Face/Off unquestionably represents the one time that Hollywood really got out of the way of action maestro John Woo and allowed him to go for broke with a big-budget and play on an R-rated playground of his patented poetic ultra-violence. I saw this film twice during opening weekend back in the summer of 1997 (19 years ago!), and over the years, I’ve watched it so often that most of it has been committed to memory. The film contains two of the juiciest movie-star performances of all time between John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, both hamming it up exceedingly well, delivering sympathetic and villainous turns, sometimes in the same scene, while getting a chance to flex their action star muscles, which had been respectively set in motion with 1995’s Broken Arrow (also directed by Woo) and 1996’s The Rock, from then-rising star and future genre overlord Michael Bay. The exceedingly high-concept story from Mike Werb and Michael Colleary must’ve resulted in a big script sale, as this was the sort of non-franchise action movie that used to get made before everything started to take on a homogenized, PG-13 flavor. Travolta is Sean Archer, an FBI Agent hell-bent on capturing or killing the terrorist Castor Troy (Cage, who was given one of the best movie character names I can think of), who inadvertently killed his son.
The film’s gorgeous and dreamlike opening sequence, all crafted without one line of dialogue, perfectly sets up the story, which breathlessly leads into the film’s first action set-piece, and then from there, the movie is like a rip-cord of over the top ideas and sequences, all done with zero CGI, featuring larger than life stunt men and women who were doing things that could have easily gotten them killed, all for our general amusement. A great supporting cast was on hand, with Joan Allen, Gina Gershon, Nick Cassavetes, Alessandro Nivola, Colm Feore, Harve Presnell (this guy’s post-Fargo credits are sort of obscene), John Carroll Lynch, C.C.H. Pounder, and a then-teenaged Dominique Swain all delivering solid work that tied the two, mega-wattage star turns from Cage and Travolta together. Woo went wild with his trademark double-fisted shoot-outs and bloody, operatic fight sequences studded with classical music, fluttering pigeons, and overall eclectic soundtrack choices (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” gets a very subversive workout), with results that often times resemble an elaborate dance. John Powell and Hans Zimmer teamed up for the pulse pounding musical score, while ace cinematographer Oliver Wood pulled out all the stops behind the camera, resulting in one of the best looking action movies ever crafted. I was totally obsessed with this movie back in the day, and upon revisiting, it’s not hard to see why. It’s absolutely awesome.
To this day it still amazes me how under appreciated and misunderstood Alien Resurrection is. The four films in the series are a quartet of vastly different stories, due to the fact that the torch was passed to four very diverse directors over the course of the legacy. Ridley Scott crafted a tense, claustrophobic catalyst. James Cameron made a rootin, tootin Wild Bunch set in a galaxy far far away where no one can hear you scream. David Fincher gave us an odd, inaccessibly disturbing thriller where the real monsters lurked inside the humans, literally. French Maestro Jean-Pierre Jeunet, best known for his own charmingly surreal quartet of distinctly European wonders Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, City Of Lost Children and Delicatessen, made the final film in the franchise. I once saw a post on IMDB which prompted users to describe each of the Alien films in one word. The one response that stuck with me was: Alien-suspense, Aliens-action, Alien3-unpleasant and Alien Resurrection-weird. Is this accurate? Depends on your opinion of the series. Resurrection is my second favourite, after Aliens. To some it was weird, to many a failure, but to me it’s a bona fide, rip roaring odyssey of gorgeous, gory design and offbeat ideas fleshed out by an absolutely legendary cast, headed up by Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. Two hundred years after she died, she is cloned using parts of the Xenomorph’s DNA, and kept sequestered on a titanic pseudo military ship run by whackos who have never heard of a certain expression involving curiosity and a cat. She awakens, the alien genes giving her a decidedly heightened awareness which Weaver plays with giddy, sinister glee. This ain’t the stalwart Ripley we are used to. Her eyes dance with an unearthly fire that pronounces ‘here be dragons’, in the spaces beyond science that humans foolishly venture into. The station is run by creepy, power hungry Dr. Mason Wren (underrated J.E. Freeman is almost ickier than the monsters themselves), and his sidekick Gediman, played by Brad Dourif in his final form, resembling a demented Pokemon who also raises more goosebumps than the aliens. The good doctor has commissioned a ragtag troupe of space pirates to bring him kidnapped humans in cryogenic sleep to be forcefully impregnated with alien fetuses. Lovely, right? This is where it gets interesting. Joss Whedon penned the script, and the crew of intergalactic badasses in this film are in fact the prototype for his endlessly successful TV series Firefly. Now, he claims that everything about the tone, delivery and execution of this film is wrong, and that the end result butchered his work. Here’s my take: I’ve seen Firefly. It’s good. But the team of space pirates in this movie are eternally more fascinating and worth spending time with. I feel that he really abandoned part of a great premise here, opting for a chipper, watered down version of a vision which presented itself to him and begged for further exploration. Firefly is fun, and it’s characters are a veritable Partridge Family of interplanetary characters to chill with, but it lacks the steel edged nastiness and grit that he began with here. Michael Wincott is a blast as the captain, Frank Elgyn, in a role that’s cut entirely too short but is aces while it lasts. Ron Perlman is a primate on earth and proves the same in space as Johner, the lovable lug of the crew. Gary Dourdan, the only black dude I know with blue eyes is Christie, with more than a few high powered tricks up his sleeves. Jeunet disciple Dominique Pinon plays wheelchair bound Riess, a tougher cookie than one might imagine. Lastly, Winona Ryder is Call, a doll with a pixie cut who takes an immediate shine to Ripley, leading them both to dark and dangerous places. Dan Hedaya makes lively work of Perez, the military honcho in charge, with Raymond Cruz, Kim Flowers and a shrieking Leland Orser rounding out the dream cast. As one might expect, all hell breaks loose in outer space as the creatures breed and hunt anything in their proximity. This provides loose cannon Jeunet with reason to fire off many a special effect that will give your gag reflex a workout and your pulse a solid pounding. There’s seriously gnarly stuff here, especially near the end with a certain fucking monster of an alien hybrid that acts as pure nightmare fuel while also being a bucket of fun at the same time. One of Whedon’s complaints was that his lighthearted script was given the heavy treatment, which obviously clashed with the vision he had. Fair enough. It was his baby after all. But for me though, it works bettering he ever planned. The characters maintain a sense of gallows humour laced with very real danger, garnished with cheeky levity in the face of unimaginable horror. That’s a good recipe to follow in any book I can think of. This one is ripe for redemption, certainly in the eyes of many who panned it upon release, and always ready for a revisit from myself.
LOW WINTER SUN came and went quickly but it packed a heavy gut punch. It was AMC’s remake of the BBC show of the same name that starred Mark Strong as Detective Frank Agnew. Strong reprises his role for the AMC remake. The show was a conventional, dark cop drama that lasted one season. Strong’s performance as the stoic detective put this show over the top, and Strong was able to show his range as an actor. He wasn’t just another archetypal cop, he was deeply layered. As the show ran its course, we would get glimpses into what made him the man he was.
The storyline was just as layered as Strong’s character. The show starts with his partner (played perfectly by Lennie James), killing a fellow detective, and staging it as a suicide. Agnew was coerced into this by his partner who had told Agnew that the detective they killed, had killed Agnew’s Russian escort of a girlfriend. The first shot we see of the show is a tight closeup on Strong’s face, he is looking into the camera with a tear streaming down his cheek. We can hear his thought: I am not a bad man.
The show progresses with multiple story arcs of police corruption, a young gangster on the rise, and Agnew’s “missing” girlfriend who was presumed dead. The show never overreaches, and all the story arcs are taut and perfectly executed. The build up pays off remarkably in the two part series finale. Strong, who played it calm and cool in the show, spirals out of control so fast, you can’t believe everything you are seeing in the final two episodes.
The first part of the series finale has a remarkable segment. Distraught, Agnew travels to see his ex wife, who we had previously knew nothing about. She’s remarried and has a kid. The latter is as a surprise to Agnew as it is to the audience. This is Agnew’s last stop. He’s lost control of the beast of a situation he helped create. He recounts to his ex wife their previous relationship. He remembering of their marriage is sweet and loving, something he holds very dear. His ex wife corrects him. She tells it like it was, not how Agnew re-remembered it. And there we have it, it’s all out on the screen, it’s the price that Agnew paid for his stoicism.
LOW WINTER SUN ends on a perfect note. While I would have loved to have seen a second season to see where the characters progress onward, the arc is neatly buttoned up, and Agnew’s season long journey has come to a close. This show is a slow burn. It’s brooding and dangerous, and Mark Strong gives the finest performance of his career in an amazing tour de force.
I’ve seen this film 150 times. I can’t help but watch it whenever I find it playing on one of the HD movie channels. It’s never not hysterical and amazingly entertaining. Shane Black and David Arnott’s endlessly witty screenplay, which was based on an original script/story by Zack Penn and Adam Leff, was WAY ahead of its time. Back in 1993 people weren’t interested in satirizing the action movie genre; if this film got released today (and not up against Jurassic Park!) it does a lot better than it did. Critics waited with sharpened knives for this one, and never even tried to give it a chance. Fine, the kid is annoying, but I think that was part of the plan – the character is one of many constructs that the filmmakers sought to deconstruct. Arnold is VERY good here – sly, self-effacing, totally in on the joke. John McTiernan’s muscular sense of action (lensed by the great Dean Semler) is on display the entire time, with some really awesomely over the top stunts and sequences. There are so many wonderful throwaway lines and moments in this film, and the endless cameos and absurd supporting cast really sealed the deal. The ending is so meta it almost hurts, Tom Noonan POWER galore, and Arnold WIPING HIMSELF CLEAN WITH GENERIC PAPER TOWELS after falling into the La Brea Tar Pits. The absconding of Leo The Fart’s body is a great (and very funny) action set-piece, and Charles Dance and Anthony Quinn were both terrific. Silly, smart, and totally fun.
Among the many genres prolific filmmaker Sidney Lumet has dabbled in, the one in which he excels and demonstrates the most affinity for is the crime thriller. In particular, he is fascinated with police corruption and how the law and order system works (or, in some cases, doesn’t work) in New York City. In the 1970s, he told the story of an undercover cop who deals with corruption among his fellow officers with Serpico (1973). In the 1980s, he depicted the plight of a police detective that informs on his cohorts after being busted himself in the magnum opus Prince of the City (1981). In the 1990s, Lumet tackled police corruption yet again but this time via the angle of racism with Q & A (1990). Based on the novel of the same name by New York judge Edwin Torres, Lumet’s adaptation received mixed reviews from critics and was largely ignored by audiences of the day. It has become something of a forgotten, underappreciated film in Lumet’s filmography and one that deserves to be rediscovered.
During the opening credits we see the rain-slicked streets of New York City through the back seat of a cop car. This sequence sets a nice, gritty tone and takes us on a mini-tour of the city where most of the film’s action takes place. However, Ruben Blades’ jarring song that plays on the soundtrack almost ruins it. I’m not quite sure what Lumet was thinking but it simply does not work here.
Lieutenant Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) is a dirty cop as evident from his introduction where he ambushes an unarmed Latino drug dealer, blows the guy’s brains out and then bullies two nearby witnesses into saying that the man had a gun in his hand. Assistant District Attorney Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is assigned to the case. His boss tells him that the incident is a cut and dry one. He is told that Brennan is a good cop – a little rough in his methods but all of his cases have been tried successfully with no appeals. Reilly is instructed to collect the facts with the help of a stenographer and present them to a grand jury. His boss instructs him that “the Q & A defines what really happened. If it’s not the Q & A, it didn’t happen.”
Reilly is eager to please and is impressed with Brennan’s imposing presence and reputation. The young A.D.A. questions Roberto “Bobby Tex” Texador (Armand Assante), a drug dealer and racketeer, who, along with his wife Nancy (Jenny Lumet), witnessed the aftermath of the murder. He refutes the theory that the gun was found on the murder victim. Reilly begins to suspect that something might not be right with the case. He is also faced with a personal conflict as he used to be involved with Nancy and still has feelings for her. Reilly soon realizes that’s he’s taken on more than he can possibly handle. Sidney Lumet pits Brennan, Bobby Tex and Reilly against one another, each with their own agenda and the film gradually heads towards an inevitable confrontation between the three men.
Nick Nolte is a lot of fun to watch as a larger than life cop. He sports slicked back hair and a thick mustache that threatens to overtake his mouth. There’s a memorable scene early on where his character recounts a story to some other cops about how a mobster gave him a hard time when he tried to fingerprint him that is hilarious and disgusting. The scene has an authenticity of a veteran that delights in telling old war stories to inflate his own ego. Nolte’s Brennan is a chatty guy that loves to tell stories of past glories as he tries to buddy-up with Reilly until the A.D.A. lets him know that he’ll go after the veteran cop if he finds out he’s dirty. Nolte’s whole demeanor changes in a heartbeat and it is quite exciting to see him go from jovial to threatening in the span of a few seconds. Brennan is as corrupt as they get and enjoys the influence he exerts and the power he wields. He uses fear and intimidation to get what he wants. Nolte put on 40 pounds for the role because he felt that the character required it: “just the sheer mass of brutality. I felt that would be the right kind of thing. He had to be on the edge of his own dissipation.”
Armand Assante is a force of nature as Bobby Tex, portraying the crook with an aggressive swagger and an intensity that is impressively conveyed in his eyes. During Reilly’s initial questioning, Bobby oozes casual confidence and Assante does a great job of conveying it. He also imparts a keen intelligence. Bobby isn’t just some two-bit street punk. He doesn’t even blow his cool when Luis Guzman’s cop gets all in his face. Bobby matches his intensity and it is great to see two skilled character actors go at it. Assante ups his intensity when he warns Reilly to stay away from his wife. He gives the A.D.A. a seriously threatening look that would have most people shaking in their shoes. It’s Bobby’s first appearance in the film and Assante makes quite an impression.
Up against two lead actors playing colorful characters, Timothy Hutton wisely underplays Al Reilly. His character may be young and new to the job but he knows the law as demonstrated when questioning a mobster by the name of Pesch (Dominic Chianese) and his lawyer (Fyvush Finkel) in rather confident fashion. At first, it appears that the slick mob lawyer is going intimidate Reilly but the young man expertly turns the tables with his intelligence. Hutton is good as the straight arrow A.D.A. that decides to take on a highly respected cop and in the process uncovers an intricate web of corruption. The actor avoids stereotyping by showing layers to his character through the revelation of his feelings for Nancy which affects his approach to the case. Reilly starts off as an idealistic person but over the course of the film, as he’s exposed to corruption, he gains experience and becomes savvier when it comes to how things work. Early on in Q & A, there is a revealing conversation he has with Leo Bloomenfeld (Lee Richardson), a veteran attorney that has clearly been working in the system for far too many years. He’s jaded and tells the eager Reilly how things really are, giving him a taste of the corruption he will witness first hand later on. To prepare for the role, Hutton went on squad-car runs with police officers in Manhattan in order to get an idea of the challenges they face on the streets. He said of the experience, “in many cases the hands of the officer on the street are tied.”
Lumet shows how close these cops are by the short-hand between them and the familiarity they have with each other. In the scene where Reilly questions Brennan about the homicide in a room full of cops, the director really captures the camaraderie among these men. The dialogue sounds authentic and is delivered by the actors in a way that is so natural you believe that they are these characters. Consummate character actor Luis Guzman has a memorable role as a homicide detective that first suspects the Brennan case is rotten. He has a memorable moment where he jokingly defends Brennan’s casual racism: “He ain’t no racist. He hates everybody. He’s an equal opportunity hater.” Even though this is said in jest, in actuality it’s not far off the mark.
However, in his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “great little scenes overshadow bigger, more important ones. Characters come and go at speed. Watching the movie is an entertaining ride, but when it’s over it’s difficult to remember where, exactly, one has been.” USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “Overkill ultimately wears Q & A down, despite two bravura performances and some Hutton understatement that’s adequate to the task. So, too, does unrelenting sordidness, a deadly love angle and a score (Ruben Blades) almost as awful as Cy Coleman’s sabotage of Lumet’s Family Business.”
One of the major themes Q & A wrestles with is racism. There is the casual kind between black, white and Latino cops and there’s the more damaging kind that resulted in the end of Reilly and Nancy’s relationship years ago. Racism informs a lot of the characters’ decisions and often motivates their actions. The film addresses racism in an honest way that you rarely see outside of a Spike Lee film. As he did with Prince of the City and later with Night Falls on Manhattan (1997), Lumet sheds light on how cops and crooks can be intricately linked and just how deep corruption runs in a sprawling metropolis like New York City. These films show how law and order works in fascinating detail and that feels authentic, much like the television show Law & Order does year in and year out.
Elegant. Cool to the touch. Brilliantly layered and carefully doled out. Possessing a quietly stylish veneer that stresses every single shade of brown imaginable. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the more literate modern spy films, directed with classy panache and extreme intelligence by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), and adapted from John le Carre’s celebrated novel by Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats). Released in December of 2011, the film wasn’t given the splashiest push by its distributor, and already feels underrated to a certain degree, despite excellent critical support. Set in 1970’s England, the dense narrative pivots on the actions of MI6 chief, Control (a magnificent John Hurt), who sends one of his best agents (Mark Strong, always persuasive and commanding) to rendezvous with a general from the Hungarian army who might possibly have information leading to the uncovering of a duplicitous Russian agent who has infiltrated the ranks of the British spy organization. Of course, the mission becomes compromised, leading to double and triple crossing, allegiance testing, and a general sense that anyone could be anything at any point.
An ex-British spook named George Smiley (a perfectly weathered Gary Oldman) is called in to weed out the potential mole, in an effort to stop leaked information finding its way into Soviet hands. Filled to the brim with fantastic supporting performances from a stellar ensemble cast including Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Stephen Graham, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik, Kathy Burke, and the always potentially sinister Simon McBurney, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hums along without any sense of forced narrative conceits or extraneous plot developments, keeping everything tight and smart. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) and composer Alberto Iglesias were in perfect aesthetic synch, with fleet editing provided by Dino Jonsäter. There isn’t one false step that this film takes, with everything leading up to a quietly powerful finale. Also, that scene at the airport on the tarmac with the plane landing in the distance and slowly taxiing its way up to the actors – ABSOLUTELY AMAZING.
Catch 44 lives in that lurid interzone of direct to video crime thrillers that have the budget for the bare boned minumum: guns, a few big name actors stopping by for a paycheck, and a hard boiled, often ludicrous tale of criminals, cops and sexy chicks knocking each other off for some unnatainable trinket of wealth. Here we meet three lively femmmes fatale: Malin Ackerman, Nikki Reed and Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll, the angel’s to Bruce Willis’s Charlie, in this case a sleazy criminal kingpin named Mel. He tasks them with intercepting a mysterious package that passes through a lonesome truckstop diner. All hell breaks loose when the shotgun toting owner (Shea Wigham) takes them off guard, and blood is shed. From there it all spirals into a mess of chases, strange pseudo artsy setups and the entire cast hamming it up royally as they essentially go nowhere fast. There’s Forest Whitaker who seems to have wandered in from the loony bin, playing a psychotic Sheriff who switches up his accent from scene to scene until we realize we are sitting there watching an Oscar winner warble out a choppy Tony Soprano impression and have to chuckle at the absurdity of it all. Willis has fun doing his nonchalant smirk to kingdom come and sporting a soul patch that steals his scenes before he gets a chance. There’s also an underused Brad Dourif as a confused highway patrolman who wanders in and out of the story. A lot of pulpy outings like this get accused of aping Quentin Tarantino’s style, and while that is often a lazy, bullshit critic’s cliche, here the claim is understandable and not necessarily a bad thing. The soundtrack is appropriately offbeat, the trio of girls have a Death Proof type cameraderie and Willis ambles through his scenes with a verbosity reminiscent of Pulp Fiction. The story is a little haywire and one wonders what the ultimate outcome even means, but it sure has a ball getting there in violent, kooky fashion.