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GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) *** ½

I’m not really an anime guy. I wouldn’t know a Ghost in the Shell from an Akira. All I know is that this movie, based on the beloved Japanese cartoon and comic book, rocks.

Imagine if John Woo used The Matrix technology to remake Blade Runner (okay, Johnny Mnemonic) and that might give you an idea of what we’re talking about.

The movie is basically a remake of Robocop. In fact, I kind of wish this really was the legit Robocop remake instead of that forgettable Robocop remake from a few years ago. It uses the same themes as a Robocop movie and tweaks them for the 21st century, creating something familiar, and at the same time, fresh.

It also happens to be one of Scarlett Johansson’s best. I didn’t think she’d be able to top her performances in the Marvel movies where she wore incredibly skintight suits and beat up hundreds of guys, but somehow she does just that here. What makes her performance so great in this one is that she wears a skintight suit that is flesh-toned and nearly anatomically correct. This way whenever she’s beating up hundreds of guys, it leaves little to the imagination as to what’s underneath.

The film also gives us some pretty neat glimpses into the future. I liked that hookers have floating LCD signs above their heads that advertise what they’re charging. I also dug the body modifications that allow people to become more robot-like. I’m not talking about the eyeballs that give you instant night vision. I’m of course referring to the modified liver that allows you to drink like a fish without damaging your innards.

Director Rupert (Snow White and the Huntsman) Sanders does some pretty nifty stuff with the action. The opening sequence is breathtaking and he also gives us a cool, atmospheric fight in a darkened hallway where the only flashes of light come from electric tasers. While some of the fight scenes feel a bit generic, I defy you not to smile when you hear the words “Activate Spider Tank!” This Spider Tank guy is pretty badass and he can kick butt like ED-209.

A side note regarding the whole “Whitewashing” debacle. I have seen the original Ghost in the Shell anime, although I can’t for the life of me remember anything about it. All I can say is that this is a case of people condemning something before they actually see the finished product. You see, the “shell”, or robot exterior, may be Caucasian, but the “ghost” or spirit that is inside of it, is Asian. Since my mother always told me it’s what’s on the inside that counts, I have to say a lot of the negative comments that were heaped on the film before its release were unjust. Then again, I’m not an anime guy, so what do I know?

TROUBLE MAN (1972) **

Robert Hooks stars as the badass “Mr. T”. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that a certain star of Rocky 3 might’ve stolen his name from this character. Nah, I pity the fool that’d do something like that.

Anyway. Mr. T is a bad man, but he does good things for the neighborhood. He goes after negligent slumlords and accepts bail bonds from people who can’t afford to go through the proper channels. A friend in need, Chalky (Paul Winfield) hires Mr. T to find out who’s been busting up his illegal crap games. When Chalky kills the gunman, T is blamed for the murder. Since the stick-up man works for the local kingpin Mr. Big (Julius Harris), Mr. T has to clear his name to both the cops AND Mr. Big.

Trouble Man was included in book The 50 Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way), but I can think of dozens of other Blaxploitation action flicks much more deserving of inclusion. The cinematography is crisp, and the action is well-staged. The opening pool hustling sequence is badass enough to keep it far away from ever receiving a Golden Turkey Award. (The same goes for the cool theme song by Marvin Gaye.)

Still, it ain’t all that great. Once the plot is set into motion, the pacing gets increasingly bogged down. All the double-crossing and triple-crossing is clumsily plotted and ineffectively executed. The flick also suffers from a lack of action, which mostly just bookends the film. Hooks’ performance carries it as far as it will go, but in the end, Trouble Man just isn’t really worth the trouble.

Hooks’ son, Kevin went on to direct the classic Black Dog.

THE INVINCIBLE SUPERGUY (1977) * ½

A pair of robbers and rapists are hired by a devious brother and sister team to sneak into a palace and steal some gold. Meanwhile, a girl disguises herself as a man in order to get close enough to stop them. A guy with a metal face called “Devil Man” and his army of zombie fighters joins the fray, and eventually, some dude calling himself “Superguy” steps in to save the day.

I had a hard time understanding some of the plot because the sound kept going in and out throughout the running time. Just when I’d raised the volume up enough to hear it, the sound would come back to full-blast and it nearly blew my speaker out. Usually, this wouldn’t be a problem if there was a subtitle option, but there wasn’t.

Not that plot is essential in a Kung Fu flick. However, there’s so much double-crossing, dirty dealings, and scheming going on between the characters that it’s hard to keep track of who’s doing what to who. I guess it wouldn’t matter if the action was solid. As it is, the Kung Fu isn’t anything to write home about. With the exception of the scene involving a blindfolded woman kicking plates off a guy’s head, the action is rather weak. The finale, which involves a lot of bad guys running around in fast-motion, is pretty stupid too.

For a movie named “The Invincible Sugerguy”, we don’t see a whole lot of him. When he finally does show up, it’s too little too late. I realize the filmmakers were probably just trying to cash in on the success of Superman, but there’s absolutely nothing “Super” about this guy, or the movie.

AKA: Golden Lohan.

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FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (1974) *** ½

Freebie and the Bean is a messy, wild, freewheeling, sloppy, uneven, thrilling, ramshackle, and just plain fun prototypical buddy cop movie. James Caan and Alan Arkin star as bickering partners who play jokes on each other and make fun of each other’s ethnicities. They work together surprisingly well considering that they can barely tolerate each other.

Along the way they get into some amazing car chases, pile-ups, and car crashes. The scene where their car goes flying off the freeway and into the third story of apartment building is as good as anything in a Smokey and the Bandit movie. If that isn’t high praise, I don’t know what is.

I guess that’s to be expected since it was directed by Richard Rush, who also did the cult classic, The Stunt Man. There is some crazy stuff in this movie. There’s a car crash scene that probably inspired John Landis to make The Blues Brothers. We also get a scene that can only be described as a fist fight, but with a car and a van. Speaking of which, Rush also goes all-in on the fight scenes. I mean why stage a fight in a kitchen unless you’re going to destroy EVERYTHING in the kitchen.

It’s not always successful, but the spirit of unbridled anarchy that runs throughout the film is truly inspired. Another cool thing is that the plot unfolds mostly out of dialogue and the characters’ interactions instead of rote plot points and genre convention. It also helps that the two leads have a lot of chemistry together. It’s easy to forget how funny Caan can be when given comedic roles. It’s a shame he and Arkiin didn’t make an entire franchise out of this.

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LOGAN (2017) ****

Logan is a somber movie to begin with, but it’s made all the more poignant because it’s an opportunity to say goodbye to a friend. Yes, after seventeen years and nine X-Men films, Hugh Jackman has retired from the role that made him an international superstar. Of course, I'll believe it when I see it. Superheroes are killed off and brought back all the time, so we’ll see just how long his retirement lasts.

If this is truly Jackman’s swan song as Wolverine, it's a fitting send-off as Logan is easily the best of the three standalone Wolverine movies. While I can’t say it’s the best X-Men film, it certainly has more heart than any of them. That alone is something to treasure.

In the near future, mutants have almost nearly been eradicated. Logan keeps Professor X (Patrick Stewart) hidden away from the world while he moonlights as a limo driver to get enough cash to buy a yacht so he can retire and spend the rest of his days at sea. When he finds a little girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) with powers remarkably similar to his, he becomes her protector and eventually learns to care about humanity again.

The quiet moments are the best ones. This is more of a character study about a character with superpowers than a superhero movie. Logan is older. Beaten down. He doesn't heal as fast as he once did and his claws don't come out like they used to. He’s done with seeing the people he cares about dying around him. Because of that, he isolates himself from the world, more to save himself the pain of losing someone close to him than anything.

Of course, when he meets the little girl, all of that changes. Slowly though. Logan is a reluctant hero after all, and it takes him a while to fully embrace his role as a father figure. The scenes of Logan, the Professor, and Laura together almost feel like a road movie. Despite their makeshift family unit and an occasional moment of familial respite, we have a feeling that it’s all going to end in bloodshed.

My initial reaction to the film was that it lacked a strong central villain. Boyd Holbrook is good as the henchman, but the big bad is Richard E. Grant (acting understated for a change), who’s just a guy in lab coat. The big face-off comes between Logan and a younger, faster, meaner clone of himself. I guess it makes sense. If anyone can challenge Logan, it’s The Wolverine.

After sleeping on it, I realized that the real villain here is time. Time has taken his friends. Time has made him old. Time has weakened him. Time has made him calloused. Time has made him leery of making personal connections for fear of losing them.

The R rating is a bit gratuitous at times as the film descends into needless overkill and unnecessary F-Bombs. However, you needed the R rating in order to show the psychological effects of violence on a child. Laura kills several dozen henchmen in self-defense and it’s up to Logan to teach her how to live with it. The thing is; he has no easy answers for her. (When she tells Logan all the men she killed were bad, he replies, “It’s all the same.”) That’s some pretty heady stuff for a comic book movie.

James (The Wolverine) Mangold films the action in a solid manner. He takes advantage of the R rating as lots of limbs and heads are lopped off. Logan also uses his claws to skewer people in a variety of ways that were only hinted at in his previous PG-13 adventures. The film is at its best though the further away it gets from the usual superhero clichés. Heck, the scene of the Professor and Laura in a hotel room watching Shane on TV is one of the best moments in any of the films in the series.

The script still feels like it has one foot stuck in the old superhero realm. Some of the dramatic beats feel a bit rushed too. That’s okay though because Jackman and Stewart bring so much of their past history to these scenes that they work on sheer goodwill and familiarity alone.

Logan is a bleak movie, but it’s not a complete downer. There are plenty of little character moments here that are just note-perfect. Like when Logan finally breaks down and buys a pair of glasses he doesn't bother to take the price tag off. Or when someone tries to shoot his limo and he uses his body as a shield to save his livelihood.

I’ll admit, I did have a lump in my throat at the end. The last shot of the film ends things on a perfect note. The reason is simple: This is the rare comic book movie that is more focused on ending a chapter instead of setting up a new one.

I can see why Jackman would want to walk away on that note. If this is indeed his last one, I wish him well on his future endeavors. Thank you, sir. You are a true class act and your films were thoroughly enjoyed.

X-MEN MOVIE SCORECARD:

X-Men: Apocalypse: ****
Deadpool: ****
X-Men: Days of Future Past: ****
X-Men 2: X-Men United: ****
X-Men: ****
X-Men 3: The Last Stand: ****
Logan: ****
X-Men: First Class: *** ½
X-Men: Origins: Wolverine: *** ½
The Wolverine: ***

A HERO’S TEARS (1979) **

A masseur is unhappy in his profession. He’s growing tired of massaging fat guys for little pay. When some customers give him some lip, he starts an all-out brawl in the bathhouse. He quits his job and offers to be a tubby guy’s bodyguard. A hitman comes to kill him and when the masseur sees how badass he is, he lets the fat guy be killed so he can pledge allegiance to the assassin. The masseur winds up going to jail, but eventually escapes with the help of the assassin. Their friendship grows when the masseur meets the hitman’s blind sister. He then agrees to help him get enough money for an operation to make her see again.

A Hero’s Tears has a good rhythm early on. The bathhouse fight is full of guys in tighty-whities getting their asses kicked accompanied by comic sound effects and shots of them landing on each other in compromising positions. As far as comic relief fight scenes go, it’s pretty funny. The novel setting also helps make it stand out from similar comic scenes and it actually contains a laugh or two.

I also appreciated the fact that our hero is more or less a coward. The way he threw the fat guy under the bus was good for a laugh. Sadly, once he begins hanging out with the assassin, the whole thing slows down to a crawl. The stuff with the blind sister is equally sluggish. After that, the movie never recovers.

Some fights scenes have lots of blood and others contain plenty of explosions and smoke bombs. However, nothing can really top that bathhouse scene. Although the fights in the third act are decent (I dug the bit where the assassin chopped a guy’s hand off), they pale in comparison to the opening sequence. It’s not terrible or anything, it’s just that no matter how hard it tries, A Hero’s Tears is never is able to duplicate the momentum (or fun) of the first act.

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FullSizeR (7)

The awesome “King Bootmaster” Jang Lee (Ring of Death) Hwang stars as the evil Silver Fox. He orders the death of a group of men on a raft. The lone survivor manages to float downstream where he is rescued by a kind, but sickly monk. He nurses him back to health and teaches him Kung Fu. After his master’s death, our hero then teams up with a female pickpocket and a crotchety old man (who calls everyone “whippersnappers”) to aid him in his quest for revenge.

Although Hwang played the character of Silver Fox in the Secret Rivals series, it doesn’t appear that he’s playing the same Silver Fox in this one. Since the flick was directed by Godfrey Ho, we can probably assume that he was just cashing in on the name. Speaking of Ho, this is the third Godrey Ho film I’ve watched for this column (after Fist of Golden Monkey and Incredible Shaolin Thunderkick), which makes him the unofficial King of the Thrift Store movies.

Ho gives us a lot of flashbacks, which makes the plot play out a in a more interesting fashion than if it was played straightforward. It’s still not enough to keep it from bogging down during the dialogue sequences. There’s a decent amount of action, and while it’s good as far as Ho is concerned, it never really (pardon the pun) kicks into gear either.

We do get some quality fights though. I liked the fight in the restaurant where our hero throws food in people’s mouths, rips their hair out, and tosses a guy UP the bannister of a staircase. The mean old guy also gets a good training scene where he keeps hitting the pickpocket lady in the face with a spoonful of rice. The best training sequence though comes when our hero uses a scissor kick to chop a tree down. These moments help to keep the flick from being just another Kung Fu flick, but ultimately it’s missing the WTF magic of Ho’s zaniest stuff.

AKA: Eagle Silver Fox. AKA: Flying Martial Arts.

Next time on It Came from the Thrift Store: Fantastic Dinosaurs of the Movies!

MR. NO LEGS (1979) ** ½

D’Angelo (Lloyd Bochner) is a ruthless kingpin that rules the drug trade in Florida with an iron fist. He uses Lou (Ted Vollrath), a tough, wheelchair-bound enforcer for muscle. Lou doesn’t have legs, but he does have a gadget-filled wheelchair that would make 007 envious. Ken (Luke Halpin from Shock Waves) is one of his underlings. When his girlfriend finds out he’s been dealing, he kills her. Lou makes it look like a drug overdose by giving her corpse an injection before killing Ken. Two cops (Richard Jaeckel and Ron Slinker) investigate her murder and decide to bring down D’Angelo’s organization once and for all.

Not only does Mr. No Legs have the allure of seeing the world’s first double-amputee black belt, Ted Vollrath, it’s also worth checking out just because it was directed by Ricou Browning. That’s right, The Creature from the Black Lagoon stayed on dry land just long enough to make himself a low budget action movie. Something tells me he would’ve done better staying underwater. (He also directed episodes of Flipper, which also starred Halpin.)

Mr. No Legs feels cheap in just about every way. Even with big name stars like Richard Jaeckel, John Agar (also in Return of the Creature), and Rance Howard, it still feels like a homegrown low budget action movie. Imagine if William Grefe directed a warped episode of Dragnet and that might give you an idea of what to expect.

The character of Lou is pretty cool. His wheelchair has shotguns hidden in its armrests and compartments that store Ninja stars. The problem is he's not in it nearly enough. It’s mostly about Jaeckel’s investigation, and has less to do with Mr. No Legs running rampant (sorry, bad choice of words). Jaeckel is quite good, but even he can’t carry the entire film.

Despite an erratic pace and being burdened with some unnecessary subplots, Mr. No Legs does occasionally spark to life. There’s a great barroom brawl scene that includes transvestites, cat fights, midgets, and Kung Fu. I also dug the scene in which Slinker goes toe to toe with a sword-slinging henchman.

The movie really belongs to Vollrath who proves he can be just as deadly out of his wheelchair. The scene in which he fights someone and hits them in the face with his... uh... nether regions is a sight to behold. Whenever Vollrath's front and center, the flick is enjoyable in a Crippled Masters meets Miami Connection kind of way. It’s just a shame that the scenes without him are nowhere near as entertaining.

Browning’s staging is just on this side of competent. If he was any worse, Mr. No Legs might have skated by on pure camp alone. As it is, there are a few So-Bad-It’s-Good moments, yet there aren’t enough of them to make it a Grade Z classic. Old pros like Jaeckel and Agar lend the film a touch of class, but the non-professionals in the cast are often good for a laugh. (I admit I cracked up when Slinker’s foreign girlfriend said, “No mo' clock an' daggah stuff!")

Browning does do a good job during the final car chase sequence. Sure, it runs on a bit too long and could’ve benefitted from tighter editing. Still, it features cars jumping bridges, and going through trailers, cardboard boxes, and giant blocks of ice (a cinema first, I believe). So it's got that going for it, I guess.

AKA: Destructor. AKA: The Amazing Mr. No Legs. AKA: Gun Fighter.

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FIVE SUPERFIGHTERS (1979) ***

A man in black pajamas goes around the countryside "correcting" people's Kung Fu. (That is to say he kicks their ass.) When he beats up an old Kung Fu master, his three students vow revenge. They go their separate ways and each find new masters to teach them the skills necessary to defeat the man in black.

Five Superfighters ain’t great, but I’ll say this for it: Hardly five minutes goes by in which a Kung Fu fight doesn't break out. While the fights themselves aren't exactly mind-blowing or anything, they occur with such regularity that it's easy to forgive the sequences that are marred by unfunny comic relief or clumsy staging.

The first act in particular is full of fights. The second act adds several training sequences into the mix while still not skimping on the Kung Fu. The finale is action-packed, but by the time it finally rolls around, you might feel a bit numb from it all.

All of this certainly isn’t boring. While the film is action-packed, the action itself isn’t quite an exemplary representative of the genre. Still, it’s hard to hate a movie that has more fighting than talking. That in itself is worthy of praise. I just wish the fights themselves were real showstoppers instead of placeholders. Since The Video Vacuum motto has always been “quantity over quality”, I can’t give this any less than ***.

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FullSizeR (6)

A guy kills his girlfriend’s drunken asshole brother in self-defense and flees the scene of the crime. He then crushes his hand with a rock and vows to never fight again. He gets a job as a dock worker and defends the poor people who try to steal food. When “The Syndicate” moves in, they fire all the dock workers. The workers try to revolt and The Syndicate’s right hand man (Bolo Yeung) kills anyone who messes with them. It’s then up to our fugitive hero to stand up to The Syndicate and take down their muscle-bound bodyguard.

Chinese Hercules suffers from a misleading title. Sadly, Bolo doesn't make like Steve Reeves or Lou Ferrigno and break chains and beat up gladiators and shit. He's just the bad guy’s badass henchman. He’s also pretty good at what he does too. Unfortunately, Bolo doesn't even show up till a half hour into the movie. Even worse, he doesn't kill anyone till it's halfway over. The finale where he decimates dock workers has a kick to it, but it’s a long time coming. If Bolo was front and center more, this could’ve been a classic.

The flick also has an odd structure. The first act with our hero making a vow not to fight is promising and entertaining. He kind of gets pushed to the background though by the time the second act rolls around. This section revolves around the dock workers’ revolt and it’s considerably less enthralling. We get some good action late in the game, but thanks to the ho-hum second act, it never really fires on all cylinders.

AKA: Black Guide. AKA: The Kid from Pier. AKA: Freedom Strikes a Blow.

Next time on It Came from the Thrift Store, we’ll feature another Kung Fu flick, Eagle vs. Silver Fox!

MELINDA (1972) *

I’ve sat through a lot of bad Blaxploitation movies in my time, but Melinda is pretty near the bottom of the barrel. I think what’s truly bizarre about it is that is has all the elements necessary to make a classic of the genre. There’s revenge, sex, and a finale jam-packed with Kung Fu. It’s astounding how director Hugh A. Robertson manages to drop the ball at nearly every turn.

The ads said, “YOUR Kind of Black Film!” They sure as shit weren’t talking to me.

Calvin Lockhart stars as an arrogant DJ. One night, he picks up Vonetta McGee at a bar and takes her back to his place to get his freak on. Later, she winds up dead and he sets out to find her killer.

Sounds like all the makings of a good Blaxploitation flick are there, doesn’t it? Robertson never really cashes in on the promise of having a karate-chopping DJ as his lead. I mean you have to wait until the flick is almost over until you get to see any Kung Fu. When we finally do, it’s some of the worst chopsocky you ever saw. Even worse is the fact that you have Jim Kelly (in his film debut) on hand as Lockhart’s teacher and he has virtually nothing to do!

It’s just sad how slow moving and boring half the movie is. What’s even more frustrating is that when something threatens to happen, Robertson immediately pulls back and allows the film to squander any potential promise. Take the ending for example where the villain tosses Lockhart’s woman in a gazebo full of snakes. You’d at least expect the villain to land in there in the end, right? No, instead the bad guy just gets shoved over a (small) garden wall and Lockhart punches him a few times. What’s up with that? Why would you introduce a concept as cool as a gazebo full of snakes and then do NOTHING with it? Heck, no one even gets BITTEN by a snake! The hell?

What’s really wrong is that they never incorporate the hero’s two passions: Music and karate. It would’ve been awesome if he was a DJ who threw sharpened 45s that cut people like Ninja Stars. Or at least have a scene in a record-making factory where he kicks a bad guy into a record press and he says, “You just got remixed!” Do I have to think of everything?

MERCENARIES (2014) ** ½

You’ve got to hand it to The Asylum. Sometimes they get so excited to make a rip-off that they jump the gun and make it before the movie they’re ripping off even gets off the ground. Then, while in production, the film winds up being canceled and The Asylum is stuck with… gasp… an original production!

That was the case with Mercenaries. When a female version of The Expendables was announced, The Asylum went ahead and green-lit it. Of course, the female Expendables never got made, so they were left with a movie that ALMOST seems pretty original. (Well, it’s more or less like a female Dirty Dozen, but it’s still pretty cool.)

Brigitte Nielsen is a crazed warlord who kidnaps the President’s daughter. Brigitte is a bit of a loose cannon. Since men make her paranoid, she only trusts female soldiers. That gives a government agent (Cynthia Rothrock) an idea: Assemble an all-female team of female prisoners to infiltrate her “Citadel” and rescue the President's daughter.

Zoe Bell, Kristianna Loken, Vivica A. Fox, and Nicole Bilderback are the members of the team. Each has their unique skill. All the actresses are game and seem to be having fun blowing stuff up and kicking the crap out of people. Rothrock also chews the scenery slyly as the Lee Marvin of the group. The most surprising thing is that Nielsen is excellent as the villainess. She doesn’t phone it in and seems genuinely threatening. The scene where she tries to seduce Bell is among the highlights.

The opening titles are set against a comic book background, which obviously means we’re not supposed to take a second of this seriously. I certainly didn’t and was pleasantly amused most of the time. The recruitment scenes are a lot of fun, as is the scene where the ladies are given their weapons. (I also liked the Escape from New York joke.)

If only the action was handled better. The shootouts are rather limited and suffer from too much slow motion, quick editing, and CGI muzzle flashes. Director Christopher Douglas Olen (Almighty Thor) Ray also drops the ball on the hand-to-hand stuff. Zoe Bell’s scenes in particular fall victim to crummy camerawork and are severely over-edited to boot. At least Ray ends things on a high note as the final Loken/Nielsen/Bell fight is pretty solid.

AKA: Prison Raid. AKA: Expendabelles 3.0.

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DEATH SQUAD (2015) ½ *

Danny Glover sends Stephen Baldwin into the post-apocalyptic wasteland to get the goods on the new regime, ran by Rutger Hauer. When Hauer gets wind of this, he sends in a hit squad (led by Michael Madsen) to take Baldwin out. Baldwin is aided in his quest by a mutant (Neva Leoni), who may be a figment of his imagination. Naturally, Madsen fails and Hauer, who constantly bickers with his second in command (Daryl Hannah), has to go and do the job himself.

The fact that Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, Stephen Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, and Danny Glover are in a post-apocalyptic action movie should be enough to make you want to watch it. However, the cast is the only thing Death Squad has going for it. It’s slow-moving, darkly lit, and the editing and storytelling is nearly incoherent at times.

If you’re going to assemble a cast like this, at least give them more to do. Glover spends all of his screen time at a computer terminal while spouting a helluva lot of narration. Meanwhile Hauer and Hannah stand around and argue while wearing Nazi regalia. Baldwin has slightly more to do as he scuttles around the rubble, getting into scrapes and scavenging for material. Only Madsen is able to breathe life into his character. He gets a great introduction scene when he gets a blowjob in a scuzzy bathroom.

In fact, knowing that you have a cast like this and let them down with a shoddy script, schizophrenic editing, and useless action scenes makes it that much worse. They all deserve way better than this. To quote Gabriel Cash, “This whole thing just fucking sucks!”

AKA: 2047: Sights of Death. AKA: 2047: The Final War.

THE GREAT WALL (2017) ***

They should’ve called The Great Wall Good Will Monster Hunting as it features Matt Damon acting like Legolas and bow-and-arrowing monsters from atop a giant wall for two hours. It’s about as good as a mid-range Hobbit movie too. There’s a nice sense of world-building and a handful of clever, if not stunning action sequences.

Damon plays a white “trader” looking for gunpowder who stumbles upon the Great Wall of China and finds himself in the midst of an ongoing battle between the local yokels and an evil alien race. Every sixty years, the beasts go out and forage fresh meat for their Queen. Of course, Matty Boy just so happened to show up on their doorstep right on year sixty. Since he’s handy with a bow, he figures he’ll stick around and fight until he can find their stash of gunpowder. It’s not until he begins to respect the people’s leader (Tian Jing) that he learns to give up his mercenary ways and fight for a cause worth fighting for.

I admired the way director Zhang Yimou choreographed the action. You have to appreciate the way he organizes the hundreds of extras (only some of which are CGI) and executed the massive battle sequences. Like his film Hero, there’s a real vibrant use of color (all the soldiers belong to color-coordinated regimens) and the cinematography is often breathtaking.

What the monsters lack in personality, they make up for in sheer number. Think the bugs from Starship Troopers and that might give you an idea of what we’re dealing with. I also have to praise the editors of the film’s trailers on their restraint. Most of what you saw of the monsters only happens in the first fifteen minutes or so of the movie. The flick has a lot more monster-mashing up its sleeve, and I for once appreciated the fact that they held back on showing much of the monster battles in the previews.

Throughout the film, I kept thinking that this is what The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies wanted to be. It’s a siege movie with long, sustained battle sequences with just enough plot to keep it all together until you get to the next monster fight. I liked the back-and-forth between Damon and Jing. Although Matt is miscast, he’s not bad and equips himself in this kind of tomfoolery rather well.

The real reason to see The Great Wall is for the 3-D. This is one of the rare instances where the filmmakers took great care into the 3-D effects. I’d imagine that if you saw this on cable a year from now, it might feel a bit ho-hum. However, if you see it on the biggest screen possible with the best 3-D system available, you’ll be in for a treat. There are more 3-D effects here than in the last two years’ worth of 3-D movies combined. I’m sure I missed a few of them, but here’s a litany of stuff that comes screaming towards your eyeballs throughout the picture:

• 3-D Arrow
• 3-D Acrobatic Warrior
• 3-D Female Breastplate
• 3-D Spear
• 3-D Ring
• 3-D Monster
• 3-D Gaping Monster Maul
• 3-D Platform
• 3-D Rope
• 3-D Harpoon
• 3-D Lantern
• 3-D Chain
• 3-D Axe
• 3-D Axe (again)
• 3-D Arrow (again)
• 3-D Ash
• 3-D Exploding Monster Chunks
• 3-D Magnet
• 3-D Hot Air Balloon
• 3-D Arrow (again)
• 3-D Spear (again)
• 3-D Matt Damon (not as good as the 3-D Zip-Lining Milla Jovovich from Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, but still pretty sweet)

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PUNK VACATION (1990) *

A punk kills a store owner when the soda machine won't pay him back his forty cents. His gang also assaults his youngest daughter, leaving her in a catatonic state. When the oldest daughter goes out for revenge, she is kidnapped by the punks and her deputy boyfriend has to rescue her.

Punk Vacation is a long 90 minutes. It moves at snail’s pace and isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds. After it’s all over, you’ll feel like you’ll need a vacation.

The back and forth between punks and the cops is especially dull. There’s no tension whatsoever and the punks never once feel like a legitimate threat. It also doesn’t help that the cops are pretty much completely useless. (The boyfriend only catches the ringleader of the gang because he accidentally runs over his motorcycle.)

Also, there’s not nearly enough violence and absolutely no sex. I don’t think it’s rated, but it could’ve easily gotten a PG-13 rating, if not a PG. It desperately needed more exploitation elements to keep it afloat.

The third act is the worst. It’s here where a bunch of rednecks join the pursuit. Now the audience has to follow three groups of idiots traipsing around the wilderness instead of two. The ending is a total bust. They couldn’t even afford to show the villainess getting shot, so they just freeze frame a picture of her on her motorcycle, add in the sound effect of a gunshot, and fade to red. It’s the pits.

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THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017) ****

At first, I was unsure how they were going to make this work. I mean Batman was the best part of The LEGO Movie. How can you make a whole film entirely around him? It’s like making a Happy Days spin-off about Fonzie. Sure, it sounds good on paper, but he’s really best when he’s bouncing off the other characters.

Luckily, my fears were squashed from the very first frame of the movie. No, from before the first frame. As soon as you hear Will Arnett’s voice, you are instantly transported. For the next hundred minutes you are immersed in all that is Batman. What you slowly realize is that it's not a film about LEGO Batman. It is a film ABOUT Batman. What is crazy. What is downright insane is that this is without a doubt the best Batman movie of all time.

Strike that, this is THE BEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME.

This is not hyperbole. This isn’t me being cute. I loved every single frame of this flick. If you love Batman as much as I do, then it is my sincere hope that you will love the movie as much as I do. If you are a casual fan or a Batman die-hard like me, you are guaranteed to at the very least walk out of the theater with a stupid grin on your face for two or three hours afterwards.

I tried to make this review as Spoiler-Free as possible, but in my excitement, I let a few occasional spoilers out. I would never dream of spoiling the pure joy of this movie to you. So please note, that is THE BEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME (yes, even better than The Expendables 2 and Star Wars), and you should stop reading this, go out and see it, and come back and finish the review. You’ll be glad you did.

If you love Batman, then you will love this movie because this movie loves Batman. It is celebration of all things Batman. It takes everything that has come before, the good, the bad, and the ugly and accepts it. It embraces it. It owns it and wears it like a badge of honor. When Batman whipped out the Shark Repellent, I applauded.

No iteration of the Dark Knight is left unmentioned. Even the ‘40s serials get a shot out. The movie takes EVERYTHING that makes Batman the goddamned Batman (nipples on the batsuit and all) and lovingly flaunts it loud and proud. Folks, I can’t even express to you how good it felt to see Adam West do the Batusi on the big screen.

This is the best iteration of Batman we’ve ever seen on the silver screen. His relationships with the other major character are fleshed-out better here than in any of the other motion pictures. (Save for Commissioner Gordon, who retires early on.) The bond between Batman and Alfred (beautifully voiced by Ralph Fiennes) is poignant. Yes, this is at face value, a kiddie movie, but their scenes together capture the relationship better than anything outside of the comics. When Alfred tells him, “You can’t go around dressed in black and brooding all your life”, it’s in the way a parent would tell a goth teenager, but it perfectly suits the character.

The formation of Batman and Robin (an irresistibly enthusiastic Michael Cera) is better here than in Batman Forever. If you’ve ever wondered how in the world a swinging bachelor like Bruce Wayne would ever come to adopt a young boy in tights, this movie sums it up perfectly. The way they eventually learn to work as a team is a joy to behold. When Batman finally admits that Robin has done a good job, it’s truly a wonderful moment.

The relationship between Batman and Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is the best I’ve ever seen. Sure, the movie boils their dynamic down to a rom-com cliché, but in doing so, it makes it that much more potent and heartfelt. It deals with their mutual need to be feared in such a simplistic way that when Batman says, “You complete me”, he’s not just referencing Jerry Maguire; he’s acknowledging that a hero is essentially nothing without his arch nemesis.

The movie also captures the psychology of the character perfectly. Again, it treats it in the simplest forms, but that’s what makes it resonate so powerfully. It also answers the question what does Batman do when he isn’t fighting crime? The scene where he waits for his dinner to cook in the microwave is both funny and at the same time tragic.

Another important question: “Does Batman live in Bruce Wayne’s basement or does Bruce Wayne live in Batman’s attic?” Take a second to give that question some thought. It gets infinitely more complex the more you think about it.

I was expecting lots jokes and pop culture references going in, but I was caught completely off guard by this movie’s heart. What is so glorious is how it turns on a dime. It goes from being hilarious and irreverent in one scene to downright moving in the next. The fearlessness in which it takes hold of you and makes you feel a spectrum of emotions is powerful filmmaking on any level.

Take for example the scene when Batman finds out the Justice League is holding a party and didn’t invite him. It’s bad enough not to be invited, but then they ask him to take their picture. Just the look on his face at being excluded is oddly moving.

So is the way Batman pushes his makeshift family of Alfred, Robin, and Batgirl (Rosario Dawson) away. In his mind, he’s saving not only them from physical harm, but he’s saving himself the emotional pain of potentially losing them. He had a family once, and they died. He isn’t about the same mistake twice.

Those pop culture references though are what really made it for me. I mean how many movies do you know of manage to work in a Passenger 57 reference during the main character’s big introduction? How many of them feature a sidekick who knows Gymkata? Heck it’s worth the price of admission alone just to hear Batman’s computer password.

Once the Joker breaks out of the Phantom Zone and brings all of his pop culture cronies with him, it’s like the toy box of your mind unleashing nostalgia cruise missiles into the pleasure centers of your brain. I’m trying my best to avoid spoliers here, but (SPOILER) I mean there was a moment there when the Joker unleashes Gremlins on the Batwing and Batman has to fight them off where I just wept from pure joy.

The movie starts with a Michael Jackson quote, which Batman attributes to himself. That message is prevalent throughout the film. When the song itself plays at the end, I found myself choking up a bit.

Will Arnett triumphs over all others who have worn the cowl. He was great in The LEGO Movie as Batman. Here, he IS Batman. I would be perfectly fine if DC stopped production of their live-action movies and gave us nothing but LEGO Batman sequels year after year.

Zach Galifianakis just might be my favorite Joker. As much as I love Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, Galifianakis just hits it out of the park. That has a lot to do with the way he plays off of Arnett and how the script was written, but he makes the character his own.

Ralph Fiennes is the definitive Alfred. He was born to play the role. The pained way he dutifully obliges Batman under the constant hope that the Dark Knight will eventually see the light and learn to admit he can’t save the city alone is wonderfully written to begin with. Fiennes delivery is note-perfect every step of the way and gives the character several unexpected layers.

Heck, this might even be my favorite version of Bane (Doug Benson). Notice I didn’t say “most faithful”. He’s mostly just a riff on Tom Hardy’s unintelligible Bane, but every time he opens his mouth, it gets a laugh.

Yes, I understand this is a kid’s movie. Yes, I understand we are essentially watching toys being manipulated by cutting edge stop-motion animation. However, The LEGO Batman Movie cuts right to the heart of what makes Batman tick and captures it better than any other live action film or cartoon ever did. It takes everything from the character’s seventy-eight year history and funnels it into one streamlined monument to his continued endurance, relevance, and awesomeness.

I know that fans were relieved when the live action films turned dark and broody after the goofy ’60 TV show softened the character. The LEGO Batman Movie does the unthinkable. It asks the question, why can’t Batman be both goofy AND broody?

The film’s aim is not to mock what the serials, cartoons, TV show, Burton, Schumacher, Nolan, and Snyder have done with the character, but to treat it as just another step in the character’s journey. Another (LEGO) brick in the wall, if you will. That’s what makes The LEGO Batman Movie such a special experience. If we could all be like Batman and embrace ALL the parts that make us who we are, even the missteps, we’d be better people for it.

JOHN WICK CHAPTER 2 (2017) *** ½

John Wick (Keanu Reeves), perhaps the quintessential 21st century badass, is back, killing scores more disposable henchmen in this fun sequel. This time, he is forced to come out of retirement to perform an assassination he clearly does not want to do. Since Wick’s profession has several layers of intricate laws, codes, and oaths, he is unable to refuse. After he is double-crossed, he goes out for vengeance.

The gunfights and shootouts offer little variation from what we saw in the first movie. While some may be disappointed by this, I can’t really fault the filmmakers’ “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” mentality. Although I would've liked to have seen more creative shootouts (the lone exception is the cool hall of mirrors finale), the hand-to-hand stuff yields a few novel deaths. In one scene Wick kills a guy by shoving a lit cigarette down his throat. Wick also partakes in a grueling fight with a rival (played by Common) that features shades of the Piper/David brawl in They Live. The standout scene though is when he kills a bunch of people using a No. 2 pencil.

What I enjoyed most was seeing the expansion of John Wick’s criminal world on a global scale. The world-building aspect was what made the first movie so great and this one doesn’t disappoint. I mean when Franco Nero shows up as the head of the Italian Continental Hotel, it’s just cause for celebration. I also loved the bit with the armorer who provides weaponry services in the same way a wine steward recommends a fine Cabernet. The stuff with the homeless criminals, who have their own underground network (led by Laurence Fishburne) is really cool too.

If there is a flaw, it's that it all feels less personal this time out. In the first one, John Wick was out for revenge because they killed his dog. In this one, he’s just forced out of retirement and betrayed. Sure, the whole One Last Job thing is an equally sturdy action movie cliché as the Death Wish cliché. It’s just that it lacks the same cool badass drive that propelled the original. Still, once the flick gets into gear, John Wick kills lots and lots of people, which should be enough for the Wickians out there.

The set-up for the sequel is absolutely brilliant. In fact, the whole movie feels like a placeholder for a bigger, grander finale that’s yet to come. Having said all that, treading water has never been so exhilarating.

Nero gets the best line of the movie. When John Wick arrives in Rome he greets him with open arms. Then he quietly takes him aside and asks, “You’re not here to kill the Pope?”

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RING OF DEATH (1980) **

A dimwitted country bumpkin goes into town at the request of his aunt. There, he meets a monk who refuses to let him pass unless he can beat him in a fight. Since his aunt has told him never to fight, he tries to avoid contact. The monk persists and the bumpkin accidentally kills him with one punch. Fearing a murder rap, his aunt sends him off to find his father, who happens to be an evil general, and an asshole to boot. He doesn’t want anything to do with his kid so he tells him his father is actually some old dude. The bumpkin eventually gets an old drunken Kung Fu master and his cranky wife to teach him the martial arts to prepare him for an upcoming fighting tournament.

Ring of Death was definitely riding on the tails of Drunken Master as both films revolve around a young fighter and a drunken Kung Fu teacher. There is more of an emphasis on the comedy than the Kung Fu too. While there are some funny moments here and there (when our hero slices a guy’s hand, he says, “Now you can’t even jerk off!”), the bulk of the comedy is played way too broad for it to really work. Likewise, there are only a handful of decent fight sequences, although most of them suffer from weak choreography. The training montages are pretty good though.

The big problem is with the main character. He's more or less a gullible buffoon, which makes it hard for the audience to really root for him. Sure, you feel sorry for him because so many people take advantage of him, but he’s too much of a simpleton to take seriously as an action hero.

AKA: Bastard Kung Fu Master. AKA: Jung-ri’s School of Yong—hyung-ma.

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ALIEN SEED (1989) **

I've watched Elves every Christmas for almost twenty-five years now. Part of the tradition is seeing the hilarious trailer for Alien Seed that immediately precedes the film. For whatever reason, it’s taken me this long to watch it. While I am glad I’ve finally seen it I have to confess that all the best parts are in the trailer.

Mary (Shellie Block) gets abducted by aliens while jogging. (A flash of white light is the special effect.) Afterwards she has no memory of the event. All she knows is that they left her with a big old alien hickey on her neck. She contacts a writer named Mark (Steven Blade) who is an authority on alien abduction, but she is killed by the evil Dr. Stone (Erik Estrada) before they can meet. Her sister Lisa (Heidi Paine) is then abducted and impregnated by the aliens. Mark tries to help Lisa understand what’s happening to her when some government agents show up trying to assassinate them, fearing that her half-alien child will be the new messiah.

While watching Alien Seed, it dawned on me that it’s basically an inverse version of Elves. (Which figures since it was made by the same producers.) Instead of Nazis using elves to mate with women to produce the Antichrist we have religious nuts using aliens to mate with women to create the second coming of Jesus. It also has a keyboard-heavy score that is similar to the one heard in Elves, which makes me think it might make a good double feature.

Sadly, Alien Seed is nowhere near as much fun as Elves. I will say the first twenty minutes or so makes for a mini-camp classic. Block's acting is terrible and her airhead line reading of the simplest dialogue is often hilarious. The stuff with the aliens, who wear masks from Spencer's Gifts and white spandex, is pretty funny too. The early scenes also contain lots of T & A as Paine works in a topless bar.

Once the action switches focus to Paine’s character, the whole thing takes a nosedive in quality. From here on out, the film resembles a cheap version of a ‘70s political thriller with our heroes hiding out in hotel rooms and outrunning men in black suits. The action is also cheaply done with nearly all the car chases taking place well within the speed limit. The shootouts are fairly low rent, although the squibs are pretty bloody. We do get one great fire stunt in the final minutes of the movie. Although brief, it's quite effective.

Erik Estrada really gets into his role of Dr. Stone. He gamely chews the scenery and his theatrics are entertaining (especially when he tortures Blade using “buffalo stimulants”). You just wish he had more screen time because when he's absent his presence is sorely missed.

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AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (2004) **

Lau Xing (Jackie Chan) steals a jade Buddha from the Bank of England and poses as a valet to make his escape. Eccentric inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan) hires him, mostly because he needs someone to test pilot his inventions. When Fogg presents his findings to a council of scientists, he’s almost laughed out of the room. He makes a bet with them that he can circle the globe in eighty days. Since Lau wants to return the Buddha to his village in China, he agrees to go with him. Along the way, they run into various authority figures, not to mention a gang of Chinese warlords, who are trying to retrieve the jade artifact.

This adaptation of the beloved Jules Verne novel is an odd duck. They’ve gutted a lot of the novel to make room for a Jackie Chan comedy vehicle. It’s more of a kids’ movie (it was released by Disney) than a real Jackie Chan flick, so the action is overly slapstick-y and the jokes are obvious, broad, and not very funny.

This is one of those revisionist deals like The Lone Ranger where the ethnic sidekick gets more time to shine than the actual hero. This isn’t a bad idea, since after all; this is Jackie Chan we’re talking about here. Since this is an expensive, overlong, and gimmicky kids’ movie, the action sequences weren’t exactly a main priority.

It was directed by Frank Coraci, a veteran of many Adam Sandler movies. That is to say, he’s not the sort of guy you want behind the camera directing Chan. The fight scenes have potential, but nearly all of them fall flat. Take for example the fight in an art gallery where Jackie and his assailants get paint everywhere while fighting and accidentally make a work of art in the process. Although the bare bones of a great scene are there, Coraci doesn’t have the chops to make it work. The finale, which takes place inside the under construction Statue of Liberty is slightly better.

Like the 1956 version, there is a cavalcade of cameos, the most notable being Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Turkish prince who wants to steal Coogan’s girlfriend. While it’s cool seeing two titans of action cinema such as Chan and Schwarzenegger finally on screen together, I wish the film found something more for them to do together besides share a hot tub. I also wish Schwarzenegger had funnier dialogue besides calling Fogg “Foggy”.

Sammo Hung also shows up playing Wong Fei Hung, although he isn’t utilized to his fullest. We also get Rob Schneider (as a bum), John Cleese (as a bobby), and Kathy Bates (as the Queen). The best cameo is by Owen and Luke Wilson as the Wright brothers. They bring a comedic spark that’s lacking throughout the rest of the picture. You almost wish they had their own spin-off.

SHE (1965) **

John Richardson and Peter Cushing go to Palestine and paint the town red. During their revelry, Richardson winds up getting shanghaied and taken to the beautiful Ursula Andress who claims to be an immortal goddess. She also believes that he is the reincarnation of her lost love and sends him on a dangerous quest to prove his worth.

Based on the novel by King Solomon’s Mines’ H. Rider Haggard, this Hammer production features both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, although they never find very good use for either of them. Cushing is mainly there as Richardson’s sidekick and Lee is relegated to the role of Andress’ sullen advisor. Their presence alone will be enough for Hammer fans to want to check it out, although neither of them exactly make or break the picture.

Another reason to see it is for the beautiful Andress. She is plenty sexy, but is a bit stiff in the acting department. Still, when you see her sitting on a throne wearing a sheer white robe and golden headdress and ordering people to be thrown into a lava pit, it’s hard not to smile, at least a little.

The set-up is handled in a brisk manner and features a sense of playful fun that is otherwise missing in the rest of the film. Once the heroes set out on their quest, doldrums set in. The flick begins to show signs of life once again during the final reel (which looks like it might have inspired Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), but because of the sluggish middle act, the audience has to exert extra effort to become reinvested in the characters. By then, it’s not exactly worth it. Still, it does have fleeting moments, but that’s not nearly enough to hang a whole adventure on.

The Resident Evil saga has varied wildly in terms of quality on a film-by-film basis. Heck, The Final (excuse me while I laugh uncontrollably at the notion that this will be the “final” installment) Chapter fluctuates in quality on a scene-to-scene basis. For every awesome sequence of zombie carnage, there is at least one humdrum shootout foiled by shaky-cam camerawork and ADHD editing. Still, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter more often than not delivers the goods.

I maintain that whatever its faults, any movie that begins with Milla Jovovich in a Humvee playing a game of chicken with a mutant dragon is a good movie.

This also has to be the LOUDEST movie on record. I can only imagine what it will sound like at home. If you have a quality sound system, chances are you’re going to blow out your speakers, or your windows, whatever comes first.

It sets a Hollywood record for the most number of jump scares in a horror flick too. There’s at least four in the first scene alone. Because of the heightened sound quality, each scare is punctuated with a piercing noise that sounds like a cross between nails on a chalkboard, two rusted battleships scraping against each other, and Godzilla taking a shit. (That is to say that, yes, I did jump a time or two; mostly because of the deafening sound.)

The film sets another record for the amount of vehicles the heroine loses, crashes, or falls off of. I counted three in the first act alone. Thank goodness cars and motorcycles are so easy to find after the Apocalypse.

The plot is the same as all the other ones. This time though, Milla is finally going to go to Raccoon City/enter the Hive/take down the Umbrella Corporation for good this time. Fingers crossed. Probably not.

In fact, the movie plays like a Resident Evil greatest hits mix tape. You like zombie dogs? Well this time there are hundreds of them. Remember the laser beam room? Well, you get another badass fight in it. You enjoy long detailed briefings by a little proper British girl who acts as the Hive’s security system? You’re gonna have a field day with this one.

As a fan of zombie movies in general, I have always been a bit perplexed by this series as the zombies are often dropped in favor of mutant squid-faces and/or biomechanical monsters. If you love zombies as much as I do, then you’ll probably flip over The Final Chapter. It contains without a doubt some of the finest mass zombie hordes ever projected on the silver screen.

Director Paul W.S. (Resident Evil 1, 4, and 5) Anderson delivers on the gore. Heads are lopped off, hands are hacked off, and hips get hand-grenaded off. Unfortunately, his action scenes aren’t as crisp as his previous Resident Evil outings. He favors shaky-cam Bourne-style action rather than the Matrix-y brand he brought to Afterlife and Retribution. The handing of the action isn’t enough to derail the movie, but it does hold it back from achieving its full badass potential.

Still, he does give us some inventive moments along the way. My favorite bit was when Milla went to kill the villain using an icepick, broken whiskey decanter, and a fountain pen. Then the film rewinds itself and we see it was just a part of the bad guy’s “Threat Detector” where he views each possible scenario and predicts her likelihood for success. It’s a neat scene that plays with the audience’s expectations and I wish Anderson had a few more moments like this up his sleeve. (Although there is a shot in which the camera goes through a zombie dog’s ribcage that is quite beautiful.)

I don’t want to get political. However, I thought I’d point this out. This is the second big action sequel (after XXX 3) that has come out after Trump was elected President. It portrays Washington D.C. as a wasteland that’s been totally decimated by a zombie plague. Make of that what you will.

The 3-D isn’t the best of the series. Most of the effects occur in the second half, so if you’re patient you will be rewarded with a fair amount of 3-D moments. My favorite effect might be the scene in which Milla jumps on a zip line, hurtles toward the screen, and almost hops right into your lap. Folks, this is the kind of shit the technology was made for.

Full 3-D stats:

• 3-D gun barrels (multiple)
• 3-D hand
• 3-D zip-lining Milla
• 3-D ejected gun clip
• 3-D threat calculator

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) ***

I wasn’t quite sure how and if Suicide Squad was going to work. As it turns out, it’s essentially The Avengers, but with supervillains instead of superheroes. In fact, the big stumbling block about it is the fact that it hews a little too closely to The Avengers formula.

For starters, the team is brought together by an African-American recruiter who works for a secret government agency and doesn’t take shit from anyone. For another, they are sent after a team member’s brother. They also have to close a giant portal that resembles a big light show to stop the bad(der) guys from bringing about the end of the world. Also, the villain’s minions were nothing more than faceless fodder for our heroes (err… villains) to easily punch, kick, and shoot. (There are some sequences that feel like a live-action video game.)

That’s right; it’s another blow-up-the-world-killing-machine-in-the-nick-of-time movie.

The good news is that nearly all of the characters are engaging, appealing, and entertaining. Will Smith brings his trademark swagger to the role of the assassin, Deadshot. Margot Robbie, who was amazing in The Wolf of Wall Street, continues to ooze sex appeal as the Joker’s sultry psychotic girlfriend, Harley Quinn. Jai Courtney has a few unhinged moments as Captain Boomerang, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje gets some laughs as Killer Croc, Cara Delevingne rivals Robbie in the hotness department as the sexy Enchantress, and Jay Hernandez offers moments of unexpected depth as the brooding Diablo.

Just about everyone who saw this before me told me they were disappointed by the lack of Joker (Jared Leto) in the movie. I thought he was in it just enough. It was cool that he was either in the minds of the characters or lurking in the background waiting to strike. As for Leto’s performance, I think he handled it rather well. Some might not like his “gangsta” get-up or all the tattoos, but for me, that’s all superficial. He really nails the psychotic tendencies of the character. Take for instance the scene where he offers a henchman (Common) a roll in the hay with his beloved Harley Quinn. The guy knows as soon as the offer is made he’s dead meat because The Joker will kill him if he accepts (because he wants to sleep with her) or declines (because turning her down would seem like an insult; like she’s not pretty enough). For me, that was a quintessential Joker moment.

Leto is especially good in his scenes with Robbie. Since she’s his love interest, she brings out a side of him that we haven’t seen from the character in films before, a romantic (albeit demented) side. The scene in which he asks her to jump willingly in a vat of chemicals for him is one of the oddest declarations of love I’ve seen in a movie in some time.

The early scenes are the best. The character introductions are a lot of fun. Usually, whenever a title card accompanies a character introduction, it’s cause for eye-rolling, but director David (Fury) Ayer varies them up in such a way that they don’t seem like a cheap shortcut. Once the team is assembled, there is some good back-and-forth between the characters, and there is just enough heart there for you to care about them (even if they are bad guys).

I really loved the characters. I just hope that next time they are given an actual movie to inhabit. Once they are turned loose on the city, the film devolves into scene after scene of them fighting shit monsters. (Seriously, they look like shit; literally and figuratively.) Once Enchantress goes rogue and joins up with her brother, the whole thing pretty much goes on autopilot. Plus, the CGI for her brother is fucking terrible. He looks like the bastard child of The Lawnmower Man and something out of The Mummy Returns. Still, Enchantress is really hot in these scenes, even if she does look like a Vegas showgirl from Hell.

Even though the movie heavily relies on clichés leftover from The Avengers, there was one cool way I liked how it aped the Marvel mold. There are a couple of cool cameos by a few superheroes that give the audience a nice peek at the extended DC universe. If anything, it makes you yearn to see them properly going toe to toe with the villains in another movie. (I sincerely hope Ben Affleck goes up against Leto in the near future.)

Ayer handles the action rather well. Even though the fights get repetitive, his staging is competent and he only occasionally relies on shaky-cam nonsense to capture all the fisticuffs. (Too bad the CGI in the finale is pretty shitty.) He also does a good job at balancing the various personalities of the eclectic cast and gives each team member their own moments to shine.

Leto gets the best line of the movie when he tells Robbie, “I’ve got some grape soda and a bearskin rug just waiting!”

XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE (2017) ** ½

Well, it only took fifteen years, but Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) is finally back. That’s right, the extreme sports star-turned-secret agent returns to save the world. After the death of his mentor (Samuel L. Jackson), Cage builds an extreme team of XXX agents to take down a former agent (Donnie Yen) who is possession of “Pandora’s Box”, a computer program that can down satellites, effectively turning them into weapons.

With XXX: Return of Xander Cage, Vin Diesel tries yet again to reignite a franchise that floundered in his absence. As with Fast and Furious, it’s a near-miss, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Another thing that it has in common with Fast and Furious: The set-up to the next movie feels more promising than what is actually on screen.

I wasn’t much of a fan of the original XXX because I felt all the “extreme sports” nonsense was inane. (Although I have to admit that any movie in which the hero and the villain bond just because they can quote Vandals lyrics is kind of funny.) Thankfully, in this one, they drop the “extreme sports” angle pretty quickly. Diesel still skateboards and shit, but a lot of the sports-themed stuff is enjoyably dumb. I liked the scene where Diesel proved you don't need snow in order to ski down a mountain and the scene in which he rides a wave using a motorcycle is one of the most cheerfully over-the-top moments in action cinema since The Transporter 2.

The other action sequences are hit-and-miss. The freeway chase, in which Diesel and Yen bounce off speeding cars like pinballs, starts off well enough, but it’s ultimately too similar to the foot chase in Captain America: Civil War to pack much of a punch. We also get a zero-gravity fight sequence that brims with promise, although the editing sort of gets in the way of it achieving its maximum potential.

The editing, while certainly better than many recent action films does botch a couple of action beats that should’ve been badass moments. I mean when Vin Diesel bitch-slaps a bad buy with a motorcycle, it should be cause for celebration. However, the way it’s framed and edited makes it hard to tell exactly what happened.

All of this is, I should point out, is fitfully amusing. While it lacks the fun of XXX 2, it isn't nearly as dumb as the first one. Well, let me rephrase that. At least this one knows it’s dumb, embraces its dumbness, and goes full-throttle with it.

Case in point, the part where Diesel promises to kill a henchman in an outlandish and specific way in the second act, and then goes on to follow through with his promise during the climax. This is fast-becoming one of my new favorite action movie clichés (See also: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back), but they really upped the ante this time out. In this one, Diesel vows to flush a henchman down a toilet. True to his word, in the third act, while fighting in a bathroom on a plane that is hurtling toward the earth, Vin shoots a hole in the toilet. This causes the bad guy to get sucked into the vacuum and go flying out of the plane. To really shine the guy on, Vin quips, “It took two flushes!”

It’s truly a glorious moment in the history of motion pictures.

Vin gives you just about what you expect. He delivers his lines in the same manner you’d expect him to while pulling off the action with his trademark swagger. I don’t know why he waited fifteen years to come back to the franchise, but this is proof that with a competent director and a fun script, he can command the screen with charisma to spare.

The supporting cast is a lot of fun. Yen in particular is great and gets more moments to shine than he did in Rogue One. Toni Collette, who looks like the heavily Botoxed, indifferently embalmed corpse of Tilda Swinton, is good for a laugh as XXX’s new boss. Nina (Never Cry Werewolf) Dobrev is freaking adorable as XXX’s computer techie. She throws herself into the action with gusto and is super sexy when casually tossing out her safe word. (To which Diesel replies, “With me, nothing is safe!”) If there is a great takeaway from this flick, it’s that Dobrev is a goddamned movie star.

The bad news is that the incredible Tony Jaa (who also co-starred with Diesel in Furious 7) is pretty much wasted in a nothing role as one of Yen’s henchmen. Much to my chagrin, they only give him one (ONE) scene where he takes out someone with his lethal kneecaps. To make matters worse, he’s also given a terrible bleach-blonde fauxhawk that more or less strips him of his dignity. Because of that, I have to knock off a Half Star. You just can’t treat the greatest martial arts superstar of the 21st century like that and get away with it.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything for anyone who saw the trailer, but (Spoiler, just in case) easily the best part of the movie is the Ice Cube cameo. I actually think XXX 2 is the best in the series and acknowledging his character was a great way to bring the series full circle. He also figures into the ending, which (like the Fast and the Furious sequels) sets the stage for another potentially great installment.

If anything, you have to love the way Vin Diesel embraces all aspects of the franchises he’s a part of. Even if he goes AWOL in a few of the installments, he goes out of his way to be inclusive to the actors who held down the fort in his absence. Imagine if he had played Michael Myers in the Halloween movies. Part 4 could’ve ended with Myers putting a Silver Shamrock mask on Jamie.

I don’t like to get political or anything, but I do have to point this out. XXX: Return of Xander Cage is the first action movie of the Trump presidency. It also contains the line, "There are no patriots anymore. Only rebels and tyrants”. Make of that what you will.

Overall, this is about on par with a lesser Fast and the Furious movie. I do have to say that I am giddy as shit at the prospect of XXX 4, which is something I’d never ever expect to type. If anything, XXX: Return of Xander Cage is further proof that I will always chuckle any time someone gets shot in the chest at point blank range, survives, and then quips, “What a rush!”

AKA: XXX: Reactivated.

THE BLIND WARRIOR (1987) ***

An evil warlord who has a penchant for wearing outrageous looking costumes demands that he should be feared and worshipped by the neighboring villagers. To ensure he gets his way, he orders his army to senselessly slaughter anyone who refuses to bow down before him. Meanwhile, a blind warrior travels around with a monkey on his back (literally) and stumbles upon a group villagers being terrorized. He rescues them and the villagers take him into their home. After a lot of back and forth, the blind warrior eventually decides to square off against the evil warlord.

The Blind Warrior is sort of an Indonesian version of Zatoichi as he uses his cane to fight off various henchmen and evildoers. There’s also a bit of Conan and Temple of Doom in there as well as our villain has a flair for the dramatic. (He likes to hold court in front of a giant stone skeleton where he performs all sorts of rituals and sacrifices before his loyal subjects.) Then there are the moments that you can’t even wrap your head around. In one odd scene, a woman is thrown into a pit and made love to a barbarian on a bed of what looks like pink aquarium gravel. There’s also a neat sequence in which the blind warrior fights against a flying fire monster that feature simple, but impressive special effects.

The action is a bit slow to start. Stick with it though because the movie gets more action-packed as it goes along. It gets crazier and crazier too. Gorier too. By the time the villagers join forces with the blind warrior and dress up like Ninjas to storm the castle, the bodies really start piling up. We get multiple spears, arrows, axes, and even shovels being shoved through people’s torsos. There are spurting neck wounds, decapitated heads, guys being cut in half, and exploding bodies.

Sure, there are some slow stretches in between the good stuff. (There’s at least one needlessly long dance sequence that pads out the running time.) You also have to deal with a lame subplot that makes the blind warrior look like a total dick. For a long time, he turns his back on the village, which results in a bunch of people dying and a hot chick being kidnapped. Thankfully, he comes to his senses and does the right thing in the end, but it’s a long time coming.

Overall, The Blind Warrior is a nutty Indonesian action flick. Despite its flaws, it has just enough crazy moments and gory action to make it fun. Heck, the villain’s jaw-dropping death alone is worth the price of admission.

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SLOANE (1985) * ½

“Jerk.”

“Egotistical bastard.”

“Selfish little prick.”

“Horse’s ass.”

These are just a few of the names our hero, Sloane is called throughout the movie, and rightfully so. I can’t remember the last time an action flick featured such a despicable character for a leading man. There’s a fine line between stoic macho behavior and a sociopathic degenerate. Sloane crosses over that line several times throughout the film. Sloane is the kind of guy whose idea of consoling a woman after she was nearly raped is to flippantly ask, “Throwing a party?”

Yeah, you probably wouldn’t want to spend 94 minutes with him either. Since I did and lived to tell the tale, I guess I should say that Sloane (the movie and the man) isn’t ALL bad. It’s just hard to root for an egotistical bastard like Sloane.

Sloane is a karate instructor who lives on a houseboat in L.A. When his ex-wife gets kidnapped in the Philippines, he teams up with her husband’s sister to get her back. They bicker A LOT before finally rescuing Sloane’s ex.

In addition to the main character’s general unpleasantness, the film itself is often mean-spirited and crude. This is one of those movies that whenever a bad guy attacks a woman, he immediately rips her blouse open. If the violence was cartoonish and over the top, I might’ve gave it a pass. As it stands, the action is mind-numbingly dull and I found myself nodding off by the end.

Despite that, there is at least one moment that is pretty badass. During a car chase, the bad guys throw a cobra into Sloane’s car. What does he do? Bite its head off and throw it back at them! Now I’ve seen plenty of heroes get into car chases and I’ve seen heroes bite the heads off snakes, but I’ve never seen a hero bite the head off a snake DURING a car chase. So there’s that. Besides, I find it hard to give One Star to any flick that ends with a random ass chase involving cannibal pygmies.

Naturally, Sloane gets the best line of the movie when he tells his leading lady, “You have as much sense as a brontosaurus!”

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MECHANIC: RESURRECTION (2016) ** ½

After faking his death at the end of The Mechanic, Jason Statham has been busy living a quiet life in Rio de Janeiro on a houseboat. Someone tries to coerce him into pulling off an assassination, and he has to beat the ever-living snot out of them. He then heads off to Thailand where he hangs out with Michelle Yeoh and tries to lay low for a while. Naturally, he winds up helping Jessica Alba, who is also being blackmailed by the same villain. When she is kidnapped, he agrees to perform three seemingly impossible assassinations (they all have to look like accidents) for the bad guy in order to get her back.

Statham looks comfortable enough while lounging around on a houseboat and occasionally busting heads. In fact, the opening scenes are almost like Statham's audition tape to play Travis McGee in an adaptation of The Deep Blue Good-By. The opening sequence itself is badass. The fight scene in the restaurant is great as Statham beats the crap out of people in a bar using a table and shoves one guy’s face into a flaming grill. When he is cornered, he escapes by jumping onto a hang glider that just so happened to be passing by.

This entire sequence is worthy of a Bond movie. After that, things get a bit slow. Since the slow stretches of the film revolve around Jessica Alba in a bikini, I’d say there are worse ways to waste your time.

The middle act involves Statham carrying out the three assassinations. The first one finds him staging a prison break using chewing gun bombs, exploding cigarettes, and shark repellent. (No matter how uneven the film gets, you have to respect it for stealing from Batman: The Movie.) The second assassination is reminiscent of Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol as Statham scales a giant glass skyscraper to kill a man in his swimming pool. This sequence is goofy, mostly because the swimming pool is so unsafe to begin with. (It juts out hilariously far from the penthouse with seemingly no support.) It’s kind of easy to kill that guy because that pool was already an accident waiting to happen. The last sequence involves Statham breaking into an eccentric arms dealer’s elaborate panic room. Since the eccentric arms dealer is played by Tommy Lee Jones at his all-time weirdest, it’s hard to hate.

In the end, Statham confronts the villain on his yacht. I can’t say it’s great, but it yields a couple of nifty action moments. Statham uses a guy as a human shield, tosses another into a hot tub and gives him a hand grenade as a personal floatation device, and duels with the anchor-wielding villain.

The first Mechanic (OK, the Mechanic remake, if you want to get technical, since Charles Bronson was in the original) wasn’t exactly memorable, but it was an entertaining Jason Statham vehicle. This one is a step down, but not by much. It’s far from his worst; it’s just that it never quite gets into a rhythm. It sometimes flirts with the outrageousness of a Transporter movie and then pulls back almost immediately into a blander, more generic type of actioner. I have a feeling that if the filmmakers fully embraced the goofiness and really went for broke (i.e. doubled-down on shark repellent); it might’ve been a classic.

MIAMI VICE (2006) **

It’s unusual for a movie based on an old TV show to be directed by someone who created the original show. Because it’s Michael Mann at the helm and not some Hollywood hack, we go into Miami Vice with a certain level of expectations. Those expectations are raised with the casting of Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in the roles of Crockett and Tubbs. The bare bones for a great film are here. Unfortunately, all that Mann delivers is an empty skeleton.

Crockett and Tubbs get word that a confidential informant botched a drug deal. In order to get to the bottom of things, they infiltrate an organization led by a slimy drug dealer and set up a sting. Complications ensue when Crockett falls in love with one of the women he’s trying to bust.

If you come in expecting colorful sport coats and flashy cars that were hallmarks of the original series, you’re gonna be sorely disappointed. This is one colorless, gritty, and dark movie. I don’t mean gritty and dark as in tough and ominous. I mean that a lot of it is just plain hard to see. A lot of that has to do with Mann’s digital cinematography. His use of available light in the indoor sequences makes some of the action hard to make out. It also doesn’t help that he relies on a lot of handheld shaky-cam nonsense for many of the fights, chases, and shootouts.

This might have been an intentional tactic on Mann’s part to help differentiate the movie from the show. I get that, to a certain extent, but what are you left with when you take away everything that made Miami Vice… well… Miami Vice? Not very much, I’m afraid.

You know, I miss the “old” Michael Mann. The guy who made thrillers like Thief and Manhunter that actually had some style and cool use of color. He seems to have eschewed his early sensibilities in favor of this more “realistic” approach. As in, it looks like something just about anyone could’ve cobbled together.

I guess the most shocking thing about the film is that Mann never once tries to engage the audience. We never learn much about either Crockett or Tubbs, so it’s hard to root for them. They’re such ciphers that when something potentially tragic is about to happen to them, we wind up caring very little.

In keeping with the muted color palette of the movie, the actors tone their personalities down until they blend in with the background. I know they’re supposed to be undercover and all, but geez. You’d expect guys like Farrell and Foxx to show some semblance of a pulse. I don’t know who talked Farrell into wearing that handlebar moustache and mullet either. He looks more like Walker Texas Ranger than Sonny Crockett.

I’m not saying that it’s a total wash. Despite Mann’s use of digital cinematography, there’s at least one sequence in which it actually heightens the sense of danger. That’s the scene in which Tubbs’ girlfriend is strapped to a bomb by some Aryan Brotherhood goons. It's expertly assembled, as is the final shootout. While it is a long time coming, it contains flashes of violence that only someone like Mann could orchestrate. Again, if we really cared about the characters, it would’ve been gripping stuff, instead of just a few well-executed action sequences.

The original show was a product of its time. It was flashy and cool while this one is dark and grim. The show’s datedness helps to make it function as a time capsule as the years go on. This one, on the other hand will probably wind up being mostly forgotten.

THE LAST PATROL (2001) ½ *

Dolph Lundgren has made some bad films in his time, but this one might be his worst. It’s a post-apocalypse movie from director Sheldon Lettich, a veteran of many Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles. That sounds like a good idea in principle. The execution on the other hand is pathetic.

Now notice I called The Last Patrol a “post-apocalypse movie” and not a “post-apocalypse action movie”. That’s because there’s hardly any action in it. Most of the time, Dolph sits moping around his military base narrating the hell out of things while a cavalcade of the most annoying people you ever saw gallivants across the screen. It gets on your goddamned nerves in about five minutes flat. Seriously, the film feels like a bad FOX sitcom at times, minus the laughs. I want to fault the script for being so dumb, but Lettich should’ve really reined his actors in a bit and made them act like actual human beings.

Lundgren doesn’t fare much better. He acts indifferent and aloof and doesn’t really seem all that bothered whenever his fellow men act like something out of a MAD Magazine parody. If he was still playing Ivan Drago, he would’ve throat-punched somebody about five minutes into the movie.

Further proof Lundgren didn’t care: He couldn’t even be bothered to loop some of his own dialogue. Instead, some monotone lunkhead provides his voice in some scenes. That’s right folks; he pulled a Seagal on this one.

The awfulness of the film is compounded by the fact that nothing really happens for an hour or so. During that time, there are a lot of eye-rolling interactions with Dolph and the moronic characters. The worst is Candy, a bubble-headed blonde. Even though she’s easy on the eyes, she’s murder on the ears, especially when she’s singing like Betty Boop. She also takes what is probably the worst shower scene in cinema history.

The final act is a slight improvement from what came before. That’s because it actually features a sliver of action and a bare wisp of a plot. Candy is kidnapped by some convicts from a nearby prison who have somehow managed to survive the big earthquake that decimated the world’s population. Dolph and his cronies then sneak into the prison to rescue her, which gives us about five minutes or so of genuine action.

One thing I did like about the villain was the fact that he used the prison’s security cameras to create his own talk show, which he broadcast to the other prisoners. That was fairly clever. For every (OK, one) clever moment in the film, there are about seventy-four lame ones (like the last-minute rain dance).

Near the end of the movie, a kid prays, “Dear God, this isn’t working.” The filmmakers should’ve said the same thing.

AKA: The Last Warrior.

BULLDOG DRUMMOND AT BAY (1937) **

Bulldog Drummond (this time played by John Lodge) is enjoying a quiet evening at home when someone throws a rock through his window with a cryptic message tied to it. The next day a woman comes snooping around trying to find the message, but Bulldog cleverly runs her off. He soon finds himself in a race with enemy agents to find plans for a top secret remote-controlled airplane.

Bulldog Drummond at Bay has a few atmospheric scenes (the outdoor location work helps) and is reasonably well paced in the early going. Too bad the mystery isn’t all that involving as the doldrums eventually settle in about halfway through the 76 minute running time. The action is rather sparse too, with most of the fisticuffs (save for the fight that occurs in a doctor’s office) being reserved for the finale (which includes a funny bit where a guy gets thrown off a balcony).

Lodge’s charisma carries the film a long way. The wordplay between him and the nosy female spy is sometimes quite funny. When she tells him her car won’t start, he checks under her hood and says, “You’ve lost your spark!” He also has a good rapport with Claude Allister who plays his faithful sidekick Algy. It’s a shame that Lodge never got to essay the role again because he makes for an ideal Bulldog. Who knows what he could’ve done if he was given a better script?

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