Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Terminator Salvation


Directed by: McG
Screenplay: John D. Brancato & Micheal Ferris
Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Common, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard & Helena Bonham Carter

Now, no-one expected the fourth film in the Terminator franchise to be as good as the original or the (almost) just-as-good sequel. Terminators mark 1 and 2 are highly regarded sci-fi action epics, one dark and brutal the other a juggernaut of blockbuster entertainment. Even ‘serious’ critics like these films, never ashamed to enjoy films which are essentially about killer robots and lots of shooting and explosions. The original, despite essentially being a rollicking chase thriller, has dark warnings of the dangers of technology and that we, the human race, will destroy ourselves if we continue to rely on machines the way we do. The second, while almost as violent, is perhaps less dark in tone (though the visions of nuclear destruction aren’t exactly easy going) is more of a mega-action blockbuster that pretty much everyone and their mother likes. The two films are held in such high regard that making any more sequels (especially after the lacklustre but still surprisingly enjoyable Terminator 3) was always going to be a dicey proposition. Certainly, it would be a tough sell in these times of fan-boy obsession and critical deconstruction (that often borders on the hysterical) as it seems people rarely let themselves go and just enjoy the ride anymore.

Now a lot of criticism was made of the choice of director: McG. Yep, the dude behind the Charlie Angels flicks. He might not have been the first person who comes to mind to direct a Terminator film, not least based on his track record, but the guy handles himself pretty well here: something many seem unwillingly to admit. Of course he isn’t James Cameron (who is seen as something of a God in the fan-boy community: I’m not knocking him as the original Terminator and Aliens are two of my favourite films but perspective seems to have all but been thrown out the window. He’s a great director but he sure ain’t the be all and end all!). McG copes very well here and crafts an often epic war movie that works as a both a summer blockbuster and a Terminator movie. After three chapters that essentially followed the same format (killer robot and future hero are sent back in time to kill/save one of the Connors) the only way to go was in a different direction. The future war glimpsed in the first three films is the backdrop for Salvation and is essentially what makes it a worthy ride. Granted there is the point “do we really need to see the future war?” Possibly not and things could have been quite rightly left the way they were at the end of Terminator 3. Arguably, the success of the other Terminator films was the sneak peeks we got at the future (humans battling giant robots in a blasted out wasteland) with our imagination filling in the rest. But if Hollywood insists on making another installment (and they have) then quite rightly the way to go is to open up the future and show us the war and the plight of John Connor.

The latest installment opens in blistering fashion with an adult John Conner (Bale) doing battle with the robots in a scorched, desolate future land. McG sets the tone from the get go: gritty, dark and action packed. Gone are most of the one-liners from the other sequels as the tone reverts back to the seriousness and relentless of the original. No, Salvation doesn’t quite have the vicious, violent tone of the first film but the dark and grit is there and the makers are at least trying to take proceedings in a somewhat serious direction. Maybe a little too serious? Sometimes. Some scenes do border on being a little too po-faced; hence a certain cheese factor seeps in. But overall the tone fits the movie well and is sold exceptionally well by the strong cast. Bale is on fine form (despite internet bashing and rumour) but its Worthington, Yelchin and Bloodgood that sell the film. Bloodgood is a tough, gruff (and also very sexy soldier) of the future human resistance and Yelchin (also appearing as Chekhov in another summer blockbuster, Star Trek) is excellent as a younger version of Kyle Reese (the hero from the first flick) still learning to fight and not yet aware of his destiny in this whole John Connor/save-the-future/man-against-machine business. Yet, it is Worthington who carries the soul of the film as a tortured being who may have more ties to the machines than he is aware.

Now in the face of critical and fan annihilation (I know some of you have enjoyed the flick) I may be just as guilty of protecting the film from further derogatory bashing. Yeah, I though the movie was great. I’m a Terminator fan (I love the originals) and I thought Salvation was a worthy addition to the franchise. But it is certainly flawed. Scenes set aboard a submarine could have been cut as they are often too cheesy (despite featuring the great Michael Ironside) and seem more at home in a crappy James Bond movie. The pace is perhaps a little too frenetic at the beginning, meaning it takes a while to figure out exactly what is going on and why things are happening. Likewise, several supporting characters could have been jettisoned (not least the dreaded shoehorned in Hollywood kid!) as they serve little purpose other than for the leads to have some brief conversations with. Yet, Salvation works as the emotional core is there, the Terminator universe is expanded and the director manages to hold everything together.

What Terminator Salvation really is, at heart, is a ride. A souped, gear grinding, action ride, which is essentially what all the Terminator films are. McG certainly gets it right in the action department. Salvation is stuffed to the gills with Terminators, all kinds of ‘bots making an appearance in some barnstorming set-pieces. The action is tight and intense, McG amping up the war feel. Thankfully, and going against the norm here, he doesn’t over do the MTV editing. It’s no secret that many an action film has been ruined lately due to Hollywood’s fascination with over-editing everything so we can’t tell what is going on, but McG plays the action 80s style: keeps it opened up so we can see what is going, builds tension and keeps it sustained and fits in as many set-pieces as his running time will allow. But the showstopper has to be the gas station raid/robot motorcycle-truck chase/fight on a bridge set-piece. Breathless execution and taut tension go hand in hand with perfectly blended stunts and CGI, as the heroes are chased and try to outwit a series of marauding robots. The best action set piece in a summer blockbuster this year so far.

For a summer blockbuster, Terminator Salvation provides the requisite thrills but is uncharacteristically dark and gritty. It may slip in its intentions occasionally and it may not be as slick and hip as the new Star Trek film (which is itself a stab at reinvigorating another long running sci-fi franchise) but it certainly is a wild, action packed, robot smashing ride that deserves a better reputation than it is getting.

LA Bounty

LA BOUNTY (1989)

Directed by: Worth Keeter
Screenplay: Michael W. Leighton
Starring: Sybil Danning, Wings Hauser & Lenore Kasdorf

A forgotten (well, probably never heard of) little action flick from the late 80s, LA Bounty is sufficient, low key action entertainment that gave one time exploitation queen Danning a leading role as tough as nails bounty hunter Ruger. She’s after a senator’s wife who has been pinched by bat-shit crazy bad guy Wings Hauser. With platinum blonde hair, pick-up truck and massive shotgun, Ruger gets down to blowing away the bad guys with aplomb.

Competently made by director Keeter (who also made another never heard of gem, Trapper County War) the film is nicely shot considering what must have been the budget and is evenly packed with action and the usual loony-ness that accompanies these cheap action flicks. Said loony-ness is courtesy of Hauser (the king of cheap action flicks) who is a riot as the unhinged bad guy who enjoys painting (naked women!) and putting his failing henchmen into crates before shooting them with an Uzi. Loony indeed. Danning doesn’t say much but makes for a memorable and tough female lead who packs a punch with her shotgun of choice. The action is staged well if hardly frenetic, Keeter even getting in a nice Sergio Leone homage in the build up to a shootout in an abandoned western town. The finale is also satisfyingly punchy and full of firepower with a sustained battle in a giant warehouse (the location of choice for cheap action flicks).

Nothing outstanding, LA Bounty is rare enough to warrant picking up if you find a copy and for those who are fans of Danning and Hauser and who enjoy these kinds of low rent/cheap action flicks. Precisely the reasons I picked it up and enjoyed it.