It’s interesting to me how the best Disney films, or at least the ones that I connect with most anyways, don’t get talked about too much. Atlantis: The Lost Empire is always one I was kind of dimly aware of, I had the McDonald’s toys as a kid even though I never saw the film and always thought of it as just another rote Princess storyline from the studio. How wrong I was. This is an absolutely sensational SciFi adventure fantasy on all levels, boundlessly imaginative, strikingly mature as far as Disney goes and the kind of intricately designed experience you can get lost in. In the early 1900’s young scholar Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox in a lovely, exuberant turn) dreams of finding the lost city of Atlantis as his peers and superiors at the Smithsonian mock his efforts. When an eccentric and very rich tycoon (the late John Mahoney) agrees to fund an elaborate deep sea exploration with Milo spearheading the research aspect, it’s off to the races as a beautifully designed mega-craft descends into the Atlantic Ocean with our hero and a whole team of ragtag experts, grunts and grease monkeys onboard. The film is very realistic and fair with its characters and we get an entire fleet of fascinating individuals including an African American former civil war surgeon (Phil Morris) with indigenous roots, a cantankerous cook (Jim Varney), a Mediterranean explosives guru, a vivacious French geologist and the crew’s mercurial captain Rourke, given the commanding, affable yet vaguely menacing voice of James Garner who does a terrific job of the villainous arc. There is a Princess here but she isn’t doe eyed, sing-songy or cloying for romance every second. Her name is Kida (voiced wonderfully by Cree Summer), she’s the daughter of the Atlantean King (Leonard Nimoy, of all people) and she’s assured, strong willed and cares deeply for the plight of her race, who have fallen on hard times. There are eventual romantic sparks between her and Milo but they feel organic, earned and born out of a genuine, character development based relationship as the two get to know each other and she shows him around her striking world. The visual design and animation here is something else, even before we see Atlantis there’s a steampunk vibe to their equipment and vessel, and when we see the otherworldly biodiversity, detailed architectural splendour and tattoos/costume design it’s an atmosphere like no other. Not to mention the ballistic gong show of a climax, born out of capitalist fuelled betrayal, the very fate of Atlantis and every living thing in it at stake. This isn’t your average Disney flick and while there are the usual beats like comic relief and romance etc, it all feels far more down to earth than I’m used to from this kind of output. I’m reminded of another Disney one that has a similarly grounded, spectacularly imagined world, the wonderful Treasure Planet. I think the studio has never been as good or as inspired as their work with that one and now Atlantis too, it has to be up there as my favourite.
Bruce Willis in another cop flick? That’s not even a Die Hard Entry? Rowdy Herrington’s Striking Distance got put through a wheat thresher by critics and viewers alike but I think it’s a lot of fun. Never mind that it’s overly lurid, predictable to a dime and excessively stylish. Willis is Detective Tom Hardy (lol) one of his mopey disgraced cops who drinks a bunch and mutters half assed one liners under his breath whenever someone tries to tell him to get his shit together. After failing to catch a slippery serial killer, he’s relegated to boat duty in the Pittsburg harbour and assigned to a rookie partner (Sarah Jessica Parker doesnt do much here) he can barely stand. Tom comes from a police family, his uncle (Dennis Farina) is the commissioner, his cousin (Tom Sizemore) a fellow detective and as such he’s been kind of shunned and also blamed for the death of his other cousin (Robert Pastorelli), a cop who lost his mind. But this killer has resurfaced and is playing sick mind games with him all over the city, murdering people and ghost calling him, until a series of sting operations, stand offs and one man hunts are conducted to smoke him out. The cast also includes Brion James, Tom Atkins, Andre Braugher and John Mahoney as Tom’s father who, you guessed it, is also a high ranking cop. Director Rowdy Herrington is known for Roadhouse and therefore subtlety isn’t his game, so the lapses in logic and continuity are kind of to be expected. What he does do well are scenes of atmospheric suspense and well staged shootouts. Yes, the identity of the killer is kind of easy to surmise given that it’s not a huge cast and there’s only a few people it could be (at least it doesn’t go Jennifer 8 and cheat by literally picking one of the bit players out of the crowd that we’d never suspect), but the fun is in watching how Willis hunts and takes him down. Plus the cast is great, you really can’t go wrong with Farina and Sizemore, both of whom are reliably intense. Not the best cop vs. killer flick out there but for sure not the worst either.
Wolfgang Petersen’s In The Line Of Fire is as solid as action pictures get, a three course thriller meal, and one of my favourite Clint Eastwood flicks. Starting to show his age here and adopting a brittle, calcified hardness, he plays disgraced secret service agent Frank Horrigan, a quiet, resolute man who is haunted by his failure to protect Kennedy from that infamous bullet. He’s on undercover sting operations with his rookie partner (Dylan McDermott) these days, and is battling some health issues that go hand in hand with getting up there in years. No better time for predatory, mercurial ex CIA assassin Mitch Leary (a terrifying John Malkovich) to taunt him out of retirement with threats against the new president, up for election. Leary is a cunning psychopath who won’t go down so easy, and Frank is just the determined wolfhound to take him down, as a dangerous, violently suspenseful game of cat and mouse plays out. There’s an obligatory female love interest too, but the film shirks the usual ditzy throwaway chick and goes for something classier in Rene Russo, a capable senior agent who initially roasts Frank for his age before eventually warming up. Russo is an unconventionally attractive, intuitively engaging actress whose subtly likeable nature sneaks up on you and the muted chemistry she has with Eastwood is terrific. The three excellent leads are surrounded by a nebulae of awesome supporting players including John Mahoney, the always solid Gary Cole, Fred Dalton Thompson, a sleazy Tobin Bell and scene stealing character actor Steve Railsback in a brilliant cameo as Leary’s shady former Agency handler. Subtlety has never been Petersen’s forte, but his approach works here as he tells the story in big, bold strokes that highlight each set piece with sterling suspense. There’s also a brooding score by the master himself, Ennio Morricone, which takes the solemn, scary route instead of blaring up the Zimmer-esque fireworks. As great as the action is here (that plastic 3D printed gun though), my favourite scenes are the creepy late night phone calls that Malkovich makes to Eastwood, teasing him but also betraying notes of loneliness in his perverted psyche. This is a battle of wills before it even gets physical, and the two heavyweights spar off of each other with calculated portent and restrained, fascinated loathing. A thriller classic.
Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear does a fine job of using opaque marketing to conceal it’s delicious, devilish secrets, a tactic that many films recklessly abandon and ruin far too much in trailers or posters. This is a careful exercise in serpentine plotting. Is it courtroom drama? Supernatural shocker? Psychological thriller? Pot-boiling procedural intrigue? Check it out and be as floored as audiences were for the first time back then. Richard Gere holds his end well as a legendary hotshot defence attorney in Chicago, one with a tarnished reputation and a penchant for defending unscrupulous clients. A weird case comes his way in the form of mentally challenged alter boy Edward Norton, accused of murdering someone high up in the clergy and causing a political hailstorm throughout the city. This is one of those thrillers that does genuinely keep you guessing, until literally the final frame, using human interaction and intimate performances to instigate reactions, rather than a barrage of special effects or manufactured narrative gimmicks. I’m being deliberately vague because this is the one film you don’t want spoiled for you ahead of time, it’s that cool. This was, I believe, the role that put Norton on the map, and he’s a gale force of electric energy, giving everyone else onscreen a huge run for their money. It’s fun watching Gere, an assured and confident pillar of law and order, slowly unravel and find himself at the mercy of malicious curveballs he doesn’t even see coming until they’ve hit. The cast is dynamite, with rockin’ turns from fiery John Mahoney as the worst mayor in Chicago’s history, Laura Linney as Gere’s hot tempered rival, Terry O’ Quinn, Alfre Woodward, Andre Braugher, Jon Seda, Frances McDormand, Maura Tierney, Joe Spano, Tony Plana and a slick Steven Bauer as a mob don with ties to Gere. This has all the trappings of a big, overblown thriller drawn from broad strokes, but Hoblit wisely brings it in in places, giving us a nuthouse claustrophobic shivers to go along with the big league intrigue. One of the best thrillers of the 90’s, and one that should get mentioned more often. I’ll also say it has to have one of the coolest DVD special edition covers ever, it’s always nice to see extra effort put into that arena.