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 (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.
★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
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 (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 (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.
Assignment, The (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.
Hardcore Henry (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
Here is a film for people who love first-person shooter video games more than the movies. It moves quickly, there is an ocean violence, and something surprising tends to pop up every ten to fifteen minutes not to serve the story necessarily but for the sake of not losing our attention. It is loud, not particularly intelligent, and highly simplistic in its themes. But it has moments of creativity that amuse, stun, and impress.
We experience the bloody events through the eyes of a man named Henry who is given a second chance at life by a scientist (Haley Bennett) who says she is his wife. Just as the mute and amnesiac Henry is getting accustomed to his new reality of being a body that is part-man, part-robot, a mysterious figure (Danila Kozlovsky) with psychokinetic powers breaks in the sky lab and claims he intends to add Henry to his growing army. Henry and Estelle manage to escape in a pod and land in Moscow.
The first-person perspective amuses because there are numerous instances, especially when the protagonist is forced into awkward body entanglements, when the placement of the head does not at all match the physics. Sometimes it makes more sense if the camera was actually attached to Henry’s neck because that part of the body has more limited movements compared to the head. Not to mention the central character never blinks. He, however, closes his eyes voluntarily when someone asks him to do so.
Those who are sickened, perhaps literally, by Paul Greengrass’ shaky cam in the “Bourne” pictures are likely to walk away without finishing the picture because the level of camera movement here likens that of a violent seizure by comparison. It is relentless and I noticed that the way I adapted was by focusing only in the middle of the screen. Even then there were moments when I had to look away for two seconds and get back in again.
For me, this is a new experience of watching a film—which can be taken as a compliment—because I am used to taking notice and appreciating the entire frame for their details and craft… even in kinetic action movies. Here, by being forced to hone in on the center of the screen, the surprises involving enemies suddenly appearing behind a wall or other forms of threat such as explosions are all the more effective. It offers a sensory experience in its rawest, most uncomfortable form.
Is it worth seeing? Yes, maybe once, and only those who are open to an alternative or experimental way of experiencing the movies. A few action sequences are inspired by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski’s “The Matrix” as well as Gareth Evans’ “The Raid: Redemption.” The execution in this film isn’t nearly as tight nor as impressive as its inspirations but the insanity is so over-the-top at the times that I found humor and charm in it. However, for a more original, fascinating, extremely daring, hallucinogenic, haunting first-person viewpoint film, I recommend looking into “Enter the Void” by Gaspar Noé.
★★ / ★★★★
Under the leadership of FBI Special Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta), the infamous terrorist named Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) is finally captured. The problem is, word has it that there is a bomb in Los Angeles and it will go off in a few days. Castor has fallen into a coma and his brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), is not cooperating with the authorities. Time is of the essence and Archer is informed that the government has created a new technology that allows for a perfect face transplant.
The plan: Archer will borrow Troy’s face and he will then try to coax information out of Pollux—the exact location of the bomb and when it will go off exactly. The problem: After the complex surgery, Troy, sporting Archer’s face, wakes up from his coma, kills everyone with the knowledge of the operation, and assumes the FBI agent’s identity.
“Face/Off,” written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary, is an over-the-top action film that knows how silly it is and so it is willing to take many risks. It has a highly enjoyable first half, especially in how the pieces are put into place prior to the face transplant, but it is eventually reduced to shoot-‘em-up razzle-dazzle with not much ingenuity in its bones.
Casting Travolta and Cage is smart, but having them play against-type eventually is a stroke of genius. In the beginning, Cage plays the villain with such an electric intensity at times it feels as though we are watching a super villain in a superhero picture. Travolta, on the other hand, plays a good guy at first but he employs enough quirks as not make the character boring. Their charisma never wavers and that is why it is almost always a joy to watch them on screen together especially when they are trading barbs.
Less effective are the action scenes—which is a problem because this is an action picture. Although the editing is proficient and the pacing of each sequence is just right, having the characters shoot guns amidst random explosions becomes a trick that gets old real fast. Because Archer and Troy have such hatred toward one another, it is not unfair to expect for them to engage in hand-to-hand combat. We do get one toward the end but it is far from choreographed in a cathartic and creative way.
Clocking in at two hours and ten minutes, the movie is too long. There are a lot of bits showing Troy, sporting Archer’s face, trying to assume a normal family life and Archer, with Troy’s face, spending time with known criminals, but the jokes are evanescent at best. Instead, these humor-driven scenes take away the suspense and intrigue of two people trying to adapt to their new identities.
Directed by John Woo, “Face/Off” is need of toning up in terms of which scenes are most effective in order to get the message across. The best action movies are so direct, they end up forcing the audience to catch up to whatever is going on. Here, one can step away for a few minutes right after an action scene wraps up and not much is missed.
Long Kiss Goodnight, The (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
With the exception of her name and the fact that she was pregnant, Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) woke up with no memory eight years prior. Doctors diagnosed her with focal retrograde amnesia, a condition where a person is unable to remember the past but has no problem making new memories. Since her rebirth, Samantha is able to get a job as a schoolteacher while raising her daughter (Yvonne Zima) as a single mother. She has even managed to meet a nice guy named Hal (Tom Amandes) with whom she is seriously considering to marry.
But after being involved in a car accident, she has begun to exhibit specific abilities she had not been aware before—like being very comfortable with a knife. It turns out that Samantha, whose real name is Charly Baltimore, is a former assassin for the United States government, now a remnant of the Cold War, and her former employer (Patrick Malahide) is intent on eliminating her.
Written by Shane Black and directed by Renny Harlin, “The Long Kiss Goodnight” starts off with great energy but with wobbly knees. The background story involving Samantha’s family in suburbia fails to capture my interest because it far too cheesy, a setup that one might catch on a two-hour television pilot that is destined to get cancelled three to five episodes later.
It does not help that we meet them during a Christmas party where everyone is required to put on a happy face. In a sense, we are not given a chance to get to know the real Hal and Caitlin, Samantha’s daughter, before the mother must leave with her private investigator, the wise-cracking Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson), in order to dig further into discovering her true identity. I was more interested in the kids’ whispers involving the fact that they know a woman who has amnesia, like the word is tantamount to someone who is insane or unsafe to be around.
On the other hand, the action scenes are glorious, some undoubtedly creative. While the picture commits a number of physics-defying sequences, I was entertained nonetheless because filmmakers do not shy away from possibly coming off silly. Due to the lack of self-consciousness in the material, it is able to gather momentum, convincing us all the more that the protagonist’s story is one that is worth seeing through.
The bad guys’ endgame feels almost inspired by comic books where the hero—in this case, heroine—must save thousands of people from death. Again, it seems like the film is actually proud in not downplaying the comedy. At times I found myself gasping out of suspense then catching the fact that the gasps had turned into laughter, almost a sigh of relief that things turn out all right in the end. Because the picture is able to get more than one type of reaction, I was able to have fun with it.
Timothy (Craig Bierko), an enemy of the state that Samantha is supposed to assassinate before she lost her memory, is an intimidating but charming villain. It is too bad the actor is not given very much to do except holler orders at his minions, offer sarcastic remarks, and use a machine gun during his most desperate times.
One of the questions that should not have gone unanswered is how Samantha ended up with amnesia in the first place. Did she hit her head while on a mission? Were drugs forced into her system during an intense torture? With a bloated running time, there is no excuse for not answering key questions, especially for a movie about missing identities. A lack of attention to detail tends to leave holes.
After Earth (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Having sensed that he and his son are drifting apart, Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a renowned general who is often away on intergalactic missions, invites Kitai (Jaden Smith) to come with him to work so that they can spend more time together. What should have been a relatively safe trip goes horribly awry when their ship encounters a field of asteroids. Their ship heavily damaged, they have no choice but to crash land on Earth, once the home of mankind but is now a haven for creatures that have evolved to kill humans.
A part of me feels bad for M. Night Shyamalan because it seems as though each time his name is associated with a movie, the majority expect or wish for the project to fail. With work like “Lady in the Water” and, to some degree, “The Happening” (I liked parts of it), casual moviegoers have reason to think this way. But “After Earth” is not as bad as the aforementioned pictures; it is mediocre, certainly, but some sections of the film are entertaining.
The script might have benefited from a bit of polishing. While understandable that the heart of the story touches upon a strained relationship between father and son, and to some degree we know exactly where it is going, it need not have been so corny. Some lines sound too forced that at times we are reminded that we are watching a movie rather than being a part of an adventure.
For example, as Raige and Kitai get into a disagreement about the criteria of aborting a mission, out of the blue one of them begins to talk about something else entirely–a recollection of an event that is supposed to be sad or tragic. Instead, I found myself detached and noticing the strings of the puppet show. This approach would have worked only if the screenplay had a tight grip on the human drama of the story. It fails to move us because the moment is not earned.
The film is visually arresting at times. I marveled at the appearance of the abandoned Earth. Admittedly, it is not at all a challenge to discern which parts are CGI (most of them are) but I am somewhat forgiving when it comes to the visuals as long as they are not too showy as to overpower the material. I liked that the dangers on Earth involve animals that many of us are likely to be familiar with but are given slight alteration in size or function.
A standout sequence involves Kitai having to skydive and as a giant eagle-looking creature pursuits him. Shyamalan makes good decisions when it comes to balancing wide shots and close-ups in order to highlight the urgency of the action. The director is not without talent and I wish that more people were more open to giving credit when it is deserved–even if they think that the movie does not work as a whole.
Based on the story by Will Smith and screenplay by Gary Whitta and Shyamalan, “After Earth” is one that I consider to be a “background movie,” appropriate to play in the background during a party or gathering. The slower, less exciting parts give people a chance to catch up and trade gossip. When the action reaches a peak, however, people’s attention is captured until the thrills die down again.
Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
It has been about a year and a half since Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), a member of the president’s protection detail, failed to save the first lady from a freak auto accident. Since then, he has been assigned to work at the Treasury, mostly dealing with paperwork. But when North Koreans take hostage of President Asher (Aaron Eckhart), demolishing the White House and troops in the process, it seems Banning is the only one capable of stopping the ringleader (Rick Yune) and putting an end to the massacre.
Although “Olympus Has Fallen,” written by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, is an inconsistent action picture, it does offer a few exciting scenes. The attacks are filmed with a sense of scope. I felt like I was watching a real terrorist attack unfolding before my eyes. However, most of these nicely executed scenes are found during the first hour which makes the second half only slightly a step above boredom.
The aerial attack on Washington, D.C. is impressive. We can hear the beating of the drums designed to amp up the tension, but the score is less pronounced than the pop of the firearms and the roar of the explosions. It is actually scary hearing high velocity bullets swishing by and seeing them hitting the pavement, establishments, and innocent people. Many action pictures do not give enough time for the audience to absorb it all. Here, there is a feral quality in the violence so the chaos is believable. In addition, I enjoy it when I notice the extras do a good job reacting. The panic they create is realistic.
At times the film is too heavy-handed with its imagery. At one point, we see a tattered American flag being taken down and disposed of by the North Koreans–in slow motion. I think seeing the White House in utter ruins already incites a certain level of sadness and anger. The filmmakers’ lack of restraint distracts with glaring puissance.
The latter half is disappointing because potentially fun action scenes take place in the dark. I understood that power is out in the White House but there should have been stronger lighting during key hand-to-hand duels. If we do not see the characters’ faces when they are throwing kicks and punches, it is easy to tune out. When the fighters end up on the ground clamping at each other, close-ups are employed. We see faces but they lack significance because there is no longer movement. For instance, Jackie Chan movies are so much fun because we see the bodies and faces during fight sequences. In here, it is almost impossible not to squint through the shadows.
Supporting characters are not written smart so talented actors are wasted. Morgan Freeman as Speaker of the House, Angela Bassett as the Director of the Secret Service, and Robert Forster as the Army Chief of Staff appear to be trying really hard to overcome a limited script. If this were a top quality action-thriller, the scenes that take place in the Pentagon would have been equally exciting as the events taking place outside its walls. To be in their position, a strong personality and sharpness is required. The screenplay goes for the obvious: creating a would-be serious argument, which comes off silly, between two men–one is humbled by having the power and the other craving it.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, “Olympus Has Fallen” is not at all ambitious. Its one goal is to entertain by blowing things up and showing people in danger. I liked it in the beginning; I was ready to go on a thrilling ride. But it fails to go anywhere. It feels like it had given up just moments before it was about to hit its stride.
★★★★ / ★★★★
A two-month police stakeout goes wrong when Hyo-jeong (Hyo-seo Kim), an exotic dancer in the club that is being surveilled, steals a heroin sample from a one of the drug lord’s henchmen. She figures that she and her boyfriend can make some money off the heroin, but it is only a matter of time until she is tracked down and kidnapped–along with her daughter, So-mi (Sae-ron Kim), who has befriended a recluse who runs a pawnshop. Tae-sik (Bin Won) mostly keeps to himself but since he has gotten somewhat close to the little girl, he feels it is his duty, especially with his military background, to rescue her.
Movies about someone, most often a man in law enforcement or has had prior experience in the military, rescuing a child from grave danger is a dime a dozen, but “Ajeossi,” written and directed by Jeong-beom Lee, proves that just because a template is familiar does not mean that the specific story being told cannot rise above the rest. Written with intelligence, sensitivity, and a few genuine surprises, it is a first-rate action film that schools even the most bombastic works with shootouts galore.
It is a wise decision that the film does not comprise of only chase scenes. While they are very thrilling when they do occur, they might have held little meaning if we did not have a clear picture of what was at stake. The first third is simple but critical. It focuses on interactions among isolated groups: the cops on the verge of cornering criminals, the drug dealers and henchmen who think they are too smart–and too rich with connections to spare–for the system, and of course the innocent people who get caught in the battle between the two camps. There is lyricism in the way Tae-sik gets sucked into the underworld that he chooses to stay away from.
Although an action picture on the surface, it functions as a thriller in the way it evolves. We get the flying bullets, screams of pain, squeals of horror from bystanders, and bone-crunching hand-to-hand combat, but it is the bleak developments in the plot that dares us to keep watching. I admired that the material actually takes the time to show how a criminal group might work–not just through the obvious-looking bad guys but also through people who we might not expect to have darkness in them. It makes for a most compelling watch.
It is interesting that Tae-sik’s full capacity to inflict violence is not seen until halfway through. I appreciated that even though it is an action film and we know what to expect, the screenplay chooses to tease us nonetheless by jumping to a less suspenseful scene–or an amusing one–before someone gets very badly hurt. Then it returns when the deed is done and the former tough guys are reduced to cowering fools.
“The Man from Nowhere” meets the highest standards of an action-thriller because the writer-director understands how to play with his audience’s emotions. The way it forces our expectations from, say, wanting to see a bad guy get his comeuppance by being beaten raw to wishing all of it to stop completely are executed with control and elegance. Although the violence holds a level of thrill, the undercoat of sadness in lives being wasted or lost is always there.
Black Dynamite (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is a former top tier CIA agent who loves women and kung fu. When his brother was killed by a drug lord, he wants to find out who is responsible and get revenge. But his quest for retribution takes an unsuspected turn when he discovers that drugs are no longer contained in the streets. Even innocent kids from orphanages are becoming addicted.
“Black Dynamite,” directed by Scott Sanders, is an enjoyable throwback to blaxploitation movies that dominated in the 1970s. Half the fun of the film is the purposefully bad acting. The lead character is prone to deliver long, redundant but hilarious speeches about how he considers it as his responsibility to fight for what is right. Once in a while, White’s eyes can be seen veering to the side as if asking himself what his next line is supposed to be.
Meanwhile, the other actors lack sincerity to the point where I felt like I was watching some bad pornographic film. You know, those expository scenes when a woman, wearing nothing but a see-through robe, will casually answer a knock on the door and finds a burly plumber waiting on the other side. It is cheesy, corny, and none of it is supposed to be taken seriously.
And since that is the case, it freely summons derogatory jokes about African-Americans, whites, and Asians. My favorite is when Black Dynamite remembers watching a Vietnamese child die during his turn in the Vietnam War. He keeps using the word “Chinese” to describe the boy’s legs, arms, and eyes; how the kid, whose body is tattered due to an explosion, loses his remaining leg because he tries to get up from his original position. The words expressed are so wrong yet the execution from behind the camera is so right. Artistry is present when we feel okay to laugh at something that might be initially considered as offensive.
The second half that makes the picture fun is its style. Frames backpedal onto each other and repeat, the audio sometimes do not match the movement of the mouth, and the grainy, yellow look makes it seem like the movie is actually made in the 70s. However, I wished the material spent more time developing the partnership among Black Dynamite, Osiris (Obba Babatundé), and Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson). As the trio and their crew get closer to finding out who is in charge of the drugs rapidly taking over the neighborhood, it would have been great if we also learned a little bit more about the two men who help our protagonist to get to where he is. Also, the middle portion’s pace is at times unbearably slow. With such a playful beginning and over-the-top ending, the middle section does not feel special enough to stand on its own.
“Black Dynamite,” based on the screenplay by Michael Jai White, Byron Minns and Scott Sanders, thrives on multiple levels of funky exaggeration. I was most impressed with its firecracker dialogue, almost Tarantino-esque in its attitude–including the two-beat intense pauses. I actually waited for men in suits to walk in, men whose names are Mr. Blonde, Mr. Orange, and Mr. White. Now, wouldn’t that be dynamite?