Lionsgate

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018, Susanna Fogel)

The Spy Who Dumped Me has, rather unfortunately, a punny title. It’s an accurate title—the film’s about spy Justin Theroux dumping his civilian and not aware he’s a spy girlfriend Mila Kunis—but it doesn’t capture the mood of the film. No doubt, it’s a hard one to title—because even though it starts with Kunis going to Europe to help Theroux on a mission (after a very well-executed gun fight), it becomes more about Kunis and best friend Kate McKinnon as they find their respective knacks in life as spies. Or at least, movie spies, who have to worry about gun fights in public places, evil trapeze artists, and “Edward Snowden” cameos. Spy purposefully goes all over the place (and all over Europe), with the core mystery being engaging enough but never the point. Spy’s all about its performances, not the MacGuffins.

Which makes Sam Heughan’s smooth British spy guy stand out as a fail. He’s fine. He’s even charming at times, but he’s… nothing special. When Kunis has her pick of spies, Theroux or Heughan, she goes Theroux—who’s got his issues too—but at last he’s got some character. Heughan looks like a British spy caricature, acts like a British spy caricature. He’s no fun. Theroux’s not really fun either, but he doesn’t have to be fun. But Heughan? He’s the straight man to partner Hasan Minhaj, whose thing is just being a boring straightedge and he’s so fun at it. Or their boss, Gillian Armstrong, who plays a British spy supervisor caricature and makes it seem like a real character. Heughan’s fine, but he’s a bummer. Theroux’s… a bummer. At least one of them needs to be better.

Nicely, everything else is great so the two supporting dudes being a little lackluster doesn’t matter. And Heughan’s good with the fight stuff; he gets sympathy for being such a surprisingly solid action star. Spy gives Kunis and McKinnon a lot, keeping an undercurrent of humor. Heughan doesn’t really have the humor. Sometimes he’s got Kunis and McKinnon giving audio commentary, which brings some humor, but director Fogel handles it differently. Probably contributes to keeping Kunis and McKinnon in danger. They’re not because it’s still a fish out of water buddy comedy and it can’t kill either buddy but the film’s got to put them in danger for about an hour straight before a resolution. Spy isn’t short—it’s real close to two hours—and it’s really well-paced and keeping tension in an action comedy isn’t easy. Luckily there’s a lot of violence. Spy goes all in on the action violence; lots of great action set pieces; they’re what make the movie work in the first act. It demands attention.

Kunis is a good lead, but McKinnon walks away with it. She’s really funny. Even when the scene isn’t really funny, McKinnon’s really funny. And her third act stuff is impossible and she makes it happen. Fogel’s careful not to showcase McKinnon too much—without not showcasing her either—and giving Kunis her time but… it’s McKinnon’s show. She’s part of all the best material. Kunis gets most of it, but third act is all McKinnon’s. Also Kunis and McKinnon are great together, which makes everything feel a lot more even throughout. It’s just… Kunis gets a romance subplot and McKinnon gets to be hilarious. Shame Kunis doesn’t have better dudes in the triangle. But Heughan’s fine.

He’s fine.

Great cameos from Jane Curtin, Paul Reiser, and Fred Melamed. Ivanna Sakhno’s awesome as the Bond villain assassin out to get Kunis and, especially, McKinnon.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is really good at being really funny and good enough when it’s not being really funny.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Susanna Fogel; written by Fogel and David Iserson; director of photography, Barry Peterson; edited by Jonathan Schwartz; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Marc Homes; costume designer, Alex Bovaird; produced by Brian Grazer and Erica Huggins; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Mila Kunis (Audrey), Kate McKinnon (Morgan), Sam Heughan (Sebastian), Hasan Minhaj (Duffer), Justin Theroux (Drew), Ivanna Sakhno (Nadedja), Jane Curtin (Carol), Paul Reiser (Arnie), Lolly Adefope (Tess), and Gillian Anderson (Wendy).


John Wick (2014, Chad Stahelski)

John Wick is all right. It feels like if it’d been made in the nineties, it’d have been revolutionary. Instead, it uses all the revolutionary and not revolutionary film techniques since the nineties to make the ultimate in mainstream heavy metal neo-pulp, with a twist of seventies exploitation for good measure. It succeeds because of lead Keanu Reeves, who’s got the best pleasant angry face and does enough of his stunts—and director Stahelski knows how to showcase Reeves during those stunts—to keep the viewer engaged with his unstoppable killing machine as he moves through the video game of a story.

The film opens with Reeves seemingly fatally wounded, nothing left to do but watch a video of him and Bridget Moynahan on a beach. Cue flashback montage showing how Reeves and Moynahan were happily together (married we find out, post-montage), then she dies (from a long-term fatal illness), then she (posthumously) gets Reeves an adorable little puppy to keep him company. To this point, we haven’t seen Reeves do any action hero stuff. In fact, it feels like the film’s doing a riff on tearjerkers, only tongue in cheek.

Only then Russian mob weasel Alfie Allen steals Reeves’s car and kills the puppy so Reeves is going to get payback. The film’s first act is a lot better written than anything else, even when it feels like video game cutscenes. And John Leguizamo’s first act cameo as the first guy from the old life Reeves meets up with. Turns out Allen is son of Reeves’s former employer, Michael Nyqvist, who owes his empire to Reeves. Great performance from Nyqvist. Not a great part, unfortunately, but a great performance nonetheless.

The rest of the film, outside the detailed world-building with hotels in a Flatiron Building stand-in where all the assassins stay and it’s off limits for contracts and everyone pays each other in single gold coins and Reeves gets power-up pills because it’s kind of just Super Mario Bros. John Wick’s never very complicated. It’s got a lot of guns (without being too gun porn-y, Stahelski’s about the action not the details), a lot of bit characters, and a lot of thorough action scenes courtesy Stahelski, producer and apparently uncredited co-director David Leitch, cinematographer Jonathan Sela, but really editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir. Ronaldsdóttir, almost as much as Reeves, makes John Wick. Even when the movie’s too loud for too long—the heavy metal action thing is no joke, they have a new Marilyn Manson song for John Wick. The film’s incredibly committed to itself. Even when it gets a little much. Stahelski’s good at the action scenes but they’re not technically innovative, they’re just excellent. The film’s a series of successfully established techniques, in action, in storytelling, smartly arranged, given life by a perfectly stone-faced Reeves and an exceptional editor.

The supporting cast has some excellent extended cameos—Ian McShane, Willem Dafoe. Lance Reddick… fine, but not excellent because it’s a crap cameo. Adrianne Palicki is better than you’d think in her extended cameo as unscrupulous fellow assassin but she’s not particularly good. She’s fine. The only one not fine is Dean Winters, as Nyqvist’s chief flunky; he serves no purpose in the film other than to take up space. Someone could make something amusing out of it, Winters does not. And Allen’s decent as the standard failed son of great mobster but he ends up with nothing to do. Except somehow be the only person Reeves can’t manage to hit.

Finally, if you are going to give John Wick a watch, I feel I need to warn you about the subtitles. The film stylizes its subtitles in some truly obnoxious ways. The worst thing isn’t even the visual appearance—I mean, of course it is but the absurd visual appearance just draws attention to the pointlessness of the dialogue. If he’s not writing monologues for the guest stars, writer Derek Kolstad’s got no idea what to say. When it’s Reeves, who doesn’t have to say anything (in fact, most of his dialogue is eventually just him repeating back statements from his adversaries), it’s fine. When it’s guest stars monologuing, it’s fine. When it’s the bad guys talking about Reeves coming to kill them and what they need to do?

It’s nonsense.

In the end, Wick’s nonsense and its successes basically even out. It’s definitely a successful action movie, but maybe not a significant one… because it’s just built on previous films’ significant successes. Wick riffs on a number of them, just with the technology and ability to execute them flawlessly, but without any character and without any risk.

So thank goodness for Reeves and Ronaldsdóttir. And Nyqvist.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Chad Stahelski; written by Derek Kolstad; director of photography, Jonathan Sela;edited by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir; music by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard; production designer, Dan Leigh; costume designer, Luca Mosca; produced by Basil Iwanyk, David Leitch, Eva Longoria, and Mike Witherill; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov), Willem Dafoe (Marcus), Dean Winters (Avi), Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins), Omer Barnea (Gregori), Toby Leonard Moore (Victor), Daniel Bernhardt (Kirill), Bridget Moynahan (Helen), John Leguizamo (Aurelio), Ian McShane (Winston), Bridget Regan (Addy), and Lance Reddick (Charon).


Inherit the Viper (2019, Anthony Jerjen)

Inherit the Viper is an unfortunately titled but acceptably mediocre crime drama about rural siblings Margarita Levieva, Josh Hartnett, and Owen Teague running an opioid business. Levieva’s the merciless boss, Hartnett’s the reluctant muscle, Teague’s the enthusiastic but uninvolved teenager. Everything’s going fine—well, outside the occasional fatal overdose for customers—until Teague decides he’s got to go into business for himself. Only he’s not very bright and his idea is to steal his family’s product to sell on the side, forcing Levieva (who wanted to get Teague involved) and Hartnett (who didn’t) to make some tough, momentous decisions. Renewed interest from local law enforcement (Dash Mihok) and a justifiably enraged recent widower (Brad William Henke) complicate matters.

So, a fairly standard family crime drama.

Andrew Crabtree’s script throws a lot at the characters but in targeted bursts. Viper never overreaches. Crabtree and director Jerjen never do anything they aren’t sure they can successfully execute. The film’s got some great production values—Jerjen, cinematographer Nicholas Wiesnet, editors Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda put some drone shots to great use for establishing shots, showcasing the desolate, failed rural community. Jerjen’s composition for the talking heads scenes, which are most of the film until the final third or so, is usually the same parallel shot, giving the actors each their space. Even though Jerjen’s got the patience for the talking heads and showcasing the actors (really, the film often plays like a demo reel for its stars more than a serious dramatic effort), he never gets in close enough to really look. When Levieva finally shows her humanity, when Hartnett finally shows his fear, Jerjen doesn’t have any way to help the actors rise above the script, which is fairly pat as far as character motivation and development go. Both the script and the direction posit the characters as somewhat tragic, even though the point of Levieva is she would reject that tragedy and it would be consuming the soulful Hartnett, who has a much better understanding of the world—ostensibly due to his time in Iraq War II, but more because the script needs it—than his peers.

Well, except of course how the film then positions other people as the good folks just facilitating the opioid ring without actually getting their hands too dirty (special guest star Bruce Dern plays a bar owner and friend of the family’s absent, smalltime crook dad).

Instead of Levieva or Hartnett, the film focuses on Teague. It’s both a trope—the child grows up—and the most economical. Hartnett getting more of a focus would mean more to do with pregnant girlfriend Valorie Curry and, even though the film starts spotlighting Levieva, she barely gets any character development throughout. And, when she does, it feels like the film’s trying too hard. Because to transcend the material, the script would need to be better and there’d need to be more of a budget (the film looks great, moves well but it’s obviously streamlined as can be). Jerjen does what he can with the constraints the production’s got and it works. The drone shots do get tiring by the end but more because they never really impact how the narrative plays; they’re always technically solid. Especially set against Patrick Kirst’s score.

For over half the film, Viper acts like it isn’t going to rest the whole thing on whether or not Teague can carry it through the third act to the finish, then it hands it off to Teague and, sure, he can get it to the finish but… not spectacularly. It’s a pass and no pass situation. Teague passes, adequate, no reason to rejoice.

Levieva’s the film’s best performance, even with her character going off some rails in the third act. Hartnett’s good, but it’s a propped up majorly supporting role; Teague’s not compelling enough, Hartnett picks up the slack for it. It’s unclear whether Jerjen would be able to do more. He’s got a lot of technical chops as a director and he’s pretty good with the actors, but Viper never seems thoughtful enough. Jerjen’s successfully realizes the script but without any imagination. It’s like he’s too good, technically, to have to be inventive.

Inherit the Viper—the title’s even worse once you find out what it means—isn’t bad, it’s just rote, even with its cast’s solid efforts.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Jerjen; written by Andrew Crabtree; director of photography, Nicholas Wiesnet; edited by Gordon Antell and Kiran Pallegadda; music by Patrick Kirst; production designer, Tracy Dishman; costume designer, Emily Batson; produced by Michel Merkt and Benito Mueller; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Margarita Levieva (Josie Conley), Josh Hartnett (Kip Conley), Owen Teague (Boots Conley), Valorie Curry (Eve), Dash Mihok (Kyle), Chandler Riggs (Cooper), Brad William Henke (Tedd), and Bruce Dern (Clay).


Fast Color (2018, Julia Hart)

Fast Color spends most its runtime saying it’s not a superhero movie—it’s just about people who happen to have superpowers—only for the third act to play like a low budget X-Men outing. And it’s not just the not-battle-in-the-streets battle-in-the-street resolution, it’s also how lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character arc becomes all about her superpowers and not her returning to her abandoned home, abandoned mother (Lorraine Toussaint), and abandoned tween daughter (Saniyya Sidney). It’s also not about how Mbatha-Raw’s gotten sober—drugs help keep her out-of-control powers in check—or how the world hasn’t had rain in the last seven or eight years. There’s a lot going on in the world of Fast Color and director Hart does a great job showing its more mundane side—utilizing the limited budget well—but engaging with the superhero movie tropes after promising to avoid them… it doesn’t undue the work of the film through most of its runtime, but it does leave the potential unrealized.

For instance, just when Mbatha-Raw and Sidney could be really connecting, the film concentrates on the superpowers. And it doesn’t even go all the way with the superpowers. It doesn’t just not show them, it doesn’t show their effect on anyone, so it’s like they’re not even there. Sorry, Fast Color’s finish is about the only disappointing thing in the film (as it compounds the problems with Toussaint’s part). Hence the harping.

The film opens with Mbatha-Raw on the run. She’s got some kind of earthquake power, which she can’t control at all but she at least tries to mitigate the damage. Water is an expensive item because of the lack of rain fall, but there’s still booze, eggs, electricity, all sorts of things just no smartphones. The whole no more rain subplot is fine but doesn’t add anything to the film. It mostly ends up serving as a budget limiter; so fine. But just fine.

Pretty soon we discover nerdy government scientist Christopher Denham is after Mbatha-Raw but also she’s gotten to her hometown, which he doesn’t realize. So she goes to mom Toussaint’s farm, even though Mbatha-Raw’s never met Sidney and Sidney doesn’t have any expectation of ever meeting Mbatha-Raw and then Toussaint makes Mbatha-Raw sleep out in the barn because her powers are so out-of-control. The film never directly addresses how Mbatha-Raw’s terrible life, on the run but also before, instead focusing on what she can do to improve her footprint, which is fine because it centers itself around Sidney’s well-being. Mbatha-Raw’s motivations and thoughts play out in her expressions versus actions or dialogue. She’s haunted by flashback sequences too. Mbatha-Raw gives an excellent lead performance but her part isn’t really enough the lead as far as the plot goes.

Most of the film is about what’s going to happen without raising much expectation. David Strathairn plays the local sheriff who’s also on Mbatha-Raw’s trail, trying not to let Denham and the feds take his case. Given how much the film ends up leveraging Strathairn, at the expense of other characters (and their actors), it’d have been nice if Strathairn weren’t involved in one of Fast Colors big secrets. The film has a lot of big secrets—well, either secrets or lies, because Toussaint wants to keep Sidney sheltered. See, Toussaint and Sidney also have powers, but they’re not as potentially damaging or affecting as Mbatha-Raw’s. When Mbatha-Raw bonds with Sidney, it’s over the powers, which is weird but the acting’s good—Sidney’s phenomenal—so Color can do whatever it wants as long as it stays focused on the characters.

The end abandons that focus and… the film suffers.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Save the occasionally too DV night time photography. Many of photographer Michael Fimognari’s night time shots are fantastic, but when there’s a lot of movement on the screen… it looks off. Martin Pensa’s editing is good, Rob Simonsen’s music is good, Hart’s direction is good… Fast Color’s got all the pieces—well, okay, not Denham (who’s way too eh)—the script just doesn’t quite get them assembled right at the end.

The film gives Mbatha-Raw a solid lead, Sidney an okay supporting showcase (Sidney could handle more), and Toussaint a disappointing one. The film utilizes her but doesn’t showcase her, which really hurts in the third act.

Fast Color’s successful without exactly being a success.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Julia Hart; written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz; director of photography, Michael Fimognari; edited by Martin Pensa; music by Rob Simonsen; production designer, Gae S. Buckley; produced by Horowitz, Mickey Liddell, and Pete Shilaimon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Ruth), Lorraine Toussaint (Bo), Saniyya Sidney (Lila), Christopher Denham (Bill), and David Strathairn (Ellis).


Dredd (2012, Pete Travis)

Dredd is a good time. Sure, it features exceptional ultraviolence, but director Travis finds a gimmick–the drug “Slo-Mo” slows time for its user–to make the violence appear almost academic. One wonders how they did the special effects for the sequence. Travis also never glorifies the bad guys, which is interesting for what’s sort of a superhero movie. I say “sort of” because Dredd’s more like an episode of a really good future cop show. Its present action is short; it’s a procedural.

Besides Travis’s direction–and Karl Urban’s performance as the lead–Alex Garland’s script is the major factor in the film’s success. Even when Urban’s alone in a scene, even if the shot’s from his point of view, Dredd always gives him a lot of distance. Even though he narrates the expository prologue, the viewer isn’t supposed to identify with him. The viewer’s occasionally supposed to identify with the bad guys, always with his rookie partner (Olivia Thirlby), but never with Urban. Having an indifferent protagonist work in an action movie might be Dredd’s greatest success.

Also lending to the episodic nature are the villains. Wood Harris has what almost amounts to a cameo appearance–though he’s on screen for a lot of the first half, he’s silent–and Lena Headey’s great as the big villain.

Good music from Paul Leonard-Morgan, good photography from Anthony Dod Mantle.

Dredd never tries to be ambitious; it over succeeds. Much better than the other way around.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Pete Travis; screenplay by Alex Garland, based on characters created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Mark Eckersley; music by Paul Leonard-Morgan; production designer, Mark Digby; produced by Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich and Alex Garland; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Karl Urban (Judge Dredd), Olivia Thirlby (Anderson), Lena Headey (Ma-Ma), Wood Harris (Kay), Langley Kirkwood (Judge Lex), Junior Singo (Amos), Luke Tyler (Freel), Jason Cope (Zwirner), Domhnall Gleeson (Clan Techie), Warrick Grier (Caleb) and Rakie Ayola (Chief Judge).



This post is also discussed on Judge Dredd (1995) / Dredd (2012).

Kick-Ass (2010, Matthew Vaughn)

Is Kick-Ass any good? Um. That question is somewhat complicated, because there are very good things about it–Chloë Grace Moretz’s fantastic as a foulmouthed twelve-year-old version of the Punisher, with some Jackie Chan thrown in, and so is “lead” Aaron Johnson, who manages not to look like he’s lost the movie he’s top-lining to every single other cast member, whether it’s Moretz, Nic Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (whose squinty nerd thing, identical to Superbad, is just annoying here) or Mark Strong, even though he does at one point or another in the film.

It’s never clear if the filmmakers realize the lead of the movie doesn’t even get to really end it (there’s a big scene between Johnson and girlfriend Lyndsy Fonseca missing) so they can set up the sequel or not.

But it doesn’t matter much, because Vaughn realizes the gleeful violence of Kick-Ass (not, however, when Johnson gets constantly beaten up while trying to do good)–it’s all about Cage and Moretz–is the selling point. Kick-Ass feels a little like one part Dirty Harry, one part inspiring father-daughter movie, half part Superbad and a little Spider-Man thrown in. I’m not sure if Vaughn was mimicking Raimi or unaware, but the film’s general incompetence with plotting resembles that movie quite a bit….

Cage is great, playing the impossible script straight, with his Adam West impression a real plus.

And the music–seemingly entirely lifted from other scores–is fine.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Matthew Vaughn; screenplay by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Jon Harris, Pietro Scalia and Eddie Hamilton; music by John Murphy, Henry Jackman, Marius De Vries and Ilan Eshkeri; production designer, Russell De Rozario; produced by Vaughn, Brad Pitt, Kris Thykier, Adam Bohling, Tarquin Pack and David Reid; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Aaron Johnson (Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass), Chloë Grace Moretz (Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl), Mark Strong (Frank D’Amico), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Chris D’Amico/Red Mist), Lyndsy Fonseca (Katie Deauxma), Clark Duke (Marty), Evan Peters (Todd), Omari Hardwick (Sgt. Marcus Williams) and Nicolas Cage (Damon Macready/Big Daddy).


The Thaw (2009, Mark A. Lewis)

There’s a lot to mock about The Thaw. It’s shot on some kind of cheap DV and framed Panavision–the cheap DV isn’t even consistent–and the cinematography is atrocious. It’s also a global warming horror film–indestructible bugs from earth’s past threaten our future unless we stop with the global warming business. Director Lewis misses the humorous part of having one of the global warming disbelievers–he does these radio show things and cuts in some TV interviews–get attacked by the bugs. It would be great. I guess he hasn’t seen Scanners.

I don’t know what colleges Val Kilmer’s kids attend, but they’ve got to be expensive–if he weren’t trying to pay for something so mundane, the tabloids would be all over it–there’s simply no reason for him to do a video like The Thaw. With a better script and producer–not to mention another thirty minutes on the running time–it could be all right. But it doesn’t have any of those things and Kilmer’s wasting his time here.

He doesn’t even get any good scenes with Martha MacIsaac and Aaron Ashmore, who give decent performances. Ashmore’s done this kind of role before and he’s solid, but MacIsaac’s a surprise. She doesn’t look at all like she could pull the character off, but does a fine job.

Kyle Schmid and Steph Song aren’t bad. Viv Leacock is terrible.

But The Thaw does make good use of Canada as a setting, not just a filming location.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Mark A. Lewis; written by Mark A. Lewis and Michael Lewis; edited by Rob Neilson; music by Michael Neilson; production designer, Michael N. Wong; produced by Trent Carlson, Rob Neilson and Mary Anne Waterhouse; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Martha MacIsaac (Evelyn Kruipen), Val Kilmer (Dr. David Kruipen), Aaron Ashmore (Atom Galen), Kyle Schmid (Federico Fulce), Steph Song (Ling Chen), Viv Leacock (Bart) and Anne Marie DeLuise (Dr. Jane Sanders).


The Punisher (2004, Jonathan Hensleigh)

Considering Dolph Lundgren got famous playing a blond Russian and can definitely act better than Kevin Nash, who doesn’t even have any lines and is terrible, it’s telling Jonathan Hensleigh didn’t bring him back for a small role, an acknowledgment of the far superior 1989 Punisher adaptation.

Whereas that film–and to some extent, the one following this effort–tried to be a senselessly violent action revenge movie, Hensleigh’s Punisher tries to rationalize the comic book character, who’s never been conducive to such analysis. The closest is Garth Ennis’s recently concluded terminating work on the character, which acknowledges the unreality and tragedy of being an unstoppable killing machine.

Hensleigh tries to turn Thomas Jane’s Punisher into a sympathetic hero. He fails miserably and, as a result, gives Jane the worst written role in a movie filled with poorly written roles. When John Travolta, all in all, turns in a better performance than Will Patton, it might very be the end of the world as we know it.

Laura Harring is atrocious. Who else… oh, poor Roy Scheider. Why was he in this one?

The best performance is from Rebecca Romijn. Really. She’s actually totally believable as a regular person with real problems. Ben Foster and John Pinette are both good too, as Romijn’s sidekicks.

Hensleigh is a boring director, but not terrible. His wife, Gale Anne Hurd, probably got him the job. She should have brought in a real screenwriter.

Carlo Siliotto’s music, though inappropriate (it’s heroic), is all right.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh; screenplay by Hensleigh and Michael France, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru; director of photography, Conrad W. Hall; edited by Jeff Gullo and Steven Kemper; music by Carlo Siliotto; production designer, Michael Z. Hanan; produced by Avi Arad and Gale Anne Hurd; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Thomas Jane (Frank Castle), John Travolta (Howard Saint), Will Patton (Quentin Glass), Roy Scheider (Frank Castle Sr.), Laura Harring (Livia Saint), Ben Foster (Dave), Jon Pinette (Mr. Bumpo), Rebecca Romijn (Joan), Samantha Mathis (Maria Castle) and Marcus Johns (Will Castle).


Punisher: War Zone (2008, Lexi Alexander)

Punisher: War Zone got a theatrical release (sorry for the passive voice, but pointing out Lionsgate released it in the theater sort of kills the emphasis). I’m not sure I have the vocabulary to describe the terrible script. Watching an early exchange between mobsters, I kept wondering if Italian American associations were aware of the film (I’m guessing they aren’t). The characters are so stereotypical, the portrayal so offensive… it’s incredible. But the mob being the movie’s big villains elucidates War Zone‘s biggest (narrative) idiocy–it’s just a hodgepodge of superhero movies. The movie rips off an opening scene from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One comic book, but then cribs the entire approach from Batman Begins (where the hero doesn’t actually fight crime unrelated to the plot’s main villain). But there’s a Superman reference in the subway hideout and some other malarky I’m sure. The script’s idiotic.

So why watch Punisher: War Zone? The terrible opening credits don’t give any indication of it, but Michael Wandmacher’s score is good and Steve Gainer’s photography is fantastic. The photography seems to go for HDR (high dynamic range), which makes the Panavision frame wondrous at times. Lexi Alexander intercuts Manhattan skyscrapers with Montréal streets to poor effect–actually, Montréal’s a decent stand-in, physically, for New York, but Alexander’s movie New York is one of the most absurd I’ve ever seen. It’s like she’s not only never been there, she hasn’t even watched a movie set there. Alexander’s actually a decent director. She has an annoying Panavision habit of putting people, in cuts, on opposite sides of the frame, but by the end of the movie, she’s got it working. She’d direct great commercials or music videos, since she can’t impart any emotionality to her work. There isn’t a single subtle moment in War Zone, it’s just too stupid.

Some of the stupidest developments in the film are the inclusion of Wayne Knight as a sidekick and the revelation the Punisher dropped out of seminary. I don’t know why the latter got included, maybe so they could have a dumb scene with the Punisher at church, but it’s one of the stupider things in the film. Knight’s sidekick, who seemingly funds the Punisher’s war on selected criminals from a tiny apartment, is also something else. Knight–even with the goatee–isn’t bad. He’s got some dumb lines, but he isn’t bad.

Producer Gale Anne Hurd has made some big movies and some good movies. Presumably, while on set, she must have noticed Ray Stevenson couldn’t act. He’s atrocious as the lead. Punisher: War Zone has a future as a drinking game. Alexander barely gives him any lines, but he flubs every single one of them. Julie Benz (is she the Lionsgate version of 1990s Miramax Neve Campbell or something?) is awful. Colin Salmon, who’s usually good, gives a terrible performance. Talking about him, I forgot to mention the stupid last names. Everyone in the film has a super-ethnic last name, presumably to make it more authentic. Dash Mihok, in the movie’s supposedly comic role, is terrible. Alexander and the script don’t understand humor. They should have brought Rob Schneider or the guys who wrote Beverly Hills Ninja in to give it some oomph.

But talking about the actors brings me to the real reason to watch Punisher: War Zone. Dominic West. He’s not stretching any thespian muscles in his portrayal of a psycho (oh, another comic book movie reference, the Burton Batman), but he’s a joy to watch. Given the filmmakers were able to hire West to appear in this cinematic turd, it’s a testament to their jaw-dropping lack of intelligence they didn’t fire Stevenson and put West in the lead. If he can make this underwritten goober of a role work, imagine what he could have done as the Punisher.

As West’s cannibal sidekick, Doug Hutchinson is fine. He’s been acting for a long time, so Alexander’s ineptness at directing actors mustn’t have contaminated him.

Punisher: War Zone is watchable dreck. The movie looks good–Alexander’s action scenes concentrate too much on the gore instead of, well, any action–and West is a joy to watch. I wonder if anyone involved in the film has seen “The Wire,” but all evidence suggests not. And it’s definitely one of Lionsgate’s less appalling pictures.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lexi Alexander; screenplay by Nick Santora, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru; director of photography, Steve Gainer; edited by William Yeh; music by Michael Wandmacher; production designer, Andrew Neskoromny; produced by Gale Anne Hurd; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Ray Stevenson (Frank Castle), Dominic West (Billy Russoti), Doug Hutchison (Loony Bin Jim), Colin Salmon (Special Agent Paul Budiansky), Wayne Knight (Microchip), Dash Mihok (Det. Martin Soap) and Julie Benz (Angela Donatelli).


Man-Thing (2005, Brett Leonard)

I’ve actually seen Man-Thing before, back when it aired on Sci-Fi. Lionsgate’s DVD release has it in what appears to be an open matte 16:9, as opposed to 2.35:1 (which is how Sci-Fi aired it). So, I matted the DVD and tried the uncut version. It’s probably no better than the televised, but–and here’s why I’ve always had some affection for the movie–it’s interesting in its derivations. Screenwriter Hans Rodionoff seems, understandably, influenced by a couple major sources–Jaws and The Thing. It’s an odd mix, especially since the unknown factor from The Thing isn’t present at all in Man-Thing, but still Rodionoff–and especially Brett Leonard–manage to get that vibe.

Leonard’s direction is–not even taking his budget or the ludicrous nature of the movie into account–a success. Until the very last sequence, he’s golden. Even his semi-sepia tone for daylight and his green filters for the swamp scenes work. He gives Man-Thing a wonderful mood, making the silliness look good and bringing validity to the working parts. He’s just not a horror director and Rodionoff’s script sets Man-Thing up as a horror movie, a monster movie with a lot of suspects (who can’t possibly be guilty but by investigating and clearing each of them… well, it delays having to show the monster and spend the bucks doing so–kind of like a William Castle). Leonard can’t make anything scary. He also can’t get any chemistry between leads Matthew Le Nevez and Rachael Taylor, but that problem seems to be Taylor’s fault (and whoever cast her).

For budgetary reasons, the whole production is Australian. The locations work and maybe three of the cast members can handle the Southern accents (for a while). Luckily, Le Nevez is playing a “yankee,” something Rodionoff’s script frequently points out (though there are exceptions, Rodionoff’s got a couple rednecks straight from Deliverance) and only has to maintain a straight California TV accent. Le Nevez somehow manages to turn in a good performance, which is impressive, considering his face doesn’t seem to emote. But, when called for, he manages with his eyes. He makes the movie watchable for lots of parts, though he gets some help. Alex O’Loughlin, whose accent is shaky, is appealing as the sidekick and director Leonard’s acting turn as the bewildered coroner is good. Taylor’s awful, as is bad guy Patrick Thompson. The Native Americans who know all the answers, Rawiri Paratene and Steve Bastroni (a New Zealander and an Italian, respectively), have good moments and bad. Jack Thompson’s Mr. Big is a lot of fun, as he lays on his fake accent and turns up the volume. Man-Thing, as a comedy, would have probably worked… Even sinister redneck John Batchelor has his moments. But Taylor’s just awful.

Man-Thing‘s conclusion, which ties up the mystery and brings all the characters together, is a misstep. The Man-Thing special effects, when Leonard’s hiding them, are good and he even earns enough credit to get away with a couple long shots of the creature. But the convenient ending reveals the movie’s biggest problem (well, besides Taylor and the scenes with the real-life father and son Thompson team, which just get too goofy–and it’s clear Leonard isn’t directing for them–bad script, good direction)–Rodionoff doesn’t have a story. There’s no plot. Le Nevez’s new sheriff shows up and sees some stuff. Besides his silly romance and some serious mistakes, he’s inessential to the story unfolding. He’s a witness… and all the time spent with him doesn’t add up to anything in the way of narrative pay-off (evidenced by the movie’s abrupt ending).

A lot of the movie suggested, in the end, it’d get a point. The ending, though, and Taylor’s growing screen presence, knock it around too much. It’s just too bad Leonard, who can direct, and Rodionoff, who can at least plot compelling scenes… but maybe not full narratives, don’t do anything better.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Brett Leonard; screenplay by Hans Rodionoff, based on Marvel comics by Steve Gerber and Mike Ploog and the character created by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and Gray Morrow; director of photography, Steve Arnold; edited by Martin Connor; music by Roger Mason; production designers, Tim Ferrier and Peter Pound; produced by Avi Arad, Scott Karol and Christopher Petzel; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Matthew Le Nevez (Sheriff Kyle Williams), Rachael Taylor (Teri Elizabeth Richards), Jack Thompson (Frederic Schist), Rawiri Paratene (Pete Horn), Alex O’Loughlin (Deputy Eric Fraser), Steve Bastoni (Rene LaRoque), Robert Mammone (Mike Ploog), Patrick Thompson (Jake Schist), William Zappa (Steve Gerber), John Batchelor (Wayne Thibadeaux), Ian Bliss (Rodney Thibadeaux) and Brett Leonard (Val Mayerick).


Scroll to Top