Beyond the Law (2019)


Once a badass, always a badass.

(2019) Action (CinedigmJohnny Messner, Steven Seagal, DMX, Bill Cobbs, Zack Ward, Randy Charach, Patrick Kilpatrick, Chester Rushing, Saxon Sharbino, Kim DeLonghi, Jeff M. Hill, Sean Kanan, Yulia Klass, Ken Garito, Scotch Hopkins, Mitchell J. Johnson, Mike Ferguson, Madeleine Wade, Victoria De Mare, Cody Renee Cameron, Kansas Bowling, Brialynn Massie. Directed by James Cullen Bressack

 

Some of you may be old enough to remember the era of direct-to-VHS action films; others who are longer in the tooth may remember the action movies of such purveyors as Cannon Films, New World and AVCO Embassy. They were often characterized as schlock, but they were entertaining to say the least.

=This new flick harkens back to those eras and those types of films. Here, ex-cop Frank Wilson (Messner) finds out from Detective Munce (DMX) that his estranged son Chance (Rushing) has been brutally murdered. Chance has made a series of really terrible decisions, not the least of which was getting involved with Desmond Packard (Ward), the particularly bloodthirsty son of mobster Finn Adair (Seagal) who has a history with Frank.

=Realizing that his son won’t get any justice from the hopelessly corrupt cops on the city Frank leaves his mountain cabin to return to the place he once worked as a cop in. It hasn’t changed much, but it has changed – and not for the better. He will have to fight off Desmond’s goons, corrupt cops and at the end of the day, the father of his son’s killer if he is to get justice for Chance.

The plot sounds like something you’ve seen before and it is; revenge films are one of the core types of action movies. Some might be attracted to seeing this by the presence of Seagal but they are likely to leave disappointed; Seagal has only a supporting role in the movie and mostly sits behind a desk, puffing on a cigar and lecturing his son on all the ways he’s gone wrong in his life. Seagal appears only in one fight scene and that so briefly that if you blink you just might miss it.

This is really Messner’s movie and when last I saw him in Silencer, I thought he had a future. I still do, but this is definitely a step backwards. Perhaps it’s the proximity to Seagal (who only has one scene with him) but Messner mumbles his lines in a low gravelly voice that you kind of hope for subtitles. Seagal has always been a mumbler and with his thick Louisiana accent it can be hard sometimes to make out what the two men are saying.

This is a low budget affair and while the action sequences are competent, they are pretty sparse, so we have to rely on the ability of the actors to hold our attention. Sadly, despite having a fairly decent cast, that doesn’t happen. Most of the performances here are stiff and lack believability. Then again, given that they have a script with dialogue that doesn’t sound like it could ever possibly be uttered by an actual human being for whom English is a first language, and plot points that feel like they’ve been borrowed from dozens of B-movies from the 70s, 80s and 90s and you’ve got yourself a hot mess here.

Still, as terrible an actor as Seagal is, he has always had that indefinable something that made him a star. Strangely, he still has it but the filmmakers don’t utilize him as well. Years ago, Seagal would have been playing Frank Wilson and maybe the movie would have worked better in that instance but one gets the sense that Seagal isn’t terribly interested in re-exploring old trails. Incidentally, those hoping that this is a sequel to Seagal’s action classic Above the Law will also be disappointed; the two films have nothing in common other than the last two words of their titles.

REASONS TO SEE: Seagal still has plenty of presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is pretty stiff. The film is riddled with clichés from the script to the score.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and profanity as well as some drug and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seagal and DMX previously appeared together in the 2001 film Exit Wounds.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basically, any Steven Seagal movie
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
The Report

Rondo


See no evil.

(2018) Sex Thriller (Artsploitation) Brenna Otts, Luke Sorge, Jazz Copeland, Gena Shaw, Reggie De Morton, Michael Vasicek, G. C. Clark, Kevin Sean Ryan, Iva Nora, Meagan Kiefel, Steve Van Beckum (narrator), Joseph M. Veals, Ashley Gagnon. Directed by Drew Barnhardt

 

Not many who are reading this will remember the golden era of grindhouse films. Those were the days when movies that were full of graphic violence, plenty of (female) nudity and lots of sex. But the 70s came and went and gradually those types of films fell out of favor. However, they influenced dozens of modern directors, not the least of whom are Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

Rondo director Drew Barnhardt is evidently another one so influenced. His latest would feel right at home in Times Square circa 1977. It’s got elements of slasher films, black comedies, psychological thrillers, a revenge epic and even grindhouse porn.

Paul (Sorge) is recently returned from Afghanistan and like many veterans, has returned with a case of severe PTSD. To cope, he has turned to self-medicating with alcohol. He’s hit rock bottom, losing his job and his apartment. Reduced to sleeping on his sister Jill’s (Otts) couch, she finally confronts him after catching him drinking – and sends him to a therapist named Cassie Wright (Shaw) whom she recently met.

With nothing left to lose, he heads to Cassie’s office where she basically tells him that the key to beating his addictions is simply to get laid. She gives him an address to go to for a kinky party, and the password for entry: Rondo. After some soul searching, he decides to go. There he enters a miasma of sex and murder, one that will drag his sister and father (Vasicek) into the middle of.

Like many grindhouse films of that era, Rondo doesn’t have much of a budget. The effects are practical albeit some occasionally over the top – whoever planted the squibs for the final confrontation had a field day. Therefore, a film like this has to rely on a decent plot – which it has. It also has to rely on decent performances and there we get a little bit dicey as the acting tends to be stiff, perhaps by design. It also has to rely on graphic sex and violence – and the film gets full marks for that. Barnhardt is obviously not afraid to push the envelope on that score.

The dialogue is fairly noir and has a few gems in it, such as “If you’re gonna live in the swamp, you’d better make friends with the gators.” There is voiceover narration which is done in kind of a “tough guy” noir tone. Unfortunately, the tone is a bit off; the voiceover narration in the cult TV show Pushing Daisies utilizes a stuffy British tone and it works as comedy, but the narration here ends up being annoying and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing but it’s inconsistent; at times during the movie every little event is commented on but then long stretches go by without any narration.

The soundtrack is pretty nifty, retaining elements of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and working really well in enhancing the action. Speaking of action, the denouement featuring a beautiful woman in bra and panties wielding a machine gun which has to be the wet dream of an NRA card carrier, and works as black comedy here. In fact, there are sly comic overtones throughout although sometimes you kind of have to look for them.

Fans of exploitation films will get a kick out of this one. Fans of the directors who utilize those influences in their work may also find this entertaining. However, if you find those sorts of films distasteful, this really isn’t the movie for you.

REASONS TO SEE: Catchy dialogue and nifty score.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the performances were on the wooden side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, graphic violence, gore, graphic nudity, graphic sex – pretty much graphic everything.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the film was shot in the Washington Park and LoDo districts in Denver.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play,  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Apostle

Do It Yourself


A silent suicide.

(2017) Crime Dramedy (Artsploitation) Konstadinos Aspiotis, Makis Papadimitriou, Mirto Alikaki, Christos Loulis, Argyris Xafis, Panos Koronis, Themis Panou, Aris Antonopoulos, Stephanos Mwange. Directed by Dimitris Tsilifonis

 

When you are trapped in a working porn studio, having made what’s intended to be a viral video confession exonerating a crime boss who is in jail for murder, and you are surrounded by gun-toting killers employed by said crime boss, escaping with your life may require a little do-it-yourself inventiveness.

That’s exactly the situation that small-time criminal Alkis Vidalis (Aspiotis) finds himself, conveniently enough for this review. He is no criminal mastermind nor is he much of a fighter. He’s more of a run away and hide sort of guy. With the building crawling with armed guards who are, fortunately for Alkis, they are not nearly as bright as he is. Using whatever he can find which includes some porn film accouterments, he will have to figure out a way to get out alive and with time ticking down until the film is loaded to the Internet, the prospect of a life extending more than an hour or two are looking mighty bleak.

This Greek action-packed dramedy owes a lot to both Tarantino and Scorsese in equal measures. If that sounds like a great combination to you, then this is your jam. Tsilifonis takes great care not to make anyone too awful or too likable. Everyone in the movie is a criminal in some way shape or form – even the crime boss’ lawyer (Alikaki) is fully aware that once the video goes live Alkis will have outlived his usefulness. This is a film with no clear bad guys (Loulis as jailed crime boss Daniel Bezerianos comes closest) and while we have a rooting interest in Alkis, no clear good guys either.

There are some genuinely funny moments that lighten the frenetic mood, as well as some ingenious Rube Goldberg-like inventions that Alkis creates. The cinematography is slick and crisp which give a sense of realism to the film. However, the thing that keeps this from being an unreserved recommendation is that Tsilifonis has a tendency to get a bit cute, using Go-Pro-like shots on moving objects (such as a wheelchair) more than he needed to. Once is fine; twice is okay; more than that is repetitive and annoying.

The performances are solid, with Aspiotis in the lead being particularly satisfying. He gives Alkis a kind of hangdog air that makes him appealing, but as he promises in the voice-over narration, he does things that aren’t cricket. Papadimitriou as the killer tasked with whacking Alkis once the word comes down also gives a nice balance of menace and moronic.

Movies like this don’t come on down the pike very often and while the film is certainly flawed, the entertainment value is pretty high all things considered. It is subtitled and during the initial sequence in which the circumstances are essentially explained through the use of newspaper headlines, a bit hard to read so you might find yourself rewinding and pausing so you can actually read the entire subtitle. Speed reading can come in handy here. Anyway, devotees of movies full of hoods who can’t shoot straight will find this one right in their sweet spot.

REASONS TO SEE: Overall, very entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times, Tsilifonis gets a little too cute for his own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, brief drug use, some sexual content and a fair amount of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tsilifonis’ 2012 short The Way of Styx is also included on the Blu-Ray edition.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Raid: Redemption
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Terror 5

Silencer


 

Even the best of shots don’t always hit what they take aim at.

(2018) Action (Cinedigm) Johnny Messner, Danny Trejo, Robert LoSardo, Nikki Leigh, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Heather Johansen, Erik Aude, Edward Modlin II, Mariene Márquez, Mike Ferguson, Sofia Esmaili, Erin Michele Soto, Said Faraj, Tristian Eggerling, Ashlee Nicole Jordan, William Guirola, Nailia Lajoie, Noli Mollakuge, Tom Struckhoff, Victor Boneva, Rachael Santhon. Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr

 

Some men kill for their country; they are trained to do it and it is a job for most of them. However, when someone’s family is threatened, killing becomes much more than a job and if the person in question is a trained sniper, God help the one doing the threatening.

Frank (Messner) is a decorated ex-Marine whose military service was marred by the accidental killing of a child. The event haunted him and led him to seek a quiet life as a restorer of antique vehicles in Las Cruces, New Mexico. One of his clients, Ocho (Trejo) has cartel connections as well as a personal friendship with Frank going back a ways. When Ocho’s daughter is hit by a drunk driver and dies in her own driveway, Ocho wants vengeance. Frank agrees to help him get it but this will be his last job. You can guess how that’s going to work out.

When Frank stalks the drunk driver, he meets up with him and discovers there are children in the car and so he can’t quite bring himself to pull the trigger. The grief-stricken Ocho doesn’t care; he wants this guy dead and when Frank fails, Ocho sends his henchman Nels (Liddell, channeling Michael Rooker) to kidnap Frank’s stepdaughter and ends up shooting Frank’s girlfriend Cass (Leigh). That turns out to be a mistake; Frank along with his buddy Lazarus (Ortiz) go on a rampage that ends up with a bloody confrontation on Ocho’s Old Mexican hacienda.

This is essentially standard revenge action fare, with Messner doing a surprisingly good job in the role of an action antihero. Frank is a bit of a loose cannon, he has a drinking problem and tends to shut out the people he loves the most. However, push him a little bit and he turns into Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s crazy love child. There is a future for Messner in low budget action films and maybe some big budget ones if he gets a few breaks.

The dialogue tends to be florid and infected with clichés.. There are also some pacing problems particularly early on, although the ending is pretty nifty if you ask me. However, most of the actors chew the scenery with gusto which is distracting at times.

This is not something I would generally recommend; the movie is seriously flawed. However, fans of 80s and 90s action movies ought to get a kick out of this one and it is possible that Messner may be an action star in the not-so-distant future. For those reasons alone I give the movie a very mild thumbs up, as a better film critic than I might have said.

REASONS TO GO: Messner has a lot of potential as an action hero.
REASONS TO STAY: The film starts slowly (although it does pick up).
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liddell and Ortiz are notorious MMA rivals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Commando
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
It Will Be Chaos

The Blood of Wolves (Korô no chi)


Sometimes you can’t tell the cops from the criminals.

(2018) Crime Drama (Toei) Kôji Yakusho, Tôri Matsuzaka, Gorô Ibuki, Yoko Maki, Yôsuke Eguchi, Hajime Inoue, Megumi, Tarô Suruga, Renji Ishibashi, Takuma Otoo, Kyûsaku Shimada, Junko Abe, Marie Machida, Takahiro Kuroishi, Eiji Takigawa, Pierre Taki, Shun Nakayama, Joey Iwanaga, Tomorô Taguchi, Ken’Ichi Takitô, Tomoya Nakamura, Katsuya, Issei Okihara. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

In movies there are actual touchstones; Hitchcock for thrillers, Chaplin for comedies, Ford for Westerns and Scorsese for gangster movies. Scorsese himself was influenced in turn by Asian crime dramas which in its own way is somewhat ironic and circular.

Shiraishi says that the 1973-74 five part series Battles Without Honor and Humanity was his main influence for his work but that in turn was influenced by some of Scorsese’s earlier work such as Mean Streets. This film, based on the novel of the same Japanese name, is set in Hiroshima in 1988 at the height of a gang war. The Odani-gumi Yakuza gang have been in control for 14 years; the Machiavellian leader of the Irako-kai gang (Ishibashi) has cut a deal with the volatile leader (Shimada) of the Kakomura-gumi to retake the territory the Irako-kai had lost – and then some.

Trying to stave off what would be another bloody gang war is a cop as rumpled as the packs of cigarettes he smokes incessantly Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who has just been saddled with a naive straight arrow partner named Shuichi Hioka (Matsuzaka). They are investigating the disappearance of an accountant from a financial institution that is actually a Yakuza money laundering front. As tensions between rival gangs grow, Ogami – who never met a rule he wasn’t willing to break – utilizes informants including his best friend Ginji Takii (Taki) who is a low-level guy for the Odani-gumi to get closer to the rival gangs. Soon Hioka suspects that Ogami is protecting the Ogami as well as himself – there are rumors that the last gang war ended because Ogami, then a uniformed officer, murdered a top man for the Irako-kai. That has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In between chasing down sadistic Yakuza and indifferent bureaucrats, Ogami and Hioka hang out in a bar administered by the beautiful but volatile Rikako (Maki) whose past is key to the last gang war and what is leading to the next. Sake will flow and blood will spill – sometimes in buckets – in this brutal, bloody Yakuza film.

Very often during a movie there will be periods where my interest wanes and my attention will wander a little bit. Not so with The Blood of Wolves – there wasn’t a moment that my attention wasn’t focused to the goings-on onscreen. While there is a fairly large cast of characters and many are essentially disposable Yakuza foot soldiers and cops, the main characters are well-developed and especially veteran actor Yakusho deliver some marvelous performances.

As here in America, the gangster film has fallen on hard times in Japan. Once a staple of their film industry, in recent years the Yakuza film has been relegated to the periphery. This particular one is old school and has that epic quality that the best films of such genre greats as Scorsese and Coppola possessed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good examples of the genre still being made in the Land of the Rising Sun and this is an example of it. It has already screened at the New York Asian Film Festival this year but as the powerhouse Toei studio is behind it there is a pretty good chance further American audiences will get a chance to see it and this is absolutely worth seeing; it is one of the highlights of the Festival this year.

REASONS TO GO: The comparisons to Scorsese are unavoidable in a good way. The story keeps you riveted to the screen. Yakusho gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the violence may be too much for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of brutal violence and some over-the-top gore; there is also plenty of profanity, some nudity, sexual situations and references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel that is itself a fictionalized version of a  actual gang war that took place in Hiroshima and the neighboring suburb of Kure.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gangster’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Rock in the Red Zone

Game Night


Some games are riskier than others.

(2018) Comedy (New Line) Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemmons, Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Michael C. Hall, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Camille Chen, Zerrick Deion Williams, Joshua Mikel, R.F. Daley, John Francis Daley, Michael Cyril Creighton, Brooke Jaye Taylor, Jonathan Goldstein, Charlotte Hazzard. Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

 

Everyone knows someone whose competitive urges are on a scale of one to ten about a 35. Max (Bateman) and his wife Annie (McAdams) are just like that. They host a regular game night at their home in which friends are invited (or in the case of creepy cop Gary (Plemmons), not) to play a variety of party games. When Max’s mega-successful big brother Brooks (Chandler), a venture capitalist who Max has competed with unsuccessfully comes to town, Max is put off his game a little bit. When Brooks offers to host game night at his lavish home, Max is further intimidated.

Brooks dispenses with the traditional board games and instead does a kidnap mystery event, offering his cherry red Stingray (Max’s dream car as it turns out) as a prize for the first to solve the mystery, Max looks at it as an opportunity to finally get redemption with his brother. But when it turns out that the kidnapping is real and so are the guns, things take a turn for the wacky.

I honestly didn’t expect too much from the movie going in. I thought it would be another mildly funny and occasionally laugh-out-loud comedy that seem to dominate the comedy landscape these days but I was pleasantly surprised. This is one of the funniest movies of the year, hands down. Not only is the script funny but it’s generous – nearly everyone in the ensemble cast has their moment to deliver an amazing punch line or even a moment of sublime physical comedy. Bateman shines the brightest, still as likable as ever.

If the movie has a drawback it’s that it sometimes overthinks things. The story works best when things are kept simple. This is a rare film that is funny without being gimmicky, allowing the characters to develop nicely without being overly silly. Da Queen liked it even more than I did, which is saying something. If you’re looking for a movie that is bound to make you laugh, this is the one to select, at least as far as 2018 is concerned.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is unexpectedly funny in places. Bateman remains one of the most charming actors in Hollywood.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot occasionally gets over-complicated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some sexual references and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bateman and McAdams previously appeared together in State of Play.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tag
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

Maze Runner: The Death Cure


How can they be surprised at the bad reviews?

(2018) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Dexter Darden, Will Poulter, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper, Nathalie Emmanuel, Katherine McNamara, Walton Goggins, Dylan Smith,  Jake Curran, Greg Kriek, Liza Scholtz. Directed by Wes Ball

 

There have been a number of dystopian sci-fi trilogies in the young adult book market as of late, several of which have been converted to the silver screen. Divergent, The Hunger Games and Maze Runner all feature young heroes who shoulder the responsibility of changing their society for the better. It makes me wonder if that hasn’t rubbed off on the current generation who recently took to the streets to protest a lack of movement on gun control.

However, while one applauds the passion of the Parkland pack, it’s hard to appreciate the cinematic skills displayed on this, the finale of the Maze Runner series. It’s stupefying in its length – two hours and twenty odd minutes – and seems to be repetitive in its action. We learn the horrifying truth about WCKD – that in a latch-ditch effort to find a cure for the disease that has overtaken 80% of he population they have taken to experimenting on young people who have shown immunity to the disease which turns people into ravening homicidal maniacs – zombiesque you might say – that has essentially wiped out civilization in all but the Last City.

The original group of maze runners has shown up on a variety of sides; Teresa (Scodelario) is a researcher for WCKD and her mother (Clarkson) is the head scientist for them. Minho (Lee) has been taken by WCKD and its head security guy Janson (Gillen); Newt (Sangster) has finally come down with the disease while Thomas (O’Brien) is leading the rescue efforts to pick up Minho before they sail to a deserted island to live away from the madness in peace and tranquility.

The trend of dividing the trilogy finale into two separate movies was not adopted here, likely because the filmmakers did enough padding (for example, the opening train sequence doesn’t appear in the book) and still couldn’t fill up two movies. As usual with young adult adventure stories, kids are heroic (mostly) and adults are evil (mostly) and the adults underestimate the kids and don’t understand them – yes, it’s a bit pedantic but I suppose you have to appeal to the sensitivities of the market you’re after.

Sangster is one of my favorite young actors out there but he doesn’t get much to do here until the end. O’Brien shows tremendous potential but he hasn’t really won me over yet – the character of Thomas is just too cliché which is hardly his fault and yes, he imbues the character with nobility but Thomas is so one-note it’s difficult to assess whether O’Brien can pull off a multi-layered performance yet so the jury’s still out in my case.

There are plenty of pyrotechnics and oceans of CGI images and for the most part it’s executed well and why wouldn’t it be? With production delays incurred due to an on-set accident which put out the lead performer for almost a year, the effects houses were given plenty of time to work on the images. Still the story is so weak, the characters so been there done that and the movie way overlong that recommending this film is simply not in the cards. I am not convinced that this is the death cure but it sure is a cure for insomnia.

REASONS TO GO: The pyrotechnics and special effects were nifty in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is interminably long, dumb and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is action and violence, some thematic concerns as well as a smattering of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: O’Brien was seriously injured during the opening train scene when he fell off the top of the train; it took nearly a year for him to recover from his injuries, delaying the release of the film from 2017 to January 2018..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Family