Characters lived and died by the sword... and by guns... and aliens... and demons... in Cody's picks.
EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)
When Tom Cruise stars in an action flick, he tends to be playing a character who is quite capable of handling whatever is thrown at him, whether it be Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible movies, Roy Miller in Knight and Day, Maverick in Top Gun, or the eponymous Jack Reacher. However, that is absolutely not the case for the character he plays in director Doug Liman's sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow. Not at first, anyway.
Set in the not-too-distant future, the film finds the world's United Defense Force five years into a war being waged in Europe against alien creatures called Mimics that first arrived on our planet on a meteor that struck outside Hamburg, Germany. The aliens are powerful and vicious, the war has been devastating. But recently there was a victory won against the Mimics in a battle waged in Verdun, France, a glimmer of hope thanks to the efforts of a soldier named Rita Vrataski and the new "jacket technology" ground forces have been equipped with. Soldiers now wear exoskeletons that are sort of war machine versions of the power loader in Aliens.
The character Cruise plays is Major William Cage of the U.S. Army. He's not a fighter, he is in media relations, before the war broke out he was head of an advertising firm. He's an arrogant, cowardly man who is terrified of combat. So much so that when a UDF General wants his PR film crew on the ground at the frontline of Operation Downfall, which is essentially this war's version of storming the beach at Normandy, he tries to get out of it by threatening the General's reputation. When that doesn't work, he tries to run. That gets him thrown directly into Operation Downfall as a Private in the UDF.
The Downfall landing goes disastrously. The human forces are wiped out by Mimics. Cage bumbles around cluelessly, but as a type of Mimic called an Alpha advances on him, he manages to detonate a bomb. This causes him to be doused in the Alpha's acidic blood. Not only does this kill him, but it also melds him with the creatures, which are all one interconnected organism powered by the Omega. As it turns out, the Omega has the ability to manipulate time, to start days over. This is why the Mimics appear to be able to anticipate the humans' actions during battle, they have multiple tries at it.
Cage wakes up back in the moment of his arrival at the UDF base as the soldiers are preparing for Operation Downfall. He now has the ability to reset days, just like the Omega. All he has to do to start over back at the time of his arrival at the base is to die.
Cage goes into Operation Downfall again and again, dying over and over, always waking up at the base. It's like his life has become a video game and every time he's killed, he respawns at that same checkpoint. Since he's living the battle numerous times, he can begin to anticipate what's going to happen, and he gradually evolves into a competent soldier.
Along the way, he connects with Vrataski, who reveals that she had this reset ability at Verdun, but lost it after being injured and receiving a blood transfusion. Together, Cage and Vrataski try to use this opportunity to seek out the location of the Omega so they can destroy it, finish this war, and save the world.
The stakes are grave in Edge of Tomorrow, but Liman never lets the tone get too dark or depressing, much of the first half of the film plays as a rollicking adventure, with many of Cage's deaths played for comedy. It's this element of lightheartedness that keeps the replayed scenarios from feeling tiresome. As the character starts to get worn down by his experiences, the emotional aspect begins to come in more strongly, by which point it has been earned.
Cruise is a lot of fun to watch as Cage; he's an inept weasel at first, but we come to care for him as he changes, and it's enjoyable to see how differently he handles situations based on how much he knows about what's going on.
Emily Blunt is great as Vrataski, "The Angel of Verdun" (she has another nickname she doesn't appear to like very much) whose rough exterior is gradually worn away the more time she spends with Cage on their day(s) together.
The movie is really carried on the shoulders of Cruise and Blunt, but there are some nice supporting roles, most notably from Aliens alum Bill Paxton as Cage's UDF squad's Master Sergeant and Cruise's Vanilla Sky co-star Noah Taylor as a doctor who is helpful in Cage and Vrataski's endeavors.
I wasn't particularly impressed by the design of the Mimics, they were a bit too "this could only be CG" in their look and movements for my taste, but I would certainly never want to find myself face-to-face with the spastic, tentacled beasts, and they provide some good moments of action and suspense.
Although Edge of Tomorrow did make over $300 million at the global box office, it barely crossed $100 million at domestic theatres and is largely seen as a bit of an overlooked gem, at least by those who haven't dismissed it outright as "a sci-fi Groundhog Day". If you haven't yet given it a spin, I'd recommend checking it out, as its mixture of science fiction, action, comedy, and drama perfectly balance out for 2 hours of solid entertainment.
BY THE GUN (2014)
Back in 2008, James Mottern made his feature directorial debut with the solid drama Trucker. For his second movie, Mottern goes down a path that has been traveled many times, as he and screenwriter Emilio Mauro give their take on the Italian criminal organization film with By the Gun.
Ben Barnes stars as Nick Tortano, a young man from Boston who has apparently always wanted to be a gangster. He's gotten in with an organization headed up by Salvatore Vitaglia (Harvey Keitel), earning cash on the side by performing robberies with his pal George (Slaine) while waiting to become a "made man" and be officially inducted into Vitaglia's crew.
Working for Vitaglia brings Nick into contact with Ali Matazano (Leighton Meester), the daughter of hotheaded creep/strip club owner Tony Matazano (Ritchie Coster), who is "protected" by Vitaglia. Nick is instantly smitten with Ali and his relationship with her deepens at the same time that he's finally becoming a made man.
But Nick gradually realizes just how sinister this business can be, and Ali wants nothing to do with people who live her father's type of life. When George snaps and takes a situation too far, everything starts crumbling down around Nick and more and more people start getting killed.
Nick is accused of having watched the first half of Goodfellas too many times, and accusation which could be leveled at the filmmakers as well. The dialogue and scenarios make it clear that Mauro is absolutely in love with this type of movie, the characters go on and on about the crime business and spew tough guy talk, but By the Gun really has nothing new to add to the genre and isn't very effective at drawing the viewer into its own story.
As familiar as the set-up is, there still could have been more excitement and emotion wrung out of the situations. Unfortunately, Nick is not a character that can really be connected with, nor are the scenes of his romance with Ali involving, despite Meester's best efforts.
The actors all do well with what they're given to work with. Paul Ben-Victor has a strong, emotional cameo as Nick's father, and Slaine gives a standout performance as the unhinged, volatile George. The movie looks good, with nice cinematography by frequent Robert Rodriguez collaborator Jimmy Lindsey.
In the end, this Scorsese/Coppola homage just can't quite get beyond middle-of-the-road.
KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM (2013)
Joe Lynch had exceeded expectations with his first feature film, Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, taking a questionable set-up and delivering a fun, bloody, well made '80s slasher homage. Unfortunately, he ran into some very frustrating problems on his second feature, Knights of Badassdom.
The screenplay by Kevin Dreyfuss and Matt Wall centers on a young auto worker/aspiring metal singer Joe (Ryan Kwanten), who gets his heart broken by his career-minded, commitment-phobic girlfriend Beth (Margarita Levieva). His housemates Eric and Hung (Steve Zahn and Peter Dinklage) first encourage Joe to drown his sorrows with weed and alcohol, and then take things up a notch. To keep Joe's mind off of Beth, they slap some makeshift armor on him and drag him out into the wilderness to accompany them on a Live Action Role-Playing weekend.
The forest is packed with people dressed as knights and warriors of various sorts, witches, wizards, fairies, demon apes, and elves, teamed up in different guilds, all with objectives to achieve in the build-up to a full scale war: The Battle of Evermore.
Things go south, however, when Eric begins to read from an old book of spells he bought off the internet.
Lynch started to win me over early on in Wrong Turn 2 when I detected homage to Evil Dead II, and he does the same with Knights, beginning the movie with an explanation of what this spell book is that is done in a style very reminiscent of the explanation of the Necronomicon at the beginning of Evil Dead II.
The book here is the Sigillum Aemeth, written in Enochian by the mystic John Dee in the 16th century, filled with musical chants that were meant to summon angels, but instead summon demons. The book had been lost for centuries before appearing on eBay.
The chant Eric randomly reads from it summons a succubus who takes the form of Beth and proceeds to tear apart any LARPer it comes across. When the characters realize what's going on and Eric attempts to fix the situation with another chant, he only manages to make things worse.
The set-up is fantastic, and Lynch brought it to the screen with a great sense of humor and an awesome cast - in addition to those mentioned, there's also the likes of Summer Glau, Jimmi Simpson, Danny Pudi, W. Earl Brown, Brian Posehn, Friday the 13th Part III's Larry Zerner, and creature performer Douglas Tait (who played Jason Voorhees in the final scene of Freddy vs. Jason) as a demon called the Abominog.
The movie was shot in mid-2010, but didn't reach home video until early 2014 due to a prolonged, painful post-production which saw Lynch being shut out of the process. Because of this, he's really not satisfied with how the final version turned out, feeling it doesn't live up to his director's cut.
Not knowing what Lynch had in mind or what may be missing, only being able to go by what I see on the screen, I find Knights of Badassdom to be a decent, fun film that provides a good amount of fast paced entertainment.
And anything that makes Led Zeppelin references, which "The Battle of Evermore" is, will always earn extra positive points from me.