Friday, January 29, 2010

Death Race

Has Paul W.S. Anderson ever done anything good?

Let me answer my own question. No. No, Paul W.S. Anderson has never done anything good. And I should know, I’ve seen far more of his work than any sane human being ever should. Just so you have a frame of reference, I’ve seen all of the current Resident Evil movies in the theater. That is where I’m coming from. The only things in his cannon that don’t piss me off are Event Horizon, which is just barely meh, and Soldier, only because of the participation of ultra man, Kurt Russell.

Seriously, Paul W.S. Anderson, quit it, the world doesn’t need another videogame movie. Okay, the world doesn’t need another movie based on a video game, videogame movies like Wizard and Joysticks are way freaking sweet and the world most certainly does need more of them. But not your kind of video game movie.

He managed to fuck up both the Alien and Predator franchises in a single volley of cinematic crapulence.

Around the turn of the millennium I began to hear rumbles that Fuckstick, as he shall hence be known, had been trying to remake the 1975 classic Death Race 2000. My initial reaction was, they sure as fuck better keep the “euthanasia day at the old folks home” scene. (They didn’t.) Those rumors quickly dissipated and I didn’t give it another thought until years later when I stumbled across a trailer for something called Death Race, something that looked suspiciously like a remake of the previously mentioned film.

It finally happened. Sigh.

The remake, cleverly titled Death Race, stars Jason Statham. Of course it stars Jason Statham. He’s the guy you get to star in your movie when you can’t get a real badass. I don’t even hate the man, there are even times when I find him charming and personable. What I do hate is that he reminds me of the current state of action cinema and the complete lack of true badasses. Gone is the heyday of the badass. Seagal is a bloated reality TV star. Schwarzenegger is busy playing politician. Heston and Bronson are dead and buried. Where are this generations Steve McQueens and Ben Gazarras?

Lee Marvin, where have you gone?

Stallone still has moments where he keeps it pretty real. Rambo was awesome, but I’ll see how The Expendables holds up before make a final decision on that matter. My point is that true cinematic badassery is a rare thing indeed these days.

So, Statham plays Jensen Ames (this is the role originally played by David Carradine), who is named after a car, which they take great pains to tell us over and over again. Ames has a checkered past, but he is good at heart, which we wouldn’t have known unless his wife made sure to tell us. Also he is a former kickass racecar driver. Remember that fact, it will be important later.

The plot of Death Race is essentially Running Man with cars. The world has gone to shit. The economy tanked, crime grew to an uncontrollable level, private corporations took over prisons, and the police are the corrupt puppets of said corporations. In order to quell the masses, entertainment has become increasingly violent, culminating in the eponymous “Death Race,” where heavily armed cars driven by convicts compete against each other in a grueling, three-staged race. Imagine a post-apocalyptic NASCAR. I’m not too proud to admit that I would probably watch this. If the inmates win five races, they win their freedom. So far, no one has won five races.

Ames is framed for the murder of his wife, and winds up in Terminal Island Prison. Subtle, huh? There he meets Coach (Ian McShane), the obligatory wise old guy who has been there forever, knows the ropes, has a serious man-voice and furrowed brow, and can read a man just by looking at him. He also meets Warden Hennessy (Joan Allen slumming it), who has an interesting proposition for him. The most popular “Death Race” racer, Frankenstein, a man so disfigured by crashing his car that he wears a mask, has died, unbeknownst to the public. All Ames has to do is wear a mask, pretend to be Frankenstein, win one more race, and he will be set free. Sound familiar?

Of course the game is rigged against him, so it won’t be easy, but along with the help of his sexy lady sidekick (Natalie Martinez), Coach, the chubby stuttering kid, and Tyrese as Machine Gun Joe (originally played by Stallone), he manages to exact revenge, get justice for his murdered wife, reclaim his baby daughter, and generally tie everything up in an obnoxiously happy ending.

Death Race has pretensions to be something more than it is. It wants to believe it says something about corporate control, a privatized prison system, and the escalating level of violence in entertainment and society. That is what it wants to be. What it is is a mediocre action movie. Though I guess, considering the rest of Fuckstick’s work, mediocre is about the best we can hope for out of him. If you’re looking for a movie that makes a comment about the spectacle of primetime violence and such, watch Running Man, or even The Condemned. (Yes, that Condemned, the one produced by the WWE and staring Stone Cold Steve Austin—it is surprisingly better than anyone expected it to be.) Death Race is really nothing more than what it pretends to decry, a spectacle of violence.

All of that said, Death Race is better than I expected it to be. Fuckstick tries to cram in too much predicable plot—there are no surprises anywhere in this movie, though it tries. Of course the guy who killed his wife is in prison with Ames, of course they’re not going to let him out, and of course, he’s going to find a way to escape despite all of the standard obstacles. On top of that, the race scenes are too long, and too predictable.

Even with the jittery zoom in/zoom out camera work, the hackneyed plot, the pretention to importance, the so-so action, and despite being about twenty-five minutes too long, there is something mildly watchable about Death Race. It is not good, but it is better than I expected, and it is vaguely fun to watch. Considering how I feel about Fuckstick, his body of work, and the movie in front of me, that’s about a good a review as I think I’m capable of giving.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Bad Boys 2

2003’s Bad Boys 2, is an exercise in American excess. From run time (147 minutes), to production budget ($130 million), all the way to the adlibbed hollering between franchise stars Martin Lawrence and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air that makes up the bulk of the dialogue, everything is huge.

This is one of two Michael Bay movies I like. The other is the World War II comedy, Pearl Harbor, easily one of the top ten funniest movies I’ve ever seen.

Every three to five second shot in Bad Boys 2 is an undertaking. Nearly every frame has a slow motion dive, two blazing pistols, multiple explosions, and some CGI bullets whizzing around like roided up mosquitoes. I’m pretty sure that every shot in this movie cost more money than I will ever make in my lifetime.

Like any good action movie, Bad Boys 2 doesn’t waste time with plot or story. They didn’t even want to waste my time on the way to the Cineplex by giving it a subtitle. No, this is not Bad Boys 2: Hey, look at the trouble those wacky cops got into to now. No, this is Bad Boys 2; they ain’t got time to fuck around with any of that other nonsense. All you need to know is that, yes, this is part of the Bad Boys franchise, and guess what, this is the second installment. The producers are essentially saying that you don’t need to worry your pretty little head about the details.

We start off in the swamps of Florida where a heavily armed SWAT team is about to take down a bunch of cross burning KKK members/drug dealers. Who, you might ask, do they send in to infiltrate this den of racist bootleggers? I’ll tell you who, they made the smart choice, and send in Martin Lawrence and Big Willy. That’s right, they send in the two black guys undercover into a Klan rally. That is where the logic of this movie lies. I can only assume that this decision was based on their respective bantering skills, of which they make quick and frequent use, right up until everything around them goes up in a goddamned firestorm. How do you not love a movie where the first scene is a firefight with a well-armed racist army? (Except Miami Vice, that movie sucked.)

Here is all that you need to know about the plot. Much like the first go round, Martin Lawrence and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s sidekick are partners in the Miami Police department, which apparently operates like it’s own vigilante justice force. Seriously, at one point they invade a foreign nation. Martin is frustrated with the shenanigans of his hetero-life-mate, and is contemplating a change in careers. There is a cartoonish drug dealer that they absolutely must take down. Everything else is completely incidental, and exists for one of two purposes. The first purpose is to set up the back and forth repartee between the two stars. And no, I don’t know their names. Like I said, these details are unimportant. The second reason is to facilitate action. There is an epic chase scene that tears across the screen, stops for a few minutes in an attempt to establish some semblance of story, and then explodes into another fucking chase scene.

This is how movies should be made. We want witty banter, followed by extensive, excessive action. I want to see everything you can possibly blow up, blow up. They blow up a mansion for god’s sake.

There is not a second or a thought wasted on moralizing here. These are the good guys, these are the bad guys, and the good guys go get the bad guys. At one point they drive a bright yellow Humvee through a Cuban shantytown. And I don’t mean through the meager, pothole infested streets of a Cuban shantytown. I mean they drive through the actual shanties themselves. Instead of worrying about killing the innocent, impoverished occupants of these hovels, this wanton destruction and disregard for human life is justified simply by saying, “these are drug dealer’s homes,” and no one loses a moments sleep about it.

What is more excessive and conceited than cocky American citizens driving a Hummer, a bright yellow Hummer, that most bloated American conveyance, that also happens to be a military instrument, down a hillside in Cuba, a country in the grip of extreme poverty, due largely to American actions, just wrecking every single thing they touch? That’s ‘Merica right there. Woo. Bad Boys 2 is the embodiment of American excess. Next time you wonder why someone from another country might not be so stoked on the American way of life, watch Bad Boys 2. Oh, and Guantanamo Bay, instead of being a bastion of torture and confinement, ends up being the symbol of freedom that ultimately saves them in the end.

This is the rich man’s Tango & Cash. There is not subtlety here. This is start to finish, one hundred percent, over the top action. I know I’m often critical of the new wave action movies, and over the years many people have questioned my devout loyalty to Bad Boys 2. Sure, it certainly has elements that I traditionally despise. Too much CGI, excessive slow motion, and an absurd number of unnecessarily quick jumps and edits, are chief among these complaints. However, this movie rises to such incredible heights that it transcends what should, by all rights, be a caricature of an action movie, and creates something that very nearly escapes the classification of genre as a whole.

Similarly to Spy Kids, everyone I tell how awesome Bad Boys 2 is, initially laughs at me. I understand that stance. That was my first reaction. But you know what, I’m not too proud to admit I was dead fucking wrong. People can laugh all they want, until they are exposed to the full glory of Bad Boys 2, which just happens to be the only reason I don’t want to kick Michael Bay’s ass. (Though he is treading on thin ice lately.)

Give it a chance. Watch it with a room full of people, no lights, and a liberal amount of alcohol. You won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Imagine the plot from Dances With Wolves, in space, reenacted by elongated Smurfs with weird cat faces. In fancy-pants 3-D. Got it? Congratulations, now you’ve seen Avatar.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Crank 2: High Voltage

It is a well-established fact that my taste is wildly suspect. I think I have wonderful taste, though the rest of the world at large does not always agree. That is all I am going to say on that matter, I would rather not explore it any deeper, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

So, of course I saw Crank (2006), and of course I watched the 2009 sequel, Crank 2: High Voltage. To be honest I didn’t so much watch Crank 2: High Voltage as I stared at it, mouth agape, trying to figure out if it was real or not. I’m still not sure what I saw. It could easily have been some sort of waking night terror. Maybe I should check my house for gas leaks. Maybe one of my many enemies slipped me a powerful hallucinogen.

To catch you up, Crank the First ends with when protagonist Chev Chelios (everyone’s favorite low-budget action hero Jason Statham) falls 20,000 feet from a helicopter and lands on the concrete in the middle of the street. Actually he lands on top of a car, takes a really high CGI bounce, and then lands on the concrete in the middle of the street. The last thing we see is his seemingly lifeless body blink one time, a clear indication of an impending sequel, and the credits roll over some janky neu-metal song. That is the end of the first movie.

Crank 2: High Voltage opens with a sort of reenactment of the fall from the helicopter, only it isn’t people we see. No, it is portrayed with Atari style video game graphics. Little pixilated men fall from the sky and collide with the ground.

As we learn very quickly, the fall did not kill our good friend Chev, and he is scraped off of the concrete with snow shovels by a group of men who pull up in a windowless black van. We are supposed to believe this is due to his super strong “Superman” heart, which, when he wakes up some time later, has been removed from his chest and replaced with a battery powered artificial model that has an inconsistent level of charge.

The razor thin premise of this movie, if you can even call it a premise, is that he has to run around and find his heart, which is going to be implanted into the hundred year old body of the head of the Chinese mob, played by David Carradine in one of his final roles, and who has the unfortunate name of Poon Dong. I’m sure they thought this name was really funny during the five minutes it took writer/director duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor to write the script. Occasionally Chev has to find various ways to electrocute himself in order to keep his heart fully charged. And of course, he has to fuck his stripper girlfriend, Eve (Amy Smart reprising her tour de force role from the first movie), in front of thousands of people at a racetrack to create friction to charge his heart. Once he gets his heart back he trusts Dwight Yoakam to put it back in. That seems like a bad idea, but who knows, maybe Dwight really does know what he’s doing. Plausibility wasn’t a big concern during production.

I’ve never played any of the Grand Theft Auto games, I’m not good at video games, but I have lived with gamers who were fanatical about the series, so I have spent more time than I am proud of watching other people play them. As far as I can tell, this is really just a live action version of the popular franchise. There are even cut away maps that are identical to the ones that occur in game.

I can’t even begin to describe the insanity of this movie. The above description does not even come close. I earnestly believe that words are incapable of accurately capturing the essence of this film. From the first second it is an overwhelming wave of flashing images, abrupt edits, jumps, shakes, spins, and bright colors of all varieties. The entire film is crooked and jittery and fish-eyed, even the subtitles. I can only imagine watching Crank 2 is what it is like to consume a vast quantity of raw mescaline and then die mid-trip. It is world-view altering in its madness.

Since I can’t figure out how to truly convey this movie to you, here are some of the greatest hits. There is the aforementioned fucking-on-the-racetrack scene where Eve is thrust forward to climax by sight of an enormous horse wang. A Latino gangster who has his entire face sleeved in tattoos, including a classy one across his upper lip that says, “trust no bitch,” is forced to cut off his own nipples. A fake boob gets shot and spews silicone. Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite shows up in heavy eyeliner as the twin brother of a character who died in the first installment. He has “full body tourette’s,” which apparently means that he occasionally stops and headbangs for a moment before continuing along his merry way. Oh, and at one point, Chev and Johnny Vang fight it out at an electrical substation and they magically transform into giant, Godzilla style monsters for some reason. And there is so much more. Like I said, I still can’t get my head around any of it.

Is this a joke? If it is, are they in on it? There are moments that I’m pretty sure are supposed to be funny, but they only succeed in being bizarre and surreal.

Statham basically sprints his way through every canted frame, pausing just long enough to shock himself and grunt about it before taking off at a dead run again. And it ends with him on fire, glaring into the camera lens, flipping the bird as the bitchin’ Mike Patton score kicks it up a notch.

Did I mention how insanely racist Crank 2 is? No? Well it is.

This truly is like no other film I have ever seen. I am simultaneously glad that it is present in the world, and frightened that it exists. It is neither good nor bad, just completely and totally insane. I do not have an appropriate reference point from which to pass judgment. It is as if this movie comes from a realm so foreign, so alien, that my mind is unable to comprehend it on any meaningful level. Part of me looks at Crank 2: High Voltage and wonders if it is simply ahead of its time, and perhaps one day, many, many years in the future, I will look back upon it as a quaint and old-fashioned artifact of the early twenty-first century. I sincerely hope not, because I truly weep for that future.