Friday, August 30, 2013

The Lethal Weapon Films

This is another re-working of an article I wrote for The Agony Booth a few years back though we'll be skipping the Die Hard stuff in order to focus on what has become, by sheer virtue of ending when it did, the more consistent franchise.

Like Phantasm, Lethal Weapon was another movie my brother introduced me to and I ended up loving every minute of it.   The franchise as a whole is actually fairly consistent in that it had more or less the same cast and crew for all four movies, kept its tone relatively level (over the top action and humor with a little serious stuff thrown in for balance) and the only reason this isn't an entry in the My Favorite Era series is that it's more interesting to consider the entire franchise rather than just the first two films (the third one wouldn't make the cut and the fourth film came out in 1998).

Before we get into the meat of things, a brief recap of the plots:

Lethal Weapon: Cops vs. Vietnam vet drug smugglers.
Lethal Weapon 2: Cops vs. South African diplomat drug smugglers.
Lethal Weapon 3: Cops vs. an ex-cop into weapons smuggling.
Lethal Weapon 4: Cops vs. Triad smugglers. Mainly people and other stuff... I think. Hell, I don’t know.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

In March of 1987, a mid-budget buddy cop film produced by Joel Silver and directed by the man behind The Omen and Superman was unleashed upon the populace. A sleeper hit, it made stars out of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and was (and still is) the best buddy cop movie of all time. Yes, 48 Hrs. is good, and Eddie Murphy is damn funny, but this one has the advantage of a typically insane performance from Gary Busey as the primary villain.

Slightly more serious in tone, it gives us a nice rapport between the two cops, with Martin Riggs being a heartbroken burnout who contemplates suicide on a regular basis and generally acts like a nut, and Roger Murtaugh being the stable family man who’s getting self-conscious about his age.

Gibson and Glover have a wonderful chemistry together, and their back and forth routine never gets grating. It helps that both actors are adept at serious dramatics as well as lighter moments, and come off well in both.

This is the main reason the Rush Hour films never did it for me. In that case, the actors are good at lighter moments (though Jackie Chan is the only funny one), but telling Chris Tucker to put on a serious performance is like begging Keanu Reeves to show emotion. It might happen, but it’s not going to be a pretty sight.

Well, there’s that issue, and the fact that, in general, Chris Tucker absolutely sucks!

The series regulars are also set up nicely, with the police captain being played by Steve Kahan (Richard Donner’s cousin), and the police shrink Dr. Woods (Mary Ellen Trainor). They’ll stick around for the next three movies, with running gags for each, and believe me, this franchise is one that grows recurring cast members like crazy.  Tom Atkins is also his usual solid self as Glover's friend who gets him involved in the main story.

The action is great, though a little muted when compared with what was to come in later sequels. There’s some nice gun play throughout, but the real standout is a climactic one-on-one fight to the death between Riggs and Mr. Joshua (Busey). It’s a real showstopper of a fight, though I have my doubts the LAPD would just stand around and let one of their own beat the shit out of...

Wait, never mind. Never mind.  Let's just move on, shall we?

The film was the sleeper hit of the year, and naturally, a sequel was bound to happen.

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

In July of 1989 (in the middle of one of the best summer movie seasons in history), the magic was back and Lethal Weapon 2 was unleashed upon audiences. Adopting a more over-the-top tone with more humor and action, the first sequel pits Riggs and Murtaugh against a band of evil South African drug smugglers who hide behind diplomatic immunity.

Riggs falls in love with a sexy Dutch woman named Rika (Patsy Kensit) who works for the bad guys (but doesn’t like them), and the regular cast gets its first addition in the form of Leo Getz (Joe Pesci, right before he got famous). Leo is fairly high on my list of great Joe Pesci performances; it’s a solid number two behind Goodfellas, and in front of My Cousin Vinny. He serves as the best form of comic relief, in that he not only adds to the plot (by way of an amazing coincidence), but he’s also legitimately funny!

Overall, the movie is even better than the first one, with better action, more humor, and a great pace. It does away with the bickering buddy cop stuff for the most part, and shifts it into two good friends giving each other epic amounts of crap. The addition of Leo also helps this movie, as now the guys have someone to kick around together.

There’s a little bit of darkness here and there, as Riggs gets a nasty surprise from the bad guys (turns out they killed his wife, sending him spiraling down to the level we found him at in the first film). And since we’re talking South Africa in the late '80s, race enters the fray as well.  You know, because being slimy murderous drug dealers sometimes just isn't enough.

In general, Lethal Weapon 2 just has better moments than the first one that coalesce into a more satisfying viewing experience: The truck chase with Riggs hanging onto the front fender, Danny Glover offing the main villain as he claims diplomatic immunity after shooting Riggs, the toilet bomb gag... there are just too many great bits.

Lethal Weapon 3 (1992)

The third entry falters, with a sub-par script and a rather annoying stretch where the film more or less grinds to a halt following Murtaugh shooting his son’s gang member friend to death. It’s really a needless development, and comes off as an excuse for Danny Glover to do some actual acting as opposed to just muttering, “I’m too old for this shit!” for two hours.

Granted, there was some social consciousness stuff in the second film, but Richard Donner kept it subtle... sort of. Here though, as I said, he brings the movie to a halt in order to stage a mini-sequel to Boyz n the Hood sandwiched in between the action beats. It stops the movie dead in its tracks, which is not good when the hallmark of your franchise is its relentless pace.

On the other hand, it does have a great opening sequence with an impressive building explosion, and Rene Russo makes a nice addition to the regulars as Riggs’ new love interest, an IAD officer named Lorna Cole. Joe Pesci is back too, though if you really stop and think about it, he has no reason at all to be here. Seriously.  I also dig the last thirty minutes or so which are pretty much non stop action.

The villain is also rather weak when compared to the ones in the first two. Stuart Wilson does a decent enough job, but when you’ve had hilariously evil South Africans and Gary Busey, a Brit playing a disgraced ex-cop selling stolen guns to gang members doesn’t quite cut it.

Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)

Six years after the third movie, Warner Brothers was in dire need of a big release for the summer of ’98. Oh, they had a few other entries. Quest for Camelot. The Negotiator. The Avengers. The fact that two of those three are dissected on The Agony Booth should tell you how well that lineup did.

Hell, The Negotiator is the best of the three, and even then it’s a little hokey. I mean, I paid to see it, but that truly proves nothing. I also paid to see Lethal Weapon 4 in the theater. Twice.

Lethal Weapon 4 was rushed into production in January of ’98, and was released in July of the same year. Yes, you read that right. The fact that it even works at all is a goddamned miracle.

The plot, what little there is, revolves around Riggs and Murtaugh going up against a Triad gang led by Jet Li, while also dealing with two pregnancies (Lorna, and Murtaugh’s oldest daughter), several running gags involving Murtaugh, Chris Rock on hand as a motor-mouthed cop (think Chris Tucker, only likable), and Joe Pesci is back as Leo. And no, he doesn’t have jack to do with the story here, either.

So we have an overstuffed cast, a vague plot, way too many subplots, and more bantering than any movie should be able to get away with. Seriously, the main reason I never recapped this one for Agony Booth was that once I started on it, I realized just how many times the word “banter” or variations of it were being used after only a few pages, got pissed off and abandoned it.

The cast, fortunately, is very good at improv so they do manage to come off fairly well.   Everyone is pretty good, Li makes a decent enough villain and while the quality script may not be there, the casts' natural chemistry is.

The action is good throughout, with a nice opening shootout, a good finale with Jet Li, and an excellent freeway chase that I would argue makes the one in The Matrix Reloaded look rather blah. Mainly because it is, but that’s not important right now!

The movie is truly a mess, albeit a very watchable one. Though, it’s oddly uncomfortable in hindsight when you have a character played by Mel Gibson making racist remarks towards some of the Chinese characters. Maybe he was secretly trying to tell us something about himself.

Regardless, the fourth film is a fitting sendoff for the franchise.  It never really had a completely terrible movie (unlike Die Hard which had that crappy fifth movie earlier this year) and in the case of the fourth film, was sort of a farewell to the CGI-light action movie.   It might not be as iconic (or as well written) as Die Hard, but it's still a very solid franchise that is interesting to look back at.

Provided you can still stand the sight of Mel Gibson*.

*I am looking forward to him as a villain in the next Machete and Expendables films however.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

My Favorite Era: Beverly Hills Cop (1984)/Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)

Here's another double feature as we look at two of Eddie Murphy's finest.  I did a piece on the entire franchise for The Agony Booth last year, and honestly said everything I could possibly could in that article.  In light of that, this is a somewhat condensed version of that piece.  And by condensed, I mean you won't see even one single mention of the awful third movie.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

1984 was the year Eddie Murphy really came into his own.,  While he had been funny on Saturday Night Live and his first two movies (48 Hrs. and Trading Places) were very good, Beverly Hills Cop sent him through the stratosphere with a relatively fresh, very funny action/comedy produced by the mega-blockbuster team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.  This one is the film that really got these two going and led to stuff like Top Gun, The Rock and eventually Bruckheimer's solo career after Simpson died.

The premise for the original movie is your basic fish-out-of-water story, only in this case, the fish is a wiseass Detroit cop looking for the guy who killed his friend. Said cop is Axel Foley, and Murphy plays him with a cocky swagger that’s letter-perfect. Foley is the perfect Eddie Murphy character: loud, sarcastic, but also sincere and loyal to those he cares about. It’s this small touch that makes what would otherwise be a rather obnoxious character into someone we can root for.

We first meet Foley while he’s undercover, trying to bust some hijackers. As tends to be the case in action movies, things go awry and a huge chase ensues, this time with the Detroit PD chasing down a truck loaded with cigarettes, while Axel hangs on for dear life while “Neutron Dance” by the Pointer Sisters blares on the soundtrack.

After the obligatory ass-chewing from Inspector Todd (the very amusing Gil Hill, who used to be an actual Detroit police officer), Axel reunites with Mikey (James Russo), an old friend. They chat and later, Mikey is killed by Zack (Jonathan Banks), a goon who works for Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff), an art gallery owner who also deals drugs on the side.

Axel finds himself in Beverly Hills, where he encounters some of the local law enforcement, namely Lt. Bogomil (Ronny Cox), Det. Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold), and Sgt. Taggart (John Ashton).  At first, they’re a nuisance to Axel’s investigation, but eventually they begin to warm to each other in a series of amusing sequences that culminate in Axel going after Maitland at his house in order to rescue Jenny (Lisa Eilbacher), another old friend who also works for the art gallery. As tends to be the case in ‘80s action movies, the showdown is bloody and loud, but in the end, the good guys win.
That’s the basic plot, but the real joy of the movie is watching Eddie Murphy take what’s essentially a standard action script (it was originally set to be a Sylvester Stallone vehicle, and the ensuing re-write Stallone gave it was turned into Cobra) and making it work by simply being the funniest guy on the whole damned planet.

He improvises brilliantly throughout, with the “super cops” monologue being the best. Hell, his fellow actors are visibly trying not to laugh during the whole damn thing. Murphy turns in a stellar comic performance here, at a time when he could do no wrong.

The other actors do solid work too, with the best being Steven Berkoff as the main villain. Berkoff is a noted British theater performer, but from 1983 to 1985, he turned in three fantastic performances as bad guys: His performance here, a crazed Russian General in the James Bond epic Octopussy (which I will get to soon), and a slightly less crazed Russian  going up against Rambo in the second film of that series.

Judge Reinhold and John Ashton are also quite funny as two cops who are almost incompetent, but not quite. The real comic find of the movie (for about four minutes and change) is Bronson Pinchot, however, as Serge. Serge is a rather bizarre man with an unplaceable accent who works at the art gallery and has a showcase scene with Murphy. This would lead to Pinchot getting a lead role on the sitcom Perfect Strangers, where he would play an even more eccentric character.  Additionally, Paul Reiser has a small role as one of Foley’s fellow officers. He returns for the first sequel.

Stellar comedic performances aside, the film also benefits from an excellent soundtrack that mixes a good Harold Faltermeyer score with hits songs from Kenny Loggins, the aforementioned Pointer Sisters, and Patti LaBelle, amongst others. This was the heyday for movie soundtracks, as most of them were infused with popular music from the period, especially those produced by Simpson and Bruckheimer.
All this makes for the quintessential ‘80s action-comedy.

Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)

Beverly Hills Cop II is essentially the same movie as the first one, only louder and slicker with an equally cool soundtrack. If Martin Brest directed the first movie more as a comedy with some violence here and there, Tony Scott takes the sequel down the “action film with some comedy in it” route.

It all begins with Karla (Brigitte Nielsen) staging a jewelry store heist in Beverly Hills, the first in what are eventually called “The Alphabet Crimes”, as letters are left at the crime scenes. Bogomil ends up getting shot while investigating the matter, and this brings Foley back to the west coast.

He goes through his usual routine of con jobs, until he gets to the main baddie for the film, a quietly creepy millionaire arms dealer named Dent, expertly played by Jurgen Prochnow.  We get the usual assortment of gun battles and chases until it’s all resolved, and to be frank, it doesn’t offer much in the way of new things for the viewer.

That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, however. In fact, it’s rather underrated in my view.  The story may be the same, but having Tony Scott onboard as director gives things a more polished feel.

Performances are also solid, with Murphy and Reinhold turning in another set of funny performances. Reinhold is especially funny, as Billy has gone from being merely a somewhat dippy goofball... to a somewhat dippy goofball with a major Rambo fixation. Reinhold has a way of playing slightly crazy that’s actually quite funny.

On the villain side of things, Prochnow and Nielsen are okay, though Mrs. Stallone is really just here for her looks, while Prochnow gives a nicely creepy performance. Dean Stockwell also pops up as a minor villain, and since we need a blustering police chief (though we get do our Gil Hill fix ), Allen Garfield is on hand as the amazingly incompetent and abusive Chief Lutz. Seriously, it’s amazing that the mayor waits until the end of the movie to fire his ass!

There are some flaws, though. As entertaining as Prochnow is, he isn’t really given enough screen time to make much of an impression, and his death seems rather perfunctory. The plot also is, at times, just a little too identical to the original for my liking.

I really don’t give a damn if a sequel wants to tell basically the same story (it worked out just fine for Die Hard 2), but at the very least, it has to avoid just copying itself blatantly. I’m looking at you, extraneous strip club scene. At least in the first film, it was mainly about Foley messing with Taggart and Rosewood a little while also talking shop.

I could also have done without one of the two comic cameos in the movie. While Chris Rock is fine in his bit part, we have to endure Gilbert Gottfried as Dent’s lawyer in one scene. I have nothing personal against the man; I hear when he’s not on camera or in front of a microphone he actually sounds normal, but dear lord does his comic voice make me want to lop my ears off with a machete! On the plus side, we do get a return appearance from Paul Reiser... which is either a compliment to him or an insult to Gilbert. I’m not sure which, really.

What the hell, I’m in a generous mood. It’s both!

Plot issues and annoying comics aside, this is a fine action movie with a good shootout at the end, and an entertaining chase with Rosewood pursuing an armored car in a cement truck while Foley yells at him.  I'd also like to mention the novelization which I am the proud owner of.  That's dedication to a film, folks.

So, we have a solid cast in a solid action movie that provides solid entertainment. I think what really makes the film work is just how brutally '80s it is. Seriously, both this and the original movie are so clearly a product of their time it’s hilarious. Glossy cinematography, pumped up soundtracks, comedy laced with violent action, these are both fantastic action/comedies. Beverly Hills Cop II is just plain fun.

Monday, August 26, 2013

My Favorite Era: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

1981 was truly the year of the werewolf in the horror genre.  We had the intellectual pseudo-werewolf story in Wolfen, the clever Joe Dante flick The Howling and our entry today, John Landis' best film.

AWIL takes the basic story template of the original Wolf Man film (using vacationing college students instead of Lon Chaney Jr.)and gives it darkly comic 80's spin with gory f/x from Rick Baker, a nice balance of horror and humor and a cast of competent pros.  Let's take a closer look.
  • First off, I dig the use of moon related songs in the soundtrack.  It's quite amusing and they're chosen and placed quite well.  Equally amusing is the first shot of our leads, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) in the back of a truck full of sheep.  It's not subtle, but then again this is a John Landis movie.  I'm not certain he's even heard of the word.
  • Naughton and Dunne have a nice, easygoing chemistry together that makes you believe they're old friends.  Landis isn't always the best at building real characters but here he does quite well.
  • The pub scene is quite nicely done with the locals just oozing a distinct "Sod off!" vibe.
  • The first attack scene is a wonderful bit of horror as the wolf literally comes out of nowhere.  It's really well done, though I have to admit it hasn't scared me since I first saw it as a kid.  I think I was about ten at the time.
  • The middle portion of the film is full of great stuff: the hallucinatory nightmares, a small Frank Oz cameo, the welcome presence of Jenny Agutter as a nurse who ends up falling for David (complete with nude scene) and the wonderfully dark humor that comes up when Jack comes back from the dead as a truly gross walking corpse to advise David.  The bumbling detective is also amusing.
  • The only real issue the film has is one of pace as it's nearly an hour in until David turns and after that, it's a rather abrupt sprint to the finish line.  That being said, it's all quite entertaining.
  • The easy highlight of the film is, of course, Rick Baker's amazing transformation scene.  It still holds up pretty well today and stands as one of the best sequences in all of horror.  The rest of Baker's work is equally fantastic with Jack's undead makeup standing out along with the clever way they did the wolf itself.  Most of the shots are of a really nasty looking half-wolf that just looks terrifying as hell.  It still works pretty well today, even when stacked up against the stuff f/x artists can do now.
  • David's rampage is quite good with some great kills, the following scene where he walks up at the zoo is equally fun.
  • The scene in the porno theater is darkly hysterical and the ensuing finale in Piccadilly Circus is nicely chaotic (if there is one thing Landis can do well, it;s chaos).  The last bit with Jenny Agutter and the wolf is pretty good and like any good monster movie, once the monster is dead the film ends.  I like having that sort of ending every now and then.  As long as it's not a 70's style freeze frame that resolves nothing, it can work quite well.
An American Werewolf in London is one of those films you just have to see if you are a fan of horror.  It's fast paced, funny, a little scary in places (though nowhere near as scary as Landis seems to think) and the f/x still hold up well.  It's a real gem.

The Delta Force (1986)

The Delta Force is an interesting case of what can happen when you take what should be a simple, fun comic book action movie and try to make something meaningful out of it.  While that's not entirely impossible, it generally needs a few things to work such as a deftly constructed script with good characters you can identify with and a consistent tone.  It also helps if the film has not been made by Cannon Films.

The story revolves around a nasty terrorist named Abdul (played by the distinctly not-Middle Eastern Robert Forster) who, along with bunch of fellow terrorists takes over an international flight that has the dream cast for any fan of Irwin Allen movies.  Eventually, The Delta Force is called in, led by the ultimate badass duo of Lee Marvin and Chuck Norris with Steve James thrown in because...Hell, do you really need a reason to include the man in your movie?  He was awesome!

The film is awkwardly laid out, insanely long (129 minutes for this thing, really?) action thriller that also seems to want to be one of those 70's disaster movies given everybody in the cast who is not either Chuck Norris, Lee Marvin or Steve James.  Hell, I'll throw in Robert Vaughn in his role as a military guy too since he always makes me smile.

The big problem I have is that while the action is classic 80's excess at its best, there are far too many scenes on the plane with Forster menacing the veritable menagerie of disaster movie cliches from the terrified flight crew to the frightened old couples (in a classy move, the bad guys single out the Jews, forcing a German stewardess to do the job.  Nice, guys.) to the stoic priest (played by disaster movie vet George Kennedy).

These scenes are just interminable as director Menahem Golan milks the cliche cow so hard its udders damn near burst.  Forster is nasty but in the blandest way possible, the passengers are terrified, the other terrorists are just there to be shot and the film can eternally kiss my ass for making me sit through a late-era Shelly Winters performance.  She's one of those performers who got worse the older she got for some odd reason.

Probably the worst thing about the plane scenes is just how shameless they are. I don't go into these films asking for a subtle touch but the way this film overplays its hand to make the bad guys more evil is quite grating.  There is a certain point where your bad guy stops being intimidating and just becomes a bore.  I'd say Forster hits this point a few minutes after he first takes over the plane.  Could have done without the Holocaust reference too, I'm here to watch Chuck Norris kill things and blow stuff up real good, not be reminded of the horrors of the real world.

Cannon wasn't good at a whole lot and solid quality drama certainly wasn't one of the things they did well.  For that to work, you need well drawn characters and in this case, the heroes barely get any characterization (Norris has a buddy he saves in the opening who dies at the end) and the villains are just there to be evil, nothing more though there is a little bit of the usual justification stuff trotted out that just comes off as stale.  It gets really old, really fast, especially considering the film runs 129 minutes.  You could trim a lot of the stuff on the plane and end up with a stronger, better paced movie.  Less Forster wouldn't hurt matters much either as neither he nor the rest of the villains are given anything resembling characters to play.

It really says something when you could improve a movie by dialing down its ambitions.

In spite of this, the film is reasonably entertaining and I do have a certain measure of affection for it when it is content to be the big comic book action film it should be.  Norris, Marvin (in his last role) and James (criminally underused here) are a nice trio of tough guys and in an ideal world this movie would have been just those three guys on a globetrotting terrorist killing fest for 90 minutes.

Still, at least the action scenes are hilariously over the top and awesome.  Some choice moments are Norris and James having a party with some bazookas, Norris riding around on a souped up bike that looks like a reject from a James Bond film, when it sticks to the action it's a really good movie and a great kill where he finds a terrorist hiding under a bed and just ventilates the hell out of him before tossing out the line "Sleep tight, sucker."  Also funny is how Alan Silvestri's good main title theme is also used as the action theme.  Come to think of it, it may be the only music heard on the soundtrack!

One other thing I get a chuckle out of is how Norris essentially turns into Jason Voorhees when he confronts Abdul.  Crashing through multiple windows, being unstoppable, all you need is to give the guy a hockey mask and you have a copyright infringement suit from Paramount!

Delta Force is a sporadically entertaining movie that aims way higher than it should and only hits half of the time.  It was based for the most part on a 1985 hijacking incident which probably accounts for the oddly serious tone the film goes for.  It worked for Roger Ebert but he is apparently the only one.  Once the action has kicked in (after an hour or so of bad drama), it works fantastically but the rest of the movie is drab and dull.  Check it out for the action but be ready to skip ahead a few times.  It's an interesting 80's relic that wouldn't get made today.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

In addition to the 007 epics I am covering for the My Favorite Era series, I will also be taking similar looks at the other entries.  Because god damn it all, I need content!

The ninth James Bond film is...Well, crap is one of the words that comes to mind.  Others like disappointment, wasted opportunity and 'For the love of all that is good and holy, why?' come to mind.  Roger Moore is back for his second outing as 007 and unlike his debut film, the light tone set up by the previous two short circuits the entire film.

The film proper pits Bond against the title character, played quite well by Christopher Lee who has a grand old time finally playing a role that doesn't require him to kill people while wearing a cape and fake fangs.  In this film,. he gets to kill people while wearing nice suits and casual beachwear.

The end result is a hilariously bad mish-mash.  Let's take a closer look at what happens when a good franchise craps the bed.
  •  First off, this is one of the few entries in the series I consider to be truly bad.  There are films in the series that I was underwhelmed by (We'll get to The World is Not Enough and Quantum of Solace soon enough), but this is one of the few that even when I saw it as a little kid I was left less than pleased.  Granted, it didn't stop me from buying the VHS and DVDs but still!
  • Actually, this was the first Bond film I ever purchased.  I'd like to think it was because it was the only one the video store had, but truth be told it more than likely wasn't.  Can you tell I'm stalling?
  • A very nice opening gun barrel logo arrangement (Oh John Barry, a pity one of your best scores comes in this piece of dung) takes us to the precredit sequence where we meet Scaramanga (Lee), his girlfriend Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) and his butler/henchman Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize).  Don't ask me why the world's greatest assassin needs a henchman, but he's got one.  I have a theory on why that I will get into later.
  • The sequence has our villain for the day hunting down a mob hitman who has been paid by Nick Nack to do his boss in,.  This is a regular thing for the duo as if Scaramanga wins, he's just had a good workout.  If not, Nick Nack gets the huge island and base Scaramanga has and all of his money.  No idea if Andrea is part of the deal, and I'm okay not ever knowing to be honest.
  • The cat and mouse game between Scaramanga and the hitman mostly takes place in a funhouse Scaramanga has in the base full of tricks and traps. Like most things in the film, it's case of of an idea that is better in concept than in execution.  It's fine to have your expert assassin keep his talents sharp and the idea of him leaving everything to his butler if he gets offed is pretty cool (if underused) but the funhouse itself is just goofy.  Not the good kind of goofy either.  The wax dummy of Bond is an interesting touch, though how the hell Scaramanga would know what he looks like is beyond me.  It just leaves the door wide open for a much better film than what we get.
  • Another issue is that the pretitle sequence is pretty much spot for spot the finale of the movie only with James Bond standing in for the hitman.  This is why sometimes it's just good to have the pretitle sequence be Bond randomly beating the hell out of a bunch of guys and blowing something up while doing outlandish stunts.
  • I do sort of enjoy the main title theme sung by Lulu.  It's not good by any stretch but given how bad things get at times, it's hardly the film's worst sin.
  • The exposition about Scaramanga is pretty good, though for some odd reason M (Bernard Lee) and the entire office staff seem to be in a really crappy mood throughout the entire film.  Come to think of it, nobody seems to be enjoying themselves here except for the villains.
  • The energy crisis subplot is really just an excuse to give the film a larger scope which to be frank, wasn't really needed.  The film could have worked just fine as a straight-up good guy vs. hired killer plot with both men chasing each other from location to location.  It actually manages to be that for a little while with Bond tracking a bullet sent to him, ostensibly by the bad guy.
  • The fight Bond gets into while looking for the bullet that Scaramanga used to allegedly kill another 00-agent is not bad, though it's also maybe the most blatantly out of nowhere excuse for some action you are likely to find.  I do like Bond basically no-selling having a bottle broken over his head though.
  • As bad as the movie can get,m Roger Moore is actually pretty damn good for the most part.  It was his second outing as 007 and while he hadn't quite made the part his own (that wouldn't happen until the next movie), he does have a few nice bits here and there.  His first scene with Andrea is good, though it is a little odd to see Moore slapping her around and threatening to break her arm.  The sequence that precedes it with Bond threatening the gunsmith who makes Scaramanga's bullets is nice too.  Moore could do the tough guy stuff when needed, it's just that in order for it to work, it has to be filtered through his own acting style.
  • For instance, the scene with Andrea works when Moore is just coldly telling her to make sure Scaramanga shows up at a club they're supposed to meet at, whereas the physical stuff proceeding it doesn't.  Moore is generally better when acting ruthless rather than actually being ruthless.
  • Before that, we meet our Bond Girl for the evening,  Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland).  Ekland isn't bad in the role but for some ungodly reason, it was decided to make her the typical dumb blond who gets into trouble and has to be rescued on a constant basis.  It's a really, really annoying role and the only redeeming factor I can think of is that she looks amazing in a bikini.
  • The biggest problem the film has is one of tone.  The idea of Bond vs. the greatest assassin (who is also sort of like Bond in many ways) is a nicely dark one that could have made for a fun, interesting thriller but Guy Hamilton treats the whole outing like a mindless lark, throwing in mindless bits of comedy needlessly.  The solar energy plot is also awkwardly woven in, there is no good reason for Scaramanga to give a damn about the stuff that comes out of it, especially since he already gets a million dollars per hit to begin with.
  •  It's bizarre since Hamilton directed Goldfinger (generally thought to be the best of the series) and his other two outings (Diamonds are Forever and Live and Let Die) are solid if flawed. 
  • In spite of all the issues, this is still one of Christopher Lee's best acting roles.  Scaramanga is a real sick puppy, his relationship with Andrea is one of sadistic convenience and he has a cold, cool professionalism in the way he does his job that is subtly chilling.  Hamilton told the cast to play it lightly and while that doesn't work for most of the other characters in the film, it gives the villain a rather disturbingly cheerful quality that makes him more than a little psychotic.  Lee has a way of smiling that's just creepy as hell.  For the sake of his friends and family, I hope it looks better when he does it in real life.
  • Soon-Teck Oh isn't too bad as Lt. Hip who ends up helping Bond along with Goodnight.
  • Richard Loo is also pretty good as Hai Fat, Scaramanga's employer.  His meeting with Bond, posing as the killer is rather good, as is the reveal that Scaramanga has been watching all of this the entire time.
  • Bond fighting with sumo wrestlers at Hai Fat's place and then being knocked from behind by Nick Nack is an okayish bit of business, though for me its rather amusing to watch Moore fight.  In general, he tended towards a lot of kickboxing technique as opposed to Sean Connery's "punch them until they stop moving" style, which sort of makes it look like you wandered into a Jean-Claude van Damme film at times.
  • Bond's capture and subsequent imprisonment at a karate school is not too bad, though having Hip's nieces show up out of nowhere to help rescue him is just blindingly stupid.  It's really annoying because it starts out well enough with Bond beating the hell out of the school but then it just gets stupid as his rescuers just drive off without him anyway.
  • The boat chase that follows is equally problematic as it has some nice stunts that are marred by the unwelcome appearance of Clifton James as Sheriff Pepper from the previous film.  In Live and Let Die, he sort of fit as you would expect a fat redneck peace officer in the South.  Why he's on vacation in the far east is anybody's guest and to make things worse, he reappears later on.  James was sort of funny in the other film but here he's just annoying.
  • Making up for things is the great scene where Scaramanga kills Hai Fat.  It's set up well, shot well and acted to perfection.  How the hell is it that the same director was working on these scenes?  Jesus, this film is a mess!
  • The stuff with Bond and Goodnight isn't too bad as the actors have some decent chemistry.  It's superfluous as hell but still!
  • Andrea coming into the mix to reveal she sent the bullet to Bond and wants Scaramanga dead is an interesting twist that could have been handled better.  The scene is her last in the film and in a better movie, she'd be the man Bond Girl and Goodnight would be killed.  It would work a little better, give Bond a much better reason to go after Scaramanga and would add some emotional weight to the finale.
  • The meeting with Bond and Scaramanga at the kickboxing match is good as both actors are real pros and have a good dynamic with each other.  Sure things are marred by Goodnight being an idiot but it's still a decent enough scene.
  • The car chase that follows is good from a stunt work standpoint but the best stunt, an incredible barrel roll over a bridge, is destroyed by a horrible slide whistle sound effect.  I don't how the hell Sheriff Pepper being in the car Bond is driving the whole chase managed to not be the worst thing about this sequence but damn it all it isn't!  This is one of the few movies that manages to genuinely piss me off.  It's not badly made, badly acted or badly shot but holy mother of god is it badly written and thought out!
  • I will say that the flying car Scaramanga gets away in (with Goodnight as his hostage) is a neat, though still kind of dumb idea.  Honestly, by this point in the movie I just don't give enough of a damn to complain.
  • The film does get better in the last half hour once Bond gets to Scaramanga's island and meets with the man.  It's a great extended dialogue sequence that really shows what a great villain Scaramanga is, and what a half-assed effort the film he's in is.  The lunch scene is a great bit as Bond and his nemesis go back and forth with Goodnight watching silently.  I could have done without the giant laser gun but what the hell.
  • As I noted, the duel is spot for spot a recreation of the first scene which makes for a rather dull showdown.  Lee has a nice moment when he's finally shot but the ensuing pyrotechnics after Goodnight inadvertently causes the base to blow up comes off as superfluous.
  • As with the two films that before, the main bad guy is not the last one Bond had to deal with.  In this case, the film finally throws up its hands and says "We give up" as Nick Nack ambushes Bond on the boat he and Goodnight have escaped on.  Ostensibly pissed because his inheritance has just gone up in flames, the fight is a ridiculous bit of stupidity that ends with Bond scooping the little prick up in a suitcase and stringing him up in a net on the mast.
  • It's a bizarre way to end the film as the character was actually working fairly well up until that point.  Villechaize does fairly well with the part, giving the guy a sense of mystery and a little bit of menace (not really convincing to be honest but still).  Once he shows up on the boat, he's just silly and annoying.  A character who has been set up with a rather clever arrangement with his boss, to say nothing of his cooking skills, ends up looking silly in the worst way imaginable.  Actually, neither combatant looks good in the scene.  Pathetic, really.  Given that Bond has been a bit of an ass for most of the film, it would have been better for him to just shoot the little guy once the final duel has begun.
  • That being said, I do sort of get a chuckle out of the scene as it's just so stupid it comes back around to being good.   Hell, even when I first saw this as a kid I was thinking "This isn't really a good way to end this movie".  You know your film is in trouble when a nine year old is legitimately questioning your artistic choices.  On the flip side, for years it was the only thing I remembered about the film so there is that.
The ninth James Bond film is 125 minutes of pure wasted opportunity.   Moore and :Lee are good but they are lost in a sea of bad comedy, bad action beats and some truly atrocious decisions that end up making this one of the worst Bond films.  That being said, the worst Bond film is still better than most of the crummy action films put out so it gets a very generous 6/10.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

My Favorite Era: Ghostbusters (1984)

One year ago I started this series with one of the best blends of action and horror of all time.  Today, the horror comedy gets its due.  When I was a little kid, this movie was an obsession for me.  I loved every single thing about it.  I had the film, I had the toys, I watched the cartoon series, I even sort of dug the sequel when it first came out.  Ghostbusters is one of those bizarre flukes in filmmaking where everything just clicks perfectly.

The story is pretty much verbatim by now but for those few who have yet to take in the wonderment that is this movie, I'll sum it up in as few words as I can.  Ghosts are running wild in New York and only Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd can save the city.

It's one of those few movies I consider perfect, let's take a closer look.
  • The opener with the librarian finding the ghost in the library is a nicely creepy bit with some really good f/x from Richard Edlund.
  • Gotta love the theme song by Ray Parker Jr. (the Elmer Bernstein score is pretty damn good too).  It's a real iconic piece of 80's pop culture.
  • Bill Murray's first scene is perfect.  Actually, he's awesome throughout the entire film, as is Dan Aykroyd.  This was really his peak as a performer.  He's dryly hilarious in every scene, reacting to the oddness of the ghosts as well as his comrades in as deadpan a manner as humanly possible.  It's a real tour-de-force performance and an essential way for the audience to accept what happens in the film.
  • Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis are equally funny as the two "serious" scientists in the trio.  They deliver most of the tech jargon well and also have some funny moments for themselves.
  • Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis are fun in their roles too.  Weaver is good in her "straight woman" role and she and Murray have some great chemistry.  As for Moranis, he plays the ultimate nerd to perfection.  He's just funny as hell.

  • The first sequence with the Ghostbusters going to work is a classic.  Great f/x, some truly hilarious lines and an iconic ghost Aykroyd apparently based on his late friend John Belushi.
  • Ivan Reitman does a great job directing the madness.  He's generally a pretty solid comedy guy with Stripes (with Murray and Ramis) also bringing the laughs.
  • Other good performances come from Annie Potts as the team;s dry secretary; Ernie Hudson as the fourth Ghostbuster and William Atherton as a jerky EPA rep who ends up holding a grudge against the guys.  I know, Atherton playing an asshole.  What are the odds?
  • Weaver and  Moranis getting possessed by terror dogs is a nice blend of humor and horror.
  • The menace in the film has some nicely subtle Lovecraftian elements.  Not often you get otherworldly deities who can destroy the world with a thought in a big summer f/x comedy.
  • The film really kicks into high gear once Atherton shuts down the Ghostbusters operation and all hell breaks loose with ghosts running wild throughout the city.  The finale is also awesome with the Godzilla sized Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and a nicely fiery climax.
It's actually a little hard to talk about the film since the entire thing is just one awesome highlight after another.  Mixing horror and comedy is usually a dicey proposition but in this case you have a hilarious comedy with some interesting horror elements that are subtly played for the most part and woven in with the comedy.  Everything in the movie works from the acting to the effects to the music and everything else.  It's a true classic.

Monday, August 19, 2013

My Favorite Era: Day of the Dead (1985)

While George Romero's 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead is my favorite horror film, Day of the Dead features some of my favorite horror f/x, courtesy of Tom Savini.  Set in an underground Florida military base,  the third Romero zombie fest is a tense, gory bit of business as we see a conflict between soldiers and scientists play out while the dead are literally banging on the doors.  There is lots of gore, swearing and mayhem and if the end result is somewhat less than satisfying, that's not to say there isn't good stuff to be found.  Let's take a closer look.
  • The first few minutes are quite good with the opening nightmare that introduces us to Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) as well as a few other main characters.  Romero has always been pretty good at generating tension and we get more of the same from him as he holds off on showing us the first zombie until the last minute.  It's a good one too, nice and gross thanks to Tom Savini.  I'll be kissing his a- Uh, I mean singing his praises throughout this review as he single-handedly takes this from a 5 out of 10 to a 7.
  • The music from John Harrison is also good with a nice driving beat that's surprisingly catchy.
  • The main problem the film has is the stuff that goes on between the zombie sequences.  Romero is a fairly good writer but he has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer ad tends to repeat himself.  While the zombie scenes are awesome, we also have to slog through tons of dialogue scenes that consist mainly of screaming, swearing and  very little in the way of actual content.  The actors bite into their roles robustly enough but it gets real old real fast.
  • Performance wise, most of the actors do their thing as best as they can given the script they have to work with.  Lori Cardille makes for a likable enough lead, Terry Alexander is decent as a helicopter pilot but for the most part it;s a lot of screaming and cursing.
  • There are three good performances though.  Joe Pilato is hammily nasty (though sort of dull after a while) as Rhodes, the guy in charge of the soldiers on the base and Richard Liberty is fun as the mad scientist who has been experimenting on the ghouls in order to find out what the hell is going on.
  • The best of all is Howard Sherman as Bub, a zombie Liberty has trained to a certain extent.  Sherman creates an oddly affecting character with some depth that is pretty neat.  Plus, if you think zombies are scary, imagine one who knows how to shoot a gun!

  • The production design is also quite good with the underground base looking especially cool.,
  • The real star of the film, however, is Tom Savini who turns in his best effort.  His zombies are quite simply amazing with a blend of puppets and prosthetics used to create a veritable army of the undead.  The gore is the real highlight here as we get throat ripping, dismemberment, headshots, eyeball mutilation, decapitations and best of all, a genuinely nasty  EC Comics-esque sendoff for Rhodes.
 George Romero's third zombie film is a problematic yet generally watchable flick with amazing f/x from one of the best making up for an annoying, anemic script.  George had something a little different in mind, more grand and epic but this was the film he could afford to make.  It's worth seeing for Tom Savini at his best, but have the remote handy.

About Me

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