Outlawed


Some people just shouldn’t be allowed to use grills.

(2018) Action (Vision) Adam Collins, Emmeline Kellie, Andy Calderwood, Andre Squire, Ollie Christie, Jessica Norris, Ian Hitchens, Anthony Burrows, Zara Phythian, Tina Harris, Brian Woodward, Rose Joeseph, Martin Gaisford, Tobias Fries, Celiowagner Coelho, Craig Canning, Steven Blades, Jack Edwards, Renars Latkovskis, Phil Molloy, Melvyn Rawlinson, Lisa Opara, Halle Neathey, Charlotte Williams. Directed by Adam Collins and Luke Radford

 

Action movies are surprisingly formulaic. Somebody gets wronged, somebody gets their booty booted. It’s a formula as old as time. The truly great action movies either add something to the formula or execute it flawlessly. Some merely emulate the formula as best they can.

Jake (Collins) is part of an elite British special forces unit. They do the dirty work when there is a bad guy who needs to be terminated, or a child that needs rescuing from terrorists. After capturing a particularly nasty wild-eyed wild-haired terrorist (Fries) who likes to shoot children, Jake and his crew are recognized with medals.

He is contacted by Nottingham businessman/power broker Harold Archibald (Hitchens) who offers Jake a job. Jake however knows what Archibald is all about and declines. Shortly after, Archibald – who has been making deals with the wild-eyed wild-haired terrorist, double crosses the WEWH terrorist which is not usually a good idea when dealing with terrorists. He ends up with his children kidnapped and even though Jake’s team is sent in to save the day, it ends in tragedy.

Jake just can’t get past that a child died on his watch and he decides to get his discharge papers. He promptly discovers that his girlfriend (Kellie) is cheating on him and so Jake sinks into a bottle and screws the cap shut behind him. Then, childhood girlfriend Jade (Norris) finds him sleeping in the street and tells him that she needs his help Her father was murdered you see and the person responsible was none other than Harold Archibald and she has the proof! Archibald owns the cops – or at least has a long-term lease out on them – and is virtually untouchable. Nevertheless he kidnaps Jade and almost dares Jake to come get her. What self-respecting special forces operative could turn down a dare like that?

Collins is a veteran stuntman on a variety of major Hollywood productions as well as a former British Marine. His acting chops are from the early Jason Statham school of acting. He has some potential in a Vinnie Jones sort of way (I’m really name-checking today) but largely it’s wasted because the role he is given to play here is so run of the mill. I don’t feel sorry for him however; he co-wrote and co-directed this movie so he has only himself to blame.

The action sequences as you might expect are the highlights here. Unfortunately when it comes to exposition, Collins makes a fine soldier. The story portions tend to be a bit maudlin complete with overwrought score and advanced by unbelievable coincidences. The dialogue is clunky and cliché; the villains are way over the top but that’s okay – villains should be. Heroes should be understated and brooding, or outgoing and light.

If you’ve never seen an action movie before, this is a fine jumping-off point but if you have seen your share a little too much of this will be too familiar. While there are a few things that work, most of the movie just doesn’t live up to the standards it should be.

REASONS TO GO: Collins is a solid action performer.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is absolutely rotten with action movie clichés. The story is dull and uninspiring.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and profanity as well as nudity, sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Collins served six years in the Royal Marines, which included two tours of Afghanistan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silencer
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
 Every Act of Life

In the Shadow of Iris (Iris)


There are layers of deceit when it comes to sexual fetishes.

(2017) Thriller (Netflix) Romain Duris, Charlotte Le Bon, Jalil Lespert, Camille Cotin, Adel Bencherif, Sophie Verbeck, Héléne Barbry, Jalis Laleg, Violetta Sanchez, Gina Haller, Félix Cohen, Waël Sersoub, Benoit Rabillé, Antoine Bujolli, Mourad Frarema, Vincent Dos Reis, Olivier Galzi, Christian Ameri, Nicolas Grandhomme, Betony Vernon, Alexandra Langlais. Directed by Jalil Lespert

 

Who knows what is in a woman’s mind (or a man’s for that matter but that’s for a different review) behind the façade of civility? All sorts of things percolate; the woman who may seem to be a model wife may have cheating on her mind. The woman who seems proper and prim may indulge in fetishes and perversions that would shock you if you knew.

Iris (Le Bon) is the wife of wealthy Parisian banker Antoine Doirot (Lespert). They are at lunch one afternoon when she excuses herself for a smoke. When she doesn’t return, at first Antoine wonders if she didn’t decide to go shopping without saying goodbye but as the day wears on and there’s no sign of her he begins to worry…but then the call comes in on his smart phone complete with a photo of his wife tied up and gagged in some dark room. The ransom is high but affordable for someone like Antoine.

She is in the possession of auto mechanic Max Lopez (Duris) who not only is in financial trouble and dealing with a divorce, but is about to lose his home due to Antoine’s bank. Yet he is not a suspect right away; though he has a criminal record, nobody thinks he has the skills to pull something like this off. As the police detectives Vasseur (Cotin) and Ziani (Bencherif) look into the matter more deeply, it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it seems – and that nobody is as they seem in this twisted drama.

This French thriller has noir-ish elements as well as being heavy on the erotic. Playing heavily into the plot are bondage and S&M fetishes – one scene includes a dominatrix whipping the hell out of a main character’s back, almost into unconsciousness. There is sex on top of a murder victim by the murderer, and there are all sorts of references to marital infidelity, sexual violence and prostitution. This is most definitely not for family viewing, unless your family hangs out in leather clubs.

I’m not a prude but the eroticism feels a bit gratuitous to me. It doesn’t really make too much of a difference in the plot really but that’s neither here nor there. If you’re into S&M it’s fairly tame stuff compared to what you might find on some of the adult movie sites but more realistic than what you’ll find in the Fifty Shades movies.

The real problem here is that Lespert inserts flashbacks throughout the film to explain some of the things going on, but there’s no real way of telling you’re watching something from a different time until often later in the movie. It’s confusing as hell and the plot, convoluted already, doesn’t need that kind of confusion. Lespert is decent enough with the tension, keeping viewers into the movie but sometimes it’s truly hard to figure out what’s going on. It doesn’t help matters that Lespert and Duris look fairly similar and the only way to tell them apart is when Max is wearing his mechanic coveralls – which he doesn’t always do.

On the plus side the soundtrack is awesome with a lot of great pop and rock songs from France, England and the U.S. I’d go so far as to say that it may have the best soundtrack of any of the Netflix original films I’ve seen thus far. Still, if you’re looking for an erotic thriller, there is a lot going for this one. There’s also a lot going against it, to be fair. I think what it boils down to is whether you can tolerate the film’s flaws, are able to tolerate (or if you have a thing for) bondage and S&M, and if you don’t mind subtitles. If the answer to all of those are positive, definitely have at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Lespert does a fine job of maintaining tension. The soundtrack is excellent.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points are far-fetched. The flashbacks are often confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity, sexual situations, brief language and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a loose remake of the 2000 Hideo Nakata film Chaos. Initially this was going to be an American film but when no studio would finance it, the movie was shopped to other countries with a French production company footing the bill.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Disappearance of Alice Creed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
American Folk

68 Kill


Now here’s a woman who knows how to get what she wants.

(2017) Action (IFC Midnight) Matthew Gray Gubler, AnnaLynne McCord, Alisha Boe, Sheila Vand, Sam Eidson, Michael Beasley, James Moses Black, David Maldonado, Ajay Mehta, Hallie Grace Bradley, Lucy Faust, Peter Jaymes, Eric Podnar, Carlos Antonio, Walker Babington, Kelly Connolly. Directed by Trent Haaga

This year there’s been a spate of heist action films that have been unusually entertaining. One that’s flown under the radar is this gem that made some waves at South by Southwest and also the Florida Film Festival.

This one is a little bit more graphic than most. Chip (Gubler) is a decent guy who has a problem; he just can’t say no to a pretty girl. His girlfriend Liza (McCord) knows all about it and uses it to her advantage. She’s not a very nice girl in a lot of ways but what she is for whatever its worth is practical. Chip wants to bring in as much cash as he can to support Liza who has lavish lifestyle tastes on a trailer park budget. In fact, they do live in a trailer park and when the couple is short on funds when the rent is due – which occurs pretty often – she makes up for it with blow jobs and other sexual favors.

Liza is pretty much done with this sort of life. She’s learned that the landlord (Jaymes) is keeping a stash of cash in his home safe – to the tune of $68,000. Such a haul, she reasons, would be enough to give her and Chip a brand new life in a much better place than the craphole they live in. It’s an easy, smash and grab job – nobody has to get hurt. However, just in case – a couple of guns might come in handy if they need to defend themselves. Nothing to worry about, honey; I’m sure we won’t need to use them. I’m positive of it, in fact. You can guess how that’s going to go.

Two dead people and a hostage named Violet (Boe) later, a sickened Chip and adrenalized Liza show up at her brother Dwayne’s (Eidson) house to sell him Violet; as it turns out, Dwayne likes to torture and mutilate women for sexual pleasure and Violet is plenty pretty. This is way more than Chip signed on for and he decides to cut his losses and get out with Violet. However, Liza doesn’t take well to breaking up with her boyfriend as you can imagine and as weird as things have been, they are about to get weirder.

Haaga, who has some experience in the Troma factory of low budget genre movies, has a phenomenal sense of pacing; this movie starts off with a shot of a fly caught in honey (a heavy-handed but apt metaphor) and then never lets the foot off the gas. The movie careens – sometimes drunkenly but always sure of its destination – from one set piece to the next. We just hang on for dear life and if we’re smart, enjoy the ride.

AnnaLynne McCord is an absolute revelation. I don’t think I’ve seen any actress play a psychotic bitch quite as ably as McCord in ages. This ranks up there with What’s the Matter with Baby Jane territory in my opinion; she’s that good. One moment she can be tender and loving towards Chip and the next she’s a shrieking banshee with a pump action rifle aimed for your skull. Love hurts, fool.

Gubler who plays the seminal science nerd in Criminal Minds gets to stretch his wings a bit here in a role that is very unlike the one he’s known for. Chip is sweet but spineless and not book smart or street smart. As a result he makes some unwise choices and he is way too naive when it comes to women, particularly in that part of the world which seems to be populated by some mean ones.

I like that the movie just keeps getting better and better as it goes along. It’s not a movie that overstays its welcome in the least nor does it start out so slow that by the time it gets going the viewer has already checked out. Rather by the time the climax is in full gear I was fully invested in the story and characters. That doesn’t happen all the time for both of those elements, so kudos to Haaga.

Now, most of the women in this movie (with the exception of Violet) are stone cold crazy, over-the-top bitches, hookers, double crossers, two timers or some combination thereof. ‘Course, most of the men in the movie (with the exception of Chip) aren’t much better but there seem to be more redeemable men in the film than women. Some might find this anti-woman, although I don’t think it is personally. If anything, it’s anti-low life scumbag and that’s a cause that reaches across both sides of the aisle.

There is plenty of humor here to lighten up the gore and violence; it’s a little on the dry side so those who don’t cotton to that kind of funny might be well-served to stay away. The characters here are also the most misbegotten collection of fever dream psychos ever assembled in an indie film. It’s like David Lynch in charge of Deliverance in a trailer park setting and if that log line intrigues you, this is the kind of film you’ve been waiting for all year. This isn’t for everyone but if you like to have fun at the movies, don’t mind a little gore, get revved up by frenetic action sequences and don’t mind some oddball characters in the mix, your ship has come in.

REASONS TO GO: The film gets better as it goes along. The humor is bone dry in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this a little misogynistic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, just as much violence, some gore and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the audience award in the Midnighters category at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan Lucky
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Win It All

The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)


In every life a little rain must fall.

In every life a little rain must fall.

(2016) Drama (Magnolia) Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, So-ri Moon, Hae-suk Kim. Directed by Park Chan-wook

 

What a tangled web we weave, so the saying goes, when we set out to deceive. Deception can take many forms from little white lies to complete fabrications. We can invent ourselves as someone who we are not; we may have the best of intentions or the worst when we assume a different persona. At the end of the day, however, we end up unable to escape the person we actually are.

Sookee (T-r. Kim) is a pickpocket and petty thief in the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s. She is part of a criminal gang led by the self-stylized Count Fujiwara (Ha), a con man from humble birth. He has managed to set up Sookee in the position of a handmaiden to a noble Japanese lady living on an extensive estate far from anywhere in the mountain woods of Korea. The Count has designs on the lady to marry her and then have her declared insane so he can inherit her considerable wealth.

Lady Hideko (M-h. Kim) is a virtual prisoner on her estate. Her cruel Uncle Kouzuki (Jo) is a pervert who gets his rocks by having her dress up as a noble Japanese woman of ancient times and reading pornography to he and a group of like-minded friends. Kouzuki intends to wed Hideko soon in order to inherit her considerable wealth as he has none of his own.

Sookee has one job; to convince her new employer that the affections of the Count are genuine and that she would do well to marry him. However, Sookee has a revelation that changes everything and suddenly the players in this very dangerous game reveal that none of them are exactly who they are perhaps perceived to be.

Park, director of the notorious Oldboy, has a thing about pushing boundaries and he shoves quite a few here, although only relatively. He based this loosely on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, transplanting the action from Victorian England to occupation-era Korea. This adds the element of cultural clash to the story, one which is not only welcome but incredibly intriguing.

Park has a terrific visual sense and the cinematography here is downright gorgeous, from the lacquered interiors of Hideko’s strange mansion – constructed by an Anglophile, it has an English main house with a very Japanese wing added on – to the rain and moon shrouded forests of the estate. It is a visually lyrical film, dancing to a beautiful soundtrack by Yeong-wook Jo. I thought the soundtrack elevated the film, although parts were cribbed from The Thin Red Line which is a war movie of a different sort.

Here the war is of sexual tensions and there is plenty of it between the three main characters. The movie is told in three parts; the first and longest is Sookee’s point of view, the second that of Hideko and the third a kind of epilogue. In fact, the movie feels a little bit long but that might be that the first chapter is almost a film in and of itself and the second two chapters are almost added on in feel when you’re watching it but once the film is over you realize the story couldn’t be told any other way and the whole thing makes sense, but you may end up checking your watch a little.

If you do, it won’t be because of the performances of the three main leads. Both of the Kims and Ha generate an enormous amount of heat between them in a strange sort of love triangle; Jo gets to play a Snidely Whiplash-sort of character with an ink-stained tongue and a pervert’s glee in all things sexual. The story takes a number of turns and what really makes it work is that the performances of all of the actors is consistent throughout the varied plot changes and all of the performances make sense.

This is a movie with a good deal of texture; not just in the lush gardens of the estate or the richly decorated interiors but also in the sense that the movie is deeply sensual not just in a prurient way but also in a beautifully sensual way – quite artistic in the use of the naked female body. Some who are easily offended by sexuality will find this abhorrent but I must say that if sex can be art, this is an example of that. The book, which I have not read, utilizes narration from the three main characters; Park delivers that in a masterful way that simply reinforces that he is one of the world’s most exciting and pre-eminent directors. At this point, he is a director I’d go out of my way to view his film. There aren’t a lot of directors I’d say that for.

In many ways this is a beautiful movie and in many ways this is an ugly movie. The two often co-exist side by side in real life as well. One can’t have one without the other, after all. You may well find this a beautiful film to look at, and it is. You may well find this an ugly movie to consider, and it is. It is at the nexus of the two that we often find great art, and it is.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful cinematography and shot construction throughout the film. The musical score is just amazing. The performances among the three leads are strong throughout. The film is quite textured.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s just a little bit too long, or at least I perceived it to be.
FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of graphic sex and nudity as well as some profanity (much of it sexually oriented), rape and some graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Because two different languages (Korean and Japanese) are spoken in the film, the subtitles are in White (Korean) and Yellow (Japanese) so that English-speaking
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Liaisons
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Siege of Jadotville

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.


Neither Cavill nor Hammer want their hair getting mussed.

Neither Cavill nor Hammer want their hair getting mussed.

(2015) Spy Action (Warner Brothers) Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov, Guy Williams, Marianna Di Martino, David Beckham, Julian Michael Deuster, Peter Stark, Pablo Scola, Andrea Cagliesi, Peter Stark, Simona Caparrini, Joanna Metrass. Directed by Guy Ritchie

The 60s were an interesting era. While most people associate the last half of the decade of the era with the counterculture, evolution of rock and roll, protests and rioting, the first part of the era was something completely different. It was a time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the New York’s World Fair, of great stress and great optimism. It’s a time when the Beatles and Burt Bachrach co-existed on the charts, and style still held more than a trace of elegance and grace. It was the golden age of spies, with James Bond, Modesty Blaise and Matt Helm all fighting the menace of Evil Empires and Megalomaniacs bent on world domination – or destruction. It was the age of U.N.C.L.E.

Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is a former war profiteer caught and sentenced to prison. However, the C.I.A., recognizing that his skills are superior, intervenes, allowing the sentence to be commuted – so long as he works it off for the Agency. Solo has become one of the most respected and successful spies in the business. Ilya Kuryakin (Hammer) is a KGB agent with incredible athleticism, brute strength and a temper more explosive than Vesuvius.

They butt heads when Solo tries to smuggle a pretty East German auto mechanic named Gaby (Vikander) out of East Berlin and Kuryakin is  told in no uncertain terms to stop them and he turns out to be pretty much a one-man wrecking crew, but nonetheless Solo gets the girl out of the Soviet zone.

As it turns out, her Uncle Rudi (Groth) works for Vinciguerra (which means “Win the War” in Italian), a sketchy Italian multinational corporation that may have her father, a nuclear physicist who may have discovered a means of making nuclear bombs portable. For a third party to have such destructive power at their fingertips is intolerable both for the Americans and the Russians so they decide to send their best men into the fray and get the technology for their own countries.

They will first have to get past Victoria Vinciguerra (Debicki), the twisted de facto head of the company and her vicious brother Alexander (Calvani), more thugs than you can shake a stick at and their own mutual suspicion. The game of spying has become even more complicated and confusing than ever.

Like the Mission: Impossible series, this is based on a hit TV show from the 60s but unlike the former film franchise, the filmmakers have elected to keep the film in the same general time period as the TV show which to my mind is a brilliant idea. The era is perfect for the story; they just don’t do urbane the way they used to, and Napoleon Solo is nothing if not urbane.

I like the casting in the leads but oddly enough, I’d have liked the casting better if Cavill and Hammer had switched roles. Cavill, I think, has a darker side to him than Hammer does and Hammer, who grew up not unfamiliar with the country club lifestyle, would have made an extremely convincing Solo. But then again, Hammer is a big fellow and that might not have jibed well with the Saville Row ladies man that was the American spy. Then again, David McCallum was a much less physical specimen than Hammer and still made an extremely effective Kuryakin in the TV series.

Ritchie, having done Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, has created a new niche for himself after escaping the old one. He is able to re-create the early 60s – 50 years gone now – by making the setting timeless places, mostly in the Old World. He uses vintage clothing as well as recreations to clothe his actors, although his screenwriters don’t quite have the idioms down – phrases like “skill set” and “price point” are phrases from this decade and not that one, and one would have wished the writing had been a little more careful in that regard. Comes from having young whippersnappers doing the writing (actually co-writers Lionel Wigram and Ritchie are two and eight years younger than I, so shows you what I know).

Vikander has become a hot property and this movie isn’t going to do anything to cool her down. These are the types of roles perfectly suited to growing a career; even though the movie is coming out in August, it’s still a major studio release and thus she’s going to get plenty of attention. The movie is pretty lightweight, true and so is the part although it is the most complex role in the movie but this isn’t meant to be John Le Carre; it’s light and frothy and Vikander wisely plays it that way.

And that’s really the draw for this movie; yeah, it doesn’t really add anything to the genre and yeah, it’s a pretty overcrowded field this year with James Bond waiting in the wings still, but that’s all good. When I was a kid, I used to watch the reruns of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and eagerly read the paperback novelizations of the show. Hey, my parents loved it so who am I to disagree with an endorsement like that? In any case, this is a throwback to an earlier time well-executed in every way. Think of it as a cold Pepsi on a hot August day; perfectly refreshing and very welcome.

REASONS TO GO: Perfectly set in the period. Effervescent.
REASONS TO STAY: A few anachronisms here and there.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of action, some partial nudity and sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Solo removes a tablecloth from a table without disturbing the place settings on it, he actually does that trick, being trained by a British variety show performance who specializes in the stunt.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Man Flint
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: People Places Things

The Killer (1989) (Dip huet seung hung)


A Hong Kong standoff.

A Hong Kong standoff.

(1989) Crime Drama (Circle) Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Kong Chu, Kenneth Tsang, Fui-On Shing, Wing-Cho Yip, Fan Wei Yee, Barry Wong, Parkman Wong, Siu-Hung Ng, Yamson Domingo, Siu Hung Ngan, Kwong Leung Wong, Simon Broad (voice), Dion Lam, Chung Lin, Hung Lu, Pierre Tremblay (voice), Hsiang Lin Yin  Directed by John Woo

There are those who are big fans of Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s who will tell you that maybe the seminal film of that era and that place is John Woo’s The Killer. At the time it was hailed by the Western press as a masterpiece even though it surprisingly didn’t do well at the box office at the time as it was released shortly after the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Since then it has taken its rightful place as one of the finest films ever to be produced in Hong Kong.

Ah Jong (Fat) is a hitman for the Hong Kong triads. However, he is getting out of the business, having lost the taste for it and plans to retire after one last job. It goes off pretty well but during the fracas, a pretty nightclub singer named Jenny (Yeh) is injured by the muzzle flash from Ah Jong’s gun when his gun goes off next to her eyes. She will need an expensive corneal transplant or will eventually lose her sight completely.

Ah Jong feels a certain amount of guilt over the incident and begins hanging out at the nightclub to hear the singer, whose sight has become so poor that she doesn’t recognize him. He witnesses an attempted mugging on the singer and drives off the bandits. Afterwards, he escorts her home and eventually the two begin to fall in love. Ah Jong resolves to get her the transplant to save her sight and in order to do so, he contacts his Triad handler Fung Sei (Kong Chu) to set up one last hit, the proceeds for which should be more than enough to pay for Jenny’s operation.

At the Hong Kong dragon boat celebration he assassinates an industrialist. However, he is observed by maverick Hong Kong police detective Li Ying (Lee), who along with his partner Tsang Yeh (Tsang) begin closing in on the assassin. The Triad boss, the ruthless Hay Wong Hoi (Shing) refuses to pay Ah Jong what he owes him and puts out a hit on his former employee. Not a smart idea. Ah Jong isn’t about to go down quietly and together with Fung Sei determine to take what is his. Li becomes intrigued with the assassin when he rushed a child, hit by incidental gunfire during the shootout, to a hospital but by doing so gets caught in the middle of the war between Ah Jong and the Triad. One thing is certain; bullets are going to fly.

The violence here is stylish, influenced by such American auteurs as Scorsese and Peckinpah. The final shootout takes place in a church that is in the process of being renovated; noted cinematographer Peter Pau and his co-cinematographer Wing-Hang Wong use doves, a Woo trademark (although this was the first film he would use them in) with a gauzy focus to make the setting somewhat ethereal; a purgatory in which the protagonists will go either to heaven or to hell.

Chow Yun Fat is one of the most charismatic and able actors to ever come out of Asia. although as of late he hasn’t appeared in many films that have made it to the States he has continued to be one of the most in-demand actors in the East. He demonstrates his screen presence here, using his athleticism to good advantage particularly in the gun battles.

The relationship between Ah Jong and Detective Li is crucial to the film’s success and the relationship goes from antagonists to grudging respect to close friends in a short time. That might seem laughable to Western audiences but it feels organic. I will admit that seeing the film a second time 25 years after originally seeing it during its first American theatrical run that the film doesn’t hold up as well as I thought it might; some of the dialogue comes off as clunky and there is a cheesy factor that I don’t remember from my first viewing, when I was extremely impressed and became a lifelong devotee to Hong Kong-produced films ever since. Woo himself had to make some compromises due to run-ins with his producer, the legendary Tsui Hark. Like Woo, Hark is a man of strong opinions and the two butted heads over things like the soundtrack. Woo wanted Jenny to be a singer of sultry jazz songs but Hark didn’t think Asian audiences would like that and insisted that she sing Chinese pop songs. For the record, Woo was right.

The Killer has been a tremendous influence on action films in general; echoes of various scenes can be seen in just about every action film made since, influencing directors like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, the Wachowski’s, Luc Besson and Antoine Fuqua. Sure, there are some cultural aspects that may seem foreign to American audiences but the action sequences by themselves are worthy of study, particularly for the serious aficionado of action movies. While I left my more recent viewing less impressed than I had been after my first, I had to remind myself that many of the sequences have been so imitated that they seem less incredible now than when I first saw it, when I have to say without reservation that I hadn’t seen anything like this before. In many ways, it still can be said about this movie – it is an amazing piece of filmmaking and anyone who seriously loves movies should make the effort to see this film at some point; it is required viewing for any understanding of action movies and non-American cinema.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully choreographed action. Fine performance by Chow Yun Fat. Beautiful cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated. Some of the dialogue is a bit bombastic.
FAMILY VALUES: An incredible amount of violence, mostly bloodless although there are a couple of disturbing images. There’s also a little bit of foul language and a whole lot of smoking going on.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The subtitles were so badly translated during the first American theatrical run that the film was mistakenly promoted as a comedy..
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Dragon Dynasty DVD/Blu-Ray version includes a location guide. Surprisingly, the now out-of-print Criterion Collection edition contained no notable extras.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.4M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental and streaming)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Departed
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Leatherheads

Catch .44


Now, that's what I call a catch!

Now, that’s what I call a catch!

(2011) Action/Suspense (Anchor Bay) Malin Akerman, Nikki Reed, Deborah Ann Woll, Forest Whitaker, Bruce Willis, Shea Whigham, Jimmy Lee Jr., Brad Dourif, Jill Stokesberry, P.J. Marshall, Dan Silver, Michael Rosenbaum, Edrick Browne, Christopher Alan Weaver, Amanda Bosley, Ivory Dortch, Kevin Beard, Shelby Schneider, Nikita Kahn. Directed by Aaron Harvey

Some movies look like a good idea on paper. However, once the finished product gets out there, it doesn’t quite measure up. I suspect Catch .44 was something like that.

How else do you explain the outstanding cast for what turned out to be a direct-to-video turkey? The premise, which might have caught Quentin Tarantino’s eye once upon a time before he decided to reinvent the Western involves three gorgeous girls straight out of a Russ Meyers grindhouse movie, three badass chicks in a diner who have a mission for the man they’re employed by – Mel (Willis), an utter irredeemable lowlife drug dealer.

Things go South in a hurry, bullets fly and bodies drop. Whitaker shows up as a hit man to turn the Mexican standoff into a three-way. Who will walk out of the diner alive? Will anybody care which one does? The answer to the latter is likely “no.”

The oddball thing is that the main action of the movie occurs in the first five or ten minutes, then the rest of the movie is essentially a flashback to tell you how all the characters got there which, half an hour in, you’ll slowly begin to realize that rather than using the flashback as a means of giving the characters depth, there’s just a lot of pointless meandering going on and by that time you’ll likely want to switch the DVD player off. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs utilized much the same kind of format but was much more successful at utilizing it than Catch .44 did.

Harvey has a pretty decent visual sense – the movie looks good and he clearly was able to line up a top of the line cast. What he didn’t do was motivate them to perform up to their level of stardom. Whitaker is an Oscar winner and Willis one of the most charismatic stars of the last 20 years, but both of them seem to be sleepwalking. Whitaker affects a nearly indecipherable Spanish/Cajun accent and Willis essentially plays the standard Bruce Willis character, although there’s a surreal moment when someone plays “Respect” from his 80s attempt at rock and roll stardom, The Return of Bruno.

I did like Akerman in the lead role, and to a lesser extent Reed and Woll; Reed’s turn is a bit more sexual than the other two but frankly the script gives us little hint as to who these women are. That doesn’t give us a whole lot of incentive to identify with any of them.

I like the idea of three badass girls in a diner dealing with a deal gone wrong. We need movies like that, but we need good movies like that. Tarantino could have made a masterpiece out of this, as could a number of like-minded directors; Robert Rodriguez, for example. Sadly, this is just a forgettable bit of action fluff that starts out promising, goes nowhere and ends up in the dollar bin at Wal*Mart quicker than you can say “Is that all there is?”

WHY RENT THIS: Three beautiful girls. Nice premise. Great-looking, cinematically speaking..
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit clumsy in its execution. Most of the cast looks like they’re just there for the paycheck. Confusing storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of violence and foul language as well as a bit of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Mara and Lizzy Caplan were both originally cast but both dropped out of the movie, to be replaced by Reed and Woll, respectively.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unknown box office on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Killing Jar
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: In Bruges

The Transporter


Jason Statham's new workout regimen.

Jason Statham’s new workout regimen.

(2002) Action (20th Century Fox) Jason Statham, Qi Shu, Matt Schulze, Francois Berleand, Ric Young, Didier Saint Melin, Doug Rand, Tonio Descanvelle, Laurent Desponds, Mattheiu Albertini, Vincent Nemeth, Jean-Yves Bilien, Jean-Marie Paris, Adrian Dearnell, Alfred Lot, Audrey Hamm, Sebastien Migneau, Laurent Jumeaucourt, Christian Gazio. Directed by Corey Yuen

After having seen Jason Statham in such English gangster movies as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch’d, even the most casual moviegoer can see that the man was ready to lead in his own movies. The Transporter gave him his first opportunity.

Frank Martin (Statham) is an ex-Special Forces commando who makes a comfortable living on the French Riviera as a kind of mercenary courier. He makes deliveries for shady personalities, no questions asked. In fact, Martin lives and works by a strict set of rules that cannot be violated.

During the opening sequence, when he is acting as the highly-paid getaway driver for bank robbers, he refuses to leave the scene because there is an extra person in the car. ”I’ve worked everything out by weight,” he tells the robbers calmly as sirens and alarms blare. ”The additional weight will get us caught.”

Eventually, everything works out and the film embarks on a breathtaking car chase choreographed by Michel Julienne (son of the legendary Remy Julienne). This eventually leads to another delivery job, this time of a package. While on the road, Frank violates his own rules when he notices that the package is moving; he looks inside. There, he finds a beautiful young Asian woman (Shu), bound and gagged in a garbage bag. Martin indifferently feeds her and gives her something to drink; then, after an ill-fated escape attempt, he delivers her to her destination.

That’s when the bad guys make their first mistake. They attempt to kill Martin, having realized that he has seen ”the package.” Martin, a top-notch martial artist and weapons expert, responds in spectacular fashion, leading to some terrific fight sequences choreographed by legendary Hong Kong martial arts fight choreographer Corey Yuen who is also a respected director in China.

Luc Besson, who produced and co-wrote the movie, has always specialized in taciturn, sullen anti-heroes who have the heart of gold revealed midway through the film. Martin is not really a bad guy; he’s just pragmatic to a fault. Statham nails him to a T making what could be a most unlikable character completely riveting.

Statham was much like Vin Diesel just after Pitch Black; he oozed tons of potential it would just take the right vehicle (in the cases of both actors, literally) to elevate him to star status. The Transporter is one of those hip movies that connect more with a cult audience rather than the mainstream. I found it surprisingly good, engrossing and refreshing in terms of its action scenes. Yuen and cinematographer Pierre Morel also make good use of the locations on the French Riviera, Paris and Provence.

While the supporting cast generally is less than stellar (although Berleand works well as the cop friend of Martin) and some of the direction is strictly of the MTV ”Look Ma I’m Directing” style, this is one of the more entertaining sleeper gems you’ll find out there. Stream it, rent it or borrow a friend’s DVD; if you love action films, you’ll be glad you did.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham is showing why he would later become an action superstar. Beautiful French locations. Excellent action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Look Ma, I’m Directing! Supporting cast could have been more help.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots and lots of martial arts and automotive violence, along with a little bit of sensuality for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Frank’s car, a BMW 750i E38 is depicted as having a manual six-speed gearbox; in reality, the production version of the model never had one and the car in the movie is the only one produced to have such a gearbox. While some owners have made manual conversions using the gearbox from a BMW 850CSi E31, those cars are genuinely rare.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Despite the fact that there have been two different special edition DVDs and a Blu-Ray release, you won’t find anything beyond the same old commentary, making-of fluff featurettes, extended scenes and trailers so if you’re looking to purchase, keep in mind that there’s nothing here but the standard DVD/Blu-Ray features despite the “special” tags – and the corresponding price tag.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.9M on a $21M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Getaway

RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Short Term 12

 

A Good Day to Die Hard


Why some guys will go see A Good Day to Die Hard.

Why some guys will go see A Good Day to Die Hard.

(2013) Action (20th Century Fox) Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Yulia Snigir, Cole Hauser, Amaury Nolasco, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Anne Vyalitsyna, Rasha Bukvic, Melissa Tang, Catherine Kresge, Sergei Kolesnikov, April Grace. Directed by John Moore

One of the most successful action franchises of all time is the Die Hard series. Each one pits New York cop John McClane (Willis) against a parade of really nasty bad guys who over the years have included Alan Rickman, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Olyphant and William Sadler.

The fifth in the franchise isn’t located in the States. In fact, the action takes place all the way East in Russia (Moscow) and the Ukraine. McClane goes over to the former Evil Empire to see his estranged son Jack (Courtney) who is going on trial there for unknown charges. McClane feels a lot of guilt for the chilly relationship he has with Jack and not only does he want to see what he can do to help his son get off the hook (unlikely) but also what he can do to mend some fences (even more unlikely).

And of course, this being a Die Hard movie all hell breaks loose. Jack is getting ready to testify against a former billionaire named Komarov (Koch) who is on trial on some unspecified corruption charge, but the new minister of defense Chagarin (Kolesnikov) – who was once Komarov’s friend and business partner – is anxious for his old friend to remain silent.

So when an attempt is made to break Komarov out of jail, Jack goes along for the ride only he’s not just a passenger, he’s driving the car – Jack it turns out is a CIA operative and they’re very eager to get their hands on a file containing some damming information about our old friend Chagarin. Unfortunately, Jack shows up in the midst of all the chaos and in trying to help throws Jack’s carefully made arrangements out the door.

Naturally Jack is none too pleased to see his father but now he needs to get Komarov, the file and Komarov’s beautiful daughter (Snigir) out of the country but with Jack’s partners dead, it looks like it will be Russia vs. the McClane’s and as red-blooded Americans we know how all of this is going to turn out – yup, into a showdown at Chernobyl. Literally.

In all honesty, this is a movie that’s like the previous films in the franchise more than it is a Die Hard movie. Yeah, all the elements are there but it just doesn’t have the energy and inspiration the first four movies in the franchise had.

Willis continues to be the Energizer Bunny of action heroes. Throw him through plate glass windows, shoot him, toss him from great heights and he’ll just dust himself off, wipe the blood from a couple of cuts on his bald pate and he’ll just head on to the next action sequence. There were times during the movie that he got out of a situation that should have killed him and I thought “Oh come on!” I would much rather McClane use his cleverness or street smarts to get him out of a situation where he could be killed rather than have him emerge unscathed from a situation in which he should be killed. That takes us out of the movie and descends into self-parody.

Willis has good chemistry with Courtney. While the father-son bonding sequences are a bit weak (although one where Willis asks him if he wants a hug and he responds “We’re not exactly a family of huggers” is pretty good), the two play off of each other nicely. The discord between father and son is palpable but not really explained very well other than “he worked long hours, was never around blah blah blah” which sounds more like the whining of a spoiled brat than of an adult who is so busy working he has no relationships whatsoever. Hmm.

Most of the cast isn’t terribly well-known other than by savvy film buffs but they get the job done. In fact if you’re looking for mindless entertainment, you could do a lot worse than this. It’s just that it doesn’t measure up to any of the first four movies in the franchise so you might think harder about renting one of them instead of spending the bucks to see this in theaters – unless you’re a Die Hard diehard of course.

REASONS TO GO: This is Bruce Willis’ signature role and he’s always worth seeing in it.

REASONS TO STAY: Weakest film in the series to date.

FAMILY VALUES:  As with most Die Hard movies there’s a ton of violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the road trip every car after the original rental had a crushed can of Red Bull on the dashboard.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100; the reviews are pretty damn bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Octopussy

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Picture Me

Matchstick Men


Matchstick Men

Allison Lohman has always been a swinger.

(2003) Crime (Warner Brothers) Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce McGill, Jenny O’Hara, Steve Eastin, Bruce Altman, Beth Grant, Sheila Kelley, Fran Kranz, Tim Kelleher, Nigel Gibbs, Bill Salto, Tim Maculan, Kim Cassidy. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

A good con movie is one of the finest cinematic experiences a filmgoer can have. Trying to keep up with the twists and turns, the backstabbing and the betrayals can leave one wondering from what direction the next twist is coming. Sometimes they’re easy to spot; it’s when you get blindsided that you leave the theater feeling invigorated. But does Matchstick Men bring The Sting to mind?

Roy Waller (Cage) is a veteran con artist (emphasis on the artist) who has a number of neuroses, chief among them agoraphobia. He has difficulty leaving the safe environs of his comfortable home, but rarely needs to – he has pulled off enough cons to be able to live comfortably the rest of his life. However, he has a partner (Rockwell) with whom he conspires to take a lowlife criminal named Frechette (McGill) for a big score that will allow Roy to retire and partner Frank to establish himself.

Into this mix comes the daughter Roy never knew he had; Angela (Lohman), who lives with Roy’s estranged wife, is a troubled teen who needs direction. She latches onto Roy, who can barely function. She finds out what his profession is and talks him into teaching her how to con. She turns out to be quite good at it. However, as Roy and Frank’s con begins to go south, the issue becomes not only protecting himself, but perhaps protecting the family he now can’t do without.

Director Ridley Scott went for a change of pace after his previous two movies (Gladiator and Hannibal) to make a quirky comedy. I’m not sure that was a great move; his comedies haven’t been his strongest films throughout his career although he has shown a few moments. Frankly, this one is a bit uneven as well, although after re-watching it recently I found it better than I remembered it to be.

Cage can be one of my favorite actors when he’s not overacting; this isn’t one of those occasions so he doesn’t disappoint here. Nobody does quirky quite like Nicolas Cage and Scott is a strong enough director to reign in Cage’s more over-the-top tendencies. Of late Cage has been something of a joke because of his really out-of-control scene chewing, but this is one of the movies that reminds you that he’s a very talented actor as well.

Rockwell has put his name on my list of actors whom I will go and see no matter what kind of turkey they are starring in – although to be honest he hasn’t done many of those. He’s evolved into an “A” list guy, although he hasn’t gotten that career-defining role yet that I think is in him. It’s only a matter of time though.

Lohman is absolutely sensational as Angela. She nearly takes this movie away from Cage, which can be a difficult task in and of itself. She hasn’t had the career I thought she would, although she was outstanding in Drag Me to Hell and unforgettable in Big Fish. Still, in all her films she’s always solid at the very least. This is one of her brighter moments.

The problem with con-game films is that they often have to take the same road; good-hearted con artist cons bad villain. The reality of the business is that these people prey on the vulnerable and generally have enough sense to stay away from guys who might go after them. Real con artists are generally despicable individuals.

Still, it is part of human nature to want to pull one over on someone who deserves it, and that’s what makes The Sting so dang satisfying and why it’s the gold standard when it comes to con movies. The twist here is not too obvious, but it’s not terribly original either and to be honest, that’s what most caper films are judged by at the end of the day. Still, it is sufficient to make the movie a winner in my book and hopefully one that will keep you entertained should you choose to seek this movie out.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Lohman, Cage and Rockwell. Fun caper flick throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Twist is merely adequate. Film is fairly uneven. Comedy not Ridley Scott’s forte.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the subject matter is on the adult side. There are some bad words, a bit of violence and a bit less sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although Lohman played a 14-year-old girl (and went to the audition dressed to look as one), she was 22 at the time she made this movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $65.6M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking the movie broke even or was marginally profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Moon

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: ParaNorman