THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019) – Costner/Harrelson Pairing Low Key and Lackluster

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The pairing of Kevin Costner with Woody Harrelson immediately piqued my interest and had me tuning into the premiere of THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019), Netflix’ latest original streaming movie release.

Costner and Harrelson play Texas Rangers who are called out of retirement to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde in this period piece drama based on a true story.

It’s 1934, and Texas governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is fed up with the elusive Bonnie and Clyde. She accepts the advice of prison warden Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) to  do what the current slew of FBI agents are unable to do: track down and kill Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer agrees to take the job, and helping him is his former associate Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson).

To do the job, Hamer and Gault have to dust off the cobwebs of retirement and deal with being a lot older, but once they feel they are up to speed, they’re hot on the trail of the infamous outlaws.

I was really into seeing THE HIGHWAYMEN because of the pairing of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, but surprisingly the two actors share little chemistry onscreen together.

Costner is very low-key as Frank Hamer, and as such, he just never really came to life for me. I never quite believed he was the infamous Texas Ranger who had killed so many people in the line of duty.

Woody Harrelson fares better as Maney Gault, and Harrelson’s scenes and lines of dialogue were among my favorite in the movie. But his character plays second fiddle to Costner’s and the story never really becomes about him.

And Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, and Kim Dickens all have limited impact with very small roles.

There’s also not a whole lot that’s cinematic about this one. It plays like a mediocre TV movie of old, and watching it at home on Netflix only added to this substandard feel. Director John Lee Hancock even keeps the R-rated violence somehow tame.

Hancock’s previous film THE FOUNDER (2016), a bio pic on McDonald’s controversial “founder” Ray Kroc, which starred Michael Keaton in the lead role, was a much better movie than THE HIGHWAYMEN. In THE FOUNDER, Hancock pushed all the right buttons, including capturing the look and feel of the 1950s. Here in THE HIGHWAYMEN his take on the 1930s is less impressive.

Hancock also directed the critically acclaimed THE BLIND SIDE (2009).

The screenplay by John Fusco focuses completely on Hamer and Gault and strangely spends hardly no time at all on Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, the infamous pair are barely even seen here. It’s a decision that doesn’t really help the story, because even though Hamer and Gault continually talk about how monstrous Bonnie and Clyde are, and even though we see the pair commit murder, because so little time is spent on them we never really feel their menace.

As a result, Hamer’s and Gault’s quest is largely one-sided. It’s hard to join them in their passion when we never see the object of their manhunt.

The dialogue was average, with most of the good lines all going to Woody Harrelson.

I also was looking forward to watching these two characters deal with their advanced years as they hunted down the younger Bonnie and Clyde, but the script doesn’t play up this angle very effectively either.

All in all, I found THE HIGHWAYMEN to be lethargic and lackluster. It never really ignited any sparks, and the two leads surprisingly never really connected.

At the end of the day, THE HIGHWAYMEN was more roadblock than highway.

—END—

 

 

 

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MOLLY’S GAME (2017) – High Stakes Poker Tale Plays Close to the Vest

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Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in MOLLY’S GAME (2017)

MOLLY’S GAME (2017), based on the true story of Olympic-class skier Molly Bloom who after a devastating injury which ended her skiing career went on to run some of the most expensive high stakes poker games in the world, and was subsequently prosecuted by the FBI, begs the question: are all “true stories” created equal?

The answer obviously is no, and most of the time movie makers get this right and don’t film stories not worth telling.  Here, in MOLLY’S GAME, I’m not so sure.

After a freak accident on the ski slopes ends her career and spoils her shot at making the Olympic team, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) moves to California to get as far away from her father Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner) as possible.  While he had always been hard on her, the main reason she can’t stand him is he cheated on her mom.

She lands a job as a cocktail waitress where she meets Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) a shadowy guy who hires her to be his personal secretary, a position that opens up the door for her to assist him with his high stakes poker game he runs every week, a game that attracts all sorts of celebrities, including a popular actor named only in the movie as Player X (Michael Cera).

After a falling out with Dean, Molly sets up shop on her own, and suddenly she’s the one running the high stakes poker game. Under her guidance, the game continues to grow, but after she moves it to New York, to attract even wealthier players, trouble brews, as she runs afoul of the Russian mob, the Italian mafia, and illegal drug use, eventually catching the attention of the FBI.

The story is told largely through flashback, as she tells her story to her attorney Charlie Jaffrey (Idris Elba).

MOLLY’S GAME is the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, known for his thought-provoking scripts for such films as THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and MONEYBALL (2011), to name a couple, and more so, for his classic TV series THE WEST WING (1999-2006). It’s an impressive debut.

The writing is top-notch and is full of snappy quick-paced dialogue, which is no surprise since Sorkin also wrote the script, based on the book Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom.

The acting is also excellent.  Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are two of my favorite actors working today.  In the lead role as Molly Bloom, Jessica Chastain knocks it out of the park, and her performance is the best part of this movie.  She makes Molly Bloom a compelling character, and I was more than interested in following her story.

Chastain has already delivered a host of notable performances, in such films as ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), THE HELP (2011), INTERSTELLAR 2014), and THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017), to name just a few.

Likewise, Idris Elba has also delivered a lot of excellent performances, although his best work is clearly on the TV show LUTHER (2010-2018) in which he plays DCI John Luther and he’s been phenomenal in the role for the entirety of the show’s run.

Strangely, there wasn’t a whole lot of chemistry between Chastain and Elba here.  Not that they were romantically involved, but in terms of plot, at first Elba’s attorney Charlie Jaffey wants no part of Molly’s case, but eventually he changes his mind, because he believes there’s more to her story than what he’s read in the tabloids, and it’s this part of the story that’s missing.  I was never convinced that Charlie would have changed his mind about Molly. I didn’t buy his change of heart because I never really saw him have that lightbulb moment where he realizes, I can defend this woman.  It’s supposed to be when he realizes that she’s had numerous opportunities to make lots of money off her story and has turned them all down, a reflection of her integrity as a person.  I understood this as a plot point, but I never felt it through Charlie’s character.

This was a major sticking point for me throughout the entire movie.  I understood it all, but all of it left me feeling rather empty.  The story worked intellectually, but not emotionally.

The cast is full of familiar faces who all do a wonderful job in their roles.  Kevin Costner is sufficiently cold and demanding as Molly’s psychologist dad Larry, who’s not going to win any father of the year awards.

Jeremy Strong is slimy and sexist as Dean Keith. Strong has been in a bunch of movies of late, including appearances in DETROIT (2017), THE BIG SHORT (2015), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).

Michael Cera makes for a very unlikable Player X, while Chris O’Dowd makes for a rather likable Douglas Downey, a regular at the table who’s almost always drunk and who has affable conversations with Molly after the games. I like O’Dowd a lot, and he’s made similar impressions in films like ST. VINCENT (2014) and THE SAPPHIRES (2012).

Likewise, Brian D’Arcy James is memorable as Brad, nicknamed “Bad Brad” because he was the worst player at the table and lost regularly. D’Arcy James also appeared in SPOTLIGHT (2015) and most recently on the TV series 13 REASONS WHY (2017-18).

So, in MOLLY’S GAME, you have acting, writing, and directing that are all excellent, and yet, when it was all said and done, I found myself asking a big so what?

And that “so what?” refers to Molly’s story.  I enjoyed Jessica Chastain in the lead role, and I enjoyed learning about Molly Bloom, and her character is certainly interesting, but her story?  I dunno. For a while, it’s fascinating, and it’s certainly worthwhile learning about a woman who made it her mission to outwork powerful men and beat them at their own game.

All of this I liked, but the film, like some of the players sitting around the table, plays things close to the vest, and as a result it was difficult to gage just what people were feeling and why they were feeling it. And the story itself suffers for it, because it never really becomes alive or makes a compelling argument to its audience that this story needs to be told.  Ultimately, I agree with the judge at the end of the story who in making his ruling suggests that this whole case was much ado about nothing.

At the end of the day, there is just something missing here, and that something is heart. MOLLY’S GAME has little emotional connection with its audience. Intellectually, I understood and appreciated Molly’s story, and I enjoyed watching a story about a woman getting the upper hand over powerful and sexist men.  But emotionally, I never felt much for any of the characters, including Molly.  Molly should have been an extremely sympathetic character here, but she’s not.  The writing doesn’t allow her to be.

As such, I never felt a connection to Charlie Jaffey’s character, and I never believed his reasons for taking Molly’s case.  Moreover, I never felt the fear Molly should have felt being arrested by the FBI, or earlier the jubilation for a job well done running the high stakes poker game.  Maybe it’s because for Molly, there wasn’t much to feel.  The herculean effort it took for her to organize and run these games left her exhausted and got her addicted to drugs.

Or maybe it’s because in terms of stories, it’s just not one that pulls at the heartstrings.

I don’t know.

I do know that MOLLY’S GAME is a well-directed, expertly written, and professionally acted movie that held my interest for its 140 minute running time, but when it was over, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just watched a genuinely compelling story, or if like some of the players at the table in the movie, I had fallen victim to a monumental bluff.

—END—

 

HIDDEN FIGURES (2017) – Powerful Movie Has A lot To Say About Race Relations, Gender Roles, NASA.

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I finished 2016 with two terrific movies, LA LA LAND (2016) and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016).  Now, to begin 2017, I’ve seen a movie equally as good as those two.

HIDDEN FIGURES is an exceptional movie, even better than some critics are giving it credit for.

HIDDEN FIGURES is the true story of three African-American women who worked for NASA as mathematicians in the early 1960s and were instrumental in launching the space campaign, specifically the first orbiting flight by astronaut John Glenn.

It’s  the early 1960s, and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P.Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) all work for NASA as “human computers,” toiling in the background, working nonstop to verify the math for their white male superiors.

Katherine’s big break comes when she goes to work for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) who’s leading a frustrated group of NASA scientists and mathematicians, fighting a losing battle against a Soviet space program which seems to celebrate one success after another, while NASA is stuck in failure.

At one point in the film, Harrison says he refuses to believe that the Soviets are smarter and better than his people, and he interprets this to mean they’re not working hard enough, and so he puts his team on notice that they will work nonstop and through weekends until they get the job done.

Katherine’s math skills soon become noticeable not only to Harrison but also to astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) who after meeting her is so impressed he later personally requests her expertise to validate the math before he makes his historic flight into space.

Katherine’s achievements are all the more impressive because she has to overcome both racial and gender prejudices to accomplish them.  For instance, she has to suffer through the indignity of having a separate coffee pot labeled “colored” which no one will even touch.  There’s also no “colored” bathrooms in the building, so in order to use the bathroom she has to run nearly six blocks in her heels and back, something that is not noticed until Harrison chews her out for being missing from her desk for so long.  When he asks her where she goes, she tells him the bathroom, to which he snaps at her about what the heck takes her so long.  Which sets up one of the best scenes in the movie where she lets loose in an emotional tirade where she finally explains the whole bathroom situation.

An equally powerful scene follows where we see Harrison take a sledge-hammer to the “colored” bathroom sign, declaring “No more segregated bathrooms.  We all pee the same color at NASA.”

Meanwhile, Dorothy finds herself working as a supervisor to the “computers” but without the title or the pay which the position warrants.  Later, when an IBM computer is installed at NASA, with plans on replacing the human computers, Dorothy takes the initiative to read up on the device, and she self-teaches herself to the point where she can operate the machine better than the IBM technicians.  She use this new knowledge to keep her “girls” employed, as she trains them how to operate the IBM computers.

And Mary Jackson, inspired by her superior, a  Jewish man who tells her not to give up, that twenty years earlier he was in a Nazi concentration camp, and now he’s sending rockets to the moon, attempts to earn a college degree so she can join her fellow mathematicians and not simply be a human computer.  But to do so she will need to attend an all white school, which means she needs a judge to give her special permission.

HIDDEN FIGURES is an inspiring movie that works on multiple levels.  It has a lot to say about race relations and overcoming prejudices, as well as what it took to make NASA’s early space flights a success.  It’s SELMA (2014) meets APOLLO 13 (1995).

The acting is wonderful.

Taraji P. Henson shines as Katherine G. Johnson.  Henson makes Katherine a strong-willed woman who is both a single mother and a brilliant mathematician.  She also shows off the character’s vulnerabilities, and we get to see her softer side in a romance subplot where she becomes involved with a handsome military man, Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).  She also makes Katherine, in spite of her nerdiness, adorable and sexy .

Henson currently stars in the TV show EMPIRE, and she previously starred in the show PERSON OF INTEREST (2011-2015).  I last saw her in the movie NO GOOD DEED (2014), a thriller in which she co-starred with Idris Elba, a film that I didn’t like very much.  She didn’t wow me at all in that movie, but here in HIDDEN FIGURES she’s brilliant.

Octavia Spencer is nearly as good as Dorothy Vaughan, who is probably the strongest of the three women and is seen as the glue which holds them together.  Spencer won an Oscar for her supporting role in THE HELP (2011), and while she probably won’t win an Oscar here, she’s still very good.

Equally as powerful as Henson and Spencer is Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson.  As Jackson, Monae gets some of the best lines in the movie.  Her scene in court as she attempts to convince a white judge to rule in her favor, to allow her to attend class at an all-white school, is also one of the more powerful scenes in the film.

Kevin Costner adds strong support as hard-nosed NASA man Al Harrison. He’s abrupt, no-nonsense, and heartless, and so later when even he is won over by Katherine, it’s all the more impressive.

Jim Parson, Sheldon on the TV show THE BIG BANG THEORY, plays it straight here as Paul Stafford, a white mathematician working for Al Harrison who feels jealous and threatened by Katherine.  He does a nice job in the role. Glen Powell also enjoys some fine moments as young astronaut John Glenn, a performance made even more touching since Glenn just passed away on December 8, 2016.

And Mahershala Ali who seems to be popping up everywhere these days also adds distinguished support as Colonel Jim Johnson, the man who falls in love with Katherine. Ali has been equally impressive on the TV shows HOUSE OF CARDS as Remy Danton, and as the villain “Cottonmouth” on the stylish Marvel TV show LUKE CAGE.  Of course, Ali is also starring in the highly touted and critically acclaimed movie MOONLIGHT (2016) a film which is expected to compete for Best Picture this year.  It’s a film I missed, because sadly, it did not play near me for very long.

Kirsten Dunst also shows up as Vivien Mitchell, the woman who Dorothy and her “human computers” have to report to, and she’s not too sympathetic to their plight, at least not at first.  Dunst is in her thirties now.  It seems like only yesterday she was Mary Jane in the Tobey Maguire SPIDERMAN movies. Time flies.

Theodore Melfi does a fine job directing this one.  It looks good as a 1960s period piece, and Melfi makes full use of some vivid colors here.  He also does a nice job balancing the stories of the three women. Melfi’s previous film was ST. VINCENT (2014), a comedy-drama starring Bill Murray, a film I liked a lot.  I enjoyed HIDDEN FIGURES even more.

Melfi also co-wrote the screenplay to HIDDEN FIGURES, along with Allison Schroeder, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.  It’s a strong script which strikes a nice balance between a story about race relations, prejudice, against both race and gender, and an exciting tale about the early space program. It also works as a character study of the three women in the story, as we really get to know and like these women a lot.

Some critics have complained that this movie doesn’t get dark enough, that the race issues are glossed over and sugar-coated to earn the film’s PG rating.  I disagree.  The sequence, for example, involving Katherine’s having to use a “colored” bathroom in a building located six blocks from where she works is powerful as is.  You don’t need bloodshed and strong language to get the point.

As such, with a PG rating, the important message that HIDDEN FIGURES presents can also be viewed by those younger than 13 years old.

HIDDEN FIGURES is a powerful movie, with a lot to say about race relations.  It also delivers a positive and much-needed message to the world today,  a world where race still divides rather than unites.

2017 has just begun.  There are a lot more movies to go, but HIDDEN FIGURES was the first movie I saw this year, and it’s instantly one of my favorites.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kevin Costner Is Criminally Entertaining in CRIMINAL (2016)

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When I think of Kevin Costner,  the word “bad-ass” isn’t what comes to mind.

That might change after watching CRIMINAL (2016), the new thriller starring  Costner as a death row inmate who through untested experimental surgery is given the memories of a dead CIA agent.

Why?  Because the agent died before completing his mission, and in order for his superiors to learn the vital information he took with him to his grave, they need to ressurect his memory.  Enter Kevin Costner.

When the movie opens, CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is being chased by the bad guys, and he doesn’t make it, which is very bad for the good guys, because Pope was bringing in a computer hacker who had gained control of the U.S. military’s missile launch system.  Pope’s boss, Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) recruits Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to perform experimental surgery on Pope to transfer Pope’s memories into the brain of another man.

Franks chooses Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner), a death row inmate and career criminal, because Jericho has a rare brain condition as a result of a childhood brain injury which makes him a perfect candidate for the surgery.  Trouble is, the same injury has also made Jericho an unstoppable unfeeling brutal criminal who doesn’t know right form wrong, doesn’t feel emotion or pain, and basically is Michael Myers without the mask.  Well, almost.

Franks performs the surgery, but Jericho escapes, and now armed with Pope’s CIA agent knowledge and skills, sets out to steal the money that Pope was going to use to bring in the computer hacker.  But when Jericho visits Pope’s wife Jill (Gal Gadot) and his young daughter, he begins to relive happy memories from Pope’s past and suddenly he’s experiencing emotions, something he had never been able to do before, which changes his outlook on life.

Meanwhile, the hacker is still out there, CIA boss Quaker Wells is going nuts because every move he makes seems to be the wrong one, and the main baddie in the movie, terrorist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Molla) is intent on using Jericho to lead him to the hacker so he can gain control of the U.S. military’s missile launch codes and blow up the world.

And he’ll succeed, unless Jericho, the relentlessly brutal career criminal who’s now armed with CIA agent skills, making him more dangerous than ever, can stop him.  And he wants to stop him for the simple reason that Xavier has irked him.  As Jericho says early in the movie, “You hurt me.  I’ll hurt you worse.”  Well, Xavier put the hurt on him, and for Jericho, that’s enough.

I went into CRIMINAL not expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s a very entertaining movie, and the biggest reason for this is Kevin Costner.

For me, it’s usually hit or miss with Costner.  Sometimes I enjoy him, and other times not so much.  For example, his recent action thriller 3 DAYS TO KILL (2014) I thought was meh, and he didn’t really do all that much for me in that movie.  Yet, he was terrific in last year’s MCFARLAND, USA. (2015), and I also enjoyed him in the two thrillers THE NEW DAUGHTER (2009) and MR. BROOKS (2007).  Of course, Costner’s career goes way back to THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) and was followed by a career of hits [DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)] and misses [WATERWORLD (1995)].

Costner knocks it out of the park here in CRIMINAL.  I haven’t seen Coster this good in years.  Part of the fun is it’s a role Costner doesn’t usually play.  As Jericho Stewart, he’s in-your-face abrasive, rough, crude, and incredibly entertaining.  His gritty yet realistic performance is reminsicent of the work of Tom Hardy, who also could have easily played this guy.

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Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner) takes aim at an enemy in CRIMINAL (2016).

Costner is also supported by a fine cast.  While neither Gary Oldman nor Tommy Lee Jones really stand out or do anything we haven’t seen them do before, they are both very good and their presence certainly helps the movie.  As does Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman herself!) as Pope’s beautiful wife Jill.  Gadot is not in the movie a whole lot, but when she is, it gets that much better.

Jordi Molla is meh as main baddie Xavier Heimdahl.  I’ve seen better villains, and I’ve seen worse.  Likewise, Michael Pitt as hacker Jan Stroop aka “The Dutchman” is also simply okay.

Better than these two are the other women in the cast.  Alice Eve makes her mark in a brief bit as CIA Agent Marta Lynch who for a time is Quaker Wells’ go-to person before she meets an untimely demise.  Even better than Eve is Antje Traue as Elsa Mueller, Xavier’s top assassin.  Traue gives the second best performance in the movie, behind Costner’s, and I really enjoyed her work as Elsa, who was one of the better characters in the movie.  Then again, maybe I just have a thing for sexy assassins.

And while it was nice to see Ryan Reynolds as Bill Pope, his performance was more of an afterthought, since he’s only in the movie for a few minutes.

CRIMINAL also has a really good script by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg.  It’s chock full of good lines, mostly spoken by Kevin Costner, and the idea behind the story, transferring one man’s memories into another, was pretty interesting.

I couldn’t help but think of FRANKENSTEIN while watching this movie.  The memory transplant, the brain surgery, the fact that Costner’s Jericho behaves like the Frankenstein Monster, especially how he doesn’t feel emotion and goes about scaring people and beating them senseless every chance he gets.  Plus Tommy Lee Jones’ character is named Dr. Franks, which immediately made my Hammer Films brain think of Peter Cushing’s Dr. Franck at the end of THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958).

That whole part of the story is really interesting and compeletely worked for me, mostly because Costner’s performance brings Jericho to life.

The other part of the story, the stealing of military secrets and wanting to blow things up, didn’t work as well.  That was all standard action movie fare and offered nothing new.

Director Ariel Vromen does a nice job, especially with the pacing.  This one flew by.   The action scenes were all decent, although none of them were all that spectacular.

By far, the best part of CRIMINAL and the main reason to see this one is Kevin Costner’s completely satisfying performance against type as rough, tough, unstoppable and often insane Jericho Stewart.

It’s Costner’s most entertaining role in years.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: 3 DAYS TO KILL (2014)

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3-Days-To-Kill-PosterHere’s my CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT review of 3 DAYS TO KILL (2014) which went up this past weekend at cinemaknifefight.com.  Remember, if you like to read about movies, check out cinemaknifefight.com where you’ll find new movie content posted every day by L.L. Soares, myself, and a very talented staff of writers.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT:  3 DAYS TO KILL (2014)

Review by Michael Arruda

(THE SCENE: Outside the Eiffel Tower in Paris.  MICHAEL ARRUDA sits at a table at an outdoor café.)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Welcome everybody to another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.  I’m flying solo this week as L.L. SOARES is off on another assignment, which is his loss since I get to visit Paris to review today’s movie 3 DAYS TO KILL (2014), a new action thriller starring Kevin Costner and Amber Heard.  The film takes place in Paris because— well, there really isn’t a good reason, which is only one of the issues I had with this film.

Anyway, let’s get on with the review.

3 DAYS TO KILL opens with a botched attempt by the CIA to eliminate one of their enemies, a villain named The Wolf (Richard Sammel) who works with another man named The Albino (Tomas Lemarquis)— I have to stop here for a moment.  I think I actually laughed out loud when these names were mentioned with straight faces by the main players in this film in its opening moments.  The Wolf?  The Albino?  Seriously?

One of the reasons the attempt goes sour is the main agent on the ground, Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) is on the phone trying to wish his teenage daughter a happy birthday.  The mission is a disaster, as both The Wolf and The Albino escape, blowing up a hotel in the process, all to the chagrin of the young agent running the operation, Vivi Delay (Amber Heard).

Why Ethan is allowed to keep his job after this bungle I don’t know.  Worse yet, when Vivi decides to continue her manhunt for The Wolf, she again turns to Ethan because he’s the one man who knows what the Wolf looks like, and so he’s the only man who can positively identify him and track him down.  Really?  Ever hear of composite sketches, Vivi?  Get Ethan to give an artist a description and then be done with this bum.  But, alas, there’s no one around who can kill as well as Ethan.  Really?  The guy’s ready for retirement, for crying out loud, and not only this, but he’s dying!  He can barely stand up and he’s the best guy for the job?  Come on!

Yes, Ethan is dying from a rare disease for which there is no cure, and so he visits his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and teen daughter Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld) to make amends and spend some time with his daughter in the final months he has to live.  Of course, Zoey wants no part of him, since he abandoned her for most of her childhood.

Meanwhile, Vivi informs Ethan that she has an antidote for his disease, an experimental drug that will prolong his life for years rather than months, but to get it, he has to help her find and kill The Wolf.   Since Ethan seems to be happiest when he’s beating people up, he quickly agrees, and thus we have the set-up for the rest of the movie, as Ethan has to search for The Wolf while trying to manage his daughter who is as rebellious as they come.

(A drop dead gorgeous woman wearing a tight bright red dress approaches MA.)

WOMAN:  I have the antidote.

MA:  Excuse me?

WOMAN:  I have the antidote.  But I’m only giving it to you if you keep your end of the bargain.

MA:  I’m sorry.  You must have me confused with someone else.  I’m here reviewing a movie.

WOMAN:  Don’t you want the antidote?

MA:  Antidote?  For what?  I’m not sick.  (He sneezes.)

WOMAN: Not sick, eh?

MA:  That was just a random sneeze.  (Sneezes again.)

WOMAN:  Your condition betrays you.

MA:  Condition?  I just sneezed!  What kind of a condition is that?

WOMAN: Keep your end of the bargain, or no antidote!

(She walks away.)

MA:  That was strange.

Anyway, the biggest problem I had with 3 DAYS TO KILL— and I had a lot of problems with this film— is that it suffers from a huge case of the “sillies.”  It gets really silly at times, and this goofiness works against its plot, which I thought was supposed to be an action thriller.

The attempts at comedy generally misfire, mostly because they’re not realistic.  The scene where Ethan opens the trunk to his car and tells the guy he has tied up in there to be quiet because he’s trying to talk to his daughter is supposed to be funny, but it misfires because it seems so fake.  Who says things like that?  A comedian, maybe.

Things get even sillier when Ethan keeps going back to this same guy for information about The Wolf, and these scenes are supposed to be humorous, but they’re not.  The worst scene with these two occurs when they’re having a conversation and they approach Ethan’s car, and I expected the guy to enter the passenger seat, but what does he do?  He actually steps into the trunk voluntarily.  Who does that?

In another scene, Ethan is interrogating a man who happens to be Italian, and in the middle of the interrogation, Ethan’s cell phone rings with his daughter’s ring tone.  This is a running gag in the movie, as it tends to ring at the most inopportune moments–another lame attempt at humor.  His daughter is looking for a spaghetti sauce recipe so she can cook dinner for her boyfriend.  Now, that’s realistic, a high-schooler cooking a gourmet meal for her boyfriend.  Yeah, right.

Ethan says to his prisoner, “You’re Italian.  Do you know how to make spaghetti sauce?”  He forces the guy at gunpoint to give his daughter the spaghetti sauce recipe.  Again, this is supposed to be funny, but it’s not.  It comes off as extremely goofy.

On top of this, the film also suffers from a bigger case of the “cutes.”  Ethan buys a bicycle for his daughter Zoey.  Aw, isn’t that cute?  Ethan teaches his daughter how to dance, and his wife Christine walks in and is so touched by the scene.  Aw, isn’t this even cuter?  Ethan literally picks up and carries his daughter out of harm’s way when she’s nearly assaulted in a nightclub.  Isn’t that the cutest?  Gag me!!!

The plot holes in this one are bigger than the pot holes on the roads in my neighborhood, and some of those pot holes are the size of Rhode Island.  Who is The Wolf? Why is the CIA so interested in killing him?  We don’t really know.  It’s mentioned early on that he funds terrorism or something like that, but that’s it.  You know what would have worked better?  Had we actually seen him do some of the things that make him a wanted man, but in this movie, we see The Wolf do next to nothing.  He’s also a very ineffective villain.  He knows Ethan’s identity throughout the film, and yet he can’t stop him.  He can’t stop one guy?

This movie would have been far more interesting if we knew why Ethan had to kill the Wolf.  What nefarious plot was the Wolf hatching?  I have no idea.  I do know that Ethan bought his daughter a bicycle.

(MA’s cell phone rings.)

Excuse me while I take this.  (Speaks into cell phone.)  Hello?

WOMAN’S VOICE:  You must keep your end of the bargain.  The fate of the free world is in your hands.

MA:  I told you, you have the wrong guy!

WOMAN’S VOICE:  If I have the wrong guy, then why did you answer his cell phone?

MA:  I— I don’t know.

WOMAN’S VOICE:  You have to kill him.  He’s on his way.

MA:  Who is?

WOMAN’S VOICE:  The Bunny!

MA:  You want me to kill someone named the Bunny?  I can’t take any more of this.  (shuts off his cell phone.)

That woman is crazy.  Okay, back to the review.

Why is this movie taking place in Paris?  The only reason it seems to me is so we can see some picturesque shots of the City of Love, and I can’t take that away from the movie.  Paris looks great, but other than the fact that Ethan supposedly transferred there to be close to his estranged family, the location has no relevance.  And isn’t it a happy coincidence that this A-List villain The Wolf who must be killed at all costs just happens to live in Paris as well?

This is not to say I hated 3 DAYS TO KILL.  There were some parts that I liked.  For example, I really enjoyed the scenes where Kevin Costner’s Ethan was being a bad ass.  In these scenes, the humor works, because it’s not silly or cutesy.  When Ethan can barely stand up due to his illness, and yet he can still single-handedly wipe out a group of assassins, as in one scene where Ethan’s lying there barely alive, and a guy he just shot off the roof falls on the ground behind him with a huge thud, that was funny.

It’s also hard not to laugh when the sound effects for Ethan’s punches when he beats ups his adversaries are so exaggerated I half expected to see the words POW!  and BAM! appear on screen.

The one subplot I did enjoy was the plight of the squatter family inside Ethan’s Paris apartment.  He returns home to find a family living in his apartment and to his chagrin learns that the law protects these folks during the winter months, and so he just is going to have to live with them.  The relationship between Ethan and this family, especially the young boy who looks up to him, is one of the more refreshing and sincere parts of this otherwise convoluted film.

I also liked Kevin Costner’s performance.  It was good to see him back on the screen as a lead character.  He makes a convincing tough guy, and plays Ethan like an aged and very ill Jason Bourne.  However, he’s stuck in the sickly sweet plot of daddy gets to know daughter, which did nothing for me and didn’t do him any favors.

(There is suddenly loud coughing from behind MA.  A man taps MA on the back.

MAN (coughing):  Give me your cell phone.

MA:  My cell phone?

MAN:  It’s mine.  Here’s yours (hands MA his cell phone.)  I switched them when I bumped into you this morning.

MA:  Well, that explains the woman calling me earlier.  Why did you switch them?

MAN:  So The Bunny couldn’t trace my whereabouts.  Give me my phone now.

MA:  Sure, you can have it.

(The Man suddenly has a huge coughing fit and collapses to the ground.  Dead.)

MA:  Hmm.  That’s not good.  (Cell phone rings.)  Hello?

WOMAN’S VOICE:  The Bunny is on his way!  You have to kill him.

MA:  Look, your guy just showed up, the guy who you think I am, but I’m afraid you have a problem.  See, I think he just died on you.

WOMAN’S VOICE:  Dammit!  Then it’s up to you.  You have to kill The Bunny!

MA:  Let me finish with my review first, and then I’ll get back to you.  (Shuts off his cell phone.)  Kill the Bunny!  Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous?

(From afar, comes the operatic voice of Elmer Fudd)

FUDD:  Kill the Rabbit!  Kill the Rabbit!

MA:  That was weird.  I gotta finish this review and get the hell out of here.

Amber Heard as Vivi doesn’t fare as well.  She really isn’t in the film all that much, and to me, that’s all you need to know about what’s wrong with this movie.  You have Amber Heard as a major character, and you choose not to utilize her, instead spending time on Ethan’s family?

As a result, we know little about Vivi’s background, motivations, or goals, and she comes off as a completely one-dimensional character.  She’s as lifeless as a still photo.  She makes a gorgeous still photo, but I’d rather she were a gorgeous three-dimensional character.

Heard’s Vivi is constantly coming on to Costner’s Ethan, and he’s constantly ignoring her— yeah, that’s believable!— telling her that he’s not interested in her.  See, this is supposed to make Ethan admirable, because what he’s saying here without really saying it is that he’s not interested in Vivi because he’s only interested in his estranged wife, but the problem with this is he’s so disinterested in Vivi, that Costner and Heard share no onscreen chemistry at all.  This film completely wastes Amber Heard’s sex appeal.  It also makes Costner’s Ethan seem like a corpse.  Amber Heard is coming on to you, and you have absolutely no reaction?  Are you kidding me?

 

It also doesn’t help that Heard has some of the worst lines in the movie.

Hailee Steinfeld is fine as Ethan’s daughter Zoey, but unfortunately her character is very cliché.  I’m growing tired of these “single father has to handle tough teenage daughter” storylines.  Steinfeld fared much better as Mattie Ross in the remake of TRUE GRIT (2010).

And I liked Connie Nielsen as Ethan’s wife Christine.  There was something very sincere and sensual about her, something that was completely absent from Amber Heard’s character.  I could easily see why Ethan loved her so much.  But what I didn’t like was the way the script handled her.  When we first see her, she seems to hate Ethan, and doesn’t even want to talk to him, let alone see him, but as the movie goes along, she’s ready to fall in love with him all over again.  Really?  I didn’t buy it.

Eriq Ebouaney is excellent in a small role as Jules, the father of the squatter family inside Ethan’s home.  He may have given the best performance in the entire movie.  The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, especially the villains.

3 DAYS TO KILL can’t make up its mind whether it’s a comedy or a thriller.  It should have stuck with being a thriller, because the comedy doesn’t work. It reminded me a lot of a similar muddled film, the Robert De Niro drama/comedy THE FAMILY (2013), which comes as no surprise because screenwriter Luc Besson wrote both movies.  After seeing both of these films, I think Besson needs to work on his comedic skills.  Besson is an experienced writer with lots of credits, however, so maybe he’s just in a mini-slump or something.  After all, he wrote the Liam Neeson hit TAKEN (2008).  Then again, he wrote its disastrous sequel TAKEN 2 (2012) as well.

3 DAYS TO KILL was directed by McG.  I’m sorry, but he sounds like a McDonald’s burger. McG also directed TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009) a film I liked much better than this one.  In 3 DAYS TO KILL, McG does capture some picturesque shots of Paris, and he does handle the Kevin Costner action scenes very well, but the trouble is there aren’t enough of them as the movie spends far too much time on the “getting to know his daughter” plot.  3 DAYS TO KILL would have been much better had it jettisoned its teenage daughter subplot, built up the Amber Heard character, and given the villains something to do.

Kevin Costner acquits himself well as the aging assassin/CIA agent, and Amber Heard in spite of playing a poorly written character is still Amber Heard.

I give it two knives.

(Screaming erupts from all around MA.)

VOICE:  It’s the Bunny!

(MA turns to see people fleeing from a person in a fluffy white Bunny costume.)

MA:  You have got to be kidding me.

(BUNNY pulls out a sharp carrot and starts waving it at people.)

MA:  Hey!  Hey, you, Bunny!  What’s your problem?

(BUNNY stops and points to himself.)

MA:  Yeah, you.  Do you see any other Bunnies around?  What the hell are you doing?  Knock it off!

(BUNNY stares down MA.)

MA:  I’m about to be attacked by a Bunny.  I’ll never live this down.

(Cell phone rings.)  Hello?  Yeah, he’s standing right here.  Any ideas?  Okay, that’ll work.  She wants to talk to you.  (Hands cell phone to the Bunny.)

(The BUNNY puts the phone to its ear.  There is a huge explosion, and the Bunny is blown to bits.)

MA:  Well, we were due for an explosive ending.  See you all next week when L.L. Soares returns, and he and I review another new movie.

(MA exits café as BUNNY body parts fall from the sky.)

—END—

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2014) Reboot Borders on the Ridiculous

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Jack-Ryan-Shadow-Recruit-Poster

Here’s my review of JACK RYAN:  SHADOW RECRUIT (2014) which went up earlier this week at cinemaknifefight.com.  Remember, if you like to read about movies, check out cinemaknifefight.com where you’ll find new movie content posted every day.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

MOVIE REVIEW:  JACK RYAN:  SHADOW RECRUIT (2014)

By Michael Arruda

 

Let’s get all the baggage out of the way first. 

 

With the exception of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990), a film that starred Alec Baldwin as Tom Clancy’s CIA operative Jack Ryan, I haven’t really liked any of the other “Jack Ryan” movies.  I’m not a big fan of PATRIOT GAMES (1992) or CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER (1994), the two films in which Harrison Ford played Jack Ryan, nor was I all that thrilled by THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (2002) which starred Ben Affleck as Ryan.

 

That being said, I do like Chris Pine, as well as Kenneth Branagh who both directed and played the Russian villain in this one, and so I was actually looking forward to seeing this movie, even if I didn’t have the highest hopes for it.

 

JACK RYAN:  SHADOW RECRUIT (2014) is a “re-imagining” of Clancy’s character as this Jack Ryan comes of age during the events of September 11, 2001.  The film opens with Ryan (Chris Pine) at college seeing the events of September 11 unfold on the television screen, and it’s shortly after this that he enlists in the military to serve his country. 

 

He soon finds himself in Afghanistan where his helicopter is shot down and he suffers a devastating back injury.  Lucky for him, he’s nursed back to health by a beautiful young intern named Cathy (Keira Knightley), who he eventually becomes engaged to.  He’s also noticed by a CIA operative Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who was so impressed by Ryan’s brilliant dissertation on U.S./Russian relations that he practically recruits Ryan on the spot. 

 

The action jumps to present day with Ryan now working for the CIA.  Of course, no one knows this other than Harper, and Ryan’s cover is that he works on Wall Street keeping an eye out for international financial abnormalities that might lead to the next big terrorist attack.  He finally finds one, as he spots suspicious financial behavior by a powerful Russian businessman named Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh).

 

Since Jack Ryan is the hero of this movie, he’s the one sent to Russia to investigate Cherevin, since supposedly there’s no one else in the CIA better suited for this mission than Ryan.  Really?

 

Once in Moscow, Ryan finds out firsthand that Cherevin is indeed a dangerous man, as an attempt is made on his life almost immediately.  Undeterred, Ryan uncovers evidence of a major terrorist plot against the United States, and of course, it’s up to him to stop it.

 

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT features some decent acting performances by its main players, but its storyline of a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack borders on the ridiculous.  It’s also not the easiest story to get excited about, as the bulk of Ryan’s investigation revolves around numbers and financial information that simply isn’t all that compelling.  It’s hard to get all that riled up about money being manipulated online.

 

I did enjoy Chris Pine as Jack Ryan, as he effortlessly falls into the role and makes Ryan an easy guy to like.  Pine’s energetic performance is the best part of the movie.  He makes Ryan a believable hero.

 

Kevin Costner runs hot and cold as CIA operative Thomas Harper.  There are times when he comes off as smooth and covert, and other times when he’s trite and sappy.  Keira Knightly is okay as Ryan’s fianceé Cathy, and while she gets to be more than just a token female victim for Ryan to save, her cool levelheadedness in the face of mortal danger comes off as unrealistic and phony.

 

Kenneth Branagh sports a fake Russian accent as the main baddie Viktor Cherevin and in spite of looking menacing and angry throughout proves to be a rather ineffective villain.  Jack Ryan outwits him and outplays him with ease, and for a seasoned mogul like Cherevin to be undone by a young whippersnapper like Jack Ryan on his first job in the field was somewhat of a disappointment.

 

Alec Utgoff is effective as a young Russian agent who is the most formidable opponent Ryan faces in the movie, but he’s not in the film enough to make that much of an impact.  There’s also a brief appearance by Nonso Anozie who plays Renfield on TV’s DRACULA, and he gets to enjoy a memorable fight scene.

 

The film gets off to a slow start, especially the pre-credits sequence which seems to go on forever.  The credits don’t start until well after the ten minute mark.  Things pick up once Ryan gets to Moscow.  There are a few neat fight sequences and chase scenes, but none that I would consider intense.  Director Kenneth Branagh has made a very polished looking film, but it could certainly have benefitted from more intensity.

 

The script by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, based on characters created by Tom Clancy, did not wow me.  For starters, the actual story— a Russian plot to use a terrorist attack to destroy the U.S. economy— did nothing for me.  It seemed farfetched, a roundabout way to go about bringing down the U.S. economy.  It’s also not an easy story to like.  When Jack Ryan starts talking numbers to his boss Thomas Harper, giving him the details of what Viktor Cherevin is up to, I wanted to fall asleep.

 

There were also some forced plot points that I simply didn’t buy.  For example, young Jack Ryan is the best guy the CIA has to send to Russia?  Really?  He has no experience in the field!  You’re telling me there’s no one else better suited for the job?  I found that hard to believe, and it seemed very forced, just an excuse to build a story around Jack Ryan.  There’s a running gag in the movie where Ryan will say something like “have your guy go here,” or have him do that, and then he reads his boss’ face and says, “I’m the guy, right?”  After seeing this movie, you’d think the CIA has nobody worth their salt working for them.

 

There’s also a ridiculous scene over dinner with Ryan, his fiancée Cathy, and Viktor Cherevin.  First off, the set-up is incredulous.  Cherevin invites Ryan to dinner and tells him to bring Cathy, and Ryan wants no part of this because it’s too dangerous, but his boss Harper insists Cathy go with him so that Cherevin’s not suspicious, even making her a part of the ruse their pulling with Cherevin, going so far as giving her a role at the dinner table, even though she has no experience and is a civilian.  And of course, she pulls it off brilliantly.  Really?  She’s a doctor not a secret agent!  I just found this difficult to swallow.

 

Early on, a big deal is made of Ryan’s back injury.  Will he ever walk again, Harper asks?  Yet later, Ryan’s running around fighting off assassins like he’s Jason Bourne.  So much for consistency.

 

The ending is also rushed, as Ryan and the CIA’s efforts to thwart a terrorist attack in New York City happen so quickly it is simply not as suspenseful as it could have been.  After watching an entire film about an unnamed threat, once it’s exposed, the race to stop it is anticlimactic because it’s a sprint not a marathon.

 

These faults come as a big surprise because screenwriter David Koepp has some pretty impressive credits, including having written the screenplays to JURASSIC PARK (1993), Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN (2002), and Steven Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005), three films I liked a lot.  But he also penned SECRET WINDOW (2004) and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008), two films I did not like very much.

 

Well, my favorite Jack Ryan movie remains THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, and I’ll let you in on a little secret.  I liked that one so much not because of Jack Ryan, but because of the presence of Sean Connery as the renegade Soviet submarine commander Marko Ramius.

 

That being said, I was certainly impressed by Chris Pine as Jack Ryan in JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT, and should they make any more of these movies, I could easily see him returning to the role.  Let’s just hope it has a better story.

 

I give JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT two and a half knives.

 

—END—