Saturday, January 29, 2011

'City Hunter' is a quirky Chan vehicle

City Hunter (1992)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Chingmy Yua, Joey Wang, Kumiko Goto, and Richard Norton
Director: Jing Wong
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

"City Hunter" was adapted from a Japanese comic book and animated series of the same name... and it shows! The actors do the kind of double-takes, gestures, and poses that one expects to see in a "manga" or "anime." This adds greatly to the hilarity of the film.

The story revolves around private eye Ryu Saeba (Jackie Chan) who is hired to track down a run-away heiress (Yua). He ends up on a luxury liner, trapped between his jealous secretary/partner (Wang), the attractive heiress, a sexy gun-toting female agent (Goto), and a group of terrorists bent on capturing the ship and holding the passengers for ransom. And all Ryu wants is a bite to eat, because he made the mistake of skipping breakfast!

If you typically pick up Jackie Chan movies for the amazing stunts, this might not be the film for you; there really isn't much of that kind of action until the climactic scenes. It might also not be the film for you if you like your action free of random comedy and out-of-left field musical production numbers. However, if you have an appreciation for slap-stick and absurd screwball comedies, I recommend this flick highly!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

'Crime Broker' fails to close to deal

Crime Broker (aka "Corrupt Justice") (1993)
Starring: Jacqueline Bisset, Masaya Kato, John Bach, Ralph Cotterill, Justin Lewis, and Gary Day
Director: Ian Barry
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A bored legal genius who plans precision heists as a hobby (Bisset) is forced into taking part in violent crimes and murder by a psychopathic criminologist who uncovers her secret (Kato).

"Crime Broker" is an Australian made-for-TV movie that feels like a tawdry grocery store paperback thriller. It should appeal to those who like Jackie Collins novels (or whoever her more modern counterparts might be), but the rest of us might be a little bored with the predictable twists of the film and flat characters that never move beyond the state of stereotypes or cyphers.

I sat through the film primarily because I was hoping it was going to give me a fun finale with the crime-planning judge somehow turning the tables on the man who forced her into getting her hands dirty--her genius-level intellect was referred to over and over in the film, so it seemed like a perfect pay-off and a great fate for the vile, arrogant character played by Masaya Kato--but such was not to be. Although the "final job" the judge is forced to plan--one that involves robbing her own husband--is the perfect set-up for just the sort of finale this film desperately needed--the finale consists of a secondary character stepping in to more-or-less save the day... and ensuring that an already mediocre film slides into bad.

Jacqueline Bisset was pushing 50 when this movie was made, but she was still full of every bit of sex appeal as she exhibited in the 1970s. It's too bad the rest of the package wasn't as attractive and charged as she was.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

'Blood Money' is well done, but run-of-the-mill

Blood Money (aka "The Arrangement" (1999)
Starring: Michael Ironside, Currie Graham, Lori Petty, Richard Riehle, Bill Dow, Paul Coeur, and George Buza
Director: Michael Ironside
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Two police detectives (Graham and Ironside) must protect a stripper (Petty) who is the only living witness in a brutal murder from killers brazen enough to murder a police officer within a Federal courthouse. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure working with the assassins is betraying them from within the police department.

"Blood Money" collects nearly every police drama cliche you care to mention between its opening and closing credits, so if you're a fan of hardbitten renegade cops pining for their dead wives, obnoxious Federal agents feuding with the local police, flamboyant gangsters, and police captains who go around shouting at anyone and everything, then this movie is for you. You'll even get all your favorite bits presented straight, with no twists or mockery. The only cliche not present is the young and idealistic cop who is at odds with his partner and/or has his idealism shattered by the events of the story; while Currie Graham does play a younger parter to Michael Ironside's grizzled veteran, he is not a rookie but is an experienced detective who is a fine and sensible match for the man he's working with.

The performances in the film are in keeping with the straight forward material, with the actors portraying figures more than characters. Ironside, Graham, and Reihle are all fine in their roles as cop cliches, while Lori Petty is decent as the typical "feisty stripper who shares a secret past with one of the cops" character. (That said, I'm not sure she was the best choice for the part; I like Petty as an actress, but she doesn't play scared or hysterical very well, and this part called on her to do both. And she didn't quite rise to the occassion.)

All in all, this is an entertaining, if unspectacular, film, not unlike the late-night cable cop dramas from the 1980s and 1990s. That's really all you need to know to decide if it's worth your time or not.

Trivia: This film was Michael Ironside's directorial debut. It is also the only film he's directed so far.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

When superhero movies were fun!

It's 45 years today since the "Batman" television series debuted. Its huge success led quickly to a theatrical film that with most of the same cast and a more expansive display of goofiness and superhero funnies than the two-part story-lines presented in 30-minute episodes could contain.

Batman - The Movie (1966)
Starring: Adam West, Burt Ward, Burgess Meredith, Lee Meriwether, Frank Gorshin, and Cesar Romero
Director: Leslie M. Martison
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

The Caped Crusaders, Batman (West) and Robin (Ward), face the most deadly situation they have ever faced, as some of their most fearsome foes unite against them--Penguin (Meredith), Riddler (Gorshin), Joker (Romero) and Catwoman (Meriwether). This time, not only is Gotham City being threatened, but the Frightful Foursome are turning their De-Hydrator on the United Nations and abducting delegates.

"Batman - The Movie" is a colorful, garish superhero romp that delights in its own silliness. From beginning to end, it's a laugh a minute--with gags ranging from subtle to slapstick to straight-up absurdity. Rarely has a film matched the outrageous humor of the extended sequence on the pier where Batman tries to get rid of a live bomb, but finds innocent creatures (ranging from nuns to baby ducks) everywhere he turns. Plus, I still don't think any of the modern Batman movies have matched the Coolness Factor of the Batmobile in this film. (Yes, that includes even the much-praised wheels of "Batman Begins".)

If you seek out this movie, I recommend you get the DVD "Special Edition" (available for less than $10 from as it's got a full-length commentary from Adam West and Burt Ward that's both funny and interesting, as well as a couple of short documentary bits and interviews that are very worthwhile. (I usually find the "extras" on DVDs to be wastes of time and boring, but not these.)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Take shore-leave with 'The Devil-Ship Pirates'

The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964)
Starring: Christopher Lee, John Cairney, Barry Warren, Andrew Keir, and Natasha Pyne
Director: Don Sharp
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After his ship is heavily damaged during a failed invasion of England by the Spain in 1588, privateer captain Robeles (Lee) docks on the British coast and tricks the citizens of an isolated village into thinking England is now under Spanish domination. He races to complete repairs on his ship and plunder the village before the villagers discover the truth and send for outside help, but a Spanish military officer assigned to the ship disturbed by the captain's dishonorable conduct (Warren) and villagers intent on resisting their occupiers, soon find common ground in their desire to see the privateers defeated.

"The Devil-Ship Pirates" is the final of four swashbuckling, pirate-themed movies that Hammer Films produced in the 1960s, and the second one to star Christopher Lee as a brutal pirate captain oppressing peaceful villagers. The best of them is "Captain Cleeg", but this one has much to recommend it for fans of the pirate genre as well.

First of all, it spends more focused on matters of sailing than the other two films, even if much of that business revolves around getting a ship sea-worthy again. Second, it's centered around an utterly despicable villain that's given depth by the script and Lee's performance to make him unpredictable and heighten the suspense of the script, and a pair of unusual heroes for this sort of film--an honor-driven Spanish soldier and a crippled war veteran, played by Barry Warren and John Cairney respectively--which further lends unpredictability to the story as it unfolds. Warren's character must tread a very fine line as he turns against the pirate crew and starts to aid the villagers in rebellion, and the crippled Cairney has to battle fully healthy pirates in some of the film's more suspenseful moments. Finally, the film features great-looking costumes and sets, and is further elevated by one of the better scores of any Hammer Film I've watched.

While it may occasionally lapse into melodrama--it is a pirate movie after all--"The Devil-Ship Pirates" is a fun, fast-moving and suspenseful adventure film that's one of many of the nearly forgotten treasures to be created by Hammer Films during its heydays in the 1950s and 1960s.

Monday, January 3, 2011

'Nancy Drew' is a fun and respectful adaptation

Nancy Drew (2007)
Starring: Emma Roberts, Tate Donovan, Max Thieriot, Marshall Bell, and Laura Harring
Director: Andrew Fleming
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Kid detective and all-around genius Nancy Drew (Roberts) temporarily moves with her father (Donovan) to Los Angeles due to his work. Here, she becomes interested in decades-old mysteries swirling around the now-dead actress (Harring) who once lived in house they are renting. But someone wants the past to stay buried, and they'll bury Nancy too if they must.

"Nancy Drew" sat in my "To Watch" pile for at least two years. If I'd known how cute and funny it was, I might have watched it sooner. It's not often these days where a remake/adaptation of some classic bit of pop culture gets treated with the sort of respect that the Nancy Drew property got; filmmakers and owners of intellectual properties now seem far more interested in crapping all over older IPs in the hopes of seeming clever and making a quick buck instead of trying to carry them forward for a new generation... and even more potential riches in the future. Yes, "Nancy Drew" has many funny moments--including some satirical ones--but it never mocked the characters or the idea of Nancy as as the perfect girl that every parent would want and that every intelligent, bookish girl would want to be like. I've never read girl's adventure/mystery fiction, but the plot and activities here hewed close to the sort of material I remember from the kids' mysteries I read that I think this film was perhaps even more faithful to the source material than even the films from the 1930s were (Click here for reviews.)

A great deal of this film's success rests with a great script that, as I mentioned above, captures the essence of classic kids' mystery fiction, but also manages to bring plenty of modern vibes to it. Although Nancy is out of step with her peers--something she acknowledges, is okay with, and even takes a small degree of pride in--the film is very much set among modern teenagers and reflective of modern teenage behavior; cell phones and all that comes with them play a key part in many aspects of the film. The script also provides a cast of likable characters, every one of which you wouldn't having to spend time with (except for the bad guys).

This film also presents Nancy Drew as an ideal role model for young girls. She wants to have friends and to get along with her peers, but she is not willing to sacrifice who she is at the expense of fitting in, and she does not give in to peer pressure. She is interested in learning everything she can, and she invariably turns around and discovers a use for what she has learned. When a task is set before her, she always tries to over-achieve. It's a great movie to watch with your pre-teens and young teens... and it's a movie that all of you will be able to enjoy. The mystery at its center is complex enough that both kids and adults can be entertained by it, and the script is artfully enough crafted that the audience gets the clues as Nancy does so we try to solve the mystery before she does. Other great aspects of the script--which was co-written by director Andrew Flemming--is a touching element in Nancy's back story and psychological make-up that explains her drive to solve mysteries; and a great gag bit that plays around with Hollywood stereotypes and features one of the funniest cameos by a major star playing himself (in this case, Bruce Willis) that I've ever seen.

Fifteen year-old Emma Roberts was perfectly cast in the role. An exceptionally young actress, she has great screen presence, great comedic timing, and enough range to take Nancy from her usual, optimistic and extremely extroverted state to a more subdued emotional state when things go against her at one point in the film. The scene where Nancy talks about why she feels the need to solve mysteries, one of the few emotional moments in this fast-moving and upbeat mystery romp, could easily have fallen flat or come across as sickeningly maudlin in the hands of a lesser actress, and Roberts talent really shined through there.

Roberts also has more charm and grace in her on-screen persona than Bonita Granville exhibited when she played the character in the old black-and-white movies... although in Granville's defense, the script Roberts had behind her is better than anything Granville dealt with. (Interestingly, Nancy's boyfriend is virtually identical between the two versions, with him patiently putting up with the way she is always dragging him into some strange adventure or another, because he knows that she simply can't help herself. The look of the two actors playing the parts--Max Thieriot in this version and Frankie Thomas in the old films--even look similar.)

This is a fun movie that is literally for the entire family, especially if there are lots of girls in the house.