G.I. Joe: Retaliation


OK, Snake Eyes looks really cool, I'll give you that.

OK, Snake Eyes looks really cool, I’ll give you that.

(2013) Action (Paramount) Dwayne Johnson, Jonathan Pryce, Byung-hun Lee, Elodie Yung, Ray Stevenson, D.J. Cotrona, Adrianne Palicki, Channing Tatum, Ray Park, Luke Bracey, Walton Goggins, Arnold Vosloo, Joseph Mazzello, RZA, James Carville, Bruce Willis, Joe Chrest, Tiffany Lonsdale. Directed by Jon M. Chu

When you make a movie about an action figure, the basic problem is that action figures are made of plastic and have no real personality. Movies that stick too close to the canon can sometimes run the risk of following suit.

The Joes – America’s elite fighting force, commanded by Duke (Tatum) and his sidekick Roadblock (Johnson) have infiltrated North Korea and are now heading for sunny Pakistan to secure their nuclear arsenal after their President was assassinated. Unfortunately, the person they should have been worrying about was our President (Pryce) who has been kidnapped and replaced by Zartan (Vosloo), one of Cobra Commander’s (Bracey) top henchmen. He has framed the Joes for the deed.

Now reduced to Roadblock, Lady Jaye (Palicki) and Flint (Cotrona), the remaining Joes soon become aware that Cobra Commander – who has been broken out of maximum security prison by rent-a-ninja Storm Shadow (Lee) and the half-crazy Firefly (Stevenson) who likes to use tiny little explosive firefly robots to do his dirty work. Now the United States is the de facto territory of Cobra and he has a nifty little weapon called Zeus – with all the firepower of a nuclear weapon and none of the fallout. Sort of like the “tastes great, less filling” of modern weapons of mass destruction.

They need to figure out a way to foil the nefarious plan of world domination. They’ll need all hands on deck to do it – including the enigmatic Snake Eyes (Park), trainee Jinx (Yung) and the guy who started it all, General Joe Colton (Willis), the original G.I. Joe.

The first movie in the series, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra was considered a misfire. Chu and the studio wanted to take the franchise in another decision – one not so much more gritty than more realistic. The performance-enhancing suits of the first movie are gone and while there are a few gadgets here and there, for the most part this is more stunt-oriented and battle oriented using weapons that are more or less familiar. Sure there are still comic book elements to the movie but then you don’t see an action movie for realistic behavior. There’s a superhuman element to the action hero that is just a teensy bit shy of spandex and a cape.

So is this version better than what they came up with for the first movie? Yes and no. Most of the cast from the first is gone with only Snake Eyes, Duke, Storm Shadow, Zartan and the President returning to the sequel. Adding Johnson is usually a big plus but for once his larger-than-life charisma is pretty much absent which is surprising and disappointing. I don’t know if he was just going through the motions on purpose but it sure seemed to me like he was. In either case this was one of the least successful performances of his career which is bad news since he’s expected to carry the film on his broad shoulders. In his defense, he isn’t given a whole lot to work with.

Also in his defense, the rest of the cast isn’t much better with the exception of Willis, who is nicely understated as Joe and Park, who is completely mute as Snake Eyes. Most of the rest is chest-thumping posturing with a loud rock soundtrack which really was already dated in the 80s when the heyday for chest-thumping action films was.

Even in that situation a movie like this can be saved with eye-popping special effects and/or jaw-dropping stunts. While the effects and stunts are more than adequate, they aren’t quite spectacular enough to overcome the film’s deficiencies.

REASONS TO GO: The Rock is charming as always. Some great martial arts scenes.

REASONS TO STAY: No character development AT ALL. Uninspiring.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s all sorts of violence from martial arts one on ones to battle sequences to gun fights – and a bit of sensuality and mildly bad language too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally scheduled for release on June 29, 2012 but Paramount delayed the film for a year to what they claimed initially was to add 3D effects but later the real reason turned out that they wanted to add more scenes with Tatum in the film as he had become a big star in the meantime and getting him to do reshoots required a long wait.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the critics have, as expected, not warmed to the movie.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battleship

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Your Sister’s Sister and the beginning of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

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Ninja Assassin


Ninja Assassin

Oh, I've seen Fire and I've seen Rain...

(2009) Martial Arts Action (Warner Brothers) Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Sho Kosugi, Rick Yune, Randall Duk Kim, Sung Kang, Kylie Goldstein. Directed by James McTeigue

There are certain movies that you really can’t complain about. For example, this one; the title tells you exactly what kind of movie you’re going to get. You can’t watch it and then bitch about the plot and the acting. The whole point of the movie is to have guys in black pajamas slice and dice each other and fly through the air like moths. Really, that’s the only standard a movie should be held to in reality. Still, one can dream of a little more to a movie than that, right?

Raizo (Rain) is a lethal assassin, trained from childhood (some would say abused) in the art of killing people silently and unseen by the Ozunu clan, the deadliest assassins in Japan. Their compound, high in the mountains of Japan, has never been seen by an outsider and the mere knowledge of their existence can mean death in a most painful and bloody way. Laughing at their rumored existence, well, that’s just plain stupid as a few yakuza toughs find out in the opening sequence.

However, Raizo has a bone to pick with his clan; they executed his girlfriend (Goldstein) in a most gruesome manner (which would tend to piss anybody off) and now they’re all after his ass. Raizo, the deadliest and nastiest of them, is out to topple their empire, aided by a couple of thumb-twiddling Interpol cops, Mika (Harris) and Ryan (Miles). However, Raizo has violated a cardinal rule of the ninja – something akin to rule #1, don’t talk about Fight Club. Now the clan’s leader, Ozunu (Kosugi) and his number two son Takeshi (Yune) have a real need to dismember Raizo and you just know it’s going to end badly for somebody.

This was produced by the Washowski Brothers (the Matrix trilogy) and directed by McTeigue, who previously helmed V for Vendetta which I think is a much better film than this. Part of the problem of a movie about ninja assassins is the whole conceit that they melt in and out of the shadows; by necessity the movie must be then underlit to provide said shadows, which makes seeing the fight sequences difficult at times. That’s a shame because some of the choreography is pretty damn good.

Yes, I know that you’re not supposed to talk about the acting in a movie like this (I did mention it earlier) but I do have to at least point out that I found Harris unbelievable as an Interpol agent (do Interpol agents scream like little girls whenever an assassin shows up?) and that the acting is a bit stiff in general. Rain, the Korean pop star, is more adept at dancing and singing than he is at slicing and dicing, but he performs solidly enough in his fight sequences. He showed immense potential in Speed Racer as a double-dealing race car driver which isn’t delivered on here. Harris was in the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies and was far more effective in those, so I know both of them are capable of better than they delivered here.

Sho Kosugi is one of the most revered and beloved figures in Japanese action films (particularly of the samurai variety) of the last 30 years. While known mostly to Asian cinema aficionados in the States, he brings a certain gravitas here that is quite frankly wasted. He’s well into his 60s but he can still kick patootey without breaking much of a sweat. Personally, I think he’s worth seeing even in a movie that isn’t.

Something tells me that this movie was a victim of studio over-involvement. A last minute re-write was called for and delivered in a two and a half day turn-around which allowed the movie to make its tight delivery date after which brilliant studio executives promptly delayed its release for almost a year. Really, when dealing with ninja movies it would be a wise studio executive that doesn’t get too involved with the nuts and bolts; the simpler, the better in terms of plot for these kinds of things and its best just to let your fight choreographer and director just go to town; this movie is at its best when they do just that.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some very fine martial arts sequences here. It’s always a pleasure to see Kosugi, one of the underrated stars of Asian cinema.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is as wooden as it gets. There are times that the story drags, particularly in the middle. Penalty for overuse of flashbacks. Too many fight scenes lose their effectiveness because they’re badly lit.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect from a movie of this nature, there’s a boatload of violence and a smattering of foul language. Definitely for older teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski did the re-write of the original script which was, in an unusual move, approved by Warner Brothers without notes and shipped into the actor’s hands within a week.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray has a nice feature on ninjas and the mythology behind them.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.6M on a production budget of $40M; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Intermission

You Only Live Twice


You Only Live Twice

Did someone call for a sociopathic megalomaniac?

(United Artists) Sean Connery, Donald Pleasance, Karin Dor, Akiko Wakabayashi, Tetsuro Tanba, Mie Hama, Teru Shimada, Charles Gray, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Lewis Gilbert

In the Bond pantheon, this movie usually doesn’t stand out among the movies considered Bond classics; Goldfinger, Dr. No and Live and Let Die, and to be sure, all of these are classic James Bond. However, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this movie. It was the first one I saw in a movie theater – in a drive-in to be exact, where it was bloody hard to make out what was going on onscreen in the first scenes but my dad liked to smoke so we went to the drive-in where he could puff away to his hearts content.

I will be the first to admit that the plot is a bit on the ludicrous side, with SPECTRE intercepting American and Russian spacecraft with an automated unhinging missile that brings them to a rather impressive volcano lair in Japan (one which remains in many ways the quintessential villain’s lair and one which was spoofed nicely by Austin Powers). This of course brings the superpowers to the brink of mutual war and annihilation, which suited the Chinese just fine (they were funding much of the shenanigans) and more importantly, played perfectly into the megalomaniacal plans of none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Pleasance), the previously faceless Number One of the SPECTRE organization.

The British, having detected the rogue craft coming down in the area around Japan (something which the American and Russian radar were unable to do because they were just, like, tracking) send their best man, James Bond (Connery) in to investigate and he runs into Osato (Shimada), a wealthy industrialist and his deadly assistant Helga (Dor), both secret operatives of SPECTRE. Bond is saved by Aki (Wakabayashi), the beautiful agent of the Japanese Secret Service, headed up by Tiger Tanaka (Tanba), with whom Bond becomes fast friends. With the help of Little Nellie, a gyrocopter, they investigate a remote island in the Sea of Japan. There they find a nearly impregnable lair built into a dormant volcano. Can Bond, the marvelous Japanese agent Kissy Suzuki (Hama) and an army of Japanese ninjas stop Blofeld from plunging the world into nuclear war?

While Auric Goldfinger remains the greatest Bond villain to date, it is Blofeld who is Bond’s nemesis, the Moriarty to Bond’s Sherlock Holmes. Pleasance gives the previously faceless villain not only a face, but a personality to match; urbane like Dr. No and vicious like Goldfinger. Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers movies is based on Pleasance’s take on the part, from the Nehru jacket to the somewhat noticeable scar to the quietly menacing speaking tone. All Dr. Evil is missing is the eurotrash accent.

I also found the Japanese locations beautiful and the insights to the Japanese culture interesting. Previously, the only Japan American audiences had seen in the movies was the one Godzilla trampled over. I have had a fascination for Japan ever since seeing this movie.

The volcano lair of Blofeld is one of the most spectacular ever built. The monorail you see scooting around the perimeter actually worked and the helipad arm that extends out was also a working helipad. Of course, the rocket launches were done with miniatures but this was one of the most expensive sets ever built at the time. It still holds up, looking sleek and menacing and exactly the kind of thing you’d see from a would-be world dictator.

The Bond girls for this movie, Hama and Wakabayashi, were cast mostly for their looks and their willingness to be filmed in a bikini, something that the Japanese were only beginning to embrace at the time. Unfortunately, the two actresses spoke little English and their performances are unconvincing.

That said, even given the implausible nature of the plot and that already by this point the Bond movies were relying more on familiar repetitive plot points rather than stretching the limits (and over-relying on gadgets) of the creativity of the writers, this still remains a film that resonates with me. Interestingly enough, the next Bond movie to be made would be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which had perhaps the best script of all the Bond movies but Connery had left the series after You Only Live Twice, tired of the media attention and anxious not to be typecast as Bond any longer. I’ve always thought had Connery made that movie, it might have turned out to be the best in the series, even better than Goldfinger. But, that’s another review for another day.

WHY RENT THIS: An underrated Bond movie, with exotic locales and a great deal of insight into the Japanese culture. The volcano set is one of the most magnificent of the series, with a working monorail and helipad.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The kitsch and implausibility factors were beginning to become noticeable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of sexuality and as usual with Bond films, plenty of violence and smoking. Still, it’s no worse than anything on network television these days so don’t feel that you need to restrict the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: You Only Live Twice was the last James Bond novel published during Ian Fleming’s lifetime (there were posthumous publications). There were also two Blofelds in the cast; Pleasance who played him here, and Charles Gray who played Henderson here and Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Ultimate DVD Edition has a nice featurette on Maurice Binder, the main title designer for the Bond films up through the Timothy Dalton era. Although the Blu-Ray edition hasn’t been released yet, the Bond films released so far in the format have included the Ultimate Edition features along with a beautifully restored print, so look forward to that.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Date Night