Cody marvels while forgetting everything he thinks he knows.
DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)
I'm on board to watch any Marvel adaptation that comes out, especially those that are a part of the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe, but while I was guaranteed to be seeing Marvel's Doctor Strange opening weekend, the movie also had a bit of an uphill climb to win me over.
I've never been that into the character Doctor Strange, and for the most part only read comic books that had him in them when he was having some sort of crossover with Ghost Rider. Admittedly, he did tend to be a great help when he showed up, I just never felt the urge to delve further into his adventures. I've also never gotten into the career of star Benedict Cumberbatch. I haven't seen the project he's most well known for, the Sherlock TV series, and while he did give a great performance (despite being miscast) as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, he still just struck me as a dull choice to play Strange.
My interest was piqued when director Scott Derrickson, who tends to work in the horror genre with films like Sinister, was hired to helm this blockbuster, and thus took on the challenge of getting me interested in watching the story of not just Doctor Strange, but a Doctor Strange played by Cumberbatch.
Derrickson met the challenge.
It did take me a while to warm up to Cumberbatch. When we're introduced to Doctor Stephen Strange he's a highly skilled neurosurgeon who is his own biggest fan, and as others have pointed out it seems like they were trying to make Strange the next Tony Stark - but while Robert Downey Jr. is so effective as that character because he is bringing a lot of his own personality to the amusingly arrogant Stark, I didn't buy Cumberbatch's attempt at being fun-but-arrogant. It felt off, and he seemed stiff.
Not long after we meet him, Strange's career is ruined when his hands are destroyed in a car accident. The nerve damage is extensive, his hands can't be steadied. Desperate for a cure, he seeks out a man who overcame impossible odds to walk again after being paralyzed, and the man recommends that he go to a place called Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal. There, Strange finds that Kamar-Taj is essentially a school for sorcerers, run by the sorcerer supreme, the centuries-old Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). At first, Strange is dismissive of the Ancient One's talk of mystical energies and other dimensions, he's a "we're nothing but matter" type of guy, but the ancient woman quickly convinces him that she's no quack by knocking his astral form out of his body and sending him floating through multiple dimensions - a trick that enabled Derrickson to present viewers with one hell of an impressive, trippy visual effects sequence. My favorite part of this sequence involved Strange growing extra hands and being grabbed by a world of hands.
Strange decides to stick around and train to be a sorcerer, with the help of another sorcerer named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the books kept in the library that's watched over by a man named Wong (Benedict Wong). Much like the original Iron Man, a lot of Doctor Strange's running time concerns him training and figuring out his method of heroics, so I'm not sure how much rewatchability the movie will have for me, but it kept me interested for this viewing. However, I was still not totally sure about Cumberbatch all this time, finding Ejiofor much more captivating and charismatic than the actual star.
Eventually, Strange learns that there has been trouble at Kamar-Taj before. The sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) turned to the dark side and stole a spell meant to summon the evil conqueror of worlds Dormammu, seeking to allow Dormammu to add Earth to his collection of planets in the Dark Dimension, thus achieving eternal life for himself. When Kaecilius sets his plan in motion, Doctor Strange has to step up and become a hero. It didn't feel like the heroic "stopping Kaecilius" stretch of the film was very long at all, but there were some cool things packed in there.
Any touch of reality is almost completely ditched for the action sequences, as Derrickson has his characters fighting in floating, shifting, clockwork cities in other dimensions, which didn't really hold my attention all that much because it was a bit too out there for me. However, there was a fight scene in here that I absolutely loved, partly because it reminded me of a sequence in Peter Jackson's ghost movie The Frighteners. Here, Strange has suffered a grave injury that requires the help of his former girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) to save his life. While Christine tries to keep him alive, Strange's astral form leaves his body and engages in a fight with the astral form of action star Scott Adkins as Kaecilius's lackey Lucian. I found this to be the highlight of the film.
And around the time of his fight with Lucian, I finally clicked with Cumberbatch's Strange. It didn't work for me when he was trying to be a person in the everyday world, but once he was doing magic on the way to becoming sorcerer supreme, suddenly his casting made sense.
I was also won over by the character of Strange. One of my favorite things about superheroes is their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, and Strange's climactic confrontation with the villain in this film is one of the best examples of that I've ever seen. As it turns out, Doctor Strange truly is a hero worth following.
With some interesting ideas, cool action, mind-bending visuals, and great character moments - including a strong monologue from Mikkelsen and a very touching moment with Swinton - Doctor Strange is also a movie worth watching.
THE ESCAPE (2016)
The Driver has returned! To celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of their The Hire series, which consisted of eight short films directed by the likes of John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-wai, Guy Ritchie, Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Woo, Joe Carnahan, and Tony Scott, BMW produced a new entry in the series, getting Clive Owen back behind the wheel of a BMW in a short film directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium, Chappie).
Nothing connects the episodes in The Hire series except for the presence of Owen as The Driver, "a man who travels the globe taking jobs that put him behind the wheel of a BMW and often put his life in danger." That holds true in Blomkamp's The Escape, which has a set-up rooted in the director's genre of choice, science fiction. It seems a laboratory has been creating illegal human clones, and when the police and FBI crack down on the place, a private security force led by a character played by Jon Bernthal hires The Driver to help them escort the "merchandise" past the authorites so it can be delivered to a customer. That merchandise is Dakota Fanning as an oddball clone.
High speed vehicular chases and shootouts ensue, with things going a different direction than Bernthal's character expected when The Driver disagrees with the way he treats the clone girl.
The Escape is the lengthiest Hire/Driver short of the bunch, and its 10 and half minutes (13 and a half with end credits) are packed with action and property damage. It was great to see The Driver back on the streets, and I appreciate the fact that BMW chose to mark the anniversary in this way.
I'm holding on to some hope that The Escape might be the first in a fresh series of Hire shorts, but I'm happy just to get this one after so many years.
If you'd like to watch The Escape for yourself, head over to the BMW account on YouTube.
HARD BOILED (1992)
John Woo made more than twenty movies in his native China before entering the Hollywood studio system to make some Hollywood blockbusters, like Mission: Impossible II, but while several of those films are respected and acclaimed, the two most popular are The Killer and Hard Boiled.
The Killer star Chow Yun Fat also takes the lead role in Hard Boiled, a saxophone-playing detective nicknamed Tequila, and you start to get a good idea of just why this film is so popular within the first ten minutes, when an extensive gunfight breaks out between Tequila and a gang of criminals during a gun smuggling bust gone wrong in a tea house. The Killer was packed with jaw-dropping gun battles, and right up front Hard Boiled gives you another gun battle that is just as awesome, bloody, destructive, and impressively choreographed as anything in The Killer. Possibly even more so. And this is just the first of the film's many bullet-heavy action sequences.
Tequila's partner is killed in that opening shootout, so he intensifies his efforts to bring down the local gun-running operations, even though his superintendent is telling him to lay off. Tequila isn't the sort of guy who can be deterred, he's the sort of guy who will drop smoke bombs into a warehouse full of heavily armed gangsters and come swinging in from a skylight on a rope, firing a machine gun. He is the Asian Punisher.
Eventually we find out why the higher-ups don't want Tequila wreaking havoc with the smugglers: the department has an officer deep undercover within one of the organizations. In The Killer, Fat shared the spotlight with Danny Lee as the cop who was on the trail of his assassin character, and here his co-lead is Tony Leung as undercover officer Alan.
Alan's world is blown apart anyway when another gang pulls off a "hostile takeover" of the one he's embedded in, catching both of our cop heroes in the gang crossfire.
Hard Boiled has a good amount of plot, but never goes too far into crime drama territory before another sequence of gunfire and explosions breaks out. This isn't The Godfather or The Departed, this is an action movie at its core, which makes it more appealing to me than the average organized crime film.
Everything builds up to Tequila and Alan taking on an army of gangsters in a hospital that doubles as a kingpin's armory, an action sequence that takes up the majority of the film's last 45 minutes. This isn't a movie I've watched a great number of times, but it is a great movie, and Woo has deserved every bit of praise he's received for it over the years.
Woo made some fun movies when he came over to Hollywood (I love the aforementioned M:I2), but one should not judge his career based solely on his American studio system output, because it is quite different and watered down compared to the stunning things he accomplished with The Killer and Hard Boiled.
SNIPER: GHOST SHOOTER (2016)
For twelve years, screenwriter Chris Hauty's sole screen credit was on the 1996 kids' movie sequel Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco, but over the last eight years Hauty has been earning more credits in the action genre, scripting all three entries (to date) in the Never Back Down MMA fighting films and now writing the sixth film in the Sniper franchise.
Don Michael Paul, director of the previous movie in the Sniper series (Sniper: Legacy) and Tremors 5: Bloodlines, returns to the helm for this sequel, becoming the first director to make two Sniper movies. As of the fourth entry, Sniper: Reloaded, the franchise shifted focus from Marine sniper Thomas Beckett to Chad Michael Collins as his estranged son Brandon Beckett, also a Marine sniper. Collins/Beckett is back for his third time in the lead, joined by fellow Sniper stars Billy Zane (who co-starred in Reloaded and the original Sniper), Dennis Haysbert, whose Colonel character was introduced in Legacy, and Dominic Mafham as Legacy character Bidwell.
Brandon Beckett is now working with a sniper team led by Miller, and it's the Colonel and Bidwell who set up, along with Robin Slater (Stephanie Vogt) of the Civilian-Military Fusion Center, the team's latest assignment: they're to work security to facilitate the construction of the Trans-Georgian Pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Georgia through the Black Sea into Eastern Europe and beyond. Beckett and his team report to an area near the borders of Armenia and Turkey... and it would sort of be a waste of time to discuss the other characters on the team, not even the woman who used to have a romantic relationship with Beckett warrants much of a mention, because they are just cannon fodder. The insurgents and radicals who have been disrupting the pipeline construction with bombings and sniper attacks prove quite capable of wiping out this sniper team as well. So capable that Beckett suspects a traitor in the Georgian military is leaking information to them.
Intel says the terrorists are led by a man named Gazakov (Velislav Pavlov), and it falls on Beckett's shoulders to bring this man to justice. To reach him, he needs help from a couple local contacts - Ravil Isyanov as veteran sniper Andrei Mashkov and Navid Negahban as blind geologist Mothershed. If you're coming to Ghost Shooter hoping to see Collins do a lot of interacting with his fellow returners, you might be disappointed, because Zane, Haysbert, and Mafham all have very little screen time. Beckett spends more time hanging out with Mashkov and Mothershed, and Isyanov and Negahban both deliver fine, memorable performances in these roles.
In addition to helping Beckett move along on his path to Gazakov, Mashkov also helps him a bit with the existential crisis he's having. In Legacy, Beckett considered giving up on being a sniper because it was becoming too easy for him to kill people, and now it's becoming too tough. His conscience is weighing on him heavily. He's hesitating. He keeps seeing the wrong people in his crosshairs. Having a personal storyline for your heroes in the midst of their missions is a good thing, but this particular subplot didn't do much for me, I found that it mostly just bogged things down and at times made it feel like the movie was moving too slowly.
Thankfully, the movie has frequent punctuation moments of action to liven up the proceedings, and there are some very cool, exciting action sequences in here, marred only by the occasional inclusion of some dodgy CGI. I don't like the CG blood splatter, but it is a bit easier to handle than CG rockets and explosions.
Sniper: Ghost Shooter didn't end up being one of my favorite Sniper movies, but it was a serviceable sequel that was along the lines of what I expected, just not quite as entertaining as I hoped it would be. If you've seen the other movies in the series, there's no reason to skip this one, and I'm on board for future installments as well.
More Sniper is guaranteed, because Collins and Paul have already filmed another sequel, which was shot in Colombia.