Tag Archives: crime thriller

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai – Review

9 Mar

Jim Jarmusch is quite possibly one of the most critically acclaimed film makers working in the industry today. Even with all of this critical feedback, his films rarely see the light of day in terms of the mainstream market, but Jarmusch never compromises his vision for something more accessible, and I respect that. While most of his films are very interesting an defy genre conventions, one that really stands out to me is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which was released in 1999. It’s a story that combines a mafia crime story with an urban drama that has elements of an Eastern samurai tale. It’s a very unique movie that has a lot of elements working together, but sometimes at the expense of other aspects that could have been explored more.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a mysterious hit man that lives by the code of the samurai, which was written in the Hagakure. Part of the code is to honor his boss, a mobster named Louie (John Tormey) who saved his life some years before this story takes place. Part of his honoring Louie is to perform contract hits without question. One of the hits is Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), a made man who is in a relationship with mafia don Vargo’s (Henry Silva) daughter (Tricia Vessey). After successfully performing the hit with the daughter being unexpectedly present for it, Vargo puts a hit on Ghost Dog, much to the chagrin of Louie, who is forced to go along with it to some degree. Now, Ghost Dog is going to have to come out of seclusion, and in the traditional ways of the samurai, get his revenge on the mafia family that wants him dead.

So while this does have a pretty classic revenge story going on, the core of this movie is Ghost Dog. It’s more of a character study than anything else. There’s bursts of violence that happen, but it’s the downtime that sticks with me more. There’s a great scene in a park where Ghost Dog is talking to this little girl he just met about different kinds of books. This scene added a lot of humanity to Ghost Dog, a man who is essentially a murderer for hire. This kind of humanity makes him a very conflicted and complicated character whereas he can be gentle to most anyone he meets, but also kill you without batting an eye. This study of Ghost Dog makes for slow paced storytelling, but it works for this movie. What doesn’t really work is when the slow pace slows down to a halt. There’s a lot of scenes where Ghost Dog is just driving and listening to music, which is brilliantly composed by RZA. As great as the music is, these scenes go on way to long, and unless you’re 100% invested in everything in this movie, you’ll probably find yourself drifting from time to time.

What really makes Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai unique is the seamless genre blending. Like I said before, this film works as an urban drama and a crime thriller with sprinklings of Eastern philosophies and styles. I really love when movies defy all genre conventions, which is a major strength of Jim Jarmusch. The combination of RZA’s hip hop score with the imagery of Ghost Dog practicing with his katana on a rooftop in the middle of the city is just super cool, and when he’s comparing the philosophy of the samurai with the violent revenge he’s getting on the mafia also makes for a really cool blend. Now, the problem with having all this stuffed into one movie that isn’t even 2 hours means that some stuff is lost or pushed aside. Not a lot of Ghost Dog’s past is explored and a lot of side characters are just pushed away for long periods of time when a little bit of development would have went a long way. I know this story is more about Ghost Dog, but having certain characters stand out more would have made his actions have more consequence. It’s a small price to pay for fitting in all of the cool stuff that is prominent.

Ghost Dog is a really good example of the kind of writing that Jarmusch does and why it’s really a style all his own. There’s a lot of really cool bits in this movie that shouldn’t be under appreciated. There’s a Haitian character that doesn’t speak or understand a word of English, but he’s also Ghost Dog’s best friend even though they don’t understand each other. There’s also a gangster on Ghost Dog’s hit list that has a passion for Public Enemy, especially Flavor Flav. This whole movie is filled with these strange moments that make it feel surreal, but also down to earth since everyday life can be surreal. Jarmusch is as much a writer as he is a director, and it really shows in this movie.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is definitely a cool and well made movie, and it’s one that should be remembered for being something so unique. It’s a blending of so many different genres and themes and styles while also being an in depth character study. I just wish it was a little bit longer. There’s a lot of different characters and elements to the story that could have been explored a little bit more. Still, what does remain is a very cool story about a one of a kind character. It’s definitely worth a watch or three.

Final Grade: B

Kill List – Review

23 Feb

I’m always up to the task of watching a movie that challenges the idea of genre and narrative form. It’s an excellent mode of expression to take preconceived notions of storytelling and flipping them on their head to create something new. For this to be a success, however, it has to be done right. Movies are archetypically based, so changing the formula can be a tough thing to do. This is exactly what Ben Wheatley attempted to do with his 2011 film Kill List. This was a very strange movie to watch, and I’m still kind of processing it, but it’s really a very interesting film to say the least, even if some of it doesn’t really work.

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Jay (Neil Maskell) is a hitman who has been out of work for months after a particularly traumatizing assignment in Kiev. Shel (MyAnna Buring), Jay’s wife, talks their friend, Gal (Michael Smiley), and convinces him to recruit Jay to help in an assignment with a large payout. After some arguing, Jay agrees and the two hitmen meet their employer (Struan Rodger), who gives them a list of three people and all the information they need to execute the hits. As the two hitmen start their mission and begin working their way down the list, things seem a little bit out of the ordinary, and a dark secret connects the three targets on the list; secrets that contain brutality and sadism on such a level that it horrifies the contract killers and sends them spiraling into a mystery that they may not come out of alive.

I think it’s kind of a compliment to say that a movie keeps rattling in your brain and forcing you to think about it, even when you don’t particularly want to. That’s the relationship I’m having with Kill List. This film blends two genres together to create a mash of oddness. I can’t think of another movie that takes a crime thriller and puts it together with sadistic horror to create something that is as chilling and unforgettable as Kill List. I don’t think this movie is a masterpiece or anything like that, but I do have this feeling that Kill List will forever be somewhere on the back burner. I also have to give Wheatley credit in how he handles a lot of the subject matter. There are scenes that will make the squeamish leave the room post haste, but never does it go over the top into an exploitive affair. This movie effectively crawls under your skin without it being too much or overdone. It’s very well thought out film making and storytelling.

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At the core of this movie, though, is a really intriguing mystery. This is where I got really hooked. The film starts off easy enough with a story of a hit man forced back into the business, but it was enough to keep me watching. When things started getting strange for no reason is when I really started to pay attention. It was great trying to figure out just what in the hell was going on, and for the most part, there really aren’t any clues. You’re left to sit and watch and wonder. I was really dying to know what happened, but this is very ambiguous movie that is left for you to interpret. This might be where the movie falters for me just a little bit. I really wanted to know everything and have concrete answers, but Kill List has none of these to offer. That being said, this is an incredibly frustrating film that succeeds in leaving the audience baffled and freaked out.

When I say freaked out, I really mean freaked out. I’m a real sucker for well made and effective horror movies, so I do expect horror movies to go the extra mile. Technically speaking, I don’t know if I’d call Kill List a horror film. I really don’t know how I’d define it. Still, the last third of this movie is frightening, and I’m not ashamed to say it royally messed with me. I would love to get deeper into what happens, but the most fun you’ll have with this movie is the tension and suspense of it building to what is actually going on. Saying anything more would spoil some of that, so just know that I thought it was one of the creepier displays I’ve seen in a while.

To me, Kill List is a lot of things. It’s frustrating, stunning, difficult, but also extremely memorable. Despite all of the confusion I felt watching it and all of the questions left unanswered, I’m really thrilled that this movie didn’t remain under my radar forever. It’s one that I’m going to want to show to people just so I can see their reaction to it because there really isn’t another movie quite like this one.

Final Grade: B

Street Kings & Street Kings 2: Motor City – Review

28 Jul

Crime movies are some of my favorite kinds of stories. Wether it’s told from the side of the criminals, the police, or both, these movies tend to excite me and grip me until the very end so long as the story is good enough. For this review, I’m going to be looking at Street Kings and its sequel Street Kings 2: Motor City. I can’t really say my feelings at this point on the sequel, but I was very excited to see the original Street Kings. I heard a lot of great stuff about it, and now that I’ve finally seen it, I’m honestly a little underwhelmed.

As always, we’ll be starting with the original 2008 film by David Ayer.

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Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is a star in the LAPD, but his unorthodox techniques and his heavy drinking is starting to get the better of him even with the support of his police unit, run by the affable Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). What only adds more to Ludlow’s stress and drinking is the fact that his old partner (Terry Crews) is informing on him to an internal affairs captain, James Biggs (Hugh Laurie). When Ludlow is at the scene of his ex-partner’s murder, Biggs really sets his sights hard on Ludlow who is now determined more than ever to find the real killers. With the help of homicide detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans), Ludlow starts a small war with the criminal element of L.A. in hopes to force the murderers into the open, but the corruption plaguing the police force goes deeper than Ludlow ever anticipated.

It’s clear that Street Kings has all of the makings of a really cool cop thriller. There’s a strong cast, David Ayer in the director’s chair, and the original story was written by James Ellroy, who is known for penning the modern classic L.A. Confidential. Well, Street Kings doesn’t quite live up the hype that I’ve been exposed to. So many people have told me that this is a must see movie, and honestly, it’s just alright. It certainly isn’t a bad movie, but you have to admit, it’s pretty derivative. Reeves’ character is a cop who most certainly doesn’t play by the rules, and then has to clear his name and weed out the corruption in the police force. It’s so many different clichés rolled up to form an even bigger cliché in the form of a two hour movie. Everything that happens in the movie has been seen before time and time again.

I don’t want to make it sound like Street Kings is a total waste of time, because that’s not the case. In fact, it’s a pretty competent movie for the most part. The cast really does their best with the material that’s given to them with Whitaker and Evans really stealing the show. David Ayer also has a really gritty eye, which is why he’s really good with this genre. The streets of L.A. really takes a life of their own and the presence of violence and death always feels like it’s lingering amongst the fog or right around the corner on a dark urban night. There’s plenty of style and Ayers captures it perfectly. I’m really only disappointed in the writing. I don’t know what Ellroy’s original screenplay was like before other writers hopped on to add their own take on things, but if it’s as clichéd as the final product, I’m pretty disappointed.

If you’re looking for an easy way to kill a couple hours, then Street Kings is a fine choice. You really don’t have to think to hard because the story and characters are all so familiar. As a movie to watch and review, I have to say it’s a bit of a disappointment. I’m not upset that I watched it, but I really have no need or desire to watch it again.

Street Kings is one of those movies that needs no sequel, but it ended up getting one that a lot of people probably never noticed. They took the themes and changed the city, the characters, and the story and released it straight to DVD. This is 2001 film, Street Kings 2: Motor City.

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Now taking place in Detroit instead of L.A., the story revolves around an aging narcotics  detective Marty Kingston (Ray Liotta), who doesn’t have the cleanest record on the force but is known for a couple huge busts. After his  partner (Scott Norman) is gunned down after leaving a night club, Kingston teams up with a young homicide detective, Dan Sullivan (Shawn Hatosy). At first Sullivan is wary of his new partner, but after more officers are killed in the same way, the two put aside their differences and begin acting together to find the culprit. Once again, however, the corruption in the police department runs deep and both men find their lives uprooted as the investigation comes closer to a conclusion.

This being a direct to DVD release, you have to take everything I say about Street Kings 2 with a grain of salt. Some of these straight to video releases can be good, but there’s normally a reason, wether it’s budget or otherwise, it didn’t get a theatrical run. For what it is, this movie isn’t too awful, but it is pretty bad. One thing good that came from it is that the story, at it’s core, is pretty much the same exact one as the original, which is automatic points off. It does, however, make some changes that I really liked and added a new sense of suspense and tension that wasn’t in the original. It’s also always cool to see Ray Liotta, and he did good in this film, but it’s a sad reminder that his career didn’t exactly go in the right direction.

Everything else about this movie is a bit of a joke. While some elements of the story might have been good, the writing in general is far from acceptable. There are some horrendous lines of dialogue that are shamelessly over expository. There are some lines delivered that are downright laughable. Ray Liotta is really the only actor in this movie who isn’t cringeworthy. Shawn Hatosy and Clifton Powell are probably the worst offenders in the acting department for this particular film. I already said that the story is pretty much exactly the same as the first movie which makes this one a copy cat of a movie that was already copying other movies. That made this an occasional chore to sit through.

Street Kings 2: Motor City is a coherent movie, but that’s really all I can say about it. The acting is awful, the story is clichéd, and there’s nothing of real substance to be found. A few scenes worked well, but most of them fell flat on their faces. Stick with the first one and leave this sequel well enough alone.

It seems that not too much can be said for Street Kings or it’s sequel. The first on is a mediocre cop movie that may be worth seeing once, and the sequel is just a goofy attempt at a drama. Only people who are really into this genre should check out the original. Other than that, there’s nothing else to really discuss.

Running Scared – Review

31 Oct

I’m the kind of guy that loves an action movie that isn’t afraid to push everything way over the top. Hell, I could watch the Crank movies on repeat any day of the week. Much like Crank, Wayne Kramer’s 2006 action thriller, Running Scared, is certainly not a film that’s afraid to go way overboard in quite literally every aspect of its presentation. When done correctly, this kind of film making can heighten the movie watching experience, and it definitely does that in some, if not most, moments in this film, but it also detracts from it at the same time. This feeling of being slightly uneven makes Running Scared a good film, but not a great film.

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Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) is a small time gangster working for mafioso Tommy Perello (Johnny Messner). During what should have been a simple drug deal, a trio of masked crooked cops led by Rydell (Chazz Palminteri) burst in and threaten to steal everything and murder everyone. After gunfire erupts, two of the cops are dead and Rydell is on the run leaving Perello to entrust Joey with the pistol that was used to kill the two cops. Instead of dumping the gun right away, Joey goes home to see his wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga) and son Nicky (Alex Neuberger). Unfortunately for Joey, Nicky’s friend Oleg (Cameron Bright) gets a hold of the gun to get revenge on his step-father (Karel Roden) for his acts of abuse, but soon the gun becomes lost in the seedy night time underworld leaving Joey to speed through the streets trying to find it, but danger seems to literally lurk behind every corner.

As you would probably expect, one does not have to think a whole lot while they’re watching this movie, but I was actually really surprised when I began losing track of the plot at certain points. Luckily, I know exactly why this was happening to me. As I said before, this movie goes way over the top in the way it tells its story, it almost feels like a graphic novel. The problem is that it goes too far over the top in terms of plot contrivances, twists, and motivations. It seems like something new came along in every scene to completely change the course of the movie. It seems like a million and one different events and motivations just mush together in the span of a two hour movie that it was hard to keep track of it all.

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Now to talk about what’s awesome about Running Scared is the excellent action sequences and really cool editing. First of all, the action in this movie is turned up to 11. This isn’t to say that this is the kind of movie that has non stop gunfights and what have you, but when it does happen, things get really crazy. Blood and chunks of gangsters fly all over the place in such a way that reinforces my looking at this as a graphic novel put to screen. One awesome scene in particular has a gunfight occur in a hockey rink that is lit entire by black light after the ice was specially painted. The editing and the action go hand in hand like a match made in heaven. The camera flies all over the place, while the editing fast forwards, rewinds, or halts the action to sudden slow motion. Images flash across the screen and colors and frames get distorted. With an action movie that can get as insane as this one does, kinetic editing is crucial and is a huge success in Running Scared.

In keeping with the tradition of this review, I think I also need to talk about how (at time ridiculously) over the top the acting is. I can’t say I’m a fan of Paul Walker, especially with my lack of interest in the Fast and the Furious movies. In this movie, he has a lot of energy and hams it up in an entertaining way, but sometimes it just felt weird. For most of the film he just came off as a loud and arrogant protagonist that I know I wouldn’t get along with if I ever met him on the street. The villains on the other hand, with special nods to Palminteri and Messner, ham it up to perfection. My favorite performance in this movie is actually Vera Farmiga, who really doesn’t seem to be her normal self. There are moments in this film where she really seems to be playing the role with enormous amounts of honesty and seriousness, which can’t really be said about the hammed up performance by everyone else.

I’d be lying to you if I said that I didn’t have a really good time watching Running Scared. There’s really nothing in this movie to take too seriously, even though the film often deals with serious themes. It’s lack of organization can make things confusing and the acting can be a little overbearing at times, but watching this movie is like seeing an insanely kinetic and violent graphic novel come to life. Do yourself a favor and don’t think too hard while you’re watching this because I don’t think that’s what the movie is all about. Instead, treat this film simply as an above average action movie who’s purpose is to get your adrenaline going for a few hours.

Bad Lieutenant – Review

6 Feb

Abel Ferrara is one of those film makers that you either love or you hate. Some people may call his movies smutty or exploitive, but there are others who call him a true artist with a firm grasp on the medium. In my opinion, Ferrara takes exploitation movies to a more artistic level. I’ve already reviewed his 1990 film King of New York, but now I will be looking at what is objectively called his best movie. It goes without saying that it’s his 1992 crime film Bad Lieutenant.

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The Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) is not exactly the kind of cop anyone wants to deal with. He seems a little rough around the edges, but he’s more than meets the eye. He’s violent, addicted to all sorts of drugs, and gambles away most of his money. He seems to have the year’s World Series all figured out, and begins betting everything he has into the game. During all of this, he is also investigating the rape of a young nun (Frankie Thorn), but this particular case gets him thinking about his own actions and what may be the only chance he has at redemption. As his gambling and drug abuse worsens, he is pushed over his limits and begins to lose track of his own life and the parameters of his enforcement of the law.

Before I started watching Bad Lieutenant, I had it in my head that this was going to be a straightforward crime film where the Lieutenant was going to have to catch the guys who raped the nun, and along the way we would see him engage in all of his dark, illegal activities. It’s actually the other way around, in a sense. We actually see the Lieutenant practically destroy his life with drugs and gambling, and sometimes he moves on the case, but not too often. This is more of a character study than it is a straightforward narrative.

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That being said, I do wish there was more of a story. There is some semblance of a plot, but a lot of the movie is just the Lieutenant on the job in the seediest parts of New York City as he gets into all sorts of depraved things. The depravity does reach an all time low in Bad Lieutenant, and there were time that I was surprised that the character went as far as he did. He’s a reprehensible human being, but also very interesting. Still, as cool as his character is, I wanted to see more from the movie. It felt a lot longer than it actually was because not a whole hell of a lot happens by the end of the movie. I guess part of this is because I went into it expecting a more straightforward movie and wasn’t really expecting a movie as wandering as this, if that makes sense.

Harvey Keitel does do an outstanding job as the Lieutenant. That same year he starred in Quentin Tarantino’s first film Reservoir Dogs, but his performance in that just doesn’t match the visceral intensity that he displays here. It was said by the people making this film that Keitel dove really deep into this character and Ferrara left him a lot of room for experimentation and improvisation. Now, the stuff that the Lieutenant gets into, if I hadn’t made it quite clear before, is reprehensible and by the end of shooting, crew member said it was almost hard to watch Keitel get so into character.

It would be easy to call Bad Lieutenant a piece of trashy exploitation, but whoever says that would be sorely mistaken. This is a beautifully shot movie filled with disgusting people and places. Abel Ferrara has a way of filming dirty urban environments and the characters that inhabit them with such a gritty style, and rare moments of true beauty, that it’s hard not to feel like you’re really in the movie with the characters. Now that I know what it’s all about, Bad Lieutenant deserves a second viewing from me, but this movie is not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, it has the hitting power of a Louisville slugger and is as loud as a magnum fired point blank, so if you can stomach the content check out Bad Lieutenant.