SAHARA is Hot Summer Fun

Do you want a summer movie that is full of fun characters, great actors, explosive action, an enjoyably ludicrous plot, and a great sense of humor? Then do I have the movie for you!

That movie is Sahara, released in 2005 and starring Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn, and William H. Macy.

Images: Paramount Pictures

Now, let’s get the bad news out of the way first. This movie bombed, and it bombed hard. Its total box-office take barely covered half of the money it took to make and distribute. It flopped so hard (it lost around $105 million) that Clive Cussler, the author of the book on which the film was based, sued the film’s producer and production company. It sounds like Cussler basically argued that the movie bombed because he wasn’t consulted on the script, which doesn’t make him sound like an arrogant jerk or anything.

The movie was supposed to start a series, but it flopped so hard that the series never materialized, and likely never will. The movie’s opening credits even proclaim it to be “A Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt Adventure,” implying that it is one of many. Sadly, it isn’t. The movie didn’t get great reviews, it has a 38% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the “Critics Consensus” being “a mindless adventure flick with a preposterous plot,” a condescending dismissal of an extremely enjoyable film. Reason No. 20394 why I don’t like Rotten Tomatoes.

Because this movie is great. I unironically love it. Yes, the plot is ludicrous, but the movie is clearly aware of its own ridiculousness and pokes fun at itself multiple times. The actors have wonderful chemistry, the action sequences are exciting, the soundtrack is great, and the overall vibe is James Bond meets Indiana Jones. It’s a damn shame the intended series never materialized; I would have loved to have spent more time with these characters. Although I could potentially see this property being revived as a Netflix series or something, that could be fun.

Clive Cussler has been writing Dirk Pitt novels since 1976. I’ve read a few of them, and they are indeed ridiculous but also quite a bit of fun. In this sense, the movie is a very accurate approximation of Cussler’s work. His books are airport novels, not particularly “artistic” or “literary” but who cares? They’re lots of fun and I have no problem with them. Sahara is the eleventh book in the series and was published in 1992. Dirk Pitt is an adventurer in the classic mold of pulp adventure heroes, complete with monosyllabic tough-guy name, who has all kinds of ridiculous adventures and is a big hit with the ladies.

He is perfectly embodied in the movie by Matthew McConaughey, whose relaxed surfer-dude charm and effortless charisma make him an extremely likable action hero. But the real scene-stealer for me is Steve Zahn as Dirk’s best friend Al Giordino. I love Al so much, he’s one of my all-time favorite movie sidekicks. Everything he says is so gosh darn funny. He gets all the funniest lines and his wry delivery of them is just perfect. Zahn and McConaughey have flawless chemistry and are entirely believable as two guys who have been best friends for their entire lives and been on all kinds of wacky adventures together. You get the feeling that Dirk and Al know each other so well that they could finish each other’s sentences.

The movie’s fantastically-ludicrous plot involves…well, I’ll let my good buddy Al handle that for me. “Hey,” Al says to Dirk late in the film, “you know how it is when you see someone that you haven’t seen since high school, and they got some dead-end job, and they’re married to some woman that hates them, and they got, like, three kids who thinks he’s a joke? Wasn’t there some point where he stood back and said, Bob! Don’t take that job! Bob! Don’t marry that harpy! You know?”

“Your point?” Dirk asks him.

“Well,” Al continues, “we’re in the desert, looking for the source of a river pollutant, using as our map a cave drawing of a Civil War gunship, which is also in the desert. So I was just wondering when we’re gonna have to sit down and re-evaluate our decision-making paradigm?”

“I don’t know,” Dirk replies. “It seems to be working so far.”

That quote perfectly encapsulates the movie’s self-aware sense of humor, as well as giving you some idea of what the plot is about. Something is polluting the water in Africa with deadly red algae, and if it reaches the Atlantic it’ll spread across the globe and basically everyone will be doomed. Tied into this is a lost Civil War ironclad that, uh, somehow ended up in the Sahara Desert. Yes, it’s utterly ridiculous, but when the movie is this enjoyable, who cares how ridiculous it is? For what it’s worth, if I recall correctly the book’s plot is even more ridiculous, since somehow Abe Lincoln himself was on the Civil War ship. You know, the ship that ended up in the Sahara Desert. The movie, wisely, omits this detail.

The villains behind the water-poisoning are a corrupt French businessman named Yves Massarde and an African dictator named General Kazim. Massarde is played by Lambert Wilson, who you might remember as The Merovingian from the two Matrix sequels, although he has an extensive filmography dating back to 1977. Kazim is played by a wonderful and tremendously underrated English actor named Lennie James, who is perhaps best known for playing Morgan in The Walking Dead. I love James as an actor, he elevates everything he’s in. These two very capable actors make for a dastardly pair of villains.

The rest of the supporting cast is also a lot of fun. Penelope Cruz plays Dr. Eva Rojas, a World Health Organization scientist investigating the cause of the red algae plague. Eva is tough, smart and capable, and although it is inevitable that she and Dirk will eventually hook up, it is very much to the movie’s credit that this doesn’t happen until literally the last scene in the movie, making her more than a disposable love interest or damsel in distress.

Dirk and Al’s boss, crusty Admiral James Sandecker, is played by William H. Macy, another actor who I don’t think is capable of giving a bad performance. There’s also Rudi Gunn, Dirk and Al’s nerdy pal who plays an important role in saving the world. Rudi is played by Dwight Schrute himself, Rainn Wilson, and is another very likable sidekick.

The movie also has a great soundtrack. It uses pop music in a manner similar to the Guardians of the Galaxy. The music serves the movie very well and contributes greatly to its already considerable entertainment value. I also quite liked the musical score done by Clint Mansell, known for his collaborations with Darren Aronofsky, and whose composition “Lux Aeterna” for Aronofsky’s 2000 film Requiem for A Dream is one of the most haunting pieces of cinematic music I’ve ever heard. I haven’t seen Requiem for A Dream (and I don’t intend to given how disturbing it is supposed to be), but Lux Aeterna is an incredible piece of music.

The movie is also action-packed and is full of memorable and creative action sequences, my favorite of which is probably when Dirk fights an-uber henchman on a helicopter landing tower surrounded by solar panels. An uber-henchman is a term I just invented for the guy in every action movie who’s the particularly badass and resilient bad guy, the main villain’s second-in-command who takes a ton of punishment throughout the movie but always comes back for more, before dying in a spectacular fashion. For example, one of my favorite uber-henchmen is Mr. Stamper from the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. In Sahara, Dirk defeats the uber-henchman by drop-kicking him off the helicopter landing tower, where he subsequently crash-lands on a solar panel. It’s a very satisfying villain death. And the film’s action-packed climax involves a helicopter, a vintage car, dynamite, and the aforementioned Civil War ship in the middle of the desert.

Sahara has everything you could want from a summer movie. It’s got great characters who are played by actors who have awesome chemistry with each other. It’s got despicable villains, exciting action, a goofily ridiculous plot, and a groovy soundtrack. It’s a ton of fun and it ends on a perfectly upbeat note that leaves the viewer just feeling good. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and everyone has a good time.

What’s not to like?

James Bond: The Roger Moore Era – Moonraker

If I had to pick one word to use to best describe Moonraker, it would be: incoherent.

For Your Eyes Only was originally intended to be the follow-up to The Spy Who Loved Me, but in 1977 a movie came out that turned everything upside-down. That movie was called Star Wars and in the wake of its massive success, sci-fi was all the rage. The Bond producers took note of this and decided to send Bond to space.

Images: MGM

To achieve this, they very loosely adapted Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name. The book was Fleming’s third Bond novel, and in stark contrast to the movie, had nothing to do with outer space and took place entirely in Britain. Compare this to the film, which jumps from California to Venice to Rio de Janeiro to the Amazon rainforest to SPACE. In the book, the villain Hugo Drax is an ex-Nazi now working for the Soviets. He’s building an experimental missile called Moonraker that purportedly is to be used to defend England, but secretly Drax is planning to launch it at London.

The book draws from a lot of Cold War fears and is a Bond novel that feels very relevant to the era in which it was written. The movie, on the other hand, is a jumbled mishmash that jumps around wildly, never establishing a consistent tone (a recurring problem in Moore’s Bond films) and featuring one of the most outlandish and far-fetched scenarios that the Bond series has ever presented, which is saying something when you consider that an earlier Bond villain had a secret lair hidden inside a volcano.

The movie has a great opening sequence, involving Bond jumping out of a plane without a parachute and fighting a henchman with a parachute on the way down. It’s impressive that such a dangerous sequence was filmed all the way back in 1979 (it took 88 skydives to complete), and still holds up today. It also involves everyone’s favorite Bond henchman, the legendary JAWS, played once again by Richard Kiel, whose character was so popular in The Spy Who Loved Me that he was brought back for another round.

Bond’s mission is to investigate the hijacking of a Moonraker space shuttle. The Moonraker was made Drax Industries, the headquarters of which are located in California. He promptly seduces Corinne, Drax’s sexy helicopter pilot, and she helps Bond steal some of Drax’s blueprints for a mysterious kind of glass vial that is being made in Venice. When Drax learns of Corinne’s betrayal, he, er, sends his hunting dogs after her and they, um, eat her. Corinne’s death is one of the most unpleasant in the entire Bond series, it seems exceptionally cruel. I understand that this kind of thing shows how nasty the villain is, but Corinne’s death comes off as unnecessarily brutal.

Bond then heads to Venice, where he again encounters an astronaut he met at Drax’s California headquarters. This astronaut’s name, sigh, is Holly Goodhead, and she is of course an undercover CIA agent who is also investigating Drax. Has there ever been a person in history who was both a CIA agent and an astronaut? I mean, that’s a pretty impressive resume right there. It turns out that the mysterious glass vials are meant to hold a nerve gas that is deadly to humans but harmless to animals.

The section of the film that takes place in Venice also has one of the dumbest action sequences in the entire Bond franchise, in which Drax’s henchmen chase Bond through the canals and Bond’s gondola turns out to be outfitted with a bunch of gadgets and like grows wheels or something and he drives it around and a pigeon does a double take and it’s just monumentally stupid. I didn’t make up that part about the pigeon by the way, that’s in the movie. They actually edited footage of a pigeon to make it look like it was doing a double take and PUT IT IN THE MOVIE. I shit you not.

Bond ends up in Rio de Janeiro where a bunch of other dumb stuff happens, and eventually finds Drax’s hidden base in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Bond and Goodhead hitch a ride on one of Drax’s Moonraker rockets and are blasted off INTO SPACE, where the rocket docks with Drax’s space station and Bond and Goodhead learn the details of Drax’s evil plan. He intends to use his nerve gas to wipe out all human life on Earth, then repopulate it with a few dozen genetically perfect young men and women he has brought to his space station, and therefore create a new master race.

It’s an audacious evil scheme but it’s also, frankly, kind of generic. It’s just so hard to come up with an original plot for world domination, you know? The movie climaxes with a massive laser gun battle waged both inside and outside Drax’s space station. It’s a pretty fun sequence and the effects are impressive by 70’s standards, even if they are undeniably cheesy. The laser guns literally make a PEW! PEW! sound. It’s goofy as all get out, but undeniably entertaining. As a very special bonus, here’s my photo-realistic artistic interpretation of the climactic laser battle, made with MS Paint. I know, I know, I’m a brilliant artist. You’re welcome.

Moonraker is one of those movies that manages to be entertaining almost in spite of itself. It’s undeniably dumb as shit but at least it’s fun. The plot barely hangs together, but there’s so much going on that you can’t really help but get swept up in the sheer giddy silliness of it all. It succeeds as a piece of entertainment even as it fails to tell a coherent story.

It has plenty of other problems too. The tone veers drastically from deadly seriousness to slapstick buffoonery. The fact that this movie has one of the Bond series’ most brutal deaths (Corinne killed by Drax’s dogs) and one of the dumbest sight gags (a pigeon doing a double take) should serve as ample evidence of the movie’s tonal inconsistency.

The acting is also not great. Holly Goodhead was played by an American actress named Lois Chiles who was plenty easy on the eyes, but had no chemistry at all with Roger Moore. She’s tough and capable, sure, but also kinda boring. She doesn’t have much personality and her relationship with Bond ends up feeling inconsequential. This is particularly disappointing when you remember the nuanced and complex relationship between Bond and Anya in the previous Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. Holly Goodhead isn’t an offensively bad character, she’s just bland. And she has an awful last name.

Similarly underwhelming is French actor Michael Lonsdale as the villain, Hugo Drax. Lonsdale delivers his lines in a weird monotone that makes Drax sound perpetually bored. For crying out loud, you’re playing a guy who wants to wipe out mankind and you have your own space station! Chew some scenery! Don’t act like you’re always wondering if you left the oven on! Much like the Bond Girl, Moonraker’s Bond Villain is bland and forgettable.

Much as he did in The Spy Who Loved Me, Jaws upstages the movie’s main villain. Richard Kiel remained an imposing physical presence and I continue to enjoy the running gag where he survives various seemingly-deadly incidents and emerges calmly from the wreckage, brushing the debris off his jacket and straightening his tie. But in another example of Moonraker’s wild tonal shifts, for some incomprehensible reason the makers of this movie saw fit to give him a girlfriend and make him a good guy who helps Bond during the battle on Drax’s space station. It’s dumb, and not in a good way. It feels like an attempt to neuter an iconic villain, and as a connoisseur of cinematic villainy I take great umbrage at that.

But you have to give the filmmakers some credit. The sheer scale of the production is impressive and the variety of locations gives the film a lot of visual flair. Moonraker is a movie that totally goes for broke, and even though the story is a mess the ride itself is quite enjoyable. And if the producers wanted to cash in on the success of Star Wars they succeeded, since Moonraker was a huge hit that made $210 million and was the highest-grossing Bond movie until GoldenEye in 1995.

I love this poster for so many reasons. It has not one, but two awesome taglines. Bond is wearing a tux under the spacesuit. There’s a Union Jack on the shoulder of the spacesuit. Above Bond’s left hand, there’s a name tag which reads “J BOND 007.” And the piece de resistance, which is that Bond is not wearing a helmet in outer space, and would therefore be dead in moments. A gloriously cheesy poster for a gloriously cheesy movie.

Moonraker ultimately feels like a movie that was made to capitalize on the success of Star Wars without understanding why people liked Star Wars in the first place. It’s not just the space ships and laser guns, it’s the complex lore and elegant world building and appealing characters. Moonraker doesn’t have any of that, but it does deliver considerable entertainment value. It’s good, pulpy fun that would make for a great night of popcorn-fueled weekend movie watching with friends.

Moonraker was so far over the top that for Bond’s next adventure, the filmmakers brought Bond back down to earth and took a more grounded approach. For Your Eyes Only is one of my favorite Bond films, and easily one of Roger Moore’s best. I can’t wait to talk about it.

SKYSCRAPER: Duct Tape Will Solve All Your Problems

I’m a big Dwayne Johnson fan, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to separate the man himself from the roles he plays. When I see Dwayne in a movie, I usually think of him as Dwayne instead of the name of the character he’s playing. I read a review of Dwayne’s latest movie that said Dwayne may not be much of an actor, but he’s one hell of a movie star.

I agree completely. Dwayne’s latest effort, the aptly-named SKYSCRAPER, is deeply derivative and doesn’t have an original bone in its body. It’s Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno, and the debt Skyscraper owes to both pictures is so obvious that the movie’s marketing team released posters that directly reference those films.

Universal/20th Century Fox

Loving homage or blatant rip-off? A strong case could be made for either one.

Regardless of Skyscraper’s obvious lack of originality, I still found quite a bit to enjoy here. Dwayne plays Will Sawyer, a former member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team who lost a leg in a hostage-rescue mission that went wrong and is now a security consultant. He’s been hired by a rich businessman named Zhao to assess security for Zhao’s massive new building the Pearl, located in Hong Kong. The Pearl is 220 stories tall and is the largest structure ever built. As you can probably imagine, this leads to a lot of potential security problems.

These problems come to the forefront when Will becomes involved in an elaborate scheme by some nefarious individuals, who set part of the building on fire. The residential upper levels of the Pearl are not yet open to the public, so wouldn’t you know it, the only civilians in the building when the bad guys enact their plan are Will’s wife and kids, who are trapped above the fire line and are therefore unable to leave the building. When all of this starts to happen, Will is not in the building, so his number-one priority is to find a way to get into the building to save his family.

Getting into the building is more difficult than it sounds, because Will can’t just take the elevator. The 96th floor is on fire and his family is on the 98th floor. Will has to find a way to enter the building above the 96th floor. The way he does this is thoroughly implausible if not outright impossible, as is everything else that happens in the movie. But, as is his way, Dwayne can make the viewer believe that he is the only person on the planet capable of doing the things his character does.

Most of the things his character does are ridiculous. Will has a prosthetic leg and the movie finds creative ways of using it. There’s even a fight scene where a guy knocks Will’s prosthetic off and one-legged Will still wins the fight. It reminded me of that old joke about the one-legged guy in the ass-kicking contest. If that one-legged guy were Dwayne Johnson, he would still win the ass-kicking contest hands down, regardless of how many limbs he may or may not have.

At one point, Will ties a rope around his waist and duct tapes his hands and feet to help him shimmy down the side of the Pearl, which is ludicrous but still fun, and something that I kind of admire for its sheer audacity. The Burj Khalifa sequence from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is another obvious influence on Skyscraper, but hey, if you’re going to rip something off, at least rip off something good.

Universal

Adding to my enjoyment of the film was the fact that I liked Will’s family. His wife Sarah is played by Neve Campbell, best known for 90’s hits like Wild Things and the Scream franchise. Sarah is tough, smart, and resourceful, and since she’s also a veteran combat surgeon she can hold her own in a fight, and even helps save the day at a crucial moment. I don’t know the names of the actors who play Will’s kids Henry and Georgia but I liked both of them. They’re not irritatingly screechy like kids in movies tend to be and are both cute and likable. The family members who need to be saved are often stock characters in these kinds of movies, but I appreciated that Skyscraper at least tries to give them some personality.

There’s one more thing I want to talk about but be aware that this will contain spoilers. In an odd coincidence, I read the classic Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia the day before I saw Skyscraper, and the villain’s plot in Skyscraper is identical to something Sherlock Holmes does in that wonderful Conan Doyle story.

In the story, Irene Adler has a photograph that would be very damaging to the King of Bohemia were it to see the light of day. The King is desperate to retrieve it but doesn’t know where she’s hiding it and comes to Holmes for help. Holmes engineers a situation where he leads Irene to believe her house is on fire, and he watches as she goes straight to the thing she values most: the precious photograph. Holmes knows that in the event of an emergency a person will seek out the one thing that is most valuable to them and uses this knowledge to get Irene to unwittingly expose the photograph’s hiding place.

The villain in Skyscraper does the exact same thing. He sets the Pearl on fire knowing that Zhao, who has dirt on him that’s kept on a futuristic-looking hard drive, will go straight to the hard drive’s hiding place. It’s a clever motivation for a villain in a modern big-budget action movie, and one I might not have recognized had I not read A Scandal in Bohemia the day before I saw the movie. Holmes truly is timeless.

I liked this movie. It’s fun. There are a lot of fun, explosive action scenes and nonstop suspense, and I was never bored while watching it. It has the good sense to be less than two hours long and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Will Sawyer is no John McClane but he’s a likable fellow and I enjoyed spending time with him and was engaged in his quest to save his family. The two things that people seem to have an issue with about this film are its derivativeness and its implausibility. I don’t deny that these are present, but neither of them bothered me. I went into the theater expecting to be entertained, and I was. I left the theater satisfied. What’s not to like about that?

RAMPAGE is Exactly What You Think it is

RAMPAGE is a deeply silly movie, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The movie is based on a series of arcade games that started in the 80’s. I never played any of them but from what I can tell they’re mostly plotless, and are simply concerned with letting the player control giant monsters and wreck lots of stuff.

This is totally fine, but presents problems for an adaptation, because there is no plot. The movie invents a plot that is profoundly silly and wildly implausible, and makes for a movie that is absolute tons of fun. I had a blast with RAMPAGE, despite its many obvious flaws. This is one of those movies where I was having so much fun that the movie’s problems didn’t bother me at all.

Images: Warner Bros.

Here’s my attempt to explain the ludicrous plot. The movie invents an evil corporation called Energyne which is run by two complete dipshits who are conducting some kind of genetic research that is so dangerous it has to be carried out in a space station. This inevitably goes horribly wrong (“The test subjects have gotten loose!” is one of the first lines of the movie) and canisters of dangerous experimental goo end up falling to earth. This is a movie where plot devices LITERALLY FALL FROM THE SKY. And wouldn’t you know it, various wild animals find those canisters and begin to transform into giant mutant creatures. This leads to the titular RAMPAGE, and yes, I will be capitalizing the word RAMPAGE every time I write it, so you might as well get used to it.

One of the animals exposed to what I will call the Genetic Goo of Doom is an albino gorilla in the San Diego zoo named George, who is best friends with Davis Okoye, played by none other than DWAYNE “THE ROCK” JOHNSON, one of my favorite actors. I freaking love the guy. He’s got charisma for days.

His character Davis is a former special forces soldier turned primatologist, which is a resume that I’m pretty sure no actual human being has ever had. The man is a true pioneer. He rescued George from poachers when he (George) was a cute l’il baby gorilla, and the two are best friends. They communicate using sign language, and some of George’s language is a bit, shall we say, colorful. By which I mean that he is rather fond of flipping the bird. As with every animal specialist in every movie ever, Davis gets along with animals better than he does with humans.

So when Davis gets to work one day and discovers that George has grown several feet and killed one of the zoo’s grizzly bears, something is obviously awry. Meanwhile, a wolf elsewhere in the United States has discovered one of the canisters of the Genetic Goo of Doom, and promptly slaughters an Energyne security team sent to bring him in. There’s also an alligator in the Florida Everglades who gets exposed to the Genetic Goo of Doom, although the movie keeps this particular creature mostly offscreen until later in the film.

Soon, George breaks out of the zoo and is apprehended by shady government agents, among them an agent named Russell, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan from The Walking Dead, who says things like “Assholes like us gotta stick together” with a Southern accent. He’s pretty great, because he’s initially positioned as an antagonist but ends up having more to do than being a generic government bad guy, and gets several funny moments.

There’s also a disgraced geneticist who used to work for Energyne, and whose research is largely responsible for creating the monsters. She’s played by Naomie Harris, a very talented actress whose talents are largely wasted in the movie. She does her best but there’s not much to her character. One thing I noticed is that she always has utterly flawless hair. Even right after she wakes up in the morning, hell, before she’s even had time to put pants on, her hair is absolutely gorgeous. That must be some kind of superpower.

Then there are the two evil corporate dipshits I alluded to earlier. They’re siblings whose names escape me. One of them, and the only one who has any brains, is played by Malin Akerman, an actress perhaps best known for playing Silk Spectre in Watchmen (a movie which Jeffrey Dean Morgan also starred in). The other is some idiot played by some guy, whose incompetence and stupidity are mainly used as sources of comic relief. They’re both soulless and shallow characters, whose only concern is money.

They activate some kind of beacon designed to lure the monsters to their corporate headquarters in Chicago so that they can capture them and, uh, make money off them somehow. The movie isn’t super clear on this, nor is it clear why they think that luring three giant unpredictable creatures to their corporate headquarters in the middle of one of the most highly-populated cities in America is a good idea. Clearly, critical thinking is not something these two are particularly good at. They also have actual RAMPAGE arcade machines in the middle of their office, which is something I’m sure that rich CEOs do all the time.

I talk a lot in my movie reviews about tone and the tone of RAMPAGE is all over the place. There is a tremendous amount of violence for a theoretically family-friendly movie, much of which is played for laughs. People are squashed, trampled, blown up, swallowed whole, and chucked off buildings. I admit I did find some of this funny, which is probably due to my own rather warped sense of humor, but parents with small kids might want to think twice before taking their kids to see this one.

The movie was directed by Brad Peyton, who previously worked with Dwayne Johnson in the movies San Andreas and Journey 2 The Mysterious Island. Peyton does a good job with the destruction scenes and the special effects are quite good, and it’s a lot of fun to watch the trio of monsters climb buildings and create mayhem, even if the considerable amount of collateral damage is glossed over. The entire movie is so insane and over-the-top that I couldn’t help but find myself swept away in its tidal wave of monsters and mayhem, anchored by a characteristically charismatic performance from my good pal Dwayne Johnson. He’s such a badass that getting shot partway through the movie doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

I’m not going to lie, RAMPAGE is a very dumb movie. It is also a very enjoyable movie. It’s surprisingly violent for a PG-13 rated blockbuster, and can even come off as a bit mean-spirited at times. But I had a ton of fun watching it and would happily watch a sequel.

Also, the wolf flies. Because of course it does.

Next week is going to be good, with the return of HBO’s Westworld on Sunday and Avengers: Infinity War on Friday. Expect posts about both of them very soon.

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.

Gentlemen Are Still Badasses in Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Matthew Vaughn is one of the best action directors working today. His films Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service have some of the most exciting, well-shot and well-choreographed action sequences in years. His latest film, the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle, has all the kinetic action of his previous films, but his flaws as a storyteller have never been more apparent.

The first Kingsman movie introduced the titular spy agency, a clandestine group of gentlemen badasses who wore finely-tailored suits and also just so happened to be lethal killing machines. The first film showed the training of Eggsy, a Kingsman recruit with a lot of potential. Eggsy eventually became a full-fledged Kingsman agent and helped save the world from a megalomaniac bent on cleansing the world by killing most of its population.

It was a very fun movie that was a big hit when it was released in 2014. Now the sequel is here, and it’s a mess. Mind you, it’s a fun mess. But it is still a mess.


Image: 20th Century Fox

Let’s start with the characters. There are too many of them, and the movie has no idea what to do with most of them. There are returning characters from the movie. The movie doesn’t know what to do with them, and promptly kills many of them off. There are new characters. The movie doesn’t know what to do with them, and promptly shunts many of them off to the side for most of the overlong 141-minute running time.

Colin Firth was the star of the first Kingsman movie, and watching the debonair, Oscar-winning English actor kick ass was an unexpected joy. Sadly, his character was killed off. But what do you know, he’s back for the sequel! This isn’t a spoiler, he’s in all the trailers. How did he survive? I won’t spoil it, but I found the method of his survival to be awfully…well…convenient. My guess is that the filmmakers weren’t expecting Firth’s character to be such a hit, so they scrambled for a way to resurrect him in the sequel. It’s great to see Firth again, he’s great, but the new movie’s writing is sloppy.

Director Matthew Vaughn has no one but himself to blame for the movie’s sloppiness, since he co-wrote the screenplay. The movie’s marketing made a big deal out of the new characters, played by well-known actors such as Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, and Halle Berry. But these characters have very little to do. Tatum in particular is barely in the movie. He has one big scene, then disappears until the end. I wondered if his role was supposed to be bigger but there were scheduling issues or something which prevented it. The movie initially positions him as an American version of hero Eggsy, then promptly drops him for most of the movie. Tatum’s character, heavily featured in the film’s marketing, is an afterthought.

As for the plot, it’s far-fetched to say the least. If the first Kingsman movie strained the limits of credibility, the second one obliterates them and it is impossible to take anything in the movie seriously. Case in point: the villain, Poppy Adams, played by Julianne Moore. Poppy easily takes home the title of “Most Cheerful Villain of the Year.” She has her own plan for world domination, which involves contaminating recreational drugs such as marijuana and heroin so that they paralyze and eventually kill people who use them. She’s obsessed with the 1950’s and lives in a 50’s-inspired utopia in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia. She’s completely ridiculous. She’s quirky but not scary, no offense to Julianne Moore, who does what she can with a weirdly-written role. Poppy spends literally the entire movie in her jungle utopia, and never registers as a credible threat. Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the first Kingsman movie was much more intimidating and memorable.


Image: 20th Century Fox

Still, early in the movie Poppy does manage to obliterate most of the Kingsman organization in one fell swoop. Surviving members Eggsy (played by Taron Egerton) and Merlin (played by Mark Strong) realize that they need help, and this leads them to the discovery of the Statesmen, the American cousins of the Kingsmen. Where the Kingsmen are exaggerated versions of everything British, with their finely-tailored suits and impeccable manners, the Statesmen are exaggerated versions of all things ‘Murican.

You know, ‘Murican, like “American” with a thick southern drawl? The Statesmen are headquartered in Kentucky and are fond of lassos, revolvers, and cowboy hats and boots. Most of them have southern accents and all their agents are named after alcoholic beverages. Channing Tatum is Tequila, Halle Berry is Ginger Ale, and Jeff Bridges, the boss, is Champagne, or just Champ for short. There’s also Agent Whiskey, played by Pedro Pascal, a Game of Thrones alumnus whose character only lasted for one season before being killed in one of the most infamously gruesome deaths on a show known for killing main characters in grisly ways.

This movie is insane. It’s hard to put into words the sheer insanity that this movie puts on the screen. It has to be seen to be believed. The movie has an all-star cast, but there is one man who steals the entire movie. This is a bit of a spoiler, since this person’s involvement was kept pretty minimal in the film’s marketing.

Two words:

Elton.

John.

Yes, Sir Elton steals the movie. It turns out that Poppy has kidnapped him and forces him to perform songs for her at her jungle lair. He’s not very happy about it and yells a lot of f-words. Also, Poppy’s hideout is guarded by two robotic dogs named Bennie and Jet, who are programmed not to kill Elton John.

It’s hilarious.

It’s also utterly absurd.

And did I mention Poppy’ rather bizarre way of indoctrinating new henchmen? It involves making them eat hamburgers made out of, uh, other henchmen.

So, yeah.

This movie is batshit. It’s the most batshit movie I’ve seen all year. The plot is a ridiculous mess, most of the characters are underused, and it’s a good twenty minutes too long.

But at the end of the day, I still had fun with it. Was I entertained? You bet I was. Matthew Vaughn’s screenwriting and storytelling could use some work, but his direction of the action scenes is top-notch. The first scene of the movie is a ten-minute car chase through the middle of London involving cars armed with miniguns and a bad guy with a robotic arm, and it only gets crazier from there.

The climactic battle at Poppy’s jungle hideout is one of the most joyously fun action scenes I’ve seen all year. It’s set to Elton John’s classic song Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, which has always been a favorite of mine. Watching two Englishmen in bespoke suits battling an army of henchmen in a 50’s-inspired jungle utopia while Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting plays in the background is something I didn’t know how badly I needed until I saw it. Thank you, movie, for giving me back a piece of myself that I didn’t even know I was missing.


Image: 20th Century Fox

Look, this movie is a clusterf*ck on an epic scale, but hot damn if it isn’t still fun. Its flaws are legion but I still enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s a guilty pleasure, for sure. I hope Matthew Vaughn keeps making movies this fun, although it would be nice if he sharpened up the writing a bit.

Coming up next is a movie that’s a bit obscure, but it’s one that I really like. I’m not seeing any new movies this weekend, so I’m going to take a look at a film from last year that it is an underseen gem. It’s a movie called Anthropoid. If you’ve never heard of it I’m not surprised. It’s a World War II film about the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust. There’s going to be some dark stuff, but hopefully I can convince you to check out this underappreciated movie. See you next week.

The Hitman and The Bodyguard

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is a title that immediately raises a question: why would a guy who kills people for a living need a bodyguard?

The movie’s answer to this question involves constant gunfire and profanity, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Call it a guilty pleasure. There were a couple times during the movie where I thought to myself: “I probably shouldn’t enjoy a movie with this much killing and swearing, but damn if I’m not having a good time.”

Image: Summit Entertainment

Ryan Reynolds plays the bodyguard, sorry, I meant “Triple-A-rated executive protection agent”, named Michael Bryce. At the beginning of the movie, Michael seemingly has it made: he’s wealthy, lives in a slick modern house, wears fancy clothes, has an array of shiny weaponry and a beautiful girlfriend named Amelia, played by Elodie Yung, best known for playing Elektra in Netflix’s Daredevil series.

Michael’s idyllic existence falls apart when his latest client is assassinated on the airport runway, and some time later Michael is living out of his car and protecting coked-up attorneys, and longs for his old life back. He blames everyone but himself for his problems, especially Amelia, whom he blames for selling him out and allowing his client to be killed.

Meanwhile, Amelia, an Interpol agent, is put in charge of the protection detail for recently-captured Darius Kincaid, a legendarily prolific hitman played by Samuel L. Jackson, our foremost artist of the f-word. Amelia needs to get Darius to The Hague so he can testify against deposed dictator Vladislav Dukhovich, played by the great Gary Oldman, who is utterly wasted in the role. More on that later. A violent shootout with Dukhovich’s henchmen promptly leaves Darius’ entire protection team dead except for himself and Amelia. Suspecting a mole in Interpol and with nowhere else to turn, Amelia reluctantly calls Michael for help.

From there, the movie becomes a series of shootouts and car chases as Michael and Darius race to get to The Hague before time runs out and Dukhovich is released for lack of evidence. There is a ton of action in the movie, and I enjoyed every action-packed scene. Dukhovich may have been deposed, but he still has an army of loyal henchmen that he sends after Darius and Michael, which leads to nonstop mayhem.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is an unapologetically R-rated movie, and Jackson gets plenty of opportunity to use his signature 12-letter epithet. This is the sweariest movie I’ve seen in a theater this year. Atomic Blonde was up there in terms of Swears Per Minute, but The Hitman’s Bodyguard has it beat by a country mile. The movie was directed by Patrick Hughes, who directed The Expendables 3, which I found dull and overlong. Fortunately, this movie is more briskly paced and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

There are a couple of moments that clash with the comedic tone, like when Dukhovich kills a dissident’s wife and child in front of him. While something like that shows how much of an evil bastard Dukhovich is, it feels out of place when the rest of the movie is meant to be breezy and funny. Still, this is a highly entertaining movie with lots of funny moments. Jackson and Reynolds have great chemistry and their bickering is a lot of fun to watch.

It’s not the most original movie, admittedly. There have been plenty of movies that pair a fast-talking criminal with an uptight do-gooder, like 3:10 To Yuma, 16 Blocks, and Reynolds’ own 2012 hit, Safe House. Still, it’s a formula that works. You feel some doubt about who to root for, since the criminal is more likable but is, you know, a criminal, while the do-gooder wants to do the right thing but also seems like he’s got a stick up his you-know-what.

Every character in the movie has a lot of baggage, and the movie might have benefited from being a bit more trimmed-down, but at least the conflicts are relatable. Michael blames Amelia for selling him out, while in reality she didn’t and resents him for blaming her for something she had nothing to do with. Michael blames everyone for his problems except for himself, and as the movie progresses and with Darius’ smartass assistance, he begins to realize that he needs to take responsibility for his own life, and that he’s still in love with Amelia. That might sound cliched, and I suppose it is, but at least it’s relatable.
And I can’t forget to mention Salma Hayek, who plays Darius’ wife Sonia. She’s as foul-mouthed as her husband, and is really damn funny. It’s too bad that she spends most of the movie confined to a prison cell, since she’s such a hoot that I wanted to see more of her.

Also underused is Gary Oldman, a brilliant actor who doesn’t seem to be trying very hard in this movie. In his defense, he doesn’t have much to work with. Dukhovich is barely in the movie, and he’s less of a character than a MacGuffin, something that serves to drive the plot forward. It’s a shame, because I’m a huge fan of Gary Oldman. It’s such a waste to get an actor of Oldman’s caliber to play the Russian bad guy, and then give him almost nothing to do. Oh, well. I’d rather have a movie with an underused Gary Oldman than a movie with no Gary Oldman at all. Seriously, it’s mind-blowing this guy has never won an Oscar.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is not a perfect movie by any means. It’s tonally inconsistent and some of the characters are sadly underused, but it is still a lot of fun for fans of action and foul-mouthed comedy. It’s a but overlong, there was one point where I thought it was about to end and it kept going for quite a bit longer than I had expected, but once I adjusted my expectations I kept having fun.

And I have to give a shoutout to this hilarious poster, which spoofs the Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner movie The Bodyguard.

Image: Summit Entertainment

Love it.