Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Harrison Ford tries to get away from Shia LaBeouf who is convinced he’s Marlon Brando.

(2008) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine, Alan Dale, Joel Stoffer, Neil Flynn, VJ Foster, Sasha Spielberg, John Valera, Ernie Reyes Jr. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

It only took 19 years but Indiana Jones did return to the big screen. Fans have been eagerly waiting the fourth installment of the series ever since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wrapped but was their patience rewarded with a movie worthy of the scruffy fedora and bullwhip?

It is the 1950s and the Cold War is raging full-bore. At a secret army base in the Southwest, a group of men dressed as U.S. Soldiers take over, led by an ice-cold femme fatale Soviet named Irina Spalko (Blanchett). With her are captured American agents Mac McHale (Winstone) and the legendary archaeologist Indiana Jones (Ford).

She is after a strange artifact Jones had dug up years earlier – a crystal skull, one of only 13 in the world. The Soviets are after it with the idea of using it for mind control. Indy of course wants to prevent this from occurring. He makes a game attempt to steal the Skull but Irina and her cohorts are too well-armed, too well-organized and too many for Jones to make a clean getaway – plus there is the little matter of a double agent.

Indy manages to escape from the Soviets by the skin of his teeth. When he returns home, he is accused by the FBI of being a double agent. He is allowed to go free because nothing can be decisively proven, but he is forced to go on an indefinite leave of absence from his job at Marshall University (to avoid being fired) because of the incident.

At a train station, Indy is stopped by Mutt Williams (LaBeouf), a greaser who tells him that Indy’s old colleague Professor Oxley (Hurt) had been kidnapped after discovering a crystal skull in Peru.  He also gives Indy a letter from his (Mutt’s) mom, also held captive, that contains a riddle written by Oxley in an ancient Incan language.

After being chased by Soviet agents, Indy realizes that this might be the clue he needs to recover the Skull from Irina and maybe just save the world again, so he goes down to Peru to find the Skull. Also hot on its trail is Irina and she’s holding both Oxley and Mutt’s mom hostage. But when Indy goes to rescue them, he discovers to his shock that Mutt’s mom is Marion Ravenwood (Allen) – his old flame. Now it becomes a race between Indy and the Soviets to find the secret of the Crystal Skulls with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

This was one of the most highly-anticipated movies of recent years and in some ways it was a victim of its own expectations. I don’t think anyone seriously thought that the newest Indy would be at the same level as Raiders of the Lost Ark but at the same time there was hope it might at least be better than the last one.

I think that for the most part it was perceived as a disappointment and I recall being disappointed at the time it came out. Coming back at the movie from a fresh perspective some four years after it was released, I have to say that it’s much better than I remember it being. Some of the stunts, like the swordfight on the moving jeeps, are among the best of the series.

There’s also some cringe-inducing moments, such as when Indy survives a nuclear warhead test by hiding inside a lead-lined refrigerator. That one stretched incredulity to the breaking point. Still, by comparison this movie holds up well compared to the others despite the differences in style (more of a ’50s B-movie than a ’30s serial) and tone.

Ford steps back into the role of Indiana Jones without missing a beat and even 20 years later still has the physicality to do many of his own stunts. One casualty of the years is his chemistry with Karen Allen which I never thought was particularly strong in the first place, but they seem awkward together here, like a couple of people who had a fling years ago but have both moved on.

Worse yet is LaBeouf. He was the object of most of the complaints for those who criticized the movie and I do understand some of those issues – he feels out of place here. I think it’s because he’s trying too hard to do a Marlon Brando impression from The Wild One and it just seems silly. I don’t know that I would have cast LaBeouf as Indy’s son – but then who do you cast in a role like that? At least he has some understanding of big action films from the Transformers series.

Better though is Blanchett who as Irina makes up the best villain of the series, better than Mola Ram even. While Ram was evil and had the ability to pull your heart from your chest, he wasn’t a physical presence. Blanchett can shoot, kick, fight, swordfight and is at least as brilliant as Dr. Jones. She is a formidable opponent.

I think if you take this at face value there are some radical differences from the original trilogy, but then you have to expect that since everyone involved has gotten older. There’s more CGI here but it’s used really, really well. In fact from a technical standpoint this is one of the better movies of the last five years. It also adequately captures the spirit of the Indiana Jones movies – the wisecracking, the insane action – but doesn’t regurgitate it. It’s not a classic like the first and third movies are but it is certainly a solid movie I can easily recommend to just about anyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Again, it’s Indiana Jones. Blanchett makes an excellent villain. Fine turns by Hurt, Broadbent and Winstone.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: LaBeouf seems a bit out of place here. Chemistry between Ford and Allen not as strong. Concept somewhat weak as Indiana Jones films go.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some Indiana Jones-style violence and a few scary images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Indiana Jones series was always intended to be five films; however after Last Crusade Spielberg felt that he’ d reached a logical end to the series with the iconic final shot. However, after his son asked when the final two films would be made, Spielberg once again became interested. After Ford stated in a 2006 interview that if the movie wasn’t made by 2008, there would not be a fourth film in the series, Spielberg began fast-tracking the development of the script. 

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the history of the real crystal skulls as well as a fairly fascinating but ultimately incomplete story of the movie’s 14 year trek to the big screen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $786.6M on a $185M production budget; despite being a critical failure the movie is considered to be a big financial hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paul

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Lovely Molly

Lockout (2012)


Lockout

There can never be too much fog on a space station.

(2012) Science Fiction (FIlmDistrict) Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare, Lennie James, Vincent Regan, Joseph Gilgun, Jacky Ido, Tim Plester, Mark Tankersley, Anne-Solenne Hatte, Peter Hudson, Nick Hardin, Dan Savier. Directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger

 

When the President’s daughter is stranded on a space station full of psychotic criminals, that can just ruin your whole day, especially when you’re a top government agent falsely accused of espionage and murder. Or at least, so goes the popular thinking.

That’s the kind of day Snow (Pearce) is having. No first name by the way – just Snow. He’s got a briefcase that the CIA wants badly, particularly director Langral (Stormare). He’d watched Snow murder a friend and fellow agent with his own eyes and take a briefcase of secrets away for sale to the…well, whoever the Americans are battling with in 2079.

He manages to get it in the hands of Mace (Plester) before getting arrested. He gets a nice beating from a thug named Rupert before finding out he’s got a one-way ticket to MS-One, the maximum security low Earth orbit prison where prisoners are kept in cryogenic sleep for the duration of their sentences.

Now, the President’s daughter Emilie Warnock (Grace) happens to be on MS-One at that very moment on a fact-finding mission to determine the validity of rumors that prisoners are being abused which when you think about it is kind of bizarre – how do you abuse someone who’s frozen?

As it turns out, a somewhat overeager Secret Service agent (Ido) disobeys prison rules and brings a gun into an interview with a prisoner who’s been awakened just for the purpose and of course he manages to secure it from the agent and get free, setting loose all the other prisoners in the process.

Alex (Regan), a Jeffrey Dean Morgan look-alike, is the leader of the little revolt (his little brother Hydell (Gilgun) is the scumbag who set the others free) and he doesn’t realize that he has the president’s daughter at first being a little bit out of touch with the political landscape. Cryonic suspension will do that to you. That’s an advantage the powers-that-be know won’t last forever. They need to send someone up there to fetch her – but the prison is well-defended. An army couldn’t get in there without killing everyone in it – but one man…one man…

Guess who that one man is? Just call me Snake…I mean, Snow. Yeah, remember him from three paragraphs ago? That guy. His boss Shaw (James) doesn’t believe a word of the whole espionage and murder thing, thinks that the only guy for the job is Snake…I mean Snow. So why not send him in there? Of course, he’s got a prison full of psychotic rapists, murderers and psychopaths but that’s not unlike a session of Congress no? Anyway, he agrees to go when he discovers Mace has been caught and sent to MS-One…sounds like  Microsoft app doesn’t it? Anyway, Snake…I mean Snow has another reason to head up there other than to rescue the progeny of the man who is sending him to jail. Well, figuratively.

This is the latest from producer Luc Besson (whose The Lady which he directed is in limited release even as we speak) and more along the lines which he’s traditionally associated with – taut action films with genre leanings. This is on the sci-fi lines. Besson came up with the idea and turned it over to St. Leger and Mather who make the most of it.

One of the brightest ideas was to cast Pearce. He is clearly having fun with his role as the wise-cracking Snow, delivering quips as easily as a sci-fi James Bond. Snow is more of a Snake Plissken type – that just keeps coming up doesn’t it – he’s not nearly as suave as the British superspy, but he makes up for it with easygoing self-confidence. This could easily be a franchise character, although the box office numbers don’t really justify it to date. However, since the movie was so inexpensive to produce (only $40 million at the box office gets it to profitability and it hasn’t been released in many overseas territories yet) being shot as it mostly was in Serbia, well, could still turn out okay.

The movie borrows liberally from a number of sources, including the aforementioned (well afore-referred to) Escape from New York as well as dozens of other prison break movies and sci-fi actioners. There is even a clever underhanded reference to Escape director John Carpenter’s early cult film Dark Star (kudos if you get what it is) near the end of the film, making this a semi-homage to Carpenter; if Michael Myers had popped up in a mask among the prisoners it might have made for a perfect Carpenterama.

That’s all forgivable. IF you’re going to steal, steal from the best I always say. However the plot makes some pretty laughable leaps in logic, defying physics and common sense (who would have a gunfight in a space station? one stray bullet can really suck). The infuriating thing is that with a little imagination, the writer/directors could have easily stuck to their internal logic and made for a more exciting movie – or even a movie that made more sense.

Don’t get me wrong though – the reason to see this movie is because it’s fun and action packed and this one is those things. It has a terrific lead – who knew that Guy Pearce could be a great action hero? – and an attractive Maggie Grace in the heroine role. It won’t make any top ten lists and it might not even stick to your memory for more than an hour or two, but you’ll have fun while you’re watching it and that’s really all you can ask for from a movie like this.

REASONS TO GO: Pierce has great fun with what could easily have been a cliché role. Fun and entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: Some terribly long leaps in logic. Borrows a little too heavily from other films.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a lot of violence and a fair share of bad language. There are a few sexual references but nothing sexual per se.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The brothers are named Alex and Hydell. Lee Harvey Oswald used the alias Alek Hidell at one time.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100. The reviews are pretty poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fortress

INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION LOVERS: The Space Station gets its own cameo appearance in the film which may cause a bit of consternation.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Salt of Life

Eagle Eye


Eagle Eye

Shia LaBeouf discovers that the Republicans have control of the House.

(2008) Action Thriller (DreamWorks) Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, Anthony Mackie, Ethan Embry, Anthony Azizi, Bill Smitrovich, William Sadler. Directed by D.J. Caruso

George Orwell, a writer in the 1930s, predicted a society in which a somewhat fascistic government has complete knowledge of your activities and observes you via cameras placed everywhere. In this society, the rights of the individual have become secondary to the rights of the state, and the “Big Brother” figure, meant to be reassuring and friendly, becomes sinister and twisted.

Does any of that sound familiar? Our society has used defense against terrorism as an excuse to invade our privacy in every conceivable way. Our phone calls are monitored without our knowledge. Our internet usage is monitored without our knowledge. Our credit cards and bank accounts are monitored without our knowledge. I wouldn’t be surprised if our bowel movements are also being monitored. If that all sounds a bit paranoid, it’s probably from watching too many movies like this one.

Jerry Shaw (LaBeouf) is a slacker who works in a copy store (one not unlike Kinko’s) and lives hand to mouth. He’s far smarter than the job he does requires, but he seems to be pretty satisfied with underachieving. He then gets devastating news; his twin brother, a high ranking officer in the military, has passed away suddenly in an unusual accident.

Jerry goes home for the funeral where he and his father get into the same old argument; “When are you going to do something with your life? When are you going to be more like your brother?” Blah blah blah.  When Jerry gets home his empty bank account suddenly has three quarters of a million dollars in it. When he opens his apartment door, there are cases of weapons, explosives and enough stuff to blow up a whole chunk of city. He also gets a phone call from a mostly expressionless female voice informing him he needs to leave the apartment within ten seconds or be arrested by the F.B.I. Jerry is understandably overwhelmed and a bit skeptical…until ten seconds later when the F.B.I. barges into his apartment and arrests him.

He is being held as a terrorist by Agent Thomas Morgan (Thornton) in a cushy high rise which of course is what most F.B.I. offices seem to look like these days. In the meantime, Rachel Hollomon (Monaghan) sees off her son at the train station; he’s going with his elementary school band to play for the President in Washington D.C. She also gets a phone call from the same expressionless female voice that called Jerry, warning her that if she doesn’t follow instructions to the letter, her son’s train will be derailed. To prove that They can do it, the expressionless female voice shows live security cam pictures of her son on television sets in a nearby electronic store window (do electronic stores even have television sets in windows anymore?) so she does what she is told.

Back to Jerry. He receives another phone call from the expressionless female voice essentially telling him to duck. More of a believer this time, he does duck – particularly when he sees a giant crane arm hurtling towards the window. He is told to jump and with F.B.I. agents shooting at him, he jumps. Eventually he winds up on an elevated train – did I mention this was set in Chicago? Not that it matters. In any case, Jerry loses his cell phone so the expressionless female voice – or EFV as I’ll refer to it from here on in – calls him on someone else’s cell phone. Or, shall I be more accurate and say everyone else’s cell phone.

It becomes obvious that the EFV is the voice of an organization that has control of just about everything electronic, from traffic signals to cell phones to automated car crushers to satellites to power grids. That in itself is pretty impressive, but what does the EFV want, what part do nobodies like Jerry and Rachel play in the grand scheme of things and when is the next car chase?

Those are the kinds of questions you’ll be asking yourself when you watch this movie. Director D.J. Caruso previously worked with LaBeouf on the much better Disturbia which was also much smaller in scope. Not that I mind bigger scope, by the way.

The problem here is not so much with the acting, although LaBeouf and Monaghan don’t get much time to do any; they’re far too busy hurtling from one action sequence to another at breakneck speeds. The problem here is that the writers kind of write themselves into a corner. They make the EFV so omnipresent, so powerful that you wonder why someone so smart and so in charge couldn’t just take much easier short cuts rather than running two bedraggled citizens ragged on a cross country chase.

The movie obviously owes a lot to some classic suspense movies, like The Man Who Knew Too Much and movies like War Games and Colossus: The Forbin Project (while I’m dancing around who is behind the EFV, most folks know by now who it is either from having seen the movie, reading about it or just reading this review). It feels a bit like a pastiche, although Caruso proves himself more than capable with action sequences. There are some pretty nifty ones here, particularly one that takes place in an airport baggage conveyer system, and near the end in the streets of Washington D.C.

Dawson enters the movie early on as a military intelligence officer investigating the death of Jerry’s twin. She stumbles on this whole mess by mistake and winds up making a nice foil to Thornton’s corn pone F.B.I. agent; the two bicker quite a bit from the movie and provide some much-needed comic relief.

The key to enjoying a movie like this one is understanding its limitations. This isn’t meant to be examined seriously or given much attention to its own internal logic. The fact is that Eagle Eye does what it means to do quite well. It’s a roller coaster, not a math quiz, and it’s meant to be enjoyed without thinking too much about it. Just put your hands in the air and let the ride take you where it will.

WHY RENT THIS: Some great action and wonderful stunts to be seen here. The movie raises some interesting questions about how safe are we with all the surveillance that goes on, and how easily that information can be abused.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There is a bit of a preposterous factor, and LaBeouf and Monaghan do not make for the most compelling leads ever.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, as well as some choice words but nothing I would fret too much about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the EFV a.k.a. Aria, the computer program which is heard over cell phones and in the underground bunker, was voiced by an uncredited Julianne Moore.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The standard single disc DVD release has no features to speak of; on the 2-disc special DVD edition and the Blu-Ray, viewers are treated to a discussion between Caruso and his mentor, director John Badham whose War Games is obviously an inspiration for this (Caruso served as a second unit director on that film). There’s also an interesting but generic piece on the constitutionality of surveillance.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $178.1M on an $80M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Tokyo!

Quantum of Solace


Quantum of Solace

Bond's morning after is always so much more interesting than everybody's elses.

(MGM) Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Gemma Arterton, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Jesper Christensen, Joaquin Cosio, David Harbour. Directed by Marc Forster

After Casino Royale, fans of the James Bond franchise were over the moon. Despite early misgivings, Daniel Craig had turned out to be a magnificent 007 – maybe the best since Sean Connery. A gripping storyline that adds more detail and background to the Bond mythology than any single movie ever has whetted the appetite of fans for more, but did the follow-up deliver?

Following the events of Casino Royale, the new one picks up literally minutes after the last one left off. Bond, who has captured Mr. White (Christensen), is being chased on the mountain roads of Italy by a cadre of thugs in black cars who can’t shoot straight. Bond eludes them and manages to deliver the banker to M (Dench) in Portofino, I think – it might be Siena. Somewhere in Italy, anyway.

It turns out that the organization that Mr. White works for (identified later in the film as Quantum, although nobody explains what this stands for – at least SPECTRE and SMERSH actually were acronyms that stood for something) has agents everywhere, including in that very room. A shoot-out ensues followed by a chase across Italian rooftops, ending up in a church undergoing refurbishment.

M is understandably shaken and pissed off. How could there be an organization so well-financed, so large with fingers in so many pies but MI6 doesn’t even have a clue about who they are? She sends Bond to go get some answers.

I won’t give a lot of the plot away because it really is unnecessary to. Nobody goes and sees a Bond film because of the plot. People want the same elements from their Bond movies – great action, beautiful women, clever gadgets and exotic locations. That’s it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to keep Bond fans happy, but they’ve gone and done that anyway.

Some of the changes are definitely for the better. The relationship between Bond and M becomes the most important relationship in the story. That’s a new twist for the series and one which I quite like. Dame Judi Dench need play a second banana to nobody, and she makes a fine foil for Craig. The chemistry between them exceeds that between Bond and Kurylenko as Camille, this edition’s Bond girl. Trust becomes a central theme to the film, which is bloody revolutionary for a spy film.

I also like that Daniel Craig’s Bond is cold, vicious and driven by the events at the climax of Casino Royale. First of all, a little continuity between movies isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Secondly, it lends a new edge to James Bond and while he does toss a quip out every now and again, he is all business. That has its pros and cons, but I don’t mind that we take Bond a little more seriously with Craig than we did with, say, Roger Moore.

Some of the changes, however, leave something to be desired. The action sequences should have an element of the unbelievable to them, a sense of scale; these are action sequences that are straight out of the Bourne movies (which is, I admit, a bit of an unfair comparison but it does make a useful reference point) and they are a bit rough, the shaky hand-cam which works in other action franchises just seems out of place here. The James Bonds of yesterday always seemed to get into brawls without so much as messing up their impeccably tailored tuxedo or immaculately coiffed hair, but this is a James Bond that gets dusty, bloody, filthy…he survives a plane crash and looks it. I kind of want my James Bond to step out of the wreckage, arch an eyebrow and loose a devastating witticism that gives you the comfort of knowing that Bond is going to save the day in about 20 minutes, and that the megalomaniac of the moment is going to get his comeuppance in a gruesome and deserving manner.

In short, I want to have fun with my James Bond movie and to be honest, I didn’t here. Despite the work of Daniel Craig who is as perfect a Bond for this era as Connery was for his, I didn’t feel exhilarated after watching Quantum of Solace as I usually do for other Bond movies. I felt I’d endured it, survived it but not enjoyed it.

That’s not to say that this is a movie totally without merit. I like some of the changes, as I said and I hope they continue to explore them. I might have liked a more vicious villain than Amalric as Dominic Greene, and a more urgent plot than to – horrors! – steal Bolivia’s water supply.

Unlike other critics, I don’t think that the franchise needs to be burned to the ground and rebooted again but some tweaking is definitely in order. Less grim, more fun I say. Now, I’m going to namedrop a little – I went to college with Bond executive producer Barbara Broccoli and actually shared several classes with her (we shared the same major) although we weren’t ever close. In fact, the odds that she reads my blog are about a hundred trillion to one, but I kind of hope she does. Not that I’m any sort of cinematic genius or anything, but if I had one word of advice to pass along to my fellow alumni of Loyola Marymount, it would be to ratchet up the fun quotient.

That’s the key. At the end of the day, I want to live vicariously through James Bond. I don’t want to see him shot, bloodied, beaten or bruised. If I wanted to be those things, I’d pick a fight with a NASCAR fan. I want to be pampered with the very best luxuries that the taxpayers of Great Britain can afford. I want to be with the most beautiful, seductive women on earth. I want to look great in a tux, use my license to kill and save the day. In short, I want to be stirred, not shaken.

WHY RENT THIS: It is James Bond, after all – the action sequences are second-to-none.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The reboot of Bond is moving a little too far from the original concept for comfort.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence and sexuality but no more than any other Bond movie.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the first time, Felix Leiter is played by the same actor in two consecutive films.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: For a 100-minute movie, there are a ton of locations and a feature called “Bond on Location” discusses the logistics of all of them, as well as living up to the expectations raised in Casino Royale.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Iron Man 2

From Paris With Love


From Paris With Love

Mr. Clean gets just a little bit tougher on dirt.

(Lionsgate) John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Kasia Smutniak, Richard Durden, Yin Bing, Amber Rose Revah, Eric Gordon, Francois Bredon, Chems Eddine Dahmani, Alexandra Boyd, Sami Darr, Michael Vander-Meiren. Directed by Pierre Morel

While the cold war came to an end, espionage didn’t. Spies are alive and well and some of them are living in Paris.

James Reese (Rhys Meyers) is a personal aide to the United States ambassador to France (Durden). He is smart, efficient, ambitious and charming. He’s the point man on nearly all of the ambassador’s projects, from a meeting with the French Defense Minister (Gordon) to an upcoming trade summit with African nations. Reese has a beautiful French girlfriend named Caroline (Smutniak) who loves him so much that she proposed to him. Bold, them French girls are.

James also works for a government espionage agency as a low-level functionary. Most of the tasks he’s been giving are fairly routine, like changing license plates on getaway vehicles and placing electronic monitoring devices in the French Defense Minister’s office. He yearns to be a field operative – a spy – doing his part to save the world but up to now he hasn’t gotten the chance. Still, in these tasks he shows efficiency and ingenuity; so much so that he is given a new task – to partner up with a veteran field operative, Charlie Wax (Travolta).

Wax is foul-mouthed, foul-tempered and operates by his own set of rules. He shoots first, asks questions later then shoots again. He doesn’t mind leaving a trail of damage in his wake the size of an F5 tornado swath. With his shaven head and goatee, he resembles a cross between Satan, Mr. Clean and ex-wrestlers Goldberg and Stone Cold Steve Austin and in temperament…well, whichever one of those has the foulest, vilest most evil temper.

He is there investigating a drug ring run by Palestinians. He tells James to take him to a Chinese restaurant, a dodgy one in a seedy part of Paris. He’s heard the egg foo yung (not even a true Chinese dish, as James is only too happy to inform Wax; it’s an entirely American invention) is superior here, but he’s heard wrong. The service isn’t bad though – in fact, it’s killer.

After letting one of the waiters live through the inevitable barrage of bullets, Charlie and James follow the surviving waiter through the back streets of urban Paris to a…an….well, it’s sort of a cross between a mannequin warehouse and a Chinese theater. At least, as far as I could tell; Might have been a skating rink there too for all I know.

He gets the address of someone farther up the food chain and the two, Wax and James – who is beginning to wonder if he’s really cut out for working with a cowboy like Wax – move their way up the ladder, leaving a pile of bodies as they go. However, Wax has told James a liiiiiiiittle white lie; it’s not drug dealers he’s after, but terrorists. And James, as it turns out, is unknowingly involved, right up to his pretentious moustache.

Director Morel last brought us Taken, a surprisingly effective taut thriller. He showed himself to be an effective action director there, and he is here as well. The car chases are well-staged and the fights for the most part, well-choreographed. There is enough of an adrenaline rush here to keep you going for the whole movie.

What doesn’t work quite as well is the story. A good spy story should have things coming at you from every direction, but there isn’t much of that here. There is a big twist to the plot but it isn’t anything you haven’t seen and can’t predict. Simple can be better in most cases, but in others simple doesn’t work quite as well.

What does work well is Travolta. Completely unrecognizable as Charlie Wax, Travolta takes the opportunity to go completely over-the-top. Alone of anyone in this movie he seems to be having a good time and he takes us along for the ride. If there’s a reason for a sequel to this movie, it’s to see what Charlie does next.

Rhys Meyers, of Showtime’s “The Tudors” has a role that isn’t nearly as fun and doesn’t have the potential, but he makes the humorless James at least palatable. Smutniak also does really well as Caroline; of all the characters she might have had the most depth, but unfortunately the writers chose not to really explore it so she winds up symbolizing the film as something of a wasted opportunity.

Still, as mindless entertainment goes this is top-notch. Travolta is at the top of his game and that alone is worth the price of admission. There are several sly references to Pulp Fiction which may not be the best idea – who wants to remind themselves of a better movie than the one they’re watching – but for my part I found those references to be a nice homage. The movie, in any case, is the cinematic equivalent of a Royale with Cheese; tasty but ultimately filled with empty calories.

REASONS TO GO: Travolta is obviously having a good time with his larger-than-life role and it elevates the movie. Morel is a strong action director.

REASONS TO STAY: The story isn’t particularly innovative and the big twist isn’t much of a surprise (ask Da Queen – I called it early on). The villains aren’t particularly intimidating.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be bloody and occasionally gruesome. The language is pretty rough and there is also some drug use depicted. Teens and older only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 1955 film To Paris With Love is said to have been the inspiration for the Ian Fleming James Bond novel To Russia With Love which was made into a film in 1963. None of the three films are related.

HOME OR THEATER: Ahhhh I gotta go big screen on this one. Not that it’s got grand vistas or big effects; it just feels like a popcorn movie to me.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Wolfman

Black Book


Carice van Houten and Michel Huisman get bombed.

Carice van Houten and Michel Huisman get bombed.

(Sony Classics) Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Waldemar Kobus, Derek de Lint, Christian Berkel, Dolf de Vries. Directed by Paul Verhoeven.

While war itself is an absolute evil, often life in wartime is characterized by varying shades of grey. Those caught up in it must often differentiate between these shades, trying to find the one that is least black. In the process, they often have to become something terrible in order to avoid becoming a corpse.

Rachel Stein (van Houten) is a Dutch Jew hiding in the countryside during the waning days of World War II, hoping to survive until the Germans are defeated. When her hiding place is obliterated, she is taken to see a sympathetic notary (de Vries) who helps reunite her with her family with the purpose of getting them across the border to Allied territory. During the river crossing, the boat full of Jewish refugees is ambushed by the Nazis and gunned down. Rachel is the only survivor.

She is rescued by Gerben Kuipers (de Lint), a Dutch resistance leader who offers her shelter. Instead, the vengeful Rachel joins the resistance as a spy and changes her name to the less ethnic Ellis de Vries. During a mission with Hans Akkerman (Hoffman), she meets Ludwig Muntze (Koch), the head of the Dutch SD. She makes an impression on him, but thinks nothing further of it.

After Kuipers’ son is captured she is enlisted to seduce Muntze and obtain the release of the captives. She is hired as his assistant and soon befriends Ronnie (Reijn), a Dutch woman who is using whatever means necessary to survive, including sleeping with Frankel (Kobus), a ruthless sub commander who was responsible for the death of her parents. Ellis/Rachel manages to bug Frankel’s office, giving the resistance much useful information. She also finds that Muntze’s duties are being suborned by his conscience, and that he is an incredibly decent man. She begins to fall in love with him.

After several missions go horribly wrong it soon becomes clear that the resistance has an informant in its midst. Suspicion falls on Ellis/Rachel after Frankel frames her. Now, she finds that post-war Holland is in many respects more dangerous for her than the Nazi occupation was as she tries to discover who the true traitor is before she is captured by those she worked so hard to assist.

Verhoeven, whose career was established based on his Dutch war masterpiece Soldier of Orange has been making Hollywood blockbusters such as Total Recall, RoboCop, Starship Troopers and Basic Instinct. This is his first Dutch film since 1983’s The 4th Man. Black Book holds the distinction of being the most expensive film ever made in Holland at the time it was released, and also the most commercially successful film to come from the Netherlands ever.

The movie has a very slick look to it, and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub does a fine job of making it look good. Verhoeven has done an excellent job of bringing wartime Holland to life. He has also co-written a script that has ample twists and turns as Ellis/Rachel navigates – often painfully – through the politics not only of the Nazi occupation but of the Dutch resistance as well. It works pretty nicely as a thriller.

The big problem with the writing, if it has any, is that there are too many twists and turns. As Ellis/Rachel wails near the end of the film, “When will it all stop!” and we, the audience agree – the movie is about 20 minutes too long. However, that really is where the bellyaching from this critic begins and ends.

Van Houten is a spectacular-looking woman, and not a bad actress to boot. She has to carry the movie nearly entirely on her shoulders and she does a good job of it. She gets support from Koch, who reminds me of the Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe, and from Hoffman, who reminds me a bit of Andrew McCarthy.

Overall, this is very well-made and does keep you on the edge of your seat. Although this is a work of fiction, many of the events depicted here actually happened. Verhoeven, when at the top of his game, is a world class director, and he’s at the top of his game here. With just a bit of tweaking, this might have been his best work ever. Instead, it’s a very enjoyable, entertaining two hours well worth spending.

WHY RENT THIS: This is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that is as well-made as any coming out of Hollywood. Van Houten is an absolutely spectacular looking woman. World War II-set movies are big these days.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Movie goes on a bit too long with one two many twists. Dialogue is mostly in Dutch and German, so those who abhor subtitles will be annoyed.

FAMILY VALUES: Many Nazi atrocities are depicted in unflinching detail. There is also a fair amount of female nudity, as well as extremely sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The genesis of the film came when director Verhoeven was researching true stories from the Second World War in the Netherlands back in 1977 when he was making Soldier of Orange.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Capitalism: A Love Story