Thursday, April 14, 2011

STRIKING DISTANCE (1993) - Willis, serial killers, and boats

As a huge action movie addict, it's no surprise I'm a big Bruce Willis fan. I think Die Hard might be the best action movie of all time, and most of Willis' other movies are pretty cool too and he's rightly regarded as one of the all-time classic movie tough guys. He beats people senseless, gets hammered drunk, shoots at least twenty guys per movie and always has great one-liners. That being said, I had never heard of Striking Distance before this week. No one ever recommended it to me, I never saw it on T.V., never even saw it on a Blockbuster shelf. So while cruising I saw it listed in Willis' filmography, so I figured, what the hell, it was probably worth a watch and set out to find a copy.

Just cruisin' with pop.
Tom Hardy (Bruce Willis) is a veteran cop with a big problem. He testified in a police brutality case against his partner, who just happens to be his psychotic cousin Jimmy DeTillo (Dennis Farina). Hardy comes from a family of police officers, with his father, uncle and two cousins serving as officers in the Pittsburgh police department. After Jimmy is found guilty of police brutality, every cop in town turns against Tom, considering him a traitor and a rat for selling out one of their own. In midst of all of this, Tom has been investigating a series of grisly murders of young girls by a killer known as the Polish Hill strangler. The investigation is going nowhere, with very few leads, but Tom believes that the killer is definitely a cop because of the way he always manages to stay several steps ahead of the police.

Sarah Jessica Parker is surprisingly hot as a cop. It's the uniform.
Driving to a police function with his father, they respond to an emergency call claiming the Polish Hill serial killer has been spotted. They join the high speed chase of the subject, nearly killing themselves several times and finally end up ramming the killer off the road, smashing both the cars in the process. Tom passes out, and wakes up to find his leg torn to shit and his father dead of a gunshot, with the killer nowhere in sight. After recovering from his injury, he's transferred out of the regular force and sent to the River Rescue unit as punishment for questioning the Polish Hill investigation. Tom is assigned a new partner, Jo Christmas (Sarah Jessica Parker), who he dislikes at first.

Meet Jimmy: Tom's psychotic, police-brutality loving cousin.
It's not long before more bodies start to show up in the river, and now it's apparently become personal, because all of the victims are women that Tom knew in the past. Tom and Jo begin to investigate the murders, and Tom becomes suspicious of Danny DeTillo (Tom Sizemore), his cousin and brother to the dead Jimmy, who dropped out of the force and has a lot of bad blood with Tom. Despite the  fact the police force hates his guts, Tom digs deeper into the murders and begins to doubt the official story about his father's killer, the identity of the Polish Hill serial killer, and the fact that his uncle and cousin might not be all the seem to be.

Little known '90s fact: cars could fly.
Even though Striking Distance might sound like it's got a complicated plot, it really doesn't. The story is pretty predictable, and I guessed the big plot twist near the end really early in the movie. Basic story aside, most of the characters aren't really interesting. Tom is a classic Bruce Willis cop character, with drinking problems, bad relationships with women, etc. Sarah Jessica Parker mostly just fills the love interest role and looks good in her dress or underwear. The villain, who I won't reveal even though the reveal is pretty obvious, isn't that good either. The best parts of the movie are undoubtedly when the action kicks in: the car chases and boat chases are good stuff, really frantic and some slick camera work. Surprisingly, the gun play is kind of low level for a 90s action flick, but what little there is makes up for it. Any music there might have been was totally forgettable.

The classic Bruce Willis shooting face!
Striking Distance is a basic action movie which doesn't even come close to matching the Die Hard series of awesomeness. The plot drags along and there just aren't enough thrills to make up for a weak story and even weaker cast apart from Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker. I enjoyed it, but wouldn't go out of my way to watch it again. It's just not that good.

TL;DR - Tries and fails to match Die Hard's excitement. Not bad, but not good either - 5/10

Saturday, April 9, 2011

TRON: LEGACY (2010) - A feast for eyes & ears

The original Tron was a landmark movie for special effects and computer graphics. In the 1980s, computers were just starting to come into their own in the movie business and the ability to create the sort of images we take for granted today was unheard of. Think about it: movies on the Lifetime channel probably have CGI a hundred times better than what was possible in the '80s. The computers used to make Tron had about 2 MB of memory, less than even the cheapest cell phone today, but at the time, it was the coolest thing to ever hit the screen. It's no surprise that Tron became a cult classic, and it's equally no surprise that Disney knew it'd have to pump out a sequel sooner or later when the technology wow-factor came around. So now, twenty something years and $150+ million later, we got TRON: Legacy.

The CGI is amazing. The acting isn't.
The movie opens with a flashback to 1980s, featuring a young Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) tucking in his young son Sam to bed and telling him about work at his EMCON company. Flynn leaves after promising to see Sam in a bit, and later vanishes without a trace. Twenty years later and Sam (Garrett Hedlund) has grown up into the company's biggest shareholder in the wake of his dad's disappearance. Apart from dropping by once a year to play tricks on the company executives, Sam hardly seems to care about his company, and is sort of a loner - living in a garage with his dog and riding his sleek bike around while looking cool in leather jackets.

Olivia Wilde in 3D - puts butts in seats
One night, Flynn's old friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) tells Sam about a page he received, which strangely seems to have come from Flynn's old video arcade. Sam reluctantly heads over to investigate, and finds an old mainframe waiting for him. After messing around with the keys, he is transported into a virtual world inside the computer - the Grid. Immediately after arriving in the Grid, Sam gets into trouble. He's picked up by programs and sent off to the games. The games are essentially gladiator fights to the death, and while fighting the most feared program on the Grid, Rinzler, Sam is discovered to be human. He's taken to see CLU (young, computerized Jeff Bridges), who is a copy of his father Flynn, and has become a dictator in the Grid. CLU fights Sam in the arena, and just as he's about to kill him during a light cycle race, in comes Quorra (Olivia Wilde) to save his skinny ass.

Quorra takes Sam to her hideout, which is revealed to be Flynn's home. Flynn has been trapped in the Grid for over twenty years, hostage to CLU and unable to escape. After being reunited with his father, Sam learns that the page he received originally came from CLU, as he is desperate to get out into the real world and enact his vision of a "perfect system." Flynn warns his son that it would be catastrophic if CLU got out, and both of them, alongside the oh so sexy Quorra have to do everything in their power to prevent CLU from making it into the real world, while trying to get Sam and Flynn to make it out themselves.

The de-aged Bridges. You either like it, or it freaks you out.
Right from the start, the trailer for Legacy made it pretty clear that this was obviously an effects driven movie. The light cycle scenes are insane, as is the club fight scene near the middle of the movie. On the big screen and with brutal surround sound it's really good stuff. Some of the other scenes with long shots showing the entire virtual city are pretty rad as well, and of course if you like electronic music, you'll dig the Daft Punk soundtrack. Hedlund and Wilde do a good job with their parts, though nothing spectacular really shines through. Jeff Bridges has by far the most interesting role as Flynn, but it's almost a shame how little we actually get to see of him. Also criminally underused was Tron, who gets a rushed plot twist of his own near the end which feels a bit cheap.

The Dude abides in cyberspace!
Tron: Legacy is enjoyable, there's no doubt about it. The visuals are snazzy, the music is good, and fans of the original get their long lived patience rewarded (only a 30 year wait, right?). At the end though, I was left wondering if some of that ridiculous $170 million budget could have been spent crafting a story that could match the spectacle that unfolds on the screen. Sure, it's an extravagant orgy of light, color and sound and it's exhilarating to watch it on a huge screen and with massive speakers, but Bridges seems wasted and the only thing memorable about it is the obvious set up for a sequel. Maybe third time's the charm and Disney will prove me wrong when it comes out.

TL;DR - Visually dazzling and a glorious soundtrack. Just don't ask for a great plot too - 6/10

Monday, April 4, 2011

TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN (2010) - Red Dawn: Aussie Style

I am not Australian (too bad, I know). But if I were, here's a few things I would be worried about: cane toads overrunning my house, radiation from Japan's nuclear reactors, the Wallabies getting embarrassed at the Rugby World Cup, or getting killed by snakes, spiders, bogans, Jacki Weaver, sharks, etc. One thing I'd most likely not lose any sleep over would be the unlikely prospect of my country being invaded by a million-man army from a bunch of Asian countries in the middle of the night. But hey, we Americans didn't worry about the Russians invading back in the 80s, and look what happened in Red Dawn. If it wasn't for our patriotic Wolverines and heroes like Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, we'd all be speaking Russian, comrades.

Yeah, let's go camping in "Hell." Sounds safe and all...
Ellie Linton (Caitlin Stasey) is a regular teenager living in a small town in Australia. The summer is coming to an end and along with her best friend Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood), she plans a weekend camping trip to a remote spot called "Hell" way out in the bush. After begging her parents to let them borrow the family Land Rover, they get a group of their friends together for the trip. Local Greek guy and general bad boy Homer (Deniz Akdeniz) is on for the ride, as is Corrie's boyfriend Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), super religious Robyn (Ashleigh Cummings), Ellie's crush and badass Asian guy Lee (Chris Pang), and the rich, out of town girl Fiona (Phoebe Tonkin). They pack up and drive out far away from the town of Wirrawee, where they spend a chill weekend just hanging out.

No radio, no power, no phones, no YouTube cat videos. The shit's really hit the fan now.
In the middle of the night, Ellie and the others wake up to the sound of hundreds of jet planes flying over their campsite headed towards the city, which they shrug off as just some military exercise. When they make their way back into town, they find that all of their parents are gone, and all of the town folk are nowhere to be found. Some bastard has even shot Ellies dog. The phones are dead, power is out, and no one knows what the hell is going on. They wait till dark and sneak up to the local fairgrounds, where they realize Australia has been invaded by a huge army from some unnamed Asian countries, apparently out to get some of dem precious Australian resources.

Parents are annoying anyway. Maybe concentration camps aren't so bad after all.
All of their families have been rounded up and are imprisoned by the soldiers. While making their way out of the fairground, they get ambushed by soldiers, and they fight back, Ellie killing them by blowing up a lawnmower. Together, the teenagers realize they have to fight back against the invasion. Yeah, it sounds a lot like the plot of Red Dawn, but the story develops in some different ways, and the kids have to grow up quickly and plan out their attacks carefully. Along the way they'll find out more about the invasion and go through some more bitching action scenes (the truck chase with dune buggies was pretty legit).

Everything in Australia is dangerous. Even lawnmowers. Especially lawnmowers.
First, let's get the gripes and bad stuff out of the way. Some of the dialogue is cheesy. I mean, extremely cheesy. So are some of the scenes in the beginning, which don't make much sense, like coming back home to a deserted town with no power or phone lines working, only to open your MacBook Pro that's apparently still on standby. Or some of Lee's lines which feel kind of forced. Or the scene where Ellie and Fiona are waiting to blow up a huge fuel truck and decide it's a good time to start some girly talk while enemy soldiers sneak up behind them.

Goddamn Commies hating our freedoms.
The good stuff? Well, for a movie with a modest budget like this, the action sequences are pretty convincing and well-shot. There's none of that shitty Sci-Fi channel CGI with fake explosions and terrible slow motion. The action bits are fun to watch and pretty exciting. The cast is likable as well, which is always important when you're dealing with a nonsense plot like one of the most remote countries on Earth being invaded by a massive army and teenagers saving the day. There's a good amount of humor mixed into the movie, which I enjoyed a lot more than the attempts by the plot to create any sort of real drama. The Greek guy Homer is hilarious in most scenes, and the stoner dude near the end had me cracking up as well ("Woof! Woof! Dogs... how funny are they!") Homer and Ellie were the stand out characters for me, but to be fair everyone else held their own. Also, I might have a new crush on Caitlin Stasey. Maybe it's her dirt bike-riding, chainsaw-using, AK-47-shooting ways or maybe it's the accent, but I just have this unexplained longing now to move to Australia and find me a hot Aussie girl. She's fooooooiiiine.

You can liberate me anytime you want, Ellie.
It's too bad I've never read any of the books this movie is based on, so I can't comment on how faithful an adaptation it really is. In any case, it was an enjoyable flick - one of those silly but ultimately fun to watch movies.... like just about everything I watch and review on here. My main criteria for movie ratings is the fun factor. Did I enjoy the movie even if the story was shaky and I was intensely jealous of not having an old Land Rover like Ellie? Pretty much, yeah. I just wanted to vicariously defend Australia by blowing up some country-invading bastards. Since I'll never manage to get the Australian accent down without sounding like a retard, I guess this movie will have to do. If you can't be arsed to watch my favorite Aussie flick this year Animal Kingdom, or you want chicks, explosions, and laughs instead of bleak, family crime drama, watch this instead.

TL;DR - Australia does Red Dawn but with less Charlie Sheen and more hot girls with guns - 7.5/10