blackhat


Wei Tang is waiting for Chris Hemsworth to finish his phone call.

Wei Tang is waiting for Chris Hemsworth to finish his phone call.

(2014) Thriller (Universal/Legendary) Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, Leehorn Wang, Holt McCallany, Andy On, Ritchie Coster, Christian Borle, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen, Tyson Chak, Brandon Molale, Danny Burstein, Archie Kao, Abhi Sinha, Jason Butler Harner, Manny Montana, Spencer Garrett, Shi Liang, Kan Mok, Sophia Santi Directed by Michael Mann

Cyber crime isn’t just science fiction anymore; it’s a fact of daily life. Between the hacking of Sony and Target, our private information is at risk nearly every hour of every day. So too is the private information of corporations – and governments. And all of it can be manipulated for the benefit of a greedy soul with a computer and an idea.

When a hacker causes a Chinese nuclear facility to explode, it’s a tragedy. When the same hacker infiltrates the Chicago commodities market, them’s fighting words as far as the U.S. is concerned. A joint task force is convened with Chinese military officer Chen Dawai (Wang) and FBI agent Carol Burnett…err, Barrett (Davis). When the code used to hack both institutions turns out to be familiar to Dawai, he recommends that the man who co-authored the software with Dawai himself – one Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth) who was Dawai’s college roommate at Stanford – be released from jail for the cybercrimes he’s committed.

Hathaway realizes quickly that the guy they’re chasing is basically using his own software to get into very difficult hacks; the software that the hacker has authored is like a blunt force trauma, whereas Hathaway’s is more like a rapier wound. However, the hacker (van Wageningen) who is one Hawaiian shirt away from living in his mom’s basement, has hired a vicious terrorist named Kassar (Coster) to kill anyone who is in the way or no longer of use. And the point of all of this? Let’s just say that the Tin Man would be thrilled.

Michael Mann has always been a director who has exemplified style over substance and sometimes when that style is cool enough, he can get away with treating the substance as an afterthought. What would seem to be a fairly crucial movie about the effect of hackers and cybercrime on all of us and how vulnerable we are as nations to hackers is almost non-existent here.

Hemsworth who is a pretty great action hero is wasted in this role. It’s not that he can’t play smart; it’s just that he’s playing a guy who can pick up a gun as easily as program a computer virus…or hack into an NSA super-decryption program, which he does at one point – because the NSA won’t allow a convicted hacker to access it, particularly with Chinese military officers in tow. Of course, the knowledge that the guy they’re chasing has already caused one nuclear plant to meltdown might at least give them pause to work with the FBI agent, no? Maybe not.

And therein lies one of the main problems with the movie – the script. There are so many lapses in logic it’s hard to know where to begin. For example, why would anyone parole a hacker who has already shown a lack of respect for authority to chase down another hacker, particularly when the NSA has plenty of computer geniuses available at a moment’s notice? Sure, he co-wrote the code of the software that was used, but still, other than for dramatic purposes there is simply no reason to use a blackhat in this situation. Maybe the Bad Hacker has a personal score to settle with Hathaway, in which case by all means, use that as a selling point, but don’t pee on your audience and tell them it’s raining. Besides, it staggers the imagination that the guy is apparently an unstoppable killing machine in addition to being a computer genius. Are there any computer experts you know who spend time on the firing range, or in hand-to-hand combat training?

And when they get to cities they don’t know – like Jakarta or Shanghai – Hathaway is able to navigate through labyrinthine city streets to get to exactly where he needs to go without fail. Or does he have a GPS chip in his head?

The film has been cast with some fairly well-known Chinese actors in an effort to appeal to Chinese audiences who are quickly becoming a very large slice of the box office pie. However, Wei Tang – who is absolutely stunning and a terrific actress – is essentially shoehorned in so that Hathaway has someone to bed. The relationship at no time feels authentic, it’s just a con who hasn’t seen a woman in awhile getting lucky and for her part, she seems much smarter than to fall into a relationship with someone who is likely going back to prison. And to make her the sister of his ex-roommate and close friends – awk-ward.

A word about the score; it’s annoying, a kind of electronic noodling that reminds you that there’s someone trying to be sophisticated at the synthesizer. It’s so bad that one of the composers credited to the movie, Harry Gregson-Williams, has gone so far to post on his Facebook page that almost none of the score was his. I would have done the same thing, if I were him.

Like all Michael Mann movies, blackhat looks terrific. Lots of beautifully shot cityscapes, plenty of shots of Hathaway staring thoughtfully into the distance past urban wastelands and other thought-provoking vistas. But like a lot of his more recent movies, the style only goes so far and can’t hide the sorry fact that there’s nothing of substance here. While you get the sense that Mann and the writers did their homework when it comes to the computer hacking aspect, they could have used a remedial course in storytelling. Even the presence of Viola Davis, one of the finest actresses in Hollywood at the moment (and who does a yeoman job of trying her best) can’t save this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Typically cool cinematography for a Mann film. Seems fairly authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Muddled and often hard to follow. Large gaps in logic. Moviemaking by committee. Annoying score.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language throughout with occasional bouts of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over 3,000 extras were used for the movie’s climactic scene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Net
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Wedding Ringer

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The Raid 2 (The Raid 2: Berandal)


Talk about Hell's Kitchen...

Talk about Hell’s Kitchen…

(2014) Action (Sony Classics/Stage 6) Iwo Uwais, Julie Estelle, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara, Yayan Ruhian, Donny Alamsyah, Alex Abbad, Tio Pakusodewo, Cecep Arif Rahman, Ken’ichi Endo, Ryuhei Matsuda, Very Tri Yulisman, Marsha Timothy, Kazuki Kitamura, Epy Kusnandar, Cok Simbara, Roy Marten, Fikha Effendi, Hecky Solaiman, Zack Lee. Directed by Gareth Evans

Action movies have evolved over the years because we have changed over the years. Bombarded by videogames and the frenetic martial arts movies from the Far East, the old Hollywood action films have become more and more dinosaur-like particularly as our action heroes have aged.

The Raid: Redemption, filmed with Indonesian actors by Welsh director Gareth Evans, sought to set that evolution spinning into something new and proceeded to do just that. While some decried the lack of character development (legit) and sneered at the non-stop barrage of bloody fight scenes and action sequences (not so legit), the movie has had an effect on action films the world over and is in line to be remade Hollywood style.

The sequel has now hit American shores and is it more of the same? Yes and no. Rama (Uwais), the rookie cop from the first Raid is pulled aside by Andi (Alamsyah), the leader of a small underground task force and warned that he and his family will now be targets of those above the vicious gang lord of the first film. He will be willing to protect Rama’s family – provided that Rama goes undercover in one of the major gangs in Jakarta. In order to get in, Rama will have to go to jail and make friends with Uco (Putra), the pretty boy son of Bangun (Pakusodewo), the aging crime lord. Rama winds up spending two years in prison, but manages to save Uco’s life during a muddy prison riot which was meant to be a diversion so that inmates could assassinate Uco.

Upon release a grateful Bangun offers Rama a position as a goon, complete with new clothes and a new small but expensive apartment. Rama will be assigned to Uco but under the watchful eye of Eka (Antara), the second-in-command in the organization. Uco is eager to take over the family business but has a bit of a temper problem so Bangun deems his son unready, further chapping Uco’s posterior. Bangun has kept the peace with Japanese Yakuza leader Goto (Endo) but the two rivals are always a heartbeat from war. Ambitious new player Bejo (Abbad) looks to play one side against the other with Rama caught in the middle.

There is a little more plot and character development here, but oddly none of it regarding Rama who we discover little more of than we knew from the first film. Instead, the movie tends to put more personality in the side players, including flashing killers like Hammer Girl (Estelle) whose talents are self-explanatory, Baseball Bat Man (Yulisman) whose talents are likewise self-explanatory and martial arts expert Prakoso (Ruhian) who just wants to bond with his estranged daughter.

Some of the stunts and fights here are epic – a lengthy car chase is one of the best on film since Bullitt and The French Connection  and the fight between Rama and the Assassin (Rahman) in a restaurant kitchen is the very best in either film. However, the movie suffers from a martial arts film cliche – solo fight syndrome. Other than one scene in the prison, every fight has a group of bad guys take on Rama one by one and of course he kicks the ass of each thug in turn. And of course there is the other lapse in logic, a complaint I have not just with this film but other martial arts films in general. To wit; these are all gangsters. You would expect them to have access to guns. So why do none of them carry any? One well-placed gunshot is going to trump anybody, no matter how skilled a fighter they may be.

The movie does slow down somewhat during the expository scenes, but Evans seems to be taking cues from Scorsese in setting up his gangs which is a good thing. Uwais, a mixed martial arts pro, also makes for a charismatic action hero but his acting skills are somewhat limited, although he is much better here than he was in the first film. I can see him becoming a legitimate action star a la Jet Li and Jackie Chan with some further experience.

At nearly two and a half hours, the movie is a little bit on the long side and fills up much of the time with fight scenes that seem more forced and repetitive of the others in the film  – Rama encounters a group of goons and then beats them up as they attack. One. By. One. Still, if you don’t mind sitting through a few redundant action vignettes, you’ll be rewarded by the last third of the film which is well worth sitting through the first hour and a half for. While I don’t know that this is necessarily better than the first film which added a claustrophobic element that is missing here, in the final accounting the good outweighs the not-so-good here and for those who love martial arts and gangster movies with plenty of action, this is manna from heaven.

REASONS TO GO: Some breathtaking action sequences and stunts. Compelling storyline that has some elements of Scorsese in it. Uwais a legitimate action star.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many repetitive and unnecessary fight scenes. Too many gangster film cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of violence and bloodshed, some of it extreme. There’s also some foul language and brief sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was actually written before the preceding The Raid: Redemption but the Malaysian producers thought it would be too expensive to make, so it was shelved in favor of the lower budgeted one. When that became a massive hit, the script was rewritten slightly to insert the main character of The Raid: Redemption in as the main character here.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dredd

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Mission Congo

The Raid: Redemption (Serbuan maut)


The Raid: Redemption

Never tell a martial arts expert to clean up his room or else.

(2011) Action (Sony Classics) Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Doni Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian, Pierre Gruno, Ray Sahetapy, Tegar Satrya, Iang Darmawan, Eka “Piranha” Rahmadia, Verdi Solaiman, R. Iman Aji, Ananda George, Yusuf Opilius. Directed by Gareth Evans

 

Hollywood was once the action movie capital of the world, as heroes like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Seagal and Willis unleashed mayhem of every shape and size against villains both human and extraterrestrial. But as our action heroes got older, their movies soon came out of vogue and the paradigm shifted.

Hong Kong was for a time the action center of the universe as Jacky Chan, Jet Li, Donny Yuen and Chow Yun Fat kicked butt in both police procedurals and fantasy martial arts extravaganzas. Again most of those actors have begun to age their way out of favor and now the paradigm is shifting once again.

Southeast Asia seems to be the new center of action movies as Thai star Tony Jaa has transfixed audiences with his astonishing martial arts films and now here comes this Indonesian entry into the sweepstakes that is meant to up the ante.

Rookie cop Rama (Uwais) leaves his pregnant wife to go on a dangerous assignment; to enter an apartment building and arrest the crime lord Tama (Sahetapy) who lives in a bunker-like enclosure on the top floor of the 15 story building. Most of the people living in it are beholden to Tama so it isn’t lie they can stroll in, arrest him and stroll out. They need to move in stealthily, as team leader Jaka (Taslim) explains. They are accompanied by a higher-up Lieutenant Wayhu (Gruno) who seems shady from the beginning.

Unfortunately for the cops, there is no stealth in a building that is wired with closed circuit cameras and microphones. Tama knows they are there long before there’s any chance for escape; he wipes out the men left behind to guard their van and traps the men on the sixth floor, sending his two right hands Andi the brains (Alamsyah) and Mad Dog the brawn (Ruhian) to finish them off. The cops will have to fight their way out of a death trap and it becomes not so much about getting their man and more about survival.

This is a movie all about choreography and pacing, and it’s done as intricately as any dance number. It’s kind of like a nearly two hour video game session without the controllers as cannon fodder on both side run out with machetes, guns or their fists to take on the heroic cops. Yes, it gets frustrating as you see gangs of fighters go in one at a time to take on the obviously better trained cops with predictable results but then again, that’s just fair play is it not?

Uwais is an action star in the making. He is handsome, charismatic and skilled, all attributes necessary for action star-ness. He doesn’t get a lot of dialogue here – nobody does – but he seems to be able to handle it pretty well. He is certainly one to keep an eye on.

Evans is a Welsh director who lives in Indonesia now and this is his baby. He knows what to do with it as well, giving it a lightning-paced edit that perfectly displays the kinetic fight sequences to their fullest, and gets a pulsing electronic score that further plays up the videogame angle.

This isn’t for everybody. Roger Ebert rightly opines that there isn’t much in the way of plot or character development and that the characters are essentially faceless, mindless and motiveless; we don’t care much for them so it doesn’t matter when they get slaughtered and after two hours of watching skulls getting bashed into walls, machetes slicing and dicing through bloody torsos and skulls exploding when a handgun is fired directly into them, well one can get desensitized. I do find that a little troubling.

However, I have to also admire the way this is put together and say that if you love action, this is really going to float your boat. It’s non-stop, pull no punches balls to the wall thrills and unapologetically so. There is in fact an audience for this kind of thing (which Hollywood has noted – a remake is in the pipeline) and they deserve to be served as much as the pre-teen girls who are served by the Twilight movies or the film buffs served by indie movies. I found myself pulled in and enjoying this on a visceral level and although I wouldn’t have minded a little more exposition and yes, a little less action, there was still enough of the former to justify the excess of the latter.

REASONS TO GO: Non-stop action. Paced so quickly you are literally left breathless.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacking in plot or character development; if you aren’t into one long fight scene this may not be your cup of tea.

FAMILY VALUES: Tons and tons of violence, some blood and gore and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before becoming an actor Uwais drove a truck.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100. The reviews are universally praiseworthy.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assault on Precinct 13

TACTICS LOVERS: The weapons and tactics used by the actors playing the special forces team are authentic to the ones used by Indonesia’s KOPASKA, down to the hand signals used  and the actors underwent training with KOPASA to use them properly.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:Chimpanzee