Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Everything that can go awry in the contrived crime thriller "Armored" (* out of ****)does go awry, but the seasoned, first-class cast, featuring Matt Dillon, Jean Reno, Skeet Ulrich, Milo Ventimiglia and Lawrence Fishburne, cannot salvage this predictable crime-doesn't-pay potboiler. High-octane action fans will grow restless quickly when the action settles into one confined setting and ridiculous things happen. "Vacancy" director Nimrod Antal and rookie scenarist James V. Simpson must have imagined they had a gritty, surefire, little nail-biter of a suspense saga. Two crews of armored truck guards attempt to pull off the ultimate heist and make off with as much as $42 million in cold cash. Indeed, it sounds potentially intriguing, but the polished product—which benefits visually from “Pulp Fiction” lenser Andrzej Sekula’s cinematography—suffers from far too many flaws. Furthermore, the logistics of "Armored" are not only implausible but also the sketchy one-dimensional, cardboard characters emerge as unsympathetic and idealist.

A shift of Eagle Shield Security guards plans to stash the cash in an abandoned steel plant and make it look like they were carjacked. Clearly, these dudes were delusional from the get-go. The perfect plan masterminded by Mike Cochrane (Matt Dillon of "Old Dogs") so that nobody will get hurt blows up in their faces no sooner than they have stolen the money. Cochrane reminds everybody about a $4-million Eagle Shield heist back in 1988 when the robbers were never found. Cochrane contends that their mistake in ’88 was not stealing enough money. Everybody in the two crews has supported Cochrane from the start. The newbie on the crew--Tyler Hackett (Columbus Short of "Cadillac Records")--is harder for Cochrane to win over to the cause. Hackett is an ex-Iraq war hero with a graffiti artist brother Jimmy (Andre Kinney) to raise and two house mortgages on his back. It seems that Ty's mother and father died the previous year and their mounting medical costs prompted the mortgages. When California Child Welfare Services threatens to take away his younger brother, Ty abandons his deep moral values and joins the crew. Before the heist goes down, we meet a conscientious, young L.A. Sheriff’s Deputy Eckehart (Milo Ventimiglia)who patrols the area where the heist occurs.

Initially, in the opening scene, Cochrane and his two crews hazed an unsuspecting Tyler by staging a faux robbery, with Quinn (Jean Reno of “The Professional”) and Dobbs (Skeet Ulrich of “Ride with the Devil”) following the armored truck in a suspicious black van and attaching a fake bomb to the back window. Later that evening, Cochrane assures Ty that they won’t let the bank take Ty’s house. Cochrane pitches the caper to Ty and a flabbergasted Ty turned Cochrane down cold and refuses to let him drive him home. Cochrane pleads for Ty to reconsider his proposition. Just when Ty thinks that the heat is off, he enters his house and finds a California Child Welfare Agent (Lorna Raver of “Drag Me To Hell”) waiting for him. Ty learns to his chagrin that Jimmy has skipped more school days than he has attended. Jimmy argues that he was searching for a job to help with the house payments. The Child Welfare Agent’s hackles rise when she thinks that Jimmy may be have a suitable home environment. She proposes that the state put Jimmy in foster care, but Ty objects strenuously to being separated from his younger brother. After all, his parents entrusted Jimmy to his care. Reluctantly, Ty changes his mind out of expediency. He goes along with the guards. He even helps his accomplices unload the loot, but then something devastating happens that makes Ty change his mind and realize the error of his ways.

Quinn spots a homeless person in the abandoned warehouse that the guards neglected to check before they stashed the Federal Reserve money. After they catch the homeless man, Baines gives in to his violence urges and wounds the man with his shotgun. Originally, Cochrane had promised Ty that nobody would get hurt. Ty tries to save the wounded man, a valiant gesture, and Cochrane finishes the job that Baines started with a second shot. Ty scrambles into the armored truck with the loot still aboard and careens away. Cochrane commandeers the other armored truck and pursues him through the industrial park. Eventually, he crashes into Ty’s armored truck and pins it in a warehouse where everything started. Ty locks himself up and the guards try to get into the vehicle by removing the pins in the door hinges. However, they must beat the pins out while a companion holds a spike on the pin, like drilling holes in rock. The villains are looking at a deadline of less than an hour to pry Ty out of the truck and set things straight. Ty complicates matters when he triggers the siren and a suspicious Eckehart cruises into the industrial park. The deputy confronts Cochrane, and Cochrane almost fools him into believing that nothing is going down when Ty sets out the siren again. Trigger-happy Baines wounds Eckehart with the weapon he used to wound the homeless guy.

Believe it or not, Ty rescues Eckehart from the villains and holes up with him in the armored truck. Now, you're probably wondering how something as improbable as this could happen. Shrewdly, Ty takes a flare and improvises a small explosives device that blows to smithereens the cache of bank bills that the guards stashed before they spotted the homeless man. While the villains are trying to figure out what has transpired with the explosion, Ty hauls the wounded Eckehart into the armored truck. Eckehart will prove to be Ty's salvation at fade-out, but there is no way of knowing what will happen to him and Eckehart. Ventimiglia has little to do for the rest of the action other than writhe in agony on the floor of the armored truck. Cochrane and his men resume trying to remove the pins from the door. Ty plasters the windows of the armored car with bills and manages to open a hole large enough in the floor of the truck to crawl out and try to get a signal using the deputy's radio microphone. This poses a problem. Why didn't the villains, who have spent more time in these armored trucks, not anticipate what Ty might do? Further, why does Cochrane delay until the last minute with a plan that he should have adopted before the robbery: abduct Ty's juvenile delinquent younger brother? The villains in "Armored" are a day late and a dollar short and they don't plan for contingencies.

The lackluster Simpson screenplay is formulaic from fade-in to fade-out and the film concludes abruptly without any closure with regard to the troubled home life of the hero and his juvenile delinquent brother. Worse, most of the action transpires in an abandoned Los Angeles Industrial Park where the armored car crews have holed up, so a sense of claustrophobia sets in long before this downbeat 88-minute fiasco finally fades out. Nothing about "Armored" qualifies as either entertaining or exciting. Indeed, you have to wonder whether the size of the paycheck or the duration of the shooting schedule for this Screen Gems release enticed its stars. Skip this lightweight, PG-13, low body count potboiler.



Hispanic writer & director José Gutiérrez Maesso has helped pen screenplays for several exciting actioneers, including "Ricco, The Mean Machine," "Train from Durango," "The Hellbenders," "Minnesota Clay" and "Django." Maessco's co-scenarist Massimo De Rita has an interesting list of screenplay credits: "The Valachi Papers," "Companeros," "Violent City," and "Hell's Brigade: The Final Assault." If this surfeit of talent weren't enough, Eugenio Martino of "Bad Man's River," "The Ugly Ones," and "Horror Express" contributed to the "Order to Kill" screenplay. Arduino Maiuri co-scripted De Rita's credits. Finally, Santiago Moncada added his pen to "Ricco, The Mean Machine" as well as "Hatchet for a Honeymoon." As collaborators, this talented quintet should have delivered more exciting showdowns between more colorful characters with enough last-minute reversals to distract us from the obvious ending. Instead, they have concocted a routine potboiler. "Order to Kill" (** out of ****) is enlivened by occasional outbursts of violence. Essentially, this lackluster crime and corruption melodrama concerns a feud between a veteran cop, Inspector Fred Reed (José Ferrer of "The Caine Mutiny") and a wealthy villain, Ed McLean (Kevin McCarthy of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers") who loves to fly around in a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter like the one on the Tom Selleck TV show “Magnum, P.I.”

"Order to Kill" shows initial promise. Appropriately, it opens with a murder, a rather elaborate but far-fetched execution. An assassin, Albert Webster (Romano Puppo of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), relies on a gadget that will indicate when the railway car in which his target is riding in will align itself with his own railway carriage. At the precise instant, when the two railway cars are opposite each other, Albert squeezes off a burst of machine gun fire into the opposing carriage, killing his target. Albert later describes his target as a McLean
competitor. No sooner has Albert carried out this assignment than he finds himself the target of a manhunt. Clyde Hart (Helmut Berger of "The Damned") has trouble killing his friends.

Clyde's girlfriend Anne Holden (Sydne Rome of "Sundance and the Kid") tries to persuade him not to accept the murder contract. This will be Clyde's first actual hit-man contract, and Clyde reminds Anne that they need the money. Clyde has orders to kill Albert, but he balks when he recognizes his old friend Albert. This doesn't stop another assassin from shooting Albert. Afterward, Clyde goes to the casino to pick up his money. Peter Costello already knows Clyde didn't liquidate Albert. Gastel wants to know why Clyde wants out. "I'm tired of palm trees," Clyde groans. Gastel reminds Clyde about Jamaica, "Try and remember this is an island. No one can leave it unless McLean says it's okay. And in your case, I'm afraid he's not going to say it's okay." A brief gunfight erupts in the casino, and Clyde kills three of Peter's men. Later, another McLean mobster, ruthless Richard Prentice (Howard Ross) shows up and kills Gastel in cold-blood because McLean is not happy with Gastel.

Meanwhile, Clyde relaxes with Anne at the beach. He assures his blond girlfriend that they will make it off the island. The following day they go to get their boat and discover that McLean's thugs have not only beat up the boat owner but destroyed the outboard engine. Clyde doesn't get far before McLean's ruffians beat him down to the ground and leave him sprawled unconscious in the street. Anne takes him to a native woman they both know and Clyde recuperates there. Plainclothes police turn up and they take Clyde into custody. Inspector Fred Reed (José Ferrer) pulls strings and has Clyde put into his custody. Reed knows everything about Clyde's background. For example, Reed knows Clyde emigrated to America with his German parents. After spending to two years at USC, Clyde went to Vietnam, deserted and then got on McLean's payroll. He is tired of running when Reed picks him up. Reed shows Clyde that there is no way off the island. Reed wants Clyde to train three other men--Juan, Danielle, and Hugo--and then hit McLean and kill him. Clyde observes that he has never been asked to kill anybody by the police. Reed warns Clyde that one of the three will kill him if he tries to make a break for it.

Meanwhile, Reed has a telephone conversation with McLean. McLean knows
that Reed plans to retire in a couple of months. Instead of leaving McLean alone, Reed still wants to kill him. McLean accuses the inspector of nursing a 15-year personal grudge against him. He points out to Reed that Reed refuses to accept bribes and doesn't abide by the orders of his superiors to leave Mclean alone. Clyde and the three men practice getting atop a 18-wheeler without being seen. Reed has laid out a plan for them to break into McLean's compound, blow-up the big rig, and kill him. By now Anne regards Clyde as "a walking corpse" and wants nothing to do with him. She hates going to bed with Richard but fears that he will kill her if she doesn't accommodate him.

Later, Richard locates Reed and lines up the cross-hairs of his sniper scope on the old cop. Clyde and his men sneak aboard the 18-wheeler heading into McLean's place. They blow up the tractor-trailer, wipe out McLean's men, but Clyde doesn't kill McLean. Hugo winds up having to shoot McLean. When Clyde calls Reed to inform him of their success, he gets Richard to shoots and kills Reed on the phone so Clyde can hear it. Clyde heads off to tangle with Richard. Basically, everybody bites the dust in this cynical melodrama.

The obvious moral of this conventional but cynical shoot'em up is if you live by
the gun, then you will die by the gun. "Order to Kill" never generates any momentum. Everything is rather matter-of-fact. The quintet of scribes do serve up some spicy dialogue: "It's funny, whenever they give me a dirty job to do, they wish me good luck." "It's too late for doubt." "You're under orders to do it." The premise about a cop resorting to illegal means to dispose of a high-level mobster is mildly intriguing, but the film falls apart half-way into the second act that not even the sloppily handled combat scenes in act three can salvage. Interestingly, there are no zoom shots here back when zoom shots were the rage.


Morgan Freeman has so much talent that he makes acting look easy. In director Clint Eastwood's latest movie "Invictus,"(***1/2 out of ****) based on John Carlin's non-fiction book "Playing the Enemy," Freeman impersonates controversial South African President Nelson Mandela. Interestingly, Mandela said that Freeman was the only actor who he felt could do him justice on the big-screen. Basically, this inspirational sports saga about rugby concerns more than just capturing the 1995 World Cup. "Sherlock Holmes" scenarist Anthony Peckham and Eastwood have produced a solemn, straightforward, but contemplative film about how Mandela shrewdly appropriated a hated symbol of apartheid and wielded it so that he could unite a racially torn nation. In other words, the savvy politician pulled the ultimate public relations ploy and used a rugby team. This factual social activist melodrama with its liberal perspective seems rather predictable at times, but it is remains nevertheless as reassuring as it is absorbing. Essentially, two minds meet in "Invictus" and forge a change that solidified a country. The performances by Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as a conscientious rugby coach are flawless. Damon appears physically fit for such a demanding role and his accent sounds reasonable. Some scenes seem almost too good to be true, particularly the camaraderie between a young black teen and two gruff-looking South African beat cops during the World Cup game. Unlike most sports films, "Invictus" dwells more on how the game of rugby engineered racial harmony in a repressive society than about the game itself.

After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman of "Unforgiven") emerges and wins the presidency of South Africa. Mandela's victory ushered in many striking changes, and his fellow blacks wanted to disband the South African team, the Springboks, because it reminded them of racial oppression. No sooner does Mandela hear about this rash decision than he races out to appeal to his constituents about the error of their ways. Of course, they hate the Springboks, but Mandela urges them to support him and his request to leave the Springboks alone. Mandela convinces them that this represents a splendid opportunity to allay white fears about black power. Initially, Mandela's closest adviser warns him about this kind of activism. Meanwhile, the Springboks are doing themselves no favors with their abysmal performance on the playing fields. A Mandela adviser observes that winning the World Cup would create a lot of ppsitive publicity for the new government and Mandela summons blond Afrikaner, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon of "The Bourne Ultimatum") who bears no political crosses, and encourage him to win the World Cup. The messiah-like Mandela exerts considerable influence on Pienaar and the coach takes his pampered team on promotional tours into the most squalid of black ghettos to teach the children the basics of the game. Early in "Invictus," one of Mandela's white bodyguards describes to his black cohorts the essentials of rugby: "Soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans, rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen."

When Peckham and Eastwood aren't concentrating on Mandela's cagey political maneuvers, they depict the changes that occurred all over South Africa with a subplot about the president's integrated team of bodyguards. Mandela's chief of security had requested more bodyguards, so the president obliges him with British-trained, Afrikaner cops. Indeed, Mandela discourages any whites from leaving government service because he needs them as examples of unity within his administration. Time gradually erodes white anxieties about black aspirations as reflected by grudging cooperation between the black and white bodyguards. Again, rugby takes center stage with the whites explaining the rules of rugby to their colleagues.

Nelson Mandela comes off looking as slippery as James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Mandela doesn't miss a trick in his political calculations and he impresses his closest adviser. Indeed, Mandela emerges in "Invictus" as an Abraham Lincoln of sorts. He survived 24 years of brutal, back-breaking imprisonment on an island and slept on a mat for a bed. This same individual, who endured enormous hardship, later ascended from the lowest position in society—a prison inmate—and attained the highest post—president of the same country that had incarnated him. Mandela realized from his pinnacle of power that the only way to thwart an immanent civil war that threatened to tear South Africa apart that he had to exercise accommodation toward his fellow whites.

Wisely, director Clint Eastwood doesn't have much truck with politics in "Invictus." Peckham and he provide the basic ground work about the sudden changes that rocked South Africa with Mandela's election as president. They present us with the struggles that the Springbox with their green and gold outfits endure. Mandela demonstrates true insight into his fellow men when he decides to let a predominantly white rugby team become a rallying cry for intolerance and unity. No, "Invictus" is not the kind of movie that you would expect from Clint Eastwood and—like his protagonist who prefers to make risks—Eastwood has helmed and honed another classic. "Invictus" ranks as a sentimental sports saga that never gets sappy. Incidentally, "Invictus" translated means as invincible.