Thursday, March 19, 2015

American Cyborg: Steel Warrior (1994)

I've covered prime Cannon era films but haven't really delved too deep into their late output.  As in what they were doing right as the doors were closing.  American Cyborg: Steel Warrior was one of their last films and in fact was their very last film to get a theatrical release.  Released in 1994, it is your basic garden variety post-apocalyptic action film about a lone warrior who must escort the last fertile woman on the planet across the wasteland while a cyborg emissary from their robot overlords tries to kill them.  It's rather frightening to think that it's entirely possible someone at the studio saw Hell Comes to Frogtown and thought "Let's cash in on that!" and then tossed in The Terminator for the hell of it.

Joe Lara plays our hero, Austin, your standard wasteland warrior who ends up protecting Mary (Nicole Hansen) from unstoppable cyborg John Ryan (not the Cannon regular known for hamming it up with relish, this is a British guy who sort of looks like him).  Their goal is to get her unborn fetus in a jar (No, I'm not making this up!  Stop looking at me like that!) to a ship bound for Europe where the after affects of World War III are slightly less crappy and really, that's about as much plot as there is.  There's a damn good reason this is a double feature post.

The bulk of the movie is given to non stop action scenes where the android fires off hundreds of rounds of ammo from his huge machine gun (where he gets all that extra ammo is a mystery that is not delved into) and the bad movie fan in me really wishes I would have seen this in the theater just so I could say I did.  I kind of feel the same way about that awful second Universal Soldier film from 1999.

We get tons of gun battles that are just as repetitious as those in the above mentioned Universal Soldier: The Return; radioactive cannibals, Joe Lara at his most blandly heroic, an odd twist where it turns out Lara is also a cyborg, this is one of those films you watch with a pizza and beer and forget as soon as you're done watching it.  While it's stupid fun (they don't release crap like this in theaters anymore), one does get the sense that at this point Cannon had just thrown up their collective hands and said "Okay, just end us!  We're ready to die!"  It's middle of the road crap with not much in the way of good acting or humor, but not in an entirely horrible way.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Enter the Dragon (1973)

There are lots of icons in action films.  In the 80's, guys like Stallone and Schwarzenegger led the way while the Chuck Norrises, van Dammes and Steven Seagals operated on the second tier of action film stardom.  In the 70's, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds ruled the roost but aside from them, one man was making an innovative splash with martial arts films.

Bruce Lee.

Enter the Dragon is his crowning achievement.  A briskly paced, fantastically entertaining blend of spy caper and martial arts revenge film, it pits Bruce against an evil martial arts master named Han (Shih Kien)who holds a deadly tournament on his private island.  Bruce must go there, not only to extract a British undercover agent but also to get revenge as one of his henchmen (Bob Wall) is responsible for the death of his sister.  Needless to say, our hero has all the motivation he needs to tear every bad guy on that island a new orifice before the film is even twenty minutes old.

Given that the plot is awesome simplicity in itself, let';s move on to the real great stuff.  First off, the cast is top notch,.  Bruce Lee was really a hell of an action star.  Charming, good looking and utterly cool, he strides through the movie with a quiet, playful sense of confidence that leads to some nicely funny bits that also are totally badass.  Put it this way, it takes a special sort of person to dryly remark to a guy smashing a board inches from his face that "boards don't hit back".

The rest of the cast is equally cool with John Saxon turning in a fun role as an unlucky gambler who is entered in the tournament (Though it's probably a bit of a stretch that he can easily beat the crap out of the baddie played by Bloodsport's Bolo Yeung.  Even van Damme had to work for his victory a little more); Jim Kelly is pretty terrific as Williams, a cocky young fighter who of course ends up being our obligatory sacrificial lamb and Shih Kien is fin as Han, giving the villain a classy aura of menace.

While the cast is good, everybody watching this film is here for the action.  This is one of those rare occasions where every single bit of action from, the demonstration fights to the huge epics (as in Bruce going through guards like they're made of paper) is top notch.

While the fight with the guards is a marvel of cinematic violence (one of the unfortunate baddies is a young Jackie Chan) to such a degree that even the bad guy comments on how awesome it is, I think my favorite bit of business is the absolute trashing Lee gives Bob Wall.  Wall's character is, as noted above, responsible the the death of Lee's sister and I think he gets in maybe half a hit while being completely stomped (literally at the end) by our hero.  The difference between this and the typical Steven Seagal fight scene is that you actually like Lee which helps a lot when he only gets a few scratches on him during the final fight with Han.

That end fight is pretty cool too with a mirror maze sequence and some nice direction from Robert Clouse who does a fine job with the rest of the film.  Enter the Dragon is a seminal achievement in action cinema.  It's fast, funny and has some of the best action scenes caught on film.  You gotta love it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Assassins (1995)

Sylvester Stallone goes to the "morose hitman who wants out of the business" well for the first time (and not the last) in this rather silly, overly long thriller from Richard Donner.  Assassins stars Sly as Robert Rath, the aforementioned morose hitman who just wants out but first he has to contend with rival assassin Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas) whilst also protecting potential target Electra (Julianne Moore).

The plot is a bit too muddled and predictable for its own good with Moore possessing sensitive information on a disk; Bain trying to kill her and Rath trying to keep her alive which would be fine if the film had a better sense of pace.  For some reason, the film matches Rath's general mood: sort of mopey with occasional bursts of energy that last for a brief period and then are just gone.  There are some endearingly dumb bits like Bain surviving being blasted out of a window by an explosion that end up being muted because the movie stubbornly tries to be a serious thriller.

 Rath's contractor betrays him and hires Bain to kill him and Electra and it turns out said contractor is a Russian friend who Rath thought he had killed fifteen years previous.  The reveal isn't really too much of a shock and fails to make much of an impact since the actor really only has about two or three minutes to make an impression.  The fact that this thread is wrapped up rather quickly, after which Rath kills Bain and goes off with Electra in the span of about five minutes doesn't speak too well for the quality of the film either.

The action is okay and Stallone and Banderas have some amusing moments but what really kills the film is Richard Donner's direction.  The guy is usually pretty good (the first Superman film and the Lethal Weapon films are all varying degrees of good action movies) but for some reason he just doesn't bring his A game to this one.  Here though, we get an extended forty minute sequence at the end as Rath waits to transfer some money he and Electra will use to disappear while being stalked by Bain.  It's not terrible but when the weather in the locale is doing more to set up the tension than the actual film (three sweaty actors with Stallone probably being on a high protein diet, the lunch breaks must have stunk like hell) something has gone wrong.

It's a shame because Banderas is quite good and while he's not the best dramatic actor, Stallone doesn't embarrass himself.  Julianne Moore is... Well, she's cute.  That's about it, really.  Her character exists in the time and space of the film and is just sort of there.

Assassins came right in the middle of Stallone's comeback on the heels of Cliffhanger and Demolition Man in 1993.  He followed it up with the enjoyably awful The Specialist, Judge Dredd and this film.  Honestly, I'm not really shocked he faded out again after 1997 and Cop Land (though that film is actually quite good).  As for this film, it's a perfectly average action movie that is fine as background noise but not a really good thriller.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Curse (1987)

We go back to the world of H.P. Lovecraft adaptations with the 1987 horror flick The Curse.  Based on Lovecraft's short story The Colour Out of Space, it tells the tale of a farmer (Claude Akins) and his family, featuring Wil Wheaton as the lead kid, as a strange meteorite lands nearby and affects first the farmer's crops, followed by the animals, then farmer himself and his family.  Things go haywire at a rather gradual pace (for an 88 minute movie, this film takes way too damn long to get to the point) and eventually, Wheaton has to protect his younger sister while also avoiding the other family members who are starting to mutate.

The Curse is an interesting idea poorly executed.  The family is, to be perfectly blunt, a bunch of unlikable redneck assholes with the father and older son Cyrus coming off the worst.  I'm sure there have been more unlikable redneck characters in film but these two are right up there.

Claude Akins is actually pretty good as the strict, religious father but the kid playing Cyrus makes him such a drooling buffoon (I'm too polite to just up and call him a retard) that even the sight of him simply watching a football game on TV is more shudder-inducing than any of the horror stuff that comes in the second half of the film.  To be fair. it is rather fun seeing him nearly get trampled by one of their horses as it goes insane.

The rest of the family is okay with Wil Wheaton actually coming off rather well as the kid desperately trying to save his family.  The mother and daughter are okay too, though really all they get to do is gradually decay into a low rent Evil Dead demon and get pecked by pissed off chickens respectively.  John Schneider is also okay as a local state official who tries to help.  The poorly written script, however, does not help.  Characters are thrown in and dropped with no explanation, the house collapses on itself at the end for no apparent reason and the family, as I said, generates about as little sympathy as possible.

The idea is that something in the meteorite gets into the eater and crops, making the family go nuts but two fifths of the family are already unlikable to the point where you just want to see them get an axe in the head before the damn space rock even touches down.  It's sort of hard to feel much in the way of horror at seeing a family slowly torn apart by madness from outer space when you realize that the space rock actually makes them slightly less unpleasant simply because they're not reciting bad dialogue.

Production wise, the film is quite meh.  Actor David Keith (forever cursed to be confused with actor Keith David) does an acceptable job directing things and the special effects range from cheesily acceptable to not quite so cheesily acceptable but the score is really what shoots the overall mood of the film to hell.  Generally, it's sort of hard to pull off a slow build with tension permeating every scene when you get the feeling the composer did most of his work sitting lazily on his porch, twanging his guitar casually on a hot summer afternoon.  There are some music beats with the meteorite that are okay but for the most part... No.  Just no.

The Curse is not an especially good movie.  There are some cheesy moments of fun here and there but it says something quite bad that the three in-name-only sequels that came out afterwards are more or less better.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Addendum to previous post

Quick update to the update.  I think I'll just be revisiting 1995-1999 with additional reviews from those years as I initially intended to do.  Really don't want to get bogged down in lists again. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

A quick programming update

Since I've been going over some films from the latter half of the 90's, I've decided to re-do the lists from 1995-1999 I did last year as I'm honestly not that happy with them as they are right now.  Probably won't do the same for the 2000-2014 range, though.

Stay tuned!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Runaway Train (1985)

Cannon Films didn't always produce grade B exploitation fare and lower.  Sometimes they had loftier goals.  Sometimes, they actually managed to get something truly good.  This is one of those times.

Based on an screenplay by Akira Kurosawa (see what I mean by loftier goals?), this is actually a pretty decent thriller starring Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as a pair of hardened criminals, Manny and Buck respectively, who escape an Alaskan prison and end up on an out of control train manned only by a young woman played by Rebecca DeMornay.  Hot on the trail is the nasty warden, played by Cannon regular John P. Ryan who turns in a fairly sedate performance that is honestly a nice change from his usual scenery chewing.

Voight and Roberts get the majority of that duty and they acquit themselves admirably.  Kenneth McMillan also chews some scenery as a railway operator trying to avert disaster.  Kyle T. Heffner and T.K. Carter are his underlings and while Carter is okay, Heffner is just grating with his thoroughly unlikable tech whiz character.  It's generally not a good sign when the evil warden slams a guy's head into a toilet he's been peeing in and the audience can sort of dig where he's coming from.

Runaway Train benefits largely from the solid lead performances (Roberts is good as Buck and Jon Voight is solid as Manny, though he's an actor I generally don't enjoy that much); some nicely staged action scenes in and on the train and some amazing Alaskan scenery.  Director Andrei Konchalovsky does a good job of keeping things moving, though the film does descend into some murky, somewhat pretentious symbolism regarding the nature of man that probably would have been done better if Akira Kurosawa had gotten to direct it (he was planning to in the 70's but couldn't get the funding).

It only really mars the ending which goes for something a little more lyrical then the train crashing and while it works for the story, by the end of the movie you do sort of want to see it get smashed up real good.  There are also a few annoying side characters as I noted above working to stop the train, but they don't hurt the overall effectiveness of the movie that much and you do get to see the most annoying one be on the receiving end of a toilet dunking.

The film is an intelligent, effective thriller that works about as well as one can hope a thriller could work.  Cannon didn't always succeed when they aimed for respectability, but this is one of the rare instances where they hit the mark just fine.

About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.