Tag Archives: action

S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete

Dragged Across Concrete is exploitation auteur S. Craig Zahler’s third feature film, and so far stands as his best. I use the terms auteur and exploitation vaguely here because neither can completely encapsulate what the man is doing with his work, the flavour he strives to bring us is so specifically distilled and perfectly see-sawed a recipe that there are really no pins to drop on the cinematic landscape or existing terms for it, and he may have pioneered something new entirely. He blared onto the scene with primal horror western Bone Tomahawk and followed it up with brutal flick Brawl In Cell Block 99, but Concrete is his most deliberate, suspenseful, heavily charismatic, thoughtful and entertaining piece yet.

Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are Ridgeman and Lurasetti, two sinewy older detectives prone to excessive force and bitter attitudes, until a particularly violent arrest lands them on a viral video and an unpaid suspension from their captain (Don Johnson in a delicious extended cameo). Feeling slighted by both the department and the civilians they’ve served for decades, they decide to tap into underworld contacts and win back some currency as they both have family problems that unemployment wouldn’t serve well. “We have the skills and the right to acquire proper compensation” growls Gibson through a muskrat ‘stache and eyes clouded with anger, and it’s easy to see why he’s miffed. The film is under vague fire for showing us two racist asshole antiheroes and while their actions in the opening collar sequence are extreme and not very nice, they’re not as played up, hateful or heinous as I’ve read some whiny reviews claim. These two are hard bitten jerks, but when the anvil comes down and we see the moral core of each laid bare, they are essentially decent guys who won’t stand by when real injustice rears it’s ugly head. It does too, in the form of nasty arch criminal Vogelmann (an icy, evil Thomas Kretschmann) after a tip off from an underworld contact (Udo Kier, all too briefly). They decide to try and score some mob loot just as ex con Johns (Tory Kittles) and his childhood buddy Biscuit (Michael Jai White) gang up with Vogelmann to do some criminal shit.

This film has its action scenes and close encounters but what really enthralled me is the patience it takes to show us stakeouts in real time and set up incident on its own clock. The two cops post up in their car, eat snack food, nap, banter and compare world views as they simply wait for their quarry to make his move. This is the kind of character cultivation and pacing that leads to investment in the story, so that when the payoff comes we are riveted. I’ve already spoiled too much because I just saw this and want to gab about it endlessly but it’s essentially a long, measured surveillance game followed by a chase and one knockout of a confrontation scene that’s insanely suspenseful and ducks many expectations we have given what we’ve seen so far. Gibson and Vaughn are just so great here, they eat up the dialogue like fast food served with fine wine, it’s Mel’s best performance in years and he owns it. Zahler has a way of writing that is like protein for the ears, a poetically rich timbre as if every character has several thesaurus’s on hand and uses rich, offbeat dialogue to place you right in the scene. Some will inevitably find it too purple or pretentious a script, but I love the way this guy writes. Further down the cast lineup we get turns from Zahler regulars Jennifer Carpenter and Fred Melamed as well as Laurie Holden, Cardi Wong, Matthew MacCaull and others.

My only one gripe is the ongoing and blatant use of Vancouver as other cities when it’s very clearly not. It’s supposed to be Bulwark here but they’re sat up there in Don Johnson’s office on like the twentieth floor somewhere in Coal Harbour with the whole Burrard Inlet visible and it’s like… get real, it’d be nice to see things filmed where they’re set for personality instead of just lazily using my city, but oh well. Probably not a gripe for most, but having grown up here it takes me out of the story just a bit when everything under the sun is recognizable. This has to be Zahler’s most complete and streamlined creative vision so far, a nasty gutter-ball genre piece that shows life in the inner city boiling over the pot into street violence, heists gone up in flames and good intentions shot to ribbons by high powered artillery. The best film I’ve seen so far this year.

-Nate Hill

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Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs

What kind of heist flick is it where we don’t even see the heist? The best kind. The Quentin Tarantino kind. Reservoir Dogs has aged incredibly well, it’s his leanest and meanest film to date and stands as the blood soaked crash course leading to the sustained, verbose historical epics we have come to know him for these days. Many consider Pulp Fiction to be his official breakout but the magic first took flight here on the outskirts of LA as a band of marauding jewel thieves in identical suits tries to smoke out a rat from their very midst. Like a bizarro world version of the Rat Pack, this profane, volatile murder of ex-con crows discuss Madonna, tipping waitresses, The Lost Boys and more before erupting together in a cascade of yelling and bloodshed that remains as exciting now as it no doubt was in the initial theatrical run. Dialogue runs the show here, whether between Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White and Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange, Chris Penn’s Nice Guy Eddie and his gangster father Joe (Lawrence Tierney) or Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde and whoever he’s decided to intimidate on a whim. Madsen gives the performance of his career early on and Blonde is a character for the ages, a self appointed psychopath who tortures an LAPD hostage (Kirk Baltz) more out of vague amusement than outright malice in a scene that has since been inducted into time capsules everywhere. When we meet these guys, they’re casually having breakfast in a greasy spoon diner, chattering on about everything under the sun except the jewel robbery they’re about to commit. It’s only after the stylized opening credits and the hectic aftermath of said robbery that Tarantino flashes back to scattered exposition and backstory for these guys, and it’s that kind of deliberate editing that has not only become a hallmark for the filmmaker, but keeps his stories so fresh and enthralling. The audience knows almost right off the bat who the rat is, but the fun is in observing paranoia levels rise in their ranks as they each begin to suspect the man next to them and turn on each other like a pack of hyenas in the Serengeti of industrial Los Angeles. From the iconic torture scene set to Stuck In The Middle With You to the tense Mexican standoff to the frantic escape and firefight with LA’s finest, this is one gritty slice of life crime piece that the years have been most kind to. Tarantino has evolved and adapted as his career has moved forth, but its always nice to come back to the scrappy little picture that started it all, see how it’s influenced countless other filmmakers over the decades and bask in the bloody, expletive filled, dialogue heavy bliss again every once in a while. An all timer.

-Nate Hill

Michael Bay’s Transformers

Because the Transformers franchise has become an unwieldy cloud of toxic waste over the years, most seem to have forgotten how enjoyable the first one was. Michael Bay gets an awful rap for these, and by all means he deserves any shade thrown his way for some of the sequels, but I’m still convinced they only got made to cash in on the massive Asian market, I’ve heard that stuff like this is huge over there. This first film is a little saner and a lot more focused though, with a sort of 90’s Amblin infused vibe crossed with big budget CGI disaster mayhem of our current era, which is par for the course in a film directed by Michael Bay, as are lens flares, a grossly backlit slow motion kissing scene, explosions, fetishistic attention to the details of military protocol, montages of various factions of Americana playing out and um…cameos from loud sassy African American actors. Based on the Hasbro toy of the same name as well as probably an animated show that came before it, Bay ramps up the scale, special effects, human characters and exposition to somewhat plausibly set the Autobots and Decepticons loose in our world, engaged in noisy warfare over the All Spark, a cube of untold power that looks not so distantly related to the Tesseract. Caught in the middle is Shia Lebeouf as Sam Witwicky, a nervous teen whose family history hides something related to the Tranformers mythology, naturally sending him and the obligatory super hot love interest (Megan Fox) on a wild goose chase of stuff blowing up. There’s also various military factions caught up in the squabble including intrepid soldiers Josh Dumahel, Amaury Nolasco and Tyrese Gibson, research scientists Rachael Taylor and Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight as the grave Secretary of defense, John Turturro in pure comic relief form as a hapless federal agent and uh… Bernie Mac too, as the world’s saltiest used car salesman. The Shia Lebeouf angle has a cool 90’s sort of Joe Dante vibe, right down to the presence of consummate 90’s dad Kevin Dunn, naturally playing Sam’s father. While it goes a little off the rails in a final battle that pretty much levels an entire city to the ground and numbs any sense of realism to a dull roar, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the film, especially in the special effects used to bring these mechanical goliaths to life. Bumblebee is always a fan favourite, Optimus Prime looks fantastic and Hugo Weaving brings the vicious Megatron to life nicely. Steve Jablonsky almost outdoes his score for Bay’s The Island here, giving a magisterial composition that’s large and loud enough to accompany the Transformers on their journey and fills the film with noise, as the does the Oscar nominated sound design. Like I said, the sequels have become an impossible wall of deafening, uncalled for noise in the years since and it’s a shame because this one gets tainted in people’s memory when it’s still a good time.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Lone Hero

Lou Diamond Phillips is an actor who’s never really impressed me much, except for this one. Lone Hero sees him headline a low key action B flick and steal the show as Bart, a nasty biker gang chief who rolls into a tiny Montana town with his boys, looking for nothing but violence and trouble. Here’s the cool thing about his performance: while many actors who have played evil bikers tried out the straight up savage, hotheaded route (which admittedly works if done right), Lou switches it up and plays the guy as a calm, free spirited scoundrel who although is an indefensibly scummy fellow, does it with a gleam in his eye and smile on his face. That’s a courageous choice for a villain role of this ilk, but it’s a great fit for him and his best work I’ve seen. Because this town oddly doesn’t seem to have any cops let alone a local Sheriff, it’s up to a few plucky locals to fight off the biker menace and take back their town. Sean Patrick Flanery plays a guy who isn’t necessarily a western cowboy hero, but plays one in a local tourist attraction and therefore must step up to the plate, and in a place as bereft of law enforcement as this burg, that’s what they’ll have to settle for. He’s joined by the great Robert Forster as an ageing frontier man who grabs his trusty rifle and starts blasting bikers all to hell alongside Flanery when things get rough. This is TV movie territory and nothing of consequence really jumps out at you, but the three actors make it a damn good little show, the banter between the them is genuinely fun stuff and acted well by all. Oh and like I said, Phillips makes it a Diamond of a performance, a true scene stealing villain in the spiritual energy of someone like Robert Downey Jr, I’d love to hear if anyone can think of a role he’s been better in. Good stuff.

-Nate Hill

Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks

Bruce Willis is the type of action hero who is never idealistic, chipper, optimistic or overtly upbeat. There’s always a sarcastic reluctance whenever he gets pulled into a gunfight, hostage situation or standoff and I think that’s the quality that has made him such an endearing star presence. In Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks he plays an NYC Detective named Jack Mosley, who is a burnt out, sardonic alcoholic who couldn’t give a shit about his job anymore, let alone the motor mouthed convict (Mos Def) he’s assigned to escort the titular distance to testify against some mob bigwig. Jack can almost be seen as the same Willis character we’ve been watching our whole lives but after all the others, a progression that has lead to this one portrayal where the archetype has just reached the end of his rope. It’s a wonderful performance from him and a strong, solid suspense thriller. Def’s character is an annoying, fast talking hustler who we just want to deck right in the face, but I suppose that’s kind of the point of him here so we can see Jack’s tolerance boil over and eventually warm up to the guy. There are forces aligning against them though, factions on both sides of the law that have stock in Def not making it those 16 blocks with his pulse still going, and Jack must dust off his old reflexes to take on what appears to be the entire New York City police force, along with a fellow detective and old friend who has gone rogue, played with affable menace by the always awesome David Morse. This is a terrific thriller with well drawn, relatable characters stuck in one shit show of a situation, it’s minimalist without being too low key and fired up without being overblown or silly. The photography by Glen McPherson makes great use of looming NYC architecture, narrow streets and artifices that could get shattered by a rain of bullets any second, and the exciting score by Klaus Badelt sets a nervous mood of urban menace while introducing Willis with a melancholy twang. This was Donner’s last film before going on apparently permanent hiatus and I’m not sure why, I’ve always loved his work and would love to see a comeback. Willis gets a lot of hype for guys like John McClane and Butch Coolidge who are definitely legends, but Jack Mosley is one of his best creations, a hard bitten boozer with a compassionate lining under the scruff and a brutal resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, it’s his version of Eastwood’s Ben Shockley in The Gauntlet and an underrated character in his canon. Great film.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Tamra Davis’s Guncrazy

Drew Barrymore has a few interesting, edgy credits early on in her career, one of which is Tamra Davis’s Guncrazy, a lurid little slice of run down, rural life on the outskirts of the big city, as well as civilization it seems. A ‘lovers on the run’ riff in the tradition of Bonnie & Clyde, True Romance and Natural Born Killer, it’s admittedly like the Miller Lite version of large scale films like them but still manages to pack somewhat of an offbeat punch. Barrymore is Anita, a restless adolescent whose humdrum existence in a dead end California town has led to promiscuous behaviour and self destructive tendencies, especially when her convict pen pal boyfriend (James LeGros) is released and joins her for some hell raising. She has a stepfather who’s abusive to her in a way that seems unnervingly normalized to the both of them, high school classmates who are nothing but trouble and a life that most would consider squarely placed on the wrong side of the tracks. The story sees the two of them pretty much fed up with everything, engaging in a murder spree that just won’t end well. It’s not too hot blooded or hyper violent though and there is nothing sadistic in what they do, in fact there’s an innate innocence to the way they view life, their crimes and morality in general, or lack thereof. Barrymore has always had star-power since day one, but she shows a maturity here as she gets older and a complex control over a role that could have been cartoonish. LeGros is an indie poster child and is so prolific he’s probably been in ten or twenty things you’ve seen but just didn’t spit him, he’s a straight up chameleon and does a good job here too. Michael Ironside shows up as his jaded parole officer and the great Billy Drago is cast rarely against type as the town’s local preacher who doubles as both a mechanic and a snake charmer, it’s a bear bit of character work from him and I always enjoy his performances. This film got really good reviews when it came out and caused a minor stir in indie land, which is interesting because I don’t find it all that noteworthy. Usually I’m that guy to champion garbage films based on a few aspects because I love obscure stuff, but this one is kind of your run of the mill cheapie made decent by Barrymore’s charisma. Good score too.

-Nate Hill

Tony Scott’s Man On Fire

Tony Scott’s Man On Fire is one of those films I can watch time and time again and never get tired of, a magnificently melancholy tale of south of the border justice, criminal intrigue and a tequila shot of pulpy, blood soaked style that gets me every time. It’s loosely based on a 1987 film of the same name starring Scott Glenn, Jonathan Pryce, Danny Aiello and Joe Pesci (there’s a random lineup) but Scott intrepidly branches off into new territory, and thank the gods for his vision. This was the first film where he really explored that sketchy smokehouse of an aesthetic that he would later take to angelic heights with Domino. Colors blur and saturate, editing rockets by with the force of a bullet in a storm, subtitles appear arbitrarily and seemingly of their own volition. It’s a jarring tool set that he employs, and many abhor it. I’m as in love with it as he was though, and whether to throw us right into the protagonist’s psyche or simply because he felt the need to paint his pictures this way, the rest of the films in his remaining career carried the DNA, in varying doses. Fire is the key word for this film, in many of it’s forms. There’s a smoldering ember in Denzel Washington’s John Creasy that is fed by the winds of corruption as the film progresses, erupting into a blazing inferno of violence and fury. Creasy is a broken man, haunted by the questionable, never fully revealed actions of his military past. “Do you think God will ever forgive us for what we’ve done” he grimly asks his old war buddy Rayburn (a scene stealing Christopher Walken). “No” Rayburn ushers back curtly. It’s at this heavy nadir we join Creasy, lost in a sea of alcohol and guilt, an unmooored ship with a shattered hull looking for both anchorage and repair. Rayburn hooks him up with a bodyguard gig in Mexico City, keeping the young daughter of a rich businessman (Marc Anthony, terrific) safe from the very real threat of kidnapping. Dakota Fanning is compassionate, precocious and endearing as young Pita, who spies the wounded animal in Creasy right off the bat and tries to make friends. Creasy draws back in reluctance, but eventually warms up. I love the pace of this film to bits. It spends nearly half of its hefty running time simply getting to know these two characters, forging a bond between them before the inciting incident even looms on the horizon. And when the kidnapping occurs, as it must, the stakes are high as can be and our investment level in the situation is paramount. Setting up character is so key, and Scott nails it with scene after scene of quiet and careful interaction. Then he yanks the lid off the pot, as Pita is snatched in broad daylight, Creasy is shot and the kidnappers vanish into thin air. Pita’s mother (a soulful Radha Mitchell) works with the dodgy Mexican authorities and her husband’s lawyer Jordan (a sleazy Mickey Rourke). Creasy has other plans. Once healed, he embarks on a mission of fury and vengeance, knocking down doors, removing limbs, inflicting gratuitous bodily harm and using every technique in his training (believe me, there are some interesting ones) to track down those responsible and get Pita back. Washington does all this with a calm and cool exterior, letting the heat emanate from every calculated syllable and intense glare. The descent into Mexico City’s criminal underworld is a grisly affair, and all sorts of ugliness is exposed, shredded through the caffeinated prism of Scott’s lens. Two cops do what they can to help Creasy, idealistic Guerrero (Rachel Ticotin) and battle hardened Manzano (the always awesome Giancarlo Gianninni). It’s Creasy’s show though, and he blasts through it like a righteous hurricane of blood and bullets. Scott’s films have a knack for ending in over the top, Mexican standoff style shootouts, but the man subverts that here, going for something far more sorrowful and atmospheric, ending an intense tale on notes of sadness and resolute calm, gilded by the aching tones of songstress Lisa Gerrard and composer Harry Gregson Williams. Walken provides both comfort and catharsis, the only beacon of hope for Creasy other than Pita. Unlike John, Rayburn has moved on from the horrors of their past, but one still sees the trauma in his soul when he looks John in the eye and gets hit with what is reflected back. Tough stuff to get right, but hey, it’s Walken we’re looking at here, and he’s brilliant. Rourke has little more than an extended cameo, but his flavor is always appreciated, and he’s great too. I had no idea Anthony had the chops he exhibits here, but I loved his arc as well and he holds his own in a blistering confrontation with Creasy. Washington is an elemental beast, shadowing what’s left of his humanity under a cloak of booze and brooding contemplation, until he’s coaxed out by the life saver Pita is. Then he’s a lion, riding guns out into a ferocious swan song of a sunset that may just hold rays of redemption for him. This is Scott at his best, his unique brand of storytelling at its height, his creative juices a canister of lighter fluid set aflame with genius and innovation. A masterpiece.

-Nate Hill