Wednesday, 20 June 2012

XXX2: The Next Level

It may seem hard to credit now, but Ice Cube was actually something of a hot ticket in 2005.

Having starred in surprise hit comedies Barbershop and, er, Barbershop 2: Back In Business he looked like he had the potential to be a break-out star.

So when bullet-headed lunk Vin Diesel declined the opportunity to reprise his role of Xander Cage, Cube was given a shot at A-List stardom. Unfortunately, he should‘ve aimed more carefully, because he instead fired his blubbery arse straight back to b-list comedies.

Cube plays Darius Stone, a Navy Seal with a bad attitude who’s serving time in a military prison. He’s recruited to the top secret XXX programme – which turns unconventional civilians into super spies – by its leader, Samuel L Jackson, after the XXX headquarters is attacked by unknown forces.

Suspecting that the attack came from rogue forces inside their own government, Jackson and Cube inevitably have to work ‘outside official channels’ to uncover the conspiracy.

In a startling break from his usual schtick in mainstream movies, Willem Dafoe here plays a creepy, sinister cartoon baddie. Who’d have thunk? So when his duplicitous Secretary of Defence suddenly attempts to take over the Presidency with a military coup, you can imagine I was as surprised as anyone.

Like the original, XXX2 is an unashamed blend of comic book action and knowing, tongue-in-cheek attitude. Unfortunately, the alchemy which made the first film work is entirely absent, leaving the viewer – perhaps for the only time – wishing Vin Diesel was actually in a film.

Part of the problem is the great petroleum-named one’s replacement, Ice Cube. He just doesn’t have the acting chops for a leading man, and his one-note ‘gangsta’ attitude begins to grind long before he and his ‘homies’ save the day.

The second issue is, ahem, how shall I put it, Cube’s well upholstered physique. Unquestionably, the boy can eat. This lends an unintentionally comic air to any scene where the rotund rapper is required to acquit himself athletically.

The film expects us to believe that the paunchy playa is able to leap across rooftops and out-sprint pursuers, while maintaining the blubbery frame of someone who looks like they’d be hard pushed to outrun a sweet trolley.
Ironically, there’s a running joke throughout film about the tubby tunesmith’s ongoing, frustrated attempts to get some fries and a shake. Which is odd, given it doesn’t look like he’s ever struggled to get hold of them before.

Suspending your disbelief for a film of this nature is obviously essential. But watching the bulky beatmaster labour his way through action sequences put a strain on my credulity only exceeded by the obvious strain on his own belt. It must be the only time in cinema history where the title of an action film refers to the star’s underpants size.

Add to the mix a misfiring comic sidekick (Michael Roof), the bland Scott Speedman (as a Government agent pursuing Cube), and an utterly wasted Samuel L Jackson, and you have a sequel which, as the poet Notorious BIG observed, has “mo money, mo problems”.
Still, such cynical barbs aside, this isn’t all bad. Director Lee Tamahori gives the action sequences a superior gloss, and as mindless, undemanding entertainment goes it’s not a complete waste of time. Lukewarm praise, but it’s as much as I can summon.

Sadly, I can muster little more enthusiasm for the exploding helicopter action. To stop the conspiracy, Cube sneaks aboard an aircraft carrier where Willem Dafoe is planning his military coup.

Unfortunately, Cube’s portly profile doesn’t lend itself to covert infiltration and he‘s quickly discovered. In need of a rapid getaway, he jumps into a tank parked in the carrier’s below deck hangar.

To prevent his escape, another tank gives chase and fires on Cube, who deftly swerves out the way. Natch, the shell hits a helicopter that just happens to be sitting around unused. Ka-boom.

Artistic merit

Blink and you’ll miss it. The chopper-consuming fireball is impressive, but it’s briefness is very disappointing. I had to rewind a couple of times to confirm that, yes, it was a helicopter.

Exploding helicopter innovation

You don’t see many helicopters destroyed by a tank. There’s famously one in Rambo III, where Stallone rams a Mil-24 Hind with one, but you don’t often see them taken out with cannon fire. This is the first one we’ve recorded.

Certainly, it’s the first known helicopter destroyed below deck on an aircraft carrier.

Positives

The high point of the film is the over-the-top action sequence aboard the aircraft carrier, where Cube engages in a tank chase aboard the vessel.

It climaxes when Cube, with his tank crippled, eludes his pursuers by attaching his tank to a catapult on the ship’s deck and firing the armoured vehicle at his opponent.

It’s every bit as preposterous as it sounds and perhaps it’s best not to wonder why there are so many tanks onboard an aircraft carrier. Just accept that logic and reason were barred from the set on this project.

Negatives

Willem Dafoe sleepwalks his way through his role as the film’s villain. You can only assume he took this gig as one of his regular mainstream assignments designed to bankroll his artier offerings.

Still his appearance does give you a chance to again ponder what an extraordinarily flat face he has, rather like one of Zelda’s cubes in Terrahawks.

Favourite quote

“By my count, you boys broke about ten federal laws back there: aiding and abetting, harbouring a fugitive, and my personal favourite - grand theft chopper.”

Interesting fact

Two different scripts were developed for XXX2, with the producers opting for this US-based conspiracy plot over an Asian set story. Which begs the question: if they though this was the best story, what the hell was the other one like?

Review by: Jafo

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Apocalypse Now

“Travel the world, meet interesting people. Kill them.”

So goes the unofficial Army recruitment slogan, which tries to suggest the military is little more than a glorified holiday – albeit with a little light homicide thrown in.

In fact, there are striking parallels between serving in the Army and taking a package holiday. With both, your travel, accommodation and catering needs are all taken care of, and the citizens of the country you’re visiting are never keen to see you.

Sceptics might point out that most holidays don’t require you to risk potentially fatal violence. All I can say is: those sceptics clearly aren’t familiar with some of the ‘lads’ holiday I used to go on.


In many ways, it makes more sense to view Apocalypse Now in terms of a particularly indifferent package holiday. The plot sees Army officer Martin Sheen offered a mission (or mini-break holiday) by some slippery top brass types. They want him to make a hush-hush trip to Cambodia to quietly assassinate Marlon Brando – a top Green Beret Colonel who’s gone bonkers, disappeared into the jungle, and is now proving to be an embarrassment to the Pentagon.

Bored of his budget hotel room in Saigon, Sheen accepts the offer, especially as the trip to Cambodia involves a relaxing river cruise. Unfortunately, his travel companions prove to be either na├»ve or highly-strung, and Martin soon finds himself holed up in the boat’s cabin getting wasted on the mini-bar. (In this he mimics the majority of young English male tourists, who tend to return from a sunny fortnight even whiter and with a liver twice its original size.)

Knocking back straight whiskies, Sheen misses numerous opportunities for surfing, water-skiing and pedalo larks along the river. Maybe he just forgot his Speedos.

Still, he does get to enjoy some of the nightlife, including a strip-show and a rather vivid firework display which – featuring live ammunition - shows shockingly lax regard for health and safety legislation.

And you know that thing about places never looking quite as good as in the brochure..? It’s the same story when our Martin arrives at Brando’s Cambodian resort, and learns that the ‘light and airy room commanding stunning views’ he expected is actually a bamboo cage, in which he’s swiftly imprisoned.

And instead of those nice little potted palm plants you often find in sunny resorts, there’s an assortment of severed heads littering the camp. Er, when did you say the next boat back was? Still, at least he didn’t fly Ryanair.

And mercifully, Camp Cambodia is free of the ultimate holiday annoyance: Germans putting towels on sun loungers then going for an hours-long walk into town. But it does have Dennis Hopper, whose unhinged, manic jibbering suggest he’s had too much midday sun without the factor 30 on. Also lounging around is Scott Glen, who stares gauntly into the middle distance all day – presumably wondering why, even in a three-hour plus film, he doesn’t get a single line.

Eventually it’s time for Sheen to check-out and settle his bill, which in this case requires him to end Brando’s stay at the camp with some proverbial ‘extreme prejudice’. I only hope Big Marlon’s travel insurance covers him for the damage.

Anyway, all this is merely prologue, for earlier in the trip Sheen takes a connecting flight with Robert Duvall’s air cavalry helicopters. They arrive at a particularly lively beach resort where the locals seem none too pleased by the sudden appearance of the loutish holidaymakers, ghetto-blasters on full volume.

As one helicopter lands to evacuate some wounded tourists, an irate local runs up and throws a grenade-containing hat. The soldiers dive for cover and va-voom – one stationary chopper fireball.

Artistic merit

We get a lovely aerial view of the entire sequence, affording a birds-eye view of bystanders, realising the helicopter’s about to explode, scattering hither and thither. As the chopper is consumed with flame, the rotor blades continue to turn, which is always a nice touch.

Exploding helicopter innovation

First known destruction of a helicopter by an exploding hat. Earliest known Vietnam related exploding helicopter.

Do passengers survive?

Hard to tell. One body is blown clear by the explosion, and we also see a man covered in flames clamber out the wreckage. Whether they lived to write a postcard home is unknown.

Positives

As you’d expect, the Ride of the Valkyries-soundtracked chopper assault is a highlight for helicopter aficionados such as ourselves.

The whirlybird armada unleashes hell on a small village, blowing up bridges and huts with abandon. The whole scene is rendered in full Technicolor, pyrotechnic glory, due to Coppolla‘s no-expense spared staging.

Negatives

Marlon Brando appears in a particularly indulgent cameo. I say appears, but it’s hard to be entirely sure since the much-lauded actor – embarrassed about his enormous girth – performed most of his scenes amidst virtually black-out shadow, with just tiny sections of his physiognomy visible at any one time. Even so, I can confidently state that the man has really fat ears.

Throughout his career, Brando was notorious for not bothering to learn his lines, but it now seems he’d reached a point where he couldn’t be bothered to even appear in his own scenes.

You’d think such obvious contempt for your craft might leave an actor struggling to find paid employment. Not so in Hollywood, where producers responded by offering Brando ever larger sums of money to appear in ever shorter amounts of film. Where do I sign up?

Favourite quote

“Never get out the boat.”

Interesting fact

The wonderful narration which frames the film nearly didn’t happen, as Coppola abandoned the idea during filming. However, sound editor Walter Murch – convinced it was the only way to make the project work – assembled the film with a narration recorded by himself.

The final narration was written by Vietnam war journalist Michael Herr, author of the seminal account of the conflict, Dispatches.
While the narration is spoken by Martin Sheen, Herr’s distinctive hard-boiled, gonzoid, voice can be heard clearly in the words. If you love the ambience it lends to the film, then Dispatches is well worth seeking out and reading.

Also, the film is now arguably more famous for what occurred off camera than in front of it: Francis Ford Coppola’s monstrous bullying and on-set harem, fatty Brando refusing to step out the shadows even for his own scenes, Martin Sheen’s druggy nuttiness. The Seventies film book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls captures all the madness admirably and is worth a peek.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Apocalypse Now. Listen via iTunes, Player FM, Stitcher, Acast or right here