I won’t pretend to be a fan of horror remakes other than Rob Zombie’s Halloween, but when they cast Sean Bean as iconic highway madman John Ryder in the inevitable second lap of Robert Harmon’s horror classic The Hitcher, I perked up. Bean, like Rutger Hauer in the original, is one of my favourite actors of all time and I had to to see what he did with the character (he pulled out of another contract and jumped a plane just to accept this gig). The good news is.. he lives up to Hauer’s original asphalt angel of death, and I’ll fight anyone who argues. The bad news? The film doesn’t. It’s one of those dodgy, hit or miss Platinum Dunes horror updates (avoid Jason and Freddy like the plague, but their first Leatherface incarnation is quite good) and really misses out on the atmospheric, haunting pace of the first, where nightmares and reality blend into the mirages appearing on the desert horizon for lone motorist Jim Halsey… the thing is, here Jim isn’t alone at all but travelling with his girlfriend and that takes some of the primal fear out of it. Zachary Knighton fills C. Thomas Howell’s shoes and a surprisingly adept Sofia Bush plays the gal, on a road trip for spring break when they’re suddenly tormented by Bean’s Ryder, an intense creation by the actor that carefully avoids any callbacks or mimicry of Hauer. How could he though? Rutger made that role his own and Bean wisely does the same with a sardonic, smouldering aura all his own, and wins a spot in horror pantheon as a worthy update on this boogeyman of the backroads (he’s also better than Gary Busey’s kid was in that god awful sequel that no one wants to admit was even made). Everything here gets a torqued update, from the infamous body tied between two trucks scene (yuck) to the car chases (that Trans Am tho) to the violence itself, to legendary highway super-cop Lt. Esteridge, trading in cucumber cool Jeffrey DeMunn for hilariously hammy Neal McDonough, who kills it as the only officer who isn’t a bumbling moron. But who needs all that sound and fury when you’re trying to throwback to an atmosphere classic? I guess go your own way, but it really doesn’t do the Hitcher legacy any justice. Aside from Bean who elevates his scenes to horror greatness, it’s a slapdash, needlessly gruesome slice of knockoff cash grab slasher fare that takes everything that was spooky, shadowy and mysterious about the first one, shines a big broad daylight aesthetic on it that shakes off the cobwebs we never wanted gone in the first place, like Bon Jovi trying to cover a song by The Cure. There is, however, one moment that gets it right and rises to a level of quality deserving of the Hitcher brand. It’s right at the end, everything has gone haywire, all the cops are dead, all the cars have been thoroughly blown up, and Ryder makes one last dash to escape. Sofia Bush takes up a dead cop’s shotgun and musters one final confrontation with him, as the score by Steve Jablonsky swells to adrenaline heights and we get an exchange of dialogue between the two, both beautifully delivered, that is the first shred of originality the film displays and almost, *almost* redeems itself. Where was that for the previous eighty five minutes? In any case, this holds a spot in my heart simply because I’ve watched it enough times and has crystallized into something nostalgic, which as we all know sometimes supersedes what we know is quality from that which we know is not. Worth it for Bean, the score and that supersonic final scene.
Bad Country is a fairly low budget, bayou set noir/crime flick, and while it doesn’t have the resources to pull of something intricate and mythic like The Departed or something, it succeeds with what it has in being a brutal, downbeat crime thriller with a heavy blanket of gloom over it and some brooding tough guys engaged in gang warfare in deepest Louisiana. It’s sort of like the type of extreme crime films you’d see in the 70’s, where every character has an anger and a violence to them and there’s no good guys or sweet resolution. Willem Dafoe is aces as gruff police detective Bud Carter, a rule breaking loose cannon who arrests mob contract killer Jesse Weiland (a scary Matt Dillon) in hopes of using him as leverage to take down Lutín (Tom Berenger, looking like an evil, Nazi Colonel Sanders), Louisiana’s fearsome underworld kingpin. This involves betrayals, shoot outs, lots and lots of swearing, sweaty bayou sex, tattoos, tragedy, depravity and many other hard boiled tropes, all done really well. I especially enjoyed Dillon’s character and his arc; he’s a man who has spent most of his life being a heinous villain, and is trying to turn it around in the eleventh hour by protecting his wife (Amy Smart, soulful and excellent) and infant child from Berenger and his hordes. But is it enough, after a lifetime of atrocities? The deep set sadness and hulking brutality is conveyed wonderfully by Dillon and it’s some of the best work he’s ever done. Berenger is monstrous and just a tad campy as the big boss, playing with his swamp drawl accent hilariously and having fun being cheerfully mean. The great Neal McDonough shows up as his crooked mob lawyer too. This one pulls no punches and gets about as dark and violent as you can, not to mention having one of those gutsy endings where nothing ends up fine and these characters are worse off than they started, a powerful choice especially in the haunting choice of resolution for Dillon’s character. Oh, and it’s fun seeing Dafoe and Berenger have a bloody, man to man smack-down brawl as well because it calls back fond memories of Platoon, and the two acting titans butting heads back then too.
Murder. Cannibalism. War. Treachery. You wouldn’t think that such subject matters would make for any sort of lighthearted film, but Antonia Bird’s Ravenous somehow manages it, becoming a classic in my canon along the way. Despite the dark events that unfold, it’s become somewhat of a comfort film for me, one I can put on any old time for a rewatch and enjoy the hell out of. It’s amusingly disturbing, lively, cheerfully gruesome, well casted, oh so darkly comedic and has wit for days. Guy Pearce plays Boyd, a timid soldier who’s banished to a remote fort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains after a prolific display of cowardice during the Mexican American war. His superior officer (crusty John Spencer) just wants him out of his sight, and Boyd just wants to survive and forget the horror he endured in combat. Even worse nightmares are just around the corner though, when mysterious drifter Calhoun (Robert Carlyle in Charlie Manson mode) shows up at the encampment and all sorts of depraved shenanigans kick into high gear. Calhoun turns out to be a serial killing, cannibalizing, grade-A certifiable madman, and no one in their company is safe from that moment forward. Jeffrey Jones is a jovial scene stealer as the fort’s commander, getting all the best quips and quirks. David Arquette howls his way through a barely coherent performance as the resident peyote hound, and further colour is added by weirdo Jeremy Davies, Sheila Tousey, Joseph Runningfox and Neal McDonough as the tough guy soldier who discovers he ain’t such a tough guy after all. Again, as dark as this film gets, it never loses it’s sunny, demented disposition. This is largely thanks to one bouncy melody of a score from “, ditching any portentous strains or eerie chords for a purely arcade style, quite pretty lilt that’s catchy, silly, warped and probably the most memorable aspect of the piece. Pearce plays it introverted, keeping his fear close to the chest and using it when desperation creeps in, or whenever there’s a hair raising encounter with Calhoun’s monster. Carlyle is a caffeinated blast in what has to be the most fun type of character to play this side of Freddy Krueger, an energetic goofball psychopath with a lovable side that he jarringly switches off on a whim in favour of his leering demon persona. The gorgeous Sierras provide stunning photography for this peculiar fable to play out in, a perfectly evocative backdrop for a campfire tale of murder and, I should mention, pseudo vampirism. There’s a supernatural element to the consumption of human flesh that runs alongside the vampire mythos, putting a neat little spin on an ages old concept. There’s nothing quite like this film, in the best way possible. Leaking wicked sharp atmosphere and knowingly deadpan performances, while retaining the spooky, blood soaked edge of a great horror film. One of my favourites.
More of the same, baby. That’s a good thing in this case as we rejoin ex assassin Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his merry band of morons for another set of high caliber swashbuckling, this one even sillier than their first picnic. The key is in the deadpan humour, which is served up with all the relish needed to make something so fluffy work. Most of the eclectic cast is back for second helpings, and the ones who caught bullets are replaced by even more bankable names and familiar faces here. Moses, his girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker, finally aquiring her sea legs when it comes to warming up to the carnage) and loony old friend Marvin (John Malkovich) find themselves thrown headlong into an arms race to find a deadly super weapon before it’s either detonated or aquired by very dangerous people. Leading them along is a frazzled ex MI6 spook and mathematical genius (Anthony Hopkins in silly mode) who has seriously lost his marbles. On their tail is scary CIA psychopath Jack Horton (Neal McDonough nails yet another heinous villain role) who brandishes his silenced pistol with the same verve he uses to flash that icy grin, the last thing you see before the shooting starts. Helen Mirren returns, as does her beau, played again by Brian Cox and his teddy bear worthy russian accent. Other newcomers include Korean superstar Byung-Hun Lee as an agile and pissed off assassin out to get Moses, Catherine Zeta Jones as a foxy russian femme fatale and Professor Lupin himself David Thewlis as a snooty arms dealer called The Frog, but not for te reasons you might think. When actors of such skill and notoriety show up in these, it really makes everything else worth it, even if the plot is somewhat up in the clouds, and the mad das, rat race tone can get a bit too loopy. These pros always keep it grounded when they need to, both with shooting and acting prowess. This one can’t quite keep up with how much fun it’s predecessor was, but it’s certainly more than adequate, especially to see Hopkins, a man of trademark gravitas, give an out of left field (and his mind, really) turn worthy of Jim Carrey and not without a few disarming third act surprises.
I really enjoyed Richard Donner’s Timeline, despite some bad reviews and an awful reputation. It’s based on a book by the great Michael Crichton, and centers around what is one of the most fascinating and enjoyable premises out there: time travel. There’s nothing like a time travel flick, in any way, shape or form. I’m a sucker for them. This one starts off with an archeological dig somewhere in England, leading to the abrupt discovery of forces that allow a wormhole in time to be used, sending people back to the middle ages. Paul Walker discovers that his researcher father (Billy Connolly) has made the leap back in time, and may be in trouble. Along with his sort of girlfriend (Frances O Connor) and his father’s friend (Gerard Butler) they venture back to find him, and of course everything goes wrong. They land smack in the middle of a skirmish between a poncy English lord (Michael Sheen) and the leader of the French faction (Lambert Wilson), with no identities, nothing to defend themselves with and not a clue what to do. Back home in our time (or, rather, 2003. Time flies, don’t it?), the head of the program responsible for harnessing the wormhole’s power (a slimy David Thewlis) is a greedy prick who can’t really be trusted with the technology, prompting the suspicion of his assistant (Matt Craven). Walker, Butler and company are now faced with a full on castle siege that’s quite the dandy set piece, forced to take up arms and fight for their lives as well as a way home. Walker is amusingly out of place in a medieval setting but it works considering the plot. Butler is terrific, bringing his old world style to a character arc that is lovely to see play out. Connolly, although not in the film that much, lights up the screen with his genial kindness and likability that he brings to every film. Neal McDonough, Anna Friel and Marton Csokas also costar. It’s simply an adventure piece that doesn’t think logistics too much, and in turn doesn’t require you to do so either. Underrated stuff.