“You ever forget who you are?” Saundra Santiago’s Detective Gina Calabrese asks Detective James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson) as they stand on the deck of his boat and take a brief respite from their jobs as undercover vice cops in an early episode in the first season of Miami Vice.

“Darlin’,” Crockett replies with a wide grin that made millions of Americans fall in love with him, “sometimes I remember who I am.”

By the end of the series, all of his wise guy charm will be burned to the ground as a hollowed out and gutted Sonny Crockett will slowly come to terms with himself and what he’s been through over the course of the past five seasons and 111 episodes. “Things I’ve done, things I can’t remember. I can’t believe that was me,” Crockett will eventually muse to his partner, Detective Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas). “Jesus, Rico. What kind of a person am I?” His smile muted and with his tres chic ripped jeans and stylishly shaggy, $500 Beverly Hills haircut causing him to look more like a self-destructive stepdad who has missed his last three AA meetings than a People Magazine cover boy, the denouement of Sonny Crockett is one befitting a pastel festooned and neon-filigreed Greek tragedy. And, regardless of the many hands that stewarded the show from its origins to its finale in 1989, Miami Vice is 100% the crystallized vision of executive producer Michael Mann.

In its most embryonic form, Miami Vice was an idea for a television show that grew from a seed that was a scrap of paper with the words “MTV Cops” written on it by NBC head Brandon Tartikoff. By the time it passed through the hands of Anthony Yerkovich, producer and writer of the popular crime procedural Hill Street Blues, he had filled in the idea with the notion of vice cops and their bottomless supply of impounded goods that they could then use in their sting operations. But when it worked its way to Michael Mann, he found in it the perfect vehicle in which he could blend his then-radical power-chord coupling of music and image, then saturating the world of music videos, with his fascination regarding the fine line and symbiotic relationship between heroes and villains. For not even fifteen minutes into “Brother’s Keeper,” Miami Vice’s pilot episode, the thesis of almost every Michael Mann enterprise that will come after has been spoken by Caroline (Belinda Montgomery), Sonny Crockett’s ex-wife. “You’re all players, Sonny,” she says to him. “You get high on the action.” For all of the ephemeral details that surrounded it and the many pop culture flourishes that it inspired, Miami Vice is the cornerstone of all of Mann’s works; a fable about professional men who cannot hold their personal lives together because they’re too busy chasing themselves around the block.

When it first aired in September of 1984, there was simply nothing on network television that was remotely like Miami Vice. But unlike other television shows that made a splash, not a one rearranged the entire landscape like Miami Vice did when audiences began to eat it up during its first season’s summer reruns. From the way television shows looked and were produced to the emphasis on post-modern architecture to, finally, men’s fashion, Miami Vice made an impact in such a way that one could argue for a pre-MV and post-MV line in the sand when discussing pop culture in the 1980’s.

But Miami Vice isn’t exactly the 80’s fluff that nostalgia-porn hounds try and make it out to be. Jabronis could and will costume themselves in linen jackets and pastel colored shirts to the end of all eternity but the show’s dated touchstones can never erase the sheer sadness that acts as the undercurrent in Miami Vice. Of the original five characters in the vice division at the end of the show’s pilot episode, only two remain at the close of the series, the other members either suspended, dead, or having participated in voluntary attrition. Likewise, contrary to the white-hot look the production stills of the duo conveyed to mass audiences via slick posters sold in the local mall’s Spencer’s Gifts, Crockett and Tubbs aren’t flashy players with cool clothes who lounge on the hood of Sonny’s Ferrari Daytona (or his Ferrari Testarossa, depending on the season) while parked on the banks of a Miami waterway, chasing hot women and solving crimes on the side. Mostly everything on their backs and in their possession are loaners from impound, their romances and relationships are all doomed, and for all of their diligent and valiant efforts as low-paid public servants (as the heavy in every fifth or sixth episode is fond of reminding them), they are rewarded with absolutely nothing; the series ending with both of their lives in virtual shambles.

Of course, Miami Vice wouldn’t have been the monster hit that it was if the show’s deeper and more existential nature not been dressed up with the kind of irresistible mix of pop music and slick visual style that worked like dopamine on television audiences for a good couple of years. The first two seasons, encapsulating the time in which Michael Mann was most involved as the series’s showrunner (and scored his sole writing credit on the show with season one’s “Golden Triangle, Part II” episode), have the best balance between party and pathos and are likely the seasons that are most etched into the collective minds of those who might have caught an episode or three, but mostly soaked up Miami Vice as it permeated everything else. And, while ensuring the cosmetic side of the show was its ace in the hole, it gave the series a sly ability to reveal so much about the rot of the 80’s while simultaneously celebrating it. It’s all incredibly sexy to look at but underneath all of it is a show that reflects bottomless excess as the criminals in their vast, empty mansions reveal the vacancy of the soul and the slicked down edges reveal an artificiality of the spirit. Likewise, the show doesn’t skimp on taking viewers to the less glamorous parts of Miami and the redneck-festooned, outer limits of the state, reminding viewers that Florida is 10% Miami club scene and 90% Oklahoma with a beach view.

While Mann would later plant the seeds for the more tightly-plotted kind of serialized television we’d come to expect in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with 1986’s Crime Story, Miami Vice adheres to a looser narrative arc which feels both comfortable and realistic. Ensuring that there was always a way for new viewers to feel at ease with the show no matter when they dropped in, Miami Vice was less rigorous in its continuity than a nighttime soap like Dallas and, instead, it would frequently loop softly back on itself and move forward in believable, incremental time bursts by weaving perpetual side characters such as Charlie Barnett’s Noogie Lamont and (especially) Martin Ferrero’s Izzy Moreno in and out when needed but also by bringing characters back from previous seasons and episodes to deliver closure to their stories.

Being a network show not anchored to a serialized format and one that was bound to myriad forces beyond its control, Miami Vice sometimes fell victim to the fickleness of the broadcast order causing the narrative illusion to sometimes falter as beards (and Daytonas) disappeared and reappeared. Additionally, though it’s not quite as bad an offender as VEGA$ (and this may very well be a matter of personal taste given that it was completely normal for shows of its day), Miami Vice occasionally had higher-end guest talent popping up in multiple roles throughout the series (looking at you, Martin Ferrero and Stanley Tucci).

But, perhaps worse than VEGA$, the sheer amount of stunt casting in the show (particularly season two) is embarrassing, indicative of a property so immensely popular that it was becoming self aware and learning all the wrong lessons. For every musical artist who could act (Glenn Frey or Phil Collins) there were ten others who couldn’t (nine of them being Frank Zappa) and the random appearances of non-MTV musical artists such as Peter Allen and Leonard Cohen (who’s actually pretty great in his episode) shake out as downright bizarre. And given that the show was basically 111 one-hour movies, you can be certain that there were some recycled storylines peppered throughout with the occasional irredeemably awful episode thrown in just to ensure you were paying attention. And, for whatever it’s worth, it’s a horse race between “Missing Hours” and “The Big Thaw,” fourth season entries that feature, respectively, a plane-shifting James Brown and the cryogenically frozen remains of a reggae artist, as to which is the episode most up its own ass.

But the most egregious issue facing Miami Vice was the network’s decision to slash four episodes from season five during its original broadcast run to move the finale up, cancel the series, and free up its Friday night time-slot, which shortchanged a bit of the show’s narrative drive. While a fun, if inconsequential, back-door pilot was buried by this decision, two of the series most emotionally rewarding stories involving Dennis Farina’s crime boss, Al Lombard, and Pam Grier’s NYC detective (and Tubbs’s love interest), Valerie Gordon, were either relegated to being shuffled into the non-syndicated 1989 summer rerun schedule or, in the case of Grier’s episode, not being shown until 1990 after the episode was sold as part of a syndication package to the USA cable network. Anyone curious in revisiting the series would be well served to remember that, whatever order the episodes appear on whatever streaming service or physical media release, “Freefall” is the episode that closes out the series and that those “lost episodes” are only marked as such because of a business decision by NBC and were indeed originally produced and intended to be broadcast before the finale (and, as a side note, if the streaming package doesn’t include “Evan”, one of the greatest episodes from season one, protest loudly).

And for a show widely remembered as surface pap, Miami Vice took sympathetic, serious, and direct looks at AIDS, homosexuality, rape, the homeless, child molestation, and generally saved its anti-drug ire for dealers and cartels, refusing to sanctimoniously point fingers at casual users or addicts. For a show cemented down in Reagan’s America, it was unashamed when it cast a critical eye to the United States’s shady relationships with South American dictators, itself the dark heart of the final episode of the series. And while it mainly focused on the exploits of Crockett and Tubbs, Miami Vice did stretch out a bit with the characters of Detectives Calabrese and Trudy Joplin (Olivia Brown), giving both room to develop and breathe in episodes with layers of psychologically complicated issues at play. Additionally it also allowed second-banana characters Larry Zito (John Diehl) and Stan Switek (Michael Talbott) to go beyond their initial boundaries as the sometimes-bumbling duo who provided the laughs and ultimately toward something much darker and more tragic in the third season. And unlike other shows at the time, episodes would avoid traditional closure by eschewing a pre-end credit tag in favor of episodes that would run out the clock and employ effective freeze frames to keep the audience in its grip, contemplative of the (usually) downer ending with which they’d just been hit.

On a technical level, Miami Vice was probably the most impressive show of its time and it remains a masterful piece of network television. The character arcs are satisfying and its stylistic choices have proven to have longer legs than the fashions it inspired. Jan Hammer’s music sounds like the perfect cross of Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream and hasn’t dated one day and the kind of pop songs employed in the show now have enough mileage on them to be considered oldies, giving their utilization a new kind of life. In its day, the usage of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (used beautifully in the fourth season episode “Rock and a Hard Place”) had an immediate emotional relevance. Closing in on forty years later, it lands a whole other kind of way. Likewise, the utilization Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” is so masterful in blending the music with the image that when it occurs in the fifth season’s “Redemption of Blood” episode, it provides the series with one of the most emotionally disarming moments. Most surprising was that it was never beyond Miami Vice to make ironic use of pop music, its most notable and perverse example occurring during the “Rites of Passage” episode from season one as Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” is laid over a cross cut juxtaposition of Tubbs and Valerie’s lovemaking and a tragic, lethal dose of heroin being forcibly delivered.

Ultimately, though, Miami Vice could only work with the right chemistry between the cast members. Don Johnson wasn’t the first choice to play Sonny Crockett but he was the right choice. It was a fairly portentous move to cast Johnson as he is able to deftly move the attention from his megawatt smile and, as the series unfurls towards its closing seasons, incrementally closer toward the sadness in his eyes. Additionally, as he becomes more comfortable with the role, Johnson begins to pitch so naturally that, in the closing episodes of season four and beginning episodes of season five, the differences in that of Sonny Crockett and Sonny Burnett, Crockett’s deep undercover persona, are all built out of minor subtleties. It’s one hell of a performance. Philip Michael Thomas is an even more inspired piece of casting as he brings a much more authoritatively hip and relaxed feel to the show and he never lets his New York vibe slip into the background, no matter how long he stays in Miami. Although he’s saddled in earlier episodes as the “dialect guy” where he’s forever going undercover as a Jamaican, his character goes through as many dark turns as Crockett’s and, by show’s end, Thomas’s impressive range has been given an appropriate showcase. And likewise, Diehl, Santiago, Brown, and Talbott are all fantastic in their roles and each of them get moments where they do a great bit of impressive heavy lifting.

At the center of the show, though, is the taciturn stoicism of Edward James Olmos’s Lt. Martin Castillo. A character who spends 90% of his time keeping his words to a minimum while staring a hole through whoever is pissing him off, it’s kind of staggering just how fleshed-out Castillo is by the time the series ends. For within the series is an actual Castillo arc that is both incredibly moving but also serves as a reminder that, along with those episodes that focus on the other characters on the show, Miami Vice was big enough to encompass stories for all of the members of the team and each and every single one is an encapsulation of downbeat pragmatism.

But the guiding light of the show had to be the vision and thematic elements planted in the first two seasons by Michael Mann. As the show grew outward and influenced the culture, it took on a life of its own. But the stylistic flourishes that continued to bounce off the show, even during Dick Wolf’s reign during seasons three and four, were just the clearing of the heavy exhaust fumes Mann had put in the air in 1986. Stepping away from the show to put both Band of the Hand, of which he was executive producer, and Manhunter, which he wrote and directed, into theaters while prepping Crime Story, a new television series starring Dennis Farina that debuted in September of that year, made 1986 a busy and pivotal year for the filmmaker. And though none of those projects had quite the same impact of Miami Vice, they all played a part in making Michael Mann’s name something recognizable; a kind of visual and aural brand of moody entertainment whether on the big screen or the small.

In the world of Michael Mann, the balance between compelling, operatic drama and high-camp self parody is as tenuous as the balance between the cops and criminals in his works. In Miami Vice, this balance was perfected in a way impervious to those who would go through the show with an ironic detachment. And those who would purposefully do that would sadly miss what is perhaps Michael Mann’s greatest contribution to his own cinematic legend.

“You know, you and I aren’t that different,” crime boss Al Lombard says to Crockett near the end of the first season of Miami Vice.

“All I am is what I’m going after,” Lieutenant Vincent Hannah will confess to his wife as his third marriage swirls down the drain in Michael Mann’s Heat almost exactly ten years later.

Will Graham, call your office.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

HBO’s Watchmen

Given Alan Moore’s corrosive reaction to any adaptation of his work so far I admire the big brass balls of anyone who attempts to go near it these, much less craft a new story based on his existing volumes. So that said, HBO and Damon Lindelof should be given the slow clap for attempting such a thing and not only that but making something just as sprawling, provocative and prescient as the source material. I have a deep love for Moore’s original graphic novel, I’m a huge fan of Zachary Snyder’s epic big screen version and I can now happily say that I am also over the moon about and mostly appreciate what they’ve done here.

I can’t say much about the story without spoiling both this and the book for anyone who isn’t up to date but anyways: The year is 2019, over two decades since ex superhero Ozymandias changed the course of history with a certain gooey incident in NYC (this follows the book, whereas Snyder did his own thing in the third act, which was also welcome). The setting is rural Oklahoma where masked police officers team up with costumed antiheroes to tackle a white supremacist hate group who have hijacked deceased Rorschach’s extremist views for their own nasty agenda, complete with wearing his mask. If you remember Rorschach you’ll recall that although his intentions steered towards the righteous now and again, for the most part he was a hateful, maladjusted prick and I wouldn’t put it past that elusive diary of his to spark this kind of cancer across the land years later. Anywho, police officer Angela Abar (Regina King) moonlights as a badass called Sister Night and along with her captain (Don Johnson), human lie detector Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson, finally gifted a role that exercises his talents beyond ‘dim-bulb hayseed’) and more, try to get to the bottom of what’s up. This proves tricky especially when former Silk Spectre Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) blows into town hunting vigilantes and a shadowy conspiracy begins to emerge involving everyone’s past. Lindelof & Co. carefully pick their cast and as such we get amazing work from the likes of Hong Chau, Tom Mison, Sarah Vickers, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Andrew Howard, Louis Gossett Jr, Glenn Fleshler and scene stealing Jeremy Irons as a haggard, very eccentric older Ozymandias.

I really can’t comment much more on story without ruining the surprises here, of which there are many. This is a byzantine tale, one that at first seems to have little to do with the original story until slowly, carefully and cleverly the layers peel back and the “Aha!” moments begin to roll in. My favourite performance of the whole piece is Jean Smart as the brittle, jaded and supremely badass Laurie, I noted with interest that she took her father Edward ‘The Comedian’ Blake’s last name despite everything that happened to her and her mom, and its these little touches that augment what we remember and add such rich depth to the mythology. Where is Dr. Manhattan in of this? There are blue phone-booths all over the world that one can go into and supposedly get a direct one way line to Mars where he just might be listening. Thousands of tiny, bizarre squid aliens periodically rain from the sky serving as reminder of the great unknown that made itself known in NYC. Watching this I felt immersed, I believed that this is the way the world could very well have ended up after what happened all those years ago. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross outdo themselves with a menacing, sonic original score that surges the action along and spins up the same kind of paranoia one feels reading the source material. Aside from a few issues with character development and the deliberate one note portrayal of some of the antagonists, this is worthy of the Watchmen name and then some.

-Nate Hill

Actor’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten James Gammon Performances

James Gammon May not have been a household name but as consummate Hollywood character actor and grizzled veteran of cowboy westerns his presence was near unparalleled. With a raspy drawl and an essence that was one part hunter killer, one part leathered frontiersman with a touch of endearing teddy bear (he actually did voice a bear in one film, though it didn’t make this list) he always made a terrific impression and became one of my favourite ‘that guy’ actors as I began to discover cinema in my youth. Here are my top ten performances from his varied and fascinating career:

10. Roger Wayne in Luiso Berdejo’s The New Daughter

I included this moody Kevin Costner horror thriller because it was Gammon’s final film appearance before passing a few years ago. Costner plays a rural father whose adopted daughter (Pan’s Labyrinth star Ivana Baquero) begins to exhibit weird, possibly supernatural behaviour. He digs a little deeper into the mystery and comes across Roger, a man who dealt with the very same issue in his own children years ago and whose methods were… questionable. Gammon gives this homeless old dude a chilling edge in his curtain call appearance.

9. Ironbutt Garrett in Running Cool

This is the most lighthearted, benign biker flick you’ll probably ever see. Drifter Bone (Andrew Divoff) reunites with old pal Garrett to take down evil, prejudiced land developers threatening both their land and biker way of life. The camaraderie and friendship between the two is nicely illustrated with both, two epic cult actors sharing the screen. Plus, his name is fucking Ironbutt, how can you go wrong with that.

8. Sheriff Henderson in Eduardo Sanchez’s Altered

The creator of Blair Witch Project brought us this little seen alien horror flick combined with the classic cabin in the woods setting. Gammon plays a county Sheriff (one of many throughout his career) who comes knocking when weird sounds are heard and has what you’d call a ‘close encounter.’ His reaction upon being told that the thing that viciously attacked him is an extraterrestrial? “Shit. That’s fucked up.” He was capable of such wry, deadpan line delivery even in a tense, unnerving situation.

7. Esco Swanger in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain

A frontier family man before the civil war, Esco resents the rabble rousing in his town and brings a subtle antiwar perspective to the large and varied cast. When one of of his kids declares proudly that he’s going to fight for the south, his boisterous retort: “Last I heard, the south was a direction!” He steals any scene he’s in here from a huge roster of supporting characters and makes a vivid impression in this beautiful but uneven war epic.

6. Sam Parker in Outlaw Trail: The Treasure Of Butch Cassidy

This is a low budget made for TV kids flick about a group of youngsters searching for gold buried by the legendary bandit. Gammon plays the grandfather of one of them and their lineage can be traced right back to Butch, which he’s none too pleased about. He resents illegal activity and sees his legacy as childish and pointless, until his grandson makes good on the treasure hunt and brightens everyone’s day. Silly flick overall but he gives his scenes a stormy, melancholic aura and plus it’s one of the only appearances in his career where he’s not sporting that moustache, kinda like Sam Elliott.

5. Nick Bridges in Nash Bridges

A flashy Don Johnson cop show, James plays his lovable but troublesome father, a retired longshoreman with slight dementia, an affinity for get rich quick schemes and the kind of rebellious nature that gets passed from father to son.

4. The Texan in Tony Scott’s Revenge

Kevin Costner’s bloodied up antihero meets many people on his journey to recovery and retribution in this sweaty, seedy south of the border melodrama, one of which is Texan, a mysterious horse trainer who meanders across Mexico, dying of some undisclosed illness and acting as a kind of soldier of fortune in between breaking colts. He helps Costner out in that laconic, weathered fashion that’s just south of nice guy and just the this side of badass.

3. FBI Agent Teddy Lee in Tarsem Singh’s The Cell

The hunt for elusive, spectral serial killer Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) has many procedural moving parts but Teddy essentially spies the clue that leads them right to his doorstep. The film is an austere, surreal and often heavy mood piece full of intense, hushed and introspective performances. It may seem counterintuitive of Singh to cast rambunctious, rowdy Gammon in a key supporting part but the offset works beautifully and he livens up an otherwise grim series of events in his brief screen time.

2. Lou Brown in Major League

Sassy coach to the dysfunctional Cleveland Indians, Lou is coaxed away from his apparently way more interesting job selling tires to put together a winning roster and kick the team out of a royal slump. He’s a take-no-shit, old school dude with enough grit and attitude to both get them into the winning streak and stir up all kinds of political trouble within the league while he’s at it.

1. California Joe in Walter Hill’s Wild Bill

A moody, fragmented look at the final few years in the life of Bill Hickock (played with sterling charm by Jeff Bridges), Gammon embodies Joe perfectly. He’s a hell-raiser, gunslinger, sidekick, friend and confidante to the legendary figure and provides many a memorable moment, in one of the most dynamic, front and centre roles he got in his career.

-Nate Hill

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out

The coolest thing about Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, besides the lavish production design and the fact that the lovely M. Emmett Walsh is *still working* at his age, is it’s epic takedown of wealth, status and the deep seated delusion that goes hand in hand with being born into a rich family. That is, of course, not readily apparent until the stinging but satisfying final shot of the film and I can’t say much because this is the last thing you’d want spoiled going in, but the message is there, delicately wrapped up in a package of intricate plotting, beautiful set artistry and a whole ton of deadpan humour from a dense, scene stealing cast.

Celebrated mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has been found dead, apparently by suicide. His raucous, dysfunctional family gathers to pay respects but it’s clear after a scene or two that this is a shady pack of wolves all out for the fortune he left behind. Southern gentleman investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) “suspects foul play “ and so begins a whirligig of a search for truth, secrets and an elusive alleged killer who is naturally closer to home than anyone might suspect, except those who already know a thing or two. Thrombey’s family is played by a well rounded, eclectic bunch including Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Katherine Langford, Chris Evans and a flat out hilarious Don Johnson. Rising star Ana De Armas is terrific as Harlan’s maid and confidante, a hard worker from some South American country that none of the family seem to be able to recall properly, highlighting their bemused selfishness and aloof nature further.

This is for sure a murder mystery and there is a serpentine narrative that does eventually arrive at a satisfactory conclusion but the whodunit aspect wasn’t as elaborate or lengthy as I was expecting. For me the enjoyment here came from these movie stars mugging for genuine laughs in a spoof of bickering families that is so dead on I felt like I was at Christmas dinner with my clan. These folks just can’t get it together or coexist and it provides come priceless exchanges of dialogue. There’s also a compassionate undercurrent between Armas and Plummer too, who between them give the two finest performances of the film, full of adorable camaraderie and flippant gallows humour. I can’t say much but the film serves to iterate and literally illustrate through circumstances that it doesn’t matter how many silver spoons you’re born with shoved up your ass or what kind of background you come from, you really only have claim to what you earn through hard work, be it laborious, interpersonal or other. I like that compassion and understanding woven into a film like this, it gives the Clue board a soul. Oh and I’ll also add that Daniel Craig has an absolute fucking one man party as Blanc who is an endlessly watchable, quaintly verbose delight and I love seeing him in eccentric roles that breach the surface of his cold, detached 007 persona. Good times.

-Nate Hill

Jim Mickle’s Cold In July

Cold In July is a fairly ambiguous title that’s just this side of sinister but could mean anything. To writer director team Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, it means an unbearably intense mystery about fathers and sons, evil rearing it’s head in small town America, noir, perhaps the first buddy flick with three leads and a beautifully crafted 80’s aesthetic complete with an electronic John Carpenter style score that makes the film.

Michael ‘Dexter’ C. Hall plays a somewhat meek family man who accidentally shoots a prowler in his living room one summer night. Case closed? Not really, as it seems the burglar has a father (Sam Shepherd) who comes looking for answers. This guy is both a veteran and an ex con though, which makes him about the hardest piece of work you could find, but… soon it’s apparent that something isn’t quite right. The county Sheriff (Damici also doubles as a very fine actor) is clearly not being straight with Hall, dodging specific questions and veiling the truth. Eventually there’s an uneasy truce between Hall and Shepherd as they try to smoke out a deep set conspiracy, but things *really* kick into high gear with the arrival of Don Johnson’s Jim Bob Luke, a private detective with attitude to spare who blasts into the narrative in a giant red Cadillac convertible that becomes its own character and signifies a certain liveliness for the second two acts.

One of the coolest things about this one is that it’s billed as a mystery, which it lives up to and then some. From where it starts out as a nightmarish home invasion thriller to the levels of truth uncovered in the final act is quite the journey, an unpredictable journey that gets shockingly dark and perverse yet always retains a sense of humour, is constantly exciting and atmospheric. It always helps when the characters you take a trip like this with are engaging, and the dynamic between the three is something special. Hall is innocent enough until the darkness shows up at his door, Shepherd is the man of few words and lots of action, a cantankerous, difficult man whose moral compass eventually comes brutally into the forefront. Johnson straight up steals the show though, Jim Bob may well be his best character and even though the guy is kind of larger than life and ridiculous, he still fits within the narrative and Don makes him a tangible human being underneath the gloss and bluster. Watch for Wyatt Russell (Kurt’s kid), Happy Anderson, Lenny Flaherty and Vinessa Shaw. The original score by Jeff Grace is so damn good and carries this story nervously scene to scene with nerve shattering tension and those classic electronic synth tones that are coming back in such a big way. This was kind of overlooked on release but stands as tall as any big budget Hollywood crime thriller I’ve seen, and taller than many. Mickle keeps the direction tight and streamlined but allows for moments of character while keeping the story hurtling along with terrific momentum. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man

Some action movies are so over the top they sort of become fantasy by accident, so overcharged, chromed up, packed to the brim with bar fights, motorbikes and sexy chicks that they seem to exist on a plane where only those things exist, like they sprung forth from a shared dream that Bon Jovi and Patrick Swayze from Roadhouse are having. Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man is one such movie and really deserves a legacy of more acclaim than its gotten. It’s a road movie, a biker flick, a high powered ultra violent action palooza, a buddy film and almost a satire of itself at times in its own earnestness.

It opens with Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead Or Alive as Mickey Rourke’s impossibly cool Harley Davidson hops on his bike and heads up the coast to the city that raised him, intent on bringing hell with him. He reunites with his old buddy the Marlboro Man (Don Johnson) and together they set out save their pal’s bar from an aggressive Big Bank, until one wrong move starts a literal war with them and they’re forced to shoot, stab, bicker and banter their way out of close calls, near misses, hijackings and explosion after explosion. Rourke has publicly talked shit about this film and claims he only did it for the money but it’s his loss to not take credit because Harley is one of the most badass creations of his career. He’s a devil may care urban warrior with a slick outfit and even slicker one liners. Johnson goes scruffy as the sharpshooter of the pair, a rough hewn, world weary old school cowboy who can’t stand Harley’s impulsive decisions but keeps tagging along on the misadventures they cause. Tom Sizemore does his ice cool villain shtick awesomely here as Chance Wilder, the worlds most evil Banking CEO, calmly chewing scenery like a viper and deploying a bulletproof trench coat clad Daniel Baldwin to dispatch our two heroes. This thing is casted to the nines as well with supporting turns from Chelsea Field, Vanessa Williams, Giancarlo Esposito, Big John Studd, Kelly Hu and Tia Carrere as Sizemore’s slinky second in command.

They don’t really make films like this anymore, unless it’s a knowing, tongue in cheek throwback from someone who admires and misses the aesthetic. This thing is built of bourbon, beer, chrome, blood, bullets, sexy chicks, cigarettes and a whole lot of attitude, and I fucking love it to the bones. There’s countless iconic 80’s buddy pair-ups from Nick Nolte/Eddie Murphy to Mel Gibson/Danny Glover and they all rock the house but I feel like Rourke and Johnson in this are not given enough love. Regardless of whether they just did it for the money or whether they got along on set (they didn’t, apparently), they have a macho chemistry and easygoing rapport that is both believable and irresistible. This one gets a bad rap and the reviews have never been kind, but fuck all that. It’s not meant to be taken so seriously and is the very definition of a fun flick, a raucous modern western full of stylized violence, barroom soundtrack picks and all round rough n’ tumble shenanigans. Good times.

-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 Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained really and truly feels like the old school exploitation epics that he was going for in everything from style, music, dialogue and especially pacing. Movies were longer back then in more ways than just length, which sounds odd so I’ll try and explain: Django has a great big laconic violent narrative that takes its time like a talkative houseguest and lingers for a while, until it seemingly ends. Then after that ending, there’s like another forty minutes of movie after, as if somehow with this one we discovered that staying past the credits magically extends the film into further, hidden acts. Seems crazy now but that’s the way some movies were back then. People have said that that feels lopsided and is a downfall for Django, but I disagree and think it gets a lot of it’s charm from that structural padding, no doubt purposeful on QT’s part. It’s also some of the most colourful, flat out ballistic and fun pieces he’s ever done. Post Kill Bill, he really delved into the past for some specific genre stabs at various key time periods, in some cases even rewriting history to meet his pulpy, shock ‘n awe oeuvre. Unchained tells the story of intense self freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx), jovially verbose bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, the soul of the picture), bratty, psychopathic plantation baron Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio refreshingly cast against type), and a whole sweaty myriad of other cowboys, slaves, businessman and opportunists in a very vivid Old West. Django and King aim to free his imprisoned wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from Candieland, a hellish property ruled over by traitorous head house slave Steven (cantankerous Samuel L. Jackson) and hordes of vicious, tumbleweed thugs. To say violence ensues is a big old understatement; the blood flows like Niagara here, the heads get shot off in double digit count and bullets tear through people like they’ve got barbed wire on them. Hyper stylized, yes, but never a case of style over substance, as QT’s scripts always see to. The friendship between King and Django is allowed to percolate like their tin campfire coffee pot long before any serious chaos ensues, these two make a stalwart pair. DiCaprio is a grinning antagonist whose heinous personality is obvious in Waltz’s gradual revulsion, a setup ripe with gleeful, knee slapping suspense. Joining them is an all star supporting cast including James Remar in sly dual roles, James Russo, Zoe Bell, Miriam F. Glover, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, M.C. Gainey, Walton Goggins, Laura Cayouette, Dennis Christopher, Dana Gourrier, Franco Nero, Don Stroud, Bruce Dern, Michael Bowen, Robert Carradine, Jonah Hill, Lee Horsley, Tom Savini, James Parks, QT himself with a horrendous Aussie accent, a Michael Parks cameo and Don Johnson as a hilarious plantation pimp called Big Daddy. The soundtrack samples everything from Rick Ross to Morricone to Johnny Cash to amp up the proceedings, and cinematography traverses rough hewn deserts, snowy peaks and buzzing bayous to provide sharp, succinct atmosphere for this extreme yarn to play out in. QT’s career comes in two halves for me: The hard boiled, present day set gangster flicks that segued into Kill Bill, still set in our times. For the second half he’s gone historical and turned up the dial on violence, characterization, action and colour, and Django can arguably be called the showcase picture in latter day Tarantino. It’s big, bold, audacious,

unapologetic and I love every second of it.

-Nate Hill

Robert Rodriguez’s Machete

Danny Trejo has been acting for so many years that he’s now a totem of the collective action crime genre, and it was only a matter of time before he got a lead role. Thanks to pulp wizard Robert Rodriguez, that lead role came along in the form of Machete, a fake trailer preceding Rodriguez’s contribution to his Grindhouse mashup with pal Quentin Tarantino that was so popular it was only a matter of time before the feature length outing arrived. Well it arrived, and despite being a bit over saturated and too homogenized for its genre inspiration (where was the nudity??), it’s actually a barrel of fun. Rodriguez seems to have attracted Hollywood stars like a magnet since day one, and this one is positively peppered with high profile talent in the kind of roles you’d think they’d never be caught dead in. Trejo is all scowls and moody machismo as Machete, an ex Federalè turned brutal mercenary who seeks vengeance against the ruthless cartel boss responsible for the murder of his family, played of all people by Steven Seagal in the funniest work he’s ever done. There’s also a rigged election subplot stateside in which corrupt, evil senator Robert Deniro schemes all kinds of nasty shit. His lieutenant is played by Jeff Fahey, who was the villain in the fake trailer and expands his sinister presence here. He’s a natural born scene stealer and his businessman/hitman Booth is an especially violent creation, but I suppose if I had Lindsay Lohan for a daughter (she makes a cameo, parodying her own hard partying image) I’d be a tad grumpy too. There’s also Jessica Alba’s Sartana, a sexy female agent who plays both sides and lets the romantic sparks simmer between her and Trejo, until the film pussies out before we get a deserved sex scene. Michelle Rodriguez is a lot of fun as Luz, a revolutionary badass who disguises her operation in a taco truck. The cast is unreal and includes Shea Wigham as Fahey’s exasperated lead assassin, Tom Savini as the world’s most elaborate contract killer, Don Johnson as a racist scumbag southern fried Sheriff and Cheech Marin as Machete’s brother, a catholic priest who isn’t afraid to use a couple holy shotguns to do do the lord’s dirty work. Robert Rodriguez really jumped onboard the grindhouse train after his joint venture with Tarantino, while QT abandoned ship. This flicks is a lot of fun and allows esteemed actors to play in the sandbox with reckless abandon, and most importantly, Danny Trejo to bask in the spotlight after toiling so hard in the supporting ranks for decades. My only complaint is that it’s a bit too tame in the sex department to count as grindhouse fare (all these hot actresses and not a single nipple flourish or bush brandish), but I suppose when Big Hollywood green-lights a gritty fake trailer, you have to somewhat tow the line, even if you are one of Hollywood’s greatest genre magicians. The sight of Trejo ripping out a dude’s intestines and using them to repel down the face of a building is definitely in the spirit of the sort of films that inspired this though. Great stuff.

-Nate Hill

S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99- Thoughts from Nate Hill

Bring a strong stomach with you to S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99, a casually vicious ode to 1970’s exploitation that pulls no punches, kicks, backhands or wet-crunchy head stomps that will make your balls retreat up in those nether regions. Zahler is also responsible for 2015’s incredible horror western Bone Tomahawk, which set him on the messianic path to bring hard hitting genre cinema back to the forefront of our awareness. He’s proved here that he plans to make that his long-game plan, with an utterly unapologetic, icily paced prison flick that ramps up into levels of violence that shake and stun. Vince Vaughn, that neurotic, rotund teddy bear, sheds his image as well as his shirt to ruthlessly pummel anyone that gets in the way of his quest to save pregnant wife Jennifer Carpenter after a drug deal gone bad, an area of employment he only entered to provide for those he loved. Stuck inside a minimum security prison, he’s visited by a deliberately sinister old gentleman (Udo Kier, whose very presence solidifies the film’s perpetual eccentricity) who uses the man’s captive wife as leverage, and orders him to get himself transferred to a hellhole of a facility run by a nasty warden (Don Johnson, sadism incarnate). There’s he’s forced to fight tooth, nail and skull to stay alive, and fight he does. It all sounds rather lively, doesn’t it? Not so much. Zahler is fascinated by subverting stereotypes and upturning genre expectations, going ballistic here with the film’s patient, slow-cooker pacing. There’s a Tarantino vibe to the wait vs. payoff in terms of violence especially in the last side of the third act, but it’s much more perverse and played up, and if the carnage in Tomahawk made you queasy, you’ll go full chunder with what Vaughn inflicts on his fellow jailbirds here, and shudder at Kier’s casually evil approach to his job. Zahler has given the ol’ German another chomp at the bit in terms of roles, as he hasn’t done much in years, but he’ll turn up again next year in the director’s ‘Dragged Across Concrete’, which headlines Vaughn and Mal Gibson, so there’s that to wet your panties over. Like Tarantino, Rob Zombie and others, Zahler like ms to handpick actors from bygone eras and showcase them in his roster, a quality I love in a filmmaker and one that shows they’ve done their research. Vaughn is an absolute demon here, a man with a specific, patriotic code of ethics and honour, but also not one to shy away from getting his hands dirty. Don Johnson is riding the wave of a magnificent comeback, his characters here has a southern prince exterior, with evil positively oozing from beneath. This was not the film I expected, not should it have been. It’s unique, purposefully dodging expectations, and hits home with the crippling impact of Vaughn terrifying fists. An unconventional winner.

-Nate Hill