Posts in: December 2010

The Delta Force (1986)

The Delta Force opens with a poorly staged, poorly edited sequence inspired by the real Delta Force’s failed 1980 mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran. I figured I’d be in for a silly, entertaining ride on par with Death Wish 3. A funny thing happened, though: The movie started to get good. Like, legitimately good, not just fun or mindlessly entertaining. In fact, if not for all that distracting crap with Chuck Norris, this could have been a very suspenseful successor to the Airport franchise.

Loosely based on the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, the film feels very much like an Airport film. It introduces a wide range of characters (featuring, in typical Airport fashion, a who’s-who of washed-up actors including Martin Balsam, Joey Bishop, Shelley Winters, Lainie Kazan, and perennial favorite George Kennedy), relationships, and foibles, before thrusting them all on a New York-bound commercial airliner hijacked by two Lebanese terrorists (Robert Forster, David Menachem) protesting the existence of Israel. The strangest and most impressive thing about the film is the relative balance between heroes and villains. Instead of the rah-rah jingoism I expected, director/producer/co-writer Menahem Golan (himself an Israeli) allows the Delta Force to do some bad things and allows the terrorists to do some good things. It’s not quite as black-and-white as typical Cannon fare.

Norris stars as Major Scott McCoy, who retired in disgust after the botched 1980 mission. When he hears about the hijacking, he brings himself out of retirement and spends much of the movie shooting Arabs and blowing up buildings. Ostensibly, The Delta Force is an action movie, but it excels in the scenes between the terrorists and hostages. Instead of those scenes feeling like a relief from nonstop action, the action feels more like a needless distraction designed to put asses in seats to watch the film Golan really wanted to make—an atypically nuanced portrait of U.S. foreign policy, using the planeload of hostages as a microcosm for western society.

However, it’s the rare film that can have its cake and eat it, too. As the first half (which focuses primarily on the hostages) gives way to the second (which focuses on the rescue), the film has successfully made its hostages into resonant characters we actually want to see rescued. It’s my own opinion that Norris has always been a lesser action star—a blank slate who lacks the built-in persona of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, or even Van Damme—which may explain why I didn’t care so much about his one-man-army antics and only really enjoyed him when his superior officer (Lee Marvin, in his final film role) verbally abused him for ignoring his team. However, The Delta Force gives Norris a few moments to shed his stoic, expressionless persona and actually act, however briefly. He pulls it off, which makes me hope the other Norris films I’ll cover this month will ultimately lead to me changing my mind about him. If he ever fights a bear, I know I’ll change my mind.

Overall, The Delta Force is a solid thriller only marred, ironically, by its emphasis on big explosions and gunfights. Less of that, and maybe this would have been a great film instead of merely a good one. Then again, more of it, and it may have ended up as a gloriously absurd, comically misguided action film on par with most of Cannon’s releases. Either way, it could have been better than what it is, but it’s still pretty good.

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Meet Dave (2008)

Meet Dave, the latest in a long line of disposable Eddie Murphy vehicles, plays like a half-hour sitcom episode that has been stretched to feature-length running time.—Manohla Dargis, New York Times

This sci-fi romp seriously skimps on the sort of wacky comedy that should have flown liberally from such an inspired premise.—Michael Rechtschaffen, The Hollywood Reporter

Better material and more adept direction might’ve made this a perfectly solid commercial enterprise.—Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

I don’t know what caused Eddie Murphy’s gradual decline from the most fearless, energetic standup comic of his generation to the star of family films ranging in quality from mediocre to bad. I do, however, know that schadenfreude has infested the public consciousness. If Murphy refuses to utilize the offbeat, foul-mouthed qualities that made him the biggest comedy star of the 1980s, critics and adult moviegoers will pile on top of him like a pyramid of naked prisoners. Unless you’re under the age of 10, nothing he does is good enough. When he steps out of the family film realm for something like Dreamgirls, it’s hailed as a daring return to something resembling his glory days. Then he does Norbit, and everyone blames that film for his losing an Oscar for Dreamgirls.

It’s easy to forget that Murphy’s movies have been a mixed bag for his entire career (remember Harlem Nights or The Golden Child?), but one thing has always remained true: No matter how bad the end result, he always gives it his all. Even miscast as the straight man in the Dr. Doolittle films, he performs with the same verve and vitality he did 30 years ago on Saturday Night Live. I didn’t enjoy The Nutty Professor or Daddy Day Care, but I respect Murphy for trying to inject energy and humor into an awful script more than an actor who’s just in it for the paycheck.

When a friend of mine told me he and his family found Meet Dave hilarious, I didn’t believe him. Critics treat most Murphy movies to scathing, unnecessarily hostile reviews (especially when the film isn’t screened for critics, which apparently makes it open season for hostility), so that didn’t surprise me. Usually, though, his movies find a rather large family audience. Meet Dave didn’t, which made it easier for me to automatically side with the critics who dismissed it and the audience who rejected it. Still, a small part of me wanted to believe my friend. Murphy’s not the bad guy here; he’s not exactly innocent, either. He’s sort of like the wheelman who, deep down, knows his friends just ran into that bank to rob it, but he’d prefer to think they just went in to make a deposit.

I finally sat down to watch the film, with no idea what to expect. It was more ignored than hated, so maybe it really wasn’t that bad. Mystery Science Theater 3000 alum Bill Corbett co-wrote the screenplay, which suggested to me that, if nothing else, the sci-fi jokes would pop. Hell, when I watched it, I didn’t even know it featured a ton of gifted, well-known comic actors (Elizabeth Banks, Ed Helms, Kevin Hart, Judah Friedlander, Pat Kilbane, among plenty of others). My expectations went from low to unknown—I had no idea what to expect, which helped me to approach the film with as much objectivity as possible.

Meet Dave is a pleasant surprise: a frequently funny, family-oriented sci-fi comedy boasting two of Murphy’s best performances (as captain and “ship”) since his dual role in 1999’s Bowfinger. First, he plays the stone-faced captain of a Nilian ship. Nilians are tiny creatures who look conveniently like humans but, like Vulcans, aren’t quite tapped into their emotions. They bury everything in a patriotic fervor and dedication to duty above all else. Their starship, as it happens, is shaped exactly like The Captain, in order to blend in with the strange human beings. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around the crew’s search for a mysterious orb that will allow them to drain Earth’s oceans and collect the salt, which on Nil is a highly valuable energy source. That’s merely an excuse for some of the oddest fish-out-of-water comedy ever committed to film.

As the ship, Murphy delivers one of the funniest performances of his career. Only a comedian as gifted as Murphy can make expressions as simple as a big smile or a blank stare into hilarious running gags. The bulk of the comedy comes from the schizophrenic idea that one “man” is run by a crew of dozens, with an encyclopedic knowledge of human culture (thanks to their ability to access an Earth database “called the Google”) but a fundamental confusion about how society actually functions. The ship arrives camouflaged in a white suit with big shoulders and wide lapels. Why? Because Nil has only received one transmission from Earth: a brief clip from Fantasy Island, from which they gather all humans wear such suits because Ricardo Montalban and Hervé Villechaize do.

Once it lands in New York, the ship is almost immediately run down by Gina Morrison (Banks), a single mother whose driving skills leave something to be desired. An awkward friendship/romance forms when she drags the unwilling ship up to her apartment, because from her perspective he’s a person acting very strangely after getting hit by a car. The bridge crew struggles to convince her of the ship’s normalcy, but their ineptitude only makes things worse, making Gina think something is seriously wrong. The Captain realizes it’d be smarter to keep her as an ally, so they can learn from her, blend in, and find their missing orb.

The ship itself is stocked with comedians, which initially seemed like a needless waste of talent. Why cast funny people in straight, emotionless roles? As the movie unfolds, the answer becomes clear: Ultimately, the film is about the repressed Nilians tapping into the emotions we inferior humans wear on our sleeves. This runs the gamut from Kilbane’s annoyingly over-the-top security chief (who discovers he really wants to be a flamboyantly gay hairdresser after seeing the Rockettes) to the surprisingly emotional moment in which the ship examines one of Gina’s paintings, and the entire bridge crew feels overwhelmed by the emotions it evokes. Another key scene finds The Captain and Number 3 (Gabrielle Union) watching It’s a Wonderful Life, scoffing at its sentimentality before bawling like babies by the end. It might seem a little cheap and easy, but it’s an effective moment that underscores the changes occurring all over the ship.

Emotions overcome most of the crew, but they fear and try to reject them. Only The Captain is willing to embrace these new, unexpected feelings, which leads to a surprisingly dark coup d’etat in which Number 2 (Helms) leads the others in usurping The Captain’s power, then secretly unleashes his own plan to destroy Earth and its terrifying, emotional giants. It’s right around this time that I started marveling at how effectively the film develops these characters and balances the story of “Dave” and Gina with what’s happening on the ship. I’d actually started to care whether or not The Captain would be able to stop Number 2’s plans. (Also, the film gets some props for having the dignity to not use “Number 2” as a poop joke—apparently, the Austin Powers films used up all the good Number 2 jokes.)

The script has a lot of fun with the way people talk to each other, and the confusion colloquialisms and pop-culture references would have on an alien. It’s a long way from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, another sci-fi film with a lot of fish-out-of-water comedy. Corbett and co-writer Rob Greenberg really put thought into how aliens might react to behavior we take for granted. Take, for example, another scene that probably only Murphy could make funny. Upon arriving at Old Navy (to buy less conspicuous clothes), he misinterprets an employee’s routine “Welcome to Old Navy” as a customary Earth greeting, which he starts saying to everyone he meets.

I would complain about Brian Robbins, who has specialized in kid-friendly feel-goodery almost without exception (the darkest he gets is Varsity Blues, a melodramatic but decent teen drama). Meet Dave has the potential to transform into a pitch-black social satire and sci-fi spoof, but Robbins won’t let that happen. An edgier director might have played up the satirical bent of the script, but the goal here is to make a true family film. “Family film” has, in recent years, become a euphemism for “kiddie crap,” the sort of film that adults grind their teeth through as their children beg to watch it on an endless loop. Like The Wonder Pets or Pixar films, this is real family entertainment, the sort of thing that parents can watch with their kids without wanting to kill themselves. So Robbins could have brought that same edge that made him so memorable as Eric, the leather-jacket-wearing “cool” genius, on Head of the Class, but that would have undermined its ability to reach a wide audience. Then again, nobody saw Meet Dave, so maybe that didn’t matter.

The film’s special effects are uniformly awful, but I can’t really say anything worse about it than that. It has a well-written, deceptively complex story; great characters; great comedy; and a heartwarming (but not too treacly) message about tolerance, learning from others, and the value of not burying feelings. It’s not the greatest comedy or family film ever made, but it’s far better than average. It opened opposite Journey to the Center of the Earth, which made a lot more money and got much better reviews despite being a significantly worse movie than Meet Dave (and I say that as a longtime Brendan Fraser fan who will defend the merits of Blast from the Past until the day I die). If you like to laugh, Meet Dave won’t disappoint. Just don’t go in expecting merciless, mean-spirited satire.

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Cruising (1980)

Leading up to Cruising‘s 1980 release, it became the subject of numerous protests from gay-rights activists operating under the assumption that this film would defame their culture and set the burgeoning gay rights movement back decades. Despite the film’s opening disclaimer about it merely depicting a small subculture within the gay community, the activists were both right and wrong. Its world never takes the opportunity to portray homosexuals in any sort of positive way, and it quietly condemns the “leather bar” subculture. At the same time, the underlying message seems to be that hate crimes against the gay community only occur as a result of deep self-hatred of closeted homosexuals. It’s the sort of jeering knife-twisting that deplorable gay-bashers deserve. I just wish it had been the central theme of a better movie.

Al Pacino stars as Steve Burns, a New York City beat cop who takes the opportunity to advance his career by working undercover. A serial killer is on loose at various S&M clubs, and the victims all have a physical description similar to Burns’s. Because he’s the only one in the precinct who comes close to matching it, they send him undercover despite his inexperience. Burns checks in to a queer flophouse, befriends a few gay men living there to pump them (so to speak) for information, and goes to leather bars to observe the community in action, waiting to be picked up by the potential killer.

For awhile, I thought the film would turn into a great black comedy. Heterosexual Burns cannot abide what he sees in these clubs. He sits in the shadows, looking on with disgust, and grunting, “Not tonight” at any man who tries to pick him up. I thought this neighborhood of gay men would start assuming he’s the killer, because of his obvious disdain, his ignorance of the culture, and his unwillingness to participate. In other words, he’s a terrible undercover cop with zero training who botches the mission and loses the trust of the people he’s supposed to get close to, and he has a bunch of well-muscled gay men targeting him as the serial killer in their midst.

Boy, I wish that’s how the film had actually played out. Instead, it splits its time between a straightforward investigative procedural, a leering depiction of homoerotic depravity, and Burns’s increasing angst about thrusting himself (so to speak) into the gay underworld. See, he’s married (to Karen Allen!), so the feelings this assignment stirs up in his brain, heart, and loins make him extremely uncomfortable. After spending hours in clubs, he frequently defies his orders and goes home to have eerie, aggressive sex with his wife, followed by adopting a thousand-yard stare while ruminating on the confusing feelings. Of course, he can’t say too much, because not even she can know his undercover assignment—and besides, who wants to tell his wife that he might be secretly gay? All of this builds to a deranged ending that does fit the story writer/director William Friedkin has laid out, but it’s still sort of infuriating.

Although Cruising isn’t quite as bad as its reputation, it’s still awfully difficult to sit through. Friedkin relies on tawdry shock moments (including a bizarre, never-explained police interrogation in which detectives bring in a burly African-American man in nothing but a G-string and a Stetson to beat on the suspects) and the comically stereotypical behavior of the gay characters. It’s not as insensitive as the activists probably thought it would be, but come on—the prime suspect is a musical theatre major, for crying out loud. I don’t think it was Friedkin’s intention, but the portrayal of homosexuality really does come across like a disgusting world of depraved, self-loathing, mentally ill men who have no desires beyond sex and violence. Maybe that’s how your average straight man would react to spending a few hours in a leather bar, but it’s a film without any shades of gray. Do any of these men have lives outside the clubs? If so, do these lives involve anything beyond cheap flophouses with water-damaged ceilings and semen-damaged bedsheets?

Pacino plays Burns as a man plagued with chronic gay panic. He spends much of the movie quiet and bug-eyed, overreacts to passes from other men, and tries desperately but ineptly to find the killer, more to get out of the underworld than to stop the murders or further his career. It’s not an unreasonable way to play the role, but it certainly does nothing to help the film to portray homosexuality with any sort of nuance. Like the generic portrayal of numerous anonymous S&M fetishists, Burns’s fear that he might secretly be gay or—even worse—may have been turned gay simply by being near large groups of them presents a black-and-white world of cheap sex and color-coded bandannas.

In other words, Cruising wants to expose (so to speak) the unseemly side of a subculture many people already think is inherently unseemly. It wallows in its own depravity and cynicism. Friedkin shares the wealth of relentless negativity, spreading it to straight men and women as much as gay men, but it’s the sort of movie that will ultimately make anybody watching it feel sort of ill, regardless of sexual orientation or their personal feelings about homosexuality. It’s just that kind of movie.

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Scrooged (1988)

Here’s something you may not have realized while agonizing over Great Expectations in high school: Charles Dickens was hilarious. It may not be easy to parse his old-fashioned language, but he managed to combine withering, Swiftian satire with the frothy melodrama readers desperately wanted. Even better, he ridiculed Britain, created empathy for the downtrodden working-class (who couldn’t read but were oppressed by people who could), and used the popular techniques of melodrama to create unexpected tragedy amid relentless, dark-edged comedy. Few writers can successfully achieve such a combination, and for my money, it’s one of the reasons why he’s remembered and celebrated. The fact that so many adaptations of his work ignore the obvious comedic bent of his work frustrates me to no end. And then there’s Scrooged, which modernizes Dickens’s biting A Christmas Carol and infuses it with contemporary satire.

At the height of his star power, Bill Murray used his well-cultivated smartass persona to great effect in a string of cynical, brutal, punishing, hilarious comedies. Scrooged was the first in this series of minor masterpieces (which continued with Quick Change, What About Bob?, Groundhog Day, and Mad Dog and Glory), brilliantly exploiting Murray’s position as the world’s most likable asshole. Here, he plays the unsubtly named Frank Cross, president of a TV network, who has completely lost his humanity. Crass, selfish, angry, and obscene, we first meet Frank complaining about the promo for an upcoming live television adaptation of A Christmas Carol (starring Buddy Hackett, Jamie Farr, Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim, and the Solid Gold dancers). It’s not enough that the promo makes people want to watch it, he argues. They have to feel that if they don’t watch it, the world will end. He presents his own version of the promo, the sort of terror-inducing nightmare vision that ends with a mushroom cloud. (The day after it airs, he proudly shows off a newspaper article speculating that an elderly woman died because of the stress his promo caused.)

It won’t shock you to learn that Frank abuses his employees. In that opening scene, he fires Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait) for raising appropriate concerns about the promo. He also torments his assistant, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard), an underpaid single mother with three kids, one of them mute. Her Christmas bonus this year? A washcloth, in addition to her usual network-monogrammed bath towel. Everyone hates and/or fears Frank, and with good reason. Since this is a variation on A Christmas Carol, that must mean three ghosts will visit him and remind him of the person he once was and should be. He’s warned of these ghosts by his deceased former boss (John Forsythe, in appropriately disgusting rotting-corpse makeup), and in one of the subtler jokes, Frank never once realizes the parallels between what’s happening to him and what happens to Ebenezer Scrooge.

Ultimately, A Christmas Carol has the structure of a character study before the advent of psychology. There’s the exploration of Scrooge’s past, the depiction of how others perceive him, and the examination of his secret self-loathing. To use the parlance of Jim Cunningham, Donnie Darko‘s self-help guru/pedophile, fear motivates Scrooge instead of love. The purpose of his journey is to tap into his lost love of life and gain a new perspective.

Since Scrooged exists in a post-Freud world, this character study is bleaker and more resonant than Dickens’s. We get to see Frank as a child on Christmas Eve, glued to the TV. His mother drinks to avoid mothering and disappears (ostensibly to a bar) to avoid her husband, a snarling butcher who gives four-year-old Frank five pounds of milk-fed veal for Christmas instead of the choo-choo train he really wants. When Frank complains, his father instructs him to get a job. It’s shocking that he grew up to be a career-driven loner.

Then there’s Claire Phillips (Karen Allen), The One That Got Away. As Ghost of Christmas Past Buster Poindexter—sorry, David Johansen—takes Frank on a guided tour of his past, he’s allowed to see numerous examples of choosing career over love. He loses Claire in the process, but she is the pipeline to his humanity. A well-worn romantic-comedy conflict, the career-versus-love theme here goes deeper than the usual fluffy fare. Admittedly, Frank is career-obsessed, but Scrooged paints a portrait of a man who forces the obsession on himself in order to avoid real intimacy. He spends an entire lifetime putting up a wall around himself, and this Christmas experience echoes the words shouted by President Reagan a year before the film’s release: tear down this wall!

A combination of writing and performing sells this romance better than I would have imagined. Murray and Allen share the lived-in chemistry of a deeply connected couple who only split up because other priorities got in the way. Like Frank, Claire has put up a wall of her own—it’s just a wall that looks like selfless, altruistic action. She runs a nonprofit organization, but she gives so much of herself that she claims she has nothing left to give. Like Frank, she’s remained single, and she’s just as unhappy despite being an all-around better person. In stark contrast to their past selves, the present-day versions of the characters wear misery like a raver wears a Dr. Seuss hat: to draw attention to themselves while pretending they don’t crave the attention and love they find so lacking.

Then there’s Grace, Scrooged‘s secret weapon. She provides sharp relief from the merciless story of Frank’s terrible life. As played by Woodard, she stands as a beacon of normalcy in the film’s comically cynical world. Like Bob Cratchit (the character she represents), she feels sorry for Frank more than she loathes him. She also finds the simple joys in her modest life, the sort of joys Frank finds puzzling and saccharine until he realizes how nice it is to feel real human emotions.

Despite its redemptive arc, Scrooged‘s unsparing anger and negativity has prevented it from developing into a perennial classic. However, the film does a far better job of capturing Dickens’s tone than most adaptations of his work (a notable exception is Nicholas Nickleby). It’s hilarious, insightful, and as heartwarming as a movie that makes numerous jokes at the expense of frail elderly women can be.

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Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection (1990)

Cota killed her husband in front of her, then he killed her sick baby and used the baby’s corpse to smuggle cocaine, and then he raped her.—General Taylor (John P. Ryan)

Yes, the Cannon Group is back in all its silly glory. After last week’s viewing of the surprisingly good The Delta Force, which may be as close as Menahem Golan ever got to a real passion project, it’s time for the absurd cash-in of a sequel: Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection, alternately known as Delta Force 2: Operation Stranglehold, even though neither title makes sense in the context of the film (it takes place in San Carlos, a fictional South American country; neither “Colombia” nor “Operation Stranglehold” are ever mentioned in the film).

Despite tossing the word “connection” into the title, the film has no connection to the first film aside from its main character, Scott McCoy (Chuck Norris). Whereas the first film bordered on realistic with its sweaty, suspenseful depiction of a skyjacking and its gritty, unpleasant Israel locations, the sequel takes place in the over-the-top world of James Bond villains who live in palatial estates and build gas chambers into their conference rooms, so they can watch prisoners choke to death on gas through a thick pane of glass.

Billy Drago plays the villain, drug kingpin Ramón Cota, as a drugged-out, vaguely effeminate fop who shares a spiritual kinship with Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. As a villain, he’s too silly to instill the fear or hatred director Aaron Norris desires, which might be why the script piles on an unending number of reasons to hate him. From the quote that opened this review to the sniveling smile he wears throughout the farce of a trial that opens the film, Cota is supposed to be the baddest of all asses. I had a very hard time taking him seriously, which is the film’s most infuriating problem. His partner in crime, General Olmedo, is played by the always-reliable Mark Margolis (Breaking Bad fans will know him as Tuco’s bell-ringing invalid Tio). Margolis is one of those actors who can instill terror without much more than a sidelong glance. He’s infinitely more effective as a villain but chronically underused here.

The plot is about as simple as you’d expect: General Taylor (John P. Ryan, in a scenery-chewing performance in which he channels a goofier version of George C. Scott’s Patton—so, in other words, Scott’s Buck Turgidson) sends McCoy and his partner, Bobby Chavez (Paul Perri), to San Carlos to capture Cota so he can stand trial for drug crimes in the United States. He’s released on a $10 million bail, which the movie portrays as an obscene miscarriage of justice (while ignoring the fact that it’s a violation of international law to retrieve a criminal in a country with no extradition treaty to stand trial for crimes he technically oversaw on foreign soil, never personally committing a crime in the U.S.). Cota quickly pays the bail and returns to San Carlos, but not before he and some men gun down Chavez’s pregnant wife and teen basketball star son.

Enraged, Chavez takes an unauthorized solo trip to San Carlos to take down Cota. He fails spectacularly, ending up in Cota’s conference room gas chamber, choking to death on acrid gas while Cota’s apparent board of directors chuckle gleefully. Needless to say, now that it’s personal for the guy we’re supposed to care about, McCoy finally springs into action. An endless, slow-motion training montage in which McCoy performs martial-arts moves on a team of men (who seem to get nothing out of it beyond learning how to take a punch) precedes McCoy’s trip to San Carlos. He sneaks into the so-called “Green Zone” and meets up with his contact, Quiquina (Begonia Plaza). Cota turned her into his sex slave after killing her husband and sick baby, so she’s obviously pretty eager to join forces with people who want to take Cota down. Her role in the movie is marginal, however. Once McCoy gets into Cota’s compound, it’s pretty much a hour-long orgy of gunfights, explosions, martial-arts fisticuffs, and a bizarre sequence in which McCoy and Cota are tossed about through the jungle while suspended in harnesses attached to General Taylor’s helicopter.

Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection delivers on two enjoyable fronts: stupidity and fun. However, it never reaches the transcendent, surreal joy of a film like Death Wish 3, owing in large part to Norris’s direction. Most Cannon films suffer from poor staging and sloppy filmmaking. I can and often do forgive that, because that’s usually part of the charm of the films. The problem here is Norris’s tendency to linger for far too long on moments that are not as enthralling as he seems to think. The aforementioned training montage, the harnesses, McCoy’s bizarre skydiving antics (which are not nearly as impressive as the following year’s Point Break—if that film was 100% pure adrenaline, this one is 80% adrenaline cut with baby laxative), and use of slow-motion that even Zack Snyder would consider excessive. Pretty much every sequence would be fine if it were half as long.

Compounding this problem is Drago’s performance, which doesn’t create the ominous threat it should. Even the crassest action-star vehicle makes some attempt to keep the stakes high for its hero, usually by depicting an increasingly threatening, increasingly insane villain. In contrast, Cota seems weaker and weaker as the film goes on. Maybe that was Norris’s intent, but it falls flat dramatically. The only satisfying moment involving Cota is when Quiquina goes after him with his own machete. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end well for Quiquina, and by extension doesn’t end well for the audience.

Overall, Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection is a deeply flawed film that contains a few decent moments but mostly falls flat. You won’t miss anything by skipping it, but it does have a few highlights: assassins dressed as clowns shooting up a van full of DEA agents during Rio De Janeiro’s Carnival, and the following clip, which features what might be my favorite line delivery in any film, ever:

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Law Abiding Citizen (2009) by Kurt Wimmer and Frank Darabont

I can’t sugarcoat it: I’ve never read a stupider screenplay than Law Abiding Citizen. (The script for the upcoming Kane & Lynch movie, ironically also to be directed by F. Gary Gray and costarring Jamie Foxx, is a close second.) I’ve read worse scripts—scripts that don’t even work on a conceptual level—but here’s a script with noble intentions, a solid premise, and some of the dumbest writing ever featured in a major motion picture (this includes the Star Wars prequels). It’s the sort of script where a scene starts with Benson Clyde (changed to Clyde Shelton in the film, played by Gerard Butler) saying, “You don’t have any evidence, so you have to let me go,” and ends with him saying, “Even though you still don’t have any evidence, I’ll confess.” Stupider than that: None of the high-powered prosecutors listening to him consider that logic-impaired 180-degree turn suspicious.

The script starts out with some promise. Two men murder Clyde’s wife and 10-year-old daughter, and although they’re caught pretty much red-handed, a judge rules some of the physical evidence inadmissible, which ruins A.D.A. Nick Price’s (changed to “Nick Rice” in the film, played by Jamie Foxx) case. Left with no alternative, he allows one of the murderers to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for testifying against the other. One gets five years in prison, the other gets the death penalty, but Clyde feels like justice has not been done. The system is broken, and he’s going to fix it—with extreme prejudice.

What felt initially like a fun Death Wish clone that takes the tack of sending the wronged vigilante after the lawyers and cops who bungle a broken system (rather than the criminals roaming the streets) quickly turns into an incredibly stupid attempt at a psychological thriller, a verbal chess match (to use the script’s hackneyed metaphor) between Nick and Clyde that amounts to a lot of stupid dialogue, a lot of stupid twists, and a lot of gratuitous, Saw-esque violence.

You see, Clyde swaps out the death-row murderer’s lethal injection chemicals for some compounds that, when combined, basically burn him to death from the outside in. He leaves some evidence to suggest it was the other murderer, whom he then “saves” by posing as a crooked cop, paralyzes with yet another mysterious compound, then drags to a barn filled with implements of torture.

But Clyde gets caught pretty quickly. He wants to get caught. He wants to confess—even though he protests that they have nothing on him, in a horrible attempt to show the cleverness of his wordplay and the keen intellect that comes from spending 10 years looking up the words “reasonable” and “doubt” in the dictionary—because he wants to prove the system is broken. “To whom?” you might ask. Ostensibly to Nick, since Nick is the only one involved in his family’s murder case Clyde doesn’t find some kind of comically twisted way to kill. The fact that he’s stuck in jail proves a pretty convincing alibi, and Clyde relishes Nick’s inability to figure out how Clyde keeps killing people or who he’s working with on the outside.

I don’t care how many times I repeat the word—I can’t overstate this script’s stupidity. It takes a pretty solid premise—an average Joe feels wronged by the criminal justice system, so he takes revenge—to mind-bogglingly stupid places. Scenes where Clyde tries to negotiate the finer things in life in exchange for information about the rash of murders related to his case fall flat because he’s already made it clear that he doesn’t need to be in jail to begin with. Here’s the script’s biggest offense, though: Clyde isn’t an average Joe. He’s not a man who simply felt so driven by anger that he spent a decade planning a wildly complicated revenge scheme. He’s an inventor who worked for a CIA think-tank to develop novel ways of killing people. That is, at the very least, an above-average Joe. It also completely undermines what the script is supposed to be about: a regular guy driven to extremes.

I appreciated the opening scenes portraying Nick with a sense of palpable apathy toward a clearly wounded Clyde. To Nick, Clyde’s case is just one of many. It shows Nick as a callous dick, which is not a quality often found in a protagonist. It can work—ever seen House?—but Law Abiding Citizen is too afraid to give its ostensible hero a plausible Achilles heel. After that initial introduction, writers Kurt Wimmer and Frank Darabont spend the following 30 pages trying desperately to make him likable—showing him express guilt over the Clyde case, questioning whether or not he made the right decision (constantly reassured along the way, which by extension is supposed to reassure the audience that Nick had no other choice), and finally revealing him as a kind, loving family man. I’m surprised they didn’t show him running a free soup kitchen on the weekends.

Notwithstanding the flop-sweat-drenched pages attempting to make us love Nick, Clyde’s indignation remains righteous. He remains the more empathetic of the two main characters, so how do you solve that problem? Simple: Make him so brazenly, cartoonishly evil that anybody reading it will invariably hear the voice of the baby from Family Guy rather than the combination of Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates they were going for. This is where the CIA think-tank reveal comes from. It’s one of the rare scripts where writers have backed themselves into a corner by page 30, but instead of rewriting the first 30 pages more coherently, they spend the next 90 trying to write their way out of it.

Of course, they do this at the expense of the film’s initial premise—an average person trying to expose and destroy the flaws of the legal system. What starts out interesting, timely, and believable quickly descends into the sort of absurd script where a bomb is implanted inside the stomach of a dog and everyone balks at Clyde having CDs because their shards can kill, but nobody says a word about him having an iPod, plugged into a docking station that itself is plugged into an electrical outlet via a long extension cord (meaning he could electrocute and/or strangle someone), on a special wooden shelf (which could be dismantled and used to kill).

To my delight, the film gets rid of many of the script’s stupidest elements. In one key scene in the script, Clyde murders his cellmate with a the bones from a rack of lamb provided by the District Attorney’s office (which, inexplicably, nobody raises concerns about, even though they’ve already nixed much less dangerous CDs). The film drops the CD angle to begin with and changes the rack of lamb to a steak, making it a little more surprising and disgusting when he uses the significantly smaller bone to kill the cellmate. The bomb hidden in the dog is replaced with one in a cell phone. The film is filled with minor changes like this, smartening up the finer points of the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.

However, the broad strokes remain just as stupid. Some of the in-between dialogue is different, but that early scene bookended by “You have nothing on me, so let me go”/”No wait, I’ll confess” still remains, as does the notion that “average Joe” Clyde still has the warped mind and psychopathic tendencies of a particularly imaginative weapons designer. It also retains one of the silliest notions—that Clyde would know exactly which jail they’d send him to and where its solitary confinement cells are located, so he could buy abutting property, tunnel in, and get himself locked up in solitary, where each cell now has an escape hatch to his tunnel. Yes, this is how he commits his various deeds without help. Lucky for the screenwriters, Clyde is fabulously wealthy, so he can buy all the cars, property, machine guns, and Semtex needed to dispatch his enemies.

F. Gary Gray knows how to make a great-looking film. Despite his tendency to turn the violence into Hostel-esque torture porn, Gray exploits wonderful Philadelphia locations and makes an appropriately gritty, cold-looking film. Surprisingly, his direction is less assured when it comes to building the suspense this movie requires. I like to imagine he knew exactly how stupid the script was but found himself hamstrung by producer/writer Wimmer and producer/star Butler, who evidently didn’t. As evidence, I can only provide the three thrillers in Gray’s filmography that both lack Law Abiding Citizen‘s reckless idiocy and contain the suspense and drama appropriate to a solid thriller: The Negotiator, the underrated Set It Off, and the overrated (but still solid) remake of The Italian Job.

Part of the problem, I suppose, stems from the fact that most of the suspense comes from the talky, two-man conversations between Nick and Clyde, but both Foxx and Butler are at their worst in these scenes. They seem less like intelligent men going toe-to-toe than action stars wondering why the director won’t let them rip off their shirts and bare-knuckle box. I ordinarily like both Foxx and Butler, but boy did I ever not like them here. Strangely, both are fine in scenes with other characters. It’s only when they’re together—the film’s most important moments—that their performances fall flat. Maybe the problem, again, goes back to the notion that they’re supposed to be intelligent men, but the script is far too stupid to convince us of that.

The problems with Law Abiding Citizen start with the script, and they should have ended there. It doesn’t take a Clyde-esque genius to understand that only the premise works. Nothing about the execution is even remotely successful. That this plain fact was ignored in development and the film was made with only minor changes (most improvements, all superficial) is incredibly frustrating. A really good idea got wasted on a dreadful product.

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Friday (1995)

In the 1989 companion book for Spike Lee’s breakthrough film, Do the Right Thing (which includes the original screenplay, production diary, and notes on the film), Lee expresses his desire to make a film that tackled racism while showing a lower-class African-American neighborhood in a positive light, implying (through fancy clothes and apparent lack of employment) that some of the characters are involved in the drug trade but not getting into the drug-related, Black-on-Black violence within the community (he saved that for Clockers). He wanted to make a slice-of-life film that unexpectedly erupted into the Italians-versus-Blacks violence that plagued New York at the time of the film’s production. True to his word, there are hints of the neighborhood’s dark edges (the errant boarded-up brownstone, Ossie Davis’s lovelorn wino, Giancarlo Esposito’s coveted Air Jordans, and Bill Nunn’s hulking figure stomping around the neighborhood with an enormous ghetto blaster, just daring someone to mess with him), but the film downplays many of the neighborhood’s endemic problems in order to focus on a deeper problem.

Friday serves as the polar opposite, a “laugh that I would not cry” take on urban decay that plays like a stoner-buddy comedy but doesn’t shy away from gangsters, drug dealers, gun violence, and the strange mixture of community spirit and abject terror that comes from living in a place like South Central, Los Angeles (or Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn). Played mostly for laughs, the film focuses on Craig Jones (Ice Cube) and Smokey (Chris Tucker), who while away most of a Friday on Craig’s front porch. Yesterday, Craig managed to get fired on his day off, so he starts Friday in a bad frame of mind. His father (John Witherspoon) suggests Craig join him in the dog-catching trade. When Craig balks that he doesn’t like dogs, his father considers that a virtue of the job—you can abuse and torture them in the process of catching them. (Late in the film, Mr. Jones watches 1993’s Man’s Best Friend and cheers for the unlikely outcome of a postman taking down the genetically mutated psycho-dog.)

Craig’s best friend, Smokey, is a lazy pot dealer who encourages Craig’s worst traits and smokes more product than he sells. His supplier, Big Worm (Faizon Love), gives him until midnight to get the $200 he owes for a batch of indo he was supposed to sell. Smokey enlists Craig’s help in getting the money; when Craig balks, Smokey tells Big Worm that he and Craig are in it together. Left with no other choice, Craig and Smokey alternate between scheming to get the money and sitting on the porch, watching the active neighborhood and trying not to think about their fate.

Much of the comedy comes from the interaction between straight-man Craig and clownish sidekick Smokey, whose obsession with getting high and passing along neighborhood lore effectively distracts Craig from his disastrous life. The laughs that don’t come from these two are provided by a colorful supporting cast that includes Bernie Mac, Tony Cox, Regina King, co-writer DJ Pooh, and Anthony Johnson. Aside from the generally off-screen menace of Big Worm, Craig’s major conflict comes from Deebo (Tiny “Zeus” Lister Jr.), a hulking terror who rides around on a stolen bicycle and casually robs people in the neighborhood. Craig and Smokey hiding their wallets and gold chains whenever he comes around becomes a running gag. When Deebo forces Smokey to help him rob a house, Smokey finds the $200 he needs—but Deebo snatches it, because that’s the kind of guy he is.

The amazing thing about Friday is that it manages to make Deebo, who uses only his size and demeanor to get what he wants, a bigger threat than Big Worm’s drive-by shooting (which is played mostly for laughs). The film’s central conflict is more about Craig learning to stand up for himself and be a man—without the aid of the Glock he hides in his underwear drawer—instead of letting people like Deebo roll over him constantly. The film’s third act gets quite dark and thematically echoes Cube’s breakthrough film, Boyz N the Hood, in giving Craig a difficult choice that may have dire consequences on Saturday, but maybe he can go to sleep on Friday feeling good about himself.

Inferior sequels have tainted Friday‘s legacy, so it’s easy to forget that it’s a solid comedy that’s about more than getting easy laughs (though it doesn’t shy away from those). That’s a shame, because it provides an entertaining, thoughtful glimpse into a world that, in cinema, generally serves as a backdrop for histrionic crime dramas.

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Casualties of War (1989)

What could possibly make the police action in Vietnam more unpalatable? How about the kidnap, repeated rape, and eventual murder of an innocent Vietnamese girl? Inspired by “the incident on hill 192,” Brian De Palma’s great film Casualties of War dramatizes one such stomach-churning story.

PFC Erikkson (Michael J. Fox) is a bright-eyed rookie under the command of Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn), a quietly deranged Captain Queeg type who seems all well and good until he discovers his squad can’t go into town to take advantage of the abundant prostitutes because it’s the V.C.’s turn. Enraged, Meserve gathers the squad (which includes well-known faces like John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo in early roles) and announces his plans to kidnap a villager girl to use as their life-sized sex doll. This makes Erikkson extremely uncomfortable, especially when he realizes Hatcher (Reilly) and Clark (Don Harvey) are not just willing to obey Meserve’s directive—they’re sort of excited by it.

Diaz (Leguizamo) confesses his fears about this plan to Erikkson, and they agree to back each other, but when push comes to shove, he would rather be accepted by the group than be an outcast. Erikkson stands up for what’s right and makes the bold decision not to rape the girl when it’s not his “turn.” De Palma builds his legendary suspense out of Erikkson’s isolation from this group. When they’re forced to work together, it’s hard to tell if Erikkson can trust the others in the squad. In an especially harrowing sequence, he gets time alone with the girl and immediately frees her. Like a confused puppy, she keeps running back to him instead of fleeing—and, of course, Clark catches him. Unwilling to let her out of his sight, Clark drags her to a combat zone. However, she’s taken ill and can’t stop coughing. Afraid she’ll let the V.C. get the drop on them, Meserve orders Diaz to slit her throat.

When they get back to base camp, Erikkson tells everyone he possibly can about what happened, but nobody cares. Nobody wants to create an international incident, and nobody wants to take responsibility for Meserve’s increasing instability. The best Erikkson can get is a transfer to a different company. The second half of the film chronicles Erikkson’s dogged search for justice amid apathetic officers and a squad that literally wants him dead. Although it gets a tad too hung up on the procedural aspects of the story (especially in the third act), the film manages to remain surprising and suspenseful even in its quietest moments.

Although the film capitalizes on Fox’s youthful appearance and nice-guy persona, Fox doesn’t play Erikkson as a Dudley Do-Right type. He’s a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, moderately inept soldier. It just happens that he’s thrown into the sort of situation where there’s an obvious distinction between right and wrong, and Erikkson has the guts to stand up for the right side, no matter the consequences. You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to know kidnapping, rape, and murder are wrong.

Whereas Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter attempt to portray the psychological tolls of war using their characters and situations to imply a broader context, De Palma attempts to portray those same tolls while sticking closely to the characters as actual people. They don’t exist as metaphoric constructs designed to symbolize personality archetypes. It’s not strictly an anti-war film, because unlike the other two films mentioned, it makes no effort to imply that war made Meserve and Clark what they are. The point, it seems, is that bad apples exist everywhere. The chaos of war just gives them an excuse to do the things they can’t get away with in times of peace. De Palma targets a certain personality type and insinuates that the military infrastructure does allow for these bad apples to remain hidden or ignored, but only because of badder apples that have risen through the ranks. When Erikkson confronts the relentlessly unpleasant Captain Hill (Dale Dye), he’s told to transfer to another company. When Erikkson refuses to give up, the military court metes out appropriate punishments. It all comes back to a few bad people, not a big bad military or a devastating war.

Great though they may be, a strong undercurrent of hyperbole runs through most Vietnam movies. Not this one. Here, we have characters who feel like real people. Nothing’s black-and-white, and the war (for once) is just a setting, not a playground for heady symbolism rooted more in artful fantasy than grim reality. Casualties of War may not be realistic, either, but its characters feel human-sized, full of idiosyncrasies and contradictions. It’s a refreshing change of pace.

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The Rocketeer (1991)

For those of you too young to remember the halcyon days of the summer of ’91, let me enlighten you: It mostly involved Disney trying to shove The Rocketeer down the throats of an unprepared nation. As a moon-eyed, imaginative nine-year-old, I watched slack-jawed as Pizza Hut commercials loudly instructed me to “Blast off with the Rocketeer, against Neville Sinclair, the enemy agent!” My reaction was as follows: “Who? What? YESSSS!” Like Batman in the summer of ’89, I begged my parents to get the Pizza Hut novelty collector’s cup shaped like the Rocketeer’s helmet, scrounged around for enough change to buy Rocketeer-themed candy and toys, rented the NES game from the local video store, and had June 21 marked on my calendar.

Then I saw the movie. Cough.

Almost 20 years later, it’s easy to see why The Rocketeer failed: Disney marketed it squarely at kids—adults need not apply—but it’s not a kids’ movie. Obviously, Disney wanted a franchise on par with Paramount’s Indiana Jones and Warner Brothers’ Batman, but those movies were not strictly for kids, either. They’re actually pretty demented, and I’m sort of amazed I saw them as young as I did. Neither Paramount nor Warner Brothers marketed the films exclusively to kids, however. That was Disney’s failing. At best, the most appealing things The Rocketeer offered to the nine-year-old me were the always-cool super-secrecy of the rocket pack, and my introduction to buxom Jennifer Connelly, dolled up to look like a ’30s starlet (I didn’t know what a ’30s starlet was back then, but gosh I wanted to find out!).

Here’s a list of things The Rocketeer revels in that non-cinephiles under the age of 30 will either not understand or not care about: film noir, ’30s serials, Golden Age Hollywood, Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men, aviation history, Errol Flynn, boarding houses, Al Capone, The Killers, Rondo Hatton, art deco, and zeppelins. As an adult with a moderate obsession with this period in history, I loved every second of it while fully understanding why, as a kid, I felt so let down and betrayed by the unending marketing assault. The film is a glorious paean to not just the ’30s, but the ’30s of cinema and comic-books—the gee-whiz sense that anything can happen. The film constructs a plot that entwines history and legend into one crazy, fantastical hodgepodge.

For a kid, the Rocketeer himself is a letdown. These other franchises follow larger-than-life heroes, getting them into tight scrapes and showing how they use cunning, ingenuity, and occasionally far-fetched gadgets to get out of trouble. The Rocketeer has one power—the ability to fly with a rocket backpack—that he barely uses. The screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo is less interested in the Rocketeer as a superhero so much as the world he inhabits. As a kid, that sucked. As an adult, I’m incredibly grateful.

The story follows struggling pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), who desperately needs to win an upcoming aviation competition to keep his struggling business afloat. Together with his father figure/mechanic, Peevy (Alan Arkin), he designs a plane that’s sure to win—until a carload of Eddie Valentine’s (Paul Sorvino) gangsters accidentally shoot it down while evading a pair of FBI agents (Ed Lauter, James Handy). With no money to build a new plane, and no way to make the rent on their hangar without winning the nationals, Cliff and Peevy have to resort to an old clown/stunt act that impresses rubes but humiliates the two of them.

The plot thickens when Cliff realizes the reason for the FBI/gangster shootout: They stole a secret prototype rocket pack developed by master aviator Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). Cliff finds the pack (hidden by the gangsters in the aftermath of the shootout) and discovers a surefire way to make money. The theft of the rocket pack is all over the newspaper and radio, so Peevy warns against using it so extravagantly. However, when a fellow pilot puts himself in danger in an attempt to save Cliff’s job, the only way for Cliff to save him is to don the rocket pack and fly up to his plane. Needless to say, the mysterious “Rocketeer” becomes an immediate sensation.

Cliff excitedly tells his girlfriend, Jenny (Connelly), a glorified extra in B-movies starring people like Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), a hammy swashbuckler obviously modeled after Errol Flynn. Sinclair overhears Cliff telling Jenny about the rocket pack, and the plot continues to thicken. Apparently, it was he who hired Valentine’s goons to steal the rocket pack in the first place. Now that he knows who has it, Neville decides he must get close to Jenny, in the hopes that he can use her to get the rocket pack. Why he wants the rocket pack, I’ll leave a mystery, but here’s a hint: Some spurious accusations about Errol Flynn’s associations with certain political parties appeared in an unauthorized, largely speculative biography in the early ’80s, and the writers used this to inform Neville Sinclair.

Lest I forget, Sinclair has a henchman, Lothar (“Tiny” Ron Taylor), made up to look and sound eerily like Rondo Hatton, star of the “Creeper” films of the 1940s. He was one of the rare non-giants to suffer from a pituitary disorder called acromegaly, which caused his facial features to distort grotesquely, making him ideal to play thugs and misunderstood killers. Lothar, however, stands over seven feet tall in addition to suffering from acromegaly. He’s a fearsome menace whose characterization makes him an effective villain, although it eliminates the Hunchback of Notre Dame poignancy the “Creeper” films had.

The writers develop such a convoluted plot, they have to strain to keep numerous balls in the air. The FBI searches for the rocket pack on behalf of Hughes; Valentine and Lothar search for the rocket pack on behalf of Sinclair; Sinclair kidnaps Jenny in order to bring the Rocketeer out into the open; and Cliff tries to keep the rocket pack hidden, just until he can make enough money to build a new plane. All of these characters and subplots converge in unexpected ways designed to thrill. The film is incredibly effective, with a sense of whimsy and adventure that owes a great deal to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films and the fast-paced adventure films of the period it encapsulates, without ever seeming derivative. The locales, production design, and casting are impeccable.

The Rocketeer could have turned into a phenomenal franchise had Disney marketed it to the correct demographic—middle-aged cranks and cinephiles who would drag their disinterested kids (and possibly grandkids) to a rollicking adventure evocative of their youths. Instead, it’s relegated to a Syfy Sunday afternoon. That’s a shame. Anyone who loves old movies and/or arcane ’30s trivia needs to see this film.

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Missing in Action (1984)

Missing in Action opens with a sequence somewhat reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. “I’m still only in Saigon.” Well, Braddock (Chuck Norris) can’t believe he’s still in the U.S. When the U.S. Army declared him missing in action (hence the title) and abandoned their search for him and his men, it took Braddock seven years to get home. Now that he’s there, he’s sickened by the apparent diplomacy between American political and military officials and the propped-up dictator (James Hong) who brokered peace between the U.S. and Vietnam.

Since returning to freedom not long ago, Braddock spends most of his time in hot, filthy transient hotels, reliving the nightmare of his jungle incarceration. The combination of Norris’s brooding intensity and Jay Chattaway’s minimalist, Moog-based score (think Midnight Express, because that’s probably what he was borrowing from) bring startling emotion to an otherwise stereotypical one-man army action hero. Unlike the strikingly similar Rambo: First Blood Part II, Braddock’s single-minded obsession with rescuing his fellow prisoners—long after the government has written them off and ended the “war”—makes sense in light of the pain and rage on display in the film’s first few minutes.

There’s not much to the rest of the film. After initially refusing to take part in a publicity photo-op (masquerading as an investigation of soldiers still MIA) in Saigon, Braddock realizes this is his only opportunity to get anywhere close to Vietnam. If he can get close, he can get to Vietnam and rescue his brothers in arms. Real Philippines locations lend stark, sweaty verisimilitude to a fairly schlocky, simplistic plot. Braddock visits shady bars and sleazy brothels, trying to put together the arsenal he’ll need to bust in and take back his men by force. Aiding him in his quest are Tuck (M. Emmett Walsh), an ex-soldier well-connected in the underground, and Ann (Lenore Kasdorf), the sexy diplomat assigned by the embassy to babysit Braddock. Once they assemble the arsenal, Braddock and Tuck head across the pond to Vietnam. From there—well, let’s just say this film reminded me how viscerally and enthusiastically I respond to the sound of machine-gun fire. I spent far too much of my childhood watching movies like Missing in Action, so there’s an odd comfort in the wanton violence dominating the film’s second half. Your mileage may vary.

Despite the film’s simplicity, I find myself on the cusp of recommending it. It lacks the campy appeal of more mindlessly entertaining Cannon fodder, though it contains the typical displays of raw, testosterone-fueled machismo often mischaracterized as homoeroticism (and with good reason—in particular, Braddock’s attempts to wrench a knife from the hands of a potential assassin could easily be mistaken for a completely different act that would have warranted an X rating). Really, it’s a sterling example of how much goodwill an effective opening can have on a film.

So many movies of this ilk open with a botched mission, forcing a redemptive arc for its central character. Missing in Action does, as well, but it takes the time after the explosions and the narrow escape to establish Braddock’s emotional tumult—his guilt over leaving men behind to save himself, the horror of the memories of his imprisonment, and the mind-numbing tedium of returning to a “normal” life. The film handles this very effectively, and as such generates more than enough goodwill to carry it through to the end of an otherwise mediocre action flick. If not for those scenes, my rating would drop by at least a star. Consider that fair warning: If the opening doesn’t resonate with you, chances are the rest of the film will serve as a frustratingly straightforward example of jingoistic action.

Editor’s Note: You might be wondering why the first film in a trilogy has a “Based on characters created by…” credit. Turns out, Missing in Action and its prequel Missing in Action II: The Beginning were shot back-to-back, with the intention that the “prequel” would be the first movie and Missing in Action its sequel. Golan and Globus determined Missing in Action was the better film of the two and released it first. Hence, the “first” film is based on characters created by the writers of the “prequel.”

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