Tag: action

All the Devil’s Men


All the Devil’s Men (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Those who don’t mind an action picture with minimal charm are likely able to endure “All the Devil’s Men,” a work filled to the brim with clichés and funny blunders, like a man capable of getting up within seconds of being tasered and a smashed window somehow magically unbroken the very next shot. While not completely terrible as a shoot-‘em-up, ambition and creativity in terms of its characters who are capable of double- and triple-crosses certainly would have taken the material to the next level. It lacks intrigue.

The mission is to capture a disavowed CIA operative (Elliot Cowan) who is currently at the top of the U.S. president’s kill list and extract him from London. Soon he plans to meet with the Russians and purchase a warhead. Naturally, he must be stopped at all cost. Two mercenaries (William Fichtner, Gbenga Akinnagbe) and a former Navy SEAL named Collins (Milo Gibson) are hired to complete the task by CIA handler Leigh (Sylvia Hoeks), daughter of a man beheaded on camera by the man of interest. Although the performers are game for their respective roles, it is written all over their faces that they are not challenged by the material.

Numerous line deliveries are flat on paper and downright uninspired when it comes to delivery. I felt uncomfortable as rehearsal-sounding dialogue actually made it to the final product. (At one point I wondered about the length of the shooting schedule. It could not have possibly been more than a month based on the number of scenes that needed to be reshot.) Thus, would-be emotional moments when characters look into the distance and describe what is at stake for them personally are neither dramatic nor resonant. These come across as scenes that had to be inserted between action sequences rather than a natural development when the conflict gets increasingly personal as corpses begin to pile up.

Gibson has the physique of a potential action star (notice how the camera admires his body during the opening shot), but it is difficult to determine whether he has range based solely on this project. As shown by the striking first sequence in Marrakesh, Collins is someone who prefers to work alone—he does not say much but he is highly efficient. Had a keener eye been behind the camera, coupled with a more intelligent script actually interested in men numbed by death and murder, perhaps it have worked as a character study of some sort. Collins is not uninteresting, but the script consistently puts him in situations that are uninteresting. There is a difference.

Shootouts are standard but occasionally exciting. These suffer from diminishing returns, however, because each confrontation is pretty much the same but occurring at a different location. I found it curious that the central villain is not actually the most interesting antagonist. More menacing is a high-ranking henchman (Joseph Millson) who is easily persuaded by money. Deighton is Collins’ friend and also a former Navy SEAL. He is the more effective adversary because he appears to be just as strong, as smart, and as cunning as our protagonist. He seems to enjoy his profession. When the two finally duel, the writer-director, Matthew Hope, proves not to have the wisdom to draw it out a little more. Deighton is such a detestable, weaselly figure. He wish for him to suffer, preferably slowly.

Beyond Outrage


Beyond Outrage (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Two people are found dead in a car that had been pulled from underwater: the male was a cop and the female was a nightclub hostess. Two detectives, Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata) and Shigeta (Yutaka Matsushige), observe the scene from a distance. They suspect that the corpses have something to do with the Sanno clan, part of the yakuza, and the escalating influence it has garnered over the past five years under new leadership. Though Kataoka has a special connection with the Sanno family, even he is smart enough to know that hierarchy of power is due to be reshuffled.

Written, directed, and starring Takeshi Kitano, playing a former yakuza boss who is about to be released from prison, “Beyond Outrage” is a near-miss in that although there remains to be a story to be told after its predecessor, there is not enough suspense and thrills to sustain its rhythmic macho swagger. We sit through a plethora of dialogue and attempt to figure out the labyrinthine connections, potential twists, and power play, but the payoff leaves a lot to be desired.

When Kitano is front and center, one cannot help but pay attention to his character. Though Otomo is aging and seemingly penitent about what he has done in the past, especially toward a former rival, Kimura (Hideo Nakano), we cannot help but suspect he is up to something far greater than what his appearance and behavior suggest. Can a man with an extremely violent past, who has wielded so much power and influence, really lead a life that is simple, humble, and safe? The magic lies in Kitano being able to communicate conflicting emotions without saying a word or moving about. When his character utters a string of words or raises his voice just a little, there is precision in what is conveyed. I do not understand Japanese but he made me feel like I could.

The two leaders of the Sanno clan ought to have been fleshed out further. Kato (Tomokazu Miura) and his underboss, Ishihara (Ryô Kase), have signature dominating presences in that one his older and has a bit of weight while the latter is younger, wearing spectacles, and frail-looking. There is talk about how much they have done since the last film in order to extend the influence and power of their clan but we do not really get to see them put into action what they are supposedly great at doing. Instead, we watch them hold meetings and looking stern, sometimes yelling at their minions or demanding remuneration for being disrespected and dishonored.

Equally important is the lack of tension and depth of the relationship between the two detectives. I guess Shigeta is supposed to embody the audience’s perspective given his and our lack of experience or understanding of the yakuza. I did not feel as though he is an effective conduit because he does not say a lot or fails to ask the important questions when it really counts. In the latter half, I caught myself asking why the character was even written in the first place. Out of the supporting characters, he is the most dispensable.

The climax and falling action are quite limp. Dead bodies and shootouts do not mean a thing if the majority of people getting assassinated are mere minions or, worse, the picture reverting to off-screen deaths. What should contain excitement or thrill feels rushed. The snow burn of the first half does not at all complement the careless, inelegant execution of the final thirty minutes.

Peppermint


Peppermint (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

As far as vigilante action-thrillers go, “Peppermint” is as generic as they come. It should not have been because the lead is the highly underrated Jennifer Garner, no stranger when it comes to balancing drama and thrills given her extensive experience in the excellent television series “Alias” which wrapped up more than a decade ago. One would think that the screenplay by Chad St. John ought to have aimed higher, wearing its inspirations on its sleeve. Tell a cathartic revenge story first and foremost, then perhaps strive to launch an unapologetically violent film series with a strong female lead. Wouldn’t that have been something?

Riley North is looking to serve justice for the murder of her husband and daughter (Jeff Hephner, Cailey Fleming). Corrupt judges and cops shielded members of the cartel from prison time and so North decided to spend the last five years in Asia and Europe to train her body and hone her skills before attempting to take down a massive drug operation. It is most frustrating that we are not shown much during the five-year gap (with the exception of a three-second cage fight video) because showing the character’s struggle, and her seething rage, during that time could have provided much-needed insight into her psychology, to imply that the real North died during the drive-by alongside her family.

Numerous bullets fly and there is a smorgasbord of firearms, but the photography leaves a lot to be desired. The picture looks drab. Thus, although action sequences unfold in different locations, they tend to blend into one another both in terms of look and feeling. It does not help that the central villain, too, is painfully pedestrian, a typical cartel boss who talks tough but when the lights go off and compound is broken into, he ends up hiding behind his tattooed bodyguards. In other words, the antagonist is not equal to, or nowhere near, North’s level of intensity. It might have helped if the character were written with a more colorful personality—make him extreme, insane, anything other than coming across as another thug to be bulldozed.

The material touches upon a mildly interesting topic: the public’s response, specifically through social media, when a person decides to take it upon herself to correct what she perceives to be wrong. For instance, we are shown Tweets and message board responses on television screens, but these glimpses are too quick for us to get a chance to read and appreciate the comments. If something like this happened in real life, you can bet that clever, amusing, cruel, and ignorant responses would get hundreds of likes and responses. Especially when the vigilante is female. And so it is bizarre that the film neglects to pursue a potentially worthwhile avenue. Action movies can have a brain but this work seems incurious to make the story relevant in modern times.

There is nothing wrong with providing violent escapism in the movies. But it has to be absorbing every step of the way, not dead or dying when guns are nowhere to be found and people are simply required to speak with one another. After all, even the best action movies are rooted in drama.

Skyscraper


Skyscraper (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those who may try to dissuade others from seeing the action-thriller “Skyscraper” may claim that its offerings have been done bigger, better, and more realistically in other films—and they are not wrong. Yet despite combined familiar templates of one-man missions and disaster flicks, it does not take away the fact that the highly energetic work, written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, is entertaining, ludicrous, and highly watchable. This is big summer blockbuster that is not a superhero picture done just right.

The action sequences are surprisingly meticulous despite chaos and violence unfolding inside and outside the burning building in Hong Kong. Fistfights, for instance, are well-choreographed; they last long enough so that we appreciate every bone-crunching hit; and they are edited sharply but precisely so that the viewer always has a complete idea when it comes to what is happening to whom. Because the material bothers with the details, although the story is standard and uninspiring, it creates an impression that is worth investing our time and attention on it.

Although the dialogue is not its strong point, it goes out of its way to provide details about the tallest building on the planet, named The Pearl, such as its capability to generate and sustain its own energy, that it is three times as tall as the Empire State Building, the complex security and safety systems, its exact number of floors, how it is divided in half—its upper floors for residents while the lower floors for sightseeing and shopping. The script could have gotten away with simply stating—or showing a simple graphic—that the fictional building is the tallest man-made structure and no one would blink an eye. And so it is fresh, then, on two fronts: that it bothers with details and it uses some of these attributes to reward those who paid attention with words and graphics during the expository sequences.

Dwayne Johnson plays Will Sawyer who is hired to assess The Pearl’s various levels of security before the owner (Chin Han) opens the upper-half for public residence. A stolen bag while on his way to an off-site facility escalates to an explosion, which appears to be a terrorist attack from the outside, on the floor where Will’s family (Neve Campbell, Noah Cottrell, McKenna Roberts) is staying. The security assessor must find his way back to the building to rescue them after his face is shown on television for being the prime suspect.

A misstep lies in the utilization of amusing one-liners—there simply isn’t enough of them. This could have been easily solved by having another pass at the script and noticing that they are so sporadic, when it is time to deliver the chuckles, it disturbs the tension in a negative way rather than giving us a chance to inhale while laughing at the silliness. While it is not meant to be an action-comedy, spacing moments of relief in action-thrillers is also critical. John McTiernan’s “Die Hard” is a classic because comedy and tension depend on one another that is almost a balancing act on a tightrope.

“Skyscraper” functions on a lower level than the best of the genre, but it gets the job done. Its special and visual effects are convincing; particularly suspenseful are action sequences that unfold at great heights, especially when Will—prosthetic left leg and all—attempts to break into the burning building with the help of a construction crane’s hook. It’s preposterous and you can’t look away.

Brawl in Cell Block 99


Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director S. Craig Zahler has helmed yet another project so worthy of being seen due to its high entertainment value while telling a seemingly straightforward story of a six-foot-five former boxer (Vince Vaughn) recently laid off from his job as an auto-repairman who then makes the decision to become a drug runner in order to provide a better life for his wife (Jennifer Carpenter). Equipped with a wonderful ear for dialogue as it expertly employs pauses and extended silences to amp up the suspense, what results is a razor-sharp action-thriller that is certain to gain a cult following over the years.

I have never seen Vaughn deliver a performance in which he disappears into his character completely, not even in his prior dramatic roles. He plays a criminal named Bradley Thomas, but what makes the subject interesting is that he comes with a set of principles. And because we are given a chance to understand the reasons behind his actions, we become empathetic to his plight despite the fact that his business involves drugs. Bradley may come from the South, accent and all, and so it is easy to assume he is not intelligent, especially given the archetypes of action films. On the contrary, Bradley is smart, more than capable of thinking on his feet, and makes careful decisions when it really counts.

The skull-crunching, limb-bending, thumbs-pushed-inside-eye-sockets violence is ugly, beautiful, and satisfying. Those less experienced with watching extremely violent pictures are certain to flinch or look away for some seconds. The camera is not afraid to show how it is really like to break an arm or stomp on a head against a concrete floor. At times it goes for the gross close-up. Yet despite the level of brutality, it is beautiful because these moments are earned. We find satisfaction in them because the violence serves as catharsis rather than simply something that must occur for the sake of spraying blood or hearing screams of pain. In addition, from a technical standpoint, the fight scenes are impressive because they do not look stylized in any way. It adds to the gritty realism of the material.

The look of the picture commands attention because images are drenched in hues of dark blue. This is particularly effective during scenes between Bradley and his pregnant wife walking around their home after some financial success. Although it is supposed to be a happy time for them, we absorb the picture through a fog of blue. It creates a dead-cold feeling, creating a sense of foreboding that this story may not end the way we think. To establish excitement, a freshness, using such a color palette is impressive because such a strategy is often employed in thrillers by which filmmakers hope to put a filter between material and audience, occasionally a way to numb us from the experience. I enjoyed that Zahler is able to find a different way to use the technique.

“Brawl in Cell Block 99” offers an unrelenting sensory experience. The main character speaks only when necessary and when he does express his thoughts, he has a habit of generalizing, not because he is incapable but because time is valuable. He is a walking curiosity and we care for him to stick around so we can learn more about him. And so when injustice is done to him and those he cares about, we demand that it be corrected with utmost urgency. I admired this work’s wild and uncompromising approach.

Proud Mary


Proud Mary (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

There comes a point in the film when the protagonists’ situation turns so desperate that the assassin (Taraji P. Henson) feels the need to instruct the boy (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) she welcomed into her home what he must do when the possibility of her ending up dead becomes reality. It is in moments like this that the action-thriller shines because it shows that it is capable of disarming the viewers at a drop of a hat. Far too many pictures under the genre are only concerned about constructing elaborate shootouts; making the biggest, baddest explosions; and amplifying the volume as to bombard the eardrums. From this perspective, “Proud Mary” is refreshing because at times it is not afraid to show the characters as humans with flaws and fears, sense of humor, goals outside of what they do.

I notice performances in horror films when an actor chooses to play the role as if she were in a completely different genre. Here, Henson is an action movie but she portrays the character as if Mary were in a dramatic piece. She wears it in the hooded eyes and the wounded, seen-it-all expressions on her face, even through her strong but tired body language. We wonder if Mary is tired of killing, that perhaps she has recognized that a part of herself dies every time she puts a bullet in someone else’s skull.

This creates an interesting contrast because although the screenplay by John S. Newman and Christian Swegal does not bother to detail or explore our heroine’s past, we wonder about it anyway. In order for the viewer to be invested in a character completely, it is crucial that we recognize her existence, her history, outside of the film’s scope or running time. Henson choosing to play Mary as having a past in a genre that usually does not require it is a true sign of experience. I wished the writing were up to her level of ambition and dedication, possessing that willingness to put in extra just because.

The picture suffers from its lack of restraint when it comes to employing score during thrilling or dramatic moments. Particularly painful is its usage in the latter situation because it drowns out not only the varying cadences in voices or how certain lines are delivered but also the important pauses and silences. In other words, the inappropriate addition of sound takes away from what should be raw confessions that are painful or scary for a character to admit or embrace. As for the former, there are occasions when all that we need to hear are gunshots, hot bullets hitting the ground, boots scraping the wooden floor from desperate attempts at escape. Sometimes less really is more.

The only highly effective use of music is when Tina Turner’s titular song explodes during the jolt of electricity that is the climax. It is such a joyous three-minute sequence that even the editing and sound design adapt to the rhythm of the soundtrack and images. It highlights how effective Mary can be as a hired killer with a newfound purpose. But it never goes so far that we get the impression she is invincible. In fact, we are challenged to hold our breath till the end because as shootouts wind down, tighter shots from the chest up are utilized in an alarming rate. Usually, this technique heralds a shocking twist.

Directed by Babak Najafi, “Proud Mary” may not be as loud or action-packed compared to other hitman movies, but I enjoyed its elliptical approach in tracing the expected three-arc structure. And with the highly watchable lead making sure that the character is believable at every narrative turn, what results is a solid entertainment for the open-minded.

The Assignment


The Assignment (2016)
★ / ★★★★

With a ludicrous premise that is sure to turn heads, it is a disappointment that Walter Hill’s “The Assignment” fails to aspire to become more than what is ultimately delivered. As an action film, it is tiresome and uninspired, composed merely of shooting guns and almost always the target being hit. As an exploitation picture, the more interesting route, it is neither dark nor pulpy enough to pass as an entertaining bad movie. Its look, tone, and overall feel resembles that of many forgettable works with an interesting plot but boring execution.

Michelle Rodriguez plays a hitman named Frank Kitchen who is forced to undergo a gender reassignment surgery in the hands of Dr. Jane (Sigourney Weaver), desperate to avenge her brother that Frank had killed. While it is commendable that Rodriguez chooses to take her role seriously, allowing her to play a man during the first act of the picture is a mistake so dire, it derails any level of believability in a plot that already demands the audience to take a leap of faith.

The filmmakers ought to have realized that simply slapping a beard on Rodriguez does not work at all. Although the performer has a charming masculine presence, her frame is feminine, the way she moves is quite soft, and her posture whether standing up or sitting down is not at all masculine. The filmmakers realize this, I think, and so eventually there is a walking-out-of-the-shower sequence spotlighting Rodriguez with chest hair and a prosthetic penis. The whole charade is so ridiculous that I don’t think anybody who’s paying attention would be able to keep a straight face. I certainly couldn’t.

A storytelling technique that is mildly interesting involves Dr. Jane in a psychiatric hospital after Frank had gotten his revenge on the person who butchered him. Since we already know whether or not the “villain” would get her comeuppance, we cannot help but question why we are spending time with this particular character. Clearly she is up to no good. Or is she? I enjoyed the dialogue between Weaver and Tony Shalhoub, a medical doctor who is assigned to assess whether the disgraced doctor is fit for trial. Unlike Rodriguez’ laughable scenes, we feel something boiling between two sharp minds. Weaver elevates this D-level misfire.

For an action picture, there is minimal suspense or thrill to be had here. The formula is as follows: Frank enters an establishment, narration is heard to provide some background, minions spot our protagonist, he starts shooting with great accuracy, bodies stack up until his main target is found. Of course, said target must die. Onto the next shoddy location.

I find it ironic that there is controversy surrounding “The Assignment” and yet the work is standard in all the wrong ways. If one were to look at good B-pictures and exploitation flicks, one would realize that such films were so often willing to push the envelope that the wrongs, weirdly enough, end up feeling right for the material. They own themselves. On the other hand, this work comes across self-conscious when it could have thrown all inhibitions to the wind and made strong statements about gender versus identity through the guise of solid popcorn entertainment.