Thursday, June 9, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: GODS OF EGYPT (2016); THE ASIAN CONNECTION (2016); and JARHEAD 3: THE SIEGE (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

A mega-budget franchise non-starter that arrived on a wave of bad publicity due to casting controversies--a ridiculous grievance, really, considering that it's not a remotely serious film--GODS OF EGYPT seemed doomed the moment the trailer hit the internet. By the time it was released, the pile-on had already begun, and director Alex Proyas (THE CROW, DARK CITY, I ROBOT) didn't handle it well, taking to Twitter and social media to excoriate critics and detractors. Regardless of how legitimate his complaints were, he couldn't help but come off as, in the parlance of our times, a little butthurt. Is the movie good?  Sometimes. "Kinda, almost" might be a good answer. Despite its lofty ambitions, it seems by the end that its sole purpose was to be played continuously on rows of display TVs in the electronics department of a big box retailer. Working with the screenwriting team of Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (whose previous triumphs include DRACULA UNTOLD and THE LAST WITCH HUNTER), the visionary Proyas establishes a pretty clearly campy tone, with the early scenes featuring intentionally anachronistic dialogue for its ancient Egypt setting ("This old thing?" one female character sasses when asked about her dress) and a very deliberate sense of humor. But the tone changes from scene to scene, along with the quality of the visual effects. The film is wall-to-wall CGI and looks almost completely animated at times. There are moments where the visuals are jawdroppingly beautiful and others where it looks like it's not even Asylum-worthy. The schizophrenic tone coupled with the repetitive set pieces eventually turn the film into a slog by the midway point.

That doesn't mean it's the catastrophic washout that everyone says it is. Oh, it's an unwieldy mess, but Proyas has stretches where he seems possessed by an in-his-prime Terry Gilliam, and for that reason alone, one shouldn't just blithely dismiss GODS OF EGYPT as soulless schlock. This just looks like a film that got away from its maker and had too much riding on it in terms of becoming a studio's next tentpole franchise. In Egypt, where gods are ten feet tall, bleed gold, and coexist with men, beloved and benevolent King Osiris (Bryan Brown sighting!) intends to pass the throne on to his son Horus (GAME OF THRONES' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). That plan is thwarted by Osiris' scheming brother Set (a scenery-chewing Gerard Butler), who kills the king and gouges out the eyes of Horus, who goes into hiding as a power-crazed, despotic Set takes his nephew's intended, the Goddess of Love Hathor (Elodie Yung) for himself, enslaves the population, and destroys all the good Osiris has done like some ancient Egyptian Donald Trump. Bek (Brenton Thwaites), a wily young thief, also loses his love Zaya (Courtney Eaton) when she's killed by her owner, Set's architect Urshu (Rufus Sewell). Bek manages to steal one of Horus' eyes--the source of his godly powers--from Set's vault, promising him the other if he helps him find and restore Zaya to earthly life. Horus agrees, as he and Bek form an unholy god-and-man alliance to save Zaya and exact vengeance on Set...if they don't slay each other first!  There's some fun in the early going, and it's hard not to get a kick out of Geoffrey Rush engulfed in CGI flames and hurling balls of fire as Horus' grandfather Ra, but GODS OF EGYPT is all over the place, and nearly every stop on their quest involves them being attacked by giant CGI creatures and fleeing an interior or exterior structure, outrunning the destruction as it crumbles around them. It loses its sense of fun and starts to seem more like a GODS OF EGYPT video game. The actors, especially Rush and Butler, came prepared to ham it up, but after a promising start, GODS OF EGYPT just switches to autopilot and becomes one eye-glazingly dull CGI action sequence after another. (PG-13, 127 mins)

(US - 2016)

A pretty generic Far East shoot 'em up that features one of Steven Seagal's more lifelike performances in recent years, THE ASIAN CONNECTION would probably be a forgettable but diverting enough actioner if it had better leads. As the nominal villain, a Cambodia-based crime lord named Gan Sirankiri, Seagal is as mumbly as ever but actually logs some significant screen time and even takes part in a few big action sequences without being doubled (surprisingly, he's also a participant in the making-of featurette, a good indication that, for whatever reason, he gave a shit about this one). While Seagal has an "and Steven Seagal" credit and a puffy-eyed Michael Jai White gets top billing for a one-scene cameo as a gun dealer named Greedy Greg, the real star is the thoroughly unappealing John Edward Lee--who resembles some kind of Frankenstein fusion of Stephen Dorff and Josh Duhamel, but somehow with exponentially less charisma--as Jack, an expat American living in Bangkok with his Thai girlfriend Avalon (Kempo black belt Pim Bubear). Desperate for cash, Jack and his buddy Sam (Bryan Gibson) decide to rob a bank in Cambodia and take the cash back over the border into Bangkok. The bank they rob is holding the money of Sirankiri, who understandably wants it back and dispatches his chief goon Niran (Sahajak Boonthanakit, memorable as the gregarious taxi driver "Kenny Rogers" in the otherwise pedestrian NO ESCAPE) to recover it. Niran has other plans, like blackmailing Jack by having him and Sam rob a bunch of banks that hold various amounts of Sirankiri cash and giving him the bulk of the proceeds behind his boss' back, lest something nasty happen to Avalon.

Boasting a story credit for none other than former actor Tom Sizemore, THE ASIAN CONNECTION suffers from a smirking Lee as a hero you never care about, plus an inept performance by Bubear, who may be a karate champ but she can't act. On top of that, director Daniel Zirilli takes zero advantage of her Kempo skills. The script is predictable from start to finish, with Sam turning into a humorless, trigger happy loose cannon with each successive job, a character arc that was obvious upon the first of many times he admonishes Jack with "Don't call me stupid!" when he does something stupid (which is a lot). And yes, it all ends up with a shootout at an abandoned factory. Seagal is in character actor mode here, not nearly as loose as he was in GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, but definitely not sleepwalking through it, either, perhaps a major sign that he's ready to hand over his long-held Laziest Actor in the World crown to Bruce Willis. Not good at all but hardly the worst VOD/DTV title out there, the biggest problem with THE ASIAN CONNECTION is that you've seen it all before, and most likely with better actors than Lee and Bubear. Some more White really could've helped, even though he looks like he got stung by a bee right before his scene was shot. Wasn't BLACK DYNAMITE supposed to take him to better places than this? (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2016)

The third entry in one of the most unlikely DTV franchises, JARHEAD 3: THE SIEGE has nothing to do with 2014's JARHEAD 2: FIELD OF FIRE and almost nothing to do with Sam Mendes' original 2005 film version of Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoir. Unlike JARHEAD 2, JARHEAD 3 at least brings back one character from JARHEAD with a brief appearance by Major Lincoln, played by Allstate insurance salesman Dennis Haysbert. Lincoln was a minor character in the 2005 film and is even less significant here, usually observing the action from a chopper and shaking his head when something bad happens. Now an action franchise whose main connecting thread is that it involves Marines, JARHEAD 3: THE SIEGE is budget-conscious 13 HOURS, as ambitious Corporal Evan Albright (HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER's Charlie Weber) arrives at the US Embassy in an unnamed-but-obviously-Benghazi-like location, where everyone gets along with the locals and the US Ambassador (Stephen Hogan) has it pretty easy. Albright quickly establishes himself as an impulsive cowboy during a botched training exercise, and he doesn't win himself any friends by reporting a suspicious cameraman lurking outside the compound to the Ambassador, going over the head of his commanding Gunny Raines (top-billed Scott Adkins). Of course, Albright is right: the cameraman is notorious terrorist Khaled (Hadrian Howard), who leads an assault on the Embassy in which Albright and the other Marines get to engage in some Benghazi fan fiction where tragedy is averted and America triumphs, all while referring to the locals as "Ali Baba" and bellowing things like "This is OUR house! Let's show these motherfuckers how we do it!" and "Locked & loaded!" and, of course, "Let's roll!"

It's mostly jingoistic right-wing military porn in the grand tradition of "America! Fuck Yeah!" but veteran DTV director William Kaufman (now going by the hipper "Will Kaufman") pulls off a few decent shootouts amidst the shaky cam and the iPhone app-level explosions. Weber is a pretty bland hero, and the film doesn't give Adkins much to do other than glower and lecture Albright before being killed off in an explosion about an hour into the movie. The characters are largely cliches, like loudmouth racist Stamper (Joe Corrigall), who goes full Hudson-from-ALIENS as soon as the shit hits the fan, but the worst by far is Blake, a grating comedy relief blogger/documentarian played by 41-year-old Dante Basco, who's a good 15-20 years too old for the role. Blake is constantly filming (cue found-footage scenes) and saying inane things like "When the ambassador is burning shit, you know like, heavy shit is going down" (Blake also has a gluten allergy, making him even more insufferable). As far as in-name-only sequels go, JARHEAD 3: THE SIEGE is passably entertaining and never dull, but that still doesn't seem to be reason enough to justify its existence. (R, 89 mins)

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