ESCAPE ROOM (2019) – Puzzle Thriller Better Than Expected

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Deborah Ann Woll feels the heat in ESCAPE ROOM (2019).

 

I wasn’t expecting much from ESCAPE ROOM (2019), the new “solve the puzzle or you die” thriller that clearly has eyes on becoming a franchise. Critics haven’t been kind to it, and word of mouth has been mute.

But in spite of a boneheaded opening and very contrived ending, ESCAPE ROOM was easily better than I expected.

ESCAPE ROOM opens with a supposed harrowing sequence of a young man Ben Miller (Logan Miller) desperately seeking clues inside a room that is quickly closing in on him, and he’s in danger of being crushed to death unless he can find whatever it is he’s looking for. Since we know absolutely nothing about this character, this opening sequence is just okay and is hardly an exciting way to open the movie.

The action jumps backwards several days, and we meet a group of characters who all receive a strange cube for various reasons inviting them to take part in an escape room puzzle game that will put them in a room with seemingly no escape. If they can figure their way out, they win $10,000.

There’s main character Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell) an extremely introverted college student whose professor advises her to take more risks in life, and to start by doing something that is out of her comfort zone over the Thanksgiving break. We also meet Ben Miller, a young man who’s sort of a loser and is struggling even to keep his grocery store job. Of course, we met Miller in the opening sequence, giving away any suspense as to his fate since we know he’ll survive long enough to reach the collapsing room, which is why I called the opening sequence boneheaded.

There’s also Jason Walker  (Jay Ellis), a hotshot stockbroker who always plays to win, Amanda Harper (Deborah Ann Woll), an Iraqi war veteran with a traumatic past, Mike Nolan (Tyler Labine) a down to earth truck driver, and Danny Khan (Nik Dodani) a nerdy gamer who’s played these escape room games before.

At first, they’re all pretty excited to play, except for Amanda who seems to sense something is wrong from the outset, and something is wrong, because it doesn’t take these folks long to realize that it isn’t a game but is real. If they don’t escape from each room, they die, and once they start being killed, the intensity ratchets up.

The main reason ESCAPE ROOM works as well as it does is its cast, which creates amiable characters who in spite of their flaws are folks you easily feel comfortable rooting for.

Taylor Russell is excellent in the lead role of Zoey Davis. She’s convincing as an introvert who later on must channel her energies to survive and help her new friends to do the same. Russell was also memorable as Judy Robinson in the Netflix reboot of LOST IN SPACE (2018-2019). She is a young actress to keep your eye on.

Logan Miller is very good as socially challenged Ben Miller, and his performance keeps the audience from ever really disliking a character who could have been very annoying. Miller has also appeared on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

Jay Ellis is sufficiently cold and driven as winner-take-all stock broker Jason Walker, and Deborah Ann Woll adds a lot of depth to her Iraq-war veteran character Amanda Harper. I’m a big fan of Woll’s work on the Netflix Marvel shows DAREDEVIL (2015-18), THE PUNISHER (2017-2019) and THE DEFENDERS (2017) where she has the recurring role of Karen Page. In fact, the main reason I wanted to see ESCAPE ROOM was because of Deborah Ann Woll.

Tyler Labine does a nice job as Mike Nolan, while Nik Dodani plays the one character Danny Khan who’s sadly reduced to being a cliché.

Most of the escape rooms in the film are pretty creative, and the sequences where the characters need to escape or die are generally exciting, although they never approach seat-squirming levels. It’s all pretty neat and safe, but it’s not dull, and with these actors in the roles I really did care for them and wanted to see them survive.

The screenplay by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik works for the most part. Its strength is it creates likable characters and gives them realistic dialogue. It wisely avoids giving away answers— the biggest question being who is doing this and why?— until the end, and that’s where things dip a bit.

The idea of characters having to escape a series of deadly rooms works best in the abstract. It all makes for thrilling cinema until the moment arrives when it’s time for some answers. Who is doing this? Why? How? And these answers are far more difficult to come up with while keeping the story realistic. I can’t say the writers really succeeded here.

And the set up for a sequel is by far the most contrived part of the movie and the least believable. It’s also the weakest part of the film.

But before this I thought director Adam Robitel did a nice job keeping things suspenseful. I certainly enjoyed ESCAPE ROOM more than I did Robitel’s previous directorial effort, the dreadful INSIDIOUS:THE LAST KEY (2018).

The story itself here is secondary to the plight of the characters trying to escape the rooms, and that’s the best part of this enjoyable thriller. For most of the film, you don’t know why this is happening, but you also don’t really care. The characters are fleshed out enough so that you care about them.

And sometimes for a movie to work, that’s all you need.

—END—

 

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MILE 22 (2018) – Action Film Mired By Confusing Direction, Weak Script

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Lauren Cohan in MILE 22 (2018).

Maggie! Maggie!

Maggie Greene is the character Lauren Cohan plays on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD, and she’s one of the main reasons that I keep watching the show, even though it’s dipped in quality the past couple of seasons.

So, with apologies to Mark Wahlberg, Cohan is also the reason I trekked out to the theater to see MILE 22 (2018), the latest film from director Peter Berg, which stars Wahlberg as an elite American intelligence agent, sort of a Jason Bourne if he hadn’t gone rogue.

MILE 22 has opened to dreadful reviews.  Is it as bad as all that? Let’s find out.

MILE 22 opens with James Silva (Mark Wahlberg) and his elite squad closing in on a Russian safe house where they proceed to kill everyone inside while they confiscate top-secret material. Afterwards, they discover the material they were seeking was in fact not there. What were they looking for? A highly explosive chemical weapon that has the potential for leveling a city with just a few specks of powder. Yikes!

The heat falls on agent Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan) since it was her contact Li Noor (Iko Uwais) who provided them with false information. It turns out that Noor will give them the whereabouts of this deadly weapon but only if he receives political asylum in the United States. After failing to break the codes on Noor’s phone which would give them this information, Silva and his team agree to extract Noor out of the country and into the United States.

To do this, they have to travel a dangerous trek of 22 miles, hence the film’s title, dangerous because Noor is wanted by the government, as in wanted dead, and so there are brutal assassins waiting for them at every turn.

If this sounds stupid, that’s because it is.

One of the worst things about MILE 22 is the film has no sense of place and does a terrible job establishing its setting.  No mention is made of nations or cities, and so half the time the audience has no idea where the film is taking place. This is either sloppy filmmaking by director Berg or a deliberate attempt to capture the shadowy aspects of the plot by keeping everything nameless. Either way, it weakens the story. Without an established setting, things just don’t play out as real.

The film was shot in both Bogota, Colombia, and Atlanta, Georgia, but no mention of where the action is taking place is made in the film.

The actual gimmick of this movie, that the agents have to transport an informant on a 22 mile stretch to get him to safety, is a good one and has potential, but strangely the film fails to take advantage of this.

Director Peter Berg takes a circuitous route telling this story. The editing is all over the place. The thinking behind this movie seems to have been action first, story later. What should have been a straightforward and rather compelling narrative unfolds in a muddled and choppy way. For example, the film continually returns to a sequence where Wahlberg’s character is talking about the mission after it happened, but this doesn’t help the story at all other than reveal that Wahlberg’s character is going to survive.

The action scenes are actually pretty good, and I enjoyed most of them, so if you’re into action you certainly won’t be bored, and it’s not like the movie doesn’t have a story. It does. It just doesn’t do the best job telling it.

The screenplay by Lea Carpenter has it moments, but most of them are drowned out by Berg’s overbearing direction. I liked the basic premise of the story, and I actually enjoyed the two main characters, Wahlberg’s James Silva and Cohan’s Alice Kerr. I especially enjoyed their interactions. Cohan’s character is a strong female lead, and I thought she was one of the best written characters in the movie, even though she is stuck in a thankless subplot concerning a messy divorce.

But there’s no villain to speak of, and this certainly hurts the movie. Oh, there are bad guys here, but they’re not developed at all. Wahlberg and company might as well be combatting nameless shadows.

I usually enjoy Mark Wahlberg, and so it’s no surprise that he’s pretty darn good in MILE 22, although his James Silva character can be cocky and annoying. Silva is a savant, which is supposed to make his arrogance sympathetic, but the trouble is the flashback scenes which explain this are so laughably bad none of it seems real. In spite of this, Wahlberg manages to make the guy someone I didn’t mind rooting for.

On the other hand, he gets stuck with lots of bad dialogue, especially when he spouts off about real world dangers, the fallacies of diplomacy, and how the world is safe only because of people like him. While any of this could be true, as written, it comes off as ridiculous.

Lauren Cohan delivers the best performance in the movie as Alice Kerr. She’s so good she even makes the silly divorce scenes tolerable.

John Malkovich is on hand as the leader of the tech team housed in a top-secret location with his fellow computer geeks as they monitor everything from their agents’ vitals to controlling traffic lights to ordering jet missile strikes. Again, what could have been intriguing becomes laughable here.

Peter Berg previously directed Wahlberg in LONE SURVIVOR (2013), DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016) and PATRIOTS DAY (2016). MILE 22 might be the weakest of the lot. It’s certainly inferior to the far more compelling PATRIOTS DAY.

And it looks like Berg and Wahlberg will be working together again, as the ending to MILE 22 sets things up for an obvious sequel. In fact, rumor has it that Berg and Wahlberg have a trilogy planned. Oh joy.

I tend to like gritty action films, and so I certainly did not hate MILE 22. I’ve seen far worse movies. This one certainly isn’t very good, as it struggles with some confusing editing and a helter-skelter narrative.

But Mark Wahlberg makes for a sufficiently arrogant and annoying lead, not someone you like all that much but because of his good intentions someone you root for, and it would be very difficult for me to dislike a movie starring Lauren Cohan. As expected, she is also excellent here.

So, with Wahlberg and Cohan leading the way, MILE 22, in spite of its directing and story problems, isn’t quite as bad as folks are saying.

Its twenty-two mile trek won’t be the longest ride you’ve ever had to sit through, but it also won’t be the most satisfying.

Perhaps they should have gone with MILE 2.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

BLACK PANTHER (2018) – Superior Film Much More Than Just A Superhero Movie

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Every once in a while, the superhero film reinvents itself.  It happened twice in 2008, with THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and IRON MAN (2008). It happened again with THE AVENGERS (2012).

And now it has happened once more with BLACK PANTHER (2018).

BLACK PANTHER is the latest superhero movie to come from Marvel, a comic book company that has been churning out top quality superhero films regularly since IRON MAN in 2008.  They show no signs of slowing down.  And while all their movies do follow a similar formula— wise-cracking superheroes who like to bicker and often fight with each other, high production values, A-list actors, superior writing, and a fun sense of humor— they have tweaked things on occasion. THE AVENGERS brought the “family” of superheroes to the forefront, where the conflicts were more about hero vs. hero than hero vs. villain.

Now comes BLACK PANTHER, a deeper, more resonating tale that reaches further into the social, political, and racial issues of our time than any superhero film before it.  As such, it’s that rare film that supersedes its superhero costuming and succeeds on a level usually reserved for thought-provoking Oscar nominated dramas.

BLACK PANTHER tells the story of Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who is destined to become king of the African kingdom of Wakanda after his father, the king, was killed in events chronicled in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). Wakanda is a special kingdom.  The people there have in their possession an element which gives them incredible technological and healing powers, powers they hide from world so as not to become involved in global conflicts. It’s also what gives the sitting king of Wakanda the power to become Black Panther, the warrior who protects his people.

One of T’Challa’s first challenges as king is to hunt down the villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a man who has a long history of inflicting pain on Wakanda.  This chase reconnects T’Challa with CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) who is also after Klaue.  When Klaue escapes, one of T’Challa’s best friends W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) laments that he had hoped that T’Challa would be different from his father, but like his father, T’Challa has failed to reign in an enemy of the nation.

Things grow more complicated for T’Challa when Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in Wakanda with bombshell revelations and a challenge for the new king, both of which threaten to change everything about Wakanda and its status in the world.

I absolutely loved BLACK PANTHER.  It has all the things that have made the Marvel superhero movies successful and then some.

For starters, once more it boasts a phenomenal cast. Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), James Brown in GET ON UP (2014), and Thurgood Marshall in MARSHALL (2017), is perfect here as T’Challa/Black Panther.  He strikes the right balance between strength, honor, heroism, and vulnerability.  He makes T’Challa the perfect leader, yet when he is challenged for his crown, the notion that he will win that challenge is anything but a done deal.

Michael B. Jordan knocks it out of the park as Erik Killmonger, the young boy abandoned by the Wakandans to grow up in the slums of Oakland, CA who had to fight every day of his life to get back to his native country.  Killmonger is one of the villains in this movie, to be sure, but so much of what he says makes perfect sense, and his view of the world is much closer to reality than T’Challa’s.  It’s a fascinating role and Jordan, the star of CREED (2015), is more than up to the task.  I haven’t felt this much empathy for a screen villain in a very long time.

Likewise, Lupita Nyong’o [12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)] is very good as Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend who he spends most of the movie trying to get back together with.  Nakia is T’Challa’s rock, and she’s with him every step of the way in this adventure.

As good as Nyong’o is here, I enjoyed two of the other female performers even more. Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD (2012-2018), is mesmerizing here as the warrior Okoye. And Letitia Wright is just as good as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri, who not only gives her king brother a hard time throughout, but is also the keeper of all the technological secrets and advancements of Wakanda.  In short, she gets to play “Q” to T’Challa’s “James Bond.”

Martin Freeman is amiable as CIA agent Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is formidable as the villainous heavy Ulysses Klaue.

The cast also includes Daniel Kaluuya from GET OUT (2017) as W’Kabi and Forest Whitaker as Zuri.  As I said at the outset, BLACK PANTHER, like the Marvel superhero films which preceded it, has an A-list cast.

I found the entire movie to be pretty much mesmerizing.  Director Ryan Coogler, who also directed CREED (2015), drew me in at the outset with a combination of strong storytelling, cinematic scenes, and a Wakandan mythology that is prevalent throughout the movie.

BLACK PANTHER is loaded with memorable scenes, from the exciting to the poignant.  T’Challa’s first encounter with Klau followed by the ensuing car chase is as an exciting sequence as you’ll find.  It’s as good or better as anything done in the James Bond films.  The challenge bout between T’Challa and Killmonger is absolutely thrilling and exceedingly emotional, and the all-out climatic battle at the end of the movie is a rousing way to close out the film.

Scenes between T’Challa and his father, and Killmonger and his father are moving and sad and touch upon philosophies of life and of race.

It’s an outstanding script by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole. The thoughts on race alone and the plight of the black man in the world are themes that make this one above and beyond a normal superhero tale.  You can almost see the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. inside T’Chala and Malcolm X inside Killmonger as they spar on the right way to save black lives in the world.

The film also doesn’t shy away from the political, addressing current issues as well. T’Challa’s statement to the United Nations  that we must “build bridges, not barriers,” is a clear reference to a certain wall that a certain leader wants to build.

When Killmonger finds himself on the throne, questions arise as to the responsibilities of fellow leaders and the citizenry when faced with an irresponsible king with no experience.

The script goes even farther than current events, examining in general the difficulties of being a world leader, as when T’Challa’s father tells his son, “You’re a good man.  And it’s not easy for a good man to be king.”

BLACK PANTHER is more than just a superhero movie. It’s a tale for our time, a look at the responsibilities of those who possesses great power, of what happens when someone without experience gains that power and uses it for a personal and oftentimes reckless agenda, and it’s an examination of the responsibilities of race relations, of just what it means to rebel against oppressors, to achieve equality in the world without becoming that which you’re trying to overcome.  It’s as deep and as resonating a superhero film as I’ve ever seen.

But it’s also a Marvel superhero film, which means that at the end of the day, it’s also a heck of a lot of fun.

I loved BLACK PANTHER. It’s not only one of the best superhero movies to come out in a long time, but it’s also a powerful movie in its own right, as it deals astonishingly well with issues of race relations and responsibilities of those in power.

It’s a masterfully told story of our time.

—END—

 

 

 

Riveting Western HOSTILES (2017) Earns Its Title

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Rosamund Pike and Christian Bale share the danger in HOSTILES (2017).

HOSTILES (2017), the new western adventure by writer/director Scott Cooper, is anchored by a solid performance by Christian Bale as a hardened cavalry officer ordered to escort an aged and ill Cheyenne chief on a dangerous trek from New Mexico to Montana, a chief who was once responsible for the deaths of many of the officer’s men.

HOSTILES opens with a brutal attack on a family by a group of Comanches that leaves a father and three children dead.  The mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) manages to escape but not before seeing  her entire family, including her infant, slain.  The action switches to Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) receiving orders that he must provide safe passage for an ailing Cheyenne chief, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to his home land in Montana.  Blocker wants no part of this mission because he knows firsthand the merciless carnage which Chief Yellow Hawk once caused, but as his superior officer Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) reminds him, Blocker is no saint himself.

A career soldier and months away from retirement and a pension, Blocker reluctantly agrees to follow his orders.  Soon after Blocker, his men, and Chief Yellow Hawk embark on their journey, they come across and rescue Rosalie Quaid but realize the deadly Comanches are still on the prowl, putting everyone, including Chief Yellow Hawk and his family, in danger.  And the murderous Comanches are only one of the threats which Captain Blocker and his party must face on their increasingly treacherous trek to Montana, all of which provide for a very dark and thrilling western adventure.

If you like westerns, you definitely want to see HOSTILES.  Writer/director Scott Cooper, whose previous films include BLACK MASS (2015) and OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), the latter also starring Christian Bale and one of my favorite movies that year, has made a tense, compelling drama that hooks you from the get-go with its savage opening scene and then pretty much never lets go. Sure, not everything works— Blocker’s story arc is a bit too neat and tidy at times— but enough of it does to make this movie a must-see trip to the theater.

Christian Bale is rock solid as Captain Blocker, a weathered military officer who has seen his share of deplorable acts of horror and has committed them as well, which he justifies because it’s his job to kill.  Bale brings the necessary intensity to the role, as well as the scars and pains which are apparent in his eyes throughout.  It’s a very satisfying performance, and I enjoyed Bale more here than in the previous two films I saw him in, THE BIG SHORT (2015) and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013).

Bale is phenomenal, and he’s not alone.  HOSTILES boast a very strong cast.  Rosamund Pike is nearly as good as Bale here as the bereaved yet strong spirited Rosalie Quaid.  She is every bit as locked into her performance as Bale, and the two share an uneasy chemistry, brought together by tragedies in their past and their present.

Veteran actor Wes Studi, who I most remember for his powerful performance as Magua in THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992) is sufficiently noble as Chief Yellow Hawk.  Jesse Plemons, who seems to be showing up everywhere these days and who stood out as Todd in the final season of BREAKING BAD (2012-2013), plays Lt. Rudy Kidder, a soldier on Blocker’s team with a solid resume but little experience in the field. And we just saw Plemons in THE POST (2017).

Rory Cochrane delivers a strong performance as well as Sgt. Thomas Metz, Blocker’s longtime military buddy and right hand man.  Stephen Lang, most recently seen as the blind man in the thriller DON’T BREATHE (2016) has a small role as Col. Abraham Biggs, the man who gives Blocker his controversial orders.  And Bill Camp, who also had a memorable small role in MOLLY’S GAME (2017) as a doomed poker player, is memorable once again in another small bit, this time as an annoying newspaper reporter.

Timothee Chalamet has a brief role as a young private.  Chalamet was impressive as one of Lady Bird’s boyfriends in LADY BIRD (2017), and he’s also receiving praise for his role in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017).

Fans of THE WALKING DEAD will be happy to see Scott Wilson ride in as an angry land owner.  Wilson played Hershel on THE WALKING DEAD for a few seasons.  Of course, Wilson is known for much more than THE WALKING DEAD, as his career goes all the way back to IN COLD BLOOD (1967).

And Ben Foster even shows up as a military prisoner on death row who claims he’s no more dangerous than Blocker and that he’s seen Blocker do far worse things than he ever did. Foster is fine here, but he’s played this type of role before.  A lot.

Foster and Bale previously starred together in another western, 3:10 TO YUMA (2007), another hard-hitting action tale where Bale played the hero and Foster a loose cannon bad guy.

Scott Cooper’s screenplay, based on an unpublished manuscript by Donald E. Stewart, is a good one.  It tells a riveting story that held my interest throughout and it features characters even those in minor roles who are fleshed out adequately.

And Cooper is just as successful behind the camera.  The picturesque shots of New Mexico and Montana are reminiscent of the great western vistas captured by legendary directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks.  The action scenes are intense and suspenseful and provide some edge of your seat moments.

The first half of the movie admittedly plays better than the second half, when Blocker and company are dealing with the Comanches.  What follows, while interesting, never captures the same intensity as these early scenes, although the ending is powerfully tragic.

And the very ending, the final shot of the film, is as cinematic as they come, and could easily be destined as one of those closing shots that people long remember.

I loved HOSTILES.  It easily hearkens back to the classic westerns of yesteryear, films like STAGECOACH (1939), THE SEARCHERS (1956),  and Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN (1992). Yet it also possesses a dark edge that makes it every bit as gripping as a contemporary thriller.

You’ll easily understand why this one is called HOSTILES, an understanding that won’t stop you from enjoying this extremely satisfying film.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

DEN OF THIEVES (2018) – Action Flick Too Derivative To Stand Out

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Gerard Butler as tough unconventional cop Nick Flanagan in DEN OF THIEVES (2018).

DEN OF THIEVES (2018), the new action movie starring Gerard Butler, is a gritty violent bank heist tale that plays it “safe”— heh heh— with its by- the- numbers storytelling.

Worse yet, it’s rather derivative of previous movies of this type, a formula that prevents it from being all that memorable.

DEN OF THIEVES opens with the statement that Los Angeles, California is the bank robbery capital of the world, and then goes on to tell the story of two very different groups.  There’s the elite unit of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department led by tough guy cop Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler) who tells a man he’s interrogating that they don’t arrest people, they kill them, so he’d better talk. Yup, Flanagan and his team break all the rules to get the job done.

The other group, of course, is the bank robbers, led by a mastermind who goes by the name of Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) whose plan in this movie is to rob the one bank that no one’s been able to rob, the Federal Reserve. And his plan is a good one, with a decent chance of success, unless Flanagan and his team can figure it out and stop him first.

And that’s pretty much the story of DEN OF THIEVES. And while there are plenty of characters on both sides, on Flanagan’s team and in Merriman’s crew, the film mostly focuses on Flanagan and Merriman, with the exception of one other character, the driver for Merriman’s group, Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) who Flanagan and his men pick up, work over, and use as their insider to learn what Merriman is up to.  Of course, it works both ways, because once Merriman finds out, he uses Donnie to feed Flanagan false information.

As I said, DEN OF THIEVES is gritty and full of testosterone.  If you like your movies full of aggressive ripped characters, with barely a female character in sight, then this is the film for you.  Now, I like action movies as much as the next guy, but the biggest problem with DEN OF THIEVES is just how derivative it is.  It borrows heavily from other action films of this type, most notably Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995) starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, a film I happen to like a lot. It borrows heavily from other films as well, including THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995).  As a result, nothing that happens in the film is all that refreshing or original.

While DEN OF THIEVES isn’t a straight remake of HEAT, its plot is basically the same. The characters’ names have been changed, and their situations are a bit different, but the story of unconventional cop vs. mastermind bank robber is identical.  And HEAT did a better job with its characterizations.

In DEN OF THIEVES, the characters really aren’t fleshed out at all.  We learn a little bit about Flanagan’s home life, as he is in the midst of a divorce, separating him from his two daughters, and we see him very upset about this.  But what we don’t see is how this affects him on the job.  You’d think he’d be in a really bad mood after being served divorce papers, and he might take it out on the bank robbers, but he must be good at repressing these feelings because they hardly affect him at all, the result being a one note performance by Gerard Butler: tough and mean, all the time.  I actually had to laugh the first time we find out Flanagan has a wife and two young daughters.  Watching this guy chain smoke, eat donuts and basically look like he’s heart attack waiting to happen, the last thing I expected was to find out that he was a family man.

First-time director Christian Gudegast, who also wrote the screenplay, does a better job behind the camera than at the keyboard. The action scenes here are decent, and a couple of high speed chase scenes satisfy, but the characterizations are thin, the dialogue basic, and the entire tale unoriginal.

Gudegast is the son of actor Eric Braeden, known to genre fans for his appearances in such films as ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971) and COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970).  He also played the werewolf in the episode “The Werewolf” of the TV show KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (1974) starring Darren McGaven as everyone’s favorite reporter/monster hunter Carl Kolchak.  Braedon’s also known for his work on the daytime soap opera, THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS.

Braeden appears here in DEN OF THIEVES in a small role.

The acting here is decent.  I enjoyed Gerard Butler as tough guy cop Nick Flanagan, even if he was a very unlikable character.  Pablo Schreiber is also convincing as Merriman, but the problem is we know less about Merriman than we do Flanagan, so neither one of these two characters, in spite of the acting performances by the actors, have much depth.

Probably the best performance in the film belongs to O’Shea Jackson Jr. as driver Donnie. He’s not only convincing to the audience, but to Flanagan and Merriman as well, both of whom decide to keep him alive when he tells them he knows nothing of what the other side is doing.  Donnie is the one character when he’s on-screen who you are curious about since you’re not quite sure what he’s really up to— an innocent driver, undercover cop, or something else?  It’s a good performance by Jackson, Jr., who is the son of rapper Ice Cube.

And while there are plenty of other folks on both sides, no one really stands out. 50 Cent looks tough as fellow bank robber Levi, but we learn nothing about him.  And for fans of THE WALKING DEAD, another baddie, Mack, is played by Cooper Andrews, who last season played Jerry, King Ezekiel’s loyal right hand man, on the popular AMC show.

DEN OF THIEVES is a decent action movie, but unfortunately it’s just not original enough to stand out.  It also has a script that doesn’t add any depth whatsoever, and it simply doesn’t have enough going for it to sustain its 140 minute running time.

I liked it while I was watching it, but five minutes after it was done, it was all easily forgotten.

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TRIPLE 9 (2016) Wastes Talented Cast

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triple 9 poster

With a cast that includes Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, and Kate Winslet, TRIPLE 9 (2016) should have been triple the fun, but it’s not.

TRIPLE 9 tells a dark tale of corrupt cops working for the Russian mob, and as such should have been a riveting action drama, but less than stellar writing and underdeveloped characters ultimately do this one in.

The bad guys include crooked cops Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.), ex-cop Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul), and disgrunteld ex-soldiers Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) who also happens to be Gabe’s brother. They work for the Russian mob, and they’re at the mob’s beck and call because the head of the mob Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) has Michael Atwood’s young son in her clutches, which in this case is easy to do because she happens to be the boy’s aunt!  See, the boy’s mother is Irina’s sister.

The good guys— and there’s not many of them in this movie— include Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a cop who runs the straight and narrow because he wants to “make a difference,” (cliche, cough, cliche), and his loose canon police captain uncle Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson).

Michael and his team rob a bank for Irina’s mob, but after the job, she refuses to pay them, saying there is one more job that they must do for her, and of course, Michael cannot refuse her, because she’s got his son.  The job is next to impossible, as it involves robbing a federal building loaded with swat-team style security, and so they come up with a plan to utilize “999” which is the police code for “officer down.”  They decide to kill a police officer, knowing that once that 999 code spreads over the police dispatch, every officer on the force will be racing towards the shooting scene, which will give them the time to make their impossible heist.

They choose Marcus’ new partner Chris to be their victim, thus setting the stage for the big conflict in this movie.

TRIPLE 9 suffers from some pretty weak writing across the board.    The screenplay is by Matt Cook, and it’s his first feature film writing credit.  It shows.

Let’s start with characters.  All of these guys have the potential to be very interesting, but none of them— not one– is developed enough for us to care about them.  Part of the problem is that there are too many characters in this movie.  Perhaps things would have been better had screenwriter Cook taken just two of these guys and built the story around them.

Take the two main characters for example.  You have Michael Atwood, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the leader of the baddies, who should be the guy we love to hate, or perhaps feel bad about, but I felt absolutely nothing for this guy.  We’re supposed to feel bad for him bad for him because the mob has his son, but we never see him as a dad with his son.  They have some scenes together, but they’re meaningless.  On the contrary, the little kid seems to be having more fun with his aunt Irina.  Plus, we’re given no background to establish what kind of relationship Michael had with the boy’s mother.  Everything is all so peripheral.  And on the tough guy bad guy front, Michael is a failure as very few things he does here work.

Likewise, Casey Affleck’s Chris Allen is a walking cliche.  He goes around brooding, obviously unhappy with a lot of his fellow police officers (no wonder they want to kill him!) and the brief scenes where we see him with his family are pointless.  We just never get to know him.

Anthony Mackie’s Marcus Belmont is even less developed than these two.  Clifton Collins Jr. fares slightly better as Franco Rodriguez.  At least he comes off as slightly creepy.

Woody Harrelson’s performance as Jeffrey Allen is all over the place.  At times, he acts like the top cop in the precinct, but more often than not he’s a loose wire, often sounding and acting like the corrupt cops he’s trying to weed out.

And then there’s Kate Winslet.  What was she doing in this movie?  Irina Vlaslov comes off like a cross between Cruella Deville and Brigitte Nielsen’s Ludmilla from ROCKY IV (1985) only without any personality.  I never took this character seriously.

The two best peformances in this movie belong to the two TV stars, Aaron Paul (BREAKING BAD) and Norman Reedus (THE WALKING DEAD).

Reedus delivers the best performance in the movie, hands down, with Paul right behind him, but the reason they don’t lift this movie is they’re not in it much at all.  Had this film been built around these guys, these characters, the filmmakers might have had something.  Reedus is icy cool as big brother Russell Welch, and in his brief screen time, he manages to do something that no one else other than Paul does in this film:  he actually makes you care about his character a little bit.  Incredibly, in the brief time Reedus is in this movie, he gives Russell some depth, a feeling that there’s more to this guy than just a shallow mercenary.

Paul does the same with younger brother Gabe Welch.  Of all the villains, it’s Gabe who’s the most messed up, the one who struggles the most to keep it all together, and Paul does a great job with this character.  Unfortunately, the movie spends very little time on these guys.

Director John Hillcoat actually does a pretty good job here.  The opening robbery sequence is indeed rather riveting, and the climactic “999” scene is also very good, but there’s just so much in the middle that doesn’t work that by the time we get to that “999” scene, I didn’t really care about any of it.

For example, there’s the weak depiction of the Russian mob.  How do we know this Russian mob is so deadly?  Because we’re privy to quick shots of bloodied whimpering bodies in the trunks of cars.  It’s certainly not because we’re privy to what the mob is up to.  The plot is centered around the big heist at the end, and yet very little time is spent on what they are actually stealing or why the mob wants it so badly.

The film also never really delivers true suspense.

There’s just not a lot that works in TRIPLE 9.  It wastes its very talented cast, its story is contrived, its characters undeveloped, and its execution is uneven.

Instead of calling in a 999, perhaps the folks in this movie should have dialed 911.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FURY (2014) – Brutal War Tale Does Its Job

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Fury-2014Movie Review:  FURY (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

If there’s one message in FURY (2014), the new World War II action movie starring Brad Pitt, it’s that war is a hell that just won’t quit.  Even in the waning days of the war, the fighting continues, oftentimes with more ferocity than ever before.

To this end, FURY succeeds.  It’s a brutal in-your-face slugfest between Allied soldiers and the Nazis.  We see heads blown off, eyes stabbed out, and even a severed face lying on a tank seat.  It’s not for the squeamish.

Where FURY lags, however, and what prevents it from being a superior movie, is a lack of character development and a limiting story. FURY plays out like a slice-of-life portrait of five World War II soldiers battling against the odds in the final days of the war, as the Allies penetrate further into Germany.  It’s not the most dangerous mission ever undertaken, nor is it the most heroic war tale ever told.  It’s simply five men doing their job.

It’s less about the mission and more about the men, which is fine, except that this kind of a story deserves deeper character development.  While we do get up close and personal with these guys, the film never jettisons its action scenes in favor of scenes where we get to know these characters, save for one, perhaps the best scene in the movie, where the soldiers share a dinner with two German women.

When FURY opens, Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) who commands the tank “Fury” has just lost one of his men, which leaves the rest of his crew, Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia Lebouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon- Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) angry and upset.  Collier receives new orders to take his small group of tanks and intercept a squadron of Nazis.  Even though the war is drawing to a close, the Nazis are not giving up, and the fighting is more vicious than ever.  As such, the Allies are enduring heavy casualties, and Collier and his small group of tanks are being asked to do a job which normally requires more firepower, which they just don’t have right now.

Collier’s crew is assigned a new soldier, the very young Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who’s only trained as a communications officer and is as green as a cucumber when it comes to combat.  After razzing him initially, Collier’s crew welcomes Norman into the fold, even as he admits he has no desire to kill anyone.

The tanks are ambushed, and all of them are destroyed except for “Fury,” which leaves Collier and his crew to take on the Nazis on their own.

FURY was written and directed by David Ayer, who earlier this year wrote and directed the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner SABOTAGE (2014).  I enjoyed FURY much more than SABOTAGE.  Ayer also wrote and directed the police drama END OF WATCH (2012).  He wrote TRAINING DAY (2001), the film in which Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar, and he wrote the original THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001).

Ayer has been around, more as a writer than a director, and of the films he’s directed that I’ve seen, FURY might be his best yet.  It has a solid story, exciting action sequences, tense war action, and a competent cast.  The action is fast and furious, and the battle scenes do not disappoint.  Sure, more attention could have been paid to character development, and it could have used an additional plot point or two to lift it above the standard war movie, but as is it’s still a very satisfying movie.

Brad Pitt is solid as Sgt. Collier.  He’s the rock which holds his men together, and he’s the driving force that pushes them through the dark places.  In front of his men, he’s a bull, but alone, he breaks down, succumbing to the war horrors engulfing them.  I continue to enjoy Pitt’s string of recent performances, including roles in such films as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009), MONEYBALL (2011), and KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2011).  Pitt was probably better in all three of those films, but his performance here is a good one, and it’s a role I enjoyed more than his most recent work in WORLD WAR Z (2013) and THE COUNSELOR (2013).

Just as good as Pitt is Logan Leman as green soldier Norman Ellison.  It’s largely through Ellison’s eyes that we see the horrors of the war, and we watch as Ellison goes from a naïve boy to a hardened soldier.

Both Shia LeBouf as “Bible” Swan and Michael Pena as Garcia are very good, but it’s THE WALKING DEAD’s Jon Bernthal as the animal-like Travis who stands out among the tank crew.  Travis is such a violent visceral character, and Bernthal has a field day playing him.  As we saw when he played Shane on THE WALKING DEAD, Bernthal is a very talented actor who I hope continues to land bigger and bigger roles in the movies.

While the action scenes are topnotch, especially the tank battle in which the Allied tanks are outgunned by a single Nazi tank, the best scene in the movie isn’t an action scene.  It’s when Collier brings Norman into a German home in which they find two young women.  While the other men engage in wild sex with the local German women, Collier shows Norman a more civilized get-together, over a home-cooked meal.  Of course, civility only goes so far, as Collier bursts into the woman’s home with a rifle and orders them to make dinner.

When Norman retreats into the bedroom with the lovely young Emma (Alicia von Rittberg), they share an intimate conversation and have what appears to be consensual sex.  Afterwards, when Emma leaves the bedroom, she looks at her cousin and smiles at her.  I don’t think Emma would be smiling had she been raped.  The whole point of this scene is that Norman is not a brute and that he doesn’t force himself upon the girl.  Then again, he’s a soldier with a rifle, and so certainly the door is open for interpretation.

Of course, when Travis, Garcia, and Swan arrive, that’s a different story, and Travis does everything in his power to humiliate and degrade Emma, in spite of Norman’s and Collier’s protestations.  The range of emotions throughout this sequence goes far deeper than at any other point in the film.  It’s the best scene in the movie.

I wish there had been more scenes in the film like this.

But as it stands, FURY is a very good movie.  It’s a down and dirty World War II thriller which serves as a sad reminder that war is a brutal ugly business.  As Brad Pitt’s Wardaddy Collier says in one of the best lines from the film, “It (the war) will end soon, but before it does, a lot more people have to die.”

For the men inside Fury, it can’t end fast enough.

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