Tough Luck is one of long forgotten low budget crime drama mystery flicks that always contain the same key elements: a seductive femme fatale, a young drifter caught up in sensual intrigue, the jealous older husband/lover, all gilded by lies and the vague threat of violence, which is always inevitable. The loner here is Norman Reedus as a young grifter who comes across a travelling circus run by gypsy Armand Assante and his darkly angelic wife (the stunning Dagmara Dominczyck). He gets close to the two of them, too close to her and eventually the kind of sparks fly that often result in danger and deceit. Reedus made this same movie years prior, except it was called Dark Harbour, was set in the Pacific Northwest instead of the Oklahoma dust bowl and he starred alongside Polly Walker and Alan Rickman instead. That goes to show that the traditions and tropes of this sub-genre are as old and intrinsic as the routines in the circus Assante owns here. There’s a shifty quality to all three leads here, all seemingly unlikeable until the mournful third act plays out and we see which one really deserves our sympathy. Reedus always looks like a scrappy lost dog that’s seen a few back alley fights, he has the kind of natural magnetic charisma that you can’t fake. Assante is sometimes a long of ham in his work, but seems a bit more relaxed here and let’s the circus monkey on his shoulder do some of the talking. Dagmara is a true beauty, captivating the screen and making us really believe we’d fall under her dark spell while we’re hypnotized. Not a bad flick at all, and has some really good moments in the final act which gets quite grounded, sad and has a neat little twist.
There’s some debate on whether rappers are decent actors. Some think they have no place in a business that requires training and practice. Other are more accepting. I’m somewhere in the middle, but Breaking Point (aka Order Of Redemption) makes a pretty good case for them, particularly Busta Rhymes and Kirk ‘Sticky Fingaz’ Jones, who star in this urban crime/courtroom drama alongside genre veterans Tom Berenger and Armand Assante. This is a very solid flick by direct to DVD standards, one that actually says something about the state of the streets, poverty, evil, corruption and second chances. Berenger plays a once mighty defense attorney who has fallen a long way following family tragedy and drug addiction. He’s brought back onto the scene when an ex athlete turned gang member (Fingaz) is embroiled in a complex murder case involving an infant and the vicious, psychopathic crime boss played by Busta Rhymes. Igniting matters further is a hothead rival attorney (Armand Assante in full sleaze mode) who has it in for Berenger. He and Fingaz make a strong alliance and both try to find some light at the end of a very dark tunnel by saving the baby from Rhymes, smoking out corruption in both the police force and the DA’s office with the help of a friend on the inside (the always lovely and vastly underrated Musetta Vander) and get their lives back on track in the process. Berenger is brilliant as the fallen avenger trying to burn bright again, while Rhymes does a chilling variation on the cold hearted killer archetype with his own angry twist. This may be low budget and not very prolific, but they say that all you need for a good film is a good script, and this has an excellent one that’s brought to life vividly by everyone involved for a bristling, provocative, emotional crime drama.
This film might not seem like a big deal to you. It could merely appear as another throwaway action flick on your regular streaming service – one that you glance at out of curiosity, and then move on. But I really loved SHOWDOWN IN MANILA, and here’s the reason why . . .
Once, a long time ago, in the age of wonder, they were these glorious palaces that we called, Video Stores. They were a veritable treasure trove for cineastes of all ages to come and get their movie-fix. They housed the cinema of the ages and best of all, there would be movies you could find there, that hadn’t played at a cinema near you.
These were the titles that were made specifically for this new medium of VHS. Like the drive-in before it, these stores needed product. Thus a new genre was born, and it was called Straight-to-Video. What arose were glorious movies, some of which, sadly, died along with their era. Awesome were the sci-fi, the horror, and specifically speaking now, the action movies that would appear on the shelves. And such action. Real, intense, dynamic and always in frequent supply. It was good versus evil in all its glory – the villains wore dark shades and the heroes carried big guns. So, it was while watching SHOWDOWN that I was hit by this wave of nostalgia, engulfed by memories of the golden age of home entertainment.
The plot of the film is simple. But isn’t that true of the best action flicks? The package is a beautiful cocktail of old and new, peppered with filmmakers wishing to deliver a splendid throwback, mixed with the stars that climbed to the dizzying heights of VHS stardom.
For those who know what I’m talking about, and even those that don’t, I say, go check out this little gem that is cut from the past, and at the same time, is polishing by the future. So, here now, I present a trio of interviews with the film’s stars Alexander Nevsky(The man on the rise), Matthias Hues(The action legend), and the man responsible for that important seed from which all great cinema grows, the script, Craig Hamman(the veteran screenwriter).
Alexander Nevsky is a Russian bodybuilder, actor, writer, producer. His life changed when he saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron and that spark would light the fire which continues to burn bright. In 1994 Nevsky graduated from State Academy of Management (Moscow). In 1999 he moved to California. He studied English at UCLA and acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. He has risen from a bit-part-player to an international action star the cannot be ignored. With his imposing intensity, versatility and personal drive, Alex, I believe, is poised to enter the arena of formidable action superstars – its only a matter of when.
Matthias Hues is a German-born actor and martial artist as well as being an action movie icon. He came to L.A. not knowing how to act or even speak English. The fateful moment would come when he joined Gold’s Gym and the establishment’s manager received a call from a producer who had just lost Jean-Claude Van Damme for his movie and needed a replacement. Matthias tested for the role, and he managed to convince the producers to give him the part despite having no prior acting experience. The movie, No Retreat, No Surrender 2, was a moderate success, but it opened the door. He is, of course, most recognized for Dark Angel, but has also played everything from a gladiator turned private investigator in Age of Treason to an aging hit-man in Finding Interest to a bumbling idiot trying to kidnap a rich kid in Alone in the Woods to a dancing lion tamer in Big Top Pee-wee. He’s even played a Klingon general in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Craig Hamann came up alongside another young aspiring filmmaker whose work would go on to define a generation. When he and Quentin Tarantino embarked upon the journey to make their own movie, My Best Friend’s Birthday, there was no telling then, where the road would lead. Well we all know where Quentin ended up, but Craig too has enjoyed a long and prosperous career that has been anything but ordinary. He’s a writer, former actor, that has watched the industry ebb and flow. He’s directed Boogie Boys, had encounters with Demonic Toys and of course, of late, he’s been a part of an action-thriller in Manila. Craig has other projects in the works, and with the company he keeps, these efforts are, I’m sure, set to explode and entertain. Yet he remains a humble gentleman with a passion for his work and a dedication that has seen him endure as a great veteran of the movie business.
Mirror Wars: Reflection One is a miserably bad, slipshod Russian produced Top Gun/Bourne Identity clone that seems to exist only so three genre heavyweights can collect a nice little paycheque. The fellows in question are Malcom McDowell, Armand Assante and Rutger Hauer, and the trio grimace their way through grade school dialogue plus a nonexistent, comatose plot line, surrounded by Russian no name ‘actors’ who do anything but perform decently. Everyone here is some sort of clandestine spy or cloak n’ dagger federal heavy, all out to get a cutting edge self flying aviation AI program implemented in fighter jets, or at least that’s what I got out of it. McDowell is a sinister nutjob who plans to steal it or something, with surprising stunt agility for a dude his age. Assante is some bumbling, overzealous law enforcement pazzi who traipses all over Eastern Europe doing not much of anything, while Hauer is a mystery man literally credited as ‘Mysterious Man’, some all powerful spook who pulls the strings on everyone. The main flub here is dubbing, as in whoever they brought in to lay English voices over those of the Russian actors, because they sound like deaf people with mouths full of maple syrup, and that’s no exaggeration. At least hire a few competent VO artists to lay in some English bars so the pitiful few people who actually give this thing the time of day (myself included, sadly) can understand the badly written dialogue. But no. Aside from the three legged table of wasted talent that Hauer, Assante and an especially gamy McDowell provide, this ones for the dogs.
What’s the best way to raise awareness about climate change and the melting of the polar ice caps? In The Steam Experiment, it’s to lock a bunch of people in a swanky new spa and steam room and crank up the heat until they start to panic and suffocate, of course. Well at least according to half mad scientist Val Kilmer, it is. Tired of his global warming research being rejected and scoffed at, he comes to some fairly… extreme conclusions as to what should be done, and actually goes through with his plans, the absolute madman. Setting his experiment under the pretence of a high end spa getaway for a few lucky contest winners to test out his brand new prototype ‘ultra spa’, he shuts them all in and threatens to turn that heat dial up wayyy past safety standards and boil the poor suckers alive inside, if the local paper doesn’t publish his material for all to see. Radical? Yes. Ridiculous? Definitely. It makes for one shit show of a film though, and awful one, no doubt, but pretty legendary just for being able to boast a plot line in which Val Kilmer kills people with a steam room. One of the unwitting participants in this sick charade is Eric Roberts, who seems equally terrified of being trapped in this type of mucky film as he is of being stuck in the room itself. An irritating police detective played by Armand Assante hunts Kilmer down and tries to talk him out of carrying his steamy threats through to their sweaty end, but old Val is stubborn as a mule, and keeps that heat coming on, as fast and hard as the cliches, stale cookie dialogue and eyebrow raising plot turns. He approaches the role cloaked in near catatonic depression, reaching a point where he’s not even sure what he’s doing anymore, giving the film a feeling of trailing off into an aimless, clamouring conclusion where no one knows what’s up, and Assante won’t stop laughably grilling him for answers and mugging the camera, that enthusiastic Italian mess of a man. A pressure cooker of mediocrity, a disaster that ends melting down just as hard and fast as those ice caps that cause poor Val such sociopathic anxiety. Did I use enough puns in my review?
Ah yes, the 90’s version of Judge Dredd, featuring a hopped up Sylvester Stallone as the titular comic book lawman. There is so much hate floating around for this flick that I feel like radios have picked up some of it right out of the air. There used to be a lot more loathing, but then the 2013 version graced our presence, and it was so good, so true to the source material and such a kick ass flick that the collective bad taste left the fan’s mouths, leaving this version somewhat forgotten and to many people, for good reason. But.. but… bear with me for just a moment, readers, and I’ll tell you why it’s not as bad as it’s utterly poopy reputation. Yes it’s silly, overblown, altogether ridiculous and Stallone takes off his helmet to yell about the law a lot. Basically pretty far from the source material and weird enough to raise eyebrows in many others, and prompt the torch and pitchfork routine from fans of the comic series. But it’s also a huge absurdist sci fi spectacle that will blow up your screen with its massive cast, opulent and decadent special effects and thundering, often incomprehensible plot. It’s in most ways the exact opposite of the 2013 version, all the fat that was trimmed off of that sleek, streamlined vehicle is left to dangle here, resulting in a chaotic mess that looks like a highway pileup between Blade Runner, Aliens and some Roger Corman abomination. But.. is it terribly unwatchable? Not in the least, or at least not to me. Like the highway pileup, it’s so off the rails that we can’t help but gawk in awe, and if we’re not some comic book fan who is already spiritually offended to the core by it, even enjoy that madness and lack of any rhyme or reason in it. Stallone uses his bulk to inhabit the character, and infuses a level of stagnant processed cheese to his dialogue that would be distracting if it weren’t for the electric blue contact lenses he sports the whole time, which look like traffic lights designed by Aqua Man. He’s embroiled in one convoluted mess of a plotline involving a former sibling (a hammy Armand Assante with the same weird eyes). Joan Chen and Diane Lane fill out the chick department, the former being some kind of cohort to Assante, and the latter a fellow judge alongside Dredd. Dredd has two superiors, the noble and righteous “” (Max Von Sydow in the closest thing he’ll ever make to a B-movie), and the treacherous Griffin (a seething, unbridled Jurgen Prochnow). The cast is stacked from top to bottom, including a rowdy turn from James Remar who sets the tone early on as a rebellious warlord who is set straight by Dredd. Rob Schneider has an odd habit of following Stallone around in films where his presence is wholly not needed (see Demolition Man as well), playing a weaselly little criminal who pops up whenever we’re off marveling at some other silly character, plot turn or risible costume choice. Scott Wilson also has an unbilled bit as Pa Angel, a desert dwelling cannibal patriarch, and when one views his scenery chomping cameo, although no doubt awesome, it’s easy to see why he had his name removed from the credits. The whole thing is a delightful disaster that shouldn’t prompt reactions of hate, at least from the more rational minded crowd. Yeah its not the best, or even all that good, but it’s worth a look just for the sake of morbid curiosity, and to see an entire filmmaking, acting and special effects team strive way too hard and throw everything into the mix, forgetting that less is more as they pull the ripcord of excess. Sure I’m generous, but I’d rather be puzzled and amused rather than bitter and cynical when a lot of work still went into this and me as an average joe has no right to bring down artists when my greatest life accomplishments so far are riding a bike with no hands while I have a beer in one and check my phone in the other. Such silliness is what we find in this movie, and I gotta say I was tickled by it.
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.