Saturday, 10 October 2020

Angel Has Fallen


Admit it: you were expecting something more like ‘Standards Have Fallen’.

After the grim uber-violence of Olympus Has Fallen, and the queasy xenophobia of London Has Fallen, it’s fair to say hopes weren’t high for instalment three in Gerard Butler’s presidential protection franchise.

The film looked for all the world like a last desperate cash-grab before the series was consigned to the scrapheap (or even worse, the dingy netherworld of DTV sequels). This impression was only heightened by news of a slimmed down budget and scaled down cast (series stalwarts Angela Bassett, Aaron Eckhart, and Melissa Leo are all notably absent).

So, imagine Exploding Helicopter’s surprise when Angel Has Fallen (2019) turned out to be a rollickingly good action romp.

How on earth did that happen? And please can we have some more?

The plot

Gerard Butler once again finds himself in the centre of bullet-strewn bedlam after an assassination attempt on the President. After waking in a hospital, Jowly Gerry quickly learns that his entire team is dead, POTUS is in a coma, and he’s the FBI’s chief suspect in the attempted hit. Zoiks!

Naturally, it’s not long before Big Gez escapes and goes on the run in an effort to clear his name. Along the way, he must work out who’s masterminding the conspiracy, avoid the mercenaries hunting him down and reconnect with his estranged father. All while trying to decide if he wants to take a desk job at work. Apparently, the dental package is very attractive...

Standards had fallen

You’d be forgiven for thinking all this makes Angel Has Fallen sound remarkably like its knuckleheaded predecessors. But watching the film, it becomes clear there’s been a deliberate tonal reset.

While the grisly violence of past entries remains intact, the unpleasant strand of quasi-racism – “Why don’t you go back to Fuckheadistan?” bellows Butler in the London entry – has been quietly expunged from the formula. (Viewers wanting to see that unsavoury combination should instead check out Stallone’s thoroughly nasty Rambo: Last Blood.)

In addition, the stakes for our hero are made more personal. Not only must Gezza prove his innocence and defend his family, he’s also thrown together with his absentee father (Nick Nolte) – a PTSD-addled Vietnam veteran who’s now living off-grid like a crazed doomsday prepper. Or, as Butler observes: “One step down from the Unabomber.”

This move allows the film to make some surprisingly thoughtful nods towards the mental toll taken by a life of violence. There’s even an emotional reunion between these two grizzled warriors as they weigh the personal cost of the sacrifices they’ve made for their country.

Admittedly, the pair then seal their reconciliation by bloodily butchering a team of military contractors who’ve been sent to kill them. But hey, this is a ‘Has Fallen’ film, not a Bergman-esque reckoning of the human condition.

So, while Exploding Helicopter can enjoy having a little fun at Angel Has Fallen’s expense, the film absolutely succeeds on its own terms. You get muscular set pieces, a well-rounded story and meaningful character beats. What more could you ask for? To which the obvious answer is….

Exploding helicopter action

….an exploding helicopter. Or, in this case, four. The first occurs during the attempted coup d’etat. While relaxing on a fishing trip, the president and his protection team are attacked by a flock(?) of exploding drones. (Answers on a postcard as to what the collective noun for these murderous machines should be.)

Packed with explosives, the miniature aircraft dive straight at their targets like robotic kamikaze pilots. They wipe out a few Secret Service agents and then smash into the presidential helicopter, Marine One, and two accompanying Osprey V-22, blowing them up.

But wait: that’s not all.

At the end of the film Danny Huston - the scenery-chomping villain of the piece - tries to make his getaway in a helicopter that’s about to lift-off. But before he can make his escape, Butler detonates the whirlybird using the grenade launcher under his machine gun. Perhaps they should have called this one Aircraft Has Fallen.

Artistic merit

We give top marks to the chopper fireball staged at the end of the film as part of the film’s big finale. Its burning carcass acts as a haunting backdrop for the climatic mano-a-mano knife fight between Huston and Butler.

Sadly, the earlier scene is a bit of a disappointment. While it’s hard to fault the scene overall, the chopper fireballs are a little blink-and-you’ll-miss-them.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Together with Independence Day and The Sentinel, Angel Has Fallen can be added to a small but perfectly formed group of films that boast the fiery destruction of a presidential helicopter. Impressively, the film also features the first use of a drone to blow up a chopper.

Interesting fact

Readers with long memories may have noticed that Angel Has Fallen’s story bares no relation to the one trailed in much of the advance publicity. That’s because it was originally meant to feature terrorists hijacking Air Force One.

But with Butler unhappy with the script, veteran screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen (Taken, The Transporter) was called in to fix things. And ultimately, this ‘repair job’ involved junking the entire thing and coming up with a completely new story.

Only one problem remained: how to explain the title they were now stuck with? Cue a newscaster on the Exposition News Network droning the improbable line: “Tonight, the President’s guardian angel has fallen…”

Still want more?

Why not check out our review of Angel Has Fallen on the Exploding Helicopter podcast. Listen on iTunes, Acast, Stitcher, Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts. 


Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Firepower


Here’s a challenge: name a Michael Winner not called Death Wish. Tricky, isn’t it?

For a man so famous for being a film director, he really didn’t make very many famous films. These days, if anyone remembers him at all, it’s as a notoriously waspish restaurant critic or a smug-faced presence in car insurance commercials.

But never let it be said that this blog is afraid of terrible movie-making. Throwing any notion of quality control to the wind, Exploding Helicopter has dived into one of the dustier corners of the Winner cinematic canon, so you don’t have to.

And so we present the bonkers, twisty, unforgettable-but-not-in-a-good way thriller: Firepower (1979).

The plot

Sitting comfortably? Good. Now, maybe pop a couple of paracetamols before reading on…

This insanely confusing story begins when a scientist is killed by an explosion in his laboratory. His widow (Sophia Loren: yes, that Sophia Loren) is convinced that the untimely death is the work of a crooked industrialist, called Stegman.

Sultry Sophia turns to the FBI for help, but they’re unable to act since Stegman is living on a Caribbean island with no extradition laws. Faced with such an administrative challenge, the Feds do what any reasonable law enforcement organisation might do: employ a shady mafia boss (Eli Wallach) to kidnap Mr Big and spirit him back to the US on their behalf.

So far, so sensible, right? But we’re only getting started... Next, the mafia don calls up a retired hitman (James Coburn) to carry out the killing. And the contract killer’s first step is to recruit his secret identical twin brother – also played by James Coburn. At this point, you’re barely ten minutes into the film, and the layers of bunkum and confusion just continue to multiply and sprawl. Half an hour in, Exploding Helicopter needed to have a nice lie-down on the sofa.

Over two very long hours, the film hits you with an unrelenting barrage of double-crosses, secret identities and hidden agendas. You’re left with the sense that nobody in the film really has the faintest clue what’s going on – and if they do, they certainly didn’t tell Michael Winner.

The cast

Befitting a film that’s so all over the shop, the cast is an eclectic jumble of famous actors, familiar faces, and ‘what the hell are they doing in this?’ cameos.

Topping the bill is lanky-limbed leading man, James Coburn and Euro-cinema royalty, Sophia Loren. They’re both fine actors, but as an onscreen pairing they have all the easy rapport and natural chemistry of breakfast telly’s Piers Morgan and Susannah Reid.

Alongside them, there’s a rogue’s gallery of character and bit-part actors including the aforementioned Eli Wallach, Vincent Gardenia (Death Wish) and Dominic ‘Junior Soprano’ Chianese. Bringing a further positive, rosy glow to the proceedings is OJ Simpson who, as per usual, murders his lines with the same alacrity with which he reputedly murdered his own wife. (Fun fact: for some reason, Simpson seems to appear with puzzling regularity in films where helicopters explode.)

Anyone not already dizzy from this pick n’ mix bag of job-hungry thesps will surely be knocked out (pun very much intended) by the appearance of legendary boxer, Jake La Motta. As a villain’s henchman, the original Raging Bull turns in a performance so woefully inadequate that you’ll be wishing for one of his roundhouse punches just to get it all over with.

Finally, as a ridiculous cherry on the top, Fifties Hollywood beefcake Victor Mature wanders in from a busy retirement on the golf course to half-heartedly appear in a solitary scene. Less hole-in-one: more one-scene-and-gone.

Winner proves a winner

With such an impenetrable plot and a dog’s breakfast of a cast, Michael Winner would seem a potentially fatal choice to direct this (or frankly any) film.

Boasting a filmmaking style variously described as “crass”, “primitive” and “suitable for people who like to slow down at traffic accidents”, Bolshie Mike might appear singularly ill-equipped to salvage this project. And yet, it’s his blunderbuss approach that prevents Firepower from being a total disaster.

With nothing to be gained from engaging with the material, the reliably artless Winner simply ignores it. Instead, he simply stuffs the film with a dizzying kaleidoscope of car chases, gun fights and exotic locations – all meant to distract you from the fact that the whole thing is unfathomable guff.

And should any viewers find the movie’s sensory assault and lack of narrative sense a bit much, just remember the immortal words of its late director: ‘Calm down, dear.’ Firepower may not make a lick of sense, but it doesn’t lack for spectacle – and it’s certainly never boring.

Exploding helicopter action

After kidnapping the Mr Big Industrialist, Coburn makes his getaway pursued by the villains’ henchmen. (Incidentally, by this point it seems utterly unclear which of the ‘twin’ brothers Coburn is meant to be playing, not least to Michael Winner.)

Luckily, Old Longshanks (or his twin) has anticipated the baddies’ pursuit plans, and cannily placed a series of time-delayed bombs in their vehicles. One of them, as you can doubtless surmise, is a helicopter.

A hectic chase ensures, and after a few minutes one of the bombs reliably detonates and puts paid to a pursuing car. But that still leaves a helicopter buzzing ominously overhead and a small posse of horse-riding heavies on Coburn’s trail.

The villains close in and it looks like it’s about to get sticky for Big Jim. Fortunately, with contrived good fortune, the chopper chooses that very moment to blow up. And if that wasn’t lucky enough, the falling debris knocks out the henchmen on horseback. It’s like three cherries lining up on a one-armed bandit.

Exploding helicopter verdict

We get an all too brief shot of the helicopter blowing up, although blowing apart would be a more accurate description. The combusting chopper is clearly an Airfix-quality model, and there’s a noticeable lack of actual fire – though predictably the whole thing is engulfed in blazing flames by the time it crashes to the ground. Having said that, continuity is the least of this film’s problems.

Interesting fact

Apparently, the script for Firepower started life as a Dirty Harry sequel. Clint Eastwood can consider himself very lucky, punk, that he never got embroiled in such a ghastly, giddy mess.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

When Time Ran Out

Or, as it should be known, When Time Ran Out... on the disaster film.

That's right. When Airport (1969) became a box office smash, it kicked off a decade-long boom in films where ageing Hollywood stars met their melodramatic deaths in elaborately staged set-pieces.

For a time, these films were a sure-fire recipe for blockbuster success. But as the Seventies wore on, audiences began to weary of their predictable formula and increasingly daft scenarios. And when this notoriously naff, volcano-themed piece of whimsy showed up, the whole genre finally blew-up like… well, a volcano.

Both a critical and commercial catastrophe, the movie stank at the box office and lost millions. It also ended careers. (Notably, one of its stars was so mentally scarred they never referred to it by name again.)

Surveying the devastation, Tinseltown bosses collectively pronounced the whole genre dead, and swore never again to make a film like When Time Ran Out (1980)

The plot

When a volcano erupts on a pacific island, it looks very much like the glamourous guests at a nearby luxury hotel will be engulfed by molten magma. Yikes!

But fear not! For screen icon Paul Newman is on hand to save the day. With molten lava flowing down from all directions, Old Blue Eyes rallies a small group of survivors and leads them on a perilous journey to safety.

Naturally, this being a disaster movie, the escape is complicated by a pressing need from many characters to resolve a giddy mix of personal dramas. (Quite why no one can put off dealing with mom-didn’t-appreciate-me-enough until the crisis is over, is a mystery the genre has never resolved.)

With the island swiftly turning to liquid magma, the questions come thick and fast. Who will live? Who will die? And will the two old codgers harbouring a decades-old grudge tearfully reconcile in this moment of peril? At this point, you’d got to think there’s an outside chance they probably will.

When Time Ran Out…. On The Disaster Film

This movie’s reputation as a cinematic stinker is well deserved, and its problems - woeful special effects, lamentable soap opera sub-plots, listless action scenes – have been well documented.

So, rather than look at why this film is so bad, let’s to delve into how it came to be quite so awful.

When Contracts Ran Out

With Paul Newman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons and William Holden, When Time Ran Out boasts no fewer than four Oscar-winning actors.

So whatever its flaws, you wouldn’t think the acting would be an issue. And yet there’s a strange, dead-behind-the-eyes quality to each of their performances – almost as if they didn’t want to be there. Which, in fact, they didn’t.

You see, none of the garlanded Oscar worthies wanted to be anywhere near this merde-fest; they were all forced into it because of old contracts they’d signed. Newman later admitted it was the only film he ever regretted and refused to even mention its name, referring to it only as ‘that volcano movie’.

When Confidence Ran Out

You’d assume that such a major movie with an all-star cast and humungous budget would have top-notch director – so why was TV journeyman James Goldstone at the helm? The short answer: the studio was desperate to avoid giving the reins to the movie’s creator, Irwin Allen.

You might know Allen as the creative force behind such mega-hits as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. But by this time, his career had taken a double nose-dive – with the bad-cinema classic ,The Swarm, and soggy seafaring sequel Beyond The Poseidon Adventure – so Warner Bros insisted he not direct.

Allen’s answer? Hire a pliable stooge like Goldstone, who agreeably sat like a lump in the director’s chair while Allen sneakily pulled all the strings – and produced his third cinematic turkey in a row.

When Money Ran Out

Already buckling under the above challenges, the movie finally keeled over and died under the strain of constant studio budget cuts, which forced emergency (and often comedic) cost-saving measures.

So, if that tropical island looks a bit like California, that’s because…well, it’s clearly California. And the infamous special effects in the movie were straight out of Blue Peter. As a viewer, it’s hard to cower in the face of a terrifying volcano when it’s fashioned from an old washing-up liquid bottle and some cardboard tubes. You can almost see the sticky-back plastic.

Unsurprisingly, the end result was a truly terrible film. And while the pitiful box office takings were bad enough, the death knell of the entire disaster genre sounded just months later when Airplane! (1980), a scalpel-sharp dissection of disaster conventions and clichés, was a massive hit.

Exploding helicopter action

Given that destruction is at the heart of all disaster movies, it’s no surprise to learn that a helicopter ends up being an early casualty.

As magma rolls towards the luxury hotel, the panicked guests look a nearby helicopter for a quick escape. There’s a stampede, and people either cram themselves inside or cling desperately to the landing skids as it takes off.

Overloaded, the chopper struggles to remain airborne. Weaving around in the sky for a few moments, it suddenly plunges straight into a cliff and explodes. A case of When Copters Run Out.

Artistic merit

It’s a short and sweet scene: one moment the whirlybird is spinning around in the sky, the next it’s charging straight into a cliff.

The resulting fireball is rendered in far from convincing model-work. But rather than lingering, the camera sensibly cuts quickly to the horrified reactions of those that witnessed the crash.

On the plus side, the bunfight to get on the chopper is hugely enjoyable as those lucky enough to be inside kick and punch others trying to join them. Chivalry, it seems, is well and truly dead.

Exploding helicopter innovation

When Time Ran Out is not the only volcano-themed film to feature an exploding helicopter. Nearly twenty years later, a chopper in Dante’s Peak crashes after its engine becomes choked with volcanic ash.

Interesting fact

While the film lost money at the box office (it made just $4m against a $20m budget), it has gone on to make over $500m in the years since. Well, sort of.

That’s because Paul Newman used his fee from this financial disaster to launch Newman’s Own, his famous philanthropic range of salad dressings and sauces.

Review by: Jafo

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Bermuda Tentacles


It’s worse than that; it’s shit, Jim.

When a 2014 monster movie with a fair-sized budget keeps reminding you of a famously wonky and wooden Sixties sci-fi TV series, you know it’s in trouble. But in so many ways – the hammy acting, the risible effects, the disposable extras – this movie just reeks of the original Star Trek series.

That might not be so bad, if Bermuda Tentacles (2014) had any charm or character. But whereas Captain Kirk’s old sci-fi classic has gradually aged into beloved status, the only final frontier this new piece of tripe looks likely to surpass is the audience’s patience.

Even worse, once your mind boldly goes to the Star Trek comparison, you simply can’t shake the association out of your head. As a noted scientific authority once put it: Ye cannae change the laws of physics.

The plot

Air Force One hits a giant storm and crash lands in – wait for it – the Bermuda Triangle. And thus the viewer is thrown headlong into one of the biggest mysteries of modern times: why can’t the Presidential plane ever get from A to B intact in a Hollywood movie?

Onscreen at least, this supposedly failsafe and gigantic piece of kit seems unable to leave the tarmac without getting shot down (White House Down), hijacked (Air Force One), hijacked again (Escape From New York) or shot down again (Big Game). It’s a wonder any real-life President is willing to even go near the thing.

As Air Force Gone struggles against the raging elements, the President is flung into an escape pod which – movie countdown alert! – only has 12 hours of oxygen. (Hmm, wonder if that will become relevant in a hackneyed kind of ‘race against time’ scenario later on..?) Within minutes, the American Navy is despatched to rescue POTUS. But when they sail into the infamous Bermuda waters, a mysterious, be-tentacled alien lifeform is waiting.

The cast

She’ll be back… The only instantly recognisable star here is Linda Hamilton, Big Arnie’s frenemy from the Terminator series. She plays a gruff Admiral, growling and barking orders at everyone within earshot. And to her credit, Leathery Linda does seem genuinely pissed off – but that’s probably less about a commitment to the role and more a genuine anger that her once stellar career has come to appearing in this kind of dreck.

The rest of the cast seems to have escaped from one of those terrible ‘I Love the Nineties’ shows on Channel 5. First, here’s R’n’B also-ran, Mya, whose solitary chart hit a mere 22 years ago you may dimly remember, if you’re her mum. Daytime soap opera beefcake Trevor Donovan (Days Of Our Lives / 90210) pads out an underwhelming cast with his deeply wooden presence.

And making Mya look like a Johnny Come Lately, Ricco Ross – aka Private Frost from Aliens (1986) – takes some time from his busy schedule signing photographs at science fiction conventions to lend a slice of ham to the proceedings.

Vulcan ridiculous…

This is ostensibly a modern, ocean-based sci-fi movie, but as soon as the action starts, the Star Trek comparisons start coming in thick and tractor beam fast. For one thing, the sets are woefully shaky. And the characters spout so much pseudo-scientific guff (“I want deep sub-surface detection for massive organic life”) you feel it’s only a matter of time before someone broaches the topic of dilethium crystals.

Naturally, there’s a Trek-style power failure. And as some hapless minion blurts tekky gobbledegook about rerouting the systems, you’re almost willing him to just shout “I've giv'n her all she's got captain, an' I canna give her no more!”

If all this sounds a bit much, there’s more to come. The Bermuda crew also reprise one of Star trek’s favourite tropes: the wobbly camera scene. You remember how during Klingon ‘attacks’ on the Enterprise, Captain Kirk and the rest of the crew would gamely throw themselves around while the cameraman wobbled the camera? If you enjoyed such scenes, you’ll be wiping a nostalgic tear as our heroes’ awkwardly lurch around during the submarine’s descent to the ocean floor.

And of course, no cinematic Trek tribute would be complete without a nod to the original show’s ‘red shirt’ phenomenon. On numerous occasions here, the film’s ‘stars’ (and we use that word very advisedly) set out to investigate some danger with a couple of nameless Navy Seals in tow, who may as well have ‘Dead in Two Minutes’ tattooed on their foreheads.

Exploding helicopter action

The fleet searching for the missing President comes under attack from the aquatic threat. One of the titular tentacles flails around in the air until it hits a Navy helicopter that’s flying overhead.

The blow knocks the helicopter – a Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion, fact fans – into another chopper that’s flying alongside. That means the original whirlybird spins out of control onto the deck of the warship, where it explodes.

Artistic merit

Given the shoddiness of much of the film, the explosion isn’t too bad. Though wisely, the director doesn’t linger too long on his handiwork.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Not, really. We’ve seen tentacled monsters swat helicopters to their deaths in both Hellboy II: The Golden Army and in Skyline.

Interesting fact

Ricco Ross’ performance is so forgettable that people keep forgetting his name. His character is interchangeably referred to as Chief Phillips and Captain Phillips, until Mya shows up and calls him Sergeant Phillips. That’s two demotions in an hour.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Navy Seals vs Zombies

In hindsight, you do wonder: why did no one think of it sooner?

After countless variants on the ‘vs Zombies’ formula – Vampires vs Zombies, Cowboys vs Zombies, Cockneys vs Zombies, to name just a few – you’d be forgiven for thinking ghoulish-minded filmmakers were running out of groups to pit against the undead.

So thoroughly had the zombie barrel been scraped that 2015 even saw the release of Milfs vs Zombies, which seemed almost wilfully terrible. (Although it did have a glorious tagline: ‘They picked the wrong moms to fuck with’.)

However, in their haste to find ever weirder opponents for the undead, it appears many directors overlooked one screamingly obvious group: Navy Seals.

Think about it. If you want to guarantee a cinematic slaughterhouse of wholesale violence, what could be better than uncoiling the famously beserk and trigger-happy cream of the American military? These maniacs tot up triple-digit fatalities on peacekeeping missions, so one can only imagine the bedlam when they’re actually authorised to unleash hell with extreme prejudice.

And should the audience, numbed by all the “Hoo-ra!” histrionics and patriotic flag-waving, end up actively siding with the zombies – well, who cares? Splatter is still guaranteed.

The plot

A team of Navy Seals is sent to rescue the Vice President when he becomes trapped in Louisiana, which is overrun by a newly unleashed zombie horde.

And, erm, that’s it.

Admittedly, there is a subplot that involves locating a scientist who might have a vaccine. But that’s basically just an excuse to unleash another round of headshots and limb-chomping.

So if you like your zombie movies with a side order of satire, subtext or social critique, maybe head over to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. This movie, much like its antagonists, is totally braindead.

The cast

If you hadn’t already guessed – you saw the title, right? - this is a low budget affair. Accordingly, the calibre of the acting talent fits snugly with the bargain basement quality of the script and overall production.

What star power there is comes courtesy of VHS-era action legend Michael Dudikoff (from the American Ninja series), who here plays a grizzled General masterminding the rescue operation.

This film marked a comeback for Mikey Duds after he retired from the movie industry in the early Noughties – or more accurately, was retired by the industry.

Yet fans eager to witness their former hero in action once again will be disappointed. Not because he isn't given a sizeable amount of screen-time. Or that he's lazily phoning-in his performance. No, the problem is you literally can’t see him. Mysteriously, all his scenes take place in a control room so dimly lit you’ll wonder if there was a mid-shoot power cut. What is going on?

The answer may lie in those aforementioned budgetary constraints. After all, the response to this rapidly spreading zombie pandemic is apparently being managed by two – count ‘em – blokes standing in a small and distinctly wonky-looking ‘nerve centre’, with walls that look like they might topple over if somebody coughs too enthusiastically. So maybe it made sense to keep the lights down.

Night of the Living Clichés

Readers who’ve made it this far (and thanks, both of you) will doubtless have deduced that Navy Seals vs Zombies (2015) is not great.

The ‘characters’ – if we can call them that – come from the hoariest of genre clichés. There’s a rookie Seal with a pregnant gal back home; a survivor nervously hiding a soon-to-be-fatal zombie bite. And most tiresomely of all, there’s a peppy journalist jeopardising everyone’s safety trying to ‘get the story out’.

(Literally the only bearable thing about this character is that he does finally get his ‘scoop’, when a marauding zombie scoops his innards out.)

Still, the film does deliver in one surprising way: those are actual Navy Seals you’re watching.

It’s true. Half the soldiers dropped in to save the Veep are real-life former Navy Seals – and boy, do they look their part. Barrel-chested and bushy-bearded, they have an effortless, man-of-action authenticity that both physically and metaphorically dwarves the lisping thesps playing dress-up alongside them. (“What’s my motivation for holding this gun?”)

But even these grizzled toughs, while adding verisimilitude, ultimately add to the problem. Because clearly, the price for securing the services of America’s finest was some thudding script-doctoring by the Navy. (Hollywood fact: The US Armed Services routinely pimps out its boys and hardware to film productions, but only in exchange for turning said movies into jingoistic recruiting ads.)

And so it’s no surprise when one character bleats, “Hey, you’re Navy Seals! I love you guys!” in a no-way-believable manner. Or when another, apropos of nothing, suddenly launches into a prolonged paean to military bravery.

However, the syrupy shit really hits the fan when one soldier becomes trapped. Before making a heroic last stand, he records a defiant final phone message that’s so filled with “honor”, ‘Gawd”, “freedom” and the American flag, it’s a wonder the zombies didn’t shuffle away in embarrassment.

Thank you for your service. Now pass the sick bag.

Exploding Helicopter action

After locating the Vice President, the Seals call in a helicopter so they can ‘exfil the package’. (Warning: the movie is awash with such military-speak guff.)

He’s loaded on to the chopper along with some other survivors, including (natch) the one with the hidden zombie bite.

After taking off, the whirlybird suddenly begins to fly haphazardly, before disappearing behind some buildings. There’s the sound of a crash and a poorly rendered CGI fireball flickers up.

The viewer, seemingly the last thing on the director’s mind, sees all this from a distance –so we are left to assume that the passenger ‘turned’ and caused the resulting chaos-cum-crash.

Artistic merit

Ordinarily, Exploding Helicopter becomes vexed when an explosion happens ‘off-camera’. But given the poverty of the special effects displayed elsewhere in this movie, less was probably more.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Very little. We’ve previously seen zombies cause chopper explosions in the similarly terrible World War Z, which employed 300 times this movie’s budget to gain roughly the same level of entertainment.

Tagline

The surprisingly clever: “Home of the brave, land of the dead.”

Review by: Jafo

Want someone else's opinion on this film? Then check out the review by our buddy DTV Connoisseur

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

The Domino Principle


Over the years, Exploding Helicopter has seen a good few baffling movies (Memento), some incomprehensible ones (Terence Malick’s Tree Of Life) and a special handful that seem to operate entirely within their own parallel continuum of logic. (Step forward, Ron Howard’s insane papal-nuke-thriller, Angels & Demons.)

But it turns out these movies were actually models of storytelling clarity, at least in comparison to one infamous work. For there is one particular Seventies conspiracy thriller so bonkers, so defiantly opaque, that it has earned a special place in Exploding Helicopter’s Cryptic Cinema Hall of Infamy. Ladies and gentlemen: meet The Domino Principle (1977).

Why even bother with this one? you’re probably not asking. And true, on one level, reviewing such a famously impenetrable mess of a movie may seem like asking for punishment. But when you’ve spent a decade only cataloguing films where helicopters blow up in strange and often unconvincing ways, you get to know a thing or two about fruitless endeavors.

The plot

Former army sharp-shooter Roy Tucker (Gene Hackman) is quietly serving out a lengthy prison sentence when he gets a visit from two mysterious men.

They offer to arrange his escape, reunite him with his wife, and set him up with a new life in another country. Only – and maybe step back and take a deep breath, here – there’s a catch.

In return for his freedom, Tucker must agree to carry out an unspecified job. (And for the sake of simplicity, let’s just clarify now that it’s an assassination.) Obviously, our judicious jailbird is initially reluctant to accept the enigmatic deal, but eventually agrees.

So far, so kind-of-clear, right? But not so fast: at this point, the whole situation (and the movie itself) quickly starts to spin out of control. And if you’re wondering how it all turns out, join the queue.

There’s a reason this movie has baffled audiences for over 40 years. And by the time you finish reading this review, chances are you’ll also be scratching your head and reaching for the paracetamol.

The cast

The great and grizzly Gene Hackman plays Tucker. Always a compelling screen presence, Big Gene lends his character the intense, coiled rage that is the hallmark of his best work (The French Connection, Unforgiven). But as ever, the question is: just how much ‘acting’ is the famously combustible Hackman actually doing?

Famous for chewing out directors (he once commanded fey indie darling Wes Anderson to ‘pull up his trousers and act like a man’) and public brawling (even administering one beat-down at the ripe old age of 82), it’s probably fair to say Hackman could start a fight in an empty room – and still claim the other, non-existent guy started it.

Playing the villains are two of cinema’s perennial bad guys: Richard Widmark and Eli Wallach. Able to effortlessly convey either snake-like charm or sinister menace, the pair spent decades deceiving, duping and double-crossing countless co-stars in their films. In other words, they’re perfectly cast here.

And fittingly for such a bizarre film, there’s a queasy cameo from a Hollywood star of old, Mickey Rooney. The pint-sized actor came to fame in the Thirties, as a child starring opposite a pig-tailed Judy Garland in a string of wholesome musicals.

Viewers with fond memories of those golden-era offerings will therefore be more than a little perturbed by his appearance here. Cast as Hackman’s foul-mouthed cellmate, he gleefully lusts after teenage girls while continuously picking at his chest hair. No wonder Hackman decided to escape.

Confusion reigns

Why is The Domino Principle such an obtuse film? Some context might help here. The film was part of a cycle of conspiracy thrillers that emerged in the early Seventies.

But coming in the wake of a wave of increasingly complex and twisty classics – such as The Parallax View, All The Presidents Men and The Conversation – the producers were clearly worried. How do you surprise an audience now used to the idea of shadowy cabals of men with nebulous agendas undermining, overthrowing, or bending governments to their will?

In retrospect, their answer was simplicity itself: just never explain the conspiracy.

That’s right. Instead of learning, over the course of the film, the identities, motives or aims of the main players, here, the audience learns precisely nothing. Zip. Zero. Zilch. When the curtain comes down, the viewer is just as confused as they were 20 minutes in when their headache first started forming.

So, to recap: we never find out who Gene Hackman had to kill. We don’t know why they needed to be killed. We have no idea who is behind the conspiracy. And even Wallach and Widmark, the front-men for the mysterious murder plot, don’t know the answers. As they’re at pains to point out during the film: they’re just cogs in the machine. It’s not their job to know.

No doubt, the producers were initially delighted with their own cunning. What could be cleverer than a conspiracy so vast and complex that no one involved – including the actors, the director and the poor audience – ever understands it? That’d be, like, totally radical man!

Er, no it wouldn’t. Actually – and Exploding Helicopter can’t emphasise this enough – it’d be blood-boilingly annoying.

Imagine a stand-up comedian telling a long-winded joke, then walking off stage just before the punchline. A cordon bleu chef painstakingly preparing a beautiful meal before your eyes, then flipping it into the bin. A Scooby Doo episode where at the end, the whole gang simply says, “Nah, we dunno who did it’, and drives off.

The whole point of a mystery movie is that it gets solved at the end. But not this one. The Domino Principle is all conspiracy and no thriller. Ultimately, the real mystery is how this piece of cinematic bobbins got made.

Exploding helicopter action

While the overall film may miss the target, it at least hits the bullseye with its exploding helicopter.

The action occurs after the big hit. Hackman escapes the scene in a helicopter, flying a short distance before landing and transferring to a getaway car.

To cover their tracks, a waiting villain throws a very fetching leather briefcase inside the chopper. But this is clearly no ordinary piece of luggage, because everyone suddenly starts running and a few seconds later the helicopter explodes. Kaboom!

Artistic merit

We’re big fans of this chopper fireball. The eruption of flame is spectacular, and wreckage is impressively flung through the air.

One particularly striking aspect is just how close the actors are to the pyrotechnics. They’re only a few feet away when chopper blows up. In fact, they look to be in real danger of being horribly maimed by flying shrapnel.

Such is the apparent disregard for the safety of the cast, it’s worth considering whether there was a cock-up in the timing of the detonation. Or maybe Hackman had managed to piss off the crew so much that, by this point, they were literally trying to kill him. Probably the latter.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The method of destruction here is unusual, but not unique. A helicopter was blown up by a bomb disguised as a piece of luggage in Diamonds Are Forever.

Best critic’s comment

“I felt sorry for the actors wasted on such a stupid script…but I felt sorrier for myself for having to sit through it.” Ruth Batchelor, LA Free Press

Interesting fact

Gene Hackman is Hollywood’s emperor of bad career choices and his “I’ll take the money” approach to filmmaking is to thank for his appearance here. Roles in Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were among the many better films he snubbed in order to make this slice of cinematic merde, simply because the paycheck was bigger.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on The Domino Principle. Listen via iTunes, Spotify, Acast, Stitcher or wherever you get your pods. Alternatively, just hit play below...


Thursday, 30 January 2020

Bad Boys For Life


That’s right: for life. Or maybe watching this movie just seemed that long.

After a hiatus of 17 years, the ageing Miami cop duo – stretching the word ‘boy’ to its very outermost limits – bring their franchise creaking along for a third instalment that looks every bit as bloated and weather-worn as its stars.

This time, a wronged criminal is out for revenge. Will Smith is out to prove he’s still got it. And Martin Lawrence, by the look of him, has mostly been out for dinner. Of course, there’s the usual crash, bang and pyrotechnic wallop, and a supporting crew of millennial police moppets for eye-candy purposes.

But clearly, no-one was asking for this movie, so why are we here? With its crashing pratfalls, shouty jokes and swaggering self-confidence, it resembles nothing more than a drunk, uninvited guest at a party. And for Exploding Helicopter, it was just about as welcome.

The plot

Years ago, detective Mike Lowrey (Smith) busted a Mexican drug lord, who later died in prison. Now his villainous widow has been sprung from clink by her equally violent son, and they’re both bent on revenge.

Early on, the young tyke shoots Smith point blank in the chest three times. Certain death, surely? But no: following a few montage scenes of fellow cop Marcus Burnett (a king-sized Lawrence) tearfully wobbling his jowls beside his partner’s hospital bed, the not-so-Fresh Prince is apparently good as new.

Initially, Lawrence refuses to join Smith in hunting down the baddies, until they also kill the pair’s police captain. Only then – and Exploding Helicopter only hopes you’re sitting down for this next revelation – he agrees to team up one last time.

Joined by an incredibly hot young police crew who, like, use computers and stuff, they hunt down the evil Mexicans via a predictable cavalcade of car chases, punch-ups, weak puns and face-to-face sub-machine gun battles in which literally nobody gets shot. (Hey, there’s that ‘15’ certificate to think about here…) Then it all culminates in a Mexico City showdown.

The cast

Someone once observed that, by the final season of Baywatch, David Hasselhoff had the biggest breasts on the show. It’s not a kind line, but it does underscore a valid point – old actors replaying their younger roles is not generally a good look.

Who could forget a corseted and bewigged William Shatner in the Star Trek movie series? Or the supposedly immortal Christopher Lambert growing greyer and jowlier throughout the Highlander series? And in last year’s Last Blood, Sly Stallone, largely filmed skulking around subterranean tunnels, looked like nothing more than a freshly embalmed Egyptian mummy.

So let’s not forget, the ‘boys’ in question here are Will Smith (51) and 54-year-old Martin Lawrence. At least Smith, blessed with that Tom-Cruise-style steely self-discipline common among deeply weird Scientologists, still looks in prime condition.

Lawrence however, all wattles and artfully cut dark clothes trying to hide his pot belly, appears to have enjoyed every one of his five-plus decades. Exploding Helicopter is not sure how many dollars he got paid for this movie, but he’s apparently storing them in his cheeks.

However, the real major crime in this movie is how Joe Pantoliano, an effortlessly charismatic actor who was unmissable throughout two seasons of The Sopranos, is tasked with playing a lazy blend of Angry Police Captain™ and Proud Paternal Figure (“He’s like a son to me”).  Now, that’s criminal.

Don’t forget the kids…

Ah yes, the millennials. Remember how The Expendables 3 added a buff, young supporting crew to the mix, so we wouldn’t have to spend two hours staring at a bunch of septuagenarians trying to hold their stomachs in? This movie does the same, sprinkling in a deeply uninteresting quartet of what we suppose should technically be called ‘characters’.

There’s a saucy leaderene to smoulder at Smith, a cocky young rebel to bristle against him, a musclebound hunk who – get this! – is a bit of a nerd, and a fit young woman who, er, has an interesting haircut. It comes to something when you’re left complaining that a movie lacks the nuance of Stallone’s later work, but this is where we find ourselves.

The opposite of chemistry

This Bad Boys series makes much of the supposed schtick between Smith and Lawrence, but watching the pair together is utterly wearying. All they do is shout banalities and clichés at each other, as if the booming volume and simple ‘bro’-ness of it all will obscure any lack of wit.

With Lawrence, in particular, almost every line he bellows is a clunking piece of exposition or plot point: Hey, best buddy. Remember that time you were working that case and…. It’s pretty artless stuff.

Also, for two friends who have supposedly been inseparable since childhood, they often sound bemused to hear even the most rudimentary facts about each other. At one point, Lawrence learns that his brother from another mother once spent almost a year working deep undercover for a Mexican drug cartel. What: he didn’t notice at the time?

Admittedly, action movies are not generally big on character – and nobody’s expecting Kramer vs Kramer here. But the writing is deeply shoddy even by base, generic standards.

The trouble with Mexicans

It’s worth noting that, while American movies appear terribly woke these days, Mexicans remain the last minority group that it’s still kind of okay to go full Jim Davidson-racist on, particularly in shoot-em-up yarns like this one. Thus, the drug lord’s widow is more a demented, murderous pastiche than a real person, and – get this – is also rumoured to be an actual witch.

Perpetually stuck in either hissy whisper or screeching mode, she’s pure pantomime. In characterisation terms, it’s the equivalent of portraying a Native-American woman in face-paint and making “Woo! Woo!” noises while tapping her mouth and dancing round a fire.

It’s a bizarre phenomenon, particularly given the spending power of the US’ native Hispanic population, but just seems to be one of those things – like the black character dying first in every horror flick.

Exploding helicopter action

So, to the final showdown in a ruined building in Mexico City. It is, natch, a dark and stormy evening. (Such conditions are famously CGI-friendly.) And let’s cut to the quick here: the building handily contains the kind of glass roof and huge central atrium that would be perfect for a crashing helicopter to slowly crash-spin down, almost hitting all the main characters along the way.

So, what do you think happens? After much punching, kicking, shooting and chasing (with nary a bruise visible on the main characters), a chopper heads in to pick up the widow and Lawrence shoots the pilot. The whirlybird comes careering in through the roof and spirals downwards to the ground, where it briefly lies in state before bursting into flames.

Artistic merit

Let’s look, shall we? Chopper implausibly brought down by protagonist with small firearm on a roof. Check. Comes crashing down very, very slowly, usefully eating up camera time. Check. Almost hits every major character on the way down. Check. Comes to a whirring halt inches away from protagonist. Check. Eruption of sudden CGI fireball. Check.

If they were handing out awards for originality, this movie would not be in the running. In fairness, this movie is unlikely to be in the running for any awards, unless the Razzies come calling.

Interesting fact

Recognise the scraggly-looking emcee in the wedding scene of Lawrence’s screen daughter, the one looking like the kind of ageing surfer who wouldn’t be permitted within 100 metres of a school? That’s Michael Bay, the famously long-winded and pyrotechnic director of the first two Bad Boys movies.