American Sniper


Taking aim on controversy.

Taking aim on controversy.

(2014) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Luke Grimes, Keir O’Donnell, Sammy Sheik, Leonard Roberts, Cory Hardrict, Eric Ladin, James Ryen, Jake McDorman, Eric Aude, Navid Nagahban, Mido Hamada, Kathe Mazur, Sam Jaeger, Chance Kelly, Elise Robertson, Ben Reed, Marnette Patterson. Directed by Clint Eastwood

As we deal with the aftermath of our country’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as it seems we are preparing to do battle with ISIS, it behooves us to seek out the aftermath of those who fought those wars. War is never easy on those who fight it, regardless of the reasons they have for leaving their homes and their families and going off to some godforsaken place to kill other human beings. We often take that part of our armed forces for granted.

Chris Kyle (Cooper), a proud Texan and would-be cowboy, goes because he feels that after 9-11, it is his duty to protect a country that he loves. He leaves behind a wife Taya (Miller), a strong woman of no uncertain opinions who eventually falls for the burly Texan despite having exceedingly low expectations when first they met. He joins the Navy SEALs mainly because he believes them to be the toughest SOBs in the military.

Kyle proves to be a gifted sharpshooter who is perfect for sniper duty. His first action requires him to make an agonizing decision when it seems that a young boy is getting ready to hurl an explosive at an American convoy in full sight of his mother, who handed him the device. He waits until the last possible second, before it becomes apparent that his intentions are to blow up the convoy; then Kyle shoots him dead, and then his mother for good measure when it appears she’s going to finish the job her son was unable to. Far from being a moment of triumph, it deeply affects the young SEAL deeply. When he sees a terrorist (Hamada) put a drill through the head of a child while his parents watch, he decries the Iraqis as savages and it’s hard not to argue with him.

Kyle goes through four tours, and each time he returns home as Taya puts it, he’s not really there. He’s nervous, jumpy, living very much inside his head while Taya tries desperately to reach him, to get her husband back. By now Kyle is also a dad, and while he goes through the motions of being a father and assures VA psychotherapists as well as his immediate family that everything is fine, everything clearly is not. He only seems to be whole in country.

As he piles up the confirmed kills, he gets the nickname of Legend which at first makes him uncomfortable but eventually he grows to accept. It is a mark of the respect in which his peers hold him as he becomes the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, for all the lives of American military men he saves with his unerring aim and precise shots. There is however a counterpart within the ranks of the enemy, one known as Mustafa (Sheik) who is in many ways a mirror image of Kyle – a family man, one obsessed by his work and absolutely deadly. Somehow Kyle needs to survive his tours and come back to his wife and family – a whole man.

Clint Eastwood has become over the years a great American film director and although he has had his share of missteps (cough Jersey Boys cough cough) his consistency has been as good as any. In a lot of ways this is going to be counted as one of his best works ever, although it is steeped in controversy more because of the subject matter than anything else.

There are those who have decried the film because in their minds it glorifies an individual who shouldn’t be glorified. Many have pointed out that the real Kyle, on whose autobiography this is based, consistently identified Muslims as savages (which he does in the film on one occasion) and has been labeled a racist because of it. He has also been taken to task for exaggerations or making up incidents out of whole cloth.

These are two separate issues and on the first, I can only say that it was common for veterans of war to dehumanize those they fought against. It is one way for the psyche to cope with having to kill other human beings. If they aren’t human, if they’re savages, it makes it easier to justify what you’re doing. Thinking that way may not necessarily be politically correct but it’s at least understandable.

The other can also be looked upon as something of a Texas thing. Now, making up a story in which former governor and ex-Navy SEAL himself Jesse Ventura was rude and insulting to fellow SEALs who were mourning a friend and getting clocked by Kyle is wrong and Ventura – who has been excoriated for doing so – has every right to defend his reputation, even if it means suing the widow of the man responsible because she is after all profiting from the story in a matter of speaking, since the story is a part of his best-selling book. While I give veterans a good deal of leeway in their behaviors, they are nonetheless responsible for their actions when they return home and are liable for the consequences of those actions.

That said, I don’t think this film glorifies war at all or this one in particular – at one point, at a soldier’s funeral, an unidentified woman who I assume is the soldier’s mother reads a handwritten eulogy condemning the war – but rather tries to give us insight into those who fought it. For me, the most compelling material is when Kyle is home, struggling to be home and be present with his family. It takes a good deal of time for him to finally want to be home, to finally let go of his feeling of duty and to get past his need to be a hero which the real Kyle was often accused of and Eastwood seems to agree was part of the man’s psychological make-up.

Cooper, who added 40 pounds for the role, really inhabits the role of Kyle, who actually resembled the late wrestler Chris Benoit in reality. It’s a mesmerizing performance certainly worthy of the Oscar nomination he received. Cooper’s Kyle moves from a fairly normal aw-shucks cowboy to a heroic sniper in the field to a terse, uncommunicative stone wall of a man at home. It’s a brilliant performance that shouldn’t be missed.

Sienna Cooper’s performance as Taya is also flawless. It’s so good I wish the script and Eastwood would have devoted more time to her; at times she almost becomes one-dimensional because she’s trying to convince her husband to leave the war behind and be home. How she kept her family together, how she weathered those times when he was home and not with her (it must have been heartbreaking) would have added more nuance to the film overall. I’d have gladly sacrificed some of the battle sequences of Kyle in country for that.

About those battle sequences; they can be pretty intense and for those who might be sensitive to such things, you should be forewarned that there are scenes that are quite disturbing. However, the rest of us will find them, as I did, absolutely mesmerizing and keep you on the edge of your seat, as I was.

I don’t know why we need our heroes to be absolutely perfect. Nobody is, and Chris Kyle certainly wasn’t. I don’t know that I agree with all of his views or approve of some of the things he said. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great soldier, an expert marksman or a hero for saving the lives of hundreds and perhaps thousands of American troops. I do believe that for most people, how you feel about the war will color your perceptions of this film. The conservative right are hailing the movie as a masterpiece (which it isn’t – Unforgiven was far better) while the progressive left are decrying it as propaganda which it also isn’t. What it is when you get right down to it is a terrific movie about war itself, about surviving it not only physically but emotionally and mentally as well, and how hard it can be to come home when the tour of duty ends.

REASONS TO GO: Cooper is brilliant. Realistic and often heart-stopping battle sequences. Admirably allows viewers to make their own minds up.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally too intense for the sensitive. I would have liked to have gotten a little deeper into the mind of Taya.
FAMILY VALUES: Much gunfire and war violence, some of it quite disturbing. There’s also plenty of colorful language with some sexual references involved.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Chris Kyle and the real Marcus Luttrell of Lone Survivor fame actually met in SEAL school and became close friends which they remained for the rest of Kyle’s life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: A Most Violent Year

Captain Phillips


Tom Hanks draws the line at being waterboarded for another Oscar.

Tom Hanks draws the line at being waterboarded for another Oscar.

(2013) True Life Drama (Columbia) Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Omar Berdouni, Mohamed Ali, Issak Farah Samatar, Angus MacInnes, Amr El-Bayoumi, Stacha Hicks, Maria Dizzia, Georgia Goodman. Directed by Paul Greengrass

Most of us at one time or another will face a situation that will put our resolve to the test. Who we are and where our moral compass points to are defined by those moments. Few of us however will face that moment in a life or death situation where not only our own lives hang in the balance but other lives as well.

Richard Phillips (Hanks) of Vermont is a ship captain, a man used to commanding a merchant vessel filled with cargo, transporting it from one spot in the world to another. He’s not overly fond of the run up the West African coast past Somalia, a trouble spot from which piracy has become a commonplace means of acquiring wealth but it’s a job and he approaches it as such. He literally kisses his wife (Keener) goodbye at the airport, grabs his lunchpail and hardhat and goes to work.

But whereas he adopts a very blue collar approach to his job, he is certainly a leader. He expects his men to do their jobs efficiently and well and tends to be a bit of a hard ass. His officers respect him and while there is some grumbling among the union rank and file, isn’t there always?

For Muse (Abdi), life is much less clear cut. He lives in an impoverished Somali fisherman off of coastal waters that have been overfished to the point that they are literally barren of life. A local warlord insists that Muse and other village men go out and hijack another ship, even though they had just successfully taken another ship the previous week. Muse knows that this cycle will continue and has his eyes on a big score, enough so he can take what proceeds he can and move his family somewhere safer.

For Muse and the three men in his command – young Bilal (Abdirahman), on his first mission; Elmi (Ali) the clever driver and mechanic, and Najee (Ahmed) who chews khef leaves nonstop, making him aggressive and angry which is never a good combination. They spot the Maersk Alabama making its way up the coast and recognize this as their golden once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Captain Phillips watches the skiff approach at speed and knows instinctively that these men aren’t there to fish. His pleas for assistance are at first met with skepticism but after he fends off one attack, the second leads to a confrontation that will eventually involve the U.S. Navy, a lifeboat and a hair-trigger situation that could lead to the deaths of not only the pirates but Captain Phillips himself.

Greengrass, who previously gave us a docudrama called United 93 which was one of the best (if not the best) movies on the events of 9-11 yet, is adept at taking a situation that was headline news, enough so that most of us know how it ends and nonetheless keeps us on the edge of our seats. Much of that falls to Hanks, one of the most beloved actors of his generation. Few actors are as likable as Hanks who is not so much the guy next door but the guy down the street who lets you borrow his riding lawnmower on a scorching Saturday afternoon in August. The man is able to project such decency that we are immediately drawn into concern for Phillips’ safety even despite the kind of New England frosty demeanor.

Most of us who are fairly aware of the world around us know pretty much what happened during the real events surrounding Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama in 2009 but most of us aren’t fully aware of the details. That allows us to be caught up in the tension and atmosphere and given the likability of Hanks we become fully invested in his fate.

Greengrass also makes the pirates somewhat victims of circumstance; you get the sense young Muse (who in reality was 18 years old when these events transpired) would have preferred a more honest day’s work. He has few options however and does what he must; the rail-thin Abdi gets some sympathy despite the brutality of some of his crew who are a hair’s breadth from losing it the longer things go.

It should be mentioned that the crew members of the Maersk Alabama have disagreed vociferously with the way events were portrayed in the film and have brought suit against the parent company and Phillips, claiming his recklessness brought them into waters he knew hijackings had taken place in, all to save money by shortening the trip.

That said, the movie works as entertainment and is certainly going to make a lot of best-of-the-year lists come December. Few heroes measure up to their own legend and I’m sure the real Captain Phillips probably doesn’t hold a candle to the Tom Hanks version. Regardless of how events actually played out, this was nevertheless an extraordinary event that will put your emotions through a wringer as depicted here and that can be an exhilarating thing.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Terrific performances by Hanks and Abdi as the adversaries.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much shaky-cam for my comfort.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of substance abuse, a good deal of violence as well as a couple of bloody images, and sustained tension throughout. There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The shipboard filming was done aboard the Alexander Maersk, sister ship to the Maersk Alabama.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Argo

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Tomorrow, When the War Began

2 Guns


Denzel Washington can smile because his name comes first in the credits.

Denzel Washington can smile because his name comes first in the credits.

(2013) Crime Action (Universal) Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton, Bill Paxton, Edward James Olmos, James Marsden, Fred Ward, Robert John Burke, Greg Sproles, Patrick Fischler, Edgar Arreola, Derek Solorsano, Kyle Russell Clements, Christopher Matthew Cook, Tim Bell, Tate Fletcher, Azure Parsons. Directed by Baltasar Kormakur

There is room in this world for testosterone-infused crotch-scratching knuckle-dragging action movies. We men need them, as much as we need beer, 24 hour sports networks, grilled meat and babes. They are endemic to our manhood. They make us feel good and get past all the crap we have to take for being men.

Here is a movie that will make your penis swell with pride and put a smile on your manly unshaven face. Two guys – Bobby (Washington), a natty well-dressed guy who “knows people” and Stig (Wahlberg), a skirt-chasing loudmouth who never misses – are planning to rob a bank. Unfortunately, this particular bank is across from a diner that serves the best donuts in three counties and a word to the wise – never rob a bank across from a diner that serves the best donuts in three counties. Easy fix though; they burn the diner to the ground.

It turns out they are robbing this particular bank because Mexican cartel kingpin Papi Greco (Olmos) keeps a goodly load of his cash there, about $3 million worth. It’s not generally a good idea to rob a drug lord but it’s okay – Bobby is DEA and this robbery is a good way to link Papi to tax evasion.

However, when they get to doing the deed it turns out that there’s more like $40 million in the safety deposit boxes. And it’s not Papi’s – it belongs to a corrupt CIA whose sweaty agent Earl (Paxton) wants his money back – payments from Papi and other drug lords who give a small percentage of their profits to the CIA as protection for letting them operate. Whoops.

And it turns out that Stig isn’t a mindless thug after all – he’s Naval Intelligence. But both of them have been set up. Stig and Bobby aren’t exactly a match made in heaven but they are forced to work together to get out of the mess they’re in with the CIA, the U.S. Navy and a vicious drug cartel all chasing them and none of them too particular about due process.

This is the kind of movie that Michael Bay fans are going to love. The chemistry between Washington and Wahlberg is excellent, as good as the Glover-Gibson pairing a couple of decades ago. The two bicker and trade barbs as well as bullets but when the rubber hits the road they have each other’s back. Exactly the kind of relationship men like to see.

There is a whole lot of carnage – lots of bullets flying and rarely do any of them strike the heroes but they sure do strike the flunkies of the bad guys with abandon. I can imagine there was a squib shortage in Hollywood when this baby was shooting.

The script will hold no surprises for veteran action film aficionados. Those you think are probably going to end up as villains do. Those you think are going to get shot do. Twists you think the plot is going to take happen. But that’s not why real men see a movie like this. We see a movie like this to affirm that we’re still men. There’s no exploring their feelings, no tender moments of self-expression, no issues of the day – just bullets flying, fists pumping and things going boom. And when that’s what you need, that really is all you need.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Washington and Wahlberg.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t add anything new to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence, a bit of nudity (briefly) and a fair amount of cussing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point in the film’s development this was intended to be a vehicle for Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson to team up but they elected to pass.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100; as with many movies this summer the critics can’t make up their minds..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Losers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Star Trek: Insurrection

Pearl Harbor


It's a bomb!!!!

It’s a bomb!!!!

(2001) War Drama (Touchstone) Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight, Jaime King, William Lee Scott, Greg Zola, Ewen Bremner, Catherine Kellner, Jennifer Garner, Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael Shannon, Tom Sizemore, Mako, John Fujioka, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Colm Feore, Dan Aykroyd, William Fichtner, Beth Grant. Directed by Michael Bay

Nicol Williamson as Merlin in the John Boorman film Excalibur once said “It is the doom (of men) that they forget.” It has only been in the last few years of the 20th century (thanks in no small part to the efforts of men like Messrs. Hanks, Spielberg and Brokaw) that Americans have begun to wake up to the sacrifices of the Americans who comprised what Brokaw eloquently called “The Greatest Generation.”

The attack at Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, in many ways remains America’s defining moment. It is a moment of ashes and pain, of blood and despair, written in the bullets and bombs of the Japanese and signed by our own arrogance to think it couldn’t happen to us. From that moment of despair was wakened a world power, one which has dominated the politics of this planet for the half-century since.

Given the success of Saving Private Ryan, it was inevitable that someone would make an epic movie about the date that will live in infamy. Tora, Tora, Tora has been the watershed Pearl Harbor movie up till now, but was only a marginal success when it was released. America is ready for a blockbuster.

Enter Michael Bay, the director behind Armageddon. In some ways, he was the ideal choice to make a movie about the attack. He knows spectacle and can handle immense scale. I’ve always thought him a little rough around the edges when it came to handling characterization and dealing with emotions, but he can be counted on to show the scope of the devastation, to blow our minds with explosions, twisted metal and bodies shredded before our eyes.

Of course he can. However, Bay had his own agenda. Not only did he want to tell the story of the battle, but he wanted to simultaneously elevate himself to the status currently enjoyed by James Cameron. In other words, he wanted this to be his Titanic, and therefore he inserted a love triangle that frames the drama of the tragedy of the attack.

Rafe McCawley (Affleck) is a pilot “born to fly.” He is everything heroic and noble about the American prewar spirit, the quintessence of the “boy next door.” His best friend Danny Walker(Hartnett) is also a pilot, and has always been on the edges of Rafe’s shadow, a good man in his own right but a reflection of Rafe’s glory. Rafe meets and falls in love with Evelyn Stewart (Beckinsale), a beautiful nurse. McCawley is itching for action and requests a transfer to the Eagle Squadron, a squad of American pilots assisting in the Battle of Britain. Rafe and Evelyn continue their love affair by letter, but when Rafe is shot down over the English Channel and is presumed dead, Evelyn is inconsolable.

As time goes by, both Evelyn and Danny get over the grief and find solace in each other. They are transferred to the plum naval assignment – Pearl Harbor – and spend most of their days in bars, cafes and at the movies, or just mooning over each other. However, a monkey wrench is thrown into their idyllic situation; Rafe returns from Europe, having been hiding in occupied France for nearly a year. He arrives at Pearl to find his best friend and the love of his life together, and it tears him apart. Of course, Rafe arrives on December 6, 1941. The next morning, all heck breaks loose.

The battle scenes themselves are very well done. Wave after wave of Japanese planes attack the fleet in battleship row, and as bomb after bomb and torpedo after torpedo finds its mark, the proud U.S. Pacific Fleet begins to sink. Some of the sailors react with panic and horror, and freeze in the face of this unthinkable attack. Others, such as real-life hero Dorie Miller (Gooding) find their destiny of glory at hand.

For Stewart, she finds chaos and overwhelming horror as the wounded and the dead begin to find their way to the hospital. She and the nurses must make heroic measures to save some of the more gravely wounded, as overtaxed doctors become nearly superhuman in their efforts. The hospital sequences are among the best in the movie and received some of the least attention.

The movie should have ended there, but goes on for nearly an hour afterwards, ending up with the bombing raid on Tokyo led by the charismatic Jimmy Doolittle (Baldwin). If you’re planning to see this movie, prepare to knock about three hours out of your day and be sure you use the restroom before the movie starts or at least be prepared to use the pause button pretty regularly.

The critics have blasted this movie, and in all frankness, I get the feeling that many of them are reviewing the movie’s extreme budget (budgeted somewhere around $140 million, it is the highest film budget ever approved by a studio to that time) and that there is a great deal of anti-Bay sentiment. Michael Bay isn’t particularly my favorite director, but he does an excellent job on the battle sequence. The biggest problem with Pearl Harbor is that it’s probably about half an hour too long at the very least. The love triangle is a bit predictable, as are the fates of many of the supporting characters (see if you can pick out the doomed players from the crowd).

Pearl Harbor got compared with Titanic, perhaps unfairly, mainly because both movies take a well-known tragedy and frame it with a love triangle. However, whereas the love story enhances the tragedy in Cameron’s movie, it slows down Pearl Harbor. Also, Bay is not known for subtlety and occasionally goes too far; one rousing speech in which FDR (Voight) rises to his feet, polio-stricken as he was, staggers the imagination and immediately yanks your suspension of disbelief to overload.

Affleck, who took a few hits in the reviews for his performance, is actually quite good as McCawley. Affleck is given really a very minimally realized character whose basic purpose is to be heroic, and carries it off impressively well or at least as well as he could given the limitations of Rafe’s personality. Both Hartnett and Beckinsale were beginning their careers at this point; both have continued to improve upon their performances here, particularly Beckinsale who has gained fame for her work in the popular Underworld movies. As for the supporting cast, Baldwin and Sizemore (as the proverbial crusty Sergeant from the Bronx) are memorable, but Voight chews the scenery like the catering truck had gone on strike. Gooding is, as usual, excellent, but he has little more than a cameo.

There is a definitive movie on Pearl Harbor waiting to be made, and unfortunately, this one isn’t it. Still, for all the negativity, here are the positive things: It’s epic size and scope are truly awe-inspiring. It manages, at many points, to raise patriotic fervor to a fever pitch. Thirdly, it poignantly reminds those of us who are too young to remember just what a price was paid for victory, and how badly we were beaten at Pearl Harbor.

Finally, this was a movie that needed to be made when it did, while many of the veterans of that war are still alive. Those I saw of that generation in the movie theater where I first saw the film were visibly affected by the movie, and that has to go to the good on Bay’s ledger.

Da Queen, who in a bit of uncalculated irony dined on sushi before seeing this movie, was a tear-streaked pile of mush for much of the proceedings, and recommends that those sensitive souls who cry at movies bring plenty of tissues, or at least to make sure that their husbands are wearing moisture-absorbent shirts.

For my part, I’m going to say that this is a very flawed movie that nonetheless should be a must-see for all of us. I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, but until we finally head out that way, this is going to serve as the next-best experience. Perhaps some bright director someday will make a movie about the Arizona, which I would see in a heartbeat. Until then, Pearl Harbor, for all its faults, will have to do as the movie of record for one of America’s defining moments.

WHY RENT THIS: Dazzling battle scenes. Ben Affleck isn’t half-bad (damned by faint praise, I know). Exceedingly patriotic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary love triangle detracts from the drama. A good 45-60 minutes too long. Stretches disbelief a bit too far.

FAMILY MATTERS: War violence, some disturbing images of the wounded, a fair bit of foul language and an even smaller bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rafe is based loosely on actual fighter pilot Joe Foss whom Bay interviewed prior to shooting the film. Rafe’s speech about the plane being an extension of his body was taken nearly verbatim from that interview.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The 60th Anniversary edition (of the attack not the film) as well as the Blu-Ray edition includes a History Channel documentary on the attack and a music video by Faith Hill. The four-disc Vista edition includes these, another History Channel documentary on the Doolittle raid, footage of a boot camp the actors all undertook, an interactive version of the attack sequence from several different angles and a choice of different audio tracks, a hidden gag reel as well as a collector’s booklet and poster art cards.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $449.2M on a $140M production budget; against all odds the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Titanic

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Somewhere

The Hunt for Red October


The Hunt for Red October

Sean Connery lights up the screen.

(1990) Thriller (Paramount) Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Sam Neill, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, Richard Jordan, Peter Firth, Tim Curry, Courtney B. Vance, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeffrey Jones, Fred Dalton Thompson, Tomas Arana, Gates McFadden. Directed by John McTiernan

 

There are weapons of war – planes, ships, tanks, subs – that we all know about and each side keeps tabs on and has whatever countermeasures that are available to combat them. All sides have them and it keeps things honest. What if there was a weapon of war that only one side had, one which avoided the whole Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine and gave one side a critical advantage, one which in order to have would have to be used without the knowledge of the other side?

In this classic Naval thriller set during the Cold War the Soviets have done just that. The Red October is a submarine with a propulsion system that allows it to run virtually undetected by sonar (who might mistake it for whales). This is bad news for the Americans who would never know if the sub parked itself off the Atlantic seaboard and start lobbing nukes into New York City, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia…hell all over the northeast with virtually no warning.

Captain Marko Ramius (Connery) realizes that this is the only use a sub such as this would have; the Red October has nearly zero maneuvering skills and  isn’t particularly fast. He knows that the vessel he has been tasked with taking on a trial run could mean the end of everything. Therefore he enters into a pact with his senior officers, including his second-in-command Borodin (Neill) to do the unthinkable.

In the meantime the CIA is frantic. They’ve monitored a new sub leaving the shipyards and then disappearing as monitored by the USS Dallas’ crack sonar operator Jones (Vance). His captain, Bart Mancuso (Glenn) is mystified. So is the CIA. Admiral Greer (J.E. Jones) has never heard of this kind of vessel. His expert in Soviet subs is Jack Ryan (Baldwin), an analyst who is currently living in London. They put him on the first flight to DC where he is shown some pictures of a sub with an odd pair of openings in stern. Ryan takes the pictures to a sub builder (Jeff Jones) who realizes what it could mean.

Soon it becomes apparent that something extraordinary is going on. The entire Soviet fleet is scrambled, apparently searching for something. Ryan reports his findings to the President’s defense counsel, including his most senior advisor Jeffrey Pelt (Jordan). While the military men think that this signals that an attack on the U.S. is imminent, Ryan – who wrote the C.I.A.’s analysis on Ramius suddenly realizes that Ramius might be intending to defect.

Nobody really thinks Ryan is for real but Pelt wants to hedge his bets; if he can get his hands on a piece of Soviet hardware this advanced, the opportunity has to be at least explored. He sends Ryan – who is not a field agent – to the Dallas (which is by no means an easy feat) to intercept the Red October and determine his intentions – while trying to keep out of the way of the entire Soviet and U.S. Fleet which are trying to sink her.

Jack Ryan is the creation of former insurance agent and now bestselling author Tom Clancy who has made his career out of these political thrillers with military overtones. Clancy knows his military hardware and while even at this date nothing like the Red October exists (at least to the knowledge of the general public), it certainly is within the realm of possibility.  This was the first Jack Ryan novel to make it to the screen and its success both critically and commercially paved the way for three other movies to make the transition (with a fourth scheduled for Christmas 2013).

A large reason for this is Connery. He brings dignity and gravitas to the part of Ramius. Though this is a Jack Ryan film it is Ramius you will remember and it is in many ways his show. The relationship between Ramius and Borodin is crucial in the film and Connery has some pretty believable chemistry with Neill.

The sub chase sequences are as good as any you’re likely to see with the possible exception of Das Boot. I also found the political intrigue that goes on during the movie to be second to none; you get the sense that everyone is playing a game that is unique to themselves, from the ship commanders on up to the President himself. That may well be how it is in real life.

There are some who have criticized Baldwin’s low-key performance as Ryan; certainly I think Harrison Ford nailed the part better in later versions of Jack, but I don’t think Baldwin is that bad. He plays it more intellectual and less action than Ford but that’s all right – his performance is well-suited for the film, which really makes most of its action bones with the sub duels rather than individuals. In that sense it’s the captains of the various vessels involved who make the action heroes here.

There is definitely an 80s film sensibility here (it was shot in 1989) although it would open the door for the 90s political film ethos. In a very real way this is one of the movies that transitioned the 1980s action film into the 1990s special effects film. As such it’s a classic and to my mind one of a kind. I do not necessarily agree with Clancy’s political beliefs, but the man can write an excellent story and he has done so here; I’m not entirely sure if he likes the movie that came of his imagination but I know that I do.

WHY RENT THIS: Quite realistic. Details are superb. Connery, Baldwin, Jones and Glenn are amazing. Great sets and breathtaking story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Something of a throwback to cold war attitudes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some violence, a few adult themes and a bit of swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the film was released on VHS, the tape was colored red.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200.5M on a $30M production budget; this was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Das Boot

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Uncertainty

Blood: The Last Vampire (2009)


Blood: The Last Vampire
Sailor Moon, eat your heart out!

(Goldwyn) Gianna Jun, Allison Miller, Masiela Lusha, JJ Field, Koyuki, Liam Cunningham, Yasuaki Kurata, Larry Lamb, Andrew Pleavin, Michael Byrne, Colin Salmon. Directed by Chris Nahon

Count me as an admirer of Japanese anime. I enjoy the imaginative worlds created by Japanese animators, as well as the detailed artwork. I also know that there are some faults with the genre overall, with underdeveloped characters and juvenile plots more the norm than the exception. Blood: The Last Vampire started out as an anime back in 2000 and now makes its way to the live action medium.

Saya (Jun) is a demon hunter. Demons have existed hidden on this earth for thousands of year, ever since their most lethal Demon lord Onegin (Koyuki) won an ancient war. However, there have been demon hunters, those who have take out the evil creatures with katana, Japanese swords. Saya’s own father was murdered by Onegin, leaving her in the care of Kato, a respected swordmaster.

However, Saya isn’t just your ordinary demon hunter, oh no. She’s half-vampire, with all the strength and skills that a vampire possesses, but able to walk about in daylight. And about her father? He died 400 years ago and she’s been searching for Onegin ever since. That’s a long time to be pissed off at someone but nobody ever said a woman couldn’t hold a grudge.

These days (or at least circa 1970 when the movie is set) she works for a shadowy agency called The Council who seem to be mostly American. When she kills a demon (as she does on a subway train to open up the movie), they’re the ones who clean up the mess afterwards. Her contact there is a terse ex-CIA operative named Michael (Cunningham) who hands out her assignments.

Her latest one has her undercover at an American naval base school to investigate a rash of vampire killings. She makes friends with Alice McKee (Miller), daughter of the base’s commanding officer General McKee (Lamb) – although why a general would be in command of a naval base is beyond me. Still, Alice runs afoul of a trio of schoolgirls who turn out to be vampires, until Saya saves the day.

In fact, it turns out that the base is full of demons, as is the surrounding town and Saya has her hands full, not only keeping Alice alive but trying to avoid being caught up in Council politics – all with Onegin hovering in the background.

I am not only a fan of anime but also of martial arts movies, and there are plenty of nifty fight scenes here. In fact, if action’s your thing, you’re going to love this movie because it’s essentially non-stop battles, chases and fights. There’s a whole lot of gore, and the seductive sexiness that only comes from a lithe Japanese schoolgirl in a sailor costume.

Unfortunately, the faults that are part of Japanese anime – a lack of solid, realistic characterization and mindless plots – rear their ugly heads here. Other than Saya, most of the characters here are one-dimensional clichés that don’t act in the same manner real people would act, and spout off grade B dialogue in a wooden manner. Some would call this cartoonish, although I think that there are plenty of cartoons that escape this trap.

Jun is one of the best parts of this movie. Alone of all the characters, she has some depth and a little bit of humanity, which is awfully strange to say about a character that’s half-vampire. She has an emotional center that Jun gets across in a way consistent with the character, and it works. I suspect that with a better script, she’d be a candidate for stardom along the lines of a Michelle Yeoh or a Gong Li.

There are an awful lot of special effects here, from wirework actors flying about the air like mosquitoes and demon blood spurting out of wounds like raspberry jam out of a jelly doughnut. The demons in demon form aren’t particularly scary and there are a lot of CGI effects that look about ten years out of date, and for videogames at that.

There isn’t a ton of things to recommend the movie other than the action sequences and Jun, but for those who like that sort of thing this movie is going to be your new best friend. For the rest of us, I can’t help but think that if the filmmakers had just put a little more effort into this it could have been a rather decent movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fun action sequences and great wire work. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The characterization is non-existent, the special effects are weak and one gets the sense that the film’s reach exceeded the budget’s grasp.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of blood – not all of it human but nonetheless – and flying body parts, as well as some relatively non-scary demonic sorts. Not for the young kids but should be okay for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Bill Kong of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a huge fan of the anime and picked up the rights to make a live action version to be directed by Ronnie Yu. When Pathe, the French distribution company became involved, Yu was kicked upstairs to a producer’s credit and Nahon got the directing chair.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.9M on an unreported production budget; I’m guessing the movie either broke even or lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Day Five of Six Days of Darkness.