Thursday, January 31, 2019

Retro Review: DEADLY FORCE (1983)

(US - 1983)

Directed by Paul Aaron. Written by Ken Barnett, Barry Schneider and Robert Vincent O'Neil. Cast: Wings Hauser, Joyce Ingalls, Paul Shenar, Al Ruscio, Arlen Dean Snyder, Lincoln Kilpatrick, Bud Ekins, J. Victor Lopez, Hector Elias, Ramon Franco, Gina Gallego, Paul Benjamin, Big Yank, Estelle Getty, Victoria Vanderkloot, Richard Beauchamp, Ned Eisenberg, Frank Ronzio. (R, 96 mins)

Wings Hauser made such a memorable impression as psycho pimp Ramrod in the grimy 1982 sleeper hit and cable cult favorite VICE SQUAD (he even sang the theme song) that producer Sandy Howard rewarded him with the hero lead in the next year's DEADLY FORCE. Born in 1947, Hauser began his career in the late 1960s with small roles in movies, TV, and on daytime soaps, first gaining notoriety on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS in 1977. He even tried to start a music career, releasing an album on RCA in 1975 titled Your Love Keeps Me Off the Streets, recorded under the name "Wings Livinryte." Though he would occasionally land supporting roles in prestigious projects both award-winning (1984's A SOLDIER'S STORY, 1999's THE INSIDER) and woefully misbegotten (1987's TOUGH GUYS DON'T DANCE), Hauser is best known for his many B-movies in the '80s and '90s, including 1984's MUTANT, 1989's THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA, and 1990's STREET ASYLUM, which paired him with the unlikely G. Gordon Liddy. The now-71-year-old Hauser's output has slowed in recent years (he had guest spots on episodes of CASTLE and RIZZOLI & ISLES in 2016), but his actor son Cole Hauser seems poised to follow in his dad's footsteps in B-movies and on TV, most recently as Kevin Costner's right-hand man in the Paramount Network series YELLOWSTONE). But Wings Hauser was definitely having a moment in the early '80s thanks to his unforgettable performance in VICE SQUAD, and it was enough to make him a reliable presence as plays-by-his-own-rules cops and vicious killers for years to come.

Wings Hauser IS Stoney Cooper!
DEADLY FORCE failed to capitalize on Hauser's VICE SQUAD momentum and was quickly in and out of theaters in the summer of 1983. Like VICE SQUAD, it ended up in constant cable rotation for a few years after but where VICE SQUAD's cult following has endured, DEADLY FORCE more or less fell into relative obscurity, never even getting a DVD release. That's changed now that Shout! Factory has granted it a Blu-ray resurrection, despite the fact that we've all been told time and again that physical media is dead. Hauser is disgraced, alcoholic, ex-L.A. cop Stoney Cooper, who's now scraping by as a NYC street hustler and freelance  strong-arm problem-solver. He's summoned back to L.A. by his fatherly old partner Sam Goodwin (Al Ruscio), whose granddaughter Beverly (Victoria Vanderkloot) was just thrown off the balcony of her high-rise apartment, the latest victim in a wave of killings with no apparent motive or connection. Nobody's happy to see Stoney back in the City of Angels, starting with his old boss Capt. Hoxley (Lincoln Kilpatrick), who warns him "You get involved in this investigation, I'll put you so far away they'll have to air-mail in light!" Also furious about his return is crime boss Ashley Maynard (Arlen Dean Snyder), who just served two years after being busted by Stoney, presumably for passing himself off as a feared criminal despite being named "Ashley Maynard." Most annoyed of all is Stoney's estranged wife Eddie (Joyce Ingalls, who left the business after this aside from a bit part as a nurse in 1998's LETHAL WEAPON 4, with her only other significant role being in 1978's PARADISE ALLEY, during which she and director/star Sylvester Stallone briefly became an item), a TV news reporter who's working the case and doesn't want Stoney meddling.

Of course, since he's a no-rules cop-turned-no-rules ex-cop, Stoney meddles and ruffles feathers everywhere he goes, even forming an unholy alliance with the nefarious Ashley Maynard, who agrees to leave Stoney alone and call his dogs off for two weeks in exchange for half of the reward money when Stoney nabs the killer, a mystery man played by Bud Ekins, who spent a lot of time in the '60s and '70s as Steve McQueen's regular stunt double. The body count rises and both Stoney and Eddie find their lives in danger while rekindling their romance (cue gratuitous Wings man-ass in a sequence where he's shot at while in a bathtub and then with Eddie in a ridiculous sex-in-a-living-room-hammock scene), and the key to the cracking the case may be wealthy and powerful self-help magnate Joshua Adams (Paul Shenar), a mysterious figure whose villainy is obvious the moment one sees he's played by Paul Shenar.

Also featuring a bit part by a pre-GOLDEN GIRLS Estelle Getty as a lead-footed NYC cabbie named "Gussie," DEADLY FORCE was directed by Paul Aaron, perhaps best known for the early Chuck Norris vehicle A FORCE OF ONE and the TV-movie remake of THE MIRACLE WORKER, both from 1979. Among the screenwriters was VICE SQUAD co-writer Robert Vincent O'Neil (THE BALTIMORE BULLET), who really carved a niche for himself during this period with time-capsule snapshots of early '80s L.A. sleaze, following DEADLY FORCE by writing and directing 1984's surprise "high school honor student by day, Hollywood hooker by night" hit ANGEL and its 1985 sequel AVENGING ANGEL. Despite adhering to every genre trope imaginable, DEADLY FORCE failed to establish Wings Hauser as a mainstream, multiplex action star, though he was never out of work thanks to the forthcoming straight-to-video explosion that would keep him busy through the 1990s. Looking at it now, DEADLY FORCE prefigures LETHAL WEAPON in a number of ways, starting with both films opening with a beautiful young woman taking an unwilling dive off of a high balcony. But with his disdain for department policy, his goofy, smart-ass eccentricities (he breaks into Maynard's house, makes small-talk with his senile mother, and eats popcorn and watches porn with Maynard's girlfriend before sarcastically tucking an irate Maynard into bed), his penchant for taking insane risks (there's some impressive stunt work here, with one wild car chase where Hauser and Snyder are, in most shots, right there in the vehicles), and the manic, hair-trigger intensity brought to the table by Hauser, Stoney Cooper is an obvious precursor to Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs. I somehow missed DEADLY FORCE back in the day, but I thoroughly enjoyed discovering it now, so even though the Blu-ray has no extras, props to Shout! Factory for making this forgotten, Cannon-esque gem available once again. It's just a shame that we were deprived of further Stoney Cooper adventures, a gift that would've never stopped giving.

DEADLY FORCE belatedly opening in Toledo, OH on 1/27/1984,
over six months after it began its theatrical rollout.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

In Theaters: SERENITY (2019)

(US/UK - 2019)

Written and directed by Steven Knight. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Diane Lane, Djimon Hounsou, Jeremy Strong, Rafael Sayegh, David Butler, Charlotte Butler, Garion Dowds. (R, 106 mins). 

Steven Knight got an Oscar nomination for scripting 2003's DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, and his many other writing credits include the 2007 David Cronenberg film EASTERN PROMISES. He also earned significant acclaim for 2014's LOCKE, which he also directed. In addition, he's the co-creator of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? and the creator of the Netflix series PEAKY BLINDERS. He's done hired gun writing gigs on commercial fare like 2015's SEVENTH SON, 2016's ALLIED, and 2018's THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB, but SERENITY, his latest auteur effort, is the kind of shit-the-bed clusterfuck that can completely derail an otherwise successful career. Just ask Martin Brest, the director of BEVERLY HILLS COP and MIDNIGHT RUN whose final film to date is GIGLI. Shot in 2017, SERENITY's release date was bumped a couple of times in the fall of 2018 until upstart Aviron Pictures yanked it from the schedule and saved it for January, an almost certain indicator that something was amiss. Trailers made it look like a BODY HEAT-type noir throwback, which unquestionably would've been preferable to the bait-and-switch that Knight haplessly tries to pull off. The end result feels like an homage to the heyday of the erotic thriller borne of a doomed alliance between James M. Cain, Joe Eszterhas, M. Night Shyamalan, Charlie Brooker, and Jack Daniels, populated by an overqualified cast clearly more intrigued by a paid vacation to scenic Mauritius and South Africa than containing whatever the dumpster fire was that Knight cobbled together on the page.

On Plymouth Island, a tiny, off-the-grid fishing island presumably somewhere in the Caribbean, local fisherman Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is obsessed with catching a legendary giant tuna that he's named "Justice." When he isn't on his boat with his long-suffering first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou), he's downing shots at Plymouth's one dive bar and having sweaty afternoon hookups with wealthy divorcee Constance (Diane Lane), who pays him for his services since he's perpetually short on cash. Plymouth is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone's business, and it isn't long before they've all noticed a well-dressed mystery woman who's arrived to meet Baker. She's Karen Zariakis (Anne Hathaway), his high-school sweetheart and ex-wife who knew "Baker Dill" when he went by his real name, John Marsh. She left him when he was serving in Iraq a decade earlier, taking their now-13-year-old son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) with her. She married the shady and obscenely wealthy Frank Zariakis (Jason Clarke), a violent, vulgar lout who regularly beats and forces himself on her and demands she call him "Daddy." Haunted by PTSD and still bitter that gold-digging Karen abandoned him when he needed her most, Baker, who was so desperate to run from something in his past that he fled to an island in the middle of nowhere and adopted an alias, isn't interested in his ex's sob stories and wants no part of her very lucrative offer: $10 million if she takes Frank out on a fishing excursion and throws him into the shark-infested waters. He declines--for a while, at least-- even after she informs him that Franks's abuse is so relentless that Patrick, a savant-like genius, has locked himself in his room and spends all of his waking hours immersed in a computer game.

In any other movie, the notion of Diane Lane playing a woman who has to pay a man to sleep with her would easily be the most absurdly implausible plot detail. Or that McConaughey (born in 1969) and Hathaway (born in 1982) are supposed to be high-school sweethearts. But Knight is just getting started. What's with the weird, eccentric, persistent salesman (Jeremy Strong) who keeps anxiously running around Plymouth looking for Baker, even turning up outside his shack at 2:30 am in a torrential downpour to sell him fishing equipment? How does Baker have a telepathic communication with Patrick ("He hears you through his computer!" Karen tells him)? How does everyone know Frank is a wife-beater before he even gets to Plymouth? Why is everyone's chief reason for being seemingly to remind Baker "You gotta catch that tuna that's in your head?" You could actually make a drinking game out of every time someone says "Catch that tuna!" which actually might've made a better title than SERENITY (it's the name of Baker's boat). Hathaway makes a convincingly breathless, cooing femme fatale, even with the insipid dialogue Knight's written for her ("We're both the same," she purrs as she seduces Baker, "...damaged but in different ways," as if Knight doesn't trust the audience to draw the same conclusion). All of this is merely foreplay for what's almost certain to go down as the dumbest plot twist of 2019 or possibly even the history of narrative cinema. It might've worked if Knight hadn't telegraphed it so clumsily so early on, but anyone paying attention will figure it out long before Baker does, even if you initially dismiss your gut feeling, thinking "There's absolutely no fucking way an Oscar-nominated writer like Steven Knight is gonna pull something that stupid out of his ass." Oh, but he does! With its gaping plot holes, its jaw-dropping resolution guaranteed to leave you somewhere between thoroughly dumbfounded and utterly enraged, its idiotic dialogue, its squandering of Lane in a frivolous supporting role that's far beneath her, and the ludicrous amounts of self-indulgent McConaughey nudity and his third-act, Nic Cage-channeling histrionics, SERENITY is so bad that it almost demands to be seen with a large and increasingly hostile audience collectively losing its patience. I didn't get to experience that, as I had the entire theater to myself for a Monday matinee screening. Apparently, the word's gotten out.

Monday, January 28, 2019

On Netflix: POLAR (2019)

(Germany/US - 2019)

Directed by Jonas Akerlund. Written by Jayson Rothwell. Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Katheryn Winnick, Matt Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss, Johnny Knoxville, Ruby O. Fee, Fei Ren, Anthony Grant, Josh Cruddas, Robert Maillet, Julian Richings, Lovina Yavari, Ayisha Issa, Anastasia Marinina, Pedro Miguel Arce, Ken Hall. (Unrated, 118 mins)

Based on Victor Santos' Dark Horse graphic novel Polar: Came in From the Cold, the Netflix Original POLAR is garish, grotesque, highly-stylized, and absurdly over-the-top, which is pretty much the methodology of veteran music video director and occasional filmmaker Jonas Akerlund. Best known for his work with a variety of artists including Roxette, Madonna, Prodigy (he directed the video for their controversial hit "Smack My Bitch Up"), U2, Maroon 5, Beyonce, the Rolling Stones, Rammstein, Metallica, and Taylor Swift among many others, Akerlund has sporadically dabbled in film going back to 2003's meth addiction black comedy SPUN. POLAR is the first of two movies he has coming out in early 2019--the long-delayed Norwegian black metal saga LORDS OF CHAOS is due out in February but was shot back in 2016. Akerlund's approach to POLAR is to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Some of it does, but it generally feels like an even more cartoonish JOHN WICK fused with elements of PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, and John Waters. It's the kind of film where nearly every scene ends with someone getting their brains blown out. It's the kind of film where a guy gets shot in the balls with a nail gun and then takes a drill to the head. It's the kind of film where the corpulent, cackling villain has a skin condition that requires repeated shots of him being slathered with thick, gooey lotion. It's the kind of film where a farting 500 lb guy is tortured and then shot to pieces, with wet, chunky bits of flesh and fat splattering all over the room and everyone in it, accompanied, for some reason, by the 1983 Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton hit "Islands in the Stream."

When just-retired assassin Michael Green (Johnny Knoxville) is killed by a team of hired guns in Chile, his about-to-retire colleague Duncan Vizla, aka "The Black Kaiser" (Mads Mikkelsen), is assigned by his handler Vivian (Katheryn Winnick) to find and eliminate the culprits. Vizla isn't interested--he's tired of the life and he just wants out. But he works for Damocles, a DC-based black ops outfit run by the nefarious Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas), and they have a rather ruthless clause in their contract: all assassins are forced into retirement at age 50, and if they die--either in the line of duty or by another unfortunate "accident"--and are without a next of kin, their pensions (Vizla has managed to save up $8 million) are reabsorbed by the Damocles Corporation. Mr. Blut drives up his profits by having his retiring assassins whacked, and when Vivian sends Vizla to Belarus to kill the guys who offed Green, he discovers that Green's killers worked for Blut and it's all a set-up to take him out. Of course, he manages to escape and tries to go off the grid in his secret hideaway, a cabin in the middle of nowhere in Montana. But Blut and his crew of killers relentlessly pursue him, eventually finding him and kidnapping the one friend he's made--emotionally troubled, withdrawn neighbor Camille (Vanessa Hudgens)--which inevitably turns Vizla into a one-man wrecking crew of vengeance.

Do any new hires at Damocles read their contract? Blut has these young assassins going after Vizla, but don't they know that if they stick around long enough, they'll be killed when they turn 50? Logic really isn't the priority here, but for a while, POLAR is reasonably entertaining in a trashy way. The gore and nonstop violent mayhem are almost comical in their excess (the scene where Vizla wipes out an entire army of Blut henchman with a pair of laser gloves linked to a pair of hidden machine guns is pretty impressive), and there's some gratuitous nudity and sex (including Mikkelsen ambushed and running around in the buff in a blizzard after an extremely vigorous seduction by a sultry assassin sent to kill him). There's also plenty of oddball humor, like Vizla having a piece of pie with an avuncular doctor (Ken Hall) who just gave him a rectal exam, or Camille talking Vizla into speaking to local schoolkids about his many travels around the world, which leads to him demonstrating ways to sever someone's arteries and asking the kids "Have any of you ever seen a dead body that's been in the sun for three weeks?" and passing a picture around.

But after a while, POLAR takes an ugly turn and stops being mindless fun. Vizla is found and taken in by Blut's goons, who then kidnap Camille and get her hooked on heroin like Gene Hackman in FRENCH CONNECTION II, while Blut spends four days torturing a shackled Vizla, slicing, dicing, snipping off pieces of flesh, gouging out his eye, etc. Mikkelsen is appropriately badass as the situation demands, Winnick has a definite femme fatale flair as the duplicitous Vivian, and Richard Dreyfuss drops by for an amusing cameo as Porter, an aging Damocles retiree who successfully managed to get away and now spends his days disheveled and shitfaced in a Detroit karaoke bar. Hudgens, looking a lot like a young Meg Tilly here, does what she can with a rather thinly-drawn character who, of course, has a dark secret that she's hiding, and Lucas, who previously worked with Akerlund in the barely-released 2013 dud SMALL APARTMENTS, dials it up to 11 as the world's least convincing megalomaniacal black ops mastermind, whether he's haplessly shouting "Guards!" when there aren't any around or standing helplessly as Vizla storms his compound and his security team says peace out and just leaves him on his own. But Akerlund also doesn't know when enough is enough. Watching Lucas squirt lotion and slather it all over himself isn't funny once, let alone ten times, and Akerlund spends entirely too much time with the obnoxious antics of the grating team of assassins sent to kill Vizla. At just under two hours, POLAR is bloated and overlong, and its go-for-broke attitude eventually grows exhausting. Akerlund even has the balls to re-stage the OLDBOY hallway scene, already several years past its sell-by date when REPO MEN did it nearly ten years ago, this time utilizing the editing skills of the dubious Doobie White, last seen hyper-cutting the most recent RESIDENT EVIL outing into headache-inducing incoherence.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Retro Review: HOWLING III (1987)

(Australia - 1987)

Written and directed by Philippe Mora. Cast: Barry Otto, Max Fairchild, Imogen Annesley, Dasha Blahova, Leigh Biolos, Ralph Cotterill, Barry Humphries, Frank Thring, Michael Pate, Jon Ewing, Burnham Burnham, Carole Skinner, Jenny Vuletic, Glenda Linscott, Pieter Van Der Stolk, Andreas Bayonas. (PG-13, 98 mins)

Few horror franchises went as far off the rails and down the shitter as the HOWLING series. One of the three big werewolf movies of 1981 (along with AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and WOLFEN), Joe Dante's classic THE HOWLING, with its marvelous cast of character actors, Rob Bottin's trailblazing transformation effects, and its sly sense of humor, found critical acclaim and has endured as a fan favorite for nearly 40 years, even if it almost completely deviated from Gary Brandner's 1977 source novel. When a sequel finally arrived in the form of 1985's HOWLING II, alternately subtitled YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF in the US and STIRBA: WEREWOLF BITCH overseas, fans of the 1981 film were appalled. It was instantly hailed as one of the worst sequels of all time, despite the presence of horror icon Christopher Lee giving it some much-needed gravitas, B-movie goddess Sybil Danning frequently baring all, and Reb Brown yelling. It remains one of the most astonishingly terrible horror movies of the 1980s, though its awfulness is strangely endearing if you're in the right mood. It's become a cult favorite for a variety of reasons: the numerous werewolf orgies, the werewolf new wave club with an earworm of a song that will remain stuck in your head 30 years later, or a shot of Danning ripping off her top repeated about 20 times in the closing credits. Looked at in retrospect, it's difficult to defend HOWLING II, but with a proper amount of distance, it has its charms. Considering the justifiably toxic response it got in theaters, it's hard to believe its director, Philippe Mora (MAD DOG MORGAN, THE BEAST WITHIN), was brought back for 1987's unrelated sequel HOWLING III, just out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory because physical media is dead.

From the opening shot of a Tasmanian tiger used to spoof the MGM lion logo, it's instantly clear that HOWLING III isn't taking itself very seriously. Anthropologist Dr. Harry Beckmeyer (Barry Otto, the star of BLISS, a 1985 Australian film and Cannes Palme d'Or nominee that became a minor arthouse hit in the US) has been obsessed with uncovering the secret world of werewolves since his grandfather disappeared in 1905 after recording an aboriginal tribe killing a wolf-like creature that walked like a human. Currently teaching in the States, Beckmeyer is summoned to the White House for a meeting with the President (Michael Pate) after the US government gets intel detailing a werewolf sighting in Siberia. Believing this creature may have originated from the region where his grandfather vanished, Beckmeyer returns to his native Australia at the same time Jerboa (Imogen Annesley) leaves her insulated werewolf tribe in the desolate Outback village of Flow (clever!) and makes her way to Sydney ("My stepfather tried to rape me and he's a werewolf," she tells a disbelieving bus passenger). She's discovered sleeping on a park bench by Donny Martin (Leigh Biolos), a production assistant on SHAPESHIFTERS PART 8, a horror film being shot nearby by pretentious, Hitchcockian director Jack Citron (Frank Thring, best known as The Collector in MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME). Citron casts her in the film on the spot and she hooks up with Donny, who doesn't seem too alarmed when he post-coitally discovers she has fur on her belly and a sewn pouch. Jerboa comes from a tribe of human/wolf/marsupial hybrids living in secrecy in the Outback. Her sexually abusive stepfather, pack leader Thylo (Max Fairchild, Benno in MAD MAX), sends her three sisters to track her down and return her to Flow, but she's pregnant with Donny's child, eventually born a marsupial creature and kept in her kangaroo-type pouch. Beckmeyer crosses paths with Russian ballet diva Olga Gorki (Dasha Blahova), who turns into a werewolf during a rehearsal performance he attends with his colleague Prof. Sharp (Ralph Cotterill). Taken into custody, Olga escapes and is psychically drawn to Flow to mate with Thylos. Beckmeyer and Sharp travel to Flow, meet up with Jerboa, Donny, their baby, and shapeshifting aboriginal tracker Kendi (Burnham Burnham in the requisite David Gulpilil role), and soon come to sympathize with Thylo's pack, who just want to be left alone (with Beckmeyer even improbably falling in love with Olga), but government agents and hired hunters are in pursuit, determined to wipe them out.

Tonally, HOWLING III is all over place. It's never quite sure whether it wants to be a horror movie, a satire, or a straight-up comedy. The transformation scenes aren't exactly on par with the work in Dante's film or even HOWLING II, but the marsupial angle is at least an original and unpredictable approach. It plays slightly better now than it did then, when the few people who saw this in a theater might've gone in expecting the franchise to get back on track only to be bitterly disappointed once more, especially when Donny takes Jerboa to a movie called IT CAME FROM URANUS. The character motivations and behaviors don't make much sense, starting with Donny and Beckmeyer's apparent nonchalance about getting it on with werewolves or Thylo suddenly being a sympathetic figure. And the digs at the movie industry seem to come out of nowhere, whether it's Thring's hammy performance as Citron, Donny eventually going by the name "Sully Spellinberg," or beloved Australian comedian Barry Humphries turning up in full Dame Edna garb to host a climactic movie awards ceremony where Jerboa is the front-runner.

Like HOWLING II, enough time has passed that it's easier to accept HOWLING III on its own terms and try to forget it's a "sequel." It's got a great cast of veteran Australian character actors, there's a few legitimately funny moments, and the 1905 footage of the natives killing the werewolf has an undeniably creepy vibe to it. HOWLING III has found a minor cult following over the years and it would have some historical value today had Jerboa been played by 20-year-old Nicole Kidman, who auditioned but lost the role to Annesley. The last HOWLING film to get a theatrical release and the last to be helmed by Mora (his next film was the 1989 Christopher Walken alien abduction chiller COMMUNION), HOWLING III was followed in 1988 by John Hough's dull, South Africa-shot HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE, a reboot of sorts that was a more faithful adaptation of Brandner's original novel. 1989 saw the release of HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH, an Agatha Christie-like scenario filmed in Budapest and notable mainly for its lack of werewolves and the presence of frequent Mike Leigh star Philip Davis. 1991's HOWLING VI: THE FREAKS is probably the most well-received of the largely unconnected sequels, and unlike HOWLING III, is a somewhat faithful adaptation Brandner's novel The Howling III, if that makes sense. 1995's HOWLING: NEW MOON RISING is universally regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, effectively killing the franchise until 2011's ill-advised, one-and-done DTV reboot THE HOWLING REBORN.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: AMERICAN RENEGADES (2018) and ASHER (2018)

(France/Germany/Belgium - 2017; US release 2018)

Remember the Luc Besson-produced Navy SEALs actioner RENEGADES that was supposed to hit theaters in the summer of 2016? Distributor STX kept bouncing its release date around (a local Cinemark multiplex near me had a RENEGADES poster in a Coming Soon display for most of 2016) and by late 2017, removed it from the schedule completely. While it played everywhere else in the world in 2017, it didn't open in the US until the last week of 2018, unceremoniously dumped in a handful of theaters and on VOD by the financially-strapped EuropaCorp and sporting the nostalgically jingoistic, Cannon-esque retitling AMERICAN RENEGADES. That's probably not quite what everyone involved in this $75 million production had in mind, but looking at it now, it's not difficult to see why it panned out that way. AMERICAN RENEGADES is lugubrious, dead-on-arrival dud that must rank among the dullest men-on-a-mission military actioners you'll ever see. In a prologue set in 1944 Nazi-occupied France, German officers confiscate priceless art and 2000 bars of gold and move them to a secret vault in a bank in the small Yugoslav town of Grahovo. Local partisans exact revenge on the Nazis by blowing up a dam and destroying the village. 50 years later (1994 period detail is largely limited to a fight scene set to Ini Kamoze's "Here Comes the Hotstepper"), an elite team of Navy SEALs led by Matt Barnes (STRIKE BACK's Sullivan Stapleton) and Stanton Baker (Charlie Bewley) extract war criminal Gen. Milic (Peter Davor) from his Sarajevo stronghold and turn him over to their commander, Adm. Levin (J.K. Simmons, cast radically against type as "J.K. Simmons"). Meanwhile, Baker is romantically involved with local bar server Lara (Sylvia Hoeks), who informs him that her grandfather was one of the Yugoslav partisans who blew up the dam and that the 2000 gold bars are safely nestled in the ruins of the bank, now 150 feet down in an area lake. She offers Baker and the rest of the team a deal: the gold is currently valued at $300 million, half of which is theirs if they can use their SEAL skills to retrieve it, with her ultimate goal to give $150 million to the displaced and the suffering in war-torn Bosnia. They go along with the plan, but only have 36 hours to pull it off since Adm. Levin has decided to ship them back home, as pro-Milic insurgents have put a price on all their heads.

There have been countless "men-on-a-mission" movies going back to the 1960s. How does this KELLY'S HEROES premise not work? Well, if you're co-writers Besson and Richard Wenk (THE EXPENDABLES 2, THE EQUALIZER), you come up with tired one-liners that clang to the ground and if you're director Steven Quale (FINAL DESTINATION 5, INTO THE STORM), you handle the action scenes as lifelessly as possible, with half the movie taking place underwater where it's impossible to tell what's going on. It also doesn't help that, with the exception of Bewley because his character is involved with Hoeks' Lara, there's almost nothing to differentiate any of the square-jawed SEALs on the team. Top-billed Stapleton registers zero (remember how he was the star of the 300 prequel and had it stolen right out from under him by Eva Green?) and the climax only comes to life once they're above water and have their asses saved by a hot-dogging chopper pilot improbably played by Ewen "Spud from TRAINSPOTTING" Bremner. Simmons had just won his WHIPLASH Oscar when this began filming in the spring of 2015, and he's clearly bringing some of that demeanor to this, as his bloviating admiral provides an R. Lee Ermey-esque spark when he's chewing out the SEALs. AMERICAN RENEGADES looks like a pretty expensive, large scale action movie, but the script needed some punching up, the actions sequences need more energy, and the cast needed to be populated by more engaging actors than Sullivan Stapleton and Charlie Bewley. (PG-13, 105 mins)

(US - 2018)

A longtime pet project for producer/star Ron Perlman, ASHER is the kind of indie that probably would've gotten some film festival accolades and ended up being a modest sleeper hit 15 years ago, but in 2018, it's inevitably relegated to the VOD scrap heap. It's really no great shakes, and fans of the '80s TV series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST already know that Perlman can play someone with a soft side, but ASHER is really just a harmless, low-key character piece that's a nice showcase for the more introspective side of a veteran actor who's spent most of his career under a ton of makeup or playing ruthless bad guys. Perlman is Asher, a disciplined, loner hit man for Brooklyn-based Jewish crime boss Avi (a kvetching Richard Dreyfuss). Spending most of his time in solitude listening to old records, cooking, and enjoying fine wine when he isn't on jobs assigned to him by his dry-cleaning handler Abram (Ned Eisenberg), Asher feels the years catching up with him, especially since Avi's only been using him sparingly and giving all the prime jobs to his younger ex-protege Uziel (Peter Facinelli). Bullet fragments remaining in his back from years earlier have affected his blood and weakened his heart, and when an out-of-order elevator forces him to walk six floors up for a hit, he's sweating profusely and so winded that chest pains cause him to collapse in the doorway of the target's neighbor, Sophie (Famke Janssen). Sensing his own mortality and wanting more to his life than killing people, Asher takes tentative steps toward romancing Sophie, a ballet teacher who's preoccupied with taking care of her dementia-stricken mother (Jacqueline Bisset). It isn't long before Asher finds both his and Sophie's lives are in danger when Avi gets word of an attempted coup by his own men, something Asher knows nothing about but is lumped in with the guilty when Avi decides to bring in a new crew to clean house and wipe out his old one.

Watching ASHER, I couldn't help but be reminded of the Ben Kingsley/Tea Leoni-starring YOU KILL ME, another generally light-hearted hit man comedy from a decade or so ago. It's all very familiar, but in the hands of a journeyman pro like Michael Caton-Jones (MEMPHIS BELLE, THIS BOY'S LIFE, ROB ROY, THE JACKAL, and uh, BASIC INSTINCT 2), ASHER is happily content to be what it is. Perlman is excellent as the tried-and-true "hitman with a heart of gold" who's so old school that he still presses his clothes and shines his shoes before heading out on a hit. He feels like a relic surrounded by increasingly younger colleagues, including loud and arrogant new guy Lyor (Guy Burnet), who's introduced mouthing off to Asher and mocking his heart problem, to which Asher replies "Is this your first job? You'll probably be the one who fucks everything up." Jay Zaretsky's script indulges in some humor that ranges from dark to quirky, whether it's Sophie, who has no idea what Asher does for a living, telling him that her mother wants to die and jokingly suggesting that he kill her, or the amusing sight of Dreyfuss' Avi dishing up steaming bowls of matzah ball soup for his goons. Other than one truly awful CGI explosion that looks like stock footage from a 25-year-old Bulgarian action movie, ASHER is an enjoyable and often sweet look at a lifelong old soul looking for something more in his twilight years. It isn't anything deep and meaningful, but the two stars are very appealing together, and it's a must-see if you're a Ron Perlman fan. (R, 104 mins)

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

On Netflix: CLOSE (2019)

(UK/Ireland - 2019)

Directed by Vicky Jewson. Written by Vicky Jewson and Rupert Whitaker. Cast: Noomi Rapace, Sophie Nelisse, Indira Varma, Eoin Macken, Abdesslam Bouhssini, George Georgiu, Christopher Sciuref, Akin Gazi, Kevin Shen, Sargon Yelda, Huw Parmenter. (Unrated, 94 mins)

To fans of foreign cinema, Noomi Rapace will forever be known as the original Lisbeth Salander in the Scandinavian adaptation of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and its two sequels. The films were big enough arthouse hits in the US that Rapace moved on to Hollywood, co-starring in SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS and headlining Ridley Scott's PROMETHEUS, but she never quite made it on the A-list with smaller films like DEAD MAN DOWN, Brian De Palma's PASSION, and THE DROP. Unless you follow Netflix Original or straight-to-VOD genre offerings, Rapace has likely fallen off the radar a bit with mainstream moviegoers. But since 2017, she's been very quietly establishing herself as a go-to star of action and/or sci-fi fare with 2017's not-bad terrorism thriller UNLOCKED and turning in seven convincing performances as septuplets in Netflix's solid future dystopia saga WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY (plus there was RUPTURE, which wasn't very good, but she's great in it, and she emerged unscathed from Netflix's dismal Will Smith dud BRIGHT). Rapace is back in another Netflix Original film with the British pickup CLOSE, and while it doesn't exactly break new ground, it's further evidence that she's deserving of her own BOURNE-style action franchise.

After barely surviving a skirmish with insurgents where she's assigned to protect two members of the media in a Middle East war zone, freelance counter-terrorism expert and bodyguard Sam Carlson (Rapace) is in no hurry to accept another gig. But she's pressed into service to protect Zoe Tanner (Sophie Nelisse of THE BOOK THIEF), a spoiled teenage party girl whose billionaire father has just died and left her the majority of the shares of his Morocco-based mining company. Troubled by her mother's suicide when she was ten and with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, Zoe doesn't get along with her stepmother Rima (Indira Varma), who plans to contest her late husband's will. She sends Zoe from their British castle to the family compound in the outskirts of Casablanca, in the process getting rid of her friends-with-benefits male bodyguard and insisting her security detail "find one she can't fuck." This leads to Sam, and while neither of them are happy about the arrangement, Sam does the job she's paid to do. Once they're in Morocco, a team of hired killers raid the compound, taking out the entire security team and sending Sam and Zoe on the run.

Directed and co-written by Vicky Jewson, CLOSE doesn't exactly bring anything new to the table in terms of story or style, but it's nice to see a tough, ass-kicking action movie made by and starring women. It's essentially a rehash of THE TRANSPORTER and THE EQUALIZER revamped for Rapace, who just terrific as a stoical woman of few words who's as lethal as any Damon, Statham, or Diesel. Of course, Sam and Zoe are like oil and water from the start but inevitably bond, but the attempt to show Sam's maternal side could've been conveyed without shoehorning in a hackneyed subplot about a daughter she gave up for adoption years ago, though I suppose every lone wolf action hero has to have some tragedy or secret in their past that still haunts them. Nelisse does a good job making a real character out of someone who could've been a one-dimensional caricature, but the gravity of the situation hits Zoe in a credible fashion and she quickly learns to cut the shit and grow up. The finale seems a little too rushed and contrived, like they wanted to avoid making the culprit obvious, but it was a twist that was unnecessary and doesn't seem entirely credible given the character's demeanor up to that point. But on the whole, CLOSE is definitely worth checking out. It's relentlessly-paced and compelling from start to finish, with good chemistry between the leads and a furious, intense performance from Rapace.

Monday, January 21, 2019

In Theaters: GLASS (2019)

(US - 2019)

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Luke Kirby, Adam David Thompson, M. Night Shyamalan, Serge Didenko, Russell Posner, Leslie Stefanson. (PG-13, 129 mins)

After a decade spent as a critical punching bag and all-around industry pariah, M.Night Shyamalan mounted an unexpected comeback with 2015's THE VISIT and 2017's SPLIT, a pair of surprise hits for low-budget horror factory Blumhouse. SPLIT focused on Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a disturbed young man with 23 personalities he collectively calls "The Horde," working to both protect Kevin and contain a 24th, known as "The Beast." Kevin abducts three teenage girls from a mall parking lot and by the end of the film, the monstrous Beast emerges, with a Hulk-like animal rage and a supernatural ability to climb walls. McAvoy's performance was an astonishing tour-de-force and should've been up for some awards, and his work did much of the heavy lifting when it came to making SPLIT Shyamalan's best film in years. A closing credits stinger showing an uncredited Bruce Willis threw everyone for a loop, establishing SPLIT as a secret sequel to Shyamalan's 2000 film UNBREAKABLE, the director's much-ballyhooed follow-up to his blockbuster THE SIXTH SENSE. Considered somewhat of a disappointment at the time, UNBREAKABLE was ultimately a superhero origin story and comic book deconstruction that was made at a time when comic book superhero movies weren't really a thing. The film quickly found loyal cult following and a critical reassessment over the years, and is now regarded by many as every bit as essential the Shyamalan canon as THE SIXTH SENSE.

A lot's changed in 19 years. Comic book and superhero movies rule the multiplex and it seems a new one is opening every other week, with no apparent signs of audience fatigue, so much so that even the ones people hate become blockbusters. The only superhero hit at the time of UNBREAKABLE was Bryan Singer's first X-MEN, and where Shyamalan was once ahead of the curve, he's now playing not so much catch-up, but this sort of analytical, deconstructive take runs the risk of seeming like didactic lecturing to a moviegoing public that, at this point, is pretty knowledgeably savvy when it comes to the medium. It doesn't help that the brief shot of Willis at the end of SPLIT seemed like something added after the fact, and even now, fusing the worlds of UNBREAKABLE and SPLIT into GLASS often feels like Shyamalan is forcibly retconning a superhero trilogy for himself. Set several weeks after the events of SPLIT and 19 years after UNBREAKABLE, GLASS opens with Crumb and his constantly shifting roster of personalities holding another four teenage girls captive in an abandoned Philadelphia factory. Meanwhile, security equipment store owner David Dunn (Willis), the sole survivor of a catastrophic train derailment and a man who's been impervious to injury and prone to superhuman feats of strength, is still moonlighting as a hooded rain poncho-sporting vigilante now referred to by the media as "The Overseer." Gifted with an ESP-like ability to come into physical contact with someone and "see" their criminal past, Dunn, aided by his adult son Joseph (the now-grown Spencer Treat Clark, who played the same role as a kid), goes on frequent walks through the surrounding Philly neighborhoods to seek out wrongdoers, and when Crumb stumbles into him, he "sees" the kidnapped girls. As "The Overseer," Dunn rescues the girls and battles Crumb in his "Beast" form, but when the fight goes outside the warehouse, the cops are already waiting.

Both men are hauled off to a mental institution where they're evaluated by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in cases of superhero-inspired "delusions of grandeur." She tries to convince them that their abilities aren't real and can be explained away, and brings them together with catatonic patient Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the brittle-boned man who caused the train derailment in UNBREAKABLE and introduced Dunn to his long-suppressed abilities. Price, an aspiring criminal mastermind and comic book villain come to life who calls himself "Mr. Glass," has been confined to the mental hospital for 19 years, faking his vegetative state to wait for the perfect storm. He conspires with Kevin and "The Horde" to plot an escape from the mental hospital and cause a chemical explosion at the opening of the Osaka Tower, a new skyscraper in downtown Philly.

Much of GLASS deals with subverting expectations, which is very much in line with Shyamalan's recurring twist endings. GLASS offers several unexpected turns in the third act, but even under the auspices of a live-action comic book, it too often strains credulity in both its plot developments and the ways it continues to retrofit itself into the events of UNBREAKABLE. The film works better in its first half, particularly with McAvoy's once-again outstanding work as "The Horde" and in the warm relationship between Dunn and his loyal son (bringing Clark back to play Joseph is one of the best decisions Shyamalan makes here). But once "Mr. Glass" starts putting his master plan into motion, things start collapsing. What kind of mental hospital is this? It's made clear that Dr. Staple is visiting and only has three days to evaluate them, but where is the head doctor? Where are the other patients? There appears to be one orderly on duty at any given time, but there's tons of security guards who let Kevin--wearing a nurse's uniform--just wheel Price right out of the ward. Dr. Staple's behavior is inconsistent, even after her motives are revealed--first she's against Kevin's one surviving victim Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, returning from SPLIT) meet with him, but then says she can't help him without her. Shyamalan doesn't seem to know what to do with Taylor-Joy, Clark, or Charlayne Woodard as Elijah's mother, and the big superhero/villain battle outside the mental hospital is an often awkwardly-shot letdown that allows Willis to pull some of his Lionsgate VOD antics and sit out most of the showdown while his double hides under his poncho's hoodie, complete with some Willis dialogue obviously dubbed in post. When all is revealed and the pieces of the puzzle in place after a laborious epilogue, GLASS just never quite jells into a cohesive whole. It's an interesting idea in search of a point. It's well-made, McAvoy is marvelous (introducing even more of the 23 personalities we didn't get to meet the first time around), and in their scenes together, Clark's presence seems to engage Willis enough to remind him of a bygone era when he gave a shit, but in the end, this doesn't live up to either UNBREAKABLE or SPLIT and doesn't fully succeed in making its case that this should've been a trilogy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: SPEED KILLS (2018) and THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE (2019)

(US/UK - 2018)

Remember last summer when everyone had a good laugh over how terrible GOTTI was? Who knew that it was just John Travolta's warm-up act for SPEED KILLS?  Well, congratulations, BATTLEFIELD EARTH, because you're no longer Travolta's worst movie. Another true crime saga that might as well be comprised of GOTTI outtakes, SPEED KILLS stars the two-time Oscar-nominee and former actor--also one of 42 credited producers and wearing what appears to be his GOTTI rug after it was left out in the rain and he tried to dry it in the microwave--as Ben Aronoff, a thinly-veiled and likely legally-mandated rechristening of Don Aronow, a champion speedboat racer and the head of powerboat manufacturer Cigarette Racing, who was killed in a Miami mob hit in 1987. The film then flashes back to his beginnings in 1962, after he made fortune as a New Jersey construction magnate and moved to Florida to pursue an interest in speedboat racing, quickly falling into a "business arrangement" with famed mobster Meyer Lansky (James Remar). His racing and his business soon take precedence over his family, much to the chagrin of his devoted wife Kathy (Jennifer Esposito) and their eldest son (Charlie Gillespie), who winds up paralyzed in a boating accident trying to emulate his superstar father. This dramatic turn is conveyed in narration from beyond the grave by Aronoff, who says "While I was winning championships, I was losing something far more important." He gets over that pretty quickly and is soon hooked up with Emily (Katheryn Winnick), the girlfriend of Jordan's King Hussein (Prashant Shah), who's one of Aronoff's clients. Through the years--it's often difficult to tell because the period detail is atrocious and no one looks any different from 1962 to 1987--Aronoff's speedboats are the transport of choice for South American drug smugglers, who come to him to buy in bulk as he willingly provides false registrations. This catches the attention of FBI Agent Lopez (Amaury Nolasco), who sports the same shaved head and perfectly manscaped stubble in scenes set from the late 1960s to 1987. Tied to Lansky's outfit even after the aging gangster's death, Aronoff tries to make some side deals, including massive government contracts manufacturing boats for both the DEA and the Coast Guard, which comes about after he sells a Blue Thunder speedboat to Vice President George H.W. Bush (Matthew Modine). This doesn't sit will with Jules Bergman (Jordi Molla), the Lansky organization's man in Miami, or with Robbie Reemer (an embarrassingly bad Kellan Lutz), Lansky's hotheaded nephew who wants his cut of Aronoff's action.

Like GOTTI, SPEED KILLS is a collection of scenes in search of a coherent story. It's no wonder director John Luessenhop (TEXAS CHAINSAW) took his name off the finished film, with credit going to apparent Alan Smithee protegee "Jodi Scurfield." It's hard telling how this gets from one point to another, even as you're watching it. Aronoff expresses an interest in speedboat racing, and the next thing you know, he's a speedboat legend with deep mob ties and a completely new family. Esposito just disappears from the film, as does another Aronoff girlfriend (Moran Atias), when he sees Emily, sleeps with her, then in the very next scene, they've got a toddler son whose name we never even hear. There's no dramatic tension, no logical timeline of events, and no reason at all to care. It's like Travolta saw Tom Cruise in AMERICAN MADE and decided to make his own home movie version of it. It's unacceptably sloppy, from the rudimentary, Playstation 1-level CGI during a boat race in a massive storm to a close-up of a subpoena with a misspelled "SUBPEONA" on it. A film so ineptly-made and irredeemably awful that you'll feel sorry for Tom Sizemore being in it, SPEED KILLS is Travolta hitting absolute bottom. When the camera focuses on Aronoff dying after being shot multiple times in his car (of course, there's a close-up of his watch stopping as he takes his last breath, for maximum hackneyed dramatic effect), Travolta's strangely cryptic narration intones "I was on top of the world!" So, who exactly are we talking about here? (R, 102 mins)

The makers of SPEED KILLS don't give a shit. Why should you? 

(US - 2019)

It was demanded by no one, but 42 years after the 1977 demonic car-from-Hell cult classic THE CAR, Universal decided to bestow upon us a DTV sequel from DEATH RACE 2050 director G.J. Echternkamp, who's not exactly shaping up to be the next Roel Reine. It's really a reboot at best, and actually feels more like a ripoff of the 1986 sci-fi thriller THE WRAITH. Shot on barely-dressed sets that make it look like BLADE RUNNER on a Bulgarian backlot, the dreary THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE is set in a dystopian future where James Caddock (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA's Jamie Bamber), an ambitious, unscrupulous district attorney, is going all out to ensure the conviction and execution of the city's criminal element. He's got a data chip containing a ton of incriminating evidence against Talen (Martin Hancock), a megalomaniacal scientist and crime lord who's created an army of genetically-enhanced street punks who look like they wandered in from a Thunderdome cosplay convention. Talen's goons break into Caddock's office, torture him, and toss him out of his office window, sending him crashing through the roof of his high-tech sports car. This causes a melding of sorts, Caddock's spirit fusing with the car to become an instrument of driverless revenge. Meanwhile, hard-nosed cop Reiner (DEFIANCE's Grant Bowler) tracks down Caddock's ex-girlfriend Daria (Kathleen Munroe), who was seen with him the night he was murdered and is now being pursued by Talen, the assumption being that he stashed the data chip with her.

What does any of this have to do with THE CAR? Jack shit, that's what. Universal's press release sees fit to mention Ronny Cox "returning as The Mechanic," but considering he played not a mechanic but sheriff James Brolin's deputy in the 1977 film, it begs the question, "Has anyone in Universal's 1440 DTV division even seen THE CAR?" Cox turns up about 65 minutes in and exits five minutes later as a junkyard owner who finds Caddock's damaged car and switches its parts with an old relic that's identical to the customized 1971 Lincoln Continental used in the original, after which it repays the favor by running him over and killing him. Cox is never shown with any other cast members and it's doubtful they flew him all the way to Bulgaria for a two-scene cameo that looks exactly like something hastily-added in post to get someone from the original film onboard after James Brolin repeatedly let their calls to go voice mail. Filled with janky CGI, over-the-top gore, badly-dubbed Bulgarian bit players, and a bunch of shitty, dated nu-metal on the soundtrack (including a 2012 song by ex-Queensryche guitarist Kelly Gray and Queensryche drummer Scott Rockenfield sporting the prophetic title "No Redemption"), THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE is one of the most cynical scams perpetrated by a major studio in a quite a while. It's a sequel in name only, a reboot in the vaguest sense, and entertaining in no conceivable way. (Unrated, 89 mins)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

On Netflix: THE LAST LAUGH (2019)

(US - 2019)

Written and directed by Greg Pritikin. Cast: Chevy Chase, Richard Dreyfuss, Andie MacDowell, Kate Micucci, Chris Parnell, George Wallace, Lewis Black, Richard Kind, Ron Clark, Carol Sutton, Chris Fleming, Allan Harvey, Kit Willesee. (Unrated, 98 mins)

In the prime of their careers, a comedy starring Chevy Chase and Richard Dreyfuss would've been a major cinematic event. But in 2019, it's THE LAST LAUGH, a Netflix Original film that they seemed to have covertly stashed away on their site in their version of a January dump-job, calling as little attention to it as possible. Both actors have checkered histories of mercurial behavior and bridge-burning, with Chase the guest of honor at a brutal 2002 roast that was actually uncomfortable to watch, with almost none of his friends or former colleagues even caring enough to show up, the end result so unpleasant and mean-spirited --even by roast standards--that Comedy Central announced they'd never re-air it. Almost none of his SNL and COMMUNITY co-stars have anything good to say about him, and while he turns up in occasional cameos (most recently as Burt Reynolds' best friend in THE LAST MOVIE STAR), he hasn't headlined a film since FUNNY MONEY, a German-made comedy that went straight-to-DVD in 2007. Oscar-winner Dreyfuss certainly had his moments, clashing with Robert Shaw on the set of JAWS and most infamously with Bill Murray on WHAT ABOUT BOB? but he seems to have mellowed with age, keeping busy in projects of varying quality in film and TV, with his last really high-profile big-screen role being Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone's W back in 2008.

Written and directed by Greg Pritikin (one of the writers of the abysmal sketch comedy bomb MOVIE 43), and co-produced by arthouse horror filmmaker Osgood Perkins (THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER), of all people, THE LAST LAUGH has Chase and Dreyfuss hitting the age where they're apparently required to contribute to the "Geezers Behaving Badly" genre, and the only surprise is that Morgan Freeman isn't in it. Chase is Al Hart, a retired Hollywood talent agent--if the opening scene is to be believed, he once managed the likes of Buddy Hackett, Carol Channing, and Phyllis Diller--with nothing but time on his hands, listening to old jazz records and falling asleep to late-night reruns of THE LAWRENCE WELK SHOW. His wife recently died, and his granddaughter Jeannie (Kate Micucci) is concerned about him living alone after a couple of minor falls. He agrees to visit the Palm Sunshine retirement community, where he runs into wildman resident Buddy Green (Richard Dreyfuss). The community cut-up and elderly stoner, Buddy was also Al's first client over 50 years ago, when he abruptly quit comedy to focus on his family and become a podiatrist. A widower enjoying the friends-with-benefits arrangement he has with his "horny" lady friend Gayle (Carol Sutton), Buddy loves Palm Sunshine, but Al isn't ready for retirement. All he knows is work, and he wants to give Buddy the shot he never took all those decades ago, convincing him to polish his one liners and hit the comedy club circuit from L.A. to NYC, promising him a shot on Jimmy Fallon once they generate some word-of-mouth momentum.

So begins the usual road trip, one that commences with Al trying to start his car but turning on the windshield wipers instead because...he's old, I guess? THE LAST LAUGH always goes for the easiest, cheapest laughs, like a detour to a Tijuana where they wind up in jail where hard-partying Buddy has a bout of Montezuma's Revenge, forcing Richard Dreyfuss to be shown shitting himself in a crowded jail cell. In Texas, Al meets hippie poet Doris (Andie MacDowell), who still lives the Woodstock lifestyle and introduces him to weed and shrooms, where just the sight of Chase, channeling Clark Griswold at his most befuddled, making goofy faces while hitting a bong before the shrooms lead to a trippy--and endless--musical number is apparently supposed to be hilarious. I get it--it's a simple, feelgood comedy for elderly audiences, but it constantly aims for the gutter, where, as per the Burgess Meredith Amendment set forth in GRUMPY OLD MEN, the humor is seeing old people being vulgar, whether it's copious F-bombs or other anatomical or bodily function references (cue Buddy telling a dick joke where the punchline involves "coming dust").

And like a lot of comedies of this sort, the filmmakers really overshoot the "age" aspect of it. Chase is 75 years old and playing a generally healthy character of seemingly sound mind. Why then, is he asked to portray Al as an old fuddy-duddy who suddenly can't figure out how to start his car and pines for the good old days of Lawrence Welk? They make a point of him never smoking pot back in the day, but would this guy have been listening to Lawrence Welk in the 1970s when he was in his 30s?  Considering the people Al supposedly managed, these characters should be played by guys in their 90s, like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Dreyfuss is 71 and playing 80, and he seems more hip and with-it than Al, making Chase the straight man while Dreyfuss hams it up. Dreyfuss seems to be having a good time doing it, at least until the requisite Serious Revelation and the arrival of Buddy's uptight son (Chris Parnell) in the third act completely throws things off course. Buddy's routine really isn't even all that funny (though the audience is always seen doubled over in hysterics), but some genuinely hilarious guys show up in supporting bits--Lewis Black as one of Al's bitter former clients, Richard Kind as a big-time Chicago comic, and George Wallace as Johnny Sunshine, a Palm Sunshine resident who takes it upon himself to function as the town crier, beginning every morning being rolled around in his wheelchair to announce who fell or died the night before. Wallace's character is a good indication of where THE LAST LAUGH could've gone. It could've approached this premise with a mix of dark humor and honest emotion, but instead takes the easy way, with Chase tripping balls and Dreyfuss shitting his pants. I don't care how big of assholes these guys were in their heyday. They deserve something better and more substantive in their emeritus years than THE LAST LAUGH.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Retro Review: NEMESIS (1993) and ANGEL TOWN (1990)

(US - 1993)

Directed by Albert Pyun. Written by Rebecca Charles (Albert Pyun). Cast: Olivier Gruner, Tim Thomerson, Deborah Shelton, Brion James, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Merle Kennedy, Yuji Okumoto, Marjorie Monaghan, Nicholas Guest, Vince Klyn, Thom Mathews, Marjean Holden, Tom Janes (Thomas Jane), Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Gatti, Borovnisa Blervaque, Mabel Falls, Branscombe Richmond. (R, 96 mins)

In the late '80s, Imperial Entertainment was primarily known for acquiring Italian (DEMONS 2, THUNDER WARRIOR 3, SPECTERS) and low-budget American genre fare (BLACK ROSES, THE DEAD PIT). Run by brothers Sundip R. Shah, Sunil R. Shah, and Ash R. Shah, Imperial eventually expanded to film production with the 1988 Sho Kosugi actioner BLACK EAGLE, which co-starred Belgian full-contact karate champ Jean-Claude Van Damme. Van Damme, who played the bad guy in the 1986 camp classic NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER, already had BLOODSPORT in the can when he shot BLACK EAGLE, but they were ultimately released two weeks apart, with BLOODSPORT coming first and becoming an unexpected hit. Though he only had a supporting role in BLACK EAGLE, Van Damme's presence was hyped and it served as a symbolic passing of the torch of action B-listers from ninja icon Kosugi to kickboxing poster boy Van Damme. Van Damme was already committed to Imperial's WRONG BET, which was ultimately retitled LIONHEART when it was picked up by Universal in early 1991 after Van Damme scored three more B-movie hits with CYBORG, KICKBOXER, and DEATH WARRANT. And with that, the "Muscles from Brussels" moved on to the big leagues and was out of Imperial's price range, though they still had another project intended for him. Enter Olivier Gruner, a French kickboxing champion with a passing resemblance to Van Damme and little else. Imperial plugged Gruner into Van Damme's starring role in 1990's ANGEL TOWN (more on that below) and in 1993, Gruner teamed with Van Damme's CYBORG director Albert Pyun for NEMESIS, which would ultimately be the star's first and last great film.

Pyun's best days came early, directing 1982's surprise hit THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER but never really capitalizing on it. He ended up doing several films for Cannon in the latter half of the '80s (DANGEROUSLY CLOSE, DOWN TWISTED, ALIEN FROM L.A.), which led to CYBORG and, post-Cannon, the troubled CAPTAIN AMERICA for Menaham Golan's doomed 21st Century. Pyun's career after NEMESIS and into the 2000s was incredibly prolific but largely inept (best represented by his trio of Bratislava-shot rapsploitation outings affectionately referred to as his epic "Gangstas Wandering Around An Abandoned Warehouse" trilogy by film critic Nathan Rabin). In recent years, he's been slowed down by multiple sclerosis but maintains a strong presence online while trying to get his latest dream project--a self-referential Pyuniverse tribute titled CYBORG NEMESIS--off the ground. NEMESIS was an idea Pyun had been working on since his Cannon days, though with a teenage girl as the hero. He already had Megan Ward in mind to star, having worked with her on the Full Moon sci-fi film ARCADE (shot before NEMESIS but released after). With Cannon on life support and 21st Century faring even worse, he took the idea to the Shah brothers at Imperial. They liked the script but had one demand: lose the teenage girl and retool the character for Olivier Gruner, and in exchange, you'll be left alone to make the movie you want to make.

In a perfect world, NEMESIS would've catapulted Gruner and Pyun into the big leagues, but it wasn't meant to be. With the possible exception of THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, it's arguably Pyun's best film. NEMESIS opens in the future Los Angeles of 2027, with cybernetically-enhanced cop--he's still "86.5% human--Alex Rain (Gruner) in a brilliantly-choreographed shootout with freedom fighters from a rebel faction known as the Red Army Hammerheads. Severely injured, Rain undergoes repairs and an upgrade and goes off the grid in New Baja for nearly a year. That's where he tracks down and kills prominent Hammerheads figure Rosaria (Jennifer Gatti), before he's found and reactivated by his old boss Farnsworth (Tim Thomerson) and his two flunkies Maritz (Brion James) and Germaine (Nicholas Guest). The assignment: retrieve stolen, top-secret national security intel needed for a US-Japan summit that's scheduled in three days. The culprit: Jared (Marjorie Monaghan), an android and Rain's former lover, who plans to sell it to current Hammerheads leader Angie-Liv (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who's based on the Pacific Rim island of Shang-Lu. In true ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK fashion, Rain has until the summit to find Jared and the intel or a bomb implanted in his heart will explode. In addition a surveillance unit implanted in his eyeball will monitor his activities and ensure he doesn't go rogue.

There's more, including a duplicitous android named Sam (Marjean Holden); Rain forming an unholy alliance with Rosaria's vengeful sister Max Impact (Merle Kennedy); and Julian (Deborah Shelton), a cyborg associate of Jared, whose intentions are not what Rain has been told. Little is what it seems to be in the world of NEMESIS, a film that takes elements of cyberpunk and Hong Kong-inspired action and mashes them up into a wholly original film that feels like it was directed in tag-team, relay fashion by John Woo, Ridley Scott, Charles Band, and Cirio H. Santiago, and that's meant as a compliment. Though it may look like a B-grade BLADE RUNNER knockoff on the surface (even borrowing James, memorable as escaped replicant Leon in the 1982 classic), NEMESIS is overflowing with more ideas and imagination that it can handle (note how several of the male characters have female names, and vice versa, and how one major male character is revealed to be a reconfigured female cyborg--is NEMESIS the world's first non-binary existential sci-fi action movie?). In many ways, it's the 1990s equivalent of TRANCERS, Band's 1985 cult classic that starred Thomerson and utilized key elements of BLADE RUNNER and THE TERMINATOR but was more inventive and intelligent than it had any business being. Like TRANCERS, NEMESIS got a limited theatrical release but never went wide, topping out at 86 screens in late January 1993. And like TRANCERS, NEMESIS spawned a series of straight-to-video sequels of precipitously declining quality (two featuring future JOHN WICK director Chad Stahelski), all but one directed by a stumbling Pyun and none starring Gruner.

NEMESIS ended up finding a cult following once it hit video, though its devotees did a good job of keeping it to themselves (it's also of interest today for brief supporting turns by Jackie Earle Haley, over a decade before his comeback, and a then-unknown Thomas Jane, billed as "Tom Janes"). But with Van Damme enjoying significant A-list success at the time, Hollywood studios decided they didn't need another European kickboxer, leaving Gruner vying for video store shelf space with Don "The Dragon" Wilson  (BLOODFIST) and Loren Avedon (THE KING OF THE KICKBOXERS and NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER 2 and 3). He had a busy career throughout the '90s as a C-lister whose films could be regularly found in the one-copy "Hot Singles" section of the new release wall at Blockbuster: 1995's kickboxing western THE FIGHTER was an early effort by DTV action maestro Isaac Florentine and paired Gruner with BEVERLY HILLS 90210 and future SHARKNADO star Ian Ziering; he had the title role in 1997's MERCENARY, opposite an unlikely John Ritter, which led to 1998's MERCENARY 2: THICK AND THIN, teaming him with HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE's Robert Townsend. There were also titles like INTERCEPTOR FORCE, THE CIRCUIT, INTERCEPTOR FORCE 2, and THE CIRCUIT 2: THE FINAL PUNCH, and he capped off another tenuously-connected DTV action trilogy with 2000's CRACKERJACK 3, which was probably a shock to fans of the Thomas Ian Griffith-starring CRACKERJACK as the second installment--where Griffith was replaced by Judge Reinhold (!)--was retitled HOSTAGE TRAIN. Gruner also co-starred in the one-season, 1999 TV series CODE NAME: ETERNITY, a Canadian import that aired on what was then known as the Sci-Fi Channel.

Born in 1960, Gruner isn't headlining these days, but he's occasionally directed himself in titles even the most ardent Redbox devotee probably never heard of, like SECTOR 4: EXTRACTION and EXECUTIVE PROTECTION, and he still turns up in bottom-of-the-barrel fare like Pyun's ABELAR: TALES OF AN ANCIENT EMPIRE, and had cameos in garbage like DIAMOND CARTEL and SHOWDOWN IN MANILA, where he turns up about an hour in with Don "The Dragon" Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock as part of a team of mercenaries that may as well have been called THE AVAILABLES. Early in his career, Olivier Gruner served a purpose as a second-string Jean-Claude Van Damme, at least until Van Damme started going straight-to-DVD, thus negating the need for a Gruner, which is clearly reflected in the declining quality of the gigs he started getting in the 2000s. And unlike Van Damme, Gruner never evolved into a good actor. But for a brief moment, he got to headline a legitimate cult classic with NEMESIS, which has just been released on Blu-ray in an extras-packed edition with two (!) alternate versions, because physical media is dead.

(US - 1990)

Directed by Eric Karson. Written by S.N. Warren. Cast: Olivier Gruner, Theresa Saldana, Frank Aragon, Tony Valentino, Peter Kwong, Mike Moroff, Lupe Amador, Daniel Villarreal, Jim Jaimes, Gregory Cruz, Mark Dacascos, Claudine Penedo, Lorenzo Gaspar, Tom McGreevy, William Bassett, Nick Angotti, Robin Ann Harlan, Julie Rudolph, Linda Kurimoto, Bruce Locke, Stephanie Sholtus, Lilyan Chauvin. (R, 106 mins)

Gruner's career began inauspiciously with ANGEL TOWN, a project initially developed by Imperial Entertainment for Van Damme. Set in the mean streets of East L.A., it's essentially a SHANE scenario that drops a JCVD-like, former Olympic-qualifying kickboxer into the middle of a low-budget COLORS ripoff. Gruner is Jacques Montaigne, who arrives in Los Angeles to pursue a graduate degree in engineering. Unable to find any decent student housing, he ends up in a barrio neighborhood, renting a room at the home of Maria Odones (Theresa Saldana), a widow who lives with her son Martin (Frank Aragon) and her grandmother (Lupe Amador). Maria lost her anti-gang activist husband to a driveby shooting six years earlier, and since then, feared gang leader Angel (Tony Valentino) has persisted in harassing the family and trying to coerce Martin into joining his gang. Maria refuses to leave, finding an ally in embittered, wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet neighbor Frank (Mike Moroff). Jacques is hassled from the start, and quickly makes enemies after beating the shit out of several of Angel's crew, but as the violence escalates and the body count rises (starting with Grandma having a fatal heart attack after a home invasion), Jacques calls in a favor from Henry (Peter Kwong), an old Olympic buddy who now owns an L.A. gym. They work with Martin, teaching him to defend himself and after Maria is gang-raped by Angel's goons, Jacques, Martin, Henry, and Frank prep for the inevitable RIO BRAVO siege at the Odones house.

ANGEL TOWN has the makings of a solidly formulaic martial-arts outing, but until an admittedly lively finale, it's mostly awful. Director Eric Karson had made perfectly competent action movies before with Imperial's BLACK EAGLE and the 1980 Chuck Norris vehicle THE OCTAGON, but he's having an off-day here. Amateurishly-shot flashbacks set in France make little effort to hide that it's still Los Angeles, whether it's a cemetery with visible American names on the headstones or Karson's seemingly spur-of-the-moment solution being to plaster a misspelled decal reading "Parisien" onto a cab and having guys running around in checkered pants and berets in a depiction of Paris that's about as convincing as a Pepe Le Pew cartoon. Gruner being a terrible actor doesn't help, but for the most part, the fight scenes seem stilted and awkward (why is one brawl on a tennis court accompanied by wailing jazz trumpet?) and the dramatic elements sometimes have an almost surreal, Tommy Wiseau-like quality to them. Every scene at the university is mind-bogglingly bad, with a bizarrely misanthropic dean who openly insults the graduate students with no provocation and comes off like a woke doomsday scenario today, telling one young woman "I knew your father...he always wanted a boy...what a disappointment you must've been," and another "How can you be expected to bleed and think at the same time?"

Like a less hysterical companion piece to MIAMI CONNECTION, ANGEL TOWN is the kind of movie that feels like it was made by people who don't get out much, and where the serious drama comes off as unintentionally funny, while the intentional humor falls completely flat, particularly one bit that probably would've seemed cringe-worthy in 1990, let alone today: a Middle-Eastern student calls Jacques "frog," to which Jacques replies by grabbing the kid's tie and informing him "That's Mr. Frog to you, rag-head!" I realize this was a time of escalating Middle East tensions with Saddam Hussein, but even Cannon handled their shameless jingoism with a little more dignity and grace. It's Gruner's debut, so you almost have to cut him a little slack for having no acting experience and with a small-time outfit desperate to find a new Van Damme after he left them for greener pastures, but he's just in over his head here. Not even an experienced pro like RAGING BULL co-star Saldana (right before she enjoyed a bit of a career resurgence as Michael Chiklis' wife on the acclaimed ABC series THE COMMISH the next year) can elevate the C-listers around her, including Valentino, who, for the most part, comes off as the poor man's Trinidad Silva. ANGEL TOWN generated a minor controversy during its limited release in early 1990 when rival gangs caused a riot on its opening night at an L.A. drive-in, but that's really the most noteworthy thing about it. It was a fixture in video stores throughout the '90s, but with Gruner's deer-in-the-headlights thesping and its many moments of MST3K-worthy yuks, perhaps MVD's  recent Blu-ray resurrection can give it a second life on the midnight movie circuit.