Sunday, 22 February 2009

Outlander



OUTLANDER (2008)

Directed by: Howard McCain
Screenplay: Howard McCain & Dirk Blackman
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Sophia Myles, John Hurt & Ron Perlman

Outlander is a big, bad, brilliant B-movie: slickly made, cool special effects, a fine cast having fun and oodles of Viking-on-alien action. Events open with a massive spaceship hurtling towards Earth. After a spectacular crash the pilot, Kainan (Caviezel) emerges and brandishing a big gun, sets off into the Norway woods seemingly hunting for something. On the ship with him he brought a big bad beastie from a far off planet and it’s now running loose in Viking times. But no longer has he set off than he himself is captured by a group of Vikings. At first suspect, they soon come to accept this ‘Outlander’ and when the beast begins to kill their people; Kainan leads the Nordic warriors into war against the alien predator.



Outlander does owe a little debt to Predator (alien beast crashes into remote forest, group of warriors do battle with it) but it is overall, a breath of fresh air and well executed fun. It may be a mish-mash of sci-fi, fantasy and action but it all works well thanks to the solid direction of McCain and the cast obviously having a ball. The Viking setting is a refreshing one and means the heroes must fight off the monsters with swords and shields rather than big guns and explosions. After the ‘jump-right-into-it’ beginning, proceedings take time to build as our hero adapts to Viking life, makes friends and enemies, romances the local totty and prepares for the final battle. This means it takes time for the beast to actually appear properly but we do get some characterization (more so than what is often seen in this genre) and we come to care about the characters when they do go into battle. Caviezel is a fine hero if a little too quiet and steely eyed sometimes but is balanced out well with John Hurt (obviously having a great time playing a Viking) and Hellboy himself Ron Perlman as a big, bald and tattooed Viking from another clan.



Plot wise, Outlander never takes any twists or turns that are unexpected and the outcome is never in doubt but with defter character interaction and tension built suspensefully, this matters not. Plus, a film about a giant space alien running around Viking times is never going to pause to discuss the depths of the human soul. The film also looks great. Filmed in some spectacular locations the Viking setting is grittily and muddily rendered (more The 13th Warrior than say Xena: Warrior Princess) and the CGI used to create the beast blends in will with the action. Once things do kick off, the spectacle is well handled, McCain orchestrating some fine action set pieces. The lack of appearance of the beast in the first half is made up in the second as it runs riot round the Nordic fighters in a series of brutal, sword wielding showdowns.

A great, big, monster mash, Outlander shows that genre entertainment can be a ton of fun and that there is life still left in the old Viking flick: especially if you throw in a giant, human slaying, space beast. Good stuff.

Felon



FELON (2008)

Written & Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Harold Perrineau & Val Kilmer

Exceptional prison drama, Felon slipped in under the radar but shows with a good story, a little heart and a pull no punches attitude a great film can be made. The prison movie is an often overlooked genre but it can provide drama and thrills in equal measure. Stephen Dorff plays Wade Porter a dedicated family man who kills the man who breaks into his house one night. The man attempts to flee but Wade chases him down and hitting him to the head with a baseball bat, involuntarily kills him. Prosecuted for manslaughter, Wade is sent to prison where things only get worse. First, he is set up for another murder (this time of an inmate) thus transferred to a maximum security prison and his sentenced increased. Here he is under the watchful and corrupt eye of head guard Jackson (Perrineau) who, along with his men, likes to make the inmates fight in bar knuckle tournaments. Wade is thrown into this cycle of violence and becomes adept at fighting. Meanwhile, his new cell mate is a renowned and respected killer (Kilmer) who may just be the last and most unlikely person to help Wade escape a lifetime of prison incarceration.



Despite relying on old prison movie clichés (innocent man sent down; corrupt guards; old timer teaching the newbie the ways of prison life) Felon rarely takes the easy route and provides some thoroughly fresh and well rounded characters to tell a well worn story. Wade’s circumstances, sometimes through his own fault, get ever increasingly worse no matter how hard he tries to make them better. Dorff’s performance is excellent, always keeping the character human: he makes mistakes but is never a total idiot; he becomes adept at fighting but refrains from truly crossing over to the dark side; his love for his family never feels forced and you always feel the terror he goes through whenever he faces the next prison atrocity. Likewise, Kilmer (buried under cool facial hair, glasses and tattoos) gives a riveting and realistic performance as a man who has done bad and has to pay for it for the rest of his life. Never truly evil or preachy his conversations with Dorff’s character feel much more like two people having a normal conversation rather than movie scripted, drama eliciting dialogue. Lost’s Harold Perrineau is also exceptionally good as the conflicted and corrupt guard who once may have set out to do good but has now become as bad as any of the inmates. There is also great support from Sam Shepard, Nick Chinlund and especially Marisol Nichols as Wade’s suffering wife.



The fights themselves are brutally realised and never stylized with opponents ending up truly battered and bruised. Perhaps the best thing about Felon is the engagingly and terrifying look at maximum security prison life. The drama is never contrived with rousing music or showing the protagonist living in squalor. Rather the environment is a clean, clinical and claustrophobic one completely cut off from society; the tension is built from Dorff’s realistic performance and reactions to being so suddenly thrust into a confined place full of some the world’s worst people. The final stretch unfortunately does revert to movie predictability as Wade, his wife and Kilmer’s inmate set in motion a plan to take down the corrupt guards (not all of them corrupt I might add, and many of who have to go through their own emotional upheaval), it all executed a little too easy. But it never destroys the powerful impact and entertaining value of Felon, one of the best prison movies to come along in an age and a vehicle that shows both Dorff and Kilmer still have talent to burn.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Action Jackson



ACTION JACKSON (1988)

Directed by: Craig R. Baxley
Written by: Robert Reneau
Starring: Carl Weathers, Craig T. Nelson, Vanity & Sharon Stone

NAME: Jericho Jackson
NICKNAME: ‘Action’
HOME: Detroit
PROFESSION: Cop
EDUCATION: Harvard Law
HOBBY: Fighting Crime

WEAPON: You’re looking at ‘em


(taken from the back of the Action Jackson video box: awesome!)

Action Jackson is typical high concept, high gloss fluff from Joel Silver that he produced during the 1980s. Slick, vapid, excessively violent and with shit blowing up here, there and everywhere, Action Jackson is geared around Carl Weathers, his muscles, his one liners and, well, lots of shit blowing up. It’s also a hoot. As one can gather from the title Jericho ‘Action’ Jackson (Weathers) is a rough, tough (though surprisingly well kept) Detroit cop who plays by his own rules. Determined to take down car magnet and all round scuzz bucket Dellaplane (Nelson) Jackson sets off on a course of destruction through Detroit, finding time to bed Vanity and even out-run and leap over a taxi cab. It’s time for ‘Action.

Capitalizing on Weathers popularity after the Rocky films and starring in Predator, this was probably his biggest vehicle giving him the starring role. He’s great fun as Jackson delivering a little more emotion than most action heroes. It’s all big budget 1980s nonsense but all delivered in a slick, tight package from ace stunt guy Craig R. Baxley (Stone Cold). The action is often thick and fast if never sustained featuring lots of broken class, squibs shattering doors and walls and, as mentioned, some quality Joel Silver funded explosions. Perhaps the best bit, is actually the opening 5 minutes where an unfortunate couple (that women who keeps popping up in the Lethal Weapon movies and the main bad dude from Red Heat) are beaten and blown away in alarming fashion as a squad of Dellaplane’s goons raid their high rise office. Glass is shattered full force, desks obliterated by hand guns all before the dude is thrown out the window while on fire. Barnstorming stuff all done in that non-politically correct, ultra violent, 1980s action cinema way.



On top of all the action and the quick fire one liners, the film is populated with a whose who of up and coming 1980/90s stars and action cinema stalwarts. Aside from Nelson, on deliciously evil form as Dellaplane, there’s Sharon Stone making an early big budget appearance, Back to the Future’s Thomas F. Wilson, Robert Davi (Die Hard) pops up at some point, Al Leong (also from Die Hard) is on main henchman duty and half the cast of Predator are reunited: along with Weathers, Bill Duke and Sonny Ladham also appear in supporting roles all of them previously appearing in the Schwarzenegger classic.

While not the best of the big 80s action flicks, Action Jackson is nevertheless one of Weathers’ better vehicles, a whole lot of fun and certainly supplies enough crash, bang and wallop for any action movie fan.

Payback



PAYBACK (1989)

Directed by: Russell Solberg
Screenplay: Corey Michael Eubanks
Starring: Corey Michael Eubanks, Don Swayze & Michael Ironside

Payback (not to be confused with the slick Mel Gibson remake of Point Blank) is about as meat and potatoes as action flicks get. Playing almost like a 1950s rebel B-movie about small towns, dudes, girls and escaped convicts, Payback is cheap and cheerful stuff. Renowned stunt man Eubanks stars (and does almost everything else as well) as an escaped convict setting up shop in a new town. The townies don’t take too kindly to him moving in on the local hottie and his past soon catches up with him meaning he has to square off to ridiculously pony-tailed Don (brother of Patrick) Swayze. Bad acting, fist fights and some impressively staged stunts ensue with the denim wearing Eubanks setting everyone in order.

Eubanks and director Russell Solberg have worked as stunt men and coordinators on all manner of action films (MI: 2, Die Hard 4) and this was their first attempt at making their own film. Surprisingly it’s not quite as packed with action as one would expect, most of the stunts and gunfire book ending the movie. Instead it’s a cheesy, ho-hum drama as Eubanks’ drifter/convict send ripples through small town America. It’s laughable as it takes itself way too seriously and is hampered by an excess of 80s cheese and styling. Still, if you like this kind of thing (and I kinda do) it’s entertaining, well shot and the great Michael Ironside (Total Recall) pops up as the local sheriff in a rare good guy part. Don Swayze is also all kinds of silly fun as the slimy drug dealer.

The escape that opens the film is well staged with trucks and buses flipping and exploding left right and centre and the final showdown is typical but satisfying stuff as a bunch of bad guys shoot randomly and excessively at the good guys. As said, meat and potatoes stuff that no doubt clogs up late night cable channels now. Eubanks, Solberg and most of the cast also returned for Forced to Kill a film almost exactly the same and featuring just as many cool car stunts and punch ups

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Predator 2



PREDATOR 2 (1990)

Directed by: Stephen Hopkins
Written by: Jim & John Thomas
Starring: Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Rueben Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso & Bill Paxton

The Lions. The Tigers. The Bears. Oh my.”

Highly underrated sequel to the Arnold Schwarzenegger action classic that is almost, if not as good, as the original. Danny Glover steps into Big Arnie’s shoes and fills them ably, as a harassed and destruction prone LA cop hot on the trail of a killer who is cutting up the drug gangs of LA circa 1997. That killer just happens to be the Predator who has swapped the jungles of Central America for the urban jungle of the City of Angels and sees Glover’s cop as a worthy opponent. Taunting Glover, the Predator sets about killing his crew (Blades, Alonso, Paxton) all the while dodging Busey’s sinister government people who are trying to capture him.



John McTeirnan directed the original Predator to blistering effect and Stephen Hopkins (making his first big Hollywood movie after A Nightmare on Elm Street 5) pretty much equals him and delivers a rollicking hi-tech action film. The Predator gets more screen time this go around and setting the action in the urban jungle is the logical next step forward in terms of storytelling after the South American jungles of the original. Swapping vines and trees for concrete and street gangs doesn’t diminish the tension one bit and gives the Predator a new playground to hunt in. The alien hunter also gets a bigger arsenal of weapons to hunt his prey with including a retractable spear, detachable pincers, a Frisbee blade and a wire slicing net. Glover is great as the harassed, determined-to-take-down-the-alien-invader cop, Busey does his thing and Bill Paxton is a hoot as the ladies man cop who we actually feel for when he gets it in the subway train attack.



Speaking of the subway train attack, it’s just one of numerous outstanding action set pieces that incorporate the Predator. Knocking out all the light on the subway train, the Predator fights cops and civilians all seen through muzzle flashes from guns and the lights of passing platforms. The flick also opens in grandstanding fashion with a ten minute set piece featuring cops, drug dudes and the Predator shooting and skinning seven shades of shit out of one another. Hopkins stages the action with verve and adds creative twists to each new scene (the flashing subway fight, the slaughterhouse sequence shot in ultraviolet light) and infuses the Predator attacks with tension and fright. Make no mistake, this is a violent film that pulls no punches in the action scenes and gives the viewer a visceral experience as they watch the seemingly mismatched humans take on a near indestructible alien foe.

The original Predator is a classic that stills holds up today but Predator 2 is just as worthy. Many critique it for not featuring Arnie or being set in the jungle but this sequel is no re-hash of the original and managing to squeeze out two awesome action flicks about a 7-foot, dreadlocked alien is an impressive feat. If you are at all sick of the recent glut of CGI enhanced action flicks then go back and revisit a genre classic like Predator 2 and bask in its practical effects and no holds barred, pumped up action approach. Great stuff indeed.

Men of War



MEN OF WAR (1994)

Directed by: Perry Lang
Screenplay: John Sayles and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, B.D. Wong, Charlotte Lewis & Trevor Goddard

Cracking mercenary action flick with Dolph Lundgren that sees him head up a team of soldiers of fortune sent to a tropical island to “persuade” the locals to sign over the land to a greedy corporation. But when Dolph and his crew arrive they realize the natives aren’t so bad and they have been asked to eradicate people who are just trying to live their lives. Lundgren and several of his crew take to island life and begin to feel human again after so many years of killing and conquering with no questions asked. However, the team is divided and those who want to get the job done (so they can get paid) return with more grunts meaning Lundgren, his remaining mercenaries and the natives must fight back to save their island.

After an opening salvo of action movies clichés: Lundgren hits the bottle before being persuaded to take the “job”; the mercenary team are introduced in macho stereotypical fashion; bad guy Trevor Goddard gets all action movie homo erotic as he squares up to Lundgren (seriously dude, put a shirt on and stop kissing every male character you encounter, it doesn’t make you more evil): Men of War mercifully settles into a soldier of fortune groove as the team get to know the locals, divide and then clash for one epic showdown. Respected screenwriter and director John Sayles (Lone Star) co-wrote the screenplay for what is essentially a macho, boys own action flick but with a little more heart. The tropical setting certainly adds a visual splendour to proceedings and despite the stereotyping of certain mercenaries; the characters are a little more interesting than your run of the mill action flick. Lundgren does well though is obviously still getting to grips with acting (this flick was still early on in his career) but makes for a fine hero and is backed up ably by B.D. Wong, Kevin Tighe, Tim Guinnee, Catherine Bell as a tough and sexy female mercenary and the gorgeous Charlotte Lewis as his love interest. Only Trevor Goddard (Mortal Kombat) hams it up to pantomime levels as the seriously ridiculous bad guy.

Production values are slick and the narrative takes time to build with a little action here and there before the action blowout of the last thirty minutes. An impressive and brutally sustained battle between the islanders/good mercenaries and the onslaught of bad mercenaries, the action is limb serving, explosion heavy, stunt filled heaven. The final fight between Lundgren and Goddard is also satisfyingly brutal and makes up for the unintentionally hilarious bits featuring Goddard: when he blows up another dude at point blank range with a rocket launcher; every time he attempts to “act”; and those aforementioned times when he keeps kissing dudes before punching them (what the!?).

Overall, Men of War is great, straight up action fun offering some fine stunt packed entertainment and is one of Lundgren’s best offerings. Give it a proper DVD release already!

The Minion



THE MINION (1998)

Directed by: Jean-Marc Piche
Screenplay: Matt Roe & Ripley Highsmith
Starring: Dolph Lundgren

A distinctly average effort from the Swedish Oak, The Minion is a hokey mix of action and Knights Templar mumbo jumbo. Lundgren is a modern day priest charged with keeping Satan locked up in some kind of cellar (or something!). But a bunch of demon possessed bad dudes are out to set him free by nicking the key that unlocks the cellar. So Lundgren goes on the run with said key and a foxy babe in tow and looks as bored as one will probably be watching this flick.

It’s not the worst flick Lundgren has made, though it does kinda lean towards that way, and there is enjoyment to be had if you dig all this Knights Templar stuff. However, setting it in modern day Canada, I mean New York, dilutes any kind of mysteriousness and renders everything kind of silly and lame looking. The bad guys ham it up into the stratosphere and the body swapping demon soon becomes tiresome. While the production values aren’t bad, the director has a slipshod approach some scenes working well thanks to groovy camerawork and others sloppy as hell. The action ain’t much better, badly shot and put together with no tension and only a big shootout in a police station ala The Terminator providing any real thrills.

On top of this Lundgren himself looks bored or maybe just really tired and seems disinterested in anything that is going on. He usually tries his best and keeps you watching even in some of his worst films but just can’t muster any oomph here. This is a shame. Best to stick to his recent outings where he stars and directs, such as The Defender or The Mechanik, as those films provide much more action fun than The Minion.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Unleashed



UNLEASHED (aka DANNY THE DOG) (2005)

Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Written by: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
Starring: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Kerry Condon & Bob Hoskins

Unleashed really is a unique picture. Part drama, part fairytale, part martial arts action the film marks a brave direction for Jet Li as he fuses some of his best acting with some of his finest (and toughest) martial arts combat. Written by Luc Besson, specifically for Li, and directed by Transporter 2 helmer Louis Leterrier, Unleashed features excellent support from Hollywood heavyweights Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins. But the film belongs to Li, who gives a tour de force commitment to his portrayal of the downtrodden Danny.

Bart (Hoskins) is a nefarious gangster who uses his human killing machine, Danny (Li) to aid him in the collection of debts. Raising Danny from a small boy, training him in martial arts and keeping him tethered with a special collar, much like a dog, Bart controls Danny’s every move using him as an attack animal for his most violent confrontations. Despite his ability to maim and kill, Danny is at heart a sweet natured person who has known nothing but this life of violence. Like a dog he follows, obeys and whimpers at every command spat out by Bart. Longing for a normal life and an answer to his memories of piano playing, salvation arrives in the form of a kindly blind piano tuner, Sam (Freeman). Danny befriends Sam and after narrowingly escaping with his life from Bart, goes to live with him and his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). Here, he begins to free himself of his former life as Sam and Victoria welcome Danny into their family. Through these two Danny learns to express himself more as a human, learning the virtues of music, relationships and the dangers of ice cream. However, Bart is never too far behind forcing Danny to compete in illegal underground fight tournaments, making it harder and harder for him to let go of his past.



Li really pushes himself here, both mentally and physically. Delivering on both the drama and action front, Li helps make this modern fairytale break out from the norm with a truly captivating performance. At first he is quiet and docile, trudging along after his gangster family with barely a thought of his own. Mimicking the nuances of a dog, Li shows the patheticness his character has descended into after years of abuse. But as the story unfolds and Danny comes into contact with more humane individuals, Li deftly manages his character’s transformation from mute killer to caring human being. Danny embarks on an emotional rollercoaster and Li rides it well, obviously relishing the chance to really stretch his acting chops. As mentioned, there is able support, with both Freeman and Hoskins inhabiting their characters well. Kerry Condon also shines as the sweet and ever-loving Victoria, and brings a child like innocence to her and Li’s relationship which helps to reinforce the fairytale aspect.



Leterrier’s direction is slick and tight making Glasgow, the film’s setting, appear dark and enchanting. Crisp, inventive photography and eye-catching visuals give the film a polished look and, again, emphasise the modern fairytale feeling. Yet, despite this the film is not afraid to get down and dirty, and down and dirty it gets in some incredible action set pieces. The opening brawl is a bruiser, with Li letting loose with kicks, punches and, most of all, head butts. Brisk, brutal and brilliant this fight shows that Li and choreographer, Yuen Woo Ping (Iron Monkey, Tiger Cage2) set out to do something different. The fighting style in Unleashed seems to mesh Li’s traditional Wushu skills with knuckle busting street fighting. And it works. A raw edge is achieved, creating a very real and very violent feel to the fights, and climaxes in a superb finale that sees Li taking on Michael Ian Lambert (Thunderbolt) in a toilet cubicle of all places. Yet the standout sequence is the swimming pool fight. Li takes on a number of opponents (including Silvio Simic and Scott Adkins) in a sustained fight that blends brutal martial arts, stunning choreography and some sweet wirework into one of best fights seen in a Western martial arts flick. Some complain that there is not enough fighting in this film, most of it being relegated to the first and last thirds. This is not true as the action compliments the story and works well within its frame. Plus, it’s worth waiting for as it is some of Li’s finest work and certainly his best in a non-Hong Kong action film.

An excellent film, Unleashed proves Li is comfortable competing in both the action and drama arenas. Some may be put off by the slightly wayward tone, veering from gritty ultra-violence to sweet-natured drama with relative ease, but they would be doing themselves a disservice in not seeing it as this is one of Li’s best films to date. Recommended.

A Dangerou Place (aka No Surrender)



A DANGEROUS PLACE (aka NO SURRENDER) (1995)

Directed by: Jerry P. Jacobs
Screenplay: Sean Dash
Starring: Ted Jan Roberts, Corey Feldman, Marshal Teague & Mako

A Dangerous Place is Karate Kid rip-off number 137. Two karate teams from opposing dojos: one bad, one good. A good kid (Ted Jan Roberts) gets caught in the middle as he tries to find the killer of his brother: obviously the leader of the bad dojo karate team (Corey Feldman). What ensues is lots of bad talk from the bad Sensei (Marshal Teague) and lots of good talk from the good Sensei (Mako) as the good kid tries to do what is right all the while getting revenge for the death of his brother. Despite the low budget and over familiarity and a huge case of predictability, A Dangerous Place is actually a pretty solid Karate Kid clone if you are in the mood for it.

Produced by mini action movie studio PM Entertainment it opens in their predictable fashion with a stunt packed car chase that has little relation to the rest of the film. From there on in it’s fight after fight and lots of lessons to be learned for our hero. Roberts, the pint sized martial arts whiz, made a series of these kinds of films, A Dangerous Place being probably the most violent and action packed. The kid certainly cuts it in the fight scenes all of which aren’t too bad for this kind of flick, if a little routine. Feldman (obviously going through his drug induced 1990s period) is the typical greasy, low life bad kid and not such a whiz in the fight scenes, though it’s always cool to see the great Marshall Teague (Roadhouse) tearing up the screen in typical nasty bad guy fashion.

Yeah this kind of thing has been done a million times but A Dangerous Place is fairly well shot and made and does feature lots and lots of fights, all choreographed by action stalwart Art Camacho (Red Sun Rising). While never spectacular, the fights are crisp, energetic and fitting considering most of them feature high school kids going toe-to-toe. Good, harmless, six pack and a pizza fun from a time when action movies were allowed to be simple and entertaining.