★★ / ★★★★
It appears as though Breacher (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his team of DEA agents (Mireille Enos, Sam Worthington, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Max Martini, Kevin Vance, Mark Schlegel) have succeeded in stealing ten million dollars from the Rios-Garza cartel without the American government knowing. But when they go underground to retrieve the money that very night, someone has beaten them to it. Soon, members of Breacher’s team begin to meet gruesome deaths, from being run over by a train to being nailed to the ceiling. An investigator (Olivia Williams) is assigned to investigate the murders.
The writing by Skip Woods and David Ayer prevents what could have been a highly entertaining action film—boasting a talented cast of tough guys (and gal)—from truly taking off. When characters speak, especially Breacher expressing how much his team means to him, there is not an iota of a believable moment or feeling. It is like listening to tires screeching, a test of patience and endurance.
An attempt is made to make the lead character more interesting and sympathetic. The backstory involving the kidnapping of his wife and son is tragic but never delved into completely. Connecting the dots is a challenge—and a pointless exercise—because the victims are either shown or mentioned only during the first scene and toward the end when explanation is required in order to move the plot forward. Thus, a rhythm behind the revelations is not established. Events occur out of convenience rather than that of natural progression.
Breacher’s team is unruly and unpleasant—which is a positive quality in a movie like this. Since the material does not have enough time to turn every character into a believable person we might encounter in the streets, at least they are not boring to be around. There is a roughness or ruggedness to most of them and the quieter ones do stand out because of the way they look or carry themselves. In other words, Breacher’s team is tough in different ways. If the writers had found a way to get us to care more about them, the picture might have worked on another level.
The action scenes are loud and gruesome at times. It seems as though just about everyone prefers to use big guns and so the combination of sounds following the pressing of the trigger amps up the tension. There are moments, however, when it reverts to clichés like a person being able to outrun a rain of bullets while moving rather slowly. Such scenes needed to be reedited to make it appear as though the situation was unfolding very quickly and one mistake could mean game over.
“Sabotage,” directed by David Ayer, is elevated by Williams because she is convincing as a tough and dirty-talking cop. I imagined her getting along perfectly with Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala from “End of Watch”—also directed by Ayer. It is a good decision to cast Williams because she exudes intelligence without even trying. At first glance, I expected her to play a character with an uptight nature and so when she starts cracking jokes and trying to make tough-sounding phrases work, I appreciated her sense of humor—a quality that the film does not offer very often.
Terminator Genisys (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
In 2029, just when the final assault against Skynet, led by John Connor (Jason Clarke), is finally won, it is discovered that a Terminator had already been sent to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), mother to the leader of the Resistance, as a fail-safe. John’s righthand man, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), volunteers to go back in time to protect Sarah, but it turns out the mission is not as straightforward as it seems. Upon arrival in 1984, Kyle learns the timeline had already been changed and it appears as though he has memories of events he never in fact experienced.
“Terminator Genisys,” written by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, takes elements from James Cameron’s “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” puts them in a blender, and a few original ideas are sprinkled into the mix to create a reimagining. Although the picture is superficially entertaining as a whole, one foot remains deeply embedded in the past. Thus, due to nostalgia, a great limitation prevents this sci-fi action picture from turning into one that will be remembered positively from years to come.
Some action sequences are quite enthralling. The first half is particularly strong. Standouts involve increasingly difficult encounters with a T-1000 Terminator dressed as a cop (Byung-hun Lee). There is a nastiness to this villain because even though chaos is happening all around—bullets flying, vehicles exploding—there is an eerie calmness to Lee’s performance. The body is tough, agile, strong but the face is serene. We believe that our protagonists are really up against a tank-like robot that will not stop until its assignment is accomplished.
The various intersections of timelines require the audience to pay careful attention to dialogue—which is problematic because this is not the film’s strong point. The script is plagued with expository lines that explain, for example, a character’s thoughts or feelings rather than going through a more demonstrative avenue. Although the performers do the best they can to inject emotion into these lines, the words and phrases still come across as forced. As a result, we do not buy completely into the human drama behind the conflict. This is highly apparent with Kyle and Sarah’s interactions—a critical misstep because how their relationship is built is central to the plot.
The numerous flashbacks hinder the material’s forward momentum. While Kyle’s new memories provide the necessary mystery to keep us wondering how he managed to acquire them, they are redundant and tend to take away tension that is created. It might have been better if these images were only seen once and are only referred to again via dialogue—as if it were a way for Kyle to hold onto them the deeper he gets into his mission. The movie has an annoying habit of assuming that audiences are not paying attention. To pass as an intelligent film, even only superficially, first the filmmakers must assume that viewers have relatively long attention spans.
Directed by Alan Taylor, “Terminator Genisys” entertains because it moves fast and action pieces occur every ten to fifteen minutes. Deeper questions about time travel and repercussions that are worth getting answers are set to the side so it is not for viewers who wish for a more cerebral experience. However, such a warning should have been apparent to those already familiar with the franchise.
Running Man, The (1987)
★★ / ★★★★
Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), member of the military, was sent to prison because he wouldn’t follow orders to kill a group of women and children protesting for food. But when he broke out of prison, an edited video was released to the public in which Ben was portrayed to have killed the innocent civilians. Out of desperation, he took Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso) hostage to seek refuge in Hawaii. Ben’s escape was unsuccessful, but his story caught the attention of Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), a host of the most popular game on television. In order to restore his reputation, Ben must compete in the gladiator-style show and defeat assassins collectively known as The Stalkers (Professor Toru Tanaka, Gus Rethwisch, Erland van Lidth, Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura). Based on a short story by Stephen King, “The Running Man” had a fascinating prediction involving the future of American culture reflected by what was shown on television but the execution did not match the story’s ambition. Although Schwarzenegger had the body for the role, I wasn’t convinced he had the talent, acting-wise, to deliver the depth and complexity in his character. If Schwarzenegger was only allowed to stand and look tough, it might have worked out. Unfortunately, he was required to speak such as giving orders to his teammates, expressing anger, balancing incredulousness and frustration. I felt like his one-liners cheapened the material. The “I’ll be back” line was obviously a reference to James Cameron’s “The Terminator.” It was unnecessary. Others were supposed to serve as comic relief, but there were far too many of them. I was completely taken out of the experience of being in their world. What I liked, however, was the way the camera switched between the battle scenes and the audiences’ reactions. The audiences were supposed to reflect us: rich, poor, black, white, young, and old. The point was all groups craved some sort of violence. I interpreted the game show audiences as individuals who supported capital punishment and thereby accepting the innate hypocrisy within the system. I found the audiences’ reactions interesting and disturbing. It was acceptable for The Running Man, people who had to battle their way through obstacles, to die because they supposedly have committed crimes, mostly murder, despite the lack of concrete evidence. Images on television were enough to persuade everyone. However, it was considered a tragedy for a Stalker, also committing murder, to perish. There was an interesting mix of tongue-and-cheek and cynicism in the way the audiences’ loyalty shifted from one end to another when certain lies were exposed. It highlighted the power of television and most people’s inability (or laziness) to think critically. Unfortunately, the screenplay’s third act was frustratingly, maddeningly weak. The film’s message turned into something it was supposed to be fighting against. That is, the answer to violence is more violence. Instead of leaving us with real insight regarding the role of television in our lives, “The Running Man,” directed by Paul Michael Glaser, took the easily digestible path. I felt like what I put into the film was significantly more than what I had gotten back.
Batman & Robin (1997)
★ / ★★★★
Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman), a horticulturalist stationed in South America whose project involved cross-breeding animal and plants, caught Dr. Woodrue (John Glover) creating a super soldier named Bane (Jeep Swenson) for bidding. When she expressed her disapproval of her colleague’s indiscretions, Dr. Woodrue tried to kill her by pushing her into a batch of chemicals. This altered Dr. Isley’s DNA and gave her, now Poison Ivy, the ability to manipulate plants. Pairing up with Bane, the duo headed to Gotham City to demand answers from Bruce Wayne (George Clooney) for cutting funds out of their project. Written by Akiva Goldsman and directed by Joel Schumacher, “Batman & Robin” suffocated from too many plots which was unfortunate because there was a hint of good material lost in a jungle of bad. The strand which involved the decline of Alfred Pennyworth’s (Michael Gough) health was interesting because prior to this point, he had nothing much to do except being a butler to Bruce and offering a wise commentary when Bruce struggled for answers in terms of the dichotomy between his personal and professional life. Even though Alfred was only the help of the Wayne manor, it was tough to see him looking frail and lackadaisical because he was our protagonist’s only father figure. Unfortunately, the film put more weight in having fun in the form racing motorbikes which was aimed to symbolize teenage rebellion, Poison Ivy winking at the camera and mentioning how her action figures always came with Bane, and Bruce appearing in social functions with a woman (Elle Macpherson) we knew absolutely nothing about but marriage was apparently on the horizon. This confusing, cheesy pot of doldrum was heated to a boil so slowly and so painfully, it threatened the integrity of the project and the franchise. Furthermore, while I believed Clooney as Bruce the multibillionaire with that winning smile, I had an incredibly difficult time believing him as Batman. The ultimate challenge that Clooney had to face did not occur during the action scenes when he had to throw a punch and utter laughably trite lines of dialogue. It was in the silent moments when Clooney, dressed as Batman, stood next to Robin (Chris O’Donnell). I knew there was a big problem when I found that my eyes gravitated toward O’Donnell more often even if he wasn’t saying anything. Unlike Clooney, O’Donnell was a good choice to play Robin because he could just scoff and I knew exactly what his character was thinking. This error in casting proved very distracting. Notice that Clooney continued to sport a little smile when discussing Alfred’s affliction. That smile made me very angry because it communicated apathy. The scene should have had an air of seriousness because, after all, Alfred raised Bruce like a son. I wondered if the director even reshot the scene. From the looks of it, more attention was put into the special and visual effects of the chases and explosions which were, admittedly, admirable for their colors and detail. Meanwhile, Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), eventually teaming up with Poison Ivy and Bane, was reduced to delivering puns, referring to himself as a “villain” and Batman and Robin as “heroes.” Well-established antagonists with real goals don’t consider themselves as villains; they don’t feel guilt toward what they do because they believe what they’re doing is right. Knowing a bit about the deeper and touching details of why Mr. Freeze turned to a life of crime, which involved his wife in cryogenic sleep, it made me angry that the picture mostly portrayed him as a cold-blooded automaton. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if, despite his intimidating appearance, he was actually portrayed as having a heart, someone who didn’t enjoy hurting people, but he felt he needed to in order to get one step closer in saving his love? The action sequences in “Batman & Robin,” one occurred in the Gotham City Museum of Modern Art looking like an ice rink on acid, were quite a sight at times but it had no heart. It wasn’t cool to give the audience such a cold shoulder.
I, Robot (2004)
★ / ★★★★
Detective Spooner (Will Smith) was assigned to investigate the suicide of Dr. Lanning, the main scientist in charge of commercialization of robots on 2035. Spooner suspected that the murder was staged to look as a suicide by a robot named Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk) and it was only the first step of the robots’ plan to take over the world. “I, Robot” completely missed the mark to make an intelligent film about humans’ increasing dependence on technology. Much of the movie was a predictable set-up to make the main character run after or shoot at something. The uninspired false alarms were transparent. For instance, early in the movie, Spooner saw a robot running with a purse. He thought it was trying to steal the purse. Naturally, smart audiences would most likely surmise it was simply delivering the purse to its rightful owner because no tension was established regarding rogue robots yet. Spooner looked like a fool because his fear was only in his mind. The scene would have been more effective if placed after the murder of the prominent scientist to serve as a small rising action, regardless of the pettiness of the crime, to make us believe that perhaps the robot was up to something more devious than it seemed. Another scientist that jumped into the mix of the mystery was Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) who, despite all the reasonable doubt placed in front of her, could not seem to make up her mind where to place her loyalty. For a character who was supposed to be the voice of reason regarding the advantages of having robots in the home or at work, her logic was flawed. Her character was tantamount to those horror movie characters who decided to look for something in a dark room during the most inopportune times. Her eventual acknowledgement that the detective was right to be suspicious of the robots felt too forced. Granted, I did admire the special and visual effects. There were two action sequences that I thought were exciting to watch. The first was when Spooner had to face about a hundred robots in an underground freeway while going about 125 miles per hour. The second was when the robots climbed on their manufacturer’s building in an attempt to stop Spooner and Dr. Calvin from ruining their revolution. I do have to say, however, that there was another glaring inconsistency concerning those two scenes. In the first, the detective had a very difficult time destroying the robots. He had to use his car, gun, and high speed to survive. But in the latter, he was able to use his hands to rip the robots apart. Finding out that Alex Proyas, who directed the slightly brilliant “Dark City,” directed this film was all the more disappointing. If the film’s special and visual effects had been stripped away, not a thing would have kept it afloat because it lacked heart and intelligence. I found it ironic that Haley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron’s “The Terminator” were far more convincing robots despite the fact that they were played by actual humans.
Total Recall (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had a recurring nightmare about being with a brunette (Rachel Ticotin) in Mars. Feeling like he needed a break from his job, he decided to get an operation done in which scientists would upload memories of him going on a vacation onto his brain. The operation failed (with disastrous results) because, as it turned out, the current memory Douglas perceived to be his real life was simply artificial. Douglas decided to go to Mars and face a corporate leader (Ronny Cox) who was behind the charade. However, before he left, he had to face his wife (Sharon Stone) who felt strongly against his course of action. The first few minutes of the film did not give me a good impression. I thought the acting was laughable, especially from the lead, and I wasn’t quite sure if the campiness was intentional. But as it went on, I became more impressed with its creativity in terms of the questions it brought up regarding which reality was real, the technologies that defined the future, and the intense action sequences. I had fun with its many product placements which were popular back in the late 80s but lost selling power after twenty years. Furthermore, for a science fiction film, I did not expect it to have so much blood. There were times when I felt like I was watching a horror film. The picture constantly changed gears. It wasn’t just about Douglas’ quest to find his true identity. There was a subplot about humans and mutants in Mars who decided to join forces and rebel against the greedy corporate leader. Cox’ character was determined to keep the element that could ultimately create atmosphere in Mars for himself for the sake of cash flow. Slow death of dozens of lives due to a lack of oxygen meant absolutely nothing to him. In a nutshell, I was convinced that he was a villain worth experiencing a painful demise. “Total Recall,” based on a short story by Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” and directed by Paul Verhoeven, was a very entertaining film because it had a plethora of ideas that shaped and defined its underlying themes. Impressive special and visual effects were abound which helped to elevate our perception of the futuristic world. After the main character’s discovery that his life was a simply a fabrication, every scene that followed was thrilling action scene. But there was a question that lingered up until the final scene: Was everything we saw reality or was it the “perfect” fantasy vacation that Douglas asked for?
★★★ / ★★★★
Arnold Schwarzenegger and his team of commandos (Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, Shane Black) take up a mission to rescue fellow members of the army from the Latin American jungle. Schwarzenegger’s old pal (Carl Weathers) who now worked for the CIA also came along with them to put his own agendas into motion. But little did they know that from a distance, an alien creature was observing their every move and mimicking their voices and expressions. Right from the very beginning, it was obvious that this was a “guy movie” because of its great focus on showing the military lifestyle, its weapons and artilleries, and men acting nothing short of masculine. But what makes it better than most typical films targeted for men is that it had a strong ability to build tension while at the same time still delivering the glorious violence and buckets of blood. Directed by John McTiernan, he didn’t let The Predator reveal itself until thirty to forty-five minutes into the picture. It simply observed from afar via the soldiers’ and the surroundings’ heat signatures while trying to practice certain human qualities. As the commandos started dying one by one, each scene became that much more intense because it meant that the final duel between Schwarzenegger and The Predator was that much closer. Acting-wise, this movie didn’t have much to offer because all the actors had to do was either look tough or scared. Nevertheless, I was engaged and curious what would happen next because the soldiers were pretty much fighting a creature who was a master of camouflage. I thought the strongest part of the film was the final twenty minutes. The dialogue was minimal because Schwarzenegger was the last man standing and he had to stay quiet in order to avoid attracting the alien who loves to hunt. The movie then had no choice but to rely on both the movements of the camera and that of the lead actor’s as he tried to find ways to trap and hopefully kill his enemy. Its special and visual effects may seem a bit dated now but with older films, what’s important to me is the concept. I believe “Predator” more than delivers because it was entertaining, sometimes smart, suspenseful and at times downright terrifying. This is a prime example of a sci-fi action flick that learned something from the horror genre.