Dead Man Down

Dead Man Down (2013), directed by Niels Arden Oplev

With one of the best trailers I’ve seen this year (although, what’s with this Dragon Tattoo, female cover of 1970s classic rock tunes motif?), a stellar cast and a chance for the director of the Swedish GWTDT to make a breakthrough into English language films, I went into Dead Man Down with high hopes.

How many reviews do I start like this? I guess I should stop getting my hopes up.

Listen, obviously I’m going to get into how the movie disappointed me, but for a change of pace let’s talk first about what this failed movie did right.

I wasn’t wrong about most of the cast. Colin Farrell is quiet and gloomy and rather good. Noomi Rapace is generally excellent, but I must say (despite my search for the positive), her character’s extreme mood swings do come off a little comical. There was a round of laughter in the cinema when, while on an innocent-seeming date, all of a sudden starts yelling at Farrell to kill a man.

As is often the case, the clear scene stealer here is Dominic Cooper. All I can say is somebody give this man another leading role because my God does he have screen presence. Sure it’s a cheesy role, as a suspenders-wearing, heavily NY accented hood. But even in such a minor part, Cooper manages to show more charisma then the rest of the cast combined.

So there’s that.

Some of the movie works rather well. The strangers across the courtyard team up for revenge plot has a solid foundation. I like the general slow-burning tone of the film, even if it’s not used to full advantage.

Where the film gets into trouble is in the execution and the script. Call me old fashioned, but I think the best approach for a revenge film is simplicity. Somebody kills Charles Bronson’s family, he gets a gun and then takes out the bad guys one by one. I watched Point Blank for the first time this weekend. Great revenge film. Lee Marvin gets screwed over by his crime partners, so he takes them out one by one.

Simple.

Here we have two revenge plots, fine, but we also have two or three characters investigating the revenge plots, while another mostly revolves his revenge around petty, confusing harassment. So there’s a bit of a whodunit, but you know whodunit so you don’t care. And there’s kind of a love story, but one half of it (at least) is so messed up it’s hard to take her seriously, so it’s hard to care about that.

And then the revenge plots are so intricate and confusing that they’re hard to care about.

Then we make a switch to all-out Raid-style action film for the last section when the original revenge plot fails and it’s time for guns to blaze. In another film the sequence may have worked (the truck part was thrilling, to be fair) but here, with all this dreary Euro buildup, it seems out of place and lazy.

Thinking back I’m not sure why I was so keen for an English language movie from Arden Oplev. Really, I didn’t care much for his GWTDT either, finding it sloppy and uneven.

Which is exactly what’s wrong with Dead Man Down. I love a good revenge flick, but this ain’t it.

Dead Man Down is in cinemas now.

Snitch (2013), directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Dark Skies (2013), directed by Scott Stewart

In the spirit of my recently implemented Tueday doubleheader nights at the cinema, I caught up with a couple of the big openings from last weekend.

And was I in for a night of lingering disappointment, let me tell you. But not without some highlights.

First up was Snitch, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s first real attempt at “serious acting.”

Side note: Two of the trailers before this Rock movie were other Rock movies coming out shortly, the new G.I. Joe flick and the new Fast and Furious flick. At least Snitch isn’t a franchise Johnson has just been plugged into.

Snitch is something of a failure as the morality-based issue film that it tries to be, but it works rather well as an old-school one-man-against-a-bunch-of-badies low-key action film. Actually on that level it works surprisingly well.

There’s a number of reasons for that. For one thing, despite his physique and movie star status Johnson is rather good as the everyman caught in a bad situation. He plays it well. There’s a great scene early in the film where he tries to set-up some corner drug dealers and ends up getting his ass kicked. Not only is it refreshing to see The Rock get his ass kicked, it’s also enjoyable to see how well Johnson plays a vulnerable character. Turns out the man can act.

The film also works well as a believable, down-to-earth action movie. There’s no outrageous action sequences. At no point does Johnson hang from a helicopter or drive a car into a blimp or whatever. But there is a whole load of tension building to an excellent car versus semi chase sequence that is thrilling as hell while never seeming overblown or outrageous. It’s even filmed well, which is like finding the Rosetta Stone this day and age.

Where the film gets into trouble is as it tries to mean something. When Charles Bronson took out a bunch of street hoods in Death Wish you yelled “F-yeah Charles Bronson” because you hate criminals too and everybody is happy. In this film we’re supposed to be angry about minimum mandatory sentences for first time drug offenses, but I don’t see how getting the audience to root for Johnson taking out a bunch of hardcore drug dealers is supposed to garner sympathy for this.

Because regardless about my “real world” opinion on this issue, by the end of the movie I was firmly in the pro-justice, anti-drug dealer camp. So the last blurb about how unfair stiff sentences are didn’t exactly make my blood boil. All I thought is that if they keep Omar and Juan Obregon off the street then God bless them.

But if you can look past that, Snitch is a solid, well made thriller that’s actually highly enjoyable. Also Barry Pepper is in it. I always feel the need to point that out.

Dark Skies could have been a solid sci-fi/horror movie if again it wasn’t for some weird politics going on. Unfortunately that aspect is far harder to overlook with this one.

The movie is about a family that starts having strange things happen to them in their house. Familiar? Things bump in the night. Somehow their kitchen gets reorganized in a less-than-helpful way. The kid starts acting weird. Dad sets up video cameras to record everything going on in the house. Familiar?

The film is also from the same producers as Insidious and Sinister, so you know from the start how this is going to go down. Things will get creepy, they’ll escalate and then there will be a big, likely disappointing, finale. But those films, especially Sinister, were actually quite good. Dark Skies is less than great.

Dark Skies throws a slight curveball by having aliens in the mix. I liked the sci-fi aspect as something different. I also thought Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton were great leads. There are genuine scares in the film. I believe it has the basic elements of a potentially highly entertaining scare show.

But then it gets all weirdly right wing, family values, judgmental on us and totally lost me. Spoilers upcoming.

The finale of the film involves the family having to do their utmost to stay together as a family unit. On the Fourth of July. While Stars and Stripes Forever or something like that is playing on the TV. After buying a shotgun and boarding up the windows. And then what’s the reason that doesn’t work and a kid gets abducted? Because he watched a few minutes of a crappy porno earlier in the film.

I mean, if I’m going to get abducted I’m at least going to watch porn with good production values and better music. Just saying.

So while the buildup has some punch, the payoff falls completely flat because it’s ridiculous and preachy and, let’s just say it, a little xenophobic. I mean, I know these aren’t pleasant Mexicans just hoping for a little landscaping work, but the whole tone of the last act reeks of “board up yer windows and get yer guns cause them aliens are coming.”

You could have this payoff and not end up with this tone, but the whole Fourth of July thing sets an undeniable agenda. And it’s one that I’m not comfortable with.

And then the kid gets abducted because he watched pornography once. Just had to reiterate that. I hope it sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me. Let’s hope that’s not the aliens’ overall agenda or else the entire population of North America might soon find themselves abducted. Think about that the next time you logon. I guess one group of told-you-sos might remain. Maybe the makers of this film.

So two films that hit unfortunate road blocks, but I think Snitch at least made it through with only a misdemeanor ticket. It shouldn’t have to do any time, but I guess you never know with these mandatory minimums. Damn government. But Dark Skies deserves the slammer for tricking us into swallowing its us-versus-them, Holier-than-thou high-ground finale. For shame.

Snitch and Dark Skies are in cinemas now.

A Good Day to Die Hard

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), directed by John Moore

How so many people, with so much talent and credit to their names, could get together and spend all this time making a sequel of an established, fan-favourite action franchise, and end up with a movie as bad as A Good Day to Die Hard boggles the mind.

I mean, at no point did anyone speak up and ask “is this really the way we want to go with this one?”

A Good Day to Die Hard has to be one of the laziest, most incoherent, incompetent, insulting messes of a movie I have seen in some time.

Now, I’m a Die Hard fan but I’m not a die hard Die Hard fan, if you know what I mean. The first one is, naturally, one of my favourite action movies. I’m sure we can all agree on that. The sequels vary in quality, and I might be alone in believing the fourth one is the best. But that’s not saying much.

As they’ve come along they’ve generally decreased in quality as they’ve increased in scope and a reliance on modern action movie pitfalls. You can appreciate them as fun cheesy action movies but none of them touch the legitimate quality of the original. Kind of like Rambo.

And that’s OK, it is what it is, but this latest one, part five over here, fails terribly in even that department.

There are a number of reasons. Broken record time here, but one of the main reasons is the action sequences are so horribly incoherent and obviously CGI-riddled that they’re impossible to follow and the exact opposite of fun. The fun of outrageous stunts is, well, for one thing, understanding what’s happening, but also having that “I can’t believe they did that!” reaction as an audience member.

I don’t care if it’s stunt doubles and fancy camera work, having some textile sense that in some way what you are watching actually happened is essential to enjoying a stunt. A blurry John McClane avatar hanging off a video game-looking helicopter, all in two-second cuts so you can’t tell how crappy it all looks, just doesn’t do it for me.

I don’t want to get all “it’s not like it used to be” but I re-watched Terminator 2: Judgement Day this weekend, and damn yo, that’s how you stage action scenes. Tripods, proper choreography, sensible editing, real-world stunts, all used to drive the story line forward and develop characters.

Hell, an action movie can even give viewers a thought or two to chew on. Imagine that. Something beyond cliches and tropes we are just meant to observe, ingest and then forget about as we get back to senseless action scenes.

And this shaky camera thing has just gone too far. About one scene into the film we get McClane talking to another cop in cliched old-age cop dialogue. Whatever, I don’t expect David Mamet here, but can we at least see this exchange without feeling like I’m going to get seasick? Use a damn tripod already. Using handheld adds nothing to the scene and is a pathetic attempt to add “immediacy” and something, anything interesting to a crap scene.

Remember when craftsmanship meant something in an action film? When a filmmaker was expected to have a coherent story, characters you care about, building action leading to an emotional climax and then the technical prowess and cinematic ingenuity to pull it all together? Me too, but barely.

Can we please take A Good Day to Die Hard and use it as an example of the worst it can get? Can we all watch this and realize we’ve gone to far and it’s time to rethink how we approach action movies? As moviegoers, can we demand more than this and quit putting up with action scenes that only deliver a sense of action, as opposed to actual coherent activity? Can we demand dialogue and characters that actually appeal to audiences and are not just references to action movies of days done by?

I mean, let’s work at this a little folks, put a little effort into our movies.

Because we deserve better than this.

A Good Day to Die Hard is in cinemas now. Don’t go see it.

Total Recall

Total Recall (2012), directed by Len Wiseman

Let’s start off this review by saying that I have seen the original Total Recall but it was years ago and I barely remember it. I’ve never been a big Arnold fan (more of a Sly Stallone kind of guy) and what I do remember I don’t have any fondness for, as many people seem to. I kind of want to re-watch it, now that I have seen this one, but part of me is so discouraged about the whole concept that I’m not sure I can be bothered.

Anyone want to convince me?

So this is the remake of the 1990 film. We have Colin Farrell (who I am on the record as a fan of) taking the Arnold role, a future, post-apocalypse earth instead of mars and a string of incomprehensible action sequences for what, I can only assume given my memory, were action scenes that actually made sense in the original.

I went in to the theatre really in the mood for some junky, popcorn movie escapism, but this poor excuse of a summer film failed to meet my most basic requirements for schlock fun, namely characters I care about and action scenes I can follow and understand.

The problem with this remake is that it brings absolutely nothing new to the sci-fi genre. The sets look like the director just reused the old concept drawings from Blade Runner, the story is, of course, from the original film and the characters are all the old archetypes we have seen time and time again: the ordinary man up against the system, the power hungry megalomaniac, the resistance fighter.

And it’s not that I would even mind that if the film were competently made, or even had some fun with it all, but this is just such a drab, lifeless mess it’s honestly hard to sit through.

Wiseman is the guy behind the Underworld series of films, which somehow has managed to keep going. So he’s obviously a fan of dark, rain soaked tales of future distopia. And action. Lots of dark, flashy action.

There’s plenty in Total Recall. There’s gun fights and standoffs and a hover car chase and a cat and mouse game played out in a series of tunnels with elevators flying every which way. There’s military robots and military humans and resistance fighters. The bullets and fists fly.

But right from the start you realize that the director is going for a certain action aesthetic and that it doesn’t work. Farrell takes out a room of baddies near the beginning that is shot like a slowed down fight in a video game. I mean, not just choreographically, it really looks like a video game. In my books that’s not a good thing for a film.

Things continue on like this. As Hauser (Farrell’s character…sort of) jumps from rooftop to rooftop of the slightly offensive stereotypical Oriental urban cityscape, the scene is shot from afar, showing both Farrell and his pursuers from the side. The side. It looks like a side-scroller, I swear.

And the rest of the action, including the hover-car chase, falls into that oh-so-lamentable staple of modern action: the incomprehensible action scene. You know the ones, close-ups, quick edits, blurry flashes of action, none of it making any real sense. You’re supposed to just know that some action is happening and that it’s exciting and that should be enough. Anything more, like knowing spatially where the characters are, or having any sense of actual drama in the scene, is asking too much.

One more thing: why is it okay to make Britain the facsist ruler of the future? Why not make it America? I understand that that might not sit well with Americans, but why then turn on Great Britain? Sure, we (I’m a citizen technically) did used to colonize the world, but it’s just such a lazy plot point. And when did Australia become Asian? Why not Indian, there’s just as many of them? Having it set on Mars solved all of that nonsense.

Sorry, this is turning into a rant.

This is just simply a waste of time, resources and (some) talent. I’ve been pleased with some of the remakes this summer (Spider-Man, namely), but this is one of the worst films of the year so far.

Unless you are a huge fan of the original and need to see what they’ve done (or if you’re one of those sci-fi geek weirdos that openly gets excited at seeing a woman with three breasts) check it out. All others, avoid.

Total Recall is in theatres now.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), directed by Timur Bekmambetov

Hell of a name, am I right?

I feel like I’ve been getting a 3D crash course lately. After having gone a few years with my only 3D experience being Avatar, I have now seen three 3D movies in the past month or so, including Prometheus twice. I’m almost adjusting to it, and watching Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter last night had my first experience of going long stretches of the movie without constantly being aware that I am watching a 3D movie.

That doesn’t mean I’m totally on board though, and by the time this movie got to its totally chaotic train going over a burning trestle action finale, I’d kind of had enough.

That being said, this is actually a really excellent movie. I would use the colloquial phrase “awesome” in fact. It’s awesome. Not the most profound review, but, really, it’s appropriate.

This revisionist history and literary trend has been going on with books for a while, but this is really the first movie to cash in on it. There was that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novel and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Ab Lincoln started as a book too. Well, he started as a real man, a US President in fact, but you get the idea.

I like the whole concept of these mashups, I have to say. I like the element of playful fun, I like that they take the piss out of canonical classics and rigid history. I suppose some might take offense to them, but let’s face it, I like that about the concept too. I don’t know any of these stuffy, perhaps Victorian, naysayers fainting over the thought of a zombie in an Jane Austin novel, but if they are out there, they can go fly a kite. That’s right, I said it.

Societal rebellion aside, Ab Lincoln is also just a lot of fun. I like the mashup idea also because it automatically sets the stage for a movie that is going to be about having fun. For me the movie still took itself too seriously (I could have done with some more blatant humour and ridiculousness) but it’s still aware of what it is and it plays to that. And that works really well.

To me this is a new genre of exploitation film, and that gets me excited. It is exploitation because it’s promising thrills based on watching these classics get torn apart in a bloody, axe delivered mess. It has an element to exploit, in this case getting to see the 16th president of the United States of America behead a bunch of vampires. Don’t get me wrong, I would have much preferred a low-budget, grindhouse type movie with ridiculous violence and a stronger sense of irony, but I still think this Hollywood version is a heck of a lot better than a lot of the other crap they come up with.

It also, in a way, takes to town stuffy historical movies that are really, in all honesty, action flicks, like Braveheart or The Last Samurai or whatever. I see this movie as saying let’s call it like we see it and deliver the goods without trying to dress the film up as “important” or “accurate”. Let’s just see Lincoln flinging an axe around.

So there, that’s what I like about the idea of the movie. The movie itself is a lot of fun, generally. I enjoyed the aspects of linking the vampire stuff into real history. I thought the Gary Cooper-looking Benjamin Walker was great as Lincoln, and I always enjoy Dominic Cooper and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The fight scenes are generally great and the 3D is mostly excellent, especially during scenes like Gettysburg. As I said before, the climactic finale is a bit much, but hey, that’s the way these things work, right?

Mainly I enjoyed watching Abraham Lincoln hunt vampires. If you think you might enjoy that also, then you will like this movie. That’s what it comes down to really.

More mashup movies please Hollywood. Thank you.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is in theatres now.

Battleship

Battleship (2012), directed by Peter Berg

I was conflicted over whether I wanted to see Battleship or not, quite frankly. On the one hand it’s made by the same team behind Friday Night Lights, the best show ever, including director Peter Berg and actors Taylor Kitsch and Jesse Plemons. On the other, it’s based on a board game for heaven’s sake, and had a terrible, Transformers-looking trailer. You’ve heard mixed reviews, some in support, some vehemently opposed. Imma mix the two up into one.

Which means I thought it was okay.

Listen, I’ll say this much: it was a lot better than I thought it would be. When you have material like this, which seems straight out of Michael Bay’s playbook (I mean really, robotic looking dudes attack Pearl Harbour? It’s like a film snob’s nightmare), it’s hard to have high hopes. But it doesn’t take long into the screening to realize, oh right, wait a minute, this isn’t directed by Michael Bay, it’s made by people who have a sense of story and characters and making films that make some sort of sense. How refreshing.

They don’t save the premise entirely, but they sure give it a good go. The first third of the film is great. It has this Top Gun-esque setup, it’s got interesting, believable characters, it knows how to have some fun. There’s great music, a rarely-seen these days lightness to the material and, of course, all the bells, whistles, close up, handheld, zoomy, quick cut camera work of a Peter Berg show. Normally I would use most of those descriptions as a complaint, but somehow Berg always manages to pull that kind of filmmaking off and make it work really, really well.

I’m often the wet blanket that just wants to see the characters having fun and thinks films get bogged down with ridiculous stories and action and climaxes and so on. So when the aliens arrive and the digital effects team kicks it into high gear, the movie lost me somewhat. It’s still a heck of a lot better than other similar movies, but I’m sick of the aliens thing. I know we all love each other now and can’t have the US Navy squaring off against the Ruskies or the Chinese or something, but can we come up with something other than aliens, aliens, aliens?

Despite my wet blanketism, I still mostly enjoyed the last two-thirds of the movie. The action is coherent and exciting. At times it’s a little hand-to-forehead obvious in trying to tie in the movie to the game, but again, at least it has fun with it. It feels too long, which is never a good thing for an action-packed movie, but it remembers throughout that characters are the most important element of good storytelling and doesn’t fall too far into cliches (okay, maybe a little).

There’s still a lot of speculation over whether Taylor Kitsch is a bankable Hollywood star. This is his year to prove it, with two major releases (John Carter, Battleship) and one semi-major (Savages), but unfortunately it’s not going all that well. Both of the majors have been box office disappointments, especially, nay, notoriously John Carter, and it seems like Kitsch hasn’t been much of a selling feature for audiences.

Which I think is too bad and not Kitsch’s fault. I like the guy. Sure, I already have a fondness for him because he was my favourite character in my favourite TV show. But even if you don’t know and love Timmy Riggins (Texas forever), I think that Kitsch has a charisma and nonchalant screen presence that is refreshingly reserved and subtly humorous. John Carter, despite my standing up for it (or maybe because of it?) was a disaster that Kitsch in no way could have saved. Battleship is another underrated, under performing movie that can’t be saved, which is even more frustrating because Kitsch is far better in this one than Carter.

Only time will tell what the career of Kitsch holds, but wait for Savages, because it looks excellent and will be more of an acting-focused film than explosions and whatnot (well, maybe). And give the guy a chance. He may just win you over yet.

As for Battleship, it’s generally good old fashioned summer movie fun, if not a bit haywire for my liking. Check it out. Oh and, for the record, I like Rihanna in it. She’s got some great, punchy on screen presence going on.

Also, one last point, I could do with less of the “missile heading for something finale”. Mission: Impossible 4, The Avengers, this one…we get it.

Battleship is in theatres now.

Haywire

Haywire (2012), directed by Steven Soderbergh

Now this is my kind of action movie, I have to say. People have been going ballistic over The Raid: Redemption this year, and while I sort of get why (sort of) I’ll take a stylish, tense, slick film like Haywire over the balls-to-the-wall insanity of The Raid any day. Straight up.

Haywire is a fabulous action movie. It’s got this great combination of an international spy thriller, but mixed with genuinely impressive hand-to-hand fight sequences and thrilling chase scenes. It’s moody and tense but knows how to amp it up when needed.

Helping “amp it up” is its star Gina Carano, who is a former MMA champion. She kicks ass. She has great screen presence and is extremely deadly. There has been admission that her voice was altered post-production to make up for somewhat stiff delivery of dialogue, but that’s not noticeable in the film and her deadpan style fits the material. She’s a no-nonsense, deadly serious, kicking ass, taking names dynamo.

Soderbergh likes to take risks on unknown actors, or more specifically, people who aren’t actors. He got a great performance out of former porn superstar Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, and non-actors in Bubble. Those choices worked out there, and they work out here too, with Carano playing Mallory, a gun for hire. Carano isn’t some actress pretending to be hardcore, she is hardcore. She could beat the living hell out of any of us, and that really shines through.

Being surrounded by some of the best of the business helps. Along with Carano the film features Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender. It’s like a who’s who of modern male actors. And Soderberg turns them, especially Fassbender and McGregor, into action stars.

The fight sequences are fantastic. They are well shot, avoiding that post-action, motion sickness, handheld thing that is all the rage. You can actually tell what is happening in the fight scenes, and can appreciate the complexity and execution of the choreography. And they’re thrilling, and have that match-up feel to them. Who wouldn’t want to see Fassbender fight an MMA star? I mean, really.

I also like how Soderbergh approached the kick-ass woman action genre. I like exploitation films with sexy girls with guns, I admit it. Obviously I don’t dig them if they’re overtly sexist, but, although I’m sure many would disagree, there’s an empowering aspect to them. But I also appreciate this approach. Carano is obviously gorgeous, and quite curvy, something that could have been easily exploited. But Soderbergh takes the high-road and just lets her be her character, not some sexpot for the male viewer’s enjoyment.

The best line in the film is when McGregor’s character tells a would-be assassin that he shouldn’t think of Mallory as a woman. That would be a mistake. I like that, and it characterizes how the film approaches that tricky bit of business. Not that thinking of her as a woman is a bad thing, but the line means that you shouldn’t think of her as being weak (as a “woman” in an action film typically is). Because she is anything but weak and the film treats her with the same respect as any of her male costars.

Let’s talk about Steven Soderbergh. My approach to film, and directors in particular, is a little heavy on the auteur side at times. This means that I follow certain directors and enjoy learning their style, their themes, their tell-tale trademarks. I totally believe in it, but sometimes it means that amazing directors have trouble getting on my radar if they happen to have an eclectic approach to their films.

So i want to rectify this now and say that Steven Soderbergh is really one of the best directors of the last twenty years, even if I haven’t really noticed. I haven’t noticed because the guy can do everything.

Really, I mean look back on his career. He basically started the early 1990s indie film wave with Sex, Lies and Videotape, his first movie. He’s directed cult classics like Out of Sight and The Limey. Into impressive, edgy art films? Well, there’s Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. How about an Oscar-bait films? There’s Traffic and Erin Brokovich. Or maybe you’re up for a huge, profitable Hollywood film. Well, he’s got you there too with the Ocean’s Eleven series and Contagion.

When you look at that list of films it’s hard not to be blown away by what this man has achieved. I think Traffic is an absolute masterpiece, and Bubble is one the best small indie films of the past decade. Seriously, check it out if you haven’t seen it. And who can resist Out of Sight, or even Ocean’s Eleven. I could have done without Oceans Thirteen, but they can’t all be home runs.

And now he’s made a top-notch action film. I’d highly recommend this. It’s a great blend of story, action and impressive performances. It’s slick and action packed but never gratuitously violent or sadistic. Just like it’s main character it kicks some major ass but with style and grace.

Haywire is avialable on DVD and Blu-ray.

[note: this is a re-posted review that originally appeared on prpeak.com. Movie is now out on DVD and Blu-ray.]

Mission: Impossible 4 – Ghost Protocol (2011), directed by Brad Bird

Okay, what I need everyone to do is take my list of five films that I thought would be awful from my winter movie preview and make sure you see them because apparently I don’t know anything. First Hugo, which I assumed would be schmaltzy and gross, turned out to be lovely and sweet. And now Mission: Impossible 4 – Ghost Protocol, which I wittily wrote should have had a “little more red light and a little less green light” turns out to kick some major action ass. I’m starting to think I should see Tower Heist and Footloose just in case they turn out to be amazing. I mean, I won’t, but you know. [note: I did see Tower Heist. It was awful.]

But, really, who could have blamed me? Mission: Impossible has been such a disappointment to me over the last way to many years. I had lost faith. I was 12 years old when Mission: Impossible came out. It’s up there as one of a handful of movie theatre going experiences of my childhood that I remember. I was so excited to see it because the trailer was so awesome (not much changes does it?) and it blew my mind. I loved it. I bought it on VHS as soon as it came out and probably watched it at least a dozen times. I haven’t seen it recently so I don’t know if it holds up, but I bet I would still love it. I will watch it again soon I think.

And I was also a huge fan of Broken Arrow and Face/Off and John Woo in general, so when Mission: Impossible 2 came out four years later I was again stoked. Looking back, I don’t know why I was excited. What I loved about M:I was its tight espionage aspects, its moody European settings, its intrigue and whodunit sensibilities. Why I ever thought Woo was the man to pick up where De Palma left off is beyond me. Instead of another mind tickling spy movie I got the two handguns jumping across the exploding room mess that I should have expected. I don’t remember much about the film, other then I was severely disappointed and that I watched it in theatres for my birthday party.

I had hopes for the third installment because Woo was gone and Philip Seymour Hoffman was in it and I was 22 by then so cared about an actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Of course I hadn’t yet learned to distrust JJ Abrams as a movie director and so disappointment again fell over me. I literally don’t remember anything about it other then how lame it was. Re-watching the trailer now makes me think I should re-watch the movie, but I doubt the outcome would be any different.

So yes, I didn’t expect much from the fourth entry of a long ago ruined franchise. Don’t get me wrong, I like heroes jumping across the exploding room with two handguns, but that’s never what I wanted from the M:I series. I wanted that intrigue, that high-tech spy stuff, the suspenseful situations, the silent tension. If I want Die Hard I’ll watch Die Hard. Plus Tom Cruise is no John McClane.

By the time Mission: Impossible 4 got to its second big set-piece sequence where Cruise and Simon Pegg have to break into the Kremlin I was already sweating bullets from the tension. Expecting huge slow-motion action straight off the bat I was shocked to find an opening scene prison break where nothing blew up, nobody shot anyone, nothing happened in slow motion, and yet it was still exciting, tense and incredibly entertaining. The Kremlin scene too is steadily paced and tense, it takes its time and when it builds to the big event it doesn’t milk it, instead it uses one of the best cuts I’ve seen in an action film in a long time. It’s really quite fantastic.

Anyone who has seen the trailer knows that there is a scene that takes place on the outside of the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. The whole Dubai section is fabulous and the big stunt on the outside of the building is insanely exciting. We see so much crazy stuff in movies now that not much makes us gasp anymore. I must say I gasped. And I gasped because it wasn’t some ridiculous, out of the realm of possible reality stunt. It was simple, comprehensible and yet terrifying. It worked perfectly.

That’s what makes M:I 4 work and so many other action films fall flat. Hollywood still thinks that bigger equals better, that every film has to amp things up more then the last to keep us interested. This simply isn’t true. Lets face it, the same stuff that scared and thrilled us 100 years ago is still thrilling us now and it always will. Harold Lloyd hanging off a clock on the side of building in 1923 thrilled audiences the same way that Cruise doing it now in Dubai thrills us. The film is clearer and it has, you know, sound and colour and whatnot, but it’s the same reaction. We are scared of heights (and death) and don’t want to see him fall. Simple.

Simple is what action films need more of. We need less convoluted, quick cut action sequences that are impossible to follow. If I don’t understand what is happening on the screen I simply won’t care. I’m pretty sure most people feel the same way. Then again Transformers continues to make boatloads of money, so I don’t know what to believe. Regardless, if you make the action relatable, make it understandable, tap into the primal fears in the human psyche, that’s when you will hit us the hardest. I can’t conceptualize an explosion, not really. I’ve never even seen one I don’t think. But I know what heights feel like (if you know me ask me about my Mexico story sometime). And a lot of other scary stuff. Utilize that and I will love your movie.

For all my gushing I will say that the film has a far stronger first half then second. After the Dubai segment things begin to get a little out of hand. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still good, but not as captivating as the start. I loved the fight in the crazy car lot, but could have done without the missile flying through the air bit. I wish they could have come up with something slightly less sensational there. And it went on too long at the end. M:I 3 came out five years ago, I don’t care about his wife enough anymore to need it wrapped up nicely. These films never flowed well from one to the next, so don’t worry about it. And although I enjoyed Jeremy Renner, again, I didn’t need all that melodramatic back-story.

But these are small complaints for what is otherwise a huge breath of fresh air. Even Cruise (who with his long hair could have been replaced by Jason Schwartzman and nobody would have noticed) surprised me by still having the action chops at 50 years old (can you effin believe that?). This is a good one and has reinvigorated my original love for the franchise. Maybe we should end it on a high note.

Mission: Impossible 4 – Ghost Protocol is [available on DVD and Blu-ray].

The Raid: Redemption

The Raid: Redemption (2011), directed by Gareth Evans

This film might not be on everybody’s radar but for some it has been the talk of the town. I’m referring of course to action junkies. Speed freaks. Explosion enthusiasts. Gunplay guys. I made all of those up, but you get the picture. This is THE action movie event of the year.

Now I am not an action junkie, I fully admit it. I do love a good action film and count First Blood, Die Hard, the original Assault on Precinct 13 and others as some of my favourite genre films, but I’m not deep in the genre. I don’t generally rent direct-to-video action flicks, I’ve never been a martial arts movie fan and I’ve only seen the earlier entries in Steven Seagal’s oeuvre.

So this movie is admittedly not necessarily made for me. Action film fanatics will probably love it. I appreciated a lot about it but ultimately it left me feeling a little cold and I can’t imagine it showing up on my ten best list or anything.

So, what did I like about it? It is extraordinarily well filmed. Seriously. This is an extremely well made action film. The cinematography, the lighting, the editing is all incredibly well done. I have probably never seen action filmed so well.

And this film gets the shaky, handheld camera thing right. I’ve complained lately about films such as The Hunger Games and Wrath of the Titans that have action scenes that are nearly indecipherable because of quick cuts and shaky camera. They never seem to focus on anything for long enough for audiences to figure out what it is.

I do, however, appreciate the immediacy of handheld and think it can be used well. The Raid uses it well. There is a lot of handheld camera in this movie but it’s never overdone and, here’s the kicker (pun intended), they know when to stop with the fast cuts and let it ride. Go ahead and count cuts in action movies nowadays. I didn’t do it but I bet if you counted cuts in an action sequence, especially a fight, in Wrath of the Titans you wouldn’t find many over three seconds.

I did count for a little while during the big final fight in The Raid. Sure there were a lot of two, three, four second cuts but there were also six, seven, eight second cuts and, get this, some as long as 12 or 13 seconds. Unreal, right? Not only does this give you a chance to appreciate the stunt work and recognize that it’s not all done through slight of hand cutting but it gives you a chance to understand what’s going on and appreciate the action. It’s so simple but really quite hard to find in theatrical movies these days.

I also, in the end, like how the plot developed. I will still say that it’s not exactly the strongest plot in the world, but it did grow on me. I can hear action fans dismissing me now. ‘You don’t go to action movies for the plot.’ Well sure, but it doesn’t hurt and it can separate a good action movie from a great one. Die Hard had a great plot. Sure it was ridiculous but it was well developed. Same with First Blood.

The Raid forgoes plot at the beginning. We are introduced to the main character in a mostly dialogue free montage. We find out he has a pregnant wife. He is a cop. He is going on a dangerous assignment. Then the credits role and we are getting right into it. A master criminal of some sort runs his empire out of a heavily guarded apartment building and these guys are going in to take him out.

At this point I was not impressed. It felt like that was going to be the extent of the plot, a lame excuse for action. It was stylish, no doubt, and I appreciate style but I didn’t feel like style could carry the film alone. But what’s nice about The Raid is that it lets the plot develop throughout the movie at the same time as the action. So rather then working up to a final half hour shootout or something you get action throughout AND plot development. Amazing right? Anyway, it fooled me and by the end it had for the most part redeemed (eh?) itself.

So what held me back from loving it? Truth time guys. I can’t take the violence like I used to. It bothers me now. I feel like it’s a flaw in movie criticism character to admit this, but there it is. Obviously, only to a degree. I still love horror movies and old action films, but modern, high-paced, realistic, you-see-everything violence I find hard to take.

And The Raid is violent as hell. No doubt about it. There are lots of broken bones, stabbings, shootings, beatings, you name it. Some are not shown, with the old cutaway, but most of it is full on. To a degree I liked it, but because of the shooting gallery nature of the film and the sheer amount of violence in it I kind of felt like feeding some ducks after I got out of the theatre, or watching a sunrise, or helping deliver a baby. Anything life affirming really.

Again though, action junkies are going to love it. This isn’t a negative review of The Raid. It is probably one of the most stylish, well made, exciting and intense action movies I’ve seen in a long time. Action fans need to see this movie. And if there wasn’t so much support already out there for it there might not have been this apprehensive tinge to my review. But I went in expecting the greatest action movie ever. I didn’t get that and I came to realize this isn’t necessarily my forte. But I still had a hell of an experience watching it.

The Raid: Redemption is in theatres now.