Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Protector



THE PROTECTOR (1985)

Written & Directed by: James Glickenhaus
Starring: Jackie Chan, Danny Aiello & Roy Chiao

The Protector gets a bad rap. By no means is it a masterpiece and it certainly doesn’t touch the action and fun heights of the Hong Kong films Chan was producing around the same time (Wheels on Meals, Project A) but for his first American lead role, The Protector isn’t that bad. It is also a lot darker than many of his other films and it’s interesting to see Chan take on a harder edged role.



Due to the darker and sometimes sleazier nature of the film, Chan fans were put off The Protector as it didn’t feature his normal knockabout comedy hi-jinks and intricate fighting scenes. As a New York cop sent to Hong Kong to bust a powerful criminal ring, Chan gets to act serious, swear and even visit a dodgy massage parlour. He is the typical no-nonsense cop, teamed with a wise cracking partner (Aiello) and despite the film not being similar in tone to Chan’s other films, The Protector still delivers tons of stunt filled action. Glickenhaus (The Exterminator, Blue Jean Cop) certainly stages some big set-pieces and streamlines the plot so we get from one action sequence to the next in quick time. Chan manages some impressive feats of stunt work including being lifted from a speeding boat by helicopter before it crashes into another boat; hopping across the tops of boats in Hong Kong harbour in pursuit of a suspect; and fighting a bad dude on a suspended platform hanging from a giant crane. Unfortunately Chan doesn’t get to cut loose fight wise as much and the fights aren’t as intricate and sustained as his Hong Kong stuff. Still, his fights are fairly brutal and there is also lots of hard hitting gun play.

Being a Glickenhaus film, the cheese factor is ever present (this is the 80s after all), the dialogue often ropey and there is a fair amount of full frontal nudity (female) on display which ups the sleaze factor. Understandably, this may irk die hard Chan fans but its refreshing to see him play a serious role and quite well I might add. Not a classic but underappreciated and even holds up better than a lot of Chan’s recent western product. This review refers to the American version of the film. Chan re-cut and re-shot a lot of the film for the Hong Kong market, omitting a lot of the nudity and swearing.


Tunnel Rats



TUNNEL RATS (2008)

Written & Directed by: Uwe Boll
Starring: Michael Pare

Now we all know Uwe Boll is pretty much hated and definitely not considered the greatest of filmmakers. After dud videogame adaptations such as House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark and Bloodrayne and his many, many outspoken protest against, well, any film or filmmaker that isn’t his or him, Boll has received some of the harshest criticism any filmmaker has probably received. Ever. Now, I’m no fan of Alone in the Dark or Bloodrayne but Tunnel Rats is a completely different kettle of fish (at least for Boll), shows he is trying for something different and actually isn’t half bad.

Rather than look at the Vietnam War as a whole, Boll’s film focuses on a group of grunts thrust into the jungle whose mission is to clear out hundreds of miles of underground tunnels. These tunnels are infested with Vietnamese soldiers who use them to secretly get around the jungle. Armed with nothing but flash lights and handguns, the soldiers from both sides lock in battle underground as they find themselves having to do the unthinkable in order to survive. Focusing on just one facet of the war adds to the claustrophobic feel of the film as the soldiers from both sides are trapped in one section of the jungle and often underground for long periods of time. This lends itself to the feeling of isolation and the soldiers often wondering what the hell they are doing in this god forsaken place.



After some initial set up and the predictable “War is Hell” speeches and monologues, Tunnels Rats turns into a claustrophobic and tense experience, about soldiers fighting for their lives underground. Boll successfully captures the pointlessness of it all; protagonists from both sides never really wanting to kill but finding themselves having to. Boll sympathizes with each side, despite the narrative being mostly concerned with the American plight, taking an objective stance and simply showing a group of people caught up in horrific and pointless situation. Boll has also developed skill at orchestrating scenes of suspense as the two sides’ battle underground. Some shocking scenes showcase the brutality and short life span of a tunnel rat and if you are at all claustrophobic then the underground scenes will be particularly terrifying.

The flick is also well made, nicely shot and Boll even stages an impressive fire fight topside in the jungle. He can’t quite get away from some unnecessary gore which would be more suited to a horror movie (the hanging scene) but as a whole, Tunnel Rats is a tense, well crafted war film that refuses to compromise and despite his reputation and track record, shows Boll does have some talent behind the camera.


Lethal



LETHAL (2005)

Directed by: Dustin Ricket
Written by: Jeff Wright & Robert Yap
Starring: Heather Marie Marsden, Lorenzo Lamas, Frank Zagarino, Mark Mortimer & Dan Southworth

Cheap, cheerful and lacking in all kinds of continuity, Lethal is a bare bones action flick that has nothing new to say, looks to have had no budget at all but provides a lot of action packed fun. The very sexy Heather Marie Marsden is deadly mercenary Sam Stewart who after much plot contrivance goes up against a Russian syndicate of arms smugglers who have kidnapped her sister and who want some top secret disc in exchange; which Sam now has in her possession. Cue lots of logic busting scenarios, bad guys hamming it up, shooting, fist fights and Marsden looking incredibly hot.

Reminiscent of loads of straight-to-video action flicks from the 1990s and starring a good few people from those types of flicks (Lamas, Zagarino), Lethal is an unpretentious, very silly but fun action ride. Cheap as chips it may be, the flick still zips along at a fast pace, Marsden is actually pretty good in her role and looks damn fine kicking bad guy butt, Lamas is a hoot as the Russian bad guy and there is a ton of over-the-top action. Poor Zagarino doesn’t fair too well and looks very tired (probably from making loads of movies like this), the awesome Dan Southworth (US Seals 2, Broken Path) isn’t in it enough and exits the movie far too quickly and hardened movie critics and action fans will no doubt not find much to like here.

But for the less cynical action fan, Lethal is harmless fun and has no pretensions about being anything else. Michael Worth (another 1990s action stalwart from Street Crimes and US Seals 2) coordinates all the action and fights and even pops up in a funny cameo as a nerdy security guard. Despite the ridiculousness of our heroine standing out in the wide open and managing to shoot every bad guy dead while they continually miss her (an action movie staple if there ever was one!) and the same stuntmen recycled for each new action scene, the action manages to be punchy, full of firepower, fast moving and most importantly: there is lots of it. Worth orchestrates some creative fight scenes and keeps the gun play flowing, meaning we are never far away from the next shoot-out or fight scene.

Take it for what it is and Lethal is an enjoyable ride. Made by some folks who obviously wanted to have a bit of fun and featuring many an action movie familiar face, Lethal is a hark back to the simple “lets shoot and blow up as much stuff as possible” video days of the 80s and 90s. Cool.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra




G.I. JOE: RISE OF THE COBRA (2009)


Directed by: Stephen Sommers
Screenplay: Stuart Beattie and David Elliot & Paul Lovett
Starring: Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marlon Wayans, Rachel Nichols, Byung-hun Lee, Ray Park & Dennis Quaid

Well, I’ll be damned: G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra is pretty darn good. Yeah, it’s crammed to the gills with over-the-top CGI and the cheese factor is rammed through the roof but damn, if it ain’t a lot of action packed fun. Plus, any flick that is based on a toy line is going to have a cheese factor and lots of CGI is going to be involved at some point, if not all the time. After pretty much every serious critic turning their noses up at it after the first trailers were released and fanboy blogging going into overdrive at how absolutely horrendous this thing was going to be, Rise of the Cobra is a whole heap of fun and delivers action by the bucket load. The bad guys are deliciously evil, the heroes bland, the action way more violent than expected and it’s like the 80s never went away. Sweet.



Now, I had my reservations as well. Stephen Sommers hasn’t really made a great flick since the awesome Deep Rising and dropped the ball with the horrible CGI fest, Van Helsing. But his bubblegum cinema is perfectly suited to G.I. Joe, a movie based on a toy line and cartoon about gung ho heroes beating ultra evil bad guys Cobra, where nobody really gets killed. Except, in this live action movie version, people do actually get killed. Obviously the source material has been updated and tweaked somewhat the major difference between this and the cartoon being the violence has been ramped up. Now, there ain’t a lot of blood but folks are killed left right and centre not least when ace bad guy Storm Shadow (Byung-hun) shoots an innocent in cold blood just to prove he means business, and then shrugs his shoulders as if it’s no big deal. When was the last time that happened in a kid's Saturday morning cartoon? Now, the new violent edge doesn’t necessarily make the film better or recommended, it's just a surprising tone the film has taken and shows Sommers has tried his best to add a bit of grit to his blockbuster.



The action is huge, set-piece after piece and while the dreaded overkill of CGI rears its ugly head more than not, Sommers has learnt when to hold back and incorporate just as much practical action as well. The stunt work is stellar, the action sequences often breathless and not too over edited and feature the Joes and Cobra locking into battle on sea, land and air. Cool. The Paris set piece (seen extensively in the trailers) is an eye popping amalgamation of stunt work, relentless pace and ropey CGI. Yeah, the CGI doesn’t always work, too much of it thrown on the screen at once but the action is still cut and paced well. Cool ninjas Snake Eyes (Park) and Storm Shadow get in some tough scraps as well, adding some martial arts to the mix but there should have been more action involving these two squaring off.



The cast is pretty game as well, especially the bad guys. Eccleston, Byung-hun and Gordon-Levitt are great boo/hiss villains hamming up the stage and there is a great extended cameo from Arnold Vosloo as another villain who really should have been in the flick more. But, it’s Sienna Miller who steals the show and not just with her good looks and ample cleavage on display. As the Baroness, she wears leather and wields automatic weapons with aplomb and out actions all the guys off the screen. Dennis Quaid doesn’t fair so well with his overly patriotic General, Jonathan Pryce looks like he doesn’t have a clue what’s going while playing the US President (then again, maybe that’s a spot on performance) and there are the requisite number of cringe inducing moments of dialogue and exposition (a plane that is activated by voice recognition Gaelic: oh dear!). Plus, is you enjoy subtle cinema, have an aversion to CGI and turn your nose up a big Hollywood blockbusters, then you won’t find much to like in Rise of the Cobra.

But in a summer of lacklustre blockbusters, Rise of the Cobra provides pure unadulterated fun. Sommers gets the vibe pretty much right, orchestrates some kick ass action, unfortunately overdoses on the CGI but wraps everything up in a slick, super charged package. Plus any film based on a kids toy that opens with a scene of a guy having a burning, red hot mask placed onto his face and then screaming loudly, gets the thumbs up from me. Seriously, when was the last time that happened in a Saturday morning cartoon?


City of Fear



CITY OF FEAR (2001)

Directed by: Mark Roper
Screenplay by: David Welbeck
Starring: Gary Daniels, Carol Campbell and Meglena Karalambova

City of Fear is an entertaining little thriller that could have been better with a bigger budget and faster pacing. Gary Daniels is reporter Steve Roberts, who is asked to go to the city of Sofia (the city of fear) in Bulgaria to do a story on his best mate Charlie’s medical research. Upon arriving he soon discovers Charlie is dead, and wanting to investigate his childhood buddy’s death, Roberts finds himself up to his neck in corrupt cops, mafia goons, suspicious showgirls and deadly drugs.

City of Fear
is a decent attempt at a low budget thriller. The characters are given time to flesh out and director Mark Roper (Queens Messenger) manages to bring a little polish to proceedings considering the obviously tight budget. However, things fall apart somewhat due to slow pacing and a couple of poorly staged action sequences. The first half drags as Roberts investigates his friend’s death with the supporting actors not being up to par to create the tension needed. The budget limitations show in a shoddy warehouse shootout and a very unconvincing car chase.

However, things are buoyed by a solid performance from lead, Gary Daniels, and a series of short but sweet fight sequences. Daniels gets to stretch his acting chops carrying the movie, proving he is more than just a kung fu kicking machine. He still gets to show off his martial art skills in some energetic fight scenes, the best being a scrap with two security guards.

Nothing groundbreaking and die hard martial arts fans may be left disappointed but City of Fear is a decent attempt at Daniels trying something different and an enjoyable thriller if you can get past its weaknesses.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Firestorm



FIRESTORM (1998)

Directed by: Dean Semler
Written by: Chris Soth
Starring: Howie Long, Scott Glenn, William Forsythe & Suzy Amis

Cliffhanger with fire as for former NFL star Howie Long makes a bid to become an action star. About as clichéd and ridiculous as Hollywood action movies come, Firestorm is more a guilty pleasure than a good film. Long is smokejumper Jesse Graves who just happens to be the best at putting out forest fires. Lucky for him as someone has set off the mother of all fires which itself is really a smokescreen for some convicts, led by Forsythe, to escape. Long then finds himself battling the raging fire and violent criminals and pushing pretty much every action cliché to its limits.



Technically, Firestorm shows were Hollywood can be an advantage in action movie terms. Yeah, the CGI effects don’t hold up (this movie is over ten years old already) but the practical effects and stunt staging is still very impressive. The actors often feel as if they really are in the middle of a huge fire and the look and feel of the film has a sort of slick gritty sheen. The action scenes are quite effective, if suffering from being cut a little two fast. There is a cool chase featuring a motorcycle, a suburban and a novel use of a chainsaw. Long handles the action well, has solid support from the “he’s-so-obviously-in-on-it” Scott Glen, Suzy Amis is underused and best of all is William Forsythe. His character is nothing new in terms of movie villains but Forsythe manages to put some extra bite and menace into an otherwise cookie cutter villain.



Alas, logic takes a long walk of a short pier, the dialogue becomes more trite as the film goes along and all character development is reduced to one sentence exchanges before someone is killed off. At a lean, mean 80 or so minutes Firestorm rarely stops for character and dialogue and has a certain choppy feel to it, as though a lot has been cut out in order to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Rumour has it original screenwriter Graham Yost (Speed, Broken Arrow) had his name removed from the credits as the script was changed so much from his original vision. This seems to ring true, as Firestorm often feels like a hatchet job and couldn’t be more clichéd if they threw in a scene where one character all of a sudden, and handily, knows how to fix the hero’s broken leg: oh wait, they did.

Yet, if you are in an undemanding mood and aren’t too worried about proving yourself to the more respected cinema crowd or need lots of characterization with every film you watch, then Firestorm provides the requisite, easy going thrills and is the perfect guilty pleasure for when you just want something dumb to watch.

Con Express



CON EXPRESS (2002)

Directed by: Terry Cunningham
Screenplay: Terry Cunningham & Paul Birkett
Starring: Sean Patrick Flannery, Ursula Kraven, Tim Thomerson & Arnold Vosloo

Vehicular mayhem, stock footage and lots of overacting and crazy stunts collide and eventually derail in the utterly barmy but still enjoyable Con Express. A low budget version of Con Air? Sort of, as there are a bunch of bad guys who take over a train (instead of a plane as in Con Air) but this doesn’t happen until later in the movie and is really only there provide much of the action. Proceedings begin with Flannery’s Agent Brooks being hauled into an interview to recite what went wrong on his previous job. He’s an Alaskan customs agent who gets mixed up in a case involving stolen nuclear waste and Arnold Vosloo’s bonkers Russian terrorist. Hot on Vosloo’s trail is sexy Russian agent Natalya (Kraven) who wants to capture (but really kill) Vosloo for some clichéd action movie reason. This means the two agents have to work together (despite not wanting to in another clichéd action movie way), Vosloo keeps escaping their clutches, a bunch of people get killed, everyone ends up on a runaway train with toxic chemicals and mucho stock footage comes into play to flesh out the action scenes.



Not quite as bad as the above description makes it sounds, Con Express is actually a lot of fun. The cast seem fairly game, though Vosloo is vastly underused despite being a fun bad guy, and there is some good character interplay between Flannery and Kraven as their characters begin to soften to one another as the absurdness around them increases. The film builds up nicely before the cacophony of action and explosions come the second half, the dialogue a little sharper than most low budget action films. The flashback structure that begins the film sort of works and does allow for some nice exchanges between Flannery and the top brass: who at first seem to be interrogating him for doing something wrong then applauding him and offering him a better job. Ah, action movie logic, you gotta love it!



Then there is the action. There is certainly a lot of it once it starts and Terry Cunningham’s direction is energetic staging some cool shootouts in a warehouse and an abandoned log cabin. But alas, what hinders Con Express is the ample amount of stock footage. Not just quick shots here and there but whole scenes lifted from other movies. So we get the plane crash from Cliffhanger, a lot of the train action and crashes from Runaway Train and, somewhat bizarrely, the truck/plane chase from Stop or my Mom will Shoot. This is lazy and cheap filmmaking and a shame as all the action that was staged for this film is actually pretty good.

Still, if you can get past this and enjoy low budget action flicks then Con Express still has much to enjoy. The baddies are suitably over-the-top, the heroes a bit more charismatic, there is plenty of action and Arnold Vosloo and Tim Thomerson are on hand to make proceedings that little more bearable.