Thursday, December 31, 2009

'The Glimmer Man' is beginning of end for Seagal

The Glimmer Man (1996)
Starring: Steven Seagal, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Bob Gunton, and Johnny Strong
Director: John Gray
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A Bhuddist New York City homicide detective with a mysterious past (Seagal) and his street-smart, wise-cracking Los Angeles counterpart (Wayans) form an uneasy partnership as they persue a serial killer known as the Family Man, because he viciously butchers entire households.

"The Glimmer Man" is a film with a "Lethal Weapons" vibe that also anticipates the "Rush Hour" films with its structure and mixture of martial arts and (partially racially based) humor. Unfortunately, it's dragged down by jokes that simpy aren't funny, action sequences that leave alot to be desired, and lead characters that are just too close to being cliched carticatures to be enjoyable. To make it a perfect storm of crapitude, the film also has an unneccesarily complex script into which the writer apparently felt obligated to draw every single bad guy and sinister organization that you'd expect to find in an action flick from the late 1980s and early 1990s--street gangs, organized crime, serial killers, the CIA, FBI... probalby even the PTA if you look close enough. Too many players in the story cause it to be a muddled mess beyond the writer's meager talen to control.

It's actually a shame that the script isn't better, because this is the last movie where we'll see Steven Seagal in full fighting trim. He has a couple of okay fight scenes, and he actually doesn't do that bad a job with what he has to work with. The same is partially true about Wayans, although while Seagal's character shows the occassional twinkle of charm, Wayans character is just obnoxious from the get-go, and never rises above that state.

"The Glimmer Man" is the demarcation line between the Mostly Good Seagal Movies and the Mostly Crappy Seagal Movies. It's a point beyond which you should not pass if you want to remember when he still had a shot at a respectable acting career.

Consider leaving 'The College Girl Murders' unsolved

The College Girl Murders (1968)
Starring: Jaochim Fuchsburger, Uschi Glass, Tilly Lauenstein, and Gunter Meisner
Director: Alfred Vorherer
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

The students and staff are dropping like flies at an all-girl's college: They are being gassed with an unusual poison and having their necks snapped by a mysterious, whip-wielding figure in a red cloak and hood. Will brilliant sleuth Inspector Higgins (Fuchsburger) find the connection between the killings and find the murderers before so many of the characters are killed there won't be a mystery left?

"The College Girl Murders" is a mess of a movie that fails at whatever it is it's trying to be. As a comedy spoofing mystery movies, it fails because it isn't very funny. It also fails as a mystery movie, it collapses under its own ludicrous, far-fetched storyline (which involves a mysterious mastermind who commands a network of minions from his secret, fishtank-lined lair, a character dressed in a red KKK robe-like outfit who murders people by snapping their necks with a bullwhip, and a scientist who invents a deadly new gas that is used on unspecting college girls via trick bibles and goofy-looking sprayguns.

(Actually, that list of negatives sounds like any number of movies I like, but it's the presence of all those elements in a single film that I think sours me on them. I like curry and I like chocolate ice cream... but I wouldn't want chocolate ice cream in my curry.)

On the upside, the movie does spare us the go-go dance scene that most 1960s era movies of this type feature. It also features some nice sets--the villain's lair is interesting, and the access point to the ultimately pointless plot-wise secret passageways within the girl's dormatory is also nifty. The camera-work and lighting are well done--with a night scene where one of the characters is being chased both by the whip-wiedling monk and a gas pistol-weilding thug managing to bring some real tension to the film--and the actors also perform their parts adequately, both the Germans on the screen and the Americans doing the dubbing.

The film is also fairly fast paced, and it kept my attention throughout... even if part of the reason I kept watching was to see if the film could get any dumber. (It didn't dissapoint; toward the end, a couple of twists are offered that are stupendously idiotic.)

I can't really recommend this movie to anyone. It's technically well made with average acting all around, but the story is too silly, and un-funny, to make it worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Playing video poker with highest stakes
(and holding a losing hand)

The Card Player (2004)
Starring: Stefania Rocca and Liam Cunningham
Director: Dario Argento
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Police detective Anna Mari (Rocca) becomes the point of contact for a serial killer who kidnaps young women and forces Rome's homicide detective squad to play online video poker for their lives.

"The Card Player" has enough plot- and logic-holes large enough to drive the train featured in its intense climactic moments through, not to mention an unfortunate tendency on the part of the characters to do stupid things just because if they didn't, the already feeble and shaky plot would fall apart completely. There is, however, enough tension and mystery here to keep viewers engaged.

Regular viewers of Argento's movies are used to characters having extreme moments of idiocy because the plot needs them to... his films have depended on this since "Deep Red" (review here). Here, though, the affliction strikes multiple characters far more than is acceptable even by Argento standards.

There is the further strike against the film that its characters, both minor and major, are a collection of tired cliches with not even quirks about them to make them different from the characters you've seen in other mysteries and thrillers--the cranky police chief, the jaded coroner, the disgraced renegade cop, the computer hacker who now works with the police, the killer with the "mysterious inside knowledge of the police department" are all here, and they play exactly the sorts of roles you expect them to, in exactly the way you expect them to. This collection of cliches, coupled with the fact they all suffer from plot-dictated stupidity, further damages the film and at times even ruins some of the mounting suspense.

Despite a nice idea at its core and a tense final confrontation between cop and killer, "The Card Player" is a fairly weak effort. Save it for the day when there's nothing else you're interested in watching.

'Inside Man' is overrated

Inside Man (2002)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, and Christopher Plummer
Director: Spike Lee
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A bank robbery turns into a hostage situation, but during the siege, Detective Frazier (Washington) starts to suspect that robbers wanted to be cornered in the bank. As he attempts to solve this puzzle (and get the hostages out safely), the bank's owner (Plummer) hires a mysterious power-broker (Foster) to protect dark secrets he's hiding in a safe deposit box.

"Inside Man" is a crime thriller with some great ideas at its heart, and a decent script, but one which is ultimately done in by the filmmakers' wanting to tell the story out of order for no discernible reason.

It's obvious to all but the stupidest of viewers how the robbers intend to get out of the bank when they insist on everyone dressing like they are dressed. It likewise becomes obvious that the bank robbers will get away once the billionaire's secret comes to light--"murder will out", as one character says. There was no need for Lee and the screenwriter to reassure the intelligent viewer they've already guessed where the story is going (and to blow it for the stupid ones) by interspersing snippets of interrogations after the situation has resolved itself with the unfolding story to show how the seige turned out.

The film also suffers from an ending that just sort of dribbles to its conclusion instead of ending with a nice, solid moment. Denouements are a must for most films, but here we have two of them... and one is just plain dull. Perhaps Lee figured the viewer would care about Detective Frazier's homelife and how things were looking up for him in the future... but if so, he should have taken another look at the script.

"Inside Man" is a decent crime thriller, but its a thriller populated by stock characters. There isn't a character in the film that hasn't appeared in dozens of movies like this before--the only way Frazier could be more stereotypical was if he was divorced instead of engaged--and there isn't a character in the film where even a half-hearted attempt is made to develop some real depth or shades of originality.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, because films like this are plot-driven rather than character driven, but it seems that Lee thought his characters were actual characters that the viewer would care about once all the mysteries of the story are resolved. They aren't. This is an enjoyable and competently made thriller (that almost qualifies as a heist movie, but not quite, despite what some critics claimed), but it's not a film that will stay with you, nor is it one that's worth seeing more than once. It's dead-even average.

Frankly, as average as this film is, I suspect that if it hadn't been directed by Spike Lee, there would have been a lot fewer positive reviews of it... this film's high marks can be credited to the Emperor's New Clothes Effect. ("Gosh! It's a Spike Lee movie! I don't even have to see it to know it's good, so if the press-kit calls it a heist movie, I'll go with that! If I don't slobber all over it, I'm not a real movie critic!")

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A blind woman sees the killer in 'Blink'

Blink (1994)
Starring: Madeleine Stowe, Aidan Quinn, James Remar, Peter Friedman and Bruce A. Young
Director: Michael Apted
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Emma Brody (Stowe), blinded by abuse as a child, has her vision restored through cornea transplants. But even before her eyes have fully healed and she's gotten used to seeing again, she becomes the only person to have seen a serial killer at the scene of one of his killings.

"Blink" is a fairly run-of-the-mill crime thriller that infuses enough of originality in its "unreliable witness that really saw something and is being targeted" protaganist that it will draw you in.

The film is also helped by Madeleine Stowe and Aidan Quinn giving strong performances. Quinn in particular is remarkable, as his character transforms from a jerk to a genuinely likeable guy as the film progresses.

It's worth seeing if you're in the mood for a fairly light thriller and it's airing on television or avaiable for rent. It's not the sort of movie with replay value, so it wouldn't be worth owning (unless you get it really cheap).

Monday, December 28, 2009

'Wake of Death' is one of Van Damme's best

Wake of Death (2004)
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Simon Yam, Lisa King, and Valerie Tian
Director: Phillipe Martinez
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Ben (Van Damme) is a retired gangster who calls on old friends from both sides of the law to help him get bloody revenge against a psychopathic, mysogynistic Triad boss (Yam) who slit the throat of his innocent wife (King).

"Wake of Death" is one of Jean Claude Van Damme's best action films, almost as good as "Hard Target." Unfortunately, that's damning with faint praise. There is plenty of potential here, and there some nice character development bits, but, unfortunately too much time is spent on ruining cool action scenes by overusing slow motion--do we really need to see EVERY guy who gets shot in slow motion?--and the film had a casting director who seemed determined to make sure everyone in the movie looks like everyone else; I'm not exaggerating... virtually all the white gangsters and cops from New Orleans have beards, the same hair-color and bodytype, and alll the Asian gangsters likewise are indistingushable from one another. In a film as jam-packed with bitplayers as this one, that's a major problem.

There's also the issue that someone on the production thought that using virtually the entirity of the big-budget car chase with the exploding fuel truck twice in the film, once at the very start, and then as the film reaches the climactic encounter between Ben and the Bad Guys. The idea might have been okay if they had compressed the sequence at the beginning, and if someone had actually sat down and thought logically about what a truck driver would do if cars were weaving all around him and shooting at each other. (I'll give you a hint: He wouldn't do as the driver does in this movie.) I understand that the filmmakers wanted to get their money's worth out of that big scene--it must have consumed quite a bit of their shoe-string budget--but up front it sort sets the worng tone for what follows and at the back-end, it's annoying to have to sit through the exact same sequence all over again. ("But now it's in context and much more thrilling," I'm sure the filmmakers would tell me. Sorry guys, no, it's not.)

The most interesting part of the film is Van Damme's character and the nature of his family life. There's also the nice change of pace that the film doesn't fall back on the "youze can't ever leave da mob" cliche. Unfortunately, everything else is a muddled mess.

(Note: If you're a fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme and you missed "JCVD" last year, you really need to pick it up on DVD. It appears to have been dubbed into English, which is a shame, but it is an excellent film. It's not an action film, but it will make you appreciate his talent even more.)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sherlock Sunday: Without A Clue

From now until I run out of Sherlock Holmes movies and TV series (or until I drop dead, which is more likely to happen first), I will be posting a review of a Sherlock Holmes movie every other Sunday. I'm kicking off the series with a favorite of mine, a Holmes spoof actually.

Without A Clue (1988)
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, and Lysette Anthony
Director: Thom Eberhardt
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

In "Without A Clue," Dr. Watson (Kingsley) is the real master-detective, and Sherlock Holmes (Caine) is just an actor that Watson hired to put a more markatable face on the consulting detective business. But Watson finds himself trapped by his PR effort when he tries to get rid of Holmes and start taking the accolades for the mystery solving himself: When Scotland Yard comes to Watson with a case that may well ruin the British Empire if it isn't solved, they will only accept the services of Sherlock Holmes. Watson reluctantly brings the actor back onboard, but soon Watson falls victim to foul play, and the bumbling, lecherous, drunkard actor is left struggling to find just one clue that will help him save the day.

"Without A Clue" is one of the better "reinventions" of the Sherlock Holmes mythos that has been made. It is funny, charming, and respectful of the whole idea of Sherlock Holmes' pretty outrageous deductions while still managing to say "it was all made up, here's the real story." The film is a bit slow in the middle, but the third act really fires on all cylinders when it falls to "Holmes", Wiggims, and Mrs. Hudson to save the day.

A final benefit to this version is that anyone who was annoyed by the Universal Pictures Holmes films in the 1930s and 1940s--where Nigel Bruce played a Watson who was just this side of retarded--will really get a kick out of the fact that "Holmes" is the nitwit

I recommend this film highly if you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and British comedy.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A heart is heart of the case in 'Blood Work'

Blood Work (2002)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Daniels, Wanda De Jesus, Anjelica Huston, and Paul Rodriquez
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Retired FBI serial killer profiler Terry McCaleb (Eastwood) is still recovering from a heart transplant, when he learns that his new heart belonged to a murder victim who may have been killed specifically so McCaleb could get a new heart. At the risk of his health, and very life, he sets about trying to solve the mystery.

"Blood Work" is a fairly predictable crime thriller that slips to the low end of average by a plot and characters that move more slowly than the observant audience member when it comes to solving the mystery of the film on the one hand, and that on the other takes some fairly spectacular leaps of logic that will leave those who like playing along with the detective going "Huh?! How did he get THAT conclusion?"

It is further hampered by a typical, utterly unbelievable Hollywood-type "old man scores with hot chick"-type sexual encounter. (Wanda De Jesus' character must have been REALLY hard up to want to hop in the sack with craggy old McCaleb... or just really, REALLY slutty.)

The acting is pretty good, and there's some very creative and effective photography and lighting in the film, but most other elements needed to make it a worthwhile picture are substandard. The end result is a film that's okay, but not worth going out of your way for.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sherlock Holmes as action hero

Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Stone, Eddie Marsan, William Houston and Kelly Reilly
Director: Guy Ritchie
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Downey) and his sometimes-reluctant colleague Dr. Watson (Law) most solve the mystery of a Satanist (Stone) who has seemingly returned from the dead to continue a killing spree. Meanwhile, Holmes old adversary and lover Irene Adler (McAdams) has reappeared on the scene with a mysterious agenda of her own.

The most famous of all consulting detectives gets the big budget, CGI-generated "stunts" action movie treatment in a film with actors who give far better performances than this flabby movie probably deserved.

Some reviewers have been upset by the "action movie" feel this film has, even commenting that Holmes shouldn't be an action hero. I don't quite agree with that sentiment, as Holmes always seemed like a man of action and quite willing to resort to violence when necessary. What annoys me is the pointlessness of much of the action and some of the stupidity of it.

I don't know whether it's the gigantic budget he had to work with here, or whether he's devolved as a director over the past ten years, but Guy Ritchie seemed to have a far better sense for how to make an exciting movie when he did "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" in the late 1990s.

The flow of the movie, and therefore the attention to the viewer, is repeatedly disrupted by pointless side treks and plot detours, such as a long sequence with Holmes in a boxing match (a very stupid thing for a genius like Holmes to engage in, even if he is a thrill-seeker), or one where he is tricked by Irene Adler and ends up handcuffed and naked in bed (an scene mostly there for a single feeble gag). These irrelevancies might not be so bad if they added some definition to the characters, but the traits shown in these scenes are already introduced and reinforced in other far more relevant and important scenes, making the filler material like the above-mentioned sequences that much more annoying and boring. The end result is that the film has a flabby, drawn-out feeling to it.

Then there's the asinine slow-motion and absolutely annoying jerky/blurry camera work during the action scenes. It's not artistic, it doesn't enhance the suspense... it's just irritating and stupid.

The script is also not all it could have been. I've already mentioned pointless scenes, but a far bigger problem is the case that Holmes is working on. It's so much that he is squaring off against what seems to be a supernatural menace (even if that is more in keeping with Doyle's non-Holmes tales than this one) it's that the bad guys are of the "trying to take over the world" variety. What's next for Holmes at this point? Battling Professor Moriarty after he teams up with Ming the Merciless to conquer the Universe? A smaller, perhaps even more petty, motivation for the villains would have been far more suitable.

It's too bad this film wasn't helmed by a more competent director and based on a more solid script, because the approach taken by both the script and the actors to the characters of Holmes and Watson feels very much in keeping with the stories from which they originally sprang. While the nature of the adventure is pretty far removed from anything Doyle included in the Holmes stories, but Downey and Law portray a Holmes and a Watson that I think Doyle probably would have appreciated. They are far better than the celebrated team of Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce, slightly better than Jeremy Brett & Edward Hardwicke, and standing nearly equal with my favorite on-screen Holmes & Watson team of Peter Cushing & Andre Morrell.

All in all, file this Holmes version with the Hammer "The Hound of the Baskervilles" starring Cushing and Morrell. It gets the characters right, it's very entertaining, but the storyline is a bit far from Conan Doyle. Not as far as some of the Basil Rathbone films, but pretty far nonetheless.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

'Die Hard' brings explosions to Christmas

Die Hard (1988)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman and Bonnie Bedelia
Director: John McTiernan
Steve's Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Hardboiled New York City cop John McClaine (Willis) is struggling to cope with the long-distance relationship his marriage has become since his wife (Bedelia) took a job at the offices of a Japanese company in California. He travels west for Christmas Eve and the company's Christmas party, but soon finds himself in a situation far more explosive than his marriage will ever be: A group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Rickman) has taken the company executives (along with John's wife) and are threatening to kill them one by one unless a series of rediculous demands are met. With much more than his marriage at stake, John sets about defeating the terrorists single-handedly... but will he be fast (and deadly) enough to stop Hans Gruber's real master plan?

"Die Hard" is perhaps the perfect "hero with no way out, surrounded and outnumered by bad guys, and the situation keeps going from bad to worse"-movie. The script careens toward the film's explosive climax at breakneck pace from the very beginning, and yet it still manages to work in enough characterizations, subplots, and reversals that the viewer is invested in the characters and kept guessing how things might turn out up to the very end.

Rickman and Willis are excellent as the film's coldhearted villian and very vulnerable hero--unlike the heroes protrayed by the likes of Schwarznegger and Segal, Willis' John McClaine actually bleeds when hit, shot, or cut--and a fantastic supporting cast lets them both shine ever brighter. The cat-and-mouse game between McClaine and Gruber should stand as one of the greatest battles of wits and weapons in cinematic history.

If you haven't seen "Die Hard," add it to you list of Christmas viewing. At the very least, you'll be able to say that no matter how bad getting together with the relatives is. At least none of them are shooting up the Christmas tree with uzis or blowing up skyscrapers with all of you still inside.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

'Identity' is a mystery within a mystery

Identity (2003)
Starring: John Cusack, Ray Liotta and Amanda Peet
Director: James Mangold
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

On a stormy night, a group of unrelated strangers are stranded at a motel... and then they start dying most horribly. As they try to find the murderer among them, it becomes apparent that they aren't the strangers they first thought they were, and that they have been brought here by mysterious forces far stronger than chance.

"Identity" is one of those movies that it's hard to talk about without spoiling the entire thing. It's extremely well-crated in that the characters start to recognize that there's something seriously wrong with the situation they have been thrust into--in addition to the fact that someone is butchering them "Ten Little Indians"-style--as the viewer does. Similarly, the characters become aware of the impossibility and improbility of what is unfolding at the same pace that the viewer does. At every turn, the movie keeps pace with the audience, continuing to share revelations at the right moment, while constantly upping the tension level and making the need to find the answers evermore desirable by the characters and the viewers. This film is quite strange, but it is a well-made kind of strange.

There have been a lot of mystery and suspense thrillers in recent years that have attempted to be oh-so-clever and have relied on twist-endings that were either so far-fetched and unsupported by what has gone before that they feel like cheats or just plain stupid, or were so predictable that the audience figured them out well before the "big revelation." With "Identity," the filmmakers get it just right, and they have actually made a clever film within the trappings of a well-used mystery movie set-up. What's more, the sets are great, the camerawork extremely well-done, and the acting is top-notch from all players.

If you have patience, a love of mystery and suspense films, and tolerance for the slightly bizarre, I think you'll enjoy the claustrophobic, meanacing sense that permeates "Identity." And I think you'll get a kick out of a "big revelation" that actually works.

'Tightrope' sees Eastwood as
a more three-dimensional hardnosed cop

Tightrope (1984)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Genevieve Bujold, Dan Heydeya and Alison Eastwood
Director: Richard Tuggle
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When New Orleans homicide detective Wes Block (Eastwood) is assigned to investigate a series of killings in the seamier side of the French Quarter, he discovers that the killer is preying not just on female sex workers but on the darker side of Block's own nature.

"Tightrope" is a fabulous movie. It unfolds like a classic film-noir detective story, and while I think it was a tad too slowly paced at times, it still managed to keep my interest throughout. The most fascinating part of the movie, however, is the character of Wes Block. It's probably one of the most fully rounded, completely realized, and utterly believable characters to ever appear in a detective flick. While the hunt for the serial killer that drives the movie is interesting, the real heart of the film resides with Block, his two daughters (one of which is played by Eastwood's real-life daughter Alison, who displays much talent at a young age), and the one decent woman he hooks up with while investigating the crimes (Bujold).

This is a different sort of Clint Eastwood crime drama, about a different sort of detective. It's a film that all lovers of police dramas should see.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thirteen remains an unlucky number

Thirteen at Dinner (1986)
Starring: Peter Ustinov, Jonathan Cecil, Faye Dunaway, David Suchet, Bill Nighy, Lee Horsely and Diane Keen
Director: Lou Antonio
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Lord Edgeware is found stabbed to death, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Ustinov) has to solve a case where the most likely suspect, the victim's wife (Dunaway) has an unshakeable alibi. What's more, Proirot himself insured that she doesn't have a clear motive either.

"Thirteen at Dinner" sees the actor to best capture Agatha Christie's most fussy detective portray him in an adaptation of "Lord Edgware Dies" that's been been updated to the mid-1980s, with the film starting with Poirot making a guest appearance on television talk show where he first encounters some of those who will play central roles in the multiple murders that will be committed within short order.

This is a high quality production that takes a story originally set during the late 1920s and early 1930s and seamlessly updates it to the 1980s. With a cast of extremely talented British actors and the look and feel of a cinematic release, only the obvious "dramatic pauses" where the commercial breaks and occassional, super-brief recaps of what late-comers may have missed (through characters reviewing what they about the case with each other) give away the fact that the movie originated on American television.

Peter Ustinov is excellent as always in the role of Poirot and his interplay with Jonathan Cecil as Hastings adds great humor to the film (although Cecil's overly fey portrayal of Hastings leads one to wonder if perhaps the two are a different sort of longtime companions). Another remarkable castmember is David Suchet who will start playing Poirot in the long-running ITV/KBGH series in the 1990s, who is here seen as Inspector Japp.

The only noteworthy complaint I have about "Thirteen for Dinner" is that I had the entire mystery even before the first murder had actually occured. I was made the same wrong deduction regarding one of the characters that Poirot did, but I figured out everything else. I don't know if I knew the answer to the mystery because I've read "Lord Edgware Dies" at some point, or perhaps seen the version starring David Suchet, or whetherthe plot is really that obvious, but having figured it all out early on did make the movie a little less fun for me than it could have been.

Still, I recommend it for those who enjoy Agatha Christie mysteries (and similar type detective literature and shows.)

Monday, November 30, 2009

'Death Rage' is a film to remain calm about

Death Rage (aka "Anger In His Eyes") (1976)
Starring: Yul Brynner, Martin Balsam, Barbara Bouchet, and Massimo Ranieri
Director: Anthony M. Dawson
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A New York hitman (Brynner) suffering from intermittent hysterical blindness travels to Italy in order to assassinate the Mafia boss who murdered his brother. On his way to hit, he's in car-chases and running gunbattles, meets the love of his life (Bouchet), outsmarts a police inspector (Balsam), and finds himself a loyal apprentice hitman (Ranieri) to whom he can pass along his "wisdom".

"Death Rage" is a slightly chaotic crime drama with a heavy emphasis on the drama. I don't think I've seen so many seasoned actors seemingly playing to the back rows of the local community theater auditorium... and I'm astonished that Yul Brynner didn't burst something while working on this film; I don't think such consistent and dedicated overacting has been recorded anywhere else in the annals of film history.

Perhaps the actors are all laboring so mightily because they are trying to compensate for the fact that there isn't a character in this movie who wasn't a tired cliche even before the 1970s dawned, and that they realize the script really brings nothing new or innovative to crime dramas or mob movies.

This film isn't exactly bad... just bland and generic. I thnk lovers of All Things Mafia might get a kick out of it. Similarly, those who haven't seen many films of the "gun-slinger takes on one last job" sub-genre might enjoy it. The rest of us, though, can probably safely skip this one.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

'Hard Rain' is an overlooked action flick

Hard Rain (aka "Flood") (1998)
Starring: Christian Slater, Morgan Freeman, Randy Quaid and Minnie Driver
Director: Mikael Salomon
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A gang of criminal led by a gentleman thief (Freeman) find their attempt to rob an armored car during a flood evacuation frustrated by a young security guard (Slater) who escapes into the storm with the $3 million dollars it was carrying. As the flood waters rise, the robbers try to corner the guard and retrieve the money... but it isn't until a third party decides to make a bid for the money that things turn really deadly.

"Hard Rain" is part thriller, part disaster movie and all excitement. It's a well-crafted. well-acted film that is suspenseful from beginning to end. Even better, writer Graham Yost shows that he has an understanding of basic storytelling techniques and story structure, something that few people writing action or suspense scripts seem to have any sense for today. (Yost foreshadows just about every element and development in the story well in advance, thus playing fair with the audience and making each plot twist and complication all that more satisfying. Particularly neat is the recurrence of a statue in the town square of the small town that's being flooded that seems like it's just being used to show the audience how rapidly the water is rising, but which later in the film becomes a key element in a some very dramatic moments.)

While Morgan Freeman plays the sort of character he's played in at least two other movies--the aging professional thief who is hoping to score a big heist to retire on--he is perhaps at his most charismatic here, and he plays the sort of bad guy we find ourselves rooting for even if our sympathies lie first and foremost with Christian Slater's heroic, stubborn security guard.

Speaking of Slater, he also gives an excellent performance as perhaps the most likeable and normal character he's ever played. Usually, there's something a little off or quirky about a Christian Slater character, but not so with Tom in this movie. Tom is exactly the sort of guy everyone would want to have a best friend or a brother-in-law.

"Hard Rain" was a box office flop when it was released in 1998--the film cost $70 million to make and only earned $22.4 million worldwide, according to IMDB--which is a shame, because it deserved to do better. In fact, it was such a big flop and the international array of backers who financed this film were soaked more thoroughly than any of the characters in the film.

If you like well-done action movies, or if you're a fan of Christian Slater's equally undeserving of failure television series "My Own Worst Enemy", I encourage you to check this film out.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Welcome to 'Watching the Detectives'

As the header implies, this is where I'll be posting reviews of crime dramas, action films, and other movies featuring criminals and lawmen. It's part of a family of blogs I'm using to organize reviews written in the past, and ones I'll be writing in the future. You can see a list of the others to the right.

This old ad (set to the Elvis Costello tune "Watching the Detectives") sums up what you'll find here quite nicely.