Archive for the ‘Action/Adventure’ Category

JCVD

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

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There is a sequence in the new film JCVD that I will point out to anyone who claims that there is no way in hell that Jean-Claude Van Damme can give a good performance in a motion picture. It’s a little over half way through the film, and in this scene, Van Damme gives a monologue about his life, about his legal troubles, about his womanizing, about his ego, about his celebrity, about his insecurities; and it’s a monologue that feels raw, naked, real. Sure, Van Damme is playing “himself,” but I think he’s playing a version of his celebrity persona, kind of like that one actor who played a version of himself in Being John Malkovich, what was that guy’s name again?

JCVD is the film that proves to the world that Jean-Claude can act, and also, that he can take a joke. Not only does he give a very strong performance, but he’s also a good sport as a version of his life is on display for the world to see (and, again, the bravery of that monologue). Jean-Claude is now the second Double Team star to have starred in a film that announced their triumphant comeback (Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler being the other); how long until Dennis Rodman makes his latest smash hit, then?

JCVD starts out like it will be a satire, or possibly a docudrama, about the life of an actor who resembles very closely Jean-Claude Van Damme. It then slowly reveals itself to be a crime movie, only it doesn’t go the way you’d expect it would. It’s probably closer to how it’d really be if an aging acting star was on the scene when a robbery took place. For one thing, one of the criminals is an action movie buff, and becomes starstruck by Van Damme. It’s a nice comic touch.

The film, directed and co-written by Mabrouk El Mechri, is fiendishly clever in parts, but also quite touching in other scenes. I was surprised by this film, in a good way. It’s unusual, and hard to describe. It’s a worthwhile film to check out, and it is proof that Van Damme should from now on be taken a little bit more seriously as an actor.

Quantum of Solace

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

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Like The Phantom Menace, Quantum of Solace is a strangely titled cinematic addition to a popular franchise. Unlike Phantom Menace, however, the title makes perfect sense after viewing the film. I mention this at the beginning of the review because it’s sort of an unusual title, and I wanted to mention it so I could get it out of the way and dive in to what I actually thought of this film. (By the way, this is not, in my opinion, a bad Bond title. The worst Bond title, by far, is Octopussy. Lame, lame, lame name for a Bond movie.)

This film picks up pretty much where the terrific Bond film Casino Royale left off (ok, I’d say about twenty or twenty five minutes afterward). Bond (Daniel Craig) is shaken and stirred over the death of his beloved from that film, and Quantum of Solace follows Bond as he tries to figure out what this evil, ubiquitous organization that’s pulling all of the strings is, and what it’s up to. Oooh, mysterious.

The film is a sequel of sorts to Casino Royale, and if you haven’t seen that one yet, I’d suggest watching it before you see Quantum of Solace, or you might be kind of lost. There are many characters, references and lines that might not make much since if you haven’t seen Casino Royale (you should see it anyway, really).

I have no idea if Daniel Craig is the best Bond, or if he’s better than Sean Connery or Roger Moore or whoever. I think all of the Bonds have their strong points (yes, even Lazenby). I do think, however, that Daniel Craig is the closest to the James Bond of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels. James Bond, as depicted in Fleming’s books, is a loner, a bitter, angry type who is good with a gun and quick on his toes. He’s good with the ladies, sure, but he’s not a smooth, suave playboy type as the character is sometimes portrayed in films.

Craig humanizes Bond, makes him real in a way few other Bonds have. As he did in Casino Royale, Craig breathes new life to a character who is over forty five years old. That’s some kind of feat.

I don’t think that Quantum of Solace is a superior Bond film, but it has splendid action sequences, and it fleshes out the relationship between Bond and M (played by Judi Dench). I thought that the Bond and M dynamic was one of the strongest aspects to the film. Marc Forster, the director, also creates some terrific sequences that bring a new aspect to the standard Bond film. One in particular has Bond spying on several members of the evil organization at an opera. It’s theatrical, tense and funny.

Mathieu Amalric (who starred in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) plays the evil Dominic Greene, and he brings a slick, scummy charm to the role. Looking eerily similar to Roman Polanski, Amalric is a fascinating actor to watch, thanks in large part to his incredibly expressive eyes (do they give honorary Oscars to eyeballs?)

Jeffrey Wright is back as Bond’s ally Felix Leiter, furthering my belief that Wright is in just about every other made in the last twelve years. David Harbour as CIA operative Gregg Beam plays the part of boorish jackass just right, and he also has one of my favorite lines in the picture. Giancarlo Giannini is back as Bond’s ally Mathis, and Jesper Christensen returns as the mysterious Mr. White. The Bond girls in this film, Olga Kurylenko as Camille and Gemma Arterton as Agent Strawberry Fields, are both stunning without really having much to do in the film.

Quantum of Solace is a solid installment in the Bond franchise.

Missing in Action

Monday, September 29th, 2008

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In the 1980s, two American action stars did what what our military was never able to do: win in Vietnam. Sylvester Stallone defeated those dirty bastards in 1985’s Rambo II: First Blood (what a confusing title,) and Carlos Ray Norris (or, Chuck, as he is also known) portrayed James Braddock in the Missing in Action films, where he killed just about every other person on the continent of Asia. Just about. In 1984, Missing in Action was released, followed right a year later by Missing in Action 2: The Beginning.

The first two Missing in Action movies were filmed simultaneously (long before Peter Jackson “borrowed” this process for his Lord of the Rings films), and originally the second Missing in Action was going to be the first one, until the producers realized it wasn’t very good, switched the sequel to the original, and made the first one a prequel. Man, confusing. Anyway, the producers were right, but only barely. Missing in Action is probably not a good movie, but for a cheesy Chuck Norris 80s action film, it will do just fine.

All Chuck Norris characters have a moral code, which usually amounts to this; a lone wolf who does not want to be pestered with missions to right any wrongs, but eventually caves in and saves the day, killing lots and lots of gun-toting foreigners along the way (usually Asians, but if they’re not around, Russians or anybody from Latin America will do). As far as Chuck’s 80s films go, I prefer Code of Silence, Lone Wolf McQuade or The Delta Force, but Missing in Action is rightly mentioned alongside them. Invasion USA (where Chuck takes on the Soviet Union) is not as good as Red Dawn, a film that also deals with Russia invading America, but it’s entertaining (I also have a soft-spot in my heart for the God-awful Firewalker, a Indiana Jones rip-off with Chuck and Louis Gossett Jr. as his wise-cracking best pal.

Anyway, Missing in Action stars Chuck as Colonel James Braddock, a Vietnam Veteran and former P.O.W. who, as the film’s main story starts, has just agreed to testify in Vietnam that American soldiers are still being held prisoner in 1984 (the movie opens with Braddock’s capture, many years before). The diabolical General Trau (James Hong, who always seems to play evil Asians) denies that any Americans are still being held prisoner, but Braddock knows better, because it’s James Hong, and he always plays a bad dude. With the help of an intrepid reporter (Lenore Kasdorf), Braddock learns that there ARE American soldiers still in some hidden jungle prison.

Eventually, Braddock teams up with his old war buddy Tuck (M. Emmet Walsh, looking as grizzled and haggard as ever) to rescue his fellow soldiers. I guess Braddock and Tuck fought in ‘Nam together, although Walsh looks (even in 1984) pretty damn old. I’d say maybe he fought in World War I, maybe. The plot is just an excuse for Chuck to kill a lot of people. A lot.

Missing in Action is not as quite up to the level of one of Chuck’s true 80s classics (I really should write a review of Lone Wolf McQuade someday), but it’s violent and cheesy, and definitely a good 80s action film.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

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So, the other night I went out to dinner with a good buddy of mine. Oh, we had Mexican food, since you asked. Anyway, after dinner we wandered across the large parking lot to the local Regal Googleplex, since we both had just been talking about the new X-Files movie, and how it looked pretty cool. Of course, X-Files wasn’t playing. In fact, most of the films that seemed interesting or appealing were not there. I scanned the marquee and noticed the new Mummy film. “You wanna see that one?,” I inquired. He shrugged, “sure, I guess.”

His lukewarm reaction to my half-assed invitation is, I’m sure, a pretty typical scenario for the masses of people who winded up at the new Mummy film. It’s not that it’s terrible (no, that would be The Mummy Returns, that was god awful), it’s just really mediocre. I don’t ask for my summer action movies to be realistic or thought-provoking, no, I know they’re going to be stupid. I just ask them to be fun. I love dumb, fun movies. It’s death for a film like this if it’s boring.

While the other two Mummy movies (not including The Scorpion King, which is technically in the Mummy franchise, but not part of the Mummy series, if that makes any sense) were about the evil mummy Imhotep, this one is about the evil Dragon Emperor (played by Jet Li). So, the dangers of Egypt have been replaced with the dangers of China. Which is cool, since Ancient China also has lots of awesome mythological beasts and legends to interweave in the story, right?

Anyway, the evil Dragon Emperor’s spirit is awakened, and shockingly it’s Alex O’Connell (played by Luke Ford) who awakens said Dragon Emperor. I say shockingly because Alex, of course, is the son of the hero from the other two Mummy films, Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), and his wife Evelyn (who was played in the other ones by Rachel Weisz, but then she won an Oscar and became too classy for these films, I guess, and her character is now played by Maria Bello.)

So, all the whole O’Connell clan ends up in Shanghai, including that lovable drunk Uncle Jonathan (John Hannah) who owns a night club in Shanghai (the Shanghai night club scenes give the filmmakers a nice excuse to rip off the Shanghai night club sequence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which is fitting since this franchise owes a giant debt to the Indiana Jones films anyway). There are three other characters important to the plot of the film: the evil General Yang (Chau Sang Anthony Wong), the two thousand year old “witch” Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) and her daughter Lin (Isabella Leong), who falls in love with Alex, of course.

It’s a neat trick how they can make action scenes with Dragons, ninjas, booby traps, abominable snowmen and various mythological Chinese monsters ho-hum and run of the mill, but mission accomplished. I thought borderline hack director Rob Cohen was good at making the cheesy/fun action movie, but his talent evades him here. This is one franchise that should have stopped after the first one, which, you know, was a remake anyway (That being said, I still enjoy The Scorpion King, because it is basically just a Conan rip-off with the Rock. That is good, stupid fun.)

Pineapple Express

Monday, August 11th, 2008

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The scriptwriting duo Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have once again successfully created a film that both supports and subverts a particular film genre. In last year’s terrific Superbad, it was the “High School/Last Big Party” film, now it’s the “buddies on the run” action movie. It’s brutal, violent, morbid, profane, vulgar and hilarious. It also furthers my belief that going to see a Judd Apatow production, much like Pixar, means you’ll get your money’s worth.

Seth Rogen plays Dale Denton, a perpetually stoned summons processor who lives his life in a cloud of smoke. He stumbles through his day, pausing to visit his 18 year old girlfriend Angie (Amber Heard) at (high) school, and occasionally stops by his dealer, Saul (James Franco) to grab some weed. On one particular visit, Saul lets Dale have some especially potent pot: the Pineapple Express.

It is smoking the Pineapple Express that leads Dale to witnessing a murder, committed by local drug dealer Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and police officer Carol (Rosie Perez). Before too long, both Dale and Saul are on the run from both the cops and Ted’s hired gunmen, played by Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson. That is about as much as the plot as I’ll be telling you, though I will say that another character will play an important role in the film, that would be Red, a drug dealer buddy of Saul, played by Danny McBride.

As I alluded to earlier, Pineapple Express mixes several genres, in addition to the action film and the buddy movie, we have the stoner comedy, the on-the-road comedy and the innocent man on the run film. Oh, and director David Gordon Green has also made the film into sort of a throwback to the kind of action film that would’ve been in the seventies, so that’s a lot of fun. It’s a film that works as a parody and as a serious genre entry at the same time.

Seth Rogen and James Franco make an incredible comic team, their chemistry and sense of timing is impeccable. Seth Rogen plays the stoned slacker incredibly well, and much like he did in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, he has a lethal brand of deadpan comic delivery. James Franco is an actor who I’ve never really appreciated too much (I am not a fan of his work in the Spider-Man films, for instance), but he is a natural comedian, as I had already discovered from his cameo in the aforementioned Knocked Up and also his many skits on various online comedy sites like Funny or Die. His Saul is a revelation, he disappears so completely into the character that at times I forgot he wasn’t really this long haired, deceptively smart drug dealer. It’s that good.

Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson, as the bickering hit men pursuing our heroes, are perfectly cast, and it’s a treat to see them have such effective supporting roles. Gary Cole is suitably sinister as the villain, although the filmmakers do allow him a few good lines that show Cole’s brilliant comic skills (remember, this is Bill Lumbergh, people.) It was especially nice to see Rosie Perez in a movie again, especially as a bad guy (I mean gal). In smaller roles, there are great turns by Ed Begley Jr. and Nora Dunn as Angie’s parents, and Bill Hader and James Remar in a very funny prologue.

The third lead is an actor by the name of Danny McBride, and he plays Red, Saul’s friend who is both ally and enemy to Saul and Dale. It is a superior comic performance, and I think you’ll definitely be seeing McBride in the future. There is a fight scene about halfway through the film that is raw, brutal and completely unhinged, it actually reminded me of that terrific fight scene between Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill: Vol. 2.

Pineapple Express is a bloody, funny, extremely well made movie that deserves multiple viewings. Check it out.

Hancock

Monday, July 14th, 2008

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Superhero films are, let’s face it, a dime a dozen. If you write a comic book, a graphic novel, a strip for the funny pages, chances are it will someday be adapted for the big screen. That’s the way it works. So, you’d think when a superhero movie comes along where the super hero was CREATED for the film, it would be a refreshing change of pace (like The Incredibles). With Hancock, what we have is a film that’s tone is confused, that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It’s like the filmmakers started the film with one vision and changed it halfway through the filming.

The movie was stuck in development hell for about a decade, and it shows in the disjointed, confused final product. There are aspects to the film I liked, of course, but overall Hancock doesn’t work. Will Smith plays the titular character, a misanthropic, alcoholic super hero who “protects” Los Angeles, although most people find him more a nuisance than anything else. In fact, most people downright hate him.

One day, Hancock saves a struggling PR executive (Jason Bateman) for an oncoming train, and the PR man makes it his mission to make Hancock a hero once more. This does not please Bateman’s wife (Charlize Theron), who doesn’t trust Hancock one bit. Of course, along the way, complications arise and Hancock must become a hero to the city once more.

There are a few “twists” in the film, but there handled like sitcom complications, and are therefore hard to take seriously. Also, the big “twist” doesn’t really make that much sense when you think about it. This is another Will Smith on auto-pilot role, and he never really seems to be willing to commit completely to the character. Jason Bateman is the saving grace of the film, and he does what he can with the role. Charlize Theron tries with the script, but her character is the most obvious victim of rewrites, many of her decisions and choices don’t make logical sense.

It’s also hard to make a good superhero film without a central villain, they kind of give us one in the form of Red (Eddie Marsan), a bank robber with a vaguely foreign accent, but his character is really explained or developed much. It is a kick to see Don Gibb (Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds) in a few scenes, though.

Hancock is a great example of a big-budget film with a large marketing campaign that leaves absolutely no impact on the viewer. Rent it and forget it.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

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19 years. 19 years of rumors, false starts, anxious fan boy postings, rejected drafts and countless other detours and delays. After all of this, we finally have a new Indiana Jones movie, and the results are, the most part, pretty good. If the first three Indiana Jones films were epic adventures, than this latest edition is a fun romp. Now, as cinematic escapism, this baby hits the spot, but it lacks the breadth and scope of the others. Nothing feels at stake, whereas the other films had the fate of the world at the balance, this seems like just another day at the office.

Again, I say these more as observations than as criticisms (ok, maybe a little as criticisms). It must be said, though, that I am still shocked that Harrison Ford is 65 years old, he doesn’t look a day over 49. And, just like in the other ones, he did most of his own stunts. (It should also be noted that when Sean Connery played Indy’s dad in 1989, he was 58 years old). The film takes place 19 years after the events of the Last Crusade, which is, hey, the same amount of time between the last film and this one. So, the year is 1957 and, man, the world has changed. The Nazis, as villains for the film, have been replaced by the cold and calculating Russians.

One element of the film are really liked was the idea that Indiana Jones was sort of this heroic old fart, a dinosaur who didn’t really fit in or comprehend the modern times. Indiana sees things in black and white, right and wrong terms, while the world of the late 50s, the world of the Cold War, is more shifty, shadowy, with people playing sides and shifting alliances. The first 30 minutes, which really play up several elements of the fifties (Elvis, Roswell, the Cold War, Eisenhower, the Atomic Bomb) probably work the best, and include several great action sequences, especially a fight scene deep in the bowels of a shuttle launch silo, where Ford and actor Igor Jijikine get into a rumble (if series regular Pat Roach, who played a different villain in each of the first three movies, was still alive, I’m sure he would’ve played Jijikine’s role, that of the massive, heartless Dochenko).

The film does indeed feel like a family reunion, and not just because of Ford, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Karen Allen also returns, as the beautiful, feisty Marion Ravenwood, and Allen is like a breath of fresh air (she is one of the countless film actresses who simply does not get enough work). Cate Blanchett can add “Indiana Jones Villain” to her acting resume, alongside Katherine Hepburn, Queen Elizabeth and Bob Dylan, and it’s obvious she’s having a blast here. Shia LaBeouf plays the sidekick, and he’s fine with the limitations that the script has given his character. Ray Winstone steals scenes as Indy’s fellow adventurer Mac. John Hurt gets to play another kooky genius, the kind of role he could play in his sleep but thankfully doesn’t. Jim Broadbent shows up also, in a kind of Marcus Brody replacement role.

Of course, Harrison Ford is the glue that holds this film together, a job he does quite well. The film is lighter, looser, less important than the others, but it’s still Indiana Jones, so therefore, it’s worth a look.

Shoot ‘Em Up (***)

Friday, September 21st, 2007

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This is a ridiculous movie. Silly, unbelievable, so over-the-top that a new phrase must be coined to take its place. This is the kind of movie that will have you shaking your head about every 30 seconds. That being said, this is a fun movie. Of course, it’s a satire of action movies, but also of macho stereotypes, gun control, political candidates, parenthood and Warner Brothers cartoons. The hero is a carrot-munching, sly wise-acre and the main villain is definitely Fudd-esque. Michael Davis, who directed the sweet and goofy comedy Eight Days a Week about a decade ago, has created a violent, hilarious tribute to action films. Shoot ‘Em Up is everything that the god-awful Smokin’ Aces tried to be.

Clive Owen, the terrific British actor who was robbed an Oscar nomination for last year’s Children of Men, plays Mr. Smith who, as the film, opens is sitting at a bus station in the dead of night eating a carrot (as he will several times during the film). Moments later, a woman runs by screaming, followed by a car full of goons. Smith sits in silence for a second, grumbles to himself and plunges himself headfirst into a plot with an increasingly high body count (all right, Mr. Smith is responsible for a good deal of them).

Basically, Mr. Smith winds up taking care of a baby wanted by several parties, including a presidential candidate (Daniel Pilon) and a cranky hit man named Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti, playing against type beautifully). Turns out the only person Smith can trust is a prostitute called DQ (Monica Bellucci, who seems to be getting better looking with age), wanted by men for her special technique in the bedroom, which I wouldn’t dream of giving away.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the film was the fact that it was willing to go all the way. Many action films that claim to be ridiculous or over the top or extreme cop out,they simply aren’t willing to go the extra mile (like Smokin’ Aces). It’s the ones that refuse to give in, the ones that allow the filmmakers’ vision to take them where they need to go that we remember (I’m thinking of such recent beyond-over-the-top films as Running Scared and Sin City). There is a scene, that takes place in a small hideout as the two leads begin to express their feelings for one another, that combines two standard action movie scenes in a hilarious and ingenious way.

Owen, who is playing a variation of a character he has more or less perfected, so in that way, he is the only person who could have played this role. His casting makes complete sense. Giamatti, on the other hand, is not the first name you would think of to play a threatening hit man, but he makes the role his, by creating an unsettling creature, especially in his interplay with a corpse in the back of his parked car. Bellucci, one of the great beauties of modern day cinema, is not given a lot to do. In the supporting roles, I got a kick of Stephen McHattie as Hammerson, a fire arms manufacturer and gun rights wacko.

I really enjoyed this movie. It’s not great cinema, but it’s a great time at an action movie. It’s probably not for everyone, though. Before you decide whether or not you’d want to see it, ask yourself this question: how do you feel about films featuring men being impaled by carrots?