59 posts categorized "Action/Adventure"

March 11, 2017


Kong-skull-island-posterWho is Kong this time? That’s the burning question any movie audience should be asking themselves when going into this woefully disappointing military adventure flick. In 2017, you might suppose that the biggest monkey on the planet would be anatomically correct; however, that is not the case. We are left to conclude that Kong might represent a transgendered ape co-opted by a foreign and domestic patriarchy to fit their narrative agenda. One thing is for certain; our gigantic ape protagonist isn’t sporting a package.

The by-committee (and focus grouped) script loses ground early on by not identifying the human protagonist that we should put our faith in for this two-hour endurance test. At first blush it seems that John Goodman’s super-invested scientist Bill Randa is the man for the job, but the screenwriters quickly shuffle Bill off to the side in favor of Tom Hiddleston’s oh-so-metrosexual James Conrad, a British ex-military mercenary tracker who probably counts calories. Conrad comes across as the kind of guy who wouldn’t know what to do with a boner if he ever got one. Equally absent of a libidinous center is Brie Larson’s “antiwar photographer” Mason Weaver. Even Kong can’t manage to muster any romantic interest in Mason when he holds her tiny body in his giant maw. Forget about Fey Wray or Jessica Lange (two O.G. actresses whose characters Kong took amorous interest in); the days of cross-species attraction are over. You can’t have a King Kong movie without a love story.

Kong Skull Island

The storyline goes half in the bag as a “Heart of Darkness” knock-off that might whet your appetite to check out Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Redux” just to remind you what a great film is like. There are so many rock music montages in “Kong: Skull Island” that they feel like commercial breaks in the action. It’s fine to give Iggy and the Stooges props by playing “Down On The Street,” but it reeks of filmmakers trying way too hard to be hip.

This movie devolves into a slasher picture where you keep guessing about who will be knocked off next. We already know most of the U.S. soldiers sent along on the (circa 1973) mission are doomed. The filmmakers could have at least pulled out some real surprises in this area of character deletions. Instead, every plot point seems so rote you could script the story as you’re watching it. Sure, there’s some cool spectacle to be had, as when Kong battles a giant lizard creature, but there’s isn’t any meaningful social commentary for subtext.

“Kong: Skull Island” is a neutered adventure movie without any soul, or balls.   


Rated PG-13. 120 mins (C-) (One Star — out of five / no halves) 

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October 29, 2016


Sully-poster-2For a near-disaster movie about a pilot who famously kept his commercial jetliner (with “155 souls on board”) above water, Clint Eastwood’s fact-based procedural feels like it was filmed underwater. This film’s dirge-like tempo and similarly muted emotional range of every single character puts a deadening filter between the story and this film’s audience.

It’s more like watching a funeral, than witnessing one of the most spectacular lifesaving events in recent memory. Perhaps most troubling is Eastwood’s (possibly subconscious) inclination toward celebrating white people for the sake of their whiteness. If historic Caucasian pap is your thing, then this movie is for you. You can count the number of people with brown skin in this film on one hand. More to that point, the film’s dramatic arc crescendos on Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) agreeing that they “did their job.” If you’re looking for a low thematic bar to hurdle, we’ve go a ringer here.      


Tom Hanks plays Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the stoic pilot who crash-landed his US Airways plane on Manhattan's Hudson River after a bird strike took out both engines. Hanks’s performance might be true the human model he represents but we don’t get much, if any insight, into what makes Sully tick. He’s an underpaid career pilot whose vast experience, flying many thousands of hours, allowed him to make critical decisions in split seconds that saved the lives of everyone aboard his plane. We already knew that. This film doesn’t explain much that most of our collective American conscious doesn’t already know, other than how flight simulators work.


“Sully” comes across as an exhausted victory lap for Clint Eastwood. Give the guy his due. That still doesn’t mean that he hasn’t made a disappointing movie.

Rated PG-13. 96 mins. (C-) (One Star — out of five / no halves)

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July 29, 2015


Mission-Impossible-Rogue-NationTested by a inane MacGuffin that would make anyone who's ever heard of WikiLeaks burst out laughing, an anti-heroine (named Ilsa Faust) whose allegiances are tediously ambiguous, and an overlong running time that wears out its stunt-filled welcome, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is a total bust.

In keeping with producer Tom Cruise’s modus operandi for the “Mission Impossible” franchise (to change directors for each film) Christopher McQuarrie (“Edge of Tomorrow”) takes his shot at injecting energy into a series that has run out of gas. McQuarrie, famous for writing the script for “The Usual Suspects,” fumbles with supporting characters so much that action sequences arrive as a relief from watching the storyline crumble all around them.

Looking every bit his age, the 53-year-old Tom Cruise reliably works though breathtaking stunt sequences, some more so than others. The film’s much-ballyhooed outdoor plane ride kicks off the action with Cruise praying that nothing flies into his eyes as the military cargo plane that Ethan Hunt hangs onto accelerates high into the air. It’s an impressive stunt, and gives the movie a running start that sadly wanes considerably by the film’s third act.

Naturally, the nerve-gas missiles Ethan needs to reroute in midair have nothing to do with the gumbo narrative that re-teams the action-prone spy with his IMF (“Impossible Missions Force, not the “International Monetary Fund,” though the they may as well be interchangeable) cohorts William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), tech guru Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames). Don’t go looking for much plot participation from Renner, Pegg, or Rhames, they’re only in the movie as background.

An international crime syndicate, called (shock) “The Syndicate,” has been busy imitating the US Government’s escalating practice of destabilizing countries and communities around the world. Obviously, the filmmakers couldn’t make the US Government the film’s rogue boogey man but they might have come up with a better movie if they had. Go big or go home.

The picture is nothing more than a mishmash of disjointed suspense and chases scenes that would have Alfred Hitchcock turning in his grave. There’s never any build-up; the audience is thrown into such sequences cold. Ethan does some fancy backstage footwork at a Vienna State Opera performance of “Turandot,” where a couple of wily snipers have their laser sights aimed at a dignitary in the audience. Although the scene ends in a neat bit of hairsplitting decision-making on Ethan’s part, we the audience aren't supplied with enough context or backstory to care.

A madcap motorcycle chase in Morocco juices up the location-jumping intensity, but by the time Ethan finally gets around to facing down the Syndicate’s diabolical leader (played by Sean Harris), the villain seems like a very small fish indeed. It’s an old law of screenwriting that any protagonist must have a worthy opponent. In the case of “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation,” the heavy is a paper tiger. Next.

Rated PG-13. 131 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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May 30, 2015


Mad-Max-Fury-RoadMad Max Fury Road” makes up for what it lacks in storyline and character development with a groundbreaking blend of feminist politics and action-movie tropes in a broad physical spectacle featuring death-defying stunts atop and between a constantly moving canvas of motor-driven insanity. Even the set design kills. The film’s imaginatively redesigned vehicles (check out a muscle car transformed into a tank with caterpillar tracks for wheels, and a long-spiked dune buggy that looks like something out of Roger Corman’s “Death Race 2000”) expand the thematic blood-work on display. The cars themselves are fully developed characters. The “Gigahorse” is a six-wheeled behemoth made up of two fin-tailed Cadillacs stuck together with mounted rifle stands attached on its back. If this doesn’t sound like fascinating stuff, think again.

George Miller (the creator and director of all of the films in the “Mad Max” franchise, of which this is the fourth installment) delivers a shamelessly badass rock ‘n’ roll dystopian chase movie —nothing more and nothing less. This is a movie in which to get lost for the pure joy of sitting in the middle of sand-in-your-face action cinema. The term “popcorn movie” has a new defining model.

Mad Max2The not-so-secret aspect of “Fury Road” (love the sound of that title) that makes its dusty orange, sun-drenched nonstop-action so engaging and exciting is Miller’s bold decision to eschew (as much as possible) computer-generated-imagery in favor of the trusty old-school approach he famously used in the other films in the series (“Mad Max” 1979, “Mad Max: The Road Warrior” 1981, and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” 1985).

“Fury Road” is to cinema as the Ramones’s “Teenage Lobotomy” was to rock ‘n’ roll. The picture’s deceptive depth lies in its blistering backbeat of fast-paced action fulfilled by a cast of gnarly Wild West-inspired characters “living to die and dying to live.” A lack of water and oil has turned humanity into hordes of people living by their primal instincts.

When bodies fly fast through the air to crash onto hot sand, you can’t help but wonder how the stuntman survived. When an enormous car-flipping crash involving several large beefed-up vehicles explodes into giant red balls of fire on the big screen, the dynamic feat on display boggles your mind and tweaks your eyes. Miller reinvents his own cinema (the same one he invented in 1979). He stays true to his ferociously kinetic filmic vision by drawing from rich classic sources, such as Buster Keaton’s 1926 comedy “The General.”

Mad Max3Miller proudly announces “Fury Road” as a feminist think piece. Charlize Theron’s implacable bionic-armed heroine Imperator Furiosa leads the lion’s share of the action. The steely Furiosa turns a fuel-delivery (via the giant oil truck she drives) into a rescue mission to transport five “wives” to Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne in a franchise return), the demonic despot who controls the flow of water to the starving masses. The Australian filmmaker balances the motherly power of femininity with tougher aspects of womanhood, namely a cold-blooded will to kick serious ass LAMF. Instant cult classic? You bet.


Rated R. 120 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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June 01, 2013


Now-you-see-meThis convoluted shell game of a movie loses track of its own objectives. What starts out as a promising marriage of different approaches to magic — a mentalist, a female escape artist, a sleight-of-hand wiz, and a pickpocket — for the purpose of a complex crime spree, succumbs to poor plotting amid an over-populated cast of barely sketched characters. A by-committee script (written by three screenwriters) leaves plots holes galore to be caulked by director Louis Leterrier (“Clash of the Titans”). Needless to say, Leterrier can’t do much to mitigate the script’s preference for flash over substance or character development. The spectacle wears out its welcome.

Con-men magicians J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Henely Reeves (Isla Fisher), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are brought together by some unseen hand to create an act called “The Four Horsemen” [of the apocalypse?]. Their ostensibly one-off Vegas stage act involves “robbing” a French bank and gifting their audience with millions of stolen Euros [fake]. We are led to believe that the group’s wealthy philanthropist “benefactor” Arthur Tressler is the puppet-master pulling the gang’s strings.
Enter insecure FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the group’s bank robbery — which didn’t actually occur, so why is the FBI investigating anything? Also, enter Interpol hottie Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) to team up with Agent Rhodes in investigating exactly what?


Morgan Freeman plays Thaddeus Bradley, an author specializing in exposing magicians’ secrets. Thaddeus has been videotaping the Horsemen’s act, and as such is qualified to assist in the investigation. The highlight of the movie arrives during a terse meeting between Thaddeus and Michael Caine’s character, as staged in New Orleans magic shop.

The story chases its tail regarding a warehouse safe loaded with cash that the Horsemen plan to rob. By the time the film gets around to its big revelation regarding the identity of the person responsible for the unsubstantiated shenanigans that have transpired, there is no character or motivation for the audience to side with. Most annoying is Jesse Eisenberg’s persona as a “dick” magician whose demise could have at least provided some sense of satisfaction to a movie that entertains as much as its thematic premise provides. The closer you look, the less there is to see.

Rated PG-13. 116 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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November 21, 2012


Stripped Down Bond
No Competition With Craig’s 007 Around

SkyfallThe 23rd installment in the longest-running franchise in cinema history is crafted to satisfy fans from every era of the series based on the Ian Fleming novels. Sam Mendes tastefully directs this outing of action-based espionage, gently shifting gears between a literary approach to wit, style, personality, and spectacle. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men”) gives generous attention to the visual context of the story. Every composition is a pristine expression of Ian Fleming’s dangerous milieu.

Skyfall” stands as one of the shrewder blasts of ecstasy in the long list of compelling 007 spy flicks. Another flawless credit sequence — this time featuring an evocative title song powerfully delivered by Adele — follows a mind-blowing mano a mano chase scene, between Bond and an estimable baddie, traveling across foot-wide rooftops on motorcycles before heading off on foot across the roofs of a fast-moving train. Audience heart rates go up. This is super-cool-action at its best.

“Skyfall” divides three distinct acts as individual homages to specific aspects of the franchise.

The first act is a nod to the leaner and grittier modern James Bond — as exquisitely played by Daniel Craig. He’s a first-rate action movie actor. This time around, Bond has to return to work after being thought dead for several years. He’s been off playing civilian — i.e., drinking a lot of booze. Sometimes he lets a live scorpion sit on his drinking hand as he slugs down a glass in a remote tropical island bar.


A computer-hacking genius villain named Silva launches an attack on Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s — with M (played by the irrepressible Judi Dench) in the crosshairs. Sliva has been busy revealing the identities of NATO undercover agents embedded in terrorist organizations. Javier Bardem introduces the film’s second act as Silva, with a ridiculously entertaining monologue entrance that hip drama students will be doing at auditions. Bardem’s effeminate Silva carefully measures his steps as he stalks his prey — a momentarily confined James Bond. Javier Bardem spits up and chews out scenery in Tarantino-worthy scenes. There’s a little Hannibal Lechter in Bardem’s creation. Talk about a case of perfect casting — whew.


The third act provides a retro vantage point. Bond pulls his trusty 1964 Aston Martin (circa Sean Connery's "Goldfinger") out of the garage, and treats the audience to a gloomy bit of nostalgia-defying action set in the Scottish mansion where James Bond lived as a boy when his parents died. Bond says he “never did like the place.” One thing's for sure, it won't be the same when his enemies are through with it.


The James Bond franchise is especially compelling for the lengths filmmakers go to in sidestepping hard-worn formula clichés with each new movie. Although it’s all the rage to beat up on Daniel Craig’s last Bond outing “Quantum of Solace,” it too fits the demands of the charismatic series. Daniel Craig’s trilogy of James Bond films — which started with “Casino Royale” — are hard-edged and efficient. The bottom line is it’s taken too long for “Skyfall” to come out. Four years is too long to not be witnessing the best incarnation of James Bond ever. Great as he is, Daniel Craig isn’t getting younger.

Rated PG-13. 143 mins. (A) (Five stars - out of five/no halves)

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


April 23, 2012


Action as Usual
The Cinema of Statham Rolls On
By Cole Smithey

SafeAs far as Jason Statham action movies go, writer-director Boaz Yakin’s Manhattan-set effort rolls with the best of them. It might not be the most interesting formula, but “Safe” does have the desired effect of raising the heart rate of its audience — even if every villain seems to have fallen out of a cereal box.

Statham’s two-note acting range has matured, if only ever so slightly. He almost manages to express a hint of emotion when its called for. The ageless British actor plays Luke Wright, an ex-cop and mixed martial arts cage fighter at the end of his rope. His pregnant wife’s murder at the hands of Russian mobsters leaves Luke contemplating a suicide that would bring immense pleasure to his numerous enemies on both sides of the law. Here’s where the movie picks up.

Borrowing a page from Luc Besson’s “The Professional,” a hyper-intelligent little girl leads Luke out of his depression. 12-year-old mathematics genius Mei (Catherine Chan) falls into the hands of a Chinese mob busy trying to improve profits from its illegal gambling houses and protected restaurants. The New York-based gangsters exploit Mei’s knack for memorizing numbers. She keeps in her memory an enormous string of digits that Luke recognizes as a code after rescuing her from a slew of bad guys. Local Russian mobsters and a group of corrupt New York cops are after Mei, who represents a kind of double MacGuffin that eventually gets misplaced in the shuffle of the film’s obsessive reflex for violence.

Gun-fueled action sequences hit a couple of gloriously hard crescendos. Although Yakin’s attempts to emulate a gritty ‘70s era action pictures — like say, “The French Connection” — the filmmaker is hamstrung by modern Manhattan’s glossy manicured look. Part of what made the New York action movies of the ‘70s look so great was Manhattan’s potent mixture of eccentric local characters acting out in a degraded unpredictable environment. That’s not to say that “Safe” isn’t without surprise. A couple of real doozies hit like a ton of bricks, as when our able-bodied hero makes an especially dangerous window-dive using a rival to break his fall. The scene knocks the wind out of the viewer no matter how prepared you are for the sudden impact that comes. Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky (“Batman Returns”) uses tight framing to mask New York’s Disneyfication that has replaced bodegas and dive bars with banks and cell phone stores.

Jason Statham represents a cottage film industry built on his name as the de facto franchise designation. For audiences who appreciate Statham’s character type in the “Transporter” movies over his more obnoxious personality in the “Crank” series, “Safe” is a reliable bet. There may not be much comparison with the American, or even British, gangster films of the ‘70s but at least you know what you’re getting.

Rated R. 95 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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