Tag Archives: action

Justice League – Review

28 Nov

The DCEU, or the DC Extended Universe, hasn’t quite had the smoothest of runs. Man of Steel was a good debut, but Batman v. Superman was a complete and utter flop and I still can’t get over how they were comfortable releasing that. Suicide Squad was super divisive, and the only one we can all agree was awesome is Wonder Woman. Now we have what is ultimately the culmination of everything we’ve seen so far (except Suicide Squad it seems), Justice League. This was DC’s chance to stand up to Marvel and show that they’re capable of making something that can challenge The Avengers. Well, all I can say is that Justice League is good. It’s a good movie. I just wish I had more of a response to it than that, but I honestly don’t.

After the death of Superman at the hands of Doomsday, the world mourns the loss of their greatest hero. Meanwhile in Gotham, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) has an encounter with an otherworldly force that prompts him to contact the only other otherworldly force he is familiar with, Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. Diana tells Bruce about three devices called the Mother Boxes which were hidden after a grand battle with Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who wanted them to take control of the Earth and ultimately destroy it. Now with fear at an all time high on Earth, the Mother Boxes have been reactivated which brings Steppenwolf back yet again to continue his plan. As it becomes clear that Steppenwolf can’t be brought down just by Batman and Wonder Woman, the two set out to contact other metahumans who can lend their assistance. These are the fast talking and fast moving Barry Allen, aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), the cybernetically enhanced Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and a defender of the underwater city of Atlantis Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Mamoa).

Justice League is a totally serviceable superhero film, but as many people have said, this is a time where superhero movies are judged to a certain standard. When Spawn came out in 1997, the market wasn’t saturated with so many movies to compare it to. Granted, Justice League is far and away a better movie, but I needed an extreme example. What this movie did do very well is the chemistry between the characters. While Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot and some of the other players in this story are characters we’ve seen before, we’ve only seen glimpses of the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman. These newcomers step up to the plate with relative ease, and all of their characters are welcome additions. Mamoa, especially, had some of the best lines and coolest action sequences in the movie, which I was sort of surprised by. Unfortunately, these characters do feel very new and it takes the movie a while to set them up, and it feels very rushed. This is Zack Snyder pacing in a nutshell. Each of these heroes has a whole history that can be explored but it has to be glazed over to fit in a two hour movie. I felt it very jarring to keep jumping around and I was really itching to be let into the characters’ lives more.

Another part of the movie that is done very well is the action sequences. Yeah, the CGI is way overblown, but everything has that epic superhero feel that I’ve come to know and love. The film starts with a bang with Batman defending Gotham and then transitions to one of the best scenes in the movie of Wonder Woman preventing a terrorist attack. There is one scene on Themyscira which did look very bland and dull, which is a shame because it looked so great in Wonder Woman. Like I said, the CGI does go way overboard at times. Steppenwolf is a CGI mess and the same can be said for Cyborg’s facial features at times. There’s even a scene of Diana walking down a street that was all digitized. Did we really need that scene done in a computer? You couldn’t find a street you liked? Luckily when these effects do get started, we at least see some cool superhero action, and that’s part of what really saves this movie.

Finally, I have to talk about the plot. It’s about as generic as they come with a powerful villain returning to take over/destroy the world. How many times have we seen that one before? A lot of superhero movies do this but add something new to make it work, others don’t take the effort. Justice League does go cool places with this story, but it never feels as developed as it should. It also doesn’t help that so much time is spent introducing characters that should have probably been introduced before this movie was even released. Steppenwolf isn’t even that thrilling of a villain. He works fine, but he’s no General Zod or Ares. He does provide an insanely cool flashback, but he proves not to be all that during the finale.

It may sound like I’m giving Justice League a really hard time, but I did enjoy the movie. It’s a loud, action flick with some great superheroes, but I still expect more from a huge blockbuster like this. There was good humor in the screenplay so it never got overly dark, the action was really cool, and the chemistry between the characters was all there. Unfortunately, the story was weak, the pacing was choppy, and the villain was unremarkable. Justice League is far and away a better movie than Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. It doesn’t quite meet Wonder Woman, so I’d stick it around where Man of Steel is. This is far from perfect, but it’s still a step in the right direction. DC can learn a thing or two from this and work to improve.

Final Grade: B-

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Universal Soldier Series – Review: Part 2

11 Nov

In my last review for the Universal Soldier movies, I talked about the original from 1992 and the god awful sequel from 1999. The first movie was an adequately entertaining movie while the second movie was the worst I’ve seen in quite some time. Well, buckle in because what I’m about to say is very shocking to me. Direct to DVD movies are normally a pain to sit through. I’m never that thrilled to watch something released strictly in that format, but I am always willing to. In the cases of Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, I’m glad I did. These entries are, without a doubt, far superior than their theatrical released predecessors. How weird is that?

Let’s start with the 2009 cult favorite, Universal Soldier: Regeneration.

After a group of terrorists kidnap the son and daughter of the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Commander Topov (Zahari Baharov), the leader of this terrorist cell, announces he plans to detonate what’s left of the Chernobyl Power Plant. This would cause a major problem with fallout and leave many people dead if the Prime Minister does not answer his demands. The joint team of American and Ukrainian officials try sending in a unit of soldiers and UniSols to combat the situation, but they soon see that Topovs Next Generation Unisol, or NGU (Andrei “The Pit Bull” Arlovski), is a much more vicious opponent than they originally expected. Their next course of action is to find Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and reactivate him for UniSol combat. As Devereaux leads the charge into Chernobyl, Topov’s men have another trick up their sleeves: a regenerated clone of Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) who is still out for blood.

After seeing the first two Universal Soldier movies that were major theatrical releases, I can’t believe that I have to say Regeneration, a direct to DVD sequel, is way superior than its predecessors. I had a blast with this movie, and I really wasn’t expecting much. Let’s get some negatives out of the way, because this movie is still far from perfect. There are lapses in common sense and continuity that do make things a bit messy. For one thing, Devereaux just runs to the Chernobyl plan from the army base in a matter of minutes. How close are they? Seems a bit too close for comfort. It’s also worth noting the inclusion of Dolph Lundgren in this movie is a little unnecessary, other than just having him there for fan service. The real match for Devereaux is NGU, but I will say the showdown between Devereaux and Scott is really badass.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a surprisingly well shot and well choreographed action film. The fight scenes are brutal, shot with the full view of the action, and cringeworthy in all the right places. This does feel like a real tribute to the talents of Van Damme and Lundgren while also having MMA fighter Andrei Arlovski showing off just what the newer generation is capable of. While the camerawork in this movie is excellent, I can’t really say the same about the color. It’s muddy and gray throughout the entire movie, which does work for the environment, but it just felt bland. While the camerawork and directing are both way better than I expected, I can say the same about the writing. There’s no feisty journalist making snarky comments throughout the movie, there’s no love interest for anyone, nor is there any unnecessary humor. This is the darkest Universal Soldier movie yet, and it’s all the better for it.

I can believe I’m saying this, but Universal Soldier: Regeneration was a really entertaining movie and it’s one I’d watch again over the first two. It has great action, a welcome return by Van Damme, and writing that is way more focused than the other entries. The AV Club called this film the most important action movie of 2009, and I certainly agree. It shows that with the right talent and the right vision, direct to DVD movies can be just as good, if not better than its theatrical predecessors. Long story short, if you’re a fan of the first film (no one’s a fan of the second), do yourself a favor and watch Regeneration if you haven’t already.

Final Grade: B

The final film in this long running series was released in 2012. Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, and even Andrei Arlovksy return. Like its predecessor, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning manages to blow the first two films out of the water.

After witnessing his family be brutally murdered by renegade UniSol Luc Deveraux, John (Scott Adkins) wakes up in a hospital with no memory of the events leading up to the assault. All he knows is that Deveraux killed his family and he needs to find out why and get his revenge. Meanwhile on the other side, Deveraux and his second in command, a clone of Andrew Scott, work to recruit other UniSols to their cause of cutting all their ties to secret government programs. Their latest initiate is a UniSol named Magnus (played by Arlovsky) who is given the task of hunting down John before he can confront Deveraux. Along John’s mission for revenge, he finds a lot of clues that point to shady dealings with him in the past, which leads John to think he may not be who he wants to find out he is, nor may he be as innocent as he thinks.

While Day of Reckoning still destroys the first two Universal Soldier movies, I can’t say it’s quite as good as Regeneration. With Van Damme, Lundgren, and Andrei Arlovsky back in front of the camera, we also have John Hyams back in the director’s chair and it’s a welcome return. For some of the faults this movie has, Hyams still keeps this a kinetic action thriller. Scott Adkins is a welcome newcomer, especially since 90% of the movie revolves around him. He owns the show here, but this is also where some of the negatives come through. There just isn’t enough of Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren once again feels like he’s been thrown in the movie for fan service, while Van Damme’s character feels so different from what he has been in the past films. When they are onscreen, however, and the fists are flying, it’s a great reminder of why they are there. Even at their ages, they can still crank out some mean action sequences.

Day of Reckoning is probably the most unique film in this entire series, even if it doesn’t pack the punch of its predecessors. In many ways, this film acts as a mystery with Scott Adkins’ character slowly chipping away the truth about his recent past. I was actually genuinely curious to know how all of the pieces fit together, and the result is quite satisfying in that Philip K. Dick sort of way. I can’ believe I just referenced Dick in a review for a Universal Soldier movie, but it’s something that I can’t deny. With all of this mystery, this is also probably the slowest film in the series, but because of the intrigue and questions I was still interested in the proceedings. Like I said, the action is explosive when it wants to be, but this movie isn’t afraid to slow down a little bit.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a good way to end this series even if I could have watched more entries of Hyams was involved. This film has everything you could ask for in a movie like this. There’s plenty of action, mystery, suspense, and performances from some of your favorite action stars. Unfortunately, Van Damme and Lundgren are both underutilized. While this movie may have objectively less flaws than Regeneration, I can’t place it quite as high on levels of entertainment. Still, this is another surprisingly quality work for a direct to DVD title.

Final Grade: B-

It’s so strange that the direct to DVD titles for this series were so much better than their theatrical predecessors. It just goes to show that sometimes money isn’t the be all end all of film making. If you have the right director, writer, and crew everything can work out a lot better than you may expect. If you’re a fan of the first Universal Soldier, don’t let the second movie dissuade you from seeing these two way above average direct to DVD titles. They really are a blast.

Thor: Ragnarok – Review

10 Nov

In between Marvel movies, the MCU relies on its number of shows to keep the world alive. The Defenders was an excellent entry that united all of the Netflix heroes, but Iron Fist and Inhumans has been a slog through primordial mud. Because of this, I haven’t been having the best time with the MCU recently, so I needed a major pick me up. I was relying heavily on Thor: Ragnarok to really bring it, but was worried because this series has been one of the weakest in the MCU. I held onto the fact that the film was being helmed by Taika Waititi and went in not knowing what to expect. Well, Ragnarok succeeded at jolting new life into the MCU and has now placed itself at the top of the Thor movies as the best entry into the series yet.

After leaving the Avengers during the events of Age of Ultron, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been spending his time searching for the rest of the Infinity Stones. Upon his return to Asgard he finds that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) since he last saw him in The Dark World and has been running Asgard in his own devious ways. The two bickering brothers do end up finding Odin, only to be warned that his oldest child that neither Thor nor Loki knew about, Hela (Cate Blanchett) is soon to break free from the prison that Odin locked her in. She quickly does escape and throws Thor and Loki from the Bifrost and the two end up on Sakaar, a planet run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) who forces his slaves, including the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to fight in gladitorial matches. With Thor and Hulk/Bruce Banner finally reunited, they meet up with another Asgardian, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who vows to have revenge on Hela. Now a team of their own, the group must find their way back to Asgard before Hela completely resumes control and spreads her evil all over the known worlds.

There is a lot jam packed into this movie that just runs a little bit over two hours, but that never really gets in the way. More on the pacing later. For now I want to start with why this movie works so well. It is the perfect blend of action and comedy, which is something the Thor movies have seriously been lacking all these years. The movie begins with a joke, which kind of had me worried. Was this going to be an all out comedy with the action taking a back seat? Not even a little bit. The comedy never overwhelms the stellar action sequences, but they provide a lot of great fun in between these set pieces. When the action does pick up, it really blows the roof off. The final battle on Asgard is hands down one of the greatest sequences in the MCU and features a striking image that totally sums up everything the action in Thor’s movies should be.

Everyone really looks like their having the times of their lives in Ragnarok, which really gives this film even more life. Chris Hemsworth gives his best performance in the franchise yet and works great with both Tom Hiddleston and Mark Ruffalo, who also bring a lot to their performances. Cate Blanchett is excellent as Hela and continues to show that the MCU has had a very good year with their villains. Jeff Goldblum is almost too funny here, and speaking of too funny, Waititi himself has a pretty hilarious part in the movie if you can spot him. While this movie is a great time all by itself, it’s also a solid connection to the rest of the cinematic universe. It links together multiple films and a handful of different characters to add more depth to the universe Marvel and Disney have been building all these years.

If I had anything to complain about, it would have to be some of the pacing. Like I said before, there’s a lot in this movie. So much so that you’d think it would slow the movie down. Quite the opposite actually. The beginning of the movie sets up all this important stuff so fast that I was begging for it to slow down just a little bit and let me feel the weight of it all. By the time Hela escapes and Thor and Loki find themselves on Sakaar, things find a very steady pacing. By the final part of the final battle, however, things speed up once again without ever letting me feel the weight of what I was seeing. I wouldn’t have minded if the movie was a little bit longer if it meant these two sequences were fleshed out a little bit more.

Thor: Ragnarok is exactly what this series needed. It’s a blast of action and comedy that never lets up in either department. It’s full of great performances, a lot of heart, and serves well as a connection among movies in the MCU. Some pacing issues are there, but it’s never enough to completely bring the movie down. This is one of my new favorites in the entire franchise, and I’d love to see Taika Waititi back to take on more Marvel adventures.

Final Grade: A-

Universal Soldier Series – Review: Part 1

1 Nov

The 1990s were a very hit or miss time for certain genres. The 1980s saw an explosion of really memorable and popular films, especially in the action and horror genre. By the 1990s, these movies were starting to wear a little thin, but studios were desperate to keep them alive. One of these movies is Universal Soldier, which was released in 1992 to less than favorable reviews from critics and audiences. That being said, it still managed to create a franchise that spawned three theatrical titles and two TV movies. I’m going to be looking at the theatrically released entries and not the TV movies since they have completely different actors and don’t really tie into the other films. My bar is set real low and so I’m just going to dive right in.

Let’s start with the original 1992 release.

Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) were two soldiers in the Vietnam War who killed each other after Devereaux caught Scott committing terrible atrocities to the civilians of a small Vietnam village and members of his own unit. Years later, the two are reawakened as part of a secret military project where they operate as genetically enhanced troopers known as Universal Soldiers, or “UniSols.” After part of a mission triggers memories of his time in the war, Devereaux begins to remember more about his past, which is exactly what the heads of this program are trying to prevent. When Scott attempts to murder a reporter named Veronica (Ally Walker), who snuck into their facility, Devereaux defends her and they run off with Scott and the rest of the Soldiers in hot pursuit. Andrew’s memories also begin to return, along with his vengeful and violent disposition against Luc, which will ultimately end in a conflict between the two genetically enhanced fighters.

When Universal Soldier was first released, it was criticized as just being a Terminator rip-off, and in may ways it is. From the style to the genetically enhanced beings squaring off with one of them protecting an innocent person, to the attempts at humor (although Terminator 2 succeeds at said humor). There is nothing really special about this movie other than having Van Damme and Lundgren facing off against one another. At it’s best, the humor is chuckle worthy, but a lot of it just breaks up the mood of the movie and takes away from a lot of the actual drama and suspense that the movie builds up. It isn’t a particularly long movie, so extended light hearted scenes only slow the action down. The action itself is ok, but it’s nothing really to write home about. Later in his career, Roland Emmerich really gets familiar with creating action spectacles, but it’s clear that this is his first real attempt at it. All of these mesh together to create a much less than spectacular film.

There are parts of Universal Soldier, however, that does save it from being totally forgettable. For one thing, Dolph Lundgren really steals the show once his memories start coming back to him. That scene in the supermarket is probably my favorite part of the movie because I can really tell that Lundgren is giving it his all. There’s also a great chase scene by the Grand Canyon that does preview Emmerich’s skill with handling large action set pieces. Van Damme has some funny moments and it can’t be ignored that this film helped shape his career. This all still amounts to a little bit of fun, but not something for the action history books. I’d like to give the good parts more praise, but they really just are serviceable and not really deserving to be lauded.

Universal Soldier is alright, and that’s all that can be really said. It’s a 90’s action movie that somehow spawned an entire franchise, and after fully experiencing the first one, I don’t really know how it happened. It’s a disposable film that works great as background noise or just something to mindlessly watch and forget about the next day. There’s some good action, but a lot of it is unexciting. The humor didn’t work for most of the movie, but it was cool to see both Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme share the screen. That’s all that can really be said.

Final Grade: C+

With the response Universal Soldier received, I find it a little surprising that it would get a sequel, but at the same time it does feel pretty run of the mill for action movies of this time. This brings us to the 1999 film Universal Soldier: The Return, which I can truly say is one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

It’s been seven years since Luc Devereaux’s memories came back to him which caused the whole UniSol program to implode. Now, he’s working alongside the US government, a scientist named Dr. Cotner (Xander Berkley), and a supercomputer called S.E.T.H to train and maintain a new group of stronger UniSols for the military to use. After it’s announced to Devereaux and Cotner that the program and the supercomputer are to be shut down, S.E.T.H goes into defense mode and activates the UniSols to destroy all the threats in the facility. Now, Devereaux must team up with his partner Maggie (Kiana Tom) and reporter Erin Young (Heidi Schnaz) to take down the renegade soldiers and take down the two leaders of the revolt, Romeo (Bill Goldberg) and the body that S.E.T.H has created for himself (Michael Jai White).

Everything about this movie is so subpar, I’m amazed that it got a theatrical release. Even the title is boring. The Return? Yeah, I bet a lot of thought went into that. Let’s start with the major issues. There is very little continuity between the first film and this one. Devereaux had a wife who died but it’s never explained if it’s Veronica from the first movie or someone else. It’s also odd that there’s still a major government facility making these soldiers after it was established that it was below board in the first movie. Why is it so accepted now? Why would Devereaux want to work with them? Nothing makes any sense with what’s already been established. Even with a story as minimal and basic as this, maybe the action would at least be good. Well it’s about as boring as it gets. Director Mic Rodgers is actually a stuntman and this was his only movie, which is probably a good thing, but you’d think he’d have some creative skills when it comes to crafting an action sequence.

Everything else falls just as flat as the story and the action. This was Van Damme’s last film since his return in The Expendables 2 to have a wide release theatrically, and it’s really a stinker to go out on for such a long time. He has none of the energy he did in the first movie and his fight sequences seem very lackluster. It doesn’t really seem like he wanted to be in this movie, and the same can be said for Michael Jai White who just sounds bored the entire time. Bill Goldberg is the only person who really brings anything to the table, but his character got played out real fast. The humor that was distracting in the first movie is just cringeworthy in this one, and that’s all that really has to be said about that.

Universal Soldier: The Return shouldn’t have been made or it should have been made by people who knew what they were doing or wanted to be involved. What we get is a movie that clocks in at an hour and 18 minutes that is absolutely hollow. If this were a direct to video title I may be a bit more understanding, but this movie was given a wide theatrical release. With that being the case, this movie is absolutely unacceptable.

Final Grade: F

So far, this series isn’t off to a great start, but I’m going to power through the rest because there’s no way that I could give up now. Next, I’ll be looking at the limited release sequels Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.

Serpico – Review

21 Oct

There are certain movies that I’m really surprised I haven’t seen yet. These aren’t movies that stay under the radar or anything, but movies that are well known and loved by audiences. Some of them are even considered classics. What can I say? Nobody’s perfect. I just got around to seeing one of these films that I’d list in these “movies I should have seen already” categories. That film is the 1973 classic by Sidney Lumet, Serpico. I can’t even say I knew what the film was really about. All I knew was that this movie helped form Al Pacino’s career, which is kind of a big deal if I say so myself. After seeing Serpico, I have to say that I didn’t love it. I liked it and it’s certainly a movie I’m not going to forget, but it had major issues that rubbed me the wrong way. Let’s get right into it.

All his life, Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) has wanted to be a police officer. When that day finally comes around, it’s a dream come true. Starting out as just a uniformed officer walking the beat, he begins to see signs that life on the force may not be what he expected, especially after seeing a suspect get roughed up in an interrogation room. As time goes on and he begins to adjust, he is bumped up to a plainclothes officer working more dangerous and criminal cases. What he sees is corruption on a massive scale with his coworkers shaking down drug dealers, pimps, and other criminals. Serpico looks everywhere for help, even going so far as to bring his grievances to the mayor. When no one is able to help, the biggest danger for Serpico isn’t the criminals he busts on a day to day basis, but his fellow police officers who feel he can’t be trusted.

Many people consider this movie a classic, and I believe that because of its impact on the genre. You won’t see any argument from me because my complaints are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. I want to get the positives out of the way first because they truly do outweigh the negatives. This was a very early film in Al Pacino’s long and praised career, and if it wasn’t for Serpico, he may not have made it as big as he did. Let’s not forget that he was Michael Corleone in The Godfather movies, but this was just another notch in making his career. Pacino is excellent as Serpico. After having spent a lot of time with the real guy, it’s no surprise that he has his voice completely altered and a lot of these mannerisms you don’t really see in other roles that he’s done. This is a complete transformation and a performance that really helped define the times in terms of acting with it being the early 1970s, one of the largest times of change in film since sound was first introduced.

The story of Serpico is also incredibly engaging. As the narrative moves forward and Frank’s plight becomes more dire, I actually felt myself getting stressed out. It’s not terribly hard for a movie to have me guessing as to what’s going to happen or feeling some sort of suspense, but this movie made me physically feel stressed. Everywhere Serpico turns, he’s met with a brick wall, and we see that over the span of over two hours. Pacino’s performance and the writing really brings this character to life onscreen, so we as an audience truly want to see him succeed and finally be able to live the life that he’s wanted. Sidney Lumet is a very talented director who is able to turn characters’ environments into characters themselves. Just think of that one room in 12 Angry Men. What Lumet does for New York City in Serpico is something on a whole new scale. Having filmed this movie in mostly all of the boroughs of New York City, I saw different aspects of life clash and combine making the city live and breathe. It’s essential to this film’s story and Lumet pulled it off flawlessly.

Speaking of flawless, this movie as a whole is not. As I was watching the story play out, I could tell that time was passing. Serpico’s apartment changed furniture, his different friends come and go, and his hair, beard, and clothes change. I figured this was probably a 3 year period. Boy, was I wrong. Serpico‘s story starts in 1960 and spans to 1971! WHAT?! I never got the sense that that was how much time was passing until after the movie was over and I was doing some research on it. If I had known how long all of this was going on, that would’ve added a whole new layer of dread to the stress I was already feeling for our hero. That being said, how smooth can you turn 11 years into a 2 hour movie? There are elements to Serpico’s life that do feel glazed over, forgotten, or rushed in favor of other interests. This kind of muddles the overall story for me, and I can’t help thinking this may have been better as a miniseries on HBO.

Serpico is a very good movie that is full of great elements that is ultimately bogged down by an overabundance of information. Al Pacino’s performance is outstanding and the overall emotional and physical response this film got from me says a lot about the story. Sidney Lumet also films New York City perfectly which brought a whole new sense of realism to the crime drama film. I just wish the story was told a bit more cohesively and smoothly, but instead I felt like I was jumping all over the place without knowing exactly where I landed. Still, Serpico has earned its right to be called a classic, and I’m not going to dispute that.

Final Grade: B+

To Live and Die in L.A. – Review

11 Oct

I’ve talked about William Friedkin before on this blog, and I’m sure I’ll be doing it again in the not too distant future. He’s a brilliant film maker who has very rarely allowed his vision to be compromised, so even if his movies aren’t always gems, you have to respect the guy. I mean he did The Exorcist and The French Connection for heaven’s sake. One of his movies that doesn’t get nearly enough attention that it deserves is his 1985 neo-noir thriller To Live and Die in L.A. While the film has gotten a cult following over the years, it’s not one that I hear discussed too much. I’ve just recently watched it and at first, I didn’t really know what to make of it, but then when it was over I really stopped and thought about the movie as a whole, and I gotta say that it’s one of his stronger films. It may not be quite on the level of The Exorcist and The French Connection, but like those movies, it defies Hollywood norms and turns the concept of a clean narrative completely on its head.

Richard Chance (William Petersen) and Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) are two secret service agents who are tracking down notorious counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), whose fake bills can never seem to be contained. After a routine check of what is believed to be Masters’ printing lab, Hart is shot and killed by Masters and his bodyguard. This fills Chance with an overwhelming need for vengeance, a need that he makes explicit to his new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow). As the investigation turns up new leads and the two earn Masters’ trust as two potential buyers of fake bills, more problems arise with the legality of their actions. Vukovich sees the danger in how deep they are getting, but Chance is so blinded by his hate for Masters that they may both fall down a criminal abyss and never find their ways out.

At its surface, this sounds like a pretty standard revenge thriller, and for most of the movie that’s how I saw it. I want to get my initial reactions out of the way first, because a lot of my complaints about the movie are still valid. For one thing, this film has a very strange way of editing that can either be seen as way too stylistic or just plain sloppy. Scenes end before it seems they should and we are transported to another time and place entirely. It’s hard to keep track of how much time has passed between these cuts and where we have just jumped to. It was also kind of hard to take Petersen’s performance seriously at some points. He’s supposed to be a hard boiled anti-hero, which does come across well at times, but other times it’s a bit too much and resulted in some unwanted laughter at his overly dramatic performance. Finally, for a while, the story seemed so plain and generic that I had a hard time getting into it. A serviceman who is consumed by revenge goes against authority to get what he wants. It’s your everyday “play by my own rules” scenario. Luckily, To Live and Die in L.A. offers a lot more than your standard revenge film, and that’s where this movie really stands out.

This is a movie that has to be seen in full to really appreciate everything it has to offer. It got to a point pretty late in the film where it kicked into high gear and made everything before it come into focus. Chance’s character is one of the tragic anti-heroes of film and the subtle manipulations he made throughout the movie may not hit you immediately, but it soon hits you like a brick. He manipulates his partner who get pushed further and further to the edge throughout the movie. He also manipulates a woman named Ruth, played by Darlanne Fluegel, a parolee who he extorts through his power as an officer of the law and through sex. It’s an odd relationship that fits in very well with the off putting nature of the movie. Along with the manipulation, which begs the question of just how evil Chance is compared to Masters, is deception all across the board that is revealed in the last scenes of the movie. This turns a standard revenge plot into a slow game of deceptive progression that heats up and finally explodes in the last act of the movie. This narrative progress is one that has be seen in full and made me appreciate the movie so much more.

Many people have linked this film to The French Connection because of the plot and the themes of crime and corruption. I definitely see it and I also see a link with the hopelessness that both films feature. The way this film is shot is classic Friedkin, with the dramatic scenes in close up, the fights almost uncinematic, and actions set pieces that are, on the flip side, very cinematic. Highlights of the movie include a brawl in a living room, a fantastic car chase that ends on the wrong side of the freeway, and a scene in a locker room that will make you feel like an anvil just fell on you. The cinematography by Robby Müller is excellent and really brings out the noir sensibilities this film clearly has. I know I keep saying this, but all of these elements are what save this movie from being generic and raises it to a movie that I haven’t really stopped thinking about since I’ve seen it.

To Live and Die in L.A. is a very well made movie that isn’t without its flaws. Some of the editing really didn’t work for me and Petersen’s performance was sometimes a bit too over the top for the realistic vibe that Friedkin was obviously going for. It’s still a very memorable, gritty, and ultimately tragic modern noir tale that takes viewers deep into the grimy underworld of criminal Los Angeles. It’s not Friedkin’s best work, but it’s a movie that deserves a lot more credit than it’s given. I definitely give this movie a recommendation. Give it a watch.

Final Grade: B+

Duck, You Sucker! – Review

3 Oct

Sergio Leone had a really incredible film making career, even if he didn’t create as much as some other very fine film makers. It’s impossible to ignore how A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly made a huge impact on the aesthetics of a movie, the western genre, and pop culture as a whole. Leone’s next foray into film happened in 1968 with another classic, Once Upon a Time in the West. Finally, his last piece of work, and arguably his most ambitious, was the gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America. Aren’t these all unmistakable classics? But wait. What’s that movie hiding in between West and America? Why, it’s a pretty unknown movie that has one of the most incredible titles ever. This is, of course, his 1972 film Duck, You Sucker!. Upon its release, this movie got very little attention and bombed in the United States. It hasn’t really fared much better, and is still Leone’s most unknown film, besides maybe The Colossus at Rhodes. Does this movie deserve to be overlooked? Not at all, but it is Leone’s weakest work in the western genre.

In the midst of the Mexican Revolution, people have to do whatever they can to survive. Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) is a bandit who, along with his family, robs from the wealthy who are making their living off the violence of the revolution. After a successful robbery of a stagecoach, Juan runs into John Mallory (James Coburn), and IRA explosives specialist exiled overseas after a heavy betrayal. Despite being at odds with one another, John is wooed by Juan’s idea to rob the Mesa Verde National Bank. The job seems to go off without a hitch, but things at the bank are not what they seem and the actions of Juan and John plunge them deeper into the world of the revolution. Now on the run from the sadistic Col. Reza (Antoine Saint-John), Juan and John are forced to join up with revolutionaries and help them fight while also reevaluating their own beliefs and moral code.

Sergio Leone is a classic example of an epic film maker. He never shied away from making a movie as grand as he possibly could. Duck, You Sucker! is no exception. This is huge movie with great set pieces and over the top action sequences that seem to span an entire country. It has the look I’ve come to expect from a Leone movie, which is surprising as to why this one gets so overlooked. There’s a really exciting scene at a bridge where the Mexican army is trying to cross, but John and Juan pick them off using machine guns and dynamite. It was explosive and exciting, and those are the reasons to watch this movie. The idea of having this story set within the Mexican Revolution is also interesting and makes for more epic scenes. Leone stated that he was not trying to offer any political statement, and I agree. It clearly is just showing the horrors of conflict and the effects it can have on the people of that country, especially in a more lower class environment. This makes for an interesting bridge between his more classic Once Upon a Time in the West and his more thoughtful effort with Once Upon a Time in America.

There is something that is severely lacking in this movie that is always ever present in Sergio Leone’s best movies. That is the dynamic between good and evil. We see an interesting arc with Juan where his character completely changes his ways, and that’s one of the better parts of Duck, You Sucker!. Unfortunately, Juan and John just aren’t the most exciting heroes, and don’t even come close to matching the Man With No Name. Col. Reza is also a sorry excuse for a villain. He’s in the movie for a matter of minutes and has no real impact until the very end. Remember the showdowns in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West? Those were outstanding climaxes that featured larger than life representations of good versus evil. Duck, You Sucker! certainly tries to keep that level of energy, but it just doesn’t quite make it. The arcs of the characters are much better than the characters themselves.

Something you can always count on with these movies however is that they are going to look superb. Duck, You Sucker! has sweeping cinematography of the landscapes that is juxtaposed with the traditional Leone close ups and zooms. Leone knew how to capitalize on the actors’ faces and expressions over dialogue, which is why some of his best scenes just feature the actors using their faces to speak. All of this works in tandem with Ennio Morricone’s always excellent score. Comparing this score to some of his others he did for Leone probably isn’t the best way to go about it, but I’m going to do it anyway. This isn’t one of his strongest and it doesn’t really stay in my head like the others. That being said, while the movies on it heightens the drama and the action considerably which is just what these musical pieces are supposed to do.

Duck, You Sucker! is far from being Sergio Leone’s best film, but it’s still a testament to his larger than life and highly artistic film making. It’s story shows an evolution from his simple drifter swoops in to save the day kind of stories and more to an internationally aware tale that showcases morality and change. The characters aren’t as exciting as I would have liked them to be, and a lot of this has to do with a lackluster villain. Still, Sergio Leone’s film making and Ennio Morricone’s music is more than enough for any fan of movies to check out this little known entry in Leone’s filmography.

Final Grade: B+