Thursday, May 1, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: BAD COUNTRY (2014); THE LEGEND OF HERCULES (2014); and ODD THOMAS (2014)

(US - 2014)

Fans of Troy Duffy's cult classic THE BOONDOCK SAINTS should recognize producer Chris Brinker's name.  Brinker made his directing debut with this "inspired by true events" crime thriller shot in the fall of 2012 and it unfortunately proved to be his only film:  the 42-year-old Brinker died unexpectedly from an aortic aneurysm in February 2013 while BAD COUNTRY was in post-production. While the film wasn't 100% finished when Brinker died, he did have it in the can and must shoulder the bulk of the blame for the utterly mediocre results. The elements are here for a solid crime thriller, but lethargic pacing, veteran actors often being outperformed by their facial hair, and some truly amateurish filmmaking, particularly in the botched climax, do it absolutely no favors. It does give Brinker a chance to work with his old BOONDOCK SAINTS pal Willem Dafoe, who turns in a typically intense performance as on-the-edge cop Bud Carter, who leads a squad of plays-by-their-own-rules badasses looking to up-end all manner of criminal lowlifes in their neck of the woods in 1983 Baton Rouge. A diamond bust results in Carter getting the name of Jesse Weiland (Matt Dillon), a jack-of-all-trades shitheel who dabbles in contract killing, drug-dealing, gun-running, and white supremacy. Weiland's got limitless connections to the Baton Rouge underworld, and he's also got a wife (Amy Smart) and a newborn son, and Carter, forced to work with an incompetent, wet-behind-the-ears FBI newbie (Chris Marquette), offers him a chance to stay out of prison and be with his family by becoming a snitch and leading them to the bigger fish, namely wealthy businessman and Ayran brotherhood crime lord Lutin Adams (Tom Berenger). Of course, loyalties are tested, lines are crossed, tables are turned, etc, etc, blah blah blah.

BAD COUNTRY features a generically predictable plot you've seen a hundred times before. Perhaps Brinker and screenwriter Jonathan Hirschbein should've kept the focus on Dafoe's Carter, a character based on the exploits of cop Don "Bud" Connor, one of the film's 23 credited producers. When Dafoe is onscreen doing his thing, BAD COUNTRY feels alive, but too much time is spent with a sulking Dillon, who can't do much with the role since we never care about the redemption of this unrepentant scumbag, and Smart is stuck with a role so woefully underwritten that she barely registers.  There's sporadic appearances by other familiar faces, like IN PLAIN SIGHT's Frederick Weller; loathed Cadillac pitchman and I KNOW WHO KILLED ME/88 MINUTES/STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI bomb magnet Neal McDonough, cast radically against type as an smirking, asshole lawyer; Kevin Chapman, best known as BLACK DYNAMITE's traitorous O'Leary; ARGO's Christopher Denham as Weiland's even bigger loser brother; veteran New Orleans-based character actor Don Yesso, also one of the producers; and the always-awesome Bill Duke as an irate fed, but top acting dishonors have to go to an embarrassing Berenger, who can't decide what he wants to do from word-to-word, let alone line-to-line.  He'll start a sentence in his usual voice and finish it with a hammy drawl that sounds like he's playing tribute to Adam Sandler's Cajun Man by way of Alicia Bridges' "I Love the Nightlife" (listen to him say "Where did he get that information?" with  "Where did he get that..." in his usual Berenger voice, but finishing the sentence with a garishly cartoonish "info-may-shaaaaawn?"). Berenger is hilariously awful throughout, but never more so than in the climax, where his one-on-one brawl with Dillon is staged so badly by Brinker that it doesn't even take coverage into consideration, with Berenger only doing some Seagal-esque closeups while his completely unconcealed double--with noticeably darker hair and his face visible--dukes it out with Dillon.  And if you're expecting a reunion of PLATOON Oscar nominees Berenger and Dafoe, this ain't it:  they have two brief scenes together, but they're shot in a way that the actors are never sharing the frame, making it obvious that they either weren't there at the same time or if they were, Brinker just shot it in the most awkward, cumbersome way possible. BAD COUNTRY seems like it was made with good intentions, and sure, perhaps some of its rough edges could've been smoothed over had Brinker lived to completely finish it, but what's here is just by-the-numbers stuff and the very definition of "straight-to-DVD."  It's almost like the film's been released in the exact condition Brinker left it in the editing room at the time of his death.  (R, 104 mins)

(US - 2014)

I'm not saying Kellan Lutz is the worst Hercules ever, but he does bring something to the role that famed predecessors like Steve Reeves and Lou Ferrigno lacked.  Of course, I'm talking about frosted tips.  Rushed into production by Millennium Films honcho Avi Lerner in the classic fashion befitting his Cannon cover band in order to beat Dwayne Johnson's upcoming HERCULES to theaters, the origin story THE LEGEND OF HERCULES allegedly cost $70 million to produce, but you'd never know it by the shoddy results.  Shot in 3D at Lerner's Sofia-based Nu Boyana Studios and loaded with CGI courtesy of his usual Bulgarian clown crew at Worldwide FX, THE LEGEND OF HERCULES is dull and plodding, and seems to have been created by people who aren't even vaguely aware of the Hercules mythos. For the most part, this is yet another 300 ripoff, filled with stop/start slo-mo and the usual speed-ramping battle scenes. There's even a BEN-HUR slave galley detour and a section that blatantly cribs from SPARTACUS and GLADIATOR, with Hercules and friend Sotiris (Liam McIntyre, who replaced the late Andy Whitfield on the Starz series SPARTACUS) forced to fight for their lives in an arena.  Lutz's Hercules doesn't even get to display his strength until 75 minutes in, and even then he just swings some bricks around before a sword fight with his vengeful stepfather King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins), who's spent the entire film trying to have him killed. Other than fighting the Nemean Lion, this is pretty much a standard-issue sword-and-sandal opus about a bland pretty boy who happens to be named Hercules.  They don't even bother making Chiron a centaur; here he's just a doddering but wise elder played by Rade Serbedzija. Say what you will about director Renny Harlin, but he used to make entertaining movies once upon a time. THE LEGEND OF HERCULES isn't one of them.  A barely-there Harlin sets himself to hack mode and is so content to just let the FX crew and the Almost Basil Poledouris score carry the load that it doesn't take long before you're wishing Lerner sent Lutz packing to the nearest TWILIGHT convention so the overacting Adkins could play Hercules and second unit director Isaac Florentine (WHY isn't he getting better gigs?) could relieve Harlin of whatever it is he's doing.  Feeling twice as long as it is and exhibiting a laziness that borders on audience contempt, THE LEGEND OF HERCULES is saddled with an unengaging story, a complete blank of a leading man, Johnathan Schaech in corn-rows, and astonishingly bad visual effects that look like an already-outdated video game, in addition to wasting great character actors like Serbedzija and Kenneth Cranham. This is probably the cheapest-looking, wide-release would-be "blockbuster" you'll see in 2014. Is there any reason that 50-year-old muscleman epics look better than THE LEGEND OF HERCULES does now? I skipped this in theaters, but I have to believe that even the most ardent CGI apologists would've had to laugh this off the screen, right?  (PG-13, 99 mins)

(US - 2014)

The first in Dean Koontz's best-selling series of novels had a tumultuous journey to its release after being shot back in 2011, with lawsuits between disputing production companies and a brief period where filming was suspended because money ran out. A labor of love for writer/producer/director Stephen Sommers, working with a relatively low--for him, at least--budget of $25 million after the bloated nothingness of 2004's reviled VAN HELSING and 2009's forgettable G.I. JOE: RISE OF THE COBRA, ODD THOMAS still has all the usual Sommers touches of whooshing camera movements and an overload of CGI. The biggest difference is that now it's all a bit less convincing and the whole film looks and plays less like a $25 million feature and more like the pilot to a CBS TV series.  The story unfolds in a manner that makes it seem more at home on TV than on the big screen, which could at least partially be the reason it was practially smuggled into just a few theaters and on VOD earlier this year with absolutely no publicity. Another more likely one is that the central plot of the film's antagonists involves a mass shooting at a crowded shopping mall, which everyone involved perhaps felt was too touchy a subject.  Anton Yelchin is Odd Thomas, whose first name came about because "Todd" was misspelled on his birth certificate.  Odd can see dead people, and murder victims frequently come to him seeking justice against their still-free killers. Odd's gift comes in handy to small-town Pico Mundo police chief Porter (Willem Dafoe), who usually devises a way to entrap the guilty based on info provided by Odd.  When Odd starts seeing "bodachs"--harbingers of evil who look like sinewy, ectoplasmic versions of H.R. Giger's ALIEN design--hovering around town, specifically around strange newcomer Fungus Bob (Shuler Hensley), he knows something horrible is about to happen that may obliterate Pico Mundo.

Yelchin is very well-cast as Odd, an affable guy who didn't ask for his "gift" but knows he must use it for the common good.  He really just wants to work his simple job as a diner cook and hang out with his impossibly wholesome girlfriend Stormy (Addison Timlin), but duty frequently calls.  Early on, the quaintly old-fashioned back-and-forth between the couple, Porter's head-shaking but fatherly "Oh, Odd!  Why, I oughta..." admonishings, and the cozy, Spielbergian small-town atmosphere comes off as more than a little hokey, the charming Timlin is stuck with some irritatingly cutesy dialogue that seems to belong in an '80s sitcom ("That's some plan, Odd one!" she often chirps, almost pausing for the laugh track to kick in), and Sommers' script has a definite "TV show exposition" style to the plot set-up.  That, coupled with the B-level visual effects, creates some hiccups and stumbles along the way, but once the main plot commences and Odd, Stormy, and Porter figure out what's going on, ODD THOMAS gets much better, leading to a legitimately surprising twist ending (if you haven't read the book) that probably would've been the first thing to go had Sommers made this for a major studio.  Sommers makes some significant changes--he completely eliminates Stormy's backstory of being sexually abused by a foster father, and Little Ozzie, a major character in the book, is played by Patton Oswalt in just one scene here--but knew that the story wouldn't work without sticking with its original ending.  Sommers deserves some credit for pulling off this ending and, considering most of his output, making a film that isn't terrible (though I will cop to being a big DEEP RISING fan), but ODD THOMAS is too blandly shot and just feels too much like a workmanlike television show to work as effective cinema.  Put this on prime-time TV as a weekly series, and Sommers has a winner, but there's no way this is leading to a big-screen ODD THOMAS franchise. (Unrated, 97 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

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