Rating: The Good – 74.4 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 115 mins Director: Mike Figgis Stars: Richard Gere, Andy Garcia, Nancy Travis
One of the more underrated crime thrillers of its era sees Andy Garcia taking on the role of the high-strung Raymond, a driven Internal Affairs detective who gets drawn into a deadly game of cat and mouse with nasty LAPD veteran Dennis Peck (in a thrilling turn from Richard Gere). As Raymond works hand in glove with his no-nonsense partner, played by the wonderful Laurie Metcalf, Garcia’s relationship with his wife (Nancy Travis) begins to unravel as Peck uses the young detective’s insecurities against him.
Henry Bean’s story has all the hallmarks of the great cop dramas and Mike Figgis proves more than capable in teasing out all the latent tension of its earlier stages and the troubled psychology of its latter scenes. A sophisticated touch reveals itself in the soft lit photography and edgy composition but, most of all, it’s the manner in which the film is sewn together that gives the movie its more seductive qualities. Figgis and editor Robert Estrin throw a hazy vibe over the proceedings that seems coded to the humidity of the LA streets and imparting a grittiness that graced the likes of To Live and Die in LA and Colors (which Estrin also edited). Within this aesthetic, Bean’s dialogue seems all the more subjective and the cast almost universally rise to its level. Garcia strikes just the right balance between vulnerability and intensity and Metcalf is a rock of supporting class by his side. Actually they serve each other rather well and share a wry chemistry. Travis has her moments of misjudgment but, in the main, she seems to ably represent the ambiguity that Figgis wanted from her. William Baldwin is surprisingly engaging as Peck’s burnout partner and it’s nice to see Faye Grant get a big screen run out worthy of her talent as Baldwin’s beleaguered but not so innocent wife (a small few will remember her as Julie in V). Gere is the unquestionable star of the show, however, and it’s an insidiously menacing turn that rivals any bad guy from the genre. It’s his sly streak that runs most clearly through the movie and backdrops its overall dark tone. An interesting if ultimately one sided sexual politics adds even more nuance to his character before Figgis overplays that particular hand in the final act.
Though serving up some tidy action sequences amid this thick dramatic soup, Internal Affairs still manages to just fall short of its ambitions. Bean attempts to draw an interesting parallel between Raymond and Dennis’ antagonists which the actors do their best with but there’s just not enough meat on the story to do it justice. A few less moments of pensive reflection and a few more subplots accented towards their complicated rivalry would’ve gone a long way in giving us the type of central confrontation that marked The French Connection or Heat.
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 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 – 81.3 Genre: Gangster Duration: 83 mins Director: William A. Wellman Stars: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods
William Wellman’s seminal film about a young hoodlum’s rise through the ranks of organised crime during the prohibition era gave the soon to be iconic James Cagney the opportunity to show his presence and he didn’t disappoint. The action scenes were hugely innovative and remarkably captured and Wellman’s use of the camera in general is particularly awe-inspiring. Much of this was controversial at the time and still packs a punch today. The Public Enemy is all about Cagney however, and the electricity he so effortlessly demonstrated.
Rating: The Good – 78 Genre: Thriller Duration: 107 mins Director: Brian De Palma Stars: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow
If Brian De Palma’s 1981 movie was made today by someone like Quentin Tarantino, it would be hailed as a masterpiece which defines the fresh playfulness of the modern cinematic era….and rightly so. However, this just goes to show how ahead of his time De Palma actually was (or how slow mainstream cinema was in catching up). John Travolta stars as a B-movie sound man who while out one night recording stock sounds, ends up recording a car accident from which he rescues a young woman (Nancy Allen). When he tells the police that the accident sounded like it was preceded by a gun shot he gets told to keep it quiet and when he tries to go about proving it with his recording he inadvertently puts the girl’s life in danger.
Blow Out opens with a delicious film-within-a-film vignette as Travolta and his on-screen director are watching the dailies of their latest slasher film – which is so well lit and staged that you wouldn’t mind seeing the full feature! This sets a tone to the movie that persists throughout as Travolta uses the tools of movie making to elucidate the crime that De Palma’s movie is built around. This gives the entire movie a kind of through-the-looking-glass feel as everything seems overtly cinematic and otherworldly. The lighting and production design are vividly captured and De Palma’s striking use of staging even in the quieter, more insignificant moments seems conspicuously relevant to the movie’s vibe. The characters too, in particular Allen’s ditsy female lead and John Lithgow’s creepy assassin, feel purposefully overblown.
As is typical with De Palma, there are a host of dazzling set pieces (arguably more here than in any of his other movies) the best of which surely being that ingeniously crafted night-time sound recording scene. Travolta is in top form and his relationship with Allen’s character is believable and interesting yet much different to the malevolent pairing they shared in Carrie. Lithgow is equally entertaining in a peculiar sort of way.
Blow Out is a movie-lover’s delight and required viewing for anyone who enjoys intelligent cinema. It’s dark, it’s suspenseful, and like all De Palma’s great work, it’s wonderfully dramatic.
Rating: The Good – 67.7 Genre: Comedy Duration: 106 mins Director: Ron Howard Stars: Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, Shelley Long
Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton make a great comedy duo in this goofy comedy about two morgue night attendants who decide to run a pimping operation from their deserted offices during the small hours. Winkler continues his attempt to eschew his Fonz persona (and does quite well) as the reserved and timid Chuck who is intimidated by everyone including his fiancé. That is until he meets Bill (Keaton), a free spirit with lots of harebrained ideas and Belinda (Shelly Long), the plucky working girl next door who together get Chuck involved in the lucrative but dangerous business of prostitution. Cue wild morgue parties, fights with rival pimps, and other such mayhem. The most important thing is that it all works wonderfully. Ron Howard’s direction captures the spirit of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel’s witty script well and the various characters are all fleshed out in interesting ways. The chemistry between the three leads is spot on and each of them adds substantially to the humour levels. Keaton’s performance as the lovable doofus has been well remembered down through the years and it is brilliantly funny but this is a team effort from start to finish.
Rating: The Good – 72.3 Genre: Crime, Blaxploitation, Thriller Duration: 94 mins Director: Jack Hill Stars: Pam Grier, Antonio Fargas, Peter Brown
The ultimate exploitation movie shows us exactly how vengeance should be done. Pam Grier takes no prisoners but she does take certain things (ouch!) as she lays waste to the prostitution and drug racketeers responsible for killing her boyfriend. Yes, the acting is a bit wooden (but not everywhere) and yes, the plot is basic but that’s not the point with these movies. The point is you get a chance to see everything Hollywood is afraid to show you. Foxy Brown does that and then some!
Rating: The Good – 74.7 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 91 mins Director: Jack Hill Stars: Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert DoQui
“Coffy is the color.” The definitive blaxploitation movie stars the excellent Pam Grier in the film that made her an icon. Grier plays a nurse who has had enough of the pushers and pimps who are bringing her neighbourhood down and takes justice into her own hands. The movie opens with her setting up the pusher that got her sister hooked on drugs but her attention is quickly shifted to the self-styled ‘King George’ (just check out his intro track) and his bosses. Coffy is everything that Hollywood movies both then but especially now have been afraid to show. A black female heroine who gets bloody, no holes barred vengeance on her male oppressors and isn’t afraid to compromise her chastity to do it. In that sense, it’s a cinematic breath of fresh air but in a more general sense, it’s a cracking little story directed with panache and bravado by the legendary Jack Hill. Grier is electric and easily the most endearing of heroines to lead a film and there are some belting action scenes that prove she’s no soft touch either. Yes, there are all the drawbacks of an exploitation movie such as shoddy production values and cheesy acting but that all adds to the underground flavor. And on top of all that, movie buffs will enjoy spotting just how much of this film affected and influenced the films of Quentin Tarantino, the ultimate example of which being none other than Jackie Brown.
Rating: The Good – 69.2 Genre: Thriller Duration: 125 mins Director: Daniel Petrie Sr Screenplay: Heywood Gould Stars: Paul Newman, Edward Asner, Ken Wahl, Pam Grier
This minor gem about two cops working the South Bronx has seemingly been forgotten or perhaps it was never remembered as well as it deserved to be. Paul Newman plays the veteran officer Murphy whose compassionate approach to his job is in contrast to the cynicism and heavy-handedness of many of his fellow officers. Ken Wahl plays his slick young partner whose ambition lets him look past all of the corruption that beleaguers Murphy. The film plays out more as an Altman-like series of vignettes that are threaded together from the beginning by a murderous hooker played with a disturbingly quiet menace by Pam Grier. The result is an easy flowing and original police story which is really quite enjoyable. There’s also an authenticity to the film which is sadly missing from many more modern police dramas that is partly due to the many location shots and partly due to the terrific performances from all concerned. Standing out as always is the effortlessly brilliant Newman who gives the Irish cop genuine personality and humour but equally handles the more dramatic scenes with aplomb. If you like the lighter crime dramas of the 70’s and 80’s then this is definitely for you.
Robert Rodriguez’ adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel is a tour de force in conceptualisation and story-telling. Shot on digital video against green screen to give the effect of comic book pages coming to life, it tells three main stories that are interwoven into one overall tale of life in a city dominated by corruption, murder, sadism, and men and women of steel. This is hardcore squared as one mean mutha goes toe to toe with another until not one is left standing. Mickey Rourke’s Marv is the Alpha in this tale and the segment dedicated to his all-or-nothin revenge rampage is indisputably the best. Rourke is electric as the man mountain and with his gnarly voice being married to his digitally enhanced visual frame he becomes an awesome sight. The direction is truly inspired and elegant almost beyond belief. Rodriguez deserves the lion’s share of the credit obviously but he is aided by Frank Miller himself and Quentin Tarantino who did the tar pit sequence. The final sequence involving Bruce Willis’ character is the most visually arresting and wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Wilder or Welles film from the 40/50′s. Sin City is a singular film going experience and not to be missed if you’re a fan of graphic novels, film noir, action, or just plain great movies.
This brave examination of a borderline sociopath who becomes increasingly alienated from the world as he sees it from his taxi-cab provides a fascinating and cynical analysis of the thin line between society’s perception of good and evil. The movie opens with Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, applying for a taxi driving job. Over the next few scenes, we learn just why he wanted the job and how in the long run, it only augments his personal descent. Bickle is not a socially adjusted individual, and he is increasingly incapable of understanding those around him. His initial flirtations with Sybil Shepherd’s prim character Betsy end in disaster when he brings her to a pornographic film because he saw other couples there. Only his encounter with a young child-prostitute played wonderfully by Jodie Foster appears to slow his descent into full madness but in the end it becomes the pretext for his biggest break.
De Niro is stunning in this movie and he makes Bickle his own like few if any actors have made any of their characters. This is not “acting” we’re witnessing but an intuitive realistion of a sociopath’s psyche. And this is the greatest achievement of all when it comes to the cinematic implications for this film, namely, that De Niro, director Martin Scorsese, and writer Paul Schrader were brave enough to lure the audience into Bickle’s mind and to encourage them to root for him. On the directing front, Scorsese’s work here is nothing short of seminal in that Taxi Driver counts as one of the most innovative and conceptually energised movies ever made. However, we should never forget Schrader’s raw and daring screenplay nor the great Bernard Hermann’s mesmerising (and final) score, both of which, were just as important in establishing this film’s place in history as its direction and central performance were.
Like all Elmore Leonard stories, 52 Pick-Up doesn’t play by the rules and the result is an unpredictable yet highly engaging story of a wealthy engineer who is framed and blackmailed by an unlikely gang of depraved criminals. Roy Scheider is terrific in the lead role and he is matched all the way by John Glover’s truly unique bad guy. In fact, if this film received the attention it deserved Glover’s performance would likely be remembered as one of the more entertaining villains. And truth be told, Glover’s henchman, Clarence Williams III’s formidable psychopath, wouldn’t be too far behind him. Ann-Margaret adds solid support as Scheider’s wife and a number of other lesser known actors do equally well to make this movie an outstanding character piece. On the directing front, John Frankenheimer’s handling of the film is impeccable and he is content for the story to play itself out in a relatively unorthodox manner. This makes the film a rewarding watch for those who feel saturated by the typical Hollywood template but, more importantly, it augments the unpredictability making 52 Pick Up a uniquely tense and enjoyable thriller.