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

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Heaven's Burning (1997) - By Mark Oswald

Russell Crowe is back in the Soda on the Roof blog with another obscure mid-90’s flick that’s got less action than No Way Back, but more production value and talent involved. So I guess that may even the two movies out. Personally I’d trade Crowe’s dumb Elvis-inspired hair-do for some more action and a little less pretentiousness, but hey, you can’t win them all.

Heaven’s Burning is an Australian production, but seems highly influenced by the films of Mr. Quentin Tarantino. It presents you with a series of bizarre but memorable characters in a serious situation, but filled with enough dark humor and sudden swells of violence to keep you on your toes. The story follows a young Japanese bride who ditches her husband on their honeymoon (it was an arranged marriage and the guy was sort of a douche, so it’s OK). Shortly after making her break, however, she winds up taken hostage in a failed bank robbery, where Crowe is the getaway driver. Things soon turn even more to shit when his crew wants to kill the girl, so Crowe makes a heroic stand and takes off with her in tow. The former bride is instantly taken with him and even though he initially tries to get of her, she wins him over and a connection forms between them. While on the run, Crowe and Co. are being hunted down by the gang he betrayed, the husband she left, and the police, who are looking for them both.

In case you were wondering, no, it’s not a coincidence that I’ve reviewed two obscure Russell Crowe movies within a month’s time. I got the sudden urge to catch up on some of his films that I’ve either never seen, saw a while ago and forgot about, or those that I am just hearing of now. I doubt I’ll be reviewing too many more of them on here, but you may get lucky, or unlucky, depending on your feelings towards the Aussie actor.

While we’re on the subject of all things RC, I feel the need to post a short exchange I had with a woman in the lobby of my office building several months back. Coming out of the adjacent Starbucks, I hear:

Woman: “You look just like Russell!”

Me: “Umm, Russell who?

Woman: “Crowe!”

Me: “Oh, uhh thank you, I think.”

Sorry, I just had to perpetuate my rugged manliness and its effect on others. End of story, consider yourselves titillated.

Compared to No Way Back, Heaven’s Burning is practically Oscar-bait, but otherwise, it’s nothing too earth-shattering. There are several good lines of dialogue and the acting is solid all around (Crowe gets to use his native accent for once). I sometimes had trouble buying into the love story portion of the film, though. It seemed like the Japanese ex-bride was really enamored with Crowe’s character, but I never really felt him giving off the same vibe. Maybe he was just playing it cool, you know? I guess he’s got to keep up his macho image to prove those muscles aren’t just for show. I also thought the ending was a tad over-dramatic. I mean looking at it in general terms, it’s pretty traumatic, but the way it’s carried out seemed a little much. All in all, it was an entertaining ride, though. I wouldn’t consider it required viewing or anything, but if you’re a big fan of the Russell, then I’d say give it a shot. After a while, you might not even notice his ridiculous side-burns anymore. Or maybe they’ll get you all hot and bothered. Probably not, though…

Body Count – 14

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bronson (2009) - By Mark Oswald

The UK’s most violent/famous prisoner gets his own movie, and it sure is a weird one. I guess since the real-life subject is still alive they can’t offer a conclusive ending, so that can sometimes affect how the rest of the movie plays out, which I think is the case here. Tom Hardy plays Charles Bronson; not the actual American actor/badass Charles Bronson, but rather adapts his moniker as more of a stage name to the persona he wishes to create for himself. Born as Michael Peterson, Bronson always felt destined for great notoriety and fame, and I guess that means if you don’t possess any of the more common talents like being a great musician, or actor, or architect, or mathematician, or whatever, then you could always just be a fucking asshole. That works too, apparently.

Bronson has earned a name for himself by being locked up in prison for over 34 years (30 in solitary) after initially being sentenced to only 7, for armed robbery. Once in prison he is constantly fighting with the guards and other inmates. He suffers beatings as awful as the ones he dishes out, but he seems to relish every violent experience. I guess you could call him crazy for all his acting out; he does in fact get sent to a mental institution for a portion of the film; but I thought to myself, “This guy must know exactly what he’s doing, or at least must have some idea”. It seems like at least a little planning goes into every outburst. Like after each intense beating, he uses his recuperation time to come up with another way to fuck with the guards and prison administration, but don't worry, I won’t spoil his brilliant little nuggets for any potential viewers here.

The film itself is almost Kubrickian in its still and tracking shots, with every piece of furniture and/or actor specifically placed to garner a particular effect. In fact I have heard a lot of comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. You do have a maniacal central character narrating his misdeeds while the film goes through his life almost episodically, so I can see the comparison, but I also think A Clockwork Orange has a more concise story. It introduces you to a character, shows you what he’s all about, and then it shows you what happens to him because of the way he chooses to live. Bronson, on the other hand, seems a bit more meandering. You’re never quite sure where it’s going to go, and the extensive use of classical music and steady shots of him standing around staring at something tend to wear out their welcome after a while.

With that being said, however, the film still manages to be quite entertaining. Bronson isn’t really a character to sympathize with, as much of one to be fascinated by. It’s like watching a wild animal at the zoo, except this one is prone to extreme spurts of violence and narcissism. Bronson just loves fucking with people as much as he can and he doesn’t even try to hide it. He takes hostages just for fun, without having any real demands in mind. When asked what he wants, he seems confused, asking, “What do you got?” I mean he’s in prison, and seems to enjoy it quite a bit and isn’t exactly in a hurry to get out, so what else does he really desire aside from the notoriety that comes with being a hostage-taker in the first place?

So the Bronson character might be self-indulgent and showcase kind of a “HEY LOOK AT ME! LOOK HOW FUCKING CRAZY I AM!!!!” mentality, but he can’t help but be amusing to watch; unless you’re drastically opposed to on-screen violence and sadistic behavior. All in all, I found it entertaining and worth watching for a balls-out performance from Tom Hardy, who really does deserve credit for giving his all here, even if the film itself seemed a little too self-aware and showy at times. I say check it out, though.

Body Count – 0 (surprisingly)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

No Way Back (1996) - By Mark Oswald

An obscure mid-90’s Action movie starring Russell Crowe? And it’s not Virtuosity? Even more obscure, you say? Well get me on in there!

The truth is; this is a pretty weird movie. Story-wise it goes in several different directions that you probably weren’t expecting. What starts as an FBI thriller, switches to road movie, then to buddy movie, and then to silly movie. Visually, it looks like a glorified student film. Yet the filmmakers still managed to secure actors like the above-mentioned Crowe, Kelly Hu (The Tournament), recognizable “that guy” actor Michael Lerner, Francios Chau (Dr. Pierre Chang from “LOST”), and "90210"’s Ian-fucking-Ziering as a Skinhead gang leader! In case you are uncertain, yes; that is pure excitement you’re feeling. The son of Crowe’s character is played by Andrew J. Ferchland, who none of you probably know, but looked so damn familiar to me while watching that I swear he must’ve also been the young kid in like Stepmom or something; not that I’ve ever watched that, of course. Turns out it must have been The Last Leprechaun I was thinking of…

Take it eeeeeeeaaasy...

So how does this thing stack up as an action film? Well, not bad. There were several points where I was unsure about whether or not someone’s bullets actually made contact with an adversary, though. It wasn’t until I didn’t see that person again that I decided they must’ve been killed, and racked up one more point for the body count. There was one part of the movie that I found really funny/interesting. There is a point where Crowe’s character is transporting a high-ranking member of the Yakuza to L.A. on a plane and when the guy gets free and hijacks the plane, Crowe acquires one of those plastic 2-shot pistols, like John Malkovich made in In the Line of Fire, from a surprise bad guy onboard. Then while in the cockpit, the Yakuza dude ends up getting his hands on a flare gun! I gotta say this image of two badasses going head to head with plastic guns brought a big ol' smile to my face.

One of the main things I kept questioning during the film was why Russell Crowe had agreed to do it at all. I mean I liked the movie enough and I wouldn’t call it complete garbage or anything, but even though he hadn’t hit stardom yet, it still seemed like a pretty low-brow role to take. He had appeared in both Virtuosity and Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead the year before and you’d think he would at least be moving up in the industry from there, so this role is a little perplexing. Still though, it’s always funny to see big name actors show up in B-movies before they really attained stardom. As a matter of fact, No Way Back’s director, Frank A. Cappello, had made his previous movie, American Yakuza, with none other than Viggo Mortensen in the lead! How this guy, who to this day has only directed 3 films, was able to snag these future superstars before their time is a mystery to me, but still strangely awesome as well. He did apparently write Suburban Commando, though. So maybe I shouldn’t be so astounded.

So should you check out this movie? Umm…sure; if for nothing else than your own curiosity and the fact that it may continuously shake up your expectations in amusing ways.

Body Count – 31

American Flags – 2 (Yeah sorry, that was a weak one)