Saturday, 24 March 2012

Capricorn One

A wise man once said that sometimes the expectation of seeing a helicopter explode in a film is just as rewarding as the moment itself. Such was the case when I sat through 70’s conspiracy thriller Capricorn One (1978), recently.

Set in a kind of 70’s alternate reality where the US is engaged in a space race to get a man (or men) on Mars, we’re drawn into a world of subterfuge and conspiracy as they attempt to fake the landing and subsequently prevent anyone from finding out.

The motive for faking the mission comes after an oversight by NASA boffins leaves the shuttle’s life-support system ill-equipped to, well, support any life. Rendering it just a “system”, I suppose.

So as not to lose face in front of the pen pushers in Congress by postponing the mission, Dr Kelloway (played to perfection by Hal Holbrook) decides to fake the mission.

His plan is to send an empty shuttle into space and rely on his snake-like powers of persuasion and a couple of guarded threats to bring our reluctant astronauts on side - played by James Brolin, Sam Waterston and OJ Simpson.

After that, all the astronauts need to do is enact the actual Mars landing on a specially constructed sound-stage somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert.

And this is where things get interesting. When the real shuttle unexpectedly burns up upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, killing all of its supposed crew, it’s down to Dr Kelloway to ensure the astronauts - who are now dead to the world – follow, tout suite.

Acting more like college drop-outs than scientists - Brolin, Waterston & OJ play the least convincing astronauts you’re likely to meet this side of spring-break in Fort Lauderdale. How OJ was even chosen for this mission - remember, this mission was meant to be genuine to begin with! - defies belief.

Regardless, these chumps miraculously manage to escape the secret government compound in the desert and spend, more or less, the entire 3rd act of the film involved in a cat and mouse chase with two mysterious black military helicopters.

It’s at this point that my anticipation levels went through the roof. We know these birds are going down in a plume of smoke and twisted metal - it’s just a question of how and when.

With endless possibilities racing through my mind, I can barely be bothered with the other plot line involving rogue journalist Elliot Gould and his attempts to blow the whistle on the whole charade.

So, back to the exploding helicopters and it’s a whole 115 minutes into the films runtime that director Peter Hyams finally shows us what kind of a man he is. Albeit, with the help of some pretty heavyweight Hollywood muscle.

In one of cinema’s more bizarre cameos, Telly Savalas makes a surprisingly comic turn as a narcky old crop-duster pilot who agrees to lend Gould the use of his biplane to search for the missing astronauts.

This leads to an impressive aerial dog-fight between the plane and the two choppers, with Brolin clinging grimly to the plane’s wing. With jagged rocks and hazardous terrain aplenty, it becomes clear how these two choppers will meet their inevitable demise.

Savalas plunges the crop-duster towards an incoming cliff face, barking at Gould to “pull the lever” and release the crop spray. Temporarily blinded, our hapless chopper pilots career into the rock face.

Quite how they hadn’t foreseen this impending obstacle baffles me - movie pilots seem to be devoid of all spatial awareness and depth of field, I’ve noticed.

Chopper one hits the rock face nose first and drops like a stone. No explosion. Was someone asleep on the job. I break into a cold sweat. Surely we haven’t come this far together be denied at the final hurdle?

Fortunately, the pyro-technician for the second chopper is wide awake and it goes up like a Christmas tree. Normality restored, I can relax a little.

For reasons I’m not quite sure, Savalas then shouts “perverts!” for comic effect. By this point one can only assume that Gould was scrabbling to find the lever with the words ‘ejector seat’ on it.

With these two relatively pedestrian helicopter explosions out of the way we’re then treated to one of the strangest sequences to end a movie ever committed to film.

Brolin runs in slow-motion through a cemetery to gatecrash his own funeral. Hyams repeatedly cuts away to the mourners, who remain at normal speed, then back to slow-mo Brolin, and so on and so on, for what seems like an eternity.

What grates about this scene is that Hyams could have employed the same technique to much better effect on the previous helicopter explosions.

“Pervert!” I say.

Number of exploding helicopters

One.

Exploding helicopter innovation

None really. Relatively predictable helicopter vs. rock face premise. Standard usage of 70s pyrotechnics and remote controlled chopper technology. No gimmickry. Old-school.

Positives

The expectation of seeing these two choppers explode far outweighs the pay-off.

Negatives

The lack of slow-motion chopper explosions despite the overuse of it a few minutes later. Unforgivable.

Telly Savalas.

Favourite quote

“Hey, Dr. Kelloway. Funny thing happened on the way to Mars.”

Interesting fact

The film features two military “black helicopters”, which is now a term that’s become synonymous with conspiratorial military activity in the United States.

Review by: Boty

Check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Capricorn One on iTunes, Podomatic, YourListen or Stitcher.


Friday, 23 March 2012

Executive Target

Executive Target is a car crash. Both literally, and figuratively.

Nick James (Michael Madsen) is a disgraced stunt car driver, busted out of jail by a gang of super-criminals who want to kidnap the US President (Roy Scheider).

They want James to drive the getaway car because: “No-one else can do what he can behind a wheel.” That’s right: nobody.

Just in case he doesn’t fancy the job, the super-criminals snatch James’ wife – thus compelling him to take part in the kidnap. First though, the grizzled driver is required to take part in a bank heist. This is meant to be a test of James’ skills before the kidnap gig, but its real function is to provide a car crash set-piece. Another car crash set-piece.

That’s because Executive Target is basically one big car chase. In fact, it would like you to believe it’s the ‘greatest crash movie ever made’, featuring ‘the best car chase since Bullitt’. Bold claims, but not entirely without foundation.

The three, lengthy set-pieces are indeed well staged. Unquestionably, there’s more fast-paced, tyre-screeching, car-flipping, vehicle-exploding action than you could ever hope to witness.

Be in no doubt: watching these scenes, Jeremy Clarkson would be sat splay-legged before his hi-def widescreen and reaching for the Kleenex. (Can I just apologise to all readers here for the irrevocable mental image I may have just conjured there.)

Oh, there’s mayhem a go-go. There’s even a sequence where they pointlessly drive through a market, just so a warehouse full of boxes can be skittled aside. Honestly, it’s all here.

But, before we get excited and pull the throttle right out (again, apologies for that Clarkson allusion), let’s pull into a literary lay-by and talk about Michael Madsen for a moment.

The Madsen’s acting style embodies a lazy casualness that reminds me of Robert Mitchum. It’s in full evidence here as, despite finding himself enmeshed in a huge criminal conspiracy (and with his wife in fatal jeopardy), he displays nothing more demonstrative than a somnambulistic sang-froid.

But despite this laid back style, Madsen does have a great ability to give off a suggestion that he might suddenly do something – even if he then does nothing. And indeed, nothing is what he mostly does in this movie.

There is one really great Madsen moment, however, when he throws a cigarette away just before sharply accelerating his car away from some pursuers. The gesture’s got an effortless cool that you can’t fake.

Anyway, James duly kidnaps the President, but before handing him over to the super-criminals, enlists him to help rescue his wife. The film ends with a good old fashioned shoot-out as James storms the criminal’s underground bunker, backed up by the President’s security team – who show considerably more prowess than they did earlier when ‘protecting’ the President.

Now, I might have made the kidnap of the President sound a touch easy. But, while POTUS’ close protection team prove utterly hapless during the kidnap scene, the President does have a couple of helicopters providing air cover, and they’re much more successful in inflicting casualties on the criminals.

Until, that is, the criminals unveil a heavy machine gun mounted to the back of a pick-up truck. Of course, our two chopper pilots obligingly pooter directly into the gunner’s line of fire and find themselves duly incinerated.



Artistic merit

It’s good to see that, even in a film dedicated to automotive action, director Joseph Merhi includes a couple of aviation explosions amid the car-maggedon. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, it does look as if more effort went into the car smashes than the chopper crashes.

The editor pulls the old trick of suddenly cutting to an image of a full screen explosion which obscures the helicopters – thus nullifying the need to actually explode a helicopter which needs to be returned to its owner.

To try and maintain the illusion of a genuine chopper fireball, they drop the fuselages of a couple of helicopters from just out of shot onto the street – with one landing on top of a car - cueing further explosions.

They may well have got away with such a sleight of hand if the helicopters we see buzzing about in the sky looked anything like those dropped on the car. But that would be an ambitious hope. In car terms, you essentially see a Volvo get blown up and then a Mini hitting the ground.

Number of exploding helicopters

Two.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Sadly, none to report. One can only hope that Merhi will one day set out to make ‘the greatest exploding helicopter movie ever made’.

Positives

When the second helicopter crashes down a policeman needlessly slides across the bonnet of his patrol car to avoid flying debris. It’s totally unnecessary, a very minor detail, but a nice touch nevertheless.

Negatives

As mentioned before, Executive Target makes two grand claims about itself, but only delivers on one.

I won’t quibble with its assertion that it’s the greatest crash movie of all time. Multiple car pile-ups abound, and no red-blooded film fan is going to complain about watching yet another car smash through the side of a lorry – they’re only this flimsy in films.

However, the actual car chases lack the kinetic excitement of, say, The French Connection or Mad Max. Those sequences conveyed danger and speed, whereas here the chase scenes aren’t much above what you might see in an episode of Starsky and Hutch.

Favourite quote

"When I say cherry coke you shoot."

Interesting fact

Michael Madsen has now racked up an impressive 200 screen credits, in a career which can at best be described as, erm, uneven. However, seeing as he’s listed as a producer on this one, he’s only got himself to blame.

Review by: Jafo

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Tropic Thunder

Written and directed by Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder tells the hilarious story of the worst fake Hollywood war movie ever.

Three pampered actors - fading action hero Tugg Speedman, gross out comedy star Jeff Portnoy and method actor Kirk Lazarus (Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr) - head out to Vietnam to film what they think will be the greatest ever war movie, with precious little idea of how real it can actually get.

The trio land in Vietnam with highly strung British theatre director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) who is totally out of his depth, with no idea how to control his diva-like demanding actors. As ever with Vietnam war films, there is always the grizzled Veteran on hand to lend that extra air of realism, in this case Four Leaf Tayback, played by Nick Nolte, complete with prosthetic hands.

There are quite a few decent cameo roles; Danny McBride is Cody, the film crew’s FX master, Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live fame makes an appearance, but the biggest hoot of all has to be Tom Cruise, in a wig and what appears to be a fat suit and lots of hair as the film’s shouty producer, Len Grossman.

This is a rollercoaster ride from start to finish, a hilarious action comedy that packs as many laughs as it does explosions. The movie offers up plenty for fans of war movies and comedy alike; it goes without saying that classic war and Vietnam films such as Rambo, Platoon and Apocalypse Now are lovingly ripped off, with hefty doses of jungle and combat imagery to boot.

And it’s during the film’s opening ‘namsploitation pastiche, that we get to see the genre’s ubiquitous exploding helicopter.

As a number of choppers circle a paddy field to rescue the American soldiers, the tail rotor of one of the whirlybirds is hit by gunfire - sending it spinning out of control and crashing into the ground.

Artistic merit

It’s always good to start a film with some impressive pyrotechnics, and Tropic Thunder doesn’t spare the diesel barrels or propane tanks with this effort.

There’s a suitably big fireball, and plenty of flying wreckage. I’m not sure that the violent spin which the chopper goes into is aerodynamically realistic, but hey, it looked cool and that’s what really matters.

Exploding helicopter innovation

It’s probably too much to expect innovation in a film which is operating as a parody. It’s main purpose is to provide humorous facsimile of other films, not to push the boundaries of helicopter explosion.

Positives

Tropic Thunder has a lot of guts, taking the mick out of weird and wonderful Hollywood habits but the real winner was getting Tom Cruise to appear a bald wig as the film’s ruthless producer, Les Grossman.

Also, the fake trailers from each of the actors are priceless. Plenty of laughs, high octane action throughout, laced with a bit of satire for good measure. The real bonus is the dancing Tom Cruise at the end!

Negatives

A lot of swearing, and some of the jokes about Speedman’s (Ben Stiller) movie “Simple Jack” are a bit near the bone, but other than that, not many.

Favourite quote

There are so many! Tropic Thunder really is a goldmine of quotable lines. One of the best comes from Kirk Lazarus, “I don’t break character ‘til I’ve done the DVD commentary!”

Interesting fact

The film’s title is a play on “Tropic Lightning”, the name of a real-life war platoon who saw service during World War 2, as well as, amongst other conflicts, in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, who in turn inspired many other war films.

Guest review by R Viewmovies, for more: Rview Tumblr and Rview Twitter.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Island

This film is brought to you by Puma, Calvin Klein, Nokia, Tag Heuer, Ben & Jerry’s, Xbox, and the V12 car. After years of famously ‘f*cking the frame’, this was the movie where Michael Bay finally got round to screwing the audience.

Really: it’s just one big advert. I remember years ago, Back to the Future 3 got loads of stick for all those Pepsi and Nike signs swooshing across the screen. More recently, Will Smith in I, Robot couldn’t get through three scenes without telling someone how cool his vintage Converse trainers where.

(You see, it was all about his ‘character’ being quirky for buying the footwear, and not at all about the ‘money’ Converse paid for the product placement.) Still, such tomfoolery is old school compared with The Island (2005).

Scene after scene is hand-crafted to show off the film’s sponsors. Here’s Steve Buscemi holding his Michelob beer unnaturally high. There’s Ewan MacGregor in a phone booth, half-obscured by a big MSN logo.

Hilariously, one scene simply opens on the hood of a Mack truck, stays there for a milli-second, then swings sideways to get on with the action. By the time a real, actual perfume advert starring Scarlet Johnannsen – which was all over the telly at the time – is judderingly ‘weaved’ into the storyline and shown in full glory on widescreen, you’re pretty much in through-the-looking-glass territory.

Still, among all the ads, they do gamely manage to squeeze in a plot. Thousands of people live in an underground complex-cum-prison, believing they’re the sole survivors from a global disease – but actually they’re just clones of rich people, kept alive in case the originals ever need a new body part. Surprisingly, given these people are essentially talking livestock with no concept of money or commerce, they’re clad from head to foot in designer Puma gear.

Soon Ewan and Scarlett escape to a very-much futuristic New York, where their survival strategy seems to revolve around looking worried in front of lots of advertising billboards featuring very-much contemporary brands.

Ewan McGregor, a past-master of poor career decisions, looks palpably distressed to be on screen among this nonsense. Look closely and you can almost see it in his eyes: ‘Christ, first Phantom Menace and now this..?

It doesn’t help that he also has to play the ‘human’ version of himself as a rich, cocky Scottish git who’s into motorbikes. (Oh, the post-modern irony!) Hilariously, ‘real’ Ewan wears glasses – obviously, so the audience can tell them apart more easily. But hang on: he’s paid $5 million for a clone with twenty/twenty vision and he’s walking round in glasses?

Following stints in Troy and Silent Hill, Sean Bean once again proves that no imaginative world – no matter how mythical or dystopian – need necessarily preclude a thick Sheffield accent. It’s grim up t’future.

Set against all this bunkum, a mere helicopter explosion inevitably pales. In fact, had Bay formed a hundred real, full-sized helicopters in a giant aerial circle, then sent them all accelerating to the dead centre at top speed, the resulting fireball-to-end-all-fireballs could not be more spectacular than the shamefacedness with which he forces his brands down the gullet of the viewer. You feel like human foie gras by the end.



Artistic merit

I’m sorry, did you say ‘artistic merit’? Very perfunctory. The chopper pilot swings slowly round the side of a skyscraper just as a giant metal sign comes away from it, and says something like: ‘Oh-no-the-sign-is-coming-off-the-building-and-looks-like-it’s-going-to-hit-us’ instead of just moving out the way.

After the crash happens – the giant sign, our heroes and the exploding ‘copter all go hurtling to earth together – Bay starts humping the frame so vigorously that it’s anyone’s guess what’s going on. I rewound six times and all I could ascertain was that a crap CGI ball of chopper-shaped flame seemed to be falling.

Do the passengers survive?

Ewan and Scarlett do, natch. For some reason, there’s a giant trapeze net attached to the building about 20 feet up that our plucky couple land in and which the chopper somehow misses by a mile. Don’t question why: just be thankful the net wasn’t branded by Cola or something.

Positives

Weirdly, the product placement. After a while, you give up on any pretence that you’re actually watching a film and just start playing ‘spot the ads’. Much more fun.

Negatives

Djimon Hounsou’s ex-special forces hit squad prove repeatedly unable to hit a barn door at ten paces. Really, this elite team could spend all day at a fairground shoot-the-ducks gallery and not win a single goldfish.

Just before the chopper explosion, our heroes are stuck fast between the inside of a giant sign and a skyscraper. Stood forty feet above them, two mercs unleash such a barrage of relentless artillery from their machine guns that the iron-secured sign actually comes off the building. And yet they miss the two gawping moppets directly below them. Just rubbish.

Favourite quote

Steve Buscemi: “Just cos people want to eat the burger, doesn’t mean they want to meet the cow.”

Interesting fact

My mate was a storyboard artist on a Michael Bay film and said he was every bit as pleasant as you'd expect him to be.

Review by: Chopper

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Evasive Action

My buddy over at Saturday Night Screening has done sterling work cataloguing the world of Die Hard-ish. That is, films which take the plot template of Die Hard but then transpose it to a different location.

Evasive Action (1998) isn’t part of that illustrious canon, though – instead it falls into the little known sub-genre of Con Air-ish. And, as the film’s alternative title Steel Train makes clear, this is basically Con Air-on-a-Train.

So, when a group of prisoners are locked into a train car to be transferred to another jail we can be pretty certain they’re not going to be peaceably arriving at their destination a few hours later.

Among the inmates onboard is a mob boss (Roy Scheider) who, shock, horror, is planning to use the trip as a chance to bust out of jail. Also along for the ride is our hero (Dorian Harewood) who – a la Nicholas Cage in the original – just wants to quietly serve out his sentence quietly.

With dizzying predictability, Scheider’s goons soon overpower the guards and spring the prisoners. Only they hadn’t reckoned on Harewood who, having thrown his lot in with a stewardess and young girl he’s befriended on the train, decides to foil Scheider’s plans.

Now, you may be wondering if it’s really sensible to transport dangerous prisoners around on a train. That’s explained in a sly reference to Con Air, when one character says they’re no longer flown: “Not since that plane load of prisoners went down in Vegas.” Cheeky.

Clint Howard: Weary gimmick
The rest of the film isn’t so subtle. Steve Buscemi’s memorable psychopathic killer in Con Air is reprised here, sadly with the instantly forgettable Clint Howard – whose weary gimmick is to speak only in movie quotes.

This works fine when Howard uses a line from Jaws to comment on the latest hitch in Scheider’s plans: “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” But using such a one-trick device soon runs into problems, most bizarrely when he corners the young girl. He’s all set to start monstering the helpless waif, but then is dissuaded when she starts quoting lines from Taxi Driver back at him. Excuse me, Taxi Driver? Did she watch that one with mummy? Hmmm.

Anyway, having chewed up and spat out everything worth using from Con Air, Evasive Action goes on to regurgitate all your favourite, train based thriller clich├ęs. Cue plenty of running about on top of rail cars, uncoupling of carriages, and last minute point changes.

This light-fingered approach to other locomotive films turns into outright larceny with the ending, which simply re-uses footage of the train crash climax in Silver Streak. It has to be seen to be believed. Or rather, see the original and then see this. Whatever: you get the point.

Still, this website is not dedicated to the world of exploding trains – that’s a project for another time – so let’s get to our primary interest in the film.

Scheider’s escape plans involved being picked up by helicopter. However, the police move in to stop the prisoners escaping and during the gunfight the helicopter is damaged by rifle fire.

Trailing smoke, the wounded chopper limps off, disappearing behind a nearby ridge. We hear a crash and a plume of flames leaps into the sky. The chopper, we have to conclude, is no more.

Artistic merit

The first rule of exploding helicopters is that you should be able to see the actual helicopter explode. For this offence alone, director Jerry P Jacobs should crawl behind that self-same ridge and immolate himself.

But, hey, this is a film which rips off the ending of Silver Streak. And by the time I reached the end, I’d gone past outrage and started to just admire the chutzpah of the man.

Positives

Foronjy: OAP villain
It was enjoyable to see Roy Scheider as a villain, a role I can’t remember seeing him play before. There’s a great scene early in the film where Scheider establishes his bad-ass credentials by brutally clubbing an uncredited Sam Jones (Flash Gordon) to death. Scheider was 66 when he made this, and he looks nails.

There’s also some good casting among Scheider’s goons, including Don Swayze – yes, Patrick’s brother – and Richard Foronjy (Carlito’s Way, Once Upon A Time In America, Midnight Run).

It’s easy to assume that being the henchman for a mob boss is a young man’s game. But here’s a surprisingly sprightly Foronjy running along the top of a train, taking care of business, at 61. Sadly, Foronjy suddenly reaches the end of the line on this trip when Harewood punches his ticket. All change!

Negatives

At one point, our hero Harewood is ejected and has to get back on board the train. Having stolen a motorcycle, he races alongside a doorway on the train.

Just as you’re wondering how on earth he’s going to get back inside the train – and drool at the Olympian levels of stuntmanship you’re about to witness – the camera suddenly cuts to Harewood flopping down inside the doorway of the train. Problem solved.

Favourite quote

“You’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Interesting fact

It’s worthwhile spending a moment to consider the film’s title as nobody really takes Evasive Action at any point in the film. It’d be too cruel to suggest that it’s what potential viewers should do as it really isn’t that bad. But if they weren’t happy with the blue collar drama- sounding Steel Train, why change it to this?

Review by: Jafo

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Stealth

The US military creates an elite squad of air force pilots to carry out top secret, ‘black ops’ missions. Rounding out the team is a revolutionary new fighter jet piloted by an artificial intelligence system.

Clearly, the world is about to enter a new era of warfare – one waged by obedient computers that aren’t prone to the vagaries of human emotion and error. What could possibly go wrong?

Sure enough, a bolt of lightning is all it takes to turn the supine super-jet into a heavily armed, homicidal killing machine. Our team of air force jocks, played by Jamie Foxx, Jessica Biel and Josh Lucas, then have to stop the plane before it starts World War 3.

Now, it’d be easy to put the blame for this fiasco on the shady boss of the project – played with usual reptilian loucheness by Sam Shepard – who’s presumably slumming it in this drivel to fund another stage play. But I prefer to park the responsibility with Lucas, Foxx, and Biel.

That’s because the project involves the super-jet’s AI system actually learning from these ace fighter pilots. Unfortunately, their frequent demonstrations of insubordinate, gung-ho, bravado provide the rotten seed that takes root in the computer’s mind.

Sadly, Stealth doesn’t choose to explore this potentially interesting plot strand. I guess that’s because this is basically a kid’s film and such complexity isn’t welcome in Hollywood, even in fare aimed at older audiences.

Instead, our trio have to fight it out with the super-jet. Unluckily for Jamie Foxx, Biel and Lucas have some unresolved sexual tension between them, so it’s the Oscar winning actor who has to take the cinematic equivalent of an early bath – smashing into the side of a mountain. Perhaps he should have called his agent.

Anyway, Biel’s jet is damaged by flying debris from that crash and she’s forced to eject in North Korea, which sets up the finale of the movie.

By this point, Lucas has reasoned with the super-jet AI system and talked it out of starting WWIII. Now aboard the futuristic fighter, he heads off to rescue Biel – in flagrant disregard of his orders. I know, what were the odds?

With most of the North Korean military laid to waste, Biel and Lucas look like they’re going to reach safety. But then an enemy helicopter turns up and is about to blast our heroes until the super-jet – inspired by Lucas’ love for his comrade, no less – rams into the chopper, blowing both aircraft up.

Hang on, wasn’t the AI system supposed to make this kind of dunderheaded thinking redundant? Oh well, the loss a unique multi-billion computer system is a small price to pay for Lucas and Biel to be able to walk off into the sunset holding hands. I‘m sure the Pentagon will be thrilled.



Artistic merit

Whatever nonsense we have to endure to get to this point, the explosion is an absolute belter.

A truly huge pyrotechnic fireball ensues and the sky appears to actually rain fiery debris. No expense or explosives seem to have been spared. Top notch.

Exploding helicopter innovation

We’ve seen helicopters rammed with plenty of vehicles before - tanks, buses, cars and even other helicopters. But this is the first one I’ve seen where a helicopter has been rammed by a plane.

Positives

One has to salute the socially progressive US military depicted in this film. Not only does a woman (Jessica Biel) get to be a crack pilot serving on the front line, but she’s also allowed to wear babe-alicious figure hugging crop tops, and in one utterly redundant scene a bikini. Where can I sign up?

Negatives

Amongst the plethora of bad habit’s the super-jet’s AI system picks up from Lucas and his pals, is a predilection for god-awful stadium rock – in this case US tub-thumpers, Incubus.

In fact, the US dirge rockers were specially commissioned to write songs for the movie and there isn’t a testosterone-pumped moment that isn’t soundtracked by them. Urgh.

Favourite quote

Not really a quote, but the proper name for the super-jet’s AI system is EDI, or Extreme Deep Invader, which sounds more like a brand of condoms than the future of modern warfare.

Interesting fact

One of the set-piece explosions utilised 500 gallons of petrol. Such is the magnitude, it was potentially visible in space and NASA had to be informed.

Review by: Jafo

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Exploding Helicopter takes to the airwaves

I was honoured to be asked to lend my helicopter explosion expertise to the Sweet Feathery Jesus' podcast, reviewing John Woo's action classic BROKEN ARROW (1996).

Have a listen as we discuss all the rotor-blade carnage, John Woo's directorial list of shame, and why on earth one character's sporting a moustache made out of duct tape.

Listen to the podcast.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Uncommon Valor

Losing a war to a third world country: that’s got to hurt.

But that’s what happened. So, while heavyweight film offerings like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now sought to make sense of the Vietnam War, they didn’t change the result. It was still Charlie 1 - Uncle Sam 0.

How then, did the most advanced nation on earth come to terms with being defeated by a third world nation? By going and getting our boys back - that’s how.

The glut of 80s ‘nam POW movies seemed borne of a desire to fight the Vietnam War again, only this time the good guys were going to win. That’s the Americans in case you were still confused or some kind of pinko, liberal, peacenik.

In Uncommon Valor, Gene Hackman plays retired Colonel Cal Rhodes who, having grown impatient with Government efforts to return POWs, sets out to find and rescue his son - who he believes is being held captive in Vietnam.

It’s curious that these missions were nearly always DIY jobs - see Missing In Action or Cobra Mission. And without anyone to contradict my pop-psychology, I'm going to say that's about American can-do attitudes, and a distrust of big Government. Conveniently, it also allows unholy hell to be unleashed on the gooks entirely free from the constraints of military law.

Anyway, Hackman recruits a group of his son’s old war buddies - played by Fred Ward, Reb Brown, Harold Sylvester, Tim Thomerson and Randall Cobb. Also tagging along for the ride is Patrick Swayze, who was orphaned by the conflict.

During an extended training sequence, our heroes spend hours rehearsing their mission on a perfect replica of the prison camp. In fact, they spend so long training, and so successfully, it becomes abundantly clear that this mission will go tits up at the earliest opportunity.

Sure enough, once they arrive in Asia, our hardy band of brothers have their weapons confiscated by the local police after being tipped off by the spineless US authorities.

Not to be dissuaded, our heroes scrounge together a motley selection of weapons and continue their mission - fighting their way into Vietnam with an ease which makes you wonder how on earth they ever lost the war first time around.

After the requisite number of huts are blown-up, the prisoners are rescued and reunited with their families but, in a sombre final note, there is no happy ending for Hackman’s grizzled veteran.

But frankly, this is all a side issue. The only casualties of war we are interested in are possessed of curvy glass windows and rotor blades. And you don’t have long to wait for helicopter mayhem in Uncommon Valor.

The film opens with a flashback to the war. A group of soldiers races frantically across a paddy field under heavy fire to helicopters waiting to evacuate them. One of the choppers is hit by a mortar round and explodes in a massive, slow motion fireball.

Later, there’s a second, equally impressive, chopper fireball during the dramatic rescue of the POWs, when Tim Thomerson’s helicopter is hit by gunfire, causing it to explode and crash into the river.



Artistic merit

The chopper fireball in the opening sequence is marvellous. The footage looks like it has been slowed down a fraction allowing us to fully enjoy the way the explosion consumes the fuselage. A further ripple of explosions destroy the tail and rear of the helicopter.

Tim Thomerson’s helicopter crash is commendably free of special effects. It looks like they simply dropped a helicopter having first set it on fire. Apart from the tell-tale stationary rotor blades it’s satisfyingly realistic.

Number of exploding helicopters

Two.

Exploding helicopter innovation

At two minutes and four seconds, Uncommon Valor currently holds the record for the earliest helicopter explosion in any film we’ve reviewed.

Do passengers survive?

Tim Thomerson miraculously survives his seemingly fatal helicopter explosion and crash. As we see him doggy-paddle away from the wreckage, we are left to speculate that the river must have cushioned his low altitude crash and extinguished the flames. Or that he was nowhere near the thing when it crashed.

Positives

The opening scene of the film is vintage ‘namsploitation stuff. As the soldiers race across the paddy field to the waiting choppers multiple people die in classic, Willem Dafoe swan-dive poses. There’s also copious use of slow-motion as mortars blow plumes of mud upwards into the sky.

Negatives

On one hand, Uncommon Valor is an exciting tale of derring-do. On the other, it tries to show the human cost of the war. The team Hackman recruits to rescue his son are all damaged to greater or lesser extent by their experience of the conflict.

But whenever the film veers into touchy-feely territory, scenes tend to be ended quickly or aborted with someone making a wisecrack. It’s as if the director Ted Kotcheff keeps getting suddenly nervous about what sort of film he’s supposed to be making.

Favourite quote

“Most human problems can be solved by an appropriate charge of high explosives.”

Review by: Jafo