Walter Hill’s Streets Of Fire is just too good to be true, and yet it exists. It’s like the type of dream concept for a movie that you and your coolest friend think up after a bunch of beers and wish you had the time, money and resources to make yourself. It’s just cool right down to the bone, a beautiful little opus of 1950’s style gang trouble set to a so-good-it-hurts rock n’ roll soundtrack devised by the legendary Ry Cooper, Hill’s go to music maestro. It’s so 80’s it’s bursting at the seams with the stylistic notes of that decade, and both Hill and the actors stitch up those seams with all the soda jerk, greaser yowls and musical mania of the 50’s. Anyone reading up to this point who isn’t salivating right now and logging onto amazon to order a copy, well there’s just no hope for you. I only say that because for sooommeee reason upon release this one was a financial and critical dud, floundering at the box office and erasing any hope for the sequels which Hill had planned to do. I guess some people just aren’t cool enough to get it (can you tell I’m bitter? Lol). Anywho, there’s nothing quite like it and it deserves a dig up, Blu Ray transfer and many a revisit. In a nocturnal, neon flared part of a nameless town that looks a little like New York, the streets are humming with excitement as everyone prepares for the nightly musical extravaganza. Darling songstress Ellen Aim (young Diane Lane♡♡) is about to belt out an epic rock ballad in a warehouse dance hall for droves of screaming fans. There’s one fan who has plans to do more than just watch, though. Evil biker gang leader Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe, looking like Satan crossed with Richard Ramirez) kidnaps her as the last notes of her song drift away, his gang terrorizes the streets and disappears off into the night with poor Ellen as their prisoner. The locals need a hero to go up against Raven and rescue Ellen, and so estranged badass Tom Cody (Michael Paré) is called back to town after leaving years before. He’s a strong and silent hotshot who takes no shit from no one, and is soon on the rampage to Raven’s part of town. He’s got two buddies as well: two fisted, beer guzzling brawler chick McCoy (Amy Madigan), and sniveling event planner Billy Fish (Rick Moranis). That’s as much plot as you get and it’s all you need, a delightful dime store yarn with shades of The Outsiders and a soundtrack that will have your jaw drop two floors down. The two songs which Ellen sings are heart thumping legends. ‘Nowhere Fast’ gives us a huge glam-rock welcome into the story, and ‘Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young’ ushers us out with a monumental bang before the credits roll, and damn if Hill doesn’t know how to stage the two songs with rousing and much welcomed auditory excess that’ll have you humming for days. Paré is great as the brooding hero, and you won’t find too many solid roles like this in his career. He’s a guy who somewhat strayed off the path into questionable waters (he’s in like every Uwe Boll movie) but he pops up now and again I’m some cool stuff, like his scene stealing cameo in The Lincoln Lawyer. Dafoe clocks in right on time for his shift at the creepshow factory, giving Raven a glowering, makeup frosted grimace that’s purely vampiric and altogether unnerving. Him and Paré are great in their street side sledgehammer smackdown in the last act. Bottom line, this is one for the books and it still saddens me how unfavorably it was received… like what were they thinking? A gem in Hill’s career, and a solid pulse punding rock opera fable. Oh, and watch for both an obnoxious turn from Bill Paxton and a bizarre cameo from a homeless looking Ed Begley Jr.
GoldenEye is the very finest hour that Pierce Brosnan had as James Bond, both as a film and in terms of what he gets to do as the character. It’s my third favourite Bond film of all time and stands as one of the most exciting ventures the series has seen to this day. It definitely falls into a campy style, but one that’s removed from that of the original Bond films from way back when, one that’s all its own and decidedly 90’s. It’s also got one of the strongest and classiest villains of the series, a man who is in fact an ex agent himself which was a neat switch up. Brosnan is so photogenic it’s ridiculous, whether dolled up in the tux or careening through a valley in a fighter jet. He just looks so damn good as Bond, and I sometimes wish he’d gotten a fifth crack at the character. Here we join up with 007 on a mission gone wrong, where he is ambushed and his partner Agent Alec Trevelyan a.k.a. 006 (Sean Bean) is killed, or so he thinks. 006 is in fact alive and well, with a few gnarly facial scars and a new nasty attitude. He puts Bond through a wringer with a diabolical scheme to hijack a Russian nuclear space weapon and do all kinds of lovely things with it. Bond teams up with the survivor of a decimated Russian research centre, a beautiful scientist named Natalya (Isabella Scorupco) who inevitably ends up in his bed. It’s slick, it’s stylish, it’s sexy and everything a Bond flick needs to be. 006 has a dangerous asset in Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), a lethal assassin whose weapon of choice are her thighs which she employs with the crushing power of two Amazonian pythons. Janssen plays the role with ferocious relish and the kind of enthusiasm that hadn’t been seen in a Bond villainess since Barbara Carrera in Never Say Never Again. Bean plays it ice cold, letting restraint and calculated malice steal the scenes as opposed to flagrant mustache twirling. I always thought he would have made a cracking good 007 as he has so much residual danger to his vibe from playing many heartless bastards in his career, but perhaps in another life. One of my favourite characters to ever hang out in a Bond flick shows up here, a cranky but lovable russian general named Valentin Zukofsky, played by the awesome Robbie Coltrane, an actor who really, really needs to be in more stuff. His few short scenes are the stuff that makes a piece timeless, and I wish we’d gotten to see more Valentin and more Hagrid elsewhere in the franchise. There’s the usual suspects like Judi Dench as M and Desmond Llewellyn as a crusty Q, and a host of other actors including Joe Don Baker, Tchecky Karyo, Minnie Driver and the irritating Alan Cumming who singlehandedly ruins scenes with his hammy preening. The film thunders along with furious energy and nicely paced action sequences, including a chaotic tank chase through the streets of Moscow and a stunner of a climax set atop a giant satellite dish. As Bond films go, you can never go wrong with this one.
The Taken series has been done to death, memed out to glory and mined for market value a million times over since the first film came out way back in 2008, which has somewhat dimmed the charm of that original vehicle, at least for some of us. Like, how many times can Liam Neeson or his relatives be Taken before even they as characters realize that it couldn’t be happening and that they’re in a movie? Eventually the material unwittingly spoofs it’s origin in its need to repeat itself time and again. That’s not to say the first isn’t enjoyable on it’s own, in fact it’s quite the streamlined little dose of adrenaline that essentially coasts on some great pacing, neat choreography and the endlessly watchable Liam Neeson, whose career took a shot of nitrous to the heart after gamely stepping into the well worn shoes of the grizzled action hero. This was him nimbly ducking through the genre boundaries that his career was in up til that point, and the action thing fit him like a glove. The film is at its best when it follows Bryan Mills (Neeson) in action, which thankfully is most of the time. Mills is an ex CIA spook with some tactics that will seriously put a hurtin’ on you if you cross him in any way. A gaggle of moronic Bosnian human traffickers come under the receiving end of these tactics when they kidnap his vacationing daughter (Maggie Grace, looking suspiciously like she’s a decade older than her character is supposed to be) from Paris and auctioning her off to rich raghead perverts. This propels him into like an hour of non stop energetic ass kicking that is so fun to watch, as he shoots, stabs, sprains and splatters his way through hordes of eastern European cannon fodder, with not a second to spare for even the utterance of a any cheesy one liners. He’s assisted via Bluetooth by his three ex agency barbecue buddies (Jon Gries, Leland Orser and David Warshofsky) and has a few encounters with his jaded ex wife (Famke Janssen). And that’s about it, but Neeson sells the bare minimum as far as the genre goes with his effortless cool and stony, formidable stature that springs into startlingly spry motion every time he has to dispatch a new troupe of Slavic wise guys. If only they didn’t have to desecrate this little piece of lightning in a bottle with two sequels that dampen the momentum with cheap attempts at thrills, I may still feel strongly about this one as I did when it first came out. Hopefully they quit while they’re ahead, shirk the slimy dollar signs and let their first outing age in peace.
Before Russell Crowe blew up big time in North America, he did a few peculiar little flicks in his homeland of Australia. A couple rowdy gang stories popped up, and then he appeared in a little seen film called The Silver Stallion, or The Silver Brumby, which means horse in down-under-talk. Horse flicks are a dime a dozen and can go either way, usually pinning their focus on a target audience of adolescent viewers. This one is more of a visual tone poem than any sort of grand planned narrative, letting the horses do most of the emoting and character work, with the humans showing up now and again to provide their side of the story. An Australian mother (Caroline Goodall) tells her daughter (Amiel Daemien) tales of the prince of the brumbies, a member of a feral tribe of horses who has been separated from his heard and must find a way back. A relentless outback Man (Crowe) is dead set on both capturing and taming the silver Brumby, a quest which leads him to the very precipice of desperation. The horse traverses mountains, plains and many acres of beautiful northern Australian countryside to reunite with his clan. The scenes with just horses are amazing when one considers just how tough it must have been to coherently get them all together and have them interact according to the shots which the filmmakers needed to get. Quite the achievment indeed. The cinematography is pure misty magic, with both animal and nature alike providing some truly unforgettable images onscreen. Crowe is excellent, with a wild glint in his eye, quite committed to the character. There’s an overarching and altogether mythic tone to this film that always left me in awe when I saw it as a youngster. One gets the sense of true lore unfolding in front of us, the camera and script creating a piece of celluloid that’s purely entrenched in Australian storytelling, bringing it alive in the most visually impressive way possible. Very much worth your time, if you can track down a copy.
John Dahl’s Rounders is the premier poker movie, an utterly charming, never too serious and surprisingly slight look at the lives of several very different individuals whose lives revolve around the game in New York City. The main focus lands on two young men who are fast friends, yet reside on somewhat opposite sides of the responsibility coin. Poker prodigy Mike (Matt Damon) has since given up his art after a soul crushing loss to local russian bigwig Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). He’s content to simmer in solitude with his perky girlfriend (Gretchen Mol, who never fails to convince me that she’s Samantha Mathis until I double check on imdb). Right in time to disrupt his quiet life is cocky street rat Worm (Edward Norton), fresh out of prison and looking for the type of trouble that landed him there in the first place. It’s to long before he’s racked up some serious debt to dangerous people with ties to Teddy KGB, and Mike is forced to come out of retirement and risk everything he has once again, this time for his friend. The poker scenes are staged with meticulous eye for detail and mannerisms in attempt to put you at the same table as the players, and it’s nifty to see each acting style played to the microscopic hilt as Dahl maintains patient focus on his work. Norton is appropriately scuzzy with just a dollop of endearing, scrappy charm and Damon fills the protagonist’s shoes very well. It’s Malkovich, however, who pulls the stops out and is my favourite character of the piece. With a muddy russian accent that rivals his french one from Johnny English, a lazily snarky streak with just a hint of intimidation and a bag of oreos at his side without fail, he’s a hoot, holler and a half as the life of the poker party. Sexy Famke Janssen has as great bit as as shady chick with eyes for Damon and connections with dodgy folks, expertly playing the half sweet and seductive, half menacing game. Watch for topnotch work from John Turturro, Josh Pais, Michael Rispoli, Josh Mostel, Adam Lefevre, David Zayas, Goran Visjnic, Lenny Clarke and Martin Landau in an earnest turn as a kindly professor who looks out for Mike. It’s short, sweet, concisely paced, tightly written, flawlessly acted and wonderfully entertaining stuff.
The Harvest is the very definition of a hidden gem that one stumbles upon while watching late night cable and sits through to the end just because it’s such a wickedly nasty little thriller. Erotic and steamy, dangerous, very darkly funny are qualities that all reside within a terrific script that has one kicker of an ending that’s quite the chuckle inducing payoff. No one wants to have their organs taken while on vacation in some sketchy South American country, let alone consider the thought of it. Hard luck screenwriter Charlie Pope (an intense Miguel Ferrer in one of his few lead roles) falls right into that unthinkable scenario. He’s sent to Mexico by his bad tempered boss Bob Lakin (a sleazy Harvey Fierstein, who REALLY needs to be in more movies), and marinates in the sweatiness trying to get some work done. After a hot and heavy night with a gorgeous local babe (Leilani Sarelle) he wakes up with the mother of all hangovers and is horrified to find that one of his kidneys has been removed. From there it’s a stomach churning mad dash to figure out where the smugglers have gone, and evade the, at the same time, because they’re coming to try and get his other one and silence him forever as well. It’s an uncomfortable little piece of white knuckle trash, but it’s made with solid flair and like I said, the script is top shelf stuff. Ferrer is the running man here, trying to keep one step ahead of some very dangerous people, his bountiful acting talent putting us right there with him. Fierstein is always a gravel voiced gem, and gets two penultimate scenes that spin the plot on its cogs, both which will have you laughing uncomfortably. There’s also an early career appearance from George Clooney, who is Ferrer’s cousin. His credit here, and I’m not even making this up, is ‘Lip syncing transvestite’. How’s that for a leg up in the industry. Lowbrow, gut churning black comedy mixed with the exotic fish out of water thriller makes for a neat little piece of genre bending, grotesque shocker fun.
Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man isn’t the director’s best, but it’s worth a looky-loo just to see this solid cast cavort around in a sweltering Georgia atmosphere and play out a narrative that’s part sultry seduction thriller and part hard boiled whodunit. I remember watching it and going ‘meh, I’ve seen this type of thing a thousand times and this one didn’t raise the bar at all.’ I’m thinking now that perhaps my mindset was in the wrong space, and that Altman set out to simply bring us the romantic murder mystery in its purest form, without deviation or higher ambitions. In that case he’s made a neat little potboiler with a suitably ludicrous ending, some truly effective red herrings and a really great troupe of actors, so,e going nicely against type. The multitalented Kenneth Branagh plays suave Georgia lawyer Rick MacGruder, who finds himself in deep trouble when he has an affair with sexy, slinky and shady Mallory Doss (the very underrated Embeth Davidz). She’s a good enough girl, but she has a backwoods nutcase of a father named Dixon (Robert Duvall being uber strange and loving every second of it) who is stalking and threatening her. Dixon is a bedraggled, cult-leading swamp rat and Duvall plays him to the frenzied hilt of uncomfortable ticks and unkempt theatrics. MacGruder, being smitten with Mallory, is of course compelled to use his legal and personal power to help her, and concocts a convoluted scheme involving a subpoena to Mallory’s belligerent ex husband Pete Randle (a cranky Tom Berenger blusters about in the third act). This of course sets off all kinds of back door motivations and sweaty double crosses that are hard to keep track of until all is revealed in the final act, prompting a collective audience reaction of “huh??”. It’s all in good fun though and at times it seems like Altman is deliberately dipping into B movie territory just to shirk his high art mantle and spice up this gumbo with some trashy, lowbrow flavour. I say bring it, that’s exactly the way to my heart. Writing this review I’m now realizing I probably like this film way more than my ending statement might suggest, but sometimes we need to hash it all out on paper (or in this case a cramped iPad keyboard) to reevaluate our perception of a certain piece. The cast gets juicier, with Robert Downey Jr. doing a quick bit as Macgruder’s slick buddy who works as a private investigator for the law office, Daryl Hannah and Famke Janssen as Rick’s jilted wife as well. It’s based on a John Grisham novel, and Altman seems to be the first director to adapt his work with a ramped up style and personal flair that goes beyond the academic thrills on the page. This one feels heightened, sultry and oh so sweaty in the way that only a southern set thriller can be. Cool stuff.