Friday, November 4, 2016

Worth Mentioning - Never Give In, Never Give Up

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.


This week is all about the action.


JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK (2016)

Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's 2012 film Jack Reacher was my introduction to the title character, a character who author Lee Child has been writing about for almost twenty years, publishing a new Reacher novel every year since 1997 (at one point there was even two Reacher novels published within a single calendar year, plus Child has written several Reacher short stories). The movie got me into reading the books as well, and although I haven't read every one of them yet, I have made my way through more than half of them. Although the Reacher described on the page is a massive mountain of a man larger than any actor they could have cast (the closest I can imagine is Chris Hemsworth, in full Thor shape, but even he is a bit small), I thoroughly enjoyed the way Tom Cruise inhabited the badass, bone-snapping tough guy and as I read the books I imagined seeing cinematic adaptations of them with Cruise in the lead. I wanted more Jack Reacher movies, and Child has provided plenty of material for a franchise.

If/when a Reacher sequel happened, I expected McQuarrie to be back at the helm, but he has switched over to a different Cruise franchise, directing Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and gearing up to become the first director to make two Mission: Impossible movies, as he'll be directing Mission: Impossible 6 as well. So if a Reacher follow-up was going to happen, someone else needed to take over, and producer/star Cruise turned to another filmmaker he has worked with before: The Last Samurai's Edward Zwick. I was a fan of The Last Samurai, as well as some of Zwick's other works (Love & Other Drugs, Defiance, About Last Night..., etc.), so it sounded like a great choice to me.


The movie Jack Reacher was actually based on the ninth novel in the series, which was titled One Shot, and for the sequel they jumped to the eighteenth novel in the series, one I haven't read yet and which was still a year from being published when the previous movie was released. I don't know why they make such big jumps through the series, but it doesn't exactly matter - for the most part, the books are simply about Reacher, a retired Army Military Police officer, drifting around the United States and getting involved with solving various mysteries and beating up a whole bunch of bad guys.

The story of Never Go Back did have a bit of build-up in the books, as it begins with Reacher traveling to Washington, D.C. to meet a woman he had phone interactions with in the previous novel, 61 Hours. That woman is Major Susan Turner (played here by Cobie Smulders), and she has his old job - Commanding Officer of the 110th Special Investigations Unit. The adaptation of Never Go Back quickly sets up their phone interactions at the head of the film as we watch Reacher go back to his old stomping grounds - not heeding the warning of the title - to take this woman out for dinner.


When Reacher arrives at Turner's office, he finds that she has been arrested, framed for espionage. It becomes clear to Reacher that whoever framed Turner doesn't intend to let her live behind bars for very long, so he breaks her out of jail and the pair goes on the run, with MPs and assassins on their trail. And they're not alone. Before they skip town, Reacher and Turner have to rescue another person who has gotten mixed up in Reacher's world: a teenage girl named Samantha (Danika Yarosh), whose mother has filed a paternity suit naming Reacher as the father. Reacher isn't convinced the kid is his, but the villains are threatening her life to get to him, so she needs his protection.

Choosing a story in which the hero is saddled with a child tag-along for the second film in the series seems like a questionable decision, sometimes having a kid in the story can really drag an action movie down, but at least this kid is a street smart teenager, and Yarosh delivers a good performance in the role. If a youngster has to be around, this is about as least grating as it could get.


While on the run, Reacher and Turner work on figuring out what is happening and why, and it has something to do with military weapons in Afghanistan and how they're being handled by a private military contractor firm headed up by Transporter 3 villain Robert Knepper. Doing his best to remove Reacher and Turner from the equation before they can blow the lid off of some shady business is Patrick Heusinger as The Hunter, an assassin who is basically the evil version of Reacher.

Scripted by Zwick, his frequent collaborator Marshall Herskovitz, and action regular Richard Wenk (The Expendables 2, The Equalizer, The Magificent Seven 2016), Never Go Back is slightly weaker than its predecessor. It doesn't quite recapture the badass edge McQuarrie established, and the action isn't as memorable - this is its biggest failing, because Jack Reacher had multiple memorable action beats, while the action here is a bit bland in comparison. Still, Reacher proves quite capable of cracking skulls and there are some nice moments of violent altercations.

The story and the mystery at the heart of it also aren't as interesting as what the One Shot novel provided, but it works well enough to fill the time between instances of people getting knocked around.


Although Zwick has shot action in some of his previous films, he has admitted that Reacher-type action isn't exactly his expertise, and I think it showed in the movie a bit. He didn't do a bad job, it's just clear that he didn't have as good of a grasp on the material as McQuarrie did. McQuarrie had a vision of following in the footsteps of the great action thrillers of the '70s with Jack Reacher. The style of this one is a bit more generic.

The film does earn bonus points for being set around Halloween; it even features a Halloween parade on the streets of New Orleans.

While Never Go Back is a step down from what came before, it was still great to see Reacher back in action, and I hope to see more Reacher films with Cruise in the lead. I think they should switch up directors again next time, though.



THE KILLER (1989)

Audience members around the world know who director John Woo is today, and one of the reasons why they know the Chinese filmmaker is because he could craft an action thriller as cool as The Killer.

The killer of the title is Chow Yun Fat as Ah Jong, a professional hitman whose career choice leads him to participate in some of the most amazing shootouts every committed to film. It was the stylistic, elegant violence that drew many viewers to Woo's work, and the shootout sequences in The Killer are absolutely stunning. Handguns firing multiple rounds, muzzles flashing, sparks flying, blood squibs going off, property getting blasted to pieces. Plenty of action movies have copious amounts of gunfire, but rarely have they ever even come close to what Woo pulled off in this film.

When nightclub singer Jennie (Sally Yeh) is nearly blinded in a shootout Jong starts in the club, the hitman dedicates himself to taking care of her, choosing to do one last hit to earn enough money so she can have a surgery that will save her sight. Unfortunately, like every "one last job" in cinema, Jong's plans go disastrously wrong. His employers turn on him, wanting to kill him rather than letting him retire, and he finds himself being hunted by police inspector Li Ying (Danny Lee), a witness to that last hit.

As cool as the gunfights are, the movie still wouldn't be as great as it is if they weren't wrapped around scenes where we come to know and care about the characters. Jong is the hitman with a heart of gold, and we want to see him succeed in his endeavors. We want him to help Jennie. Inspector Li respects his quarry, so we respect him in turn - especially when he sets the law aside and chooses to help Jong fend off the assassins coming after him.

The Killer is an awesome film, captivating and exciting. If you're an action fan who hasn't seen this one yet, if you've ever enjoyed watching a gunfight in a movie but haven't seen the ones in The Killer, you've been missing some greatness. Seek it out!



THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

Some fans were upset at the idea of the classic 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven being remade, which I found kind of ironic given the fact that The Magnificent Seven was itself a remake of the 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai. The Magnificent Seven is a great movie, but I wasn't bothered by the idea of the remake being remade. One thing I did hope that they would do, however, is switch things up a bit more than MGM, writers Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto, and director Antoine Fuqua ended up doing. Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was set in 1586 Japan. The concept's samurais were replaced by cowboys and the setting moved to 1800s Mexico for The Magnificent Seven. For a new take on the idea, I thought they should change the century and the country again, maybe move the setting closer to modern times. But of course, the title is associated with the Western setting, and the studio and filmmakers wanted to give viewers what they were familiar with.


So here we have a story set in 1879 and an American town called Rose Creek. The villain is Peter Sarsgaard as robber baron Bartholomew Bogue, who has a small army of men working for him, the Blackstone security agency, and is taking over Rose Creek by force so he can mine for gold there, trying to drive out the residents and offering a paltry sum for their land. When a local played by Matt Bomer steps forward to lead an uprising against Bogue, he and several others are gunned down. I thought the casting of Bomer in this role was a nice touch, as he is recognizable and viewers might expect him to be in the film for a while. Instead, his character is killed in a pre-title sequence.

Casting I wasn't so sure about was Sarsgaard. He's a good actor, but he also has one of the least intimidating voices you're likely to hear in a film. He tries his best to make Bogue a total scumbag, but I wasn't totally convinced by the performance, and he's not given all that much to do.

The widow of Bomer's character, Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen, seeks the aid of outside gunmen to save her town and avenge her husband. She finds a willing leader in warrant officer / licensed peace officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who proceeds to assemble a team of seven unlikely heroes - a more diverse seven than in the '60 film.

Chisolm's first recruit is Chris Pratt as hard-drinking gambler Josh Faraday, and if you've seen Pratt in other movies you know exactly how he plays Faraday. I usually like Pratt, but Faraday didn't do much for me, and I think part of the reason why is that some of his one-liners are shot and cut in such a way that they just fall to the ground like lead rather than being amusing.

I'm not sure why Chisholm decides Faraday should be part of the team. Faraday discretely watches Chisholm's back when he's dealing with some criminals, but these two don't know each other, so Chisholm could be making a mistake by bringing him into the fold.


I wasn't really connecting with the movie during the recruitment sequence, and Faraday wasn't the only time I wondered why Chisholm was seeking the help of a specific person. In addition to Chisholm and Faraday, the team ends up consisting of Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, a criminal with a "dead or alive" warrant on his head (don't know why); Ethan Hawke as legendary sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux and Byung-hun Lee as his knife-throwing companion Billy Rocks (these two made total sense); Vincent D'Onofrio as Jack Horne, a man who has killed 300 Native Americans in his day and a character I found to be rather awkward; and a Native American named Red Harvest and played by Martin Sensmeier. It isn't clear how Red Harvest came to their attention, nor is the potential conflict between Horne and Red Harvest ever played up like it could have been. The group does have to deal with some internal issues that weren't anticipated, though.

So this is our group, although I couldn't tell you why in every occasion. There are some cool members of this bunch, with Billy Rocks and Red Harvest being the standouts for me, even if Billy didn't use his knife throwing skills as much as I would have liked. I'm always drawn to a character who'll bring a knife to a gunfight.

Once assembled, the Seven ride into Rose Creek to stand up to Bogue's men and embolden the locals, setting the stage for a climactic battle that takes up the last 30 minutes or so of the film.


Ultimately, the 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven turns out to be a good movie and an entertaining Western, but one that falls short of the film(s) it's based on. I had plenty of issues with it - story, characters, casting decisions, presentation -  but I had fun watching it.

Some detractors may say that my subdued reaction to the film is proof that it shouldn't have been made, it never could have lived up to the 1960 movie, and it doesn't. But I would say that the fun it does provide is reason enough for it to exist, and regardless of the quality it never could have tarnished the reputation of the classic Magnificent Seven. The Magnificent Seven was already followed by three lesser sequels and a short-lived TV series; adding a remake into that mix doesn't harm anything.

A bit of trivia: when the remake was first announced in 2012, Tom Cruise was attached to star in it and there were rumors that he might be joined in the cast by the likes of Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, and Matt Damon.



BLOOD FATHER (2016)

One of the biggest stars in the entertainment industry when I was growing up, Mel Gibson is now damaged goods, the public's perception of him having been burnt to the ground thanks to personal problems and idiotic behavior. For years, Gibson has been seeking redemption, and Assault on Precinct 13 2005 director Jean-Fran├žois Richet's Blood Father brings him closer to being redeemed than anything else I've seen him in over the last decade.

Gibson's character in Blood Father, a man named John Link, is the perfect role for him. It's the kind of character that he plays best, a man who has been beaten down by the world but can still kick ass, it's a character that reflects where his career is now - Link has a troubled past but is trying his best to course correct and live a good life - and a man this troubled draws sympathy from the viewer.

An ex-con now on parole and a recovering alcoholic, Link lives in a trailer park, just a few trailers over from his sponsor (William H. Macy), and makes a living running a tattoo parlor in his home. His wobbly existence is up ended when his estranged daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) re-enters his life, desperately seeking help. Lydia got mixed up with a bad crowd, she was dating a criminal named Jonah (Diego Luna) who she believes she has killed, and now she's being hunted by Jonah's lackeys and people from the drug cartel he was associated with.

Link has never been much of a father to Lydia, but now that his daughter's life is in his hands he will do anything to protect her from the killers on her trail.

And that's all there is to Blood Father. Link and Lydia go on the run and are met with violence at every turn. With a relatively low budget, this movie doesn't deliver action sequences on the level of some of the movies we've seen Gibson in before, but the action sequences that are there are satisfying, brutal, and quite believable. There's also a motorcycle chase in here that might be the closest we'll get to seeing Gibson re-living a bit of his Mad Max glory days in his career now that he has aged out of playing that role.

Gibson does a fantastic job as Link, reminding the viewer why we liked him in the first place. Moriarty does well bouncing off of him, Luna is a fine slimy villain, and I was pleased to see the great character actor Michael Parks (Red State, Tusk, From Dusk Till Dawn, Death Wish 5) show up as Preacher, a friend of Link's who really isn't a very good friend at all.

Short, simple, well made and acted, Blood Father is a low-key action drama that I highly recommend to action fans with fond memories of the good old days of Gibson's career.

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