Seagal, the apocalypse, battling superheroes, and the passing of a legend.
UNDER SIEGE (1992)
Five films into his career, Steven Seagal starred in what I still consider to this day to be the best movie he ever made, and in it he portrays what I think is the best character he has ever played, Casey Ryback. For the first time, Seagal's character isn't a cop, but rather a Navy officer, serving as a cook on the dreadnought USS Missouri.
It's December 7, 1991, and on the fiftieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor President George H.W. Bush announces that all nuclear missiles will be removed from U.S. battleships and that the USS Missouri, a ship that played notable parts in World War II and the Gulf War, will be decommissioned. As the ship makes its way from Pearl Harbor to San Francisco, the action-packed events of Under Siege play out, and Ryback, a highly decorated Navy SEAL team leader who plays down his past achievements and just wants to hang out in the kitchen, has to step up and be the hero in what is essentially "Die Hard on a battleship".
The villainy begins behind the facade of a surprise birthday party being thrown for the Captain by Commander Krill (Gary Busey), a man that Ryback does not get along with at all. Krill brings aboard a chopper's worth of people to provide food and entertainment, but all those caterers and band members are mercenaries who quickly take control of the ship. The only person not part of that plan is Playboy bunny Jordan Tate (Erika Eleniak), who was hired to pop out of a cake.
Apparently the character of Jordan was added at the suggestion of Seagal, who thought it would be entertaining to give Ryback an inexperienced sidekick. She also happens to be the only female character in the film, so it was a good idea to add her in there, even if it makes absolutely no sense that the bad guys would have brought her onto the ship when she has no part in their plans.
Krill is in cahoots with rogue CIA agent Bill Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones), who boards the ship in disguise as a hippie band member. Their plan is to steal the nuclear missiles from the ship and spirit them away on a submarine stolen from North Korea.
The only crew member not killed or taken hostage in the initial raid, Ryback sets out to thwart Krill and Strannix, beating and blasting his way through their mercenary team as he makes his way around the ship.
Ryback is Seagal stripped of his usual pretension and sleaze. He even cut off his infamous ponytail to play the role. Ryback's a fun, likeable guy, with a rebellious nature and irreverent sense of humor. His banter with his fellow sailors and with Jordan is highly enjoyable and endearing.
Seagal is playing opposite some great actors here - it's almost shocking that he agreed to co-star in a film where Busey and Jones are stealing shows and chewing scenery. After the problems he had with William Forsythe overshadowing him in Out for Justice, he actually accepted the idea of sharing the spotlight on this one.
Under Siege reunites the action star with director Andrew Davis, who was at the helm of his debut film Above the Law and here was working with a great action script by J.F. Lawton. Davis stepped up his game on this one, delivering a terrific looking, well-polished film that stands alongside the best action hits of the time. From this, Davis went directly into the making of The Fugitive, taking nine Under Siege cast members along with him. That film received several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and Tommy Lee Jones won an Oscar for his role in it.
This is a very cool film, and I still remember going to see it in the theatre in October of 1992, with my mom, my pregnant sister, and my three-year-old nephew. I would have been just shy of nine years old at the time, seeing a Seagal movie on the big screen for the first time and eating it up. I believe Under Siege was also my first exposure to the Jimi Hendrix song "Voodoo Child", and I loved the brief clip of it that's featured. I'm fairly certain I was skipping a third grade soccer game I was supposed to playing in to go to the theatre with my family, possibly even the last game of the season, which was followed by a pizza party. Even at eight, seeing a movie was more important to me than most other activities.
DEAD WITHIN (2014)
I may not have enjoyed their movie very much, but I have to commend director Ben Wagner and his co-writers on the screenplay - Matthew Bradford, Dean Chekvala, and Amy Cale Peterson - for what they attempted to pull off here. With an obviously minuscule budget to work with, they made a post-apocalyptic zombie movie that is entirely focused on just two people struggling to survive in one remote cabin location.
The story picks up six months after civilization was destroyed by a plague that turned humans and animals into ravenous, bloodthirsty creatures. A couple named Mike and Kim (Chekvala and Peterson) were visiting their friends at their cabin at time, and after dispatching their zombified pals they have been hold up in the cabin ever since.
Aside from characters glimpsed in violent flashbacks or horrifying hallucinations and voices heard, Mike and Kim are the only two people in this film. Most of the running time consists of them talking about how they're going to survive and trying to pass the time.
I knew pretty quickly that Dead Within wasn't going to be for me, but I am very impressed that the filmmakers were able to sustain a feature running time with two characters in one place, and that such a movie has gotten a good enough release that it caught the attention of the Final Girl blog for last year's SHOCKtober event and I was able to watch it on Netflix.
Earlier this week, the exploitation film fan community suffered a devastating loss when legendary filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away. While the circumstances of his death are about as ideal as it gets, he was 87 years old and passed away peacefully in his sleep, it's still very sad to lose not only an inspirational icon, but also one of the nicest guys out there. I had been in Lewis's presence before, and he was a very pleasant and endearing person.
I couldn't let the week go by without a memorial viewing of at least one H.G. Lewis film, and for that viewing I chose not one of his splatter films, the most popular of his output - he earned the nickname The Godfather of Gore by creating the splatter film with his 1963 directorial effort Blood Feast - but something from a different branch of his exploitation endeavors, an entry in the biker movie genre.
Scripted by Lewis's then-wife Allison Louise Downe from an original idea by Fred M. Sandy, She-Devils on Wheels centers on a girl named Karen, the latest recruit in an all-female biker gang called The Man-Eaters. These girls spend their time racing, talking tough, and having casual sex with lovers who might as well be coming and going through revolving doors. As you can tell by their name, The Man-Eaters have a low opinion of men. Serious relationships with them are forbidden, because all men are mothers.
This is where trouble comes into bad girl paradise, because Karen is actually fond of one guy in particular, and when her fellow Man-Eaters find out that doesn't go over well at all, resulting in some brutal violence. More violence follows when the Man-Eaters get caught up in a feud with a male biker gang, whose members just happen to include another guy that Karen is fond of.
There's not much to She-Devils on Wheels, and it's certainly not one of Lewis's best efforts. Cheap (as expected) and packed with filler, it's something that will probably only appeal to grindhouse and drive-in die-hards. I have a special place in my heart for movies like this - even when they're bad, there's usually some charm in there that works for me. She-Devils isn't so good, but it has some memorable moments.
The most special thing about She-Devils on Wheels is the fact that it was made by H.G. Lewis, and for that reason alone I'm likely to have more viewings of it in the future. Lewis was a pioneer and heroic figure, but you wouldn't know it from his very personable demeanor. He wasn't trying to do anything more than make a good return on his investments in some "laughable but playable" movies, resulting in an awesome indie success story. He will be dearly missed, while his movies will continue to be enjoyed by the wastelanders who appreciate his type of cinema.
Rest in peace, sir. Your movies weren't always great, but you certainly were.
BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)
When watching Man of Steel (a movie I liked) back in 2013, I was astounded by all the collateral damage that resulted from Superman's battles with the villainous Kryptonians led by General Zod. The buildings crumbling in Metropolis, the fact that Superman takes a battle right into downtown Smallville rather making a stand in some field outside of town. To say I wasn't the only one who took notice of this unnecessary carnage would be a major understatement. It turned out to be one of the most talked about elements of the film, so much so that this sequel is all about the consequences of that damage. One could theorize that was the plan all along, but I don't really think that was the case. I think Zack Snyder is a director who cares about visuals above all else, and likely included all that destruction because it looked cool. I don't think it became an issue until the filmmakers heard the outcry from the audience about it. Things seemed pretty peaceful for Superman/Clark Kent in those final moments of Man of Steel, as if that whole Zod situation had been put well behind him.
The collateral damage is such a big part of this follow-up's story that we even revisit the battle in Metropolis at the beginning (following a 5 minute title sequence montage that reminds us what Batman's origins were), this time shot from the perspective of billionaire Wayne Enterprises owner Bruce Wayne. As explosions go off, buildings topple, and Kryptonian heat vision rays flash around randomly, Bruce rushes to the Wayne Enterprises location in Metropolis... and arrives just in time to see it fall, too. Wayne employees, people Bruce knew, died in the Metropolis disaster.
The Bruce Wayne/Batman in this film is a new iteration of the character, this has no ties back to any previous Batman film, but he has been in the costumed vigilante business for decades, fighting crime in Gotham City (which is just across a bay from Metropolis here) with a tech assist from his butler Alfred Pennyworth - and, at some point in the past, he had a sidekick called Robin who was murdered in the field. What happened in Metropolis gives Bruce a deep distrust in Superman, and for 18 months that distrust and the rage he feels about the incident burns inside him, altering his personality and his approach to dealing with criminals. Alfred points it out in their first scene together: Bruce/Batman has become cruel, even taking to branding criminals, which makes them a target of violence from other criminals in lock-up. Bruce has also become something of an alcoholic.
Batman isn't the only one who doesn't trust Superman. The government is uncertain about whether or not this all-powerful heroic alien should be allowed to do what he's doing, especially after all the deaths in Metropolis, and eccentric, knowledge-hungry billionaire Lex Luthor, heir of the LexCorp company and fortune, is concocting an anti-Superman contingency plan. A scheme involving the gathering of Kyptonite left over from the terraforming machines at the end of Man of Steel and the acquisition of General Zod's corpse.
Bruce's dislike of Superman is not a one way street. Clark Kent/Superman also disapproves of the violent acts committed by the Gotham Bat and sets out to force Batman into retirement. Batman does not take well to this opposition from someone who already has him so paranoid that he's even having detailed nightmares that may be some sort of Prince of Darkness-esque transmission from the future because he's dreaming of things that exist in the broader DC Comics universe that he shouldn't know about yet: the symbol of Darkseid, ruler of the planet of Apokolips; Darkseid's army of Parademons; a time travelling Flash, who warns that the storyline of the Injustice video game and comic series, in which Superman becomes a dictator after the Joker tricks him into killing Lois Lane, is a possible future. Bruce so deeply believes the dystopian future he has dreamed of could be caused by Superman that he intends to steal the Kyptonite from Luthor so he can use it to kill this dangerous alien.
What Snyder and writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio have delivered to us here are the characters of Batman and Superman at their worst. They're self-absorbed, they're belligerent, they're deeply damaged. This is not a "Superman as a shining beacon of hope" story, there is no joy to his acts of heroism. They're presented in a dour way as he silently, somberly goes about saving people. It's a good thing that Batman's name comes first in the title, because this does not have the tone of a Superman story, at least not the Superman I know and want to see portrayed. He barely speaks, and when he does speak he's usually making threats. I was sort of shocked by how they chose to show him.
The portrayal of Batman isn't ideal, either. I would like to see the screen Batman hold on to the "no killing" policy he has in the comics, but come on, this is a Zack Snyder movie, I wouldn't expect that from him. I'm sure he thinks getting the chance to show Batman cause the deaths of a couple dozen bad guys is too cool to pass up.
I will freely admit that I'm not a DC person. I have a good amount of Superman and Batman comics in my collection, but overall DC never appealed to me as much as the competition did. Although I grew up on the classic TV shows and the Christopher Reeve and Tim Burton movies, in general DC properties struggle to win me over. Batman v. Superman did not win me over. I know the tone and concept of Dawn of Justice does have some precedence, that Injustice story does exist after all, so I won't say it's a betrayal of characters like some viewers (especially fans of Superman) have said, its tone and story just didn't sit well with me.
Superheroes can be troubled, they can have depth, but I still want to be able to look up to them and root for them. Batman and Superman are not very noble in this movie. Superman is one of the greatest, most pure heroes ever created. To me, he's the "big blue Boy Scout" who triumphs "truth, justice, and the American way." He's not the po-faced character Snyder has given us. These characters are open to multiple interpretations, but they won't all work for everybody, and this didn't work for me.
So I have fundamental issues with Batman v. Superman from the start. Could I set them aside and enjoy the film for what it is? Well... I found much of it to be dull, and when it wasn't dull, Jesse Eisenberg was making me cringe with his scampering clown take on Luthor. I totally support the casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and hope they'll make a movie where he plays the character when he's in a more likeable head space. Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne reprise the roles of Lois Lane and Perry White from Man of Steel, and I do like them in those roles. Henry Cavill has potential as Clark Kent/Superman, if they'll let him play a charismatic Superman after this. Signs aren't that promising - Snyder shows so little interest in there being a proper Superman movie that he even has Clark Kent's longtime pal Jimmy Olsen cameo just to get killed off. That's cool and edgy, right?
For the most part, Dawn of Justice feels like a mad scramble to set up the larger DC cinematic universe so they can get to the big team-up movie Justice League. They set up future villains and scenarios, they introduce Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman through files Luthor has on "meta humans". They introduce Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman. She's a highlight of the climactic moments, as she joins Batman and Superman (they put their differences aside at a point, of course) in battle against a creature created by Luthor with a mixture of his DNA and General Zod's, a hulking CGI beast called Doomsday.
Yes, Warner Bros. really got to do it all with this film. They got to build the new universe, they got a Batman vs. Superman movie, which they were originally developing back in the early '00s - Wolfgang Petersen, fresh off The Perfect Storm, was going to direct it from a screenplay by Seven's Andrew Kevin Walker - and they got to shoehorn some of the Death of Superman comic book story in there as well. In the '90s, they spent millions trying to get a "Death of Superman" movie together. There were drafts written by multiple writers, including Kevin Smith and Wesley Strick, Tim Burton was going to direct, Nicolas Cage had been cast as Clark Kent/Superman. It all crumbled, but they got what they wanted twenty years later.