Thursday, 29 October 2009
LEON (THE DIRECTOR’S CUT) (1994)
Written & Directed by: Luc Besson
Starring: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman & Natalie Portman
The original cut of Leon is pretty much near perfect, at least in this humble reviewer’s eyes. The Director’s Cut (available for some time in other parts of the world but finally making an appearance on British shores) adds in an extra twenty minutes of footage that was originally cut and restores Leon to the beautiful, violent fairytale, epic it is. One of the defining films of the 1990s (again, at least in this reviewers eyes) the Director’s Cut of Leon fleshes out the dramatic backbone of the film, adds in a little more action and makes the doomed relationship between Leon and Mathilda even more bittersweet.
Taking his low-fi, street grit, widescreen scoped Euro style and applying it to the streets of New York in his first English language production, Luc Besson crafted the tale of a lonely hitman and a recently orphaned streetwise kid finding one another amongst the lowlifes of NY, automatic gunfire and Gary Oldman’s pill popping, suit wearing, homicidal nutcase police officer. Leon (Reno) is a “professional,” a hitman who works for Tony (a great Danny Aiello) taking out scumbags and drug dealers all over New York. He, his guns and his plant live in an apartment next door to Mathilda (Portman) and her lowlife family. Mathilda’s father has been holding drugs for shifty cop Stansfield (Oldman) and has skimmed a little off the top. Stansfield knows this and he and his goons come to collect, gunning down Mathilda’s family in the process. Mathilda manages to avoid the slaying and is taken in by Leon, who is at first reluctant to take in the wiser beyond her years youngster. Striking a deal where they will help each other, (Mathilda will do all the cleaning and shopping in return for being trained in the way of the hitman), the two form an unlikely alliance. Forced upon one another their lives are inevitably rocked as Mathilda begins to experience her first feelings of love towards a man and Leon sees life beyond killing. Plus, there is Gary Oldman’s pill popping, suit wearing, homicaidal nutcase police officer who knows Mathilda is still alive and will stop at nothing to eliminate her.
While Luc Besson may not be everyone’s favourite filmmaker, Leon is without a doubt his masterpiece. From the performances, to the direction, to the action, this modern day fantasy of hitmen and corrupt cops blends drama, action and the odd taboo into, well, the perfect combination. To go into how great it is would mean using too much hyperbole (amazing this, awesome that) so here is a list of its greatest achievements: the opening scene where we see Leon first perform his “cleaning” duties; the introduction of Stanfield and his henchman and the subsequent execution of Mathilda’s family; Stanfield’s “I like these quiet moments….” speech in said scene; Leon and Mathilda practising with a sniper’s rifle on some unaware joggers; the two dressing up as famous characters; Mathilda confronting Stansfield in the police building and Leon’s rescue of her; Stansfield shouting “EVERYONE”; and the final raid on Leon’s apartment that is a masterclass in action cinema and an emotional gut punch as Mathilda and Leon are separated.
But it’s not all stylized action and cool 90s cinema posing. At its core, Leon is simply about the heart: about two people left alone who find each other in amidst violence and danger. The relationship between Leon and Mathilda walks a fine line between innocent and inappropriate and the Director’s Cut explores this even more, pushing the taboo a little further. But it’s never salacious and ultimately it’s about finding a friend and learning to live again. While the emotions and the turmoil the characters experience are real, no-one would never mistake Leon for being a realistic depiction of hitmen and police procedural. It’s a heightened world where corrupt cops can walk about brandishing big guns and killing innocent people with no questions asked and gun fights and explosions can occur in cramped apartment buildings without the neighbours ever hearing a thing. But it’s all part of the fairytale aspect and at heart it’s the story that matters, not the reality.
In addition, we have Gary Oldman who teeters on a fine balance between great acting and overacting. Personally, it’s an incredible performance, Oldman firing at the top of his game keeping his manic energy just the right side of ham to embody a completely insane character. He certainly grandstands but still seems threatening, not least when he’s hopped up on those pills he keeps popping. Reno and Portman are hard to fault as all three of the main actors hold the film, the story, its emotions and its often violent outlandishness together. Even Danny Aiello is effective in his small role, the conversations he shares with Reno’s Leon being as rewarding and as vital as any of the big emotional or action scenes.
A modern fairytale, albeit with guns, Leon is an essential piece of cinema that manages to keep character, story, styling, action and drama all on track at the same time. Here comes that hyperbole again: quite simply a masterpiece.
Directed by: Ringo Lam
Written by: Larry Riggins & Les Weldon
Starring: Jean Claude Van Damme, Michael Rooker & Catherine Dent
Perhaps not remembered as one of Van Dammes’ best entries in the action genre, Replicant is actually a pretty solid actioner with a much darker edge than most Van Damme fair. While it’s a hodge podge of ideas, it did give him one of his better roles. Again he takes on dual roles much like he did in Double Impact and Maximum Risk but this time instead of playing twin brothers; Van Damme gets to play the good guy and the bad guy. The bad guy is a serial killer known as The Torch who almost-as-crazy cop Michael Rooker has been trying to track down for years but with not much luck. In steps some shady government types who say they have some of The Torch’s DNA (due to some inexplicable plot contrivance) and say they can clone The Torch (again, due to some inexplicable plot contrivance) thus Rooker can use the clone to help him learn how The Torch works and track him down. So, after a sequence that barely takes up a few minutes of the film’s running time, another Van Damme appears (this time with short hair compared to the bad version’s long hair: so we can tell them apart) and mucho action and an incredible amount of violence occurs at regular intervals.
While it’s about as subtle as a house brick to the face and makes about as much sense as a drunken tramp accosting you on the street, Replicant is full of glass smashing, bone breaking action. It’s pretty slick to look at, the momentum is always on the go and Van Damme actually gets a chance to act; yes, even before the critically acclaimed JCVD. Now a flick that deals with serial killers and clones may not be everyone’s (or anyone’s) idea of where great acting is born but Van Damme does really well at playing the very evil and violent bad guy and his slightly slower, confused and much nicer clone. As the clone, Van Damme has to use expression more than dialogue and is pretty good at being the confused innocent thrust into a violent world. His bad guy may be cookie cutter but it’s actually novel to see Van Damme playing the bad guy and something he should do more often. The same can’t quite be said for Michael Rooker. Usually a dependable actor, his cop is arguably crazier than the killer and just shouts and barges his way through every situation and spends most the time beating up and throwing around the clone Van Damme. I know his character is under a lot of stress and the director was maybe going for intensity but Rooker’s cop just comes off as a loud and obnoxious buffoon. Maybe Rooker himself realised how barmy the film was and decided the best course of action was just to shout and get very angry in every scene.
As mentioned the tone of Replicant is quite dark and violent. Hong Kong helmer Ringo Lam (who also made good Van Damme flicks Maximum Risk and In Hell) is known for his violent films and Replicant is no different. Lam also stages some impressive action. Unfortunately there aren’t many scenes where Van Damme gets to scrap and show off his fighting skills, this being one of his least martial arts flavoured films. There are still plenty of fights but they are more of the brawl variety with stuntmen being put through their paces by being thrown through windows, onto tables and into pretty much any available wall or piece of furniture. However, the manic showdown at a hospital is an impressive action showcase with a brilliant set piece featuring an ambulance in an underground parking lot and Van Damme does get to fight himself, albeit briefly.
Again, not the greatest Van Damme vehicle or even Ringo Lam’s best but a decent effort nonetheless that gives Van Damme something a little different to do but still delivers loads of hard kuckle action violence.
Monday, 12 October 2009
Directed by: Glen R. Wilder
Screenplay: Glen R. Wilder, Randy Grinter & Jeff Moldovan
Starring: Jeff Moldovan, Donna Rosea & Joe Hess
Ah the 1980s. They were great. No concept too high or too ridiculous. Which is just as well as Masterblaster is about as high concept and ridiculous as you can get. Seemingly made by a bunch of stunt guys and friends who wanted to make their own movie, Masterblaster is the best and worst paint ball action movie ever made. Fact! It's quite possibly the only one and most definitely could only have come from the 80s. It's also actually kinda cool. No, really!
A bunch of dudes, babes and stereotypes converge on some woods in sunny Florida for the national paintball championship. After some bonding, comic relief and a bit of racism (!), the tournament kicks off and people get down to blasting each other with red paint. But no sooner have the "comedy" rednecks been eliminated from the match, people start getting eliminated for real. But who is killing the camo clad paintballers? Is it some pissed off bar patrons that the leading man beat up from earlier? Does it have something to do with the troubled past of one of the babes (yes it probably does, as she spends a good 5 minutes going on about it meaning it has to have something to do with the plot)? Or is it just somebody who doesn't like paintball and is killing everyone who plays it?
It's pretty obvious who it is and the reason behind it so ridiculous it all adds to the demented fun Masterblaster provides. An barmy concept even for a 80s flick, Masterblaster takes paintball and makes it look very unexciting and unappealing. Cheesy characters and dialogue abound and it’s not always clear whether the flick is actually having fun and taking the piss out of action films or is actually very serious. Still, once it gets down to offing characters there is some fun to be had as, really, its your typical 80s slasher flick at heart. Throw in a fair few and admittedly pretty good fights, a hero named Hawk (yep, it’s definitely the 80s), a bit of nudity and then, yeah, Masterblaster is the best and worst paint ball action movie ever made.
No doubt never to be released on DVD, grab a VHS copy (which adds even more to the 80s experience) and enjoy an obscure little film that has fights, boobs and, most importantly, paintballing.
Masterblaster trailer (cool!):
BLOODFIST 6: GROUND ZERO (1995)
Directed by: Rick Jacobson
Written by: Rob Kerchner & Brendan Broderick
Starring: Don "The Dragon" Wilson, Cat Sassoon, Robin Curtis, Jonathan Fuller & Steve Garvey
The Bloodfist films, Don Wilson's seemingly never ending series of kickboxing flavored action flicks, finally reaches Die Hard territory in Ground Zero. A nuclear missile base in the middle of the desert is taken over by a group of mad, bad terrorists who are going to use the nukes to blow up cities all over the States. However, they didn't bank on military, kung fu expert Don Wilson showing up, who gets down to dispensing roundhouse kicks and vast amounts of ammunition to stop them. Despite a flimsy and overused "plot", cheesy acting a go-go and this being Part 6, Ground Zero is one of the funnest, slickest and action packed of the Bloodfist series.
A cool setting, some cool camerawork, a fast pace, loads of action and a sense of fun make Ground Zero a quality slice of mid 90s low budget, American produced action fluff. Once again produced by low budget uber producer Roger Corman, the flick doesn't give Wilson much time to act but plenty of opportunity to fight, shoot guns and make a general nuisance of himself for the terrorists. The action is fast, full of firepower and lots of bone crunching fights. Wilson does his thing and fight choreographer and bit player, Art Camacho, delivers some nifty if short and sweet fights. The initial capture of the missile compound is well staged and director Rick Jacobson (Night Hunter) keeps everything tight and fast moving and overcomes the small budget to craft a fast and fun action film.
The bad guys are hoot as well. Jonathan Fuller (Suspect Device) is cool as the evil leader who really just wants to blow something up and sexy Cat Sassoon (who was also in Bloodfist 4) vamps it up as an evil bad babe and there are plenty of highly untrained bad dudes for Wilson to kick in the head. Which he does very well. Thankfully the film never takes itself seriously having a little fun here and there (Wilson finding time to help an injured bunny and help out poor Robin Curtis (Star Trek 3 & 4) with battling army sexism) and as mentioned, lots of cool action. There is even a nifty action scene shot in night vision and despite Wilson bizarrely thwarting the bad guys in the finale shirtless (but thankfully, Cat Sassoon also has a topless scene: sweet!) everything is wrapped up quickly, the short run time being an advantage.
Low budget Die Hard knock-offs were a dime-a-dozen in the 1990s and Ground Zero is really no different than any other but is a fun Wilson vehicle and has heaps of kickboxing and bullet riddled action to satisfy the less critical action fan.
BLOODFIST 5: HUMAN TARGET (1994)
Directed by: Jeff Yonis
Screenplay: Jeff Yonis
Starring: Don "The Dragon" Wilson, Denise Duff, Yuji Okomoto & Steve James
Good old Don "The Dragon" Wilson kept churning out these low rent Roger Corman produced Bloodfist films, making a total of eight (that's right: eight!). Cheap, short in runtime, full of kickboxing action and quite often, cheerful, the Bloodfist flicks (all varying in theme after the tournament fight based first two installments) are good low budget fun. Part 5, Human Target, is kinda like Wilson's version of The Bourne Identity as it sees him get shot in the head, wake up with no memory and then go on the run with a cute babe as various gangsters, government employees and other bad dudes chase him and pop up at regular intervals for him to kickbox.
Low of budget it may be, these Corman cheapies have a certain charm and, most importantly, loads of action. Wilson was an impressive real life tournament fighter and while his films don't always showcase his abilities to their best, he still gets ample chance to roundhouse kick, break people's arms and punch out bad guys: often two at a time. The fights come thick and fast with a never ending supply of goons for Wilson to kick the crap out of and there is a nice bit of gunplay in there as well. Wilson also gets to scrap with World Kickboxing Champion Danny Lopez and the late, great Steve James (American Ninja) in one of his final roles before his untimely death.
As well as loads of kickboxing action, Human Target actually has some good character interplay as director Jeff Yonis, despite his tiny budget, tries to give the film a sort of noir feel. Wilson actually shows some range as the memory devoid hero and his blossoming relationship with leading lady Denise Duff (Subspecies) is refreshingly not rushed and allows the characters to have some interaction between all the fighting and shooting.
At the end of the day, Human Target is still a low rent Bloodfist film featuring silly bad guys, missing plutonium, memory loss and lots of high kicking action but on its own limited terms, it's well done and has a little more style and better acting than is usually found in these types of flicks. It is also one of Wilson's better endless stream of 1990s kickboxing action films.