Monday, August 16, 2010

Replicant (2001) - By Mark Oswald

Once again Jean-Claude Van Damme is in a movie playing two identical characters; whether they’re twin brothers, or technically the very same person, he really seems to love this kind of shit. This fascination began in 1991 with the ‘brothers separated at birth but reunited by their parents’ former bodyguard to avenge their deaths’ picture, Double Impact (not to be confused with the absurd buddy movie Double Team starring Van Damme and Dennis Rodman). This bizarre cinematic fetish continued on in Time Cop, Maximum Risk, and the subject of today’s discussion, Replicant.

The Room 2 starring Jean-Claude Van Damme

When the film starts out, we see a mother being terrorized in her apartment by an unseen assailant, but when the camera pans up to the intruder’s face, it’s Mr. Jean-Claude (with greasy chin-length hair and lame yellow-tinted sunglasses, like some Euro-pop singer/snowboarder). He proceeds to set the woman on fire, and then sing “Rock-a-Bye Baby” to her infant child before leaving it to burn along with its mother. First of all, it’s kind of a shock to see Van Damme as a cold-blooded killer, but when he makes an escape being chased by Michael Rooker, you could make the inference that you’ll be rooting for Rooker instead of Van Damme, when in actuality, you will be rooting for both, in a sense. Mind blown yet? Very good, let’s continue…

You see Michael Rooker’s character is a cop who’s been playing a game of cat and mouse with this psychopath for years. He even gets calls from him while at his retirement party. After escaping capture yet again, it is revealed that a high-level government organization has secretly cloned (replicated) JC’s character from a strand of hair left at an earlier crime scene. They’ve been growing him for some time now, in hopes that this Replicant will possess some kind of psychic link to the killer, and will in turn help in bringing him to justice (seems to me like they put an awful lot of money into the project based solely on this whole psychic connection theory, but they must have felt pretty strongly about it; and I'm no scientist, so I'm not going to judge?) The G-Men want Rooker to work with him, based on his vast knowledge and experience with the case.

If you have been following JC’s DTV timeline you may have noticed a visible enhancement of his acting ability, rather than just his “doing the splits” ability. I haven’t seen all of his DTV features, mind you, and he didn’t seem to be giving it his all in The Hard Corps, but I’ve been thoroughly impressed with his dramatic work in Wake of Death, In Hell, Until Death, and of course JCVD. Some of these performances have actually been hampered by the other actors around him not being nearly as good, which is weird, but overall I’m trying to say that he’s gotten a lot better. By the time he did Replicant, however, I don’t think he had yet reached his full potential as an actor. Here he does get to branch out though. As I said, he finally gets to play a villain, but in addition to that, he gets to play a clone/man-child/animal-boy/wannabe gymnast. Once he is created, he must be taught how to walk and talk, and overall just act like a human being. He is shown gymnastic videos which teach him to be athletic and do splits and stuff. So for once in Van Damme’s filmography, a movie actually goes out of its way to explain his penchant for doing the splits. I also thought that the martial arts wizardry of Gymkata was going to make a triumphant return, but I was sorely mistaken. There is a scene later on, where after forming a stronger connection to his killer other half, he starts performing martial arts moves as if from muscle memory. Both JCVDs start fighting each other with the exact same moves, but don’t seem to be making contact because they completely cancel out each other’s maneuvers. Admittedly though, the whole thing would be a lot more exciting if they would use more than only three moves. Seriously, come on guys.

Michael Rooker’s character gets the thankless job of bringing the Replicant around to different places, trying to jolt some of his memories in order to find them a lead. I’ve always liked Michal Rooker. He’s not what you’d call a handsome leading man or anything, but he’s consistently intense and always seems to be putting his best foot forward, performance-wise. He did gain some minor acclaim with his work in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but I remember him most from his roles in Mallrats, Cliffhanger, and a random made-for-TV action movie I saw as a kid called Back to Back.

Directed by Ringo Lam, who also collaborated with JC on Maximum Risk and In Hell, a good job is done with keeping the pace up while also delivering several assorted action moments differently than I have seen them done before. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why, but many times when a car crashed or a body got slammed through something, it seemed new. It could be the framing or camera placement, but a lot of the stunts came off as a lot more exciting than in other films where I’ve seen similar moves orchestrated not quite as affectively. Unlike some of Van Damme’s other DTV efforts, the budget on this one seems a little higher as well. The government facility where Replicant JCVD is grown and trained is a flashy, slightly futuristic looking area that must have taken some time and money to create. The overall look and coloring of the movie is a kind of cheap, but what is shown within obviously took some skill to produce.

Jean-Claude's all tuckered out after the Jim Varney look-a-like party

While the story itself is only slightly unique and the theme may seem a little low rate to non-action fans, I found Replicant to be an altogether enjoyable experience. It’s not as good as some of my Van Damme favorites like Sudden Death, or even other dual-Van Damme pictures like Double Impact and Maximum Risk, but it’s definitely better and/or less bizarre than Double Team and the general unenthusiasticness of The Hard Corps. I’d say rent this or Watch Instantly on Netflix if you get the itch.

Body Count - 7

Monday, August 9, 2010

Special Forces (2003) - By Mark Oswald

Well I said in my review of Attack Force Z that I was going to be reviewing some more group-based Action films in preparation for The Expendables, which comes out in a few days. Now I haven’t exactly filled my quota, so to speak, but I’ve at least got a cheesy but good one here to tell you guys about, and hopefully I’ll get another one done before taking in Sly’s newest Action extravaganza this Thursday at Midnight.

Special Forces is the first Action/Martial Arts collaboration from Israeli DTV auteur Isaac Florentine, and ass-kicker Scott Adkins. The film actually stars Marshall Teague (Armageddon, some episodes of “Walker, Texas Ranger”) and his merry band of Army Special Forces (!) soldiers, assigned to missions involving the infiltration/elimination of enemy targets and whatnot. The team is first introduced mid-mission by the old freeze frame on their face while the character’s name is plastered on-screen beneath them. In this first encounter, they offer an impressive display of silenced-shootings mixed with a quick martial arts move here and there and this is basically the form of combat they stick with for the remainder of the film. I also must say that regardless of a serious lack of character depth and/or development, they come across as a very tight-knit group of military bros.

The main story revolves around a power-mad Russian military guy who decides to take a female journalist hostage after she and her photographer witness the slaughter of a few dozen peasant villagers. After a video tape is sent to the American government, demanding a ransom for her life, the Special Forces team is dispatched to Russia in order to rescue the girl. While there, they must rendezvous with the surviving member of a British SAS team that had been sent into the country on a previous mission. Scott Adkins (with native accent for once) plays the sole survivor as a charismatic loner who is willing to help out the SF team when needed, but is primarily interested in exacting his revenge against the evildoers responsible for the slaughter of his unit.

Adkins, of course, really steals the show from the Americans. Because like, you know, they are well trained and kick a lot of ass and everything, but it doesn’t really matter, because he’s Scott Adkins. Whenever the film goes back to the SF members fighting after watching him do his thing, it just doesn’t compare. Adkins is always impressive, but here he seems faster than ever since it was before he bulked up a little more as to not look scrawny in comparison to Michael Jai White in Undisputed II. I mean he’s a very muscular guy anyways, but Jai White is just fucking large. Adkins’ acting in his native voice is overall pretty decent. You can tell he’s more relaxed than in his stiffer American roles, but maybe not having as much fun as in his aggressive Russian ones. You can tell he’s more comfortable fighting than in the dialogue scenes, probably because: A) He was only 26 and less experienced at the time, and B) the actual dialogue isn’t exactly what I’d call “rich”. I also found it kind of funny how the script had him calling people “chaps” and “blokes” and stuff a non-British writer would probably think he would say, but none of that shit sounds natural coming out of his mouth for some reason, so I thought that was pretty funny.

The requisite evil Russian in this movie is played by Eli Danker, who went on the play the mystical, wheelchair-bound inmate who helps out Michael Jai White in Undisputed II. In that movie his character was a grumpy, but sad-eyed old man, whose subplot added some heart to the film’s third act. Here he plays the typical evil foreign military bad guy; but he’s a solid actor, so he makes a memorable role out of one that would have otherwise been cliché and forgettable. Marshall Teague, as our main heroic type, does a solid job playing the uber-patriotic squad leader who is still scarred from a devastating previous encounter with Danker’s character. He has the utmost respect for the men under his command, but doesn’t baby them when they’re feeling less than optimistic about the mission. You know; tough love and all that…

The highlight of the film was during the final battle(s), which consisted of a fight between Teague and Danker shown parallel with a fight between Adkins and Danker’s right-hand man, who it seems was the one responsible for the assassination of Adkins’ team. The juxtaposition between the two encounters works well because of the different fighting styles being used. Teague and Danker duke it out in more of a clumsy brawl; punching, kicking, and utilizing improvised weaponry whenever possible. Meanwhile Adkins and the other dude (couldn’t figure out the guy’s name from the movie’s IMDB page) go at it in a highly-stylized and excellently choreographed martial arts battle of epic proportions. It is seriously fucking awesome. I absolutely did not want it to end and I should’ve been counting the times I let out an exclamation of “Whoa!” in addition to tracking the film’s impressively high body count. I’ve enjoyed immensely the fights worked out in the Undisputed sequels, but when the fighters actually get to perform in an outside-the-ring capacity, able to utilize and react to objects around them in inspiring ways, it is even more captivating.

Isaac Florentine, as usual, demonstrates some of his patented directorial flair. Lots of energetic camera movements and “whoosh” sound effects whenever something is swung, thrown, etc. The editing again is stylish and fast-paced, but never convulsive or disorientating. The film’s weaker moments reside mostly in the scripting department. The dialogue is nothing special, and often very cliché, except for a few golden nuggets sprinkled throughout. The look of the film exhibits its lack of a big budget. For example, even though this film came out three years after Proof of Life, it looks like it was shot ten years prior. A lot of the acting of course fails to reach the heights of Brando, Pacino, and at times even a young Seagal, but I’ve seen a hell of a lot worse too. Another thing that might bother some people is the balls out sense of American pride on display here. The SF guys are so gung-ho and stereotypical that it might turn some people off, but I thought it was all just corny enough to work. Plus none of them talk too much so I wouldn’t let any of that stop you from seeing this thing. Also, there is more than enough action on hand to help you overlook these detractions.

Next up is probably Florentine’s U.S. Seal’s II. No Adkins in that one, but oh well. You can’t have it all.

Body Count – 175! (Not including the lives lost in the peasant village massacre, since there were, sadly, just too many to count)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Proof of Life (2000) - By Mark Oswald

If there is one thing I’ve learned during my adventures through the cinematic universe, it’s that you can’t spell “actor” without using a couple of the same letters from “action”. You see, for an Action movie, as with any other genre, you’re going to need some actors (unless it’s a Documentary); because you’re making a “film”; which usually requires someone possessing a talent for pretending to be somebody else. defines the term “actor” as a noun meaning “a person who acts in stage plays, motion pictures, television broadcasts, etc.”, or more importantly, “a person who does something.” Watching the kind of films I normally do, there are a lot of people doing things, but you have to come to the understanding that more often than not, the filmmakers tend to focus more effort on the visual pallet than the subtext beneath it. That’s precisely why these explosion-filled rollercoaster rides are populated with super-fit, muscle-bound tough guys who can convincingly tear someone’s head off, but not be required to cry on command. Russell Crowe is however someone who can credibly perform in both of these arenas. It’s probably a similar reason I’ve always enjoyed Mel Gibson’s movies. The guy can kick someone’s ass while acting circles around them at the same time. I think it is a combination prominently showcased in Lethal Weapon. One of the first things we see Riggs doing is crying over a picture of his dead wife, on the verge of committing suicide. Next he’s taking out a group of drug dealers in a Christmas tree farm. So Mel’s got it. Russell’s got it. Eric Bana’s got it. Maybe it’s an Australian thing. Who knows?

Proof of Life, starring Crowe and Meg Ryan, is a movie that, after watching, I feel has gotten sort of a bad rap because of the whole media uproar that happened when Ryan admitted to having an affair with Crowe during filming. Even stranger is that one of the movie’s subplots seems to stray unusually close to the real-life drama that unfolded around the same time. The plot follows Ryan and David Morse’s husband and wife characters, living in South America. Morse is working for a subsidiary of a big oil company, while Ryan is an ex-hippie, turned housewife. Soon into the movie he is kidnapped by some kind of pseudo-revolutionaries who think he’s working on the oil pipeline and the company behind its production will pay handsomely to get him back. What the rebels fail to realize and choose not to believe when he tells them, is that Morse is actually working on a large river dam that will supposedly save a bunch lives for some reason, and it’s a project that the oil guys are not really involved in and therefore could care less about his safe return. As usual, big oil guys drop the ball on admirable behavior.

So it’s a tough situation. Ryan is understandably upset, with only her sister-in-law, played by Pamela Reed (Arnold’s partner in Kindergarten Cop); to deal with things after Crowe’s character is called in to help with the ransom demands. While working together, Crowe and Ryan’s characters become very close and obviously develop feelings for each other. On one hand, it’s kind of sweet, but on the other hand her husband is still being held captive by South American rebels, so you can’t ultimately feel right about the whole thing. I guess that actually makes it seem more realistic, since it’s a little more awkward than Hollywood tends to go for. It didn’t really bother me though, maybe in part of all the hoopla surrounding the film’s off-screen affair making what actually happens in the movie seem not nearly as bad. I figured the two characters were gonna bang out or something and it would feel all dirty and inappropriate, but that doesn’t happen. They do share a kiss, but it’s more of an emotional “thank you” kiss before Crowe and his cohorts actually go in for the rescue.

The rescue itself provides the audience with a nice cathartic and rousing finale, which was necessary I think after all the drama that preceded it. It’s kind of like one those Jack Ryan movies where all this drama and political stuff is going on, and it’s cool and all, but you’re still going to need a big ol’ action scene at the end to close things out with a bang. And as far as final action scenes go, I really enjoyed this one. Crowe, his buddy Dino, played by David “No, fuck you” Caruso and a couple other guys slip into the prison camp quietly and methodically take out one guy at a time, until the shit inevitably hits the fan. Luckily for these rescuers, David Morse ain’t no bitch hostage, either. He had been giving his captors trouble through the bulk of his captivity, and when it comes time to step up, he does a solid job.

I guess another reason people didn’t seem to think as highly of this movie as I probably did, was because it was most likely being sold as a bigger deal film than it actually is. It had Russell Crowe fresh off his Oscar win for Gladiator, Taylor Hackford (Ray, Dolores Claiborne, An Officer and a Gentleman) directing, and Meg Ryan playing a less wholesome, more “real” character than she normally does. Here she gets to smoke cigarettes and not wear a bra and everything! So maybe it’s not a sure-fire Oscar contender, but I still found it to be an entertaining, well-made thriller with just the right amount of melodrama and a splash of action thrown in for good measure.

"I think you need to take it down a couple notches."

Body Count - 20

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Attack Force Z (1982) - By Mark Oswald

Attack Force Z may sound like the title of a DTV Steven Seagal movie, but in fact it’s an early 80’s War film set in the WWII era about an elite team of Australian commandos who are tasked with the job of sneaking into Japanese-occupied China to rescue the two survivors of a downed American plane, but things are, like always, not as they appear.

The movie is most notable for early acting performances from Mel Gibson (with accent) and Sam Neil, who most probably know from Jurassic Park. I know old Mel has been in the news lately for angry phone conversations and apparent threats of physical violence against his ex-wife, but regardless of how I feel about Mr. Gibson as a person, I have always respected and enjoyed his work as an actor and director. From my first viewing of Lethal Weapon 3, which I purchased the VHS of with ticket winnings from a local video arcade on a whim, to his recent old-school revenge throwback, Edge of Darkness, I’ve always appreciated his talent as an actor, as well as his intensity as an action star. So it’s nice to watch a movie like this which brings you back to the simpler days of the Gibson saga, just after The Road Warrior had made Mel a bigger star in the States, out comes this low-budget Australian flick about a true-life, but largely unknown group of soldiers. It’s a small story, but one that does bear re-telling.

Even though Mel and Sam Neil are given plum roles in the movie, however, it is John Phillip Law (Barbarella, Tarzan, the Ape Man) who gets first billing and a little more screen time as an American member of the group who gets separated from them for the second act of the movie, and falls in love with a native Chinese girl, whose father is helping the rest of his team find the plane they’re after. I can’t go any further without acknowledging the surprising awesomeness of the father character, whose name I don’t think was ever mentioned. Not long after the team arrives on the mainland, they come upon a small farm and are questioning the inhabitants, one being the father. When a troop of Japanese soldier enters the home, however, the father, who harbors a deep hatred for the Japanese, starts karate chopping their asses while the rest of the guys shoot it out. Then when he goes along with them afterward, he straps on a belt of throwing knives. This guy was a pleasant surprise of stoic badassness that I appreciated as a real left-field addition to the team.

One of the film’s true charms that I found was the soundtrack. It was sparse and never over-bearing, but a real-throwback to the kinds of scores being used in films of the era the story takes place in. The whole thing is shot in a more modern (for 1982) style, but the soundtrack is real old-fashioned, and I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Another plus is that even though the budget is low, the actors never waiver in their performances. The entire cast is strong, and even though one of the villainous Japanese officers hunting the commandos plays it a little over the top, it’s always in an entertaining, rather than annoying fashion. His character also has a pension for threatening people’s children to get information out of them, so he really makes you hate him, like a good villain should.

The film is well-paced with solid action scenes and interesting characters. Even though we don’t learn much about them in general, it seems like the actors have their backgrounds fleshed out in their heads. Also, the movie is not without a message about the casualties of war. What happens to the people left behind in the wake of battle? Are certain sacrifices necessary in the protection of beliefs? Attack Force Z seems to focus on the ugliness and futility of it all, but not so heavy-handed as not to allow room for interpretation. When I put this movie on my Netflix queue, at best I was hoping for a fun, maybe a little cheesy film about some badass military types on an action-packed and dangerous mission, but Navy Seals this is not.

In the weeks leading up to the release of the sure-to-be epic, second coming of the Action genre, The Expendables, I’m going to try and take a look at other group-based Action flicks. I already have Isaac Florentine’s U.S. Seals 2 and Special Forces ready and waiting, so expect reviews on those soon; But until then, good day to you all.

Body Count – 74

Children threatened - 2

"A well-paced finely-acted war film that's not much short of super"

Who's Mom did they get that quote from?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Give 'Em Hell, Malone (2009) - By Mark Oswald

Give ‘Em Hell, Malone is a new-school, but trying to be old-school Film Noir hardboiled detective movie. This is another one I picked up on after hearing frequent praise across the Interweb. Thomas Jane stars as the titular Malone, a hard-talking, hard-drinking, and even harder-shooting private dick on the trail of a brief case, a mysterious client, and the truth behind it all. My feelings towards Mr. Jane have shifted quite a bit in the past. I unfortunately first took notice of him in the one-two punch of Dreamcatcher and The Punisher (2004); two movies which I had to laugh my way through in an attempt to avoid actual physical pain. It wasn’t till I saw more from his catalogue and gained additional insight into who he is as a person, that I started to really like him. I enjoyed his performances much more in Stander, Boogie Nights, and The Mist. He was also, as I’m sure you’re aware, in Deep Blue Sea, but I don’t think people are watching that one for the meaningful performances. In this movie he performs admirably and with the amount of dedication you’d wish all performers put into their work. Some of his detective babble is a little corny at times, but he’s obviously having a ball with the character, as I’m sure the rest of the cast is as well.

Speaking of the rest of the cast, you’ve got Ving Rhames (The Tournament) as a sympathetic enforcer for the main villain, Elsa Pataky (Snakes on a Plane) as the requisite femme fatale, and Doug Hutchison (The Green Mile, Horace from “LOST”) as a pyromaniac named Matchstick. Hutchison’s performance is similar to Heath Ledger’s Joker, but goofier so the similarities didn’t bother me. I couldn’t help but laugh every time he started talking about fire, because he literally did so every scene he was in, like “Fire again? Really? We get it!” Oh and um…French Stewart is also in this movie as a douchey nightclub crooner. He wasn’t quite as annoying as usual, so I didn’t mind too much.

I hate chapstick.

The film takes place in a very nondescript time-period where it’s almost as if all these characters time traveled from the 1950’s to present day, because they all dress and act like they’re living 60 years in the past, except for their knowledge of email and other modern conveniences. Things move at a pretty quick pace for the 90 minute runtime, so even the couple places where the whole thing got a little too goofy were over with before I knew it. One of the highlights for me was the opening shootout, where Malone takes on an army of henchmen in order to obtain the briefcase he had been hired to retrieve. The majority of the film’s body count was racked up in this scene alone. It was nice to see a good old-fashioned gunfight where one man takes on a seemingly endless amount of bad guys by himself, with little difficulty. Truly heartwarming.

After this awesome display of pistol work, Malone goes to visit his Mom at a retirement home, which is where he goes to get stitched up any time he is injured. This was a funny take on the usual detective story business. Usually if the main character in a movie like this is hurt, he’ll go to some seedy underground doctor for patching up, but here the guy just heads to his Mom’s place. She fixes his wounds but not before giving him a hard time about his personal life and all that stuff, like a good Mother should. I found it funny that even she calls him Malone, so I thought maybe that could be his first name, but it’s never really gone into deeper than that.

So would I recommend this to you? Well yes, I think I would. Unless you’re opposed to numerous displays of onscreen violence and sadistic behavior, you’ll probably have a good time with this. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and though I probably won’t watch it again any time soon, the memories of its tale will stay with me.

Body Count – 38

Number of Deaths from the Opening Shootout Alone - 25

Friday, July 2, 2010

Puppet Master (1989) - By Mark Oswald

So when I was a young warthog, I used to enjoy sifting through a lot of the old horror franchises; the more sequels the better. Although I never made it all the way through the Sleepaway Camp, Silent Night Deadly Night, and Hellraiser movies, I did enjoy my adventures through the collections of Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, Candyman, and even fucking Trancers, but there was always one that held an oddly distinct place in my heart, and that was the films of the Puppet Master anthology. To this day, there are apparently nine of them with a tenth on the way. In my mind though, the real franchise stopped at five. I used to re-watch these films constantly. Well actually I only re-watched numbers three through five constantly. I remember the first two leaving me totally confused for some reason. Maybe they’d make more sense now; but I’d have to catch up with them to know for sure.

Oh wait! I did just catch up with them! Well the first one anyway! I actually just moved into a new apartment with my girlfriend and my DVDs have yet to be unpacked (I do have a couple in my collection that have still gone unseen), so I decided to take a gander at the good ol’ Netflix Watch Instantly. I of course started with the action section, but didn’t find anything immediately appealing, so I switched it up and decided to take a look at what the horror picks had to offer me. If you can believe it, I ALMOST decided to watch Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys. The sure-to-be epic battle of two groups of Full Moon Pictures’ most terrifying little killers; but then I spotted the first Puppet Master and nostalgia won out over morbid curiosity. I wanted to see if this movie made any god damn sense now that I was older and (marginally) wiser.

The answer; yes, the movie makes perfect sense… well at least within its own world of movie logic. The film begins at the Bodega Bay Inn in 1939, where elderly puppet maker, Andre Toulan (William Hickey from Christmas Vacation and The Jerky Boys movie), is working lovingly on his latest creation. Painting the new marionette’s face with care and telling it how beautiful it is. There is another puppet sitting on his window sill, who appears to move around all by himself, acting as a lookout; but a lookout for what? It turns out that Toulan is being hunted by Nazi spies or something in big black trench coats and hats. They are clearly there to kill him, but he stumps their efforts by offing himself before they bust down his door. Don’t worry about the puppets though; he hid them behind a wall of his room. The film really doesn’t give you too much more info on the reasoning behind these Nazi fellows coming after him, but if you’ve seen Puppet Master III, a prequel; it actually makes a lot more sense.

The story really gets going when it skips forward to “present day” (1989) where the oddest-looking bunch of psychic friends this side of the circus tent (think the older friends from IT) are summoned to the Bodega Bay Inn by the psychic energy of Neil Gallagher, a former colleague of theirs who, unbeknownst to them, has just died. This dude had been searching for the apparently famous secrets of Andre Toulan that deal with using Egyptian magic to bring life to inanimate objects. It is important to know, also, that when you bring something to life, its energy or life force reflects that of the life-bringer. So when Toulan gave them life, they were kind, loyal, and mostly non-threatening, but when they are brought back to life 50 years later by this asshole Gallagher, they aren’t so non-threatening anymore.

So the psychics all go to the Inn, which is huge by the way and should really be reclassified as a hotel, they begin getting picked off one by one by these murderous little bastards in ways that reflect each puppet’s special ability. The puppets, as characters, are made up of a tough guy puppet name Pin Head, who has a large body but tiny head; Leach Woman, a female puppet who can manifest leaches within herself and cause them to come out of her mouth; Tunneler, who is dressed in a army uniform but has a drill on the top of his head; Jester, a puppet that spins his face around to change his expression; and finally there is the leader, Blade, with a knife for one hand, a hook for the other, and spikes that protrude through his otherwise vacant eye sockets. It’s interesting to note that Blade’s appearance seems to mimic those of the Nazi spies who were after Toulan at the beginning of the film. This is another nice little detail that is explained in the aforementioned third chapter of the series. It also may be of interest to note that none of these puppet’s names are given in the film and I only know them because I am a nerd who remembers way too much about these films, even without revisiting them.

Soooo hot

As a film, there is a lot of time spent on the build up and other attempts at creating tension. This is normally an admirable aspect of a horror film, but in this one, we’ve already seen most of these puppets earlier in the movie, and so there is really no interest in waiting for a Jaws-like reveal to happen later on. Probably the biggest problem with the movie, though, is the human characters. They are just so unrelatable that you want them to be killed off so that more screen time can be devoted to the puppets, who manage to somehow have more personality. Also, the fact that they do little to defend themselves against the puppet attacks became very annoying. I mean seriously, don’t just sit there and scream! It’s a fucking puppet, not Leatherface! You can just grab the thing and throw it out a window! The “hero”, I guess, of the humans is Alex; a chubby dude whose hairstyle resembles a falcon’s nest. He doesn’t really do too much except be nice and then get beaten up by the surprise bad guy later on; a true savior.

I wasn’t all that excited while watching this movie, aside from some of the weirder elements that gave me a good laugh now and again, but my favorite part definitely came towards the end. There is a point where the main villain, and controller of the puppets, is getting a little too big for his britches or whatever, and starts abusing the jester puppet. He picks it up, manhandles it a bit, and then throws it down onto a chair to demonstrate his power; big mistake. You see, these puppets may be loyal to their master, but they are even more loyal to each other. You fuck with one and the rest will come after your ass with a vengeance. So I think it goes without saying that Alex, our wimpy knight in shining armor, doesn’t have to do a lot anyways, in terms of vanquishing evil. Another thing I liked with this movie was that the puppets were brought to life (cinematically) with a mix of actual puppetry skills and stop motion, which is a dated, but honorable form of seemingly giving life to the inanimate. I think the Egyptians would be proud of our American stop motion trickery. I mean I’m sure they’d still feel superior because they use real magic, but what the hell, we’d probably get some props all the same.

I’ll have to find some time to re-watch the rest of these Puppet Master films in the near future and see how they hold up; especially the ones I was fonder of. Then maybe I’ll try and catch the later ones I haven’t seen yet, like Retro Puppet Master, and the other one about their epic battle with the Demonic Toys. Boy, the things I do so that you guys don’t have to.

Body Count - 6

Thursday, June 24, 2010

One Man's Justice (1996) - By Mark Oswald

Ex-football star, Brian “The Boz” Bosworth is back! Well I guess he WAS back…in 1996. You’d probably only be familiar with The Boz’s acting if you’ve seen Stone Cold, the ridiculous biker gang-related Action movie that came out a few years prior to this one. That movie is a true blast of over-the-top entertainment; with none other than the great Lance Henriksen as the villain in charge of an evil biker gang from HELL (not literally). I have a rule. Well, more of a guideline; that if you go to watch an Action movie and Lance Henriksen is playing the bad guy, then you’re probably in good hands. Don’t believe me? Well go find out for yourself. I’ve got a date with a man and his justice…I mean…um, let’s begin!

One Man’s Justice (aka – One Tough Bastard) is about model divorced dad and Army Drill Instructor, John North (solid Action movie name, there), played by Bosworth of course. His ex-wife and daughter are killed during an illegal arms deal at a convenience store where M. C. Gainey (Tom Friendly from “LOST”) is working behind the counter, but is somehow not a bad guy. Boz just happens to come across the scene on his way home from work and naturally tries to intervene, with negative results. After he recovers from the incident, he tries to get on with his life; coping with his losses via the Catholic church and charity work. OK, not really. He immediately tries to track down the sonofawitch that caused him pain by remembering the tattoo the dude had on his neck, even though his ex-wife was the one who noticed it. He wasn’t even there yet, and now she’s dead, but somehow, through the power of the psychic world, combined with the ever-popular use of the slow-motion flashback, he is able to pick it out of a sample book at a tattoo shop and he’s off on his quest for the titular justice.

Don't forget the kickstand, Boz

The Director of this piece is Kurt Wimmer, who some of you may know from his work on the futuristic shoot-em-up, Equilibrium, starring Christian Bale. Well this film is nothing like that one. It’s got none of the Gunkata flare and probably about a third of the budget. One thing it does have, though, is a very weird vibe permeating throughout that I really couldn’t quite get a fix on. It’s tough to explain, but I feel like whatever it was, was throwing off the flow of the movie a little bit. That’s not to say I didn’t end up enjoying it as a whole, it’s just weird. I don’t think it had quite as much action as Stone Cold, but there’s still a decent amount. However there were a few different shots during some of the shoot-outs that cut right after a gun had been fired, but didn’t show anyone being hit, which made the Body Count tracking a tad difficult at times, but I was able to adapt and overcome regardless.

Bosworth does surprisingly well during the hand-to-hand combat scenes, especially near the beginning when he’s at work training military recruits. I’m not sure if he had completed some kind of training in the past, and I don’t remember him using such fancy moves in Stone Cold, but he’s very convincing here. He also looks a helluva lot more presentable in this than in Stone Cold. In that movie he had a long blond mullet and looked more like an 80’s wrestler than a cop, or whatever he played in that movie. Actually he looked a lot like the bad guy of this one! Here he’s got his hair cut short like a beefed-up, Ghost-era Patrick Swayze. So he’s looking good, but his acting has noticeably improved as well. He wasn’t the worst in Stone Cold, but I do remember him being pretty stiff. Here he does a surprisingly good job of emoting in a convincing manner. I doubt he got nominated for anything, but he still did a pretty good job.

I guess one of the hindrances I saw preventing this movie from becoming another instant classic was the shifting tone between Bosworth’s more realistic character dealing with the legitimate grief he felt over the loss of his family, and the over-the-top, cartoonish-looking villains. The main baddie is an FBI agent, but has long blond hair and nose rings and acts like he’s possessed or something. Or at least like he should be in a different movie where he can awkwardly recite his dialogue without getting in The Boz’s way. At first I thought he had some funny lines and was kind of amusing, but as the movie went on, he started to get on my nerves a little. Aside from that, there was this ongoing theme of the morality of vengeance, and even though I commend them for trying, I really didn’t think this flick was high-brow enough to pull it off. I just kept wanting Bosworth to put an end to these jackasses. But oh well, what are you gonna do? It’s no Stone Cold, but I’ll bestow credit where it’s due. Give this flick a shot and you probably won’t regret it.

Oh and before I forget, I wanted to mention that M.C. Hammer has a role in this as a drug kingpin or something. I’m assuming this was during his attempted foray into gangster rap, and was probably thinking that a role like this would help in building that harder image. He’s also simply credited as “Hammer” (no M.C.), which I believe is what he shortened his name to in order to sound tougher. Cuz “M.C.” is for pussies, I guess.

Body Count - 38

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Undisputed III: Redemption (2009) - By Mark Oswald

Well the wait is over. I’ve certainly mentioned it enough times in my other reviews, but Undisputed III: Redemption is finally here; and it is, in a word, awesome. In Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, Michael Jai White played George Chambers, an American boxer who is framed and placed in a Russian prison in order to take on the reigning champion of its one-on-one prison battles, which are televised and subsequently bet on by shady underworld figures. The champion that Chambers had to defeat in order to gain his freedom was Uri Boyka (Scott Adkins), a badass Russian dude who fancied himself “the most complete fighter in the world”. In this movie, Boyka has become the main focus point and relegated as our hero. Though I’m sure if he heard anyone call him a “hero”, he’d tear their arms off.

After his humbling defeat in the previous film, the master fighter has been relegated to cleaning up toilets. He limps around the concrete bowels of the penitentiary, mop in hand, thanks to the knee injury he sustained from his previous bout. He’s still got the urge to butt heads, though, so he trains himself the best he can and manages to get himself a spot in the biggest prison fighting tournament in the land, with competitors from all over the world flown in to participate. The winner is supposedly given their freedom, while the losers are sent back where they came from… again, supposedly.

That’s basically all the setup you need going into this movie. In fact, you probably don’t even have to see the second one (though you definitely should) since all you need to know about it, they show in a few quick flashbacks. The fights, once again, are nothing short of spectacular. Seriously some of the best I’ve ever seen. What’s best is that Director Isaac Florentine continues to show his love for the martial arts through long, fluent cuts, shot to maximize awesomeness. No shaky-cam, over-edited garbage here. The fisticuffs are coordinated in a manner that is high on style, but not so over the top as to seem ridiculous.

A very hands-on Director
Returning as Boyka, Adkins obviously gets more to do this time around, other than simply look menacing and intimidate people. Still not much for words, he forms an unlikely bond with an American fighter, who, in essence, actually forces him to exert more dialogue. It’s great to see how differently Adkins plays his characters from film to film. He’s virtually unrecognizable in appearance and sound in the Undisputed films when compared to his look in Ninja or The Shepherd: Boarder Patrol. Even in The Tournament, his Russian character looks completely different than Boyka. I think he was even using a different type of Russian accent as well, so points to him for that! He’s also a lot more charismatic playing Russians than Americans, as I mentioned he came off a little stiff at times in Ninja. I’m still waiting to see how he fairs in his native voice, though. In this movie, they do a good job of making his character more sympathetic than before, but I liked how they didn’t just automatically make him likable either. He’s still kind of a grumpy asshole, but it’s his determination to be the best combined with his stubbornness and hardcore since of honor that make you root for him.

Zaror examines his competition

Chilean Martial Artist Marko Zaror plays the bad guy this time around. I’ve heard his name mentioned before in reviews of Mandrill and Mirage Man, but never actually seen him in action until now. He plays a Columbian fighter who is the prison’s current champion. He gets a lot of perks that the other combatants do not. He sits in a lawn chair under a tarp, drinking tropical beverages and watching from upon high while the other guys do hard labor, breaking rocks all day (and this is BEFORE they’re allowed their daily hour of training). Zaror’s fighting style is very free-form and loose, and he makes a lot of goofy faces to fuck with his opponents while in the ring. Outside the ring he gives just as many, so I’m not sure if he’s fucking with us, the viewer, as well, or if that’s just the character. Like Boyka in the previous film, Zaror doesn’t get a ton of dialogue either, but he still manages to stick in your head thanks to his man-childish looks and weirdo charisma; a completely different kind of villain from the last film, which is admirable.

I’m still having a hard time figuring out which Undisputed sequel I like better. Both have excellent fight scenes, memorable villains, and a heart-on-their-sleeve sincerity. Neither gets weighed down with unnecessarily complicated plots either, unlike a lot of Direct to Video Action films these days. They keep it simple; real simple; like absolutely no excess baggage at all. This may be a deterrent to film-snobby people looking for some high-art cinema, but just because these films are uncomplicated, doesn’t mean they aren’t artistic. It’s a different kind of talent on display.

So in closing, Undisputed III may not be Citizen Kane, but it could very well be the Citizen Kane of modern fight films; and boy, how’s that for an endorsement?

Body Count – 13

Heads Busted – 14

Mopping Scenes – 5