Rating: The Good – 74.9 Genre: Action, Comedy Duration: 126 mins Director: Martin Brest Stars: Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto
About as much fun as you can have watching one guy drag another cross country, Midnight Run is a minor triumph on the résumé of Robert De Niro who stars as a bounty hunter attempting to bring in Charles Grodin’s crooked accountant while being pursued by the mob, the FBI, and a competing bounty hunter. The movie is chockfull of motley characters played with an abundance of personality (not to mention a generous comedic license), from Yaphet Kotto’s testy FBI agent, John Ashton’s indefatigable pain-in-the-ass bounty hunter, to Dennis Farina’s hilariously baleful mob boss who spends most of the movie threatening his hapless goons with various forms of highly imaginative corporal punishment. De Niro embraces the easy comedy of George Gallo’s classy screenplay and drives the movie with an acerbic moxie but, despite a well balanced chemistry, Grodin (along with Farina) steals the show with his usual combination of dry warmth and laconic delivery. Martin Brest directs it all with an understated panache adding little touches here and there that contribute richly to the overarching sense of fun – such as Robert Miranda’s big lug of a henchman mock boxing with Richard Foronjy as the latter pleads with Farina over the phone for forgiveness. Everything skips along to Danny Elfman’s mirthful score in an unapologetically lighthearted style but there’s enough drama wrapped up within Gallo’s neat plot to justify Midnight Run’s status as one of the 1980’s best comedy thrillers.
Rating: The Good – 76.8 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 94 mins Director: Jules Dassin Stars: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb
Unique noir drama courtesy of one of the genre’s great directors follows a couple of truck drivers as they attempt to sell a consignment of apples to a cutthroat retailer while at the same time wrangle the money he cheated from one of their fathers during a previous sale. Richard Conte stars as the offended party determined to stand up to Lee J. Cobb’s hardened chiseller and, if possible, exact some revenge for his role in his father’s paralysis. The pair cultivate a fine antagonism that Jules Dassin slow cooks for most of the film while he goes about showing us the ins and outs of the backstreet produce trade. As Conte’s partner, the craggy Millard Mitchell adds a worldly presence to contextualise Conte and Cobb’s personal duel while providing a tense subplot involving Millard and a couple of competitors. With Dassin behind the camera, take it as a given that Thieves’ Highway looks every bit the classic but for a story outside the traditional noir territory of murder and detectives – a tradition that lent itself to a raw visual aesthetic – it’s particularly accomplished in its execution. Norbert Brodine’s polished photography and Thomas Little’s set design are especially stunning to behold and fit for the purposes of A.I. Bezzerides’s unusual take on the doomed inertia of the noir hero. Adapting his own novel, the latter strikes a delicate balance between the intimacy of the working man’s plight and the hard edge of criminal ethics but it’s Dassin exquisite orchestration that brings it all together in such riveting fashion.
A scarred stuntman stalks parties of young women by night and then mows them down in his reinforced stunt car. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof really is a visionary triumph of action comedy. A film that defies its grainy perspectives, low-budget cast and sets and becomes more slick and pulse-thumping than most big budget actioners. Tarantino took on the DP duties and in some ways, this is visually his most impressive film. Many of those visuals are also wonderfully humorous such as the deep staging of the bobble head and the running-to-the-bathroom tracking shot of the opening scene or the Kill Bill-esque black-&-white-to-colour transition. The dialogue is hip, engaging, and sharply real and despite the majority of it revolving around typically female conversational topics, it’s no less appealing if you’re male.
Of course, the movie’s appeal to males is helped by the presence of the perennial man’s man Kurt Russell as the instantly iconic “Stuntman Mike”. Russell is tremendous as the disturbingly charming yet cowardly psychopath and it’s he who links both halves of the movie by being the only character to feature in both. The first half focuses on your typical college gang as they party the night away in Austin only to inadvertently welcome Stuntman Mike into their midst. The second half focuses on an older, more mature, and ultimately tougher gang who also get Mike’s attention. Tarantino has lots of fun in separating the two stories (Michael Parks cameo as the familiar sheriff is a howl) and contrasting the two groups (check out his very subtle tongue in cheek morality lesson) and despite each story having its own feel and plot, they never feel like two different films. The numerous female characters are all terrifically played by a host of top young actresses with Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson, and real life stunt woman Zoe Bell (playing herself) doing especially well.
Ever the student and expert crafter of his characters’ movement, Death Proof is one of Tarantino’s most sensationally choreographed movies and strangely enough, the most memorable sequence in that respect is not one of the driving scenes but the gently and seductively framed lap-dance sequence which is the coolest thing we’ve seen since Hayek took to the stage in From Dusk til Dawn (and there are some nice parallels between those two scenes such as the women dancing in the background). The action driving sequences are nothing short of stunning in both their choreography and cinematography and they beat most of the car-chase films which inspired this feature with the possible exception of the 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds.
Death Proof is a celebration of cinematic freedom and adventure that will have you looking forward in time as much as backwards. It nods affectionately to its influences from the indie road films of the 70′s, the cinema of John Carpenter and Brian DePalma, to the TV shows that made the car chase its most important staple. Whether you’re a fan of those films/shows or simply an appreciator of the hip conversational films of the 1990′s, this film hits all the right notes and will have you coming back again and again.
Rating: The Good – 90 Genre: Action Duration: 94 mins Director: George Miller Stars: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston
George Miller’s post-apocalyptic sequel picks up with the psychologically scarred Max after he takes the last of the V8 Interceptors deep into the Australian wasteland. A wasteland where life is ruled by a constant search for fuel and the desperate avoidance of the anarchic tribes bent on taking everything. The Road Warrior is quite possibly the most original and compelling post-apocalyptic film ever made as writer-director Miller dials up the action and Mel Gisbon responds with the performance of his career. As an action movie, it’s a startling achievement as Miller brings a thunderous and near crazed momentum to the desert roads with the end product being a searing and relentless white hot ball of road fury. The stunt choreography has never been bettered and the sense of foreboding and terror that comes with being an inhabitant in that world is palpable. Astonishing.
Rating: The Good – 79.9 Genre: Action, Crime Duration: 105 mins Director: H.B. Halicki Stars: H.B. Halicki, Marion Busia, Jerry Daugirda
The original not that Angelia Jolie bullsh%&t! Stuntman extraordinaire H.B. Halicki wrote, directed, and starred in this supercharged action masterclass about an expert car thief who is given the task of stealing 48 luxury cars in 24 hours. When he and his team have secured all but one, a 1974 Ford Mustang (codenamed Eleanor), he becomes the target of a state wide pursuit as he attempts to bring her in. It’s impossible to properly explain how good this film is with words because its genius lies in the way it viscerally connects with the audience. It’s not about production values so don’t be put off by the sound and picture quality especially of the earlier scenes. Neither is it about the acting because Halicki wasn’t big on read-throughs or even using proper actors. On the contrary, those raw and unprocessed qualities should be savoured because they feed into the overall project seamlessly. Gone in 60 Seconds is the ultimate in guerrilla film-making and damn near the best car-chase movie ever made. Give it time because it starts slow but once it gets goin – hold on!
Rating: The Good – 85.4 Genre: Drama Duration: 102 mins Director: Monte Hellman Stars: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird
Representing the essence of counter culture, this definitive American road movie operates between the lines where points A & B merely exists to frame the trip, where ambition is everything except the end result, where “satisfactions are permanent”. Two-Lane Blacktop came out around the same time as that other seminal road movie, Vanishing Point, and it’s remarkable how both field the same sentiments of their time but through polarised abstractions. Whereas Vanishing Point was a statement, a primal scream, Two-Lane Blacktop is a slow exhale. Yes, there are the draws of the old life which threaten to bring back the old familiar hyperventilation and this is where the drama is focused. The semblance of story that generates this drama begins with two men, the driver (James Taylor) and the mechanic (Dennis Wilson), who move from town to town in their rebuilt 55 Chevy where they cruise for competition. These races become the micro-metaphor as director Monte Hellman deconstructs them in various ways never showing us the complete race but segments, the space in between society’s conventional markers.
The broader metaphor of course is the cross-country race to Washington D.C. which they enter into with G.T.O (Warren Oates). He’s an older man whose reasons for being on the road are not in any way clear to him as they are to the other two men and hard as he tries, he cannot shake loose the social mores the road offers escape from. He is always going somewhere even if that somewhere is a lie, more so when it’s a lie. The inevitable interplay between the three men and ‘the girl’ they pick up along the way continually reveals the difference in perspective between G.T.O and the other two men as well as those last trials the mechanic and in particular the driver must pass through before they can switch permanently. This is Hellman’s project from start to finish as every frame is softly embedded in his meditative vision. It is an astounding 90 minutes of (intentional) near-formlessness culminating in that immortal ascension of an ending. It is nothing short of pure class.
Rating: The Good – 85.8 Genre: Action, Science Fiction Duration: 88 mins Director: George Miller Stars: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne
The movie that raised the stakes on all car-chase films by giving us one visceral and frenetic chase after another on the open roads of a futuristic Australian outback. Mel Gibson has never been better as the rogue cop who ultimately takes to the road in his bloody pursuit of revenge against the marauding motorcycle gang who made the mistake of making things personal. Hugh Keays-Byrne is the wonderfully deranged leader of that gang (Toecutter) and he provides one of science fiction’s more memorable and interesting bad-guys.
The original of the franchise is not as relentless as the second in terms of its pace and savagery but it is more subtly disturbing in how it portrays the breakdown of law and order. In fact there are few post-apocalyptic movies that have matched writer/director George Miller and co-writer James McCausland’s startlingly obtuse conception of the future. The mannerisms and dialogue of the nomadic bikers, the tattered remnants of the legal system, and the breathless momentum of the action all combine to give one an utterly gripping sense of a post-apocalyptic world.
But it’s how all this is tied to what we would recognise as the modern world which makes it feel so authentic and disturbing. On top of that, Miller quite cleverly juxtaposes the chaos of the roads with the sanity and calm of Max’s family life and consequently roots Max (and the subsequent more frenetic world of the sequels) in an all too credible world. It may burn a lot slower than those sequels but Mad Max never disappoints because, once it gets going, it doesn’t stop as Max races 150mph straight into The Road Warrior.
Rating: The Good – 73 Genre: Action, Cult Duration: 93 mins Director: John Hough Stars: Peter Fonda, Susan George, Adam Roarke
Cult classic in which bank robbers Larry (Peter Fonda), Mary (Susan George), and Deke (Adam Roark) attempt to escape Sheriff Vic Morrow’s jurisdiction as he runs the manhunt from his helicopter above. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry doesn’t feature as many chase scenes as Gone in 60 Seconds or Vanishing Point. Instead we see a more low-key game of cat-and-mouse involving brief chases and subsequent pit-stops where Larry (the driver) and Deke (the mechanic) share the same roles as they did during their previous racing career. This makes for a very unique chase movie which is more about the relationship between the three leads than the action which is still good but nowhere near the calibre of the aforementioned films. Fonda and George are a bit wooden in the title roles but the rest of the cast hit the right notes especially Roark who excels in the role as Larry’s reluctant sidekick. Ultimately, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is a low key slice of counter culture, the type of movie that sprung up sporadically throughout the early to mid 70’s, focused on the rebellion of the disenfranchised, and in which form followed function. For that reason alone, it’s a genuinely interesting piece of movie history which quietly documents the sentiments of its time.
Rating: The Good – 76.5 Genre: Action, Drama Duration: 99 mins Director: Richard C. Sarafian Stars: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger
Few films have captured the growing anti-establishment spirit of the early seventies like Richard C. Sarafian’s cult classic. Barry Newman is Kowalski, a man whose story is told in a series of brief interluding flashbacks as he is being pursued through the desert by three states’ worth of troopers. The choreography is sensational, the driving mind-blowing, and the editing (Stefan Arnsten) and direction is inspired. Vanishing Point makes a muscular statement for a generation that was at the time meeting the conservative intolerance of middle-class America head on and for that reason it’s as much a spiritual movie as it is political. Irrespective of all that, however, it’s just one great thrill ride and when the camera sweeps behind that Dodge Challenger as it builds up its speed you know you’re in for something special.
Rating: The Good – 78.9 Genre: Action Duration: 116 mins Director: Jan De Bont Stars: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock
Perhaps the last great Hollywood action movie of that genre’s greatest era had its most legendary cinematographer Jan DeBont sitting in the director’s chair to produce the ultimate white knuckle experience. Keanu Reeves and the always underrated Jeff Daniels play two LA (SWAT) cops who after foiling a terrorist’s (Dennis Hopper) original attempt to ransom the city must save the passengers of a bus that must stay above 50mph or else it will explode. The scenario is nuts but Hopper’s terrorist is just mad enough to make it seem perfectly reasonable. What is certain though is that the execution is flawless as DeBont treats us to a seemingly endless series of highly original nail-biting road-stunts. As you would expect from the DP behind Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, the action co-ordination is spectacular and you will feel as though you have been transported into the bus as it crashes through downtown LA.
Reeves excels as the cocky but capable cop, Daniels is strong in support, while Hopper hams it up to an appropriate level as the villain. In addition, Sandra Bullock deservedly made her name by playing the plucky passenger who takes charge of driving the bus during all the bedlam. Speed isn’t perfect as the ending drags on a bit too long while also getting repetitive but these small quibbles aside, the film remains an outstanding piece of action cinema from a time when action films were made by guys with “big, round, hairy cojones”.
Rating: The Good – 76.8 Genre: Thriller, Action Duration: 97mins Director: Robert Harmon Stars: Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
The Hitcher is a dreamlike thriller in which a young man (C. Thomas Howell) narrowly escapes a homicidal hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) only to become the target of his relentless pursuit. However, rather than mindlessly attempting to kill Howell’s naive motorist in the mode of your typical slasher movie, Hauer’s nightmarish incarnation engages him in a series of mind games which slowly take their toll on the younger man’s sanity. Writer Eric Red and director Robert Harmon make things even more unpredictable by imbuing Hauer’s hitcher with a supernatural-like quality which like all the best cinematic chillers is left unexplained rather than probed, stretched, and exposed.
Such a premise has “cult classic” written all over it and therefore, it’s no surprise that this one has a strong niche value which mainstream fans have traditionally balked at. There’s an unorthodox yet focused commitment to character, not quite at the expense of the story but to the point where the story is appropriated by personality arcs that are much more long-term than those to which the story’s short time-frame would ostensibly cater. This lends itself to a more profound undercurrent of thought that runs through the scenes involving Howell and Hauer together and comes to define the film as a whole.
Of course, all of the above is primarily achieved through Red’s superb screenplay which, though relatively lean in dialogue, manages to lift the unfolding drama above the narrative so that everything feels just barely reachable. It’s really quite impressive and no fluke as he did the same thing the following year in the magnificent Near Dark. Also, as was the case in that film, the actors revel in their less conventional roles, embracing Red’s skewed approach to character building. Howell who was never a great actor, puts in one of his more substantial turns as the terrorised young man and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s presence smooths out any rough edges his few inevitable missteps create. Naturally, in a film like this, Hauer is in his element and he uses every bit of the freedom the script provides to improvise one of the more memorable screen psychopaths. With very little dialogue, his presence hovers in the background when he’s not on screen and dominates the background, foreground, and everywhere else when he is. It’s not a frantic performance like most movie madmen, far from it, and this is what makes it so interesting and compelling.
Importantly, director Robert Harmon is completely in sync with the script and does every word of it justice. In addition, he treats us to some breath-taking action, most of which takes place on the open roads and John Seale’s cinematography captures it perfectly. All in all, The Hitcher is a unique movie experience and one you may find yourself revisiting time and time again.