Sunday, February 3, 2013

It Came From The Cineplex: Jack Reacher, Django Unchained, Gangster Squad, The Last Stand

Jack Reacher
I only saw this film because I thought it was a horror movie called "Jack Creature." Wakka wakka!

I will confess that I've never been much of a Tom Cruise fan. That said, I don't shun his movies either. I think he's a pretty good actor despite his nuthouse personal life.

So far there have been 16 Jack Reacher novels written by author Lee Child. For some reason this movie is based on the novel One Shot, the 9th of the series. Why they didn't start with the first novel, I have no idea. You'll have to ask Mr. Cruise about that. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say the books must all be pretty interchangeable if you can start off with number nine.

Many fans of the novels are outraged at the notion of the diminutive Tom Cruise playing the 6' 5", 250 pound blonde Jack Reacher. Never having read any of the books, this wasn't a problem for me.

The Plot:
An army sniper shoots and kills random citizens in Pittsburgh in a seemingly open and shut case. When arrested, his only words are, "Get Jack Reacher." Before the police can figure out what this means, the mysterious ex-military policeman Reacher appears and investigates the crime.

Pros:
• The film features some good action set pieces.

• The central mystery is well thought out.

•  Despite his sensational public life, Tom Cruise really is a pretty good actor.

Cons:
• The film features an extremely bland title that tells us nothing whatsoever about the film. It's every bit as bad as Disney's John Carter title from last year. They don't call James Bond movies "James Bond," so why use the character's name here? Would it have killed them to call it One Shot, the name of the novel upon which the film is based? Or if that's no good, how about Jack Reacher: One Shot? Hollywood loves titles with colons these days. Anything but the title we got.

• I know he's a male wish fulfillment fantasy but even so, Reacher is just too ridiculously perfect. He's an expert at everything he does: hand to hand combat, sharpshooting, knowledge of civilian and military police procedures, he's an expert driver, and has an eidetic memory. He even manages to draw a military pension while remaining "off the grid." Is there anything he can't do?

• Most of the fight scenes are very realistic and brutal, with one exception. When Reacher is investigating a suspect's home, there's a very odd Three Stooges-like fight in their bathroom. Three burly looking thugs rush Reacher, intent on beating him to a pulp, but they manage to pretty much knock each other out with their own weapons in the confined space of the shower. Reacher ends up having to do very little to defend himself as they beat up themselves. It was practically a slapstick fight and felt very out of place. Was it comedy relief? Was I supposed to laugh in the middle of this deadly serious story? Was the director out sick that day, and his assistant filmed this sequence?

• At one point in the movie Reacher is being chased through the city by the police. He manages to throw them off momentarily and bails out of his getaway car and blends in with the crowd. A bystander even loans him his baseball hat to disguise him as the police race by. 

My question is: why? Why would decent law-abiding citizens help this seeming criminal? They have no idea who Reacher is or that he's a good guy avoiding the police in order to solve a mystery and clear his name. As far as they know he's a low down dirty car thief on the lam. Are you telling me that there wasn't one person in all of Pittsburgh who wouldn't have shouted, "Officers, over here! Here's the guy you're looking for!"

Throughout the movie Reacher violates numerous laws and commits several felonies in order to keep the plot moving forward, and of course suffers absolutely zero consequences for his actions. This happens in virtually every action movie ever made-- at the end the hero's many transgressions are all magically forgiven.

• The villain of the movie is a creepy old man called "The Zec." Somehow everyone in the film instinctively knows that his name is Russian for "prisoner." Apparently they must teach Russian in Pittsburgh public schools.

Far from the best movie I've seen, but a decent action/mystery/thriller. I give it a B-.

Django Unchained
The latest from director Quentin Tarantino, a Blaxploitation / Spaghetti Western and another entry in his "Alternate-History Revenge" series, in which a down-trodden minority gets to even the score a bit.

There's a lot of controversy surrounding this movie, which I suppose is only natural considering its volatile subject matter. 

Most of the outrage is due to the number of times the word "nigger" is uttered during the film (yes, I said it. I'm not going to walk on eggs and call it "the N-word." I'm an adult, not a ten year-old). By some accounts the word is said 108 times. I will admit that is a lot. It is indeed a vulgar and ugly word, but it would be tough to make a movie about slavery without saying it at least a few times. Plus, let's face it-- it's the way people spoke in that era. If you're uncomfortable with the word and the subject matter then perhaps this is not the film for you. Might I suggest you'd be happier watching the latest Pixar outing.

Director Spike Lee issued a press statement saying he refused to see the film, saying, "...it's disrespectful to my ancestors." Fair enough, but it kind of sounds to me like Mr. Lee decided he hadn't been mentioned on Entertainment Tonight for a while.

The film is sort of a remake (maybe homage would be a better word) of the 1966 Italian film Django, starring Franco Nero as the title character. There were 31 Django movies made between 1966 and 1987. Strangely enough, only the first and last films in the series starred Nero and were considered "official." The rest were all unauthorized and have nothing to do with the character, instead copying the overall look and tone of the original. Apparently copyright laws must be fairly lax in Italy.

Broomhilda's (Django's wife) last name is von Shaft. Tarantino says in his mind he believes that 1970s Blaxploitation character John Shaft is a descendent of Django and Broomhilda. Cool!

Tarantino originally planned a crossover with the RZA-directed film The Man With The Iron Fists. The crossover would have featured Django meeting The Blacksmith character from Iron Fists. Sadly the scheduling couldn't be worked out in time and the idea had to be scrapped. Too bad.

The Plot:
Two years before the Civil War, German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz buys and frees a slave named Django and makes him a proposal: if he helps Schultz track down and kill the villainous Brittle Brothers, he'll help him free his wife Broomhilda. Hijinx ensue.

Pros:
• I very much enjoyed Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds, and he shines here as well as Dr. King Schultz. He's intelligent, highly articulate and genially funny. I'll say this for Tarantino; he knows how to write for Waltz. Oddly enough I haven't much cared for Waltz in any other films in which I've seen him. He seems at his best when he's working with Tarantino.

• I loved the relationship between Django and Schultz as they learned to work together as a (deadly) team. I wouldn't have minded seeing the two of them in a whole series of films.

 • Franco Nero, the original Django, has a cameo in the movie as the man who asks Django how he spells his name.

• If you like violence and gore, you came to the right place. Throughout the film geysers of blood spray from each and every wound, no matter how slight. Apparently everyone in the Old South had extremely high blood pressure.

• Samuel L. Jackson is great as Thomas, a wily and evil Uncle Tom (hey, I see what you did there, Tarantino) character.

• The film features an excellent and very eclectic cast, including Tom Wopat (Luke Duke), Russ Tamblyn, Bruce Dern (who I could have sworn was dead), M.C. Gainey (Tom Friendly from LOST), Jonah Hill, Lee Horsely, Zoe Bell (a Tarantino favorite), Robert Carradine, Ted Neely (of Jesus Christ Superstar fame), Tom Savini and Michael Parks (another Tarantino favorite).

Cons
• I reeeeally could have done without Tarantino's cameo (as an Australian of all things!). Yes, Quentin, we all know that Hitchcock used to put himself into his own movies too, but A: he limited himself to quick, non-speaking cameos and B: You're not a very good actor. His scenes did nothing but take me right out of the movie.

• Although I greatly enjoyed the film, I'd suggest looking elsewhere for historical accuracy. The movie takes place in 1858 and features a lengthy scene with the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately (for the film) the KKK wasn't formed until 1865 by veterans of the Confederate Army. Whoops!

Would you look at that. For once the Pros outnumber the Cons!

Another entry in Tarantino's "Alternate-History Revenge" series. I give it a A-.

Gangster Squad 
A good looking film about an interesting time in L.A. history that ultimately goes nowhere. Full of typical mobster cliches (just look at that poster to see most of them!) and predictable plot twists.

The movie was delayed for several months due to the tragic theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. In the original cut of the film, characters in the film stand behind a movie screen and fire sub-machine guns through it and into the unsuspecting audience. The studio cut that scene from the movie and the cast was reassembled for reshoots. The new scenes featured a violent and bloody shootout between the Gangster Squad and Cohen's thugs in Chinatown. So the lesson to be gleaned from all this is: Shooting innocent people in a movie theater– bad. Shooting innocent Asian bystanders in Chinatown– acceptable. 

Oddly enough the film was directed by Ruben Fleisher, who directed the excellent horror-comedy Zombieland (!). He seems a little out of his element here and perhaps should stick to comedy. Or zombies.

The Plot:
It's 1949 and thug Mickey Cohen is intent on taking over Los Angeles. The Chief of Police recruits a team of policemen, secretly known as the Gangster Squad, to thwart Cohen and bring order to the city.

Pros:
• Awesome cast including Robert Patrick and Giovani Ribisi.

Josh Brolin does a good job as a two-fisted cop. With his permanent scowl and one-two punch I think he'd do all right in a superhero movie.

• The movie is full of stylish production design. I don't know if 1949 Los Angeles really looked like this, but I'd like to think it did.

Cons:
•  "Based on real events." It's a well-known fact that whenever you see that line at the beginning of a movie you should quietly gather your belongings and head quickly for the nearest exit. Most movies that start with that caption have little or nothing to do with reality.

There really was a Gangster Squad in 1940s - 1950s L.A., and they really did go up against a gangster named Mickey Cohen. But somehow I doubt they did it quite the way we're shown here.

•  Sean Penn stars as mobster Mickey Cohen and wears a ton of facial prosthetics to transform him into an ex-boxer thug. In fact every time Penn was onscreen I had trouble concentrating on what he was saying because I was too busy studying his face, trying to figure out what was real and what was foam rubber. He looks (and now that I think about it, acts) very much like a Dick Tracy villain. 

In fact the whole movie has a faint Tracy vibe to it, which I doubt is what the filmmakers were shooting for.
 
• Sorry ladies, but I continue to be baffled by the huge popularity of Ryan Gosling. I recognize that he's reasonably handsome, but he doesn't seem to have a lot of range acting-wise (at least in the films I've seen). I just don't get all the hoopla over him.

Stylish, but fairly predictable. I give it a C.

The Last Stand
Arnold returns to the big screen in his first starring role since 2003's Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines. 

Now that Arnold's got politics out of his system he seems anxious to resume his film career. Unfortunately this movie wasn't the best way to herald his triumphant return. It's a scaled down, low budget affair, about as far from the mega-blockbusters of his glory days as you can get. 

If he wants to return to making movies, he needs to return in a big way, not by starring in small films like this. Maybe he's trying to slowly ease himself back into films again, like an old man lowering himself into a tub. 

I did enjoy most of his supporting cast, especially Luis Guzman. And Johnny Knoxville even managed to be amusing rather than annoying.

Sadly, The Last Stand appears to be a box office bomb, opening in ninth place in its first week. This surprised me, as I figured audiences would flock to see Arnold on the big screen again. So why did the film tank? Who knows? Maybe the all important 18 - 25 movie going demographic isn't interested in seeing a 65 year old man cavorting around onscreen. Maybe Arnold's extramarital affair is still fresh in the public's mind. Or maybe the public just knows a mediocre movie when they see it.

The Plot:
Gabriel Cortez, son of a Mexican drug lord, escapes from prison and flees in a magical indestructible Camaro capable of traveling at 200 mph. He plans to cross the border into Mexico (and freedom) by passing through the sleepy little town of Sommerton Junction, which is protected by Sheriff Ray Owens (Arnold), an aging ex L.A. police officer. Owens vows to stop and arrest Cortez at all costs.

Pros:
• I've always big a big Arnold fan, so it was great to see him on the big screen again-- even in a less than stellar film.

• Lots of violence, which is what you want in an action movie, amirite? And amazingly it was rated R instead of today's usual watered down PG-13.

Cons:
• What the heck is up with the accents in this movie? Of course Arnold had his usual out of place accent, but it extended to the rest of the cast as well. Swedish actor Peter Stormare tried and failed mightily at a Texas accent. I think. Actually I'm not sure where the hell his character was supposed to be from. Luis Guzman decided to go with an Hispanic accent, which isn't surprising, but it was heavily seasoned with a bizarre lisp. Odd.

• At the beginning of the film we're told that virtually the entire population of Sommerton Junction is heading out of the city to a high school away game. Only eight or ten people remain in the entire town. Well that was certainly convenient! An empty town means Sheriff Owens doesn't have to worry about innocent citizens being mowed down during the numerous gunfights on Main St. Plus if the town's empty, the filmmakers can save money by not needing to hire extras. Brilliant!

• Cortez's escape from prison is coordinated with split second precision and utilizes the talents of dozens and dozens of accomplices. When the FBI is transporting him to a new facility, the van he's in is literally lifted into the sky by a giant electromagnet (which I assume is attached to a helicopter, although we never see it) in a scene straight out of one of the Batman movies. He's then lowered onto the roof of a nearby building, where more accomplices bring him a change of clothing and even more run interference for him as decoys. He escapes in a souped up concept car that was acquired god knows how and heads for the border. As I said, an extremely complex escape plan involving many, many people.

So was all that really easier than putting on a pair of dark glasses and using a fake I.D. to buy a plane ticket to Mexico? Hundreds of illegals get into this country every day. Is it really that difficult for one guy to go back?

• The big action set piece at the end of the film takes place on a makeshift bridge spanning the American/ Mexican border (more on that in a minute). The whole sequence has a strange artificial quality to it, as if it was filmed on a green screen stage. It's just a bridge over a shallow ravine. How hard would it have been to have built that outside? Did Arnold demand to shoot his big fight scene in an air conditioned studio rather than out in the blazing sun?

• Cortez's gang built the aforementioned bridge over the border so that he could drive his souped up Camaro into Mexico and freedom. The bridge spans a gulley that presumably marks the border. The thing is, the gulley appears to be all of about ten to twelve feet deep. It looks like the Camaro could easily have been driven down into the gulley and back up the other side with no problem. I guess that wouldn't have been as stylish and having your own personal bridge to zoom over. 

• In Arnold's previous films none of the other characters ever called attention to his thick accent. In this film though they attempt an explanation for why an Arizona sheriff speaks like an Austrian national straight off the boat. During the climactic fight with Cortez, Owens makes a lame joke about him "making us immigrants look bad." The line doesn't work at all and thuds to the ground like a brick. All this does is get the audience thinking about why an immigrant would be called Ray Owens instead of paying attention to the film like they should be. They actually made things worse by trying to explain it. Note to future screenwriters of Arnold's films-- go back to ignoring the accent situation altogether. 
 
Not a terrible movie, but a far cry from Arnold's glory days of the 1980s and 1990s. I give it a B-.

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