December 31st, 2014

DRIVE HARD (2014) ***

Wait a minute. You mean to tell me there’s a car chase movie starring Thomas Jane and John Cusack, and it’s from the director of Leprechaun 3? Sign me up for that!

Jane stars as a washed-up American race car driver who is now reduced to being a driving instructor in Australia. Cusack is his latest student, and he hoodwinks Jane into being his getaway driver for a bank heist. Pretty soon, they’re pursued by not only the cops, but the criminals that own the bank.

The two stars have good chemistry and they have plenty of funny scenes together. Cusack’s first driving lesson is pretty great and nicely sets the tone for the rest of the film. I also dug the scene where he makes Jane call the cops and he gives a terrible performance over the phone, causing Cusack to shoot the phone in frustration.

Dressed in a baseball hat, dark shades, and black suit, Cusack is a lot of fun to watch. Whether he’s hammily sucking on a vapor hookah or belittling Jane’s masculinity, Cusack gets plenty of laughs. Jane, who is always good at playing the wrong guy at the wrong place at the wrong time, gives yet another solid performance and shows he’s also quite a gifted comedian.

Director Brian Trenchard-Smith delivers plenty of solid car chases throughout. Sometimes though, the stunt work is a bit obvious (you can see some of the rigging when one of the cars flips over). Some of the oddball detours (like a run in with a pistol-packing granny) don’t exactly work, but the pacing is fast enough that it’s easy to excuse a lot of the film’s excesses.

Drive Hard also suffers from a low budget. Many of the exposition scenes and much of the stuff involving the mobster villains is a tad on the dull side too. Whenever Cusack and Jane are bickering though, Drive Hard is a lot of fun.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1983) ****

Mel Brooks stars in, but did not direct this remake of the Ernst Lubitsch classic. However, his gifted comic touch can be felt throughout this film, which is a classic in its own right. It would make a perfect double feature with Brooks’ The Producers as both films deal with Hitler and the theater, but in very different ways.

Brooks and his real-life wife Anne Bancroft star as married stage performers working in Poland. When the Nazis storm the country, they kick the pair out of their home and shut down their theater. Bancroft’s number one fan (Tim Matheson) is an RAF pilot and he enlists her help tracking down a devious double agent (Jose Ferrer). Armed with only costumes and fake beards from the theater, the tiny troupe tries to stick it to the Germans.

To Be or Not To Be is a lot of fun. Not only does it contain some very big laughs, it has plenty of heart too. The scene where the Nazis drag away Bancroft’s gay dresser and send him off to the concentration camp is pretty harsh. (Brooks quips, “If it wasn’t for the Jews, gays, and gypsies, there would be no theater!”) When Brooks dons a bevy of disguises to impersonate several high-ranking Nazi officials to get him back, the comedy works because the stakes are high. The balance between the comedy and genuine suspense is really quite something and you’ll find you’ll be holding your breath in between the laughter.

The film was directed by Brooks’ usual choreographer Alan Johnson. Since there are plenty of musical numbers and vaudeville routines, I’m sure Johnson directed more than his fair share of the flick. Still, I have a feeling that it was Brooks who more than likely was calling the shots in the comedy department. (The fact that Johnson only directed one more film, the terrible Solarbabies, probably proves my assumption.)

It’s great to watch Brooks and Bancroft play off each other. They have effortless chemistry together, and get lots of laughs. Matheson is also quite good as the square romantic hero, and the supporting cast, which includes everyone from Charles Durning to Christopher Lloyd are perfectly cast.