Saturday 31 August 2013

The Guardian

With the Oscar-laden Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner made a big splash in the Hollywood pond. Then over the next few years he surfed a tidal wave of critical and commercial success, until nearly sinking his career (and an whole studio) with watery disaster epic Waterworld.

With that film’s title now a cautionary byword for excess and folly – a kind of Heaven’s Gate, with gills – you’d have thought Tinseltown producers would be wary of bankrolling any project that placed Kevin anywhere near so much as a bucket of water, never mind an entire ocean of the stuff.

But, proving the wisdom of William Goldman’s warning that Hollywood is a town where ‘nobody knows anything’, incredibly someone decided to chuck $70m at The Guardian (2006), a tale of heroism on the high seas.

Big Kev plays Randall, a legendary rescue swimmer with the US coastguard. Haunted by the death of his friend during a dangerous rescue (a staple of these movies – see Sly Stallone in Cliffhanger’s opening scene), he’s forced to take a gig at the coastguard training school whilst he regains his sea-rescuing mojo.

At the school, Kevin has to whip a class of new recruits into shape – including cocky high-school swim champ Ashton Kutcher, who is similarly hamstrung by personal tragedy. Can both men let go of the grief that’s holding them back? Can they achieve their coastguard dreams? Does a bear answer the call of nature in the woods?

Costner: treading water
The answer, of course, is ‘yes‘. However, we must first sit through an extended hard-training montage and an equally punishing (for the viewer, at least) cathartic scene where Costner and Kutch, lips a-trembling, share their hokum stories of inner pain. There won’t be a dry eye in the house after this scene: certainly, I nearly drowned crying with laughter.

As he recently demonstrated in Man Of Steel, Costner was born to play these humble mentor roles. With his slow hokey drawl, folksy wisdom and solid Joe persona, he’s in many ways the natural heir to James Stewart – even if here he isn’t required to do anything more demanding, in acting terms, than tread water.

Kutcher though, as the arrogant ingenue, is plainly not waving, but drowning. While he might have been comfortable playing second fiddle to an older, more established actor in his marriage, it’s a role he visibly struggles with onscreen.

Still, despite the achingly predictable plot arc and familiar array of cardboard cut-out characters, the two big sea rescues that bookend the film are excitingly staged by veteran director Andrew Davis (Under Siege, The Fugitive). And, while the almost two and a half hours run-time is over generous, this is a slickly made and harmlessly enjoyable piece of work.

The sure directorial touch is evident in The Guardian’s opening action set-piece, where you don’t need the weather eye of an old sea captain to forecast there’s an explosion brewing for the featured helicopter.

Amid a massive storm, the Kev’ster is flown out to help the crew of a cargo ship which has started to sink. Kevin dives into the sea to help the sailors who’ve abandoned ship. Just before they can be winched to safety in the helicopter, a huge wave flings a piece of wreckage from the stricken ship into its tail rotor.

Kutcher: not waving but drowning
Out of control, the chopper spins around before crashing into the sea and exploding. In a macabre final twist, the sinking helicopter wreckage pulls the man who was about to be winched to safety beneath the waves and towards a watery grave.

Artistic merit

As the centrepiece of the film’s big opening sequence, the helicopter explosion is effectively and dramatically staged. As the fatally damaged helicopter spins towards its doom we see the panic and chaos within the helicopter, as the alarms sound and the pilots battle with the controls.

While one of water’s more notable properties is an ability to extinguish flames, this is conveniently ignored and the chopper explodes like a kerosene soaked tinderbox upon impact with the sea.

Exploding helicopter innovation

There’s nothing particularly innovative here. Helicopters have met watery demises in other, earlier, films such as The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and Piranha 2.

Do passengers survive?

Costner, obviously, survives. As does Kev’s buddy, but only so that he can then die a short while later in Costner’s arms and provide him with the hefty emotional baggage he carries throughout the rest of the film.


If you’ve seen Waterworld, you’ll be relieved to know there are no scenes involving Costner drinking his own wee in this film.


During the training school sequences, it feels as if someone has switched channels to a promotional film for the coastguard.

I can’t help suspecting there was an awful lot of co-operation with the actual US Coastguard in the making of this film, and the price of all that access to locations and equipment was a slavishly drooling portrayal of the service.

Favourite line

Throughout the film, Costner dispenses little epithets of sage advice. One though, rather misses the mark and shows that the coastguard’s gain is counter-terrorism’s loss: “Sometimes you got to shoot a hostage.”

Review by: Jafo

Thursday 15 August 2013

Land Of The Free

Jeff Speakman. It’s not a name to quicken the pulse or thrill the imagination. It’s not a name to inspire derring-do or strike fear into an enemy‘s heart. And it’s certainly not a name with which to pursue a career in martial arts cinema.

Incredibly, one man sought to defy the odds. One brave, lone wolf dared to throw off the shackles of a monicker which spoke less of face-pummelling prowess and more of middle management tedium, soporific sales conferences and quarterly reporting. Inevitably, that remarkable man was named Jeff Speakman.

For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre (and let’s be frank, we’re talking big numbers there), ‘The Speak’ was a second tier action star who ploughed a yeoman-like straight-to-video furrow during the Nineties. But by the end of that decade, the dim lustre of Jeff’s star was fading and so he found himself in Land Of The Free (1998) a project which, ironically, freed him from the prospect of having a future career.

In the film Jeff plays Frank Jennings, campaign manager for a smarmy politician played with self-satisfied smugness by the high priest of preening narcissism, William Shatner. It’s worse than that, he’s over-acting, Jim.

Predictably, the schmaltzy patriotism of Shatner’s public image is merely a façade behind which lurks a crazed right-wing lunatic with secret links to a bunch of extreme ultra-nationalists hell bent on seizing control of the country. (Remember, this was made before George Bush Jr and the Tea Party, so such an idea might well have seemed fantastical and frightening at the time.)

After Jeff stumbles on the conspiracy, the story becomes a race against time - can Speakman reveal the truth to the world before Shatner’s militia goons silence him?

Jeff Speakman exuding danger, or possibly not 
At this point, new initiates to Speakman might be picturing our hero as a chiselled colossus who, like his VHS-era peers, was all ripped abs, taut biceps, and bulging pecs. But even a cursory glance quickly dispels any such notion.

I’m not saying Jeff’s overweight, but the only thing bulging in this movie is his waistline, and the only things in danger of being ripped are the buttons on his tautly-fastened shirt. In fact, other than DTV-era Steven Seagal or Big Lol Fishburne in Matrix Revolutions, we can confidently surmise no other martial arts guru has had to strap themselves into karate pyjamas of such tent-like dimensions.

Curiously for a socky-choppy violent thriller, there’s a distinct lack of any sense of danger in Land of the Free, and that’s largely due to Jeff’s friendly, placid, almost bovine demeanour. His sappy face, coupled with such a well-upholstered physique, makes him look less like an action star and more like the ‘dad’ figure in some middling TV sitcom about suburban family life. Say what you like about Big Steve Seagal’s acting skills, at least he always looked as if he’d like to kick somebody in the face, if only his girdle wasn’t so tight.

Still, Speakman’s unthreatening and un-athletic appearance serves one useful purpose. Given his opponent in the film’s climatic, mano et mano showdown is the 67-year old Shatner (hairpiece and corset in place), our roly-poly hero’s lack of physical presence at least makes the bout seem slightly less one-sided and ridiculous. But only slightly, mind.

And, while we’re talking of predictable outcomes, it will doubtless come as no surprise that the helicopter featured in this film meets a sudden and explosive end.

William Shatner the high priest of preening narcissism
The crucial scene comes near the end of the film. Tracking Shatner to his ranch, Speakman tries to stop him once and for all. Shatner tries to escape in a helicopter, but Jeff – displaying an improbable agility – leaps onto the helicopter’s runner.

Unsurprisingly, with Speakman’s considerable girth dangling beneath it, the chopper struggles to gain altitude. Speakman plants a timed explosive on the aircraft, but Shatner spots the device and both men leap to safety before the helicopter explodes.

Artistic merit

In a film which rarely misses an opportunity to underwhelm, the helicopter explosion is effectively staged. A realistic looking chopper is destroyed and the fireball fills the screen with a delicious liquid hue of reds and oranges.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Slow motion footage of the helicopter exploding - check. Repeated slow-mo playbacks of the explosion from multiple angles - check. Wreckage crashing to the ground in dramatic fashion - check. A shot of the hero silhouetted against burning debris - check. Yes, it’s fair to say that this film breaks no new ground in the art of exploding helicopters.

Still, while there’s no effort at innovation, at least the director delivers every staple of the helicopter explosion genre with gusto. It might not be original, but it sure is satisfying.

Do passengers survive?

Speakman survives having briefly been a passenger of sorts. Shatner though, only enjoys a temporary stay of execution before he boldly goes where many villains have gone before.


Given that Speakman has been trying to help put a swivel-eyed loon into elected office, it’s fair to say our boy isn‘t the sharpest tool in the box. This may help to explain a scene where Jeff hacks into Shatner’s computer to find his secret plans.

How will he break into the password protected files you ask? Will Jeff use a hitherto unknown expertise in cryptography? Or some whizzy, algorithm-crunching gizmo that’ll make the computer spill its secrets?

No. Jeff’s plan involves nothing more complicated than simply guessing the password. And what inspired guesses they are. Top of our boy’s list are ‘predator’, ‘deceit’ and ‘conquest’. What about trying ‘crazed neo-Nazi nutcase’ Jeff? The safety of the free world couldn’t be in better hands.


Perhaps embarrassed by its attempts at high-tech, techno-thriller chicanery, the Land Of The Free quickly heads for the safety of that reliable action movie genre trope, the car chase. But this poses a problem: how to freshen this hoariest of movie clichés?

The answer here is commendably simple and involves nothing more complicated than putting a sofa on top of one car and a canoe on another. It’s certainly never been done before, if only because everyone else thought it a terrible idea.

Favourite quote

An FBI agent tries to reassure Speakman about his safety: “Trust me, the witness protection programme works.”

With half the film remaining, the hollowness of this promise makes a deafening echo.

Interesting fact

Made at the tail end of the Clinton administration, Land Of The Free serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of a right wing loony coming to power. Two years later, George Bush Jr was elected President.

Review by: Jafo

Tuesday 13 August 2013

World War Z

Perhaps World War Zzzzzzzz... would have been a better title.

After countless re-writes (and even re-shoots), this lumbering, re-animated corpse of a film has finally shuffled onto our cinema screens. And what an odd beast it is. Ostensibly based on Max Brook’s acclaimed novel about a zombie apocalypse, it’s a sprawling mess.

As often happens in Hollywood, the film’s producers paid a fortune for the book rights then ripped the innards out of the story. In place of the novel’s interesting reportage approach, they put soupy tosh in which ‘ex UN worker’ Brad Pitt travels the world to find the source of a global zombie pandemic. Then cures it. Single-handedly.

The film kicks off with downtown Philadelphia being over-run by a rapid zombie onslaught. It’s all impressively hectic, and the zombies themselves are super-fast and scarcely seen as individuals. More often, there’s just a sudden blur across the screen as some punter is whacked to the ground.

The director’s signature shot, though, is of a swirling mass of zombies climbing over each other either to push over a bus or summit a giant wall. It’s a bold idea, but the obvious downside is that the zombies couldn’t look more CGI if they had ‘Industrial Light and Magic’ stamped on their foreheads.

Brad narrowly escapes with his straight-from-central-casting family – the weepy wife, older asthmatic kid who needs an inhaler and, yes, even ‘cute’ younger kid who refuses to leave a zombie-marauded flat without her soft toy. Unquestionably, the film would have been more bearable if they’d all been chewed up in the first scene. Useless as characters, they might have at least made a decent meal.

As it is, they stick around like mould for the first half of the film, eating up scenes and adding nothing. It’s just one of many mistakes.

Traditionally, zombies make a variety of moaning noises, but so piss-poor is the script of World War Z that most of the pained groaning comes from the auditorium. Lazy writing prevails. So Brad, supposedly a veteran of war zones, leaves his mobile on while creeping through zombie territory. Do you think it goes off? Well, d’uh.

And when our buff hero enters a locked glass room, there’s a special cut-shot showing him leave his weapon outside. Cripes, maybe now he’ll get trapped inside when the zombie shows up. Even the most knuckle-dragging viewer is beyond such flabby plot-manoeuvring these days, and even the zombies look embarrassed.

The boy Pitt also suffers rather too obviously from leading-man-jinx syndrome. He drives through Philly and it’s suddenly over-run by zombies. He jets off to South Korea and actually causes an attack. (That pesky mobile.) Then he arrives in Israel where, yippee, they’ve built a big wall and everyone’s safe. But no sooner has he done some leonine pouting than here come the zombies and virtually everyone else dies. It’s tempting to think that had they just locked him in a cupboard at the outset, none of this might have happened.

Just over eighty minutes in – and there’s no delicate way to put this – the movie pretty much drops off a cliff. Having hitherto spanned the globe with hugely expensive, thousand extras-featuring setpieces, the ‘action’ suddenly moves to a single, internal ‘medical laboratory’ set – and stays there.

The reason for this sudden stomping on the budget brakes has been exhaustively documented across the internet. In a nutshell, the film’s producers had to scrap the entire original third act (a zombie showdown in Moscow that cost £100 million) after disastrous preview screenings. The snag was, by that time they only had about 33 quid left. And thus the final act.

Here’s what happens. Brad escapes from Jerusalem in a passenger plane and gets a radio message ordering him to head for the one place on earth where mankind can still be saved: Wales. Yes, you did just read that. And don’t worry if you laughed, because so did most of the audience.

Inevitably, zombies have clambered aboard in club class so the plane crash lands in the middle of nowhere, in Wales. (Sorry, that’s a tautology.) Natch, everyone dies in the crash except Brad and a saucy Israeli soldier. Impressively, given that their brief – literally – is to locate ‘a medical facility outside Cardiff’, they find it in no time.

From then on, all you have is Brad and half a dozen British thesps in a Seventies-looking studio set – the sort where the walls wobble if you bang against them. It’s like Doctor Who and Casualty had a one-night stand, and this is the ugly baby. The Brits all look a bit dazed to be in the presence of Hollywood royalty. Brad himself looks like he wants to cry.

The ‘plot’ for this strand is that a potential cure lies in a cut-off wing of the lab populated by a dozen extras-I-mean-zombies. But guess what? These ones don’t move at the speed of sound. That would obviously mean more cameras, snappy editing – more cost, basically – so these ones just loll about in the traditional manner. ‘They’re dormant,’ explains one of the Brits, looking every bit as confused as the audience.

And so follows a Scooby Doo-style mission to reach the cure, with every cliché crammed in – squeaky doors, crawling under windows, ‘almost’ dropping things – all patently calculated to just while away the minutes. And when these zombies do finally start chasing our heroes, there’s no blur-across-the-screen swiftness, just the laboured jogging of forty-something extras trying to run with their arms stretched out without falling over.

The whole segment is a disaster and, in Exploding Helicopter’s experience, literally unprecedented. For context, imagine the final third of Man of Steel taking place in a library; or Lord of the Rings’ climactic battle based entirely in a hobbit hut. It’s all so giddily wrong that the cinema audience were howling with laughter.

In a final twist of the budget knife, the last scene shows Brad reuniting with his family in ‘Nova Scotia’, which couldn’t look more obviously like Wales if there’d been a male choir singing ‘How green is my valley’ in the background. Holding daffodils.

Fortunately, the helicopter crash scene was filmed before the money ran out – otherwise, it may well have featured a Fisher Price toy on a string. What actually happens is this: as literally hundreds of CGI zombies scale a high wall, one military chopper decides that – rather than just shoot from a distance – it’d be better to swoop down really low so they can all hop aboard. The undead hordes obligingly clamber on, and the weighed-down machine first spins then drops to the ground, exploding.

Artistic merit

Nil. What remains is only the memory of how chunkily yet another ‘calamity’ has been constructed from nothing.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The idea – having a chopper weighed down by marauding zombies – is pretty good, but this scene loses massive points for blatantly manufacturing unnecessary danger. Also, the whole episode comes across as a flash-edited barrage of soupy-looking CGI figures. It never remotely feels like you’re watching actual zombies on an actual helicopter.

Do passengers survive?

Given that all those hanging on to the outside are already dead, this is largely an academic point. Presumably the crew die in the explosion or face the horrifying alternative of being eaten alive by an unconvincing special effect. Oh, the shame.


The most terrifying moment of the entire movie occurs in the first few seconds, when – among the faux news footage clips – Piers Morgan makes a cameo as himself, The sight of his bloated, self-satisfied features in widescreen is truly horrible to behold.


This may well be the first bloodless zombie film. So desperate was the studio to secure a PG-13 rating that nothing remotely nasty is allowed to happen onscreen. Which is something of an achievement, when you consider it’s a film about almost the entire population of the Earth rending each other limb from limb with their teeth.

So when Brad brings down a wrench on a fallen zombie, you see nothing but Brad’s head and shoulders. And when he chops off a woman's hand to stop a bite infection spreading, all you see is her worried face. George Romero, this isn’t.

Favourite quote

“We’ve lost the east coast. China is dark.”
No global disaster movie would be complete without a grizzled general gravely muttering this sort of cod-military nonsense.

Interesting fact

The film – with its powerless director, unrealistic schedule and hacked-to-pieces script – has become a symbol of how Hollywood messes up movies. The huge volume of online journalism about the botched job of making the film is far more entertaining than the finished product.

Review by: Chopper

Still want more? Then listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast review of World War Z. Listen via iTunes, Acast, Stitcher, Podomatic or YourListen.

Sunday 11 August 2013

Samurai Commando Mission 1549

Time travel, a sophisticated modern day army, and the warring Samurai hordes of 16th century Japan. With these golden ingredients, Samurai Commando Mission 1549 (2005) doesn’t have any difficulty keeping your attention.

What's more, the film wastes no time in getting to the action immediately and we’re straight into the thick of things before the titles even appear.

We start with a helicopter flying in to join up with a small military force of tanks and soldiers that are engaged in a mysterious experiment. Something goes awry, and the troops are enveloped in a shimmering cloud and disappear from the 21st century.

After re-materialising in some lovely unspoilt greenery, a couple of unsuspecting soldiers decide to get a bit of fresh air top-side from their tanks. They’ve barely had a moment to get a lungful of air before their chests are pierced with arrows. Roll credits.

Back in the present day, the authorities work out what went wrong with their experiment. They were attempting to create a solar radiation shield to prevent it interfering with the electronics on all their high-tech weaponry. Basically, factor 50 sun block for military vehicles. Unfortunately, the experiment was only a partial success. True the force were shielded from the harmful effects of the Sun, but only by being sent over 500 years into the past.

Anyway, the army decide it might be quite a good idea to go and retrieve the soldiers and their well-respected Colonel, Matoba, from the 16th century. And with good reason - present day Japan is slowly disappearing, they presume due to the ‘butterfly effect’ of the Colonel‘s sudden presence in the past.

To do this, they enlist the help of a samurai warrior who’s been accidentally brought forward in time (Shichibei), and a reluctant former soldier (Kashima), who is enjoying a moderately successful career running a restaurant. By happy coincidence Kashima happens to know the Colonel, and is the only person to have ever bested his military tactics. I wonder if that might become useful...

Under strict orders to rescue the Colonel’s troops, the experiment is recreated and the rescue force is sent back in time. On arrival they use a helicopter to scout out the area and it quickly becomes the first of two chopper fireballs to grace the 16th century skies.

Spotting the rogue Colonel’s castle base, the helicopter flies in for a closer look. Unfortunately, the vintage castle’s defences been given a 21st century upgrade in the shape of surface-to-air missiles. The chopper evades the first but the second hits it sweetly, instantly engulfing the chopper in fire. The rest of the would-be rescuers are quickly captured by the combined forces of the Colonel's soldiers and the army of samurai warriors he‘s enlisted.

After so much breathless action it’s time for some exposition, so Colonel Matoba provides a handy précis for confused viewers. Having unexpectedly arrived in 1549 Matoba had briefly considered the ‘butterfly effect’. But like a jittery lepidopterophobic trapped in a butterfly farm, he decided to hell with that and deployed his army's full array of weaponry to swat the hordes of samurai surrounding his men.

Naturally, this taste of power was enough to send Matoba into full megalomaniac Bond villain mode. He‘s now plotting to use a nuclear device to erupt Mt Fuji, wiping out Japan so that he can rebuild it from scratch using his advanced technology. And, of course, telling everyone about how he can't be stopped.

The rescue mission is now a race against time so, with the fate of Japan hanging in the balance, our heroes escape from the castle to set up a final confrontation. Happily, this includes another chopper fireball.

Each force has one cobra chopper remaining. And if the first was a bit understated, the second is more of a CGI treat. With his castle under siege, Matoba's chopper reappears into the action. But Kashima's lot are well-prepared and use their own missile to shoot the chopper down as it approaches.

The helicopter lurches out-of-control and collides with an oil refinery that Matoba built at his base. This triggers a cascade of explosions which signal that the end of the film is has arrived.

Despite a highly dubious plot, the film just about hangs together and is mercifully under 90 minutes.

Artistic merit 

The first explosion, zero. The second though sees the explosion engulf the anachronistic Japanese military base, with catastrophic effects.

Number of exploding helicopters

Two out of a possible three is an impressive strike rate.

Exploding helicopter innovation

It's unusual to see one exploding helicopter in the 16th century, let alone two.


It certainly isn't slow paced. Prior to this film, director Masaaki Tezuka had mainly been involved on Godzilla films, and he wastes no time getting into the action. The film also looks the part and Takeshi Shimizu was named Best Art Director at the 2005 Asia-Pacific Film Festival. The big scene in which "The Castle" is comprehensively obliterated is a highlight - a case of no winners this week on Takeshi's Castle.


It seemed a quite obvious error that the rescue team sent back didn't significantly outnumber the party that had 'gone rogue'. What sort of thinking suggested that one helicopter would be fine against two? No wonder Colonel Matoba wanted to create a new future if this was the quality of strategic thinking from the Japanese military's best and brightest.

Favourite quote

"Over-confidence leads Japan into WW2 only to suffer a cruel defeat...I will change all that. I will build a nation that 21st century citizens can be truly proud of. I do not intend on dying for a people who have long forgotten how to defend themselves!"

Interesting fact 

The film was based on a 1979 Japanese film, GI Samurai, and also resulted in a 4-episode mini series with a similar storyline.

In 2013, we are apparently approaching a solar maximum. No word on whether the UK military is going to send the SAS back to compete in the War of the Roses.

Review by: Joseph Clift