Tag Archives: Thriller

John Badham’s Nick Of Time

What if someone kidnapped one of your loved ones and informed you that if you don’t assassinate a politician within ninety minutes, they’d kill them? Johnny Depp finds out exactly how a situation like that would play out in John Badham’s Nick Of Time, a stylish real time thriller with fantastic performances and a high powered premise that is milked yet never overdrawn.

Depp plays what might be his most down to earth, Everyman role here as an a humdrum accountant travelling by train with his six year old daughter (Courtney Chase), until he’s targeted by a mysterious pair of shady characters pretending to be cops, and then his nightmare begins. Christopher Walken is a force of evil nature as Smith, a menacing assassin who snatches up Depp’s daughter, puts a gun in his hand and tells him to go shoot a visiting Governor (Marsha Mason) before she’s to speak at an evening rally. Why? Because a patsy was needed and he looked like the poorest sap getting off that train, apparently.

Because the film is set in real time and doesn’t hop around to a zillion different plot threads like 24 does, we get to see the big moments and the small, the suspenseful hills and the mundane valleys in between them as Depp either tries to make harebrained escaped in order to save his daughter and avoid killing someone, and when he simply catches his breath for a moment or grabs some downtime. He’s good in the role and we’ll likely never see him in something as middle of the road as this again in terms of what he’s casted in, which is mostly garish theatrical gimmicks these days. He plays it somewhat Hitchcock and it works well that way, especially with the opening credits that seem directly lifted from one of his films. Walken is adorned in a porn moustache and slick suit, doing that thing only he can do where he’s somehow terrifying and hilarious all in the same note, it’s one of his hallmark 90’s baddie turns and I love it. Roma Maffia is slightly goofy as his second in command, and there’s work from Peter Strauss, Gloria Ruben, Yul Vasquez, Bill Smitrovitch, G.W. Spradlin and scene stealer Charles S. Dutton as a verbose shoeshine dude who helps Depp out in a tight spot. It ain’t a be all end all thriller or anything super amazing but it fires up a good time for ninety minutes, plus Depp and Walken are pretty much watchable in anything. Great stuff.

-Nate Hill

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Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man

Some action movies are so over the top they sort of become fantasy by accident, so overcharged, chromed up, packed to the brim with bar fights, motorbikes and sexy chicks that they seem to exist on a plane where only those things exist, like they sprung forth from a shared dream that Bon Jovi and Patrick Swayze from Roadhouse are having. Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man is one such movie and really deserves a legacy of more acclaim than its gotten. It’s a road movie, a biker flick, a high powered ultra violent action palooza, a buddy film and almost a satire of itself at times in its own earnestness.

It opens with Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead Or Alive as Mickey Rourke’s impossibly cool Harley Davidson hops on his bike and heads up the coast to the city that raised him, intent on bringing hell with him. He reunites with his old buddy the Marlboro Man (Don Johnson) and together they set out save their pal’s bar from an aggressive Big Bank, until one wrong move starts a literal war with them and they’re forced to shoot, stab, bicker and banter their way out of close calls, near misses, hijackings and explosion after explosion. Rourke has publicly talked shit about this film and claims he only did it for the money but it’s his loss to not take credit because Harley is one of the most badass creations of his career. He’s a devil may care urban warrior with a slick outfit and even slicker one liners. Johnson goes scruffy as the sharpshooter of the pair, a rough hewn, world weary old school cowboy who can’t stand Harley’s impulsive decisions but keeps tagging along on the misadventures they cause. Tom Sizemore does his ice cool villain shtick awesomely here as Chance Wilder, the worlds most evil Banking CEO, calmly chewing scenery like a viper and deploying a bulletproof trench coat clad Daniel Baldwin to dispatch our two heroes. This thing is casted to the nines as well with supporting turns from Chelsea Field, Vanessa Williams, Giancarlo Esposito, Big John Studd, Kelly Hu and Tia Carrere as Sizemore’s slinky second in command.

They don’t really make films like this anymore, unless it’s a knowing, tongue in cheek throwback from someone who admires and misses the aesthetic. This thing is built of bourbon, beer, chrome, blood, bullets, sexy chicks, cigarettes and a whole lot of attitude, and I fucking love it to the bones. There’s countless iconic 80’s buddy pair-ups from Nick Nolte/Eddie Murphy to Mel Gibson/Danny Glover and they all rock the house but I feel like Rourke and Johnson in this are not given enough love. Regardless of whether they just did it for the money or whether they got along on set (they didn’t, apparently), they have a macho chemistry and easygoing rapport that is both believable and irresistible. This one gets a bad rap and the reviews have never been kind, but fuck all that. It’s not meant to be taken so seriously and is the very definition of a fun flick, a raucous modern western full of stylized violence, barroom soundtrack picks and all round rough n’ tumble shenanigans. Good times.

-Nate Hill

Amazon’s Homecoming

Amazon Prime hits it out of the park yet again with Homecoming, a tightly structured, noir laced conspiracy thriller that’s so contemporary yet so unbelievably retro I couldn’t fathom how well they pulled off the mixture.

Julia Roberts gives her best performance in years as Heidi Bergman, a low level mental health worker who has been left in charge of the mysterious Homecoming facility, which on the outside is an integration program to help veterans with PTSD transition into civilian life. This is a privately funded deal though, and Heidi begins to suspect that the powers that be don’t have these guys’ best interests at heart, especially after observing the shady avoidance behaviour of her slippery boss Colin (Bobby Cannavle, also the best he’s been in some time). Years later, Heidi waitresses in a marina fish joint, the events and apparent scandal of Homecoming in her rearview, until a dogged Department Of Defence investigator (Shea Wigham, pretty much incapable of hitting a false note) tracks her down and asks questions, forcing her to look at the past in a new light.

This isn’t just your average spook thriller with Manchurian Candidate undertones, but it certainly achieves that as well. At the core is Heidi’s emotional relationship with Walter (Stephen James, a revelation), one of the vets she’s treating, and how that affects her perception of what’s going on around her, their dynamic is the constant and the catalyst for things to get out of hand. To say more would be to spoil an incredibly subtle, slow burn paranoia piece that unspools one thread at a time and is an utter delight to unpack as the viewer. Roberts is sensational, usually we get a character from her on feature film terms, for two or so hours and then the arc is capped, but there are ten half hour episodes here and she’s allowed to room to breathe in her work, drawing us in and earning sympathy beat by beat. Cannavle is a pithy portrait of corporate greed and casual apathy run amok, not necessarily a bad dude but certainly an amoral, selfish schmuck who realizes the consequences of his actions too little too late, it’s fantastic work from the him. Wigham is always brilliant and plays this guy in the guise of a robotic company man, but as the story progresses we see that he cares far more than his tucked shirt demeanour lets on. Other stellar work comes from Rafi Gavron, Jeremy Allen White, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Sydney Tanmiia Poitier, Dermot Mulroney, Sissy Spacek and Hong Chau.

I was floored by the camera work here, the overhead angles, meticulous lighting, tracking shots and general symmetry in frame are so immersive and well done, this thing visually feels like noir to its roots while still being very of this era, thematically speaking. It also cleverly plays around with aspect ratio in order to put us in Heidi’s psychological state and accent the passage of time, a tactic I’ve never seen before but am now obsessed with.

It took me a bit to clue in that creator Sam Esmail literally lifted hordes of original score from classic 60’s, 70’s and 80’s horror thrillers and used them here, but by the time I heard cues from John Carpenter’s The Thing and The Fog I had an ‘aha’ moment and had to go look up just how many themes are sampled, and trust me there’s a lot. That could have been a lazy choice from a lesser production to just *entirely* recycle old music, but it’s used to such effect here and works splendidly for this story. This is brilliant stuff and I can’t think of a single criticism really. Stick around for a provocative post credits scene that pretty much begs for a second season.

-Nate Hill

Carl Schultz’s The Seventh Sign

There are religious films that are faith based preachy garbage (anything Kirk Cameron makes) and there are religious films that are fiction based and just happen to be structured around theology like that (The Omen, End Of Days). I can’t stand the former, but the latter has made for an interesting sub-genre in Hollywood, mostly horror centric but sometimes otherwise. Carl Schultz’s The Seventh Sign is one that carefully and delicately walks the line between these two types, but because it’s so atmospheric, well made and acted it works on any level including the religious themes.

Demi Moore and Michael Biehn play a young couple who rent their laneway house out to a mysterious stranger (Jurgen Prochnow) who isn’t who or what he says he is. Moore is expecting her first child, but there seems to be complications with the pregnancy and Prochnow shows a suspicious amount of interest in the child. Coincidentally, scary apocalyptic signs start showing up around the world like storms, dead fish in the sea and a blood moon, heralding some sort of widespread cataclysm. There’s also a sinister Vatican priest (Peter Friedman) wandering around getting in people’s business too.

The plot itself is essentially just your standard end of days gobbledygook, but that’s not what matters anyways. Moore is fantastic here, soulfully embodying a mother’s love coupled with mounting depression and making you feel for her character strongly. Biehn shows the same fierce charisma he did in The Terminator and this time brings on even more emotion to his role, particularly in the final minutes of the film that could be his best work. Prochnow has had a long and consistent career playing all kinds of nasty terrorists, crime bosses, nazis, poachers, pimps and any other kind of asshole you could imagine. It’s really rare to see him in a non villain role let alone one where he gets to show such grace and subtlety, he nails it and I won’t say much about the character except that it’s a tricky balancing act of shadowy portent and compassion that he deals with wonderfully. Watch for a quick, lively cameo from John Heard as well.

The atmosphere here is so well done that you often forget about story and get lost in the dreamy scenes that flow into each other in an almost subconscious way. The way the ambience lingers in the filmmaking reminds me, of all things, of A Nightmare On Elm Street. Odd comparison and this is by no means a horror movie but the two share the same sort of elongated, off kilter aesthetic that seems removed from reality, helped a lot here by journeyman composer Jack Nitzsche and his score. The third act brings the narrative to an affecting close and lets the three leads land their arcs on a quiet, sorrowful note, it’s the key sequence in making this a great film.

-Nate Hill

Robert Benton’s Twilight

The title Twilight obviously brings up bad memories of a franchise we’d all like to forget, but before that abomination ever entered the fold, the moniker belonged to a laconic, brightly lit yet darkly intoned LA film noir starring Paul Newman as an aging Hollywood private investigator. He’s a guy who was was never famous himself but seemingly behind the scenes of stardom and scandal and making a career out of it until his golden years find him living on the lavish estate of a fading starlet (Susan Sarandon) and her husband (Gene Hackman), also an actor of former stature. He’s always been in love with her but is also Hackman’s good buddy and it makes for a love triangle that is never too tense or melodramatic, but just as uncomfortable as it needs to be. He sort of serves as their homefront security officer and sorta just spies on Sarandon languishing by the pool and you can tell that the three of them are just mournful ghosts of what they probably were decades ago, haunting their surroundings like echoes rather than living in them.

Things get heavy for them once again when Newman takes on a shady job that involves delivering blackmail money, a situation that quickly snowballs into deceit, old wounds torn open and, of course, murder most foul. Something nasty is going on that dates years back into the collective past of these three individuals and has come back to bite them all squarely on the ass, and although it might not be the most innovative mystery narrative and certainly aspects are predictable, it’s just so much fun watching these master actors play it out in sunny Hollywood enclaves. Speaking of old pros, James Garner has a nice supporting role as an ex cop pal of Newman’s who helps him out with intel and backup. Watch for early career work from Liev Schreiber, who now stars on Showtime’s Ray Donovan, another LA noir story that I’m almost positive drew inspiration from this film. A very young and very naked Reese Witherspoon also shows up briefly, as well as Stockard Channing, Margo Martindale, Giancarlo Esposito, Jason Clarke, John Spencer, Clint Howard and M. Emmett Walsh. Newman is terrific here in one of his older dude roles, his blue eyes lend just a hint of optimism to the downbeat noir archetype. Hackman and Sarandon say a lot with little dialogue and plenty of body language, embodying damaged souls with grace and grizzle.

I recently heard a character in Amazon’s Goliath (yet another LA noir- can you tell I’ve cultivated a fixation on the sub genre?) say that murders in LA and Hollywood are especially tricky to solve because anybody could know anybody or be connected to anything. That gives ample freedom to intertwine characters and set up strange encounters or resolutions to plot, which is always fun and evident here too. It’s a slow, sunny burn of a crime flick that isn’t designed to be particularly flashy or lurid, but unfolds at its own pace alongside Newman & Co. Good stuff.

-Nate Hill

Bob Rafelson’s No Good Deed

It’s kind of rare for rambunctious actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Milla Jovovich to sit still for something as dramatic and dialogue heavy as Bob Rafelson’s No Good Deed, but it’s nice to see. This is a thriller of sorts, but it’s more low key than that and ends up being a chamber piece about two characters getting to know each other that just happens to take place against a criminal backdrop. Jackson plays a police detective on a routine investigation who turns up at the wrong place at the wrong time and gets drawn into a weird bunch of felons all hiding out and planning a bank job. Stellan Skarsgard is Tyrone, their volatile, violent leader, Jovovich is his quiet but intuitive and underestimated girlfriend, left alone to watch Jackson, now their hostage. This leaves acres of script space for Milla and Samuel to play, manipulate each other, bicker, banter, become close and twist the situation to both their ends while gradually catching feels for each other. It’s interesting that Rafelson casts these two because they’re usually to be found in action heavy stuff, shooting guns, swinging swords and tasked with stylized dialogue. Here they are laid back, oddly but nicely paired and the most quiet I’ve ever seen them, and it… kind of works. Skarsgard is mean and nasty, which he’s always been great at, journeyman oddball Doug Hutchison plays another lowlife in their gang, while Joss Ackland and Grace ‘Sarah Palmer’ Zabriskie play the senior faction of the crew, a strange husband wife duo who can still wield a shotgun when the situation calls for it. This is based on a Dashiell Hammett story which probably means it was sitting in someone’s desk drawer for decades before being found and reworked for this century. Rafelson gives it the pacing of something by Elmore Leonard and eccentricities to spare. It’s not a super memorable thing or a great film by any standards but works well enough as a sleepy, romantic crime thriller. Oh yeah, this is the legendary Rafelson’s final feature film before apparent retirement, so it’s worth checking out for that reason too.

-Nate Hill

Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction

You ever been to one of those house parties that turns out so well, is so full of awesome, entertaining people and so much fun that you kind of wish it wouldn’t end? Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is like that, for nearly three hours you wish would extend into three more. It’s one of those urban mosaic stories that chucks slices of life into a pan, fries them up and hurls the resulting delicious recipe right at your face. I’ve read a lot about how this revolutionized narrative structure in Hollywood or changed the way characters are written and that may be the case for the crime genre, but the mosaic motif was present in many areas before QT, namely in the films of Robert Altman, a filmmaker I’ve never seen compared to our Quentin before but the parallels are there. In any case everyone knows, loves and agrees that Pulp Fiction is a fucking badass flick, an enduring barnstormer of outlaw cinema that is every bit as potent, catchy and kinetic as it was when it blew the pants and panties off of Cannes in ‘94.

Tarantino gave us an appetizer with Reservoir Dogs, and with Pulp he produced a ten course meal that’s more polished, structured and assured than we had seen before. His mosaic concerns the lives of several LA individuals all directly or indirectly related to the criminal underworld. Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are two hitmen who dressed like Men In Black before Men In Black was a thing, out to retrieve the ever mysterious briefcase for their omnipotent gangster overlord (Ving Rhames), whose sultry wife (Uma Thurman) Travolta is to entertain while the big man is out of town. Elsewhere a disloyal prizefighter (Bruce Willis) and his bubbly girlfriend (Maria De Medeiros) hide out from Rhames’s wrath too until Willis goes from the frying pan into one terrifying fire. Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are two liquor store bandits who branch off into the diner scene and royally fuck up everyone’s day in the process. Christopher Walken gives arguably his greatest and definitely his most bizarre monologue in a scene out of place and time from the rest of the film but somehow right where it needs to be in the narrative. Harvey Keitel suaves it up as LA’s resident 007. Others make vivid impressions in the mosaic including Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Paul Calderon, Frank Whaley, Angela Jones, Duane Whitaker, Stephen Hibbert, Tarantino himself, Julia Sweeney and perennial bad guy Peter Greene.

By now the story is secondary to those iconic moments we all know and love. Zed’s dead. Samuel’s terrifying bible session. A wristwatch up Walken’s ass. Pride only hurts, it never helps. That needle to the heart. The dance competition. The Gimp. The exploding head. These are all now hallmarks of one of the greatest stories ever put to film. What makes it so great? Tarantino has the time for his characters, and wants to converse with them. The dialogue isn’t just about plot or characters intimidating each other. It’s about life, music, personal taste, culture and cheeseburgers. These are people who remind us of many others we know, and the relatability is what has turned this into a platinum classic. That and other factors, including a killer soundtrack, brilliant performances round the board and editing that brings LA out of the gloss, down to earth and just as dirty. It may not be my ultimate fave Tarantino film, but it is definitely his flagship outing so far, in its epic scope. We’ll see if this year’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood perhaps dethrones it as his magnum opus, who knows. Either way it’s a masterpiece and will remain so for all time.

-Nate Hill