Mute


Here’s a scene that could have used Harrison Ford.

(2018) Science Fiction (Netflix) Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Daniel Fathers, Robert Kazinsky, Jannis Niewöhner, Dominic Monaghan, Melissa Holroyd, Levi Eisenblätter, Caroline Peters, Nikki Lamborn, Noel Clarke, Gilbert Owuor, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Michael Behrens, Mike Davies, Sam Rockwell, Anja Karmanski. Directed by Duncan Jones

 

Duncan Jones is one of the most inventive and admired genre directors out there. When Netflix picked up this film to display, it was considered a coup. A much-admired director at the top of his game in a fairly large-budget production, Netflix was undoubtedly hoping for a franchise.

That’s not necessarily what they got. They got a sci-fi noir story set in a 2050 Berlin very much based on the look of Blade Runner. Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, an Amish bartender (!) at a seedy dive in the underground of Berlin who has been mute since a childhood boating accident. His girlfriend Naadirah (Saleh) is a cocktail waitress (and as he later discovers, a part-time prostitute) who disappears after a couple of lowlifes make some untoward advances, causing the angry Amish (!) to beat the holy crap out of them.

No longer burdened with having to be a bartender after getting fired (even seedy dive owners get grumpy about employees beating up customers) Leo turns into gritty Amish detective (!) and searches the dodgy side of town in search of his lover who turns out to have a few secrets of her own, secrets that are connected to a couple of AWOL American military surgeons named Cactus Bill (Rudd) and Duck (Theroux) and perhaps Luba (Sheehan), a bisexual waiter and fellow prostitute who has a big time crush on Naadirah and big time contempt for Leo.

The visuals are nothing less than stunning, although you’ll get a sense that you’ve seen it all before; the nod to the Ridley Scott classic at times crosses the line from homage to rip-off. Skarsgård at least delivers a soulful performance as Leo, mainly having to emote using facial expressions and body language. However the conceit of making him Amish fails spectacularly – should any Amish have a Netflix subscription they no doubt will be scratching their beards and wondering to their mates “Does thee believe what thou are seeing?” The banter between Rudd and Theroux is fun, but it gets a bit creepy (Cactus Bill has a volcanic temper and Duck is a pederast) particularly towards the end of the film.

Critics absolutely hated this thing as you can see by their scores below, but they’re being a little harsh, maybe because Jones set his own bar so high. Yeah, the plot is muddled but if you stick with it for the two hours plus that the movie runs it all does come together. The film is genuinely inventive and I think most critics will agree that it’s like nothing you’ve seen before which I admit isn’t always a good thing. However, I was reasonably entertained and parts of the film have remained with me although parts have not – one of the most important plot points is explained at the end but I can’t for the life of me remember what that explanation is. Don’t let the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores dissuade you for deciding for yourself; I enjoyed it enough to recommend it although do take that with a note of caution; I’m pretty much alone in the critical community in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are breathtaking. Skarsgård delivers a soulful performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is more than a little bit muddled. Sheehan gives far too wooden a performance as Luba.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and sexuality herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Hasselhoff appears on the currency.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner 2049
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deadpool 2

Kingsman: The Golden Circle


Being a superspy can go right to your head.

(2017) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Taron Egerton, Julianne Moore, Mark Strong, Channing Tatum, Colin Firth, Michael Gambon, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Thomas Turgoose, Sophie Cookson, Elton John, Pedro Pascal, Poppy Delevingne, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Watson, Hanna Alström, Edward Holcroft, Keith Allen, Tom Benedict Knight, Samantha Coughlan. Directed by Mathew Vaughn

 

The first film in this nascent franchise, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a thinly veiled satire on spy film tropes and class warfare that included some fairly spectacular action set pieces and a notorious denouement in which a beautiful Swedish princess rewards the hero for saving her life by consenting to butt sex.

Critics of course took great umbrage to the latter and labeled it crass (which it was) and sexist (which it clearly wasn’t; women should be allowed to enjoy sex – even in the posterior – without it being some sort of political statement). There were some issues  revolving around an overabundance of gadgets and gimmicks but it was a solidly entertaining film that left the viewer anticipating a sequel.

So here it is; now that Vaughn has gone to the trouble of setting up his world of gentlemen spies, he decides to tear it all down by having the Kingsmen wiped out in the first act, leaving surviving hero Eggsy (Egerton) and gadget guru Merlin (Strong) asking the American counterpart – the Statesmen – for help (read into that what you want, politically inclined viewer). The agency works out of a Kentucky bourbon distillery and has agents with names like Whiskey (Pascal) who has a way with a whip, Champagne (Bridges) who is the agency head, and Tequila (Tatum) who has suspicions about the Brits. There’s also Merlin’s counterpart Ginger Ale (Berry) who suspects not all is morning in America.

They are up against a vicious, ruthless drug lord with a lavish jungle base. Now, you might have a vision in your head of a Latin hacienda but what Vaughn came up with is Poppy (Moore) who has a fixation on Happy Days-era America and has a bit of an inferiority complex. Lonely and bored in her jungle Main Street lair, she fills her days with vicious robotic dogs and Elton John (playing himself) whom she kidnapped to put on nightly concerts exclusively for her.

Vaughn has always excelled at action set pieces and he does so again here, but the camera work is highly kinetic and as a result many of the sequences are vertigo inducing and may work better for viewers susceptible to such things on the small screen. Still, he has no compunction about going way over the top and so he does here.

In my review of The Secret Service I maintained that the journey was out on Egerton who was lost among the gadgets a bit and here that is not so much the case. He comes off as smarmy and a bit superficial, a change from his cockney street kid turned gentleman spy in the first. It is not, I should say, a welcome change. Here Eggsy is trying to balance his relationship with the Swedish princess with his job as suave superspy. We rarely get a glimpse of his good heart that made him more palatable in the first film. This is what I would call a mistake in direction.

Moore is a talented actress but even she can’t elevate this role above the cookie cutter villain that Poppy turns out to be; all gimmick and no growl. She has her own plan for taking over the world and it’s a fairly clever one but it’s been done before both in Bond and in other imitations. While she has some fun interactions with the most venal President (Greenwood) ever, at the end of the day she lacks the spice to make her a truly interesting villain.

Most of the fun here comes from the supporting performances; Strong makes Merlin the heart of the Kingsmen and he gives the role more nuances than it probably deserves. Berry also shines as Merlin’s counterpart. I loved Elton John here as a kind of venomous caricature of himself, turning out to have some surprising ninja skills in the climactic fight. Never underestimate a gay pop star who has spent a career fighting for the lives of his fellow gay men during the AIDS crisis.

This simply isn’t as good as the first movie. While there are plans for a third film in the franchise and possibly a Statesmen spin-off film, I’m not looking forward to them as eagerly as I did this one. Once bitten twice shy when it comes to movie franchises and I suspect a lot of you out there feel the same way.

REASONS TO GO: Elton John is terrific in an extended cameo and Strong is equally so as Merlin. The fight scenes are hyperkinetic.
REASONS TO STAY: This is really not as good as the first movie. Egerton is too smarmy and Moore too generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence, some drug use, a bit of sexuality and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are five Oscar winners in front of the camera: Moore, Firth, Bridges, Berry and Elton John, who won for Best Song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers in Goldmember
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blade Runner 2049

Max


Max prefers kidfingers over ladyfingers.

Max prefers kidfingers over ladyfingers.

(2015) Family Drama (Warner Brothers/MGM) Thomas Haden Church, Josh Wiggins, Luke Kleintank, Lauren Graham, Robbie Amell, Mia Xitlali, Dejon LaQuake, Jay Hernandez, Owen Harn, Joseph Julian Soria, Raymond W. Beal, Edgar Arreola, Jason Davis, Pete Burns, Miles Mussenden, Joan Q. Scott, Ian Gregg, Andrene Ward-Hammond. Directed by Boaz Yakin

]It is a Hollywood truism that it is never a good idea to work as an actor with children and animals, unless you like getting upstaged. Sometimes, of course, it’s unavoidable – families must have their films and they are often crawling with kids and pets.

Max is a dog working for the military. He and his handler, Kyle Wincott (Amell) are in Afghanistan, where Max faithfully sniffs out weapon caches for the Taliban and alerts the platoon when there’s trouble. However, all of Max’s training can’t save Kyle from a Taliban ambush.

Back home in Texas, Kyle’s family is living day to day; his ex-marine Dad Ray (Church) bears his wounds that he got in Desert Storm and runs a storage facility. His wife Pam (Graham) relies on her faith in God to get her eldest son back home safely and to keep the peace between Ray and their youngest son Justin (Wiggins). Justin is at an age where he is, quite frankly, a jerk – like most teenage boys. He has little or no respect for either parent (less for his demanding Dad than his Mom), plays videogames all day long and has no interest in spending his summer working for his Dad who really needs the help. He is also burning bootlegged copies of videogames that haven’t come out yet for a local hoodlum named Emilio (Soria), who is the cousin of his best friend Chuy (LaQuake).

The Wincott family is devastated by the news of Kyle’s passing. It is Max, however, who is the most inconsolable. His relationship with Kyle and devotion to him is such that he is of no use back in the field; he suffers from PTSD (and yes, dogs can be afflicted by it) and won’t let any other handler near him. The Army ships him back to Texas where he was first trained to see if anyone can deal with him. They bring the dog to Kyle’s funeral, where he breaks hearts by running up to the casket, pawing at it and with a piteous whimper lies down at the foot of it. Why don’t you go get a tissue now, I’m sure you need it.

Anyway, the only person Max responds to is the sullen Justin. As it turns out, Justin is beginning to respond to Max, too – after his mom forces him to take care of the dog on his own. It would seem an insurmountable obstacle for Justin, who doesn’t know the first thing about caring for a dog. Fortunately for him, another cousin of Chuy – this one not involved in anything illegal – named Carmen (Xitlali) – has raised pit bulls in her family for ages, so she agrees to help Justin out. The two start to take a shine to each other.

However, things get complicated when Kyle’s buddy – Tyler Harne (Kleintank) returns from duty early and gives Ray an account of Kyle’s death that puts the blame squarely on Max. Ray is all for putting a bullet in the dog’s head after that but cooler heads prevail. Max clearly doesn’t like Harne – he gets upset whenever he’s close by, barking and trying to break his chain to get at the former Marine. Justin thinks Harne is up to something. When Justin’s suspicions prove correct, Harne has Max taken away by animal control to be put down and when Ray finally figures out that his younger son has been right all along, kidnaps Ray to hand over to the drug cartel that he is selling weapons that he liberated in Afghanistan to with the express instructions to take his buddy’s dad to Mexico and make him disappear permanent-like. It’s up to Max to escape doggie death row and aid Justin in finding his dad.

I liked the first part of the premise – bringing a military dog home and helping the dog heal from his PTSD, while simultaneously helping the family heal from the grief of their loss. Had they stuck to that story this might have been an excellent family film. Unfortunately, they add the whole far-fetched junior detective angle that just turns the movie into an Afterschool Special and not a particularly good one.

What saves the movie is Max himself; the dog is absolutely wonderful, the kind of dog that epitomizes why the species is Man’s Best Friend. One can see why the military and law enforcement both rely heavily on dogs, particularly those of Max’s breed. Max will definitely tug on your heartstrings and in a movie like this one, frankly that’s his job.

I didn’t talk much about Carmen in the story summary but let me tell you, Mia Xitlali may have an unusual last name but she also has unusual talent to back it up. She’s absolutely a knockout in the looks department but she has plenty of screen presence to make her a talent to watch out for, so long as she doesn’t go down the Selena Gomez path. Latin actresses don’t often get really juicy roles but hopefully one will come this lady’s way – I know she’ll make the most of it when one does. Mark my words, this girl has a future ahead of her.

Wiggins, who was impressive in the far better Hellion, is less so here. Mostly, he’s the victim of awful writing; Justin is so sullen and so angry at the world that it is absolutely excruciating to spend time with him. Sure, this might be more typical of teenage boy behavior – and I helped raise one as well as having been one, so I know they can be real jerks – but most teen boys, even my son, had redeeming qualities. Eventually Max turns Justin around but by the time he does, you’re pretty much already over Justin. Sadly, Yakin gave Wiggins some cringe-inducing dialogue to speak and you can almost see Wiggins wincing when he says it.

I get that this isn’t meant to be a work of art but it could have been so much better. I think the story that takes up most of the first part of the movie is far more compelling than the Disney Channel detective show that makes up the second. I wish Yakin had trusted his main story to carry him through although to be fair, it’s quite possible (and even likely) that the studio may have had something to do with adding the kids save the day second half. In addition, when a filmmaker casts actors the caliber of Graham and Church and then gives them little to do but look stern or sad, that’s a bad sign. Still, those looking for family entertainment that isn’t animated in a year in which it seems like the only good option for families is Inside Out could do worse than seeing this as a break from multiple viewings of Pixar.

REASONS TO GO: Max is terrific. Some nice cinematography. Xitlali shows some legitimate talent.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedantic story. Church and Graham criminally underused. Justin may be a “typical” teen but far too abrasive to get much audience sympathy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and peril, disturbing war sequence and some thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Five dogs play Max, who is a Belgian Malinois (not a Belgian Shepard as is at least once remarked upon in the movie) which are a breed used often by the military and police; the primary canine actor, whose name is Carlos (great name!) also appeared in the movie Project Almanac.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bolt
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meet Me in Montenegro

Miss Bala


The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Stephanie Sigman, Irene Azuela, Miguel Coururier, Gabriel Heads, Noe Hernandez, James Russo, Jose Yenque, Juan Carlos Galvan, Lakshmi Picazo, Javier Zaragoza, Leonor Vitorica, Hugo Marquez, Eduardo Mendizabal, Sergio Gomez Padilla, Felipe Morales, Sergio Miguel Martinez, Gabriel Chavez, Leticia Huijara Cano. Directed by Gerardo Naranjo

Innocence is a commodity that falls by the wayside in a corrupt society. It is hard not to take sides when absolute power rules with brutality and intimidating force and often the side you take is not one taken of your own free will.

Laura Guerrero (Sigman) is a sweet and unassuming teenager who works selling secondhand clothes with her father (Zaragoza) and little brother (Galvan). On a whim she and her close friend Suzu (Picazo) decide to enter their names for the Miss Baja beauty pageant. That night they decide to go to a local night club and party.

During the evening, a group of thugs shoot up the club. Laura, who was in the bathroom at the time, escaped but witnessed the whole thing, being one of the few survivors. Her ordeal is just beginning; she is kidnapped the very next day and taken to Lino Valdez (Hernandez), the head of the drug cartel. Lino. Rather than executing the witness however, he uses her as a courier to ferry money across the border into the United States, bringing back arms and ammunition.

Lino and his gang use her brother and father to control her, threatening to execute them if she doesn’t do as they say and so she becomes a part of the gang. When they figure she can be useful for them as a pageant winner, they get her into the Miss Baja pageant and bribe the judges into letting her win. Her high profile allows them to use her as a means of seducing the powerful General Salomon Duarte (Couturier) and gaining control over him by that means. However, when she discovers that Suzu had not survived the shooting at the club (they assured her that she had), she realizes that nobody is getting out of this alive and she is left with a big decision to make.

As thrillers go this one is raw and gritty and sometimes not so pretty, even given the beauty pageant background. It displays the effects that intimidation, violence and brutality have on the lives of those caught in the crossfire and does so very effectively. Although it didn’t make the final short list, it was submitted as Mexico’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film for the 2012 Academy Awards.

There’s a gritty realism that shows not only the desperation and poverty of the people who live in Baja but also the arrogance, the brutality and the opulence of those in power. The consequences of our war on drugs have never had such a human face as this.

Sigman is not well known to me as an actress; she has mainly appeared in Mexican films and since this movie was made has had a recurring role on the F/X TV series The Bridge. She certainly has the beauty and the innocent look but there isn’t a lot of emotion that we get from her other than terror which isn’t necessarily a deficiency on her part – the role doesn’t really call for much else and therein lies the main problem with the movie.

We really don’t get to know Laura at all before the massacre and kidnapping. She seems like a fairly sweet kid, a typical Mexican teenager trying to help her family make ends meet. However, the movie gets into the action so quickly (which isn’t normally an issue for me) that by the time we really know what’s happening Laura is already in victim mode, and that’s really the only way we know her throughout the film all the way to its ambiguous ending.

Sometimes the ins and outs of the politics of the movie can be a bit confusing as to who is on who’s side, who is screwing who and who is at war with who. Things do come out of left field seemingly and while that keeps us off-balance a little bit, some further explanation might have been helpful, particularly for us gringos.

Where the movie excels is in its suspense and tension. From the moment the massacre starts most viewers will be on the edge of their seats, and not really sure what’s going to come at them next. Think of it as riding a roller coaster blindfolded and never sure if you’re going to go flying out of your seat. Some might find that an unpleasant experience but for the purposes here that does satisfy the Type A personality in me.

Despite the recent upsurge in quality Mexican films, this one didn’t get a great deal of attention when it was released back in the early months of 2011 which is a bit of a shame. While it isn’t as good as, say, Y tu mama tambien or Amores perros it is as good as any thriller that has come out from Hollywood in recent years.

WHY RENT THIS: Raw and gritty. Raises the thriller bar up a notch..

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Don’t really connect with Laura as much as we should. Occasionally confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rough language, a goodly amount of sometimes strong and bloody violence as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on Laura Zuniga, the former Miss Sinaloa, beauty queen and model who was arrested on December 22, 2008 for narcotics trafficking.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maria, Full of Grace

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Being Flynn

2 Guns


Denzel Washington can smile because his name comes first in the credits.

Denzel Washington can smile because his name comes first in the credits.

(2013) Crime Action (Universal) Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton, Bill Paxton, Edward James Olmos, James Marsden, Fred Ward, Robert John Burke, Greg Sproles, Patrick Fischler, Edgar Arreola, Derek Solorsano, Kyle Russell Clements, Christopher Matthew Cook, Tim Bell, Tate Fletcher, Azure Parsons. Directed by Baltasar Kormakur

There is room in this world for testosterone-infused crotch-scratching knuckle-dragging action movies. We men need them, as much as we need beer, 24 hour sports networks, grilled meat and babes. They are endemic to our manhood. They make us feel good and get past all the crap we have to take for being men.

Here is a movie that will make your penis swell with pride and put a smile on your manly unshaven face. Two guys – Bobby (Washington), a natty well-dressed guy who “knows people” and Stig (Wahlberg), a skirt-chasing loudmouth who never misses – are planning to rob a bank. Unfortunately, this particular bank is across from a diner that serves the best donuts in three counties and a word to the wise – never rob a bank across from a diner that serves the best donuts in three counties. Easy fix though; they burn the diner to the ground.

It turns out they are robbing this particular bank because Mexican cartel kingpin Papi Greco (Olmos) keeps a goodly load of his cash there, about $3 million worth. It’s not generally a good idea to rob a drug lord but it’s okay – Bobby is DEA and this robbery is a good way to link Papi to tax evasion.

However, when they get to doing the deed it turns out that there’s more like $40 million in the safety deposit boxes. And it’s not Papi’s – it belongs to a corrupt CIA whose sweaty agent Earl (Paxton) wants his money back – payments from Papi and other drug lords who give a small percentage of their profits to the CIA as protection for letting them operate. Whoops.

And it turns out that Stig isn’t a mindless thug after all – he’s Naval Intelligence. But both of them have been set up. Stig and Bobby aren’t exactly a match made in heaven but they are forced to work together to get out of the mess they’re in with the CIA, the U.S. Navy and a vicious drug cartel all chasing them and none of them too particular about due process.

This is the kind of movie that Michael Bay fans are going to love. The chemistry between Washington and Wahlberg is excellent, as good as the Glover-Gibson pairing a couple of decades ago. The two bicker and trade barbs as well as bullets but when the rubber hits the road they have each other’s back. Exactly the kind of relationship men like to see.

There is a whole lot of carnage – lots of bullets flying and rarely do any of them strike the heroes but they sure do strike the flunkies of the bad guys with abandon. I can imagine there was a squib shortage in Hollywood when this baby was shooting.

The script will hold no surprises for veteran action film aficionados. Those you think are probably going to end up as villains do. Those you think are going to get shot do. Twists you think the plot is going to take happen. But that’s not why real men see a movie like this. We see a movie like this to affirm that we’re still men. There’s no exploring their feelings, no tender moments of self-expression, no issues of the day – just bullets flying, fists pumping and things going boom. And when that’s what you need, that really is all you need.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Washington and Wahlberg.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t add anything new to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence, a bit of nudity (briefly) and a fair amount of cussing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point in the film’s development this was intended to be a vehicle for Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson to team up but they elected to pass.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100; as with many movies this summer the critics can’t make up their minds..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Losers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Star Trek: Insurrection

Snitch


This is NOT an expression you want to see on Dwayne Johnson's face when he's walking towards you.

This is NOT an expression you want to see on Dwayne Johnson’s face when he’s walking towards you.

(2013) Action (Summit) Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt, Jon Bernthal, Michael Kenneth Williams, Melina Kanakaredes, Nadine Velazquez, Harold Perrineau, Lela Loren, Rafi Gavron, JD Pardo, David Harbour, Kyara Campos, Ashlynn Ross, Kym Jackson. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

In the United States, the War on Drugs has led to harsh mandatory sentencing laws in which first time offenders with no prior record who are caught with a sufficient amount of illegal narcotics in their possession will be charged with possession with intent to distribute. In these cases, the accused can be sentenced if found guilty to minimum jail terms longer than given to those convicted of manslaughter or rape.

Jason Collins (Gavron) is Skyping with a friend who wants to send him some ecstasy to hold onto. Jason doesn’t want to do it but his friend sends them anyway. Jason foolishly accepts the shipment and immediately the DEA break down the doors and arrest his ass. His mom Sylvia (Kanakaredes) calls her ex-husband John Matthews (Johnson) and the two are pretty much left to cool their heels before anyone will even talk to them much less allow them to see their son.

They discover that Jason was set up by his friend who used the arrest of Jason as a means of getting his own sentence reduced. If Jason can supply another drug dealer for arrest, his own sentence will be reduced as well but Jason doesn’t know any other drug dealers besides the jerk who set him up and refuses to set up one of his friends in the same manner he was, even though he’s facing ten years minimum and 30 years maximum.

Frustrated and desperate, John goes to see US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Sarandon) who is also running for Senate on an anti-crime platform. There’s really nothing she can do; the laws tie her hands, she explains. John then offers himself as a snitch; if he can find a drug dealer for his son, can his help be used to reduce Jason’s sentence?

John enlists the help of one of the employees at his trucking/construction firm, Daniel James (Bernthal) who is an ex-con with two narcotics distribution convictions on his record without telling him that the DEA is involved. Daniel introduces John to Malik (Williams) who realizes that John’s trucking company offers him a transportation means that he wouldn’t ordinarily have access to and is much safer than what he’s used to. But being a drug dealer, he is naturally suspicious so he set John up for a milk run, insisting that Daniel accompany him.

John and Daniel do their end, monitored by Agent Collins (Pepper). However when Collins overhears Malik tell them when he gets the delivery of his drugs that he wants to set up a meet with Mexican cartel head El Topo (Bratt), things are moved to another level. Daniel, who discovers what John is up to, realize that both of their families are at risk. Mexican cartels are known for their vicious approach to informants. Now John is in way over his head and pretty much no matter what happens he’s going to lose.

This is a movie that can’t make up its mind whether to be a rip-roaring action film or a serious drama examining the consequences of mandatory sentence laws. In all honesty Waugh could have taken this in either direction and made a successful film. Unfortunately he kind of dithers and tries to have it both ways and in the end the movie winds up suffering a little bit.

It’s not due to the cast however. Johnson is one of the most charismatic actors out there and continues to improve. This is one of his most dramatic roles yet and he handles it without mugging (which he sometimes does, a throwback to his wrestling days) and with a surprising amount of restraint. I don’t know that he’s ever going to win any Oscars (although I get the sense that he’s capable of accomplishing anything he sets his mind to) but he has graduated onto the Hollywood A-list and I suspect will remain on it for a long time to come.

Bernthal, an alumnus of The Walking Dead shows a whole lot of potential for big screen success. As the ex-con trying to get his life turned around he’s playing a role nearly the polar opposite of Shane, a good cop who was turning ruthless and amoral. He has tons of charisma and holds his own with Johnson which is a pretty nifty feat.

Pepper, looking like he was attending a try-out for The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 is a DEA agent with a conscience while Sarandon is a tough as nails prosecutor who doesn’t care who gets trampled in her ambitions. In fact, most of the cast here ranges from solid to spectacular. As action movies go, this is phenomenally well-acted.

The atmosphere is gritty as well; we get a sense of all the worlds from that of the successful business owner to that of the paranoid drug dealer. I was impressed by a few of the action sequences (like a gun battle at a scrap metal yard) although they were fairly sparse; the car chase that is the film’s denouement isn’t particularly noteworthy but it at least maintains our interest.

I liked this movie and thought it had a lot of potential. There were a few pathways that they didn’t choose to go down that might have warranted at least a little exploration (did Matthews’ wife suspect he was lying to her for example) and there were a few credibility stretches here and there but all in all this is a better movie than we had a right to expect. In a year when the quality of most of the major releases has been meager, that’s a blessing in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Johnson is a terrific performer and gets excellent support.

REASONS TO STAY: Tries to walk the tightrope between action film and true crime drama and doesn’t always succeed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writers were inspired by a Frontline documentary on mandatory sentencing laws but didn’t use any specific incidents as the basis for their film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; the reviews were pretty mediocre trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fast Five

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Radio