Sunday, 22 April 2012

Darkman

I never read comics as a kid, so I’ve always felt at a disadvantage when watching the latest big screen adaptation. Shorn of any background knowledge, it was as if a level of enjoyment was always going to be denied to me.

So, in that respect, Darkman should be perfect for me. Unable to secure the rights to The Shadow, director Sam Raimi created his own tragic hero hell bent on vengeance. In every respect it’s a comic book adaptation, just without being actually based on one.

Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a scientist trying to create synthetic skin. When his journalist girlfriend Julie uncovers a dodgy property deal, shady thugs led by violent criminal Robert Durant (Larry Drake) try to stop her writing about the story.

Westlake is confronted by Durant and his goons. He’s tortured and left for dead when his laboratory is blown up. Only Westlake survives, horribly disfigured and unable to feel pain.

With the world thinking him dead, Westlake vows vengeance. Using his knowledge of synthetic skin, he creates lifelike masks of Durant’s henchmen allowing him to infiltrate Durant’s gang, and search for the mastermind behind the conspiracy.

The story arc could be drawn from any classic DC Comic series, and is given some dramatic ballast by Westlake’s attempt to re-establish his relationship with Julie. But while the plot has all the right ingredients, it always feels somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Maybe it’s because, aside from Westlake’s personal revenge, all that is at stake is the success of a property deal. And really, it’s too hard to care much about that.

Still there’s other things for us to care about, in this case the small matter of two exploding helicopters.

As the film moves towards the climax Westlake is hunted by Durant who, armed with a grenade launcher is buzzing around in a helicopter. Westlake tries to board the chopper, but is beaten off. It looks as if he’s going to plunge to his death, but he grabs onto a rope hanging from the helicopter.

Durant starts firing the grenade launcher indiscriminately at Westlake who’s continuing to dangle from the rope. A police helicopter spots the carnage and gives chase, only for Durant to take care of it with his heavy weaponry.

This leaves Durant free to finish off Westlake. They try to drop him in front of some oncoming traffic, but this only allows Westlake to attach the rope to the top a truck that‘s conveniently about to enter a tunnel. Unable to gain altitude the helicopter smashes into the entrance of the tunnel.



Artistic merit

We always like to see a lengthy helicopter sequence at the finale of a film, and this is a doozy. The coup de grace comes with two excellent pre-CGI helicopter explosions.

I particularly enjoyed how the wreckage of the second helicopter is towed into the tunnel by the lorry as it’s still attached to the line which dragged it to it’s doom.

Number of exploding helicopters

Two.

Exploding helicopter innovation

You have to admire Westlake’s improvisation in a tight spot when he attaches the line on the helicopter to the lorry. There’s a similar scene in Tomorrow Never Dies and Derailed, however, Darkman is the earliest example we’ve seen yet of downing a chopper by securing it to another vehicle.

Positives

There’s some actors I always think of as being old, so the surprise here is getting to see a youthful Liam Neeson in the film‘s lead role. Yet oddly he still looks kind of middle-aged.

Regardless, Neeson brings his usual bored solemnity to the role. Quite how he has managed to maintain a career as a Hollywood leading man eludes me.

Negatives

Frances McDormand cuts an unsympathetic love interest in this one. Apparently Julie Roberts and Bridget Fonda were both lined up for the role at various points. McDormand was only drafted in at the last minute and was apparently a pain in the balls to work with. It shows.

Interesting fact

Sam Raimi regular Bruce Campbell appears briefly in a cameo at the end of the film.

Review by: Jafo

Monday, 16 April 2012

Derailed

If ever you want to understand how an action star’s lustre has dimmed just look at the number of “euro-thrillers” on their CV.

Around the turn of the millennium, a whole generation of 80s action movie stars were deported on mass to Eastern Europe.

Unable to trouble the American box office, they were first forced into DTV exile, and then condemned to ply their trade in the Europe’s far flung corners - where the cheaper production costs made it possible to eke out a living.

Derailed (2002) marks Jean Claude Van Damme’s first foray into this twilight existence. Filmed in Bulgaria but set in Slovakia, Van Damme plays Jack Christoff an intelligence agent who has to escort a spy (Laura Harring) carrying a biological weapon across the border.

With the airports watched, Van Damme and Harring have to let the train take the strain in order to escape the country. Unfortunately, along for the ride are a group of terrorists who want to snatch the deadly bio-weapon, and Van Damme’s family who have, with ill-timed spontaneity, turned up to surprise Daddy.

A promising enough premise, you may think. Indeed so promising we’ve already seen it filmed as Under Siege 2. But quibbles over originality aside, with a half decent cast and script Derailed could still have made an entertaining film.

Unfortunately, the euro-thriller is characterised by poor direction, leaden scripts and casts populated by third rate actors. Just one of these traits is usually enough to sabotage a film’s potential. Fatally, Derailed has all three.

The other irritant – also typical of the euro-thriller – is the bizarre geopolitical conception the writers seem to have of the continent. In their world, European countries have dispensed with national identity, and handed all responsibility for their affairs to international bodies.

“Get me NATO command!”, someone barks in a risible moment of convoluted drama. Later, someone tries to inject some faux urgency into the line: “We need to call the World Health Organisation…. Now!”

Clearly, the writers of this rubbish seem oblivious to the fact that Europe has individual countries with their own national governments - though curiously JCVD’s native Belgium went nearly two years without one - who don’t run to the first supra-national organisation whenever a crisis arises.

Still, while the scriptwriters feel free to take political liberties at whim, their bravery doesn’t extend to deviating from conventions of the DTV action film - and a helicopter explosion is duly included.

The terrorists plan to escape with the bio-weapon, involves being evacuated from the train by helicopter. As their leader tries to shimmy up the ladder that’s been lowered from the chopper, Van Damme stops their getaway by securing the ladder to the train - preventing the helicopter from flying off.

With predictable misfortune for the pilot, a tunnel is fast approaching. Unable to gain altitude, the pilot fights a desperate battle with his controls. To no avail, and the chopper smashes into the side of the rocky outcrop with predictable fiery consequences.



Artistic merit

This report card has to be marked - could have tried harder. A little crafty editing means we don’t actually see the helicopter explode - too expensive no doubt - and our mind’s eye is left to fill in the blanks the camera has left. Instead, we’re left with an unsatisfying fireball - all whites and yellows, no dirty, oily reds and oranges.

The director, in a moment of artistic license, has Van Damme - who was still on the train roof - showered with wreckage from the explosion. However, If you think about the physics of the situation - trust me, I have - that’s completely illogical.


Exploding helicopter innovation

Tying helicopters down to prevent their flight, is a method of destruction we’ve seen before. Derailed is almost an action replay of Darkman except with a lorry, instead of a train, pulling the chopper towards its tunnel wall demise.

Positives

There’s a dumbly enjoyable sequence where Van Damme rides a scramble bike along the roof of the train to avoid the terrorists. It’s shoddily executed, but closer to the type of entertainment I’m looking for.

Negatives

The entire film – which is surely the nadir of Van Damme’s career. If he’s made a worse film, I’d like to know what it is - if only so I can make sure I can avoid it.

Favourite quote

“Terrorists, plus sickness, equals biological warfare.”

Interesting fact

Tellingly, director Bob Misiorowski never helmed another film after Derailed. However, there does seem to be one interesting detail amidst an otherwise unexceptional CV – a writing credit on Mrs Columbo.

This TV series was a short-lived and ill-fated spin-off from the detective show of the same name, where the running joke was we never meet Mrs Columbo, despite hearing about her in each episode.

This sacrilege was received with utterly predictable fury by Columbo’s dedicated fans. Such was the opprobrium heaped on the series, it was hastily renamed as Kate Loves A Mystery and all references to Columbo were excised before it died an unlamented death after one series.

Review by: Jafo

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Air America

War may be a nasty business, but it’s proven a fertile ground for Hollywood.

Vietnam has been like catnip to directors allowing them earnestly highlight the horrors of war whilst incorporating crowd pleasing pyrotechnics, a groovy 60’s soundtrack and casual racism.

You’d think there weren’t many laughs in the senseless deaths of thousands of naïve soldiers and innocent civilians, but you underestimate the power of the silver screen

The movie is based on Christopher Robbins’ inside story about the secret CIA funded airline “Air America”. It provided covert logistical support to the war against the Commies. And at its peak, it was the biggest air fleet in the world.

Staffed by hell-raisers and trouble-junkies, their motto “anything, anytime, anywhere” soon referred to more than the humanitarian cargo they were supposed to be shipping for the war effort.

Robert Downey Jnr plays Billy Covington, one such wide-eyed loose cannon, lured to Laos on the promise of exotic adventure and steady work. He teams up with wily vet Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson) who takes him under his wing and shows him the clusterf*ck unfurling before them.

Turns out, the Air America boys are complicit in a CIA-backed heroin smuggling operation which finances the local anti-Communist warlord’s private army. But that’s OK ‘cos they’re the good guys.

Much like the US Government’s criteria regarding entering foreign conflicts, here at EHHQ we like to bend the rules. Strictly speaking, there’s no helicopter explosion in this film. But, it would have been churlish to exclude a film awash with helicopters on a trifling matter like the absence of any pyrotechnics.

When his landing gear fails on a routine delivery, Downey crash lands his cargo plane in a remote airstrip. In an attempt to extract him from the gook-infested jungle, Gibson tries to rescue Downey in a UH-1H Huey.

The commotion enables the “hostiles” to pin-point their location who start to strafe the chopper with bullets. A shot penetrates the gearbox, causing a loss of oil pressure and for the chopper to go down quicker than Paris Hilton in a hotel lift.

The bullet-riddled chopper crashes through the tree-line, losing its tail and rotor blades - coming to rest horizontally in the bows of a tree. There’s a corny exchange of action-comedy banter between the two about who is going to jump down first. It ends with both Gibson and Downey jumping a good 100ft to the ground without so much as a twisted ankle.

Predictably as soon as they are clear of the landing zone the rest of the wreckage crashes down from the tree onto the jungle floor.

Artistic merit

Director Roger Spottiswoode graces us with a beautifully shot film (director of photography Roger Deakins could make a ninety minute montage of turds look like 2001: A Space Odyssey) chock full of airplanes and countless helicopters.

He even has a number of expensive looking explosions scattered at important points in the film. But despite this elaborate and drawn out set piece he drops the ball big time - failing to bring these two action staples together.

Number of exploding helicopters

There were high level talks in the team as to whether this film could even be included in these hallowed pages due to its lack of a bona fide chopper fireball. I think there is enough smoke, sparks and damage to the chopper to justify it. But only just.

Exploding helicopter innovation

I haven’t seen any type of motorised transport wedged in a tree since the Jurassic Park jeep incident. I’m pretty sure this is a helicopter first.

Do passengers survive?

Yes. Going by the principle that leading men rarely, if ever, come a cropper in a chopper, both Gibson and Downey jump down and away from the falling wreckage and live to wisecrack another day.

Positives

For what is ostensibly a light-hearted action comedy, there is a surprising amount of social and political commentary hidden in the typically high octane japery.

Yes, it’s fairly superficial stuff (more M*A*S*H then All The President’s Men) but kudos to scriptwriter John Eskow for including as much pinko-loving anti war propaganda as the studios would allow.

There are some nice turns by oriental stalwart Bert Kwouk as the crooked Laotian warlord General Lu Soong and a pre-Scrubs Ken Jenkins is entertaining as hard ass Major Donald Lemond.

The film has been universally panned by all and sundry, but I quite enjoyed it.

Negatives

Spottiswoode had the perfect opportunity to lay a big explosion on us when the cockpit hits the ground but he bottles it. Perhaps he had blown the budget on coke and hookers for Downey’s trailer. Inexcusable.

Also, nothing much has the appearance of 1969. It looks far too contemporary. What has the man got against long hair and sideburns?

Favourite quote

“I’ll kick your whirlybird ass you little airborne piece of sh*t”

Interesting fact

Sean Connery and Kevin Costner were originally pencilled in for the roles of Gibson and Downey but proved too expensive. Costner would struggle to get a paper round these days.

Review by: Neon Messiah

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

In the all-boys school of action cinema Milla Jovovich will always be the Prom Queen.

Her sanctified position in the minds of teenage boys - and *cough* some men who really are old enough to know better - a consequence of the shortage of ass-kicking heroines.

This, the second in the Resident Evil franchise, was probably intended to be her coronation. Unfortunately, the crown is nearly stolen from her with the introduction of Jill Valentine played by Sienna Guillory.

So, while Guillory is coolly ass-kicking zombies in a mini-skirt and neon blue boob tube – searing herself into the impressionable minds of male viewers – Jovovich spends the first act wandering around ineffectually in a shapeless bed sheet. Later, it gets worse as Jovovich is required to run round in a dirty string-vest, looking like a female Rab C Nesbitt – if you can conjure such an image.

One wonders if such sacrilege would have been allowed had franchise honcho, and Jovovich’s husband, Paul WS Anderson been on directorial duties again. However, he was off directing his ‘dream’ project Alien Vs Predator. Yes, that’s right ‘dream’. Well, at least someone enjoyed it.

Anyway, let’s put these feminine rivalries aside for a moment. The plot - such as it is - is commendably simple. Resident Evil: Apocalypse picks up directly from where the first film finished, when a group of hapless, unarmed scientists simply release the zombies from the underground bunker where they were neatly incarcerated.

Mind-boggling idiocy this may be, but it does at least get the film going. The liberated zombies soon overrun Raccoon City, which is sealed off ahead of a nuclear strike which will, in delicious diplomatic double-speak, “contain” the situation.

This leaves Jovovich, Guillory and company, to fight their way across the city to rendezvous with the last evacuation flight. Once away from the city, they aim to expose the Umbrella Corporation’s disastrous T-virus experiments.

Now, I’ve not mentioned Nemesis - a kind of super zombie - until this point. And that’s because I’m not entirely sure how he fits into all this. He’s been ordered to kill Jovovich, only it’s complicated by the fact he was her friend before he got turned into a lumbering, mutated member of the undead.

Anyway, our heroes and Nemesis wind up on top of a building for the inevitable showdown. It looks like curtains for Jovovich when a couple of Umbrella choppers fly in to finish everyone off.

But with wearying predictability Nemesis ‘remembers‘ Jovovich and, rather than try to kill her, bazookas one of the helicopters. It explodes, causing the other helicopter to detonate as well.

Artistic merit

Above average. The method of destruction is unimaginative, and the reason the second helicopter ignites is unclear. However, an impressive amount of wreckage hurls itself towards the camera and our heroes - conveniently killing off Nemesis whose usefulness to the plot has now ended.



Exploding helicopter innovation

First known destruction of a helicopter by a genetically mutated zombie?

Positives

Sienna Guillory is returning to the franchise - this time in a red boob tube - in Resident Evil: Retribution, set for release in September. I’m in the queue already.

Negatives

In the film’s epilogue, it looks like we might get to see a third chopper fireball when the nuclear strike on Raccoon City causes the helicopter, which Jovovich and friends are escaping in, to crash.

But with one eye clearly set on franchise sustaining possibilities, the helicopter isn’t allowed to explode as everyone needs to survive.

Interesting fact

In the audio commentary for Resident Evil, Jovovich tells Anderson that it was only her “commitment” to the role and the film which meant she was prepared to allow one of her nipples to be seen onscreen.

Anderson challenges her, saying if she was really “committed” to the role she’d have allowed both to be shown.

Now, I don’t think I’ve ever been under any illusions as to how cynically these films attempt to manipulate the baser instincts of their audiences, but when Jovovich displays her *ahem* full commitment to Resident Evil: Apocalypse, I couldn’t help feeling just a little bit dirty and used.

Review by: Jafo

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Sentinel

Michael Douglas plays Pete Garrison, a been-there-done-that Secret Service veteran who once ‘took a bullet’ for Reagan.

He’s now tasked with protecting President Ballatine (David Rasche) from a multitude of nutcases who see the US president as the Great Satan.

Despite being, in real life, a recovering sex addict – literally hundreds of women have apparently been traumatised by the nightmarish sight of his jowly, slightly dead-eyed features grimacing at the moment of release – Douglas still insists all his films must include gratuitous rumpy scenes.

And so, naturally, his character ends up having an affair with the First Lady (Kim Basinger). Well, he is part of the President’s close protection team. Anyway, this leads to a compromised Douglas being manipulated and framed for an assassination attempt by an ex-KGB ‘mole’ within the Secret Service.

The guardian now becomes the quarry, as Douglas tries to prove his innocence by finding the rogue agent while being pursued by squinty-eyed protégé David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland). To add an extra frisson to proceedings, Sutherland is letting a personal beef cloud his judgement.

What might that be, you ask? Well, I was as surprised as you’ll no doubt be to learn that, not content with dipping his wick in the White House, Shagger Mike’s been boffing Sutherland’s wife as well. Chances are he’s also slipped one to the wife of the mole trying to frame him, but sadly the film doesn’t include that plot strand.

Indeed, in what is a deeply implausible film, by far the greatest stretch of imagination is being asked to believe that Pensioner Mike – with his pot belly and legs so bony dogs would try to bury him if he wore shorts – is a human shag-magnet.


Director Clark Johnson has impeccable small screen credentials, having been at the helm on Homicide, The Shield and The Wire, but is sadly let down by a script with more holes then a slice of Emmental.

No amount of obtuse camera angles and kinetic direction can hide the confused plot (Sutherland is supposed to hate Douglas but just suddenly forgets that and becomes his best friend again), implausible behaviour (immediately after the President has been attacked by machine-gun welding maniacs, the First Lady strolls innocently into the middle of the shoot-out and is captured) and poorly fleshed-out characters (Eva Longoria’s rookie Jill Marin could have been played with equal gusto by a Topshop mannequin. But, presumably, Big Mike would still have shagged it.).

Despite passable performances by Douglas and Sutherland, the film is a major disappointment. When the mole is uncovered, the results are as thrilling as a rainy weekend in Margate. Think of it as a poor man’s The Fugitive meets an equally poverty stricken episode of 24.

Here at EHHQ we have reviewed many turkeys which have been redeemed - at least in part - by a decent helicopter explosion.  Here we’re given a double kick in the balls: an underwhelming film combined with a lacklustre chopper fireball.

So what happens? El Presidente flies to Camp David to press the flesh with foreign dignitaries, arriving stylishly in Presidential chopper - a huge VH-3D Sea King, which is excitingly named Marine One.

As it leaves Camp David, we see a panoramic shot of the helicopter in the distance. Then, without any warning or preamble, a missile snakes up from the tree line and hits it.

It appears to explode in slow motion and break into two. We don’t see anything but the briefest of close-ups and we do not see the wreckage hit the floor. The whole thing is over in a flash.

Artistic merit

This is a spectacularly poor effort with a bodged, distant, explosion rendered in disappointingly obvious CGI. The confusing preamble only serves to make the scene feel like it was stitched into the movie at the wrong point.



Exploding helicopter innovation

We’re struggling to see any in this one.  We’ve seen Marine One destroyed before in Independence Day. I think we’ll consider this particular explosion an ‘unnovation’.

Do passengers survive?

We don’t know for sure, but seeing as no major characters were onboard, no doubt everyone died a fiery and unpleasant death.

Positives

Without doubt, Michael Douglas has the finest head of hair in the Secret Service. Period.

Negatives

It feels as if a key scene was cut out in the build-up to the downing of Marine One. Perhaps it was a misguided attempt to make explosion have more of an impact on the audience. Unfortunately, the lack of exposition only adds to the general confusion and half-arsed nature of the story.

Favourite quote

David Breckinridge: “Pete Garrison was my best friend. Until he slept with my wife.”

Interesting fact

Apparently George Nolfi’s script had done the rounds in Hollywood for quite some time before being green lit and distributed in 2006. This might go some way to explaining the use of Russian baddies. Sooooooo 80’s.

Review by: Neon Messiah