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