Friday, February 25, 2011

'Bad Boys' is pretty bad

Bad Boys (1995)
Starring: Martin Lawrence, Will Smith, Téa Leoni, Tcheky Karyo, and Joe Pantoliano
Director: Michael Bay
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Two life-long friends who grew up to be narcotics detectives in Miami (Lawrence and Smith) find their personal and professional relationships tested when they tasked with located several million dollars of pure heroin that was stolen from their department's storage vault. Just to make a stressful situation worse, the psychopath who stole the drugs (Karyo) is stalking them, their families, and the only witness to a murder he committed in the course of his heist (Leoni).

If you want proof that Kevin Smith "Cop Out" wasn't as bad as it was made out to be, all you have to is watch as much as you can stand of "Bad Boys" either before or after watching the Smith film. This is a film with no likable characters, with a plot so straight-forward that the only reason the film lasts more than 30 minutes is because the characters are as dumb as they are unlikable, and with jokes so unfunny and forced that anyone who sits through it might be able to file a legitimate case of date rape against writer George Gallo and director Michael Bay.

Interestingly, I've been catching bits and piece3s of "Bad Boys II" on cable for years, but I've never actually seen the entire film. The parts I've seen were funny, though, so when I came across a cheap DVD set containing both "Bad Boys" and the sequel on the same day I heard that there was a "Bad Boys 3" making its way through pre-production, I thought it was time to see the first movie, followed by the second.

Well, I now know why I never seen "Bad Boys" on cable. If the bits and pieces I've seen of the other film over the years are any indication, it may be one of those rare cases where a sequel is better than the film that spawned it.

I'll see if my assumption is correct, sometime after the awfulness of "Bad Boys" has faded in my memory. It is amazing to me that Martin Lawrence had a career after this one; I don't think I've ever seen him be less funny. Will Smith and Tea Leoni were in the movie, but they were just sort of Will Smith and Tea Leoni, without anything particularly good or bad about their performances--one can only hold actors accountable for so much when they are working with material as awful as the script for this film. But at least they didn't stink like Lawrence did.

Two things that saves this film from earning a Two Rating: The lovely car race at the very end, and the fact Leoni spends much of the movie in an impossibly short skirt. Looking at her never-ending legs made the pain bearable.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

'Unknown' is worth exploring on the cheap

Unknown (2011)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Bruno Ganz, Aiden Quinn, and Frank Langella
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

While in Berlin for a scientific conference, Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) wakes up after a serious car accident to find a stranger has assumed his life in every detail, even apparently the affections of his wife (Jones). Martin turns to the only witness of the accident he can find (Kruger) and a retired East German spy (Ganz) for help in proving he really is who he says he is. And that's when the assassins start stalking him and killing everyone he makes contact with....

"Unknown" is one of those movies it's hard to talk about without ruining the whole thing, because it relies on plot twists and secrets for its effectiveness. Without spoiling too much, I can say that the story is sort of a cross between the 1956 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and the 1938 version of "The Lady Vanishes", except in this case it's the main character who has, basically, vanished and he has to pick his way through a deadly cloud of lies and violent spies. The twists and reversals as the film unfolds sets it apart from those two Hitchcock classics, but I think if you enjoyed those films, you'll be entertained by this one as well.

Overall, the film is well-paced and it's revelations are timed appropriately to keep the story going. There's a car chase in the middle of the film that is extremely ridiculous as it's unfolding--suddenly, a university researcher and biologist is able to drive a stick-shift in a fashion that most racecar- and stunt drivers envious--but once all the pieces of the puzzle have been revealed--it makes sense. It's a weak point of the film that just a few lines of dialogue between Martin and his wife at the beginning of the film could have dealt with and the film would have been better for it.

The film would also have been better if the director had been a little less in love with shaky-cam footage, jump-cuts, and extreme close-ups during action sequences. I'm there are viewers out there for whom such techniques make the film more exciting--why else would so many directors over-use them as severely as they do?--but for me they become very, very annoying when used in excess like they are here. Give me Hitchcock's nice steady shots any day over the Alcoholic Monkey with the DTs technique on display in so many scenes, as well as the ADD editing style. Admittedly, it's not as bad here as in some movies, but it's enough to get annoying.

Despite its flaws, "Unknown" still emerges as an entertaining thriller. Just see it at a matinee, or go on days when the popcorn is cheap. Or, better yet, wait three months for the DVD to be available. You'll be more satisfied, because you won't feel like you've wasted money.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

'Into the Blue' gives viewers what they want

Into the Blue (2005)
Starring: Paul Walker, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Ashley Scott, and Scott Caan
Director: John Stockwell
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A pair of semi-pro treasure hunters (Alba and Walker) living the easy life in the Bahamas stumble upon the sunken wreck of a historic sailing ship. They also discover the wreck of a small airplane which contains a fortune in drugs, and this makes them targets of the drug smugglers who want to recover their wares.

I think I liked this movie better when I saw it as "The Deep". I recall being more impressed with the acting and the story than I was with this film, but then admittedly I was 10 or so years old and I haven't seen it since. So, maybe my memory is a bit hazy--and my memory of the Carmine Infantino-illustrated graphic novel adaptation is a bit stronger than that I have of the movie--but I remember finding the underwater action very exciting in both formats, as well as genuinely fearing for the heroes.

With "Into the Blue", I never really cared about any of the characters, and the only actor I found at all remarkable was Josh Brolin as the obnoxious, seasoned and well-funded rival to the pretty young main characters. The film also held no surprises as it unfolded, other than the memories it invoked of my youthful excitement over "The Deep".

That said, the film does move at fast enough a pace that you barely have time to realize that it is absolutely predictable at every turn. It also sports some gorgeous photography both on-land and under-seas, and several well-executed underwater action scenes... and that's ultimately what the film is about. Did anyone REALLY see this movie for anything but the eye-candy?

"Into the Blue" is entertaining enough, but not worth going out of your way for. If you want a beautiful film focusing on attractive skin-diving treasure-hunters, I think you might be better off checking out the "The Deep" starring Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bissett. (Athough I can imagine someone writing a variation on those words some 40 years from now: "'Raiders of the Deep' is pretty to look at, but it doesn't hold a candle to my memory of 'Into the Blue', a movie I saw when I was 10 years old.")

I will have to get my hands on a copy of "The Deep" to see if I'm being unfair to this movie or not....

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bruce Lee explodes with 'Fists of Fury'

Fists of Fury (aka "The Big Boss") (1971)
Starring: Bruce Lee, James Tien, Maria Yi, Ying-Chieh Han, and Tso Chen
Director: Wei Lo
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Country-boy Cheng (Lee) travels to the city to live with relatives and to take a job at an ice factory. But the business is a front for vicious drug smugglers, and when his friends and family start to run afoul their evil, Cheng must choose to join them or fight them. Either choice will cost him dearly.

"Fists of Fury" is the of four films that legendary actor and martial artist Bruce Lee made in Hong Kong, and it's the one that made him an international super-star. While some parts of the film haven't weathered the passage of four decades since its release very well, one can still understand why it was such a big hit in its day. One can also enjoy it tremendously if one likes well-crafted martial arts films.

First, the film's modern setting would have been a startling change of pace for movie audiences as this was the first martial arts film to be set in modern times. Secondly, the film presents a number of surprising twists as it unfolds, not the least of which is the surprising death of a major supporting character who was neck-in-neck with Lee's character to be the film's main hero... not to mention the shocking massacre of virtually every other supporting character as the film heads toward its climax, as well as the climax itself (which is one of the most successfully executed downer endings I've ever witnessed in an action movie). Finally, there are the two set-piece martial arts battles of the film that remain thrilling to this day... fight sequences that are equally good showcases for Bruce Lee's fighting skills and his charm as an actor.

Speaking of Bruce Lee's acting skills and charm, they are both what carry the film through its slow first half, particularly during the clumsy attempts at levity and/or scenes designed to show the camaraderie between the factory workers that probably were unique to the 1970s audiences who were used to martial arts melodramas set during various historical periods in China but who had never experienced one taking place "down the street". Lee outshines everyone he shares the screen with, with the exception of James Tien. Tien shared Lee's good looks and on-screen radiance, so they are believable as buddies during the film's early part. (Tien would go onto appear in Lee's other Hong Kong movies as well.)

Lee's acting skills are also what makes the film's climax so moving and effective. As brutal and shocking as the violence in the fights at the factory and on the lawn in front of the Big Boss's house are, it is the way Lee effective portrays the shock that gives way to rage when he discovers the dual secrets of the ice factory, followed by the horror when he later realizes that he had only seen the tiniest sliver of the Big Boss's depravity. The sense of resignation and defeat in victory that Lee exudes during the film's final moments also demonstrate strongly how tragic it was that he was to die a mere two years later with much promise unfulfilled.