Friday, July 18, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Made a Mistake and Kissed a Snake

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody sees off Paul Kersey, witnesses modern gladiators, and ventures into post-Tarantino territory.


After Quentin Tarantino hit the scene with the successes of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the first half of the 1990s, it seemed like every production company and studio either rushed quirky crime films that would make futile attempts to capture the Tarantino style into development or grabbed the nearest crime script they had and gave it the greenlight.

In the midst of all these Tarantino cash-ins, most of which were subpar at best, one that always stood out from the pack for me was Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, from screenwriter Scott Rosenberg (who would go on to have a healthy career, both credited; Beautiful Girls, High Fidelity, Con Air; and uncredited, doing script doctor work on the likes of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man) and director Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls, Don't Say a Word, Homefront).

Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead came from the same studio as Pulp Fiction, Miramax, and played at the Cannes Film Festival one year after Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or award there. The film didn't end up having much of a theatrical run, leaving most of its viewers to catch it on home video. That's where I saw it, rented it on VHS and eventually buying a used copy from the video store, as this movie was one of the only "successor to Tarantino" crime films that I felt the need to watch repeatedly.

The unwieldy title Rosenberg got from a Warren Zevon song, which plays over the end credits. The name and nickname of the lead character, Jimmy "The Saint", he lifted from a Bruce Springsteen song called "Lost in the Flood". While Springsteen's Jimmy was simply an unlucky race car driver, Rosenberg is a former mobster, well dressed and coiffed, who has retired from the life of crime to start up a business called Afterlife Advice, where people, usually terminally ill, record videos for their families to access after they're gone. He's called "The Saint" because before he got into crime, he had notions of becoming a priest.

Tarantino movies are exceptionally cool as a whole, but I'm not sure Tarantino has ever written a specific character who is actually as cool themselves as Andy Garcia is in the role of Jimmy "The Saint". With his style and lines, Jimmy is the definition of cool. When he meets a girl named Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar) in a bar, his is one the smoothest attempts at wooing a new acquaintance ever put on film.

But Jimmy's life isn't all coolness, seduction, and hanging out at the local malt shop run by Bill Cobbs where a veteran mobster played by Jack Warden holds court with tales of the good old days. Afterlife Advice isn't doing so well for him, in fact it's teetering on the edge. So when quadriplegic criminal kingpin The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken) has him brought to his mansion for a chat, Jimmy has to listen to what he offers... Especially when he finds out that, in a roundabout way, The Man is actually the financier of his company.

The Man with the Plan wants Jimmy to do a job for him. His twenty-something son has gone out of control, acting out in bizarre, dangerous, disturbing ways, and The Man knows what has his son all mixed up. Meg, Bernard's high school and college sweetheart, dumped him in favor of another man and moved off to California with him. Now word has come that the guy, Bruce, will soon be coming to town to meet Meg's parents and ask their permission to marry her. The Man with the Plan wants to make sure that doesn't happen. He wants Jimmy and a small crew to stop Bruce on the road into Denver, take him off somewhere, rough him up, and make sure he'll never want to have anything to do with Meg again.

It's a ridiculous gig, but as Jimmy says, The Man has him "on the dangle", and it's an easy way for some of his fellow retired criminals to make some cash with him. The Man will be paying them $10,000 each.

Jimmy assembles a team, and for this team the filmmakers managed to gather together a wonderful ensemble of character actors. There's William Forsythe as Franchise, who left crime behind to become a family man. Christopher Lloyd as Pieces, so called because he occasionally loses a finger or toe to a circulatory problem. A musclebound Treat Williams as the completely out-of-his-mind Critical Bill, who now has a job in a funeral home and works out by using corpses as punching bags. And Bill Nunn as Easy Wind, who has serious misgivings about the presence of Critical Bill. Bill's not a fan of Easy Wind, either.

Easy Wind was right to question Jimmy's judgment in including Critical Bill, but Jimmy is so trusting of him that he even lets the hothead talk him into letting him join Pieces in the first stage of the job, which will require them to pull Bruce's car over on the highway while dressed as cops. When it all goes down, Bruce doubts their identities, disrespects Pieces, gets mouthy with them, so Bill pulls a knife and stabs him in the throat multiple times.

Now, maybe The Man with the Plan would let that slide. They were supposed to scare Bruce off, they killed him instead, he's out of the picture either way. But when the previously unnoticed Meg, who wasn't supposed to be on the drive with Bruce, bursts out of his vehicle and screams, the frightened Pieces impulsively pulls the trigger on his gun, shooting the girl dead. And murdering Bernard's beloved was definitely not something they were supposed to do under any circumstance.

Enraged, The Man with the Plan decrees that every member of Jimmy's crew shall die in the most painful way possible. He wants them to suffer. Since he and Jimmy have history, he takes it easier on Jimmy - The Saint has forty-eight hours to get out of town, or he'll be killed, too.

Being a good guy, Jimmy doesn't just run for his life, though. He sticks around and does his best to make sure his friends can escape The Man's wrath. And so that's how the title comes in. Jimmy and his pals are in Denver, they've got a price on their heads, they're essentially dead men walking, and what they do after The Man makes his decision are things they to do in Denver when they're dead.

The hitman who arrives in town to perform the executions is Steve Buscemi as a very calm, soft-spoken, suit-wearing fellow called Mister Shhh, and he spends a large portion of the second half of the movie tracking down the members of Jimmy's team and knocking them off one-by-one. At times, Mister Shhh even almost comes off like a slasher, and he's as effective at killing as the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are, although Critical Bill proves to be a formidable foe. "I am Godzilla, you are Japan!"

At times so dark and dreary that it verges on depressing, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead is certainly no romping caper of a crime movie. Internet trivia reveals that Scott Rosenberg wrote the script while coping with the loss of his father to cancer, and it's no surprise to learn that the writer was dealing with something so heavy as he was typing.

The screenplay was written quickly, and yet Rosenberg was still able to create his own language of slang for his characters, mixing together words and phrases he made up himself with, he says, slang that had been used by bikers and Vietnam veterans. The dialogue is unique, and there are some sayings and terms in there that might stick with you forever after you've seen the movie. They've stuck with me over the last almost-twenty years.

The actors do terrific work in their roles, making the characters likeable no matter what they do, and the members of Jimmy's crew tug at your heartstrings as they face their doom.

Gary Fleder and Elliot Davis did great with the film's direction and cinematography, and upon watching this movie back in the day I was sure Fleder was going to break out into the big time. He hasn't quite done that, but he has rightfully continued working steadily ever since.

Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead came out in the wake of Pulp Fiction, that movie's popularity may have been the reason why it went into production, I can't say for sure, but the way so many critics wrote it off as just another "Pulp Fiction rip-off" wasn't fair. It's not Tarantino, but it's not trying to be, even if its characters work in the same business as his did. It has its own style and tone, and it has its own story to tell that has nothing to do with films that came before. Some viewers were able to see that in the mid-'90s and appreciate it for what it was back then. For others, it may be worth giving it a chance now, far removed from the days of the post-Pulp flood.


Best of the Best director Robert Radler returned to helm this sequel, working from a screenplay by Max Strom (who supplied additional dialogue to the first movie) and John Allen Nelson that made this follow-up a very different sort of film than its predecessor.

The setting is Las Vegas, where three members of the five member US National Karate Team assembled in the previous film have moved to open a karate studio. Those returning actors and characters: Eric Robert as Alex Grady, single father to an 11-year-old son named Walter, who is working to earn his own black belt; Phillip Rhee (who also produced) as the noble Tommy Lee; and Chris Penn as obnoxious cowboy Travis Brickley. Given their antagonistic relationship during their days of training together for the US National team, you wouldn't expect Tommy and Travis to remain such close friends that they become business partners, but that's how it's gone. Their friendship is a very important part of the story Strom and Nelson came up with.

It's no surprise that Travis's attitude and approach to life end up causing major trouble for his friends and especially for himself.

Unbeknownst to his friends, Travis has been attempting to make some extra cash on the side by fighting in "no rules", "modern gladiator" bouts held in a venue called The Coliseum, which is located beneath a dance club called The Stock Exchange. The rich and powerful gather in the stands that surround the arena and bet on the fights, in which anyone can compete against the house gladiators. Defeat one gladiator, win $20,000. Defeat the second gladiator, receive $50,000. If a fighter can beat the third gladiator, they earn the right to challenge the master and owner of The Coliseum, the never defeated "champion of the underworld" Brakus (played by the hulking Ralf Moeller). Brakus is so confident that he will never be beaten that he lays it all on the line when he goes up against a challenger: if they win the fight, they become the new owner of The Coliseum.

Equally confident in his own abilities, Travis becomes Brakus's latest challenger. As Travis quickly comes to find out, he is no match for Brakus. After the champion has handily beaten Travis to the ground, a curtain closes off the soundproof arena from most of the spectators, the video monitors switch off, and a select few people watching from the stands are given a choice. The same sort of choice that was given in the gladiator games of old. Life or death? The well-dressed people watching and cheering the fight choose to have Brakus kill Travis. And so he does, snapping his neck.

Tragically, Walter Grady has witnessed all of this, as Travis was his babysitter for the night and had snuck the kid into the rafters of The Coliseum. He escapes from The Stock Exchange and runs home to tell Alex and Tommy what he saw. Walter's story is confirmed when Travis's body is found floating at the Hoover Dam with his car crashed nearby to make it look like an accident.

With police buying the accident business, Tommy and Alex are forced to take matters into their own hands. They storm Brakus's personal domain, where Travis's killer admits to the crime. A fight breaks out, with Tommy managing to damage Brakus's face before he and Alex have to make an escape.

Knowing Tommy and Alex are trouble, and even more so angry about the scar Tommy has given him, Brakus orders his men to kill Alex and Walter, but to bring Tommy back to him alive. As his heavily armed men go after Tommy, Alex, and Walter, car chases and shootouts ensue.

Our heroes are forced to go on the run, ending up at the home of Tommy's Native American grandmother. How a Korean man has a Native American grandmother is a mystery. Alex tells Walter he'll explain Tommy's lineage to him at some point, but the audience is never given the information. Also on his grandmother's ranch is his alcoholic, underground tournament fighter uncle James, who Tommy hasn't seen in sixteen years. And as it turns out, James quite coincidentally has a history with Brakus.

A large portion of Best of the Best dealt with the training the US team went through in preparation for the competition against Team Korea, and while the characters are at Tommy's grandma's place, part 2 also lapses into a training segment as Tommy and Alex start training for a fight against Brakus, first by themselves and later under the tutelage of James, who claims he can teach them how to beat the fighter who ruined his life years earlier. In addition to their running and strength training, James also incorporates stick fighting and time in a sweat lodge.

Unfortunately, the training is far from complete when Brakus's men (which include familiar character actors Patrick Kilpatrick and Nicholas Worth) raid the ranch, engage James in a deadly gunfight, and fly Tommy back to Vegas in a helicopter so Brakus can force him to compete in The Coliseum. Tommy must fight his way up the ranks to face off against the champion of the underworld, who wants to punish him for challenging his invincibility and scarring his perfection.

While the climactic battle between Tommy and Brakus commences, Alex gets some more action of his own as he infiltrates the building with the help of some old (enemies turned) friends in an effort to rescue Tommy from the bowels of The Stock Exchange.

Best of the Best II represents one of the craziest shifts in tone and genre a series has ever gone through. The first movie had been a straightforward tournament fight sports drama, the idea that the sequel would feature gunfire and explosions almost seems absurd, it's as if Sylvester Stallone had written Homefront (which ended up starring Jason Statham rather than himself) to be a sequel to Rocky or Over the Top. And yet that's exactly what these filmmakers did, took characters from a drama and dropped them into an action movie.

In the midst of the action elements, this sequel is still at it's core a fighting movie, although its tournaments are much different than the official, international competition Tommy, Alex, and Travis previously fought in. That doesn't make them any less entertaining to watch, there are some fantastic, hard-hitting brawls in this movie.

It strikes me now how odd it is that they took this path for part 2, but at the time when Best of the Best II was first released on VHS, I didn't find how different of a movie it was to be jarring or strange at all, I just went with it. In fact, I thought it was awesome to see the characters I had grown to care for in part 1 being put through action scenarios.

I also immediately became a fan of the character James, a guy who's a good fighter if he could just stop drunk-vomiting for a moment. He's brilliantly brought to life by Sonny Landham of Predator and 48 Hrs., and James's fate always bummed me out.

Another cast member new to the series was such an obvious choice that it's genius - Weldon, The Coliseum's ring announcer, is played by Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton.

Like he did in the first film, where he played a redneck named Burt who Travis has some trouble with in a bar, stuntman/Jason Voorhees performer Kane Hodder plays a role here, this time appearing as a security guard at The Stock Exchange/Coliseum.

Best of the Best II is a movie that I have enjoyed ever since I was a young kid. Comparing it to its predecessor in retrospect may make me ponder "What were they thinking?", but whatever put it in their minds to give the series such an overhaul, I'm glad they thought of it, because twenty years I later I still find this sequel to be a lot of fun to watch.


During the 1980s, Menahem Golan had produced three Death Wish sequels with his business partner Yoram Globus through their company Cannon Films. After the release of Death Wish 4 in 1987, Cannon had every intention of continuing the franchise, but then the bottom fell out and the demise of the company put the kibosh on the further adventures of vigilante Paul Kersey.

As part of his Cannon severance, Golan was given control of a production/distribution company called 21st Century Film Corporation, and after a few years of struggling to make it successful, Golan decided that the shot in the arm the company needed was another Death Wish movie.

Written and directed by Allan A. Goldstein, the resulting sequel finds Paul Kersey - Charles Bronson reprising his iconic role for the final time - living a peaceful life in New York, having entered the Witness Protection Program, taken the new identity Paul Stewart, and gotten a job teaching architecture.

Like he was in Death Wish 4, Kersey/Stewart is dating a much younger woman who is the single mother of a teenage daughter, in this case Kersey's beloved is famed fashion designer Olivia Regent, mother to Chelsea. Kersey and Olivia are happy and in love, so in love that he even proposes to her. And she accepts. Kersey may finally be able to settle down in peace. If only Olivia hadn't had such terrible taste in men in her past.

Chelsea's father is a mobster named Tommy O'Shea, and his split with Olivia, who was given sole custody of their daughter, was not amicable. Since then, O'Shea has been infiltrating every aspect of the fashion and garment business in attempt to mess with Olivia's life. After O'Shea makes a particularly nasty display of aggression behind the scenes of one of Olivia's fashion shows, bruising her wrist and having a gun pulled on Kersey, Olivia decides it's time to reveal the secrets she knows to police. Law enforcement officers are very receptive to this idea, as they've been trying unsuccessfully to take O'Shea down for sixteen years.

Unfortunately, O'Shea has eyes and ears everywhere, and Olivia's plan gets back to him. Everyone who makes a move toward busting O'Shea, threatens to squeal on him, or has witnessed something they could report to the police ends up either dead or horribly injured. His ex is no different. In attempt to stop her from testifying against him, O'Shea has one of his lackeys disfigure her by smashing her face into a mirror repeatedly. When that doesn't dissuade her, O'Shea feels forced to have her killed as soon as she's out of the hospital. And so Kersey loses another love interest when Olivia is shot dead. I don't know how they get so lucky as to pull off the killing shot on her, since they can't hit Kersey with the double team of a machine gun and a shotgun from five feet away, but it happens.

At times Kersey's love interests had seemed entirely pointless (part 3), sometimes their deaths were completely unnecessary (3 and 4), but the screenwriters always felt the need to include them and then kill them off. Only Jill Ireland's character in Death Wish II dared to love Paul Kersey and got out of it alive.

To this point, Kersey has been reluctant to fall back on his old vigilante ways, wanting to play by the rules and let the law handle O'Shea. But by killing Olivia, O'Shea has made a big mistake. Kersey lets himself off the leash...

The movie is half over by the time Kersey finally loads his gun, but he makes up for lost time in the second half, proceeding to gun down baddies, poison their cannolis, knock them into paper shredders and acid baths, he even blows one up with a bomb hidden inside a remote control soccer ball.

They make remote control soccer balls? Why?

Death Wish: The Face of Death is not very highly regarded, most fans are likely to choose any of the previous sequels over it, but it's not really all that bad, as far these movies go. Allan A. Goldstein deserves some kudos for attempting to make a sequel in the series with a more complicated storyline than any of the previous ones, but the problem for me is, there's so many stops and starts, ups and downs, time outs, and chats with cops and villains that it loses me and my attention wanders... Until there's more gunfire to pull me back in. It's a rare sequel whose biggest failing is that it focuses too much on story and character.

This film was a low budget affair, a Canadian production with Toronto standing in for New York City and with all the production quality of a TV movie, which is part of the problem - the atmosphere is not engaging.

Still, Goldstein was able to get a good cast for it. Even though Charles Bronson was more than seventy years old when this film was shot, he still proves to be a capable action hero within, which is quite an accomplishment. Bronson is pitted against the always incredible Michael Parks as Tommy O'Shea. I believe it should be every director's goal to get Michael Parks as much attention as possible, and ideally an Oscar. Parks appears to have had a lot of fun in the role, and he's a delight to watch. I love that he describes Kersey as "a geek" the first time he sees him. Also in the cast are Lesley-Anne Down as the ill-fated Olivia, Robert Joy, Saul Rubinek, and Miguel Sandoval.

The fifth Death Wish isn't as fun as some of the movies that came before it, but as far as sequels and action revenge movies go, it certainly has some merit.

The film was 21st Century's great hope, but unfortunately it barely got a theatrical run and didn't save the company from going bankrupt soon after... But not before Menahem Golan started planning to revitalize the series with Death Wish 6: The New Vigilante, which would replace Kersey and Bronson with a new character and star. Because the world was crying out for that, right? It almost certainly would have been a disaster for the company, so at least its bankruptcy saved it from that.

Kersey gets a nice send-off in the final moments, walking away from the camera and toward a distant light while telling a police officer, "If you need any help, give me a call." It's a great final image for the character, and though Charles Bronson would never again play Paul Kersey, passing away nine years after this film's release, we're left with the knowledge that the character will always be out there, ready and waiting.

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