. Time is running out and if he doesn’t find Prynne or find a way to stop Joanna, the people he loves are going to die.

Neeson has pretty much spent the latter part of his career playing nice guys who definitely don’t finish last in action films. He is beginning to look his age here – I think that’s a deliberate choice by the actor and director Collet-Serra to make Michael more vulnerable and less of an unstoppable Rambo-kind of guy. Michael doesn’t have a particular set of skills so much as an absolutely iron will and devotion to his family.

While the action sequences range from the preposterous to the well-staged (and to be fair they tend to be more often the latter than the former), the CGI of the train itself is absolutely horrible. They would have been better off filming a Lionel model train set than the images that they got which in no way look realistic. Seriously though the production crew would have been much better off using practical effects but I suppose the budget could only tolerate bargain basement CGI.

As action movies go it’s pretty much suited for a January release with all that implies. As most veteran moviegoers will tell you, most movies released in the first month of the year are generally not much in the quality department; high expectations should generally be avoided. Taking that into account, The Commuter isn’t half bad. It’s not half good either.

REASONS TO GO: The opening sequence is cleverly done. Some of the action sequences are pretty nifty too.
REASONS TO STAY: The CGI is truly horrendous; they would have been better off with practical effects. Neeson is beginning to look a bit long in the tooth for these kinds of roles.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some action film-type violence (some of it intense) as well as a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Collet-Serra has directed Neeson in an action film within the last seven years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Non-Stop
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Darkest Hour

Run All Night


Liam Neeson's having a bad night.

Liam Neeson’s having a bad night.

(2015) Action (Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Vincent D’Onofrio, Nick Nolte, Genesis Rodriguez, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Common, Lois Smith, Beau Knapp, Patricia Kalember, Daniel Stewart Sherman, James Martinez, Radivoje Bukvic, Tony Naumovski, Lisa Branch, Holt McCallany, Aubrey Joseph, Jessica Ecklund. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

No matter how low you sink, there is always family. Sure, occasionally there are those who sink so low that their family loses sight, maybe even give up on them but that doesn’t mean they don’t stop loving them – nor does it mean they wouldn’t do anything to help.

You can’t sink much lower than Jimmy Conlon (Neeson). Once one of the most feared assassins in the Irish Mob, he was known by his nickname of The Gravedigger. He worked for his childhood friend Shawn Maguire (Harris) until Shawn decided to go legitimate and divest himself of his illegal activities. Shawn keeps Jimmy around these days more out of a sense of loyalty.

Jimmy’s activities have cost him everything. His wife, from whom he was estranged at the time of her death and his son Michael (Kinnaman) who is trying to build himself a good, straight and narrow life with a pregnant wife (Rodriguez), a little girl and working two jobs; one as a boxing coach for underprivileged kids, the other as a limo driver to keep the bills paid.

Jimmy isn’t really getting his bills paid, although his buddy Shawn bails him out once in awhile. Jimmy has crawled into a bottle and looks to stay there; even Detective Harding (D’Onofrio) who’s been chasing him for decades has given up on Jimmy, although he still wheedles him for the names of those he’s murdered so that some closure might be brought.

Shawn’s son Danny (Holbrook) is the heir apparent to Shawn’s legitimate business concerns but Shawn is a drug addict and a hothead who wants to follow in his father’s criminal footsteps. He makes a deal with Albanian drug dealers to import some heroin into the U.S. and wants to bring his dad aboard to legitimize the deal but Shawn is having none of it.

This is a problem for Danny because the Albanians gave him money to make the deal with his dad. Now the deal has collapsed and the money has essentially gone up Danny’s nose. The Albanians, who have a certain amount of taste for the good life, take a limo to Danny’s house to collect. The only thing they end up collecting is a bunch of bullets from Danny’s gun.

Danny witnesses this and flees home. Shawn finds out about the debacle and asks Jimmy to talk to Michael and make sure he keeps what he saw to himself. He also orders his son Danny to stay put. Danny being Danny heads over to Michael’s house instead and is set to shoot dead his childhood friend. Instead Jimmy kills Danny before he can kill his son.

Shawn doesn’t take the news well. He assures Jimmy that he is going to go after Michael with everything he has and once Michael is dead, only then will he allow Jimmy to die. Jimmy tells Shawn that this is a very bad idea but Shawn won’t listen and so Jimmy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do to help his son, who hasn’t talked to him in years, stay alive through the course of a very long and cold December New York City night.

This is pretty typical for Neeson’s recent action movies; lone wolf killer sort on the downward swing, protecting family, killing anyone and everyone who threatens said family even if they’re wearing a badge. Neeson has this kind of character down pat and even though he could play it in his sleep gives it a professional effort.

Collet-Serra has collaborated with Neeson on some of his better films, Unknown and Non-Stop, of his action era. This is a slickly produced and photographed action piece, with Collet-Serra using the lurid neon and dimly lit bars and pubs of New York as an expressive backdrop. Although Shawn is rich, his home is the residence of essentially a blue collar guy, the background from whence Shawn sprang. Jimmy’s apartment is the home of a drunk, the last place on earth anyone would want to live but Jimmy looks at home there. Details like that can elevate a mediocre film into a good one.

The story won’t set the world on fire; we’ve seen this sort of thing before but Collet-Serra does it as well as it can be done, at least thus far. There are some peripheral characters, chief among which is Andrew Price, a methodical and fastidious hit man played by rapper Common and done surprisingly well – he’s impressive in this brief role and shows the chops it takes to become a big time leading man which hopefully we’ll soon see him become.

I have to admit, I’m an Ed Harris fan. He’s one of those actors who seems to never phone in a performance, always giving a terrific performance no matter what the role or how good the movie it’s in. He elevates every movie he appears in and he’s no different here. Shawn clearly loves Jimmy as a brother but is heartbroken over the death of his boy, driven to unspeakable rage that will mean the obliteration of his friend and his family. There’s a Shakespearean component to the role in many ways.

Run All Night is like many March movies in that it isn’t going to win any awards and is not likely to break box office records. It’s not going to wow many critics nor is it going to inspire legions of devoted fans. What it will do is provide consistent, solid entertainment for those who love action movies and Liam Neeson’s version of them in particular. Chances are you’ll get exactly what you expect you’ll get when you buy your ticket and you really can’t ask any more from a movie than that.

REASONS TO GO: Nobody does the hangdog action hero better than Neeson. Harris always lends credibility to any production he’s in.
REASONS TO STAY: Plays to Irish stereotypes. Somewhat predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Tons o’ violence, plenty of un-charming foul language, some drug use and lots of Irish temperament.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two young men in the film, the sons of Shawn and Jimmy respectively are named Danny and Michael, which are also the names of Liam Neeson’s sons in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Walk Among the Tombstones
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Cinderella

The Equalizer


Martin Csokas looks forward to his next movie  My Dinner with Denzel.

Martin Csokas looks forward to his next movie My Dinner with Denzel.

(2014) Action (Columbia) Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, Melissa Leo, Bill Pullman, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, David Meunier, Johnny Skourtis, Alex Veadov, Vladimir Kulich, E. Roger Mitchell, James Wilcox, Mike O’Dea, Anastasia Mousis, Allen Maldonado, Chris Lemieux, Matt Lasky, Shawn Fitzgibbon, Luz Sanchez. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

We go through our lives essentially just hoping to mind our own business. We don’t want to get involved nor do we get involved with anybody else. However, sometimes there comes a time when a situation demands our action.

Robert McCall (Washington) lives a quiet life as a clerk at a home improvement store (think Home Depot with a different color scheme). He is helping his buddy Ralphie (Skourtis) lose weight and prepare to apply for a security guard job, a definite upgrade in pay.

But he is reluctant to talk about what he used to do. He has insomnia and spends a lot of nights at an all-night diner, drinking tea from tea bags he brings himself and reading novels off the list of 100 books you must read before you die (he’s up to 91). He compulsively rearranges the silverware on the table and always sits at the same one – yes, he’s OCD.

He also strikes up a conversation with Teri (Moretz), a prostitute from Russia who aspires to greater things. He encourages her and provides a welcome breath of fresh air from all the men who just want to use her for sex – or profit by her. He witnesses her pimp Slavi (Meunier) slapping her around but doesn’t intervene when she asks him not to. Slavi’s muscle (Veadov) gives McCall a card so that he can come and collect a more amenable girl.

When Teri ends up in the hospital, McCall pays Slavi a visit. You see, McCall isn’t just a guy that works at a hardware store. He’s got skills. Some big bad ones. And he puts them to good use. This doesn’t sit well with Slavi’s bosses who happen to be the Russian mob and they send a fixer of their own (Csokas) to deal with him and quite frankly, he’s got mad skills himself.

The film is based on an 80s TV show that some critics characterize as forgotten although I remember it quite well – if for nothing else for its catchy Stewart Copeland theme song which sadly isn’t in the movie. There are those who will remember that English actor Edward Woodward starred in the title role as a former British spy who turns his talents to helping the powerless surmount impossible odds. It also reunites Fuqua and Denzel who teamed together so well for Training Day.

This is a good fit for Denzel, who has the best dead eye look in Hollywood. He has mastered the technique of using his good looks as a facade, hiding something deeper – sometimes sorrow or pain, sometimes rage or evil. McCall has plenty of history behind him and it shows in Denzel’s eyes – but there is also a coldness there when Denzel switches it on, the coldness of a trained killer.

He will be 60 later this year and joins the trend of sexagenarians invigorating their careers and becoming action stars (see Neeson, Liam) and let’s be frank; he looks damn good doing it. A couple more roles like this and Sly Stallone is going to be putting him on speed dial for The Expendables 6. The fight scene in Slavi’s office is as good as many action film climaxes and the climax here in the Home Depot clone is frankly incredible. While McCall leaves a few traps, mostly he uses the various power (and non-power) tools to great effect so this doesn’t sink into a Home Alone parody. No, the scene is gritty, violent and occasionally gory.

This is essentially entertainment for its own sake. There are really no deeper meanings here – everything is visceral. You don’t have to interpret different levels, just sit back, turn off your mind and enjoy the carnage. While I enjoyed the action sequences themselves, they don’t really blaze any new trails but they take existing ones and pretty them up a bit. If you’re looking for mindless fun, this is your ride.

REASONS TO GO: Denzel still has it. Terrific climax.
REASONS TO STAY: Kinda formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of violence, some of it rather bloody. Also plenty of foul language and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With almost no backstory for the character of McCall, Washington came up with some of the items including the character’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The A-Team
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: This is Where I Leave You

Bullet to the Head


Rambo and Conan get their axe together.

Rambo and Conan get their axe together.

(2012) Action (Warner Brothers) Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Jason Momoa, Sarah Shahi, Adwale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Christian Slater, Jon Seda, Holt McCallany, Brian Van Holt, Weronika Rosati, Dane Rhodes, Marcus Lyle Brown, Dominique DuVernay, Andrea Frankle. Directed by Walter Hill

Vengeance can make strange bedfellows of us all. Those who are wronged by the same party can become allies, regardless of their outlook on life. People who would never be friends are suddenly thrust together by circumstance, made close by common cause.

Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo (Stallone), not mindful that his nickname in some quarters is slang for the derriere,  is a New Orleans hitman on a routine job to execute some high rolling lowlife (McCallany). The job is done but Jimmy spares a hooker (Rosati) who has a tattoo of a panther that seems to be reasonably significant. His partner Louis Blanchard (Seda) chides him for his softness. They go to a bar to meet Ronnie Earl (Van Holt) who is their contact but instead, Louis meets his maker and Jimmy barely escapes.

Of course something like this gives Jimmy a mad on. He knows that Ronnie alone knows who hired him and he needs to know who the man is and why he and Louis were set up. In the meantime Taylor Kwan (Kang), a detective for the Washington DC police force arrives in town to investigate the death of the high rolling lowlife who turns out to have been his ex-partner, drummed out of the DCPD in disgrace. Detective Kwan meets up with Lt. Lebreton (Rhodes) and Detective Towne (Brown) of the New Orleans Police and they investigate Greely’s body at the morgue. There they discover Blanchard’s body as well and Kwan deduces that Blanchard and his partner Bobo were responsible for the death of his former partner.

Detective Kwan is, like Bobo, more interested in who hired him and set him up then in taking Bobo down. The two men meet but Bobo is extremely distrustful of cops and refuses to work with him. However when Kwan is attacked by a pair of corrupt cops outside the bar, Bobo rescues him. The enemy of my enemy and all that.

Detective Kwan is shot in the attack and Bobo takes him to his daughter Lisa’s (Shahi) tattoo parlor where she fixes him up. The two know they need to find Ronnie Earl, and a visit to a massage parlor locates him. Earl tells him that he worked through Marcus Baptiste (Slater), a sleazy lawyer. The two crash a costume party and kidnap him, taking him to a boat house on the bayou that serves as Bobo’s safe house. They are tracked by Keegan (Momoa), the thug who murdered Blanchard and a team of mercenaries. Baptiste confesses that the man behind all this is Robert Nkomo Morel (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a deposed African warlord who aims to build condos in a low-income area. Just then Keegan’s mercenaries interrupt the party but Bobo and Kwan escape with Bobo blowing up the boathouse with the men in it. Only Keegan escapes and now he wants Bobo’s head on a stick in front of the Superdome if necessary.

This is based on a French graphic novel that has been transplanted to American soil which I suppose is appropriate enough. Certainly the gritty tone of the original works well in an American setting, although I can’t help but wonder how this would have fared in the capable hands of a Luc Besson or a Louis Letterier or even an Olivier Megaton, capable action directors all.

Stallone, closer to 70 than he is to 60, is terribly miscast here. The role is really meant for a lithe hand-to-hand combat expert. Someone along the lines of a Jet Li or a Jean-Claude van Damme would have been more suitable; Stallone is much more believable in a thug-like role, at least for me. However, he gets an excellent foil in Momoa who is clearly an emerging action star. His performance in the first season of Game of Thrones was incandescent and here that same charisma surfaces. I would love to see more of Momoa better films. Hey Sly, got room for him in your next Expendables flick?

Hill, one of the most respected action directors in Hollywood history (48 Hrs., Hard Times, Streets of Fire) , knows how to create a rough-edged mood, perfect for framing an action film. This is not going to stand among the best of his career; this doesn’t have the smooth flow or the chemistry of his previous pictures. Kang and Stallone are awkward together. Kang’s earnest by-the-book Taylor Kwan has no real charisma; he feels more like an archetype than a real person. I never got emotionally invested in him.

Stallone fares slightly better but as I said earlier the role is all wrong for him. That’s not to say that Stallone is a terrible actor; it’s just his physical fighting skills lend themselves more to someone a little more along the lines of a Mafiosi thug than a lethal assassin. Still, at least I wound up having an interest in the character.

2013 has started out with a rash of mediocre action movies, none of which has really stood out as especially memorable. Most of them have had brief theatrical runs and have disappeared into bomb status, no doubt to resurface quickly on home video and cable. With a particularly full schedule of action flicks scheduled for this year, it’s an inauspicious start. Hopefully we’ll get some better ones as the year goes on.

REASONS TO GO: Momoa is an excellent villain. Some of the fight sequences are nicely staged (but not all). Shahi makes excellent eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Stallone miscast. Lacks chemistry.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence, a fair amount of bad language, an even more fair amount of bare breasts and a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Walter Hill’s first feature film in ten years, and Slater’s first theatrically released feature film in eight.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Expendables

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Identity Thief