Right off the bat I consider all the games in the Hitman franchise to be fantastic in different ways but if I had to pick a favourite it would definitely be 2012’s Hitman: Absolution, a gorgeously produced, star studded update on 2006’s Blood Money that draws us further into Agent 47’s shadowy world by adding new graphics, well drawn supporting characters and paying far more attention to storytelling as well as the trademark intricately structured missions. Some people felt (weirdly) that the in depth nature of story and larger than life villains here took away from the overall aesthetic, like made the vibe less atmospheric or something but for my money it just breathes so much life into the mythology and spurs on the evolution of these games from quiet, guarded and strictly atmosphere-based to verbose, witty and full of personality in every corner of the frame. The game opens as 47 finally tracks down and eliminates his former handler, that treacherous bitch Diana (Marsha Thomason), which he does and listens to her last dying wish as she begs him to protect a mysterious girl who holds the keys to his own past. This puts him on a dangerous ditch effort and collision course with his former agency, other clandestine factions and countless freelance killers for hire including and unbelievable army of sexy nuns with enough firepower to blow up a bridge. The big bad here is scumbag billionaire industrialist Blake Dexter, voiced by Keith Carradine in the kind of peacocking, purple-prose drenched, scenery chewing performance that demands the slow clap and has you hating him when you’re not laughing hysterically at his impossibly arch dialogue. He’s after the girl 47 is harbouring and he ain’t the only one. Powers Boothe (who really took advantage of video game work over the course of his epic career) is Benjamin Travis, an agency kingpin with a prosthetic arm, a nasty temper and the iron will of a megalomaniac. He’s assisted in his unholy quest by slinky head operative Jade, voiced by the underrated Shannon Sossamon. The cast is wonderfully dense and eclectic, with appearances from Vivica A. Fox, Adrienne Barbeau, Traci Lords, Jon Gries, Isabelle Fuhrman and the great Steven Bauer lending his leathery pipes to the role of Birdie, a terrifically untrustworthy underworld operative. The gameplay and graphics are flat-out fucking gorgeous, immersive and layered, perfectly speckled with lens flares where appropriate and crisp, tactile and detailed environments that feel lived in and carefully rendered. The actors here would usually find themselves sitting in their PJ’s in a cozy recording booth but here they’ve gone the extra mile and had them do actual motion capture work so that the performances feel authentic, fluid and dynamic. This for me is the pinnacle of the Hitman legacy so far, and hasn’t been topped since. Oh and as for the movies, they’re both so terrible and miss the mark of what makes this story so wonderful in the first place, Absolution is ten times more cinematic that both films combined.
In the endless sea of direct to video output, sometimes you find one that although is rough as all hell around the edges, has potential and moments that shine, even if they’re stuck in a muddled, overcrowded narrative. Toxic is one such film, a psychological horror/crime hybrid that is so full of B level movie legends, rappers and porn stars that some are only around for a second, a whole galaxy of fringe talent caught up in a story that needs complete attention to be understood, not because it’s any kind of genius labyrinthine story, but simply because it’s edited with a chainsaw and has more dangling plot threads than an entire season of CSI. There’s two timelines it takes place in, a setup that already isn’t explained well enough off the bat, but such is the level of commotion. In one, nervous mobster Tom Sizemore (nuttier than usual as this was his first gig after a stint in jail) hires two henchman (Corey Large and Danny Trejo) to find his daughter (Charity Shea) who is apparently very dangerous, but he won’t say how or why. She ends up at a strip club run by rapper Master P and her presence seems to cause nothing but trouble for everyone there including a severely depressed hooker (Dominique Swain), an ill fated homeless man (C. Thomas Howell) and others. In another timeline we see another strip club run by pimp-with-a-heart-of-gold Costas Mandylor, in which Corey Large shows up again as a mysterious bartender and the whole berserk plot hinges on his two characters, but they really should have let him stick to producing duties and hired another actor because he’s in desperate need of some acting classes. All manner of other famous faces make cameos too including Bai Ling as Sizemore’s weird clairvoyant girlfriend, scene stealer Susan Ward as a sympathetic bartender, Steven Bauer, Lochlyn Munro in dual roles, Paul Johansson, Ron Jeremy, James Duval, Johann Urb, Holt McCallany, Cerina Vincent, Shar Jackson, Nick Chinlund and the list goes until you start to wonder if these prolific people were just hanging around the studio lot and needed extra work. Here’s the thing: there *is* actually a discernible story here that’s interesting and engaging, and upon reflection it does all in fact make sense. *But*…in a ninety minute film with this many cameos and random stuff, it’s too much to feel coherent. I will say that the final twist/revelation is handled in a top tier, musically visceral way that’s quality stuff, but so much else was kind of incomprehensible that several people I’ve watched it with could tell there was a twist by the tropes being used, but not what it actually was. With a new angle on editing, sharpening up the script and whatnot this could have been something more accessible, but I still really like it for effort put into a neat storyline, the laundry list of cool cast members, that final scene that’s done so well and the obvious, endearing homages to Tarantino and Tony Scott in style and tone. Interesting, pulpy, lurid, scattershot stuff.
I feel like the one thing to take away from Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is that the war on drugs isn’t working in any sense. That’s the short answer, but at nearly three hours runtime, Soderbergh isn’t interested in any kind of short answers, let alone clean cut, definitive or resolute ones that help anyone sleep at night. It’s a sprawling, complex international labyrinth of a film that scans every faction from the loftiest echelons of American politics to the poorest slums of Mexico, not necessarily looking for answers but digging up new questions and conundrums. In Washington, the president elects a straightforward family man (Michael Douglas) as the new drug czar and face of the crusade, except that his daughter (Erika Christensen) is knee-deep in hard drug addiction and heading down a dark path. Across the border, a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro, fantastic) tries to prevent corruption from eating away at his country and the soul of his partner. Back stateside, two undercover narcs (Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle) prep a captured mid level smuggler (Miguel Ferrer stealing scenes like nobody’s business) to testify against the higher ups. The wife (Catherine Zeta Jones) of an imprisoned kingpin (Steven Bauer, sadly only glimpsed briefly) deals with her husband’s enemies while his slick dick lawyer (Dennis Quaid) eyes her up for the taking. A scary Mexican military General (Tomas Milian) fights drug running for his own mystery goal, and many other stories play out both in the US and Mexico. Soderbergh gets together a treasure chest of cameos and supporting talent that includes the likes of Clifton Collins Jr., Emilio Riveria, Topher Grace, Peter Riegart, James Brolin, Albert Finney, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, Viola Davis, John Slattery, Yul Vasquez, Jack Conley, Benjamin Bratt, Salma Hayek and more. This isn’t a tunnel vision action flick or even your garden variety ensemble crime piece, there’s a distracted, fractured feel to the narrative that no doubt mirrors the very difficult nature of how this all works. Opinions and alliances shift, people die, others prosper and it all kind of seems for nought, except that almighty dollar. Del Toro and Douglas fare best in terms of bearing witness to it all; both are changed men by the time their final scenes roll around and the arcs come full circle. They anchor the vast network of people from respective sides of the border, showing the multilayered damage that such a problem, and the ‘war’ against it unleashes. Endlessly fascinating film.
Not too many films can claim to be as certifiably, outright insane as Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain. Crazy, off the wall, nuts, there’s plenty of that in Hollyweird,
but Cain is so thoroughly deranged that I’m curious how De Palma arrived at such a specific brand of left field lunacy when he sat down at his typewriter. Get this: John Lithgow pulls an overtime shift playing Dr. Carter Nix, a slightly disturbed child psychologist who shows an unnatural budding interest in his daughter’s upbringing, so much so that it unnerves his wife (Lolita Davidovitch) to a degree. I describe him as only slightly disturbed because his level of mania pales in comparison to his multiple emerging split personalities, which is where the trouble really begins. Carter’s father (also Lithgow) was a psychotic Norwegian doctor who had a habit of using children for bizarre mind control experiments, and it seems that one of Carter’s multiples has decided to take up his work. Soon there’s a rash of baby kidnappings in the area and all hell breaks loose. His wife is too busy having an adulterous affair with a hunk (steamy Steven Bauer) to really take control either. Sounds crazy in writing? The film takes it way further than you could ever imagine. Lithgow always seems a bit nuts, even when playing straight-laced characters we always get this vibe like he’s a court jester who has lost his marbles, and he revs that organic looniness into overdrive here. Frances Sternhagen is a hoot as the obligatory exposition here, a stern doctor who lays out Carter’s complex, condition to two cynical detectives (Tom Bower and Gregg Henry, both great) who try to keep up with this whole circus. I can understand why this film didn’t do too well, I mean… how do you even classify it? Almost everything about the subject matter is highly uncomfortable stuff that threatens to siege over into the lands of taboo, and there’s all kinds of freaky shit in this screaming haunted asylum of a flick. That’s the fun of though, if you’re able to have some. De Palmer has always had a gift for shocker material even when he’s not operating in the thriller genre. There’s a cold, caustic edge to this film that barely contains the sea of menace and mirth roiling beneath, which is an odd, off colour and chilling mix. See it for yourself.
Stranger By Night is an all but forgotten cop thriller starring Steven Bauer, a charismatic actor who, after a showcase role in Brian DePalma’s Scarface and a handful of other prolific 90’s appearances, fell from grace into the netherworld of direct to video releases, like so many other former heavy hitters. This one sits above the bilge water because of a uniquely psychological angle towards the ‘killer terrorizing an urban neighbourhood’ motif, a great central performance from him and some memorable scenes. Bauer his precinct are looking for a murderer, but the kick is that he has a sketchy mental mindset, experienced weird blackouts, fits of rage an missing hours, which not only makes tracking down any suspects difficult, but always puts the crosshairs of suspicion on him. He’s an unreliable protagonist who means well but keeps getting sabotaged by his own demons, a theme played up nicely. The story involving the killer is fairly run of the mill, but anything to do with his character developments is cool stuff, especially in an introspective conversational has with his father (J.J. Johnston). There’s another cop played by the great Michael Parks, but the underwritten role is wasted on an actor meant to shine, but at least the production benefits from his credit. This one is low key, but I enjoyed the exploration in character for Bauer, as well as a hectic opening montage that sets the maniacal tone.
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.