Faster is an action film with an eerie aura and a darkly unnerving bite to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s action through and through, a genre effort right to its marrow. And yet, there’s something oddly esoteric about it, an obvious extra effort put in by the filmmakers, namely first time action director George Tillman, to give every character an off kilter, bizarre cadence to ensure we won’t forget them. There’s clichés, no doubt, but they’re eclipsed by the strange, full moon weirdness of the rogues running about the film’s story. Dwayne Johnson fires up a furious protagonist in his first action role after a long and ridiculous stint in insufferable family comedies. He plays a quiet, hulking dude known only as Driver, reluctantly released from prison by a watchful Warden (Tom Berenger). Upon exiting the gate, he runs. And runs. And runs. He arrives at a small town junkyard where he tears a tarp of a vintage Chevelle which seems to be left there for him like a care package. From there he launches a bloody crusade of revenge that knows neither mercy nor discretion, and whose reasons we are only slowly allowed to know. He’s a one man wrecking ball, the murders piling up before we really have any idea what this guy is about. He’s been greatly wronged in the past, the culprits of which should all be running scared, as he comes looking for them one by one and with the juggernaut pace of a boulder tumbling down a mountain. Pretty soon there’s two cops on his trail, intrepid Cicero (Carla Gugino) and mopey sleazeball ‘Cop’ (Billy Bob Thornton), a dilapidated piece of work who mainlines heroin and clearly has a murky past. Soon there’s one hell of a hitman (Oliver Jackson Cohen) skulking around looking for Driver, an extreme sports enthusiast who has ‘beaten yoga’ and is avidly looking for the next big thrill. Johnson jumps from one ultra violent encounter to the next with all the corrosive ferocity of the grim reaper, tallying up the corpses until we’re all but sure he’s an inhuman elimination machine. Then.. the film curveballs us and throws a glint of humanity into the mix with some late third act emotion that only goes to show the filmmakers set out with more than a one track mind. Driver has been unspeakably betrayed, and his rampage is undeniably justified, but there’s a complexity to his quest that he didn’t see coming, and neither did those of us who expected pure action without a moral conundrum in sight. I say good on it for grasping something besides the thrills. A terrific cast populates the almost Oliver Stone – esque proceedings, including Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood, Mike Epps, Jennifer Carpenter (always superb), Matt Gerald, Xander Berkeley, Buzz Belmondo, Courtney Gains and more. It’s got the depth of a well written graphic novel and a level of thought out characterization that heaps of stale action entries wish they possessed.
If an eighth grade class raided their parents liquor cabinet, passed around a bottle, got good and loaded and took it upon themselves to make their own version of every 90’s action cliche, it would look something like Ticker, a wonderfully inept mad bomber tale that starts at rock bottom and cheerfully drills farther down, as well as into critics collective patience, it seems. It’s silly clunky and all over the place, but there’s a scrappy likeability to its amalgamated stew of genre tropes, masculine posturing and endless explosions. The bomber in question is Alex Swan (Dennis Hopper), a homicidal Irish extremist intent on making life hard for the San Francisco bomb squad, led by explosives expert Frank Glass (a laughably zen Steven Seagal). Hero cop Ray Nettles (Tom Sizemore) previously lost a partner to bombers and has a big score to settle with Swan. And so it goes. Bombs go off. Cops argue. They chase Hopper, who eludes them until the next set of fireworks destroy a wall glass panels or a bridge. Sizemore is surprisingly sedated, not seizing the opportunity to use his lead role as an excuse to tear through scenery like a bulldozer, as is usually his speciality. Seagal is so silly, his intended gravitas landing with all the profundity of an SNL skit. Hopper is demented, even more so than in Speed, and the rental fee is worth it just to hear his perplexing, absolutely wretched Irish accent. Not since Tommy Lee Jones in Blown Away have I laughed that hard at an actor butchering the dialect to high heaven. There’s appearances from Nas, Jaime Pressley, Kevin Gage and the always awesome Peter Greene as ana a-hole fellow cop that hounds Sizemore any chance he gets. Quite the cast, and in a perfect world the film they wander through would match their talent. I watched this with the same morbid curiosity that the bystanders gawking at the resulting destruction of one of Hopper’s bombs no doubt had: incredulity and the inability to look away for missing a moment of a disaster unfolding in front of you.
There are a few films Kevin Costner has done in which he has really been allowed and been willing to test the boundaries of what is usually expected from him in a role. 3,000 Miles To Graceland and Eastwood’s A Perfect World are fine examples. Perhaps the finest though is Mr. Brooks, a dark tale that showcases the actor in a terrifying turn and the last type of role you would picture for him on paper. Opposites are paramount in acting and cinema as a whole, and it’s that type of contrarian casting choice that can lead to a performer’s finest hours. In this case it’s certainly one of Kevin’s best outings, and casts him in a frightening new light, or should I say dark. Here he is Earl Brooks, husband, father, businessman and all round stand up guy. Except fpr the fact that he moonlights as a methodical and psychopathic serial killer. He sees it as an affliction, and is almost ashamed of it, whether by a tiny flicker of a soul he may have, or simply by the standards impressed onto society. He’s efficient, cold and hopelessly addicted to the act of murder. His alter ego, or ‘dark passenger’ as the scholars say, is a cynical persona called Marshall, brought to life by a scary William Hurt. “Why do you fight it, Earl?” he drawls in that committed, laconic snarl that only Hurt can do. There’s shades of his character from Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence here, affirming my belief that Hurt is a pure acting prodigy and masterful of both the light and the dark within his craft. Earl has a daughter too (Danielle Panabaker) who he has worrisome thoughts about, and a picture perfect wife (Marg Helgenberger). One can’t keep the turbulent nightlife of the serial killer a secret for one’s entire life though, and pretty soon people start to catch on. A nosy Nelly (Dane Cook) catches a whiff of Earl’s crimes and lives to wish he hadn’t, and a keen Detective (Demi Moore) begins to piece the puzzle together as well. Earl is as clever as he is murderous though, covering his work and tying off loose ends with gut churning gusto. Costner carries the film terrifically, a man who is at once both uncomfortable in his own skin yet fits it like a glove when the camera dutifully bears witness to his killings. He’s like a tiger who really can’t change his stripes but wants to shield them from the judgment of others, and of course his own persecution. The scenes of murder are skin crawling in their frank, fly-on-the-wall nature, no slasher cinematics or gimmicky set ups here, just the icy horror of a predator extinguishing human life to sate the beast, and the nightmarish inevitability of death. Those scenes paint Earl in a horrific light, but the film doesn’t try to convince us he’s a monster using any usual methods, it just presents to us this man, his acts and his life surrounding them, without discernable condoning or condemning. It’s cold, it’s clinical and it’s one of the best serial killer flicks out there.
Ahh, Peter Berg’s The Rundown. What a sun soaked galavant of action fun, a purely cinematic exercise in excitement and joyous fun, a rollicking genre exercise that’s free from the rides of intellectual expectation. No, it’s nothing but playtime here, and one of the rare cases where a PG-13 rating actually doesn’t hurt an action film. It’s so lighthearted and affable that the extra bloody punch of an R rating probably would have been a jarring, unnecessary distraction and offset it’s tone. For the record, you will almost never hear me advocate that in this genre, but I suppose every issues has its extreme exceptions. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson plays Beck, a rough and tumble dude who coyly disguises the title of bounty hunter by calling himself a ‘retrieval expert’. He’s essentially a big teddy bear with the ability to rip out your stuffing and kick the ever loving shit out of anyone whose demise will earn him a pay cheque. He doesn’t like using guns, and every cent he makes goes towards a dream of opening up his own restaurant. Pretty much the most adorable action hero you can imagine. He is sent by an Miami crime lord (William Lucking hamming it up royally) to retrieve his wayward son (Sean William Scott) who has run off to an unspecified tropical country. Beck jumps a plane and runs off to said country to give us one of the most pleasently riotous action/comedy/adventure of the 00’s. His pursuit of Scott leads him to endless picturesque jungles, horny baboons, invincible native Kung fi warriors and more. Scott turns out to be an elusive wise – ass who is nothing but calamity for both Beck and himself. The scenes where they try the dodgy local fruit are rewind worthy. He really shines here, bringing the same burn-down-the-house attitude he did as Stiffler. There’s also a priceless artifact that everyone is trying to retrieve, including a tough local bartender (Rosario Dawson). There’s also a villain, as there must be in any action film, a bugnuts local tyrant named Hatcher played by the one and only Christopher Walken. Hatcher is a wonderful Walken creation whose attempted menace is constantly undone by his penchent for silliness, a winning combination that super-charges every scene he gets. That lanky Scotsman Ewan Bremer is wicked funny as a deranged bush pilot who assists Beck in unintelligible endearance. Hearing him vivaciously recite Dylan Thomas’s ‘Dying Of The Light’ right before a big old gunfight kicks off is absolute gold. Dwayne makes nice work of the action hero archetype, bringing an almost adolescent buoyancy to his vibe that he may even have not seen coming when he got into the craft. There’s a surprise cameo from a genre titan early on in the film that is essentially a passing of the torch symbol, so eyes should be kept peeled. Director Berg knows how to wow an audience in many a genre, this being my favourite excursion of his thus far. It’s loud, scenic, unapologetic and has fun six ways to fucking Sunday.
“Let us go then, you and I,
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
This excerpt from the poem ‘The Love Of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by Eliot is our theme for a film called Till Human Voices wake us, a film I’ve owned on dvd for almost two years and only got around to watching last night. I have a whole gigantic stack of films that number in the hundreds which I still have to conquer. Some are dodgy movies and risky looking indie muck that I picked up because they have an actor or actress I really love. Some end up being absolute gems that I wish I got around to far, far sooner. This is one of those. It’s such a beautiful story, an atmospheric, airy glance into grief, regret, life after death, guilt and redemption. It stars Guy Pearce as Sam, an emotionally constrained professor of psychology who travels back to his town of origin in eerie, ambient Australia to bury his recently deceased father. The very moment he arrives he is flooded with memories both glad and sad, permeated deep to his core by a past that he perhaps purposefully numbed over with time and tide, revisiting the lost events of a youth painted by wonder and first love, and tainted by aching tragedy. We see in flashbacks his younger self (Lindley Joiner) barely a teenager in the lonely rural outback. He spent his days back then with his beautiful friend Sylvie (Brooke Harmon), and the two fall deeply, sublimely in love in that affectionate way that only two youngsters who are both experiencing it for the first time can profess. Tragedy strikes though, resulting in Sylvie’s death and Sam’s withdrawal from his life in the that town, and eventual flight from Australia, not to return until over a decade later, much older yet still plagued by the loss. Upon returning, he meets a mysterious girl named Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter) who he saves from jumping off a bridge. All she can remember is her name. Nothing else like who she is or what she was doing up there. Sam takes her in and tries to help her figure out who she is, and perhaps unbeknownst to him, who he is these days as well. Together they meander through meadows memories, exploring each other’s thoughts, perceptions and feelings, gradually coming to some third act revelations that really shouldn’t come as a surprise to any viewer with an ounce of intuition. The surprise comes not in being taken off guard by plot turns, because I certainly wasn’t. No, the film never sets out to try and surprise you, and guessing what’s going on before any reveal I suspect was part of its plan. What it floored me with, though, is the level of emotion and heights of pure crestfallen sadness that we need to sit through. I say need because this is a film about coming to terms with ones own past, hard parts and all. Sam has bottled up the loss of Sylvie for quite some time, and his character arc lets it all tumble out in some scenes that hit hard. It’s never ugly or despairing though, and gracefully makes itself only as sorrowful as it needs to be. Pearce and Carter are painfully good in the leads, quietly devastating work for both. It’s Harmon and Joiner who complete the song as young Sylvie and young Sam though, two young actors who are uncommonly good on camera and vastly skilled at imparting the raw, reckless and romantic nature of youth, particularly discovering love for the first time, and subsequently losing it in heartbreak that strikes far too soon, like an early summer storm. This is one I’m imagining not too many people have heard of, and one I might have gone a few more years without seeing if I hadn’t randomly decided to watch it last night. I’m glad I did, and you should too.
It’s refreshing that in an age populated by revisionist westerns and snazzy new takes on the ancient genre, some filmmakers just want to play it straight and deliver a good old oater without any newfangled bells and whistles. Jon Cassar’s Forsaken does just that, arriving a few years late (turbulent post production issues) but in modest, simple form, here to tell the age old tale of one man who stands up to some evil frontier bankers with stoic heroism. Kiefer Sutherland is John Henry Clayton, a man who has been away from his quiet hometown for nearly a decade. Following a traumatic stint in the war, circumstance led him into the life of the gunfighter. His unannounced return home stirs up old wounds in his preacher father (Donald Sutherland) who cringes in the very presence of his violent aura. John has thrown down the guns and sworn never to pick them up again, but we all know that just ain’t true, and when he meets a certain group of unsavory dudes in town, he becomes a time bomb of righteous anger that’s liable to go off any time. He spends some time mourning his mother and reconnecting with a lost love (Demi Moore), until the inevitable conflict brews. Corrupt banker James McCurdy (Brian Cox) is buying up farms and forcing families who don’t want to sell off their land, using despicable methods carried out by his two goons, vicious Frank Tillman (Aaron Poole) and mercurial ‘Gentleman’ Dave Turner (Michael Wincott). Tensions arise and everyone finds themselves headed for an unavoidable and blistering conclusion. Kiefer always has a jagged rage simmering just below the surface, which is what made him so perfect as Jack Bauer, another time bomb. He’s downright implosive here, delivering the best work I’ve ever seen him give. He’s got a touching scene with his father in which he goes to places I didn’t know he was capable of in his work. Donald is quiet, resentful and compassionate, wrestling internally to keep his serenity in the face of injustice. Cox always puts on a good show as the villain, and he’s exactly what he needs to be here: beaurocratic menace with just a dash of swagger. It’s Wincott who steals the show though, with the best work in the film. He inhabits Dave (and his incredibly dapper costume) with a relaxed, lupine calm, punctuated by sudden bursts of danger and always presided over by the midnight black, raspy croon of a voice that makes him so special. He jaunts along the line between villain and sympathetic antihero so well, the only character in the film to shirk the archetypes, and I was please try reminded of Jason Robard’s Cheyenne from Once Upon A Time In The West. His best work in a while as well, but then he’s always perfect. The film is refreshingly violent in its gunplay, with an earned brutality that never feels gratuituous, and always satisfying. The production took place in wildest alberta, a trip worth the taking for the breathtaking scenery we get to feast on, especially in an opening credit sequence that is very reminiscent of Eastwood films of yesteryear. It’s a landmark in the sense that although both Kiefer and Donald have been in the same film before (Joel Schumacher’s underrated A Time To Kill) they never have shared the same frame until now. Trust me, it was worth the wait. They are both excellent, along with their peers in a simple, honest to goodness Western film that should please fervent fans of the genre and moviegoers alike.
Folks, this is one for the books. Ever wish there was a film made about a badass, gun slinging vampire who is secretly contracted by the President of the United States (Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert) to carry out dangerous missions and thwart evil Islamic terrorists? Well your very specific and demented wish just came true. Imagine for a moment that John Carpenter, Joe Dante and Michael Bay got hammered one night and wrote the most ridiculous script for a horror action comedy this century has seen. The resulting treatise would be Blood Shot, an absolute hoot of a flick that combines elements that wouldn’t be caught dead (or undead) together in any other setting but that of the gloriously unrestricted world of the B movie. The President uses a craggy operative named Sam (ever brilliant Lance Henriksen) to brief the Vampire in question (Michael Bailey Smith) on his missions. He is to hunt down violent Islamic rebels, led by a dude called Bob. Bob is Arabic. Bob is played by Brad Dourif, who is white as a sheet, but here shows up caked in brown makeup and hollering away in the most idiotic accent I’ve ever heard. His casting alone is just hysterical, and should drive the social activists up the wall screaming, while the rest of us howl in with laughter. His character is called Bob because of everyone’s inability to pronounce his real arabic name which is a mile long and completely nonsensical. His crew are terrorists straight from a Mel Brooks film, complete with a midget amongst them. There’s also a lone hero cop (Brennan Eliott channels the hotshot, reckless law enforcers of 80’s movies) hunting both the terrorists and the Vampire, getting in everyone’s way and capping anything that moves. The fact that Highlander plays the President in a film about a Vampire who hunts down terrorists named Bob should be more than enough for any self respecting film fan to drop whatever they’re doing and go bask in this baby’s glow. Despite being a direct to video flick, it contains not a trace of the trademark ineptitude and shoddiness that you’re always likely to find when exploring the genre. Campiness and lunacy, oh yes. But never mediocrity or laziness. But that’s what your friendly neighborhood Nate is here for, to wade through the unwatchable sludge and mine out the priceless gems for you all to see. This one’s funny, imaginitive, off the wall and a pint of B positive fun.