Wild Card (2015)


Never get Jason Statham's drink order wrong.

Never get Jason Statham’s drink order wrong.

(2015) Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Milo Ventimiglia, Hope Davis, Dominik Garcia-Londo, Max Casella, Stanley Tucci, Jason Alexander, Sofia Vergara, Anne Heche, Francois Vincentelli, Chris Browning, Matthew Willig, Davenia McFadden, Michael Papajohn, Jean Claude Leuyer, Grace Santo, Lara Grice, Shanna Forrestall. Directed by Simon West

Life is a bit of a gamble when you think about it. We can control things to a certain extent but circumstance and luck have quite a bit to do with it as well. All of our best laid plans can be irrevocably changed in an instant.

Nick Wild (Statham) is a bit of a Las Vegas fixture. He is one of those guys that if you need a favor, he’s the one you see. Some of these favors he charges for – for example, he takes a beating from a guy so that he can impress his girlfriend (Vergara) for $500. He works out of the office of lawyer Pinky (Alexander) where he is introduced to tech billionaire Cyrus Kinnick (Angarano) who wants a bodyguard and, as it turns out, something more.

Then there are the favors he does for free. When his ex-lover Holly (Garcia-Londo) is beaten up and raped, he uses his connections with mob boss Baby (Tucci) to find out who done the deed and discovers it’s Danny DeMarco (Ventimiglia), the sadistic scumbag son of a highly placed East Coast mob boss. Using his impressive fighting skills, which were honed in a British special forces division, he subdues DeMarco’s bodyguards and allows Holly to take her revenge, after which she flees Vegas, taking with her money from DeMarco’s desk, some of which she gives to Nick for his fee.

Nick realizes that he won’t be welcome in Vegas much longer and needs to get out. DeMarco will be gunning for him and if he wants to make his dream of retiring to Corsica, he’d better get hopping. However, there is the thing that has been keeping him in Vegas so long – his gambling addiction. And on a night when so much is riding on it, he can’t afford for Lady Luck to be fickle.

Considering that this is essentially a Direct-to-VOD production, the talent before and behind the camera is pretty impressive but if you look at the budget below, you immediately understand that this was never meant for that sort of release. Why Lionsgate gave up on this project is beyond me; it’s actually surprisingly good for the genre and even though it is certainly flawed it deserved better for an unpublicized excuse me theatrical release.

For one thing, you get Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman supplying the script based on his own novel. Goldman excels in character development and each role here is definable and has at least some sort of personality to it. Given the stellar nature of the cast and that some of them only have a scene or two here, it’s no wonder that they were attracted to these parts which are more than stunt cameos.

West, who has such genre fare as Con-Air and The Expendables 2 on his resume, is usually pretty dependable for films in the action genre and surprisingly (yes, I’m using that word a lot here) this is pretty light on the action as action films go, but that’s a good thing in this case. Rather than going from one fight scene to the next, there’s actual dialogue, some of it pretty damn good. There’s also exposition and a genuine story. For film critics used to seeing action films which are just an excuse for people to shoot lots of big guns, chase around in cars and generally give people the opportunity to watch big men beat the hell out of one another, that’s like rolling ten sevens in a row.

I’ve always thought Statham was more than just a tight-lipped martial arts action hero. He actually can be quite soulful and when given the opportunity to act, has done so particularly well. Mostly though he seems content to accept roles in which he is given little to do beyond beating people up. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very good at it and usually his movies are entertaining but they are little more than that.

Here he gets an opportunity to do more and he takes advantage of it. Definitely this is a reminder of how good Statham can be in the right role, and given that he has a high-profile villain role in the upcoming Furious 7 gives me even more reason to look forward to that movie. He has nice chemistry with Hope Davis as a heart-of-gold blackjack dealer, as well as Angarano as a rich guy who believes himself a coward.

The oddball thing here is that the action sequences are the weakest aspect of this movie. That’s surprising (there’s that word again) given West’s action pedigree. Had a little more time and care been devoted to them I think this would have been released into theaters and maybe would have been the same kind of action hit that John Wick was last year.

Instead we end up with a movie that had enormous potential and remains an entertaining diversion but doesn’t do anything that pushes the envelope which is a shame. I think the movie’s slow start – things really don’t pick up until about 40 minutes in – also doesn’t do it any favors.

While the blackjack sequences are realistic and Davis (or her body double) gets the moves and attitude of a blackjack dealer just right, we also lose something in the fight choreography which is business as usual with the exception of the final fight in which Statham takes out a bunch of baddies with a butter knife and a spoon, not to mention slicing open a bad guy with a credit card. I also like that we get kind of a local’s point of view to Vegas. Still, with just a little more imagination when it came to the fight sequences this might have been something special.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining but not groundbreaking. Realistic on the blackjack sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly. Fight sequences are just adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most Jason Statham movies, plenty of violence and cursing, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: William Goldman wrote the script based on his novel, which was filmed once before as Heat starring Burt Reynolds back in 1987. This is Goldman’s first script in eleven years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

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Nightcrawler


Louis Bloom sneakin' around.

Louis Bloom sneakin’ around.

(2014) Thriller (Open Road) Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed, Rick Chambers, Holly Hannula, Michael Papajohn, Marco Rodriguez, Ann Cusack, Kent Shockneck, Pat Harvey, Sharon Tay, James Huang, Bill Seward, Leah Fredkin, Jonny Coyne, Nick Chacon, Kevin Dunigan, Kiff VandenHeuvel, Carolyn Gilroy, Kevin Rahm, Christina de Leon. Directed by Dan Gilroy

The local news has its back to the wall these days. Even though it continues to be a main source of news for most people, it has become, like the newspaper before it, largely expendable in the face of the internet. With people wanting the news in a more immediate manner these days, news directors have their hands full trying to get footage that will draw viewers in. It has become more economically feasible for them to rely increasingly on third party news gathering agencies, who follow police scanner radio calls to the more lurid types of stories to satisfy the hunger for misery, bloodshed and death.

Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a man who’s been hit hard by the economic downturn. Scrounging around for scrap metal to sell to a construction site, he isn’t above stealing – and if need be, taking down a night watchman (Papajohn). He even hits up the construction site manager (Rodriguez) for a job, but who would want to hire a thief? Disappointed, Louis heads on home but on the way there comes upon an accident. He also runs into one of those third party news gathering agencies, led by Joe Loder (Paxton) who explains that he doesn’t work for a specific television station but instead sells to the highest bidder. He doesn’t make a ton per story but it’s a lot more than Louis is used to. Intrigued, Louis gets himself a camcorder and a police scanner.

His baptism by fire comes at a shooting; he manages to get the site shut down by the cops when he crosses the line, incurring Loder’s disgust. Still, he has a good eye and that catches the eye of Nina Romina (Russo), the news director at KWLA, the last place station in local news in the City of Angels. He makes a sale and gets some good advice. Encouraged, he hires a navigator (Ahmed) and soon is making regular sales.

Louis however doesn’t exactly have a moral compass and he continues to increasingly take chances – pulling bodies away from where they had been so he can get better light. However, when he arrives at a home invasion ahead of the police, he leaves the line far in the dust, putting himself and his partner at risk and perhaps other innocent people as well. Louis is doing what he loves and doing it well, but who will pay the price?

Gyllenhaal is the focal point of the film and he takes it as far as I think it is possible to. He lost 20-30 pounds for the role (depending on which source you believe) and his gaunt, hollow eyed look and dead-eyed stare is unsettling. Louis can be charming with a quick smile and communicating in aphorisms that might have come off of those encouraging business posters – “Success comes to those who work their ass off,” “In order to win the lottery you have to afford to buy the ticket” and so on in that vein. But those aphorisms betray that there is nothing of substance within him. He’s a hard worker sure, but he’s completely amoral and the ends definitely justify the means and heaven help you if you get in his way. In short, he’s a sociopath. This is definitely one of Gyllenhaal’s best performances to date and there is plenty of Oscar buzz surrounding him right now.

Juxtaposed with the reptilian Louis is Rene Russo’s Nina. She’s smart, hard-nosed and has been around the block in the L.A. news wars. She’s been ground down and made cynical and even though she has a soft spot for Louis, whom she sees talent in, she also soon comes to realize that he’s a monster of her own making, who isn’t above using any means necessary to get what he wants. Russo, who was one of Hollywood’s busiest actresses back in the day, hasn’t had a role this juicy in years, even though she got to kick ass in Thor: The Dark World last year.

Using cinematographer Robert Elswit, first-time director Gilroy paints a lurid Los Angeles by night that is seductive, dangerous and seedy all at once. The urban sprawl is a city of lights by night that while not as charming as Paris has a beauty all its own. Elswit clearly has an affection for the city because it looks so amazing in his eye. I lived there for more than a decade and always had a soft spot for L.A. by night.

Other than Rick, Louis’ long-suffering assistant slash partner slash navigator, there aren’t very many nice people in this movie. As detailed before, Louis is not a nice person at all and he gets less nice as the movie goes on. It is a tribute to Gyllenhaal that we still root for him anyway. Days after seeing the movie, I felt a genuine moment of revulsion when I realized that I had been rooting for the character to get out of the house where a multiple murder had taken place before the cops got there; how sick is that, I wondered to myself. If it had been just a guy and not Jake Gyllenhaal, I would have been hoping the bastard got arrested.

That’s not the way the world works here, and such cynicism might not fly right with everybody. There is a dark world view here, where the masses are ravening for blood and don’t care how they get it, whereas parasitical videographers flit from tragedy to tragedy trying to get enough footage to sate the bloodlust of the masses. Nobody seems to care much about the truth or informing people about what they need to know. It is at the very least a sad commentary on how far our respect for news gatherers has fallen.

REASONS TO GO: One of Gyllenhaal’s most intense performances ever. Gritty and gut-churning.
REASONS TO STAY: Exaggerates the “if it bleeds it leads” concept.
FAMILY VALUES: Expect plenty of violence, some bloody images and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gyllenhaal blinks only three times during the entire film. He also memorized the script as if it were a stage play.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: L.A. Confidential
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Stake Land

The Bourne Legacy


 

The Bourne Legacy

Jeremy Renner is having to get serious about fighting the women off.

(2012) Action (Universal) Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Donna Murphy, Joan Allen, Zeljko Ivanek, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Oscar Isaac, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Shane Jacobson, Michael Papajohn, Elizabeth Marvel. Directed by Tony Gilroy

 

We aren’t content to let things just go their own course. We have a habit of meddling, intruding, making changes willy-nilly without first considering the consequences of our actions. This continually gets us into trouble but if you think it’s a catastrophe-maker for you, think of it on an institutional scale; what happens when a government messes up?

Aaron Cross (Renner) is in Alaska on a training evaluation. He is climbing rocks, fighting off wolves, taking blood samples from himself and taking a little blue pill (no, not that one) and a little green pill; the first, as we will find out, improves his mental acuity; the second, his physical.

At last he reaches a remote cabin where a fellow operative (from Project Outcome, as we also later find out – you’re going to find a lot of things out later, trust me) who is known only as Number Three (Isaac) – best not to be known as Number One or Number Two – has been exiled to wait for agents like him and turn in their blood samples for analysis.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the next mission. Aaron hears a strange noise outside the cabin and goes to investigate it. That strange noise turns out to be a U-CAV drone firing a missile that essentially vaporizes the cabin and everything in it, including the little green and blue pills which Aaron is going to need. He escapes the drone by doing a little homemade self-surgery on himself, removing a tracking device and placing it in a hapless wolf (wolf lovers, turn away from this one). He decides to head down to the lower 48 to find out what’s going on.

You see, what is happening is that the Jason Bourne affair has sent the upper echelons of the clandestine government operations – the Division, if you will – into a tizzy and in full panic mode, they enlist retired USAF Black Ops specialist Eric Byer (Norton) to close up shop on Treadstone, Blackbriar and all the related operations – particularly Outcome – and all those who knew what was going on. This involves giving the operatives little yellow pills which cause them to suffer from fatal nosebleeds.

At Sterissyn-Morlanta, which is the essential public face of Outcome, a scientist goes berserk (with a little help from his friends) and shoots everybody in his lab. The only survivor is Dr. Marta Shearing (Weisz), who is understandably upset. She gets a lot more upset when a psychologist (Marvel) sent to evaluate her in her Maryland home as she packs for a trip to visit her sister in Canada turns out to be there to terminate her. She is saved by the arrival of Cross who is looking for some pills.

This is bad news for Byer, who thought Cross dead at the cabin. When he discovers Cross has fled with his new friend to Manila, he figures out that Cross is there to get an upgrade which would give him the permanent mental facilities without having to take a pill. He sends in a grim operative from a different project, known only as LARX-3 (Changchien) to clean up the mess. LARX-3 has the same or superior mental and physical skills as Cross and a real dogged determination to see his mission through. Can Shearer and Cross figure out a way to escape from the implacable LARX-3 – not to mention a government with unlimited resources that wants them both dead?

A lot of fans were upset when they heard that the latest Bourne movie would be without Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon in the last three movies of the series, or without director Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two. New director Gilroy does have a connection with the series- he wrote all three of the movies, so he’s very familiar with the world of Jason Bourne. That is a double-edged sword though.

To the good, he understands the backstory and grafts this new branch onto the tree seamlessly, in a way that makes sense and isn’t quite as jarring as seeing a brand new face playing James Bond. To the bad, there are many references to programs and projects from the first three films, with bureaucratic characters from them making an appearance in roles that range from little more than cameos to much more meaningful supporting roles. For those unfamiliar with the first three films it can be mighty confusing, although if you simply choose to ignore all of the code names and characters therein you can enjoy the ride of the movie on its own merits.

Renner, fresh from his acclaimed performance as Hawkeye in The Avengers further cements his place as one of the hottest leading men and action heroes of 2012. He’s got lots of charisma and my female friends tell me he’s rather easy on the eyes. Far be it for me to impugn the veracity of my female friends in matters of male hotness. I just know that when I see the guy onscreen he has my full attention.

Weisz is one of my favorite actresses in terms of performance but she is curiously muted here. There isn’t much energy and few sparks generated between her and Renner. I know why she was cast – few actresses appear to be as smart as she is – but she’s unconvincing in the action context and has little to do but look terrified and/or concerned.

The action sequences are as good as any I’ve seen this year, with pieces set in Dr. Shearing’s Maryland home, in the Alaska woods and a parkour and motorcycle chase in Manila all generating plenty of adrenaline. There is an intelligence here as well that is often missing in other action films, although not to the same degree of the first three Bourne movies which caught the essence of the Robert Ludlum books they were based on if not the plot – the sense of wheels within wheels, conspiracies and political game-playing all just under the surface. While there are all of those things here, they simply aren’t to the same level as, say, The Bourne Ultimatum which was the most recent in the series.

I’d say at the end of the day this is a must-see for action fans and adrenaline junkies, although those who don’t like their cerebellum being disturbed might find this headache-inducing. It’s a lot better than I feared it would be, and a good career move for Renner who looks to be a superstar if not already then dang soon.

REASONS TO GO: Renner is a magnetic lead. Action sequences are top-notch. Continuity between this and first three films is well-done.

REASONS TO STAY: Weisz’ character seems a bit bland. May be a bit hard to follow for those not familiar with the previous three films.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action, plenty of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title of the book is the same of the first novel of the series to be written by Eric von Lustbader (after Ludlum passed away) but has nothing to do with the plot.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Casino Royale

U-CAV LOVERS: An assassination attempt is made by unmanned drones who send missiles into the cabin where Cross had been moments earlier.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Hope Springs