Killer Elite (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
After a job in 1980 which involved assassinating a man while the target’s kid was in the car, Danny (Jason Statham) decided to quit the killing business. A year later, Danny, living in rural Australia, received a package that contained photos of his mentor, Hunter (Robert De Niro), and instructions on how to retrieve his friend. In Oman, we learned that Sheikh Amr (Rodney Afif) wanted to avenge the death of his three sons. If Danny successfully killed three British former special air servicemen (Lachy Hulme, Grant Bowler, Daniel Roberts) before Sheikh passed away from his affliction, Danny would be able to walk away with Hunter and six million dollars richer. But just how do you get a recorded video confession and make the assassination look like an accident if the targets are tough and gifted special forces agents trained to endure the greatest types of torture? Based on the novel by Ranulph Fiennes, “Killer Elite” was able to accomplish a juggling act so uncommonly found these days in action pictures. It managed to be entertaining without sacrificing story and intelligence. In its own way, it was fashionably old-school. The goals that needed to be accomplished were succinctly laid for us. The steps toward each goal made sense even though the path was almost always never a straight line due to complications. Furthermore, since the film was set in the early 80s, sophisticated gadgetry was rarely featured. We were able to learn about the professions of the men involved, mostly through Danny’s perspective, in the way they handled guns, big and small, engaged in fiercely drawn-out hand-to-hand combat, and maneuvered their way in and around political agendas of men known as The Committee, mostly in their seniors, so intent on keeping things hush-hush, it almost felt like their loyalty was, ironically, a crime. I found a smidgen of sadness with it all. The Committee had no regard for the SAS, a group they formerly depended on for counter-terrorism and the like, because their use had expired. Determined to protect the former ex-SAS was Spike (Clive Owen), a former special agent himself who sported only one fully functioning eye. I was fascinated with how he was introduced as the only man capable of stopping Danny. Despite his obstructed vision, his focus never meandered and he was comfortable with thinking outside the box. And that made him a very dangerous man to deal with. Yet, over time, I learned to identify with what he believed to be worth fighting for. I wished, however, that the pacing was more consistent. With a running time of almost two hours, it felt longer because there was one too many flashbacks of Danny thinking about his girlfriend (Yvonne Strahovski): how they reconnected after so many years, how much he missed her, and how she was one of the main reasons why he wanted to quit the business. It was clear that he loved the girl. No further explanation was needed. The flashbacks greatly interrupted the urgency of the picture; instead of pulling me in closer, I began to feel an aversion to the romance. Based on a screenplay by Matt Sherring and directed by Gary McKendry, “Killer Elite” proudly supports the idea that the most effective action movies are not just about good people versus bad people. There’s good and bad in all of us. Some of us walk away from good, some of us walk away from bad. But it doesn’t mean we can’t choose to go back.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Machete” was a fake trailer so good, it was green lit as full-feature film. Machete (Danny Trejo) was a Mexican Federale who disobeyed his boss which led to his wife’s beheading. Three years later and now in America, Machete was approached by a mysterious man named Booth (Jeff Fahey) for a job. For $150,000, Machete was assigned to kill Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), whose platform was to ensure a stricter Mexican-American border, while making his speech for re-election. But the simple assassination plot was not what it seemed. The heated debate about illegal immigration was directly related to a drug cartel led by Von Jackson (Don Johnson) and the kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal). “Machete,” directed by Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez, was an incredibly violent, bloody, laugh-out-loud funny, creative mess. The filmmakers knew that the movie was an exaggeration of good and bad action films that we loved and hated. Most of the action defied the law of physics but it didn’t matter because it was entertaining. It provided an excellent example of a character whose background information we did not need to know or fully understand. We just knew he had to survive because he was a symbol of the people, specifically immigrants, both legal and illegal, who were every day marginalized yet used as a scapegoat when a country was in an economic turmoil. Amidst the flying bullets, blades scraping through skin, and blood being painted on walls, I was surprised that it had moments of thoughtfulness, although wrapped in humor like a burrito. For instance, one of Booth’s henchmen stated that we allow Mexicans to enter our homes to clean, take care of our children or siblings, and park our cars, yet we wouldn’t allow them to enter our country. Controversies concerning illegal immigration aside, there was a painful truth to that statement. Furthermore, as enjoyable as the men were to watch, there were some interesting casting choice concerning the women who eventually came to fight on Machete’s side. Michelle Rodriguez was a perfect choice to play Luz because she was edgy, tough, and beautiful. On the other hand, Jessica Alba as an immigration and customs enforcer was not entirely convincing because she didn’t have enough angst and roughness. I actually squirmed in my seat during her speech, while standing on the hood of a car, about our rights to stand up to a law that failed to protect its people’s best interests. I felt like I was in a room with a high school teacher who got a little too carried away by the subject at hand. The most fascinating was Lindsay Lohan whose dream was to become a “model” but she really meant taking her clothes off over the internet. I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she wanted to satirize her wacky life. “Machete” embraced the offensive, the grimy, and the bold. I embraced it right back.
The American (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jack (George Clooney), an assassin whom his superior (Johan Leysen) considered to be losing his edge, took refuge in an Italian village after his last job had gone horribly awry. When Jack wasn’t gathering materials to create a weapon for a fellow contract killer (Thekla Reuten), he spent his time with a prostitute (Violante Placido) who wanted to get out of the countryside and a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who sensed that Jack had something to hide. “The American,” directed by Anton Corbijn, was an atypical thriller about a hitman dealing with the prospect that his career was coming to an end. It was a great exercise in tone and mood. While I admit that I do agree, to an extent, with audiences’ critiques involving the pace being slow, I relished every second because once an action sequence was thrown on our laps, it was like we were paralyzed and there was nothing we could do but to stare at a bomb about to explode in under five seconds. I enjoyed the picture because it was surprisingly character-driven. Clooney did a wonderful job in balancing a character who wanted redemption because he suspected that perhaps the small village was his final destination. He wondered how lower-level assassins were able to find him even though he was convinced that he covered his tracks well. Did one of the people who he had a conversation with simply a disguise and he failed to noticed it? Paranoia started to seep through his mind. When he slept and heard a creak, grabbing a gun was an automatic response. He was like a machine or a weapon he so desperately wanted to perfect. Maybe he really was starting to lose it. On the other hand, even though deep inside he knew he wouldn’t be able to lead a normal life, he wanted to explore the possibility of settling down with a woman. She was warm, free-spirited, easy to form a smile–a complete opposite of himself; he was cunning, calculating, suspicious. The only time they seemed to be on the same page was when they shared a bed. But even then he had to pay for her services. As one scene switched tone from Jack’s personal to professional battles, Clooney would go from a nondescript man in a café to a predator whose one and only purpose was to catch his prey. In Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity,” my favorite scene was the silent duel between Matt Damon and Clive Owen in the yellow fields. All we could hear were rapid footsteps, bullets flying, our protagonist gasping for air, and the birds. “The American” captured that brilliance for the majority of its running time. However, it certainly isn’t for those without patience or audiences who are expecting adrenaline-fueled entertainment. I’m no assassin, but I think if they were to lead some sort of a life, it wouldn’t be far from Jack’s lifestyle.
★★ / ★★★★
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) and her father (Eric Bana), a former CIA agent, had been living in isolation in the snowy mountains of Europe. Hanna was trained to defend herself, to always be alert, and to never trust anyone. But the reason for their preparation was unknown to us. When the two finally revealed their location using a tracker, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), a CIA operative, was given the case because she was willing to do whatever necessary to assissinate the sixteen-year-old girl. “Hanna” had all of the elements of a film I would immediately love despite its less significant flaws. Unfortunately, it failed to explore its characters in a meaningful way so that we would care more about what would happen to them when placed in a situation where a small mistake could cost them their lives. For example, Erik, Hanna’s father, seemed to have a past which involved Marissa when she was still an active agent in the field. But the bond between the two opposing sides was never under a magnifying glass. Instead, there was one flashback designed to explain it all. I thought the writers were confused about the notion of subtlety versus keeping its audiences in the dark for the sake of mystery. When Erik and Marissa were finally in the same room after years of not seeing each other, there was, without a doubt, genuine tension. However, it was because the technical aspects, like editing and camera angles, were so strong. It wasn’t because we fully understood their history and the possible repercussions if one of them received a bullet in the head. There was also a strand that involved Hanna meeting Sophie (Jessica Barden), a hilarious and outspoken girl who traveled with her family (Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Aldo Maland), and how the two eventually became friends. The things Hanna and Sophie went through, like spending time with handsome Spanish boys in motorcycles, were typical coming-of-age elements designed to explore Hanna’s capacity for humanity, despite being a killing machine, and the childhood she never had a chance to cherish. It was effective in its own way because we had a chance to see Hanna laugh and, in small dosages, experience emotions outside of her training. Unfortunately, Hanna had to go back to reality and face the woman who wanted to kill her. Blanchett sported a great haircut and creepy compulsions, but I wish she was given the chance to really show the monster behind her composure. Directed by Joe Wright, “Hanna” was not as rewarding as it should have been. I appreciated the risks it took so that warrants a slight recommendation. However, it could have been more engaging if we knew Erik and Marissa just as deeply as the title character.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martin Blank (John Cusack), a professional assassin, had been invited for a 10th year high school reunion in Grosse Pointe. He initially did not want to go for two main reasons: He did not want to talk about his career and he was reluctant to face his former flame (Minnie Driver) who he stood up during prom night. Coincidentally, Martin’s secretary (hilariously played by Joan Cusack) informed him of a job in Grosse Pointe so she advised him to attend anyway so that he could tie up some loose ends in his life. “Grosse Pointe Blank,” directed by George Armitage, is a comedy with an edge. While it did have its comedic scenes such as Martin’s interactions with his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) who was reluctant to have him as a patient and a fellow assassin (Dan Aykroyd) who wanted Martin to join his union, it also worked as an exploration of a man having a pre-midlife crisis and the regret of having to leave his youth so soon. There was conflict inside Martin and happiness was something that he couldn’t quite reach to matter how hard he tried to claim it. For instance, there was a spice of sadness when he found out that his former home was now a grocery store and his mother had lost touch with reality. It also worked as an entertaining action flick especially toward the second half of the picture. However, it was still cheeky because the characters never seemed to run out of bullets. The overkills were very amusing but I thought it was appropriate considering the assassins’ enthusiasm (or obsession) with their jobs. Although I must say I did wish Hank Azaria was used a lot more instead of him simply cracking obvious jokes in the car as he tried to stalk Martin around town. The best element about the film was the romantic relationship between Cusack and Driver. A guy coming back for his former lover could easily have been cliché but the writers came up with ways to keep the tension fresh between them. At first I did not feel the connection between the two characters but as the movie went on, I wanted them to be together because they complemented each other’s personalities. “Grosse Pointe Blank” was more than an 80s nostalgia flick. I loved the selection of songs. Even though I grew up in the 90s, it was the kind of songs I listened to while growing up because my parents were adolescents in the 80s. Watching enthusiastic and cooky characters and listening to music that was very catchy which reminded me of my childhood made me feel good inside. Fans of quirky action-comedies with a great script like Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” will most likely enjoy this offbeat but highly likable film.
Knight and Day (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
June (Cameron Diaz) bumped into Roy (Tom Cruise) at the airport on the way home for her sister’s wedding unknowing of the fact that he was a spy and fellow government agents (Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis) were after him. Before she knew it, June got caught in the middle of two camps but eventually it seemed like she was more than happy her life made a drastic turn because she finally found excitement, love and adventure. “Knight and Day,” written by Patrick O’Neill and directed by James Mangold, offered nothing new to the action-comedy genre but it felt refreshing because the actors were having fun, the filmmakers were having fun and so the audiences couldn’t help but have fun as well. Comparisons to “Killers,” starring Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl, could not be helped because the two were released at just about the same time and both pretty much had a similar concept, but “Knight and Day” was lightyears better because it had energy from start to finish. More importantly, it was actually funny. I was glad to see Cruise starring in a film that somewhat spoofed his more serious roles because it showed me that he had a sense of humor. It was also nice to see Diaz being her usual charming sunny self. Her character’s reactions to unbelievable and often dangerous situations amused me in so many ways. In a way, I felt like she was just playing herself and I appreciated that. The movie worked for me even though it did not attempt to have any sort of character development because I was thoroughly engaged. Each passing scene had a higher level of danger and adrenaline from the one before and I was curious about what creative action sequence I would see next. There was a lot to choose from but the three scenes that put a smile on my face were when Cruise informed Diaz that everybody on the plane was dead and it was about to crash but she thought it was all a big joke, the train scene with a lethal assassin who could easily have been taken right from the “Bourne” series and the motorcycle chase in Spain with the bulls. It is definitely easy to judge the movie before seeing it because we are all aware of Cruise’s controversial life. I say give it a chance because “Knight and Day” is a bona fide, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat, globetrotting adventure that never runs out of fuel. It’s a good movie to see with the family especially those familiar with Cruise’s golden days.
★ / ★★★★
An uptight woman (Katherine Heigl) who recently got out of a relationship decided to go on vacation with her parents (Catherine O’Hara, Tom Selleck) in Nice, France and luckily met her future husband (Ashton Kutcher). He seemed to have it all: he’s charming, has a sense of humor, a great body and he genuinely wanted her despite her geekiness and flaws. He just happened to be a contract killer who worked for the government. I really wanted to like “Killers,” directed by Robert Luketic, because I have a penchant for stories involving spies and sleeper agents. Unfortunately, the picture needed to trim a lot of fat, especially the very unfunny first thirty minutes. It had a chance to establish the characters before diving into the action scenes but the dialogue was so flat, so empty, and so one-dimensional. I found that our conversations in real life were more interesting to listen to than the two characters having a dinner date by the sea. Their conversations didn’t pull me into their relationship because there were far too many giggly, awkward moments instead of two people sharing a real connection. I think this would have been far more effective if the first half was a romantic comedy and second half was a predominantly serious but occassionally funny thriller. The elements were certainly there: the close-knit suburban community which reminded me of “Desperate Housewives” with perfect picket fences and all, the quirky and sometimes annoying neighbors, the parents who were too involved with their daughter’s marriage, and the husband harboring a secret that he couldn’t hide forever. I thought it had a very difficult time juggling comedy and action so it managed to excel at neither of them. As for the sleeper agents, like the lead characters, they would have had more impact in the story if we got to know them a little bit. The battle scenes would have been more interesting if each of them had a specialty and a different style of assassination. Because let’s face it: gunning someone down with fragments of glass flying everywhere can get old pretty quickly. “Killers” desperately needed a lot of substance and a lot of edge in order to be a killer film. Heigl and Kutcher were easy on the eyes but that was about it. Be warned: there is a vast difference between the trailer and the movie–like having a crush on someone from afar because of their looks but when you really try to get to know them, it’s very disappointing because they turn out to be quite empty. Rewatch “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” instead because “Killers” was just no fun.