Bullet to the Head


Rambo and Conan get their axe together.

Rambo and Conan get their axe together.

(2012) Action (Warner Brothers) Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Jason Momoa, Sarah Shahi, Adwale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Christian Slater, Jon Seda, Holt McCallany, Brian Van Holt, Weronika Rosati, Dane Rhodes, Marcus Lyle Brown, Dominique DuVernay, Andrea Frankle. Directed by Walter Hill

Vengeance can make strange bedfellows of us all. Those who are wronged by the same party can become allies, regardless of their outlook on life. People who would never be friends are suddenly thrust together by circumstance, made close by common cause.

Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo (Stallone), not mindful that his nickname in some quarters is slang for the derriere,  is a New Orleans hitman on a routine job to execute some high rolling lowlife (McCallany). The job is done but Jimmy spares a hooker (Rosati) who has a tattoo of a panther that seems to be reasonably significant. His partner Louis Blanchard (Seda) chides him for his softness. They go to a bar to meet Ronnie Earl (Van Holt) who is their contact but instead, Louis meets his maker and Jimmy barely escapes.

Of course something like this gives Jimmy a mad on. He knows that Ronnie alone knows who hired him and he needs to know who the man is and why he and Louis were set up. In the meantime Taylor Kwan (Kang), a detective for the Washington DC police force arrives in town to investigate the death of the high rolling lowlife who turns out to have been his ex-partner, drummed out of the DCPD in disgrace. Detective Kwan meets up with Lt. Lebreton (Rhodes) and Detective Towne (Brown) of the New Orleans Police and they investigate Greely’s body at the morgue. There they discover Blanchard’s body as well and Kwan deduces that Blanchard and his partner Bobo were responsible for the death of his former partner.

Detective Kwan is, like Bobo, more interested in who hired him and set him up then in taking Bobo down. The two men meet but Bobo is extremely distrustful of cops and refuses to work with him. However when Kwan is attacked by a pair of corrupt cops outside the bar, Bobo rescues him. The enemy of my enemy and all that.

Detective Kwan is shot in the attack and Bobo takes him to his daughter Lisa’s (Shahi) tattoo parlor where she fixes him up. The two know they need to find Ronnie Earl, and a visit to a massage parlor locates him. Earl tells him that he worked through Marcus Baptiste (Slater), a sleazy lawyer. The two crash a costume party and kidnap him, taking him to a boat house on the bayou that serves as Bobo’s safe house. They are tracked by Keegan (Momoa), the thug who murdered Blanchard and a team of mercenaries. Baptiste confesses that the man behind all this is Robert Nkomo Morel (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a deposed African warlord who aims to build condos in a low-income area. Just then Keegan’s mercenaries interrupt the party but Bobo and Kwan escape with Bobo blowing up the boathouse with the men in it. Only Keegan escapes and now he wants Bobo’s head on a stick in front of the Superdome if necessary.

This is based on a French graphic novel that has been transplanted to American soil which I suppose is appropriate enough. Certainly the gritty tone of the original works well in an American setting, although I can’t help but wonder how this would have fared in the capable hands of a Luc Besson or a Louis Letterier or even an Olivier Megaton, capable action directors all.

Stallone, closer to 70 than he is to 60, is terribly miscast here. The role is really meant for a lithe hand-to-hand combat expert. Someone along the lines of a Jet Li or a Jean-Claude van Damme would have been more suitable; Stallone is much more believable in a thug-like role, at least for me. However, he gets an excellent foil in Momoa who is clearly an emerging action star. His performance in the first season of Game of Thrones was incandescent and here that same charisma surfaces. I would love to see more of Momoa better films. Hey Sly, got room for him in your next Expendables flick?

Hill, one of the most respected action directors in Hollywood history (48 Hrs., Hard Times, Streets of Fire) , knows how to create a rough-edged mood, perfect for framing an action film. This is not going to stand among the best of his career; this doesn’t have the smooth flow or the chemistry of his previous pictures. Kang and Stallone are awkward together. Kang’s earnest by-the-book Taylor Kwan has no real charisma; he feels more like an archetype than a real person. I never got emotionally invested in him.

Stallone fares slightly better but as I said earlier the role is all wrong for him. That’s not to say that Stallone is a terrible actor; it’s just his physical fighting skills lend themselves more to someone a little more along the lines of a Mafiosi thug than a lethal assassin. Still, at least I wound up having an interest in the character.

2013 has started out with a rash of mediocre action movies, none of which has really stood out as especially memorable. Most of them have had brief theatrical runs and have disappeared into bomb status, no doubt to resurface quickly on home video and cable. With a particularly full schedule of action flicks scheduled for this year, it’s an inauspicious start. Hopefully we’ll get some better ones as the year goes on.

REASONS TO GO: Momoa is an excellent villain. Some of the fight sequences are nicely staged (but not all). Shahi makes excellent eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Stallone miscast. Lacks chemistry.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence, a fair amount of bad language, an even more fair amount of bare breasts and a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Walter Hill’s first feature film in ten years, and Slater’s first theatrically released feature film in eight.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Expendables

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Identity Thief

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Larry Crowne


Larry Crowne

Julia Roberts smirks at Tom Hanks' new CHiPS-inspired look.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, Bryan Cranston, Wilmer Valderrama, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, George Takei, Rita Wilson, Jon Seda, Rob Riggle, Dale Dye, Grace Gummer. Directed by Tom Hanks

There are occasions in life where it becomes necessary to reinvent ourselves. We are almost forced to take stock, figure out what’s not working and attempt to fixing.

Ex-Navy “culinary specialist” (read: cook) Larry Crowne (Hanks) is sailing along at the big-box chain where he works and has won eight employee-of-the-month awards. He figures he’s being called in to win his ninth; but instead is dismayed to discover that he is being downsized. The reason? He has no college education (having chosen to serve his country instead) and has gone as far as he can go at the company without one. Not wanting to leave him in the same position for years to come, he is instead let go. Nobody ever said that big companies are logical.

He is underwater on his mortgage after buying out his wife after a somewhat messy divorce. After an unsuccessful attempt to refinance with an unctuous loan officer (Wilson), Larry is forced to start selling off his stuff at a perpetual yard sale run by his grouchy neighbor Lamar (Cedric) and his friendlier wife (Henson), who turns Larry on to the idea of going back to school. Larry also buys a scooter to get him places more economically.

At the local community college he takes a speech class with Mercedes “Mercy” Tainot (Roberts), a somewhat burned-out teacher who uses alcohol to numb out and help her forget she’s married to Dean (Cranston), formerly a promising science fiction author turned into a slacker with a penchant for commenting on blogs and surfing for porn on the internet. Mercy has the distinct impression that she is making not a whit of difference in the lives of her students.

He also takes an economics class under the watchful eye of the quirky Dr. Matsutani (Takei) who isn’t above a little self-promotion but has a distinct hatred of cell phones. In the class is the free-spirited Talia (Mbatha-Raw), who brings in Larry into her scooter gang, led by her boyfriend Dell (Valderrama). Talia decides to take Larry on as a bit of a project, remaking his house and his appearance in a more modern image.

Gradually Larry begins to rediscover himself, getting a job at a local diner and finding self-confidence through his speech class. Meanwhile, as Mercy’s marriage continues to fall apart, Larry begins to fall a little bit for the attractive but closed-off teacher, although Mercy assumes that Larry and Talia are together because of her clear affection for him.

That’s essentially it for plot. Hanks co-wrote and directed this star vehicle (this marks his second feature film as a director after the far superior That Thing You Do! back in 1996) tends to a gentle, inoffensive style in both writing and directing. I’ve often characterized Hanks as a modern Jimmy Stewart, an everyman with a heart of gold. He plays that role to the hilt here.

He is matched by Roberts, whose luster is undimmed 20 years after Pretty Woman. She still has one of the most radiant smiles you’ll ever see, although you’ll see far more frowning from her here which is a bit of a shame – but she nonetheless fills her role well. While the chemistry between Hanks and Roberts isn’t as electric as it is in Charlie Wilson’s War, they still work well together onscreen.

In fact this is very much a project moved forward by star wattage. The likability of Hanks and Roberts lies at the core of the film, and Hanks the director wisely utilizes it. He has a pretty strong supporting cast, but it is Mbatha-Raw who charms most. Best known here for her work in “Doctor Who,” she is incandescent and lights up the screen whenever she’s on. “Star Trek” veteran Takei also is strong as the curmudgeonly economics professor, while Cedric recycles his stage persona adequately enough. Valderrama breaks out of his “That 70s Show” type as the tough-seeming teddy bear Dell.

There are a lot of quirky characters here, from the self-absorbed student (Malek) to the slacker husband (Cranston) and most of them aren’t developed all that well. We could have done with a number of them altogether, quite frankly. Also, I felt Larry is a bit too passive here. He reacts to people who essentially re-shape him. He just kind of goes along with it; Lamar suggests he goes to college, he goes to college. The proprietor of a local diner suggests Larry start working for him, Larry goes to work for him. Talia wants Larry to change his wardrobe and add a wallet chain, Larry does. Larry becomes a blank slate which everyone around him draws their version of him on; he could have used a little more self-assertiveness.

The movie takes a situation that all too many Americans are feeling – laid off, middle aged, at a crossroads of life – and really doesn’t do a lot with it. There isn’t a lot of angst here; Larry has a few depressed moments, caught in montage early on, and then rolls up his sleeves and gets about the job of finding himself a new job. He meets with rejection but that doesn’t really figure much into the plot. It’s more of a means of getting the story from point “A” to point “B.” To my way of thinking, there were some lost opportunities here for commentary on the current economic state of things but apparently the filmmakers didn’t want to do that

Be that as it may, the movie still makes you feel good. There is no raunchiness here at all as there is at most of the summer comedies you’ll see this year. That in itself is rather pleasing; it’s nice once in awhile to see a comedy that doesn’t rely on pushing the boundaries for humor. The good thing about Larry Crowne is that no matter what kind of rotten mood you’re in (and I was in a foul one when I saw it) you’ll leave the theater feeling good – and if you’re in a good mood to begin with, you’ll leave the theater feeling better. I’m sure some Hollywood blurb-writer will coin it “the feel-good movie of the summer,” but for once the blurb will be accurate.

REASONS TO GO: A warmhearted comedy that relies heavily on the charm of its stars. Will pick you up even on a bad day.

REASONS TO STAY: A few too many quirky characters. The character of Larry might be a little too passive for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual content but otherwise pretty mild.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Talk of the Town.

HOME OR THEATER: This works just as well on the home screen as it does in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Transformers: Dark of the Moon