Tag: action

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.

Hardcore Henry

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.


Face/Off (1997)
★★ / ★★★★

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.

The Long Kiss Goodnight

The Long Kiss Goodnight (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

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

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.

The Man from Nowhere

The Man from Nowhere (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

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.