Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger is to this day one the best and most exhilarating action films of the 1990’s. It’s big, bold and full of protein for lovers oft the genre. From the lively villain to the unbelievable stunts to the set pieces, it’s a tough package to beat. A stunning, vertigo inducing opener set high atop a snowy peak that ends in tragedy. A breathtaking airial heist carried out between two planes via cable wire. A whopper of a helicopter crash. Countless bone snapping, visceral hand to hand combat scenes. The list goes on. Sylvester Stallone puts his physique to great use as Gabe Walker, a rock climbing mountaineer guide who is accidentally responsible for the falling death of his best friend’s girlfriend. His buddy Hal (Michael Rooker) blames him no end, and he leaves in personal disgrace. Elsewhere, ruthless backstabbing psychopath Eric Qualen, (John Lithgow) leads a team of dangerous mercenaries through aforementioned heist, plundering millions from a US treasury department plane and disappearing into the snowy desolation. Soon they come across Hal and a group of people touring the region, who are soon hostages. Word somehow gets out to Stallone and he’s back in business, out for redemption and then chance to brutally dispatch this gang of snow pirates. The action, refreshingly absent of digital gimmicks, packs one hell of a punch. Every fight scene feels breathless, dangerous and desperate. Every blow is thunderously felt, courtesy of director Harlin’s commitment to his work and the efforts of a stellar stunt team. Stallone isna beast and I forget that every time I haven’t seen him in a while. He’s almost as big as the mountains he scales here and each and every bad guy damn well finds this out. Rooker is as intense as he always is, love the guy. Lithgow is a freaking villain for the ages, in a role intended first for David Bowie, then Christopher Walken. I’m glad the ball ended up in his court, because he subsequently knocks it back out of the park with his cold blooded, deliciously evil performance. He makes Qualen so scary and merciless that even his own people get the jitters around him. There’s also work from Rex Linn, Caroline Goodall, Craig Fairbrass, Max Perlich, Paul Winfield, Ralph Waite, Don S. Davis, Bruce McGill and Janine Turner. This is just one of the finest action movies to ever swing into theatres or onto dvd. Brutal, scenic, adventurous, exciting, violent, snowy, just plain kick ass. If you don’t like this movie, you don’t like ice cream.
J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call sustains a laser focused, wilfully meticulous look at the days leading up to the 2008 financial crash, showing us life within one wall street office building during a nervy period which now no doubt is remembered as the calm before the storm. Various characters in different positions of the hierarchy anxiously brace themselves as the jobs begin to get cut and the dread looms towards them like the inevitable rising sun at dawn. It’s set all in one afternoon and night, compacting a far reaching event which spanned years into the microcosm of a single 24 hour window, a tactic which sits through the larger world implications and brings it in for something a little more intimate. Zachary Quinto plays a young trader who discovers a rip in the lining of the economic infrastructure, a precursor to the eventual disaste. I’m not being purposefully vague and cryptic with that, I just don’t personally understand all the exact ins and outs of what went wrong back then, and having not the slightest knowledge of wall street jargon, that’s the best I can do. He brings this knowledge to his superiors who react in varying ways. Kevin Spacey is a disillusioned big shot who sees his life going off the rails alongside the country’s market, and mopes in his swanky office. Paul Bettany is a cocky young upstart who uses casual indifference to shade the bruises he’s got from knowing what will happen. Demi Moore is a company head who looks out for herself while others in the company. Jeremy Irons provides scant moments of humour as a bigwig fixer who arrives on a chopper to set things straight, or at least assess the damage. The best work of the film comes from Stanley Tucci (surprise, surprise) as a jilted employee who has been laid off in the confusion, and is seething about it. His melancholic monologue about what it takes to propel America’s industry and economy forward resonates with a humanity that cuts deep. The film ticks along with a pace that’s both measured and swift, with little time for introspect, yet showing it to us anyway amid the chaos. Watch for appearances from Penn Badgley, Al Sapienza, Simon Baker and Mary McDonnell as well. Chandor let’s the proceedings thrum with an inevitability that hangs in the air as the promise of the impending crisis, a feeling that serves to impart not why it happened, not how it happened, but the fact that it did happen, to each and every individual person who was affected, as opposed to the country as a whole.
The Box is a moody little crime drama thriller starring James Russo, whose appropriately brooding persona lends itself to grim neo noir films such as these. He’s an actor who has almost entirely worked in B movies for a long time, and while you have to watch out for most as they are usually geniune piles of dog shit, this one is a jewel amongst the rubbish. Russo plays Frank Miles here, an ex con trying to go straight, sticking with the dead end job his P.O. has given him to stay out of trouble. Soon he meets beautiful waitress Dora (Theresa Russell) who falls in love with. The two of them try to start a new life together, but as we all know sometimes it’s very hard to run from your past, and soon enough trouble comes looking for them. Frank tries to get some money owing to him from his sleazebag of an ex-associate Michael Dickerson (a detestable Jon Polito) and things go wrong. Violence ensues, and Frank finds himself in the possession of a mysterious box which he can’t open and hasn’t a clue about. Dora has a scumbag boyfriend in club owner Jake Ragna (a terrifying Steve Railsbac) who I’d dangerous, volatile and obsessive about her. Soon, an evil corrupt Police Detective named Stafford (Michael Rooker) makes their lives hell as he searches for the box. Frank and Dora take refuge at the home of Stan (Brad Dourif, excellent), Frank’s former cell mate, friend who is now a weed dealer. Even this may not be enough to keep them safe, as the long arm of the crooked law probes, and Stafford gets closer and closer. It’s a depressing situation forged by bad decision and the perhaps inescapable knack for trouble that some people tend to have, whether it’s coincidence or a measurable character flaw is eternally up for debate. The pair try so hard to fix their lives and still seem to be headed for a tragic dead end. Russo has sadness in his eyes in every role, as well as a boiling anger to match it, he fills out his protagonist very well. Rooker and Railsback make scary work of the two villains, especially Rooker who uses the kind of blatant brutality and abuse of power that are essential ingrediants in very dangerous men. Dourif is Dourif, which is never not mesmerizing, and Russell does the wounded angel thing down to the bone. A sad story, with a dream cast (for me, at least), a downbeat reflection on lives gone down the wrong path, a diamond in the rough noir thriller of the best kind.
Moscow Zero is a chilly little subterranean ghost story, and a favourite for me. It god critically shredded by the few people who did see it, and quickly forgotten. I think this may be because of odd marketing,and the cultural rifts in different areas of both the world, and cinema. It was marketed in North America as a supernatural shocker starring Val Kilmer, which was a cheap shot to fans and in fact false advertising. Kilmer is in it, for maybe ten minutes, and is very good, but the story isn’t his. It’s also supernatural, but in a far more subtle, ambiguous and inaccessible way that the ADHD-ridden audiences over here just aren’t used to. In short, it’s very European, and they just seem to have a better handle on the intuition it takes to make an atmospheric chiller than anyone else, also seeming to be more connected with ghost lore and the spirit realm. The story concerns a priest named Father Owen (hollywood’s resident alien Vincent Gallo, playing it dead straight here). He has traveled to Moscow I hopes of finding his friend Professor Sergey (Rade Serbedzija), who has descended into ancient catacombs and endless tunnels below the surface of the city in hopes of finding a lost artifact hidden during wartime. He joins up with a group of guides and Moscow natives including the beautiful Lubya (Oksana Akinshina) and a tracker named Yuri (Joaquim De Almeida) to traverse the underside of the city and find his friend. There are long, eerie scenes of Sergey wandering around the dimly lit labyrinth, pursuing his scholarly goal and talking to himself as strange shadows and far away whispers follow him around, gradually letting the viewer know that he’s not alone. Owen and his team rendezvous with Tolstoy (Joss Ackland) the elderly leader of a tribe of tunnel dwellers who won’t go below a certain level of the catacombs, who provides a map. Then they go deeper. Kilmer plays Andrey, a Russian dude who runs a gang that are in control of opening and closing a deep fissure gate that is said to lead to a hell like place. He’s relaxed, in both demeanor and the Russian accent, but he’s clearly having fun in one of his more character type roles. The catacombs have a haunted feel to them, and indeed there are ghosts, but not presented in the way you might think. The way the human characters see them is quite different from how they see themselves, and how the audience sees them, which is a nice touch. The story keeps itself mysterious, right up until it’s puzzling, creepy conclusion, buy I prefer that open ended, almost experimental style over desperate attempts to scare us. It’s atmospheric, strange, unique, thick with ideas and altogether a bit of brilliance. Definitely an aquire taste, though.
Antoine Fuqua’s The Replacement Killers is one of the most stylish and visually synergistic action flicks ever made. It’s like John Woo meets John Wick, and seriously has some cool to it. Chow Yun Fat, that effortless, laid back badass, plays lethal hitman John Lee, who suffers a crisis of conscience at the worst professional crossroads. When Detective Stan Zedkov (Michael Rooker adds to the noirish feel) kills the son of powerful Chinese crime boss Terence Wei (Kenneth Tsang), he and his family are marked for death by the syndicate. Lee is employed to take out his young son, but holds back in the last moment, making a split second decision to defy Wei, take a rogue’s path and create a huge problem for everyone involved. Now, Wei has replacement killer after not only Lee, but Zedkov again and anyone unlucky enough to get in the way. Lee teams up with sexy identity forger Meg Coburn (love me some Mira Sorvino) and the two evade bullets, bombs and multiple murderous assassins all in the highest of style. Chow is the perfect action hero, with a mournful like ability and stoic streak that’s never too serious and always punctuated by his baleful sense of humour. Plus the guy can make bloody magic with two handguns in a career of epic stunt work that is almost as big a feat as that of the characters he plays. Sorvino also has a downbeat energy, adorable self deprecation and tough chick sarcasm that she masquerades with to hide the bruised girl beneath. They are a wonderful team, and I like that the film never outright forced any romance, but rather let the performances subtly suggest it via the absence in the script. Rooker holds up his end with endearing toughness, especially when forced to work alongside Lee and Meg to save their asses, a perfect character arc that he really sells.Jurgen Prochnow is deadly and devilish as Michael Kogan, the only German mercenary I know of that works for a Chinese crime syndicate lol. Danny Trejo and Til Schweiger are hilariously over the top as two silent monster assassins, leather clad death angels hired by Wei to hunt our heroes. The action really steps it up into comic book mode when they show up. Keep any eye out for Frank Medrano, Patrick Kilpatrick and a young Clifton Collins Jr as a street vato named ‘Loco’. Epic cast, unmatched visual style, an action gold mine.
A lot was riding on Mission: Impossible (1996) for Tom Cruise. Not only was it the first film he produced (in addition to starring), it was also his first attempt to kick start his own film franchise. And what better way to do this than resurrecting a classic television show from the 1960s? Cruise, always the calculated risk taker, wisely surrounded himself with talented people: Robert Towne co-wrote the screenplay, Brian De Palma directing and the likes of Jon Voight, Jean Reno, and Vanessa Redgrave in the cast. At the time, the James Bond franchise was in a transitional period and didn’t produce a new film until the following year. Mission: Impossible was a huge box office success spawning a franchise that continues to produce installments.
Jim Phelps (Voight) leads his group of IMF agents on a mission to intercept Alexander Golitsyn (Marcel Iures), a traitorous attaché, who has stolen a list of the code names for all of the CIA operatives in Europe. He plans to steal the other half of the list with their real names from an embassy in Prague. One by one, members of the team are killed off by mysterious assailants. Only Ethan Hunt (Cruise) survives the bungled mission and rendezvous later with his superior, Kittridge (a wonderfully twitchy Henry Czerny) in a restaurant. Over the course of their conversation, Ethan realizes that he was set-up and that another team was shadowing his own. Kittridge reveals that the embassy debacle was actually an elaborate scheme to expose a traitor within the IMF organization and he believes that it is Ethan and that he also killed his entire team.
De Palma conveys Ethan’s growing sense of paranoia and panic in this scene through increasingly skewed camera angles as the magnitude of what has happened begins to sink in. Henry Czerny plays the scene beautifully as Kittridge talks to Ethan as a parent might scold a child. The conversation between them culminates with a daring escape as Ethan causes a large aquarium to explode, using the ensuing chaos to make his getaway. This scene was Cruise’s idea. There were 16 tons of water in all of the tanks but there was a concern that when they blew, a lot of glass would fly around. De Palma tried the sequence with a stuntman but it did not look convincing and he asked Cruise to do it despite the possibility that the actor could have drowned.
Ethan regroups at a safe house where he meets Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), another surviving member of his team. He must find out who set him up and retrieve the list. To aid him in his endeavor, Ethan enlists the help of Claire and two other disavowed agents (Ving Rhames and Jean Reno). The film really gets going once Cruise hooks up with Reno and Rhames (playing an ace hacker no less) and they decide to break into CIA headquarters for what is Mission: Impossible’s most famous set piece. This impressively staged sequence is cheekily dubbed the “Mount Everest of hacks” by Ethan and is masterfully orchestrated by De Palma. The heart of this sequence is nearly soundless proving that one doesn’t need a ton of explosions and gunfire to have an exciting, tension-filled action sequence (Michael Bay take note).
Paramount Pictures owned the rights to the television series and had tried for years to make a film version but had failed to come up with a viable treatment. Cruise was a fan of the show since he was young and thought that it would be a good idea for a film. The actor chose Mission: Impossible to be the first project of his new production company and convinced Paramount to put up a $70 million budget. Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner worked on a story with filmmaker Sydney Pollack for a few months when the actor hired Brian De Palma to direct. They went through two screenplay drafts that no one liked. The screenwriting team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) wrote a draft and then David Koepp (The Shadow) was reportedly paid $1 million to rewrite it. According to one project source, there were problems with dialogue and story development. However, the basic plot remained intact. De Palma brought in screenwriter Steve Zaillian (A Civil Action) and finally Robert Towne to work on the script. According to the director, the goal of the script was to “constantly surprise the audience.”
Amazingly, even with all of these talented screenwriters working on it, the film went into pre-production without a script that the filmmakers wanted to use. De Palma designed the action sequences but neither Koepp nor Towne were satisfied with the story that would make these sequences take place. Towne helped organize a beginning, middle and end to hang story details on while De Palma and Koepp worked on the plot. The director convinced Cruise to set the first act of the film in Prague, a city rarely seen in Hollywood films at the time. Reportedly, studio executives wanted to keep the film’s budget in the $40-$50 million range but Cruise wanted a “big, showy action piece” that took the budget up to the $70 million range.
The script that Cruise approved called for a final showdown to take place on top of a moving train. The actor wanted to use the famously fast French train the TGV but rail authorities did not want any part of the stunt performed on their trains. When that was no longer a problem, the track was not available. De Palma visited railroads on two continents trying to get permission. Cruise took the train owners out to dinner and the next day they were allowed to use it. For the actual sequence, the actor wanted wind that was so powerful that it could knock him off the train. Cruise had difficulty finding the right machine that would create the wind velocity that would look visually accurate before remembering a simulator he used while training as a skydiver. The only machine of its kind in Europe was located and acquired. Cruise had it produce winds up to 140 miles per hour so it would distort his face. Most of the sequence, however, was filmed on a stage against a blue screen for later digitizing by the visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic.
The filmmakers delivered Mission: Impossible on time and under budget with Cruise doing most of his own stunts. Initially, there was a sophisticated opening sequence that introduced a love triangle between Phelps, his wife Claire and Ethan that was removed because it took the test audience “out of the genre,” according to De Palma. There were rumors that Cruise and De Palma did not get along and they were fueled by the director excusing himself at the last moment from scheduled media interviews before the film’s theatrical release.
In some scenes, Cruise has a tendency to over-emote, like when Ethan is reunited with Claire after their entire team has been wiped out. Sleep deprived and paranoid, Ethan yells at Claire, “They’re dead! They’re all dead!” It’s an embarrassing bit of overacting on Cruise’s part but the actor redeems himself somewhat later on in a cheeky bit of acting when he cons Reno over a CD of vital information through a clever display of sleight of hand.
The film’s overriding theme is one of deception, a world where nothing is what it seems. The prologue has a disguised Ethan trick a captive man into giving up a name of a key operative. This is only one of many disguises (created by make-up legend Rob Bottin) he adopts throughout the film in order to obtain information or trick an opponent. The prologue also cleverly serves as a metaphor for filmmaking. The spy trade, like cinema, is all about creating an illusion and pretending to be something that you’re not. In addition, several members of his team are not who they appear to be as well and this keeps the audience guessing as to who is “good” and who is “bad.”
The common complaint leveled at Mission: Impossible was that it was hard to follow, fueling speculation that De Palma’s original cut was non-linear in nature and that Cruise re-cut it after disastrous test screenings. Regardless, if one is paying attention to what is happening and what is being said (or not being said, in some cases) it isn’t difficult to navigate the film’s narrative waters. The script is lean and unusually well-written for a big budget action blockbuster, which is quite amazing when you consider how many writers worked on it. Make no mistake about it; this is a paycheck film for De Palma. However, being the consummate professional that he is, the veteran director still delivers an entertaining film with some nice stylistic flourishes. What more could you ask for from this kind of film?
Philip Noyce’s The Bone Collector augments it’s atmosphere in the obvious hopes of evoking memories of David Fincher’s Sev7n (It’s even got an actor who also appeared in that film) which for the most part it nicely does. Story wise, however, it’s got entirely it’s own thing going on and follows the ever popular path of the serial killer whodunit. In this almost audience interactive sub-genre, we are routinely presented with a host of different characters, some following archetype and others not so much. The identity of the killer could literally be anyone we see onscreen at any time, even down to a tiny character who maybe shows up in one small scene. Then it’s up to the viewer to race the protagonist towards a correct conclusion, a game which I’ve never been all that good at lol. This time it’s Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie who step up to the batters’s plate, hunting a very nasty individual who kidnaps people in locked taxi cabs and leaves them to die in various sadistic ways. Washington plays renowned criminal profiler and ex cop Lincoln Rhyme, left paralyzed from the neck down and bereft of any will to live following an accident. When his old cop buddy (Ed O Neil) shows up and pleads him to take a gander at the case files of the new killer, he reluctantly dusts off the old instincts and goes on the hunt. Problem is, he’s a turnip from the neck down and needs an avatar with whom he has a rapport with and can carry out the leg work, so to speak. He takes a shine to young patrol woman Amelia Donaghy (Jolie) who is showing early signs of the same forensic brilliance after she responds to the scene of one of the murders. She becomes an extension of him, and together they work to smoke out the killer and put a stop to his crimes, also bringing some kind of peace to Rhyme’s restless mind in the same stroke. They are hassled by the world’s most belligerent and obnoxious Police Captain (Michael Rooker in full on asshole mode) and helped by Rhyme’s kindly nurse assistant (a very good Queen Latifah). There’s also work from Bobby Cannavle, Leland Orser, Luis Guzman, Mike Mcglone and David Warshofsky too. Noyce is a solid and very slick director (he did wonderful work in the Jack Ryan franchise, as well as the very underrated The Saint), gamely shunting his aesthetic into the serial killer vs. Detective corner. It’s a decidedly grisly affair, despite the glossy sheen and big names, and almost veers into outright horror in places, but is always kept in line by the excellent chemistry and friendship between Jolie and Washington, who are both great on their own and as a team. Good stuff.