My Favourite Films #49: The Running Man

It’s always interesting watching old sci-fi movies and seeing how quickly they imagined we’d balls everything up. George Orwell thought that by 1984 we’d be living under a totalitarian regime, constantly observed. John Carpenter went for 1997 as the year by which New York had become a prison colony. Of course, some of the joy watching them now is knowing they got it wrong.

And unless Donald Trump really cocks things up, The Running Man will join that list of films set in a future time we’ve now lived through. In 1987 they thought we’d really make a hash of things and live in a dystopian hell where the vicious government keeps the populace brainwashed with violence and glamour on telly.

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I know the poster says 2019, but the opening text says 2017

The film is based on a book by Stephen King (writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) and with all due respect to King, is far more entertaining, mainly because it was adapted to be a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger who was at the height of his powers. This takes the bleak and grim novel and revamps it as an ’80s action movie.

Arnie plays, Ben Richards, a police pilot framed for the killing of unarmed civilians, despite the fact he was the one who objected and refused to follow his orders. Locked up on a working prison where they convicts are forced to wear exploding collars that stop them from leaving boundaries. I saw this movie as a kid, and the exploding collars are the thing that stuck with me the most.

 

He engineers an escape with rebellion members Laughlin and Weiss (Yaphet Kotto and Marvin J. McIntyre, respectively). They want to bring down the government and expose the brainwashing, while Richards wants to get the hell out of town and go into hiding. He plans to get his brother to help him but when he gets to his apartment finds that he has been taken for “reeducation” and that a new tenant is living there, musician Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso). Richards uses her to attempt to flee the country, but she blows his cover and he is arrested.

As a result he meets Richard Dawson’s Killian, the smarmy game show host who runs The Running Man, the world’s most popular TV show. Dawson is a fantastic villain, arrogant, scheming and utterly without compassion, all hidden behind a friendly, polished public image. A game show host himself, he captures the faux sincerity and interest, before revealing a stone cold side away from the cameras.

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Also, in a brilliant moment he responds to Arnie’s trademark “I’ll be back” line with a simple “Only in a rerun”.

Killian wants Richards for the show in order to boost stagnant ratings. The show involves criminals having to run through a series of challenges, with the promise of a blissful tropical paradise should they succeed. Stopping them are the colourful, flamboyant and vicious Stalkers, who are a combination of ITV’s Gladiators and the OTT wrestling heels of the ’80s.

running-man-fireball

The Stalkers are good value, each with their own gimmick. There’s Jim Brown wielding a flamethrower as Fireball, an electric shooting opera singer named Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth De Jeude), Sub Zero (Professor Toru Tanaka) who wields an ice hockey stick fitted with blades and chainsaw wielding Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch).

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Each operates in a different section and attack Richards, Weiss and Laughlin. Amber is also thrown in with them as she starts to realize that the government has lied about things and is busted snooping.

Of course, every Stalker fails and Arnie dispatches them in short order. Each time with a quip ready to go- “Here’s your Sub Zero, now plain zero” and, having cut Buzzsaw in half, “he had to split”.

Killian becomes increasingly frustrated, and the crowd after initial horror begin rooting for Richards. Killian wants to send in Captain Freedom, the retired all time champ played by Jesse “The Body” Ventura, but he refuses.

The action is fast and well orchestrated, with a simple, ’80s bloodiness reliant on practical effects which sees Arnie hack, smash and incinerate his pursuers. Arnie can do this in his sleep, but his odd, unique charisma carries him through and it’s an interesting look at how audiences can be bloodthirsty and fickle.

Arnie’s physical appearance is necessary here, his strength is why he’s chosen as a contender and against better armed enemies it’s ingenuity and brute force that hand him the wins. As a character, Richards isn’t the most developed and we’re expected to just accept him as a hero because he refuses to kill innocents, is fleetingly sad about his brother and tries to protect others, but at the same time he’s rather cold blooded, and physically violent towards Amber when they initially meet. Of course, we root for him because he’s Arnie, which is a clear example of star power.

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The ending, where the truth is revealed to the audience suggests things may be about to change. But it’s an ambiguous ending, and while Richards is free and cleared, it seems unlikely that the whole system will come crashing down.

In taking a decent premise but injecting the drama and visuals of wrestling and game shows, the filmmakers take King’s decent idea and transform it into something far more engaging and believable. This seems more like a show people would get sucked into than the idea from the book, where they merely evade capture in the real world.

By upping the cheesiness around the spectacle, they actually make it feel more real. That people will swallow and enjoy blood and mayhem if it’s packaged the right way.

One of Arnie’s best films and hugely entertaining.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: The Expendables 3

Common Hollywood theory states that sequels are an exercise in diminishing returns, possibly due to the plethora of witless and by-the-numbers follow ups in the horror and action movie genres during the 70s and 80s (for the best example of this rewatch Jaws and then suffer through the sequels, or the Halloween series, the last one I watched featured Busta Rhymes for crying out loud, and he wasn’t even the worst part of it). But sometimes this theory is rubbish and the superhero genre in particular has thrown up several sequels which match, or even surpass, the original.

Back in the day Sylvester Stallone was the face of the “bad sequels” idea, with his two most popular characters, Rocky and Rambo, having some shaky follow ups (Rambo III is pretty dire, even if it is in a fun way, and Rocky’s II and V are weak). But in the 21st century he’s become the king of the sequels, Rocky and Rambo both returned and in some style, Rocky Balboa may be the best in the series after the original and Rambo is far superior to III.

The Expendables series would seem to be primed for disappointing sequels, of stars taking the cheques and laziness seeping in, but somehow, they’ve actually got better too. The first one was quite good fun with Stallone leading a gang of action heroes into battle for some standard action heroics, and the sequel was lots of fun too, thanks in part to a better villain in Jean Claude Van Damme and giving Schwarzenegger and Willis more to do than just chat in a church.

In a way the third might be the best of the series so far, even if the action has been toned down to 12A levels. A large part of this is down to some new faces to the franchise, some familiar and some less so.

expendables 3 pos

The movie kicks off with Barney Ross (Stallone) and his squad (Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews and Randy Couture) staging a daring rescue on an armoured prison train to rescue a mysterious figure. The man they rescue turns out to be Doc (Wesley Snipes), an old friend of Ross’ and an original member of the Expendables. Doc is a slightly unhinged dude who joins the squad on their next mission to take down an arms dealer.

The mission hits a snag however when the dealer is revealed to be Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a former friend of Ross’ and Expendables teammate.

Best villain yet- Gibson takes aim as Stoneback

Best villain yet- Gibson takes aim as Stonebanks

 

During the ensuing firefight Stonebanks deliberately targets one of the team to hurt Barney, leaving them critically injured. Barney’s new CIA handler, Drummer (Harrison Ford) is unhappy with the failed mission and reflecting on his injured friend and having to face Stonebanks again, Barney fires his team.

This does not go down well, especially with right hand man Lee Christmas (Statham). The four uninjured members struggle to come to terms with being out while Barney recruits Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) to build a new, younger team (Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell and Ronda Rousey). Another prospective member is rejected when Bonaparte realizes it’s actually an older mercenary, Galgo (Antonio Banderas), who’s former team cut him loose and is eager to return to fighting, the one thing he can do.

The team are skilled in modern tech and fighting and Ross leads them after Stonebanks, however, the mission fails and the new recruits are captured. Stonebanks calls out Barney to come and get them, and he returns to the US to tool up, reluctantly agreeing to take on the talkative, enthusiastic Galgo. His former teammates arrive and volunteer to stand with him, and the six man crew head back to Stonebanks’ Eastern European base.

The rescue team

The rescue team

Meanwhile, Barney’s former rival Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) decides to go back them up, assisted by Yin (Jet Li), a former Expendable, and Drummer volunteers to come with them.

Can they save the younger crew or are they walking into a trap? Can Barney defeat a man who knows him so well?

I bet you can figure out the answer to those questions. But while this film may be predictable it still works as a hugely entertaining action film, and is probably the most fun of the three, and this is down to some of the new characters, particularly Antonio Banderas’ crazy Spanish soldier, who talks a mile a minute and manages to make the character entertainingly flamboyant but human underneath. His backstory is one you see coming, but there’s something wonderfully sweet about the way he acts around the others and he’s a breath of fresh air among the scowling action heroes.

Breath of fresh air- Banderas

Breath of fresh air- Banderas

Another good addition to the mix is Snipes, who is a charismatic on screen presence and has wonderful chemistry with Stallone and Statham. Statham and Snipes’ characters are rivals but there’s a bantering side to it all that I felt really worked.

Statham and Snipes work well as rivals

Statham and Snipes work well as rivals

It also helps that in Gibson the series has it’s best villain yet. Gibson’s trademark barely contained lunacy works masterfully here, he’s a more cynical, jaded and extreme version of Stallone’s character, less morally conflicted and with a nasty streak. He switches between demented swagger and icy, ruthless evil to great effect and he appears to have beefed up a bit meaning that the inevitable showdown with Stallone seems like an even match.

The young guns are good even if a tad underdeveloped, although it is nice to see a female join the ranks and MMA fighter Rousey does rather well, holding her own in the middle of all the testosterone and taking part in a fantastic fight scene. The only problem is it feels as though Lutz’s character was meant to build a relationship with Barney, but its never realized properly.

The young guns

The young guns

Ford is the weakest of the new additions, never really getting in the mix and Willis is written out in harsh style (“He’s no longer a problem”). Not given much to do Ford looks out of place and even among the older heroes seems past it, it doesn’t bode well for the new Star Wars flicks (assuming he survives past VII).

But it’s not all about the new faces, the major draw is still Stallone. I’ve always found him to be a likable on screen presence and here he’s near his action hero best, and the older he gets the more badass he looks. Stallone also manages to show some acting chops, with one scene after Stonebanks takes out his man standing out for me. It’s subtle, while flying the plane the camera closes in on his eyes there’s a shift from sadness to cold, steely resolve in his face.

Stallone plays Ross just right, we see the effect his chosen career weighs on him, his heroism and his fears, pushing his team away to save them and prepared to die in order to rescue the kids he’s got mixed up in a private vendetta with Stonebanks.

The other standout among the returning members is Statham, probably the cast member who’s career is strongest at the moment. He and Stallone share easy chemistry and their bantering, bickering interplay is one of the series’ strongest assets. Statham has less to do here, but its a typically solid, charismatic performance.

Crews, Couture and Lundgren continue to be underused, which is a shame, but in a cast this big inevitable, but all three do their jobs. Jet Li by this stage is just cameoing, and when he does show up barely does any kung fu fighting.

Arnie gets more screen time in this addition and seems to relish it, he and Sly work well together as friends/rivals and with his stubble and cigar chomping Arnie looks quite badass as he blasts his way through the final battle.

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Basically everyone does what they do, but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s great fun, especially for action fans and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. The action might be rather bloodless, but it doesn’t stop the movie from being an immensely entertaining action flick, and with fresh blood added I suspect we haven’t seen the last of the Expendables, especially as there’s mention of the team containing up to twenty guys at one point (who’ll turn up in part four? Kurt Russell, Nicolas Cage, Ice T, Ice Cube, Samuel L Jackson, Chow Yun Fat? Just please, no Busta Rhymes)

Verdict: A solid and entertaining action movie which benefits from some new blood (particularly Gibson, Banderas and Snipes) but some of the cast get lost in the swelling ranks. Sly and Arnie fans will love it and there’s enough banter and gags to keep it ticking over. Best so far? Maybe. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Total Recall by Arnold Schwarzenegger

I’m a massive Arnie fan, so I really wanted to check this book out, even though I was wary as autobiographies can often really effect how you view a person and their work (I’ve got considerably less affection for Peter Kay after I read his book), an even greater risk given some of Arnie’s history and political views.

arnie book

I have to say though I did enjoy this book immensely, particularly the early years section which charted his childhood in post-war Austria, which seems to have been a pretty tough time and shows that the dude comes from a completely different era of outdoor toilets, basic technology and hard graft. It’s an interesting fleshing out of his background and explains his wish to leave this behind and move to the glorious America he saw at the local cinema.

That’s Schwarzenegger’s defining characteristic throughout the whole book, this unbelievable ambition and drive. It’s what pushed him to the top of the bodybuilding world, where he exhibits quite a ruthless, competitive edge and which he took through to his work in Hollywood and politics. This single-minded devotion to his goals is admirable from a distance, but there is a sense that it must have been hard for those around him.

From his poor childhood to his Hollywood superstardom, we see him achieving goal after goal, although there are missteps and he admits to being overconfident at times and on reflection realizes his errors. At times Arnie swerves towards bragging and arrogance, but it’d probably be hard not to be when you’ve achieved what he has, it does grate at times, but its undercut nicely during the Governator years, where he admits to approaching things the wrong way and inexperience.

Another thing I liked about the book was that Arnie seems to know which of his movies don’t work quite as well, and shows good business sense in explaining why (his judgement on Conan the Destroyer is spot on).

He’s an interesting dude, and some of the stories are interesting and surprising (he’s surprisingly frank about his “shoot only” romance with Brigitte Nielsen during the Red Sonja shoot), but scandal lovers will be disappointed as he deals with some of the bigger ones with frustrating brevity (the groping allegations and the secret son are handled rather briefly). However, there are moments when the Austrian Oak shows vulnerability, particularly in the later stages when he discusses his separation from his wife, who he appears to genuinely love and respect. Despite the book being written while they were due to begin divorce proceedings, the book finishes with him hoping they can get back together, which I found rather sweet.

Arnold is a man who has made mistakes, and owns up to many of them here, but there’s still a larger than life aura about the man, despite this insight into his history. He conveys this powerful personality and lust for life and success which is quite charismatic. Also, this is probably the first autobiography I’ve ever read where every single word in my head was delivered in the voice of the narrator.

Verdict: Lovers of scandal may be disappointed that he doesn’t dwell on certain indiscretions and accusations more, but for Arnie fans it’s an interesting read that highlights the outrageous successes he’s collected and is quite an interesting, entertaining read about the life of one of Hollywood’s biggest and most interesting stars. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films 25: Predator

People can be a little snooty about the 80s/90s high concept style of movies, where films were seemingly greenlit on the basis of a quick pitch, but sometimes it pays dividends. Like this movie, which is essentially “invisible alien killing machine hunts special forces commandos”.

What John McTiernan produces from this simple premise is one of the best Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and a hugely entertaining sci-fi action movie that still stands up to this day.

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In a prologue we see a space ship crash to Earth and then the movie follows Arnie’s character Dutch who leads his elite squad on a mission in Central America to rescue a missing official. There they meet Dutch’s old buddy Dillon (Carl Weathers) who works for the CIA, who joins the team, cue the most gratuitous, homoerotic “gun show” moment in cinematic history.

Welcome to the gun show.

Welcome to the gun show.

Soon Arnie’s boys find a downed chopper and the remains of a special forces team, who have been skinned. Meanwhile, something watches them from the trees.

They hit a guerrilla camp which they eliminate in a blizzard of bullets and action hero one-liners (“I ain’t got time to bleed”), they snatch the sole survivor, Anna (Elpidia Carrillo) as a prisoner and Dutch twigs that Dillon has screwed him over (“So you cooked up a story and dropped the six of us in the meat grinder. What happened to you Dillon? You used to be somebody I could trust“)

The cloaked figure (as in Star Trek cloak, not Lord of the Rings cloak) stalks them through the jungle and takes out the group’s wisecracking geek Hawkins (Shane Black), sparing Anna. It’s not long before mini-gun toting Blain (former wrestler Jesse “the Body” Ventura), Blain’s best friend Mac (Bill Duke) glimpses the shimmering figure and opens fire, the crew pouring firepower into the trees, but only seeming to land a glancing hit, leading to the classic Arnie quote “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”

The crew open fire.

The crew open fire.

Anna tells a charming campfire story about a local legend of “the demon that makes trophies of men” and we see an alien figure cleaning the skulls of his victims. Even Arnie’s highly trained squad are freaked out, with badass Billy (Sonny Landham) getting a serious case of the willies.

Pancho: Bullshit! You ain’t afraid of no man.
Billy: There’s something out there waiting for us…and it ain’t no man. We’re all gonna die.

Mac and Dillon go off to take it down. Mac having got a little cracked following the death of his buddy. I gotta hand it to Bill Duke in this section of the movie, he’s not known for his acting chops but he nails Mac’s breakdown, and his ragged singing of “Long Tall Sally” is seriously creepy.

Mac: Cracking up

Mac: Cracking up

 

Needless to say it doesn’t go well.

Dutch rallies his boys and along with Anna they book it for their extraction, their extraterrestrial hunter hot on their heels. Billy decides to go one-on-one with the beastie, ditching his guns and drawing his machete.

Billy gets ready to face his fears

Billy gets ready to face his fears

Billy goes down off screen moments later, his death shown by a scream in the distance. I kinda get why this is done, because they’re saving the mano-a-predator face off until the end, and showing this fight would ruin that later showdown, but I still think it sucks. Of all of Dutch’s crew, Billy was the most badass and they build him up only for him to get this really crap death.

Poncho buys the farm shortly after and Anna goes for his piece, but by this point Dutch has twigged that the Predator only hunts those with weapons, because this is sporting.

This is another thing that always bugged me, is it really that sporting, I mean, sure Arnie’s boys have guns, but you’re about 8 foot tall, can go invisible, have a laser sighted cannon on your shoulder which is miles ahead of anything they’ve got. It’s like me giving a bunch of schoolkids muskets and hunting them with a sniper rifle. While being invisible.

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Dutch tells Anna to “Get to da choppa!” and legs it. He winds up in the water, the Predator in hot pursuit. During all this he gets covered in mud that masks him from the Predator’s heat seeker, and the water also disrupts the cloaking device.

Dutch hunkers down and builds traps and creates weapons before Tarzan yelling into the night.

Arnie is ready

Arnie is ready

The Predator comes for him and they fight to the death. The Predator kicks his as pretty badly but Dutch’s brains win out and he wins the day. At which point the sporting Predator activates it’s nuclear bomb self destruct (sore loser) and Dutch legs it.

Arnie is outmatched

Arnie is outmatched

There are several reasons why this movie has dated better than a lot of 80s sci-fi fare but I think that comes down to two major factors- excellence of execution and campness.

Some of the movie is extremely well done, I mean, even though the shimmering Predator cloak effect looks a little creaky it still sort of works. In fact, the worse it looks the more realistic in a way. Yeah, I get that using the word “realistic” about a film which follows an alien hunter is kinda dopey, but the whole idea is that the Predator doesn’t really vanish but camouflages itself, and even the best camouflage fails under scrutiny.

The effect works and the creature design is phenomenal, at the time there’d been nothing like it and its still an iconic genre figure. Due to the time a lot of the effects have more weight than some later CGI stuff.

The campness factor comes due to the fact it’s an overblown Arnie vehicle and the gloriously cheesy dialogue throughout. Arnie busts out several quotable one liners (“Stick  around!”, “You’re one ugly motherfucker!”, “If it bleeds, we can kill it”, “Get to da choppa!”) and his squad is oddest special forces teams since the A-Team.

There’s gruff Billy and the seriously creepy Mac, but there’s also the tobacco chewing Blain, played with OTT swagger by Jesse Ventura who proclaims himself to be a “goddamned sexual Tyrannosaurus”.

The whole film toes the line between the properly gripping and the ridiculous and just about manages to keep on the right side, and in a way the daft parts are what endears it to the audience, or to this 80s action movie lover anyway.

The sign of how good it is that it’s never been matched and is still, along with Aliens the benchmark for sci-fi action movies.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Movie Review: The Last Stand

10 years.

That’s how long Arnold Schwarzenegger went between films where he played the lead. After 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, he left our screens and became the Governator. Sure, there were cameos along the way to keep us Arnie fans going (Welcome to the Jungle aka The Rundown, Around the World in 80 Days, the Expendables films) so now he’s back, just like he always said he would be.

But would his return be a welcome one?

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Here Schwarzenegger stars as Ray Owens, the sheriff of a small town in Arizona, Sommerton Junction , near the Mexican border. With most of the staff away supporting the high school football team, Ray plans a nice relaxing day off.

Ray’s team includes Mike (Luiz Guzman) his right hand man who’s lazy and bored by the slow pace in town, Jerry (Zach Gilford) a young guy who craves excitement and Sarah (Jaimie Alexander), the most on-the-ball of his crew. Sarah however, does have a problem in that her ex, former marine Frank (Rodrigo Santoro) is in the local jail and who’s life after leaving the military is sliding out of control.

Of course, that isn’t going to happen and heading his way after a daring prison break is Cartel boss Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) who’s escaped justice in a souped up super car which is capable of ridiculous speeds. FBI agent Bannister (Forest Whitaker), is in pursuit and knows he must stop Cortez before he crosses the border and disappears, a situation made worse by the fact Cortez has snatched a female agent, Ellen Richards (Genesis Rodriguez) as a hostage.

The Feds alert the border towns, but discount Sommerton as the only way to cross is a massive gorge.

Ray becomes suspicious of Burrell (Peter Stormare), a shifty stranger in town and on his day off two of his deputies head off to a local farm after the milk doesn’t show up. They discover the farmer dead and that Burrell and his crew have been constructing a bridge over the canyon. During a shoot out, one of the crew is killed.

Ray decides to try and stop Cortez and Burrell’s men, but is told by Bannister that support won’t arrive in time. Ray deputizes Frank and Lewis (Johnny Knoxville), the village idiot who runs a gun museum, and they tool up to try and block the path.

Sarah (Alexander) and Frank (Santoro) prepare for the fight

Sarah (Alexander) and Frank (Santoro) prepare for the fight

Can they beat Burrell’s men in a shoot out and stop Cortez crossing the border?

As the synopsis tells you, we’re in standard genre country on this one. There’s a strong Western vibe to proceedings with the sheriff having to defend his town from the black hats. Arnie is well inside his comfort zone as the lawman facing unfair odds, and despite looking a bit more weathered than in his last outing, he’s still got the physical presence to pull it off and knows what he’s doing.

It’s hard to review an Arnold Schwarzenegger performance, because aside from the Terminator, every role is pretty much the same. The jobs and names change, but it’s the usual mix of physical power and cheesy one liners, and he delivers both here, even if it does feel a little watered down than previous efforts. The shootouts and fights are CGI-enhanced and the one liners aren’t as memorable or as funny as in other Arnie flicks (this is no Commando or Predator).

Arnie can do this in his sleep, and as a big fan of the Austrian Oak, it worked for me.

"I'm the sheriff" Arnie as Ray

“I’m the sheriff” Arnie as Ray

As with all the 80s action heroes’ recent work there are a couple of references to his advancing years, but it’s only hinted at a couple of times and for much of the film Arnie smashes through windows and trading punches in the same way he always did.

The film is quite good fun, it’s simplicity part of it’s appeal. The good guys are good and likable, the bad guys are evil, hissable cartoon figures. Subtlety is not the order of the day.

Noriega makes a good villain, hamming it up to great effect and ensuring that his cartel boss is thoroughly unlikable and scummy. He’s got the cocky swagger of a man who believes he is above the law, and exudes this cold, ruthless aura and suggests that he can be a ruthless enemy. It’s this cold blooded, vicious aura that means that while physically he’s no match for Arnie when they throw down, this edge, coupled with his quickness means that he’s a realistic threat when the two finally throw down.

Noriega as Cortez

Noriega as Cortez

Stormare does his sleazy, slightly crazy schtick again and is rather entertaining. Forest Whitaker is underused and mainly serves as exposition- giving the audience the info on how bad Cortez is and filling in Ray’s background as a tough LAPD officer.

The rest of the cast are alright with what they’re given, with Guzman and Knoxville on fine form as comic relief. I know Knoxville isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I quite like his turn as the town’s resident nut, and his goofy character amused me.

Knoxville in action

Knoxville in action

It’s all painted in broad strokes, and the action sequences have a cartoonish quality to them, bodies fly backwards, blood spurts up in the air and seemingly mortal wounds to our heroes are walked off with a slight wince followed by a half hearted gag.

Arnie’s done better, but then again he’s done a lot worse, and while it won’t change your life it’s a decent enough action movie and the kind of movie I’ll probably end up watching with my feet up when it’s repeated frequently on ITV4.

Verdict: It’s far from Arnie’s best work, and there are few surprises along the way, but it’s still a fairly fun, dumb action movie and nice to see Schwarzenegger back on the screen. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Why I can’t take the Royal Marine Commandos seriously

First of all, I mean no disrespect to the military, but from a personal perspective the latest recruitment ad for the Royal Marine Commandos totally fails.

The ad goes on about how much of an honour wearing the green beret is.

Now, I’m sure the Commandos are a pretty tough bunch, and are probably quite proud of their unit and status as a kind of elite section of the military.

But for me it just doesn’t work because at the end of it I always just think of one thing:

Still at least it’s better than the Navy ad, where the message seems to be- Failed in the real world? Try the Navy!

I’m aware that I’ve just slagged off highly trained professional killers, but like I said, it’s more down to their crappy PR teams. And I’m sure they have more pressing threats to deal with.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #13: The Terminator

Warning! The following contains spoilers, however, the film is over 27 years old and a classic, so if you haven’t seen it, sort it out!

It’s sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day gets a lot of praise and love, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie, but for me, the 1984 original is the better film.

terminator

With only his second film as director James Cameron sets out his stall with a fantastically atmospheric science fiction thriller and chase movie which was one of the major things that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a bona fide star.

The plot is fairly simple- in the future mankind is raging a bitter war against the machines, after an artificial intelligence known as Skynet began nuclear war. The survivors have been hunted and forced underground by killer robots known as Terminators, who are often disguised as humans.

The human resistance is headed up by John Connor, and they are on the verge of a massive victory. The machines hatch a plan to send a Terminator (Schwarzenegger) back in time to 1984 to take out Connor’s mum, Sarah (Linda Hamilton) before she gets pregnant with the savior of mankind. Connor sends back one of his own men, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to keep her safe and stop the cyborg killer.

Physically outmatched, Reese does have a couple of advantages over his robotic enemy, knowing Sarah’s middle name and what she looks like. As the Terminator starts working his way through the phonebook taking out all the Sarah Connors, Reese has to tool up and keeps watch over her.

Reese rescues her from the machine, but is later arrested and believed to be insane by pompous psychiatrist Silberman (Earl Boen), but the Terminator arrives at the police station to try and find Sarah. After a massive bloodbath where the Terminator takes out all the coppers in the building, Reese and Sarah flee.

The Terminator on his police station rampage

The Terminator on his police station rampage

 

Sarah warms to Reese, and feels bad for him due to the nightmare world he will inherit and they sleep together.

During a final showdown, Reese is mortally wounded but Sarah manages to crush the Terminator in factory machinery. The film ends with a pregnant Sarah leaving the city in order to prepare for the future, recording a message to John and explaining that Reese is his father.

What I love about this movie, and why I think it’s superior to the follow up is that it’s a much tighter, straightforward movie. Once the set up is established it barely lets up as the implacable Terminator methodically works it’s way towards it’s target, gunning down anyone who gets in it’s way.

Later in his career Cameron would become a major offender in letting his films get baggy and not being vicious enough in the editing suite, but here he’s a model of restraint and tight, no frills movie making. It’s an incredibly tense movie with a real threatening vibe and the Terminator has genuine menace. There are no scenes that feel unnecessary and the movie whips along at quite a good pace.

The only time Cameron drops the ball is during the sex scene between Sarah and Reese, it’s poorly shot and goes on rather too long and Cameron seems to be clubbing the audience over the head in his attempt to convey that this is the moment that John Connor is conceived. But this minor quibble aside, it’s damn near perfect as a sci-fi thriller.

The scene where the Terminator visits the first Sarah Connor in the book is a remorseless, ruthless attack that sees darkness come into the suburbs. Arnie does the role perfectly, and while this has led to tons of jokes about his style only being convincing while playing a robot, I think there’s a lot of good work here, as Schwarzenegger maintains this cold, inhuman vibe throughout and keeps his face in this deadpan mask that doesn’t react to anything that goes on around him.

It’s also the only time that Schwarzenegger would play an out and out villain in a movie, crafting an iconic image as the robotic killer.

Despite the tension and the quick pacing of the film, it should be understood that Cameron also does a great job with crafting his characters, and is aided by a cast at the top of their game.

Linda Hamilton does a great job as the regular Josephine who’s thrown from her job as a waitress into having to go on the run. She makes Sarah a rather sweet and charming woman, and her struggles to deal with learning about what the future holds for herself and mankind in general feels believable and honest. Told she’s to be the mother of a great leader and a “legend” in her own right, she’s understandably thrown, but she shows the resilience and toughness that hint at what she will go on to accomplish. Hamilton is superb in capturing the change as well as the sensitivity she feels towards hearing about Reese’s future life.

Sarah as she appears at the close of the film, ready for the coming fight.

Sarah as she appears at the close of the film, ready for the coming fight.

Reese is played rather brilliantly by Michael Biehn, who gets the sense of the character just right. Reese is shown to be tough, resilient and intelligent, but there’s also a feeling of his social awkwardness and the fact that growing up as a soldier in a warzone has left him emotionally wrecked. This is shown in flashbacks, but is shown more subtly throughout Biehn’s performance, as he lets us see that Reese is constantly wound up, ready for danger and that he is completely thrown by the more relaxed, safe environment of the 1980s.

Watching him awkwardly navigate through the world and his emotional distance kind of hints at how growing up in war can stunt people’s emotional development and despite his toughness and ingenuity, it’s rather touching that when he and Sarah get it on she has to be gentle with him and lead the way, as affection and intimacy are clearly things he is not familiar with.

Biehn in action as Reese comes to the rescue (check out the rubbish, smiling extras)

Biehn in action as Reese comes to the rescue (check out the rubbish, smiling extras)

While Sarah Connor is a wonderfully strong heroine and rightly sighted as one of the best female characters in science fiction, I always feel this does a great disservice to the character of Reese, who is just as much a hero and is willing to selflessly throw down his life in taking on a far stronger and superior enemy. Both characters are heroic, and I think should equally be recognized for this.

Script-wise the movie is pretty solid, as the Terminator Arnie only gets just over a dozen lines, but these include what would become his catchphrase “I’ll be back” but the script does a fine job in conveying the plot and building character. There are funny moments such as a scene between Sarah and her flatmate’s boyfriend on the phone, and a sense of character is built quickly.

Most memorable however is when Reese outlines what they’re facing, his speech about the Terminator is chilling and manages to make the relentless killing machine even more terrifying:

The police shrink is shown to be pompous, self-centred and rather insensitive, while the cops are shown to be very different from the kindly lieutenant who attempts to reassure Sarah and explain the events she’s witnessed and his slightly tactless detective, played by Cameron regular Lance Henriksen. They may be bit parts, but they feel like real people and I warmed to them more than I did to major players in later Cameron movies.

In fact as well as being a phenomenal movie in it’s own right The Terminator also serves as showing what happens when filmmakers are given too much of a budget to play with. Here, starting out and not gifted with a massive pile of cash Cameron has to work well on crafting atmosphere and character, and creates a film that is lean, mean and gripping, as his career would progress he would steadily get bigger budgets and more freedom and this would result in baggier films and a filmography which for me would pretty much steadily decline in quality and emotional resonance (T2, True Lies, Titanic, Avatar- a career of decreasing merit).

Also, as we near the end of this post, it’s worth pointing out that the movie also has one of the best endings for a movie too.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Movie Review: Total Recall

I’ve never read the Phillip K Dick story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” that inspired this movie and the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger/Paul Verhoven version, so I have no idea whether they’re true to the original story (having read Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep” which inspired Blade Runner I’d imagine that it might differ greatly), so I don’t know which is closer, but I will say this, that aside from the central theme and characters these films are very different.

Set around 100 years into the future Earth has been ravaged by chemical war, leaving only two habitable territories left- the UFB (United British Federation- nice to see we get out OK) which includes Western Europe and the Colony (Australia, essentially). The UFB is the power base and the Colony is a dystopian nightmare where the workers live, travelling every day to the UFB on “the fall”, which is kind of like this big subway/lift thing that drops down through the Earth, skirting the core to pop up on the other side of the world. The UFB is ran by a dictatorial chancellor Cohagen (Bryan Cranston) and is plagued by terrorist attacks by the resistance, who seek a better life for those in the Colony.

Living in the Colony is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) a regular Joe working an assembly line job who’s dissatisfied with his life. He’s also plagued by a recurring nightmare which sees him and a mysterious woman engaging in a shoot out before Quaid is captured (its how the film starts so its not a spoiler). The dreams bother him and add to his frustration, although he attempts to ignore it for the sake of his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale).

Seeking an escape, Quaid visits Rekal a company that can implant false memories into your mind so convincingly that you feel you actually lived the experience. The dream reality can not have any connections to the real life of the subject because it would result in massive confusion and as the technician states “that’s how minds are blown”. Quaid decides he wants to be a secret agent and get some action in his life, but before the dream can take alarm bells sound and they stop, due to discovering he was actually a spy in reality.

Rekal is then stormed by the police, who kill everyone and attempt to bring Quaid in, but without thinking he instinctively fights and kills an entire squad before making his escape. He returns home where he tells all to Lori, who promptly tries to kill him, revealing that his identity and entire life is a fabrication and they have only been living together for 6 weeks.

Quaid evades his homicidal wife and goes looking for answers in the UFB, where his true self used to live. Pursued by the police he is aided by the woman from his dreams, Melina (Jessica Biel) a member of the resistance. Quaid discovers he is actually Hauser, a tough UFB operative sent to infiltrate the resistance, before actually defecting. He has vital information that the resistance’s leader, Mathias (Bill Nighy) can recover.

What is Cohagen’s plan? Can Quaid regain his memories? If he does will he still be Quaid or will he instantly revert to Hauser? Is all this really happening or is he actually inside the fake dream Rekal implanted?

As fans of the original will have noticed, I didn’t mention Mars once in that entire synopsis. While the Arnie version was set on the red planet the remake is entirely Earthbound. It kind of works, the whole aliens/mutants angle was a big strain on the suspension of disbelief, although here they’ve just replaced it with the Fall, the ridiculous mode of transport central to the plot.

But the general story is the same, regular Joe fed up with his life discovers that he’s actually a badass spy with falsified memories, who appears to have turned traitor on his own side and thrown in with the resistance. Its here that the film wins out over the original, as Farrell is far more convincing everyman hero than Arnie could be, as well as having a kind of toughness and displaying ruthless cunning during the action sequences.

Farrell does a good job as the man who’s able to throw down in a fight and work out how to evade capture while not fully understanding how he knows what he’s doing, and captures Quaid’s confusion and identity crisis. Quaid wants to know who he really is but at the same time, if he gets Hauser’s memories back he’ll actually stop being Quaid. His confusion and the fact he’s out of his depth makes him a highly sympathetic character and Farrell more than looks the part when called into action, handling the action sequences extremely well.

Colin Farrell as Quaid

The film on the whole is a bit of a mixed bag, some of it really works while others don’t quite come off. The whole “is it real or is it a dream?” angle is actually a bit messed up and aside from a scene halfway through and a few brief nods close to the film’s ending its never properly capitalized on.

My response after seeing the original for the first time, was that it was a really interesting flick with some great ideas which might have been better suited to having a better actor than Arnie in the lead role. But having rewatched it the other day I may have done it a big disservice, its a pretty cool film and actually, does the nature of reality angle a lot better than is done in this remake.

One of my coworkers, actually complained that he found the movie extremely confusing and wished they’d made it clearer whether he was in Rekal or not. I attempted to explain that the uncertainty was the whole theme of the movie and to overly explain it would be a mistake, but being an utter cretin he didn’t seem to grasp this.

The film also falls down in comparison to Verhoven’s movie in that its not quite as much daft fun as the original. But the plot is tighter and more focused, and also makes a lot more show. The gap between the rich UFB and the poor Colony is handled well, and by keeping things on Earth it feels more grounded in reality despite the outlandish sci-fi plot. The aliens in the original felt like a bit of a cop out and Cohagen’s motives here definitely make more sense here, as does his plan.

That’s not to say its not an extremely enjoyable flick, Farrell is on fine form and some of the visual effects are stunning. There’s a brilliant chase sequence where Farrell and Biel are pursued through a labyrinth of criss-crossing lifts that move horizontally and vertically. Its a great sequence and reminiscent of an Escher painting or something, its a high octane sequence that is one of the film’s highlights.

The supporting cast are pretty good too, Biel is a little bland but as in Blade: Trinity kind of convinces in the fight sequences and shows off some good moves, she also manages to show us that Melina was attracted to Hauser but actually begins to fall for the simpler, nicer Quaid at the same time.

Melina (Biel) and Quaid/Hauser (Farrell) in action

I know many will have seen him in Drive or Breaking Bad, but for me Bryan Cranston will always be Hal from Malcolm in the Middle so it was a little surreal seeing him playing a heartless dictator, but he manages to do it very well and even comes across as a genuine threat when Quaid and Cohagen go man0-a-mano.

But the best of the bunch is Kate Beckinsale as Quaid’s fake wife, Lori. Beckinsale does a masterful stroke in transforming from loving, concerned paramedic into a cold blooded, ruthless agent. Beckinsale plays the character with a deliciously malevolent sadistic streak and icy exterior. The scene where she flips into killer mode is handled well and she actually seems like a reasonable foe for Farrell, smacking him around something terrible.

Kate Beckinsale as Lori- Deliciously malevolent.

Beckinsale seems to relish her chance to play a villain and her experiences in the Underworld series means that she’s got the martial arts stuff and manages to make Lori an oddly likable villain despite her utter viciousness. She’s far more interesting than Biel’s good girl and she looks gorgeous throughout while still convincing as someone who could easily take you down.

All in all its a pretty good movie, the action sequences are handled brilliantly by Underworld and Die Hard 4.0 (Live Free or Die Hard to American readers) Len Wiseman who also manages to get a few nice nods to the original in and generally gets the tone right. Its not quite as fun as Arnie’s version and the nature of reality and identity stuff could have been handled better.

Verdict: A pretty good sci-fi adventure film with some stunning visuals and great action sequences. Farrell is a good, solid lead and Kate Beckinsale is brilliant as the villainess. Might not be as much fun as Arnie smashing around on Mars, but still a fun film experience. 7/10

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Movie Review: The Expendables 2

The all-star action sequel to 2010’s The Expendables sees even more old school action legends join the party.

The film kicks off with Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his right hand man Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) back in action with their misfit mercenaries (Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Terry Crews and Randy Couture) along with new guy sniper Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth). They rescue a kidnapped businessman, in the process crossing paths with Ross’ old rival Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

On returning to the States, Ross is approached by shifty CIA spook Mr Church (Bruce Willis), who uses the fact Ross owes him to get him to take a risky job recovering something from a downed aircraft in Eastern Europe, which they have to team up with Maggie (Yu Nan) a tech expert.

They retrieve the goods and are about to get out when they’re caught off guard by Jean Villain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) who kills one of the gang (I won’t say who, but you can see it coming quite a way off). It turns out Villain needed a blueprint to find weapons grade plutonium which he plans to sell on.

Out for revenge Ross and co. decide to track down Villain, along the way bumping into enigmatic mercenary Booker (Chuck Norris) who aids them but then leaves, preferring to work alone. They discover Villain has been taking the men from local towns and forcing them to work in the mines looking for the buried plutonium. Can the gang save the villagers, get revenge on Villain and stop the plutonium from falling into the wrong hands?

As a massive action movie lover, I was always going to like this flick. I really enjoyed the first movie and there’s a great sense of geeky joy in seeing some of the action genres big stars together, especially when the big 3 of 80s action heroes- Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis fighting alongside each other.

The Big Three go to war.

The plot is fairly simple, and reassuringly old fashioned- stolen nukes and oppressed people are well established genre conventions, and there are few surprises along the way, but it doesn’t matter, because the film zips along at a decent pace and its loud, dumb fun from start to finish.

Action sequences come thick and fast, wonderfully OTT shootouts where faceless goons explode into clouds of blood and some bone crunching hand-to-hand scraps. There are some great little visual gags and flourishes during the fight scenes, including a great scene where a henchman’s bullet riddled demise is captured through and airport x-ray machine.

There’s a real cartoony vibe to proceedings, which harks back to the 80s/90s action movie golden age where consequences and angst were largely ignored, don’t get me wrong, I like introspective, gritty dramas as much as the next man, but at the same time its nice to have some brainless, lighthearted mayhem from time to time. I was reminded of this again today when I watched Octopussy, one of the dafter Roger Moore era Bond movies, and while I appreciate the craft of the Daniel Craig Bond flicks I have to admit I’m usually more inclined to watch the goofier older Bonds.

While there’s no great personal drama aside from Ross’ guilt over the death of his crew and the suggestion that the life they lead is filled with regret and missed opportunities for happiness, the gang kill, quip and banter their way through the proceedings. This is explained in one badass line: “We keep it light, until its time to go dark, and then we get pitch black”.

That’s not to say that the cast don’t do their jobs well. I’ve always found Stallone an endearing and likable screen presence and he’s on fine form here, especially in his scenes with Statham, as the two are charismatic and share great chemistry together, resulting in a convincingly buddy vibe between the two.

The buddy vibe continues through the film in the banter between the rest of the team and one gets the sense that they enjoyed making the film, but happily in a way that comes across in a good way on screen and includes the audience.

The problem with the ensemble idea is that not everyone is given enough to shine, and here Jet Li is criminally underused, he has a pretty impressive fight at the start and bickers with Lundgren to good effect but is then written out of the rest of the movie in a way that smacks of contractual obligation.

Crews and Lundgren get very little time but do well with what they get, particularly Lundgren, who I’ve long had a soft spot for and whose frazzled ex-junkie Gunner is a funny, oddly sweet character. I did feel that more could have been done with him though and they missed a chance to bring him out more by having Stallone hog the romantic angle yet again, but c’est la vie, and Stallone’s the bigger name.

Dolph Lundgren- A personal favourite of mine.

Former UFC star Randy Couture is still the group’s weakest link, but he’s better here than in the first film and forms a decent double act with Crews.

Willis and Schwarzenegger are given more room and things to do this time round, and as I mentioned, seeing them join forces with Stallone will delight action movie fan boys. Their interplay works and there are little in jokes about their films and some catchphrase switching fun.

The tongue in cheek nature continues with Chuck Norris’ extended cameo, which has a little nod towards the “Chuck Norris facts” meme and Norris seems to have fun.

Chuck Norris- fun.

Jean-Claude Van Damme seems to relish the chance to play a bad guy and does it extremely well, making the subtly named Villain an oddly charismatic, menacing figure and setting up a decent Stallone-JCVD smackdown at the film’s close, which is handled rather well, with the more brutish Stallone’s smashmouth style contrasting well with JCVD’s kickboxing. As a long time JCVD fan its nice to see him back in action in something other than bog standard straight-to-DVD fare, and its been a while since he’s been this good.

JCVD is back!

Its a fun romp but it depends on the level of your affection for mindless action and the action heroes of days gone by. As a massive action movie fan you could say I’m inclined to like this flick and the target audience, and for me it totally worked, but I think for most people it’ll work as a fun, evening in with pizza movie.

Verdict: Gleefully dopey action fare, delivered by an iconic cast who all know what they’re doing and seem to be having fun doing it. 6/10

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.