Rating: The Good – 72.1 Genre: Action Duration: 126 mins Director: J.J. Abrams Stars: Tom Cruise, Michelle Monaghan, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Easily the better of the first two sequels, Mission Impossible III isn’t as much defined by its traditional set pieces as it is by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s über-villain. After retiring from the field to get married, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is drawn back into the fold when his protege is killed by the aforementioned nasty arms dealer who among other things is attempting to secure some kind of doomsday device. Picking up the ball after John Woo had somewhat fumbled it in MI:II, J.J. Abrams, fresh from his television successes with Alias and Lost, shows an intuitive touch in his handling of some modestly conceived but impressively staged set pieces. And though opening in perhaps too high a gear, the movie does eventually settle to the extent that a decent story plays out.
After a six year hiatus from the role, Cruise gives us the same enjoyable but watered down version of Ethan Hunt as he did in the first sequel. No doubt the movie could’ve used the cheeky verve of his cracking original turn but what he fails to provide, Seymour-Hoffman makes up for in spades. Not known for his roles in action thrillers, Seymour-Hoffman spits his wonderfully acidic dialogue at everyone and anyone who gets in his way right before he tortures them in some novel but psychologically cruel manner. He’s as thrilling a bad guy as you’ll find and a scene in which he wakes up in chains yet immediately turns the tables on his captors through sheer force of will is chilling to behold. The majority of the characters excluding Hunt’s new bride (Michelle Monaghan) and his sarcastic tech-specialist (Simon Pegg) are merely vessels through which the extended action sequences play out but so brisk is the pace Abrams sets, it won’t really be noticed.
Rating: The Ugly – 66 Genre: Action Duration: 92 mins Director: Louis Leterrier, Corey Yuen Stars: Jason Statham, Qi Shu, Matt Schulze
A meticulous driver and all-action bad-ass in the form of Jason Statham transports illicit cargo around the French countryside but gets sucked into a people trafficking racket when he breaks his own rules and looks inside the package. Written and produced by Luc Besson but directed by Louis Leterrier, The Transporter still bears all the hallmarks of the legendary director’s most enjoyable work. An action comedy with a quirky energy that flirts with the laws of physics and slaps a couple of charming characters right in the centre. Statham delivers the goods in more ways than one with his usual mixture of suave wise-cracks and kickboxing acrobatics and Qi Shu makes for a worthy co-star as his endearing yet unintended sidekick. The plot is daft as a brush and you may even struggle to recall what the whole thing was about but with two strong leads, a considered screenplay, and more breathless car-chases, bullets and grenades, and kicks and punches than you can keep up with, The Transporter will race into the good graces of even the most cynical of movie fans.
As technically innovative as 2001: A Space Odyssey (seriously!), Quentin Tarantino pulls out all the stops in the first volume of this relentlessly imaginative and convention twisting story of an assassin who mercilessly hunts down her former colleagues after awakening from the four year coma they put her in. Not content to toil in one of the many action sub-genres, Tarantino bridges at least four genres from Spaghetti Western to Japanese Anime, seamlessly interweaving the different styles and pushing the boundaries of their conventions to the point that the viewer finds his/herself witnessing a broader yet unique and singular genre of his own creation. With each passing scene, he squeezes, twists, and stretches traditional conventions to find new ways to lure the viewer into his frenetic world of pure vengeance. The result is the most dazzling synthesis of visuals, sound, and music since The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as Tarantino crafts one mind blowing scene after another. There’s a fight scene to rival anything from the Jidaigeki genre, a tracking shot to rival Goodfellas‘ “Copa shot”, a split screen shot to rival the best of De Palma, and an Anime scene as good as anything that genre has produced. On top of all that, the inspired casting gives us an utterly superb collection of performances lead by Uma Thurman’s scintillating portrayal of the Bride which finally gives us an action-heroine who talks and acts like a woman and not a man. Many have argued (including the director) that Kill Bill Volume 1 and Volume 2 should have been one film, but given the sleekness of this masterpiece, the difference in tone between the two movies, and the sublime manner in which this first Volume comes to a close, there’s more than good reason to see it in two installments. Unmissable.
Rating: The Ugly – 66.5 Genre: Action Duration: 112 mins Director: Renny Harlin Stars: Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker
A truly awful screenplay meets some of the hammiest acting straight on in this entertaining action romp about a group of mercenaries who co-opt a couple of mountain climbers into their attempt to locate briefcases full of money lost in a mountain wilderness. John Lithgow adds yet another impossibly over the top turn to his catalogue as the merciless leader of the bad guys, Stallone is actually a little better than usual as the burly yet modest climbing expert, Michael Rooker offers sound presence to the mix but Janine Turner is much too bland to matter. Where Cliffhanger succeeds is in giving us a veritable kaleidoscope of nastiness in the bad guy department. From Rex Linn’s crooked treasury agent and 24 carat asshole to Caroline Goodall’s murderous vixen and with a couple/three very punchable faces thrown in between, these guys are the best bunch of venom spitting henchmen since Die Hard. Alas, without much of a script to harness the interesting personalities which the actors bring to the party, that’s all they remain and whatever fun there is to be had, is at watching these world class bastards get their well deserved comeuppances.
Rating: The Good – 78.2 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 134 mins Director: Hark Tsui Stars: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan
Epic martial arts adventure starring Jet Li as the famous warrior Wong Fei-Hung who becomes embroiled in the intrigue of foreign powers and local corruption as he attempts to protect his homeland and traditions from their destructive influence. The outright strength of this magnificent piece of cinema is the tapestry of plots and stories it weaves into the central narrative not to mention the chorus of martial artists that intermittently set the screen alight. The result is a sprawling extravaganza of martial art drama. Hark Tsui brings an unabashed grandiosity to the film with striking cinematography and balletically choreographed action. James Wong’s magnificent score tells the story on its own level while Marco Mak’s editing whisks the audience along to the melodically unfolded action. As imaginative as the wire-work action sequences are there’s a slightly anaemic quality to their thrust which is a common problem with the flying style of fight movies. But what is lacking in oomph is made up for in artistry as Li, Biao Yuen, and company put on a masterly exhibition of on-screen action gymnastics. Within this, Li makes for a strong lead and catches the dramatic qualities of the famous leader admirably. Like the life and personality that Hark breathes into his epic saga from behind the camera, his lead actor and the remainder of the cast ensured that Once Upon a Time in China became much more than just another Kung-Fu flick.
Rating: The Bad – 20 Genre: Crime Duration: 90 mins Director: Nicolas Winding Refn Stars: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas
A Thai based drug smuggler (Ryan Gosling) is co-opted by his disturbingly affectionate mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) into a bizarre revenge scenario when his brother is killed. Oh dear! It’s impossible to properly describe how embarrassing this entire affair is for writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn. After pulling the wool over many fans’ and indeed critics’ eyes and convincing them that Drive’s directorial pretensions were in fact art, the emboldened Refn threw off whatever shackles his modicum of common sense placed upon him and went full tilt into a project of pure self delusion. The result is pretentiousness of genuinely hysterically proportions. How a director can be so clueless as to mistake adolescent-like ramblings as profound cinematic statement is just plain mystifying but to go one step further and not realise that even moderately discerning cinema lovers are laughing at him boggles the mind. From his main character’s metaphorical fiddling within the stomach wound of his enemy to the hack reinterpretation of Freud’s Oedipus Complex, this one just ploughs blindly forward with a smug smile and oblivious arrogance. However, the most unfortunate aspect to all this is that the truly talented Ryan Gosling seems to have bought the knock off Kool-Aid lock, stock, and rancid barrel. One was tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt in Drive because everything good about that movie’s intentions seemed exclusively a product of his contributions. But to not stop at any point during the shooting of this mess and echo the words of Harrison Ford to George Lucas “You can write this shit George but you sure as hell cant say it!”, is truly mystifying. Gosling is an intelligent actor but he has been worryingly slipstreamed into the perversely stupid world of Refn on this one. Any marks this movie gets is for Larry Smith’s rather nice cinematography but as far as the rest is concerned, Only God could forgive it!
Rating: The Ugly – 63.4 Genre: Crime, Action, Martial Arts Duration: 150 mins Director: Gareth Evans Stars: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra
After escaping the infamous apartment block of The Raid: Redemption, police officer Rama is manipulated into a deep cover assignment designed to expose corruption at the highest level of the Indonesian underworld. But as he gets close to the son of a powerful gangster he finds himself fending largely for himself amid a gang war. The Raid 2 counts as a mildly enjoyable sequel to the surprise Indonesian hit of 2011 that in the absence of a similarly neat premise suffers under some pretentious efforts at compensation.
It’s a familiar problem:- failing to replicate the priceless energy of the first film, the director invests greater attention on the technical side to the production. Thus, The Raid 2 looks wonderfully polished, and individually there are some striking scenes but, overall, it doesn’t work as a package. The lavish production design and overly self conscious cinematography begin to smack of pretension as they intrude repeatedly on the plot’s rational progression which, on a whole other level, struggles to facilitate the same level of action that it’s predecessor dished out. With The Raid: Redemption, there was a streamlined plot which didn’t simply allow carnage to happen naturally, it demanded it! Under pressure to up the ante but without that same bespoke pretext, The Raid 2 contrives one sequence after another until we’re left with a complicated story that lacks the integrity of one solid motivation. This is borne out most clearly in how Rama drifts in and out of the movie despite being the principle character not to mention the only one who links the two films. The other side to this issue is that the action fails to hit the critical momentum of the first film which was a veritable masterclass in that respect.
That said, Iko Uwais makes for a solid lead yet again finding that perfect balance between fresh faced charm and a flurry of fists and feet. The movie always picks up with his presence and the fight sequences are at their most balletic when he’s at their centre. So it’s more the pity they didn’t build the entire show around him. More often than not it seems, we traipsing after the gangsters and their enforcers of which there are just too many littered about. The “colourful bad guy” is a staple of the great action film and the one or two that tend to populate them should be pillars of the movie’s personality. With so many popping up and disappearing through the course of this movie, they fade into nondescript references of the script’s confusing allegiances.
Though letting himself down on his script writing duties, Gareth Evans still manages to prove himself an able director with an eye for scene composition. But he needs to learn discipline so he can tell when to hold back with the visuals and when to deliver them with punch. With too many striking set ups and bold colour contrasts, it all just whites out after a while. He’s shown he can handle action, and then some, and he’s given us glimpses of more but he didn’t properly deliver it with The Raid 2.
Rating: The Bad – 57.9 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 132 mins Director: Antoine Fuqua Stars: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz
A numbingly formulaic action thriller the likes of which Denzel Washington can make watchable in his sleep. Which he kind of does. The movie adaptation of the Edward Woodward led television show focuses on yet another ex-spy/secret agent/assassin who gets caught up with the Russian mob while living under an assumed identity. Cue boo-hissable bad guys with scars, tattoos, and intimidating scowls, painfully earnest action sequences anchored in slow motion (so that we can see just how skilled out hero is), and straw characters reflecting just enough cheese-ball sentiment to justify our hero’s return to the dark side.
Who knows if this might’ve worked in a Jason Bourne free world but, as it stands (alongside Taken and a dozen other fallow pretenders), it’s just so much noise. So bad ass was Bourne that he has managed to kill every other action hero before they’re even written. And while the Equaliser is a pre-existing character and, originally, a much more interesting one, his 21st Century incarnation was never going to be anything but another guy with a “very specific [and very, very boring] skill set”. Comparisons with Bourne just serve to accentuate their inescapable blandness. And by the way, that skill set here includes a very lethal but unintentionally amusing use of DIY tools. That would be neither here nor there but Chloë Grace Moretz’ under-utilised presence as the hooker with the heart of gold might just confuse some into thinking that Denzel’s “DIY-Man” is part of some unauthorised Kick Ass sequel.
Of course, Denzel is nonetheless Denzel and his natural burning charisma makes this movie just about bearable. In fact, if The Equaliser does anything, it stands as testimony to the strength of that charisma because Washington isn’t even trying here. Granted there’s not much of a script to try with but this movie is a continuation of the type of cruise control/paycheck mode that has defined his career since Training Day. Fuqua was the director behind that one too but he had David Ayer’s boiling screenplay to work off. All he’s armed with here is that slow motion button and the predictability of a climactic showdown in the rain. Well under a sprinkler system – just so long as we get a close up of the hero’s face wet with victory and with the water very, very slowly dripping off it. You know, so as to emphasise the magnitude of the moment.
Rating: The Good – 68.4 Genre: Action Duration: 133 mins Director: Brad Bird Stars: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg
Tom Cruise takes charge of his IMF team on its fourth cinematic outing and despite its watery plot, there’s enough thrills and cleverly worked out set pieces to justify its existence. Joined by Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Paula Patton as he tracks down a “nuclear terrorist” bent on destroying most of the world, this adventure whisks us around the near east from Moscow to Dubai to India in one breathless sequence after another. Brad Bird’s installment isn’t going to incur much in the way of second or third viewings but the cast are just engaging enough to compensate for yet another generic bad guy and over-familiar plot. One would think the impossible mission scenario would offer a variety of jeopardising circumstances and, to be fair, such is the tradition since De Palma’s original big screen adaptation (and before). However, the plot to this one was grabbed straight off the shelf marked “Stock Plot: 21st Century Action Movie”. What’s even more unforgivable is that despite the franchise’s history of wonderfully colourful and nefarious bad guys – from John Voight’s reptilian traitor to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s terrifying arms dealer – writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec serve up an even blander villain. Ultimately that, even more than the story, is the great let down here. Thankfully, a back to form Cruiser is on hand to elevate things and his scaling of the world’s tallest building not to mention the accompanying caper set inside it is a peach.
Rating: The Ugly – 60 Genre: Action, Fantasy Duration: 110 mins Director: Timur Bekmambetov Stars: Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman
It might seem redundant to state that a movie about a secret cult of weavers turned assassins is at best a guilty pleasure but so derivative is this one that it really does need saying. With its comic book premise that itself was cobbled together from dozens of better sources and with a sprinkle of madcap mayhem, James McAvoy stars as a painfully ordinary nobody who, after Angelina Jolie shows up to repeatedly beat the crap out of him, discovers his birthright is to be a super-assassin and avenge his similarly employed father. Absurdly obscure superpowers considered and colourless bad guy aside, this one kind of skirts along of the far boundaries of tolerance thanks to the rollercoaster of fun it serves up. So detached is it from making sense that you’ll gladly just give in and absorb the bullet-bending, car-flipping carnage and chuckle at the few decent jokes they manage to cram in between. McAvoy’s boyish charm helps a lot and when Jolie isn’t doing her smug “I-know-something-that-you-don’t” face, she cuts another fine action heroine. Together, they are fine but don’t expect the chemistry of Ford and Fisher. Noteworthy in his presence is Morgan Freeman who pops up in a (not atypically) curious cameo too but to little effect because Wanted is McAvoy and Jolie’s bag.
Rating: The Ugly – 65.1 Genre: Action, Science Fiction Duration: 109 mins Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman
200 years after she threw herself and the alien growing within her into a molten pit, military scientists genetically re-engineer Ripley and her parasite back to life in order to harvest the alien embryo. Fortunately for the surviving crew of the inevitably doomed ship, the mingling of the two species’ DNA left her with a few special abilities. First things first. Alien: Resurrection backtracks on the finality of Alien 3. It introduces an overtly comic-bookish plot and a host of caricatured personalities into a series of movies that were always defined by tight plots and layered characters. The genre defining set-pieces of Alien and Aliens and the admirable attempts of Alien 3 are replaced by contrived, blockbuster, slow-motion explodathons. The most interesting aspect to the story, writer Joss Whedon’s notion of Ripley’s ‘rebirth’, is completely misinterpreted by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The incisive dialogue of the first three instalments replete with its organic wit and charm is replaced by a one-liner infested script which plays to the sound bite. The lavish production design jars completely with the more elegantly simple aesthetic of the first three. Similarly, the sleek and dark naturalism of H.R. Giger’s creature design is ultimately replaced with a quasi-surrealist Cronenberg-esque body horror. And lastly, and perhaps most unforgivably, the steely fear and breathless tension that so defined Scott’s, Cameron’s, and Fincher’s movies is relinquished in favour of gore, gore, and more gore resulting in yet more outlandish events that feel so ‘alien’ to the series.
With all this in mind, if one is going to enjoy Alien: Resurrection, one must take it entirely on its own merits and treat it as a standalone feature. For those who can do that, there’s a fairly enjoyable action/sci-fi/horror romp lurking beneath the ashes of the great series. Sigourney Weaver is back in her darkest Ripley incarnation and she eats up the opportunity to play with the well worn role. The movie comes alive when she’s on the screen and she is the most important factor in its partial redemption. There are also a host of fantastic character actors (e.g., Brad Dourif, Ron Perlman, Dan Hedaya, J.E. Freeman) playing the various secondary roles and caricatured as they are, the quality of the actors inhabiting them makes them fun to watch. The creatures look better than that which most sci-fi horror movies offer up and can even be enjoyed from the perspective of the franchise. As mentioned above, inappropriate as it may be to the Alien series, the production design and creature effects are still first rate and when combined with the motley gang of badasses led by the gnarly Ripley, the whole thing becomes quite entertaining.
Rating: The Good – 73.4 Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy Duration: 121 mins Director: James Gunn Stars: Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Benicio Del Toro
Yet another comic book blockbuster from the Marvel stable of sci-fi fantasy. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel are the eponymous heroes whose self-interests bring them together against a common foe who, like every other super villain these days, will settle for nothing else but the destruction of the galaxy. What saves this film from the black hole pull of a mind-numbingly familiar genre is the fresh sense of fun James Gunn brings to the script and its direction. The characters are drawn and played out with a care-free irreverence that drives the movie as a whole. There are no erroneously earnest pauses in tone to allow for some heavy handed emotional button pushing – well, none that aren’t cleverly rescued in time. Guardians of the Galaxy is a joke and everyone’s happy to play it that way. It all lays the groundwork for some genuinely side splitting humour, most of which, involves Cooper’s talking and brilliantly mental space rodent.
Though Pratt is a wonderfully unassuming lead with lots of self-deprecating charisma and Bradley is in rich vocal form, most of the credit must still go to Gunn. Making a funny movie doesn’t just require you to write funny but to direct funny and armed with his anthology of vintage pop tracks and a very wry sense of editing, he rocket propels the humour in his script. Okay, so a few of the jokes are taken a step too far but most are delivered with polish. And when we’re not laughing, the simply astounding visual effects ensure that we have something impressive to look at too and, while it never escapes the CGI look, the movie remains an immaculate piece of visual artistry. On this canvas, Gunn (particularly early on) crafts some dazzling action sequences and the ceaselessly fantastic gadgetry and conveyor belt of amazing aliens adds handsomely to their enjoyment.
Where the movie inevitably falls flat however, is in the wearingly repetitive plot that seems no different to that which the likes of Thor, The Avengers, or any number of the endless comic book adaptations (that we’ve been utterly plagued with these last five years) have offered up. Plots that seem to serve no other purpose than to provide a platform for endless battles and flashy explosions. For all the good this movie does with its character construction and comedic dialogue and for all the ingenuity of Gunn’s action, the brain eventually just switches off during these protracted sequences because the premise is too flimsy to support them. It’s part of Hollywood’s magic formula so it won’t soon change but anyone who doesn’t have the hormonal constitution of a 14 year old boy, is liable to find this movie’s visual narrative veering towards 3rd act tedium. Thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy wraps up at just under two hours and while still perhaps 15-20 minutes too long, it’s a damn sight shorter than most other modern comic adaptations. Alongside its richer character and dialogue base, that saving grace, gives Gunn’s movie a significant edge on the generic horde of superhero vehicles.