Saturday 28 June 2014

5 Days Of War

“The first casualty of war is truth,” reads the sombre quotation at the start of this ridiculous movie.

Well, they said it. In 5 Days Of War (2011), truth isn’t just a casualty – it’s punched in the nuts, water-boarded then blasted by a firing-squad before the opening credits have even finished.

Supposedly ‘based on real events’, this war drama tells the tale of plucky Georgia’s heroic resistance in 2008 against a Russian invasion. Most independent commentators reckon the blame for this messy conflict needs to be shared – but you’ll find no such namby-pamby even-handedness here.

The reason why is simple: the film was part-financed by the Georgian government. (Bizarrely, one of its ministers is even listed as a producer.)

The result, unsurprisingly enough, is a gallumphing piece of pro-Georgian propaganda. Swivel-eyed and angry, the movie ramps up the anti-Russian rhetoric so much it’d bring a blush to the cheek of a Fox News presenter.

The ‘story’ centres on Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend), an American journalist in Georgia to report on the war. While helping a Georgian family flee the fighting, he films Russian soldiers cold-bloodedly executing civilians – then has to daringly escape through the frontlines with this damning evidence of evil Russkie war crimes.

Will he make it? Could the truth finally be revealed to the world? Does anyone remotely care? No.

Rupert Friend the star of 5 Days Of Snore
There’s another odd, even schizophrenic, aspect to this movie. Clearly, the Georgian tourist ministry – fearful that two hours of watching the country being reduced to rubble might discourage potential holidaymakers – has insisted on the inclusion of lots of idyllic ‘travelogue’ imagery showing off the region’s beautiful old towns and balmy countryside. In some scenes, you half-expect Judith Chalmers to wander into shot and start extolling the virtues of the unspoilt beaches.

But then the action will suddenly lurch back to a graphic depiction of war-time horror (a wedding celebration ending in a bombed bloodbath, for example). Back and forth it goes, between sunny vistas and blasted buildings, cute pavement cafes and corpse-littered streets. It’s like watching Machete Kills and Wish You Were Here having noisy, confused sex. And not in a good way.

Misfortune seems to be heaped onto this movie. Already staggering under the weight of Georgian governmental expectation, its credibility is further lumbered by two titanically over-the-top performances from a couple of has-been stars: Andy Garcia and Val Kilmer (of which, more later). And then there’s the ultimate death-knell for any film: Renny Harlin.

Ah, Renny. Over the years, the scarecrow-coiffured Finn – a favourite bete noire of this website – has been accused of many things, but subtlety and sophistication are not among them.

The dead hand behind such clunking high-concept fare as Die Hard 2, Deep Blue Sea and Cliffhanger, our Renny deals pretty much exclusively in explosions, car chases and gunfights. Indeed, his Nordic disposition seems almost offended by such quaint cinematic conventions as plot and character development.

Renny Harlin directs 5 Days Of Bore
Harlin’s stylistic peccadilloes are most readily apparent here during a scene in which senior government figures anxiously discuss the country’s fate. Confronted with people doing nothing more than actually speaking to each other, Harlin’s unease is palpable. You can almost sense his panic: ‘What is this? Two people, in a room, talking? Oh my god – there’s pages of this stuff’.

Realising the potential for cinematic catastrophe (ie. three straight minutes without an explosion) Renny solves the problem with admirable simplicity: he just presses the directorial fast-forward button. Suddenly the actors – who’d previously been speaking in measured and actorly tones – start rattling through their dialogue at machine-gun pace. It’s like they’re taking on bets at Ascot.

Complex plot points – whole swathes of story – are hurled back and forth like hand-grenades, just so the Renny-nator can get back to blowing some shit up.

Still, such pyromaniacal intent was always going to pay dividends for readers of this blog. And when a big Russkie Mil-Hind 24 hooves into view, shooting up heroic Georgian soldiers, you can be sure Renny isn’t about to cut away to a quiet scene of contemplative dialogue. Oh, no. It’s chopper fire-ball time.

With his comrades under fire, one of the Georgian grunts whips out a rocket launcher and blasts the helicopter. Damaged, the whirlybird spins into the top of a building, before tumbling to the ground and providing our exploding helicopter ‘money shot’.

Artistic merit

As already mentioned, if there’s one thing old Renny knows about (and we’ve checked: there is only ‘one thing’ he does know about) it’s how to blow things up. Thus, the audience gets to really relish the ailing chopper’s death throes before seeing its final demise – all in lustrous, fiery, CGI.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Nothing to report, sadly. This is a little disappointing, as the Nordic numpty has provided plenty of quirky helicopter explosions in previous films – see Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea, or 12 Rounds for examples.


Andy Garcia's 5 Accents Of War
For schadenfreude enthusiasts, the undoubted highlights of the film are the eccentric cameos from Andy Garcia and Val Kilmer.

Garcia has the juicier role as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Cast because of his physical resemblance to the great man (and, let’s be frank, because he’s generally ‘available’ these days), his performance comes crashing to the ground as soon he opens his mouth.

Try as he might, our perma-brylcreemed smoothie is simply unable to maintain a Russian growl, and his weird Cuban lilt keeps leaking through. No true film buff has really lived till they’ve witnessed his ‘Nyet! Nyet! What-a are ya doin-a, senor comgrim rade?’ schtick for themselves.

Along with Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins and Ray Winstone’s catastrophic ‘American’ in Fool’s Gold, this is one of the worst accents committed to film.

Val Kilmer has a smaller role as a maverick, slightly unhinged journalist: though, in fairness, his role is the only thing about him that is small. The striking, blonde hunk of Top Gun has long since been subsumed into layers of celebrity blubber. Big Val’s famously hearty appetite for drink, drugs and however many burgers are on offer is, in a sense, now literally written all over him in rubbery bands of flesh.

Val Kilmer's 5 Bellies Of War
His entrance to the film is spectacular. With little warning, the shocked viewer is confronted with a paunchy, long-haired Val, luxuriating naked in a bubble bath. It’s like Jabba the Hutt’s bigger brother has slithered into the wrong film. It’s a truly magnificent sight.

In his (successful) day, Val was famous for on-set strops, minion-bullying and ridiculous ‘remove all the red M&Ms’-style diva behaviour, so there’s a certain grim satisfaction in watching the old fool get his gut out for a few paltry shekls. It can comfortably be assumed that the Big Man is these days administering to his own M&M compartmentalisation needs.


The movie spends 15 minutes establishing a traumatic back-story for Anders, involving a friend and fellow reporter dying in his arms while in Iraq. Throughout the film, various characters tell Anders he needs to move on from this trauma in a manner that strongly suggests a looming moment of dramatic catharsis. However, nothing ever happens.

One can only guess that Harlin, petrified by the prospect of shooting scenes featuring actual emotions, quietly ripped those pages out of everyone’s script.

Favourite line

“Everything is easy when you wear a mini-skirt.” Thankfully, this line is not uttered by Val Kilmer.

Review by: Jafo

Wednesday 11 June 2014


…or World War Werewolf, as this film - for very important legal reasons – is assiduously not called.

That’s because Battledogs (2013) is a ‘mockbuster’, one of those not-so-thinly veiled (but just veiled enough) rip-offs of a mega-budget blockbuster.

So, after zombie extravaganza World War Z staggered into cinemas in the summer of 2013, those masters of the cheap knock-off at The Asylum quickly bashed out Battledogs.

The basic plot of the two films is uncannily similar, with both featuring a world imperilled by a mystery virus that turns people into murderous savages. But to ensure there’s no payday for the copyright lawyers, Battledogs cheekily swaps World War Z’s human-chewing zombies for werewolves. A sort of werewolf in zombie clothing, if you will.

However, there’s always an inherent problem with ripping off a squillion dollar budget movie – namely, the lack of a squillion dollar budget.

So while World War Z saw A-list Hollywood hunk Brad Pitt literally scour the world (and bizarrely Wales) looking for a zombie cure, the made-for-cable Battledogs has acting no-mark Craig Sheffer (who he?) skulking round the inside of a few deserted buildings. Jerusalem, Korea and packed USA city centres are notable by their absence.

Where World War Z gave us Grand Guignol horror as hundreds of innocents were brutally chewed to death, Battledogs’ more modestly staged scenes involve little more than a solitary victim being gently nibbled to death by a wonky CGI dog. There’s more genuine nail-biting suspense in a good episode of Lassie.

Bill Duke: contemplates the fate of mankind, or
possibly just his shopping list
The low grade vibe also extends to the supporting cast, a random assortment of semi-familiar faces who are clearly as bored by the film as the viewer. A near-comatose Bill Duke (Predator, Commando) briefly appears as the President of the United States. All good leaders should display a quiet stoicism, but this performance borders on catatonic depression.

Elsewhere, Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) can barely contain the sense of ennui as he ticks off the minutes before his character is gnawed to death. And Ariana Richards (who you’ll dimly remember as the teenage girl terrorised by dinosaurs in Jurassic Park) offers a stark reminder of why it’s been six years since she last appeared in TV or film.

Alone among the cast, Dennis Haysbert (24, Heat) valiantly tries to add a touch of class. Fighting against the ropey dialogue, he delivers his lines with all the pained seriousness of a Shakespearean soliloquy, but the poor lad shouldn’t have bothered. This film is Much Ado About Nothing.

Battledogs is like the suspiciously cheap Gucci bag you bought on holiday, which fell apart the moment the plane landed back home. You knew all along it was a cheap knock-off that would quickly disappoint, but went ahead anyway on the off-chance it might actually pass for the real thing. You really should have known better.

The titular "Battledog" in all its wonky CGI glory
Luckily for this blog, the one authentic pleasure in this film is the helicopter explosion. It occurs when the military are sent in to ‘reclaim the streets’ of New York from the fuzzy (and not at all zombie-like, lawyers!) fiends. A squadron of helicopter gunships flies in to pursue the rampaging werewolves down the streets.

As one whirlybird hovers next to a skyscraper, a werewolf suddenly smashes through one of the building’s upper windows and straight at it. Stunned by the assault, the pilot loses control of the chopper and crashes into the side of the building. Ba-doom!

Artistic merit

The werewolf’s daring assault on the helicopter is filmed in slow motion so we can fully enjoy the improbability of what we’re witnessing. Gloriously, the pilot gets to perform an obligatory “What the...” line, before losing control of his chopper and crashing it.

The classic “What the…” exclamation in films is an interesting phenomena. No matter what the scenario, any expendable extra will always have just enough time to utter those fabled two words, yet never sufficient time to actually complete their sentence.

Deep down, all of us must surely long to meet our maker in a similarly poetic way.

Exploding helicopter innovation

The first lupine-related exploding helicopter.


Sometimes, all you can do is laugh. Hopeless as the stuff of nightmares, the crap werewolves are capable of raising the odd titter.


As the film’s hero, Craig Sheffer is blandly anonymous. Cutting it neither as an action figure nor a top boffin, he has zero screen presence. In his scenes with the Atari-style CGI werewolves, you start to admire their method.

A better actor (and it’s hard at this point to think of a worse one) could perhaps have built an interesting conflict with Dennis Haysbert, the only decent actor in the movie.

Interesting fact

This isn’t the first time Sheffer has come up against werewolves. In the late Eighties, he was involved in a cartoon series spin-off from Teen Wolf.

Review by: Jafo

Saturday 7 June 2014

Machete Kills

Is there a more unlikely action hero than Danny Trejo?

At the coffin-dodging age of 70, the hopes of most actors run no further than a warm cocoa and a nicely paid ‘exposition cameo’. But not our Danny, who’s instead decided to spend his pensionable years carving out (literally in his machete wielding case) a new career in action cinema.

It’s an improbable development, with an incredible story behind it. The two Machete films – Machete (2010) and Machete Kills (2013) – which have catapulted Trejo from bit-part status to leading man fame actually had their as a spoof (yes, spoof) trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse project. It’s now a fully blown franchise.

The story begins with a gang of Mexican revolutionaries threatening to nuke the United States. With the fate of the nation at stake, American President Charlie Sheen (taking a rare day off from getting ‘crack’ed up to the eyeballs and going on TV to talk gibberish) calls in everyone’s favourite oversized-knife-wielding Mexican to save the day. Dangling the prize of a US green card before him (because what else would any Mexican want?), the Prez hires Trejo to infiltrate the gang and stop the plot. But as our crater-faced curmudgeon cuts a steel-edged swathe through the villains, he learns that the nuke threat is just a diversion from another, much more deadly, conspiracy. Yikes.

So, having just celebrated his seventieth birthday, how does Trejo – the only man who can consider Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone up-and-coming young pretenders - fare as an action movie hero?  For the most part, commendably well. Trejo has an undeniable screen presence, even if it’s in large part due the fact he looks like a tattooed Easter Island statue (only with less emotional range).

Danny Trejo: Like an action movie Leslie Nielsen
Here, that stoicism (or inability to act, take your pick) becomes a useful trait. With an intentionally preposterous plot, and the violence played for laughs (the inventive use of intestines is a series trademark), it’s important that somebody appears to be taking matters seriously and Trejo provides a poker-faced calm at the eye of the storm.

In many ways he’s like an action movie version of Leslie Nielsen who successfully dead-panned his way through 20 years of genre spoof silliness. Just don’t expect Trejo to warn someone not to call him Shirley, when brutally disembowelling them is so much quicker.

Still, it’s not all good. Despite the muscly Mexican’s best endeavours, Machete Kills is an uneven watch, jack-knifing from moments of inspired gonzoid invention to self-indulgent onanism. And there’s only one culprit: Robert Rodriguez.

Not content with writing and directing the film, Rodriguez also edits, photographs, produces and writes the music. Between takes he probably shoved a broom up his arse and swept the floor as well.

While you can’t fault this hands-on enthusiasm, the absence of collaborators or critical voices means the film frequently stalls, as Rodriguez amuses himself with another redundant scene.

Exploding Helicopter couldn’t help thinking the film would’ve benefitted from the involvement of an old-school cigar-chomping Hollywood producer. The film badly needed the kind of artistic philistine who’d happily rip 20 pages out of the script without troubling himself about the integrity of the director’s artistic vision.

Still, there’s one happy by-product of Rodriguez giving full reign to his imagination: a truly inspired and unique exploding helicopter.

After kidnapping Mendes – the Mexican revolutionary holding the USA to ransom – Trejo tries to make his escape in a chopper, but is pursued by machine-gun-firing goons in a speedboat. Simply flying away would be much too straightforward for this film, so Trejo leaps from the helicopter into the speedboat and starts doffing up the henchmen. Having dispatched two of the goons in double-quick fashion, Danny Boy deals with the final baddie in virtuoso fashion.

With the pilot-less chopper still weaving about in the sky, Our pock-marked pensioner grabs hold of a fishing rod that’s handily lying around. He casts the line and hooks the helicopter on the end like it was a prize marlin. Attaching the rod to the troublesome villain, he triggers the spring-loaded reel causing him to be violently wrenched out of the boat. Whizzed towards the chopper, the hapless henchman smashes into the whirlybird which, of course, explodes.

Artistic merit 

Creative, inventive, entertaining, this is the very best kind of exploding helicopter. Watching this scene, celebrating it, it’s why we run this website.

Exploding helicopter innovation 

Only known use of a fishing rod to destroy a helicopter.

Do passengers survive? 

Yes, Trejo and Mendes survive having made a highly improbable leap from the helicopter.


Rodriguez provides one of Exploding Helicopter’s favourite supporting artists, William Sadler (Die Hard 2, The Shawshank Redemption), with a juicy little part as a redneck Sheriff out to lynch Machete.

Always a classy presence, Sadler has largely spent his career in middling films and TV work. If you were to draw up a list of actors who deserves to be better used then Sadler would surely have to be on there.


Unfortunately, not every casting decision is as good. Lady Gaga appears briefly as ‘La Chameleon’, an assassin whose nickname comes from her mastery of disguise. The character actually serves little purpose in the film, other than to chew up screen time and provide Rodriguez with the opportunity to crowbar in pointless cameos from all his Hollywood chums, such as Cuba Gooding Jr, Walton Goggins and Antonio Banderas. (Though in fairness, this is probably the biggest acting gig Cuba Gooding Jr has had in about a decade.)

Favourite line 

Danny Trejo strikes a blow for Luddites everywhere: “Machete don’t tweet.”

Interesting fact 

Apparently this is the eleventh time Danny Trejo has appeared in a Robert Rodriguez film. And with the film dangling the prospect of a further sequel - Machete Kills Again – it looks like the partnership isn’t going to end here.

Review by: Jafo

Still want more? Then listen to the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Machete Kills. Listen on iTunes, Podomatic, Stitcher, YourListen or right here and now.