Monday, August 30, 2010

The first great 'Rizzoli and Isles' episode

Rizolli and Isles 1.7: Born to Run (2010)
Starring: Angie Harmon, Sasha Alexander, Bruce McGill, Lee Thompson Young, and Jordan Bridges
Director: Matthew Penn
Rating: Eight of Ten Star

Seven episodes in, TNT's new detective show "Rizzoli and Isles" finally delivers something new and unpredictable with "Born to Run," the episode that aired on August 23. They've come closest to excellence previously with "The Boston Strangler Redux" on July 19, but the series debut episode--which started in an odd sort of in medias res place with Rizzoli being haunted by a serial killer who almost cost her life and who scarred her both physically and mentally--and the other ones so far have all had a been-there, seen-that feel to them. Which is a shame, because this show has a great cast.

"Rizzoli and Isles" centers on a tomboyish, tough-as-nails homicide detective from a working-class Italian background (Harmon) and an overly bookish, somewhat socially maladjusted coroner of an upper-crust, Boston First Family background (Alexander), co-workers and best friends despite their different personalities. They are supported by a great collection of actors with been-around-forever Bruce McGill being particularly fun as a gruff veteran detective and Rizzoli's ex-partner who's caused so much trouble that he's on permanent desk assignment.

For the most part, the show plays as an inferior copy of Fox's long-running "Bones," with the odd couple of Rizzoli and Isles being an almost direct rip-off of Boothe and Bones from the other show. The main difference here is that the focus is mostly on the police work, with Isle's lab activities being about as central as Quincy's lab work as on that show. However, the way Rizzoli's family plays into the story lines adds a slightly different flavor to the show... not quite enough to bring it out of the shadow of "Bones," but enough to make it somewhat distinct.

Perhaps if I were familiar with the Jane Rizzoli-starring novels the series is based upon, the differences between this show and "Bones" would be more evident. But a good adaptation means I should be able to come to the series with no prior knowledge whatsoever. And coming to it cold, the show mostly feels like a run-of-the-mill detective show that's copying "Bones" and trying to sell itself on the fact it's got two women as its main characters. For the most part, this hasn't been enough for me. And I was about to give up on the show.

With episode #7, however, the writers finally delivered an episode that wasn't predictable and that didn't make me think of "Bones" every five minutes. In "Born to Run," Rizzoli is badgered by Isles into signing up for the Boston Marathon, so the two can something together as friends. This being a cop show, a couple of runners get shot, and Rizzoli must solve the mystery while trying to keep the shootings secret in order to prevent a mass panic. The story was unpredictable, the setting was unusual, and the way the various characters worked to solve the crime on many different levels, both police-wise and management-wise, was very nicely done. The red herrings subtly tossed into the mix were also nicely executed; I thought I knew who the killers were because of them, but thankfully I was wrong. I also appreciated the way Rizzoli's family played into the story... they emerged as characters rather than just flavoring in this episode.

I'm going to give "Rizzoli and Isles" a few more episodes before I make up my mind. It would be nice to see Angie Harmon in a new series that lasts more than a couple of seasons. She's an interesting and quirky actress who deserves a higher profile than the one she currently enjoys. It's also nice to see Sasha Alexander again... I enjoyed her very much on "N.C.I.S."

"Rizzoli and Isles" currently airs on TNT on Monday nights, with a second airing on Tuesdays.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

'The Silencers' is a fun spy spoof

The Silencers (1966)
Starring: Dean Martin, Stella Stevens, Daliah Lavi, Victor Buono, and James Gregory
Director: Henry Levin
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Retired secret agent turned fashion photographer Matt Helm (Martin) is coaxed out of retirement by his sexy former partner (Lavi) to help find the mole who has been feeding information to the enemy, and to stop a nefarious scheme to start World War III.

"The Silencers" is one of the films that Mike Meyers was trying to copy/spoof with his Austin Powers films, itself a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the James Bond series... as well as Dean Martin's image as a hard drinker and a womanizer. Of course, a sure-fire way to make an inferior picture is to attempt to spoof a spoof, so it's not surprising that this movie is superior to anything Meyers attempted in every way. (Except Dr. Evil and the various characters in his orbit. Dr. Evil is Meyers' singular great creation.)

If you have a high tolerance for slapstick spy antics, a steady stream of off-color jokes and puns, dream sequences narrated by a singing Dean Martin, and 1960s-style sexism and swingin' life styles, you'll enjoy this film. You'll enjoy it even more, because in addition to being a fun comedy, it's got a well-crafted script at its core that offers a few genuinely surprising twists and even more startling and well-timed moments that many serious spy movies can't match.

And then there's the fact that Matt Helm is probably the only spy in the world who has a tricked-out station wagon that converts to a love-nest on wheels, complete with mini-bar.

The cast is also amusing to watch, with Dean Martin excelling in the part of the reluctant hero who would rather be at home enjoying his models, sexy personal assistant, and hi-tech bachelor's pad; Daliah Lavi as a sexy secret agent that gives some of the best Bond Girls a run for their money; and Stella Stevens as the clumsiest femme fatale to ever bumble her way across the screen. Victor Buono also manages to strike a nice balance between creepy and outrageous as an overweight Fu Manchu-style villainous mastermind.

"The Silencers" is available on DVD along with the other three Matt Helm movies from the 1960s. Check them out, in time for the character's return to film in 2011.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

'New York Blood' is a decent no-budget film

New York Blood (2009)
Starring: Vinnie Stigma and Marvin W. Schwartz
Director: Nick Oddo
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

New York gangster Vinny (Stigma) tries to help his psychotic father (Schwartz) when he is released from prison for murder. Instead, the old man's blood-thirsty, violent ways ends up destroying Vinny's little kingdom of prostitution and drug dealing.

"New York Blood" is an ultra-low budget movie with the running-time and pacing of an hour-long television drama. Writer/director Nick Oddo created a movie that has some of the typical flaws seen in films at this production level, but for the most part it's superior to most other films you'll come across that were made for $4,000. It's also a decent gangster movie that's populated with characters that come across as real.

The biggest budget-related production flaws that "New York Blood" displays--here it's mostly bad sound, as it seems either the microphone on the camera itself was used, or a single mic on one actor in each scene was used to pick up the dialogue from all actors and no (if any) post-production looping took place. Otherwise, the film is well-lit, well-staged, and well-paced, with not a single scrap of padding anywhere to be found. The only other annoying flaw--and this may be nitpicking--was the strangely loose bandage on the face of a girl who had supposedly been cut up by a psychopath. Could whoever was doubling as propmaster and/or costumer not have applied a little extra glue to the surgical tape so it would stick to the girl's make-up? Even a dab of Elmer's Glue would have been better than the distracting, flapping tape in the scene.

The acting here is also better than what is usually found in films at this level, or, rather, Oddo managed to hide the short-comings of his cast of mostly first-time and one-time movie actors. First, none of the weaker actors are called upon to carry any significant scenes--Oddo was very wise in casting and editing choices. Second, the film has the feel of a documentary and/or a "reality show" to the point where Vinny addresses the camera with comments about what he is doing--so it works that a few characters feel a little stiff. Unfortunately, Oddo doesn't keep this documentary tone consistently through the picture, choosing to break from it by showing Lorenzo committing his gory murders. While I understand why Oddo wanted to get some violence into his flick, the way he did it undermines the best aspect of the film.

Still, there are filmmakers who spend ten times what Oddo spent on his movie that don't make them this good. If you like gangster movies, I think you would do well to check it out.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bad management can lead to the
most unexpected of problems

Scorched (2002)
Starring: John Cleese, Paulo Costanzo, Rachael Leigh Cook, Woody Harrelson, Joshua Leonard, Alicia Silverstone, and Marcus Thomas.
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Three tellers at a small branch office bank (Costanzo, Harrelson,and Silverstone), each with their own reasons for feeling disgruntled and put-upon decide independently to rob their employeer. Each has their own plan, each intends to target a different part of the bank, and each chooses to commit their larceny on the same weekend. And that's when things start getting really crazy.

This ensamble comedy features a strong cast (more comment on this below) and likable characters that move back and forth through four overlapping storylines--the three heists and a fourth involving a pair of geeky roommates who are trying to land one of them a job he can keep for more than a couple of hours. It also features a surprsingly tense roulette scene during one of the larcenous tellers' trip to Vegas. Some of the lines are a bit clunky and there are one or two scenes that could do with some punching up, but overall this film is pretty darn good and extremely entertaining.

I also think it's a film old-school roleplaying gamers might enjoy. Several of the film's characters are in a D&D gaming group, and I think we all might recognize some of the character types at the table. Cook's character is a particularly cute parody of the 'gamer chick.'

Speaking of Rachel Leigh Cook, it's probably a good thing that she and Alicia Silverstone don't actually share any scenes. I've never been a big fan of Silverstone, but seeing her in a film with an actress that is so full of charm and energy makes me feel even more underwhelmed by her talent and screen presence. While both actresses did a fine job, I think it is probably a casting mistake to put them in the movie; it makes Silverstone look bad.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sylvester Stallone interview

I'm closing out "The Expendables Week" not with a review, but with a clip from the O'Reilly Factor featuring an interview with Sylvester Stallone. In it, Stallone responds in part to an absolutely idiotic and hyper-political review by an LA Times film critic who should be ashamed that he even wrote it.

You can read the article by Steven Zeitchik by clicking here, or you can consider the fact that he is so ignorant and ill-equipped as a commentator that he thinks JCVD belongs on a list of action movies and is a "post-modern wink" at the action genre, and perhaps save yourself the time.

But check out the Stallone interview. It's funny.

Click here for a list of the movies reviewed during "The Expendables Week," and more.

'Crank' is chaotic but not all that exciting

Crank (2006)
Starring: Jason Statham, Amy Smart, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Dwight Yoakam, Efren Ramirez, and Carlos Sanz
Directors: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Professional hit man Chev Chelios (Statham) wakes up to discover that he has himself has been the target of an assassination: He has been poisoned with a slow-acting drug that will kill him if his hear-rate drops. In order to survive long enough to reach the doctor who might save him (Yoakam), he goes on a chaotic rampage across Los Angeles to keep his blood pumping and adrenaline flowing.

"Crank" may be a case of "too much of a good thing." I found the first 45 minutes or so of Chev's quest to stay alive at least long enough to kill those who killed him very amusing and very entertaining. It was a little like the classic "D.O.A." but on speedballs and a gallon of coffee. Statham has many amusing one-liners, and the situation his character is in is both funny and nightmarish in the way it's presented.

But then I started looking at the clock and wondering if the film wouldn't get to some sort of point.

Basically, this is a one-gag story, and the gag starts to wear pretty thin after the third time Chev almost dies and needs to find some other way to keep his excitement up. Yes, there are laughs and plenty of action... but there is no substance. Like the video games the film references on several occassions--characters are playing them, doors are decorated with icons from them--the film keeps looping through the same type of encounters and situations but on different "levels". This is great if you're actually the one playing a video game, but not terribly interesting if you're just watching, as I was with this movie.

I do applaud the filmmakers for creating a film that unfolds like a video game, even if I wish there had been more substance to it, and even if I don't particularly care for the nonsensical, dreamlike ending. It's out of step with the rest of the movie, and fails to take advantage of the ending that was pefectly set up. I suppose they were trying to avoid the pat and obvious "happy ending," but I would have appreciated it.

On the other hand, there is a sequel to this film, featuring Statham, as improbably as that seems given the film's final moments. Maybe the ending I thought was being set up was the actual ending and the dreamlike stuff was just a dream.

So... as much as I don't like the ending, and as much as I wanted "Crank" to bring more than it does--or wanted it to be about 15 minutes shorter--I will probably been seekig out the sequel. I enjoyed it enough that I am curious to see what happens next.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

'The Bodyguard from Beijing'
should stay at home

The Bodyguard from Beijing (aka "The Defender") (1994)
Starring: Jet Li, Christy Chung, Collin Chou, Kent Cheng, and William Chu
Director: Corey Yuen
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When the wife of a wealthy Hong Kong business man (Chung) ends up as the only surviving witness to a murder, the communist Chinese government dispatches an agent (Li) to protect her until the trial. It turns out to be a very difficult assignment, as the woman doesn't want to be saddled with a bodyguard, and the men behind the murder intend to do everything they can to make sure there are no surviving witnesses come the trial.

Bitchy, uncooperative women are a mainstay of action movies, especially when the threat to their lives is real and so apparent that only the most moronic of individuals wouldn't follow the advice and instructions of those charged with protecting them. But I don't think there has been a movie made with a character more obnoxious, bitchy, and just downright repulsive and unlikeable than Michelle Yeung (played by Christy Chung) in than in "The Bodyguard from Beijing."

Not only does she initially go out of her way to make the job and life difficult for her government-provided protector, but then she decides she wants to jump his bones and starts trying to seduce him. This is a rotten character, through and through, who is not at all cute and funny and likeable, as I think the filmmakers were trying to make her. It's a character that all by herself makes this movie a miserable experience, and I found myself wishing more than once that Alan (the character played by Jet Li) would put a bullet in her and just blame the assassins.

Aside from this horrible character, the film is further burdened with comic relief characters--mostly in the form of dim Hong Kong police officers--that aren't all that funny. While they aren't as teeth-grindingly awful as Christy Chung's character, they are boring dead weight that another strike against the film. The combination of the bitchy woman and the unfunny comic relief is almost enough for everyone to stay away from this film.

However, Jet Li does a good job as the most patient and stoic government security agent on the face of the planet, and the two major action sequences are spectacular. Some viewers may wish that Li engaged in more of his usual martial arts instead of the gun-play in present in this film, but the outrageousness of the entire janitorial staff of a mall seemed to have been replaced by mop- and bucket-carrying assassins. Plus, when the martial arts did get broken out for real in the film's second major action set-piece, it turns out to be have been worth the wait... especially because we get to see venetian blinds used as an offensive weapon. (Not anything can quite make up for the misery that is Christy Chung's character....)

This is a film that anyone but the most entertainment-starved fans of Jet Li in particular or 1990s Hong Kong action flicks in general can safely skip.

'Red Heat' is a blast from the past

Red Heat (1988)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Belushi, Ed O'Ross, and Larry Fishburne
Director: Walter Hill
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When Rosta (O'Ross), a psychopathic, drug-dealing gangster, flees the Soviet Union for the United States, a Russian police captain, Danko (Schwarzenegger), is dispatched to bring him back, dead or alive. He teams up with Chicago's most unruly police detective, Ridzik (Belushi), and they eventually end up waging a two-man war on one of Chicago's deadliest drug gangs.

"Red Heat" is a movie that couldn't be made today. Although I can easily think of a combination of actors who could stand in for Schwarzenegger and Belushi--perhaps even doing a better job with the parts than they did--much of what makes this movie what it is simply cannot be done in this, the second decade of the 21st century.

First, there's the fact that it uses as its jumping off point the crumbling Soviet Union of the 1980s. While I suppose a similar backdrop could be found in a place like Iraq, it wouldn't be the same, because the police force there was already corrupt to the core before Saddam Hussein's government was destroyed.

Second, this is a film that relies on stunt-work, not computer graphics. The stunt driving is real, the fight scenes are real, and the bullet impacts on targets both hard and soft are created with squibs rather than post-production pixels. It gives the film a hard-bitten, gritty air that simply isn't present in the modern action film. And it's a fresh air, returning to it after all these years.

It's also great to see Arnold Schwarzenegger as the funniest straight man ever. Throughout the movie, he is constantly setting up Jim Belushi's one-liners and off-color jokes, but Schwarzenegger invariably ends up providing more hilarity with a look or a simple monosyllabic response. Throughout this film, Schwarzenegger does more with a glare or a single word than Denis Leary conveys in five rants. (This might also be a something that couldn't be done today. I'm finding it hard to think of an actor of Schwarzenegger's stature--even at the point of his career when this movie was made, immediately before he shot to super-stardom with "Terminator"--who would be willing to take a part with so few lines and little performing save for cold stares and the action scenes. Even Statham's tight-lipped Frank Martin from "The Transporter" series gets to show more emotional range and gets to speak more than Schwarzenegger does as Danko.)

Third, and perhaps most biggest reason, it has among its main villains, the Clean Heads, an African-American drug gang that is every bit as racist at its core as White Supremecist gangs or any other group that is built around hatred for people just because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity. No one would dare make a movie these days with a black villain who is a sociopathic racist who is motivated by a desire to murder as many white people as possible, and who has figured out that the best way to do it is to make them do it themselves with cocaine and other illicit drugs. Today, no filmmaker would dare portray the simple truth that black can can be evil racists just as well as white people.

"Red Heat" is a movie that shows the 1980s-style action genre at its best. It's got heroes we can root for and who feel real and human, despite the fact that very little is done to actually develop their characters... but what is done is just the right amount and just the right touches: Danko's parakeet and Ridzik's relationship with his sister and her ex-husband. It's got villains we can absolutely hate, and they're made even more dispicable with deft touches like the ones applied to the heroes, such as Rosta's many casual murders, and the twisted justifications for his actions by Clean Heads' evil leader. It's got a straight-forward, good versus evil narrative that both manages to be all-encompassing global (cops are cops, no matter what side of the Iron Curtain they're from... and the same is true of the madmen they protect innocent people from) and yet somewhat intimate (Danko and Rosta both want to extract revenge on the other for killing someone dear to them).

Writer/director Walter Hill not only got all of the characters exactly right, but he also created a film that is perfectly paced and full of great action sequences. It may not have been his biggest financial success, but it definately is counted among his most accomplished films.

If you only have time to check out one of the classic action movies that "The Expendables" is a homage to, you won't go wrong with "Red Heat". (You'll also have an opportunity to see Laurence "Larry" Fishburne of the television series "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" at the very beginning of his career. Before this film, his largest role had been as Cowboy Curtis on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse".

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

'Demolition Man' delivers action and satire

Demolition Man (1993)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Sandra Bullock, and Wesley Snipes
Director: Marco Brambilla
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When a psychotic killer (Snipes) is released from suspended animation into a utopian Southern Californian society some 40 in the future where violence is virtually unknown, John Spartan (Stallone) a renegade 1990s cop, who is almost as violent and only slightly less blood-thirsty, is also awaked from stasis to stop him. Together with a dorky future cop (Bullock), he sets about hunting the mad killer before he destroys peaceful, if ludicrous, future society.

"Demolition Man" is a goofy sci-fi satire that pokes an equal amount of fun at action films, sci-fi movies, and the way Californians liked to think of themselves during the 1980s and early 1990s. It's a movie that knows it's silly and that revels in its silliness, from its over-the-top and violent action scenes to the extreme politically correct society of San Angeles. (Personally, I think this film has such a bad reputation because some of the social satire hit a bit too close to home for some of the Hollywood types and those who like to write about and hang out with them.)

The film's got a fun script that gives Wesley Snipes free reign as a truly evil bad guy, lets Stallone play the cartoony action hero he's best at, and has Bullock shining in a very funny part where she gets to present a slightly different spin on the "beautiful nerd" character she's best known for. (She even gets to be quite a bit sexier here than she is in many of her films, even while being howlingly funny.)

This movie is great fun, and it's one of the best movies that either Snipes or Stallone have appeared in. Heck, it might even be the career high for Snipes.

The Complete 'Transporter' Series

As part of "The Expendables Week," I'm re-presenting my reviews of the movies that elevated Jason Statham to the position of action super star--the Luc Besson-produced "Transporter" series. Like many of the reviews found on the various Cinema Steve blogs, these originally appeared on my blog at between the years of 2005 and 2008.

The Transporter (2002)
Starring: Jason Statham, Qi Shu, and François Berléand
Director: Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Frank Martin (Statham) is the underworld's chief courier, and he can deliver anything and anyone to any place, no questions asked. But when one particular package turns out to be a bound and gagged Chinese girl (Shu), Frank is forced to take on the mantle of hero.

I think I saw something in this movie that most reviewers did not, and I think that caused me to have an even more favorable impression of this film than they did.

Frank Martin and everything about him reminded me of Bean Bandit from the classic "Gunsmith Cats" graphic novels, and the film felt like an unauthorized live-action version of a Bean Bandit adventure. That character, too, is a hard-bitten rogue with his own never-compromised code of honor, drives a ultra-costumized car, will deliver anything anywhere against any odds, and can kick the ass of those he can't outdrive. In every detail that matters, Frank Martin is Bean Bandit. And like "Gunsmith Cats," this movie is more concerned about guns, fast cars, and action than about tight story logic.

The echoes of "Gunsmith Cats" and Bean Bandit aside, this is also just a fun ride of a movie. Frank Martin is a cool action hero in the mold of an Old West cowboy or an 1980s/1990s Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger character. Unlike the characters portrayed by them, however, Frank is a man of style and refinement--his car is always spotless and his black suits and ties are always crisply pressed. Even after an extended fight, Frank looks sharp.

The biggest flaw with this picture is that I had the sense that filmmakers didn't have the guts to take the film where it needed to go. The film occupies a middle-ground between an early 1980s action film with a bit of a Dirty Harry vibe coming from its detatched-yet-heroically minded central character, and the over-the-top crazy comic-book-action rampage... and more than once is swings to one extreme or the other. The end result is a film that's mildly frustrating to watch, because it ends up being neither fish nor fowl. It's got action and plenty of it, but it's so inconsistent in its tone that it's hard to sit back and enjoy it.

And this is a shame, because Jason Statham plays a very good Bean Bandit... sorry, Frank Martin. If the vehicle had been just a little more soundly constructed, he could have taken us for a spectacular ride instead of a merely okay one.

Transporter 2 (2005)
Starring: Jason Statham, Katie Nauta, and Allesandro Gassman
Director: Louis Leterrier
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Frank Martin, a worldclass driver and killer (Statham), is hired to chauffeur and protect the son of a high-placed US government official. The boy is kidnapped, but that's only a prelude to a far more devious and far-reaching plot that only Frank (and a whole lot bullets and fancy driving) can stop.

When I saw the original "Transporter," I viewed it as an unauthorized movie based on the Bean Bandit character from the "Gunsmith Cats" graphic novel series. Its only real flaw was that its creators couldn't make up their minds whether they were making a serious, down-to-earth crime drama with fast cars, or an over-the-top comic-booky action film.

With "Transporter 2," the filmmakers came to a decision, and we are treated to one outrageous, thrilling, and waaaay over-the-top action sequence after another. What's more, the plot is clever and complicated enough that it keeps delivering unexpected twists almost up to the very end. (This is another step up from the first film, I suppose... the plot there was pretty straight-forward.)

Jason Statham is great as the always calm and coldblooded Frank, but, as someone once said, a hero is only as good as the villains he fights... and in "Transporter 2" Frank is up against some very nasty bad guys. The lead heavies are played by Allesandro Gassman (a druglord who puts every letter in EVIL) and Katie Nauta (a psychopathic sex-kitten who fires more bullets in 30 seconds than are fired in the entirety of most major wars), and they are both a joy to watch. The actors, the plot, and the action sequences all blend together seamlessly to make this a great movie experience.

So, why am I only giving it 8 Stars? Well, that is because there are two major flaws that made me sigh with irritation.

First, there is a pretty nifty scene where Frank uses a firehose to beat the living tar out of a bunch of gun-toting bad guys. It's a Jackie Chan sort of scene, although I suspect much of it is done with computer animation and clever editing rather than actual props. Unfortunately, the climax of the scene completely breaks continuity with the entire fight that proceeded.

Second, there is the final dispatching of Nauta's character. It's too easy and too coincidental for a character that has been built up the way she is during the film. I'm not spoiling anything by stating that she dies--if you've seen more than two of these kinds of movies, you know she's too evil to make it through the story alive--and it needs to be mentioned because that character's death is badly done both from a storytelling and a action movie staple perspective. There isn't even a touch of irony in the way she dies... it's just an "oops... she's dead" ending.

Nonetheless, I think this is a move worth seeing if you love over-the-top action films (doubly-so if you're a fan of "Gunsmith Cats".)

Transporter 3 (2008)
Starring: Jason Statham, Natalya Rudakova, Robert Knepper and François Berléand
Director: Olivier Megaton
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Professional driver Frank Martin (Statham) is a man with a reputation that he'll deliver anything to any place a road will take him and his souped-up Audi, so long as his clients accept a few simple conditions that Frank insists upon. However, when a would-be client won't abide by Frank's rules nor take no for an answer, Frank finds himself forced to drive a mysterious package and an equally mysterious and totally obnoxious young woman (Rudakova) across Europe toward an ever-shifting destination... and if he tries to abandon the job, he'll be blown to bits by an explosive bracelet he's been fitted with.

"Transporter 3" is a step below the wild comic book action of the film immediatetly preceeding it in the series... and even a step below the film that started it all.

I suspect the filmmakers thought they were being topical with a half-assed environmental theme and oh-so-global-community-relevant-and-respectful with the films villains. They are eeeeeeevil American industrialists who are using any means necessary to force a righteous and pure-hearted Ukrainian politician to let them turn his nation into a chemical dumping ground. The truth, however, is that I don't think I've seen an environmentally-themed action flick this stupid since Steven Seagal's "On Deadly Ground". At least this film never gets preachy.

It's also not particularly logical or even intelligent in the way it's executed. The bad guys have grabbed the daughter of the pure-hearted politician in order to force him to do their bidding and they somehow feel the need to move her across Europe using a guy who doesn't work for them. A stupid plan that is doomed to fail. Why even move her anywhere in the first place? And why do the eeeeeeevil industrialists insist on having their cargoships full of toxic waste unloaded in the Ukraine? Why not just let Somali pirates hijack them? Or just dump the waste in Somalia where no one will be able to oppose them? (Or some other equally corrupt and disorganized hell hole... the world is full of them.)

But being stupid isn't the worst aspect of this film; I can forgive a certain level of stupid in a movie series that's evolving into a small-scale James Bond-type deal. The worst aspect of this film is that it never gets really exciting. It features some nice car chases, some okay fight scenes where Frank opens many cans of whoop-ass on hapless mooks, and a couple of cool action set-pieces, but the material that exists between them is poorly written. Not even Frank is very interesting in this film.

This is one of those pictures where the cast is let down by a weak script and a less-than-talented director.

Statham plays his usual laconic I'd-as-soon-kick-your-ass-as-talk-to-you character, but the lines he does have lack punch and the fight scenes he is placed in are ineptly choreographed.

Natalya Rudakova has a different look to her than most actresses that appear in films like this, and I think she might be an okay performer... but it's hard to tell because her character was so annoying throughout the movie. I can't for the life of me understand how the romance that developed between her character, Valentina, and Frank was supposed to have come from. (I was further annoyed by her character's tendency to wear too much eyeshadow. One of the evil characters did it in "Transporter 2" and now we have the heroine doing it in "Transporter 3". Will this become a signature of the series?)

All the flaws present in "Transporter 3" make this a movie that all but the most hungry-for-an-action-film viewers can skip.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

'Cliffhanger' is a mountain of excitement

Cliffhanger (1993)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Michael Rooker, John Lithgow, Janine Turner, and Rex Linn
Director: Renny Harlin
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a mid-air heist goes wrong and three cases full of $1,000 bills are dropped onto remote peaks of the Rocky Mountains, members of a search-and-rescue team (Rooker, Stallone, and Turner) are forced to help the murderous criminals retrieve them.

"Cliffhanger" is at its best during its opening rescue scene. Perhaps more-so than any other film, director Renny Harlin manages to capture the soaring peaks and terrifyingly deep canyons of mountains, both with excellent cinematography and performances from his actors. It's also a scene that contains the only real surprise in the film... and the first time you see it, you will be shocked.

While the mountain-climbing sequences, shoot-outs, explosions, and helicopter crashes are all very exciting, Harlan never manages to quite reach the artistry and suspense present in that opening scene. It's all extremely well done, and it all adds up to a great movie--one of the best Harlin has helmed, and one of the best of Stallone and Rooker's respective careers--but it still doesn't manage to top the mountain climbing scenes from Clint Eastwood's 1975 "The Eiger Sanction," where the dizzying heights and frightful plunges remain a constant and real threat. Here, they are more like book-ends--present at the film's beginning and briefly returning at the end--even though there are climbing scenes throughout the film.

But, even if Harlin can't top his own opening, he does deliver a fast-paced and exciting movie... so fast-paced and exciting that you'll hardly have time to consider some of the illogic and foolish behavior on the part of a number of characters. (The one exception to this will be when the psychotic villain played by Lithgow orders Stallone to throw a backpack from a cliff into an airborn helicopter. Even if the script was written that way, I would have thought the crew [which includes co-screenwriter Sylvester Stallone] would have been observant enough to recognize that the wind created by the helicopter blades would make such a toss very difficult if not impossible.)

From a filmmaking standpoint, "Cliffhanger" also shows the importance of shooting on location, as well as the fact that nine times out of ten, if you want a stunt scene to look realistic, you need live stunt men and actors dealing with real props and/or locations. There are very few of the mountain scenes shot on sound stages in this movie, and there are even fewer, if any, that use green screens and other digital trickery. Although movies are all about making the fake look real, when reality is the starting point, more reality is present in the end-product. And the fact that actors, stunt-people, and film crew were all actually working in snowy wilderness gives the film a sense of reality that computer artists and set builders will probably never be able to match.

Performance-wise, everyone featured is at the top of their game. Stallone gets to show some range without going over the top--the action hero hamming in this film is done by Michael Rooker--and Janine Turner steps away from the bubble-headed roles of her early career toward the portrayal of a strong and resourceful woman that would make her a star on the 1990s television series "Northern Exposure." Meanwhile, John Lithgow over-acts like he's never over-acted before, but he's still pitch-perfect as the psychotic criminal mastermind who will kill anyone who not only stands between him and his misplaced millions, but also anyone who stands near them, just because. It's the kind of villain that made movies of this type so much fun, and Lithgow does a great job.

"Cliffhanger" is an under appreciated entry on the resumes of everyone involved, partly due to the fact that the director is responsible for a number of truly awful films. But if you enjoy the action movies of the 1990s, or Stallone's more recent effort "The Expendables", this is a must-see.

What is a 'Lucky Number Slevin' anyhow?

Lucky Number Slevin (aka "The Wrong Man") (2006)
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Stanley Tucci, Lucy Liu, and Ben Kingsley
Director: Paul McGuigan
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A case of mistaken identity places Slevin Kelevra (Hartnett) squarely in the middle of a decades-old feude between two rival crimelords (Freeman and Kingsley) that's about to get very, very hot. With a quirky coroner (Liu) as his only ally, and a cop with a dark secret out to arrest him (Tucci), Slevin has three days to figure out a way to balance the mutually exclusive expectations of the criminals threatening him and stay alive in the process. The difficult situation may well be impossible, as the feared assassin Mr. Goodkat (Willis) is also in the mix, with an agenda dating back over 20 years.

When "Lucky Number Slevin" appeared in theaters in 2006, I wrote in my review of it that "it seems that Hollywood is finally making some good thrillers again" and "I can declare that the dry-spell of decent thrillers in the vein of Hitchcock is over."

I have since stepped a bit back from that optimistic position--2006 was just a very good year for the thriller genre... the Hollywood offerings quickly returned to the levels of crapitude I have come to accept as reality--but "Lucky Number Slevin" was and is a great mix of film-noir genre standards and comedy that is enhanced by sharply crafted dialogue and presented in a fabulously convoluted mystery plot. The acting is top-rate by all involved, the set design appropriately strange (reflecting Slevin's bizarre predicament), with clever use of editing, overlays, and the musical score serving only to elevate what is already good even further. While there isn't a whole lot of originality in "Lucky Number Slevin" as far as the story goes, it uses the building blocks of a film-noir story so effectively that pretty much everything works here. (In fact, "Lucky Number Slevin" reminded me more of Hitchcock at his best than countless movies that critics have labeled "Hitchcockian" over the years.)

The only complaint I have with the film is Liu's character, Lindsey. Her dinginess became a little hard to swallow after it was revealed that she was a coronor, and I didn't buy the insta-relationship between her and Slevin. I have the same problem with a number of classic suspense movies--with Hitchcock's "Notorious" and "The Trouble With Harry" being among the biggest offenders--but given that it's an element that's present in many of "Lucky Number Slevin's" filmic ancestors, it doesn't bother me any more here that it does in the others.

I think fans of Hitchcock movies and well-done crime/caper movies will find "Lucky Number Slevin" well worth their time and money.

Monday, August 16, 2010

You'll wonder what 'War' is good for

War (aka "Rogue Assassin") (2007)
Starring: Jason Statham, Jet Li, John Lone, Mark Cheng, Devon Aoki, Ryo Ishibashi, Sung Kang, and Terry Chen
Director: Philip G. Atwell
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

FBI Special Agent Crawford (Statham) tries to corner the assassin known as Rogue (Li), finally hoping to get revenge for the murders of his partner and his partner's family. Meanwhile, the killer is attempting to start a war between the Yakuza and Triad gangs in San Francisco for reasons known only to him.

For most of its running time, "War" is a slightly below average action film. The fight and gun-play scenes are okay, the chase scenes outstay their welcome a little, but nothing is too terrible. It remains in this mode, until, literally its final minutes... at which time not one but two surprise twists are introduced, one of which in particular goes a long way to undermine everything we've just sat through.

I don't like spoiling movies in my reviews, so I won't go into details about the twists. If someone out there wants more information, or wants to discuss them, please open a conversation in the Comments section. However, as far as the twists go in the most general of terms...

The first twist relates to the nature and identity of Rogue and what his motivations are. Early in the film, it's established the Rogue is erratic, has changed allegiances at least once in his career, and so unpredictable that some even question whether he exists or not. As we see Rogue in action throughout the movie, we come to see his erratic nature first hand, as whenever we think we know what he's up to, it turns out that it's really something entirely different. It works for the movie, as the "A Fistful of Dollars"-type plot-line with Rogue setting the Yakuza and Triad gangs on a path of mutually assured destruction while both sides think he is working for them while betraying the other is one of its more entertaining aspects. However, it seems extremely contrived--beyond even the point that is acceptable for a film like this, where everything feels contrived to one degree or another when the all of Rogue's secrets are laid bare at the last minute.

Then there's the film's second twist, the one that costs it an entire ratings point all by itself. I don't mind movies of this type having thin plots, nor do I necessarily mind lots and lots of contrived and convenient circumstances to keep them going, nor to I necessarily mind some degree of incoherence and/or illogic in the story-telling; if I did, I doubt I would like any of them. What I don't like is when the filmmakers think they are being clever/dramatic/Shakespearean-level-tragic when they throw in some "surprise revelation" that is badly set up (if set up at all) and which either fits poorly with everything that's gone before, or so transforms our impression of the characters the revelation is related to that it sours us on the entire movie.

In "War," the "clever surprise revelation" is so badly executed that it doesn't quite sour the viewer on the characters, but it will annoy the heck out of anyone who is paying attention. But it is illogical in the extreme and it ruins what might otherwise have been a strong ending--and even a set-up for a potential sequel. Perhaps even worse, it feels like half a twist, as its main set-up comes during the final confrontation between Rogue and the Yakuza. It grows out of what seems to be an obvious lie, and it still feels like a lie even its being confirmed during last two minutes. It's a twist that leads to a turns into a spoiled ending, due to incompetent writing and directing.

As for the acting, nothing here is too terrible, but nothing is all that remarkable either. Jason Statham and Jet Li were both better in their previous teaming--"The One," I film I wished I'd watched again instead of taking the time to see this one--but they do the best with what they have here. Their characters don't demand a whole lot of acting from them, and the fight scenes are pretty standard for the film's we've seen them in.

When "War" was released in 2007, I ignored it, because I felt the previews made it look uninteresting. I should have stayed with my first instincts and ignored it on DVD as well. It's a mediocre action film that's ruined by plot twists conceived by writers who weren't talented enough to properly pull them off.

'Eye See You' isn't worth viewing

Eye See You (aka "D-Tox") (2002)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Charles Dutton, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Berenger, Polly Walker, Robert Patrick, and Christopher Fulford
Director: Jim Gillespie
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When his girlfriend is murdered by a serial killer who has targeted him and other cops, FBI Agent Jake Malloy (Stallone) falls apart. After a suicide attempt, he checks himself into an isolated rehab center that specializes in helping police officers. The killer vowed to stay after Malloy, however, and as a blizzard cuts the facility off from the rest of the world, it appears that he may have be making good on his promise.

"Eye See You" is a charmless spin on the "Ten Little Indians"-type mystery--a group of strangers in an isolated setting, one among them is a killer who is bumping off the rest--with a heapin' helpin' of slasher-film style violence added.; Unfortunately, most of the characters never evolve beyond annoying stereotypes and there are a couple of really glaring plotholes that should have been fixed before this movie went anywhere near the public. To make matters worse, the acting is nothing special, except in a negative sense where Stallone is conccerned. He is so awful in this film that if I hadn't just seen "The Expendables", I would be wondering.. the guy could act at one time, right? I'm not misrembering, am I?).

Oh... and the ending is one of those infuriating ones where the hero ends up devolving almost to the level of the bad guy and lowers himself to a status of little more than a murderer himself.

There's nothing new or even particuarly good here. Don't bother seeing "Eye See You."

Saturday, August 14, 2010

'The Expendables' is a great action flick

The Expendables (2010)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, David Zayas, Giselle Itie, Terry Crews, Randy Coutre, Mickey Rourke, and Charisma Carpenter
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

An elite team of mercenaries (Li, Statham, Stallone) turn down a contract to overthrow the military dictator of a small South American nation (Zayas). They change their minds when when the drug-runners who are the power-behind-the-power (Austin and Roberts) abduct the dictator's kindhearted daughter (Itie), and they set out to overthrow a government and kill every bad guy they come across--free of charge.

Forget the race-baiting self-consciously referential "Machete" that's coming out later this year. This is the film that captures the real mood and spirit of everything that was great about the explosion-laden action movies of yesteryear, without any posturing, preaching, or pandering.

Like "Predators" from earlier this summer, "The Expendables" is a throw-back movie that succeeds at what it sets out to do--to evoke the feeling of a 1980s action flick and to the movie days when men were men and every day brought another suicide mission. It does this with all the fight scenes, gunplay, car chases, and macho banter than even the most discriminating fan would want. It also does so by reviving a common 1980s villain (the corrupt CIA operative whose gone into the drug trade), by providing us lead characters who can be chivalrous when damsels are in distress, completely coldhearted and unforgiving to those who put them there, and forgiving to their friends even when they betray them.

In "The Expendables," Sylvester Stallone gathered such an array of stars--several of whom have cameos, such as Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger--that I was afraid the film would collapse under the weight of egoes vying for screentime and recognition. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Stallone, who is also the co-writer and director of the flick, retains complete control of the straight-forward action narrative in the film, with every character and actor portraying it, playing their part in the story with no allowance for star-status, past or present. It goes without saying that three of the biggest stars appearing in the film--Stallone, Statham, and Li--also get the most screen time, but the rest of the almost equally famous cast play their parts without any particular acknowledgement beyond what any other actor might get. The only exception to this is the scene featuring Willis and Schwarzenegger. While it is needed for the plot, its execution feels a little forced, with the dialogue between Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger being just a little too cute and too aware that it's an exchange among movie super-stars and one-time box office rivals.

Aside from that one minor misstep, Stallone keeps the film centered around Barney Ross (played by Stallone himself) and his friend and main partner Lee Christmas (played by Statham), men of violence who nonetheless hold to a strong code of honor and chivalry that they expect everyone who works with them to obey as well. This is established in the film's first scene, and it is carried throughout, as Ross and Lee's honorable natures are ultimately the motivating factor behind every event of the film. They are a pair of cool unapologetic tough guys with the sort of strong moral center that one wishes all such tough guys had both in fiction and reality.

Technically, this is is also an excellent film. It's well-written (aside from the aforementioned scene between between Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger), expertly paced and edited, with every action scene being lean, mean, and exactly what is called for in order to get maximum impact. The only drawback is that this film makes the mistake that so many other action films have done of late--they use computer graphics to add blood spatter and gore to scenes. Unfortunately, it's no less obvious and fake-looking here than it was in the low-budget films that originated the practice, nor any better looking than in the other big-budget film I've recently seen that made use of the unfortunate practice ("MacGruber"). It's a shame really, because those obviously fake bits of CGI were very distracting during the otherwise exciting and fun climactic orgy of explosions, death, and mayhem.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

'Get Smart' is a great update of classic show

Get Smart (2008)
Starring: Steve Carrel, Anne Hathaway, Alan Arkin, Dwayne Johnson, Terence Stamp, Ken Davitian, and Dalip Singh
Director: Steven Segal
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When the international crime syndicate and freelance spy-ring KAOS gains a complete roster of field agents working for the most secret branch of the United States intelligence services, CONTROL, the Chief (Arkin) promotes eager-beaver analyst Maxwell Smart (Carrel) to field agent. Together with the only other agent not compromised by KAOS, Agent 99 (Hathaway), he sets out to discover what notoriouls KOAS agent Seigfried (Stamp) intends to do with stolen radioactive materials.

When "Get Smart" was released in 2008, it got bad reviews. As with several other comedies from around that time--"Balls of Fury" and "Nacho Libre" spring to mind immediately--the bad reviews were more a reflection of critical cluelessness than any probems with the movie itself. Too many movie critics had their heads too far up their asses to see that this film provided a fun update of the 1960s spy spoof that modernizes the characters and conflicts without feeling the need to denigrate and mock the original show (as was done in movies like "Starsky and Hutch"), or all but ignore the original show, except for a little lip service (as was done with the "Mission: Impossible" movies). This film takes all that was good about the TV series, even to the point where some of the spirit can stil be felt, and delivers it in a package that both those who love the old show and those who have never even heard of it can enjoy.

While I will grant the criticsm that the movie never gets quite as crazy as the TV show could be at its finest, and that only a few of the dialogue exchanges approach Mel Brooks and Buck Henry level writing (like the "if you were CONTROL you'd be dead" scene between Maxwell Smart and Seigfried, as featured in one of the previews), but the movie would have been a miserable failure if it had aped the old show. There is only one Mel Brooks and whenever writers try to copy him, they always fail spectacularly.

The actors portraying the various familiar characters are not attempting mimic those who have come before. Like Roger Moore didn't do a Sean Connery impersonation when he took over as James Bond, nor does Steve Carell do Don Adams when he plays Maxwell Smart. The character is obviously the same character, but the Carell gives his own spin on him. The same is true of Anne Hathaway as Agent 99 and Alan Arkin as The Chief. The characters are recreated, but still recognizable.

Another very smart move done by the film's creators (particularly score composer Trevor Rabin) was to retain the old "Get Smart" theme and weave it throughout the soundtrack music. They were smart to enough to recognize that the "Get Smart" theme by Irving Szathmary is one of the best pieces of television music ever written and that a "Get Smart" update wouldn't be complete without it. Just like the actors took the characters and reinvented them, so did Trevor Rabin take the spy music second only in fame to the "James Bond Theme" and make it his with a number of playful and thrilling variations as the movie unfolds. (The soundtrack music is available from, and the disc contains several more of Rabin's variations on the theme that don't appear in the film but which are very creative and worthwhile. Even if you don't see the movie, the soundtrack is worth owning, because this fun music stands just fine on its own.

From the first teaser ad for the "Get Smart" film, I was looking forward to seeing it. As longer previews appeared, I started getting concerned that it was going to be another adaptation/update that was going to be intended more as an excersize in mocking the original show, or too mean-spirited to really capture the "Get Smart" feel. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded, and the film turned out to be a fun, breezy upate of the classic TV show... a laugh- and action-filled spy spoof that's well worth seeing. (It may not be perfect--there are a couple of instances I found myself thinking, "Waitaminnit... why isn't Smart reacting to that comment?" and "Why did the leap to THAT conclusion?"-- but the flaws are few and minor.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A sidekick gets promoted to lead hero....

Inspector Lewis (2006)
Starring: Kevin Whately, Laurence Fox, Clare Holman, Charlie Cox, Jemma Redgrave, Lizzy McInnerny, Jack Ellis and Rebecca Front
Director: Bill Anderson
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Robbie Lewis (Whately), one-time sidekick to the famed Inspector Morse, has been promoted to Inspector himself and returns to Oxford after a long absense. Still in emotional pain from the sudden death of his beloved wife, Lewis finds himself involved in a murder case that brings back even more painful memories as it is related to a case that Morse once worked on.

"Inspector Lewis" was the pilot episode for a sequel series to the popular British television series "Inspector Morse". It is a sold start for a respectable follow-on to a classic, even if Kevin Whatley really is better suited to play a second-banana character than being the one who carries the show.

Fans of "Inspector Morse"--and good detective stories in general--will enjoy this movie and the television episdoes that follow it. Despite that, some might, like me, be a little peturbed with the killing-off of Lewis' wife. I think it would have been a nice change of pace to have a lead detective on one of these shows who actually has a solid homelife and who is completely devoted to and deeply in love with his or her spouse.

Monday, August 9, 2010

End of the Road for 'Black Cobra'

Black Cobra 3: The Manila Connection (1987)
Starring: Fred Williamson, Forry Smith, Debra Ward, and David Light
Director: Don Edwards
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Chicago police detective Robert Malone (Williamson) travels to the Philippines to work on a joint CIA/Interpol mission to recover or destroy a cache of stolen weapons and prevent a hi-tech blackmailer from exposing CIA operations around the world.

"Black Cobra 3" is an improvement over "Black Cobra 2", but it's not quite as good as the original in the series. Once again, the one thing that made Malone more than just another third-rate action hero has been left out... his pet cat. In fact, he's even less of a character here than he was in the previous installments of the series--here, he's simply a generic action hero who beats up or guns down scads of bad guys because duty to country and the son of an old army buddy calls. (Those are fine motivations, but a little bit of character flavor for Malone would have been nice.)

Speaking of the script, overall it's a little better than the two previous outings, but ultimately it ends up disappointing because it is so predictable. There's a mole in the CIA that's leaking every move Malone and his colleagues make to the bag guys, and there's only one possible suspect for who it might be. (Yeah, the writer makes a halfhearted attempt to spread the suspicion around, but it seems clear that no great degree of thought went into this script other than "how to get the characters from one fight to the next, and from the shoot-out to the exploding secret hideout?"

The fight scenes are as well photographed in this film as they were in the two previous films, and there seems to have been enough of a budget this time out to do some rehearsals and real choreography. The bigger budget is also evident in the many shoot-outs and explosions, not to mention the escape-by-helicopter during the film's climactic battle in the secret mountain hide-out of the villains. (The fact that Fred Williamson's acting seems better in this film than the previous outings may also be a result of a bigger budget; he's being paid enough to actually work instead of just showing up and running lines.)

One that that isn't better in this installment is the dubbing. Often, lip movements are noticeable different from what is heard on the soundtrack--even for the English-speaking actors who did their own dubbing like Williamson--and early in the film the attempt to match the dialogue to the lips is so badly done that it sounds like the voice actors either didn't understand the lines they were speaking, or they were being directed by a drunk Christopher Walken impersonator of limited talent. The random pauses in the middle of sentences, and the weird inflections make very simple exchanges tricky to follow.

"Black Cobra 3" is the end of a trilogy of action movies that teeter on the brink between mediocre and bad. The most remarkable thing about the series is that the main character, Malone, seemed to devolve into more of a generic action hero as the films progressed instead of grow. That's noteworthy, as most series characters tend to become more defined, not less.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Dirty cops must silence witness in '16 Blocks'

16 Blocks (2006)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Mos Def, and David Morse
Director: Richard Donner
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Broken-down, burned-out NYPD detective Jack Mosely (Willis) is given a simple assignment: Escort a prisoner, Eddie Bunker (Def), sixteen blocks from the police station holding-tank to the courthouse so he testify before a Grand Jury. The prisoner has to be there by 10am, because if he isn't, the Grand Jury is dismissed and the prosecutor's case will fall apart. But even in New York traffic, two hours to cover sixteen blocks should be easy, right? Well, not if the witness's testimony is going to expose police corruption reaching from the streets to highest pinnacle of power within the NYPD.

"16 Blocks" is, basically, a lesser version of the story told in the classic movie "The Gauntlet". Here, like in that film, a cop who is just marking time until retirement manages to summon up whatever spark first inspired him to join the police and do the right thing against ever-increasing odds; a major difference between the Eastwood character in "The Gauntlet" and Mosely is that he is aware that other cops are trying to kill his charge from the outset, and that this is what sparks his desire to overcome in the first place. Another difference is that while the witness in "The Gauntlet" was annoying, Sandra Locke's character at least had some likable qualities to her. There is nothing particularly likable about the character played by Mos Def in "16 Blocks"--not even his oft-stated dream to leave crime behind and become a baker, because it never once rings true--and his nonstop babbling and truly obnoxious voice becomes nerve-grating more than once. Finally, there is a difference in intensity... in "The Gauntlet", here's a sense of ever-increasing danger and pressure. That never occurs here... the film reaches a level a few minutes in and stays there, despite the many shoot-outs and close calls between Mosely and his pursuers.

Bruce Willis gives a great performance as a man who is way past his prime and in over his head; there are several times where his facial expressions say more than any lines of dialogue could. Unfortunately, his co-star, Def, is so annoying that I found myself wishing someone would shoot his character now. Willis also has the problem that he's in a movie that doesn't seem to go anywhere. There's a great build-up to the moment when assassins take a shot at Bunker, and it feels like the film will get even tenser when Mosely realizes that his old partner (Morse) and other detectives that seem to come to his aid are actually part of the plot to silence the witness... but instead the momentum seems to stall. The film coasts through the roughly one-and-three-quarter hours of real-time as Mosely struggles to deliver Bunker to the courthouse alive, eventually coming to a sputtering halt at its ending, whether the original one, or the "shocking" alternate ending included on the DVD release.

"16 Blocks" had a lot of potential, but it never really lives up to its promise; like its hero, it seems to be coasting, but unlike the hero, it never finds its "spark" or redemption. It is a film that any big time Bruce Willis fan should check out--he is quite good in it. The rest of us are probably better off picking up a copy of "The Gauntlet" if we haven't seen it yet.

Friday, August 6, 2010

'The Big Bounce' falls flat

The Big Bounce (2003)
Starring: Owen Wilson, Morgan Freeman, and Sara Foster
Director: George Armitage
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When small-time thief and grifter Jack Ryan (Wilson) is given a handyman job and an opportunity to go straight by an eccentric Hawaiian judge (Freeman), the path to the straight-and-narrow is obstructed by a willowy sexpot (Foster) who has a full-proof plan to rob the local crime boss. As might be expected, there's no such thing as a perfect plan... at least not when everyone in the picture is a thief and con-artist.

"The Big Bounce" is a run-of-the-mill caper comedy that might have been something special if the twists and turns of the plot hadn't either been so trite that they weren't twists but instead completely predictable, or so badly set up that the viewer is more irritated than surprised when they happen. The film isn't helped by the collection of two-dimensional stock characters that populate it, nor the too slow pace, or the fact that the comedic elements are so worn they're threadbare.

The actors all put on as good performances as can be expected--and watching Foster prance back and forth across the screen in next to nothing is certainly enjoyable--but the awfulness of the script couldn't be overcome.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Magnificent Warriors kick Imperial Jap ass

It's exactly 65 years this month since the United States of America dropped two atom bombs on Japan to bring us victory in World War II's Pacific Theater. This review is one of several posts I'm making to mark that occasion.

Magnificent Warriors (aka "Dynamite Fighters") (1987)
Starring: Michele Yeoh, Tung-Shing Yee, and Richard Ng
Director: David Chung
Steve's Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Michele Yeoh stars as a confident, self-reliant bush pilot who is cashing in on the resistence to the Japanese invaders in 1930s China. The plot really gets going when she is recruited to assist a spy deep within Japanese held land and ends up becoming embroiled in the resistance efforts whole-hog when her Chinese patriotism can't allow her to stand by and let a city of innocent people be gassed to death by the nefarious Japanese Imperial Army.

The film features excellent cinematography, fine performances by all actors, and well-choreographed martial arts sequences. There were some silly sound effects related to those fight scenes, but that's to be expected in an older film like this one.

The only dissapointment I felt was that I would have liked to see some of the plot and characterzation touches explained a bit more. (For example, was the drifter related to our heroine or not?)

This was one of Michele Yeoh's very first films--and she looks VERY young in it!--and the DVD version contains a really interesting interview with her about its making.

Monday, August 2, 2010

'Black Cobra 2' is worse than the original

Black Cobra 2 (1988)
Starring: Fred Williamson, Nicholas Hammond, and Emma Hoagland
Director: Stelvio Massi
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Police Lt. Robert Malone (Williamson) is sent to the Philippines to study Interpol techniques after blowing away one hostage-taking drug dealer too many. Always a trouble magnet, Malone and his new Interpol partner, Inspector Kevin McCoal (Hammond), soon find themselves up against a shadowy group of violent Middle Eastern terrorists who are pursuing the beautiful daughter of a small-time thief, Peggy Mallory (Hoagland), for unknown reasons. Before you can say "Please Hammer, don't hurt 'em!" there's gunfire, explosions, silly plottwists and 350 kids held hostage in a building that's rigged to explode... and only Malone and McCoal can save the day!

A fellow movie-lover whose taste is usually to be relied upon told me that each "Black Cobra" film is better than the one than the one before. Well, this is one instance where she was wrong.
"Black Cobra 2" is NOT better than the movie it's a sequel to. While star Fred Williamson is a little less wooden in his second outing as no-nonsense action cop Robert Malone (who gets referred to as "Bob" by the love interest in one of the many sour notes in this film... I'm sorry, but this character is NOT a "Bob." Not even his mother would call him "Bob"), and there is a single very unexpected plot development as the film enters its third act, just about everything else about this movie is so laughably bad that it makes the only other "odd-couple buddy cop" picture I can think of that's on this low level of quality, "The Glimmer Man", look like "Lethal Weapon". Plus, they got rid of the one thing that made Malone a neat character in the original "Black Cobra"--that little cat of his.

From the lamely done chase scene that opens the film to the climactic hostage rescue that closes it, the film's extremely low budget is painfully evident. Further, while the director and his cinematographers are clearly experienced hands at filming martial arts sequences, there's no hiding that catches up with the best of us (like, oh, Fred Williamson) and that more rehearsal time than I'm sure the budget would allow was needed to make the hand-to-hand fight scenes look natural.

And then there's the dialogue. I don't think I've EVER seen so much purple prose in a single movie. The love interest Peggy Mallory was being so over-the-top sappy every time she brought up her father that if I'd been Malone or McCoal, I would have arrested her for the murder of her father; no one talks the way she talks, unless they're being deeply sarcastic. (An extension of the dialogue problem is the voice actors that were used in the badly synched dubbing of the non-English--and even some of the English--speaking actors. Some of them are as bad as the lines they were reading, particularly the woman who was doing Inspector McCoal's young son. It was rather creepy to hear what was obviously an adult woman's voice coming from the mouth of a 7-year-old. Someone get that kid an exorcist!)

To perfect the overall horribleness of the film, there is the fact that there is NO chemistry between any of the actors appearing on screen. While none of the leads are particularly terrible, there's no real sense of connection between any of the characters and there's no reason for the audience to believe that any sort of feelings develop between any of them, other than perhaps mild annoyance. Each character is okay if taken as a 1980s action film stereotype, but when they are put together, they don't work, because the actors aren't connecting.

With a badly written script that overreaches the film's meager budget and a cast of stars that have no shared on-screen chemistry, "Black Cobra 2" has little to recommend it, except as a possible inclusion for a Bad Movie Night--but only after you've already tapped Steven Seagal's offerings. There are a couple of surprising moments in the film--which I can't talk about without spoiling the plot, but one earns the film an additional point on the scale all by itself--but they aren't enough to make this movie worth seeking out.