Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Not terribly good, but still compelling

The Kidnapping of the President (1980)
Starring: William Shatner, Hal Holbrook, Miguel Fernandes, and Van Johnson
Director: George Mendeluk
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

The President of the United States (Holbrook) is kidnapped by a psychotic South American professional revolutionary (Fernandes) and held for ransom inside an booby-trapped armored truck full of explosives. It's up to a gun-shy Secret Service agent (Shatner), haunted by the memory of the Kennedy assassination, to figure out a way to save him.

"The Kidnapping of the President" is one of those movies that's saved by its cast. The plot is forced, the dialogue is universally awful, and the ending is all but spoiled by the director trying to ring some forced and very artificial suspense out of the final few moments.

Despite all the flaws, this is a film you watch because the actors in it as so likable and good. Hal Holbrook takes the character of President Adam Scott, who is written like an arrogant blow-hard, and gives him charm and likability. Shatner takes the Secret Service agent Jerry O'Conner, who is written like a borderline whiner, and infuses him with an air of resolve and toughness. Because of the performances by these two actors, the film's flaws seem to fade and you become interested in seeing how it will all turn out.

Van Johnson and Eva Gardner also do their best to bring life to a pointless subplot involving the corrupt Vice President and his shrewish wife. For what they had to work with, they do a decent job, but it really is an element the that added very little to the film. (They got this part of the political thriller aspect right in "Air Force One", another "the president is kidnapped by terrorists" movie... and perhaps one that learned from the mistakes of those that came before? Instead of delving into the background of the Vice President and his questionable morals and henpecked homelife, the filmmakers should have focused on the political mechanisms that kick in when the President is under threat.

If you like light-weight political thrillers, especially if you're a fan of William Shatner or Hal Holbrook, this is a movie worth checking out.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A great cast is weighed down by a weak script

Backdraft (1991)
Starring: William Baldwin, Kurt Russell, Robert DeNiro, Jason Gedrick, Donald Sutherland, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Scott Glenn
Director: Ron Howard
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A green-horn arson investigator (Baldwin), analyzing information about a series of bizarre fires provided to him by a pyromaniac arsonist (Sutherland), comes to believe there is a fire-bug within the ranks of the city's fire department... within the very company commanded by his estranged older brother (Russell).

"Backdraft" is a movie with some spectacular stunt and scenes involving supposedly raging fires. It's a bit unbelievable how Russell's character constantly charges into burning buildings without proper equipment (even while every other firefighter around him is properly suited up), but the story and characters are interesting enough that ends up being a minor complaint.

What is somewhat more damning is the fact the movie seems to meander a bit, as Howard insists on a dull and distracting subplot about Stephen's failed marriage. The film would have seemed a lot more suspenseful if the building drama hadn't been interrupted three times for interludes with Stephen trying to recapture what is already gone. (All Howard needed was the scene where Brian goes to Stephen's home, only to be told he doesn't live there anymore.)

The mystery portion of the film (the who, how, and why of the artful fires) works very well, and, as mentioned, the fire-related scenes are all spectacular... "Backdraft" can truly be said to have a fiery climax!

Of the actors, Donald Sutherland deserves special mention. His part is fairly small, but he definitely puts on an interesting show as the batshit-crazy arsonist who wants to burn down the whole world, and who believes fire is a living beast that must be loved and fed. (DeNiro and he are arch-enemies, and DeNiro's otherwise bland character becomes more interesting because of the one Sutherland so brilliantly plays... because both men seem to think of fire in the same way.)

"Backdraft" is a movie I think is worth seeing at least once. It's a shame that Howard and the script writers didn't see fit to serve up a more streamlined final product... that probably would have resulted in this good movie being a great one.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

'Submerged' shouldn't have been allowed to rise

Submerged (2005)
Starring: Steven Seagal and Christine Adams
Director: Anthony Hickox
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Commander Cody (Seagal) and his misfit Special Forces submarine crew are released from a Navy brig so they can assault the stronghold of an international criminal who has somehow managed to assassinate a U.S. ambassador. Treachery is piled upon treachery, and Cody and his crew find themselves fighting against a foe who can turn even the firmest friend into an enemy through a flawless brainwashing technique.

There are some movies that are just plain bad, and "Submerged" is one of them. It's got a nonsensical script that is so badly paced and so flimsy in its motivations that it manages to sap even unintentional humor from the notion of a collection of action movie stock characters who conduct secret missions that rely on stealing submarines to be successfully concluded. The most remarkable thing about the movie is how pathetic the submarine sets are, given how central the submarine is to the first half of the movie (which, by the way, has virtually nothing to do with the second half). I would very much like to have the hour-and-a-half I wasted on thismovie back.

On the other hand, I should have realized that any film we're expected to take seriously by writers with so little self-respect and producers and directors so dumb that they'd let the main character be named Commander Cody couldn't possibly be any good. It's too bad really. There was a time when Seagal starred in fun cheesy movies instead of awful ones.

Monday, May 2, 2011

One of Bruce Lee's best efforts

The Chinese Connection (aka "Fist of Fury") (1972)
Starring: Bruce Lee, James Tien, Nora Miao, and Riki Hashimoto
Director: Lo Wei
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A martial arts student (Lee) goes on a murderous rampage against a corrupt Japanese martial arts dojo to avenge the death of his teacher and the loss of honor to his school.

"The Chinese Connection" is one of the best martial arts movies and revenge flicks ever made. There is no Wire Fu, no trick photography, and no stunt doubles standing in for the lead actor. Also, while the viewer shares in the hero's brutal revenge against the Japanese scum-dogs, there is never any doubt throughout the picture that Bruce Lee's character Chen is giving up his soul and lowering himself to the level of those he has set out to destroy. When Chen's quest for revenge reaches its inevitable conclusion--with the destruction not only of his enemies but also himself--we've been treated to a well-crafted polemic against racism and cycles of revenge and violence.

Like so many Chinese movies of its day, this one features Japanese villains of the darkest and most vile sort, but unlike most of the others, this movie takes a more complex stand than just "Japanese Bad and Perverted, Chinese Good and Virtuous". And this makes it an imminently watchable movie, even in this day and age of overly hysterical attitudes toward portrayals of racism and bigotry in fiction and movies.

The superior quality of the story and the great acting performances not only from Bruce Lee but every single member of the cast are such that they can even overcome one of the very worst dubbing jobs I've experienced since renting my first Kung Fu movies with friends from the local grocery store some 30 years ago. Not only was the English tortured in many cases, but the entire cast was dubbed by what may have been one single actor. Lee's voice characterized as laughably deep, and he did the women by speaking in a high-pitched falsetto, while everyone in between sounded roughly similar to one another.

But, even with the eccentric dubbing, this was a very entertaining film. The fight scenes are cool and fast-moving, and Lee's methods for stalking and killing the students and hirelings of the Japanese dojo were amusing and a little scary at the same time. But always, ultimately mercilessly brutal.

"The Chinese Connection" was Bruce Lee's second feature film, and it rightly solidified him as an international superstar. If he had continued to involve himself with such high quality projects as this one, he would have gone onto becoming a movie legend of a stature that not even Jackie Chan managed to achieve. Action movie lovers truly lost out when an allergic relation to an over-the-counter medication killed Lee in 1973, but at least he left us with a small number of great films. Including this one, which is so great that not even pathetic dubbing can ruin it.