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Entries in Action (55)

Friday
Oct072011

Real Steel

Remember Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, that game where two people fought plastic robots in a ring? Remember how if you landed a punch that was just right, the robot’s head would pop up? If you do, you’ve experienced Real Steel, albeit in a lesser form. Granted, the movie is actually based on a short story by Richard Matheson that precedes the primitive game, but for all intents and purposes, this is that game in movie form and they’re both about equal in emotional depth.

Set at some point in the future, Real Steel exists in a time when human boxing has become obsolete. The public’s need for more carnage couldn’t be satisfied by pitting two flesh and blood people against each other anymore, so the sport evolved to robots. Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a past fighter, suffered from the switch and now works as a small-time promoter with low-budget robots. Due to his stubbornness, all of his robots are eventually destroyed, which means he can’t earn the money to pay back those he owes. One day, he learns that an old girlfriend died and his son, Max (Dakota Goyo), is now his responsibility. Uninterested in the kid, he sells her to his aunt and uncle for $100,000, but first he must keep him for a couple months while they travel out of country. During that time, the two find a robot named Atom who proves more resourceful than expected and, through their mutual interest in robot fighting, they slowly begin to bond.

Real Steel thinks it’s giving viewers something different, but this is nothing more than your typical underdog story. It just replaces humans with robots. It follows the exact same narrative path of countless other movies, to the point where you can accurately predict how each scene will play out. Tossed into the mix is a melodramatic tale about a father who comes to appreciate his son, complete with a variation on the tired father-realizes-what’s-important-and-shows-up-at-dance-recital ending. All in all, the film tries to tell three or four different stories, but all are derivative.

Derivativeness can be okay with strong characters, but few are found here. For starters, Charlie is an unlikable loser. He’s selfish and arrogant and he abandoned his son many years ago. When he has the chance to reconnect with him, he doesn’t want to. His greed causes him to blackmail his uncle into paying him for the kid. He neglects and yells at Max and threatens to make him sleep outside. He doesn’t care at all about the well-being of his kid. When he saves him from falling off a cliff at one point in the movie, you get the distinct impression he’s more worried about losing his promised money than Max losing his life. And that moment where he begins to find appreciation for his son? The moment he starts making him money. Shallow doesn’t begin to describe Charlie and his emotional transformation isn’t developed enough to convince us otherwise.

Seemingly to make up for the lack of interesting human characters, there are some lame attempts at giving Atom a personality, hinting that he may be more than just a machine, like in one scene where he stares at himself in the mirror, but these emotionless mechanisms prove to be less interesting than the ones in Transformers, which I thought was impossible. Slight turns of the head are supposed to have some profound meaning, but come off as laughable amidst characters like Tak Mashido (Karl Yune), who, with his outrageous spiky hair, looks like he stumbled in from the set of a live action Dragonball Z production.

As if watching two men beat each other senseless couldn’t get any less interesting, this movie goes ahead and takes the humanity out of it. It’s hard to care about the outcome of the fights because, in the end, these are faceless robots. Unlike more traditional underdog stories, the human characters aren’t training to achieve success. They aren’t putting their bodies on the line and fighting through the pain. They’re merely tinkering with some wires and then playing a live action video game. The fights are still undeniably fun to watch, but once the outcome of the championship presents itself, you’ll realize you wouldn’t have cared had it gone the other way instead.

Real Steel receives 2/5

Friday
Sep232011

Abduction

Abduction is a movie that knows its audience. With Taylor Lautner in the lead role, it does everything it can to be what can only be described as an action-fueled Twilight. The problem is if you’re catering to the Twilight demographic, you’re not aiming very high. The surprise, however, comes from how utterly incompetent, atrociously stupid and highly unbelievable it is, even when compared to Twilight. And if you’re unfortunate enough to have sat through all three of those, just imagine what’s in store for you here.

Lautner plays Nathan, a mild mannered high school kid who is crushing on the pretty young Karen, played by Lily Collins, and as luck would have it, he is partnered with her on a school project. While researching one night at his house, they stumble on a missing persons website where they find a picture of a child that looks suspiciously like him. After some digging, they realize it is him, so they contact an administrator of the site. What they don’t know is that it’s a mock site created by Kozlow, played by Michael Nyqvist, who has been searching for him for many years and now that he knows his location, the chase is on.

The story goes to great lengths to be interesting and delves deeper than what I’ve detailed above. There are undercover agents posing as parents, a mystery involving Nathan’s actual parents and a journey to uncover what his significance to Kozlow and the US government is. It’s a silly tale built for the tween crowd who have never been properly introduced to a proper thriller before, but its idiocy isn’t its problem. Any story can be told well if the foundation around it is solid, but Abduction is so poorly put together, it makes director Uwe Boll look like a masterful craftsman.

For starters, it must be said that Taylor Lautner, an all around mediocre actor who is wildly inconsistent from scene to scene, is not a leading man. Depending on what he’s doing, he can either look like a veteran or a nervous first time performer. Lautner is a martial arts expert, taking up the craft at an early age, and he works best when he’s punching something. He brings forth an unexpected ferocity to the action scenes. If not for his boyishly good looks, he might even be intimidating. He’s dependable on that level and in an action thriller, that counts for something, but his inability to develop his character, build emotion or create an authentic chemistry with his co-star only goes to show how lousy he can be. He and Collins feel distant in the film, despite spending much of it side by side. No romantic tension is ever built, which makes a random, steamy and aggressively uncomfortable make-out scene in the middle feel forced into place. Lautner simply doesn’t pull this roll off. He may have a voice that is calm and commanding, but his mannerisms are stiff and awkward. He walks into certain scenes like he’s in the middle of a battle with a particularly itchy hemorrhoid.

Of course, if you’ve seen the Twilight films, you know he’s not in this for his talent. He’s in it for the way he looks with his shirt off (and if you don’t know what that looks like, you will within five minutes of watching this film). His lousiness shouldn’t come as a surprise, but you might be taken aback by the amateurish editing that can’t even sync up the action onscreen with the appropriate sound effects, like in one scene where Nathan turns his head to watch a car drive off, despite the noticeable delay of the vrooming engine. It’s a laughable mistake, something that should have been corrected in Editing 101. The rest of the film fares a tad better, though it is perhaps a bit too fast paced for its own good. The fistfights are edited together so choppily, if certain shots were any shorter, they’d be subliminal.

Rounding out this disaster are some of the worst and most distracting extras I’ve ever seen in a movie, though to be fair, they were unpaid. The finale of the film takes place at the Pittsburgh Pirates stadium and the scenes were shot during an actual game with an unsuspecting crowd. Although good in theory—that packed stadium gives some credence to an otherwise ludicrous film—the final product speaks to its failure. The people in the crowd, stunned that Taylor Lautner is being filmed only a few feet away from them, begin to stare, point and take pictures. It’s hard to fault them (besides, they weren’t obligated to act normally), but it’s easy to criticize director John Singleton for not realizing the challenges of shooting such a scene in such a setting.

Abduction is bad, and that’s putting it mildly. Never mind that it clearly doesn’t know the definition of the word “abduction,” the film simply lacks efficiency in front of and behind the camera. The story is hokey and the acting is weak. Similar to how Twilight effectively ruined vampires, Abduction effectively downgrades the action thriller genre. It takes it to a dumbed down, preteen level and it will only be enjoyed by those who are less interested in good filmmaking techniques and more interested in once again seeing Taylor Lautner’s impeccable abs. I can’t say I’m one of those people.

Abduction receives 0.5/5

Friday
Sep232011

Killer Elite

Speaking to colleagues that had already seen Killer Elite, I was told to lower my expectations. I was told that, despite the promising trailers and impressive cast, it’s little more than another routine Jason Statham movie and only if I approached it with that in mind would there be a chance of me finding enjoyment in it. Having now seen it, I’m not so sure any mindset would have made it work. It’s not terrible, but it is a slow, plodding watch. Its admittedly impressive action scenes provide the occasional burst of entertainment, but it’s the stuff surrounding them that doesn’t work.

The film is based on a supposed true story (though that claim has been disputed) detailed in Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ book, The Feather Men. In it, Danny (Jason Statham), an ex-hitman who has retired from killing, is, you guessed it, pulled back in for one last job. His old partner, Hunter (Robert De Niro), is being held captive by a Dubai sheikh who will only release him if Danny kills the men who killed his son. The targets are members of the British Special Air Service, which makes killing them very dangerous, but Danny decides he must make an attempt nevertheless. However, a group of vigilante SAS members, led by Spike (Clive Owen), is determined to protect their comrades at whatever cost, which means getting to Danny before he gets to them.

Killer Elite begins with a bang, opening with an exciting and violent, but not over-the-top, action scene that demonstrates the expertise of Danny and Hunter, showing them as professionals who approach their targets in an intelligent, calculated way. It works as a set-up for future scenes, so when Danny is later able to somehow elude capture and death after finding himself in a number of sticky situations, we’ll be able to buy it. It’s an action scene with meaning, but, unfortunately, it’s the only one. The film follows this up with a scene of little consequence—one that exists solely to please the action fans in the theater—an attempted breakout that is predetermined to fail because, as most viewers will be able to realize, there is no movie if Hunter escapes.

Then it hits a lull. Danny goes about finding and eliminating his targets, but a sense of urgency is missing; it’s easy to forget why he’s even doing it. He runs into the men, all of whom have names and faces, but might as well not, he makes them disappear and that’s that. The problem is the targets are integral to the story, but are too often passed over in favor of a tired cat-and-mouse chase between Danny and Spike, similar to that of a Bourne movie, only boring. We are supposed to accept their demises, but their personalities and motivations needed expansion for that to happen.

Killer Elite is not a movie to bother with details. It worries not about how it gets from scene to scene, just as long as it keeps on moving. At one point, Danny decides he needs to score a lethal drug to administer to the next target so as to make it look like an accident. The next thing you know, he’s in a doctors scrub signing off for it, but how did he manage that? This film doesn’t care. It even goes so far as to set itself in 1980, but skimps on the details. Aside from some high riding shorts and older model cars sitting in the streets, the time period is indistinguishable from today.

To make itself even less interesting than it already is, Killer Elite throws in an underdeveloped love story between Danny and Anne (Yvonne Strahovski), told mostly through flashbacks because, one can only assume, the filmmakers couldn’t figure out a smoother way to fit it into the story. The romance exists only as a means to end, to flip our perception of Danny from a cold-blooded killer to a hero. It doesn’t work because the film is trying to be something it’s not. It works best when it pits the men on the poster against each other, not bogging itself down in trite courtships, but even that proves to be a lie. While it’s certainly fun watching Statham and Owen go at it, De Niro is barely a presence thanks to his incarceration, despite his prominence in the marketing. Because of these things and many more, Killer Elite is not what you expect, and it isn’t good enough to make up for it.

Killer Elite receives 2/5

Friday
Sep162011

Drive

Now, here’s a movie that gets things right. Drive blends tones, genres, feelings and perceptions to the point where you’re waiting for it to go wrong, but it never does. It takes things that, in a lesser movie, wouldn’t work and shifts and shapes them perfectly to fit its narrative flow. Drive is an incredibly well rounded movie that only falters in minor areas.

Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed character known simply as Driver, a movie stunt driver and mechanic by day and getaway driver by night. He lives alone in a small apartment complex where he meets Irene, played by Carey Mulligan. She’s the girl-next-door, literally, and she begins to break through his tough outer shell while he bonds with her son. However, her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, has just been released from jail and is coming back home. Unfortunately, he owes protection money and his inability to pay threatens his wife and son. Because he has grown close to the two, Driver takes on another job to earn the money and protect them, but things go horribly wrong.

Drive is the best kind of movie: one that takes you by surprise. It sits you down and keeps you calm before smacking you over the head with a sudden and shocking narrative turn—not many movies can do that these days in a cinematic world of remakes and sequels. This sudden shift is carefully set-up, giving us only glimpses into a man that is quiet and reserved. Aside from his illegal side job, he’s a normal, though seemingly lonely, young man. In these early moments, his character reminds most of George Clooney in last year’s The American. He’s calm and collected, but he is somewhat emotionless, confined to the four walls of his room (or car) and, though only subtly suggested, longing for companionship.

In a movie that begins as a slow, thoughtful drama, its shift into a dark, gruesomely violent and sometimes hard to watch revenge picture is abrupt, though certainly recognized (and intended) by the director who effectively uses sound effects at an increased volume to create the jarring effect. At this moment, the entire feeling of the movie changes, eventually running itself into even blacker territory and, in one particular scene, recalling a masked killer film, but it somehow gels together. Sometimes, there’s no explanation as to how this happens; it just does.

Of course, Driver isn’t the most likable character in the world, but that’s the point. He’s a flawed individual, an anti-hero that strikes women and is perhaps a bit too quick to anger, but the wonderful screenplay and terrific performance from Ryan Gosling keep him grounded. While you certainly won’t approve of some of his actions, you still hope for redemption because Gosling keeps a glimmer of hope alive in him. As one of the most versatile and underrated actors working today (just look at the contrast between this role and his last in Crazy, Stupid, Love), Gosling does wonders and he’s only strengthened by strong supporting actors that include Bryan Cranston and the aforementioned Carey Mulligan, who is perfectly cast (as she always is). She has a real world type of attractiveness, not like the glossed up Hollywood ladies we've become accustomed to, and she brilliantly communicates how her character is feeling with the slightest of expressions.

The lone casting flaw comes in the form of Ron Perlman, who usually comes through when given good material, but he overdoes it here. His over-the-top approach to his character comes with profane language that isn’t offensive because it’s profane, but because it’s excessive and distracting. Similarly out of place are a few unnecessarily long sustained close-ups and the awkward synthpop soundtrack that comes off as somewhat laughable given the dark subject matter (despite the attempted 80’s vibe). All in all, however, Drive is a terrific movie. It’s not always fun (actually, it never is), but it’s gripping, nerve-wracking and well made. If you have a weak stomach, it may not be for you, but for everybody else, it’s a must see.

Drive receives 4.5/5

Friday
Aug192011

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World is a sequel nobody asked for. After three films, each one worse than the last, this franchise was done. It wrapped itself up nicely in the third installment by including, quite literally, every character in a final goodbye finale. It’s an underrated threequel—it’s certainly not as bad some make it out to be—but it nevertheless came dangerously close to being rotten. If that movie and its predecessors stuck on one side of the recommendable scale, All the Time in the World lands with a thud on the other. As far as kids movies go, it’s not unwatchable, but the imagination and wit has faded. I think it’s time we let this one die.

When the film begins, Marissa (Jessica Alba), a spy for the OSS (Organization of Super Spies), is on the trail of Tick Tock (Jeremy Piven). He has stolen an OSS mini disk and she plans to get it back. Unfortunately, she’s minutes away from having a baby. Flash forward a year later and she has retired from the world of spies, opting instead to stay home with her new baby and her stepchildren, Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard) and Cecil (Mason Cook), while her husband, Wilbur (Joel McHale) hosts his new reality show, “Spy Hunter.” But when time begins to move forward at a rapid pace thanks to the Armageddon device held by a mysterious villain called the Timekeeper, she is forced to come out of retirement. Soon, her stepchildren learn who she really is and find themselves recruited by the newly reborn Spy Kids division.

Before I begin to criticize this film, it must be noted that it’s not terrible and children will most likely enjoy it. Unless you’re sensitive to, or offended by, gross-out humor, it’s relatively inoffensive and harmless, at least from a moral viewpoint. From an intellectual one, it’s difficult to sit through, especially if clock puns aren’t your thing. Although this installment attempts to capture the same youthful spirit of the other films, it suffers due to a weak story and the replacement of past characters with uninteresting new ones. Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino and the pleasingly wacky Alan Cumming are out in favor of a stupid villain (who wears a clock on his head) and a family without an interesting bond connecting them. The new kids pale in comparison to Carmen and Juni from the original trilogy as well, particularly Rebecca, who is a mean, vindictive little brat who only begins to treat her stepmother with respect once she learns she’s a spy. I guess Marissa quitting her job to spend the last year taking care of her wasn’t enough.

Despite their inferior quality to characters that came before, each actor does what they can and, in keeping with tradition, hams it up big time. They know they’re in an absurd movie and they have fun with it. That fun doesn’t translate to us, though, because the entire movie feels like a prank thanks to its gimmicky (and heavily marketed) 4D aspect. Dubbed Aroma-Scope, each viewer of the film is given a card (thankfully, at no extra cost) with numbers on it. As each number appears, you scratch and sniff the corresponding place on the card and it is supposed to give you a whiff of whatever is onscreen (and if you’re wondering what the chances are of baby poo, I’d say they’re pretty good). But, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work. At all. There are eight spots to smell, but one particular smell overwhelms the rest: the smell of the card. The intended smells are faint at best and do nothing more than distract from the film. Having to fumble with that card and time it to work with the action onscreen is maddening and unnecessary. This so-called 4D is a bigger gimmick, and much more useless, than 3D. However, I don’t think this one is going to catch on.

There’s a twist at the end of Spy Kids: All the Time in the World and when it happens, Cecil remarks, “I didn’t see that coming.” He’s the only one. It’s so blatantly obvious that one would only need to look at a still photo to figure it out; no movie viewing necessary. To say why would constitute spoilers, so I’ll refrain, but I imagine if you’re smart enough to read this, you’ll be smart enough to decipher the “mystery.” But it’s a mystery not worth solving. Contrary to what the title suggests, your time in the world is precious and short. Why waste it watching this?

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World receives 2/5