Slow-burn movies tend to work in one of two ways. They’re either A.) All build up with little to no payoff (No thank you!) or B.) Lots of build up with an explosive conclusion that rewards patient viewers (Yes please!). “Hunter Hunter” (now available on VOD) fits firmly in column B and it’s not about the president elect’s son’s laptop –in fact it’s much scarier than any conservative witch hunt.
Joseph Mersault (former Bop cover boy Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan) and their daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) are living a hard life off the grid. They’re fur trappers living off the land and in a cabin passed through three generations of Joseph’s family. They fear a rogue wolf is hunting them when trappings are being absconded from their traps. Joseph leaves Anne and Renee behind to track, hunt and kill the wolf. During Joseph’s absence Anne finds the injured Lou (Nick Stahl) in the woods and invites him into their home in order to nurse him back to health.
I don’t want to say much else about the plot as it’s pretty simple and takes some wild turns in the third act. I expected this to be a Sawa vehicle as he’s arguably the biggest name of the bunch and appeared prominently in much of the marketing materials, but it’s really not. This is inarguably Sullivan’s show and she’s mesmerizing in it. She plays much of her role quietly with steely reserve, but when she’s called upon to emote she really goes there. Sullivan is a Canadian actress and this is a Canadian production, but she hadn’t registered with me prior to now. I’ll certainly remember her from here on out.
Sawa does an admirable job with what he’s given. Worlds away from his Tiger Beat days, he cuts a tough, terse, chain-smoking figure here. It’s also good to see Stahl again. I’ve been a fan of this dude’s since his childhood work in Mel Gibson’s directorial debut “The Man Without a Face,” through playing the titular role in Larry Clark’s “Bully” and all the way up to more mainstream efforts such as his unfairly maligned portrayal of John Connor in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and as the dastardly Yellow Bastard in “Sin City.” Stahl doesn’t look great here (he’s gone missing in Los Angeles’ skid row before and has a history of substance abuse), but his appearance suits the role and he plays it well. I genuinely hope this is a comeback of sorts for the talented actor.
“Hunter Hunter” is written and directed by Shawn Linden, features cinematography by first-time feature lenser Greg Nicod and is edited by John Gurdebecke and Chad Tremblay. These craftsmen have collaborated to make a movie I won’t soon shake. The way Nicod shoots something as simple as Anne making a supply run is incredibly visually dynamic. Gurdebecke and Tremblay’s editing of the conclusion ratchets tension to almost intolerable levels. I’d encourage the squeamish, most vegetarians and those who hate to see harm come to animals to skip “Hunter Hunter.” In spite of and perhaps because of this – it’s one of the best and most effecting horror films of 2020.
I initially thought the concept of “Songbird” (now available on VOD) seemed tasteless – a movie about a pandemic that was conceived, written, shot, edited and released during a pandemic – but it was handled with a sensitivity I didn’t see coming (especially with Michael Bay serving as producer). The fact that we’re all going through something similar to the characters made me empathize with them to a greater degree.
“Songbird” takes place a few years in the future. Humanity is grappling with another pandemic – this time it’s COVID-23 (God, no! We don’t need sequels to this shit!). We’re in Los Angeles and it’s on permanent lockdown. Daily health screenings are mandatory with the sick being shipped away to the foreboding Q-Zone by armed sanitation workers in hazmat suits. Word has it if you go to the Q-Zone, you ain’t coming back.
The movie concerns itself primarily with a bicycle courier named Nico (K.J. Apa, this is the second Nico he’s played this year after the dreadful “Dead Reckoning”) who works for Lester (Craig Robinson) under the watchful eye of a drone operated by Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser, excelling playing another lovable weirdo). Nico is immune to the virus. He’s what folks call a “munie.” There aren’t many munies out in the world – another one is Emmett Harland (Peter Stormare), the knife-wielding Director of Sanitation who made his way up the ladder when all of his colleagues died. (You know Emmett’s a paradigm of virtue and goodwill because he’s played by Stormare and smokes cigarettes while saying, “It’s good to know something can still kill you.”) Munies are marked by scannable yellow wristbands that provide their information.
Nico has a girlfriend whom he’s never met face-to-face named Sara (Sofia Carson). They constantly communicate via video chat and Nico often delivers her trinkets. Sara lives with her grandmother Lita (as in la abuelita) played by Elpidia Carrillo – the lady from “Predator”!!! Nico’s working day and night in order to earn money for counterfeit wristbands so he, Sara and Lita can escape to Santa Cruz, Cal. – a safe haven from the virus.
Conveniently enough many of Nico’s deliveries take him to palatial home of sleazy record producer William Griffin (Bradley Whitford, smarming it up with great aplomb) and his wife Piper (Demi Moore – I’ve never been the biggest fan of hers, but it’s nice to see her again after a prolonged absence. She also does good work playing the neutral gray of this flick.), who are now producing the bogus bands (the ones for your wrists; not your ears) in order to maintain their opulent lifestyle and assure medical treatment for their autoimmune compromised daughter Emma (Lia McHugh). William has a wristband of his own and will escape the house for dalliances with May (Alexandra Daddario), a young musician he has holed up in a seedy motel. May is our titular songbird and will perform songs via webcast where she connects with Dozer.
Sure, it was probably opportunistic and somewhat insensitive for writer/director Adam Mason, co-writer Simon Boyes, Bay and the other filmmakers to make this movie, but at its heart “Songbird” is a story about the lengths people will go to for love and in that regard it works. Much of this is because of Apa, who looks and acts great here. I took a crap-a on Apa last month with my review of “Dead Reckoning,” but the dude’s charismatic as hell in this outing. I think the kid’s got a bright future.
The conditions under which the filmmakers made the movie are readily apparent. Many actors perform their scenes by themselves. Much of Apa’s material was filmed outdoors. Thematically the restrictions occasionally pay dividends – William and Piper’s marriage is on the fritz so having Whitford and Moore act out their scenes with one another at a distance makes complete sense.
You likely already know if “Songbird” is for you or not. If your dander is already up because of the pandemic, this may only serve to amplify your anxiety. Mason has made a movie that apes Bay’s style to some extent, but is much less frenetic as a whole. This is a pandemic rendition of the Bay-produced “The Purge” with a dash of Paul Haggis’ “Crash” thrown in for good measure as everyone’s seemingly connected. It’s better than its 10% Rotten Tomatoes score would indicate. It also provides an idea at how Phil Spector might behave in a pandemic via Whitford’s performance and gives viewers a glimpse of Daddario in a more revealing version of Leeloo’s outfit from “The Fifth Element.” I leave you with this: If you’re gonna watch one 2020 movie where K.J. Apa plays a kid named Nico make it “Songbird” and not “Dead Reckoning.”
I really didn’t care for writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s last feature 2019’s “Daniel Isn’t Real” (review here), but saw in him potential for something better. It’s just one year later and improvement is already here in the form of “Archenemy” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Fri. Dec. 11).
Max Fist (Joe Manganiello) is an intergalactic superhero who’s fallen through time and space to Earth where he’s powerless and spends his days going on a continuous bender. Nobody believes Max’s story save for the teenaged Hamster (Skylan Brooks), an aspiring street journalist. Hamster’s sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs) peddles drugs for The Manager (Glenn Howerton of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) to keep a roof over their heads. A collection Indigo is supposed to make on The Manager’s behalf from Krieg (Paul Scheer) goes sideways placing her and Hamster in the crosshairs. Max teams with the teens to protect them and dismantle The Manager’s crime syndicate. Max’s home planet nemesis Cleo (Amy Seimetz) also factors into the action.
The best reasons to see “Archenemy” – aside from Mortimer’s progression as an artist (Seriously, his blend of live action and animation works worlds better here than in “Daniel” given the comic book-inspired content.) – are Manganiello and Howerton. Manganiello despite being a beefcake appears to be a nerd at heart – going so far as to host a star-studded Dungeons & Dragons game in his basement. After getting a taste of the superhero glut as Deathstroke during the closing credits of “Justice League,” Manganiello doubles down as Max Fist. Max is an interesting hero – or more specifically antihero – who’s as likely to discuss quantum physics as he is to barf up a bottle of bourbon. Manganiello convincingly plays both sides of this dichotomy. Howerton undergoes a physical transformation in his portrayal of The Manager adopting bleached blonde hair, sideburns, mustache and earring. The character is kinda like Dennis Reynolds only far more depraved. If Dennis’ moral compass is damaged – The Manager’s is decimated. He feels like an ‘80s action movie villain. Once “It’s Always Sunny” comes to a conclusion or while on breaks from the show, I’d love to see Howerton essay another heel role opposite somebody say like Jason Statham. He does it well enough here that I think he could hang as a heavy elsewhere.
“Archenemy” has a lot on its mind. It longs to show the plights of people on society’s fringes. Manganiello’s Max is a clear-cut metaphor for our soldiers and first responders who often seek solace in the bottle or with drugs following the things they’ve seen and done. His intentions while often altruistic aren’t always heroic and often border on psychotic. Mortimer also addresses racial and class inequality by having Howerton’s The Manager (who exploits a black youth before ultimately trying to snuff her out) don country club tennis whites for the finale. Speaking of the conclusion, it hints at a sequel for what could be a much more interesting movie. For the time being however this edgier incarnation of Peter Berg’s “Hancock” with a splash of James Gunn’s “Super” will suffice.
As I reviewed “Wander” last week, I felt it was my civic duty to review “Wander Darkly” (available on VOD beginning on Fri. Dec. 11) as well. You know, to see both sides of the spectrum.
Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are a young couple who are on the cusp of being on the outs despite having had a baby daughter six months earlier. They go to a party one fateful evening attended by Adrienne’s colleague Liam (Tory Kittles), whom she has a flirtatious relationship with. Adrienne’s also jealous of Matteo’s connection to Shea (Aimee Carrero), a woman he worked with on a construction project. While returning home Adrienne and Matteo get into an argument, which distracts him from driving as an oncoming car swerves into their lane and crashes head-on into their vehicle. The accident is devastating.
The remainder of the movie poses all sorts of questions. Are one or both of them dead? Did their daughter die? Was she in the car at all? Adrienne and Matteo relive key moments of their relationship hoping to gain a greater perspective on one another and what exactly their current circumstances are. The proceedings feel like a hodgepodge of “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but not as horrific as the former nor as romantic as the latter.
This is clearly a very personal project for writer/director Tara Miele, who herself was in a traumatic car accident a few years back – one which she and her husband thankfully survived. There’s a lot to admire and recommend in “Wander Darkly.” Luna and especially Miller give really solid performances. They also share a surprisingly frank, graphic and funny sex scene set to The War on Drugs’ “Suffering” (great band; great song). Kudos to these two big names for having the courage to shoot this sequence as it lends the picture a sense intimacy and honesty it might otherwise lack. I also enjoyed having character actress Beth Grant on hand as Adrienne’s mother. Whether she’s being forced under the wheels of a bus as she was in “Speed,” being told to insert an index card into her anus à la “Donnie Darko” or nagging Luna’s character as she does here, this lady’s always watchable and memorable. Lastly, the editing employed to transition the audience from one scenario to another is especially effective – props to editors Tamara Meem and Alex O’Flinn (he previously edited Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider”) for their masterful work.
Now for the bad: Kittles is an awesome actor who’s essentially wasted here. (Seriously, if you haven’t seen this cat’s excellent work in last year’s “Dragged Across Concrete” and you’re not squeamish you really should.) “Saturday Night Live” veteran Vanessa Bayer and commercial actor Dan Gill (he’s a cute dude with curly hair and a mustache) play Adrienne and Matteo’s friends Maggie and Dane. Neither one of them are bad in their roles and may very well have been cast as comedic relief in what’s otherwise a serious work, but their presence is somewhat distracting. I kept waiting for the picture to transform into a sketch or a State Farm ad whenever they appeared. Lastly, Miele has a history of directing Lifetime movies (2014’s “Starving in Suburbia” and 2015’s “Lost Boy”) and some of that cheesy energy seeps into what’s otherwise an engaging and emotional dramatic thriller.
“Wander” (now available at select theaters and on VOD) made me feel like I should’ve worn a tin foil hat while watching it. It’s an Alex Jones fever dream of a movie that throws everything and the kitchen sink at its audience save for gay frogs.
Aaron Eckhart stars as Arthur Bretnick, a private detective (he has a badge stating as much – how official!) who lost his daughter in a car accident that left his wife (Nicole Steinwedell) catatonic and him disturbed. Arthur lives in a trailer out in the New Mexico desert and busies himself between cases by recording “The Thought Junction” conspiracy podcast alongside Jimmy Cleats (Tommy Lee Jones). (Jimmy Cleats is unequivocally an awesome TLJ character name!)
A woman named Elena (Deborah Chavez) calls into the show claiming that her daughter Zoe (Elizabeth Selby) was murdered just outside the fictitious town of Wander, N.M. whereas the authorities have deemed the death car accident-related. Arthur proceeds to Wander to investigate where he’s welcomed unceremoniously by Sheriff Luis Santiago (Raymond Cruz, Tuco from “Breaking Bad”). During Arthur’s investigation he uncovers a government plot touching upon immigration and insidious medical experiments. Or does he? Arthur’s psyche may be so damaged from past trauma that he’s projecting the entire cabal.
I didn’t much care for “Wander,” but the picture has its positive attributes. Eckhart is an actor that I’ve often admired – he was great in “In the Company of Men,” “Any Given Sunday,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Thank You for Smoking” and “The Dark Knight” – and he’s really good here. He plays crazy well and is the primary reason audiences should seek the film out if they’re so inclined. Jones’ character doesn’t only sport a rad moniker he also dons a series of Hawaiian shirts looking like an aged Boogaloo Boi – love the look; hate the movement. Jones isn’t playing a character so much as he is a series of sartorial choices. Speaking of costuming substituting for acting (or writing for that matter) – Katheryn Winnick (best known for the History Channel’s “Vikings”) is on hand rocking sunnies and a black cowboy hat. Gee, I wonder if her intentions are altruistic? Another blonde appearing is Heather Graham as Arthur’s friend and attorney, Shelley Luscomb. Graham’s character is given one note to play (concern for Arthur’s well-being), but she plays it well and looks lovely doing so. It’s been a minute since I’ve seen Graham in anything (probably a 2014 arc on Showtime’s “Californication”) so she was a welcome sight for sore eyes.
“Wander” is directed by April Mullen and written by Tim Doiron. I haven’t seen the partners’ previous collaborations “Dead Before Dawn 3D” (2012) or “88” (2015), but I respect what Mullen (who is Anishinaabe Algonquin) is attempting to do with her latest effort by shining a light on the displacement of indigenous peoples from stolen lands. Unfortunately, I feel this message is muted by the focus on Arthur’s instability. That said the stylistic flourishes accomplished by Mullen and her cinematographers Russ De Jong and Gavin Smith ably place viewers well within Arthur’s mania. Likewise, Doiron’s script does the same thing – I just feel as though there’s a red herring or twelve too many.
I rented a coupla Asian-themed action flicks and figured I’d review ‘em together. Here’s what I watched!
I would have been out-of-my-mind-excited for this were it 1996. Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the same movie! Is it Christmas?!!! “Iron Mask” (now available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) isn’t the first time Arnie and Jackie have appeared on screen together – both were in frequent Adam Sandler collaborator Frank Coraci’s misguided 2004 adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” as well as the James Cameron-executive produced dietary documentary “The Game Changers” … not to mention “Entertainment Tonight” coverage anytime a Planet Hollywood opened in the ‘90s.
“Iron Mask” begins terribly, gets entertaining for a while, coasts on crud for a bit and concludes strongly. Chan and Schwarzenegger actually have an awesome fight sequence fairly early on that’s worth the price of admission alone … then they promptly disappear until the finale. The crux of the plot concerns cartographer and scientist Jonathan Green (Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn regular Jason Flemyng) being released from a prison overseen by Arnie’s James Hook. Green’s been dispatched by Peter the Great (Yuri Kolokolnikov of “The Americans” and “Game of Thrones”) to map the Russian Far East. Green travels to China alongside Cheng Lan (Yao Xingtong), who he thinks is a guy. Turns out he’s not only a she – she’s also a Princess. It also turns out Peter’s a prisoner too (he’s sporting the titular “Iron Mask”) and his celly is Lan’s father Master (Chan). Peter busts out of the clink and teams with Green’s fiancée Miss Dudley (Anna Churina) and a motley crew of pirates fronted by Captain (Martin Klebba, who essayed a similar role in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” pictures) to assist Green and Lan in overthrowing Witch (Ma Li), who’s assumed Lan’s identity and ruled over her people tyrannically.
“Iron Mask” is one weird-ass movie. It has more production companies and producers involved than I even know existed. The late Rutger Hauer pops up for literally 30 seconds. Charles Dance appears for a minute and a half – maybe two? (“Last Action Hero” reunion!) I’m not entirely sure who this picture was made for? It’s too boring for children and too childish for adults. Wait, I know … it was made for foreign audiences! It was obviously shot in or post-converted to 3D as shit kept getting shoved in my face, but the Blu-ray I rented wasn’t presented in that format. I did dig Witch’s minions who give off a combined vibe of Thunder, Rain and Lightning from “Big Trouble in Little China,” Super Shredder from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze” and The Mountain from “Game of Thrones.” The proceedings have a strange “Power Rangers” only historical bent to them. “Iron Mask” AKA “Journey to China: The Mystery of Iron Mask” AKA “Viy 2: Journey to China” is a sequel to the 2014 Russian movie “Viy” AKA “Forbidden Empire” AKA “Forbidden Kingdom” (no, not the Chan/Jet Li joint from 2008), which I didn’t even know existed prior to watching this one. That movie was directed by Oleg Stepchenko, who returns for this installment. “Iron Mask” has more Russian and Chinese money and influence in it than an American presidential election does. Just because I couldn’t totally makes heads or tails out of it doesn’t mean it wasn’t at least mildly enjoyable.
Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula:
Many folks have ripped on “Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula” (now available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD and streaming on Shudder in early 2021) for not having the claustrophobic thrills nor emotional heft of its predecessor … guilty on all counts. What “Peninsula” does have however is greater scope and more/better action (car chases and gunfights as opposed to hand-to-hand combat). I loved “Train to Busan.” I like “Peninsula.”
Despite being co-written and directed by the first picture’s helmer Yeon Sang-ho and being touted as a direct sequel – viewers don’t necessarily need to have seen the first film to enjoy the second – but I’d recommend doing so as it’s the better of the two. We’re still in South Korea, it’s four years later and the only returning characters are the zombies themselves.
South Korean expats living as outcasts in Hong Kong are tasked with returning home to retrieve money for a criminal element. They are led by Jung Seok (Gang Dong-won), a soldier who experienced great loss in the initial outbreak. South Korea has changed greatly since their departure – it’s now a fully post-apocalyptic hellscape. The job hits a snag when it’s thwarted by Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae) and his men, who are just as monstrous as the zombies who’ve wiped out humanity. Jung Seok is able to escape with his life when he’s rescued by a pair of sisters Jooni (Lee Re) and Yu Jin (Lee Ye-won) in an SUV. The girls take him home where he meets their mother Min Jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and grandfather Old Man KIM (Kwon Hae-hyo). Jung Seok teams with the family to infiltrate the military base, retrieve the money and gain passage off the titular peninsula, but they’ll have to get through Captain Seo (Koo Gyo-hwan) in order to achieve their goals.
“Peninsula” isn’t as intimate, quiet or emotionally affecting as its predecessor nor does it have performances as strong as Gong Yoo’s or Ma Dong-seok’s, but that’s not to say the new cast don’t acquit themselves fairly well. Gang Dong-won especially excels with the action choreography. The conclusion caused a coupla tears as opposed to the all-out crybaby shit fit the first one’s ending elicited outta me. “Peninsula” is a “Mad Max”-ified reskinning of “Train to Busan” – you’ll be treated to imagery of a 14-year-old girl drifting an SUV through hundreds of zombies and a gauntlet that’s reminiscent of “Apocalypto” and “Rambo” (2008). There’s plenty of movement, which may or may not move you.
I volunteered to review “Buddy Games” (now available on VOD and DVD and in select theaters) because my wife has a crush on co-writer, producer, director and star Josh Duhamel. (Well, that and since I have the sense of humor of a 12-year-old boy I tend to dig dick and fart joke flicks.) When I pitched the idea of watching it with her she seemed nonplussed. Turns out we both enjoyed it for what it was – a slice of dumb, dirty fun that ain’t good so much as it is entertaining.
The Buddy Games are an annual tradition wherein six friends – Bob AKA “The Bobfather” (Duhamel), Durfy (Dax Shepard), Doc (Kevin Dillon), Zane (James Roday Rodriguez), Shelly (Dan Bakkedahl) and Dixon (Nick Swardson) – get together for a series of physical challenges (paintball, obstacle courses, corndog eating contests, etc.), drinking too much and clowning on one another. Tragedy strikes at one year’s festivities and the pals are separated for five years. They reunite to lift Shelly’s spirits as he’s fallen on hard times. Time’s been kinder to Bob, who sold his company for hundreds of millions of dollars and might soon be settling down with Tiffany (Olivia Munn). Tiffany doesn’t approve of The Buddy Games – Bob doesn’t care and offers a $150,000 kitty to the victor.
There’s a lot to admire about “Buddy Games” and a lot that’s off-putting. The result does sort of seem like a vanity project for Duhamel, whose Bobfather is always the smartest, coolest, wealthiest, best-looking cat in the room. (Granted, Duhamel might be all of these things in actuality?) Then again, Duhamel and his buddies back in North Dakota participate in real-life Buddy Games every year – perhaps the picture is a love letter to them and the tradition itself? I wasn’t especially crazy about the sexist representation of Munn’s Tiffany either – it appears she has no self-worth if she isn’t married to Bob. Munn and women in general deserve better. This is surprising and disappointing as a woman (Jude Weng) co-wrote the screenplay with Duhamel and Bob Schwartz (the real-life “Bobfather”).
In an interstitial on the DVD, Duhamel claims to be a comedy fanatic and said he was shooting to emulate the likes of the Farrelly brothers, Todd Phillips and Judd Apatow. In the picture’s sharpest moments it doesn’t stray too far from the mark. The movie’s undoubtedly dirty (you see a dude’s bare nutsack get punctured by a paintball), but it’s actually understated in other instances. There’s a sequence where the bros go to a bar (classily called The Spread Eagle) to compete in an “Intestinal Fortitude” challenge where they all take ex-lax and must get a woman to buy ‘em a drink, dance with ‘em and give ‘em a kiss on the lips before the medication kicks in. I was worried we’d see diarrhea trickling out the cuffs of these guys’ pant legs sullying the dance floor. Thankfully, it’s mostly just fart sound effects and it’s actually pretty funny. Real restraint, ladies and gents!
The movie’s MVP is most assuredly Swardson, who’s hilarious here. I’ve been a fan of Swardson’s for a long time, but have always felt he works better as the sizzle as opposed to the steak. Give me Gay Robot (from Adam Sandler’s album Shh…Don’t Tell and Swardson’s Comedy Central series “Pretend Time”) or his turns in “Grandma’s Boy” (his car bed and “Dance Dance Revolution” performance had me rolling) and “The Benchwarmers” (he’s the only good thing about that movie) as opposed to “Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star.” He’s employed just the right amount here. As this is a WWE production, wrestler Sheamus also has a role in the picture. He’s surprisingly funny and does all of his scenes with Swardson – they have solid chemistry.
“Buddy Games” made me long for the halcyon days when my pals and I would party at our friend Okos’ place where we’d zip line off a cliff, jump a motorcycle off shit like we were Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape,” cut couches in half with a chainsaw and one time actually blew up a car. I’m lucky to be alive and these experiences make me the exact audience for “Buddy Games,” and yet I still have some reticence. That said, I kinda wanna watch the movie again and share it with my bros. To use the parlance of “Buddy Games” – I suspect it’s a grower as opposed to a shower.
What better way is there to close out a weekend after the Colts bested the Packers than by taking in a martial arts VOD double bill? Here’s what I watched and what I thought of ‘em.
I don’t give a rip about mixed martial arts in reality, but for whatever reason I find the sport fascinating within the context of movies and television shows – “Never Back Down” (guilty pleasure though it is), “Warrior” and “Kingdom” (this Audience Network series is now streaming on Netflix and is very much worth a watch) are all most assuredly my jams. MMA often serves as a metaphor to the strife these characters are experiencing interpersonally. These are stories of fathers, sons and brothers. Due to my curiosity with this subject matter, my interest was certainly piqued when I heard about and later saw the trailer for “Embattled,” which is now available on VOD and playing theatrically (it’s currently showing at Goodrich Quality Theaters locations in Brownsburg, Lebanon, Lafayette and West Lafayette, Ind.).
“Embattled” tells the tale of famed MMA fighter Cash Boykins (Stephen Dorff). Cash is as good in the cage as he is bad outside of it. He’s a crappy husband – currently to Jade (Karrueche Tran); formerly to Susan (Elizabeth Reaser) – and a worse father. He’s taken his eldest son Jett (Darren Mann) under his wing – the kid’s part of his entourage as a cornerman and trains at his gym. Cash cares about Jett as much as he’s capable, but his love is of the tough variety. Cash is frequently physically and verbally abusive to Jett, which is a spot better than the way he treats one of his other sons – the developmentally challenged Quinn (Colin McKenna) – whom he refers to as, “The Tard.”
Memories come to the surface that drive a deeper wedge between father and son. Tensions boil over resulting in Jett striking Cash in the face. The attack is caught on a hanger-on’s cell phone and the video goes viral. Despite only being 18 and a high school senior, Jett is now tasked with stepping into the Octagon and going toe-to-toe with his old man. Jett proceeds to get instruction from the only brawler to have bested his Dad in the cage – Claude (Saïd Taghmaoui).
The premise of “Embattled” is somewhat preposterous with Dorff’s Cash being too old to fight and Mann’s Jett being too young. The material sings however due to David McKenna’s strong script. David is the father of the aforementioned Colin and has written movies good (“American History X,” “Blow,” “Bully”), bad (“Body Shots,” the Sly Stallone “Get Carter”) and somewhere in between (2003’s “S.W.AT.”). “Embattled” hews closer to the positive side of McKenna’s filmography. He gives his actors weighty emotions to play and they deliver.
This is undoubtedly Dorff and Mann’s show. I’m a fan of Dorff’s despite others making fun of him for doing vape ads. I dug him all the way back to Aerosmith’s “Cryin’” music video through his villainous turn in “Blade” all the way to the last season of HBO’s “True Detective,” where he outacted Mahershala Ali … which is no small feat. Dorff’s Cash is almost entirely contemptable, but he’s also highly watchable. I was unfamiliar with Mann going into the movie and was surprised to read he’s 31 years old. He was completely believable as an 18-year-old and brought considerable sensitivity and likability to the part of Jett. I actively rooted for and cared about this kid, which is a testament to McKenna’s writing and Mann’s performance. These dudes are ably supported by Reaser and “Scrubs” star Donald Faison as Quinn’s teacher/Susan’s romantic interest. Taghmaoui is also good in the film, but I could’ve gone for more of him.
“Embattled” is the American feature debut of 34-year-old Georgian filmmaker Nick Sarkisov and he makes quite the impression. The picture places a greater emphasis on emotion as opposed to grappling. The fights are convincing however and often pack one helluva wallop.
Dumb is fun until it ain’t. I was so stoked for “Jiu Jitsu” (now available on VOD) after having seen the trailer. It looked like a combination of “Predator” (a movie I love) and “Mortal Kombat” (a video game series I’ve played and dug since I was a kid) – which it is – but the plot is thin and its logic is thinner. Not even the likes of my favorite mega-actor Nicolas Cage, Tony Jaa (one of today’s best big screen martial artists) or Frank Grillo (a bonafide man crush of mine) could keep me engaged.
Jake (stuntman/actor Alain Moussi) is a Jiu Jitsu expert currently suffering from amnesia. He’s being pursued by Brax (Ryan Tarran), a seemingly invincible alien giving off HUGE “Halo” vibes who wants to fight him with humanity’s fate hanging in the balance. Jake is aided by mysterious cave dweller Wylie (Cage), fellow Jiu Jitsu practitioners (Jaa, Grillo, Marrese Crump, JuJu Chan) and soldiers (Eddie Steeples – Crabman from “My Name is Earl,” Rick Yune, Marie Avgeropoulos) in regaining both his memory and strength so he can battle and best Brax. That’s it. No more. No less. It’s far more fight-y fight-y and far less story story – punch, kick, wash, rinse, repeat. I wasn’t expecting Shakespeare, but I was hoping this cheese would be more Gruyere and less government.
The movie starts off promisingly enough with an awesome action sequence that incorporates first-person perspective featuring Moussi and Jaa. The problem is that Jaa’s mastery of martial arts is so much more impressive and entertaining than Moussi’s that it’s off-putting when Jaa is sidelined in favor of Moussi. It’s like taking a bite of a perfectly-cooked medium rare St. Elmo’s filet only to have your waiter snatch your plate away and replace it with Golden Corral sirloin that’s sat under a heat lamp all day. After having seen Moussi here and in “Kickboxer: Vengeance” (which was co-written and produced by “Jiu Jitsu” director Dimitri Logothetis), I’m uncertain he has what it takes to headline a picture. As an actor he’s a really good stuntman, but even then he’s not the physical specimen that Jaa is.
I sorta figured the acting slack would be taken up by Cage, but his performance is less mega and more mail-in. Who does this dude think he is? Bruce Willis? It’s still entertaining to see him sport a Raiden hat and smoke a spliff however.
“Vanguard” (now available in theaters and on VOD) is the ninth collaboration between director Stanley Tong and Jackie Chan. The first film that really turned me and most Western audiences on to Chan is another pairing of these two – “Rumble in the Bronx.” This flick is a blast for a litany of reasons including Chan spanking a bare-assed baddie with an antenna he rips off a car, another villain getting mowed down by a hovercraft which shreds his clothes and arguably the best credits outtake reel of Chan’s career (he rocks so many smiles and thumbs up while being incessantly stretchered away to Ash’s propulsive “Kung Fu”). “Vanguard” isn’t nearly as entertaining or grounded as “Rumble” (a movie so stupid it proudly sports Vancouver mountaintops despite taking place in the Bronx), but it’s not without its charms.
Chan is Tang Huating, the head of Vanguard, an “international private security firm.” They’re assigned to protect wealthy accountant Qin (Jackson Lou) and his daughter, Fareeda (Ruohan Xu). Qin has drawn the ire of Omar (Eyad Hourani) and his goon Broto (stuntman/actor Brahim Chab) by narcing on Omar’s brother to authorities who in turn kill him with a drone strike. Assisting Tang with his detail are the experienced Kaixuan (Lun Ai), relative newcomer Lei (Yang Yang), reluctant honeypot Mi Ya (Miya Muqi) and youthful hotshot Shendiao (boy bander Zhengting Zhu).
“Vanguard” is a globe-hopping action/adventure picture with stops in London, Zambia, India and Taiwan. The CG varies from inspired (birds and insects are captured capably) to insipid (These have gotta be the least convincing lions and hyenas I’ve ever seen!). Things go from goofy to goofier when Shendiao sports a hoverboard more reminiscent of Dolph Lundgren’s piece from “Masters of the Universe” as opposed to Michael J. Fox’s ride from the “Back to the Future” sequels. Incredulity is further amplified by a jet ski chase staged on raging rapids that defies every law of physics (and almost killed Chan via drowning in actuality) and a fleet of gold-plated luxury cars rendered so weightlessly it’d flummox Vin Diesel’s Domenic Toretto to the point of spilling his Corona.
Despite what the marketing materials would lead you to believe, this isn’t a Chan starring vehicle. The 66-year-old international superstar is still a special effect in and of himself (Seriously, watch the way this cat gets into an SUV … it’s mind-boggling!), but this is very much an ensemble piece. There isn’t a whole lot of story and even less character development. All that said, it’s big, dumb, action-packed fun despite often stooping to becoming pro-Chinese propaganda (the phrase, “Captain China is way better than Captain America!,” is uttered enthusiastically) or simply a travel advertisement for Dubai.
I take no great joy in tearing a movie to shreds, but sometimes they have it coming. “Dead Reckoning,” now available on VOD, is one of these movies and this is one of those times.
Shot in 2016 and just now being released, “Dead Reckoning” is loosely and tastelessly based on Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers who perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombing back in 2013. K.J. Apa stars as Niko, an Albanian immigrant working as a cabbie on Nantucket to save up for college. Tillie (India Eisley) is a well-to-do young lady who recently lost her parents (John Shea, Frances Fisher … both totally wasted) in a freak puddle jumper airplane crash. Tillie now lives with her Aunt Jenny (Ellie Cornell, Rachel Carruthers from “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers” and “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers”!) and her partner, Chris (Devon Diep). She’s also taken to the bottle as means of grieving.
One night there’s a rager at Altar Rock (this movie’s original title) where Niko meets Tillie. She’s in the bag. He’s there to sell a dime bag to Lew (Brooks Bowden, this kid has an immensely punchable face and his character has an affectation where he adopts a horrendous British accent like he’s goddamned Madonna. In a movie chock-full of awful performances, his is undoubtedly the worst.). The two meet cute when she pukes. He gives her a lift home, sparks fly and they’re immediately enamored with one another. Lo and behold, Niko’s long lost brother Marco (Scott Adkins, doing a slight variation on his Yuri Boyka accent) returns to Nantucket. Unbeknownst to Niko, Marco sabotaged Tillie’s parents’ plane as revenge for Tillie’s Dad’s involvement in Niko and Marco’s father’s death. Marco intends to complete his vengeance by vanquishing Tillie. That is unless Tillie’s godfather, FBI Agent Cantrell (James Remar), can hunt Marco down and stop him. Marco also has intentions of bombing Nantucket’s Fourth of July beach party – hence the Tsarnaev connection. Niko must now face the eternal conundrum: Bros before hoes or hoes before bros?
I’ve seen a lot of these folks in other, better works. I don’t watch “Riverdale,” but liked Apa in “The Hate U Give” a coupla years back. Eisley (daughter of Olivia Hussey, who you likely remember from Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Bob Clark’s original “Black Christmas”) was good in the interesting TNT series, “I Am the Night,” where she collaborated with Patty Jenkins and Chris Pine. I’m pretty much the President of Adkins’ fan club, but he doesn’t belong in this movie. He’s one of the best on screen martial artists we have, but he doesn’t spin kick anybody in the face and only has two fight sequences, which are against an aged Remar and a middle-aged woman – they’re both uninspiring. I’ve dug Remar in countless things – “The Warriors,” “48 Hrs.,” “Sex and the City,” “The Girl Next Door,” “Dexter” – he feels uninspired and unengaged like he’s going through the motions to collect a check. They’re all uniformly bad here despite being talented. It doesn’t help that they’re saddled with dialogue that’s reminiscent of the tripe trotted out in “The Room” and “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” i.e. lines penned by non-native English speakers. The non sequiturs spat by Niko to Tillie (“You’re so pretty. I will fix your bike.”) have BIG time Tommy Wiseau as Johnny energy. As far as I know screenwriters Kristin Alexandre and A. Wayne Carter are native English speakers and have no excuse. They should legitimately be ashamed of themselves.
The direction is no better. This hunk of junk was helmed by cinematographer-turned-director Andrzej Bartkowiak. This dude shot legit shit such as “The Verdict,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” “Twins” and “Speed.” I will fully fess up I enjoyed Bartkowiak’s first coupla features – the DMX/Joel Silver collabos “Romeo Must Die,” “Exit Wounds” and “Cradle 2 the Grave” – they’re undoubtedly the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. I was unimpressed by Bartkowiak’s adaptation of “Doom” and his “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” is even worse. Chris Klein’s pitiful homage to Nicolas Cage’s mega acting and wigs (seriously, the dude’s hair was reminiscent of Cage’s ‘dos from “Next” and “Bangkok Dangerous”) would be the best performance in “Dead Reckoning” had he been transplanted here. Without hyperbole I can say “Chun-Li” looks like “Citizen Kane” by comparison to “Dead Reckoning.” Much like “The Room” horrific green screen is employed for seemingly no reason. The action has no jolts; the romance no sparks. The film’s most likable attribute is the adorable puppy Niko gifts Tillie. “Dead Reckoning” makes a convincing case that some things are better left buried. If you’re an Adkins fan like I am, you’re better off renting his recent effort “Seized” – that flick actually slaps! Given the movie’s locale, I’ll leave you with a limerick:
There once was a thriller set in Nantucket,
The cast and crew said fuck it,
The action’s bad; the script is worse,
This picture should be hauled off in a hearse,
No one showed up to work; there shouldn’t be a junket.