Right off the bat I consider all the games in the Hitman franchise to be fantastic in different ways but if I had to pick a favourite it would definitely be 2012’s Hitman: Absolution, a gorgeously produced, star studded update on 2006’s Blood Money that draws us further into Agent 47’s shadowy world by adding new graphics, well drawn supporting characters and paying far more attention to storytelling as well as the trademark intricately structured missions. Some people felt (weirdly) that the in depth nature of story and larger than life villains here took away from the overall aesthetic, like made the vibe less atmospheric or something but for my money it just breathes so much life into the mythology and spurs on the evolution of these games from quiet, guarded and strictly atmosphere-based to verbose, witty and full of personality in every corner of the frame. The game opens as 47 finally tracks down and eliminates his former handler, that treacherous bitch Diana (Marsha Thomason), which he does and listens to her last dying wish as she begs him to protect a mysterious girl who holds the keys to his own past. This puts him on a dangerous ditch effort and collision course with his former agency, other clandestine factions and countless freelance killers for hire including and unbelievable army of sexy nuns with enough firepower to blow up a bridge. The big bad here is scumbag billionaire industrialist Blake Dexter, voiced by Keith Carradine in the kind of peacocking, purple-prose drenched, scenery chewing performance that demands the slow clap and has you hating him when you’re not laughing hysterically at his impossibly arch dialogue. He’s after the girl 47 is harbouring and he ain’t the only one. Powers Boothe (who really took advantage of video game work over the course of his epic career) is Benjamin Travis, an agency kingpin with a prosthetic arm, a nasty temper and the iron will of a megalomaniac. He’s assisted in his unholy quest by slinky head operative Jade, voiced by the underrated Shannon Sossamon. The cast is wonderfully dense and eclectic, with appearances from Vivica A. Fox, Adrienne Barbeau, Traci Lords, Jon Gries, Isabelle Fuhrman and the great Steven Bauer lending his leathery pipes to the role of Birdie, a terrifically untrustworthy underworld operative. The gameplay and graphics are flat-out fucking gorgeous, immersive and layered, perfectly speckled with lens flares where appropriate and crisp, tactile and detailed environments that feel lived in and carefully rendered. The actors here would usually find themselves sitting in their PJ’s in a cozy recording booth but here they’ve gone the extra mile and had them do actual motion capture work so that the performances feel authentic, fluid and dynamic. This for me is the pinnacle of the Hitman legacy so far, and hasn’t been topped since. Oh and as for the movies, they’re both so terrible and miss the mark of what makes this story so wonderful in the first place, Absolution is ten times more cinematic that both films combined.
John Carpenter’s The Fog is such a great campfire ghost story that it literally starts off with a campfire of its own, told by wistful sea captain John Houseman in a role that feels like it was meant for Donald Pleasance. He spookily regales a bunch of youngsters one cold coastal night: Long ago, a mysterious schooner crashed against the rocky landscape of Antonio Bay in a dense fog, for reasons slowly made clear. A century or so later, the fog returns, and those onboard come with it seeking revenge. Speaking of the coast, that vast, gorgeous California shoreline is a perfect backdrop and character all it’s own in Carpenter’s tale, the title credit appears over a picturesque beach, setting the ambience of the seaside region perfectly. Carpenter always values atmosphere and suspense above all else, his films have some of the most delicious slow burn setups out there, and the ethereal first act before the fog even shows up is one of the best extended sequences he’s ever done. As far as plot and character goes, the film has a cool Robert Altman vibe to its ensemble, from Hal Holbrook’s nervous priest, Jamie Lee Curtis’s plucky hitchhiking artist, Adrienne Barbeau’s sultry radio DJ and more, they all work in round-table fashion to get their stories across. They and others find themselves suddenly stranded in the approaching haze and hunted by silent, sword wielding zombie pirates who are more than a little pissed off that their boat crashed. The real treasure here is Carpenter’s original score, one in a long line of brilliant compositions. The main theme is a restless, jangly electronic cadence that feels both melodic and laced with doom, while quieter synth chords are infused with church bell cues elsewhere to bring the soundscape alive as only Carpenter can. This is a brilliant horror film, my third favourite Carpenter after Halloween and The Thing, and never fails to be as effective, chilling or beautiful to behold with each revisit as it was the first time I saw it.
John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is lean mean, brawny and one of the director’s best efforts, one of his leaps into non horror territory and a high concept, exploitation template that has become so iconic that he’s had to sue one production for literally copying and pasting. More iconic still is growling Snake Plissken, a nasty, uncooperative, maladjusted piece of work that has calcified into both a genre titan and one of Kurt Russell’s most instantly recognizable, badass characters. Plissken is basically a villain transplanted into the protagonist’s seat, where he gets to shake up the formula and push the boundaries of being an antihero nicely. By now everyone knows the story. The President (Donald Pleasence) ejects out of Air Force One and crash lands in futuristic NYC, now a giant penitentiary housing unwanted criminals from all over, cordoned off from the rest of the world. Snake is sent in by General Hauk (Lee Van Cleef is a sadistic snake in his own right) as a ‘fight fire with fire’ ditch effort, given twenty four hours to retrieve POTUS at an extraction point and implanted with a microchip that will blow him into hamburger helper if he doesn’t make his deadline. Cue explosions, car chases, wicked stunts and set pieces galore, done in Carpenter’s careful, tactile, authentic and slightly non-Hollywood manner. The guy just has a knack for taking formulaic premises and giving them a just-south-of-normal spin, his own flavour and one that makes cult classics that are built to last. Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, freaky Frank Doubleday, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins and good old Harry Dean Stanton all provide standout support. My favourite aspect of the film is the original score, composed by Carpenter himself, of course. It’s a spooky, atmospheric riff that’s akin to the music in The Thing, and just has this synth-y way about it that transports you to the specific time and place of the film flawlessly, it’s a showcase example of an auditory mood board. No remake could ever touch this, it’s too idiosyncratic and special to be updated, and the sooner studios realize their never ending goose chase to capture lightning in a bottle twice is a fool’s errand, the sooner we’ll get back on track and make original contemporary films that will becomes genre classics in the future, just like this. I love Plissken’s final act of brutal rebellion, a reminder that this is not a nice guy we’re dealing with here, but one who plays by his own rules and shirks the standards, much like Carpenter himself. I imagine Plissken’s reaction to news of a remake would be similar, if not more hotheaded, than that final, lethal sleight of hand prank he pulls on a government that stabs him in the back. Solid gold.