Breakdown 1997 ****

Breakdown

Netflix have slowly eroded their reputation in terms of movies for some time, as studios take back their product to create rival streaming services of their own. So whatever you think of their new stand-alone shows and series, finding a good film to watch on Netflix is increasingly tricky, and it’s a surprise to see Breakdown pop up. Directed by Jonathan Mostow, Breakdown is a neat, unassuming thriller that delivers on the promise of a good story well told; an ideal fit for the casual viewings that Netflix seems to court so assidously.

Kurt Russell is Jeff Taylor, heading across the US in his Jeep SUV with his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan). Jeff unwisely leaves the bonnet of his car open while visiting a gas station, and drives away unaware that his vehicle has been sabotaged. When the car break down, a friendly trucker Red Barr (JT Walsh) offers to take them both to the nearest town, but Jeff elects to stay with his precious car. Discovering and solving the problem, he races off to re-unite with Amy, but when he arrives at the local diner, there’s no sign of her…

Some spoilers may be required, but if you haven’t figured out that Barr knows more than he’s saying, you haven’t seen many movies. Walsh was a terrific performer, and his glassy-eyed nonchalance works wonders here; a scene where Jeff hails down a police-car and demands they search Barr’s truck is intensely frustrating to watch, because Walsh is so plausible as an innocent man. But we already know he’s lying; for once, our superior position drives identification with Barr and invites us to join Jeff in his bid to uncover the truth.

Mostow does a great job with the physicality of this story, with lonely vistas and desolate, tense silences mixed up with multi-vehicle chases, burning rubber and screaming gear-boxes. And Russell’s Jeff is a truly relatable character; like John McClane in Die Hard, he’s ingenious and resourceful, but never acts like a superman. Basil Poledouris contributes a great, untypical score, and with hissable villains and lantern-jawed heroes, it’s easy to cheer the pedal-to-the-metal justice of Breakdown.

Although made in 1997, mobile phones and video-games both feature in Breakdown, but just not in the prominent way that they would if the film was made today. The locals mock Jeff’s car as being reliant on a computer, and Jeff’s re-birth as a man is largely because he sets aside his urban gadgetry and gets back down with a little primal ass-kicking. ‘What would I do with $90,000 worth of donuts?’ muses Amy; such vapid, idle speculation is the result of losing touch with reality, and Breakdown delivers that reality to Jeff and Amy with some velocity. Breakdown is a B-movie, without a shred of pretention; Duel, Straw Dogs or Deliverance might have covered similar ground, but Breakdown deserves an audience by virtue of it’s no-frills, all-thrills approach to involving and satisfying an audience in 93 minutes flat, with no stops or comfort breaks.

Bloodshot 2020 ***

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Vin Diesel is, if nothing else, something of a home-run when it comes to being a self-publicist. Whether he’s hitting the stump for such misbegotten fare as The Last Witch Hunter, his own stuttering Riddick franchise, or CGI slop like Babylon AD, Diesel always goes to bat for his project, predicting success, sequels and franchises, and never seeming embarrassed when the film turns out to be a dud.

Bloodshot is supposedly the first in a franchise based on, checks notes, the Valiant comic cinematic universe? It’s had various personnel changes over a decade of development hell, but arrives on the big screen looking distinctly like a re-heated dinner. Diesel plays Marine Ray Garrison, murdered before the opening titles begin. He becomes some kind of genetically modified super-soldier via some kind of nanotechnology, and is known as Bloodshot, although he doesn’t seem to have much of a super-hero costume beyond an illuminated panel on his T-shirt.

Garrison is keen for revenge on whoever is responsible for his own death and that of his wife, so he cracks on with getting in the faces of various baddies, including a manic Toby Kebbell as Martin Axe, housewives’ choice Sam Heughan as Jimmy Dalton, and Guy Pearce as Dr Emil Harting. Pearce is a terrific actor, but really needs to think about quality control; whether a straight man to Adam Sandler (Bedtime Stories), the Duke of Edinburgh (The King’s Speech) or a man breaking out of a space-prison (Lockout), there’s literally no role that Pearce won’t play, and play well, but even he must regret a jaunt to South Africa to play a role like this.

‘You’ve already ripped off every movie cliché there is…a dancing lunatic playing Psycho Killer in a slaughterhouse,’ is a particularly self-effacing line here, but self-awareness only counts for so much when you’re simply describing the clichés in your own film. A better sample line would be Diesel’s ‘They filled my head with nightmares and sent me on a suicide mission,’ which generally captures the dour, indoor nature of most of David S.F. Wilson’s film. The elevated finale, with Diesel testing his indestructability in and around a moving lift on a skyscraper, is pretty good, and there’s a couple of brief but welcome bursts of action to leaven the glowering.

But a franchise? A film really needs to be something of a game-changer to support more than a sequel or two, and there’s not enough going on in Bloodshot to merit a few more trips to the well. Diesel has a track record with failing to expand his XXX and Riddick franchises without much success; despite a good supporting cast and some passable effects, Bloodshot is just another addition to his growing pile of busted pilots.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (NA-no award)

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The cancellation of both a blockbusting James Bond film and the South by Southwest festival circa March 2020 should give pause to all lovers of cinema; a viral outbreak takes no prisoners, and worse things are happening worldwide, to be sure, but the disruption of the cinematic calendar does not bode well for a business already wrestling with falling attendances; the disruptive antics of Netflix now seem somewhat unnecessary at a time when the whole year’s schedule seem under threat.

A tactical retreat to home entertainment is the only excuse for watching Pacific Rim: Uprising, a sequel which has seemed like in-essential viewing until now, and seems even less essential after last night’s viewing. 2013’s Pacific Rim was a real time-waster for Guillermo del Toro, a Transformers-style punch up between giant robots and aliens. It presumably made enough to make an off-brand sequel viable, and so Pacific Rim: Uprising offers a smaller scale conflict without zeroing in on anything particularly interesting.

Much as the dreadful Independence Day: Resurgence tried to establish continuity by having characters look lovingly at photographs of Will Smith, Stephen DeKnight’s film features John Boyega looking wistfully at photographs of Idris Elba, who presumably didn’t need to produce a letter from his parent or guardian to avoid this mess because his character died in the first film. Charlie Hunnam survived whatever happened in Pacific Rim, but presumably had such a roster of awful films to make that he couldn’t fit this sequel in. Instead, Boyega is paired with Amara (Cailee Spaeney), a sassy street-orphan mechanic, as they armour themselves in giant robot costumes to defend earth from aliens.

Apart from Charlie Day’s weird alien sex scene, the sole positive here is Scott Eastwood, son of Clint, and seemingly intent on mirroring the least successful era of his father’s career, the ‘bit part player in 1950’s sci-fi’ phase. Eastwood is actually a more-than-decent performer who seems to be contend with sixth banana roles in franchises like this, Suicide Squad or Fast and Furious. His appearance and delivery are striking, but when you’re playing support to John Boyega or Charlie Day, there’s not much a guy can do.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is a brightly-coloured and technically adept movie, and yet is fully deserving of the uncovered ‘NA-no award’ classification. The multi-cultural cast lack any actual characters, the action is expensive and yet bland and forgettable, and the whole project feels lifeless and drained of emotion. Cinema is still the place where exciting and original IP is created, and such lavish yet disposable efforts as Pacific Rim: Uprising may feel like fiddling while Rome burned if and when the going gets tough for cinema circa 2020.

 

Midway 2019 ****

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Midway’s box-office success at US cinemas in 2019 seemed remarkably out-of-step with expectations; who exactly was anticipating a star-studded enactment of the events following Pearl Harbor and American entrance to World War 2? But as SNL pointed out, our fathers seem to be preparing WWII as a specialist subject for some time now, and in the era of fake news where good is bad and wrong is right, it’s understandable that audiences of all ages might enjoy a time-travelling trip back to an era of lantern-jawed heroes, explosive action and wild, colourful dioramas that made Roland Emmerich’s film look like it was sponsored by Viewmaster.

It’s not that previous entries like 1970’s Tora Tora Tora or even 1976’s Midway lacked spectacle; they both have their moments, although there’s a lot of chat and a lot of men pushing models around desk-top maps. Midway takes a lead from Michael Bay’s narratively bloated Pearl Harbor by focusing on a size and scale of the action, but narrows things down effectively by focusing on one specific manoeuvre; the ability of US planes to dive bomb vertically downwards onto Japanese battleships, depositing a deadly, explosive payload directly on deck. Emmerich has had genuine success integrating effects smoothly into his big-screen spectacles, and he really pulls off this move on several occasions, creating a sense of wonder and tension that previous versions lack. Ed Skrein does his best in the Steve McQueen flyboy role, and the final credits do a nice job in identifying the various top-brass personnel that Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, Dennis Quaid and others play. In fact, Midway has some appeal as a repeat watch, because discovering the identities of these substantial role adds some kind of verisimilitude to a film that tries to balance history with Boys Own heroics.

None of the human dramas are as compelling at the airborne action, which has the super-clear veracity of a high-tech sci-fi movie and is genuinely something to behold. Unlike Pearl Harbor, the pacing is fast, and even if involvement with individuals is not great, the whole spectacle is highly impressive. David Mamet’s suggesting that a blockbuster movie is more like a pageant than a story applies here; Midway feels like a living tableau of deep blue hero action.

One of the most expensive independent movies ever made, Midway made $120+ on a $100 million budget; one of my personal bugbears is Monday morning quarterbacks who analyse such figures and pontificate on whether a film makes its money back or not. Not just because P and A usually double the budget, but because every film has different week one, two and three deals with cinemas in terms of percentage gross. Hit or not, the home-entertainment release of Midway will be top of Fathers Day, Xmas and Dad’s birthday gift lists for some time. War films are a commodity that many feel don’t get made the way they used to; Midway takes the classic war film and does it all in substantially more style and accuracy.

Midway is out now on digital download and on DVD and Blu-Ray from March 9th 2020.

Underwater 2020 ***

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‘You sweet, flat-chested elfin creature,’ is how Kristen Stewart gets described in Underwater, a slick, predictable but enjoyable horror/action hybrid that takes a lead from the highlights of the Alien franchise. Filmed in 2017, but sneaking out in 2020 as the last film under the 20th Century Fox banner now absorbed into Disney, it’s clear that Underwater’s belated release is a contractual obligation rather than a passion project; still, it’s a big film with a great star, and it’s far better than most of the misfits that appear in the January/February dump-slot.

It’s possible to imagine an alternate universe where Underwater is the big blockbuster of the year; about 1995 would seem like prime-time for William Eubank’s film, which hits the ground running as Norah Price (Stewart) struggles to protect the crew of the Kepler Minig station from a series of explosions, deep in the Mariana trench. Price manages to rescue her Captain (Vincent Cassel) and together they look for a way out, but there’s something in the water that doesn’t want them to leave. Before you can say Leviathan, Deep Rising, Deep Star Six or any number of genre titles, Price finds herself embarking on a hazardous walk across the sea-bed, with all kinds of Lovecraftian creatures in wait for her.

Underwater is a cut above most creature features, and suggests a project that could easily have been released under the Cloverfield banner. The timing of the film’s release give Stewart an uneviable 123 combo of flops, with Charlie’s Angels and Seberg barely making an impression, and yet the mark of a real star is that they’re good in everything, and Stewart is terrific in all three films. An action woman who doesn’t need any help from men, she’s got this, and manages to be the Ripley that Underwater needs. The gear shifts might be generic, but the dialogue has the right salty feel; “When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,’ is a good way to describe the miles of bad road that Price has to navigate.

It’s a shame that Underwater is being so comprehensively buried, and that this is seemingly the last gasp of the Fox imprint; the consolation that that Eubank’s film is a good example of the kind of lean, futuristic action movie that Fox did so well, but it’s unlikely that Disney will want to do at all. With the number of action movies, teen movies, comedies and other genres decreasing at the multiplex, it’s a shame that this kind of tough action movie is an endangered species. Stewart will go on to bigger and better things, but Underwater gives a spirited last hurrah for a lock-and-load ‘soldiers vs monsters’ thrill-ride.

First Love 2019 ****

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Released in the UK on streaming, disc and cinemas on Valentine’s Day 2020, the latest from Takashi Miike arrives in time to offer an alternative to rom-coms and feel-good fare, with a release in Japan scheduled for later this month. Those familiar with the director will know what to expect; yes, we’re talking suits, neon, Samurai swords, ceilings, offbeat comedy, splattery violence and occasional lyricism. But as the title suggests, First Love has a more tender side than, say, 2007’s Detective Story, and it’s an ideal introduction to the auteur’s work.

One night in Tokyo, boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) gets some bad news; a loss of consciousness has a dark cause, and he’s advised that a developing brain tumour is likely to shorten his life considerably. Leo is understandably consumed with rage at the injustice, but soon has other issues to deal with, namely Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a call-girl who is involved on the fringes of a drug-deal gone wrong, one which draws policemen, assassins and various other interested parties together for a series of violent encounters.

First Love places a tender love story at the centre of a hard-boiled genre piece; the world of the film could easily map onto the John Wick universe, which has a similarly glossy, gritty feel. Things really take off in the last ten minutes with a dynamic animated section and some haunting imagery as the pursuit ends, and there’s more than a few choice moments of carnage. If anything, there’s a little too much story and too many characters running around, but the focus on the tentative relationship between Leo and Monica keeps things empathetic.

Perhaps the success of Parasite will renew the love-affair between audiences and subtitled films; those with the stomach for the endless fray will enjoy the graphic dynamism of Takashi Miike’s direction, which mixes the comic and serious with deadpan style. Monica’s hallucinations of her dead father indicate the film’s empathy with a seriously wronged women, and Leo is an appropriate surrogate for audience concerns. First Love is tough, silly, violent and thoughtful by turns; if you enjoy extreme cinema, find someone who feels the same, kick back, and enjoy the internecine world of First Love.

 

Commando 1985 ****

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Do we need to talk about Commando? There seems to be an issue with this Arnold Schwarzenegger action thriller; a big hit back when I was at school, it was one of the first X or 18 certificate films I ever saw, and watching it again, it’s pretty good. Predator gave birth to a unending series of sequels and reboots, franchise, Terminator did the same, Conan The Barbarian and Total Recall have been rebooted, so why should Commando be a derelict property since, from this distance, it looks like prime real estate?

Finding roles of a larger-than –life star back in the 80’s cannot have been easy; the original script for Commando was about a peace-loving Israeli, but Mark L Lester’s film is all about war, and war is just fantastic. Cars, boats and even people explode while John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) seeks out those who have kidnapped his daughter, namely Dan Hedeya and his side-kick Bennett (Vernon Wells). In his muscle vest and chains, Bennett cuts an incongruous figure here; to steal a line, ‘the gayest man on earth might think he was over the top.’ There’s no real surprises as to how Matrix’s mission goes, but there’s are high-points. A visit to LA’s Galleria shopping mall leads to an impressive stunt where the star swings from one side of the other before dropping down onto a moving elevator. Elsewhere, Matrix hangs onto the undercarriage of a plane as it takes off, before dropping down into presumably very soft marshland.

What’s notable here apart from the slick action is the comedy, which later replaced the toughness in the star’s vehicles. “I thought you said I’d be last to die,’ complains a henchman, dangled over a canyon by our hero. ‘I lied’ replies Matrix, before dropping his enemy to a certain death. ‘What happened?’ asks Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong) as Matrix returns to their car ‘I let him go,’ replies Matrix. This is something of a double-whammy when it comes to one-liners, tailored to the star’s lack of expressiveness, one following neatly on from another as Arnie methodically makes his way through the cast-list in typically violent style.

Oddly, the best moment in Commando involves Cindy using a rocket-launcher; being a woman, she’s not au fait with the tech, and accidentally explodes a vehicle behind her when she fires it. She gets the trick right later in the film, when it counts, and no spoilers are required to say that Matrix rescues his daughter and kills the baddies in short order. Even in 2020, Commando has obvious sequel/franchise potential; it’s a known, loved IP and the star would be great as an older, wiser Matrix, possibly helping his daughter escape his shadow. With Terminator and Rambo franchises running dry, surely Commando 2020 would be worth a shot?

Marathon Man 1976 ****

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‘A thriller’ was how the posters humble-bragged the content of John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man back in 1976; there is a sense in which this William Goldman scripted film is the ultimate in thrills, since cinema turned abruptly towards family fare post-Star Wars. Goldman’s book was clearly designed with the big-screen in mind, and producer Robert Evans pulled all the strings to make Marathon man a real event picture; Schlesinger re-united with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman, plus Roy Schneider from Jaws, and with a villainous turn from Laurence Olivier as the Nazi-war criminal Szell.

One critic described the result as a ‘Jewish revenge fantasy’, which seems in line with the Seth Rogen line from Knocked up that Munich was ‘Rambo for Jews’; Marathon Man might seem pulpy, but it’s got dark undercurrents. Babe (Hoffman) is a history student whose father killed himself as a result of McCarthyism; the weight of history is heavy on his shoulders as he jogs around the Central Park reservoir in NYC. Babe has no concept that his brother Doc (Scheinder) is involved with the CIA, but also, crucially, has no idea that American intelligence might be aware of the activities of WWII Nazis, specifically Szell, and might be complicity working with them. Goldman’s script suggests that such an alliance occurs because ‘business is business’, but his disapproval is obvious. Szell comes to NYV to retrieve diamonds after his brother dies, but thinks babe has information that he needs to collect, and the stage is set for a cat and mouse chase between the guilty Nazi and the innocent Babe.

William Devane was not the big draw here amongst the acting heavyweights, but he’s got a crucial role as Peter Janeway; the ‘is it safe?’ torture scene is legendary, but part of it’s power comes from Babe getting rescued by Janeway, without reasoning that Janeway’s friendly behaviour is as much part of the torture as Szell’s drilling. Thus, audiences who felt that they, like Babe, had escaped the worst, found themselves plunged back into a nightmare of raw nerves and bloody sinks. That visceral charge is real, but springs from a political pivot that suggests that money and morals don’t mix well.

Marathon Man is a class act, for the acting, sure, but also for early Steadicam use on the streets of New York, some excellent location work, and Schlesinger’s eye for detail, which makes the thriller elements all the more powerful. The ending is botched, as is the key scene in which Doc faces off with another assassin; Doc loses some of his complexity, and babe is denied his revenge. Both sets of changes weaken the film, but Marathon Man has style and content to burn. Goldman suggests that no-man can escape history, and worries away at the notion that capitalism’s rewards are desired by the moral and immoral alike.

The Bounty Hunter 2010 ***

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It’s hard to believe, but we are currently approaching the ten year anniversary of the release of The Bounty Hunter; how are you planning to celebrate? Taking a second look at this widely maligned rom-com, it’s something of a time capsule; yes, everyone has mobile phones, and the internet exists, but Andy Tennants’s film seems to hark back to screwball comedies of the 1930’s, or even road movies from the 1970’s.

Andy Tennant is something of a secret success; between 1995 and 2010, he made a series of rom-coms which made a billion dollars worldwide, despite the fact you could sit next to the director in an airport lounge and be unaware of his presence. And yet his films are not anonymous, and somewhere between Sweet Home Alabama and Fools Gold, there’s an emerging interest in character and story that serves him well. Working from a script by Sarah Thorp, he mines a scuzzy yet homespun appeal from two popular leads here.

Gerry Butler, of course, is bounty hunter Milo Boyd, seen interrupting a Fourth-of July parade in an all-action opening that sees him at work, chasing down a perp just as he used to do when he was a cop. But that was a while ago, when he was married to Nicole (Jennifer Aniston), who has divorced him with extreme prejudice. She’s got some traffic violations and has neglected to lawyer-up appropriately, so Milo is delighted to have the fun of tracking down his ex-wife. But he doesn’t reckon of the case she’s investigating as a journalist, which involves her with all kind of nefarious characters.

And of course, Milo and Nicole fall in love, while bullets fly and SUV’s coast through the air. There’s old school support from Carol Kane and Christine Baranski, and an early, creepy turn from SNL’s Jason Sudeikis. Butler hasn’t yet developed his gruff exoskeleton, and plays vulnerable to good effect, but Aniston is the wheel the whole operation pivots on. With her TV smarts, a film career has seemed somewhat effortless, and yet films liken The Good Girl and Cake demonstrated that she could push the Americas sweetheart act in diverse ways.

The Bounty Hunter is the kind of film cineastes reject and audiences lap up without a thought. The thriller mechanics are nothing new, and the film relies of the slippery exchanges between Butler and Aniston, who both have a good measure of the material. Sometime you just need to chill while a movie does the work for you; The Bounty Hunter aims for the low-hanging fruit and doesn’t miss.

Killerman 2019 ****

KILLERMAN_BannerHe may just have hit the headlines by divorcing Miley Cyrus, but Liam Hemsworth is developing acting chops that should allow him the same stellar trajectory his brother Chris has. After a prominent role in the Hunger Games films, Hemsworth the younger takes the kind of leap that worked so well for another teen heart-throb Robert Pattinson in the Safdie brothers’ Good Time; as a scuzzy dealer from the New York diamond district, there’s also elements of The Safdie’s Uncut Gems here. Although Killerman isn’t quite as good as either Good Times or Uncut Gems, it’s set in a similarly downbeat, real-world universe, and fans of the crime genre should appreciate it’s B movie smarts.

Hemsworth plays Moe Diamond, a money launderer whose services are highly sought after. He strikes a deal by which he collects and deposits cash in small doses, hoping to avoid attention from the IRS and other parties. But when a delivery gets cancelled after the cash is collected and before it can be deposited, Diamond suddenly finds himself vulnerable. A tentative drug deal goes up in Diamond’s face, and during the following car chase, he experiences a severe concussion that seems to obliterate his sense of who he is. Confused and easily manipulated by unscrupulous others, Diamond has to figure his way out of a venal snake-pit of local gangsters and corrupt cops, but he’s got a secret of his own that even he may not be aware of.

Killerman also has a touch of Memento, although the story isn’t told with the kind of arty pizazz that Christopher Nolan doubled-down on. Instead, this is a straight-forward, yet twisty-turny thriller that delivers a solid 90 minutes of high-octane entertainment, with gory killings in street-wise fashion, and a brief but exciting car chase that leads to an impressively messy smash. The NYC locations, starting with Katz’s deli, are authentic, and even if the contrivances eventually move it away from Safdie territory, it’s decent fare.

Hemsworth is the name-above-the-title attraction here, and he’s got the star-power to hold the film together. He manages well with the tricky amnesia switch, but in his leather jacket and five-o-clock shadow, presents just the right kind of anti-hero for this kind of amoral world. There’s a few regrettable camera set-ups and some loose lines of dialogue, but it’s a promising film from writer/director Malik Bader; if you can’t wait to see what the Safdies have got in store, Killerman deserves points for serving up a similarly dark and dangerous urban nightmare.