Tag Archives: Thriller

John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13

What makes John Carpenter such an incredible filmmaker? Many things, but one skill he has is being able to make a terrific story come alive whether he has a huge budget or not, whether it’s a giant high concept story, or a lean, mean, minimalist chamber piece. With Assault On Precinct 13 he’s got a few guns, a few cars, a few actors and one derelict police station, and the result, although not among his best work, is one nasty little urban exploitation feature that entertains and packs a bloody, visceral punch. The premise is gloriously simple: Several spectral, inhuman gang members chase a witness into an almost shut down precinct with intentions on killing everyone inside. One intrepid Deputy (Austin Stoker), a mysterious career criminal (Darwin Joston), a plucky secretary (Laurie Zimmer) and others are all that stands between these marauders and all out warfare. It’s a siege flick, a cop flick and an action picture all in one and works because of how low key it all is. The assault on the building itself is showcase low budget cinema and really well done as multiple silenced weapons shred through the doors and windows, but my favourite sequence is an earlier one in the film. As the gang prowls the desolated, decayed LA streets looking for suitable vehicles to hijack, a lone ice cream truck driver (Peter Bruni) finds himself right in the crosshairs of these heavily armed psychos. Then as if that isn’t bad enough, a little girl wanders up to purchase a frozen treat and, non discriminately, is gunned down in cold blood. It’s a shocking scene on its own just for the fact that Carpenter had the balls to do it and in fact on Robert Rodriguez’s Director’s Chair interview he said that he probably wouldn’t have gone that far had he made the film these days. What’s worse for me is that the girl is played by Kim Richards who starred as Tia Malone in Disney’s Escape To Witch Mountain, a film I grew up with and saw hundreds of times as a kid, so thanks John for ruining my childhood with that. Jokes aside it’s a galvanizing scene from beginning to end and even if there are way better Carpenter flicks out there overall, it’s probably one of the best sequences he’s directed in an otherwise solid pulpy action flick. Gotta mention Carpenter’s original score too which, as per usual, is brilliant.

-Nate Hill

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B Movie Glory: Brian Smrz’s Hero Wanted

In the realm of Cuba Gooding Jr straight to DVD stuff, Brian Smrz’s Hero Wanted is probably my favourite. Many of them are absolute paycheque collecting trash, some are half assed efforts but a couple are scrappy, unique little gems worth seeking out. Gooding explores the dark side of human nature here as Liam Case, a simple inner city garbageman who uses the underworld ties of his colleague Swain (Norman Reedus) to stage a bank robbery for… unorthodox purposes, to say the least. Only problem is that the gang they hire is led by unstable maniac Skinner McGraw (Kim Coates) and his cop hating second in command Derek (Tommy Flanagan). The robbery ends up in disastrous bloodshed thanks to Liam’s plans and he then launches a personal crusade of vigilante justice against Skinner’s gang. All this commotion also attracts the attention of a tough homicide detective (Ray Liotta) who comes gunning for him as well. That’s only the main story arc, there’s all kinds of swervy subplots including a young girl (Sammi Hanratty) who Liam saved from a burning car years ago, the mother (Jean Smart) of one of the bank tellers injured in the botched robbery and the great Ben Cross as Liam’s ex special forces adoptive father.

It’s a lot to take in and it doesn’t all work together in the pot it’s thrown into, but it’s never not interesting, has a gritty 70’s crime aesthetic to it, plus both the writing and performances are organic and inspired. Gooding is terrific, his character essentially a perpetual fuckup whose schemes have lead him down a dark path, one he’s fighting brutally to find his way off of. Liotta brings heart and humour, not just another thankless cop role but someone who seems like an individual. Reedus gives my favourite performance as a dude who walks the line between good and bad finely, and pays dearly for it in an intense, poetic cap to his arc. Coates and Flanagan chew the scenery like there’s no fucking tomorrow, relishing the villain roles and creating two reprehensible street scumbags for the ages. The film skips all over the place and jumps around in time on a whim, so characters who died a few scenes ago are back again, a plot thread resolves itself before its even begun and it takes some getting used to. It’s a low budget effort at heart, but a huge and very creative one at that. A lot of the dialogue seems improvised and very candid, my two favourite exchanges being: Liotta and enters a crime scene, sees his partner visibly shook up and dryly intones: “What’s the matter? You look like Oedipus after they told him he just fucked his mother.” Elsewhere, Gooding and Reedus have a beer on their lunch break and shoot the shit: “You know America was founded on labour?” Reedus absentmindedly observes. “My uncle used to work in that factory over there,” replies Cuba, “Now that niggas on crack.” It’s that kind of deliberately offbeat energy that makes this one for the books and not just another B grade write off. Fun stuff.

-Nate Hill

Edward Zwick’s Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back isn’t the thunderclap thriller the first one was and considerably diminishes from a large scale epic feel to something more small, comforting and TV movie style, which is not say that’s a bad thing as I quite enjoyed it, I just wasn’t riveted and amped up like I was the first round. It’s interesting that director Edward Zwick stepped in as he’s usually accustomed to large scale, sweeping epics (Legends Of The Fall, Courage Under Fire, Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, Glory) and instead went for something smaller here, but it works.

Tom Cruise’s nomadic badass Jack Reacher is still out there looking for people who cause trouble so he can cause it tenfold back upon them and as the film opens we see him take down nasty small town sheriff (Jason Douglas) turned human trafficker using only a payphone. That sets the tone for another raucous adventure that is decidedly not as ruthless or brutal as the first, but takes a more compassionate tone which is an interesting decision that I really liked as it allows us to see the softer side of this character. Jack has a liaison in the military called Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) who feeds him intel and he’s taken a liking to her enough to ask her out, but when he arrives in Washington to do that he instead finds her smug superior officer (Holt McCallany) sat at her desk informing him that she’s been arrested under charges of espionage. This doesn’t quite sit well with Jack and after beating the shit out of him for answers, he launches a violent inquiry, tracks Major Turner down and helps her clear her name and vet out a conspiracy within the military.

This film works well because of that relationship between the two, and the terrific chemistry that Cruise and Cobie have. They serve as both romantic leads and partners in action and provide the story with a warmth that wasn’t there in the first, as the relationships there felt a bit cold and detached. There’s also a mysterious girl (Danika Yarosh) who may in fact be Jack’s daughter from a wife years back, and that adds a human side as well which was welcome. On the weaker side, the action set pieces aren’t as ingenious or as memorable as before, and the villains not as charismatic or well painted. It is hard to top Werner goddamn Herzog though so I feel their pain. McCallany is nasty enough as a classic bully and Robert Knepper sneers and snarls as an evil private security Colonel but he shows up so late in the game it’s hard for him to make a real impact. What does work works really well though, and Smulders is the best thing the film has going for it. She’s a true star that never mugs the camera but always feels sympathetic and engaging, not to mention gorgeous. Not the film the first was, but a fun time all the same.

-Nate Hill

HBO’s True Detective: Season 2

So just what was it about season two of HBO’s True Detective that caused such a monumental ruckus of ruthless criticism? Well, who can say. I imagine it had something to do with the dark, difficult and byzantine way that creator Nic Pizzolatto presents the material. Maybe it’s the fact that it had to follow the lightning in a bottle, southern gothic, out of left field mastery of season one. Simply just the shift in tone and setting? I’m reaching for straws here because the hate and rejection that this brilliant piece of television has amassed always flew over my head. This is deep, dark LA noir at its finest, most gorgeously dangerous and I love every challenging, impenetrable episode to bits.

The setting shifts from bayous of Louisiana, the amount of lead characters multiplies significantly and where there was once eerie folk horror and occult conspiracy we now find decadence, corruption most high and a focused, implosive inwardness in exploring each individual the narrative focuses on. Colin Farrell is unbearably intense as LA cop Ray Velcoro, a haunted addict who has fallen from the grace of both the department and his family, but isn’t down for the count quite yet. Vince Vaughn is emblematic of every career criminal trying to go straight as Frank Semyon, a stubborn small time kingpin with dreams of scoring big in California real estate. Rachel McAdams is haunted as Ani Bezzerides, a cop with a tragic past and the deep set trauma to prove it. Taylor Kitsch is Paul Woodrough, a pent up special ops veteran turned state trooper who rounds out this quartet as they’re faced with the kind of miserable, insurmountable odds one always finds in the best kind of film noirs. There’s an unsettling, decades old conspiracy afoot in the fictional yet uneasily realistic county of Vinci, CA, a brooding, festering menace that seems rooted in the now booming transportation system that has taken the economy by storm. Our heroes struggle to fight treachery, debauchery and excess run mad everywhere they turn, for their souls and California’s itself alike as the slogan for promotional material “We get the world we deserve” seems stingingly apparent throughout.

Farrell is my favourite as Velcoro, the anxiety ridden badass who displays the horrors of his past in the manic whites of his eyes and drowns them out with enough booze and blow to feed a city’s collective habit. He’s an antihero type, moonlighting as an enforcer for Vaughn but maintaining a fierce moral compass when all else is naught. Vaughn feasts on the stylized dialogue here and produces verbal poetry so good it hurts and you hit the rewind button just to hear his delivery again. His Frank is a hard, jaded piece of work with a soul hiding beneath the layers of anger and distrust for the world around him. McAdams’s Ani comes from a place of childhood trauma so unthinkable that they barely show it in hushed flashback, and it’s apparent in her caged animal body language, by far the actress’s most affecting work. Kitsch makes the slightest impression of the four and his arc didn’t seem as immediate as the others but he still did a bang up job in intense physicality. After the success of season one a host of excellent actors were drawn to this project, standouts here include David Morse as Ani’s commune leader dad, Kelly Reilly as Frank’s intuitive wife and second in command, Rick Springfield (!) as a shady plastic surgeon, Ritchie Coster as Vinci’s terminally alcoholic mayor, W. Earl Brown, James Frain, Ronny Cox, C.S. Lee, Lolita Davidovitch and the legendary Fred Ward as Ray’s bitterly prophetic ex-cop father.

Pizzolatto spins a very different kind of story here, one composed of long glances, deep shadows, arresting establishing shots of Vinci’s sprawling highway system, as dense and tough to navigate as the season’s central mystery, which isn’t one you get a sense of in just one, two or even three viewings. Impatience and frustration are easy to understand with this narrative, but one shouldn’t write off this piece so easily and I’m sure that’s what happened. A few people don’t have the time to invest in it, get hostile and throw some negative reviews out there and before you know it it becomes cool to hate and there’s folks throwing around words like ‘flawed’ before they’ve attempted a single episode, but that’s the way the internet works I suppose. Balls to them though, this is a deliciously dark, highly stylized, very emotional ride through a world whose themes, intentions and true colours aren’t readily visible until you descend several layers deep alongside these compelling characters. It’s thoughtful, pessimistic yet just hopeful enough to keep a candle lit in all that darkness and has some of the most beautiful acting, camera, dialogue and music work I’ve seen from anything. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher

So I get that Tom Cruise isn’t over six feet tall and doesn’t look like an ex marine biker type tough guy, but that doesn’t stop Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher from being a lean, mean, badass fucking film and one hell of an effective, tightly written thriller. Now, I’m not a huge disciple of Lee Child’s books nor have read a single one of them and therefore don’t have beef with Cruise in the role, in fact I like the steely, unflappably calm violence he brings and believed him as this outlaw ex military renegade warrior, but I can see hardcore literary fans being a trifle pissed.

Anyways, McQuarrie paints a propulsive, brutal world that Reacher exists in, full of sociopathic mercenaries for hire, mad dog war veterans out for the kill and deep rooted corruption in almost every facet of the government. Reacher, existing outside of said institutions, is free to use any force or tactic necessary to smoke out evil and restore the balance, and believe me this guy does not fuck around, but to his credit, gives fair and ample warning to anyone in his way before he beats the piss out of them. The film opens with a harrowing public shooting perpetrated by some ghost operative (Joseph Sikora) employed by shadowy factions we can’t even imagine. The act seems random but of course isn’t, and Jack breezes on in to untangle a terrifying web of dark deeds and malpractice in echelons most high. Rosamund Pike is excellent as a government figure who may or may not be on his side, as is Richard Jenkins as her high ranking father who also might (or might not) be up to all sorts of no good. David Oyewelo, Jai Courtney, Josh Helman and Robert Duvall all provide solid supporting work.

The real treat and scene stealer here though is legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog cast as a terrifying arch villain known only as ‘The Zec.’ Dressed in black with half his fingers missing, blessed with that milk over mercury voice only he has and with a penchant for inflicting heinously ruthless torture and punishment on his own cohorts, this is one villain that I wouldn’t want to come across anywhere, it’s a fantastic portrayal and he’s clearly having a blast. This is one of the rare times where I’ll concede and say that an action film works with a PG-13 rating. Usually it limits creativity and dulls any edge a thriller might have but here McQuarrie has still somehow made this thing feel genuinely dangerous, edgy and mature. It’s a brilliant thriller with several set pieces designed for maximum impact, a smart script with just enough eccentricities peppered throughout the dialogue to stick. Cruise has a lot of fun to, whether he’s taking a bar brawl out into the street and putting several dudes in wheelchairs at once or engaged in nasty, bone smashing hand to hand combat with any of the many spooks out to get him. Love it.

-Nate Hill

Marc Forster’s Stay

Marc Forster’s Stay is billed as a psychological thriller and it’s… sort of that, but really it’s something far deeper and more metaphysical, a core concept that I can’t say much about without spoiling the whole deal and trust me this isn’t one you want ruined ahead of time, it’s that affecting. It’s easy to see why this didn’t make waves at the box office and how it left a lot of critics cold (Ebert got it, and loved it) as it’s a slow, stylish, disorientating experience that slowly reveals secrets it holds close to its chest for much of the duration.

Ewan McGregor is an NYC psychiatrist who is filling in for his colleague at a university when a distraught young art major (Ryan Gosling) wanders into his office and announces plans to kill himself a few days from then. What to do? The guy seems eerily resolute as if his fate is somehow already decided, and seems like he’s already halfway gone to the other side. McGregor’s wife (Naomi Watts) tried to end her own life once so the doctor is no stranger to these things, but something about Gosling unnerves him to his soul, especially when he tells him about voices he’s hearing, phenomena that soon leak into the doctor’s own waking perception and blur the lines between reality and… something else. Bob Hoskins is low key great as a blind colleague that he plays chess with, and watch for nice work from Mark Margolis, Kate Burton, Elizabeth Reaser, Sterling K. Brown, Amy Sedaris, Michael Gaston, Isaach De Bankolé and Janeane Garofalo too.

It’s very important that you give unwavering attention to this film if you wish to get the most out of it. Best viewed in the wee hours, all lights off and on your own, it’s a visual and auditory mood board of sounds, faces, snippets of seemingly arbitrary yet crucial dialogue and scene-to-scene transitions that are orchestrated to confuse and confound yet make sense on a cosmic level when looked back upon later. McGregor and Watts are terrific but Gosling owns the film in what is probably his great under-sung performance. We get the sense that although this guy seems lost, devastated and out of place and time that he still somehow knows exactly where and when he is, but isn’t telling anyone else a thing as it’s not their place to know… yet. The artwork for this film suggests something sketchy, scary and horror oriented but the reality, although jarring and unsettling, is something gentler, more close to the soul and spirit. Director Forster (Monster’s Ball, Stranger Than Fiction, Finding Neverland) is no stranger to deep, challenging projects and here he strives to go beyond what we’d usually see in a film like this, and make it stick. He’s helped by everyone involved including an otherworldly score composed by offbeat musical duo Asche & Spencer to make this something unique, something to Stay with you long after the credits have rolled and the sun peeks over the horizon. Haunting, dreamlike, ethereal, altogether brilliant piece of filmmaking.

-Nate Hill

Rowdy Herrington’s Striking Distance

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.

-Nate Hill