Friday, August 26, 2016


Anybody who saw British director Michael Winner's top-notch 1972 nail-biting killer-thriller "The Mechanic" with Charles Bronson cast as a stoic, steely-eyed assassin who makes murder look like an accident knows no remake could ever do it justice. Mind you, tough-guy Jason Statham makes "Con-Air" director Simon West's rehash of this classic action epic tolerable. Statham possesses an iconic presence that filmmakers have been grooming since he made his debut in writer & director Guy Ritchie's outstanding crime opus "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" in 1998. French producer Luc Besson catapulted the actor to widespread prominence with the larger-than-life "The Transporter" franchise. Meantime, if the best action movies must top each other, then "The Mechanic" has Statham running in place. Although it occurs in a believable physical environment, "The Mechanic" is just too conventional to be more than average. You don't see Statham perform any stunts here that he hasn't done far better in either his "Transporter" trilogy or his outlandish "Crank" movies. Credit Simon West for maintaining the momentum throughout this contemporary actioneer and staging each scene with a classy look. Nevertheless, the surprises, complications, and villains induce yawns more often than alarms.

As R-rated thrillers go, "The Mechanic" (** OUT OF ****) seems incredibly subdued compared with genuine R-rated exercises in blood, gore and murder like the recent crime epic "The Punisher." "16 Blocks" scenarist Richard Wenk has changed substantially the content and context of the original in his update. Lewis John Carlino, who penned the original, shares screen credit with Wenk, but it is difficult to determine if more than the Carlino basics were retained. A straightforward, scene-for-scene rehash of the original "Mechanic" would have been less-than-inspired but more than adequate. Apparently, West and Wenk wanted to improve on the original and thus dispense with everything that made it so unforgettable.  Unlike the tragic 1972 ending, the "Mechanic" remake boasts an upbeat ending so that a sequel could ensue. Furthermore, this revenge melodrama provides more deception that makes our hero appear somewhat stupid when you think about it because the villains take advantage of him in a way that would never have occurred in the Bronson classic. Moreover, unlike Bronson and co-star Jan-Michael Vincent, Statham and Ben Foster kindle little charisma as mentor and apprentice.

Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham of "The Expendables") is a reclusive killer who performs hits for a mysterious corporation. He is the best in the business, and the first scene demonstrates his expertise. Bishop penetrates the premises of a Colombian drug lord. Scores of heavily armed brutes patrol the place. Nevertheless, our protagonist kills the
drug lord right under their collective noses. Moreover, Bishop makes it appear as if drug lord drowned. This is probably as slick as "The Mechanic" remake gets, and our anti-heroic hero makes good his escape by swimming away under the dead drug dealer. The guards think nothing unusual as they watch their wiry boss perform a slow crawl across the pool. The next thing they know is their boss has curled up dead in the water. They sound the alarm, but Bishop is far away. Bishop meets his mentor, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland of "The Eagle Has Landed"), who cruises around in a wheelchair. Harry brings Bishop a package of greenbacks as payment. Bishop and harry have a history, and Harry is the closest to a friend that Arthur has. When Arthur isn't knocking off people, he listens to vinyl Schubert recordings on a turntable, tinkers with his fashionable Jaguar, and checks his e-mail on his Apple. Occasionally, he goes out for a drink and enjoys the company of a well-paid prostitute. Incidentally, Arthur lives in a sumptuous residence in a remote bayou outside of New Orleans. Life for Arthur, as
far as everything goes, couldn't be better until he learns that Harry has been selling out his colleagues to the tune of $50 million. Harry's partner, Dean (Tony Goldwyn of "Ghost"), contacts Arthur and shows him a sheaf of gory photos.

Naturally, Arthur has to think about this contract. A life-long friend, Harry has been there for him. Harry loves Arthur like a son. Harry has a son, Steve (Ben Foster of "3:10 to Yuma"), but he hates him. Anyway, Arthur decides to ice Harry, if for no other reason than Harry will suffer less. Ingeniously, Arthur makes Harry's death look like a carjacking. Eventually, Steve drifts into the picture, and revenge dominates his thinking. Arthur intervenes to keep Steve from killing an innocent criminal and decides to train Steve as an assassin. Dean doesn't think that this is one of Arthur's better ideas. Arthur teaches Steve the rules of killing, but Steve isn't as cautious and careful. Rather than kill a child molesting thug without fanfare, Steve decides to beat the man to death. Steve survives, but he looks like he ran into a bull dozer. As Steve learns more and more, he moves in with Arthur. One day Steve discovers his father's nickel-plated automatic
pistol in Arthur's storage tubs and plots his mentor's demise. Before he can carry out the hit, Arthur and he must leave for Chicago to murder a religious cult figure with a controversial background. Indeed, nothing goes right for them, and they escape by the skin of their teeth.

Director Simon West doesn't rely on high tech gadgetry. He keeps most of violence pretty down to earth. The shoot-out scenes are staged without excessive blood and gore, and West lets nothing get in the fairly straight-f0rward storyline. West and Wenk do insert an occasional surprise. The best concerns cramming a teenage girl's fingers down a garbage disposal in a sink. Not surprisingly, Arthur Bishop comes off looking immaculate compared with his murderous colleagues as well as his wicked victims. The Charles Bronson character in the original worked for the Italian mafia. Altogether, "The
Mechanic" is primarily a nuts and bolts melodrama with little to distinguish it outside Jason Statham's tight-lipped performance and Ben Foster's maniacal energy as a wannabe killer.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


As the follow-up to “Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Fury” director David Ayer’s DC Comics extravaganza “The Suicide Squad” (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as a gritty, slam-bang, straight-faced, but formulaic action thriller with some surprises.  Although far from realistic in an any conventional sense, Ayer’s ensemble epic casts a dark shadow over everything that it depicts, and its unsavory psychotic felons tangle with powerful mystical entities from an ancient era.  Indeed, the chief villain is almost seven thousand years old and she relies on magical incantations.  Clearly, the ostensible difference between DC Comics movies and Disney’s Marvel movies is night and day, with DC preferring the dark, while Marvel basks in the daylight.  Unlike The House of Mouse’s Marvel costume-clad, crime fighters, “Squad” doesn’t sugarcoat either its costume-clad convicts or their sinister shenanigans. Interestingly enough, Twentieth Century Fox’s three Marvel franchises (“X-Men,” “Fantastic Four,” and “Deadpool”) land somewhere between DC and Disney.  Whereas the “Captain America: Civil War” characters survived miraculously to fight another day, some “Suicide Squad” characters die.  Meanwhile, the guys and gal that constitute “The Suicide Six”—even by PG-13 standards—are not role models.  Most of the “Suicide Squad” characters are as repugnant as they are formidable, and I don’t mean just the heinous criminals that the Government has recruited for Task Force X to perform their unscrupulous chores.  The trigger-happy dame, Amanda Waller, who assembles these dastards, ranks as pretty despicable herself.  In one scene, she murders in cold blood several subordinates because they weren’t cleared to handle the information that they were ordered to handle.  Unless you’re a literate DC Comics bibliophile, you may not be familiar with the Suicide Squad; they bear some resemblance to Marvel Comics’ Avengers, but altogether lack their charisma.  At the same time, Amanda Waller emerges as a version of Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. because she is far less honorable than Fury when it comes to dealing with her underlings.  Historically, the first “Suicide Squad” bore little resemblance to the cinematic “Suicide Squad.”  Captain Rick Flag and his girlfriend Karin Grace, Dr. Hugh Evans, and Jess Bright battled monsters back in 1959 in DC Comics’ “The Brave and The Bold.”  They were all humans and flew jet-bombers.  In 1987, DC Comics’ Legends Crossover graphic series introduced the new “Suicide Squad” that consisted of an assemblage of super-convicts, such as Captain Boomerang, Deadshot, and Enchantress, similar to those in Ayer’s film.
As “Suicide Squad” unfolds, Superman is still dead and gone.  Street vendors sell ‘Remember’ T-shirts commemorating the last son of Krypton.  Although Clark Kent’s alter-ego doesn’t show up for this clash of the titans, anybody with half-a-brain should know that Superman will eventually make an encore appearance.  Indeed, Warner Brothers and DC Comics have plans in the pipeline for a “Man of Steel” sequel.  Nevertheless, Superman is nowhere to be seen here, and an unscrupulous, top-level government official, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis of “The Help”), fears that the next extraterrestrials may not be as benevolent as the Man of Steel.  Consequently, she mobilizes a gang of costume-clad, super-convicts that she classifies as “the worst of the worst.”  When she presents Task Force X, the National Security Council initially wants nothing to do with it.  The Pentagon thinks that Waller’s idea is foolhardy.  In short order, Waller changes their minds.  She dispatches one of her motley crew, the witch-goddess Enchantress, aka June Moon (Cara Delevingne of “Paper Towns”), and Enchantress swipes a top-secret document from the Weapons Ministry Vault in Tehran that the Pentagon has been desperately trying to obtain by any means possible. An ex-Arkham Asylum psychiatrist Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie of “Focus”); a cream of the crop, crack-shot assassin Deadshot (Will Smith of “Concussion”); a guilt-stricken pyromaniac gang-banger El Diablo (Jay Hernandez of “Hostel”); a sociopathic Australian bank robber Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney of “Terminator Genysis”); a mutant half-man, half-crocodile cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje of “Pompeii”); and a specialized assassin Slipknot (Adam Beach of “Cowboys & Aliens”) comprise Waller’s group.  Rounding out this diversified outfit of unsavory savages is an implacable female ninja, Katana (Karen Fukuhara), armed with a bizarre samurai sword which traps the souls of all who die by its blade.  Actually, she serves to protect the group’s commander, Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman of “Robocop”), who has a genius for strategic planning.  Oddly enough, Flag is involved romantically with June Moon, an archeologist who blundered into the wrong cave and encountered the spirit of the Enchantress.  Unlike the other members of the Suicide Squad who bide their time in a miserable Louisiana dungeon isolated in a swamp, June and the creepy Enchantress share the same body.  Think of the Enchantress and June Moon split-personality as a variation on Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Whenever Waller requires June to summon the Enchantress, this treacherous 7,000-year old sorceress exerts control over June’s body.  Meantime, an elite team of Seals, led by Captain G.Q. Edwards (Scott Eastwood of “Fury”), are around to mop up what the Suicide Squad doesn’t wipe out.  Most of G.Q.’s soldiers turn out to be expendables as “The Suicide Squad” boasts a high body count.

“The Suicide Squad’’ differs from “Batman Vs Superman.”  Although Batman appears momentarily in two scenes while Bruce Wayne puts in a cameo appearance, the costume-clad convicts dominate events in “The Suicide Squad.”  They carry or conceal standard-issue weapons, and their outfits aren’t as colorful as either Batman or Superman. Basically, they are like an infantry squad that infiltrates enemy territory. Ayers uses short but exciting scenes with appropriate golden oldies hits to introduce the eponymous convicts.  Deadshot lives up to his name.  In one scene, he demonstrates his extremely accurate marksmanship by pouring scores of bullets into the same holes that he made with his first bullets.  Colonel Flag is visibly impressed.  El Diablo comes the closest to being a superhero because he can transform himself into an incendiary human torch on impulse.  Harley Quinn is a total fruit loop but she is about as dangerous a lady as you can imagine and uses her beauty to beguile men.  The one man that she beguiles the most is the Joker and he struggles to keep a tight rein on her.  Enchantress starts out as a team player but she defects and makes a strong adversary.  She can conjure up things out of thin air and she can vanish in the blink of an eye and reappear where you least expect her.  At one point, she summons the spirit of her long-lost brother to help her subjugate mankind.  Second, “The Suicide Squad” resembles a zombie combat movie.  Our anti-heroic team marches through the apocalyptic wreckage of Midway City as if they were soldiers entering a recently bombed city. The Witch-Goddess Enchantress possesses the power to turn Flag’s own men against him.  She kills Flag’s soldiers and reconstitutes them as her hooligans.  In this sense, Enchantress’ army behaves like the zombies from “The Walking Dead,” and they whittle down our heroes.  If a witch-goddess with an army of zombies weren’t enough with which to contend, our heroes clash with the Joker (Jared Leto of “The Dallas Buyers Club”) who pops up as a largely peripheral villain to rescue his sweetheart Harley Quinn.

Essentially, “The Suicide Squad” pays tribute to two cult films.  First, director Robert Aldrich’s World War II classic “The Dirty Dozen” (1967) concerned the U.S. Army recruiting commandos from a death row military prison for a mission behind enemy lines.  No, Aldrich’s film was the first one to use the idea that a government would give felons a chance to redeem themselves.  Movies like this go back as far as the Errol Flynn pirate caper “The Sea Hawk” (1940). “Second, John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” (1981) clearly inspired director David Ayers.  In “Escape from New York,” the authorities, led by Haulk (Lee Van Cleef of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”), cut a deal with the deadliest man alive, Snake Plissken (Kirk Russell), to rescue the President of the United States from evil criminals after Air Force One crashed on an island prison, in exchange for commuting his death sentence.  Just to make sure that Snake didn’t renege on the deal, Haulk injected an explosive pellet into his neck designed to blow Snake’s head off if he didn’t accomplish his mission.  As you can see, “The Suicide Squad” borrowed from the best.  Actually, there isn’t a bad performance in this offbeat film.  Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jay Hernandez, Viola Davis, and Jared Leto take top acting honors. Clocking in at two hours and three minutes, “The Suicide Squad” doesn’t provide enough detail about some characters, like Katana, but director David Ayes doesn’t squander a second as he parades the convicts to the brink of extinction.    

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Spanish helmer Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed Liam Neeson in “Unknown,” “Non-Stop,” “Run All Night,” and has plans for another film with Neeson entitled “The Commuter,” must have felt that pitting his favorite Irish actor against a ferocious Great White shark would be unfair to it.  Instead, Collet-Serra has “Age of Adaline” actress Blake Lively contend with this colossal Carcharodon carcharias in “The Shallows” (*** OUT OF ****), an entertaining, often suspenseful, but largely improbable B-movie survivalist saga.  Summer movies are typically sprawling, impersonal, and larger-than-life blockbusters, about clashes between titans and extraterrestrials, such as “Captain America: Civil War,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Warcraft,” and “Teenage Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.”  Although Collet-Serra’s film boasts a pugnacious predator roughly the size of a medium-class submarine, “The Shallows” remains more personal in scope than traditional summer fare.  The exploits depicted in this Sony/Columbia Pictures release do not pose a threat to civilization as we know it.  Indeed, the events occur in relative anonymity without television networks broadcasting commentary about them as they unfold.  Ultimately, nobody knows what is happening until the narrative concludes.  Aside from Blake Lively, “The Shallows” features only seven actors, six relatively unknown males and one female confined to supporting roles.  Not only does Lively play a sympathetic character, but also you cannot take your eyes off her while she is locked into life-and-death combat with a tenaciously toothy terrornaut that doesn’t know when to quit.  Comparably, “The Shallows” reminded me of the grim finale in Ridley Scott’s classic, 1979, sci-fi shocker “Alien.”  Virtually the entire crew of the ill-fated, space merchant vessel Nostromo had died in a fight with an indestructible space monster whose blood was as corrosive as acid.  The last survivor, sexy Sigourney Weaver, had slipped into something comfort to go to sleep for the long voyage home when she discovered to her horror that she was sharing her escape spacecraft with that fearsome fiend.  Similarly, after about fifteen minutes of watching shapely Blake arrive at a remote stretch of scenic beach, strip down to a bikini, and plunge into the bay for a little surfing, the infamous shark shows up without fanfare and turns out to be quite the scene stealer for the remaining 72 white-knuckled minutes.  Essentially, what Jaswinski and Collet-Serra have wrought amounts to a synthesis of “Jaws,” “Blue Crush,” and “Soul Surfer.” 

Nancy Adams (Blake Lively of “Savages”) has just withdrawn from nursing school.  The gruesome experience of watching her long suffering mother succumb to cancer has devastated her.  Nancy just wants to retreat and ponder her future.  She remembers her pregnant mother told her about a secret stretch of beach in Mexico that she had gone to while she was carrying her.  A friendly native gives Nancy a lift in his battered pick-up truck through the jungle to the beach, and the beach looks like a dream with its azure skies, creamy surf, and faraway islands forming a barrier against the ocean.  Initially, Nancy came with a girlfriend, but her girlfriend left her for a cute guy.  Alone but content, Nancy swims out into the secluded bay and encounters two other surfer dudes.  Their English is as inadequate as her Spanish, and they share some waves before they hang it up.  Afterward, Nancy spots a gigantic rotting whale carcass adrift and investigates it before making her final surf for the day.  As she is riding the crest of a wave, a Great White shark smashes into her like a torpedo and topples her off her surfboard.  The shark chomps on her left thigh, but Nancy finds sanctuary on a small outcropping of rock fewer than 200 yards from shore.  This sinister shark cruises in circles around her like a war party of Apaches rampaging around a wagon train of pioneers in the Old West.  Nancy uses pieces of jewelry to stitch up her chewed up thigh, but she fears the onset of gangrene if she isn’t rescued soon.  Soon, however, isn’t going to be soon enough, and she is trapped at the mercy of the shark.  Talk about a tight-spot!

“The Shallows” never wears out its welcome.  “Kristy” scenarist Anthony Jaswinski and Collet-Serra observe all the standard conventions of vintage suspense thrillers.  They isolate our valiant heroine and subject her to one frightening predicament after another, and she must rely on her own savvy and stamina.  Occasionally, when Nancy cannot outwit her adversary, the filmmakers create obstacles that the shark cannot overcome in its ravenous lust to make her into mincemeat.  For example, a steel hook embedded in its jaw gets snagged on a buoy, and the Great White wallows turbulently before it dislodges itself and renews its feverish attack.  At other times, the shark deals with marine life such as a school of jelly fish and the craggy underwater terrain that thwarts its momentum.  The irony is that our heroine is--as the title indicates-- in shallow waters instead of far out in the briny blue deep.  The Great White shark appears sufficiently menacing, and computer-generated visual effects are top-notch.  The predator’s initial appearance through a wave is ominously dramatic.  If you’ve seen the trailer, the scene where the Great White lurches above the waves to gobble a surfer is sensational stuff.  The whale carcass that our heroine initially takes refuge on until the shark forces her to abandon it looks pretty realistic, too.  The shift into tone and atmosphere from dream to nightmare for Nancy is very palatable, too.  Although this woman-in-jeopardy nail-biter is set Mexico, the filmmakers lensed it on location in sunny Australia.  Of course, “The Shallows” doesn’t surpass Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” with its atmospheric music and its charismatic ensemble male cast.  In a scene reminiscent of the “Jaws” finale when Roy Schneider fires a rifle at the shark that kills it, our heroine appropriates a flare pistol and fires it at the marauding shark.  Characterization remains on the lean side since Blake Lively’s solitary surfer is the only three dimensional character on display.  Nevertheless, just as “Jaws” exploited our anxieties about splashing around in the sea without a second thought, “The Shallows” may make you think twice about wading into surf.