April 7th, 2014

LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN: KURT RUSSELL

Kurt Russell is one of my all-time favorite actors. In his long career, he has played a varied array of colorful characters. From Snake Plissken to Rudy Russo, from R.J. MacReady to Dexter Riley; Russell never disappoints. Today, we’ll take a look at three flicks from Kurt’s distinguished filmography.

First up is…

SILKWOOD (1983) ***

Meryl Streep stars as Karen Silkwood, a worker in a nuclear power plant. When Karen gets exposed to plutonium radiation, she joins the worker’s union and goes to Washington to speak out on the substandard working conditions. She then sets out to blow the whistle on the plant’s various safety infractions and winds up killed in a mysterious car accident.

Meryl Streep and Cher (who plays her lesbian roommate) do a fine job at looking unglamorous. In fact, Streep looks pretty hot with her white trash mullet and tight-fitting contamination suit. (The part where she flashes a co-worker is great.) And Kurt Russell gives a terrific, underrated performance. He holds his own with Streep and they have a considerable amount of chemistry together. There are also solid supporting turns by Fred Ward, David Strathairn, Craig T. Nelson, and Ron Silver too.

Director Mike Nichols does a great job at creating a naturalistic environment. The scenes of the workers goofing off in the factory hit the right notes, as do the scenes of Silkwood’s personal life. Once the film sorta veers into Norma Rae Meets the China Syndrome territory, it’s a bit less compelling. However, the flick does have that special glow to it that only movies from 1983 have, so it’s got that going for it.

Russell gets the best line of the movie when he says, “If that’s what a beautician does, I’ll take mine rare!”

Our next Russell flick is…

TEQUILA SUNRISE (1988) ** ½

Mel Gibson is a flashy drug dealer who is trying to get out of the game. Kurt Russell is his best friend, who also happens to be LA’s top cop. A Fed (J.T. Walsh) tries to use their friendship to take down a Columbian drug lord (Raul Julia). Along the way, Mel and Kurt fall in love with the same gal (Michelle Pfeiffer), which naturally complicates the situation.

There’s an interesting dichotomy between this flick and Tango and Cash. Both films find Russell teaming up with another action icon. But whereas Tango and Cash had Kurt playing the live wire of the duo, he plays the well-tailored guy on the team here. With his hair slicked back and wearing top of the line suits, he gives a great performance.

Mel is a little bit more reserved than you’d expect, which leaves Kurt to do much of the heavy lifting. But while he never quite breaks out and goes full-on Martin Riggs, Gibson still gives a solid performance. There’s also a nice little character moment when we learn that he wanted to retire from drug dealing when his kid asked him what he did for a living.

Pfeiffer is pretty good as the girl torn between the cop and the crook. And J.T. Walsh has a couple of nice moments as the Fed working with Russell. But Raul Julia steals the movie as the slimy, but charismatic drug lord.

Written and directed by Robert Towne, Tequila Sunrise is a slick, glossy, but ultimately empty thriller. Although the performances make it watchable, it never really grabs you. The first half of the film is absorbing, but the film loses its way once Gibson has his tryst with Pfeiffer. And the finale is pretty weak. But if you’re a fan of either Kurt or Mel, it might make for OK rainy day entertainment.

And our final Kurt joint is…

POSEIDON (2006) ***

A big budget, CGI-heavy remake of The Poseidon Adventure from the director of Das Boot, Wolfgang Peterson wasn’t the worst idea in the world. And I’ll admit; Peterson cuts to the chase rather quickly. The tidal wave hits the boat about fifteen minutes in, causing tons of devastation and peril, which is more than I can say for Titanic. (And since Fergie was singing onboard the boat, the sooner the wave hit; the better.) Of course, in doing so, it sorta shortchanges the characters. They’re thinly sketched before the boat gets hit by the wave, and they don’t become better developed afterwards.

But the characters are secondary to the disaster sequences. And they are pretty well done. The scenes of the boat tipping over are solid, and the ensuing sequences of mass carnage and death are pretty groovy. (I liked the dance floor electrocution bit.) And Peterson handles the scenes of the survivors perilously climbing across elevator shafts, upside-down ballrooms, and ventilation ducts in a workmanlike and efficient manner.

The performances by Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, and Richard Dreyfuss are all decent. When you have good actors like these on board (no pun intended), you don’t really need a good script. Again, there’s not much else for them to do besides yell, “Go!” and “C’mon!” and “You can do it!” every ten minutes, but their presence helps keep the ship (again, no pun intended) afloat.

As disaster movies go, it’s much better than the bloated original and about on par with the likes of Daylight.

Next week’s Legend: Dennis Quaid!

THE TALE OF ZATOICHI (1962) ****

Shintaro Katsu stars in the first of 25 (26 if you count the 1989 reboot) films as Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman (and masseur). Zatoichi comes to stay with a lowly yakuza boss, who basically just keeps Zatoichi around in case war breaks out with a rival clan. Zatoichi befriends Tate (Michiro Miname), a troubled young member of the gang with woman problems. His sister Otane (Masayo Banri) eventually falls in love with Zatoichi, although he spurns her advances out of self-pity. Zatoichi also makes the acquaintance of Hirate (Shigeru Amachi), the terminally ill chief enforcer of the rival clan. He admires Zatoichi’s skill with a sword and the two develop a mutual respect for one another. Naturally, war between the two clans does come and Zatoichi and Hirate wind up squaring off on the battlefield.

The Tale of Zatoichi is full of all the traits that would become hallmarks of the series. The film boasts rich, well-defined characters that are complicated and compelling. The plot is dense, involving, and intriguing. And of course, the samurai action is excellent. The sparse, but impressive action sequences are a joy to watch, especially if you’re a fan of samurai cinema.

Katsu is great as Zatoichi. The scene where a bunch of gamblers try to pull one over on him during a dice game is awesome, and makes the audience really root for him. He’s equally great in his dramatic scenes and is a total badass during his swordfights. But he’s just as much fun to watch when he diffuses situations without violence too. And the male bonding between Zatoichi and Hirate is genuinely moving, as is their inevitable showdown.

Bottom Line: The Tale of Zatoichi is not only one of the best films in the entire series, it’s one of the best samurai movies of all time.

AKA: Zatoichi: The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi.

THE TALE OF ZATOICHI CONTINUES (1962) ****

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) causes trouble for himself when he slashes the leader of a vicious gang in the eye in self-defense. The clan goes out looking for him and a pretty prostitute (who just so happens to be the spitting image of his former girlfriend) hides him away. When Zatoichi returns to pay his respect to Hirate’s grave (the samurai he killed in the first film), old enemies come out of the woodwork to take him down.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is a worthy sequel in every regard. The action is typically great. The scene where Zatoichi gets jumped by three men and he takes them down is pretty cool, and the many other swordfights are a lot of fun. In fact, there’s even more action here than there was in the first movie, and since the running time is noticeably abbreviated (it’s only 72 minutes long), the flick moves at a lightning pace.

Shintaro Katsu once again essays the role of Zatoichi with authority. He excels in the action sequences, but does some rather fine work exploring the more romantic aspects of the character too. The scenes between Zatoichi and the prostitute are sweet, and when he is briefly reunited with Otane (Masayo Banri), his love interest from the first movie, it’s pretty moving. The relationship between Zatoichi and the mysterious swordsman is quite intriguing in this one, and the scene where his identity is finally revealed is rather well done. Overall, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is another excellent entry in the series.

AKA: The Return of Masseur Ichi.

BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY (1973) ***

Rival Yakuza gangs pop up from the chaos of post-WWII Japan. Convict Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara from The Tattooed Hit Man) works his way up the ranks and although he makes some mistakes along the way, he becomes a well-respected enforcer in the Yamamori clan. To prevent war between clans, he offers to assassinate a rival gang leader. Shozo goes to jail for the crime, but it was all for nothing as the gangs wage a bloody, all-out war while he wastes away in a prison cell.

Directed by Kinji (The Green Slime) Fukasaku, Battles Without Honor and Humanity plays like a Japanese exploitation version of The Godfather. Like that film, the dense plot (which spans several years) is punctuated with some memorable (and gory) moments of violence. There’s an incredible arm-chopping scene and a hilarious part where Sugawara cuts off his finger to ask for forgiveness and it winds up being pecked by a bunch of hens in a chicken coop.

The film often moves at a dizzying pace and it is sometimes hard to keep up with who’s double-crossing who, thanks to the constant revolving door of characters. (Despite the fact that every time a new character is introduced, a title card with their name pops up, it’s still kind of hard to keep track of everyone.) Other than that, Battles Without Honor and Humanity still remains a lot of fun.

Several sequels followed.

AKA: The Yakuza Papers. AKA: War Without a Code. AKA: Tarnished Code of Yakuza. AKA: The Yakuza Papers: Battles Without Honor and Humanity.

SILENT MOVIE (1976) ** ½

Mel Funn (Mel Brooks) is a washed-up director who wants to make a silent movie as his big comeback picture. The studio chief (Sid Caesar) agrees to let him make the movie, but only if he gets some big name stars in the flick. So Mel, along with his two associates (Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman) set out to sign stars like Burt Reynolds, James Caan, and Liza Minnelli to appear in their movie.

Silent Movie is a lightweight, middle-of-the-road comedy from Mel Brooks. After the incredible one-two punch of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, the film comes as something of a letdown. Of course, it’s unfair to compare Silent Movie to those classics, but it’s definitely Mel on an off day.

There are some good gags here though. The scenes of Mel interrupting Burt in the shower and having lunch in Caan’s trailer are pretty funny. And Brooks, Feldman, and DeLuise are fun to watch. But many of the slapstick-heavy jokes (no pun intended) fall flat or go on too long (like most of the scenes involving the villainous Engulf and Devour company). A lot of the jokes are more clever than laugh-out-loud funny, and some wouldn’t have even cut it during the silent days.

You still have to give credit to Mel for trying to make a movie like this in the ‘70s. Mel even puts in many gags revolving around the preposterousness of making such a feature in the (then) modern day. And while the film isn’t Brooks at his best, indiscriminate fans of the man should get some laughs out of it.

NEW TALE OF ZATOICHI (1963) ***

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) meets an old friend while traveling on the road. They get robbed, and Zatoichi follows the thieves and kicks their ass. One member of the clan already wants revenge on Zatoichi (for killing his brother in the last movie) and he tracks him down and challenges him to a fight. Zatoichi’s old master breaks it up and invites Zatoichi to stay with him. But things get complicated when Zatoichi falls in love with his master’s sister.

New Tale of Zatoichi is notable for being the first Zatoichi movie in color. (I miss the moody black and white cinematography from the previous entries though.) The themes of honor and revenge that permeate the series are just as strong in this tale. The swordfights are quite good too, and I enjoyed Zatoichi showing off his expert skills (like the scene with the candles). I also liked the part where Zatoichi chose not to fight in public (he didn’t want innocent people to get hurt), only to come back later and settle the score in private.

But after a great set-up, New Tale of Zatoichi sorta twiddles its thumbs too much in the second act. And it’s kind of hard to believe that Zatoichi would accept a marriage proposal from his master’s sister when he turned down (much) better offers from other (hotter) women in the last two films. Because of that, their romance doesn’t quite click; and it feels more like a plot contrivance than a real love affair. Those romantic missteps aside, New Tale of Zatoichi is still pretty good. It isn’t as strong as many of the other films in the series, but it remains a solid samurai flick.

AKA: Zatoichi Enters Again. AKA: Zatoichi: The Blind Man’s Return.

ZATOICHI THE FUGITIVE (1963) *** ½

After winning a wrestling tournament, Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is attacked by an inexperienced swordsman looking to collect on a reward. Zatoichi quickly dispatches him and then goes to inform the boy’s mother (a member of the yakuza) that he killed her son. She thanks him for being so honorable and declines any sort of retaliation. But of course, wherever Zatoichi goes, trouble follows, and pretty soon, he becomes caught up in a power struggle between rival yakuza gangs.

Zatoichi the Fugitive probably has one too many subplots for its own good. And the fact that Zatoichi spends a lot of time playing matchmaker to an innkeeper’s daughter doesn’t exactly help. But the terrific samurai action (in the impressive finale, Zatoichi takes out about 100 dudes singlehandedly) and yet another great performance by Shintaro Katsu make up for the occasional lulls in the pacing.

Another plus is that Otane (Masayo Benri) makes a welcome return to the series. Zatoichi’s complicated relationship with her, which grows even more complicated now that she’s shacked up with a rival samurai, is interesting and she makes for a much better romantic interest for Zatoichi than the gal in the last movie. And Zatoichi’s ensuing duel to the death with the samurai over her affections is one of the series’ best swordfights.

AKA: Zatoichi, Crazy Journey.