Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) - By Mark Oswald

Nicolas Cage cranks the acting dial to eleven in a kind of, but not really, remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant, which starred Harvey Keitel. The only real similarities between the films are the titles and the very general plot thread of, “Cop tries to solve heinous crime while getting extremely fucked up on various drugs and participating in several examples of lewd behavior in the process”. This film’s Director, the legendary Werner Herzog, claims to have never even seen Ferrara’s original film and it seems pretty apparent that no one was going out of their way to remake the umm…magic of that first movie. This one is more like a companion piece, or another chapter in a possible Bad Lieutenant Anthology? In which case, sign me up for more! Here it’s a different town, different Lieutenant, and different types of “bad” going on. Things never get quite as disturbing as they do in the ’92 film, and Cage’s hijinx are a lot easier to laugh along with, but that still doesn’t mean this is the type of guy you’d want patrolling your streets everyday.

Or is it? The thing that I found so, well…not admirable (but something like that) about the title character is that he just can’t help being a successful police officer. At the beginning of the movie, he seems like he may be kind of an asshole, but at the same time, he risks ruining his expensive underwear by jumping into a flooding prison cell to rescue a trapped inmate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, so you can tell that he does not contain a callous disregard for human life like his partner (Val Kilmer), who advises him to leave the guy down there. Cage’s character actually gets a medal for his heroics, but what he also gets is a back injury sustained by his jump into the flooding area that is set to cause him intense pain for the rest of his life. In his effort to control the pain, the doctors prescribe him painkillers which unfortunately open a gateway to intense drug use and other unsavory activities.

The main thing I heard about this movie before watching it was that Nic Cage is fucking nuts in it. After viewing the film myself, I can tell you that this is, without a doubt, a factual statement. The actor gets a lot of crap these days for slumming through paycheck roles (National Treasure) and sporting bizarre hairdos (Bangkok Dangerous) and these are all viable criticisms but in The Bad Lieutenant, he is completely in the zone; his eyes, so focused and intense, that you could envision him exploding at any second; figuratively or otherwise. He looks like an absolute mess of a human being, slopping around town in an oversized suit with a .44 Magnum sticking nonchalantly out of the front of his pants. He’s constantly sweating and his voice pattern seems to change up every other scene, perhaps depending on his character’s level of sobriety, but it’s all these things that make him, and the film itself, so watchable.

Director Herzog is known for asking a lot of his cast and crew. He had Christian Bale eating maggots in Rescue Dawn, and his film crew pulling a steam ship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo. It seems he hasn’t lost any of his tact with age; still able to display his own, ever-evolving visual style, while pulling solid performances from all of his actors at the same time. Speaking of actors, this film is chock full of them! And there are some you may even recognize! As previously stated, Val Kilmer shows up playing a sleazy fellow police officer. Then you’ve got Eva Mendes in a solid turn as Cage’s junky/prostitute girlfriend, Brad Dourif (voice of Chucky, the killer doll) playing Cage’s bookie, Fairuza Balk (The Craft, The Waterboy) as a highway patrolman, Xzibit (“Pimp My Ride”, Gridiron Gang) as a big-time drug dealer, Jennifer Coolidge (Stifler’s Mom) as Cage’s Dad’s young(er) wife, and Cage’s Dad himself happens to be Marvin The Janitor, from Die Hard 2!!! (Tom Bower)

Now I have to offer up another Non-Action Disclaimer (NAD? Ehh...) like I did at the end of my review for The International. Before you check this baby out (and you should), I don’t want you to be confused into thinking this is an action film or anything. Yes, Cage’s character is a Lieutenant like John McClane, and yes he is “bad” like umm…Michael Jackson? But he is in no way an action hero of any kind, and even the term “hero” is used beyond loosely. So what do you get instead of shootouts, explosions, and witty one-liners? Well you get to see a strung out mess of a character that provides more than enough entertainment by just standing around, wacked out of his skull, yet still able to get his job done in spite of himself…and in fact, there are actually some pretty good one-liners in this thing, so you shouldn’t be disappointed.

Body Count – 3 (on screen) 5 (off)

Cameos by scaled creatures – 7 (Although I’m not sure if some of these were the same reptiles in more than one scene. Sorry if that sounds racist…I couldn’t tell!!!)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

NINJA (2009) - by Mark Oswald

Good news, friends. The Direct-to-Video Action renaissance continues with another joint venture by DTV auteur Isaac Florentine and rising martial arts badass, and Soda on the Roof favorite, Scott Adkins. I’ve previously mentioned these guys in my reviews for Michal Jai White’s Blood and Bone and The Tournament. White co-starred with Adkins in Florentine’s Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, where Adkins played the Russian villain, Uri Boyka. In Ninja, however, he gets promoted to hero duty with the character of Casey, a white orphan who is raised in a Japanese dojo where the sensei teaches his students the honorable ways of the ninja. When his rival at the dojo, Masazuka, is banished and eventually comes back for revenge, Casey is tasked with transporting “The Yoroi Bitsu”, a chest containing antique weapons and tools of the original ninjas, to America where it can be properly hidden, because Americans are good at hiding things, I guess.

Ninja creep

You see, this box of weapons is apparently the most prized possession a ninja of this dojo can ever hope to attain, and can only do so by being named Sensei, of which both Casey and Masazuka were in the running for until Masazuka loses his shit during a wooden sword fight and goes after Casey with a real one. I really liked the end of this scene because when the Sensei banishes Masazuka from the dojo for his actions, the guy doesn’t just storm off in anger. Instead, he is truly heartbroken by his banishment. He breaks down and begs for forgiveness, but his pleas go unheard. This actually sets up Masazuka as a really solid villain. The character is given a surprising amount of emotional weight considering the depth usually given to Action movie villains; which is to say, not much.

The character of Casey is unfortunately not as fleshed out. We do get a little back story about his mother leaving him at the dojo and his father committing suicide, though. I mentioned in my review of The Tournament, how the British Adkins rarely seems to be cast as an Englishman. He’s played Russians in the aforementioned The Tournament and Undisputed II, while playing an American in Florentine’s The Shepherd: Border Patrol. Well the streak of non-British characters remains unbroken here. Adkins does a commendable job of hiding his native accent, but like a lot of European actors playing Americans, he comes off a little stiff at times. That isn’t to say he gives a bad performance though. His acting is several steps above a younger Van Damme and Lundgren, and he is much better at portraying a wider range of emotions than Seagal ever was. His natural charisma makes him likeable enough in the hero role, but he has even admitted himself in an interview on his message board that he feels more comfortable portraying characters with an edge, rather than the clean-cut hero type he plays here, which is easy to see in comparison to his other, bad guy roles. Even if he couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag, though, his talent in the martial arts makes the fight scenes remarkable. His forte is being able to more convincingly take on numerous attackers at once, rather than in a lot of fight films where they seem to attack one at a time.

As a whole, this movie is essentially an 80’s Action flick set in the modern age. Aside from the whole white ninja thing which was done to death in 80’s flicks like American Ninja, Enter the Ninja, etc., when the action shifts to New York City (clearly not really NY, but they get an A for effort, or A-ffort?) they seem to view it still as dirty old 80’s New York at times. When Casey and his Sensei’s daughter, Namiko, are trying to find a hotel, the one they walk into is run-down, filthy, and clearly used by rich business men for a little “side action”, if you know what I mean. I could’ve sworn I was watching an old Walter Hill production, not a movie that came out less than a year ago. Also, when Casey is captured by the police, the camera pans around the precinct where there are numerous cops walking flashy hookers around in handcuffs. This is a classic 80’s Action staple, seen in films like Beverly Hills Cop, Robocop, and other films that may or may not have “Cop” in the title. Let us also not forget the hilariously evil rich white guy and cult leader who has been hiring Masazuka to assassinate anyone who’s been going up against his oil business. I couldn’t help but smile every time this guy recited his lines with the subtlety of a battering ram.

Well, there you have it. Ninja is a solid throwback to 80’s Action flicks in more way than one. My only real complaint was the abundance of CGI blood that kept creeping in during a lot of the very gory ninja kills. But aside from that and a couple other instances of budget restriction, this movie was a lot of fun; a streamlined old school Action flick with great fight scenes shot so you can actually tell what is going on. Since Florentine is a former martial artist himself, he likes to make sure that his talented fighters aren’t short-changed by an abundance of quick cuts. I have to also appreciate the classic “Whoosh” sound effects whenever the characters make any dramatic movements; classic. So I proclaim this another success in the Florentine/Adkins cinematic arsenal, and I’ve already got my eyes set on Undisputed III: Redemption. Let’s do this…

Body Count – 54

Scenes where you feel the Sensei’s daughter should be a better fighter - 5

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Black Dynamite (2009) - By Mark Oswald


Now here we have a clever and a highly entertaining spoof of 1970’s era Blaxploitation films. Martial artist Michael Jai White breaks into a whole new repertoire with a hilarious cinematic character, whose film acts as a spoof, satire, and all-round enjoyable action comedy based on films from the 1970’s that typically starred actors like Jim Brown and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. You’ll probably remember I mentioned Mr. Jai White in my review of his equally (but differently) impressive fight film, Blood and Bone. I also name dropped his other neo-action classic, Undisputed II: Last Man Standing in that same review. With Black Dynamite he very successfully completes a trifecta of awesomeness that any self-respected ass kicker could be proud of.

Is it possible to pay homage to a genre of film while also making a competent and enjoyable example of it at the same time? Well yes, it is. It’s been done before, too, and you don’t even have to go too far back to find them. Director Edgar Wright’s one-two punch of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were both immensely enjoyable genre films that knew exactly how to poke fun at the clich├ęs that have bombarded Zombie and Buddy Cop films since their inception, while reigning in the satire to a level that allowed the films to take themselves just seriously enough to actually make you care about the characters portrayed therein. Let’s also not forget about the highly underappreciated Galaxy Quest, which was not only a funny and clever send up of the "Star Trek" phenomenon, but a sincere and heart-filled one as well.

Black Dynamite works for the very same reasons that these other films do. It’s made by people who understand and respect the Blaxploitation genre, while also recognizing that it holds a veritable goldmine of satire. In the Special Features section of the DVD, the filmmakers talk about how a lot of actual Blaxploitation films are in reality, kind of boring outside of the classic individual scenes that they are remembered for. So with Black Dynamite, they wanted to basically cut out all of the filler that would normally accompany those types of movies, and go straight for the gold, so to speak. And speaking of cutting out the filler; the running time here is only 84 minutes, so they certainly don’t leave any time to waste on slow ass bullshit...or whatever.

Now admittedly, Blaxploitation has never been an area of expertise for me, but I am familiar enough with the genre to appreciate what was going on. When it comes down to it, I think the reason this film worked so well (for me, at least) was because of all the more modern (or post-modern?) humor thrown in as well. It allowed the film to escape its own mould and elevate to a level that would appeal to fans of good comedy as well as true purists of the genre who no doubt will probably pick up on about 100 more sprinkles of Blaxploitation references that I missed. I know this because in the Making-of Featurette, they give off a lot of examples, which I’m sure will help me to enjoy the film even more the next time I watch it; and let me tell you…

There will be a next time.

Body Count – 56

Donuts Killed in the Name of Righteousness – 1