Friday, December 21, 2012

'The Expendables 2' is very much expendable

The Expendables 2 (2012)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Nan Yu, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lliam Hemsworth, Jet Li, and Chuck Norris
Director: Simon West
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When a CIA operative Church (Willis) forces The Expendables to escort a security expert (Yu) in a mission to recover stolen state secrets, they unexpectedly find themselves up against a Satanic group of mercenaries and their leader (Van Damme) who are persuing the same objective.

"The Expendables" was a decent homage to the action films of the 1980s and 1990s. It featured faces familiar from those days, in a story that made sense in an action-movie world kind of way.

"The Expendables 2" is a spoof of the action films of the 1980s and 1990s, and not even a good one. Its script is less of a story and more of  a string of catch-phrases and cameo appearances played more for the laughs than action and drama. Even the final showdown between the heroes and villains is played more for laughs than drama. In fact, it's such a spoof of action films that Chuck Norris's role in the film is basically a cinematic presentation of a few "Facts About Chuck Norris".

While every featured player gives the exact performance you'd expect them to give, and everyone is obviously in on the fact the movie is a spoof of action films, there's really little else here besides the aging stars that's note worthy. Average Willis, Average Schwartzenegger, Average Van Damme, Average Stallone, and Average Self-Mocking Post "Facts About Chuck Norris" Norris, all appearing in a disjointed and weakly written action comedy. Since I like all the featured actors, it's hard for me to hate this movie, but as it wore on the illogical of the story, the random way characters popped in and out of the plot, and ever-growing number of "wink-wink" moments started wearing on me.

The best thing I can say about "The Expandables 2" is that it's a far more effective spoof than anything that's ever come out of the creative team behind things like "Spyhard" and "Epic Movie"--but that's damning with faint praise, because I'm not sure it was intended to be quite as much a spoof as it turned out to be. I think it's just a badly conceived movie.

Monday, November 12, 2012

'Wild Target' is worth a shot

Wild Target (2009)
Starring: Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt, Rupert Grint, Martin Freeman, and Rupert Everett
Director: Jonathan Lynn
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Natty professional killer Victor Maynard (Nighy) finds himself questioning his dedication to the family business and his life in danger when a mid-life crisis is triggered when he takes on an apprentice (Grint) and develops romantic feelings for a con artist (Blunt) he has been hired to kill.

"Wild Target" is a quirky hit man movie/dark romantic comedy. It's a remake of a French film, but I didn't realize this until I did some research--it feels British through-and-through, so that might be a consideration as to whether you think it might be a film for you or not.

It's also a relatively low-key movie, given its subject matter. In some ways it probably mirrors the life that those who truly lead their lives killing select targets for lots of money probably lead -- quiet steady existences that are marked by sudden, explosive bursts. Although while there is murder and violence here, the explosive bursts in this film are probably far funnier than those that occur in the life of a real hit man.

I also imagine that the looks-and-acts-more-like-a-banker-than-a-murderer borderline obaessive-compulsive character portrayed by Bill Nighy than the flamboyant master assassins we get in so many movies and books. I would think it would be the only way someone like that could have a career in murder. Whether realistic or not, it is a character that works extremely well here, as he ends up being both the film's straight-man and one of the funniest characters in it. Blunt and Grint portray characters that are purely comedic figures, while Nighy's character performs many functions as the film unfolds and along the way he is funny, tragic, and even a little scary when we see exactly how little like a banker he really is.

But, more importantly, Nighy portrays a character who is very likely. As I get older, I find it increasingly hard to like characters who are contract killers and murderers. However, Victor Maynard was a sympathetic and likable character almost immediately, and he became only more appealing as the film unfolded and he began to question whether he could have more in his life than just killing.

"Wild Target" is perhaps a quieter film than most of those who are attracted to films featuring hit men or comedies about guys having mid-life crisis are used to. However, the snappy, well-paced script and exceptional performances by the entire cast will win everyone but the most ADD-plagued viewers over.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Ninjas learn not to mess with Chuck Norris

It's the annual Nine Days of the Ninja here at the Cinema Steve blog network.

The Octagon (1980)
Starring: Chuck Norris, Karen Carlson, Lee Van Cleef, Tadashi Yamashida, Richard Norton, and Larry D. Mann
Director: Eric Karson
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A retired professional martial artist who just happens to be the adopted son of a ninja master (Norris) is drawn back into the world of violence and ninja intrigues when his brother (Yamashida) starts a martial arts school for international terrorists.

"The Octagon" is the film that launched a thousand "American ninja" movies. It was a surprise hit for the production company--that had reportedly pitched it to investors as a tax write-off--and it stands one of the very best examples of this kind of film. It's also an early Chuck Norris film and one of his bests, as it makes as much sense as a movie featuring ninjas building a secret lair/major militarized terrorist compound a short drive from a major urban center can, and it is non-stop plot, action, and/or neat fight scenes from beginning to end.

Chuck Norris is Chuck Norris--meaning that he is wooden but likeable--and most of the rest of the cast is made up of pretty decent B actors. Except for Lee Van Cleef... he plays another one of his you-love-to-hate-him sort of bastard characters... and he does it with his usual A+ style. But what really makes this movie are the various fight scenes. The grand showdown in the terrorist training camp, as well as the final battle between Norris, Norton, and Yamashida in the titular octagon arena has rightfully made it onto numerous "best fight sequence" or "best action sequence" lists. All the wire-fu, jump cuts, and computer graphics tricks that infest movies these days can't hold a candle to the real skill on display here.

Oh, and filmmakers--please PLEASE pay attention to the cinematography in this movie if you think you want to make a martial arts film. If you have people who can actually do martial arts, you should be doing mostly medium or long shots and pans rather than cuts when filming the fights. Let the audience see the skill on display. Don't do the god-damned close-ups that I keep seeing in so many martial arts and action films made after 2000 or so.

Even if your one of those strange people who say you don't like watching old movies, this is one you should check out if you your action films with a side-order of Ninjas.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Even Chuck Norris grows old....

The President's Man (2000)
Starring: Chuck Norris, Dylan Neal, Soon-Tek Oh, Jennifer Tung, Ralph Waite, and Marla Adams
Director: Eric Norris and Michael Preece
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Joshua McCord (Norris), the latest man to fill the position of the most secret of secret service agents--an operative who is at the President's personal disposal to carry out missions that are so sensitive that no one else can ever know about them--finds that he is growing too old for the job. He hand-picks his successor (Neal), but he has barely started to train him before his apprentice must rescue the First Lady (Adams) from a group of shadowy terrorists with ties to McCord's past.

"The President's Man" was a successful attempt at making a made-for-TV movie in the vein of a James Bond film before they went COMPLETELY gadget happy... but on a fraction of the budget a Bond movie gets. It's a fun romp, featuring decent performances by the entire cast and a script that doesn't embarrass anyone too badly with clunky lines. Chuck Norris fans in will find plenty to cheer about, as, although he plays an agent who is on the verge of retirement and in theory isn't the main character, he has a couple of over-the-top action scenes of the kind that gave rise to the never-ending stream of Chuck Norris jokes.

You probably noted that I said above that Norris in theory isn't the main character in the film. That should be Sgt. Deke Slater, the apprentice President's Man. Unfortunately, Dylan Neal's main talent seems to be striking poses and mugging at the camera rather than playing a role with any sort of charisma. He has had a long and busy career, but he remains an unimpressive pretty boy in my opinion... especially when he's surrounded by charismatic performers like Norris, Jennifer Tung, and, last but far from least, one of television's most talented Asian character actors Soon Tek-Oh, in one of his last major roles as he career started to wind down. Neal simply can't measure up and as such, actors who should be supporting him--like Norris and Soon--end up outshining him whenever they share scenes. (The role of Slater got recast for the sequel.)

All-in-all, though, this is an enjoyable flick, especially if you like Chuck Norris and Soon Tek-Oh. It's also a demonstration of how Norris managed his career better than poor Steven Seagal. If Seagal had acknowledged the passage of time and tried to phase himself out as an action star, maybe he could have retired with grace instead of as an object of mockery.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

'Crank 2': Among the lamest sequels ever?

Crank 2: High Voltage (2009)
Starring: Jason Statham, Bai Ling, Amy Smart, Efren Ramirez, and Dwight Yoakam
Directors: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor
Rating: One of Ten Stars

Chev Chelios (Statham) wakes up after three months in a coma to discover that his heart has been stolen. He goes on a rampage across the city in an attempt to retrieve it while using any means necessary to get enough electricity to keep the mechanical heart he's been stuck with functioning.

The original "Crank" was a crazy, ultra-violent film that unfolded like a live-action video game. The sequel is more of the same, but with an emphasis on truly ugly and gory violence and twisted, off-color humor. Both of these were present in the original film, but they have been emphasized even more here.

So, not only is this an ugly film full of ugly violence--such as the loving close-ups of a character cutting off his own nipples--but it lacks the originality of the first film. The humor isn't even as funny, with the filmmakers seeming to think that a Chinese hooker who can barely speak English and characters repeating over and over and over "Fuck You, Chelios!" is the height of hilarity.

I can't even really comment on the acting, since, much like the original, it is secondary to the crazy violence on screen. However, Jason Statham once again gets to do what he is best at--projecting menace, jumping off things, and kicking stunt-men in their faces.

But Statham giving us Basic Statham isn't enough to make this film worth your time. A more pointless and disappointing sequel will be hard to make. If you've had the misfortune of viewing it, I feel your pain.

'The Mechanic' remake falls short of the original

Well, "The Expendables Week 2" didn't really get off the ground, especially since I haven't even had the time to see "The Expendables 2" yet... but I'll be posting reviews of films featuring the cast of the latest assembly of Action Movie Greats for the next few days anyway. Hell... Life might even cooperate to the point where I'll get to see the Big Movie this Thursday.

But first....

The Mechanic (2011)
Starring: Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Tony Goldwyn, and Donald Sutherland
Director: Simon West
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Bishop (Statham), ohe world's foremost assassins, is tasked with killing his long-time friend and handler (Sutherland) after it appears he has betrayed their employer. Bishop reluctantly performs the hit and then, motivated partly by guilt, takes on the friend's son (Foster) as an apprentice hit-man, teaching him the tricks of the trade.

The deep regard in which I hold the 1972 "The Mechanic", of which this is a remake, may be coloring my estimation of this film.

From beginning to end, this film is fairly solid. It's well-paced, the action scenes are all well-staged, the effects are nicely done (including the computer-generated blood-splatter... I only noticed it because I've developed a bad habit of looking for it; kudos to West and his special effects crew for being among the few filmmakers to know how to use that kind of CG effect properly on the screen), and the actors pretty much all deliver the type and quality of performances that we expect from them for the parts they are playing in a film like this.

Everything here is adequate... unless you have the misfortune of having seen the 1978 "The Mechanic." Then, you have the sense that you're watching a pale imitation based on a dumbed-down version of the original story.

It's not that Jason Statham is bad as assassin Arthur Bishop--it's just that his version doesn't come close to touching the icy cool of Charles Bronson's portrayal. It's not that Ben Foster is bad as Steve, the apprentice assassin--it's just that Jean-Michael Vincent made you so want to punch him in the face over and over. It's not that Donald Sutherland was bad as McKenna--it's that Keenan Wynn was dead-on perfect for the role as the doomed fixer.

And it might be that all the actors in the remake of "The Mechanic" would have come off better if the script they were working with had been as intelligent as the one in the original--it's as if they decided to trade flash for substance when they set about to make this version--and if the direction, cinematography, and editing would have been as perfectly artistic as in the original instead of just serviceable as it is here.

Finally, the filmmakers here manage to screw up the perfect ending of the original, muting whatever might have remained of the original film's tale about two violent men in a violent business.

If you're a Jason Statham fan, I'm sure you'll like this movie. It is very entertaining, and Statham does his usual solid job. However, if you want to see a more intelligent (if less action-packed) film about hitmen and the dangerous, amoral roads they travel, you need to check out the original.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Like the very best 'Punisher' comics!

It's not often that a fan-produced film starring professional actors comes along. It's even more rare that it captures the essence of what made the comic book upon which it was based so cool.

This sort-of sequel to the 2003 "The Punisher" is a must-see if you liked the original black-and-white comic stories... and the stand-alone stories that were scattered throughout the 1990s issues of "The Punisher" and "The Punisher War Journal"... the stories were he was far, far removed from the Marvel Universe of heroes.

And, once again, I have to say... Thomas Jane IS Frank Castle. Check out this excellent short film... and see if you can answer the question, "What is the difference between justice and punishment?"

Dirty Laundry (2012)
Starring: Thmas Jane
Director: Thomas Jane
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Here's what Jane had to say about this film: "I wanted to make a fan film for a character I've always loved and believed in - a love letter to Frank Castle & his fans. It was an incredible experience with everyone on the project throwing in their time just for the fun of it. It's been a blast to be a part of from start to finish -- we hope the friends of Frank enjoy watching it as much as we did making it."

Friday, June 29, 2012

Fun mystery marred by shaky script and acting

Dogs in Quicksand (1999)
Starring: Mike Trippiedi, Anne Shapland Kearns, Mina Willis, Susan Muirhead, Sue Trippiedi, John Tilford, Steven M. Keen, and Bill Yauch
Director: Mike Trippiedi
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Mitch's (Mike Trippiedi) slutty secretary Darla (Muirhead) is found murdered with Mitch's tie around her neck and a used condom with Ray's (Tilford) semen in the trash, the intertwined lives of a group of small-town friends and business associates come unraveled and dark, hidden evils are exposed.

"Dogs in Quicksand" is a fascinating movie. It starts out with four apparently unrelated story threads that eventually come together to form a complicated who-dunnit sex comedy murder mystery that, while plagued by clunky dialogue and even worse acting, holds your interest thanks to the quirky characters that parade through the story. Each and everyone of them is having some sort of affair with one or more of the others, except for Mitch, who ls faithful to his psychotically jealous wife (Kearns), and everyone had opportunity and motive to kill Darla.

The most charming part of this movie is that it almost feels like it could have been written by Agatha Christie if she had been born in this century and focused her stories on small-town America instead of small-town Great Britain. I found myself reminded of Christie at several points during the film. Of course, the twist toward the end is probably not quite one that she would have written, although she did come close a couple of times.

The biggest problem this movie has is the acting. Everything else is a little above average for this kind of low-budget, shot-on-video, direct-to-DVD sort of producton. The acting swings wildly from the competent performances from Mike Trippiedi, Willis (who does an excellent turn as a hooker with a heart, so long as you give her $200), and Keen (a dying lawyer and friend to Mitch); to the approriately hammy Kearns; through the flat what-we-expect-from-a-borderline-pro production of Sue Trippiedi and Yauch; to the god-awful, someone-forgot-to-tell-him-it's-a-movie-so-he-doesn't-have-to-play-to-the-backrows-in-the-theatre Tilford. Tilford is so bad that he almost ruins this movie by himself... not only is he shouting every line, but he's doing it with a lameness that would get him booed off the stage in the tiniest of community theatres.

The mix of good, bad, and mediocre acting gives a very uneven feel to this film, which otherwise is pretty consistent in its level of quality. If you enjoy films with quirky characters, who-dunnits, and mild sex comedies, you may get a kick out of "Dogs in Quicksand", despite it's rough spots. I know I did.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Land-bound pirate movie is one of Hammer's best

Night Creatures(aka Captain Clegg)(1964)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Patrick Allen, Michael Ripper, Oliver Reed, and Yvonne Romain
Director: Peter Graham Scott
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Captain Collier (Allen) of the King's Navy marches into a small swamp-bound coastal village that is a suspected hub of smuggling, not to mention the center of activity by ghostly nightriders on skeletal horses. He is soon matching wits with the masterminds behind the smuggling operations--the kindly Reverend Blyss (Cushing) and coffin maker Jeremiah Mipps (Ripper), both of whom hide secrets deeper and darker than a mere smuggling ring.

I love this movie.

"Captain Clegg" ("Night Creatures" in the U.S. market, so retitled by Universal Pictures when they picked it and seven other Hammer productions up for distribution) is perhaps one of the finest movies ever be produced by Hammer Films.

Set in the 18th century against a backdrop of smuggling and piracy, "Captain Clegg" is an excellent melodrama that's got a thrilling, well-paced story, with compelling, likable, and complex characters, and a near-perfect ending.

High points of the film include the opening scenes with an old man running from spectral riders in the marshes, only to be finished off by a nightmarish scarecrow with human eyes; the sequence where Mipps and his fellow smugglers set out in the hopes of making their scheduled delivery of fine French wines right under the nose of Captain Collier and his men; the breakfast scene where Collier thinks he finally has the goods on Blyss, and the build-up to the film's climax as Blyss's past comes back to haunt him and the smuggling operation starts to come unglued.

"Captian Clegg" is also beautifully filmed and expertly directed--on par with some of Terence Fisher's Hammer work, I think--with Cushing and Ripper giving excellent performances. In fact, Cushing may well give the finest on-screen performance of his career as the enigmatic country vicar with a rebellious streak. Cushing's range as an actor is shown more clearly in this film as in no other I've seen (and I've seen most of them).

I can't recommend this film highly enough. If you order the Hammer Horror Series pack from I think "Captain Clegg" alone is woth the purchase price for Cushing fans. (The inclusion of another of his greatest films--"The Brides of Dracula"--is icing on the cake. Click here to read my review of it and two other of the films in the set.)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fun mystery with Edgar Allan Poe hunting killer

The Raven (2012)
Starring: John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Kevin McNally, and Brendan Gleeson
Director: John McTiernan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

In 1849, a madman launches on a series of grisly murders inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. When Baltimore Police Detective Fields (Evans) turns to Poe himself (Cusack) for help in the investigation, he plays into the killer's hand and draws not only Poe but his young lady love (Eve) into a web of terror and destruction rivaled only by Poe's horror stories.

"The Raven" is a neat, if not terribly deep, mystery film. It has an atmosphere that brought to mind a little bit Poe's stories--with their twisted intrigues, darkly romantic atmosphere, and downbeat endings where nobody wins and all is horror and misery--and a lot of the Edgar Wallace-inspired movies from the 1960s--with their masked maniacal villains undertaking impossible schemes of murder. It's a combination that I enjoyed immensely as the film unfolded. I liked the film's denouement, because until the film's last moment it looked like they were setting up a sequel... and I was relieved that they backed away from that. (Although... the way it did ultimately end, the door was left open for one, depending on what you imagine happened as the credits start to roll.)

While there were some aspects of the film that seemed a bit far-fetched--with the killer built a massive contraption to re-enact "The Pit and the Pendulum" alone and undetected being the worst of these--the biggest complaint I have with the movie is the use of those CGI blood-spatter effects that every filmmaker, from the most budget-starved backyard productions to the money-gorged opening-on-2000-screens studio extravaganzas. As in every other film I've seen them used in, theses look so fake that they break the illusion and wrecks the scene far more than even the worst practical blood effects. Is it really so much more expensive to hook an actor up to some tubes and pump red liquid through them? The effects crew did it when a couple of throats got slit during the course of the movie, so would it really have been that much harder and that much more expensive to just same effect on a larger when a guy gets cut in half by a giant, swinging blade?

Overall, though, this is a film worth taking a trip to the Cineplex for... although you can just as easily wait for it to be released on DVD or VOD, because there's really nothing here that will be lost by not seeing in on the theatre. Heck, maybe those terrible blood effects will seem less terrible when on a smaller screen.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Neat action flick built around time travel

Time Again (2011)
Starring: Angela Rachelle, Tara Smoker, John T. Woods, Scott F. Evans, and Gigi Perreau
Director: Ray Karwel
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After he loses a set of magical coins that allows the possessor to travel in time and alter events is lost in a local diner, a power mad gangster (Evans) goes on a murderous rampage in the establishment, killing or maiming who were present. Six months later, her sister, Marlo (Smoker), is still dealing with the guilt of having traded shifts with her and thus avoided getting killed, when the gangster catches up with her. He is still looking for his magical coins, and he believes she has them. But as she is trying to escape, she encounters a mysterious old woman (Perreau) who actually DOES have the coins. She gives them to Marlo, thus giving the girl the chance to save her sister and everyone else in the diner by changing the past.

I love time travel stories, so it is a given that I liked "Time Again" a great deal; it basically takes a real crappy bunch of filmmakers to make a time travel movie I don't like. Fortunately, first-time director Ray Karwel and the cast in his film are far from crappy.

The story moves at a quick pace and is lots of fun with its repeating time loops--each one a little different as Marlo tries to undo events that seem destined to happen, and each one getting increasingly fun to watch as she takes advantage of knowledge gained during one trip to effect events in the other.

The acting is also better than one finds in many films made at this budget level. It's about as good as what you find in the 1980s films from Crown International or Andy Sidaris, which means it's mostly solid if a little stagy at times, but nowhere near as brain-achingly amateurish as what seems to have become the norm in the low-budget films these days. But that's not too surprising given that Karwel's leads are all experienced actors, most with a dozen more films or television appearances under their belts. Angela Rachelle and Scott F. Evans are particularly strong in their parts, and I will have to keep an eye out for other films they're in.

Karwel also has mostly firm control over all the technical aspects of the film. He understands how to place a camera to make a fight scene seem like people are actually throwing punches instead of playing Cops & Robbers in the backyard, and the film's CGI muzzle-flashes and gunshot wounds are generally well done as well. There are only a couple of times where the film's low budget shines clearly through in the sense that close-ups or off-camera events are used in order to cover effects that would be too expensive or complicated to pull off. But, in my book, that also puts Karwel in a different class than many of his peers, as they would have attempted the effect anyway to the detriment of the over all picture.

I also have to admire the post-production efforts that went into the picture, as there isn't a single instance where I can mount my standard gripes about lack of color correction, bad use of sound, or inappropriate use of soundtrack music.

All in all, this is a fun, swift-moving action flick that makes great use of its time travel story elements and its talented cast. Karwel and everyone else involved with this film are names and faces to watch for in the future.