Thursday, June 25, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: POUND OF FLESH (2015); THE FORGER (2015); and SWORD OF VENGEANCE (2015)

(Hong Kong/Canada/China/US/Monaco - 2015)

In a solid performance, Jean-Claude Van Damme does his best to salvage this overwrought, heavy-handed actioner, but he can't overcome a terrible script by Joshua James, uninspired direction by Ernie Barbarash that relies too much on quick-cuts and shaky cam in the action sequences, and some embarrassingly bush-league CGI and greenscreen work that's inexcusable in 2015. JCVD is Deacon Lyle, a former kidnap-and-rescue black ops specialist who arrives in Manila, is promptly roofied by the seductive Ana (Charlotte Peters) and wakes up in his hotel room the next morning with an envelope full of money and a fistful of painkillers, but minus a kidney. This poses a problem since he was in Manila to donate a kidney to his deathly ill niece Isabella (Adele Baughan). Deacon and his widower brother George (John Ralston), a minister having a crisis of faith, have some bad blood between them, the cause being something the filmmakers think is a big reveal later on but is obvious almost instantly. Desperate to save his niece's life, Deacon goes on a rampage across Manila to recover the organ, almost like TAKEN if Liam Neeson's kidney was abducted instead of his daughter. He gets help from former enemy and now trusted friend Kung ('80s Cannon stalwart Aki Aleong, credited as "Leonard Gonzales") as well as Ana who, being your typical Hooker with a Heart of Gold, isn't really a bad person but was forced into it by her vicious pimp (Philippe Joly), who was paid off by Drake (the late Darren Shahlavi, who died during production of his next teaming with Van Damme, a KICKBOXER reboot due out in 2016), who orchestrated the kidney heist at the behest of his rich and powerful employer.

With JCVD gouging out someone's eye with the corner of a hardcover Bible and shouting things like "Last chance...where's my kidney?" this could've been goofy fun if James' script wasn't so awful. An action movie with a crazy Belgian in search of a missing vital organ shouldn't be this depressing. The film really gets bogged down with George's endless, melodramatic hand-wringing over taking a life to save a life. POUND OF FLESH is the kind of film where it's not enough for George to question if taking part in Deacon's ruthless pursuit of his kidney is for the greater good and saving Isabella at the expense of the person who had it stolen. No, he has to pause and look at his hands--which literally have blood on them--as a cross dangles from his necklace, forcing him to ponder What I've Become. It's also the kind of film where George has a clandestine meeting with a computer hacker and they have to speak in clumsy exposition that laboriously lays out their shared history that the characters should already know ("You testified on my behalf...if I'm caught near a computer, I go back to prison!") despite the urgency of the meeting. It's the kind of movie where the protagonists are on the run and have nowhere to go, only to have George chime in with a convenient "I have a cabin near here," and when Deacon and Kung desperately need to scrape money together to get the information and weapons they need, only much later, after the Hooker with a Heart of Gold throws in her own $20,000 to help Deacon, does George say "I have $50,000 in this account...here's the password," and no one says "Thanks, asshole...we coulda used it earlier." The climax involves Deacon somehow planting explosives all around the exterior and interior of Drake's employer's fortress-like mansion--it's never explained how he gets around an army of bodyguards patrolling the perimeter. And the film has so little use for Ana that while gunfire and explosions that look like they came from apps on Barbarash's iPhone are going off inside and outside of the mansion, she just patiently waits in Kung's van, right there in the driveway. It's a combination of idiotic plotting and ham-fisted seriousness that derails the cheap-looking POUND OF FLESH. Less George angst and more Bible eye-gouging by Deacon would've been a good thing. Though the 54-year-old Van Damme is relying on obvious stunt doubles a little more than he did as a younger man (he does do his signature splits move while being dragged by a car, which is pretty cool), as an actor, he gives it his all and is quite good, especially in the closing scenes. It's too bad he's stuck in a badly-written and very ugly film that often appears to be unfinished. JCVD deserves better. (R, 104 mins)

(US - 2015)

THE FORGER finds John Travolta in one of the frequent lulls of his notoriously up-and-down career and is his second consecutive film to both a) go straight to VOD, and b) feature him with ridiculous facial hair. 2013's little-seen KILLING SEASON was hardly worthy of pairing a chinstrap-bearded Travolta and a slumming Robert De Niro for the first time, and while THE FORGER isn't terrible, it's also not even remotely noteworthy other than for the sight of 61-year-old Travolta sporting a velcro dot of a soul patch and a flowing, rock star wig that looks in danger of sliding off at any moment. Ray Cutter (Travolta) comes from a long line of small-time Boston criminals. He's also a master art forger ten months away from being paroled. He has neighborhood crime boss Keegan (Anson Mount) get him sprung from the joint early so he can be with his cancer-stricken Will (Tye Sheridan of MUD and JOE), who has an inoperable, stage IV brain-stem tumor. Will's spent the last four years living with his crotchety but tough-loving Irish grandfather Joseph (Christopher Plummer) and Ray wants to be able to spend what little time he can bonding with his son. Keegan has other ideas, especially since Ray owes him a favor: forge a Monet painting and plot a heist to swap it with the real thing at the Museum of Fine Arts. Ray's also being hounded by an ambitious FBI agent (Abigail Spencer) who's looking to bust Keegan, who needs the Monet to satisfy a debt to a ruthless Latin American cartel boss. In between working on the forgery and plotting the heist, the three Cutter men bond as Will gets sicker by the day.

Directed by British TV vet Philip Martin and scripted by Richard D'Ovidio (THE CALL, THE DAMNED), THE FORGER is uneven, to say the least. It tries to be a gritty crime drama, low-key character piece, crowd-pleasing tearjerker, and One Last Job heist thriller and doesn't fully succeed at any of them. The heist itself is ludicrous and the broad performances by Travolta and the usually infallible Plummer don't help. Travolta's cartoonish accent isn't really Baaah-ston and instead sounds like he opted to dust off his Vinnie Barbarino voice, while Plummer seems on the verge of breaking into a gravel-voiced rendition of "Danny Boy" at any moment and falls into the trap that so many geriatric actors do in modern cinema: hamming it up and dropping a ton of F-bombs. Jennifer Ehle, a great actress who should be much better-known than she is, does some good work as Ray's drug-addict ex-wife, who walked out when Will was a small child. She briefly re-enters the picture when Will wants to see her one last time, and the day they spend together, with Will awkwardly but politely going along with her obvious lies about being successful and living in NYC instead of popping pills in a trailer park. It's one of the rare instances when THE FORGER feels genuine. The other is at the very end, with the empty look in Ray's eyes showing the kind of pain and heartbreak that Travolta knows all too well offscreen. In that moment, Travolta brings his own personal grief to the forefront and, if only briefly, manages to overcome the soul patch and whatever it is on his head. (R, 96 mins)

(UK - 2015)

A sluggish GAME OF THRONES and VIKINGS-inspired look at the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, SWORD OF VENGEANCE is a dull, dreary sword & splatter epic with a story credit for Matthew Read, who wrote the equally drab HAMMER OF THE GODS and helped Nicolas Winding Refn script the Viking saga VALHALLA RISING. SWORD has tyrannical William the Conquerer flunky The Earl of Durant (Karel Roden) and his two sniveling sons Romain (Edward Akrout) and Artus (Gianni Giardanelli) ruling the Saxons in their region with an iron fist. The Saxons are given hope in the form of corn-rowed, nomadic, lone-wolf warrior Shadow Walker (Joel Kinnaman lookalike Stanley Weber), who helps lead their depleted forces in revolt against the Durant reign of terror. Loaded with desaturated cinematography that looks sepia-bordering-on-black & white and copious amounts of CGI and slo-mo battle scenes, SWORD OF VENGEANCE is about as forgettable as they come, with lifeless direction by Jim Weedon, tired action sequences that are almost entirely presented in ultra-stylized, 300-like slo-mo, and absolutely no character development or chemistry among its mumbling cast, especially Weber's Shadow Walker, one of the most boring and charisma-deficient heroes in recent memory. Roden, a veteran big-screen villain, is sleepwalking through his performance, hindered by some really unconvincing burn makeup stretched across his face. An empty and incoherent mess with nothing to recommend other than an occasionally interesting electronic score by Steven Hilton, SWORD OF VENGEANCE also features Annabelle Wallis, the late Dave Legeno (best known for SNATCH and as Fenir Greyback in the HARRY POTTER films), who was found dead from heat exhaustion in Death Valley in summer 2014, and Ed Skrein, one-time Daario Naharis on GAME OF THRONES (he was replaced by Michiel Huisman) and star of the upcoming reboot THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED. (Unrated, 87 mins)

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