Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Disclaimer: I have tried but there are a few spoilers ahead, so be warned.

The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie was a surprising gem of a movie, with James Gunn bringing a smaller, more obscure Marvel team to the big screen and expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the cosmos. It’s among my favourites of the Marvel movies and so this follow up arrives with additional pressure the first didn’t.

Luckily it never allows this pressure to effect it’s performance and while a couple of gags are revisited, this strikes out into fresh territory.

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Having saved the universe Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) discovered his father was not of Earth. This mystery continues to bug him, but he pushes it awau as he leads the Guardians. We find them defeating a gigantic space beast to the backing of ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”, the action largely in the background as Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), the child reincarnation of the team’s living tree, dances about happily.

The team has been hired to stop the monster by the Sovereign, led by High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). The Sovereign, a gold skinned race have bred their people to be the best they can be, and so view their citizens as too precious to risk. Their fee is the handover of Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) villainous adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) who they plan to hand over to the Nova Corps.

All goes well and they leave. Aboard the ship Peter apologises to Gamora for having flirted with Ayesha, but she brushes this off. Drax (Dave Bautista) advises Peter that he has no chance with Gamora and should instead find someone “pathetic” like he is. Shortly after the Sovereign chase them as on their way out the gruff, gun toting raccoon Rocket  (voiced by Bradley Cooper) stole valuable and powerful batteries from them.

Rocket and Peter argue about who is the better pilot and their struggle for control damages the ship. Luckily, the remote controlled pursuers are destroyed by a mysterious figure who arrives astride his own ship. The Guardians escape but crash land, their ship severely damaged.

Ayesha’s next move is to recruit Yondu (Michael Rooker), the alien who abducted Peter as a child to capture the Guardians. We learn that some of the crew think Yondu is going soft and that his team of Ravagers are outsiders to the other clans, with his old friend Stakar (Sylvester Stallone) who says he is an exile because he broke the code, and traded in children.

The Guardians meet Ego (Kurt Russell), who is Peter’s father and a Celestial, beings with great power who live for millions of years. Ego takes Peter, Gamora and the musclebound Drax to teach Peter more of his past.

Rocket and Baby Groot remain to fix the ship and keep an eye on Nebula. Unfortunately, the Ravagers arrive. Yondu announces he has no intention of handing over the Guardians, as there is more money to be made from taking the batteries and selling them on. The crew view this as proof he is too soft on Peter, and they mutiny. Nebula, released by Baby Groot, intervenes and Yondu and Rocket are imprisoned.

Nebula heads after Gamora for revenge, and Yondu and Rocket learn they will be sold to former enemies. Yondu is also not happy to learn that Peter has gone to Ego’s home world.

Ego’s planet is an idyll where he lives almost alone aside from Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who he treats almost as a pet and who has no social skills due to being alone for so long. Ego reveals he is the planet and that Peter shares his ability to create things, and Ego wants to teach him about his powers and his purpose.

Gamora, however, is suspicious which causes friction between her and Peter. After an argument she storms off alone where Nebula attacks, they fight and then discover something Ego has hidden from them.

Can they trust Ego? Can Yondu and Rocket escape? Will the Sovereign ever stop hunting them?

I loved this movie, which captures the same vibe of the original, with solid action sequences, likeable characters and a funny, clever script. The plot hooks you in because early on the characters win you over, particularly Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, who’s cocky swagger is still in place but mention of his father in an early scene obviously hits close to home. It’s a great performance with Pratt managing to make the character cool despite his buffoonery and the fact that he often trips himself up.

The rest of the Guardians are solid throughout, and it’s a nice touch bringing Nebula back as her relationship with Gamora is fleshed out slightly. Also, the “unspoken thing” between Star-Lord and Gamora develops nicely, and a lot is gained by underplaying it.

A lot of the publicity for the movie has focused on Baby Groot, and it’s easy to see why as he is straight up adorable and centre stage for some of the funniest moments of the film.

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For me, however, the film’s strongest asset is Michael Rooker as Yondu. Rooker is consistently dependable on screen (Cliffhanger, Mallrats, The Replacement Killers, The Walking Dead, Tombstone), and has far more to do this time round, which is good as he impressed me in the original. Here we learn more of Yondu’s past and it adds to the character, as does the development of his relationship with Star-Lord and Ego. The plot that sees him in exile from the other Ravagers gives him a certain vulnerability, and he’s brought low early on.

His comeback is impressive and one of the strongest parts of the film, and the sequence where he and Rocket escape, and he gets revenge on the crew who mutinied is a masterpiece, one of the most visually impressive, inventive and darkly funny action sequences I’ve seen in years, and worth the ticket price alone. And his “magic arrow” weapon is just badass.

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Rooker’s softening of the character doesn’t mean that Yondu loses anything, and in fact, the character’s slow acceptance of his softer side coincides with the film’s major theme, which is about creating our own families. Yondu and Star-Lord’s father and son vibe, is well handled and Yondu is thereby placed opposite Ego, who slowly reveals a more sinister, cynical nature.

Ego is brilliantly played by the legendary Kurt Russell, who brings an easy charm to his early scenes. His laidback, jokey manner is similar to Star-Lord’s character and their bonding over the music Peter’s late mother loved is gentle and sweet.

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Kurt Russell, legend

Of course, all is not as it seems. Having won over Peter, his facade slips and the invented history he has created is shown to have been romanticised, but the film holds back one more revelation which delivers a gut punch to Peter and the audience, and serves as the turning point for the film.

The action, set on strange new worlds is glorious, the fights have energy and verve, with moments of humour dotted between the blows. The visuals are striking, and there are some nice nods to other Marvel worlds throughout.

But more than just looking great and keeping the laughs flowing, this movie has a strong emotional core. Ego’s shocking statement leaves the audience reeling, but come the end of the movie the other characters and how they work together has you emotionally invested, and breaks your heart. I’m not ashamed to say that during a sequence soundtracked by Cat Stevens I found myself welling up.

Thanos, the villain Marvel have been hyping since the first Avengers movie still lurks in the background, but this serves less as a movie to move the MCU forward, and more a film to move the characters forward. The films pulls the team closer together and the promise at the end that “The Guardians of the Galaxy Will Return” is one I’m very happy about.

A strong contender for the best Marvel film yet, and current frontrunner for film of the year.

Verdict: Builds well on the first movie, adding more to the characters and their relationships. It’s entertaining from start to finish, with superb action, humour and a decent plot. An utter gem. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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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.

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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.


My Favourite Films #26: First Blood

It’s sad how quickly misconceptions can take hold, and this movie has suffered from many of these. Sylvester Stallone’s acting chops are frequently mocked, while he may be regarded with a bit more respect than Arnie, Sly is often dismissed as just another action hero but while he’s made some meatheaded clunkers along the way, it ignores the fact that he has also had some great performances. Similarly, due to the witless sequels the character of Rambo has become a synonym for gung-ho, gun happy action bombast.

The thing is, while the sequels did slide that way, this first outing for the character is a much more interesting, darker and less clean cut affair, and boasts a fine performance from Stallone at it’s heart.

Like Rambo said- "Don't push me!"

This isn’t the story of a gun wielding hero blazing through hostiles and saving the day, this is a bitter story about the way soldiers can carry the horrors of war long into peace time and the possibly dangerous qualities of leaving veterans without support or rehabilitation back into the civilian world.

Stallone plays Rambo, a former special forces soldier who served during the Vietnam War. Years after the conflict he has become a drifter and visits an address given to him by an old comrade, only to discover that the man has died of cancer due to the chemical weapons used by the US in the conflict.

Rambo moves on and reaches the small town of Hope, where he hopes to get some food before moving on. The local sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) spots him and due to his unkempt appearance decides to drive him out of town, giving him a ride to the town limits and dropping him off. Rambo, however, turns around and heads for town, at which point Teasle arrests him.

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While in custody Rambo remains silent and uncooperative, suffering abuse at the hands of deputy Galt (Jack Starrett). When they hose him down one of the deputies, Mitch (David Caruso), expresses concerns over Rambo’s scars and expresses concern over Galt’s conduct.

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Rambo’s abuse causes him to flashback to his treatment as a PoW during the war and he fights off the deputies, injuring several before he escapes and flees into the mountains.

Pursued by a helicopter Rambo attempts to evade them, but comes under fire by Galt, who is ignoring Teasle’s orders no to shoot, Rambo defends himself and in doing so Galt falls to his death from the chopper.

Teasle and his men give chase, but the highly skilled Rambo makes short work of the subduing the inexperienced deputies and warns Teasle to back off, before vanishing once more.

"Let it go!"

“Let it go!”

This sequence is handled very well by director Ted Kotcheff, who captures the disorganization and panic of the deputies as Rambo appears and disappears in the undergrowth and deploys booby traps. Throughout this there’s a sense of danger and Stallone captures the character’s ruthless, cold approach to combat.

The national guard and state police arrive to aid in the manhunt, and Rambo’s former commanding officer, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) arrives, urging the sheriff to call off the chase and let Rambo go, believing that he will be captured with less trouble at a later date. Teasle rejects this and doesn’t believe Trautman’s claims that Rambo is more of a threat to the men than they are to him.

"God didn't make Rambo...I made him"

“God didn’t make Rambo…I made him”

Crenna does very well in this role, and while he’s largely here to big up Rambo’s skills (“A man who’s been trained to ignore pain! To ignore weather! To live off the land! To eat things that’d make a billy goat puke!”) a role he would continue in the next two films, with hyperbole building Rambo’s legend. But it’s more than that, Trautman is an enigmatic figure, with hazy motives- is he really there to help Rambo, or to get rid of him. And by helping does he mean merely recruiting to fight once more? Crenna handles it all well, and has a charismatic confidence throughout. Towards the end of the film he shows more humanity and sympathy for Rambo, coming to understand what the situation is, with sympathy replacing his initial rage and dissatisfaction.

The reckless National Guard soldiers engage Rambo in a gunfight at the entrance to a mine, and blow the mine using a rocket launcher, believing that they have killed Rambo. However, he has hidden in the mine and escapes, hijacking a National Guard truck and heading back to the town, where he quickly begins taking out the power and wreaking havoc, while Teasle holes up on the roof of the station, awaiting him.

What I love about this movie is that despite watching it half a dozen times when I stumbled on it last week I was quickly engrossed and saw things I’d missed. Originally I just thought it was about a battle scarred veteran who’s pushed too far and snaps, but watching it again it blurs the lines even more.

Trautman accuses Rambo of actively seeking the fight, which I’d previously dismissed, but there might be something to that. Does Rambo decide to return to town because Teasle driving him out seems unjust? Or does he actually want a fight? Coming from finding out another of his squad has died, does he just want to unleash his rage and do the only thing he can remember how to do?

Similarly, his final assault on the town may just be an attempt at suicide, a desire to go out fighting rather than fade away. Is this his motivation? Can he think of no other way to proceed, other than to pursue the glorious death he was denied during wartime?

Halfway through the film I almost tweeted that First Blood is one of very few films where the good guy kills a dog (the only other example I can think of is The Rookie, because stuff like I Am Legend or other mercy kills don’t count) but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered- is Rambo the good guy?

Stallone ensures he’s a sympathetic character, and the protagonist here, but a good guy? A hero? Its not clear. There are heroic qualities, he wounds the deputies and gives Teasle the chance to back off, but why doesn’t he slip away after the mine explosion? Why head for town and declare war on it?

He’s not a hero, but he’s definitely an anti-hero. His treatment from the law enforcement officers, from the rude and dismissive Teasle to the actively abusive Galt is troubling viewing, and while others object none actively intervene. His motivations are murky, but the backstory, and the flashbacks reveal that the war has left it’s mark on him, mentally as well as physically.

It’s here that Stallone’s performance is a triumph. His face is impassive for much of the film, in fact the only time we see him smile or light up is when talking about his old army buddy at the start. As soon as this friend’s death is revealed his demeanour changes, and he becomes closed off, as though his final shred of humanity and hope has been killed off and he is now an empty husk, deadened by the horrors he witnessed.

Stallone as Rambo: A great performance

Stallone as Rambo: A great performance

Stallone nails the thousand yard stare and quiet pain of the veteran, and for much of the film this is kept restrained. When he first speaks to Trautman on the radio it’s still there, the dull, ache of grief and loneliness. It only comes to the surface at the end, where the cornered Rambo finally breaks down, crying and yelling as he recounts a war story to Trautman. It’s a powerful scene, with Stallone pitching it just right, and while it might seem OTT to some it works, because it’s someone finally opening the floodgates after years of silence and despair.

What makes the scene even better is Crenna’s reaction to it. The colonel watches his man break down, realizing the extent of the damage and in the end embraces him, and they leave together.

The ending is left open, with the audience not knowing what the future holds for Rambo, but the hope that he will finally receive the help he needs.

It’s a fantastic, moving movie and proves, along with the first Rocky movie in particular, that Stallone was a proper acting talent.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Movie Review: Bullet to the Head

I’m a massive fan of Sylvester Stallone, having loved quite a few of his movies and enjoyed all of what I’ve seen him in (although I have chosen to avoid the Get Carter remake and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot), as such I’m definitely the target audience for this flick, which will keep established fans happy, even if it’s unlikely to lure any new ones in.

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The movie has a decidedly old school feel, with the plot being traditional buddy action fare-

Stallone plays Jimmy Bobo, a Louisiana based hitman. Jimmy and his partner, Louis (Jon Seda) are hired to take out a lowlife called Greely, which they do, but Jimmy can’t shoot a hooker who’s also in the hotel room and leaves her alive, something he fears will cause problems. While waiting to meet their contact they are attacked by Keegan (Jason Momoa), an ex-special forces soldier working as a mercenary, Keegan kills Louis but after a fight with Jimmy he flees.

Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), a Washington DC based detective arrives in town to investigate Greely’s death, who turns out to be an ex-cop who went rogue. With Louis in the same morgue Kwon believes the two deaths are linked, and meeting with resistance from the local cops, tracks down Jimmy, who is reluctant to help.

However, after saving Kwon from thugs and taking him to get patched up by his daughter, Lisa (Sarah Shahi), Jimmy agrees to work with Kwon. Jimmy’s relationship with Lisa is strained and Kwon’s attraction to her doesn’t help their developing partnership.

They work their way up the chain and discover that Greely was killed because he was trying to blackmail a dodgy businessman, Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Keegan was to kill Louis and Jimmy to cover their tracks.

As they close in on their quarry Jimmy and Kwon clash over how they should proceed, with Jimmy planning to eliminate everyone while Kwon maintaining that they need to be brought to justice, Jimmy included. The situation is exacerbated when Keegan snatches Lisa in order to get back Greely’s evidence from Jimmy. Can they rescue her? Who’s path will they follow? And if they succeed what will Kwon do about Jimmy?

The answers to these questions are fairly obvious, but while the film is far from perfect it succeeds as a fairly entertaining action movie.

This is down largely to Stallone’s performance, as he brings his easy charm to the role of the fairly detached career criminal. He ensures that Jimmy gives off the impression of being someone who’s seen it all before and approaches his job in a fairly laid back way, with this manner that shows he’s rather world-weary. He shows moments of supreme ruthlessness and it’s clear that years as a criminal have eliminated any squeamishness about killing, which he seems to view as just being his job.

Despite his age Stallone convinces as the hired killer, he’s no longer as cartoonishly muscular as he was in the middle part of his career, but he’s still in great shape and despite being leaner he still looks like someone who can handle himself. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that as he ages Stallone looks like someone who’s been put through the mill, and carries himself like a badass.

Stallone as Jimmy- Badass

Stallone as Jimmy- Badass

While he’s comfortable killing he still exhibits some heroic qualities most notably his compassion for the hooker and also his loyalty to his ex partner, he may try to underplay it at times or make out that his mission is motivated by self-interest but there’s a sense that he genuinely liked Louis and want’s revenge. There’s also something rather touching in his relationship with Lisa, and Jimmy’s inability to connect properly other than showing his concern in heavy handed ways.

Stallone also benefits from having a great villain to play against in the form of Momoa’s Keegan, who’s shown to be very different from Jimmy. Both are skilled killers and comfortable around death, but there’s a distinct feeling that Keegan enjoys it far more than Jimmy does. Momoa plays Keegan with this kind of intense, barely contained rage and the character is shown to be motivated purely by his desire for fighting. Momoa also succeeds in giving the character a bit of dangerous charisma that stops him from just being a thug.

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Physically Momoa is astonishing, a towering behemoth of muscle he strides through the film leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, but when he clashes with Jimmy the fights are fairly believable, as we’re shown that despite the size difference Jimmy is pretty tough and can take a beating, as well as being a down-and-dirty street fighter.

The action sequences are handled well, and the whole film has a rather old school vibe to it, possibly due to the direction of Walter Hill, who’s made a fair few solid action flicks. Hill avoids the fast cutting and over-the-top flourishes of modern directors, and it really works for the film, which is paced well and allows things to unfold in a way that’s easy to follow.

The film has it’s flaws though, and one of the major ones is the character of Kwon. While Kang does his best and handles the banter well enough with Stallone, their buddy duo never quite clicks due to the fact that it’s Jimmy who does most of the work. I know that this is often the case with buddy duos, with one being the maverick and the other serving either as a straight man (Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon) or as out-and-out comic relief (Chris Tucker’s Carter in Rush Hour), but they usually play some role in the duo.

Here however the split is about 85-15 in favour of Jimmy, and while this is understandable it’s a shame that Kwon is sidelined quite so much. Yes, he’s intended to be the uptight cop trying to restrain Jimmy’s more hands on approach to justice, but he’s deprived of even being a good copper, as we’re shown he gets most of his info from the internet on his phone. While this shows the difference between the two main characters and shows just how behind Jimmy is, it kind of makes the partner character look week and useless. If he has no clear skills why the hell is Jimmy taking him along? The film would have been better served by building up Kwon’s role or at least making him a bit smarter.

It feels like an opportunity wasted and as though the filmmakers knew that Stallone could carry the film, but it would be nice if the partnership had been a little bit more even.

The other opportunity wasted is the location, with New Orleans’ sweltering heat and dive bars not getting a showing, aside from a rather cool blues-inflected soundtrack the film could be set anywhere and it’s a shame that the ambience of the area isn’t used to greater effect. Even Dracula 2000 made better use of the city.

But all in the all Hill pulls it off and makes a film which while never being groundbreaking still ticks a lot of the boxes and will work for action and Stallone fans, especially as the Italian Stallion shows that he can still carry a film by himself.

Verdict: Despite some flaws in the execution this is a fairly well made action movie, with Stallone in good form as a world weary killer and Momoa impressive as his nemesis. The action sequences are executed well, and while it’s not going to blow you away completely it’ll still make a good movie for an evening in with some pizza and some cans. 6/10

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Movie Review: Dredd

Are you alone as you sit down to read this? Have a look around just to be sure nobody’s around because I have a secret to share…Okay, ready?

I have a bit of a soft spot for the 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie Judge Dredd.

 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing like the comics, horribly cheesy, features far too much Rob Schneider and is generally a bit naff. However, I’m a big Stallone fan and I can enjoy the film because I’ve completely divorced it from the source material.

Over 15 years later Dredd returns to the big screen, and the new film is a very different beast.

In a desolate, post-war future most of the world has been transformed into a desolate wasteland known as the Cursed Earth, mankind has withdrawn into immense, sprawling cities, chief among them Mega City One, which covers the North East corner of what used to be the USA. The city is made up of massive tower blocks that rise above the remnants of the old cities and towns, and due to the vast size  and sheer number of inhabitants (800 million) the city is a violent, crime riddled dystopia.

The law is enforced by the Judges, heavily armed cops who are able to dispense justice on the spot, serving as judge, jury and executioner . One of the best is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a tough, grizzled veteran who is charged with evaluating a rookie, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who effected by the residual radiation from the war has mutated to possess psychic abilities. Dredd is skeptical of how she’ll manage, but takes her out into the field.

They arrive at the scene of a grisly triple homicide at the Peach Trees block where they arrest a gang member responsible for the killings, Kay (Wood Harris), and plan to take him back to the hall of justice. Kay works for Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) a vicious gang leader who’s at the centre of a new drug sweeping the city, slo-mo, which makes time slow down for the user. She ordered the killing of the three men who represented a rival gang. On hearing that Kay is being taken for interrogation she locks the block down, sealing Dredd and Anderson within and ordering all gang members to take them out.

Heavily outnumbered, Dredd and Anderson need to find a way out, fight off the gang and bring Ma-Ma to justice, and begin to fight their way up the tower.

I really dug this film, at a little over 90 minutes its a very pacy, explosive action movie with a relatively simple plot reminiscent of this year’s The Raid. The film opens with a short voice over from Dredd that sets up the future world and then pitches us right into the action with a car chase as Dredd takes out a couple of perps. Then he meets Anderson, they go to the building and its not long before it all goes to hell for them. Its not a film that hangs about.

One of the things I really liked is that it comes a lot closer to capturing the tone of the comics, which was always a darkly humourous, hyper-violent and misanthropic vision of the future. Forget Mos Eisley, Mega City One is the ultimate hive of scum and villainy. The city is realized in a pretty cool way, rejecting some of the comics’ more OTT stylings and instead crafting a more realistic city where the towering blocks rise among the ruins of the old world (although I was disappointed that they didn’t follow the comic tradition of having blocks named after celebrities).

Mega City One

A similar attitude is taken to the look of the Judges and their gear, which is a more realistic version of the comics and ensures they avoid the campness of the Stallone flick. The iconic helmets remain (and Dredd’s stays on this time, fans will be happy to hear) but the rest of the gear is toned down a bit, the shoulder pads aren’t as impractically massive and the uniform is replaced with armour which makes sense given the situations the Judges find themselves in.

As the man himself Urban is well cast, he has physical presence and delivers Dredd’s lines in a suitably gruff, tough manner reminiscent of the character’s inspiration, Clint Eastwood. With half his face covered its a tough job to convey emotions, and Dredd is quite reserved but Urban manages in the way he shifts his jaw to hint at Dredd’s inner rage and struggles to control it, as well as delivering many of his lines with a dark, sardonic wit.

Physical presence- Urban as Dredd

Urban is good casting because while a fairly established actor is not a mega star who’s face would have to be revealed as was the case in ’95. He does a very good job, convincing as the hard as nails Judge and making the fascistic Dredd likable.

Urban is ably supported by Thirlby as Anderson. Thirlby’s slight frame and slightly elfin features lend her a sense of fragility that contrasts nicely with Dredd who at times appears to be a relentless force of nature. However, that’s not to say Anderson is some weak damsel-in-distress figure, as at times she shows real toughness and a hard streak within. She is however less comfortable and cold blooded than Dredd is when dispensing justice and is forced to meet the family of one perp she wastes.

Thirlby as Anderson

She’s a believable rookie, showing the skills she’s been taught but also the inexperience when called on to use them, and its easy to see why she impresses Dredd over the course of the film. She’s the audience’s entrance point into the world, someone who’s not so at ease with the killing and bloodshed as Dredd and raises interesting questions about the film’s hero as well. Was he once a hesitant rookie? Or was he always the ruthless lawman?

Her psychic abilities are a nice touch, she scans Dredd and there’s a hint that something lies beneath his rage and control, and it comes in handy throughout the film. It really helps develop her scenes with Kay, who attempts to rattle her by thinking of her sexually and in a darker way that isn’t revealed to the audience. Its also central to what I think is one of the film’s best, and most powerful scenes, where after Dredd roughs him up, Anderson takes over and psychically interrogates him. We get a brief glimpse of the discussion within his head, and just as it looks like Anderson is going to become a victim she flips it. The scene is slightly uncomfortable, but the filmmakers show good judgement in not showing us all of what happens in his head, just the real world consequences. Cutting back into the room to see a broken suspect and a steely, in control Anderson.

Thirlby is convincing in all aspects, as a shaky, unsure newcomer and the tough core that lies within.

As the villain, Headey is good value, making her Ma-Ma a grim, unstable and vindictive crime boss. She doesn’t get that much screen time but what she does get she uses extremely well, making Ma-Ma a vile, menacing villain.

Vile and menacing- Headey as Ma-Ma.

The film is shot wonderfully well, the slo-mo drug giving the director a chance to shoot these extremely slow, strangely beautiful sequences where water drops, glass shards and smoke swirl around slowly in an odd, dream-like way. The actions sequences have a real hardcore, gory edge to them and there are a couple of wince inducing moments, but its nice to see a film which doesn’t try and soften the blows. The violence here is brutal, real and utterly compelling.

I was a little miffed that I had to see it in 3D, but I must say that, while I’m still against the whole 3D thing, this was one of the better uses of it- the slo-mo sequences in particular benefited from it and for much of the film it wasn’t intrusive, which is nice.

Verdict: Urban does very well as the badass Judge and the interplay between the gruff veteran and the shaky rookie is largely well handled and peformed. The film’s world is wonderfully created, with the filmmakers respecting the source material without being shackled to it, allowing them to change things so they work better in a different medium. The simple plot works for the gruff, no-nonsense character and its extremely good fun, with hard hitting action sequences and some nice visuals. Would quite like to see the lawman return to the big screen again. 8/10.

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.


Top 10 Worst Comic Characters to Screen Transfers

Okay, I’m kind of cheating and writing this on Monday afternoon but that’s because I’m away this weekend for family stuff and probably wouldn’t get a chance to post. I rewatched Daredevil this week and it got me thinking about other comic book characters who have moved to the big screen, so here’s my ten least favourite. My 10 favourites will be up tomorrow. As ever, they’re in no order, as I can’t be bothered to rank them.

1. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

As seen in: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Played by: Sean Connery, Jason Flemyng, Shane West etc

Urghhh.

The obvious one to open with. Alan Moore’s comic book is a wonderfully twisted, inventive tale that unites various literary characters (Mr Hyde, Allan Quatermain, Mina Harker and Captain Nemo) join forces to fight evil for the British Empire. Its a very grown up piece of work with lots of dark edges and black humour, so making it into a film was an odd choice. Rather inevitably everything that made the books so fresh was stripped back and it was remade as a kids action movie, and stunk up the place.

They added Tom Sawyer (Shane West) to sell it better to the Yanks, turned Mina into a full fledged vampire and sanded off so many edges you could have bowled with it. Utterly tedious and so bad Sean Connery hasn’t graced our screens since. That’s right, he kept going after The Avengers, but this one made him retire.

2. Emma Frost aka the White Queen

As seen in: X-Men: First Class (2011)
Played by: January Jones

Emma Frost is badass. She’s an incredibly powerful telepath who winds up leading the X-Men, but in this film she’s essentially Kevin Bacon’s moll and they push more about her being able to turn into a stupid diamond lady. Poor show, and a missed opportunity to have a strong female villain, similar to how they dropped the ball with Mystique in the other X-movies.

3. Venom

As seen in: Spider-man 3 (2007)
Played by: Topher Grace

Check out my review of The Amazing Spider-man for a hint of how much I loathe this film, and one of the worst things is how badly Venom is used. In the books Venom is a genuine threat and a match for Spidey after bonding with Eddie Brock, who hates the wall-crawler.

He’s largely a villain, but there are times when he works as a vigilante. In the film he’s just whiny Topher Grace and never convinces, especially as he goes straight to teaming up with Sandman instead of just going toe-to-toe with Spidey.

4. Sabretooth

As seen in: X-Men (2000)
Played by: Tyler Mane

Sabretooth is terrifying in the comics, he’s bigger and stronger than Wolverine and also a complete psychopath. Its his ruthless, calculating side that makes him a good bad guy, backed up by his physical power, but in the film they ditched all the psycho stuff and hired Mane, a wrestler for the role, reducing him to just being Magneto’s muscle. He may not have looked the part as much, but Liev Schreiber’s Sabretooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine was an improvement.

5. Robin and Batgirl

As seen in: Batman Forever and Batman & Robin (1995 and ’97)
Played by: Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone

Batman’s sidekicks are always going to be a tough sell. Get them wrong and they look campy and lame, and they definitely got them wrong here.

Lame

First of all there’s Robin, played by Chris O’Donnell. O’Donnell looks well too old for some of Dick Grayson’s adolescent bitching and is just irritating. Why make him a grown man, surely they could have found a teenage actor that would have worked better. O’Donnell is always quite wooden on screen but here he’s even worse. Robin is tough to get right, we get that, but in the comics he’s smart and quick witted, here he’s just another person Bats has to rescue.

After the failure of Robin we shouldn’t have expected much from the Batgirl and it really goes wrong, quickly. First of all, they change the backstory- she’s Alfred’s niece? Huh? Why couldn’t they keep her as Barbara Gordon, or a new character who started fighting crime independently of the dynamic duo?

Instead she just turns up and is given a suit, robbing her of a decent origin story and just having her tag along, awkwardly flirt with O’Donnell and help kill the franchise.

Its a shame, as I really like Alicia Silverstone and was gutted by just how poorly she was used in the film.

6. Storm

As seen in: X-Men, X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand (2000-06)
Played by: Halle Berry

This one hurt a lot.

I love Storm. Since I got into the X-Men through the cartoon series in the ’90s she’s been one of my favourites. She’s this wonderfully strong woman who leads the team and has this aura of authority. So of course she should be in the team when they made a movie. Sadly they went with Halle Berry for the part.

First mistake- casting Halle Berry in the role

Halle Berry makes awful movies. She’s not a great actress and as such Storm was relegated to just a rather dull part of the team and doesn’t really develop over the course of the trilogy. Her powers are mighty but she’s a frightfully weak character. Her only real purpose is to run around, lecture Wolverine (and lust after him? Or am I seeing something noone else is?).

Oh, and she wears stupid wigs and delivers one of the worst lines of all time.

7. Nightcrawler

As seen in: X2 (2003)
Played by:  Alan Cumming

Don’t get me wrong the first attack on the White House is awesome, but Cumming’s Kurt is too mopey and also, his accent sucks. The character should be a lot more fun.

8. Judge Dredd

As seen in: Judge Dredd (1995)
Played by: Sylvester Stallone

First of all, a confession. I quite like the Judge Dredd movie, but mainly because I can flick a switch that allows me to completely separate it from the comic books and I love Sly Stallone. Think about the two in connection and well, it sucks.

As all 2000AD fans know the first mistake is that Stallone takes off the helmet, something which hopefully won’t happen in Dredd, and secondly the tone is wrong. Yes, the comic is capable of daft, juvenile humour but it also contains black humour and satirical barbs, here its just another action movie, but set in the future.

And Dredd is too human and emotional, his cool headed toughness is what fans love about the character.

9. Commissioner Gordon

As seen in: Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin (1989-97)
Played by: Pat Hingle.

One of the best things Christopher Nolan’s Batman revamp did was allow the world at large to see Jim Gordon as a decent character, thanks to Gary Oldman’s good work. Before that he’d always been shown as a luckless buffoon who completely relied on Batman, whereas in the books they’re shown to work closely together and build up a solid trust and respect for each other. I know Hingle’s character is only on the sidelines, but it still grates how useless they make Gordon.

10. Deadpool

As seen in: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Played by: Ryan Reynolds

Okay, I’m not a massive Deadpool fan, I haven’t read a lot of his books but what I’ve seen I’ve enjoyed. So I was stoked he was appearing in the Wolverine movie, and even more so when I found out he was going to be played by long time man-crush Ryan Reynolds.

Ryan Reynolds

Reynolds seemed a perfect fit for the Merc’ with a mouth and did impress when he was on screen, unfortunately that wasn’t very much. Not only did they squander a good character they wasted the chance for Reynolds to really cut loose as the motormouthed character. When he finally became Deadpool they made it so he couldn’t talk. Bloody idiots.

Well, here’s hoping the Reynolds starring follow up will be a marked improvement, maybe even break the fourth wall a bit?

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO