Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore


Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

Even dogs can't save this movie from going to the dogs. Ahem.

(2010) Family Fantasy Comedy (Warner Brothers) Christina Applegate, Michael Clarke Duncan, Neil Patrick Harris, James Marsden, Bette Midler, Nick Nolte, Joe Pantoliano, Katt Williams, Chris O’Donnell, Paul Rodriguez, Sean Hayes, Jack McBrayer, Fred Armisen, Wallace Shawn, Roger Moore.  Directed by Brad Peyton

In Ghostbusters, a sure sign of the end of the world according to Bill Murray was cats and dogs living together. I wonder what he would have made of this.

A disgraced ex-police dog named Diggs (Marsden) is recruited into a spy agency called DOGS by Butch (Nolte). The fearless leader, Lou (Harris) informs them that there is a rogue former agent of their rival cat spies CATS named Kitty Galore (Midler) who has developed a secret weapon that would drive all the dogs on the planet insane, forcing them out of their long ensconced spot as man’s best friend and giving the cats a base to eventually overthrow mankind as the dominant species. Using high-tech gadget and good ol’ dogged determination (couldn’t resist), Diggs and his partners go after the bald sphinx Kitty and try to stop her fiendish plot.

That’s really all the plot you need to know. This is more or less a sequel to the 2001 family film Cats and Dogs which I found rather clever and charming, with effects that looking back seem a little bit low budget by today’s standards. The sequel has been percolating for awhile and it took nine years for it to finally bubble onto the big screen, where it was received with a bit of a thud. Live action/talking CGI animals are more or less commonplace these days.

There’s a pretty solid voice cast and a ton of references to the James Bond series (see below) which makes this at least a little more palatable to parents and grandparents who intend to use this as a babysitting tool. Unfortunately, most of the amusing bits about the concept are pretty much covered in the first ten minutes and quite frankly, there are a lot more butt sniffing jokes than most humans should be allowed to experience in their entire lifetimes.

Kids are going to like the cute puppies and kitties, but quite frankly I think kids are a bit more sophisticated about their entertainment these days than they were even a decade ago. They seem to go more for CGI puppies and kitties rather than the real sort, even if they have CGI lips mouthing CGI dialogue.

This was about as forgettable as family entertainment gets and I’ve seen some pretty awful family films over recent years. Here, nearly every human is a complete nincompoop and not even kids can save us – our salvation lies in the animal kingdom, which is embarrassing to say the least.

I have this off-the-wall theory – all me crazy – but that if you treat kids with respect and not like little morons with hands inside their parents wallets, not only will you make a movie that parents will want to take their kids to see but that kids will love as well and will want to see it several times. When you talk down to kids – just like when you talk down to anyone – they tend to tune you out.

That’s kind of how I felt here, like I was tuning out the movie. That’s a shame because there are some moments worth enjoying, and Bette Midler is pretty good as a megalomaniac. A little less Bond and a little more personality of its own would have served the movie better.

WHY RENT THIS: Dogs and cats are cute.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Clever concept wears out its welcome. Even kids might find this low-brow.

FAMILY VALUES: This is rated PG for “animal action and humor” but really truly? This is fine for kids of any age. Seriously.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a number of James Bond references herein; from Police Captain Flemming (after Bond author Ian Fleming) to Lazenby (after former Bond George Lazenby) the character played by Roger Moore (himself an ex-Bond) to Paws (after Bond villain Jaws) and even the main character of Kitty Galore is a take-off on Bond girl Pussy Galore.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Looney Tunes animated short featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote in “Coyote Falls” which is significantly better than the main movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.5M on an $85M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Horrible Bosses

Hanna


Hanna

Soairse Ronan should get away from this movie as fast as she can.

(2011) Avant Action (Focus) Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Jason Flemyng, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jessica Barden, Martin Wuttke, Michelle Dockery, Tim Beckmann, Vicky Krieps, Mohamed Majd, Christian Malcolm. Directed by Joe Wright

Nature versus nurture, an age-old debate about the power of parenting. In some cases, a little bit of both can go a long way.

Hanna (Ronan) is a young girl who lives in Finland above the Arctic Circle with her father Erik (Bana), a former CIA operative who has a beard and talks with a German accent. He has taught her how to survive in nearly any situation – and how to kill in nearly every situation. She is an efficient little killing machine, whether out hunting for dinner or being hunted, which in fact is happening.

She needs to be efficient because there are some really bad, bad people after her. Chief among them is Marissa Viegler (Blanchett), a CIA operative slash ice queen who has a past with Erik. She is canny and paranoid – after capturing Hanna she sends in a look-alike (Dockery) whom Hanna proceeds to dispatch with almost comical ease. Once that’s done, Hanna goes on the run in Morocco and Europe.

She is also being chased by some outside contractors that Viegler has hired, led by the effeminate Isaacs (Hollander) who likes to whistle while he works. She also runs into a family of British hippies, whose father (Flemyng) is a bit of a curmudgeon and whose mother (Williams) has a case of terminal political correctness. The daughter Sophie (Barden) becomes Hanna’s friend, perhaps the first she’s ever had who didn’t have a beard and talk with a German accent. Not realizing Viegler isn’t dead, she heads for a rendezvous in Germany with her dad, unaware that those who want her dead are closing in on her.

There is a really good story in here. It’s a shame that the director, whose resume includes Atonement which netted Ronan an Oscar nomination, chose to do it like Baz Luhrmann might have. While it looks great visually, endless music video-style conceits constantly remind us that this is a movie being directed rather than a story being told. When that happens, it’s hard to get too involved in the story and the movie just becomes a collection of images. There are some nicely done sequences, such as a chase scene in a shipyard; however the climactic scenes, set in an abandoned Grimm’s Fairy Tales theme park, seems rubbing our faces in the allegory a little bit.

Ronan is actually very strong in the title role; she has to be very physical here and she looks quite lethal which is difficult enough for an adult actor to do let alone a teenage one. She can spout off facts memorized from her father about all kinds of esoterica but she has trouble negotiating even a basic conversation with ordinary people. It’s a winning performance, one that is sympathetic and kicks ass at once.

Blanchett is one of the best actresses of her generation, an Oscar winner who can be forceful and who can also be subtle. Here she plays Viegler wound so tight you half expect for her eyes to pop out of her head and her breasts to shoot out like missiles to detonate on target at the slightest touch of her red hair. There’s not a lot of humanity in the role – she’s ambitious and paranoid, someone well versed in both the high tension of field work as well as the politics of the agency bureaucracy. I’m still debating internally whether this was the right approach to the role and due to Miss Blanchett’s credentials, electing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Bana is a leading man who is on the verge of being “A” list material. He has the charm and charisma to do it; what’s keeping him out of that rarefied air is the right role. He needs a blockbuster to cement his reputation and this is just frankly not it – and in any case his role is a supporting one to Ronan.

Something has to be said about the score by the British trip-hop band the Chemical Brothers. It’s intrusive, it’s abrasive and at the end of the day it detracts from the movie rather than enhance it. I’m fairly open-minded about alternative types of scores but I’m a bit old-fashioned in this regard – if you’re noticing the score to the point where you’re taken out of the movie by it, then it’s not a good score. This happens time and time again throughout the movie.

Critics have been falling all over themselves to praise this movie, including several that I respect a great deal. This is a case where the public actually gets one more correct than the critics; the box office has been tepid at best and quite frankly, deservedly so. I really wanted to like this movie too – the trailers were compelling and the story idea solid. Sadly, this is the type of film that belongs more projected on the wall of a European disco than on the screen of a multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: A fresh take on the cold war-style action espionage thriller.

REASONS TO STAY: Wright takes viewers out of the film far too often by reminding them he’s there. Worst. Score. Ever.

FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of sometimes intense violence, not to mention a bit of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seth Lockhead wrote the original script on spec back in 2006. It appeared on the Black List (the annual list of bet unproduced Hollywood screenplays) that year and again in 2009.

HOME OR THEATER: You won’t lose anything by seeing this at home.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Conspirator

Red (2010)


Red

Here's the real reason you want to see the movie.

(Summit) Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Mary-Louise Parker, Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Cox, Julian McMahon, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, James Remar, Emily Kuroda, Audrey Wasilewski. Directed by Robert Schwentke

It’s no secret that our society is extremely youth-oriented. Our elderly we have a tendency to marginalize and cast aside like a used DVD player when the Blu-Ray came out. However, we do so at the potential cost of underestimating the contributions that can still be made by senior citizens.

Frank Moses (Willis) is a retiree living in a small apartment in Cleveland. His life is a quiet one, the highlight of his day being regular phone conversations with Sarah Ross (Parker), a caseworker for the government pension plan who supplies Frank with a monthly check. It’s obvious Frank is attracted to her and she to him; she continues to talk about it while casting nervous glances around to avoid being detected by a disapproving supervisor. They make plans to meet in her home town of Kansas City.

Not long after that he shows up in her apartment, waiting for her there when she comes home after yet another epic fail of a date, babbling wildly about assassins that are after him and that they’re now after her because she’s been talking to him. When she doesn’t believe him, he duct tapes her mouth shut and kidnaps her, driving her to New Orleans. He stashes her in a hotel while he goes to visit Joe Matheson (Freeman), who lives in a rest home where he mainly ogles the nurses, and tries to find a dignified way to die from Stage Four liver cancer. They figure out that someone within the CIA has put a hit out on Frank, but nobody can really figure out why.

Neither can Cooper (Urban), a ramrod-straight CIA operative who has been tasked with taking out Frank. His boss (Pidgeon) sends him down to the archives where Henry the Records Keeper (Borgnine) holds sway. Cooper discovers the “analyst” he’s been told to take out is in reality an ex-field agent who was one of the best the CIA ever had, the kind of guy who toppled governments all by his lonesome once upon a time. Cooper, a family man, is none too pleased by this turn of events but he is, after all, a Company man.

In fact, there’s a conspiracy that goes back to a black ops mission in Guatemala in the 80s and a political situation that is a little more present-day. Frank assembles his old team including Joe, Marvin (Malkovich), a twitchy sort who developed extreme paranoia after being injected with LSD every day back in the 60s, and Victoria (Mirren), a deadly assassin who can best be described as Martha Stewart with a machine gun. There’s also Sarah, who’s now aboard with the program, and Ivan (Cox), an ex-KGB agent who once had a thing for Victoria, and an evil industrialist (Dreyfuss) who knows all the secrets behind the assassins on their tails.

The movie is based on a Warren Ellis comic book that DC published a few years back; it’s much in the vein of The Losers and The Expendables from earlier this year. Schwentke, who we last saw directing The Time Traveler’s Wife, rebounds with a movie that has much more of a fun side than that movie and is much more entertaining at its core. 

Part of that is the cast that would have made heads turn ten years ago. Willis always seems to be winking at the audience when he does these kinds of roles, kind of a John McLean/Jason Bourne love child who has Vin Diesel’s hair stylist. Parker, who of late has become best-known for her work in the Showtime series ”Weeds,” could use some “less is more” philosophy in her acting style but is solid as the romantic lead.

The supporting roles are mostly juicy and the outstanding cast makes full use of them. Freeman is wasted in a role that isn’t really drawn very completely, but Malkovich can chew scenery with the best of them and he does so here. Cox is a truly underrated actor who has become a dependable character actor, giving his character a bit of a twist on the KGB agent with a heart of gold that Robbie Coltrane nailed in the Bond movies and Mirren is…well, Helen Mirren. She can make even bad movies much better, and she takes an unlikely role and just about steals the movie.

The plot is paper thin and twists and turns, ultimately leading nowhere but it’s really meant to be a vehicle for the action sequences, which are solid although not outstanding. Red doesn’t really require a whole lot of thought and delivers a quite a lot of entertainment for the money. It may suffer from a few action movie clichés (like bad guy marksmanship disease, and plucky heroine syndrome, and perhaps a touch of dirty old man-itis) but all of that can be overlooked in the grand scheme of things. After all, nobody goes to an action movie for the plot.

REASONS TO GO: You do see the picture at the top of the blog, don’t you? Great cast, mindless action and a good deal of fun.

REASONS TO STAY: It’s a bit on the fluffy side and the action sequences really don’t add anything to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and some bad language but probably nothing I wouldn’t hesitate to show most middle school-age kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John C. Reilly was originally cast in the John Malkovich role.

HOME OR THEATER: There are a few scenes that probably work better on the big screen but overall I’d say this is more of a home video experience.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Spirit

Salt


Salt

Do you get the feeling Angelina Jolie is watching an entirely different movie?

(Columbia) Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl, Andre Braugher, Hunt Block, Olek Krupa, Daniel Pearce, Cassidy Hinkle, Yara Shahidi, Jordan Lage, Vladislav Koulikov, Olya Zueva. Directed by Phillip Noyce

It is somewhat emblematic of the flaccid crop of movies this summer that this movie is one of the best reviewed of the season, with some critics heaping critical praises on it that it scarcely deserves. Let’s get to the salient facts.

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a spy; let’s get that straight first off. It’s not much of a spoiler, since the trailer tells you she is. She is evidently not a very good spy, because when we first meet her she’s been captured and is being tortured by the North Koreans.

She is eventually released and returns back to the CIA – or at least the petrochemical company that fronts for the CIA – and is preparing for an anniversary dinner for her arachnologist husband (Diehl), complete with intricately folded napkins. Nothing says romance more than linen folded into origami after all. However, dinner is going to have to wait; a Russian defector has walked into the CIA front building – apparently the CIA isn’t very good at hiding in plain sight either – and it is up to Evelyn to interrogate the guy since, well, nobody else in the CIA can do it, right?

Her boss Ted Winter (Schreiber) is eager to catch a plane, she wants to get to her anniversary dinner and the by-the-book agent Peabody (Ejiofor) just wants to take over because he apparently is the special agent in charge of Russian defections. Unfortunately, their plans are all thrown for a loop when Orlov (Olbrychski), the defector in question, informs them that a sleeper agent is planning to murder the Russian president on U.S. soil at the funeral of the Vice President the very next day. The name of the sleeper agent? Evelyn Salt.

All Jason Bourne breaks out right about then. Salt, knowing that her husband is going to be targeted – apparently this has happened before – decides she doesn’t have time to wait around to be interrogated and escapes. Orlov, channeling Rosa Klebb of From Russia with Love, boots himself out of an elevator. This would be the perfect time for a car chase, don’t you think?

There is certainly plenty of action here, some of it pretty nifty. Noyce, who directed the two Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies, has a steady hand when it comes to action sequences, and while he doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, the action comes at you thick and fast, with Jolie leaping out of moving vehicles, out of helicopters and onto moving trucks and vans. She beats up everybody she can get her hands on, and a few that she can’t.

My problem with the movie isn’t so much the action but what lies between. I was never able to connect to Salt and there’s a reason for it. The whole is-she-or-isn’t-she theme of the movie only works if you aren’t sure if she is or she isn’t, and so she has to be enigmatic by definition, which makes it difficult for us to relate to her. Quite frankly, it should be fairly obvious early on whether she is or isn’t, and those who aren’t sure, look to the extraneous characters to help you figure it out. You know the ones; they only exist for a specific plot point that will become critical later in the film. These are the kinds of characters that are usually found in bad movies.

I know I’m being a bit harsh on Salt and I should temper it by saying that there are a lot of things in the positive column. Jolie, for one thing, is a terrific action hero, maybe the best female action hero not named Sigourney Weaver. Reportedly, she did a lot of her own stunts, which would make her one kickass broad, based on what I saw here. Certainly some of her parkour-like fighting moves were spectacular.

I never really was able to fall in love with the movie, and I was kind of hoping to. I am fond of action movies in general, but I felt like this was Jason Bourne with boobs channeling James Bond, only without being able to capture my rooting interest. It’s really not an awful movie, but it isn’t a great one either.

Sometimes, you can distill your feelings for a movie down to a single word. Concerning my feelings for Salt, that word would be meh.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the action sequences are breathtaking.

REASONS TO STAY: You never get a reason to care about any of this; they’re so busy making Salt a cipher that she never connects with the audience.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, a smattering of bad language and some implied sexuality, but nothing the average videogame wouldn’t pack in.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead role was originally written for a male; when Tom Cruise was attached to the movie, it was titled The Mystery of Edwin Salt but when Cruised bowed out to do Knight and Day, Jolie stepped in and the part was substantially rewritten.

HOME OR THEATER: I will have to admit some of the action sequences would be enhanced by the theatrical experience.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Kids Are All Right

Body of Lies


Body of Lies

Russell Crowe and Leonardo di Caprio share a Starbucks moment.

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani, Oscar Isaac, Simon McBurney, Ali Suliman, Alon Aboutboul. Directed by Ridley Scott

Living on the front lines of the War on Terror is like sleeping with a time bomb. You never know when, or if, it is going to go off.

Roger Ferris (di Caprio) is an American field operative of the CIA assigned to the Middle East division. He is fluent in Arabic, whip-smart and streetwise. He has been assigned by his boss, Ed Hoffman (Crowe) to apprehend one of the major players in Jihadist terrorism, Al-Saleem (Aboutboul) and he has a golden opportunity to take a step closer to that goal – a suicide bomber wants to defect. The fact that he’s even met with Americans is a death sentence for him and he knows it. The nervous terrorist wants asylum in exchange for his information which concerns a training facility the jihadists use. Ferris offers it to him but Hoffman vetoes it; the information they’d receive from following his inevitable murderers would be far more valuable than the intelligence the man has given them. Thoroughly upset, Ferris turns the man loose and heads up a surveillance team on the man. Predictably, their contact is killed and the terrorists are able to get away.

Angry at the waste of a potential informant, Ferris decides to attack the training facility to see if there’s information he can glean to salvage the debacle. He and his partner get in there and manage to retrieve some documents that the terrorists are in the process of burning, knowing that the Americans likely knew about the training camp and might soon be there. Ferris escapes after a running gun battle with the terrorists chasing his SUV, but his partner dies in the process and Ferris is badly injured.

Recovering from his injuries, Ferris learns that the seized documents yielded the location of a safe house for the terrorist organization in Amman, Jordan. Knowing that Ferris is his best man, Hoffman sends him to the American embassy where the CIA station chief is a bumbling idiot who takes umbrage at being shuffled off to the side in lieu of Ferris. The Jordan station doesn’t have the manpower to keep the safe house under constant surveillance so Ferris knows he’ll have to go to the Jordanian Head of State Security, Hani Salaam (Strong), an urbane and sophisticated man who understands the realities of espionage in the 21st century and senses a kindred spirit in Ferris.

The first day things go straight to hell. On the orders of Hoffman, one of the CIA flunkies spooks one of the terrorist informants, leading to a chase down the back alleys of Amman. The informant gets away and Ferris is bitten by a rabid dog. He is taken to a Jordanian clinic where he is ministered to by a comely nurse named Aisha (Farahani), who strikes up a friendship with Ferris that leads to deeper feelings.

In the meantime, the relationship with Hani is deteriorating as Ferris is constantly having the legs cut out from under him on operations by Hoffman, who is under political pressure to get results. Eventually, things get so bad that the safe house is abandoned and burned and Hani orders Ferris out of the country.

Back in the states, Ferris concocts a plan to set up a fictitious terrorist cell in order to flush out Al-Saleem, using an innocent architect (Suliman) as bait. The trap is set, but will the terrorist take the bait? And can Ferris trust his own superiors not to stab him in the back?

Ridley Scott is an A-list director with Oscar winners and classics to his credit. Here he’s more or less attempting a John Le Carre-style spy thriller modernized and set in the War on Terror. Unfortunately, the spy game has changed a great deal since the Cold War and while Ferris gets beat up an awful lot, we never get a sense that he’s in constant jeopardy. Just about everything comes at him head-on rather from left field.

Di Caprio is also an A-lister and has shown that he has the acting chops to handle anything, but I got a strange sense of detatchment from watching his performance here. He does a lot of yelling and a lot of swearing but he doesn’t seem emotionally involved, at least to me. Crowe – who gained 50 pounds for his role – has less to do but makes his bureaucratic spook more harrowing, someone who is playing a game in which human lives are collateral damage. He is charming, which makes the role all the more chilling.

Surprisingly, Mark Strong gives the most memorable performance for my money. Well-dressed, impeccably mannered and polite, he could have stepped out of a James Bond movie, but rather than making him a caricature, Strong instead imbues him with a certain street smarts that gives him the air of a cobra, biding its time before striking with terrifying speed and ferocity.

The romance between Aisha and Ferris is essentially a vehicle to give Ferris a personal stake in the denouement, but Farahani manages to give her character charm and likability, enough that we want to spend more time with her. Some of the best scenes in the movie explore the cultural difficulties in carrying on a romance with a Westerner for someone in her character’s position in life, but unfortunately those scenes are rare here.

Some of this is standard spy 101, but overall the acting is good enough, the actors charming enough to make this worth seeing, particularly as it’s on cable pretty regularly at the moment. I get the feeling that Scott wanted to illustrate the difficulties of doing fieldwork in the War on Terror when there are political concerns that keep the front line personnel from carrying out their tasks. This isn’t a bad movie, but I think there was a better one in the subtexts.

WHY RENT THIS: Scott is one of the finest directors at setting tension on film today. Di Caprio is solid in the lead and he gets able support from Crowe, Strong and Farahani.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are some missed opportunities here as the film often takes the easy way out in terms of plot by using standard Hollywood devices.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of violence and bad language, also a fairly graphic scene of torture; add it all up and it means put the kids to bed before putting this on the DVD player.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Manchester and Munich was actually filmed in the United States. The only location filming done on this movie which was set in places throughout the world were the United States and Morocco.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes an interactive track that allows viewers to see behind-the-scenes features concurrently with watching the movie by pressing a button on their remotes; it is much like the New Line Infinifilm feature that used to be on DVDs back when they actually had special features.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Gladiator

From Paris With Love


From Paris With Love

Mr. Clean gets just a little bit tougher on dirt.

(Lionsgate) John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Kasia Smutniak, Richard Durden, Yin Bing, Amber Rose Revah, Eric Gordon, Francois Bredon, Chems Eddine Dahmani, Alexandra Boyd, Sami Darr, Michael Vander-Meiren. Directed by Pierre Morel

While the cold war came to an end, espionage didn’t. Spies are alive and well and some of them are living in Paris.

James Reese (Rhys Meyers) is a personal aide to the United States ambassador to France (Durden). He is smart, efficient, ambitious and charming. He’s the point man on nearly all of the ambassador’s projects, from a meeting with the French Defense Minister (Gordon) to an upcoming trade summit with African nations. Reese has a beautiful French girlfriend named Caroline (Smutniak) who loves him so much that she proposed to him. Bold, them French girls are.

James also works for a government espionage agency as a low-level functionary. Most of the tasks he’s been giving are fairly routine, like changing license plates on getaway vehicles and placing electronic monitoring devices in the French Defense Minister’s office. He yearns to be a field operative – a spy – doing his part to save the world but up to now he hasn’t gotten the chance. Still, in these tasks he shows efficiency and ingenuity; so much so that he is given a new task – to partner up with a veteran field operative, Charlie Wax (Travolta).

Wax is foul-mouthed, foul-tempered and operates by his own set of rules. He shoots first, asks questions later then shoots again. He doesn’t mind leaving a trail of damage in his wake the size of an F5 tornado swath. With his shaven head and goatee, he resembles a cross between Satan, Mr. Clean and ex-wrestlers Goldberg and Stone Cold Steve Austin and in temperament…well, whichever one of those has the foulest, vilest most evil temper.

He is there investigating a drug ring run by Palestinians. He tells James to take him to a Chinese restaurant, a dodgy one in a seedy part of Paris. He’s heard the egg foo yung (not even a true Chinese dish, as James is only too happy to inform Wax; it’s an entirely American invention) is superior here, but he’s heard wrong. The service isn’t bad though – in fact, it’s killer.

After letting one of the waiters live through the inevitable barrage of bullets, Charlie and James follow the surviving waiter through the back streets of urban Paris to a…an….well, it’s sort of a cross between a mannequin warehouse and a Chinese theater. At least, as far as I could tell; Might have been a skating rink there too for all I know.

He gets the address of someone farther up the food chain and the two, Wax and James – who is beginning to wonder if he’s really cut out for working with a cowboy like Wax – move their way up the ladder, leaving a pile of bodies as they go. However, Wax has told James a liiiiiiiittle white lie; it’s not drug dealers he’s after, but terrorists. And James, as it turns out, is unknowingly involved, right up to his pretentious moustache.

Director Morel last brought us Taken, a surprisingly effective taut thriller. He showed himself to be an effective action director there, and he is here as well. The car chases are well-staged and the fights for the most part, well-choreographed. There is enough of an adrenaline rush here to keep you going for the whole movie.

What doesn’t work quite as well is the story. A good spy story should have things coming at you from every direction, but there isn’t much of that here. There is a big twist to the plot but it isn’t anything you haven’t seen and can’t predict. Simple can be better in most cases, but in others simple doesn’t work quite as well.

What does work well is Travolta. Completely unrecognizable as Charlie Wax, Travolta takes the opportunity to go completely over-the-top. Alone of anyone in this movie he seems to be having a good time and he takes us along for the ride. If there’s a reason for a sequel to this movie, it’s to see what Charlie does next.

Rhys Meyers, of Showtime’s “The Tudors” has a role that isn’t nearly as fun and doesn’t have the potential, but he makes the humorless James at least palatable. Smutniak also does really well as Caroline; of all the characters she might have had the most depth, but unfortunately the writers chose not to really explore it so she winds up symbolizing the film as something of a wasted opportunity.

Still, as mindless entertainment goes this is top-notch. Travolta is at the top of his game and that alone is worth the price of admission. There are several sly references to Pulp Fiction which may not be the best idea – who wants to remind themselves of a better movie than the one they’re watching – but for my part I found those references to be a nice homage. The movie, in any case, is the cinematic equivalent of a Royale with Cheese; tasty but ultimately filled with empty calories.

REASONS TO GO: Travolta is obviously having a good time with his larger-than-life role and it elevates the movie. Morel is a strong action director.

REASONS TO STAY: The story isn’t particularly innovative and the big twist isn’t much of a surprise (ask Da Queen – I called it early on). The villains aren’t particularly intimidating.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be bloody and occasionally gruesome. The language is pretty rough and there is also some drug use depicted. Teens and older only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 1955 film To Paris With Love is said to have been the inspiration for the Ian Fleming James Bond novel To Russia With Love which was made into a film in 1963. None of the three films are related.

HOME OR THEATER: Ahhhh I gotta go big screen on this one. Not that it’s got grand vistas or big effects; it just feels like a popcorn movie to me.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Wolfman

Taken


Taken

Liam Neeson takes time to do his squats during a firefight; after all, a spy's gotta stay in shape.

(20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Katie Cassidy, Goran Kostic, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, David Warshofsky, Holly Vallance, Xander Berkeley. Directed by Pierre Morel

When it comes to France, there are some things that you can take as absolute facts that are undeniable. One, that the Eifel Tower will always be the symbol of Paris. Two, that you will eat better at any sidewalk bistro than you will in all the fast food purveyors in America. Finally, that Luc Besson knows how to make a good action movie and will churn one out year after year after year.

In this Besson-produced thriller, Bryan Mills (Neeson) used to work for the CIA. He was, in his own terminology, a “fixer,” the kind of guy who would be sent in to stop a problem before it starts, whether by a timely assassination, a daring theft or a campaign of disinformation. Not that the CIA doesn’t engage in such things but I don’t get the impression they do that kind of work all that often.

Anyway, as will often happen with interesting jobs, Mills’ job becomes his life and his wife (Janssen) packs up and leaves, taking their 17-year-old daughter (Grace) with her. Not long after, she marries a mega-rich American industrialist (Berkeley) whose idea of a birthday gift is not just a pony but a future Kentucky Derby winner. It’s kind of hard to compete with that when all you have to give is a karaoke machine.

Mills decides to hang up his black ops jumpsuit and move to the States to be closer to his daughter but his bitchy wife prevents this at almost every turn. Mills the suave icy-cool spy quickly becomes the hangdog intimidated ex-husband who meekly accepts the crap his ex-wife hands him and sits at home counting the hours until he can spend time with his daughter. Hard to believe a man of action such as Mills would settle for this kind of role, but okay.

When his daughter Kim (Grace) phones up dad to set up a one-on-one lunch (just the two of them), Mills is overjoyed – until he finds out that bitchy ex-wife used this as a means to get him to sign a parental consent form allowing Kim to spend the summer in Paris with her friend Amanda (Cassidy) unsupervised, although Kim swears up and down that adult cousins of Amanda will be there to act as chaperones. After some misgivings, Mills gives in.

Of course his misgivings prove to be well-founded. Soon after his daughter lands in Paris, Mills gets a phone call letting him know she’s landed safe and sound – and hears the kidnapping of his daughter over the phone. When one of the kidnappers picks up the phone, Mills tells him in a quiet, calm voice that he doesn’t have money to pay ransom but what he does have is a particular set of skills that would make life unpleasant for his crew and that if he doesn’t turn his daughter back over to him, he will find him and kill him. The bemused kidnapper responds with a single sneered “good luck,” done in a fine Clint Eastwood-like snarling whisper.

From this single two word message, Mills’ buddies at the CIA are able to determine the identity of the kidnapper, his nationality, and that the gang that he’s affiliated with specializes in kidnapping naïve young women and selling them as sex slaves and prostitutes to wealthy men (if they were really that amazing, Bin Laden would have been in a body bag long ago). Oh, and that once 96 hours have passed, his chances for finding his daughter go down to zero. His ex-wife’s new husband sticks Mills on a private jet for Paris where, as you might guess, much mayhem ensues. The only thing missing is the Eifel Tower crumbling to the ground in a graceful swan dive.

Besson protégé Morel does a fine job of pacing the film, particularly during its second half when the action portion of the movie really kicks in. Quite frankly, Paris makes an excellent backdrop to the action sequences as well, so that works in the filmmakers’ favor. Besson delivers a script that mostly works.

It does get a little out to left field from time to time in terms of its internal logic. However, what saves the movie is Neeson. Neeson’s acting chops are beyond question; his work in such films as Schindler’s List and Michael Collins corroborate that. He gives the character a sense of gravitas. Mills is a killing machine, capable of demolition, sharpshooting, lethal hand-to-hand combat and driving like Remy Julienne but he is, at the core, just a sad dad who just wants to see his kid.

The support cast is mostly solid although unremarkable enough. They do their jobs without distinguishing themselves any, leaving Neeson and the action to take center stage which is probably a good thing. The movie was a surprise hit when it was released in January 2009 and not without reason; it also got some pretty impressive critical props.

Action movies work best when you try not to think about them logically but rather just sit back and enjoy the ride. Taken is kicked up a notch in the thoughtfulness department (mostly due to Neeson) but it doesn’t sacrifice one inch of its action pedigree. Mindless entertainment, yes but good mindless entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Liam Neeson makes for a natural action star, lending gravitas to his physical skills. The film moves with breakneck pacing, something crucial for a good action movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally veers into the realm of the preposterous but then again, so do most action movies.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence and sexual situations, with the depiction of many girls presumably drugged and raped (at least implied). The language is pretty rough, so all in all not for youngsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The martial arts style used by Mills in the film is called Nagasu Do, a hybrid blending Ju-Jitsu, Judo and Aikido. Liam Neeson was trained by SAS soldier Mick Gould for his various skills.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The “Black Ops Field Manual,” available only on the Blu-Ray edition of the release, keeps a running count of the injuries and kills during the movie, displays a clock telling how much time Bryan has left to find his daughter and shows you his exact route from one scene to the next. It’s a good deal of fun!

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Night Listener