Sunday, May 23, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

Urban Justice

At the core Urban Justice is a simple movie. It is about revenge, and a very specific revenge at that. There is no moralizing, no attempt to make some sort of grand point about the collapse of civilization, or even any attempt to justify the violence. Right before Steven Seagal’s character, Simon Ballister, is about to go kill all of the remaining bad guys, the sexy lady we assume he’s going to sleep with (he doesn’t) attempts to chide him with the standard, “You’re just as bad as them,” spiel. His response, in a flat, even tone, is, “I’m a lot fucking worse.” That pretty much sums up the entire movie, and of the many tough guy things he says in this movie, this might be the toughest. He is that tough, and he knows it, and he doesn’t have any illusions about what he is about to do, he is about to go kill people.

Urban Justice begins with Ballister’s son, Max, a young police officer who we are immediately supposed to like because he loves his hot young wife. Is that all it takes to make us like a character? That he likes his wife? Yeah, that is all it takes. I admit it, I’m easy. He takes some pictures and is killed for it. At the funeral everyone is sad, which must mean that he was a good cop as well, and whoever it is that gives the eulogy says, “your death will be remembered by everyone, always.” That’s high praise, this guy must have really been something. Lurking at the periphery of the service is Seagal, wearing sunglasses despite the overcast sky, and generally being all kinds of mysterious.

This is really all you need to know. His son was murdered, he came to kill the killer. There is some back and forth about whether this gang did it, or that gang did it, or maybe corrupt cops did it. None of it matters. Ballister doesn’t even care who gave the order, he only wants the guy who pulled the trigger. For our sake, I’m glad he didn’t find out who the gunman was right away, because the real fun of Urban Justice is watching him wade through various gangs and groups of thugs looking for his man. And he most certainly does go through a lot of stock gangster movie extras to get to the truth. If that doesn’t sound like a good time then you probably won’t be interested in this.

Director Don E. Fauntleroy (who worked with Seagal on Today You Die and Mercenary for Justice) and writer Gilmar Fortis II (who has the best name ever) use a lot of the hallmarks of classic Seagal. Ballister is a man with a shadowy past, and is involved in some sort of unspecified military or intelligence agency that enables him to make a single phone call and have a bunch of cool, high-tech tracking stuff delivered to the room above a liquor store he rents by the week in Compton. Martial arts play in important role, evenly balanced with gun play.

My favorite moment of violence occurs in Seagal’s first fight. He is in the ghetto, and, in predictable fashion, the ghetto residents are somewhat adverse to his presence. When he finds two thugs leaning on his car, waiting to run him off, he, also in predictable fashion, whoops their punk asses. There is the context, and here is the moment. When he slams one of their faces against his shiny black sedan, instead of shattering the window like in most action movies, the impact leaves a splatter of blood from the gangster’s nose and mouth on the glass. And I like that. It is the moment where all of your suspicions about Ballister’s ass-kicking abilities are confirmed.

Seagal never really gets mad, he doesn’t yell or scream or go over the top, instead he brings a quiet menace to the character of Ballister. He is a badass, and there is never any actual doubt as to whether or not he will succeed in his goal. Usually that lack of tension turns me off to a movie (see Taken). I want to believe that no matter how skilled, well equipped, or generally awesome a protagonist is, that they are still in fact human, and that there is the potential for failure. However, in this case, that doesn’t bother me. In this scenario he knows that he’s going to pull it off, he knows that he isn’t in any real danger, even after he gets shot, because he knows exactly how badass he is. At the end, when he kills the guy who shot his son (and walks away from another because he has no interest in killing anyone who didn’t shoot his son—though, again, I’m glad he had to go through a bunch of guys to get to the shooter or else this movie would have sucked), he doesn’t smile, or crack a joke, or change expression at all. He approached this like another job, and now his job is done.

Fauntleroy does a good job of creating the feeling of an old school action movie. There aren’t a lot of quick, music video style edits, and the fight scenes are solid, even though there is an excessively long, fairly uneventful car chase.

The movie doesn’t have a lot of the pitfalls of some of Seagal’s DTV oeuvre. There are no body doubles, no weird vocal overdubs that are obviously some other dude, and there are no awkward shortcuts resulting from a low budget or limited shooting schedule or any of the other small tragedies that sometimes befall Seagal’s recent movies. And most importantly there is a lot, I repeat, a lot of action, which is all anyone really wants to see in a movie like this.

The lack of a single antagonist to focus on does hurt the movie in the end. I get it, Ballister isn’t sure who is responsible, so they think it is a good idea to let the audience go through the same journey. While we can appreciate the search, and it is fun to watch him pound an endless supply of hoodlums, and for some reason a carful of white supremacists taking a vacation to the middle of the hood, a bad guy to focus our ire on is necessary. It would provide some much needed focus to the movie, Seagal’s single-minded determinism isn’t always enough to drive the film alone. During his scenes it is, but when the film leaves Ballister, it suffers.

For a while we suspect that Danny Trejo might be the bad guy. He’s only here for a scene, but it’s a good scene. Did one of the corrupt cops kill Max? Undercover Brother himself, Eddie Griffin turns up as a prime candidate for chief bad guy. You know what I like about Eddie Griffin? He’s funny. You know what he is not in this movie? Funny. He tries to play a tough guy, sadistic gang leader, but the entire time he’s on screen, I kept waiting for him to bust out his Michael Jackson impersonation. I’m all for actors leaving their comfort zones, trying to broaden their professional horizons, and all that, but he plays Armand Tucker the drug dealer as a caricature. He’s just not intimidating at all.

In my opinion Urban Justice is up there with some of the best of Seagal’s direct to video movies, and is even better than some of his theatrical releases. The action is good and plentiful, the story is straightforward and not too ridiculous, and the movie doesn’t suffer from poor production quality. The filmmakers don’t even ask me to pretend that I believe Seagal is a college professor or archeologist or some sort of scientist. I appreciate that concession, I really do. And there is a good, Charles Bronson, vigilante revenge feel to the whole film, which I also appreciate.

Watch Urban Justice, even though it is called Urban Justice.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass is reminiscent of 2009’s Defendor (which you should watch, it’s real good, I promise), staring Woody from Cheers, in a couple of key ways. First is obviously that both films deal with the premise, what if a real-life, actual person tried to become a superhero? The general consensus seems to be that these misguided do-gooders would get the holy hell beaten out of them. In Defendor, Defendor comes home after his adventures and spits out his own teeth, while in Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) gets stabbed in the stomach by the first pair of bad guys he attempts to thwart and spends months recuperating in the hospital. Interesting side note, the location where Kick-Ass gets stabbed is also featured prominently in Defendor. It is a real adult novelty store in Hamilton, Ontario, where both movies were filmed. That’s in Canada for all of you geographically challenged spawn of the American school system.

Neither movie shies away from showing the graphic consequences of the violence these characters seeks out. The first time Kick-Ass encounters Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), a foul mouthed eleven year old with a penchant for brutally slaying criminals with happy grin on her face, he is shaken so bad that he momentarily hangs up his tights, or wetsuit in this case. The glee that she finds in killing is completely foreign to him. Granted, Hit-Girl has been trained and conditioned since birth by her vengeance driven father (Nicholas Cage, who, along with Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans, has made two movies in recent days that I liked. This is troubling, and if he keeps this up, I may have to seriously reconsider some deeply held personal truths.), and she finds her most intense pleasure in violence and the tools of violence.

Both Defendor and Kick-Ass are marketed as something that they are not. To look at the posters, art, and trailers, each of these movies promise to be light comedies about the bumbling exploits of everyday citizens attempting to live out a comic book fantasy. I mean if you see a commercial with a small child dressed up like a superhero flipping around like a cracked out chimp, you don’t necessarily expect to see this same child beaten within an inch of her life by a grown man, do you? Well, you will.

Kick-Ass does provide some laughs and scenes of levity. The scenes with Dave (Kick-Ass in street clothes) and his buddies Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters) provide some good, shit talking banter. And it is fun to watch Hit-Girl fuck with her father by asking for a doll for her birthday. Defendor on the other hand doesn’t deliver much laughter. It is exactly as depressing as it would be if a mentally handicapped man actually did try to become a costumed crime fighter, befriending a crack smoking prostitute in the process.

Like I said, Kick-Ass isn’t necessarily what it first appeared to be at first glance. Sure, you get a mild-mannered kid (who seems to live in Spider-Man’s hood) who lost his mother to a sudden death. He gets picked on at school and on the streets. He feels lonely, isolated, and powerless, and decides that to fight back. Initially, his attempts to take control of his world prove disastrous, and, despite some internet notoriety that makes him a folk hero, he is largely ineffectual.

Hit-Girl and Big Daddy (Cage), however, are the real deal. Daddy used to be a cop, a good cop, a clean cop, but when he refused to take a bribe, he was framed for a crime he didn’t commit by gangster Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), and sent to prison. While inside his pregnant wife committed suicide, though the baby, Hit-Girl, survived. Upon his release, Daddy begins an fanatical quest for retribution, a quest that involves brainwashing his young daughter with comic books, and generally teaching her how to fuck shit up in every conceivable way. In the way her world view is informed by comics, Hit-Girl is like Kick-Ass taken to the extreme, and without a choice in the matter. She has been built for this. The first time we meet them, Daddy shoots his own daughter in the chest so she can get used to being shot while wearing a Kevlar vest. Obviously this dude has some issues.

Big Daddy and Hit-Girl are essentially Batman and Robin. Big Daddy’s costume is even patterned after the Dark Knight. They have all the toys (they get money by robbing the criminals they kill), gadgets, and training. Hit-Girl is like the Boy Wonder raised within the confines of a John Woo movie (and I mean a good John Woo movie, like Hard Boiled or A Better Tomorrow 2).

Because Kick-Ass becomes the public face of vigilante superheroes, the deeds of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl get blamed on him, and he becomes a target for the mob.

McLovin’ shows up as Chris D’Amico, son of Frank, a comic book nerd in his own right, who, due to his father’s line of work, is also balls deep in isolation and loneliness, though this is generally due to a large man with a gun cutting off any potential social interactions. At first I was afraid McLovin’ was just going to be McLovin’, and follow a similar path of Kick-Ass (from the trailers we already know he becomes a character called Red Mist). Fortunately they do something else with it. Chris wants nothing more than his father’s approval and to join in the family business. He knows how superheroes think and act, and knows that the best way to catch Kick-Ass is to pose as another superhero and earn his trust. Thus Red Mist isn’t another costume, he’s a trap.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding Kick-Ass. Roger Ebert has famously decried the violence and called it abominable, or something similar. (I hope he called it abominable, that’s a word that needs to come back, like mutton monger, an old timey way of saying pimp.) There are also a lot of back and forth reviews, some people loved the movie, some didn’t like it at all, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down in the theater. (Side Note: I was the only person there. Sure, it was a noon showing on a Thursday fully a month after it was released, but still, that hasn’t happened to me since I saw Forrest Gump in the theater, also at a noon showing in the middle of the week. I did see the second Resident Evil movie with only one other person in the theater, a navy guy who kept talking on his cell phone. I didn’t really mind.)

First off, if the violence of Kick-Ass didn’t involve a little girl, no one would blink at it, it is no more violent than a movie like The Matrix or Die Hard, things you’ve seen a thousand times. And if she didn’t say the dreaded ‘cunt,’ no one would give a shit about her swearing. Kids swearing in movies are usually good for a laugh, and I remember what a foul mouthed little bastard I was. Maybe I’m jaded, maybe I’ve seen too much onscreen violence, or maybe I’ve just seen too many Robins get waxed in Batman comics, but the violence didn’t bother me. In fact, I kind of thought most of the action was pretty awesome. Maybe that makes me a bad person.

I admit, the scene were Hit-Girl is beaten by D’Amico is difficult to watch, but not because it was a grown man pummeling a child, it was because it is a character that I had grown to care about being beaten. Child or not had nothing to do with my feelings. Again, maybe I’m jaded, but it was equally difficult to watch Kick-Ass and Big-Daddy, who are old enough to make their own choices, be tortured.

I think a lot of people are missing the point. This situation is more telling of Cage’s Big Daddy character than anything. It is indicative of how messed up he is. He is so driven, so blinded by rage, that he can’t see, or he doesn’t care, what he is turning his daughter into. Like any child, all she wants to do is please her father, and the best way to do that is to massacre bad guys. That seems to be the point the filmmakers are making (I haven’t read the comic, so I can’t comment on that aspect of it), that too many people, parents in particular, don’t consider the consequences their obsessions have on other people, specifically impressionable young children. What better way to get that point across than by a revenge fixated father corrupting his daughter for his own ends? Hit-Girl kills without a second thought. Her father has drained her of any emotional connection to ending a human life.

The violence isn’t supposed to be easy to take. The point is to make you uncomfortable, to make you squirm in your seat, and, hopefully, think about that discomfort. Hell, the movie starts out with a man with a history of mental illness dressed as a superhero plummeting to his death because he though he could fly. You’re not in for a cake walk here.

I can see where people are coming from with the violence, but I don’t necessarily agree with them. Again, maybe I’m a jaded asshole. Okay, I’m certainly a jaded asshole, but still, the gratuitous, pointless violence in movies like Hostel and other new-jack horror movies of that ilk, bother me a whole lot more than the violence in Kick-Ass.

I wasn’t sure if I would like Kick-Ass or not. Admittedly, I’d read a wide sampling of reviews, from people I tend to agree with, and from people I generally don’t, so I didn’t go in cold. And I enjoyed it, I thought it was pretty fucking badass.

Here, however, is where I’m going to rant for a little bit. I hate that every movie made anymore has to be aware of itself in that really annoying, pretentious, obvious way that every fucking movie is. Comic book movies and horror are especially prone to this phenomenon. I don’t need a comic book nerd commenting on comic books and superheroes. I’ve seen it. Why the fuck can’t you just make a fucking movie without trying to be hip and ironic? Jesus fucking Christ it annoys the shit out of me. Like Dead Snow. I enjoyed Dead Snow. I would have enjoyed Dead Snow a whole lot more if the characters didn’t continually reference that they were in a horror movie. I know they’re in a horror movie, I’m the one who rented the goddamned thing. If they had left it alone it would have been way more awesome and pissed me off way less. We get it, it’s cool to be a comic book or horror nerd now. I don’t need to be reminded of it.

But after the initial onslaught in Kick-Ass, that aspect of the movie falls mercifully by the wayside and takes a back seat to the actual story and characters. This movie is so self-aware that they even play with the convention of being self-aware. Because they’re grown ups and don’t know anything about comic book superheroes, the gangsters are unable to track down their costumed foe. Chris, however, being deeply immersed in the funny books, knows exactly how to best entrap someone playing superhero.

So, you can take Kick-Ass at face value, as an exceedingly violent spectacle, or you can view it as appalling sign of society’s impending doom. You can watch it and never think about it again, which a lot of people seem to be doing, or you can watch it and pick out any number of deeper implications. Personally, I think you should take the later route. Whether you love it or hate it, there is more to this movie than just the surface, and it provides something to think about.

I think Kick-Ass is pretty great. Also, you should watch Defendor, because I don’t think many people will, and the two movies go well together.

I also have to give the filmmakers props for including Yancey Butler of Mann & Machine and Hard Target fame in the cast. Way to go, guys. Way to go.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Iron Man 2

Iron Man is pretty much exactly what I want out of a giant, big-budget summer blockbuster. It’s fun, smart, well made, some shit blows up, and it’s coherent enough to engross you for ninety minutes. In short, it is everything Michael Bay thinks the Transformers movies are, but that in reality, they aren’t. He wishes his effects looked half as good as those in Iron Man.

Because it did so well, you knew there was going to be a sequel. Hell, everyone knew that part two was in the chute before the first one even opened. Sequels are always a tricky business, you want to capture what made the first movie good, but still do something more than just rehash.

In that spirit, Iron Man 2 is a bit of a different animal from the first. Overall the tone is darker. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is dying. The very thing that is keeping him alive, that fancy pants little chest reactor thing, is poisoning his blood and killing him. The closer he creeps to death, the more his self-destructive streak manifests itself. He hands over control of Stark Industries to his right hand/love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s skin is distractingly orange in this movie), and does things like supplant the guy driving his racecar at the last minute so he can take part in some Grand Prix race in Monaco.

The government, led by Senator Garry Shandling, wants him to hand over the Iron Man suits. His competitor, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is incompetent, but conniving. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of someone Stark Sr. screwed over, is out for revenge. And Samuel L. Jackson, as Nick Fury, a role originally made famous by David Hasselfhoff in the 1998 made for TV classic, Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, is trying to recruit him for SHIELD. There’s a forced subplot about his father, and Tony has to invent a new element at one point. The man has a lot on his plate.

But all of that is secondary to watching a guy in a suit fly around and fight robots. That’s what you came to see, all of the other stuff is just extra. Like a garnish, it makes everything look all pretty and presentable.

Like the first movie, the cast is awesome. I still think Downey Jr. is the perfect actor to play Tony Stark. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it until somebody hits me, but who better to play a narcissistic, alcoholic millionaire with a serious collection of self-destructive tendencies? His charisma is what carries these movies. Without him, they would be mediocre action fare.

While I’m not a huge Gwyneth Paltrow fan, and I wish that her husband’s crappy band would just stop (for the love of god, am I the only one who notices how awful Coldplay is?), she is solid in everything she does (and you get to see her boobies in Shakespeare in Love). This is no exception.

The joys of the first movie include the sexual tension, and the back and forth banter between Stark and Pepper. And director John Favreau and writer Justin Theroux try to capitalize on this dynamic again in the sequel. There are times when they are successful. The scene where Stark makes Pepper CEO of Stark Industries, or when she introduces Stark to Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) disguised as someone from legal, are both moments where this works. However, in this go round, there are times when it doesn’t, where they tried to force it into the script. Like the scene where Whiplash first attacks. Pepper and Happy (Favreau) are trying to get Stark the mobile Iron Man suit, but instead of getting to the point, Pepper and Stark take time to trade barbs while dodging crazy, electric whipey. It was frustrating to watch, and on like the fourth time Stark says something smartass instead of grabbing the fucking suit from his sidekicks, I made a loud enough noise the guy in the next seat looked at me and nodded.

Don Cheadle replaces Terrance Howard as James Rhodes/War Machine. There are lots of rumors and reports at to why, and I don’t give a shit about any of them. I bet Howard thought something along the lines of, “they won’t have the balls to replace me if I ask for more money.” Guess what, Terrance? Cheadle is exactly how you expect him to be, great. Seriously, is he ever going to be bad just to throw us off? Doesn’t he ever feel like just half-assing a role and phoning it in? Apparently not, apparently he’s more of a professional than I am. I don’t mind that they replaced Howard, just like I didn’t mind when they replaced Katie Holmes in the Batman movies. My only problem is that Cheadle is criminally underused. He’s good as a man torn between duty and friendship, trying to finagle the suits from Stark while at the same time having to watch his friend cave in on himself. But there is room for so much more, and why have someone as good as Don Cheadle in your movie if you’re not going to use him? I’m looking at you, Favreau.

Despite some really bad hair, Mickey Rourke is a great villain. Even without all of the Russian prison tattoos, he still looks like a dude who would live in some crappy little apartment in some desolate hell hole, and be out for some sort of vengeance. His father was deported and fucked over by Tony Stark’s dad, so Ivan is going to take it out on Stark Jr. Watching this I actually believe that Rourke could strangle two security guards and still be a high level physicist. I even believe that he loves his bird.

Samuel L. Jackson isn’t in this much, but he looks cool with an eye patch.

A friend of mine who saw this before me said that Scarlett Johansson looks like a Bratz doll. He was correct in his assessment. She does in fact closely resemble a Bratz doll. He also hates her with a passion. One of his other comments was that she spent the entire movie “Clydesdaling around,” and that she is a completely graceless creature. I’m generally indifferent to her existence. Her involvement will neither repel me from seeing something that looks interesting, nor entice me to see something I otherwise might skip. She’s mildly attractive and moderately talented, but in Iron Man 2, she does suck kind of bad. Her delivery is flat, there’s supposed to be some sexual tension between her character and Stark, but it is more assumed than developed. Her role is mostly just her bending over, or posing, or standing still with a blank look on her face.

Goddammit, Sam Rockwell looks good in a suit. He makes me wish I could pull off wearing a suit. Even as a nerdy weapons producer, he still manages to be really fucking cool. Rockwell makes a good weasel, which is exactly what Hammer is, a conniving little hack, with no talent of his own, other than exploiting people that are smarter than he is. He fakes Vanko’s death, springs him from jail, and puts him to work in his own factory, building a competitor to Stark’s Iron Man suit. We know from the outset that this is going to backfire on him, since Vanko is a stone cold killer with one thing on his mind, revengeance.

Iron Man 2, like Iron Man, is a lot of fun. It has all of the bells and whistles that you want, and it’s not trying to be anything more than it is, which is a really good time at the movies. There are a couple of places where it falters. The scene where Stark DJs a party in the Iron Man suit is annoying, not to mention aggravatingly long. There are couple subplots that aren’t properly developed and feel forced, like anything involving Stark’s father. But overall none of that matters, and the movie is pretty badass.

And of course you know this by now, but if you stay through the credits there is a special nerd surprise.

Exit Wounds

Exit Wounds occurred at an interesting time for Steven Seagal. It happened well after the glory days of movies like Out for Justice, Hard to Kill, Above the Law, and Under Siege, but just before being relegated to the semi-obscurity of the direct to video market and reality TV stardom. (And his alleged sex slaving—nothing spells career resurgence like an old fashioned sex scandal, so cross your fingers.) His next film, Half Past Dead, would be his last movie release into theaters. (At least until this summer’s Machete, but that is hardly Seagal’s movie.) The movie surprised a lot of people by grossing a ton of money at the box office. This was a transitional period for Seagal, where he was evolving from a legitimate, name-above-the-credits movie star, to a punch line for late night TV hosts. However, he still manages to make a kick-ass action movie now and again.

The cast of Exit Wounds is insane, you have Seagal and DMX as the headliners, and among the supporting cast you have Bill Duke, Michael Jai White, Anthony Anderson, Isaiah Washington, Jill Hennessy, Tom Arnold, Bruce McGill, Eva Mendes, and even Jamie Foxx in an uncredited role. It’s like the filmmakers collected everyone who has ever been in any movie ever and threw them together just for kicks. Looking at the cast there is some kick-ass potential.

What’s even more insane than the cast is the plot, it gets seriously loopy. Seagal plays Orin Boyd, the standard cop movie protagonist who plays-by-his-own-rules-but-gets-results-which-is-the-only-reason-that-they-haven’t-shitcanned-him-yet supercop. In the first scene he single-handedly takes down a militia that tries to assassinate the Vice President. They have a helicopter emblazoned with a giant smiley face. During the conflict Boyd’s bitchin’ black El Camino gets shot to shit (when are bad guys going to learn that fucking with a man’s ride is just going to piss him off), and he tosses the VP, who can’t swim, off of a bridge and into a river.

Instead of having a parade for Boyd for doing the job of the entire police force and the secret service by himself, the department brass (Bill Duke and Bruce McGill of Predator and The Last Boyscout respectively) ship his disobeying ass over to “the 15th,” which they offhandedly compare to Vietnam. By the way, Exit Wounds is set in Detroit, and I can only assume that the 15th will become the precinct that Murphy goes to in RoboCop. It’s a shithole where the other cops tazer each other in the locker room for fun. This is the Wild West.

Here they take a few minutes for some ill advised comic relief. Not only does Boyd put his foot in his mouth when he meets his new commander, Mulcahy (Jill Hennessy who was in that show, Crossing Jordan, that was on for way longer than it should have been), with whom he shares some unearned, and awkward, sexual tension. Instead of dealing with Boyd, she ships him off to anger management classes. In this touchy-feely group our hero meets Henry Wayne (Tom Arnold), an AM talk show host who pays prostitutes to beat him up. Seagal, in maybe his last role where he doesn’t look like a bloated turtle, somehow gets stuck in a desk, breaks it, storms out of the meeting, and pummels a group of guys that are supposed to look tough. (No one in the world looks less frightening than a group of extras sitting on the protagonist’s car in a Hollywood action movie. No matter what, they’re never intimidating.) The beating is met with much delight from Wayne and the other anger managers, who decide Boyd is now the cool kid in their group and they desperately want to be his friends.

DMX and his sidekick TK (Anthony Anderson) are running around this movie as well, and some there are some action scenes, and eventually Boyd fucks up an undercover bust and gets demoted to traffic cop, which leads to another uncomfortable attempt at humor. Man, Boyd sure is bummed out there with his whistle and white gloves directing traffic. Instead of directing the cars, he causes a huge traffic jam and wanders off. The only comedy that is actually funny is the bit during the credits where Anthony Anderson and Tom Arnold have an improvised tête-à-tête about poop. Comedy gold right there.

There are some more action scenes, some good-guys-who-turn-out-to-be-bad-guys, some bad-guys-who-turn-out-to-be-good-guys, and Seagal on a wire, which is amusing. Someone steals a bunch of heroin from the police lock up. Boyd gets an earnest new partner, George (Isaiah Washington), who loves his wife and wants to clean up the streets in the neighborhood he grew up in. The action is fun, but silly, and the story gets more and more absurd as the movie continues. Then again, Andrzej Bartkowiak (Doom and Romeo Must Die) is the director, so that’s what I expected.

Most of the action component of the movie is pretty solid, the car chases and shootouts and whatnot, but the hand to hand combat scenes leave something to be desired. There is more inter-fight cutting going on than you want to see in a Seagal movie. A shot of a punch, followed by a reaction shot of someone pretending to be punched, doesn’t really do it for me. It made me want to go back and watch Out for Justice where Gino takes apart the entire bar with a cue ball wrapped in a handkerchief, and has a stick fight with Dan Inosanto. Those are some of my favorite fight scenes in movie history. The fights in Exit Wounds just feel like fights, not Steven Seagal fights.

Still, there are some good moments. A few of the highlights include an extended sequence where Seagal is handcuffed to the roof of a van and has to fight off a bunch of corrupt cops. (A stuntman died during the filming of this scene.) And the fight at the end where Seagal and Michael Jai White use the arms of paper cutters like swords, which silly, but also pretty fun. Even the absurd sequences are a blast to watch.

I like DMX. He likes his dogs enough to get their names tattooed on him, and despite being white kid from Washington with no MC skills to speak of, I can relate to that. His gravelly voice, hard stare, and charisma give him a definite onscreen presence. For a while, before he started doing shit like impersonating cops, it seemed like he was on his way to being a full fledged movie star, and I was sure that eventually people were going to start calling him Earl Simmons, you know, like how people nowadays refer to the Rock as Duane Johnson.

The role of Boyd is different from Seagal’s most defining roles. Here he is an action hero in a more straight ahead capacity, like a character Bruce Willis would play. His martial arts training is pushed to the side, he uses guns more often, and even employs wires and gimmicks like that. Sure, he is still badass, but his badassery is of the less personal, more removed variety. He’d rather shoot someone than get up close and rip out his windpipe. Boyd doesn’t have a shadowy past like so many of Seagal’s characters. In fact he doesn’t have much of a past at all, aside from a wall full of citations and the mention of an ex-wife, but his divorce is such a cliché that he even says that it is a cliché and leaves it at that. No one strained anything writing that one. There is no spiritual side or political agenda here, like Fire Down Below or On Deadly Ground. You think there’s going to be when the film opens on the VP rallying for increased handgun legislation, but that goes out the window a few minutes later when he is saved by guns. What we learn from this first scene is that guns are awesome and useful, and that Orin Boyd, much like Wu-Tang, ain’t nothing to fuck with.

Apparently this is based on a book, but I haven’t read it, so that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Exit Wounds has a convoluted plot that takes way too long to get to the point, a ton of superfluous characters (does anyone care that the big beefy cop who has three lines once went undercover for a year in the KKK? It doesn’t have anything to do with anything), silly plot points (soaking t-shirts in heroin?), weird subplots (the awkward sexual tension between Boyd and the Commander that comes to an abrupt end when her face is brutally rammed into the windshield of a car? It’s like they threw that in just so they wouldn’t have to deal with this at the end instead of just cutting it out of the movie entirely.), and humor that is more uncomfortable than funny.

It may be bat shit crazy, it may not make a lot of sense, and it may ask you to put aside common sense and believe that DMX is a dot com millionaire, but Exit Wounds is still pretty fucking awesome, and is a good send off for Seagal to the realm of DTV. It’s like he decided to have one last rager, and named it Exit Wounds.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Exiled

In the varied pantheon of action films, I enjoy the heyday of guys like John Woo (before he came to the US, though I still have an uncomfortable affinity for Hard Target), Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark almost as much as I enjoy the best of Seagal (think Out for Justice and Hard to Kill) and Die Hard. The best ultraviolent Hong Kong crime movies are awesome. (Sometimes I like to say radical things like this, things no one else knows. I’m sure I just blew your mind. You can admit it, I do that.) And Johnnie To fits nicely in with that group, working at the same time, largely in the same genre, with many of the same actors, and even collaborating with some of them (Tsui Hark produced To’s 1988 film, The Big Heat). Somehow I missed the boat on To, and his 2006 movie Exiled is the first one I’ve seen, but if this is indicative of his work, it sure as hell isn’t going to be the last.

Exiled starts with two pairs of bad looking dudes showing up at the same house moments apart looking for a guy named Wo (Nick Cheung), an ex gangster who just wants to leave that life behind him and hang out with his wife and baby. This is like a who’s who of badass Hong Kong action stars. Between the actors who play the hitmen they’ve been in so many kickass movies that even to list the highlights would take way too long. You can look up their credits if it means that much to you, it’s impressive. Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Lam Suet) are there to kill Wo, while Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung) are there to protect him.

Blaze and Tai follow Wo into his apartment, and while he may be a ruthless thug, Blaze isn’t going to let Wo go down without at least giving him a fighting chance. While Wo loads his revolver, Blaze and Tai pop out the clips on their semiautomatics, and remove some bullets. If Wo only gets six shots, they only get six shots. This way they all start out on equal footing. There seems to be some honor among these criminals.

After a tense gun battle where no one kills anyone, they sit down and share a hearty dinner and have a slumber party. At this point you might be asking yourself, didn’t these dudes try to kill each other a minute ago? And you would be correct. But there is a but. It turns out that these five guys, Wo, Blaze, Tai, Fat, and Cat, were childhood friends, and they came up in the gang together. This makes sense, and explains why it didn’t seem like Blaze wanted to shoot Wo, and why Tai didn’t want to shoot Blaze, and why Wo didn’t seem overly concerned with the whole Mexican standoff thing. Blaze was only following orders from Boss Fay (Simon Yam), who Tai and Wo attempted to assassinate, and Wo, being a stand up dude, took all the blame, letting Tai off the hook. So now you can see why Tai has Wo’s back.

Unfortunately for Blaze, this whole not killing Wo thing puts him in a tight spot with Boss Fay. Again Wo demonstrates that he’s a solid bro. He understands that Blaze has to kill him, and that there’s no way around it. Wo just wants Blaze to hold off long enough to get some money to set up his family first.

There’s a moment that characterizes how badass and jaded the people in Exiled are. During the night, Wo’s wife Jin (Josie Ho) looks at Blaze and asks, “Please spare our lives.” In a lesser movie there would be discussion and pleading and tears, but not here. Jin and Blaze just look at each other. He doesn’t respond, and she doesn’t try again. There is nothing else for anyone to say.

In the morning the friends set out in the back of Wo’s moving truck, looking for one last big score, so Blaze can then kill Wo. Through round about means they unknowingly accept a contract that Boss Fay himself has put out on a rival, but when they show up for the hit, Fay shows up too. So much for trying to avoid the guy you’re trying to avoid.

To give a full rundown of the plot would take too long. I don’t have the attention span to write it, you don’t have the attention span to read it. Exiled is a complicated story that never really stops building, there is a lot going on. It keeps twisting and turning, but in the best possible way. (That is not to say there is a “twist” twist, but the story doesn’t necessarily go where it first seems.) But despite the complexity, the story never gets convoluted, it flows super smooth, and it is always clear what is going on. In lesser hands this would have turned into a muddy mash up where no one has any idea what the fuck is going on, but To keeps everything moving along even and clear on the storytelling level.

Gradually the film evolves from a gangster movie into a modern day spaghetti western. By the time the crew rolls into a hotel/saloon for the final battle, each swigging a bottle of whiskey, to the sound of a single harmonica playing, the movie has fully made the transition. There is even a pseudo stagecoach robbery.

Like the best of the “Bullet Operas,” Exiled is beautiful. Every shot is perfectly framed, every camera move serves a purpose, and the gun fights are choreographed like ballet. To makes use of many of the standards of the genre, like slow motion, pushing cameras, close ups, and smoke, but doesn’t overuse them. It is stylized, but not overly stylized. (It is not like some of John Woo’s American movies where it feels like he scribbled his goddamned initials on every single frame just in case you missed his name in the credits.)

Exiled is set in Macao in 1998. Initially this didn’t mean anything to me, and it seemed like strange choice since the story seems like it could have been set pretty much anywhere at any time. Curious, I looked up Macao. As it turns out, Macao, along with Hong Kong, is one of two “special administrative regions” of China. The Portuguese controlled the region until it was handed over to China in December of 1999. (Of course it’s more complex than that, but if you want more you can look that up too.)

So the action is set under the looming specter of Chinese control. The citizens at large were worried about what was going happen after the transfer, and the gangsters also had their own concerns related to the change. Some were leaving town, and on the other side of the coin, new guys where showing up and competing for territory in a new market. From the perspective of Exiled anyway, Macao was turning into the wild west, with tensions running high all over, so that even criminals weren’t immune. It isn’t quite a lawless frontier, but from the character of Sergeant Shan (Shiu Hung Hui) who pops up occasionally for moments of comic relief, and the fact that some gangsters can have a shootout in an apartment and no one seems to mind, it is clear that the law isn’t doing much to control the crime. At first I didn’t get why the movie morphed into a western, but from this vantage point, it makes perfect sense, and adds even more levels of thematic depth. How many times have we seen a western that parallels Wo’s story, where a gunslinger wants to hang up his guns and leave his past behind him, only to be pulled back in by forces beyond his control? It is a western trope recontextualized. Usually this course of action feels forced and winds up pissing me off, but To pulls it off.

The hand of fate is definitely at work in Exiled. Fate that it was Blaze sent to kill Wo. Fate that Wo protected Tai, and the other way around. Fate that they unknowingly took a job from Boss Fay, and that Fay showed up at the hit. Fate goes on and on. They even let the toss of a coin decide which direction to go when they find themselves at literal and figurative crossroads. They are drawn along with the currents, all of them, and don’t have a choice. Give it a chance and Exiled will take you on a similar ride.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Raiders of the Damned

Post-apocalyptic zombie movie starring Richard Grieco? Yes please.

The funny thing is, Raiders of the Damned wasn’t nearly as good as I expected, and that says something, because I didn’t expect it to be good at all. Honestly, I don’t have faith in my words to accurately portray how horrible this movie is. I’m not sure that the depths at which this movie exists can be fathomed by the human mind. Imagine the worst piece of shit you’ve ever seen, and then imagine that it was able to have a baby with Hitler. Horrifying, right? This might be worse. Some kids from my hometown once made a short movie called Mafia Busboys, and this is worse. Raiders of the Damned makes Manos: The Hands of Fate look like Shakespeare.

Here is the story. There was a nuclear war and somehow the nuclear blasts spread a compound called Agent 9x into the atmosphere, causing everyone who breathed it to become a zombie. Only these aren’t your typical zombies, these zombies can still talk and organize and use tools and are basically normal except they don’t have any vital signs, are decaying, and eat human flesh. Oh yeah, and they’re insane.

Humanity managed to build a giant wall, like a wall that is miles high, to contain the zombies in a quarantine zone, but the humans have to retreat underground so they don’t breathe in Agent 9x and become zombies themselves. The Whitecoats, future slang for scientists, are trying to figure out how to combat the zombification, and fly over the quarantine zone dumping various chemicals, most of which just burn through the zombies. Oh well, no big deal, they’re zombies. The only problem is, the CGI helicopter with the head Whitecoat just got shot down with a catapult, and the zombies are holding him hostage. Richard Grieco plays the number two Whitecoat (yes that Richard Grieco, and yes, I said that he plays a scientist), who sends a team of half assed soldiers to go retrieve the first scientist.

Then some shit happens.

This seriously looks like a group of high school horror nerds made this movie. It looks like it was shot with a home video camera, and not a good quality, or even recently produced model, I’m talking one of those big ass ones from the early ‘90s that you rested on your shoulder, and after they filmed it they dubbed it repeatedly from home VCR to home VCR. And I suspect it was lit entirely with flashlights and birthday candles.

The costumes aren’t quite the rubber skeleton masks that you buy at the drug store around Halloween, the ones that are green and have synthetic black hair and always make your face itch, but they aren’t much better.

I have a theory about how Richard Grieco ended up in Raiders of the Damned. First off, he looks grim, like Mickey Rourke on a bender grim, like if Mickey Rourke had a zombie child. And he’s out of his fucking mind. Like I said, I think high school kids made this movie, but I think they were high school kids who just happen to live next door to Richard Grieco. So I suspect they were filming this movie, then one of them got the brilliant idea to give Richard Grieco a bunch of cocaine and a pack of cigarettes, and film what happened. Are you kidding me? The entire time he’s on screen he’s petting a fucking cat toy. After that all they had to do was cut the Richard Grieco cocaine footage with what they already had, and, voila, they had a movie staring Richard Fucking Grieco, which is how I imagine he refers to himself.

Raiders of the Damned is a good news/bad news proposition. The bad news is that they made this, and that this exists. The good news is that left it open for a sequel. Fuck yeah they did, why wouldn’t they?

Oh, and did I forget to mention that zombies can potentially impregnate living human women? I didn’t? I swear I did. But regardless, zombies can potentially impregnate living human women. Think about the possibilities of that for a while.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Dog Soldiers

Most people I know love Dog Soldiers like long lost family, but I also know a handful of people that hate it like a step dad, which never ceases to surprise me. While it may not be a perfect movie, Dog Soldiers is pretty fucking good. It is certainly better than 90% of shit being produced, especially in the action and horror realms. The first time I saw it was at All Freakin’ Night at the Olympia Film Festival around 2002 or 2003. I didn’t know anything about it, and when it came on in the middle of the night I was caught from the first frame. I immediately told everyone I knew about this British werewolf movie I just saw. I raved about it for months on end. Thinking back on it, I’m a little surprised no one told me to shut the hell up.

Dog Soldiers works, and works well, as both a horror movie and as badass action. It has all the things you want. And more importantly it has elements that far too many films of both genres lack in recent times. First off, there is actual tension. When I watch movies like Quantum of Solace or Taken, which are end to end action, I get bored because there was no stress or strain. Those movies move so fast that there isn’t time to build up any pressure in the audience, there is nothing to give a shit about. Writer/director Neil Marshall (The Descent) knows when to slow things down in Dog Soldiers in between moments of frantic action, and how to use these moments of down time to make the action that much better. He lets you stop and catch your breath, but at the same time he’s upping the ante because you know what’s out there, you know what’s coming, and with each pause the character’s already precarious situation becomes more and more tenuous. You know what sucks almost as much as fighting an eight foot tall wolf man? Knowing that at any moment you’re going to have to fight an eight foot tall wolf man. But Marshall also knows when to kick it into gear and get to some action. One thing this movie has is an effective balance between action and understatement.

The second thing Dog Soldiers has that action and horror movies don’t bother with anymore is actual characters with actual relationships. The soldiers of Dog Soldiers feel like people instead of caricatures or stock cutouts. Unlike a lot of the movies with large casts I’ve watched lately, like Friday the 13th 2009, Dead Snow, and April Fool’s Day 2009, among others, I can tell these people apart, they have personalities. And without resorting to obnoxious little cheats that movies like Domino use, you know, where they pause as each character is introduced and throw their name across the screen in some silly font. Sorry, I mean some cool font, cool was the word I was looking for. That gimmick only works in Biozombie. And guess what? The bits where the pace slows down for a second is where these characters develop, and when there are real, well wrought characters to relate to and care about you care about them, like what happens to them, and that adds what? You guessed it, it adds tension. Now you’re getting it. (When was the last time you cared about anyone in a Michael Bay movie? That’s right, never.)

The movie starts with a couple camping in the Scottish Highlands getting eaten by some sort off screen monster, Evil Dead style, but you can tell it’s scary as hell from the way they scream. The movie then jumps to the remote woods in Wales, and Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd, Trainspotting) running through the forest. Turns out he’s auditioning for some elite military company run by Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham). You can tell right away Ryan is a fucker, he has one of those faces that makes him look like a jackass, and you want bad things to happen to him. Cooper does well, but fails one last test. He refuses to shoot an innocent dog for no reason, and is subsequently returned to his own unit. This is important because it lets us know that not only is Cooper pretty much a badass, but he has a heart as well. He could be in the special forces, he has the necessary skill set, but he also has a conscience and convictions.

A month later, Cooper’s squad, led by Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee) is dropped into the Scottish Highlands on what is supposed to be a routine training mission. We all know that routine training missions never go as planned, and we also know that some shit went down in these same woods a month ago, so we know that one or two things might go awry. Cooper obviously fits in better with the soldiers in this group. They’re just young men who joined the military, more concerned with the soccer match they’re missing than with combat, and they all look up to Cooper because they know how badass he really is. Wells is a father figure. He is that stock older army guy that has been around, seen everything, and has sage wisdom to dispense as needed. This character could easily have been flat and generic, but Pertwee gives him a depth and humanity that would have been lacking had the role gone to, say, Lorenzo Lamas. For all the bantering and shit talk, this unit feels like a family, and the connection and fondness they feel for each other is real.

Whilst on this routine training mission, the boys stumble across the decimated remains of another army squad, though this one had all sorts of fancy, high-tech gadgets with them, and no specific military markings. There is only one survivor, the horribly wounded Captain Ryan. You knew he was going to come back and fuck everything up.

Before long, whatever slaughtered Ryan’s troops comes back for seconds, and they run like motherfuckers. In their haste they run into Megan (Emma Cleasby), a zoologist who is studying, of all things, werewolves, and who takes them back to her house, where the shit really hits the fan.

Dog Soldiers has an old school sensibility to it—no CGI, dudes in monster costumes that look a little absurd (however, Marshall does a pretty good job of letting you see just what you need to see, and leaving the rest off screen, or in shadows), a low budget, and all of that. It is a prime example of a movie doing a lot with a little. Most of the action takes place in a single location, Megan’s creepy old house in the woods. There a lot of explosions and gunfire, but the effects are otherwise pretty minimal. The movie relies on storytelling and character development, as well as a dude fist fighting with a giant man wolf, in order to move it along.

In this movie you root for the characters. You want them to win. There is an emotional investment that it seems like everything I watch lately lacks. This isn’t like one of those stories where as soon as you meet a character you can’t wait for them to die. The only unknowns in Friday the 13th 2009 were where, when, and how they were going to die, not if. Here there is a definite if. There is a sliver of hope that someone might make it, that someone might live, but also the very real possibility that they won’t, that they are all fucked. That’s way more compelling than waiting for abrasive teens to get hacked to bits with a machete, and I’m someone who loves waiting for abrasive teens to get hacked to bits with a machete.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Antichrist

Yeah, I’m done giving a shit about Lars Von Trier. To be honest, I didn’t give much of a shit to begin with, but now it is official, LVT and I are not friends. He can call himself the greatest director ever, or whatever shit he tried to pull at Cannes when someone asked him to justify making Antichrist, but he can also kiss my pasty ass.

If you are wondering what Antichrist is about, it is about a baby that thinks it can fly, the flying baby’s mother being sad that the baby couldn’t actually fly, Willem Dafoe whispering to said distraught mother of the aforementioned not-able-to-fly baby, and fucking, and weird fucking at that.

I’ll admit, some of the imagery is indeed quite striking, but starting off a movie with a six minute long, slow motion, black and white sequence of people fucking in a bathroom and a baby committing suicide in the snow, is pretentious. (Maybe the baby had Seasonal Affective Disorder, or maybe he just got tired of listening to his parents going at it.)

If you’re really in the mood for a movie with a close up shots of full penetration, but don’t want to cruise the internet for it, watch Thriller: A Cruel Picture, at least then you’ll get a kickass revenge story instead of a of a stillborn deer fetus. (Unless you just want to see Willem Dafoe’s boner—hey, it takes all kinds, I’m not judging. But if that is your game, this movie might just be for you.)