Friday, January 24, 2014

Worth Mentioning - It Will Shock You to the Core

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 the past return to the screen and a kaiju run into trouble.


Earlier this month, I lamented that there was no new film from director Sam Raimi to help me name my new dachshund puppy, as Spider-Man and Oz, the Great and Powerful had come out around the time that I got my two other dachshunds. If things had gone according to plan, though, Shadow Recruit would be a Sam Raimi film. He was the first director to be announced as attached to the Paramount Pictures presentation, way back in early 2008. Unfortunately, Raimi's commitment to the ill-fated Spider-Man 4 forced him to leave Jack Ryan behind. The second director to sign on was Jack Bender, best known for directing a ton of Lost episodes. Eventually, Bender also dropped the project, leaving it to be picked up by another director fresh off bringing a superhero to the screen, Thor's Kenneth Branagh.

Created by author Tom Clancy, the character of Jack Ryan first made it to cinema screens in 1990's The Hunt for Red October and was played by Alec Baldwin. Harrison Ford took on the role for 1992's Patriot Games and 1994's Clear and Present Danger, and after trying unsuccessfully to continue the Ford-Ryan adventures with an adaptation of Clancy's novel The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Paramount decided to reboot the series with a younger actor, Ben Affleck, in a 2002 adaptation of The Sum of All Fears. For a time, it appeared that Clancy's 2002 novel Red Rabbit, which also featured a younger Ryan, would be the obvious choice to base a follow-up on... But a follow-up never came. As time passed, Paramount decided to reboot the series again and cast another younger actor to star in a film that would be "the Jack Ryan origin story".

Despite there being multiple Jack Ryan (and Jack Ryan Jr.) books for Paramount to choose from, this new film is not directly based on anything written by Tom Clancy, although parts of the backstory Clancy created for Ryan are covered at the beginning of the film, updated from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. The script actually started off as an original screenplay written by Adam Cozad, which Cozad and David Koepp (Panic Room, Spider-Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) then retrofitted for Ryan.

The film begins in 2001, when young American Jack Ryan - here played by Chris Pine of Smokin' Aces and the Star Trek reboots - is studying abroad in London, majoring in Economics. After witnessing news of the World Trade Center attacks, Ryan leaves school and joins the military to serve his country. 18 months later, his military career is ended when he suffers a severe back injury in a helicopter crash caused by enemy fire in Afghanistan. While recuperating back home at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Ryan's physical therapist is a young med student named Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley). When his therapy is over, Ryan asks Cathy out on a date...

During his time at Walter Reed, Ryan is also visited by a C.I.A. agent named Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who has taken an interest in him after reading the reports and analyses Ryan wrote while in school and during his time in the military. Ryan is bright and promising, he could be helpful to the agency... so Harper recruits him into the C.I.A. The deal is that Ryan will finish his schooling, get a job as a banker, and watch cash flows to find where terrorist organizations are getting their funding from. No one is to know Ryan is in the C.I.A., to his employers, family, friends, he is only a banker. He works for the agency in secret, and therefore we get the meaning of the title Shadow Recruit.

The film then jumps ahead ten years. Ryan is working on Wall Street, he's been dating Cathy for ten years, they share an apartment, they've been engaged for seven years, but for some reason Cathy is reluctant to go through with the marriage.

Alarms go off in Ryan's head when he catches that the details on many accounts belonging to wealthy Russian businessman Viktor Cherevin are hidden. Ryan believes Cherevin needs to be investigated, and since he's the only one who understands the information he has, the C.I.A. sends him into the field, off to Moscow to audit Cherevin personally.

Branagh casts himself as the villainous Cherevin, who on the outside appears to be merely a rich company owner but who has some dark secrets and an anger toward America that goes back to an injury he sustained in Afghanistan many years before Ryan was hurt there, in a different war.

The issue Paramount has on their hands with the Jack Ryan character is how to build a spy action series around a character who is not at his core an action hero. Ryan is not supposed to be a field agent and never misses an opportunity to balk at getting into dangerous situations by dropping the line, "I'm just an analyst!" But his banking knowledge and attention to detail give the film plenty of excuses to keep him in the middle of the action, and his history in the Marines gives a reason for how he's able to handle himself in the action when he has to.

The secrecy of Ryan's job makes Cathy suspicious, and her attempt to find out just what is going on with her fiancee also gets her deeply involved in the spy games while Ryan uncovers a plot to devastate the United States through a terrorist attack and manipulating stocks. For me, the scenes where Cathy is left to entertain Cherevin on her own while Ryan is off getting up to espionage in Cherevin's office building was the best section of the movie.

Though the film is well written and interesting throughout and the cast members all do very well in their roles, in the end Shadow Recruit does feel somewhat lacking. While it's a fine thriller and worth watching, it also feels quite by-the-numbers, the sequences play out but there's no real excitement to them. It's not great, it's not bad, it's right in the middle, resting on good, and nothing about it pushes it past that middle zone. It's enjoyable in the moment, but I don't think it's going to get anyone especially amped up to see more Jack Ryan movies. While I would gladly watch a sequel, I also wouldn't be surprised if Paramount decided to let the property go dormant for a while again.


Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone starred in two of the most popular boxing films of all time with 1980's Raging Bull and 1976's Rocky (as well as the five Rocky sequels that took the character up to 2006), so it's quite appropriate that they were cast to star in this film as former boxers Billy "The Kid" McDonnen and Henry "Razor" Sharp.

There was a major competition between The Kid and Razor thirty years ago. The boxers, both based out of Pittsburgh, first met in the ring in 1982, a bout that The Kid won. In their 1984 rematch, Razor came out on top. The pair were destined to have a third fight, a tie-breaking grudge match... But before it could happen, Razor unexpectedly retired.

Jump ahead thirty years, and things have turned out very differently for the two of them. While The Kid is the wealthy owner of a restaurant and a car dealership, Razor is down-on-his-luck and hurting financially. Laid off from his factory job, living in a crappy little house, unable to pay his former trainer's nursing home bills, Razor reluctantly agrees to do some motion capture work for a video game.

When The Kid shows up at the motion capture session and antagonizes Razor, the two engage in a very destructive scuffle. All of which is, of course, recorded on camera phones and uploaded to the internet. The resultant "Two Old Men Fighting" video goes viral and reignites interest in the long overdue Razor/Kid grudge match.

The Kid desperately wants his rematch, Razor desperately needs the money, so the two agree to have their tie-breaking fight thirty years later... And being long retired, out-of-shape men in their sixties, they've got a lot of training to do before they get in the ring together.

While The Kid gets training in a gym, Razor does his training, as you would expect from a Stallone character, largely on the streets and in a junkyard.

Dredging up the old rivalry also brings other things out of the past, other people... a long lost love, a secret son... Not only is Grudge Match a fun sports comedy, but it's also a solid character drama. Although The Kid comes off as a villain at first, he's deeper than than, he's got his own issues to deal with. The film does lean slightly in Razor's favor, giving him more to overcome, but overall it is rather evenly balanced, a viewer could root for either one of these guys in the climactic fight.

It's no surprise to see Stallone in fighting shape, but De Niro had drifted away from the more physical stuff in recent years, he seemed more like the average guy his age, so it is quite impressive that he lost weight and got in such good shape for this movie. He turned 70 soon after this picture wrapped, but when it's time to box he's totally believable.

De Niro and Stallone are surrounded by a good supporting cast that includes Kim Basinger as Razor's '80s sweetheart, a very entertaining Alan Arkin as his old trainer, and Jon Bernthal (best known for playing Shane on The Walking Dead) as the son that comes into The Kid's life and becomes his trainer. Kevin Hart takes the role of a very annoying character, the fight promoter who is the son of the promoter the boxers formerly dealt with. The way Hart's character acts around Arkin's character is especially despicable, if there's one disappointing thing in the movie it's that he doesn't get the proper comeuppance for his behavior... I don't think I was supposed to dislike him as much as I did.


The daikaiju Baran, a.k.a. Varan, may be unbelievable himself, but he's also a monster who has experienced some unbelievably bad luck while making his way to screens around the world.

When the Varan movie was first being developed, it was a co-production between Japan's Toho Studios and the U.S.'s ABC television network, with ABC wanting to get in on the success that Toho had with the 1954 debut of Godzilla. With Gojira's Tomoyuki Tanaka as the producer, Varan was set to be a reunion of several Gojira collaborators - director Ishirô Honda, composer Akira Ifukube, special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya. The story and script came from Ken Kuronuma, who Honda had worked with before on Rodan, and Shinichi Sekizawa, who he would work with on Mothra and many other projects. Godzilla performers Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka would wear the suit of the monster Varan.

Production began on what was to be a very straightforward monster movie - a team of researchers venture to an isolated Japanese village where the people, reminiscent of King Kong and the natives of Skull Island, pray to a lake-dwelling god called Baradagi. When the outsiders tread too far into land where the locals dare not tread, the monstrous "god" rises from the lake and begins to wreak havoc.

The flying, fire-eating, spike-backed Baradagi is quickly identified to be not a god, but a dinosaur that has somehow survived to the modern age. A Varanopode, call him Varan for short. And after thousands, maybe millions, of years of hanging out around this remote village, Varan for no clear reason decides to go on a rampage through Japan. Varan's ultimate destination is, of course, Tokyo. With the military's weapons proving useless against the dinosaur, a plan is devised to use a new kind of gunpowder bomb, designed for use in dam construction, to blow him up from the inside out.

It's all simple and innocent enough, just a story about a dinosaur/monster out to destroy things. But halfway through filming, ABC pulled out of the production, leaving Toho to salvage the movie. A film that had started out being filmed in black & white and the standard aspect ratio for American television would now be heading to Japanese theatres, so the format was changed and all of the footage that had been shot had to be cropped to match. With less funding, stock footage of special effects from Gojira had to be cut into the film to stand in for Varan's rampage.

Despite the effort to save the project, Varan's cinematic exploits were not as successful as those of his kaiju contemporaries. The 87 minute film was later cut down to be shown on Japanese television as an hour long special.

A few years later, an American company picked up the rights to distribute Varan in the U.S.... and proceeded to hack it to pieces. Almost everything aside from the special effects sequences were cut so that an entirely new film could be built around them, the new footage written by Sid Harris and directed by Jerry A. Baerwitz.

The story of the American version of Varan deals with American military man Commander James Bradley, who has been assigned to head up a joint U.S./Japan operation to conduct experiments on a salt water lake two hundred yards inland on a Japanese island, an attempt to purify salt water with chemicals. The tests will leave the lake contaminated, and the residents of the small nearby fishing village, who fear a prehistoric reptile "devil monster" they believe dwells within the lake, do not take kindly to this idea. Some of them are even willing to resort to violence to disrupt the experiments.

The military should have taken the hint and heeded the warnings of the villagers, because the experiments that Bradley is overseeing are indeed what stirs up Varan and sets off his deadly spree of destruction... But the anti-saline chemical may also be just the thing to stop him.

The result of all this tinkering and reshooting? The American version of the film runs almost 20 minutes shorter than its Japanese theatrical version, and places Varan in the midst of a rather uninteresting film that comes off as a pure B-movie cheapie.

Abandoned by ABC, the story of his film not very well-rounded, half of his movie's footage cropped, sharing footage with Godzilla, his American release questionably handled, unable to reach the levels of popularity other kaijus have enjoyed... Varan is one unlucky monster. Which is a shame, because he looks awesome. He could've been a contender.

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