Friday, April 3, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: OUTCAST (2015); OUT OF THE DARK (2015); and DEATH SQUAD (2015)

(China/Canada/France - 2015)

Veteran stuntman, stunt coordinator, and second-unit director Nicholas Powell makes his directing debut with this completely generic historical epic that might've made for harmlessly diverting entertainment of the IRONCLAD sort were it not for the sleepwalking performance of Hayden Christensen. Christensen's been offscreen since 2011's abysmal VANISHING ON 7TH STREET (you didn't even notice, did you?) and is still the vacant, charisma-starved presence he was a decade ago as Anakin Skywalker. Christensen's delivered exactly one good performance, in 2003's SHATTERED GLASS, where his blank persona and complete lack of screen presence were actually integral to the ultimate unraveling of his character, New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass. But even in his own film, lucking into the most perfect role he'll ever have and owning it, he managed to be upstaged by Peter Sarsgaard (as his increasingly incredulous editor Chuck Lane) in one of the best performances of the last 15 years that didn't get a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Here, the perpetually miscast Christensen is Jacob, an opium-addled 12th century warrior, burned out and beaten down by his experiences in the Crusades. He ends up finding his shot at redemption when a Chinese king (Shi Liang) is murdered by his treacherous eldest son Shing (Andy On), who's furious about being passed over in favor of his younger brother Zhao (Bill Su Jiahang). The king has already sent Zhao and his sister Lian (Liu Yifei) off to safety when Shing publicly announces Zhao is the murderer and leads his Black Guards in pursuit. Zhao and Lian eventually cross paths with Jacob, who reluctantly (would there be any other way?) agrees to guide them and provide protection from the duplicitous Shing along the way.

Eventually, they meet up with Jacob's former mentor Gaillan, known as "The White Ghost," and played by Nicolas Cage in what might be the dumbest role of his career thus far. Sporting a samurai wig and a ridiculous British accent and playing Gaillan as blind in one eye, Cage is in prime form for some epic future Nic Cage YouTube highlights, but he isn't really in the film long enough to make an impact for his legion of Cageaholics. Cage is strictly a big-name guest star in a slightly extended cameo here, appearing fleetingly in a couple of flashbacks and not properly introduced until the one-hour mark, then he's gone 20 minutes later. Had Cage had a larger role or played Christensen's part, it's likely OUTCAST would still be terrible but probably not the stultifying bore that it is. For all his experience in big-budget stunt work--his credits include BATMAN, BRAVEHEART, and GLADIATOR--Powell's direction and action choreography are pedestrian at best, with everything shown in quick-cut succession and the requisite unstable shaky-cam. The script by James Dormer (a regular writer on Cinemax's STRIKE BACK) brings nothing new to the table and relies on every rote cliche and stereotype imaginable. OUTCAST took three countries and 23 credited producers to get made--it's not a cheap film and even the CGI is marginally better than you'd expect--but there's just no passion or energy in its presentation, running only 98 minutes but feeling about as long as The Crusades themselves. There could've been some fun in comparing Cage's and Christensen's dueling horrendous British accents, but even that's for naught since Christensen can't even be consistent about it (Cage's is laughable, but he at least commits to it). When "the CGI is marginally better than you'd expect" is the best praise you can offer, you know you're really reaching to find something positive to say, and OUTCAST just reeks of total shrugging ambivalence on the part of everyone involved. Why was it made?  How can a movie with Nicolas Cage wearing a hilarious ZATOICHI wig, playing partially blind and crutching on a bizarre British accent be this dour and miserable? And while I'm sure he's a nice guy, Christensen's sabbatical did nothing to sharpen his skills. How many more times do we have to see the same corpse-like performance before producers stop trying to make him happen? (R, 98 mins)

(Spain/Colombia - 2015)

American couple Sarah (Julia Stiles) and Paul Holden (Scott Speedman), and their Cockney-accented daughter Hannah (the amazingly-named Pixie Davies) move from London to a village outside Bogota, Colombia, where Sarah is taking over the management duties of the Harriman paper factory, owned by her father Jordan Harriman (Stephen Rea). Harriman sets them up in a long-vacant house where it doesn't take long for supernatural shenanigans to break out. Of course, the audience is expecting it since the film opens with a prologue where a man (Elkin Diaz) is killed by a group of ghostly children in that very house. Hannah becomes ill and develops a severe skin rash before being whisked away by the same ghost kids. The ghosts are believed to be the spirits of all the village's children who disappeared 20 years earlier in what the superstitious locals accepted as retribution for conquistadors abducting children and burning them alive in a temple centuries earlier. Or maybe it has something to with why Harriman closed his old paper mill 20 years ago and built a new one on the opposite end of the village. There are no scares or original ideas in the script by Javier Gullon (ENEMY, KING OF THE HILL), and Alex & David Pastor (the little-seen and worthwhile CARRIERS), and the direction by first-time Lluis Quilez is bland and perfunctory, relying on things slamming shut, pointless shrieks, and dead-end jump-scares that go absolutely nowhere. Most of the film takes place in almost total darkness, with approximately 75% of the screen time devoted to Stiles and Speedman wandering around with flashlights screaming "Hannah!" in a fruitless attempt to keep the audience--or perhaps themselves--awake. I hope Stiles, Speedman, and Rea enjoyed their free vacation to Bogota, because they're the only ones who got anything out of this. (R, 94 mins)

(Italy - 2014; US release 2015)

Released in Italy under the oddly Bruno Mattei-esque title 2047: SIGHTS OF DEATH, DEATH SQUAD is a rare present-day return to a distant era of slumming name actors turning up in cheesy, C-grade Italian exploitation. That mystique is legitimized by the involvement of director Alessandro Capone, who earned some acclaim with the 2009 Isabelle Huppert/Greta Scacchi drama HIDDEN LOVE, but cut his teeth on screenwriting credits for things like Ruggero Deodato's 1986 slasher film BODY COUNT in the waning days of the '80s Italian horror explosion. Capone went on to direct several EXTRALARGE vehicles with Bud Spencer, but with DEATH SQUAD, he's got his most eclectic and bizarre cast yet for a post-apocalyptic shoot 'em up set in a world controlled by a totalitarian regime known as The Confederation. In a not-too-subtle metaphor, they've made the rich safe and secure while the rest of the world and its lesser citizens are prisoners in a bombed-out, radioactive wasteland. An eco-terrorist organization known as Greenwar dispatches military-trained Willburn (Stephen Baldwin) to infiltrate a forbidden zone to find a stash of "anti-rad" solution that helps combat and prevent the effects of radiation poisoning. Determined to stop the mission is the deranged Col. Asimov (Rutger Hauer), who's in cahoots with sleazy mercenary Lobo (Michael Madsen) as both turn the tables on Asimov's driven, dutiful second-in-command Maj. Anderson (Daryl Hannah) to go ahead with their rogue mission to intercept and make off with the anti-rad. Anderson eventually sees the light and sides with Greenwar, an organization devoted to exposing The Confederation's war crimes, and led by Sponge (top-billed Danny Glover), who remains in constant radio contact with Willburn. Willburn, meanwhile, finds a survivor in nomadic female warrior Tuag (Neva Leoni), and they team up to take on Asimov and Lobo as the various cast members wander around an abandoned factory in Rome for the better part of 90 minutes.

Name actors schlepping their way through Italian exploitation hasn't really been a thing since the late '80s and I don't know about you, but the fact that it's 2015 and a guy like Danny Glover is turning up in a low-budget Italian post-apocalypse potboiler playing someone named "Sponge" just puts a smile on my face. There's an awful lot of skidding talent on display in DEATH SQUAD, but the actors are surprisingly engaged, particularly Hauer, doing his best Klaus Kinski in a mostly-improvised performance that finds him doing anything he can think of to keep it interesting, whether it's going wildly off script in almost every scene (often encouraging Madsen to do the same), making funny faces at everyone, or even slowly and melodramatically brushing his teeth while being debriefed on a situation in his command center. Capone obviously gave Hauer the Marlon Brando "Eh, fuck it, just let him do what he wants" treatment, with Madsen (who gets an introduction that's memorable, to say the least) following suit, while Baldwin and Hannah actually seem to be taking this thing seriously (do you think the crew was expressly forbidden to ask Hannah and Hauer any questions about BLADE RUNNER? Or Hannah and Madsen about KILL BILL?). In an apparent homage to Bruce Willis' contributions to the world of VOD, Glover never leaves his desk and is never seen with any of the other cast members, but the other once-vital heavy hitters don't do the customary one-day-on-the-set driveby while the lesser-known Italian actors carry the load. Nope...like Richard Harris in STRIKE COMMANDO 2 and Brian Dennehy in INDIO, they're the stars and they're in the whole movie. DEATH SQUAD isn't very good (it's quite bad, actually) and with all the walking around and arguing, it gets pretty tedious at times, almost like it's crying out for a car chase or some Antonio Margheriti miniature explosions. But with the unexpected cast, Hauer's bonkers performance, some gratuitous splatter, Capone's connection to the golden era of Italian B-movies, a legitimately interesting but poorly-executed plot twist near the end, and Madsen being skeezy, connoisseurs of vintage Eurotrash will find that there's a strange retro charm to DEATH SQUAD that doesn't exist in your typical DTV programmer of this sort. With just a little more ambition on Capone's part, it could've flirted with "guilty pleasure" status. (Unrated, 90 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)

No comments:

Post a Comment