Thursday, December 30, 2010

Death Warrant (1990)

Death Warrant is essentially a nice mash up of every prison movie cliche in the book featuring Jean-Claude van Damme as a Mountie on loan to the LAPD (I think) to investigate a series of brutal murders at a maximum security prison.  Our Belgian hero plays Louis Burke who we first see taking down a demented serial killer known as The Sandman (Patrick Kilpatrick).

From there, Burke is given the undercover assignment and an assistant on the outside, a lawyer named Amanda Beckett, played by Cynthia Gibb.   Gibb doesn't really make much of an impression outside of being attractive, mainly because her character is the very definition of a cipher.  Faring better is Robert Guillaume as the obligatory prisoner who befriends Burke.  Sure it's a stock character that Morgan Freeman perfected in The Shawshank Redemption but Guillaume still provides solid support as does Art LaFleur as a nasty prison guard..

Not quite as solid is the screenplay, an early effort by Dark Knight scribe David Goyer.  This was the first script he ever sold and boy does it ever read like something from a novice!  The Sandman is introduced in the first scene but is never even mentioned again until he shows up at the prison (transferred by the ringleader behind the murders) to out Burke as a cop and set up the finale.

It turns out the murders are being carried out by prison official;s (including the doctor played by a pre-Star Trek Armin Shimmerman) in order to harvest organs, a rather nice idea that would work better with a more seasoned writer.  A better idea would have been for ?The Sandman to be more directly tied to the murders.  Sure it would be obvious if he was doing the killing, it would also make some semblance of sense.

Bu to be fair, common sense is not what we watch these films for.  We watch them for the action.  There is a little here and there but what there is is quite solid.  There's a nice punch-up between Burke and a prisoner played by perennial punching bag Al Leong I've always been a fan of the guy, easily one of the best henchmen in action movies.

The only other real action bit is the finale between Burke and The Sandman.  The killer proves to be quite resilient, which is the only clean word I can think to use to describe a guy who can take being tossed into an industrial oven and keep on ticking.  It would be even better if he was in more of the movie.  As it stands, Kilpatrick does a good job playing a creepy villain, but he's sadly undercut by a weak script that doesn't use him nearly enough.

Problems aside, this is a perfectly good, very entertaining time killer and one of van Damme's better early films.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Rumble in the Bronx (1996)

Here it is, the film that finally got Jackie Chan recognition in the States.  After a few aborted attempts in the 80's that yielded mixed results at best (I sort of like the first Cannonball Run film), it was a cut down and dubbed version of his 1995 film Rumble in the Bronx that got him the same amount of superstardom here as in the rest of the world.

Jackie plays Keung, a young man who comes to New York to visit his uncle and help him out with his grocery store.  He runs afoul of the local street gang and some mafia guys after some stolen diamonds and that's about all the plot we get.

Fortunately it's all we really need since nobody in their right mind goes to a Jackie Chan movie for the plot.  You go to see him in action and he certainly delivers with a series of fantastic brawls starting with a relatively brief one in the grocery store.

This is followed by a nice bit of stunt work at a parking garage capped off an incredible leap from the roof of said garage to a nearby fire escape.  The highlight of the film, though is a huge brawl in the gang's lair where Jackie pretty much beat up about twenty or so guys all by himself.  The finale is pretty neat too with Jackie hanging on for dear life to a hovercraft as it mows through New York (or at least Vancouver posing as NYC).

In the end, it's far from Jackie's best movie.  The Police Story films have better plots and earlier films like Project A and Armour of the Gods are more satisfying but this definitely gets the job done.  Jackie has gone on to have a pretty good career since then with many of his older movies getting a stateside release (albeit in edited and dubbed versions) and he has also found success with the Rush Hour films with Chris Tucker.  I don't especially care for them (nor does Jackie from what I've read) but you can't really argue with success.

This one is good if you have 90 minutes to kill and are in the mood for a silly, breezy action comedy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Laughs from the Past-An All Star Toast to The Improv



10/10

This is one of the rare times I will review something you more than likely have no chance of tracking down for a reasonable price and even if you do, you had better have a VCR handy.  At the height of the 80’s stand-up comedy boom, one of the big players was a show called A&E’s An Evening at the Improv.  Filmed at one of the legendary Improvisation comedy clubs, it opened up doors for many, many comics.  In 1988, HBO put on a tribute to the club featuring six of the best (or at the very least most well known) comics of the day:  Robert Klein, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Martin Mull, Paul Rodriguez and Richard Lewis.

Robert Klein hosts the festivities which come off as one part roast and one part show within a show as the comics heckle the living daylights out of each other during most of the special.

Things start off nicely with a good, though typical set from Richard Lewis doing his usual “most neurotic man in the world” shtick.  At least I think its shtick; I hope it is at any rate!

The set is enhanced by Crystal and Williams who add in little bits of their own.  It’s a really funny running gag for the most part; one that I would imagine was helped along by booze.  Seriously, there is no way these guys didn’t have a few drinks before going on stage going by what we see.

Billy Crystal is up next  and thankfully he refrains from his tendency to lapse into sentimental schmaltz, making for a very funny set.  Next up is the real highlight of the show for me, a rather disastrous set from Paul Rodriguez.  While everyone else has a pretty good night
Paul's timing is off the the audience doesn't seem to really be into him on this particular night.

Happily, he has five buddies on hand who are more than willing to heckle him in an attempt to salvage his set.  Watching a guy bomb is generally not fun in the least, but here it ends up being even funnier than if he had done well.

Mull is up next and he has a wonderfully dry speech in which he roasts everyone on the stage and engages in some really funny back and forth with Williams.  The show ends with a typical late 80's Robin Williams routine that is enhanced (I would guess) by however much booze the man had in him at the time.

This is a really great rarity that I grabbed from a Wherehouse (remember that place, kids?) for five bucks about ten years ago.  If you can track it down, grab it.  It's worth it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Under Siege (1992)

For our first Steven Seagal movie, I thought I'd revisit what is arguably his best movie.  Under Siege was and still remains his most successful film and one where he shows his greatest depth and range as an actor.  In other words, he loses the ponytail.  The plot is simplicity itself.  Seagal plays Casey Ryback, a cook on board the U.S.S. Missouri who has to save the day when the ship is taken over by lunatic ex-CIA operative William Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones) and his team of mercenaries, one of whom is Star Trek vet Colm Meaney.

Jones makes for a great villain, cackling, doing that rapid fire dialogue Jones does so well and basically letting you not care that the lead of the movie is a charisma vacuum.  Fortunately, in this sort of movie a winning personality isn't a must and Seagal does his usual; solid, entertaining routine.  Mind you this was back when he actually had a viable mainstream career.  Recently, he's moved into the DTV realm and done well enough but it's just not the same.

Making things even more entertaining is the addition of Garey Busey as the second-in-command of the ship who turns out to be in with Strannix.  Busey is at his hilariously over the top best, dressing in drag at one point, hamming it up and generally acting like...Well, like how Garey Busey probably acts all day.  In every one of his films post-motorcycle accident it's likely he doesn't realize he's on a movie set.

Erika Eleniak does fine as Seagal's sidekick, a former Playmate named Jordan who amusingly enough proves to be rather adept with a machine gun.  It's a rare thing to find the comic relief sidekick entertaining, though in Ms. Eleniak's favor she is quite hot.  That helps things considerably.

The action is well directed by Andrew Davis and this proves to be one of his best movies along with The Fugitive.  Truthfully, I'm not a fan of most of his other films.  Above the Law is pretty good, The Package is quite good but Code of Silence is one of the few 80's action movies that genuinely piss me off.  That's a story for another day though.

Probably my favorite aspect of the film is the script and how it toys around with the Die Hard formula.  Strannix's first contact with the Pentagon is done mainly for chuckles with the bad guy's ranting clearly a put-on as Jones goes on and on while Busey and Meany stifle laughter in the background.

All this adds up to a film that stands as one of Seagal's best, the best Die Hard knockoff, possibly the best action film of 1992 and  one of my personal favorites.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

St. Ives (1976)



It's always nice to check out a movie sight unseen and come away with a new favorite.  Charles Bronson plays Raymond St. Ives, a writer of crime stories who lives in a shabby hotel, is lousy gambler (betting on the Rams in the mid-seventies, never a good idea) and occasionally does the odd bit of detective work here and there.  He's hired by Abner Procane (John Houseman), an eccentric millionaire (aren't they all?) who is negotiating the return of some important documents that have been stolen from him.

Procane turns out to be a master thief (the plans for his next big job are the stolen documents) and there are twists and turns a plenty as St. Ives weaves his through overzealous cops, the obligatory gorgeous woman with a secret (played by Jacqueline Bisset) and the usual assortment of thugs one tends to find in this sort of movie.

Despite the occasional flaw in logic (the first guy Procane thinks of to get his property back is a novelist?), pretty much everything works in this movie.  Direction is solid as J. Lee Thompson hadn't sunk to the levels he would reach in the eighties with...Well with pretty much every movie he did during that decade.  Seriously, when you have not one but two awful Indiana Jones knock-offs on your resume that's saying something!

The film has a light, breezy feel to it that is helped immensely by the performances.  Bronson is utterly entertaining as a laid back guy who doesn't let too many things bother him, even being betrayed by a beautiful woman.  He's actually quite funny in parts, not something you often got from the man given how grim most of his movies tended to be.

Bisset and Houseman do good work with their roles as does everyone else.  Maximillian Schell has a fun role as Procane's doctor and Elisha Cook Jr. does his usual thing as a hotel clerk.  In fact, this is a great movie to play Spot the Star as quite a few smaller parts are filled by notable actors such as Jeff Goldblum, Michael Lerner, Robert Englund and Daniel J. Travanti.

The detective story is a lost art in my opinion, this movie is a nice little forgotten gem of a movie.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)


In 1974, Tobe Hooper’s seminal horror flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released to shocked grindhouse audiences.  A truly terrifying exercise in psychological horror, it quickly became revered in horror circles making an icon out of huge chainsaw wielding killer Leatherface and as the eighties went on, spawned a few sequels.  The second film, released in 1986 by Cannon Films was not entirely awful but also not especially great with some rather uneven tonal shifts and a very irritating performance from Bill Moseley as one of the killer family members.

In 1989, the rights to the series ended up with New Line and Jeff Burr was signed on to direct the third movie, written by splatterpunk author David J. Schow.  The film finds Leatherface (R.A. Mihailoff) with a new family, one of whom is played by Viggo Mortenson, stalking the back roads of Texas in search of victims.

Kate Hodge and William Butler play Michelle and Ryan, a young couple who runs afoul of the killer clan and Dawn of the Dead vet Ken Foree puts on a good show as Benny, a survivalist who may be the couple’s only chance for survival.

Unlike the jokey second movie, the third movie plays things fairly straight with a lean, mean and intense feel to things.  The relatively brief running time helps matters as well as Burr ratchets up the tension as much as he can about twenty minutes in and keeps things moving right up to the end.

KNB also puts in a good showing, showing why they’re one of the best f/x shops in the business.  There are some seriously good gore shots here, especially in the finale where Benny shows up with a machine gun and goes to town on the family.

There are flaws, however as logic occasionally steps out for a smoke.  I’m still waiting on a good explanation for how it that Benny, just an average guy can take a chainsaw slice to the head and still show up at the end of the movie alive.  No mention of a metal plate, the guy sure as hell isn’t a robot sent from the future.  It’s just one of those ridiculous things you have to accept as a horror fan I guess.

The film was severely cut by the MPAA when it was released into theaters but fortunately, the unrated cut is available on DVD.  It’s a lot better than the R-rated cut, simply because it has more impact and intensity.

No matter which cut you view though, there’s still the problem that plagues all the sequels in this franchise.  Every sequel in this franchise has been more or less a remake of the first with a big dinner scene as the climax.  The second film diverts from the original well enough but in the third act it just repeated the dinner scene from the first almost verbatim.  There is a dinner scene here but there’s enough good stuff in it to differentiate it from the original. 

Against all odds, I actually like this movie quite a bit.  In spite of its rather shoddy reputation, it’s a solid little horror movie that’s good for what it needs to be.  It’s not perfect, but it’ll do in a pinch.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Laughs From the Past-Kinison and Carlin

A double dose of late 80's comedy


Sam Kinison-Have You Seen Me Lately? (1988)



8/10 

Recently, I started getting into the late great Sam Kinison.  His second album, Have You Seen Me Lately? is a very funny album that shows us the late comic at his best.  It begins with some funny though dated routines on drunk driving, televangelist Jim Bakker and condoms and moves onto some great stuff on religion.

He moves into his usual relationship rants which take up a good portion of the show and the thing that really makes his humor work is the brutal honesty he displays.  The last bit on the album is truly hysterical.  You wouldn't think a man could wring laughs out of gay necrophilia but the son of a gun does it!

Kinison was a truly funny guy who left us well before his time.  This album is not for the faint of heart but if you like the guy, this is your best bet.

George Carlin: What am I Doing in New Jersey? (1988)



10/10


George Carlin is truly one of my comic influences.  The guy was simply one of the most brilliant comics ever to walk the earth.  For nearly fifty years, the man was able to get laughs consistently and change up his act when necessary.

In 1988, he began to veer from his usual observational stuff to a slightly darker vein of humor.  This album is really the beginning as it starts with him doing uncharacteristically topical humor about the Reagan presidency before moving onto a list of annoyances to be found in people, a routine he would refine in later albums.

The album ends with a 21 minute piece on driving that is quite simply one of the most hilarious things I have ever heard.  Carlin was great and so is this album.

Universal Soldier: The Return (1999)



On Sunday, I went to the monthly flea market at the community college near where I live and scored some pretty great DVDs.  This…was not one of them.  Jean-Claude van Damme returns as Luc Deveraux in this sequel to the considerably better first one.  Sure, the first one was good mainly because Dolph Lundgren was there and pulled out all the stops but still!

Set seven years after the original, we find Luc a normal guy now (albeit with the kickboxing skills you generally expect from the star) with a daughter he loves (who exists only to be menaced) and a consulting job on the new version of then Universal Soldier program.  Yes, after a fiasco in which tons of people were killed and lots of stuff blew up real good, the DOD has still kept the project running.

The new soldiers are stronger and faster and are controlled by a supercomputer known as S.E.T.H. (voiced by Michael Jai White).  As tends to happen in this sort of movie, Seth goes haywire and Luc has to fight back against the renegade super soldiers, primarily Romeo (former wrestler Bill Goldberg) who serves as our “berserk henchman who is enthusiastically desperate to waste our hero”.  Generally I love this sort of character; I also love it when he’s not just a walking joke machine with muscles.  Goldberg comes off as a muscle-bound Wile E. Coyote which means that it is possible to get more cartoonish than pro wrestling!

Seth eventually gets a human body (also White) to transfer his brain into thanks to a really, really annoying cyberpunk named Squid who apparently used to be on the project but was kicked out.  Probably because he insisted on naming himself Squid and insisted on dying his hair pink.  He also may be the single laziest super genius I’ve ever seen in my life.  We only see him in what looks like a dorm room and at one point he actually rides a motorized scooter a few inches just to get closer to the door when he has company.

Luc is paired up with an even more annoying character in the form of our female lead, reporter Erin Young (Heidi Schanz).  If you have ever seen Invasion U.S.A. (which I recapped on The Agony Booth a few years ago), you remember Angry Reporter Lady.  Well, we get more or less the same character here only she actually reveals a soft side...sort of.  She’s really in the plot just so van Damme has someone to talk to, though I would have kept his pretty assistant (Kiana Tom) on to fill those duties instead.

The main reason you go to see a movie like this (or in my case shell out five bucks at a flea market) is also the film’s biggest flaw.  The action is almost laughably repetitious with the Army constantly being ambushed, glass being shattered and van Damme going through the motions.  Even the final fight with Luc and Seth has a sort of ordinary feel to it.  It’s really not the fault of either actor, they just seem have found the one stunt guy who doesn’t shoot good action scenes in Mic Rodgers.  This was his debut movie as a director and I can safely say that as a director, he makes a great stuntman.

In fact, the entire movie has a very arbitrary, cheap feel to it, almost every inch of it seems to be van Damme pleading for us to enjoy the movie and not consign him to DTV hell.  Given this was his last huge theatrical release until JCVD got some stateside theater time, I think you can guess how well this film did.

In the end, this is a remarkably dull sequel, especially given how silly it is and even with a gratuitous scene in a strip club..  It comes off like something Cannon Films would have released towards the end of their run, and that my friends, is not a good thing.  Skip this one and just grab the recent Universal Soldier: Regeneration.  Trust me, it rocks.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Mechanic (1972)



Because I want this blog to have a wide assortment of action films, tonight we’ll be looking at a pretty decent Charles Bronson flick from 1972.  If action films in the eighties were the decade of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, the seventies truly belongs to three men:  Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds and Charles Bronson.

In The Mechanic, Bronson plays Arthur Bishop, a hitman who works for a group of gangsters known only as “The Organization”.  His trademark is precision and attention to detail as we see in the rather stunning fifteen minute sequence that opens the movie.  Director Michael Winner gives us an audacious opening here, showing us every single detail Bishop goes through to pull off the kill.

It’s a real knockout of an opening (provided you dig the seventies style of action flick) and sets the tone for a pretty darn good crime thriller.  Bishop pulls off another hit, this time a friend of his whose son Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent) ends up coming on as his apprentice.  Vincent does well with the role, giving the character a rather unsettling coldness as we see in a scene where a female admirer of his wants him to talk her out of killing herself.  I think this may be the first time a suicide has been averted by a guy simply telling the girl to drive herself to the hospital and going on with the rest of his evening.

The story is pretty simple for the most part with Bishop gradually warming up to the idea of Steve as an apprentice and after a few jobs, one of which goes slightly askew, the finale comes in Italy with a very good car chase and a neat twist ending as Steve double crosses Bishop, only to finds that while his mentor may have taught him everything he knows, Bishop didn’t necessarily teach him everything he knew.

As for other performances, Bronson is quite good as the stoic, rather depressed killer (I think Dolph Lundgren has played some variation on this sort of guy at least ten times) and we even get a bit of psychological insight into the man by way of a rather unpleasant childhood memory of how he learned to swim.  Why yes, it does involve his dad just tossing him in and seeing what would happen next!

There are a few flaws here and there as while Bishop's psychological makeup is pretty well set up, the payoff is a bit ropey.  there is a sequence where he has an episode at an aquarium (why a guy with bad memories concerning water would go to one is beyond me but anyway) yet later on, we see him scuba-diving with little to no problem.   Also, I would have liked a little more personality from the group Bishop works for.  As it stands, we get only one real look at the group which is one meeting towards the end with Bishop and one of his bosses.

Despite these minor flaws, The Mechanic is a very good piece of seventies action film making with solid work from Bronson, nice supporting work from Vincent and, of course, the obligatory role for Mrs. Charles Bronson at the time, Jill Ireland.  Here, she plays a hooker Bishop frequents in order to feel some sense of intimacy with another person.  It’s a rather odd scene.  I wonder what the conversation at the dinner table was like after shooting.

It’s rather appropriate I’m posting about this tonight as early next year a remake starring Jason Statham will be released.  It’ll be interesting to see how that goes.

About Me

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