Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Shadow Man

Steven Seagal plays the same ex-CIA bad-ass he always does, as he slumbers through another of the unending production line of DTV films he has been condemned to spend all eternity making.

The plot for this one is - unlike many of whispering Steve’s recent efforts - reasonably straightforward. Old Totem face has been made the unwitting courier of a deadly virus. When his daughter is snatched by rogue agents, Steve vows to get his daughter back whilst preventing the virus falling into the wrong hands.

Now when I say this one is easier to understand, I mean merely the that broad narrative arc makes sense. Individual scenes and indeed whole plot strands make none.

Why for instance despite the kidnap of his daughter does Steve never display a moment of parental anguish? Why does he spend most of the film ambling around with the woman who snatched his little girl at the beginning of the film?

So the best I can do is tell you that the villains want Steve dead. A helicopter is called up to do the job chasing Steve down a heavily tree lined road. The chopper loses sight of Seagal allowing him to slip out the vehicle.

Steve takes up a sneaky firing position on the chopper armed with his pistol. He takes careful aim and starts firing. The chopper pilot says “We’re taking fire!” Followed by “We’re hit, we’re going down.”

Viewers who still at this point have the willpower to question the plot might ask themselves, why doesn’t the pilot fly off out of harms way? Anyway he doesn’t and continues to hover there like a giant sitting duck.

Despite looking like a serious military helicopter Seagal’s pop gun pistol has enough firepower to seriously damage the helicopter. It begins to spin round and lose altitude, before finally blowing up in an unconvincing CGI fireball.

Verdict

Genuinely poor. On the evidence here director Michael Keusch shouldn’t be trusted with the blowing up a party balloon let alone a helicopter.

The explosions are yellow CGI generated blobs out of which emerge non descript chunks of what we’re supposed to believe is helicopter wreckage, but look more like a few random jigsaw pieces.

Steve and the helicopter never appear in the same shot. And just in case we might be harbouring doubts that this scene was actually taking place in front of Steve, the camera cuts back to Old Totem Face moments after it explodes. We see Steve briefly illuminated by what we assume to be the chopper fireball, but what is in all probability an off screen torch.

It’s cheesy, poorly done, and an affront to the viewer. Yet, oddly, it’s so risible that you can’t despise the touch for long. If you’re going to be bad, you may as well be this bad.

Exploding helicopter innovation

None. Much like Seagal films of this era, it‘s hard to detect any evidence that time, effort, or imagination has been spent on this scene.

Do passengers survive?

No.

Positives

An otherwise terminally dull film briefly flickers into life, before being snuffed out by the a swift return to tedium.

Negatives

The scene leaves exploding helicopter fans feeling cheap and tawdry, as if we’ll tolerate any kind crap film just because it’s got a chopper fireball in.

Favourite line

“Oh man, that’s no a freebase accident. That’s syphilis.”


Monday, 25 July 2011

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines


Set seven years after T2, John Connor (now played by Nick Stahl as Edward Furlong was a drug addled alcoholic at this point ) lives off the radar in an effort to avoid detection by nasty computer overlords Skynet. Unfortunately, it turns out Armageddon hasn’t been prevented only postponed as Skynet decide to have a third stab at trying to destroy the future leader of the resistance.

Unable to find Connor they send a new sexy Terminator (Kristanna Loken's T-X, possibly the least scary villain in cinematic history) back in time to hunt and kill his future lieutenants. A T-850 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back once again to protect the vulnerable targets including Connor’s future wife Kate Brewster (Claire Danes).

With virtually the same plot as T2 this was a chance for the studio to print money by sticking to a tried and tested formula. Sadly, they omit the sly humour, pathos and originality that had been of the series previous entries.

Every aspect of the film feels lazy. Even Arnie looks like he is going through the motions. Perhaps he was thinking about boning his maid. In many ways, this sequel is the Real Madrid of the film world: expensively put together, and on-paper a winner, but ultimately disjointed and underperforming.

Luckily for fans of exploding helicopters the disappointment is tempered by a wonderful double chopper set piece.

Connor and Brewster flee to the Crystal Peak military base in a desperate attempt to shut down Skynet before Armageddon. They are pursued by the T-X which crashes through the hangar doors in a small police chopper which skids to halt against the wall without exploding.

The T-X emerges and is almost upon the pair until Arnie smashes through the hole in a huge transport helicopter which obliterates everything in its path including cars, equipment, the smaller chopper and the T-X.

Artistic merit

What exploding helicopter fan isn't turned on by a little helicopter on helicopter action?

Exploding helicopter innovation

Despite the frequency with which helicopters blow up in movies, it's rare that you seem detonate by crashing into one another.

Do passengers survive?

The T-X has its legs shorn off but the pesky blighter still drags itself out fighting. Arnie emerges from his wreckage with half his face missing to to give a triumphant: “I’m back.”

Favourite Quote

Terminator: “Your levity is good, it relieves tension and the fear of death.”

Interesting Fact

Perhaps one of the most interesting scenes never made the final movie and explains why all the Terminators look like Arnie. Through a promotional video Schwarzenegger plays a Texan sergeant selected as the template to which all future Terminators will be based. When his southern accent is questioned by the top brass, an Austrian scientist (with Arnie’s accent overdubbed) declares

“We can fix it”

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Cliffhanger

Big Sly’s hi-rise caper was a classic of its kind and spawned many pale imitations (least notably Vertical Limit with bland auto-moppet Chris O’Donnell, whose career soon joined him over the edge of a cliff).
From the outset, the potential for helicopter mayhem is almost palpable. But for the first 90 minutes we have to make do with the CGI-seeming spectacle of Sly’s biceps, looking worth every dollar of those human growth hormone (HGH) injections.
And so to the final scene. Let’s not dwell on how Sly finds himself trading blows with John Lithgow atop an upside down helicopter hooked precariously on a steel ladder 500 feet up the side of a cliff-face. It’s enough that we’re there. The scriptwriters on this film didn’t waste any time on the plot, so I don’t see why we should.
Closely following the strictly laid out convention of Hollywood climactic fights, Sly goes unconvincingly from a dominant fighting position to hanging one-armed off the edge of the helicopter in five seconds flat, with Lithgow enthusiastically stamping on his fingers.
Again, I can only guess that Sly’s HGH injections have been working their magic because, rather than let go as every bone in his hand cracks, he instead executes a balletic swing, kick and vault manoeuvre that sees him back on the helicopter pummelling Lithgow’s face into a mess of ketchupy, 90s vintage ‘blood’.
Suddenly, the helicopter comes loose (I know, what were the odds?) and Sly somehow jumps – JUST IN TIME – onto the ladder as Lithgow, trapped in his metallic airborne coffin, falls to the ground for a mighty explosion. Ka-boom..
Exploding helicopter innovation
A helicopter shell? Upside down? Hanging off a cliff-face like a snuff version of a WWF ring? It would be churlish to say innovation isn’t at work here.
Do the passengers survive?
Sly does (Sly always does). Lithgow is toast.
Positives
There are several snatched close-ups of Lithgow’s screaming face as the helicopter descends. But he doesn’t actually seem the least bit scared if you look closely, and all the red stuff around his lips lends him the aspect of a panto dame.
Worth pressing pause to get a proper look at his ‘looking scared’ method.
Negatives
The sequence of the fight is strictly by the book and the final shots of the explosion aren’t quite as lingering or p*rn*graphic as explosion aficionados might like.
Favourite quote
As Sly delivers the final punches and throws Lithgow into the helicopter, he shouts out, staccato-like: ‘Will-all-passengers-keep-their-arms-and-legs-inside-the-vehicle-at-all-times!’ It’s a performance that would make Schwarzenegger blush and turn away from the screen, saying: ‘Woww. That iss some baaad act-ing.’
Interesting fact
What you see is, in fact, a genuine metal object exploding. They constructed a huge, sixth scale model for the climactic scene. Extra brownie points for not being a lazy, CGI-based piece of crap.

Review by: Chopper

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Cliffhanger. Find it on iTunes, Podomatic, YourListen, Acast and Stitcher.


Thursday, 21 July 2011

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Arnold Schwarzenegger is back from the future as the dead-pan cyborg with a penchant for leather.

This time Arnie gets to play the good robot reprogrammed to prevent Armageddon by saving the young John Connor (Edward Furlong) from a shape-shifting T-1000 (Robert Patrick) hell bent on his termination in order to change the course of history.

Boasting ground breaking special effects, a superb score, an involved storyline and some terrific performances T2 is a rare example of blockbuster with as much brain as brawn.

Who didn’t have a tear in their eye when Arnie got lowered into the molten lava at the end? You had something in your eye right? Right. I emerged blinking from the local Odeon in 1991 thinking this was the best film ever made.

After escaping Cyberdyne Systems HQ, John Connor is pursued by the T-1000 who crashes through a 6th story window on a motorbike into the path of a police chopper circling the building. It head buts its way through the windscreen and pours itself onto the passenger seat. The pilot sensibly decides to take his chances with the concrete below when told to get out.

The T1000 catches up with the escaping van weaving through traffic. After an exchange of gunfire Arnie slams on the brakes and the chopper, which is at street level, plows into the back of the van, splits and then bursts into flames scattering debris as the wreckage skids across the road.

Artistic merit

James Cameron is not normally a director who does anything by halves however this explosion feels slightly underwhelming. Although it looks genuine, the stunt feels staged and the pyrotechnics are over far too quickly.

Exploding helicopter innovation

First time a van has been rear ended by a helicopter? I’m grasping at straws here.

Do the passengers survive?

The T-1000 is virtually indestructible so it’s going to take more than a minor exploding helicopter to slow it down.

Positives

Helicopter versus van? There can only be one winner. I wouldn’t like to be the insurance clerk handling that claim. Where on earth are you going to hire a courtesy helicopter from?

Negatives

Why do so many pilots decide to fly helicopters at ground level? The point of a helicopter is to give the pilot aerial superiority. Mankind is safe when computers are as stupid as this.

Favourite Quote:

T-800: “I need your clothes, boots and your motorcycle”

Interesting Fact

Arnie ad-libs the line "I need a vacation", when the T-800 is taking a battering. This line was a nod to his role in Kindergarten Cop and was not in the original script.

Sudden Death

Jean Claude Van Damme fights terrorists and a giant penguin in this ‘Die Hard in an ice rink’ actioner.

JCVD plays a traumatised fireman who now works as a security guard at an ice hockey stadium. During an important game terrorists led by Powers Boothe – the poor man’s Tommy Lee Jones – take the US Vice President hostage, and threatens to blow-up the stadium unless he’s given a billion dollars.

Unfortunately for the villains Van Damme’s former fireman turned security guard happens to be an expert in bomb disposal, a whizz at building weapons improvised out of random odds and ends, and a semi-pro hockey player.

This allows him to disarm the bombs and defeat the team of heavily armed terrorists in increasingly inventive ways, and make a game changing save in the Stanley Cup ice hockey final. I don’t know who writes this stuff.

In a bid to free the Vice President, the Secret Service orders up two helicopters to get some special forces inside the stadium. However, Powers Boothe has anticipated the tactics of the Secret Service and has a comrade handily stashed on the top of nearby building armed with a rocket launcher to down the helicopter.

His shot appears to explode next to the helicopter. Perhaps due to budget constraints we don’t actually see the helicopter explode. We only see some flaming wreckage on the ground and the body of a special forces soldier who had been hanging on to a rope and dangling from the chopper.

The climax of the film involves some excellent helicopter based action. With his scheme in tatters Powers Boothe attempts to make his getaway disguised in a comedy wig and moustache. He hoofs it up to the roof where a helicopter is waiting to fly him away.

After brawling with Van Damme, Boothe boards the chopper which begins to fly away. But with uncanny precision for a former fireman turned security guard, JCVD shoots the pilot through the bottom of the helicopter. The pilot slumps back which makes the nose of the helicopter point directly upwards. As the rotor blades are no longer able to generate any lift, the helicopter plunges downward into the ice rink.

We get to see lots of close ups of Powers Boothe – still in comedy wig and moustache desperately try to regain control of the chopper. To draw out the drama of the climax the chopper’s crash to the ground takes an impossibly long time, as we see the helicopter travel the same short distance from multiple angles.

The helicopter appears to glide past Van Damme at glacial pace, allowing JCVD and Boothe to exchange some heavy looks. The gravity of this moment being undermined by Boothe’s comedy wig and moustache.

Number of exploding helicopters

2. Probably. The shonky direction makes it hard to be definitive.

Exploding helicopter innovation

I’ve never seen a helicopter fall “arse first” – for lack of a better description – out of the sky before. The descent is handled a bit like the chopper was a falling elevator allowing those moody looks between Booth and Van Damme.

Artistic merit

The first helicopter explosion is a bit of a cheat as it’s not shown on screen fully. The climatic helicopter explosion is filmed gloriously as we get to enjoy multiple angles as it makes its gravity defying slow descent towards the ice rink and it’s inevitable immolation. The explosion is somewhat conventional. The fireball looks a bit watery. It lacks those deep, luxurious, oranges and reds that the best explosions have.

Do passengers survive?

My favourite outcome, everyone dies.

Positives

Whilst it might be bordering on daft, director Peter Hyams (Outland, Timecop) wrings every last drop of dramatic tension from the sequence. The repeated extended close-ups of Powers Boothe face as he plummets to his death are great. The pain of knowing his final moments on camera in this film are are going to be whilst wearing a ridiculous wig and moustache are writ large across his face.

Negatives

There’s no getting away from the fact that the first helicopter explosion was a fluffed opportunity to show a big, bright, burning chopper fireball.

Review by: Jafo

You can also listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Sudden Death on iTunes, Stitcher, Podomatic and YourListen


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Rambo III

Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is back, this time with an even more luxurious curly mullet and pumped up to within an inch of his life in this bloody, anachronistic sequel.
Rambo, shell-shocked by the body count in his previous movies is in self-imposed exile in Thailand. He spends his time tending to monasteries and beating up the locals in stick-fighting matches.

He is reluctantly coaxed out of retirement by Officer Griggs (the criminally under-used Kurtwood Smith) when his mentor Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) is captured on the Afghan border by a chess playing Russian caricature, Zaysen (Marc De Jonge).

This is the cue for Rambo’s ill-advised suicide mission into the lion’s den where he manages to take out the entire Russian army emerging with little more than a bandaged hand.

The film is notable for its political volte-face with the Afghan Mujahedeen being portrayed as friends of the West, down-trodden warriors bravely battling against cruel imperialist forces. Oh, how the times change.

Make no mistake. This film is an absolute chopper-fest with no fewer than four exploding helicopters and countless flybys.

Rambo’s first demolition job comes in the rebel camp when a squadron of helicopters attack without warning laying waste to the settlement in a blaze of pyrotechnics. Rambo spots an unmanned gun turret and sprints through the carnage whilst being strafed by bullets. He spins the gun around and despatches the chopper in a brief but satisfying explosion.

Later Rambo manages to infiltrate the landmine strewn compound where Trautman is being imprisoned and tortured (they lift him off the floor by his arms, ooh painful), but fails to free the colonel despite standing right outside his cell door.

Rambo flees in a huge Hind Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunship which is peppered by gunfire and slowly starts to lose altitude. He crash lands but the helicopter doesn’t explode until Rambo and the rescued prisoners are at a safe distance. As Rambo runs away from the wreckage he is silhouetted against the explosion in classic Hollywood style.



A glutton for punishment, Rambo goes back to the fort to finish the job, this time successfully, with Trautman in tow. He flees on foot this time and is shot at by more helicopters. Rambo pulls out his bow and explosive tipped arrows. He pops up from behind a rock and wham, copter number 3 goes down in a blaze of glory. Nice cheesy shot of pilot pulling a “What the fuck?!” face just before he is blown to smithereens.

For the film's climax a cornered Rambo and his Mujahedeen friends take on the Russian army with some ropey horses and rusty sabres. Rambo steals a tank and plays chicken with another massive Hind piloted by the crazed Zaysen. There's hilarious close-ups of both protagonists as they collide in the mother of all explosions. Rambo walks away but his Russian friend isn’t so lucky.

Artistic merit

Director Peter MacDonald has to be given credit for the sheer scale of his exploding helicopter ambition. This is war and all the explosions look genuine, substantial and mercifully free of CGI which is the scourge of the exploding helicopter set-piece.

Exploding helicopter innovation

It’s not every day a tank plays chicken with a helicopter. It is utterly preposterous but a fitting climax to the movie.

Do passengers survive?

This was the 80’s. All the bad guys die in their copters but when Rambo’s chopper goes down it gives him and his passengers ample time to escape as it takes over 10 seconds to explode - despite crash-landing on rock and being covered in highly volatile missiles.

Positives

You just don’t this amount of exploding helicopters in Harry Potter.

Negatives

With wall-to-wall helicopter action it would be churlish to dwell on the negatives. However, the final denouement is so ridiculous I had to choke back my hoots of derision. Why doesn't Zaysen just launch a whole bunch of missiles from a safe altitude? This was the 80’s though, normal rules do not apply.

Favourite Quote

Zaysen: “Who do you think this man is, God?"

Trautman: “God would have mercy. He won’t.”

Review by: Neon Messiah

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Rambo: First Blood Part II


Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is released from prison to return to Vietnam to search for US prisoners of war. It sounds loopy, but in the mid-80s Americans were obsessed by this issue and there was a mini glut of films exploiting, erm, sorry exploring the issue.

Rambo finds the POWs, is captured, and is then tortured by some Russians led by Steven Berkoff who’s there to earn a quick few quid as a pantomime villain.

Quite why the Russians are in such close cahoots with the Vietnamese is never explained in the screenplay written by Stallone and James Cameron. I guess it’s enough to know it was the 80s and they were all Commies.

Rambo captures a helicopter, rescues the hostages from the POW camp and starts to fly them to safety pursued by Berkoff in a tasty looking MI-24 Hind helicopter.

An air battles ensues and Rambo’s chopper is badly damaged. Berkoff moves in for the kill but is momentarily distracted by the smoke coming from Rambo’s damaged helicopter.

Berkoff catches up with the wounded chopper, finding it seemingly downed on the ground with Rambo mortally wounded in the cockpit. Berkoff pauses choosing to savour his coming kill. Unfortunately Rambo is just playing possum, picks up a rocket launcher which he fires through the cockpit window of his chopper blowing up Berkoff’s Hind.

Artistic merit

Action movie hack George P Cosmatos (Cobra, Tombstone) isn’t known for subtlety and blows the shit out of the helicopter with unceremonious simplicity. There’s no fuss, flash or finagle, but you can’t complain about the size of the fireball the pyrotechnics team generate. It’s a rich towering inferno which scatters an impressive amount of wreckage widely about.

Exploding helicopter innovation

There really is none.

Do passengers survive?

An emphatic, no.

Positives

There’s plenty of helicopter usage throughout the film. You’re always quietly hoping one’s going to get blown up, so it’s good to see one of the film’s villain making his exit via a chopper fireball.

Negatives

While the cold dead hand of George P Cosmatos is on the tiller of this film, ace cinematographer Jack Cardiff was, bizarrely, photographing this film. You might have hoped he would have been able to bring a little more imagination or sophistication to the exploding helicopter in the film.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode looking at the film. Listen to the episode on iTunes, Podomatic, YourListen, or Stitcher.


Sunday, 3 July 2011

Broken Arrow

I’d heard rumours Broken Arrow could be an exploding helicopter classic. With whispers it might contain no fewer than three chopper fireballs. Broken Arrow didn’t disappoint. In fact it exceeded expectation, delivering four, yes, FOUR exploding helicopters.

The plot sees renegade air force pilot John Travolta steal some nuclear bombs by faking the crash of his bomber. His co-pilot (Christian Slater), who’s not in on the plot, tries to get them back.

The action begins when Christian Slater – overdue for the sort of Hollywood career resurrection from which Travolta benefited – is trapped in a canyon with a local park ranger he’s been thrown together with.

One of Travolta’s henchmen has commandeered a helicopter and is in pursuit of the couple. Slater’s plucky companion distracts the chopper pilot whilst he takes aim with a pistol. He shoots the pilot causing the copter to cartwheel forward. The rotor blades crunch into the ground and shear off. However, the momentum takes the chassis forward causing the tail rotors to flip forward and nearly shear the park ranger in two. Fortunately, Slater miraculously – very miraculous as he was previously a 100 yards away – appears and pulls her to safety. Whereupon the helicopter blows up.

Or does it? Because director John Woo, perhaps in a bid to save time, money or effort cheats with the camera angle. We don’t see the helicopter actually explode, we just see flames appear from the place we expect the chopper‘s wreckage to be.

Later in the film one of the stolen nukes explodes just as an army helicopter is on the verge of apprehending John Travolta. The resulting electro-magnetic pulse shuts down the electronics on the helicopter causing the pilot to lose control. It had been hovering just above the ground and suddenly pitches forward. The rotor blades again sheer off as the impact on the ground. It rolls forward and explodes in a sumptuous fireball of saturated oranges.

“I said goddamn what a rush!” Says Travolta in the tic-heavy, mannered style he‘s mistaken for acting in this film.
John Woo doesn’t cheat with this explosion. We get to see it in all its rich Technicolor glory. However, the one minor gripe is that someone on the special effects team was clearly too trigger happy with the old detonator as the helicopter explosion starts a fraction before it hits the ground. Sloppy.

As the film approaches its climax Travolta attempts to make good his escape with the nuclear bomb on a freight train. Slater has been dropped onto the train by an army helicopter, which continues to maintain a close presence in an attempt to help. However, with the freight train heading towards a tunnel the pilot leaves it too long to pull up and avoid the oncoming cliff. The helicopter, predictably, explodes.

John Woo treats the audience to several views of this explosion. Perhaps to convince us that he really is blowing up the helicopter this time. Minor gripes, are the utterly hapless piloting of the chopper. Would a military pilot really be so stupid to steer directly into a cliff?

As the fight continues along the train we see that a helicopter has been parked on one of the trains carriages. Slater evades the goon and is able to hide underneath the train. Travolta believing its time to leave orders everyone to the chopper. However, there’s a fuel leak and before the pilot can heed Travolta’s warning the helicopter explodes.

Relevance to plot

Given the military backdrop to this film the presence of so many helicopters is entirely plausible. Woo takes advantage of the scenario and blows up as many as he can.

Artistic merit

Before he ballsed-up his career in Hollywood John Woo had carved himself out something of a cult reputation as a master stylist of action sequences. He brings some of that to Broken Arrow.

The use of slow-motion on some of the chopper fireballs and showing the same sequence from multiple angles are all tricks he’s used previously. Particularly enjoyable for the exploding helicopter aficionado is Woo’s crumpled rotor blade fetish. He’s clearly got a thing for it as he rarely misses an opportunity to show rotor blades getting crunched up or spinning off.

Filmed before CGI took over the world all the explosions have a natural look and feel.

Number of exploding helicopters

4

Number of improbable escapes from helicopter

There are no survivors. Everyone dies.

Exploding helicopter innovation

There’s much good work by John Woo in this film, but it has to be noted that he does not push forward the boundaries of exploding helicopters.

The why and how of the exploding helicopters is all very conventional. However, I have not previously seen a helicopter destroyed by an electro-magnetic pulse before. Perhaps a cinematic first.

Verdict

In Broken Arrow John Woo delivers the mother-load of exploding helicopter action in this film. A minor grumble is that exploding helicopter fanatics could reasonably have expected a little more imagination from a master action stylist like John Woo. But this should not overly detract from a film which is a classic of the exploding helicopter genre.

John Woo we salute you.