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Underwhelming effort

Posted : 3 years, 9 months ago on 25 February 2014 06:52 (A review of Battle Ground)

"A forward assault on those machine guns is suicide!"

Even though Australia is not exactly perceived as a leader in global cinema, war films are more or less a specialty of Aussie filmmakers. Peter Weir's Gallipoli remains a true classic, while more recent efforts like Kokoda and Beneath Hill 60 have managed to tell compelling tales with limited resources. 2013's Forbidden Ground (also known as Battle Ground) was a low-budget, reportedly self-financed endeavour on the part of directors Johan Earl and Adrian Powers, making it a passion project that should've yielded something special. Alas, the finished product is burdened by an amateurish feel pervading most every frame. Forbidden Ground is a flat, underwhelming effort all the way through to its core, and it's hard to see anything but wasted potential on-screen.

Following a British charge on German lines in France during World War I, only three soldiers are left alive - Sergeant Major Arthur Wilkins (co-director Earl), Corporal Richard Jennings (Martin Copping), and Private O'Leary (Tim Pocock). In the aftermath, the men are left stranded in the middle of No Man's Land, with a matter of hours to return to allied trenches before the area is hit with an artillery bombardment. With Jennings suffering from a missing leg, it's a slow crawl across the treacherous, muddy terrain in the dark, with hostile German soldiers on one side and on-edge British soldiers on the other side.

The minimal budget of Forbidden Ground is clear from the outset. As a result, the picture is never quite convincing - it gets close at times, but Earl and Powers are never able to push it over the line. Costuming and firearms look authentic enough, but CGI is extremely rocky and over-used, with phoney-looking bullet hits and various other elements that look too obviously digital. Added to this, the film carries a cheap appearance - visuals look consistently flat, and the colour palette is just excessively washed-out, a done-to-death technique that hasn't been innovative in about a decade. Close-ups are frequent, restricting the film's scope and again making the budget pretty obvious. Added to this, the majority of Forbidden Ground takes place at night in presumably pitch-black conditions in the middle of No Man's Land, yet lighting is too harsh and illuminating; artificial light sources are clearly being used. And with underwhelming sound design, pacing is much too dreary throughout - the movie simply refuses to come to life in any substantial way.

Dramatically, Forbidden Ground is very flat, which is also due in large part to the dull acting. It's difficult to connect with any of the soldiers on-screen, and it's even harder to recall names to go with the faces. The put-on British accents by the predominantly Australian cast are never quite convincing enough, either. Forbidden Ground also revels in typical anti-war film clichés - for instance, there are snobby, arrogant commanding officers who have no problem sending soldiers to their death for no good reason. You could say that this is historically accurate, but the depiction here borders on cartoonish, lacking conviction and depth. German soldiers are also shown, but, even to casual viewers, it's obvious that they are merely Australian actors speaking in German with no attempt to emulate European tonal inclinations or accents. It's just really false. And this is to say nothing of the pretentious, moralising screenplay, which also contains bone-headed anti-abortion themes.

To the credit of Earl and Powers, some parts of Forbidden Ground are exciting and/or touching, but other moments are marred by choppy editing and slapdash direction. There's just not a great deal of flair or tension here; it's all very ordinary. Forbidden Ground looks and feels every bit the straight-to-video war drama that it is, and that's extremely unfortunate. It gets points for ambition considering it was a virtually no-budget movie, but ambition is not the same as achievement. There are far better war movies out there.


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A worthy successor

Posted : 3 years, 9 months ago on 24 February 2014 06:16 (A review of Wolf Creek 2)

"Obviously you don't know the first rule of the outback, hero. You never, ever stop!"

Despite its mixed critical reception, 2005's Wolf Creek transformed into something of a sleeper hit at the global box office, becoming a cult film with some revering it as the Australian answer to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Arriving nine long years after its forerunner, Wolf Creek 2 is not an unnecessary direct-to-video follow-up, but rather a robust, vicious blast of Aussie horror produced with a competent sleight-of-hand. The sequel was directed and co-written by Greg McLean, who masterminded the original picture before going on to create the 2007 crocodile thriller Rogue. Wolf Creek 2 is a slight step down in quality from its forerunner, but its a worthy successor which doesn't diminish its integrity, and feels like an organic continuation of the 2005 chiller. It's hard to imagine any long-time fans being disappointed.

When a pair of German backpackers (Phillipe Klaus and Shannon Ashlyn) begin trekking through the Wolf Creek area of the Australian outback, they attract the attention of deranged ocker Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), who delights in torturing and killing tourists who dare to venture into the area. Before long, Englishman Paul Hammersmith (Ryan Corr) becomes unwittingly entangled in Mick's exploits, commencing a non-stop pursuit across the harsh outback landscape where Mick has the upper-hand.

The mystery of 2005's Wolf Creek was one of its most effective assets, as we were left to decide if Mick actually exists in the context of the story. With a sequel, McLean ran the risk of cheapening Mick as a character, dissipating his mythological status by turning him into a run-of-the-mill slasher like Jason Voorhees. But McLean again bases the movie on a true story (the accuracy of this claim remains up in the air, though), and Mick's existence is still open for interpretation. Wolf Creek 2 also begins with title cards that are identical to those which preface the original film, pointing out how many backpackers go missing every year, and how many are never seen again. McLean and co-writer Aaron Sterns also cleverly toy with viewer expectations and keep us guessing about where the story is headed. In fact, the script seems to have taken its cues from Psycho, as potential protagonists are killed and we have no idea when the buck will stop.

Produced for a more generous sum than the original movie (reports place the budget at $7 million), Wolf Creek 2 is a smoother experience than its predecessor, with a larger scope and more polished production values. (Though a handful of shots look surprisingly low-quality, as if filmed with GoPro cameras.) It seems as if a bit of CGI was used, but there are some impressive moments pulled off with practical effects. A set-piece involving the destruction of a truck is sensational, the type of practically-achieved special effect that we rarely see these days. Another of Wolf Creek 2's biggest assets is its dark sense of humour. McLean peppers the movie with amusing vignettes that you'll likely feel guilty for laughing at, including a sequence of Mick demolishing kangaroos with his truck to the tune of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Later, pleasant classical music plays over a brutal slaughter, a hilarious juxtaposition which gives the movie further flavour.

It's amazing to consider just how much the cinematic marketplace has changed since the original movie, with the torture porn genre essentially disappearing in favour of PG-13 horrors and found footage productions. Fortunately, Wolf Creek 2 is a fucking brutal affair. Trimmed to avoid an R18+ rating in Australia, the film is nevertheless exceedingly violent and gory, but McLean also displays a surprising amount of tact. While Hostel and Saw dwell on the nastiness, McLean is smart enough to grasp that we don't need to see everything, leaving some of the more horrific moments to the imagination. Wolf Creek 2 is not exactly scary like, say, The Conjuring, but it is terrifying. A scene set in Mick's underground lair is the stuff of nightmares - it's an unnerving sequence beset with chilling, horrific imagery; a testament to the effectiveness of the minimalist set design as well as the outstanding prosthetic and make-up effects.

Unfortunately, McLean does make one fairly notable error. To set the tone, Wolf Creek 2 begins with a scene of Mick slaughtering a couple of police officers who issue him a speeding fine simply out of boredom. The cops are one-dimensional cartoons, and the scene comes across as an excuse to increase Mick's kill count. It's enjoyable, to be sure, but it doesn't entirely fit in with the tone of the franchise. Still, Mick's one-liners are in full force here, with McLean again feeding the crazed murderer a stream of colourful dialogue to disperse. Mick is terrifying and borderline insane, but he's such an entertaining character to watch, and Jarratt again sinks his teeth into the role with gusto. It's hard to overstate the impressiveness of Jarratt's work - he becomes Mick Taylor. Inevitably, the rest of the performers don't make quite as much of an impression, though Corr is rather notable due to how believable he is. He manages to sell his fear quite commendably, and a late scene allows Corr to give his character some meaty personality.

Regrettably, the focus of the Wolf Creek 2 is shifted to Mick, leaving his victims to receive ancillary roles. Indeed, it takes a while for the "main" character to even be introduced, and there's very little time to get to know him before Mick begins his relentless pursuit. It took a solid half-hour for Mick to show up in the original Wolf Creek, as we were given time to acquaint ourselves with the three leads. The victims here are ciphers, making this sequel a bit less successful than its predecessor. Still, Wolf Creek 2 does play surprisingly well on its own merits, making it an enjoyable companion piece to the 2005 movie.


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Exhaustively moronic and too long

Posted : 3 years, 9 months ago on 23 February 2014 08:08 (A review of Battleship)

"We are going to die. You're going to die, I'm going to die, we're all going to die... just not today."

There's a long-running online myth that, once upon a time, a respected chef attempted to perfectly replicate a McDonalds Big Mac despite not knowing the recipe, assuming it'd be easy considering that it's such a cheap, nasty, low quality burger. But although he tried his hardest, he could never get it just right. Battleship feels quite a bit like that infamous failed experiment - it's what happens when otherwise smart people attempt to purposely create a product that's below their abilities. In this case, director Peter Berg ostensibly set out to ape Michael Bay's Transformers formula by turning an '80s toy property into a dumb blockbuster with loud explosions and jingoistic military propaganda. But, alas, he cannot quite get there, leaving us with a second-generation Transformers that nobody wanted. Battleship wants to be a fun ride, but it's also exhaustively moronic and much too long, not to mention it features an incredibly bland acting ensemble who put in zero effort.

A reckless underachiever, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is pushed to join the Navy by his brother (Alexander Skarsgård) who hopes that it will set Alex on the correct life path. Alex may be smart, and he's a naturally gifted sailor, but he's unable to control himself, and needs to learn how to shape up, be a team player and take some responsibility. He's also dating the impossibly hot Sam (Brooklyn Decker), who happens to be the daughter of his commanding officer, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson). After a few disastrous mishaps, Alex's career in the Navy looks to be over, but he's thrown a curveball when aliens arrive on the planet, trapping part of the fleet inside a powerful force field. When Alex becomes the most senior officer on his ship left alive, it's up to him to captain the vessel, compelling him to shape up, be a team player, take responsibility, blah, blah, blah.

It's foolhardy to expect meaningful character development in a summer blockbuster of this ilk, but the story's dramatics are absolutely woeful, serving up cliché after cliché with relish. Alex dating the Admiral's daughter is basically 1998's Armageddon, while Alex's character arc is just a rehash of what James Kirk went through in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot. It doesn't help that the first act of the picture is a complete bore, trudging through half-hearted attempts at character development that only induce yawns. The script by Jon and Erich Hoeber (last seen behind Whiteout and Red, a double whammy of awfulness) also adheres to the alien invasion template to the letter. After all, it assumes that an alien race would travel a long way and expend many of their resources to wage war on humankind. It also assumes that their defeating the aliens will mean an end to all future conflicts since they apparently won't try again. However, there is some interesting stuff buried deep inside the movie. For instance, the aliens appear to be using tactics and have a game plan, setting out to establish communications with their home planet rather than just mindlessly killing.

Nominally, Battleship is based on the classic board game of the same name, but you would hardly know it. This is simply a generic alien invasion movie tagged with the title of Battleship for brand recognition, though the film does incorporate one sequence in which the humans and aliens more or less play Battleship as they blindly fire into the darkness due to lack of radar. It's an interesting idea, but Berg does fuck all with it; the sequence lasts all of five minutes. The movie is also a powerfully stupid endeavour aimed at the lobotomised. For instance, when the aliens land, they only attack the ships that open fire on them, but seem to have no problem demolishing highways on the mainland and killing civilians. And it's seriously unbelievable just how much slack the aliens cut Hopper's boat. One ship is blown apart after firing one warning shot, but Hopper gets away with far more before his vessel is targeted. It's really bone-headed writing.

After spending more than 90 minutes stuck in a cinematic coma, Battleship at long last roars to life for its finale. Low on options, Alex fires up an ancient decommissioned Battleship to make their final stand against the alien invaders, enlisting the help of the ship's former crew who can still kick ass despite their advanced age. The ensuing set-piece is somewhat fun, but over too soon. It's a shame that these old dogs weren't recruited much earlier into the narrative, especially since they're manning the only Battleship in a film called fucking Battleship. Apart from the finale, the action sequences are for the most part lethally dull, an aesthetic mishmash of the filmmaking tendencies of Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams. There's some shaky handheld camerawork peppered throughout, and the frame is filled with far too much obvious CGI and distracting lens flares. This is a really ugly-looking film, and its ugliness is exacerbated by the aggressively teal colour palette. Battleship was reportedly produced for a massive $209 million, yet the money is not visible on-screen - most of the digital effects look incredibly phoney. What happened to the days of actors in make-up and costumes portraying aliens? Someone should've gotten Rob Bottin to work on this film.

2012 really wasn't a good year for Kitsch, with Battleship becoming the second box office disaster that he had headlined in a matter of months. It's clear why the actor's career as a lead never really took off, as he's completely bland and charisma-free. It's all the more disappointing considering that Liam Neeson also stars and could've been the movie's hero, but instead he's utterly wasted, disappearing for pretty much the entire second act only to achieve absolutely nothing in the finale. Making her acting debut here is singer Rhianna who's utterly ineffectual, attempting the Michelle Rodriguez brand of gung-ho female badassery but ultimately coming off as forced. And for a film intended to launch her film career, Rhianna's dialogue is often restricted to single sentences of clichéd action movie speak (read [Link removed - login to see]">this). Is this what passes for a strong female character in an action movie these days? None of the other actors make much of an impact, with a completely interchangeable Brooklyn Decker and a flat Alexander Skarsgård.

I'm not opposed to mindless popcorn-munching entertaining, and I didn't expect Battleship to be a great deal more than explosions and mindless action. But at an interminable 130 minutes, Berg's blockbuster is lethargic and uninvolving, requiring all viewers to literally switch off their brains. If you're in a really unfussy movie-watching mood, then you might overlook the awful dialogue, dreary performances and manufactured drama for the sake of a few halfway enjoyable action set-pieces. But there are far better blockbusters out there which deserve your attention. If you can make it through to the end, there's a post-credits scene which sets up a possible sequel, but it's unlikely that it will ever materialise considering the limp box office.


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Harrowing contemporary war picture

Posted : 3 years, 9 months ago on 18 February 2014 06:55 (A review of Lone Survivor)

"There ain't nothing I can't do. No sky too high, no sea too rough, no muff too tough."

The last time director Peter Berg attempted a contemporary war picture, the result was 2007's The Kingdom, an average-at-best action film kneecapped by its overt patriotism and wobbly execution. Added to this, the rest of Berg's résumé fails to inspire much confidence, with titles ranging from serviceable (The Rundown) to interminable (Battleship, Hancock). How pleasantly surprising and refreshing, then, to witness 2013's Lone Survivor, which is arguably Berg's best movie. Based on a tragic true-life story, this is a powerful, harrowing war movie, permeated with enough gravitas and emotion to emerge as one of the year's most impressive motion picture achievements. It's very much the cousin of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, as it depicts a disastrous military operation with a violent, boots-on-the-ground sensibility.

In mid-2005, a military operation known as Red Wings went into effect. The objective was to find and apprehend Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), who was responsible for a number of military casualties in the Middle East. As part of the operation, a four-man team of Navy SEALs - Marcus Luttrell (Marl Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) - are sent to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. Bonding while dealing with their respective personal issues, the men are thrown a curveball when a few locals stumble into view just as their communications equipment cuts out. Without a line to home base, the men decide to cut the locals loose as they retreat to higher ground in a bid to restore communications. Before long, Taliban forces swarm the area, leaving the four men stranded as they battle hundreds of armed soldiers while attempting to get a clear line to their commanding officer back at base (Eric Bana).

Reportedly, Universal were unwilling to finance Lone Survivor unless Berg directed Battleship for the studio, which perhaps explains why that blockbuster was so slipshod. In a satisfyingly ironic twist, Battleship was a money-losing flop for the studio, whereas Lone Survivor has developed into quite a sleeper hit. Berg, who also wrote the film, really threw himself into the project, conducting extensive research and even embedding himself in a Navy SEAL team to experience service life firsthand. To heighten authenticity, the opening credits unfold over authentic video footage of SEAL training, and Berg employs an R-rating to soak the dialogue in f-words and military jargon. To be sure, there isn't an enormous amount of character depth here, but Berg spends enough time developing the protagonists during the film's first act, which gives them all a distinct identity and presence. Moreover, we see these tough guys depicted as human beings with loved ones back at home, and we feel that they're fighting for something meaningful.

Although the title of Lone Survivor is a spoiler, Berg ruins all sense of surprise for the uninitiated by including an idiotic flash-forward in the very first scene. It's a dumb move, but, miraculously, it doesn't diminish the tension or horror of the movie's action scenes. Lone Survivor is one of the most visceral war movies in history, right up there with Saving Private Ryan due to the realism of the carnage on display. Berg establishes a lived-in feel, giving us the experience of what it would be like on the battlefield surrounded by Taliban forces. The shootouts here are viscerally exciting, to be sure, but they're also downright horrifying, as these highly-trained soldiers look to be in utter agony as they get hit by bullets on a consistent basis, but are forced to suck it up if they want any chance of escaping. Added to this, they tumble down unforgiving rocky terrain which leads to gashes and bruises, making their chances of survival look bleaker by the minute. The intensity that Berg brings to the material is undeniable, and this reviewer winced several times. The stunt guys went through hell to bring this gripping story to the screen, and the results are something to be proud of. Furthermore, Berg resists the urge to employ shaky-cam; his direction is steady and clear, and the results are fucking beautiful.

The picture takes a fascinating turn into its third act, finding the titular lone survivor being picked up by Afghani villagers who vow to protect him due to their religious beliefs. It gives dimension to the Afghani people, showing that not everyone in the country is a Taliban soldier. Added to this, it emphasises the great courage of Taliban-resisting villagers in Afghanistan, who are given a special mention in the end credits. However, Berg unfortunately turns to unnecessary popcorn-munching clichés for the climax, staging a battle scene that never happened in real-life and feels too Hollywood. It may be entertaining, but it comes off as hoary and forced, especially when the Americans show up to save the day. A gentler conclusion would have worked far better.

It's to the credit of the performers that, despite heavy costuming, each of them were able to create a distinct on-screen persona which allows us to distinguish them from one another. The acting is top-flight right down the line, with the four leads delivering believable, compelling performances. Receiving top billing is Wahlberg, though he doesn't receive any special focus once the fire-fight breaks out. These guys are in the same life-threatening situation, and Wahlberg, Foster, Hirsch and Kitsch are emotionally rattling as they're forced to confront their own mortality. Kitsch is perhaps the biggest surprise - his woefully flat performances in John Carter, Battleship and Savages instilled very little hope for the thespian, but he's an unexpected standout here. Also in the cast is the always-reliable Eric Bana, who's sensational.

One of the most touching aspects of Lone Survivor is the postscript which closes the picture. Images of the real people from this tale are shown, including intimate photographs and videos, and brisk captions cap off the experience beautifully. If you are able to hold back a tear, then you are a stronger man than this reviewer. Berg has clear admiration for men in uniform, and this film is a testament to their courage, toughness and, more importantly, humanity. It doesn't quite join the ranks of Saving Private Ryan, and it's certainly not as good as the phenomenal book, but it's an exciting R-rated manly movie which pulls no punches in its depiction of modern warfare.


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An assault on good taste and intelligence...

Posted : 3 years, 10 months ago on 16 February 2014 05:17 (A review of Assault on Wall Street)

"If the government, the prosecutors and the judges fail on their duty, I will not fail on mine."

The last Uwe Boll-directed motion picture I viewed was 2008's Far Cry, one of the filmmaker's trademark videogame adaptations, and I almost lost the will to live. Yet, Boll is still churning out flick after flick, and now we have 2013's Assault on Wall Street, an attempt by the German shit-purveyor to create a "mature" Taxi Driver-esque thriller. Tackling the 2008 Financial Crisis armed with outspoken (if not exactly groundbreaking) views about America's economy and Wall Street in general, Assault had plenty of potential, but it's squandered in the hands of the infamous ToiletBoll, who shows once again that he should never be trusted to write his own screenplays - or direct ANYTHING.

A blue-collar worker with a military background, Jim (Dominic Purcell) is in serious financial trouble, struggling to both pay his mounting bills and fund the cancer treatment for his wife Rosie (Erin Karplunk). Jim's life savings are sunk into investments, but the market suddenly crashes and his money disappears, leaving the broken man to battle off bankruptcy as other outside forces keep draining his funds and demanding more money. Despite hiring a shifty attorney (Eric Roberts), the situation only worsens, and Jim subsequently loses his job. Tragedy eventually strikes, prompting the angry, alone Jim to amass a stockpile of firearms and go after the Wall Street workers responsible for losing his money.

It should come as no surprise, but Boll's script is completely one-dimensional. Jim is depicted as a hard-working Everyman with no flaws - a stereotypical hero buried in debt with a sweet, dying wife. It's surprising that Boll didn't also throw in a dementia-ridden mother or a three-legged dog, just to hammer home the message that Jim is a solid guy who's been dealt a rough hand and deserves to exact revenge. Meanwhile, in Boll's mind, anyone who wears a suit and tie is a greedy scumbag who deserves to be killed. There's no moral middle ground here, with Boll painting the story in broad strokes of black and white, afraid to present a thoughtful treatise on who to blame in this situation. It's boiled down to a very simplistic equation of a man with a gun, and it doesn't help that Boll's research for the 2008 Financial Crisis probably amounted to reading the cliff-notes on Wikipedia.

Although Boll's cinematic technique has improved in terms of surface details, he's still the same old clueless moron when it comes to storytelling. Assault on Wall Street is simply boring as hell, with Boll perpetually insisting on a depressing, sombre tone in an attempt to seem "mature." Problem is, he lacks the style to execute this material properly. The film is a descent into the worst kind of uncomfortable gloominess, and there's no compelling reason to watch this malarkey unfold on-screen. Boll inserts some ideas into the script, but it's text rather than subtext; characters spell out the "big ideas" in dialogue, but the movie doesn't do doing anything with them. Instead, Boll uses this stuff as background details for a B-grade actioner.

Indeed, the movie eventually culminates with Jim waging war against Wall Street. He establishes himself as a hypocrite early into the massacre by letting a young bloke escape because of the clichéd "I have a pregnant wife!" line, before gunning down an entire floor of stockbrokers, with female receptionists also caught in the grenade blasts. It's a wish-fulfilment fantasy, but it's impossible to have fun with any of this shit - we're meant to just accept that these guys deserve their fates simply due to the jobs that they hold. One can maybe understand if Jim murdered a handful of players who personally screwed him, but such over-the-top theatrics are ghastly. Boll also fails to grasp concepts like tact and flair. It's glum enough to see workers getting shot, but Boll crosses a line by showing the aftermath of one killing, dwelling on the image of the man's brains splattered all over the pavement. It's just not necessary, coming off as exploitative when Boll wants to call himself sophisticated. The message about empowerment and revenge is completely wrong-headed.

And let's not get too far into the sheer idiocy of the flick, with Boll refusing to back anything with so much as a semblance of logic. For instance, Jim plans every step of his quest for vengeance in a hotel room, with maps, notes and images of targets plastered on the walls. Apparently the hotel's maid never saw any of it while cleaning his room on a daily basis. By the same token, some of his murders occur in broad daylight, and, at one stage, in an underground parking station which would almost certainly have a security camera or two. But he's never caught, and the police apparently have no leads. Plus, without giving too much away, Jim manages to frame another man for his crimes, despite witnesses and security cameras being able to verify that this man was in his office during the climactic massacre. Oh well, we are dealing with the same filmmaker who created a comedy out of 9/11, and who beat up film critics in a boxing ring under false pretences.

Boll never fails to assemble an impressive cast, but once again he squanders just about everyone. To his credit, Boll at least makes good use of Purcell here, playing to the hulking actor's strengths and prying some emotion out of the performer. Purcell is a naturally talented actor, so it's a shame to see him wasting his time on this bollocks. The rest of the actors make little impact, with Edward Furlong (yes, John Connor from Terminator 2) doing nothing to stretch his range, while Keith David is left to founder in a thankless supporting role. Eric Roberts also shows up as Jim's lawyer, but it's just weird to see him behind a desk wearing glasses.

Assault on Wall Street is not intelligent or mature enough to emerge as genuinely good, nor is it fun or tongue-in-cheek enough to be taken as an entertaining beer-and-steak movie. Rather, it's completely dull viewing which attempts to sample from both columns to disastrous effect. Hell, it even closes with Jim walking away scot-free after the massacre, proclaiming that he's "still out there" and will kill again. It further verifies that Boll has absolutely no interest in proper social commentary - he was just using this material as a buttress in order for him to produce a moronic action movie and try to call it smart. And with these closing moments in mind, Boll is clearly thinking about a franchise. Mr. Boll, there's a reason why Taxi Driver 2 never happened...


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Just a dumb B-movie

Posted : 3 years, 10 months ago on 13 February 2014 02:51 (A review of Reasonable Doubt)

"Well, it looks like you just fucked up our reasonable doubt here, Mitch."

Reasonable Doubt should be a great movie. The title and premise suggest an intense legal drama, perhaps something akin to 12 Angry Men or The Lincoln Lawyer. But in the hands of director Peter Howitt (Johnny English) and writer Peter A. Dowling (Flightplan), this is a motion picture which utterly rejects intelligence, adopting a B-movie thriller stance without much in the way of suspense or mystery, or even courtroom proceedings. It's a big red flag that the movie was unleashed in the dumping ground month of January, and received a video-on-demand release without much fanfare. Even taken as just a trashy thriller, it's still pretty unsatisfying, as it doesn't do enough to register as a fun guilty pleasure.

In snowy Chicago, Mitch Brockden (Dominic Cooper) is a hotshot district attorney with a devoted wife, a new baby daughter, and a bright future ahead of him. Heading out for a night of drinking with friends, Mitch makes the ill-advised decision to drive home drunk, which leads to him hitting a pedestrian. Calling for an ambulance, Mitch decides to leave the scene before authorities arrive, as his career could be placed in serious jeopardy. Before long, Clinton Davis (Samuel L. Jackson) is arrested and charged with killing the man, triggering a crisis of conscience for Mitch. Brought in to prosecute Davis, the lawyer tries to play it cool, but Davis is eventually freed once the blame is shifted to another man. However, Mitch begins to dig deeper, uncovering evidence that Davis may in fact be dangerous, and things are not as clear-cut as they seem.

The premise for Reasonable Doubt is terrific, and the twists and turns throughout the narrative are often gripping. It could've achieved greatness in proper hands, but it's handled like a B-movie, with idiotic character behaviour and forced scenes of violence. The flick shows its cards too soon, with Davis established as a deranged killer by the midway point, turning the film into a cat-and-mouse affair instead of a courtroom suspense thriller. Dowling's script contains little in the way of legal proceedings, in fact, with Mitch mostly sneaking around playing Miss Marple. Coincidences abound (there's a payphone nearby right when Mitch needs one), there are many contrivances (nobody listens to Mitch's rational theories), and Mitch at one stage manages to sneak out of a well-guarded police precinct without much trouble. He's just a DA, yet apparently he has stealth expertise and is quite handy in action. There was plenty of room for Reasonable Doubt to become morally complex, but it doesn't follow through with its promise. Davis' backstory is tragic, and his actions could lead to an interesting analysis of the morals of vigilantism. Instead, Davis fast turns into a cartoonish bad guy who (spoilers) will ultimately get a climactic death scene.

At the helm of Reasonable Doubt is Peter Howitt, late of Sliding Doors and Johnny English. Even though he hasn't created anything note-worthy for about a decade, he peeled his name off the picture, employing the pseudonym of "Peter P. Croudins." It's an uncommon move, but not really surprising, as it's hard to imagine any filmmaker being happy with such a slipshod final cut. While the movie is somewhat watchable, there's not much style, and one must wonder what a visionary like David Fincher could've brought to the project. Reasonable Doubt feels on autopilot for most of its running time, sitting on-screen and refusing to come to life in any thoroughly involving way. It's 80 minutes of awkwardly-structured, half-hearted storytelling, and it doesn't help that the acting across the board is so awkward. Dominic Cooper (Marvel's current Howard Stark) is very mediocre as the hotshot district attorney, with his limited range being frequently brought to light. Faring even worse is Samuel L. Jackson, who was apparently in a coma throughout filming. It's clear from the outset that Jackson doesn't care. Perhaps he was intrigued by a more substantive early script draft that was radically rejigged before the cameras began to roll.

It's hard to feel anything but disappointment after viewing Reasonable Doubt, as it's full of wasted potential. Not sophisticated or suspenseful enough to be a mature adult thriller, and not fun enough to be a popcorn movie, it's a flat, moronic picture which will soon fade from memory - and quite deservedly so.


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Vanilla sell-out ass-rape of a sci-fi classic

Posted : 3 years, 10 months ago on 11 February 2014 03:52 (A review of RoboCop)

"Forget the machines. They want a product with a conscious. Something that knows what it feels like to be human. We gonna put a man inside a machine."

Now here's a familiar sight - a PG-13 remake of an ultraviolent Paul Verhoeven classic. First there was the critical and commercial failure of Len Wiseman's Total Retard back in 2012, and now we have 2014's RoboCop remake, which was spearheaded simply because MGM is in desperate need of a new money-maker. Several years ago, Darren Aronofsky was attached to direct a (presumably R-rated) RoboCop reboot, which would've been something worth seeing. Alas, in its current form, RubberCop is a flaccid action flick; soulless, generic, committee-designed pap. Written by Joshua Zetumer and directed by Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha (Elite Squad), it's riddled with plot holes, inconsistencies, vague character motivations, and iffy CGI. Even if it wasn't a remake of an '80s masterpiece, RoboCrap suffers from plenty of major issues as a standalone motion picture.

Due to wary public opinion and an unwavering government act, robotic law enforcement units are outlawed despite their potential to eliminate crime across America. But robotics manufacturer OmniCorp is determined to work towards an all-artificial police force, stumbling upon a loophole that could net them a massive profit: placing a man into a machine. In Detroit, detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is targeted by a gang of criminals who leave him horribly injured and charred after planting a car bomb. Murphy's wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish), is left to decide her husband's fate, eventually signing the consent forms to have him kept alive by fundamentally turning him into a robot. Thus, RoboCop is born, hitting the streets of Detroit with highly developed technology to help him clean up the city.

To his credit, Zetumer tries to create his own spin on the 1987 RoboCop by not sticking too closely to the film from a structural perspective. However, he retains many of the broad strokes, and the result simply doesn't work, as such story points don't fit into this newly-designed universe. RoboSchlock spends much of its runtime focusing on the development of Murphy as Robo, as tests are carried out and the suit is developed. Hell, he doesn't even hit the streets until about the 85-minute mark, leading to a rushed third act involving Murphy setting out to solve his own murder, which takes up less than ten minutes of screen-time. And speaking of elements from the original being used, a few famous lines are recycled, but the outcome is truly awful. Facepalms are imminent!

Here's the big problem: Murphy is revealed to be alive to his wife and child, and the media knows that he's Alex Murphy. Thus, the project is in the public eye, so OmniCorp tries to be as politically-correct as possible, but it's to the detriment of the project. See, the designers consistently return to the drawing board directly because Murphy is conscious and retains his humanity. In the original movie, the designers knew that they needed to erase Murphy's memories and emotions to make RoboCop work, and hence nobody outside of OmniCorp knew that Murphy was behind the visor. Here, Murphy's emotional intelligence and humanity is gradually chipped away over the testing period, before he ultimately breaks programming to get back to where the original wound up. It's a long-winded way of telling the same story, adding unnecessary flab to the narrative.

Admittedly, the public needed to know that RoboCop was part human, hence pushing Murphy into the public eye and not erasing his memories and consciousness, but it's nevertheless a dumb move. Why didn't OmniCorp use Murphy's body without permission and claim it was some second-level programmer inside the company who was in an accident? Or better yet, why don't they flat-out lie and say that it's a human inside a heavily armoured mech suit? It's weird that OmniCorp are so PC for the majority of the flick and don't do anything shady right up until the very end, when the film suddenly needs a villain.

This brings us to the next big issue: there's no proper villain here. Sure, there's the guy responsible for Murphy's killing, but said character has no presence and his name never even sticks. The only time he's notably on-screen is when Murphy sees him through infrared view as he kills him. Really? This is the replacement for Clarence Boddicker from Verhoeven's movie? Zetumer and Padilha subsequently attempt to create crooks out of corrupt police officers, but the motivations are vague and unclear. And THEN the film tries to make an OmniCorp executive the main villain, since OmniCorp wanted to use RoboCop simply to get the public's support on robotic police officers. Once the political act forbidding robot police is abolished, they decide to kill Murphy simply because the script needs a major bad guy and this is the best that Zetumer could come up with. The “villain” doesn't really do much wrong up until this point, showing none of the wickedness that Dick Jones exhibits in Verhoeven's movie. And Murphy kills this “villain” in the most unexciting, contrived fashion imaginable, while armed men stand around watching. Maybe this is why the movie was delayed by a few months - this bollocks was likely added at the eleventh hour.

Zetumer's script tells us that Detroit is plagued with crime, but apparently we're meant to take it all on faith. Thanks to RubberCop being PG-13, the city is clean and sanitised, with no evidence of urban decay or moral collapse. It looks like a perfectly fine place to live, even though the real city of Detroit is renowned for being a shithole. We as an audience cannot BELIEVE that Detroit NEEDS robotic law enforcement, which is a big fucking problem! On top of this, with the family-friendly certificate, the editing is very restrictive during the action scenes, with awkward cutaways which leave us unsure whether Murphy has killed, maimed or just stunned his opponents with his politically-correct taser. Guns go off and bullets are presumably flying all over the place, but nothing makes an impact - Padilha makes no attempt to depict this future-world as scary. Hell, there's one massive shootout that takes place in darkness literally because it means no visible on-screen violence. Some might say that the baddies cut the power so Murphy would be unable to see them, but they're dealing with a dude whom they know wears a visor which would likely have night vision (it does).

RetardCop might have a few halfway entertaining action beats, but for the most part, the action is sedate, generic and unsatisfying. A throwdown between Murphy and a few big robots is a mess of unclear digital effects and woeful shaky-cam. The chaos is a headache, and pales in comparison to the epic battle between Murphy and the ED-209 from the end of RoboCop 2. It doesn't even have anything on the first RoboCop, when an ED-209 is blown apart in two seconds thanks to Murphy using an explosive rifle. It's quite disappointing just how obvious the CGI is. Oh, and if you're wondering if this new movie has any satire? Forget about it. We cross to Samuel L. Jackson the news reporter from time to time, but there's no meaty satire here, and there are no laughs to be had.

And what of the suit, I hear you ask? Awful. It looks like a suit because it IS a suit. In the original, Murphy was literally a man with a mechanical body that was essential for keeping him alive. In this iteration, he can disassemble himself like Iron Man - in fact, the suit looks purposely modelled after Iron Man. Rather than a badass steel soldier, this RoboCop looks like a metrosexual cunt wearing a Power Rangers outfit crossed with a wet suit. Worse, when Murphy drives through Detroit on his motorcycle, it just looks like a wanker in a fancy suit driving a fancy fucking motorcycle. The result looks pretty cheap, like the filmmakers just took their equipment to a random American city street and filmed without any thought towards set dressing. It looks weird and out of place. Isn't it funny that the special effects and production values of this 2014 motion picture look worse than its 1987 counterpart...

Murphy's family are kept in the limelight for the majority of the movie, saddling him with the chore of keeping his marriage intact despite his condition, but this narrative aspect fails for two reasons. For starters, there is no spark to the relationship, as Kinnaman has no presence or charisma, and is hard to care about. More pertinently, the film mistakes humanity for TV-level melodrama. RoboCop is not a family drama or a saccharine romance, nor is it a youth novella like Hunger Games or Divergent. Yet, this is the direction that Padilha has taken this vanilla sell-out ass-rape of a sci-fi classic. Fuck that. The rest of the performances are a mixed bag. Cornish is strong as Murphy's wife, and Gary Oldman remains solid as always, but the latter is undercut by the confused script which obfuscates his motivations. Faring worse is Michael Keaton, a great actor who's utterly wasted on a thankless role. And the aforementioned Jackson is downright embarrassing. Rounding out the main cast is Jackie Earle Haley and Jay Baruchel, who are serviceable but underutilised.

Naturally, all of the aforementioned criticisms will probably prompt armchair critics to ask, "How would you do a RoboCop remake, then?" Well, I wouldn't remake RoboCop. Couple the fact that it's a remake along with the fact that it adheres to the proverbial "origins story" template, and there is pretty much no way to win with a project like this. The proper way to restart the RoboCop series would be to skip the genesis and simply devise what could almost be a sequel to the original film. And with an R-rating in place, too, because that's how you make a fucking RoboCop movie. Basically nothing was done right with RoboFlop, which should be tossed on the scrap heap and will not have the staying power of the 1987 flick. Saying it's not as bad as the Total Recall remake is about the faintest praise it can be given, frankly.


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Very funny and very heartfelt

Posted : 3 years, 10 months ago on 9 February 2014 02:34 (A review of Last Vegas)

"I'm gonna find some damn water and take all my damn pills and get this party started."

Last Vegas will be inevitably branded as the geriatric version of The Hangover, as it's set in Las Vegas and features a cast of males who head to Sin City to drink and party. But rather than R-rated debauchery and immoral shenanigans, this party is intended more for the older demographic, with milder content and non-offensive humour. The picture was written by Dan Fogelman, who cut his teeth on several Disney animated films (Tangled, Bolt, and Cars) before penning the superlative romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love. in 2011. Fortunately, the strengths of Crazy, Stupid, Love. are carried over to Last Vegas, with touching story dramatics and plenty of big belly-laughs, not to mention the characters at the centre of the tale feel remarkably real and lived-in. The big draw of the movie, of course, is the presence of Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline, who keep the movie consistently watchable with their limitless on-screen charisma.

As children, Billy (Douglas), Paddy (De Niro), Archie (Freeman) and Sam (Kline) were known as the Flatbush Four, sharing a special friendship and keeping in touch over the decades. Now in their late 60s, the four men have grown apart and are in various stages of disrepair. After Billy proposes to his 31-year-old girlfriend Lisa (Bre Blair) with plans to marry in Las Vegas in a matter of days, Archie and Sam push for a Sin City bachelor party, refusing to take no for an answer. Paddy also tags along, though there's awkwardness between himself and Billy due to personal reasons. Before long, the foursome are drinking and gambling, and soon meet a lovely lounge singer named Diana (Mary Steenburgen) who attracts the attention of Billy and Paddy in particular. As the weekend kicks into high gear, the old-timers begin to bond amid the booze-fuelled antics, while Billy is also compelled to re-assess his romantic needs.

Last Vegas dredges up the proverbial story clichés that we expect to see in this sort of production, but the movie miraculously manages to circumvent the most hoary chestnuts in a satisfying way. For instance, the pessimistic douche(™) begins giving the old guys a hard time, but he's soon put in his place by the troupe, who mess with him in hilarious ways to make him change his tune. Furthermore, Archie's unexpected luck at the casino results not in him being accused of cheating, but rather being offered the most expensive luxuries at a Vegas hotel. Last Vegas is great fun when locked in party mode, with Fogelman's script making just about every possible joke about old age. It will probably play better for older members of the audience who'll laugh at the universal truths about the aging process that are brought out, but it's a fun sit for just about anyone. The movie is saucy too, with sexual gags all over the place, and the PG-13 rating thankfully does not hinder the humour's sharpness. In fact, I never even realised it was PG-13, which is a massive compliment to everyone involved.

Director Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure) is a reliable purveyor of big-screen entertainment, and he's in fine form here, making the most of the meagre $28 million budget at his disposal. This is a slick comedy with attractive Vegas locales, and it's for the most part paced very agreeably. Suffice it to say, Last Vegas does have its more dramatic movements - Billy and Paddy's relationship is rocky, and the tensions between the two men only become more pronounced with Diana's arrival on the scene. But against all odds, this aspect of the story is handled with genuine poignancy, leading to a moving rumination on what matters in life, and the values of love in one's autumnal years. Above all else, we get the sense that these two men do care about each other deep down inside, bestowing the story with real heart and warmth. Drama comes off as perfunctory in most comedies, but it's an organic part of the story here.

You simply cannot miss with a cast like this. Douglas, Kline, Freeman and De Niro are wonderful thespians on their own, but together they positively light up the screen with energy, exhibiting effortless chemistry and camaraderie, and playing off one another with superb precision. It's truly a treat to see these old dogs sharing the frame, each of whom are given their individual moments to shine. They're perfectly complemented by Steenburgen as well, who's an utter delight. Freeman is especially warm here, and there are a handful of touching moments in which he shows us yet again just how good he is (a late scene with Michael Ealy as Archie's son is very moving indeed). Kline is also as great as ever, flexing his wonderful comedic muscles that have not faded over the years. Douglas and De Niro are just as strong, with De Niro clearly enjoying himself while Douglas has an engaging on-screen presence. On a less positive note, the scenes with the protagonists as kids are a bit on the stiff side. The young boys are dead ringers for their older counterparts, but they're flat actors.

To be sure, Last Vegas is not exactly revolutionary from a storytelling perspective, and a few more jokes would not have gone astray in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, this is a sweet and often funny movie which is far better than its "Hangover for old people" label implies. It's witty, pleasant, crowd-pleasing comedy entertainment geared more towards the mature demographic, which is a satisfying change of pace in today's cinematic climate. You'll laugh, you might cry, and you'll be left with a big smile on your face. Who can complain about that?


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A real keeper

Posted : 3 years, 10 months ago on 6 February 2014 03:00 (A review of Grudge Match)

"We're not dead! Everyone's laughing at us! The whole world's laughing at us! But we're not dead! In fact, I feel more alive now than I ever felt!"

Grudge Match seems like an odd career choice for Sylvester Stallone, who seems determined to do as many old-school action movies as possible before the aging actor's bones give out. Yet here's a boxing dramedy directed by Peter Segal, who was last seen behind Get Smart and a couple of Adam Sandler movies. Thankfully, however, Grudge Match is a home run against all odds; a perfect feel-good flick which is funny and heartfelt in equal measures. The gimmick at the centre of the production, of course, is the fact that it pits Stallone against Robert De Niro, staging a boxing bout between Rocky Balboa and the Raging Bull at long last. Yet, Grudge Match doesn't call it a day with the gimmick in place; this is a mighty fine movie filled to the gills with hilarious dialogue, not to mention it has an interesting story at its core.

In the 1980s, big-time boxers Henry "Razor" Sharp (Stallone) and Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (De Niro) were rivals. After two fights in the ring which left both men with one victory each, a tie-breaking grudge match was planned to determine who's the best. But Razor unexpectedly retires from boxing before the fight, leaving the score unsettled, which eats away at The Kid for thirty years. Now a blue collar worker in Pittsburgh, Razor is struggling to make ends meet, trying his best to maintain a living while caring for his former trainer, Lightning (Alan Arkin). After someone films The Kid and Razor having a scuffle, the video goes viral on the internet, prompting down-and-out boxing promoter Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart) to convince the former boxers to finally have it out in the ring one last time. Although Razor is extremely reluctant, he needs the monster payday, and agrees to the long overdue grudge match. Thus, the two men lock into a regime of training and public appearances to promote the fight, all the while dealing with various personal troubles. As The Kid finally bonds with his adult son B.J. (Jon Bernthal), Razor reconnects with beloved ex-girlfriend Sally (Kim Basinger).

The result is about as clichéd as it sounds, but what's unexpected is the level of wit and sensitivity that's allotted to what would otherwise be a stale, paint-by-numbers comedic distraction. One of the more successful aspects of the story is The Kid's relationship with B.J., the son that he never knew. Rather than the customary arc of the two warming up to each other over time, they like one another almost immediately, which makes the relationship feel more real than it might have otherwise been. Moreover, Grudge Match portrays Grudgement Day as a publicity stunt, just as so many will perceive the movie itself as a gimmick for its two stars. While the bout is significant to The Kid and Razor, pretty much everyone else sees it as some stupid joke - even the press conference for the match is filled with reporters who ask mocking questions. It's smart scripting by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman who also pack the movie with plenty of laughs. It's surprising just how hilarious Grudge Match is. From start to finish, the script serves up a steady stream of sharp one-liners and hysterical bantering which had this reviewer sobbing with laughter on more than one occasion. It's very funny.

Director Segal does not have a great deal of credibility as a filmmaker, but he was an ideal choice for the director's seat, and this is definitely his best work to date. Segal was clearly aiming for a Rocky aesthetic here, with handheld cinematography and a colour palette resembling 2006's Rocky Balboa. Grudge Match is energetic, too, with enjoyable soundtrack choices and brisk pacing. Most movies of this ilk try too hard in the dramatics department, resulting in jarring tonal shifts. But Segal has a surprisingly good grasp of this material, and the more dramatic aspects of the story do not weigh down the pacing or turn the experience into a leaden bore. On the contrary, the picture is handled with briskness and maturity, and there's a very engaging human story underneath. Indeed, Grudge Match does not live and die by its laughs. Who knew Segal could evoke genuine emotion, maintain an agreeable pace, juggle tonal shifts, and handle a boxing match with style?

Stallone and De Niro rehearsed extensively for the climactic fight, and the results are magnificent. Segal plays it straight, staging a believable, exciting fight between the two geriatrics, who indeed show up in great shape. This is the leanest that Sly has been since Rocky III, and De Niro still looks like he could kill someone with his sheer strength. Both men also build up a certain amount of sympathy, to the point that there's no good or bad guys here, and we don't really have a burning desire to see either man win or lose. The fight is not one-sided, and the outcome is completely fair to both competitors. Segal had a big advantage with De Niro and Stallone, as plenty of footage and images exist of the two actors from the 1980s, allowing for an authentic portrayal of the rise and fall of their roles. However, digital effects were used to de-age the actors for their '80s boxing matches, and the results are slightly on the iffy side.

It's also surprising just how good all of the performers are, and how strong the characters are. Stallone has tried his hand at comedy before, but let's never speak about those endeavours again. Here, the veteran star is in fine form, displaying spot-on comedic timing and delivery. Moreover, he shares wonderful chemistry with De Niro, who clearly had an absolute ball playing a real character, rather than sleepwalking for the paycheque. It's a shame it took so long for Stallone and De Niro to star in a movie together, as they light up the screen and their banter literally sparkles. Fortunately, the men are surrounded by an able supporting cast. Garnering plenty of laughs is Arkin, yet again demonstrating his pitch-perfect comedic instincts. Arkin has a field day here with one-liners, and his dialogue and actions are a consistent source of amusement. Hart, meanwhile, is a lot funnier than he should be, proving his worth alongside the veterans. Also impressive is Basinger who looks mighty fine for a sixty-year-old. And finally, there's Jon Bernthal who's fast emerging as an unexpectedly great actor. Bernthal is warm and believable here, and his performance is the very antithesis of his vicious work in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.

Screw the critics - Grudge Match is a very good movie which flirts with greatness. It's a harmless, enjoyable crowd-pleaser with a great cast and a fun premise. Even if you don't laugh at the movie (and if this is the case, what the hell is wrong with you?), there's still a great story to enjoy here, and Segal imbues the material with heart and gravitas. Yeah, it lacks the emotional impact of Rocky, and the comedy might've been sharper with the freedom of an R rating, but the movie is still a lot better than it had a right to be. It's a real keeper.


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The real deal -- an old-school, manly movie!

Posted : 3 years, 10 months ago on 5 February 2014 01:31 (A review of Escape Plan)

"If I don't get out, I will kill you."

With action titans Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger finally teaming up to play major roles alongside one another in an action flick, many have decried that Escape Plan should've been produced twenty years ago. This, however, is pure bullshit - Escape Plan arrives at a time when we need it the most, with the two iconic screen legends delivering an exceptional beer and steak extravaganza in the midst of a dire cinematic era populated with superhero movies and CGI-laden blockbusters. Not just an old-school action film, Escape Plan is also a prison breakout adventure, another extraordinarily manly cinematic subgenre that we don't see enough of in this day and age. More pertinently, Sly and Arnie still have what it takes to deliver the goods, and it helps that this is not just a fun time but a genuinely good motion picture as well. Smart and well-structured, it's an incredibly enjoyable sit which belongs on the biggest possible screen, showing that you don't need a $200 million budget and CGI aplenty to create an exciting slice of cinematic escapism.

A man with a specialist profession, Ray Breslin (Stallone) is a prison escape artist, making a living by breaking out of all the country's best penitentiaries to find flaws in the system. Approached by the CIA, Ray is offered a rather difficult assignment: to enter and break out of a maximum security prison known as The Tomb, where the government sends prisoners in order for them to disappear. The Tomb's location is top secret, hence Ray will have to go in without the assistance of his team. Violently abducted upon agreeing to the job, it fast becomes clear to Ray that not everything is right, with the sadistic Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel) condemning him to a lifetime in the airtight prison. Before long, Ray befriends fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), and the pair begin scheming to stage a breakout. It's a daunting task for Ray, whose job skills are pushed to their limits by the intricate construction.

Both Expendables movies so far are an enormous amount of fun, but they are action films first and foremost, with flimsy plotting and not much tension. While there's nothing overly wrong with this approach, Escape Plan is more of a story-driven thriller with action elements, rendering it solid from a critical standpoint on top of being flat-out fun. To be sure, it's not going to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, and the joykills in the crowd might be able to nit-pick various aspects of the plot, but Escape Plan definitely works, finding a smooth narrative rhythm and providing a degree of smarts to supplement all the fun. The effort is definitely appreciated, with the film's first two acts mostly dedicated to sharp dialogue and intense set-pieces as Ray works to formulate an escape plan. On top of this, with a 110-minute runtime, director Mikael Håfström has time to establish Ray's personality, giving us a reason to root for him once he's inserted into The Tomb. As time goes on, deeper layers to Ray's character are introduced, and we understand his motivation for selecting this obscure trade.

Although the violence here is not on the same extreme level as something like 2008's Rambo, Escape Plan is an R-rated actioner, which is for the best. At no point does it feel as if Håfström is pulling any punches; bullet hits are bloody, and dialogue is peppered with profanity. Once the stakes are established and all the plot pieces are in place, the film really springs to life for a spectacular climax laced with bullets, blood, explosions, brawls and wisecracks. The climactic set-piece is fucking magnificent; the type of exhilarating action sequence that will make you stand up and cheer. Escape Plan thankfully understands the appeal of Sly and Arnie, allowing the legends to go nuts with firearms when the occasion calls for it. Added to this, Håfström knows precisely when to play it straight and when to plant his tongue in cheek. The only downside, though, is that some of the fight scenes are underwhelming, with the dreaded shaky-cam syndrome raising its ugly head to disappointing effect. Some of the CGI is a bit iffy as well, but it's not a huge deal.

It's always magnificent to witness Sly and Arnie sharing the frame in a motion picture, with both accepting meaty roles here which allow them to do more than just blow shit up. Stallone is very much the straight man as Breslin, and his performance is strong and focused, making him an interesting protagonist for whom you want to root for. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, lights up the movie with his playfulness, having a total ball chewing the scenery and dispersing one-liners. Escape Plan allows the Austrian Oak to deliver a handful of beautiful quips, and he also summons his trademark muscle to mow down bad guys once the finale arrives. Witnessing the hulking star holding a massive machine gun turret ripped from a helicopter... It provokes tears of joy. Thankfully, the movie also boasts a great supporting cast. As the sinister warden, Jim Caviezel is perfectly fine, making for a good villain to actively root against. Vinnie Jones is present here as well, playing the trademark tough henchman role very nicely. Rounding out the main players is Sam Neill as The Tomb's resident doctor, while Vincent D'Onofrio, 50 Cent and Amy Ryan all make a positive impression as Breslin's support team.

Escape Plan confidently stands as one of 2013's finest and most satisfying motion pictures, a slick slice of manly escapism that delivers great action, superb actors and an engaging narrative. It's the very definition of crowd-pleasing entertainment, and it's hard to imagine a better project for Arnie and Sly to have undertaken together. Fans of these two will die happy after this team-up; we can finally tick off something big from our bucket list.


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