Posts in Category: The Parallax Review

Breakin’ (1984)

Breakin’, released in 1984, was Cannon’s first significant hit. Part of this may have had to do with MGM’s influence as U.S. distributor. They, quite possibly, ponied up a bit more for promotion than the notoriously shoestring Cannon Group could. Or maybe people were just really into break-dancing at the time. Whatever the case, Breakin’ grossed a staggering $39 million domestically on a budget that couldn’t have been higher than $2 million (if it was, something went seriously awry). Compare that to Death Wish II, which netted less than half that amount despite having a bigger star and a built-in audience.

Breakin’ has all the hallmarks of a Golan-Globus production: bad performances, awful sets, bizarre turns of plot, low stakes, occasionally surreal mise-en-scène. Why, then, did I watch all 86 minutes with a goofy smile on my face? I attribute it to the heady combination of breezy badness and the clear sense of fun from the actors. The stars (Lucinda Dickey, Adolfo Quinones, Michael Chambers) were clearly hired for their dancing ability above all, but they’re obviously having a great time making this movie—because they’re not good enough actors to fake that sense of fun and camaraderie.

The story follows the trials and tribulations of Kelly (Dickey), a jazz dancer whose career has stalled because she won’t sleep with the influential people who could put her on top (so to speak). After a dance-class friend coaxes her into driving him to Venice Beach, Kelly witnesses the exuberant break-dancing team of Ozone (Quinones) and Turbo (Chambers). Shortly thereafter, two improbable events change her life: Kelly has a slew of terrible auditions, and the Ozone/Turbo team are trumped by the “Electro-Rockers,” who dare to trump the male-male dance partnership by throwing—gasp!—a girl into the mix. Even though their girl doesn’t do much beyond rhythmically aiming accusatory fingers at Ozone and Turbo, they feel they’ve lost. Kelly decides she’d rather team up with them than continue struggling to make ends meet as a professional jazz dancer.

Christopher McDonald, who’s made a career out of playing snobby pricks, plays Kelly’s agent. He delivers a really nice, surprising performance as a guy who’s dubious yet supportive of Kelly’s choices, and willing to risk his professional career for her and her dance team. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but he plays a genuinely warm, compassionate person. He’s also the only one in the entire cast who can act worth a damn, which lends credibility to the goofy story. His actions pretty much drive the second half: after witnessing a “street” performance by “TKO,” he becomes consumed with getting them a prestigious audition with a bunch of stuffed-shirt professionals.

The plot exists primarily to string together break-dancing sequences. Everything about it is silly and—well, I’d call it melodramatic, but none of the performers (McDonald included) seem to take the generic conflicts seriously enough for there to be any real drama. Oddly, this is beneficial to the film. If any amount of pathos, legitimate conflict, or reality had seeped into this movie, it would have obliterated the overwhelming sense of joy permeating every frame. Absurd moments like Kelly’s audition montage, during which she auditions for one part that calls for a tall blonde (even though the producers are clearly holding a photo depicting her brown hair and short stature) before donning a wig to unsuccessfully audition for another part that calls for a short brunette (even though, again, they’re holding the same photo of her brown hair and short stature), would cause me to quiver with rage in a movie that took itself seriously. Here, it’s just one part of the goofy, grin-inducing package.

Ultimately, nothing matters but the dancing. If you like break-dancing (I don’t), you’ll love this movie. The choreography is great, the dance sequences are well-shot (especially compared to the amateurish blocking during normal scenes), and the soundtrack is annoyingly toe-tapping.

Because break-dancing, Jheri curls, wispy mustaches, and half-shirts have passed out of mainstream popularity, Breakin’ exists mainly as a colorful snapshot of pop culture phenomena lost to the passage of time. The sunny depiction of “street thugs” and dance competitions make it a pleasant, nostalgia-saturated way to pass a couple of hours. Those looking for substance need not apply.

Read More

Freejack (1992)

Riding high on the success of the complex, surprisingly thought-provoking Total Recall, writer/producer Ronald Shusett shepherded another heady sci-fi oddity into production. Like the best sci-fi, Freejack uses genre tropes to tackle weightier themes of mortality, greed, corruption, and social decay. Like the worst sci-fi, it relies far too much on trippy, 2001-esque visual effects and melodramatic monologues. Consequently, the quality lands somewhere in the middle, but I’m edging it up to a three-star review because it’s a very watchable, entertaining thriller despite its problems.

Could anyone imagine a film with a premise as convoluted as Freejack getting made today? Here are the basic beats: F-1 racer Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) is madly in love with Julie Redlund (Rene Russo). He crashes during a race and wakes up 18 years in the future. A group of “bonejackers,” led by Vacendak (Mick Jagger—seriously), have pulled his body through time a microsecond before death, with the intention of jamming the soul of a wealthy man into Alex’s body. See, in the future, there’s something called the “spiritual switchboard” (seriously), where the souls of the recently deceased can be held for up to three days before moving on. If, in that time, bonejackers shove them into younger, healthier bodies, the souls can continue living indefinitely.

“Why do they have to pull people through time?” you might ask. “Why couldn’t they just use the bodies of younger people in their own time?” Answer: the world has turned into a cesspool in which the super-wealthy live in isolated high-rises, and the literally unwashed masses have to dodge bullets while feasting on rat entrails and suffering from chronic asthma and cancer caused by a toxic atmosphere. (Yes, Freejack was big on tackling hot-button early-’90s issues, from the panic about the hole in the ozone layer to the video billboards advertising assisted suicide.) Those who can afford to bonejack will not pay premium prices for the body of a disease-ravaged street urchin.

Set against this backdrop, Freejack is pretty much a standard on-the-run thriller. After escaping from the bonejackers, Alex seeks out Julie, discovers she’s a high-powered executive working for the company that rules the world, and begs for help. He has a rapidly increasing bounty on his head, and his ability to avoid the bonejackers quickly makes him a legend among the lower class—a symbol of fighting The Man and winning, something they’d all like to do but can’t. While on the run with Julie, Alex slowly pieces together exactly what is happening—a complex conspiracy involving Vacendak and his bonejackers, Julie’s boss McCandless (Anthony Hopkins), and McCandless’s sniveling toady Michelette (Jonathan Banks).

Easily the most engaging thing about Freejack is the fact that everyone has their own agenda. Scenes are thick with a paranoid sense that nobody’s telling the truth. Nothing’s black and white, not even the motives of de facto villain Vacendak. This adds to Alex’s disorientation and manages to make every character stronger than what one might expect from this sort of sci-fi/action flick. The attention to character allows for even the script’s silliest moments (such as the trippy adventure through the spiritual switchboard) to fare better than they should.

Freejack boasts excellent production design and good early-’90s visual effects. The future looks alternately grim and beautiful. Atlanta stands in for post-Apocalyptic New York City, and the fact that the city looks virtually nothing like New York is to its benefit. The unfamiliarity of this futuristic city enhances the heightened reality the filmmakers want to achieve. Veteran action director Geoff Murphy (Young Guns II, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory) knows his way around car chases and shootouts. He lacks the fever-dream flair Paul Verhoeven brought to Total Recall, but Freejack is still a slick, well-made “cyberpunk” thriller.

Freejack was released in theatres at the height of Emilio Estevez’s stardom, shortly after Rene Russo and Anthony Hopkins became household names with, respectively, Lethal Weapon 3 and The Silence of the Lambs. Even Shusett had just come off a big hit with Total Recall. The talent pool combined to make a pretty good movie, but not quite a great one. I suspect its box-office failure has more to do with the difficulty of marketing such a weird story than with the quality of the film itself. It’s worth a second look.

Read More

Touch (1997)

“It’s all a matter of tone,” says ex-revivalist/low-grade con artist Bill Hill (Christopher Walken) midway through Touch. If only writer-director Paul Schrader had taken this statement to heart. The screenplay, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1987 novel, has the witty dialogue and inconceivable plot twists of a screwball comedy. In his direction, however, Schrader plays everything at a lugubrious tempo, eschewing the frenetic pace of a typical screwball comedy for something solemn and dignified. “Solemn and dignified,” in this case, are polite euphemisms for “dull.”

The film opens with a brutish redneck throwing dishes at his blind wife. Family friend Bill and rehab counselor Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich) arrive to defuse the situation. Before leaving, Juvenal touches the blind woman, and her sight is immediately and miraculously restored. From there, Juvenal is torn between exploitation on two fronts. Bill senses the opportunity to publicize Juvenal’s apparent gift and make back all the money he lost faking the same gift in a church revival. Pious print-shop owner August Murray (Tom Arnold) has the same desire: he wants to use Juvenal’s gift to bring attention to his church, which attempts to practice 1300s-style Catholicism. August’s subtle hypocrisy could have juxtaposed nicely with Bill’s overt exploitation, but Schrader’s direction lacks the energy for this rivalry to get off the ground.

Instead, Schrader focuses more on Juvenal, arguably the film’s dullest character. This is not a problem with Ulrich, who turns in a fine, nuanced performance. The issue rests in the screenplay, which spends too much time on an enigmatic character who never quite stops being an enigma. Even his love story with Bridget Fonda’s Lynn Marie (initially Bill’s partner in crime, she legitimately falls in love with Juvenal) doesn’t do much to reveal who he is or why anyone watching should care. Other than his ability to heal (which manifests by giving him the stigmata), Juvenal’s main trait is apathy. He knows both Bill and August want to exploit him, but he doesn’t really care. He doesn’t seem to have much interest in anything, including using his gift to help people. Not surprisingly, this does not make him a compelling protagonist.

Ushering Juvenal to the background to focus more on the rivalry between Bill and August (and, to some extent, Lynn Marie, who wants to defend her new lover against these predators) could have made this film much more effective. Walken and the perpetually sped-up Arnold have the energy Schrader’s direction and Ulrich’s laconic performance lack. When the tug-of-war over Juvenal reaches its boiling point in the third act, Bill and August both do some bizarre things that don’t seem motivated by anything earlier in the film. Concentrating on them would heighten the conflict enough to make these over-the-top actions seem perfectly in character.

As it stands, Touch is a deeply flawed disappointment. It’s too reverent to work as satire, too soporific to work as a comedy, and too goofy to work as a sober character study. Alfonso Arau’s 2000 film Picking Up the Pieces shares some of Touch‘s flaws (notably, focusing on the wrong character as its protagonist), but it’s essentially what this film should have been: a dark, brutal religious satire played at the frantic pitch of screwball comedy.

Read More

Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1985)

Sequels are all about raising the stakes, and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo does exactly that. In fact, it’s virtually identical to the first Breakin’, only with a sillier plot and crazier dance sequences. It also retains its predecessor’s sense of pure glee, preventing the movie from feeling like the crass cash-in it actually is.

The story hits all the same beats of the original: Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) struggles as a professional dancer but pines for the days of fun, dancing in the streets with Turbo and Ozone (Adolfo Quinones and Michael Chambers, respectively). Turbo continues to yearn for Kelly’s affections, but his jealousy over her blossoming career inadvertently pushes Kelly away. He wants her to volunteer at a colorful (literally—the building has a paint job you wouldn’t believe) neighborhood community center, Miracles. Unfortunately, a sinister developer (Peter MacLean) wants to tear down Miracles and replace it with a shopping mall. Will the power of break-dancing change the minds of City Council?

Although it mostly treads familiar territory, the screenwriters throw a couple of new peppers into the Breakin’ gumbo: this time around, Ozone develops a crush on an attractive dancer, which gives him more to do than act like a weirdo. Also, Kelly’s wealthy parents (Jo De Winter, John Christy Ewing) are introduced to act as the “haves” to the Turbo/Ozone “have-nots,” splitting Kelly’s loyalties. In a rewrite of a scene from the first film, Turbo and Ozone have dinner at Kelly’s house, and their brash/goofball sensibilities alienate her parents. Needless to say, Kelly rejoins “TKO” in defiance of her snooty parents.

In perhaps this sequel’s most interesting development, it introduces a little bit of darkness around the sunny edges of the Breakin’ universe: the film contains numerous disparaging references to street youths as either drug dealers or drug addicts, and Kelly’s parents raise legitimate (unanswered) questions as to how the seemingly unemployed Turbo manages to afford such stylish clothes.

Overall, Breakin’ 2 is about the joy of dance. This time around, the dance sequences are more elaborate and densely populated with rhythmic extras. They range from exuberant (dancing through the streets to protest the closing of Miracles) to surreal (Ozone dancing on the walls and ceiling of a rotating room either borrowed from A Nightmare on Elm Street or Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” video) to creepy as hell (Ozone and Turbo fighting over a female dummy they both “see” as their respective love interests—it’s a well-choreographed, deftly edited sequence that is nevertheless a little disturbing). The dance numbers reach their silliness apex when an energetic dance sequence breaks out among handicapped patients in a hospital ward, complete with “sexy nurses” (straight out of a 976 ad) and surgeons popping and locking shortly after losing a patient (who quickly returns to life and starts dancing himself).

As a dance film, it never lacks for imagination. As a story, it’s goofy and predictable. As a viewing experience, it’s a hell of a lot of fun—more fun, even, than the first one. Even people who dislike break-dancing (like me) will derive at least some pleasure from the sense of offbeat fun contained within Breakin’ 2.

Read More

Jonah Hex (2010)

What went wrong here? A compelling comic book character, great actors, a goofy but potentially funny revisionist-western storyline, excellent production values. This could have been one of the great, bleak, Dark Knight-esque comic-with-a-conscience summer movies. Instead, it limps through a barely-feature-length runtime, telling an incoherent-to-the-point-of-avant-garde story that’s stupid when it should have been sublimely ridiculous.

The plot, when the movie remembers to have one, goes like this: during the Civil War, Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) fought for the Confederacy, but the corrupt and lascivious actions of his superiors disgusted him. He killed a man who turned out to be the son of Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who in turn killed Jonah’s family and branded his face, leaving it permanently and disgustingly disfigured. In 1876, Turnbull is a terrorist hell-bent on blowing up Washington, D.C., during the centennial celebration. He’s gained access to top-secret plans for a precursor to the atomic bomb designed by cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney (no, really). Jonah is tasked by President Grant (Aidan Quinn) to stop Turnbull from using the weapon. For some reason, Megan Fox plays a prostitute named Lilah. The movie unsuccessfully attempts to sell us on a love story between Jonah and Lilah, but she does make a nice damsel in distress in the third act (after disappearing for a relatively long stretch).

For yet another unknown reason, Jonah has the ability to talk to the dead. The writers go to great pains to establish the rules of this power in a hilarious scene where Jonah first explains that he can’t bring people back to life for very long, then proceeds to ramble about the rest of the rules while the deceased writhes in agony. See, as Jonah touches their body and speaks to them, they start to burn. They burn more quickly if they’ve been dead for a short period of time. This last rule handily allows Jonah to quickly torture the recently deceased for information and have a lengthy, heartfelt conversation with his brother (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who died in the war. Incidentally, this stupid power exists solely as a lazy way for Jonah to gain information. Why bother investigating when he can just find out the plan from Turnbull’s dead cronies?

I could spend this entire review theorizing on what happened behind the scenes to ruin this movie, but at the end of the day, I don’t care. What I care about is the end result, which—whether it actually is or not—feels like they shot half a script and tried to smooth over the bumpy scenes with lazy voiceover and one of the worst (and most arbitrary) animation sequences I’ve ever seen in a medium- to big-budget film. The disjointed story never comes together, the characters are wildly, almost laughably inconsistent, and the writers seem content to mine every western cliché in the book. The writers add a sci-fi/fantasy angle to try to make these clichés seem a little more inventive.

The sci-fi/fantasy angle doesn’t work at all. I have no familiarity whatsoever with the comic, so I just assumed that’s where it came from. The writers had to put it in to appease its fans, even though it never makes sense and is incredibly stupid. However, after the screening, I talked to a friend familiar with the comic. Jonah’s most prominent superhero power in the movie—his ability to talk to the dead—does not exist in the comic at all. In fact, the comic doesn’t even have sci-fi/fantasy elements. It’s just a standard western comic inspired by Peckinpah and Leone, following a badass antihero whose only “superpower” is flawless marksmanship.

Jonah Hex wastes a terrific cast. Brolin mumbles his way through the movie with a distracting Yosemite Sam impersonation. He and Malkovich show amazing commitment to ridiculous characters. These performances may have worked exceptionally well in a better movie, but in this movie, it’s just depressing. Even Megan Fox does a pretty good job in a barely-there role, which surprised me. I’ve actually never seen her in a movie, but the hype surrounding her led me to believe she’s a vacuum of talent. I wouldn’t describe her performance as a revelation, but she also wasn’t distractingly bad.

The world wasn’t exactly clamoring for a Jonah Hex movie. Although compelling, he’s not as well-known as, say, Batman or Superman. This film could have introduced him to a much wider audience, and created a great comic-book movie franchise. Hell, it may have even rekindled the mostly dead revisionist western genre. It fails on pretty much every level, however. The filmmakers blew a big opportunity.

Read More

Steel and Lace (1991)

Steel and Lace is a curiosity from a glorious time when every action/horror movie had a cyborg in it. About half the movie seems like campy exploitation, particularly those scenes that focus on rapist/mobster Danny Emerson (Michael Cerveris) and his mullet-adorned pals. From the sleazy wink he gives Gaily (Clare Wren) after a jury acquits him of raping her to the blood-red “clawed fist clutching the earth” logo of his company, Danny is portrayed as so cartoonishly evil, it’s impossible to take him seriously.

While I’d love to judge the movie on the merit of a campy thriller that doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s hard to reconcile the silly, over-the-top moments with the more subdued, introspective moments. Cyborg Gaily questions how much humanity she has left. Courtroom sketch artist Alison (Stacy Haiduk) finds herself so emotionally affected by Gaily’s story, she becomes consumed and starts putting a case together against Danny. Director Ernest D. Farino lets these scenes play with sensitivity that doesn’t mesh well with the patent absurdity of the rape flashback (which resembles a Whitesnake video more than a horrific act of violence) or the carnage cyborg Gaily inflicts.

The plot is a typical early-’90s take on the standard revenge thriller: Gaily, haunted by Danny’s goofily staged rape (which involves his four best buddies taunting her while Danny does his thing), is so distraught when the verdict comes back “not guilty,” she jumps off the roof of the courthouse. Five years later, Danny’s buddies—now equal partners in his shady business ventures, thanks to sticking by him during the rape trial—start to die, one by one. Her brother (Bruce Davison) worked as a NASA robotics scientist before retiring to focus on bringing his sister back as a revenge-seeking cyborg.

The film balances this storyline’s murderous shock moments with Alison’s investigation. Her ex-boyfriend, Detective Dunn (David Naughton), is also on the case, but nobody has any idea who could be killing Danny’s friends, or why. Danny’s company has made a lot of enemies, but few humans can kill a man by draining all his blood out through his penis (I am not making that up). Alison has a strong enough intuition to suspect Gaily’s brother Albert of being up to something nefarious—but what?

The film focuses more on Alison and Dunn than Danny and Gaily, and that’s a problem. On some level, it seems like the filmmakers wanted to appeal to women, so they hedged their bets by having a live woman—not a cyborg controlled by a man—as the lead character. However, neither Alison nor Dunn add much, and their presence detracts from potentially more interesting material involving Gaily, Danny, and Albert. The murders make Danny and his friends paranoid, but none of them really seem to consider the moral or karmic ramifications of what they’ve done. They’re all too evil to be believed. As a result, the murder sequences—while inventive and disturbing—don’t feel like a deserved comeuppance so much as a cheap shock.

Cheap shocks are all well and good in a dopey action movie, but the filmmakers here spend a great deal of time questioning the moral and karmic ramifications of what Gaily is doing. Are her actions just? Are her actions even her own? Albert had the plan to build a cyborg version of his sister that can shapeshift (sort of—she’s not exactly the T-1000, but she has a lot of skill with wigs and latex) and enact revenge. Should Gaily be considered a pawn in unjust actions, or a tool for carrying out just desserts? The film really does ask all these questions, but it doesn’t provide any clear answers or a strong point of view. It seems like they’re just trying to be deep, man.

When camp and philosophy duke it out, nobody wins. Steel and Lace could have been a tight, suspenseful thriller about bad men facing the consequences of a horrible action. Instead, it ended up a wildly uneven mixed bag full of extraneous characters and silly shock killings.

Read More

[Five] Killers (2010) by Bob DeRosa and Ted Griffin

Everything that went wrong with Killers can be traced to the title change: from the fairly specific (or, at least, enigmatically intriguing) Five Killers to the generic, not-at-all-compelling Killers. On the page, Five Killers spins an entertaining, occasionally thrilling tale that blends Mission: Impossible-esque espionage with good-natured romantic comedy. On the screen, it seems the filmmakers decided to scale way back on the espionage in favor of the romantic comedy angle. The result is uneven, to put it mildly.

Let’s start with the screenplay’s storyline, which I will eventually contrast with the differences in the film. Spencer (Ashton Kutcher) is essentially portrayed as a low-grade Ethan Hunt, a young but masterful spy. The early scenes do a great job of setting the tone: while Spencer lurks around Corsica, tracking and ultimately bombing a mysterious, supervillain known as “Leveneux,” he has a goofy Meet-Cute with Jen (Katherine Heigl), who’s vacationing with her overbearing, intrusive parents. They share a cute, slightly awkward moment, at which point Spencer asks Jen out. Gleeful, evidently lonely Jen prepares for a date with Spencer, while he plants a bomb on Leveneux’s escape helicopter. They both dash to an outdoor caf&eacute, overlooking the Mediterranean, just in time to see the chopper explode.

A montage follows, depicting their whirlwind courtship and marriage. During this montage, Spencer quits working as a spy and opens a small design firm in the suburbs. The script then jumps ahead three years, to a much more complacent Jen and Spencer. They’re still in love, but they’re decidedly a settled married couple. Spencer has some issues with the amount of time Jen spends with her parents. Jen has some issues with how much time he spends at work. After the script introduces a cavalcade of suburban stereotypes with outsized personalities, Spencer gets a call from his old handler, who has a line on “The Leopard,” the mysterious, Blofeld-like boss of Leveneux. He’s not dead. The handler wants to meet, but Spencer refuses. That night, Jen throws a surprise party in anticipation of Spencer’s birthday. The following morning, Spencer finds his best friend, Henry, trying to kill him.

From there, Jen learns of Spencer’s secret past as a spy, and Spencer learns (from Henry) that he has a $20 million bounty on his head. Henry knows more assassins will be hot on Spencer’s trail, but he doesn’t know how many, who put the bounty on Spencer, or why they were paid to “sleep” in Spencer’s subdivision for three years before activation. Spencer assumes it has something to do with his handler. The remainder of the story focuses on two major plot threads: Spencer and Jen uncovering information about who hired the assassins (Spencer assumes it’s The Leopard, who realizes Spencer and his handler have gotten too close, so his main goal is to use information about the assassins to find out The Leopard’s true identity), and the couple attempting to elude and/or fight various assassins. With all this happening, Jen struggles to deal with Spencer’s deception, and Spencer struggles with the idea that he may be a father (yes, the pregnancy subplot rears its ugly head midway through the script).

Overall, the script is a fun read. The spy material is engaging but not overwrought, and the writers do a solid job of balancing the tonal shifts. They also mine a lot of suspense and a sense of paranoia from the idea that literally anybody could be an assassin. The ending, which I’ll be nice and not ruin, is inevitable but not at all predictable. It’s not without its flaws, however. In particular, Jen is a one-note character. She doesn’t really have any traits beyond “overly dependent on her parents.” The attempt to give her a conflict of her own—anxiety over when and how to tell Spencer about her pregnancy—doesn’t add as much dimension to her as the writers seem to think. They also don’t play enough with the idea of Spencer deceiving Jen on an epic scale, making her pregnancy secret a relatively minor offense.

The portrayal of the assassins constitutes another big flaw of the screenplay. The writers lay it out pretty simply: shortly after their marriage, an unknown boss hired five killers (hence the title) to befriend or work with Spencer and/or Jen. The assassins had two conditions: they’d have to wait an unknown length of time before the boss activated them, and they’d be dueling with each other for the $20 million bounty. Here’s the main problem: once revealed as assassins, the killers don’t break character. They remain wacky suburban stereotypes, preoccupied with fishing trips and property lines despite the fact that they’re in the middle of car chases and shootouts. The incongruity is amusing on a basic comedic level, but it doesn’t make any actual sense.

Another, more minor problem with them is how easily Spencer dispatches them. He kills four of the five assassins with relative ease, leading to a third-act block party filled with paranoid dread as Spencer and Jen try to identify the final killer. The fix for these two issues is sheer elegance in its simplicity: make the assassins go soft. They’ve spent three years assuming the cover of a dull suburbanite, a UPS driver, or an intern. The way these characters describe the torture of suburbia left me with the impression that they’re not used to “sleeping” in these covers identities for so long. Humans—even sociopathic assassins—are very adaptable creatures. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising or unreasonable to think they’d put on a little weight and got a little more invested in fishing than in keeping up with target practice or the latest in bombing technology. It kills two birds with one stone, explaining why Spencer has such an easy time killing them and why they remain fixated on their bland suburban lives as they spray machine-gun fire in Spencer’s direction.

Did the film rectify any of these problems? Sort of…but it makes a lot of new, more debilitating mistakes. This is the rare film that is wildly divergent from its screenplay. Usually, some things change in production, but only a few scenes and the (very) basic storyline remain intact in Killers.

On the positive side, the film gives Jen and her parents much more personality—so much so that it no longer makes much sense when she and Spencer argue about her dependence on her parents. As the Kornfelds, Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara mine some of the biggest laughs, but the characters are totally different. Gone are the overbearing perfectionists; in their stead, Selleck is a cold, constantly disapproving bully, and O’Hara is an over-the-top lush (the sort of woman who makes a pitcher of Bloody Marys for breakfast and drinks the whole thing as if it’s a giant glass). Jen treats them more with annoyance than dependence.

Jen, herself, has much more going on. When we first meet her, she’s a sentient bundle of anxiety, in constant fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Heigl does a nice job of showing the change “three years later”—she’s much more relaxed and subdued now that she’s found her soulmate. However, the groundwork is there for her to panic and overreact when the assassins come calling. The script eventually attributes this to mood swings associated with pregnancy, which is sort of a lame explanation that attempts to make the character less interesting.

However, the assassins remain the same, warts and all. The entire supporting cast is populated by comedic ringers like Rob Riggle (The Daily Show), Alex Borstein (Mad TV), and Martin Mull (Fernwood 2 Night). That they’re all recognizable makes it harder to identify whom the assassins might be. That they’re all comedians forces them to go a few hundred shades over the top, compounding the problems with the assassins’ portrayal in the script. (However, Mull gives an impressively restrained performance, but he’s in the movie for a total of about 38 seconds.)

The film’s plot is a curiosity. Whereas the screenplay combines the romantic-comedy elements with the legitimate sense of a thriller, the changes to the story and characters reflect a definite “rom-com first, thriller seventh” attitude. The film strips away the majority of spy material, making those delicately balanced tonal shifts jarring and weird. Shootouts and car chases are inexplicably punctuated with music left over from the Under the Tuscan Sun scoring sessions. The lack of suspense and simplification of the plot present serious problems because they make the characters’ movement from location to location meaningless. It feels like they’re just traveling to a different place to vary the action sequences. Admittedly, that’s the script’s ultimate goal—but it gives the characters palpable purpose for going to the places they go.

I have one question, to which I have no definitive answer: what the hell happened? How did a reasonably good (if slightly problematic) script turn into such a wildly uneven, borderline incoherent movie? Is this another example of too many cooks spoiling the broth? Director Robert Luketic bears at least some of the blame. The film de-emphasizes the thriller aspects, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely gone. It is, after all, still a film about a couple trying to get away from assassins. He’s responsible for the total lack of suspense and poorly staged action sequences.

Worse than that, though, the film feels like a bunch of ill-fitting pieces jammed together. Some scenes—notably, Jen and Spencer’s meeting and the “they buy a pregnancy test” scene—are identical to what’s in the script. Everything surrounding these scenes changed, but they don’t quite sync up anymore. It’s almost like they started shooting with the draft of the script I read, but the writers were forced to rewrite the script on-set to accommodate both what they’d already shot and what the director or producers or actors or agents or executives decided the movie now “needed.” For instance, the pregnancy is a major subplot in the screenplay, but in the finished film it’s an unnecessary distraction. Now that Jen’s character has totally changed, for the better, why not just cut it altogether?

It’s always a shame when a good script goes bad. Five Killers had its share of problems, but it would have turned out a lot better than Killers did.

Read More

Special Contributors: MacGruber (2010) by Ted Bertram

Remember when action movies were tough? Back before the Clinton liberals convinced everyone that a sensitive, ponytail-wearing, environment-loving “action hero” like Steven Seagal or a Frenchy like Jean-Claude Van Damme were worth watching, we had real heroes like Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nowadays, we have a lot less ass-kicking and a lot more wistful stares and “tough guys” whining about how they don’t want to have to do what’s necessary to catch the bad guys. “It’s too hard!” they whimper. “I don’t want to kill people, even if they did slaughter my entire family and kidnap the President of the United States.”

I’ve long thought this type of prissy “hero” needed to go, and it would appear the makers of MacGruber agree with me. It’s no surprise, then, that the elites in Hollywood torpedoed any possibility of success with an embarrassingly low budget ($10 million) and a low-key, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ad campaign.

Sometimes, Hollywood doesn’t know what it’s getting into. As with David O. Russell’s terrorist-loving “war film” Three Kings (1999), the makers of MacGruber clearly sold their studio a bill of goods—the story of a liberal action hero forced out of retirement to work for the big bad “jingoistic” military. What they delivered was a sly, winking satire, and clearly the studio didn’t know what to do with it.

Rife with homages to classics like Predator (1987) and Road House (1989), first-time director Jorma Taccone (who co-wrote with John Solomon and star Will Forte) has a clear affinity for the world of Reagan-era action films. The narrative structure and action sequences are a deliberate, satisfying throwback.

It tells a straightforward story: when German terrorist Dieter Von Cunth (a deliciously sinister Val Kilmer) steals a Russian nuclear warhead, MacGruber is called out of retirement by heroic Army Colonel James Faith (Powers Boothe) and paired with steely rookie Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) and doe-eyed vixen Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig). Their task: find Von Cunth and get the passcodes that will launch the missile. The film is loaded with bombastic action sequences that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

What separates MacGruber from both contemporary action movies and classics from the 1980s is the titular lead character. As MacGruber, Will Forte is a preening, simpering crybaby. His performance, and the way the character is written, mark a satirical masterstroke that’s surprising coming from former hippie haven Saturday Night Live. Evidently, the White House isn’t the only home to “change you can believe in.”

Forte (along with Taccone and Solomon) brilliantly subvert the clichés of the modern liberal action hero. When faced with imminent danger, MacGruber starts to scream, cry, and offer homosexual favors to anyone who might listen. Every word he says to his tough-as-nails military cohorts has the smug air of condescension, all the while taking credit for their heroics. MacGruber spends so much time explaining what he’s going to do, the Germans easily and frequently get the drop on him. He’s overly emotional, self-absorbed, and obsessively focused on petty revenge and jealousy, distracting him from the mission at hand. Heck, he doesn’t even know how to use a gun.

Perhaps the filmmakers’ strongest indictment of MacGruber is contained in his tangled backstory with Von Cunth: years ago, after impregnating his mulatto girlfriend (Maya Rudolph), Von Cunth intended to do the right thing and marry her. However, during the engagement, MacGruber repeatedly slept with her, then forced her to call off the engagement and terminate the pregnancy. Most appallingly, it never occurs to MacGruber that his actions and blasé attitude could have something to do with why Von Cunth hates him so much.

The film’s sole weak spot comes toward the end. After a wonderful moment where Dixon Piper finally stands up to his foolhardy superior, the film does a complete 180. Instead of fully committing to the idea of MacGruber as a shrill, incompetent symbol of what happens when the peacenik left tries to act tough, the filmmakers allow MacGruber to save the day—twice!

The writers try to salvage this misguided turn of events by acknowledging MacGruber only saves the day because of things he learned from Dixon. However, it remains patently obvious that a focus group filled with granola-eating Orange County teens forced the filmmakers to shoot a new ending that doesn’t quite fit the merciless satire of liberalism and the conservative values the film generally reinforces.

Despite its ending, MacGruber is a perfect date movie for any couple who loves the visceral thrills and right-thinking no longer found in today’s action spectacles.

Read More

Knight and Day (2010)

Even though I still have no idea what the title means, I enjoyed Knight and Day a lot. It blends cheerful, good-natured comedic moments with some very impressive action sequences much more successfully than the similar Killers. More to the point, it’s exactly what a summer popcorn movie should be: fun.

Tom Cruise has made a career out of cultivating a super-cool, super-confident, super-charming persona. In Knight and Day, he mines some big laughs by taking that persona into the realm of sociopathy. His Roy Miller is little more than a variation on Cruise’s Mission: Impossible character, Ethan Hunt, but he lacks the self-awareness to realize an “average” person like June (Cameron Diaz) won’t respond well to his smiling proclamation that he’s murdered a planeload of people, including the pilot and copilot. Painting the Cruise persona as borderline insane is risky, but it pays off really well.

The setup is convoluted: June is on her way home to Boston for her sister’s wedding. At the airport, she meets Roy, who switches her boarding pass for a later flight. For reasons not immediately known, a cadre of CIA agents is monitoring Roy. They see the switch and conclude Roy and June are working together, so they allow June to board Roy’s flight, which is filled with assassins (including the flight crew). Roy and June bond quickly, but that’s before Roy kills everyone on the plane but her. Not surprisingly, she freaks out. She continues to freak out as Roy lands the plane in the middle of a cornfield, blows it up, and drugs June. She wakes in Boston, thinking it was a very odd dream.

From there, the story plays out with June as a comedic version of a Hitchcock hero: she’s in over her head, she doesn’t know what’s going on, but she has to keep trying to figure it out until people stop shooting at her. She teams up with Roy, who explains that a CIA conspiracy has made it look like he’s gone rogue and is trying to sell “the Zephyr” (a AA-sized battery that can power a small city perpetually) to terrorists. Later, she learns from a pair of CIA agents (Peter Sarsgaard and Viola Davis) that Roy is a professional liar who really has gone rogue. June has to figure out who’s telling the truth and how to get through this ordeal without dying or getting the Zephyr’s inventor (Paul Dano) killed.

The plot may seem complicated, but it breezes along at such a rapid clip, it doesn’t matter much if details get missed along the way. Screenwriter Peter O’Neill takes the script just seriously enough to keep it engaging, but not so seriously that it loses its sense of fun and becomes a leaden, brooding character piece. The bravura action sequences include an exhilarating expressway chase that left me with my jaw hanging on the floor, impressed by the combination of stunts and special effects. It’s not often that I’m truly awed by a piece of filmmaking—especially one driven by special effects—but this was outstanding. Nothing else in the movie quite matches the expressway chase, but the other action sequences have enough suspense and entertainment value to make it worth watching.

Tom Cruise does typically great work here, a consummate movie star playing a funny version of his usual performance. Diaz has never impressed me much before, but she also does a great job of anchoring the movie with a hilariously flummoxed, neurotic turn. Cruise and Diaz share such great chemistry, it surprises me they’ve never been paired up before. (Vanilla Sky doesn’t count—in addition to being a terrible movie, Diaz barely exists in it after she sets up the stupid, stupid plot.) The top-notch supporting players—notably Dano, pseudo-villain Jordi Mollà, and Marc Blucas as June’s firefighter ex-boyfriend—add a great deal to thankless roles, demonstrating what great actors can do to make underwritten characters feel alive.

Like most movies involving Tom Cruise, Knight and Day boasts a bevy of top-notch performers and technicians doing great work. Don’t mistake that for delusions that this is anything more than a silly but extremely well-made popcorn movie. You won’t find probing insight into the human condition, but it’ll entertain you more than Grown Ups.

Read More

Toy Soldiers (1991)

What happens when film executives decide to combine a teen-angst dramedy with over-the-top action? If we’re lucky, it’ll turn out like Red Dawn, a grim, paranoia-inducing thriller that allows goony teens to embody the American spirit. If we’re unlucky… Well, you’ll just have to wait for us to tackle Demolition High to know the true horrors of the teen action flick. Toy Soldiers doesn’t quite reach Red Dawn‘s heights, but it’s a solid thriller.

Billy Tepper (Sean Astin) and Joey Trotta (Wil Wheaton) are prep school thugs. Billy is smart and resourceful, the kind of kid who concocts a vodka drink that’s indistinguishable from mouthwash and uses $10 worth of Radio Shack parts to hack the school’s phone line and prank-call 976 numbers (remember those?). Louis Gossett, Jr., and Denholm Elliott turn in fine performances as, respectively, dean and headmaster. They treat Billy and Joey with a combination of tough love and appreciative amusement. It’s not exactly uncharted territory in a teen movie, but it’s always nice when the adults are played as more than simpering boobs.

Before long, the school is invaded by Luis Cali (Andrew Divoff, in a typically scenery-chewing performance), son of a Colombian druglord. Why would he choose a prep school in the U.S.? Luis’s father was arrested by a Colombian judge and extradited to the U.S. to face his crimes. The judge in question has a son who attends the Regis Academy. After Luis murdered the judge and fled the country, the State Department whisked his son away to a secret location. Luckily, Luis’s über-creepy partner in crime, Jack (Michael Champion), points out a better strategy: holding the students for a ransom their wealthy parents can afford.

From there, it pretty much unfolds like Die Hard: The Teen Years. Billy and Joey enlist the aid of friends (Keith Coogan, T.E. Russell, and George Perez) in hatching plans to foil the terrorists and communicate with the FBI and military hovering off-campus. Part of the fun of the movie is watching them coming up with schemes and putting them into action, so I won’t spoil much more of the plot. Just know that writers Daniel Petrie, Jr. (who also directed), and David Koepp do a nice job of crafting a believable story. On a certain level, it’s a ridiculous concept, but the writers never overplay their hand. There’s no war paint or slow motion Dirty Dozen badass-walks. They keep it at a level that clever teens could conceivably pull off.

Although the film mines a fair amount of clichés – including an untimely death that forces Billy to question his competence to foil Luis’s plans – they pay off in inventive, often entertaining ways. For instance, during the “exposition dump” portion of the first act, Petrie and Koepp go to great pains to show Billy hacking the school phone with his cheap Radio Shack components. Because of the nature of cinema, the instinctive thought is, “This will pay off later – they’ll use this phone trick to contact the authorities or something.” They don’t, but this isn’t an unsatisfying letdown. It’s a defiance of a cliché: they use the phone sequence to show Billy’s cleverness, resourcefulness, and skill with electronics, all attributes of his character that do pay off later. They don’t need to go back to the phone trickery – in fact, Billy’s flight from the prep school to warn the authorities in person is the film’s most suspenseful sequence.

For a teen-oriented action movie, Toy Soldiers succeeds admirably. What could have been a ridiculous, eye-rolling exercise in exploitation turns out to be an effective, entertaining film. The credit for that goes partly to Petrie, who wisely keeps the action grounded in something resembling reality. However, the success of the story really falls on the shoulders of Astin and Wheaton, whose capable performances lend credibility to a far-fetched premise. It’s definitely worth a look.

Read More