Tag Archives: Crime

Gela Babluani’s 13

Many directors remake their own films, with varying results. But some foreign made stuff just doesn’t translate well into Hollywood from its more abstract, Euro-centric sensibilities and unfortunately Gela Babluani’s 13 falls victim to that, and hard. You can gloss it up all you want with studio dollars or cast as many heavy hitter actors to pad the lining, but if you do the shot-for-shot thing and ape what you did the first time around, it can just feel weird, awkward and unbecoming. I’ve never seen the original film (also called 13) but I could just simply tell by the structure and tone here that Babluani tried to literally translate his initial piece and the results are just plain bizarre.

This story tells of a super scary underground Russian roulette competition in which handlers enter mentally unstable rejects into an intense round robin of revolvers to the head, with maniacal sports commentator Michael Shannon playing ringmaster and chewing more scenery than he did in The Shape Of Water, which is really saying a lot. Sam Riley, an actor I’ve always greatly admired and seen as underrated, plays a young dude who’s down on his luck and enters this ordeal not fully knowing what he’s up against. The thing here is that several standalone aspects really do work and are interesting, but they’re too episodic and disjointed to pulley the film together into something that makes sense and doesn’t feel cobbled together from used parts. Mickey Rourke is terrific as a jaded ex-con competitor who’s just looking for a way out, but he classes up anything he’s in as a given. Jason Statham plays a posh handler whose fighter (Ray Winstone, also great) is an unhinged lunatic. 50 Cent is also there because I’m pretty sure there’s some clause in low budget genre films where he has to appear in every third one or something (seriously, look at his IMDb). The great Ben Gazzara turns up, obviously wracked with the illness that would end him a few years later, but you’ve gotta hand it to the guy for showing up at all given his condition. Others are around including Alexander Skarsgard, David Zayas, Wayne Duvall and Emmanuelle Chriqui but they’re mostly lost in the shuffle.

The scenes of Russian roulette are intense enough but not too affecting because we don’t give a shart about the characters, apart from perhaps Rourke. This ain’t no Deer Hunter in terms of scenes like that. Your best bet is to check out the original I suppose, which I still have to do. This one has a fantastic cast who are all just tossed to the wind in a flurry of shoddy editing and suspiciously slapdash storytelling. Shame.

-Nate Hill

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Peter Medak’s Romeo Is Bleeding

Somewhere out there in an anguished desert enclave along one of the many desolate stretches of American highway is Jim Dougherty (Gary Oldman), stranded in exile at a lonely rest stop cafe as Peter Medak’s brilliant, haunting neo-noir Romeo Is Bleeding opens.

Jim, as we learn through forlornly narration, was once a spectacularly corrupt NYC cop named Jack Grimaldi, a man who got too ambitious in the worst way and learnt every lesson the hardest possible fashion he could. Jack was a greedy, scheming piece of work who two timed his loyal wife (Annabella Sciorra, fantastic) with a ditzy cocktail waitress (Juliette Lewis) and did his best to upend everything the department works for by playing it against the mafia with increasingly disastrous results, stuck on a hollow treadmill chasing dollar signs. But his wife and mistress weren’t the only women in his life, as he soon meets Mona Demarkov, a seductive Russian contract killer played by Lena Olin in a performance that is to be applauded, feared and lusted after in equal measures. Mona is the wild card, the hurricane that upends an uneasy equilibrium Jack has toiled sweatily to set up like a house of cards, ready for her to blow down. Dumped in his lap by the Feds to babysit until mob operatives arrive to kill her, she manipulates, seduces and torments Jack within moments, but she’s only just begun. She escapes into New York and leads everyone on a terrifying goose chase of bloody mind games and gangland espionage, threatening to tear both organizations, not to mention Jack’s sanity, to pieces.

Oldman has never exuded the specific kind of sweaty desperation he showcases here, he’s got three women too many, nasty mafia Don Falcone (a quietly dangerous Roy Scheider) breathing over his shoulder and fellow cops inches away from sniffing out the rat in plain sight. Gary somehow comes across as likeable despite all this heinous behaviour, like a lost puppy who wandered into the wrong cave. Olin really lets loose with her work, she’s a villain not just for the noir hall of fame but for the ages, a murderous black velvet spider on a wanton spree of anarchic, sociopathic, psychosexual destruction and loving every minute of it. They’re supported by an epic roster of talent including Will Patton, David Proval, Larry Joshua, James Cromwell, Ron Perlman, Tony Sirico, Stephen Tobolowsky, Dennis Farina as a gregarious mafioso and the great Michael Wincott as Jack’s underworld pal Sal who turns on him like a jackal when things get out of control.

Many people seem to see this as an interesting yet ultimately flawed piece with uneven tone and what have you, but I couldn’t disagree more. For me this is pretty much as close to perfect as a film can get. Jim sits out there on the lonely byways of some forgotten region and recounts the tale of Jack, there’s such a beautifully mournful melancholy to his story, a true tragedy and cautionary tale laced with grit, jet black humour and an ever so subtle fairytale vibe. Writer Hilary Henkin spins a wild, surreal and slightly self aware screenplay here, while Mark Isham’s creepy, music box infused score gives off bushels of atmospheric portent. I feel like this is another one that was maybe ahead of its time, or perhaps just an acquired taste. I’m happy to see it has a budding cult following these days because it really deserves people’s time, it’s one of the very best crime films of the 1990’s and one of my all time favourite stories out there.

-Nate Hill

Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared

On the DVD DVD cover of Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared, Pete Hammond of Maxim raves that it “makes Kill Bill look like Sesame Street.” That’s one way to put it. I’m sure he didn’t mean to blunt the edge of Tarantino’s film, he was just trying to articulate what a balls out, terrifying, kick-in-the-nuts experience this is. It’s one of the most brilliant pieces of crime filmmaking from recent years and one of my all time favourites, a dark, bloody urban fairytale that surges through a nocturnal ballad of explicit violence, mob war-games, monstrous characters and a performance from Paul Walker that has to be seen to be believed, and I mean that in the best way possible.

He plays Joey Gazelle here, a Jersey mob soldier who loses a very important gun left in his possession following a rigorous shootout with a gang of corrupt narcs who raided their drug deal. The kid next door (Cameron Bright) has snatched the pistol from his basement, used it to plug his heinously abusive Russian stepfather (Karel Roden) and disappeared into the night with it. This presents Joey and everyone else with no end of problems; if the surviving narcs, the Russian mafia or anyone else manage to get ahold of it, he and his colleagues are done for. It’s one of those hectic, delirious, ‘run all night through the city films’ where seemingly anything can, and does happen. It’s a mad dash through a town filled with freaks, monsters, corruption and the hum of barbaric nighttime activity. Poor Oleg, after stealing the gun, is launched from the frying pan into a city on fire with danger around every corner, the cops relentlessly on his tail headed up by Chazz Palminteri’s devilish Det. Rydell, plus both Joey and his wife Theresa (Vera Farmiga) looking for him too. Among the threatening figures he meets are a nasty, cartoonish pimp (David Warshofsky), feral crackheads, a sympathetic hooker (Idalis DeLeon) and two horrific child abusing kidnapper/murderers (Bruce Altman and Elizabeth Mitchell, forever in my head now as these characters) who are so messed up that the mid film sequence devoted to them is the ultimate barometer in discerning whether you can take what this film has to offer or wish to tap out of the chokehold it locks you in. One thing that’s always apparat: this isn’t just commotion flung at a wall, despite feeling that way some of the time. This is intricate, well spun storytelling that’s shot, edited and colour timed in ways that vividly bring all of this to life. One need only look as the unsettling, surreal animated credits to see that this isn’t just your average action crime film, but very well thought out, very specific and a piece that pushes the envelope to bring us something special.

Walker gives the best work of his sadly short career here, he’s energetic, in the moment and completely fired up to the edge of mania where he quite literally has to stop and take a breath at one point. Farmiga is the same, fearsome in the maternal instinct she has for Oleg, she reaches a level of scary when encountering the aforementioned pedophiles that will leave your adrenal glands in go mode. The film is chock full of outright dastardly motherfuckers, as if Kramer plumbed the depths of Hollywood hell for the worst of the worst villain stock in the stable, removed their leashes and muzzles and turned them loose in his film. Warshofsky is Joker material as the pimp, clad in an immaculate white suit and cheerful in threatening both women and children with a shiny switchblade. Johnny Messner is pure evil as Joey’s gangster boss Tommy, Arthur Nascarella channelling his inner Goodfellas as his dad and the Don of their operations. Roden is a sinister force of nature as Anzor, the nasty Russian stepfather with a meth habit and one unhealthy obsession with John Wayne, while Lord Of The Rings’s John Noble is impossibly sadistic as Ivan, head of the Russian syndicate. The women in the film are all an angelic and comforting presence, from Farmiga to the hooker (pay attention to the colour of her dress) to Ivana Milicivec as Oleg’s tragic mother, they serve as refuge from the night’s storm as best they can. It seems like I’ve described a lot here or spoiled some things but really I’ve only scratched the surface of this piece. It’s so fresh, potent and full of life that experiencing everything I’ve just laid out for yourself will feel absolutely new and invigorating, if daunting at the sheer titanic level of unpleasant human behaviour on display like a twisted circus trundling by, showcasing the dark underside of urban Americana.

Kramer has stated that he wanted to make the kind of gritty film you might have seen playing in the 70’s, and if anything he has fiercely committed to the adage ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to.’ This film is unique in excess, style and atmosphere, from the assured yet riotous direction to the pitch perfect, profanity laced performances to the eerie, pulp infused score by Mark Isham. I don’t think people were quite ready for this film when it came out because it earned itself some very hostile reviews. I think that comes with the territory in a story this extreme, it’s just not going to be everyone’s thing, but many confuse personal taste with quality, and this is in no way a bad film but perhaps just ahead of its time. For me it’s already a classic, a film I’ve probably seen over thirty times since being awed and slightly scared speechless after the first round in theatres. I think I didn’t know what I was in for based on marketing, and the experience I got both humbled and terrified me at what is possible through visual storytelling. I think that’s one of the best effects a film can have on you. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Richard Pearce’s No Mercy

Richard Pearce’s No Mercy is essentially a formula cop/revenge flick with all the recognizable elements visible, but it’s done so damn well that any generic beats don’t even really matter when you’re treated to atmosphere, action and chemistry this good. Richard Gere is an actor who gets cast as the affluent business guy or clean cut hero often, but he’s most effective when they let him fly his freak flag a bit and show some edge, he’s scary here as an unhinged Chicago detective out to avenge the savage murder of his partner following a botched sting operation that wasn’t even sanctioned to begin with. He’s led from the grey urban sprawl of the Windy City to sweaty, jazz soaked backroads of New Orleans in pursuit of a really nasty local kingpin (Jeroen Krabbe) responsible for the bloodshed. There’s naturally a blonde bombshell (Kim Basinger) who belongs to this monster since she was sold to him at age thirteen, and naturally sparks fly between the two as they fall in love amidst a rain of bullets, standoffs, chases and shootouts. You might be rolling your eyes and I’ll admit that the plot is well trodden soil but honestly this thing is so well made and engaging I didn’t care that I knew how it would all turn out because after all, the fun is in the journey there. Gere and Basinger have a natural rapport that isn’t rushed or forced and for a good two thirds of the film they hate each other in realistic fashion so that when passion eventually ignites it feels warranted. Plus the romance is so secondary to them simply meeting as two people that it never feels silly nor soppy and there’s somehow something sexier about her teaching him how to eat crawfish than the two of them actually getting it on. Gere is a live wire here, out of his element in the Bayou but determined to avenge his partner’s at any cost, including his own life. “If I die it’ll be on Chicago concrete!” He barks stubbornly, and we believe it. Basinger always brings a wounded nature to her work, she’s fantastic here as someone he believes to be a planted seductress until he learns that she’s just another victim. There’s a painful scene where she has to sign a lawyers form and when the attorney (perennial 80’s asshole William Atherton) announces that she can’t read, you can see the sympathy unclouded on Gere’s face. Sparks fly between these two and I’d love to see their other collaboration Final Analysis at some point. George Dzunda makes a fiery appearance as Gere’s wrecking ball of a precinct captain, a dude with a thousand yard glare who’s standing less than a foot from you. Alan Silvestri outdoes himself with a smokehouse of a score that accents Louisiana nicely and cues Krabbe’s bad guy in creepy fashion. This dude is one nasty piece of work, and the character can be forgiven for being one-note simply for how scary he is, a greasy haired, sadistic French bastard who enjoys gutting people with a knife and lords over the Bayou with a reign of ice terror. I’m not sure why this has amassed such a lukewarm overall reaction. It’s nothing innovative but everything it tries to do it does excellently. Stylish, immersive romantic crime thriller with a hot blooded central romance, well staged action scenes and atmosphere to spare.

-Nate Hill

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

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

Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky

After a sort of slow opening act, Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky becomes a sweet, funny, raucous, touching and unexpected film, the most enjoyable thing he’s made after a series of dead serious dramas. Kind of like Ocean’s Eleven for the Monster Truck crowd, this is popcorn fare with brains, but it’s not afraid to get loopy and mess around in the sandbox either in terms of comedy and characterization, especially that of Daniel Craig’s Joe Bang, the world’s most aloof safecracker. Joe’s help is needed when brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver) Logan take it upon themselves to stage a heist during NASCAR mania when times of financial woe befall them. Jimmy is laid back and affable, Clyde is old school idiosyncratic to the point of hysterics and their dynamic is something hilarious. Throw in Joe with a Bang and the thing takes off, once the gears of the plot start grinding, mind you. Like I said, the opening dilly dallys a tad. Despite being a screwball comedy of sorts, this never goes too far off the rails into, say, Cannonball Run territory and never feels *too* light or inconsequential. Soderbergh is an alchemist in complete control of every element and this thing unfolds deliberately, intricately and always playfully. Surrounding them is a delightfully eclectic supporting cast including Seth McFarlane, Riley Keogh, Katie Holmes, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Katherine Waterson, Macon Blair, Sebastian Stan and Dwight Yoakam as a breezy Prison Warden. The heist is a blast, full of screw ups, diversions and delirious suspense as these ill prepared, lovably hapless goofs try to do right by their families and each other. Craig must be broken out of jail where he’s “in-car-cer-ated” for the duration of the job and then stealthily returned once the mission is accomplished, and Jimmy has to be done with it all in time for a beauty pageant that his daughter (Farrah Mackenzie, wonderful) is appearing in. It’s fairly random but it just somehow works, from left field character choices to specifically nutty set pieces to third act twists that come out of nowhere. Just when you think you can relax, a federal agent (Hilary Swank in full shark mode) shows up to stir the pot again. The film ends on a narrative cliffhanger and with perhaps one of the best and most enticing zoom-out shots I’ve ever seen that had me both wishing for a sequel and wanting the magic to remain bottled just there at that perfect penultimate moment. Great film.

-Nate Hill