Capsule Reviews: Netflix Action Movies

A few weeks ago, I joined the 21st century and got a Netflix account. I don’t know why it took me so long. But I’m glad I did, and with everyone stuck at home for the foreseeable future, I’d imagine that streaming services are doing pretty well. But then the question becomes: what to watch? Well, I am here to help answer that question, at least if you like action movies. Read on for reviews of a bunch of action movies that are currently streaming on Netflix. I’ll be writing about these in the order I watched them in, and then ranking them at the end.

The Night Comes for Us

The Night Comes for Us (or Night, as I will be referring to it from here on) is an Indonesian martial arts/gangster film that is one of the most gruesome action movies I’ve ever seen. This movie is NOT for the faint-hearted. It’s like the Saving Private Ryan of martial arts flicks, it’s THAT gory. I have a high tolerance for violence in movies, but even I found some of the violence in Night to be difficult to stomach. The film stars Joe Taslim and Iko Uwais, both known for the excellent Indonesian flick The Raid: Redemption.

Image: Netflix

Taslim plays Ito, a top Triad enforcer who decides to turn his back on his former employers and protect a young girl who is the only survivor of his most recent mob hit. This doesn’t go down well with his bosses, who dispatch Arian (played by Uwais) and an army of thugs to kill Ito and the girl. Ito and Arian used to be in a gang together, and the relationships between Ito and Arian, and Ito and Reina (the girl he rescued) are what provide the emotional core of the movie.

But enough about emotions! Let’s talk about action. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Asian action and horror films, it’s that they are UTTERLY MERCILESS. People are killed in this movie in some of the grisliest ways I’ve ever seen, and I watched all eight seasons of Game of Thrones. Blood sprays, limbs are snapped and severed, people are blown to bits, set on fire, etc. It’s all…a bit much, to be honest.

But why watch this movie, since it’s such a cavalcade of carnage? Well, the fights are excellently choreographed and edited, and genuinely thrilling to watch. The final showdown between Ito and Arian is a punishing ten-minute brawl that involves screwdrivers, boxcutters, circular saws, thumb tacks, and jagged splinters of wood. It is vicious, and one of the best one-on-one fight scenes I’ve ever seen. The movie was written and directed by Timo Tjahjanto (who we will be hearing from again later in this list), and he knows how to film brutal action with characters that you actually care about.

Joe Taslim and Iko Uwais are both excellent, as is Julie Estelle, who plays a mysterious government agent known only as The Operative. Estelle played Hammer Girl in The Raid 2, and is officially the latest actress that I have a huge crush on. She kicks all kinds of ass, and at one point she loses a finger without batting an eyelash. She’s awesome.

Image: Netflix

If you can stomach the violence, I highly recommend The Night Comes for Us. It may well be one of the most gruesome action movies ever made, but if you’ve got the tolerance for it the movie is well worth watching. It is brilliantly well-made and relentlessly thrilling, but you might want to bring an umbrella to protect yourself from the constant rain of blood.

Polar

Polar, by contrast, is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. It is an absolutely abysmal viewing experience, and I can’t remember the last time two hours felt so endless. I really wanted to like this movie, since it has two actors I like a lot. The first is Mads Mikkelsen, best known for playing Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Mikkelsen is a terrific actor and I have no problem believing him as a badass, but he can’t save Polar. The same must be said of Katheryn Winnick, best known for playing Lagertha on Vikings, who is a badass in real life as well as onscreen. She has black belts in taekwondo and karate, has founded multiple martial arts schools, and is a licensed bodyguard. She is 42 but looks 25. She is basically a goddess.

Image: Netflix

But even her awesomeness cannot redeem Polar. That’s how bad it is. Mikkelsen plays a former assassin named Duncan, who for reasons we never learn is known as The Black Kaiser, a cool nickname that is ultimately meaningless. Duncan is targeted for elimination by his former employers because, and I swear I am not making this up, they don’t want to pay his pension. That is probably the dumbest reason to kill someone that I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s so lame that I don’t know if it’s meant as a joke or not. Mikkelsen is a badass actor but Duncan has no personality whatsoever and it is impossible to care about him.

Polar is basically what you would get if a coked-out 14-year-old made an action movie. It is full of bloody violence, gratuitous nudity, constant profanity, and an endless parade of crude and juvenile attempts at humor, none of which are remotely funny and are tasteless at best and offensive at worst. The only shred of anything resembling recognizable human behavior or emotion comes from Vanessa Hudgens’ character, a young woman whom Duncan befriends. But then the bad guys capture both of them and there is an appalling montage of Duncan being brutally tortured while Hudgens’ character is turned into a heroin addict. It is utterly vile. The Night Comes for Us is incredibly violent, but there is a level of craftsmanship to its filmmaking and pathos for its characters that the crude, inane, incoherent nonsense of Polar lacks utterly. Avoid Polar at all costs. It is atrocious.

6 Underground

6 Underground is such a Michael Bay movie. I lost track of the number of times I had this thought while watching 6 Underground, Bay’s latest film, which is a Netflix exclusive. If you are familiar with Bay’s work and started watching 6 Underground without knowing it’s a Bay film beforehand, you’d figure out it’s a Bay film before the opening car chase is over. The movie has all the hallmarks of Michael Bay movies: big, chaotic, destructive action scenes; lots of slow-mo and macho tough-guy bullshit; big explosions; wildly uneven tonal shifts; and a plot that is semi-coherent at best. It is in all respects a Michael Bay film.

Image: Netflix

Ryan Reynolds stars as a billionaire who faked his death and now runs a vigilante squad that goes after criminals and the like that governments won’t touch. He has set his sights on the dictator of the made-up nation of Turgistan, a fellow who enjoys using chemical weapons on his own citizens because…he can, I guess? Character motivation is not one of this movie’s strong suits. Reynolds’ character refers to himself as “One,” and the other members of his squad are also known only by numbers.

Throughout the movie, the thought I had most (aside from “This is such a Michael Bay movie”) was that Reynolds’ character was a terrible leader. He doesn’t do much of the fighting himself, he keeps trying to leave people behind, he insists everyone in his squad are called by numbers instead of their actual names because he doesn’t want any of them to get attached to each other, and is generally, for lack of a better word, an asshole. There’s a certain assholishness to many characters Ryan Reynolds plays, but his character in 6 Underground lacks the crude charm of Deadpool. Which is surprising when you consider that 6 Underground was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who scripted both Deadpool movies.

But despite the semi-coherent plot and muddled character motivations, there is still quite a bit of fun to be had with 6 Underground. It’s never boring, there’s always something interesting or cool to look at, and the action sequences are undeniably entertaining. To tell the truth, I was actually kinda grateful to this movie, because it delivered the kind of over-the-top blockbuster action of the type usually found in big summer movies, and since nobody will be going to the theater anytime soon (ah…theaters. Remember those?), 6 Underground is the closest we’ll be getting to a summer blockbuster for a while. It’s a mess, but it’s a fun mess.

Headshot

Of all the movies I watched for this post, Headshot was the one that surprised me the most. Given its B-movie title, I wasn’t expecting much beyond kick-ass action, but what I also got was a surprisingly involving story and characters that I genuinely cared about. The movie was written and co-directed by Timo Tjahjanto, whom you might remember from the blood drenched The Night Comes for Us. Headshot is marginally less violent than Night, but it’s still pretty damn brutal.

 

Image: Vertical Entertainment

Think of Headshot as The Bourne Identity, but instead of a government assassin, the amnesiac protagonist is a mob hitman. Iko Uwais plays the main character, Abdi, who was one of a group of people abducted as children by a vicious gangster named Lee and raised to be brutal mob enforcers. At the beginning of the film, Abdi washes up on a beach with no memory of who he is and is cared for by a kind doctor named Ailin while he recuperates. He takes the name Ishmael from Moby Dick, which Ailin is reading. Ailin is eventually kidnapped by Lee’s men and Ishmael/Abdi sets out to rescue her. Along the way he must come to grips with his violent past and confront the mob killers he grew up with.

So yeah, there are some similarities with The Bourne Identity, except that Headshot is a mobster/crime film instead of a spy flick. The violence in Headshot is brutal, although it is slightly less gruesome than The Night Comes for Us. The fights in this movie are excellent, and they carry a surprising amount of emotional weight, since the people Ishmael/Abdi fights are people he grew up with, and there’s a sense that he doesn’t want to hurt them, but he has to. The fights are as full of mental and emotional pain for the protagonist as they are full of substantial physical pain. And in the end, the protagonist must confront Lee, a twisted father figure. It’s surprisingly compelling stuff.

Headshot is a movie that deftly balances emotional stakes and character development with thrilling, brutal action, and features what is probably Iko Uwais’ best performance. The excellent Julie Estelle is also in the movie as one of the assassins Uwais’ character must battle, and their showdown on a beach is beautiful and brutal in equal measure. The movie also has a surprisingly uplifting ending, and actually leaves you feeling pretty good despite the harrowing cavalcade of grisly violence that preceded it.

In short, Headshot kicks all kinds of ass. Check it out ASAP.

Manhunt

Manhunt is the latest film from legendary action director John Woo, quite probably the most influential action-movie director who ever lived. Before Manhunt’s release in 2017, it had been quite a while since Woo made one of his signature shoot-‘em-ups, known for their bombastic, firing-two-guns-whilst-flying-through-the-air action sequences. And while Manhunt isn’t as good as early Woo classics like The Killer and Hardboiled, it’s still quite a lot of explosive fun.

Image: Media Asia

Manhunt is basically Woo’s version of The Fugitive, but with more gunfights and explosions. A lawyer is framed for a murder he did not commit and goes on the run and is pursued relentlessly by a determined police detective who eventually becomes convinced of his quarry’s innocence and the two team up to bring down an evil pharmaceutical company that is testing strength-enhancing drugs on homeless people.

Generic? Maybe (yes), but the movie delivers where it counts: ACTION. Woo is in his 70’s now, but he still knows how to bring the noise. Manhunt is chock-full of trademark Woo action and is an absolute blast, despite the thoroughly predictable plot. In a particularly glorious sequence, the lawyer and the detective are handcuffed together and stuck in a house that is under attack by motorcycle-riding assassins crashing through the windows. It’s just fantastic. It’s not a profoundly moving cinematic masterpiece, but if you want a fun popcorn movie, Manhunt delivers.

Triple Threat

Much like Manhunt, Triple Threat has a generic plot and lots of fun action. The movie’s cast is a who’s who of action stars, including Tony Jaa, Tiger Chen, Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins, and our old pal Iko Uwais (I am a big fan of Iko Uwais). You might not recognize those names, but if you’re an action fan chances are good you’ve seen these guys in other movies.

Image: Aurora Alliance Films

The plot of Triple Threat is basically an excuse to get different groups of these Action Guys to fight each other, and the fights are awesome. Scott Adkins in particular is a hugely underrated action star, the guy is just a beast. Remember the scene in Doctor Strange where Doctor Strange fights a guy in his astral form in a hospital while Rachel McAdams tries to keep his physical body alive? The bad guy he fights in that scene is Scott Adkins. Check out Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning for another badass Adkins performance, even though that film’s plot is utterly incomprehensible.

Triple Threat is basically The Expendables with a smaller budget, and I think I prefer it to The Expendables, if I’m being honest. And if you just can’t get enough Iko Uwais, check out the series Wu Assassins on Netflix, in which Uwais stars (along with the excellent Katheryn Winnick, whose talents are put to much better use here than they were in Polar). The show’s plot is a bit of a mess and the special effects are cheesy, but the characters are cool and the fights are very good, so it’s worth checking out.

Triple Frontier

Triple Frontier isn’t an action movie so much as a tense military/survival thriller, and a very good one at that. The film stars Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal as a group of ex-military operators who team up to rob a South American drug lord. The cast is very good, I had no trouble buying this group of guys not only as ex-military badasses, but also as guys who have known each other for a long time and been through a lot of shit together.

Image: Netflix

This is the least action-heavy of the movies I watched for this post, but the movie more than makes up for it with a top-notch cast, an intriguing plot and razor-sharp suspense. Triple Frontier is a very well-made film that also presents some intriguing moral quandaries. There’s never a clear path forward for the protagonists, they are very good at what they do but the movie does a good job at presenting them with obstacles that are not easy for them to overcome.

There are several tense and memorable sequences, including a very cool one where the guys discover that the walls of the drug lord’s house are literally lined with bricks of cash. Transporting said cash turns out to be extremely difficult, and I had never considered the logistics of transporting large amounts of cash. Big duffel bags full of cash are heavy, and it makes you rethink all those bank-heist movies where robbers effortlessly run around with bulging bags of cash.

I don’t have much else to say about this movie, other than that it was good and I liked it. Check it out.

Here are my rankings:

  1. Headshot – Tense, brutal action, a surprisingly moving story, and solid character development.
  2. The Night Comes for Us – The extreme violence won’t be to every viewer’s taste, but if you can stomach it this is a thrilling martial arts/gangster flick that is well worth your time.
  3. Triple Frontier – Great cast, solid suspense, a plot that keeps you guessing.
  4. Manhunt – John Woo’s solidly entertaining return to the shoot-em-up genre that he pioneered.
  5. Triple Threat – Lots of badass martial artists in a movie designed to make them fight each other. What’s not to like?
  6. 6 Underground – The plot is a mess and the tone is wildly uneven, but the action sequences are fun and over-the-top. It is, in every respect, a Michael Bay movie.
  7. Polar – Literally one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. Avoid at all costs.

Happy viewing!

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the Perfect Summer Movie

Tom Cruise may be a weirdo, but you’ve got to give the man credit. It’s hard to think of an A-list Hollywood actor as willing to put himself in harm’s way for the sake of our entertainment. Cruise has been topping himself with each successive installment of the venerable Mission: Impossible franchise, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll have in store next time.

I’m already looking forward to the next Mission: Impossible movie, because Fallout, the sixth and latest film in the series, is everything I want from a summer movie. It’s fun, smart, tense, and absolutely thrilling from start to finish, and despite a 147-minute running time, those nearly two-and-a-half-hours disappear in a flash.

Images: Paramount Pictures

Cruise once again plays unstoppable superspy Ethan Hunt, still working for the Impossible Mission Force, or IMF. This time around he has to stop a group of fanatics known as the Apostles from acquiring nuclear material. That’s the most basic way of describing the plot, so if it sounds trite rest assured that the movie is much cleverer than my bare-bones plot description makes it sound. I’m being vague because I don’t want to give anything away, and I really want people to go out and see this film for a perfect example of smart, fun, exciting entertainment that doesn’t treat viewers like idiots.

Joining Ethan on his mission are familiar faces Benji and Luther, played respectively by Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames. Pegg and Rhames have been playing these roles for multiple films and they are the best kind of movie sidekicks. They’re smart, funny, badass and have great personalities, and don’t feel like stock characters or that they only exist to get captured. They are capable and valuable allies. Also returning is Rebecca Ferguson as the wonderfully-named English spy Ilsa Faust, whose loyalties are somewhat unclear. She’s every bit as badass as she was in the previous film, Rogue Nation, and is very much Ethan’s equal.

Another returning cast member is (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen any of the movie’s trailers) Michelle Monaghan as Ethan’s wife Julia, who hasn’t been seen since the third M:I movie, although technically she made a short cameo appearance in the fourth one. I love that the series hasn’t forgotten about Julia and hasn’t given Ethan any unnecessary romantic entanglements or had him casually jump into bed with every attractive woman that crossed his path. Julia’s presence provides a strong sense of continuity and the movie gives a satisfying amount of closure to Ethan and Julia’s relationship, which I hadn’t been expecting.

But here I am talking about relationships in what will very likely be the best action movie of the year. So, how’s the action? It’s top-notch. The movie was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, also returning from the previous film, Rogue Nation. Fallout is the first movie in the series to have been helmed by a returning director, and McQuarrie outdoes his previous efforts in nearly way. I loved Rogue Nation, but Fallout may be even better.

When the time comes to list the best action sequences of 2018, most of them will come from this movie. The HALO jump. The bathroom fight. The Paris motorcycle chase. The showstopping helicopter chase, followed by a brutal battle on the edge of a cliff. And many more. All of these sequences are breathtaking, and they all look totally real. I’m sure some CGI was used at certain points, but Fallout does not look like a CGI-heavy movie, which is remarkable in this age of incredibly advanced special effects. The movie’s stunt team deserves a shout-out for their incredible work in this film, every stunt is flawlessly executed.

Aside from one, of course, the infamous rooftop jump on which Cruise broke his ankle, delaying production while his leg healed. The shot where Cruise breaks his ankle is still in the film, and you’ve got to give the man credit for soldiering on and pulling himself up on to that roof despite what must have been a very painful injury. He also learned to fly a helicopter for the film (that’s really him during that pulse-pounding chopper chase) and spent an entire year learning to do the HALO jump. HALO is an acronym for High-Altitude, Low Opening, and is incredibly dangerous. The IMDb Trivia section for the movie says it best:

While Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt) is famously known for performing his own stunts throughout the franchise, he ups the ante in this installment by performing four elaborate set pieces (mostly without green screens or stunt doubles): a HALO jump, an unusually dangerous variety of High-Altitude Low Opening parachute jumps; a helmet-free motorcycle chase through Paris, including a portion in which Hunt rides against traffic in the circle around the Arc de Triomphe; an extended foot chase across London rooftops, in which Cruise broke his ankle while jumping between two rooftops; and a helicopter chase in which Cruise does most of the piloting.

Credit to IMDb.

That’s INSANE. The guy literally put his life on the line multiple times, and the end results are spectacular. Fallout is indeed the Mad Max: Fury Road of 2018. It sets a very high mark for on-screen action and stunt work and will be the action movie to beat for a long time. If you’re like me and love intense, fast-paced movies that get your blood pumping, Fallout is a dream come true.

And I haven’t even mentioned the villains. Sean Harris returns as the diabolical Solomon Lane, the ruthless head of the Syndicate from Rogue Nation. Harris’ raspy voice is deeply menacing, and the movie has stakes that feel very real, despite all the times Ethan and his team have saved the world in the past. The movie has a solid emotional core, and I actually felt myself being moved by it a few times. It does a lot to humanize Ethan, and shows that he’s not just a superhuman stunt machine. You really care about the guy.

New to the series is Angela Bassett as CIA director Erika Sloane, who doesn’t trust Ethan and the IMF, and so assigns one of her own agents to accompany Ethan on his mission. That agent is August Walker, played by Henry Cavill, whose mustache caused so many problems for Justice League reshoots. I’ll be honest, Cavill’s not the best actor in the world, he can be a bit flat. But what he lacks in charisma he makes up for in physicality. Walker is noticeably bigger than Ethan and his presence causes unforeseen complications which I won’t elaborate on in the attempt to avoid spoilers.

I loved this movie. It’s whip-smart, has an excellent cast, a plot that keeps you guessing, and the most thrilling action of the year. The first Mission: Impossible movie came out all the way back in 1996, and it is amazing that after more than two decades the franchise is still going strong. Heck, I was eight years old when the first movie was released, now I’m nearly thirty. The series has stood the test of time and continues to deliver top-notch entertainment.

May it continue for another couple decades. I can’t wait.

The Equalizer 2 is a Joyless Slog

Denzel Washington is a legend.

He’s the kind of actor who automatically improves every movie he’s in. When you hear about a new movie that he’s in, you think, hey, Denzel’s in it so it can’t be all bad.

His latest movie, The Equalizer 2, is mostly bad. But at least it’s not all bad.

Columba Pictures

The Equalizer 2, as you may have guessed, is the sequel to the 2014 film The Equalizer, which was based on the 1980s TV series of the same name. The Equalizer 2 is notable for being the first sequel that Denzel has ever made, which is amazing when you consider that he made his screen debut in 1981. Nearly four decades of acting with no sequels until now is quite the feat in today’s sequel-heavy movie market.

It’s a shame that the movie itself wasn’t better. The first Equalizer movie was a solid thriller, even though it’s no masterpiece. It grossed $192 million, making a sequel all but guaranteed. The sequel lacks the forward momentum of the original and spends too much time spinning its wheels. It’s a movie that never quite kicks into high gear and despite Denzel’s solid performance and a handful of quality action scenes, the movie ultimately feels like it was made to cash in on the surprising success of its predecessor.

Denzel once again plays retired special agent Robert McCall. In the first movie he worked in a blatant Home Depot ripoff called Home Mart (I guess Home Depot didn’t want to pay for the product placement) and in the second film he’s a Lyft driver (I guess Uber didn’t want to pay for the product placement). Being a Lyft driver provides ample opportunity for Robert to find people in need of help, and in many cases visit violent retribution upon various lowlife scumbags.

Robert is a likable guy despite his violent tendencies, although the movie skirts the issue of vigilante justice by making Robert’s victims so cartoonishly evil and smarmy that you don’t feel bad for them when he breaks their limbs and snaps their necks. That’s all well and good, but the movie suffers once the actual plot kicks in.

That’s because the plot is lazy and unpleasant. Some people kill Robert’s best friend Susan Plummer, an old friend from his secret agent days with ties to the intelligence community. The scene in which Susan is killed is overlong and deeply unpleasant, as her assailants pursue her through her hotel room and beat her relentlessly while she begs for them to stop. It’s horrible and is the worst thing I’ve seen in a theater all year. It’s also a lazy way to construct a story and shows that the filmmakers didn’t have any better ideas for a sequel than to just nastily kill the one person who means the most to the protagonist. It sucks and I hate it.

Both Equalizer movies were directed by Antoine Fuqua, who is a talented director but has an unfortunate tendency to fill his movies full of scenes of violence towards women. His movies are full of women being beaten, shot, stabbed and strangled. Hell, Susan is played by Melissa Leo, who previously worked with Fuqua on the 2013 thriller Olympus Has Fallen, which included a prolonged scene of the bad guys graphically beating her. The first Equalizer movie had a scene in which a young woman is slowly strangled. I could go on but I don’t want to. Just…yuck. These are the kinds of scenes that make you feel dirty after watching them, and I felt guilty having paid money to see these things happen in a theater.

I’m not going to lie, these kinds of things are really hard to talk about, and make it very hard to judge a film’s quality because they overshadow your entire perception of it. The first Equalizer was released in September, after prime summer movie season. But the second one was released in July, right smack in the middle of summer movie season. Who wants to go to a theater on a nice summer day and watch a woman get beaten and stabbed? I feel like this movie betrayed my expectation of entertainment.

Look, I’m going to try to move on from this. Let’s talk about the action scenes, which are tense and well-executed. There’s one scene where Robert is driving his car and has to fend off a guy in the back seat who is trying to stab him. That was exciting and inventive. The movie’s final showdown is also quite excellent. It takes place in a town that has been evacuated due to an approaching hurricane, and the weather grows worse as the scene progresses, which escalates the tension as Robert eliminates his pursuers in various grisly ways. He even kills a guy with what I’m pretty sure was a harpoon gun.

The movie is well-made and the acting is solid across the board, but the plot is lazy and predictable, the pacing uneven with too many extraneous sublots that go nowhere (one in particular involving an elderly Holocaust survivor feels like it should have been left on the cutting-room floor) and if I’m being honest the scene in which Susan is killed singlehandedly killed the movie for me. I’d watch the final confrontation again and there are a handful of other quality action scenes, as well as a great moment where Robert tells the bad guys that he’s going to kill all of them, and his only regret is that he only gets to do it once.

But overall the movie left a bad taste in my mouth and I have no desire to see it again. Things will improve next week when we take a look at Mission: Impossible – Fallout, which the early reviews have said is perhaps one of the best action movies ever made and looks like it could be this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. I’m a big fan of the Mission Impossible series and I couldn’t be more excited, so look for that next week.

Tomb Raider 2018 is the Best VIdeo Game Movie Ever Made

The title of this post makes what might seem like a bold claim, but let’s be honest: the standards aren’t very high.

Even video game-based movies that I enjoy like the Resident Evil movies and the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movies aren’t what I would call good movies. They’re mindless fun and I enjoy them for what I feel is their considerable entertainment value, but they’re all just as stupid as hell.

2018’s Tomb Raider is more of a gritty reboot in the vein of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the Daniel Craig Bond films. The new movie takes most of its cues from the 2013 Tomb Raider game, which itself was a gritty reboot of Lara Croft, a dark and violent tale that was one of my favorite games of that year. Its sequel, 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, was arguably even better, and the new film combines story elements from both games. So if the names Yamatai, Himiko, and Trinity mean anything to you, then you probably have a good idea of what the movie’s plot will entail.

Images: Warner Bros./Square Enix

Lara is played this time around by Alicia Vikander, an Oscar-winning Swedish actress. We first meet Lara as she’s getting her butt kicked in an MMA match, which gives the viewer a good look at Vikander’s amazing abs. She got in incredible shape for the movie, and she gets plenty of opportunities to show off her toned physique. I hope I don’t sound like a pig for saying this, but sex appeal has always been a big part of the appeal of Tomb Raider, and Vikander is very sexy.

She’s also a damn good actress and gives a performance that gives Lara a lot of empathy and personality. In the games, she’s not just a sex symbol anymore, and this applies to the movie as well. At the beginning of the film, she’s making a meager living in London as a bike courier. She’s the heir to a large corporation, but she refuses to accept her inheritance because that would require her to declare her father legally dead, which she is not prepared to do. Her father disappeared years ago and she is determined to find out what happened to him, which is her main motivation throughout the film.

Her search lead her to discover her father’s hidden research into Himiko, a mythical Japanese queen who was said to have power over life and death. She finds a recording left by her father in which he instructs her to destroy his research, but of course she doesn’t, and follows his trail to Hong Kong. There she meets Lu Ren, a ship captain she convinces to take her to an island she believes to be the island her father was searching for. They are promptly shipwrecked and wind up in the clutches of Mathias Vogel, the leader of an expedition on the island to unearth Himiko’s tomb. It turns out Mathias knew Lara’s father, and his research was the final piece of the puzzle required to locate Himiko.

Lara has just brought him exactly what he needed. Remember in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, where Indy’s dad gets mad at him for bringing the Grail diary with him when the Nazis capture them? It’s like that. Tomb Raider may not be the most original movie. It’s a bit derivative, and much of the film’s final act is very reminiscent of the Last Crusade’s final act, where the bad guys force Indy to go on ahead and solve the puzzles leading to the Grail. Pretty much the exact same thing happens in Tomb Raider. But hey, if you’re going to steal from another movie, at least steal from a good movie.

I liked this new Tomb Raider quite a bit. The acting is solid, with Alicia Vikander making Lara into a likable and vulnerable character who is also a force to be reckoned with in the action scenes. Tomb Raider is one of the most visually faithful video game adaptations. Vikander looks almost exactly like the Lara of the recent games, and the clothes she wears and the weapons she uses (like the bow and the climbing axe) look like they came directly from the games.

Several of the action set pieces come directly from the games as well, like when Lara finds herself in a rusted-out old airplane dangling precariously over the edge of a waterfall. There is plenty of fan service for fans of the games such as myself, and the film’s ending shows Lara with her hair in its trademark braid and acquiring her famous dual pistols, as well as setting itself up for a sequel. Vikander wouldn’t have been my first choice for the role of Lara but she nails it, and if there are any sequels she’s the right woman for the job.

The rest of supporting cast is also good. The villainous Mathias is played by Walton Goggins (I love that name) who is good at playing slimy sleazeballs. Lara’s father Lord Richard Croft is played by Dominic West (I love that name too), an actor with a voice I could listen to all day. Lu Ren the ship captain is played by Daniel Wu, from the badass AMC TV series Into the Badlands, which is a show loaded with top-notch kung fu action.

It is, of course, not a perfect movie. The first act is a bit sluggish, since it takes about 45 minutes for Lara to reach the island, and the pacing lags a bit in the early going. There are some underused characters too. Lu Ren seems like a cool guy and Daniel Wu is a good actor but once when they reach the island he doesn’t get much to do, and Kristin Scott Thomas is a very capable actress who is barely in the movie, which is too bad. But there are a couple of fun cameos from Nick Frost and Sir Derek Jacobi of all people, which helps make up for it.

The movie was directed by a Norwegian director named Roar Uthaug (another great name) who does good work with the material. It’s not perfect and has gotten a mixed critical reception, but I feel it’s a genuinely good movie despite its flaws and I had a lot of fun with it. If you’re a fan of the games you’ll find a lot to like here and will appreciate the various callbacks to the games, but even if you’ve never picked up a controller you’ll still find a fun adventure movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Foreigner is Jackie Chan’s Version of Taken

Martin Campbell is a director who seems to specialize in revitalizing old warhorses. He did it in 1995 with GoldenEye, which was the first James Bond film since 1989’s License to Kill and was also Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut. Campbell did it again in 1998 with The Mask of Zorro. He revitalized James Bond again in 2006 with Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first Bond movie (and still my number-one favorite Bond film). Campbell did it yet again in 2010 with Edge of Darkness, Mel Gibson’s first starring role after a long absence (and several well-publicized offscreen meltdowns). In 2011 Campbell made Green Lantern, which…well, the less said about that one the better. But with The Foreigner, Campbell has made a return to form.

Image: STX Entertainment

This time it’s Jackie Chan getting the Martin Campbell Old Warhorse Revitalization Treatment. An alternative name for this phenomenon would be Taken Syndrome, referring to Liam Neeson’s 2008 surprise megahit which proved that people will go see movies starring aging action stars.

The circumstances are a bit different, since before Taken Neeson was not known as an action star. The same cannot be said for Jackie Chan, whose willingness to perform fearless and death-defying stunts in his films has rightly become the Stuff of Legend. The Foreigner also stars Pierce Brosnan in a villainous role. The combination of Campbell, Chan and Brosnan feels just right, and I quite enjoyed The Foreigner.
The film’s plot will be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever seen an action movie. Chan plays Quan, a restaurant owner living in London whose teenage daughter is killed in a terrorist bombing in the film’s opening. Killing Quan’s daughter will of course turn out to be the worst (and last) mistake the culprits ever make, since like Liam Neeson’s character Bryan Mills in Taken, Quan turns out to have a very particular set of skills, as well as a tragic backstory that both serve as strong motivation to find and punish his daughter’s killers.

It’s a familiar plot (the 2002 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Collateral Damage had nearly the exact same setup) but an effective one. Pierce Brosnan plays Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy, a man who, let’s just say, has fingers in many pies. After seeing Hennessy on TV and learning that he is a former IRA member, and since a group calling itself the Authentic IRA claimed responsibility for the attack that killed his daughter, Quan becomes convinced that Hennessy knows more than he is letting on.
Long story short (and I don’t think this is much of a spoiler): Quan is exactly right, and Hennessy is up to his ears in it. I won’t go into more detail than that, but it doesn’t take long before Quan has Hennessy running scared and hiding out in the countryside. This does not deter Quan and he takes up residence in the surrounding woods and wages a guerrilla war against Hennessy, which includes setting Rambo-esque traps in the woods that come in quite handy when Hennessy sends his henchmen into the woods after him.

Image: STX Entertainment

Jackie Chan is great in this movie. He’s 63 years old but is still pretty spry, and the fight scenes are excellent. The trailers for the movie would have you believe that the movie is a non-stop action thrill ride, but the truth is that it’s more of a political/conspiracy thriller with some really great action scenes. The plot gets a bit muddled at times but I was still able to follow it without too much difficulty. In addition to a strong physical performance, Chan also does a great job at nailing the more introspective and emotional aspects of his character. The scenes of him mourning his slain daughter are genuinely affecting.

The movie also knows how to make the most of Chan’s presence, and keeps him offscreen for much of the movie. While Quan wages his guerrilla war against Hennessy, we spend most of that time following Hennessy as he becomes increasingly paranoid, so when Quan makes his move it comes as a surprise to the audience as well as to Hennessy and his men. Even when Chan isn’t onscreen, his character’s presence is strongly felt. It’s very effective filmmaking.

Brosnan is also excellent as the duplicitous Hennessy, and speaks with an Irish accent that feels genuine. I mention this because Irish accents are easy to overdo, but Brosnan and the rest of the actors who play Irishmen speak with Irish accents that sound real, so the film never comes across as campy or exploitative. And yes, I realize that Pierce Brosnan is himself Irish, but I thought it was still a point worth mentioning.

The Foreigner is undeniably similar to other thrillers, but the strength of the performances and strong sense of realism raise it above the level of other campier films. I thought that Martin Campbell’s 2010 movie Edge of Darkness with Mel Gibson was ok, but the pacing of that film was sluggish and the plot was hard to follow. The Foreigner is much better in both of these areas and to me feels like a more complete and well-rounded experience. The villains in Edge of Darkness were members of a shady evil corporation, whereas The Foreigner’s villains are shady evil politicians. The movies are similar but The Foreigner ultimately comes out on top. It’s not perfect but I really liked it.

It’s October, which means that I have to write about at least one scary movie. Fortunately for me (I think), there’s one coming out this Friday which looks like it will fit the bill. That movie is The Snowman, a twisted Scandinavian crime thriller starring Michael Fassbender and based on a bestselling novel. The early buzz for the movie has been mostly bad, but I’m going to check it out anyway. I guess I’m still feeling brave after surviving IT. Tune in next week for a review.

Blade Runner 2049 is as Good as Belated Sequels Get

Confession time: the first time I saw Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, I didn’t much care for it. Please don’t judge me too harshly.

This could be because I saw it on TV and it was probably edited to some extent. This could also be because the version I saw was the original theatrical version, which most fans of the film agree to be inferior to later versions. But I think the most likely reason of all was that it did not conform to my expectations. I expected a rollicking, action-packed thrill ride. What I got instead was a dark, moody, slow-burning sci-fi noir. It wasn’t what I wanted at the time, but I have a much greater appreciation for it now. Scott’s Blade Runner is a stone-cold classic and has been hugely influential on generations of filmmakers and writers.

The idea of a sequel coming out some 35 years after the release of the original film could lead to understandable skepticism. We all know what happened with that last Indiana Jones movie, after all. But I am happy to say that the new film, Blade Runner 2049, is an excellent sequel. People have called it one of the best sequels ever made, and it’s hard to disagree.

Image: Warner Bros.

The new movie was directed by the brilliant French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. I haven’t seen all of his films, but the ones I have seen (Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival) were all excellent. Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today, and he has delivered another near-masterpiece with Blade Runner 2049.

Villeneuve’s film stays true to Scott’s beloved original in tone, style, and content. The cinematographer was the great Roger Deakins, and the movie looks amazing. It brilliantly recaptures the iconic look of the original movie while also providing new environments and landscapes that fit right in with the world these films have created. If Deakins doesn’t finally win an Oscar for his work on this film, then the Academy Awards are officially Dead To Me.


Image: Warner Bros.

But aside from the eye-popping visuals, the film is rich in ideas and emotion. One of the main questions the original film presented was: what does it mean to be human? If it becomes possible to one day create synthetic beings so lifelike they’re virtually indistinguishable from real people, who’s to say those synthetic beings aren’t human? HBO’s Westworld recently pondered similar questions, and they’re as relevant and intriguing now as they were when the first movie was released in 1982.

Much has been made of Harrison Ford’s return to the world he helped create, although (this could be considered a minor spoiler) he doesn’t actually appear in the new movie until it is more than half over. Most of the movie rests on the shoulders of Ryan Gosling, and he is more than up to the task of carrying the film. Gosling’s performance here is superb and absolutely Oscar-worthy.


Image: Warner Bros.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here’s a quick recap. The original movie took place in 2019, and followed Ford’s character Rick Deckard as he attempted to track down four rogue replicants. Replicants were created by the Tyrell Corporation to serve as off-world slave labor, but after a series of violent rebellions, they became outlawed. Blade Runners such as Deckard were cops who specialized in tracking down and “retiring” replicants.

Gosling’s character, known simply as K for most of the movie, is a Blade Runner hunting down replicants in 2049, thirty years after the events of the original film. I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot, since I really want to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that K’s background is complex and is an integral part of the film’s plot. It becomes necessary for him to track down Deckard, who hasn’t been seen for thirty years. When we do finally meet Deckard, he’s tired and worn out. It’s some of the best acting Ford has done in recent years. He does a great job capturing Deckard’s cynicism and world-weariness, and is soulful and sympathetic.


Image: Warner Bros.

In addition to Deckard and K, the rest of the characters are equally fascinating. Robin Wright plays K’s no-bullshit boss Lieutenant Joshi, Jared Leto plays a creepy evil industrialist named Niander Wallace (who now owns the company that makes replicants and has made a fortune producing a new, more obedient series of replicants), and an actress named Sylvia Hoeks plays Wallace’s main henchwoman, disarmingly named Luv. Despite her name, she is not to be messed with, and provides a fierce adversary for K as he attempts to locate Deckard.

There’s also the lovely Cuban actress Ana de Armas as a character named Joi (pronounced like the word joy), who is, for lack of a better word, K’s companion. No, not that kind of companion. She offers him support and guidance despite, let’s just say, not being entirely human. I found the relationship between K and Joi to be quite fascinating, and genuinely moving at times.

There’s a lot more I could say about the plot, but I’m not going to because this is a movie you should experience for yourself. I will say that I loved the film’s plot. The filmmakers did an incredible job of telling a story that feels like a logical evolution of the original film, instead of just a flimsy excuse to make another movie and make more money. Blade Runner 2049 is a movie made with immense care and attention to detail. It feels completely faithful to the original.

I wouldn’t call either Blade Runner movie an action movie. Both movies are deliberately paced, and while there are fights and chases, the emphasis isn’t on the action scenes. Both films have a long way to go and are in no particular hurry to get there. The new movie is nearly three hours long, but it didn’t feel that long to me. It immediately sweeps the viewer up into the vivid world it creates, and it’s the kind of world that is thrilling to explore, but you probably wouldn’t want to live in it.

Every aspect of this movie is Oscar-worthy, from the production design to the writing to the acting to the directing to the special effects to the cinematography. Every one of those things from the first movie became iconic, and it’s easy to see the same thing happening with the new movie. Denis Villeneuve and his team did an incredible job crafting this film, and they have made Blade Runner 2049 every bit as emotionally resonant and thematically rich as its esteemed predecessor, which is no small feat.

Coming up next, in The Foreigner Jackie Chan will show us that it doesn’t matter if you’re in your sixties, you can still kick ass.

Operation Anthropoid

It is with a heavy heart that I begin to write today. Last week I decided to write about a movie called Anthropoid, which is a dramatization of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich which took place in 1942. It’s a movie with a lot of gun violence, and after what happened in Las Vegas after the weekend I wondered if it was the right movie to write about. I’m going to go through with it, but this week in addition to the standard spoiler warning I’m just going to say that this post will be getting into some pretty dark stuff, so if you don’t want to read about a film in which many people are killed with guns only a few days after dozens of Americans were actually killed with guns, I completely understand.

That being said, let’s get to the movie. Anthropoid is a movie which was released last year, starring Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, and was written, produced, and directed by Sean Ellis (he was also the cinematographer). Ellis is an English filmmaker with only a handful of directing credits, but Anthropoid is one of the best-directed films I’ve seen in quite some time. It flew under the radar last year, but it’s a great movie and deserves to be more widely known.


Image: Universal

Reinhard Heydrich was an evil man. He was one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials and one of the main architects of the Holocaust. Hitler himself referred to Heydrich as “the man with the iron heart” and the people of Czechoslovakia nicknamed him the Butcher of Prague. I’m not going to say much more about him because I am not a historian and because writing about such a monstrous person is depressing. Suffice to say that if one were to compile a list of the most evil humans to ever exist, Heydrich would more than earn his place.

As I talk about the film, I’m going to be talking about historical events as the film depicts them, and I’m sure the movie takes some liberties with the actual events (as all movies based on true events inevitably do). Just letting all the historians out there know that in advance.

The movie’s main characters are Josef Gabcik, played by Murphy, and Jan Kubis, played by Dornan. Both Gabcik and Kubis were real people, and the performances by Murphy and Dornan are excellent. Murphy is a talented and versatile actor, while Dornan is unfortunately known best as Christian Grey from those godawful Fifty Shades of Grey movies (no, I haven’t seen them, nor do I ever intend to). For those of you who think Dornan is a bad actor based on those movies alone, I’ve got some potentially surprising news: he’s really good in Anthropoid. Amazing what an actor can do when given good material and a director who gives a shit.

For me, one of the most remarkable things about the movie is how genuine it feels. A lesser filmmaker could have taken this story and turned it into a Dirty Dozen-style action thriller about heroic underdogs assassinating a horrible person and subsequently going out in a blaze of glory. But director/producer/screenwriter/cinematographer Sean Ellis wisely and correctly realized that that would be a false way of telling the story, and instead makes the film frighteningly realistic. It portrays its characters as deeply flawed and unsure if what they’re doing is really the right course of action, and doesn’t gloss over the horrific consequences of their actions.

Image: Universal

Gabcik, Kubis, and their fellow conspirators are scared and uncertain. They were airdropped into Czechoslovakia with orders from the exiled Czech government in London to assassinate Heydrich, but the way the movie portrays it the details were mostly left to them. The first part of the film follows Gabcik and Kubis as they meet up with their contacts and form a plan to ambush Heydrich while he is out taking a drive. One of the biggest complications is that Heydrich sometimes travels with an armed escort and they haven’t been able to discern a pattern as to when Heydrich will be guarded.

They decide to wait for a day when Heydrich is unguarded, but when they receive news that Heydrich will be returning to Germany in a few days, it forces their hand and decide to ambush him regardless of the presence of an armed escort. Fortunately, when the moment arrives Heydrich is alone, but when Gabcik steps into the road in front of Heydrich’s car and attempts to open fire on him with a machine gun, his gun jams. As Heydrich and his driver prepare to shoot Gabcik, Kubis, who was positioned nearby, throws an anti-tank grenade at the vehicle and wounds Heydrich. Heydrich stays in the vehicle while his driver pursues Gabcik, who is able to shoot him and escapes.

This is the way the film portrays it, and from what I’ve read the film’s depiction of how the assassination played out is highly accurate. Ellis extensively researched the actions of every member involved in the assassination, and even portrays the events of the assassination in real time, meaning that the amount of time the film spends showing the assassination is the actual amount of time the events themselves took to occur.

That’s an impressive commitment to detail and historical accuracy. The entire film is tense as hell, and there’s very little artificiality to it. There’s little in the way of background music for most of the film, and Ellis uses this to increase the tension to nearly unbearable levels. There are no scenes of Gabcik and Kubis’ bosses back in London strategizing, and no scenes of Heydrich himself doing whatever it was that a sick bastard like him did in his day-to-day life. The viewer doesn’t know anything more about Heydrich’s movements than the assassins do. There is also a strong sense of just how isolated Gabcik and Kubis are. They have a few co-conspirators but little to no outside help. They are on their own.

At first, they fear that they botched the assassination, but a few days later, as they are hiding out in a church, they get the news that Heydrich died as a direct result of the wounds he sustained during the assassination attempt. From what I’ve read it sounds like he died of infected shrapnel wounds. The Nazis get a hint of the assassins’ location when one of their own, a Czech resistance operative named Karel Curda, betrays them for the sum of one million Reichsmarks.

Curda leads the Nazis to the home of the people Gabcik and Kubis stayed with during the planning of the attack. The mother of the family kills herself with a cyanide capsule before the Nazis can take her, but the rest of the family is not so lucky. There’s a horrific interrogation scene where the Nazis learn of the assassins’ location in a church from the teenage son of the family. I won’t describe the interrogation scene, but it’s appalling, and once again, from what I’ve read the depiction of the Gestapo’s interrogation methods is accurate, which is all the more horrifying if you see the film.

This leads to the final confrontation, which is one of the most epic and harrowing last stands in cinematic history. When the Nazis arrive at the church, three of the Czech resistance fighters are standing guard (one of which was Kubis) with the remaining four taking refuge in the crypt below the church. When the three start shooting, the four hiding in the crypt want to help but know that they can’t reveal themselves to the Nazis. The church shootout is intense and unrelenting, as the three Czechs desperately attempt to hold off wave after wave of well-armed and relentless German soldiers. Inevitably, all three are killed. The last to go is Kubis, who loads his last bullet into his gun at points it at his own head.

Just as he is about to pull the trigger, the film cuts to Gabcik’s horrified face in the crypt below as he hears the shot, and the expression on his face tells the whole story. It’s a quietly devastating moment, and is exemplary of the way Ellis directs the film. It’s not showy, it’s not stylized, it’s not drawn-out. It happens and it’s devastating and then it’s over and the survivors have to carry on. The Nazis soon realize where the remaining conspirators are hiding, and attempt to flush them out by flooding the crypt. Cornered, with the chamber flooding and the Nazis closing in, the surviving conspirators take their own lives.

Concluding text informs the viewer that Hitler’s reprisals were swift and terrible. Tens of thousands of Czechs were arrested, many of whom were later executed or died in concentration camps. The Czech villages of Lidice and Lezaky were burned to the ground and all their inhabitants either executed or imprisoned. It’s estimated that 5,000 innocent Czechs were killed as a direct result of Heydrich’s assassination. While the film mercifully doesn’t depict these events, it doesn’t ignore them either. Heydrich was the highest-ranking Nazi to be successfully assassinated during the Second World War, but it came at a terrible cost.

Image: Universal

The movie is a poignant examination of morality and justice, and doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence of war. Anthropoid is not a combat movie like Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, it’s closer to Schindler’s List or The Pianist. It’s hard to watch at times but is well worth the effort, even if you never want to see it again after the first viewing. It’s not as graphic as Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, but is no less emotionally draining. It’s vividly realistic and fantastically-directed, with excellent performances across the board. It’s a movie that is challenging but very rewarding, and will stay with you for a long time.

Coming up next week is a long-awaited sequel to a bona fide sci-fi classic. It’s Blade Runner 2049.

Mitch Rapp: American Assassin

Before his death in 2013 at the age of 47 from cancer, Vince Flynn wrote 14 bestselling books, 13 of which starred ultra-badass counterterrorism agent Mitch Rapp. Flynn’s first book was published in 1997, and his first Mitch Rapp book was published in 1999. It took Hollywood a while to make a movie based on Flynn’s work, and the first one, American Assassin, was released last week.

I love the Mitch Rapp books. Rapp is a no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners kind of guy. He never met a terrorist whose kneecap he didn’t want to put a bullet in. He doesn’t give a damn about the constantly-debating politicians in Washington. He will do whatever he has to in order to stop terrorists from killing innocent people.

Image: Lionsgate

This attitude frequently puts him in conflict with the politicians, which leads to much of the drama in the books, aside from Mitch kicking terrorist ass, which he does prodigiously. But he’s not just a meathead who is good at killing bad guys. He has a tragic backstory and a fascinating personality, and I cared about him a lot as I read the books.

One of my favorite parts of the books was Rapp’s developing relationship with his girlfriend and later wife Anna Reilly, a reporter he rescues from a terrorist attack and subsequently falls in love with. Flynn lets their relationship develop over several books, and in Flynn’s seventh novel Consent to Kill, which is one of my all-time favorite books and one of the best espionage thrillers ever written, (book spoiler alert) I was genuinely heartbroken when Anna was killed by a bomb that was meant for her husband. Killing his wife turns out to be the worst mistake the bad guys could have possibly made, as it leads Mitch to unleash an unstoppable tidal wave of unholy vengeance upon them.

By the way, that terrorist attack Mitch rescues Anna from? That was at the White House. Vince Flynn told the story of the White House being invaded by terrorists in 1999, well before Hollywood got around to making not one but two White House invasion movies in 2013. So yeah, Mitch Rapp is a badass, as was his creator.

The new film, American Assassin, is based on Flynn’s novel of the same name. Although it was published in 2010, making it one of his later books, it is the first chronologically and serves as the origin story for Mitch Rapp. So it makes sense that it would be the first to be adapted for film. I can’t say exactly how well the movie follows the story of the book, since I read it several years ago, but it does a commendable job of capturing the feel of Flynn’s books.

Mitch is played in the film by Dylan O’Brien, a 26-year-old actor known mostly for the YA sci-fi series The Maze Runner, as well as the TV series Teen Wolf. I was a bit skeptical of O’Brien’s casting, since he seemed like a bit of a heartthrob for teenage girls, but he does good work in the role. He doesn’t quite have the charisma of Daniel Craig or Matt Damon, but then, Mitch Rapp was never much in the charisma department. He’s a man of action, not words. Mitch’s teacher and mentor Stan Hurley is played by the great Michael Keaton, who has a lot of fun chewing scenery and being a crusty, cantankerous badass.


Image: Lionsgate

In the movie’s opening scene, Mitch is on vacation with his girlfriend in Spain. He proposes to her and she accepts. It seems like an idyllic scene, until gunfire breaks out and Mitch’s girlfriend and many other people are killed by terrorists, and Mitch himself is shot multiple times. It’s a tense, effective scene, and effectively establishes the mood of the film.

Eighteen months later, Mitch lives a solitary life and is consumed with vengeance. He frequents an internet message board where he makes contact with the Jihadist cell responsible for the attack that killed his girlfriend, and is able to infiltrate them. The CIA has gotten wind of this and takes out the cell before Mitch can exact his vengeance.

He is then drafted into a black ops unit codenamed Orion and sent to Stan Hurley for training. The rest of the film’s plot involves nuclear weapons in the hands of people you really don’t want to have nuclear weapons, and a rogue operative with the (rather unoriginal) codename Ghost, played by Taylor Kitsch. I’ll be honest, the plot didn’t blow me away. It followed some predictable twists and turns, most of which didn’t offer any big surprises. But it was serviceable. I don’t know how closely the movie’s plot followed that of the book, since I read it several years ago. But the movie’s story gets the job done in a solid if unspectacular fashion.

There’s quite a bit of action in the film, all of which is well-executed, although the movie doesn’t have a standout action sequence that really stuck with me. Still, the film’s action is solid, and it is always a thrill to see one of your literary heroes given life on the big screen, even if the adaptation is flawed. The movie is R-rated and doesn’t pull any punches with regards to the violence or profanity. This is as it should be, since Mitch Rapp has always been an R-rated guy.


Image: Lionsgate

There’s a torture scene late in the film which is brutal, but also kind of hilarious because Michael Keaton gets to go for it and just go full-on crazy. It’s one of the best scenes in the film because of Keaton’s performance, and reminded me quite a bit of the infamous torture scene in Casino Royale. It’s brutal, but hard to look away from, and even has moments of dark, brilliant humor.

I saw the movie with my dad, since he was the one who got me hooked on the books in the first place and we are both big Mitch Rapp fans. While it’s not the best spy thriller ever made, we both enjoyed it, and a good manly time was had by all. The plot is ho-hum but the action and the performances are solid, and I think it will satisfy fans of Flynn’s excellent books.

Coming up next, we’ve got even more spies and assassins, but this time with tongue lodged firmly in cheek. It’s the return of everyone’s favorite gentlemen badasses in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

Hell or High Water

Sometimes, a movie’s title is so perfect that I don’t need to think of a title when I write about it. 2016’s Hell or High Water is such a film. I’m going to get real with you guys here. We’re going to get into some intense emotional stuff, and I’ll be quoting a lot of the film’s brilliant dialogue, which will include uncensored f-words. Also, there will be a lot of spoilers. Here we go.

Image: Lionsgate

Hell or High Water is the story of four men. Two are brothers by blood, two are brothers by friendship. The blood brothers are Toby and Tanner Howard, played respectively by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. Tanner, the older brother, was recently released from prison after ten years for killing the brothers’ abusive father in a hunting accident that may not have been so accidental. While his older brother was incarcerated, Toby cared for their terminally ill mother. Toby is estranged from his wife and two sons, and the recent death of their mother has left Toby deep in debt, unable to pay child support to his wife, and the bank is about to foreclose on the family ranch, on which oil has recently been discovered. Desperate for money, Toby enlists his brother’s help to rob a series of banks.

Toby is the brains of the operation, and the robberies are well-planned. They hit the banks early in the morning when there are less people there, and they take lower denominations of bills. They then launder the money at a casino, where they convert the stolen cash into poker chips, and then after a bit of drinking and gambling, they have the casino convert their “winnings” into a check made out to the Texas Midlands Bank, the same bank they’ve been robbing. Toby’s clever plan pays the bank back with their own money, and the bank has no way of tracing it.

Despite Toby’s well-crafted scheme, his big brother Tanner is unpredictable. He is aggressive and takes unnecessary risks, which frustrates Toby. But Toby also has a conscience, and despite being the brains of the operation, he would be a terrible criminal without his brother’s help. Toby needs Tanner, and they both know it.

There’s a lot of pent-up resentment between the brothers, exemplified when Toby tells Tanner that “while you were in prison, I was taking care of Mom, so you can go fuck yourself.” Toby resents Tanner’s wildness, while Tanner feels he’s doing Toby a favor, and since they both know Toby would suck as a criminal without Tanner’s help, Toby should just shut up and let him help. “How the fuck have you managed to stay out of prison for a year?” Toby asks his brother at one point. “It’s been difficult,” Tanner admits.

The relationship between these two characters is utterly fascinating, and all of it feels completely real. Pine and Foster have a relaxed, easy chemistry, and are completely believable as brothers. The film was written by Taylor Sheridan, a former actor who also wrote the bleak thriller Sicario in 2015, which is an incredibly good movie. Hell or High Water demonstrates many of Sheridan’s strengths as a writer: sharp dialogue, believable characters, and murky morality. The viewer of Hell or High Water is never sure who to root for, and the film wisely withholds judgment on its characters, leaving the viewers to form their own decisions.

Image: Lionsgate

But Toby and Tanner are only half of the equation. The brothers by friendship are Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, played respectively by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Hamilton and Parker are the two Texas Rangers investigating the brothers’ bank robberies. Marcus is nearing mandatory retirement, and figures this bank-robber caper will be his last hurrah. Alberto is half-Native American, half-Mexican, and endures constant jabs from Marcus about his heritage. After one of many insults, Alberto sighs and says, “You know I’m part Mexican, too.” Marcus’ response: “Yeah, well, I’m gonna get to that when I’m through with the Indian insults, but it’s gonna be a while.”

It may not seem like these men are brothers, but they are. In the special features on the film’s Blu-ray, Sheridan talks about how Marcus insults Alberto because he doesn’t know how to express how much Alberto means to him. It’s a toxic way of expressing love and friendship, Sheridan says, but it’s the only way Marcus knows. Sheridan’s writing is so good at capturing characters that feel like real people. He is also good at suggesting backstory without overly explaining everything. Much of the backstory I talked about between Toby and Tanner earlier isn’t spelled out or shown directly, but Sheridan’s dialogue is so good that it doesn’t have to be. Sheridan respects the viewers to be able to put the pieces together for themselves.

And there are many moments that are quietly heartbreaking. When Alberto suggests to Marcus that he needs a hobby, maybe horseback riding, Marcus rejects the idea. “Marybeth was the horse rider,” he says. “It would just remind me of her.” The knowledge that Marcus lost his wife makes the viewer reconsider Marcus’ actions. Without his wife, Marcus’ work and his friendship with Alberto mean that much more. There’s never any mention of Marcus’ wife aside from this one line, but it speaks volumes about his character.

Image: Lionsgate

The movie was directed by David Mackenzie, a Scottish filmmaker who does a brilliant job capturing the feel of rural, small-town America. The movie mostly takes place in west Texas, although it was filmed in New Mexico. The environment is as much of a character as the people who inhabit it. As Toby and Tanner drive to and from their various bank heists, they constantly pass signs and billboards reading “FOR SALE” and “FAST CASH” and “DEBT RELIEF”, making the reality of Toby’s financial woes all the more real.

Toby is a good man whose life is falling apart, and he’s been forced to take extreme actions to help his family. I’m not trying to say robbing banks is a good idea, but Toby is a deeply sympathetic character. You could even argue that his motives are altruistic, since the money from the robberies goes towards paying off the bank and setting up a trust in his family’s name, so that they will be able to keep the ranch in the future, and live off the money the oil-drilling will provide for them. “I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation,” Toby tells Marcus near the end of the film. “But not my boys, not anymore.”

Even the volatile Tanner is a complex character. While many of his actions are horrendous (he kills a bank security guard, a civilian, and a cop without a hint of remorse) and his behavior is sometimes despicable (he scares off a woman putting the moves on Toby at a bar, only to seduce a hotel receptionist mere minutes later), you could still make the argument that he does what he does in order to help his brother and his family. Conversely, you could argue that he’s a cold-blooded killer who only does it for the thrill. The fact that you could make a convincing argument either way is another testament to the strength of Taylor Sheridan’s writing.

It should go without saying that things eventually go wrong for the bandit brothers. They eventually bite off more than they can chew when they try to rob a larger branch of the bank when there are a lot of people there. They soon learn the perils of bank-robbing in Texas, and are pursued by a heavily-armed posse when their attempted robbery devolves into a shootout. It’s an incredibly tense sequence, but it’s also wryly funny. “Those concealed-carry permits sure complicate bank robberies,” Tanner says as they drive away in a hail of bullets.

After Tanner scares the posse away by unloading three clips from an assault rifle at them, the brothers go their separate ways in what is my favorite scene in the film. Toby, taking the money and limping from a bullet wound in his side, staggers over to his car. As he opens the door and gets in, Tanner leans out from the driver’s side of his bullet-riddled pickup truck. “Hey, Toby,” he says.

Toby looks up.

“You know I love you, don’t you?” Tanner says.

Toby smiles faintly. “I love you, too,” he says, and shuts the car door.

“Hey, Toby,” Tanner says again.

Toby looks up again.

“Go fuck yourself,” Tanner says with a grin.

Toby grins back. “Go fuck yourself,” he replies.

They both laugh and drive in different directions, never to see each other again.

That short scene is, to me, the definition of brotherly love. These two men don’t always see eye-to-eye, they frequently don’t even like each other. But they love each other just the same. It’s not a long, drawn-out goodbye, because it doesn’t have to be. But it’s deeply moving just the same. Tanner leads the cops away, singing merrily to himself as they chase after him. He leads them to a mountain ridge, where he takes shots at them with a rifle.

Marcus and Alberto are among the pursuers, and as they take cover behind a police car, a shot rings out and hits Alberto in the head, killing him instantly. It takes Marcus a few seconds to realize what has happened, and once he does, his strangled gasp is heartbreaking. But Tanner has the high ground, and the cops can’t get to him. Marcus finds a local resident who knows the area, and manages to get behind Tanner. Tanner, unaware of this, continues firing at the lawmen. “Lord of the plains,” he grins to himself. “That’s me.” The view changes to Marcus aiming down the scope of a rifle, right at Tanner’s head. He fires, hitting Tanner square in the head, and it’s over. Tanner slumps lifelessly forward, blood pooling in the ground at his feet. There’s no drawn-out, blaze-of-glory death sequence. Just BANG, and he’s gone. Marcus leans against a rock and half-laughs, half-cries.

Meanwhile, Toby is able to pass a police checkpoint without incident, and heads to the casino to launder the money. He is sitting at the bar having a drink when he hears about Tanner’s death on the news on a TV behind him. He doesn’t even turn around to look at the TV, just raises his glass and silently takes a drink. Then he visits the bank, pays off his debts, and sets up a trust fund in his family’s name.

Some time later, Marcus visits his old office to talk with his replacement and get some closure on the Howards. He learns that the Texas Rangers have cleared Toby as a suspect, since his record is clean and he has no motive because the oil wells on his family’s property make more money in a month than what was stolen in all the bank robberies combined. The bank is also not cooperating with the investigation, since they don’t want to lose management of the family’s trust fund. The Rangers never got descriptions of the bank robbers, since the brothers wore hoods and masks to all their robberies, so Toby and his family are in the clear.

Although he has no proof and no authority, Marcus knows Toby was the brains of the operation. He visits Toby at the now-lucrative family ranch, and their conversation is fascinating. These two men have every reason to hate each other, but there’s no real sense of enmity between them. Just a grudging sort of respect. Marcus tells Toby that he knows Toby was the mastermind, and wants to know why. Toby is evasive, and this is when he says the line to Marcus that I quoted earlier, about how his family’s poverty won’t be passed down to his sons.

As Marcus gets up to leave and heads back to his car, Toby stops him.

“Hey,” he says.

Marcus turns around.

“I rent a little house in town,” Toby says. “If you wanna stop by and finish this conversation, you’re welcome anytime.”

“Oh, I’d like that,” Marcus replies. “Be seeing you.”

“Yeah,” Toby says. “Soon, I hope. I’m ready to be done with this.”

“You’ll never be done with it no matter what,” Marcus says. “It’s gonna haunt you, son, for the rest of your days. But you won’t be alone. It’s gonna haunt me too.”

“If you stop by,” Toby says, “Maybe I’ll give you peace.”

“Maybe,” Marcus agrees, nodding, then says “Maybe I’ll give it to you.” He turns away, gets in his car, and drives off. And that’s the end of the movie, leaving the audience to wonder if that peace will come from a shared six-pack or the barrel of a shotgun.

Who wins? Toby provides for his family, but at the cost of several deaths, including that of his own brother. As Marcus says, he’s just going to have to live with that for the rest of his life. Marcus kills one of the robbers, but he’ll never be able to nab the man he knows is the second one, and his best friend was killed before Marcus was able to tell him how much he valued him. And while Tanner’s motives are questionable and his behavior is frequently deplorable, in the end he gives his life for his brother, and there is no greater sacrifice.

With most movies I see, there are pros and cons. But while the pros of Hell or High Water could fill a book, when I think about cons, I can’t come up with a single one. It’s damn near perfect. It’s tense, relatable, wryly funny, deeply moving, and the writing, acting, and directing are superb. It’s an achingly human story and its characters and their relationships are profoundly real. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2016, including Best Picture, and while it didn’t win any of them I’m glad it was recognized. Chris Pine has never been better, nobody plays a crusty Texas Ranger better than Jeff Bridges (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor), and the supporting work from Ben Foster and Gil Birmingham is commendable, as is the rest of the supporting cast.

It’s a tremendous movie. Oddly, the back of the film’s Blu-ray package lists the film’s running time as 122 minutes, when it’s actually 102 minutes. The fact that the movie does what it does in such a relatively brief amount of time is extraordinary. There are plenty of big blockbusters with ten or even twenty times the budget that are 45 minutes longer, and don’t have nearly as much pathos as this film does.

Image: Lionsgate

See it. It’s unforgettable.

Also unforgettable (albeit for entirely different reasons) is the movie I’ll be talking about next week. It’s the weirdest movie of 2017 and one of the weirdest movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time. It’s a twisted tale full of slithering eels and dark secrets. It’s Gore Verbinski’s bizarro fright flick A Cure For Wellness. See you next week!

GIRL POWER: Atomic Blonde

When we first meet Lorraine Broughton, she’s submerged in a bathtub full of ice water. As she emerges, she extracts a couple of ice cubes and deposits them in a glass, which she then fills with vodka.

It’s a badass introduction for a woman with ice in her veins. Lorraine is played by Charlize Theron, and she is effortlessly cool. Her coolness is immediately apparent. The movie she stars in is Atomic Blonde, and it doesn’t need to have people talking about how cool Lorraine is, her coolness speaks for itself. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the rest of the film.

Image: Focus Features

I have a theory about coolness. I call it, creatively, Colin’s Coolness Theory. I am open to suggestions for better names. The main principle of CCT is that coolness speaks for itself. Everyone knows that some loudmouth going on about how cool he is is not actually cool. If you have to tell people how cool you are, then you are in fact uncool.

Atomic Blonde doesn’t tell the viewer how cool its protagonist is, because it doesn’t have to. But the rest of the movie tries too hard to live up to Lorraine’s coolness, and it can’t quite do it. The movie was directed by David Leitch, a veteran stuntman who co-directed the first John Wick film with Chad Stahelski. Stahelski went on to direct John Wick Chapter 2, while Leitch decided to make Atomic Blonde his first solo directorial feature. Unfortunately, while John Wick 2 is one of my favorite movies so far this year, Atomic Blonde is a much more mixed bag.

The main problem I have with Leitch’s film is that it is overly stylized. It’s full of neon lights and pounding 80’s music, heavy on the bass, percussion and synthesizer. I don’t have much of an ear for this kind of music, and it all started to sound the same to me. I get that the music is meant to set the mood, but unlike other music-heavy films like Baby Driver or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Leitch’s use of the music in Atomic Blonde doesn’t resonate, it gets repetitive.

Let’s talk about the story. Atomic Blonde is a Cold War spy thriller that takes place in Berlin in the late 80’s, just a few days before the Berlin Wall came down. This setting has made for great spy fiction in the past, but Atomic Blonde’s storytelling is lacking. Lorraine is sent to Berlin to investigate the death of a British agent, who was also in possession of a list revealing the identities of every undercover operative in Berlin. This information could be devastating if the Russians get hold of it, and Lorraine is ordered to find the list, at all costs. There is also a Soviet defector code-named Spyglass, who claims to have memorized the entire list. Lorraine is also ordered to extract him. On top of all this, Lorraine also has to track down the man they suspect of killing the British agent, and find and eliminate a double agent code-named Satchel who has been feeding the Soviets intelligence for years. Lorraine’s got her work cut out for her.

She is put in contact with David Percival, the head of station in Berlin. Percival has been in Berlin for a long time, and has gone native, meaning that his superiors no longer trust him. He seems to enjoy being in Berlin a bit too much. His shiftiness is apparent from the moment we first meet him. Percival is played by James McAvoy, who is a great actor. His character here is poorly written however, and it is obvious that he is Up To No Good. The viewer doesn’t trust him, and neither does Lorraine.

As well she shouldn’t, because Percival is an asshole. I like James McAvoy a lot, but his character here is so unpleasant I hated him immediately. He is an abrasive, sleazy, duplicitous bastard who smokes and swears constantly. You might argue that the viewer is not supposed to like Percival, and you’d be right. But the movie goes too far in depicting him as a corrupt, amoral douchebag. It’s completely obvious that he’s bent, and some of the suspense is taken away by his almost-comically nefarious behavior. The plot gets so convoluted, and piles on betrayal after betrayal, that by the end it’s hard to care about any of it.

The movie’s cast also includes John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Sofia Boutella, who was the best thing about this year’s Mummy movie. Here, she plays a young French intelligence operative named Delphine, and when she meets Lorraine…well, let’s just say that sparks fly. It’s a great cast, but it’s Charlize Theron’s movie, and she owns every frame of it.

Image: Focus Features

For all the movie’s many flaws, Lorraine is one of my favorite new movie characters of the year, and Theron is magnetic. She is a stone-cold badass, and Theron proves herself to be completely convincing as an unstoppable action hero. I’m not forgetting about Mad Max: Fury Road, because she was great in that movie too, but in Atomic Blonde her role is much more physical. The action scenes in Mad Max are largely vehicle-based, whereas in Atomic Blonde it’s all up close and personal.

David Leitch’s storytelling skills could use some work, but his skill as a director of action sequences is considerable. Atomic Blonde has one of the best action sequences of the year, a brutal, close-quarters brawl that probably lasts around ten minutes and is filmed to appear as one continuous camera shot. It begins in a stairwell and goes into and out of several rooms, before going back outside and ending in a car chase. It’s fantastic, and Theron kicks ass. The movie doesn’t hesitate to show Lorraine getting her ass kicked as well. She gives better than she gets (since by the end she’s alive and her opponents are not) but she takes a lot of punishment in the process.

By the end of the epic battle, she’s coughing and gasping and limping, her face is bruised and cut, her eyes are bloodshot and streaks of red highlight her hair. This movie gets rough, and it captures how exhausting it would be to fight like that for an extended period of time. When it’s over, Lorraine can barely walk. The movie also features the most persistent henchman of the year. This freaking guy gets stabbed in the face with a car key and just will not quit. He keeps showing up when you think that, surely, there’s no way he could get up from that.

Image: Focus Features

Atomic Blonde is a deeply flawed film, but it’s one I will watch again in the future. Maybe the plot will make more sense to me on a second go-around, since it was pretty baffling the first time through. Despite the movie’s issues with plot and characters, the action sequences are top-notch and Charlize Theron’s lead performance is terrific. There’s a good movie lurking in here somewhere, and if David Leitch can tone down the stylization and get a better handle on the storytelling, he could be a great director. Atomic Blonde doesn’t live up to all of its promise, but it doesn’t completely squander it either, and I do hope that Theron gets to make more action movies, because she’s great at it.

Coming up next, it’s the long-awaited film adaptation of The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s epic sci-fi/fantasy series. It stars two of my favorite actors, Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba, so hopefully it’ll be good. Tune in next week to find out.